Rediscovering Local Community in Nishiogi
Microscale bars and eateries line the narrow historic pedestrian lane called Willow Alley on the South Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo station. Over the past two decades, the alleyway has transitioned from a warren of woman-run “snack bars” catering to mostly male customers to a more diverse group of watering holes with a cosmopolitan and funky vibe reminiscent of a touristic Asian night market. There are many small eateries offering Greek, Bangladeshi, Korean, Thai, and Okinawan cuisine along with drinks. The backgrounds and personalities of the owners are represented in each restaurant’s decor and design. When walking down the narrow alleyway, there is one that appears particularly open and inviting to newcomers, partly because it is the one shop on the street that opens up on both sides of the alley, offering a clear view to the other side from the street. Its walls and door are warm-toned woods. Miscellaneous souvenirs such as a dream catcher, evoke an atmosphere of somewhere “foreign,” though no place in particular. This bar is called Izakaya Mi deh Ya (from Jamaican patois meaning “I’m here” or, more figuratively, “I’m okay”).
Walking into the bar one night in April, many people were laughing and enjoying a conversation. Surrounded by her regulars, Mi deh Ya’s owner Ms. Miyuki Ito was excitedly holding court. Ito loves to travel and all of the miscellaneous decorations and photos hung in the restaurant were collected by her on her travels to Asia, Central America, and Morocco. Ito said she doesn't have any specific theme for the restaurant, and she just creates an atmosphere that she enjoys.
Ito’s personal journeys are an obvious inspiration for the restaurant. Ito said she became captivated by the idea of working in the food industry when she went to Canada for an exchange program and visited a bar there. “When I was living in Canada, I went to a bar and saw a woman working as a bartender. I thought she was really cool. When I came back to Japan for my university, I wanted to work at a bar and become a bartender. That’s how I entered the food industry.”
When she returned from Canada, she started working as a bartender at a bar in Kichijōji. From there, she met many people who also work in the food industry or own restaurants. Through this experience, she was able to join the community of people working in the food industry. These connections and support have motivated her to come this far, she said.
Before coming to Nishiogi, Mi deh Ya was located in Kichijōji, which is Ito’s hometown, for seven years. However, two years ago, she relocated her place to Nishiogi. She said one of the reasons for moving to Nishiogi is that it still has the atmosphere of Tokyo’s local neighborhoods that Ito finds attractive. “I was in Kichijōji for a while but the city changed so much. I felt like the localness and the good old days were gone with the expansion of chain stores and gentrification. It became a city like Shinjuku or Shibuya where people would come over the weekends to hang out. It became more convenient and there is everything you can ask for, but the good old days of Kichijōji are over. I didn’t like how Kichijōji was becoming a place for tourists. But in Nishiogi, the numbers of chain stores are extremely low and people who have their own restaurants and the people that visit those places are doing it out of a sense of passion.”
Ito is certainly not the only Nishiogi restaurateur who has described relocating to Nishiogi out of frustration with the growing gentrification and high commercial rents in Kichijōji. Nishiogi – at least for now – offers somewhat lower rents and fewer weekend tourists (though both are increasing). However, Ito also said there is another reason in which she considers very crucial for her when she owns a restaurant. That is, in Nishiogi, she can have close relationships with the customers. She pointed out that this relationship cannot be established in a chain store that is operated with tablet computers, a practice which can be seen in a growing number of chain izakaya in Tokyo.
“When owning a restaurant, I really want to see the reactions of each customer. When customers say, ‘I had an awesome time here!’, it develops into a new relationship. They would be like ‘I brought my friend this time!’ or ‘I came here last week and I came back!’. I was able to do that in Kichijōji before, where I was able to have close ties among the customers. But when it's a tourist destination, the space becomes saturated with people. However, Nishiogi is still like Kichijōji in the past where I can have close relationships with the customers. What I want to do when owning a restaurant is to come out of the comfort zone and have a close interaction with each customer.”
Many of the customers who come to Mi deh Ya live in Nishiogi, and many of them become regulars of the restaurant. Ito said she loves seeing how a customer who randomly stops by becomes a regular and forms a connection with other customers in Mi deh Ya. “There are more regulars than new customers. When there are new customers who stop by, they often become friends with the other regulars. Many customers come here by themselves or with two people. But everybody easily becomes friends with each other. So even if customers come here by themselves, they will be talking with other customers until early in the morning. And from the next visit, they become the regulars. I guess this place can be a place where people meet new people. There are various types of people, and it's really fun seeing them interact with each other.”
A wide range of customers come to Mi deh Ya. Ito said a "foreigner" became a regular recently. “There are both women and men and various age groups. There are people in their 70s and people in their 20s. Recently, a man from New York became a regular here. He even brought a birthday present for me. He gave me his homemade Gin. He can only speak English but he became interested in this place saying that he likes Japanese food. He can’t read Japanese, so he was only ordering a beer at first. But recently, I was like “hey, you should drink Oolong Tea Highball”, since I thought there was no such thing as that outside of Japan. Ever since that, he got hooked on the Oolong Tea Highball.”
Ito said the reason why Mi deh Ya came this far is because of the relationship with the regulars. Ito believes that her regulars are just not her customers but also her important friends. They first come as customers but later become drinking buddies. At times, she goes out bowling, barbequing, and camping with fifty of her regulars. When Mi deh Ya relocated from Kichijōji to Nishiogi, many of the regulars supported her.
“Everything here is made by my friends whom I met at Mi deh Ya. They work as a constructor or worked at a flooring, painting, or electronics store. This counter is made by someone who works at a flooring store. Even though it may be cheap, we put so much love and effort into making these.”
Ito said she enjoys drinking with the people who come to Mi deh Ya. When asking Ito what she recommends, she answered highball and the sours. Although it may seem that these drinks can be ordered anywhere, Ito states that the ones in Mi deh Ya are a bit different from other restaurants. “We make our highball and lemon sour with strong carbonation using a special machine manufactured by Suntory,” Ito said. “It's very delicious.”
The most popular drink is the alcoholic beverage called Tropical Ice Tea, which is just an alcoholic black tea. Another popular item from the menu is Mi deh Ya’s signature jerky. “Right now, we make homemade jerkies here,” she explained. “There are beef, chicken, horse, and chicken breast. We hang a line across the store and dry out the jerky by clipping them with clothespins. Then everyone will be like, ‘Can I have two of those’, or ‘Can I have three’ ”
Ito said that her customers eat these jerkies throughout the night until early in the morning while drinking with the owner.
Although Ito has a great time at Mi deh Ya with her regulars, she encountered many difficulties when she started working in foodservice. “The food industry is a male-oriented society and it was rare for women to be working in the field,” she said. “I didn't want to make excuses that I couldn't work on certain duties since I am a woman so I tried to work hard as to how the men were doing. But just because I was a young woman at the time, people would come up to me and say, ‘It must be nice since you’re a woman.’ There were times where people were nice to me just because I was a woman. It can be good at times but I didn’t like it at all. There were times where I wished I was born as a man to work for this industry. I detested when people would treat you nicely just because you were young and pretty. So it made me think that I cannot be losing out to men.”
“Owning a tavern can be hard when you are a woman,” she continued. “I think that the ones who are energetic, have interesting characters, and have strong personalities are the only ones that can survive in this industry. For example, many people find it very funny when men start stripping their clothes when they are drunk and start dancing. You know how some men get naked when they are drunk? But many people find that to be funny right? Women cannot do that. Women don't have that trump card to rely upon.”
Ito said she encountered many difficulties when she started working in the food industry as a woman. However, now with the friends she made in Mi deh Ya, she knows her core values for her restaurant. “I’ve been in this industry for more than twenty years and this is all I’ve been doing so I have my established style. Now, I’m like everyone’s big sister and my juniors treat me really well and follow me. It's really fun.”
Ito is opening a rice ball restaurant within this year in Mitaka. Currently, the place is under construction, and again much of the work is done by her friends she met in Mi deh Ya, professional craftspeople who are willing to help and support her new store. Ito said that her customers, also her friends, in Mi deh Ya mean so much to her, and they are the reason why Mi deh Ya belongs in Nishiogi. (James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama, Jan. 24, 2020)
(Interview and transcription by Mariya Yoshiyama; interview April 18, 2019; text by James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura. Copyright James Farrer all rights reserved.)