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Manfuku Hanten: a  Family Run "Neighborhood Chinese"

Some Japanese food writers have a nostalgic interest in a fading genre of neighborhood restaurant, the local Chinese eatery (or "machi chuka") with its display cases of sun-bleached wax food samples, serving a mix of Japanese-influenced Chinese cuisine such as ramen, gyoza and fried rice, together with fixed lunch menus based on favorites such as su buta (sweet-and-sour pork) and even Japanese western dishes such as katsudon (pork cutlet on rice). Typically run by a Japanese family, such restaurants were ubiquitous in the postwar period. Despite their aging management, some still flourish and adapt.

Directly north from Nishiogi station, 200 meters up a narrow and busy pedestrian street you can find one such place, Manfuku Restaurant — a Japanese family run Chinese restaurant established in 1971. Walking into this restaurant, it feels like you stepped back in time 30 years ago into Showa era Tokyo. Handwritten menus hang on the wall, an ancient cash register on display, and 5 to 6 wooden tables squeezed in a cozy room decorated with souvenirs from China. In this nostalgic space, the owners told us the story of their family business. Running for 45 years straight, this small restaurant reflects the development of Japan’s economy and China-Japan relations on a micro scale.

 

This restaurant was started by a married couple who are both in their late 60s now. Higuchi Miyuki and Higuchi Shigeru both came to Tokyo from Yukiguku in Nigata prefecture when they were 15 years old, right after graduating from middle school. Shigeru-san lost his father at a very young age. Luckily, he was able to gain support and help from his father’s old friend, and he was given the opportunity to help with their Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. There, Shigeru-san started his life's work in Tokyo and in the Chinese restaurant business. After a ten-year apprenticeship, he finally decided to start his own restaurant.


“We looked all over. We decided on this place because it was the Chuo Line. At that time, most other shops were opening on the private rail lines. Those areas were better off back then. Now the Chuo Line is popular, but in those days it wasn’t. And ramen was cheap.” So the couple decided to open their restaurant in Nishiogi.


Those early years in the 1970s reflect the low standard of living in Nishiogi at that time. “We had a few popular dishes on the menu such as sweet-sour pork and fried pork with green peppers, but few people had money to pay for such main dishes, and most of them just ate ramen. This was the time of the Sapporo ramen boom,” Miyuki-san said. “We were really poor ourselves and had borrowed a lot of money, and we worked really hard. Over time things got better. We started serving lunch. Up until now we have stayed in business.”

 

“We had to start with ramen, because people were too poor to afford proper meals at that time. They simply wanted something with volume, which would fill them up. People were not picky at all about eating,” Miyuki-san said.

 

People had different ways of passing time in those days, Miyuki-san recalled. ”Back in those days there were a lot of mahjong shops. And a lot of people played. There were quite a lot of students living around this area. After they got into college, instead of studying many would spend their hours playing mahjong. Those places are all gone now…. But it was good that the mahjong shops were there. They really helped us.”

 

In the 1980s in order to learn about authentic Chinese cooking, Shigeru-san went on several training trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong with fellow chefs. Later the entire family visited Mainland China together.

 

Now the couple’s son can speak Chinese fluently, and their daughter in law is a Shanghainese. In the 1990s, China and Japan were enjoying a relatively stable diplomatic relationship. Their son took Chinese language classes in university, went to China frequently during school breaks and lived in Shanghai for a while as an exchange student. Even his wedding was held in Shanghai. Now, Miyuki-san and Shigeru-san are in their late 60s and thinking about retirement. Their son and daughter-in-law are helping them keep the restaurant running. This "neighborhood Chinese" may not only survive, but is taking in new influences from China.  (James Farrer, Tong Liu, Sept. 2, 2016, edited March 14, 2017)

Higuchi Shigeru showing us his old register.