Nishiogi has many aging establishments with a loyal following of regulars, but one of the burning questions for most is who will take over when the owners retire. Some restaurants are taken over by the children of the owners, but most restaurants have no successors in the family. Many close when the aging owners retire, though some find someone from outside the family. We found an example of the latter pattern in one of the most beloved izakaya in the neighborhood, "Chidori,” which started in 1955 and is famous among locals for its oden.
Mr. Oki Yosuke is the second-generation owner of Chidori. While one might assume he is the son of the previous owner, it turns out he started working as an employee at the shop during the previous owner's tenure. Because of the good relationship he built with the owner and his family, he came to inherit the business. We sought to understand the circumstances behind this type of succession.
A soft-spoken and modest man, Oki shared what he knows about the previous owner and how the shop began. "It was in 1955, during the Showa era; that's when the previous owner started the shop. Originally, relatives of the previous owner were planning to open a shop here, but they didn't have anyone to run it. The situation wasn't decided yet, and that's when the offer came to the previous owner. So, even though he was living in Odawara at the time, he moved here with his family and opened Chidori in 1955."
"The size of the restaurant probably hasn't changed much, I think. I heard once that the position of the counter was different, and there was also a small window on the roadside where they used to grill yakitori... That's what I heard, but it's uncertain. Before it was rebuilt in its current state in the year 2000. That area by the window used to be an aquarium. The previous owner's father loved river fishing, often going to catch sweetfish (ayu), and apparently, he used to keep river fish in an aquarium..... When the old man (referring to the previous owner's father) caught them, they would serve them to customers. Freshly caught sweetfish. That was amazing. I think the focus was probably on Izu."
Chidori's Former Owner, a Barber and Dance Judge
The name of the former owner was Kobayashi Kunitoki. His name is still displayed on the entrance plaque of the shop. "Mr. Kunitoki Kobayashi and his wife have already passed away." Oki said, "He originally hailed from Yamanashi, and during the war, he served as a barber. He was stationed in Laos or some southern island, where he apparently cut the hair of officers. After returning from the war, he moved to Odawara, I think. Probably he worked as a barber there... He might have frequented the entertainment facilities of the U.S. military in Honmoku. As I said, he probably worked as a barber there. However, a health examination revealed a spot on his lungs, leading to his disqualification. He lost his job, and that's when the idea of starting a business here came up. It seems he was quite involved in dance and activities at that facility. His dance skills were impressive, and I heard he held a teaching license. He used to judge dance teachers... probably, in a place frequented only by U.S. military personnel. He taught dance in Odawara and commuted to Honmoku in Yokohama."
Around this time, the former owner was asked by relatives if he would like to run a restaurant, leading to the opening of Chidori. "Mr. Kobayashi hadn't done any cooking before,” Oki said with a smile. “He didn't even know what itawasa was. I think he just learned things through trial and error. Since he was originally from Yamanashi, he had about eleven siblings, and they all ran businesses along the Chuo Line. Some relatives had a substantial fish store in Koenji, and there were others who ran a big sushi restaurant in Ginza. So, he probably learned from conversations with these connections. He used to buy fish in Koenji. So, I guess he had connections, and he probably got discounts through acquaintances.”
Maybe he was skilled with his hands, we suggested. “Probably,” Oki said. “He was a barber, after all. Anyway, he had a strong will to live. Also, I don't know, he had a strong spirit of service, and he enjoyed making people happy. It seems to have suited his nature. When I came here in 2000, he was exactly 80 years old. At 80, he renovated and reopened the shop. It's remarkable that he still wanted to keep going. I wonder if he planned to continue until he was about a hundred. About half a year later, there was a sign saying 'Employee Wanted.' Probably because the shop was newly renovated, and they needed help."
Becoming an Employee at Chidori
Oki’s introduction to Chidori was happenstance. "I loved izakayas, and at that time, I was casually looking for part-time work, wondering what to do, and there was a 'help wanted' sign. I was with my wife at the time. She said, 'Why not work there?' (laughs)."
"At first, it was really just being a waiter, serving, and a bit of prep work, like cutting. The landlady was cooking, and the landlord [the master] was filleting fish. She was around 78 when I joined. Maybe 79? I worked with her for about three or four years when I started, and she had been sitting there for a long time. There was also a woman who had worked for over twenty years, she was around 70 too. Probably, she felt like that was the limit for her working as a woman. Anyway, they needed the strength of young people, I guess I just fit right in."
During his time as an employee, Oki didn't undergo any formal apprenticeship. "I mostly just watched,” he said. “I wasn't especially taught anything, but I was allowed to taste what was made. Well, most of the menu items were things I hadn't originally put much effort into. Conversely, gradually, after I took over, I started changing things little by little. Bit by bit, I've become able to do it myself. I never studied cooking originally. I liked cooking, but it was more like I got into it as I did it. So, it’s kind of an amateur operation. It's been like that since the time of the old master. I made [the dishes] myself, ate them, that's more or less, it. I read a few books. Also, I like drinking, so I go to various places to eat and drink, and think, 'Ah, this is nice,' and such. In that sense, the love for eating and drinking has led to my work, I suppose."
For a while, he worked together with the old master, the previous owner. However, at one point, the health of the old master suddenly declined. "He became quite ill,” Oki explained, “like pneumonia or something, and there was a period of about a month or two months of hospitalization, and when he came back, he couldn't continue the business. That was around 2005. So, I thought, 'Let me try it for a bit.' But if I could manage this shop, I wanted to give it a try. So, I started in 2005... or 2004? It's the 19th year now, so it must have been July of 2004. Around 2004 or 2005, in July."
Taking over Chidori: A Tale of Trial and Error
Even with all this on-the-job learning, taking over the restaurant from the old master was a huge challenge. "Well, actually, when I started,” Oki said, “I couldn't do anything. On the first day, the old master came down (from the second floor where he still lived) and helped me cut sashimi and everything because I really couldn't do anything. He helped me for a while, but eventually, he pulled back and said, 'You won't be able to do anything if I don't let you.' He always watched from that staircase. I think he was worried. Even though old customers and regulars came, the number of customers was much lower than when the old master was running it, maybe less than half. Even though I had already worked there for four years, people didn't trust me, even if they recognized my face (laughs). Fortunately, there was a fishmonger nearby. Do you know the Nishiogi market on Shinmei Street [a postwar market named “Nishiogi Department Store” that closed in 2017]? The fishmonger there had really good stuff, and the master had been buying from there since our relatives in Koenji closed their shop. They would prepare and bring the fish. That's how the shop started. If that wasn't there, I probably couldn't have made it."
"(Now that fishmonger) is gone, but now, if you enter the alley across from the street where Summit and the supermarket are, there's a kaiseki restaurant called 'Omino ' next to the fishmonger's home. They started a set meal shop there with his wife after closing the fishmonger in Koenji for a while. It became very popular too. However, suddenly, in December, last year, the husband passed away. So, the wife recently revived it alone, but it seems they take a break during the summer. It's a set meal (teishoku) shop with delicious fish. That fishmonger supplied us, and that's how we continued. They would deliver the prepared fish. They were soaked in vinegar. (Did you continue that practice until now?) Yes. When the fishmonger quit, I was really unsure about what to do. At that time, the fishmonger took me to the [main Tokyo fish market in] Tsukiji, introduced me to various suppliers, and I practiced cutting fish on my own before starting. It was tough at first. Even with practice, you need to work at it in volume. Gradually, I think I got better at it."
We asked Oki about their famous oden, which is served from a stainless-steel vat enclosed within the front counter."It has been here since the opening, I guess,” he replied. “The counter is carved to fit that (square pot for oden). The wood on this counter has been here since (the old days). At first, it seems it wasn't painted, just natural wood.... I'm not a big fan of oden myself, but for an izakaya, it's quick to serve. It's a good appetizer. It's warm. It's really nice. Grilled chicken takes time. I learned by observing. Even though (the previous generation) did the preparation, I could see how it was done. However, when I started oden, it didn't go well at first. The smell was somehow sour even though I added new ingredients. I couldn't figure out why. Then, one day, a customer came, had oden, and on the way out, said, 'It was delicious, but you should turn up the heat a bit and add more salt.' The flame was too low. If the flame is low, it stays at a low temperature, creating that sour smell. When I turned up the heat, everything cleared up. That's why I call him the 'oden god' (laughs). He only came once. Probably, he's not someone doing oden, maybe in the business... I owe everything to that. I was imitating what the previous generation did, but I had to be careful not to overcook, so I kept the heat very low. I wanted to be more careful, and it's challenging to go back and forth (to the pot). Probably, the taste changes with the heat. When it's busy, I keep adding more soup. It seems the soup tastes better at a higher temperature."
Oki laughed while saying "the oden god came," but it seemed this helpful customer had appeared at just the right time. Oki is a person who seems to attract supportive connections.
Many individual items for oden are purchased from wholesalers. "I make the dashi the same way as the previous generation, but I've made some improvements. I mix chicken bones, kombu, and katsuobushi. I buy processed ingredients at the supermarket and, since I took over, I found a processed food shop in Tsukiji when I went there during my visits to Tsukiji. It had a price range that I could manage, so I started buying from there. It has a really good flavor. Originally, it was in Tsukiji but has now moved to Toyosu. They have a factory there."
Oki goes to the Toyosu Market twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. We asked how the atmosphere differed from the old market at Tsukiji. “Everyone has become nicer,” he said. “The fishmongers, I mean. Because the number of customers has decreased. When I went to Tsukiji, I was treated very brusquely (laughs). But now, everyone is very nice and easy to buy from. Partly because of the relocation, and people now buy fish directly through the internet and such, there are many shops that deliver through orders. Also, there are fewer individual customers.” It is a bit harder to walk into the market for tourists, but if you know someone, you can, he said.
The couple works together on the daily prep. When the shop opens, there are cooking staff and hall staff helping out. All these employees were introduced by acquaintances. "My wife does the preparation together with me every day,” Oki said. “So, there are two of us, plus one more person helping, there are three people on weekdays. That's how it is with the prep. There are four people in the evening, including me. There are also part-timers. Generally, one person in the kitchen and two people in the hall.”
The two fashionable young women working the counter have become an attraction at the restaurant, a regular customer told us. One of Oki’s secrets is managing his young staff in a way that motivates them to contribute to the atmosphere of the izakaya. “They work well,” Oki said, “and, they are composed. They know what they need to do, and they work for that, but, well, they have to earn a living, so they work hard. I've never posted job offers or anything. Right now, we're a bit short on staff, so I'm wondering if I should recruit. So far, we've been really lucky. The people who introduce employees introduce people who they think would fit well with this place, so they've all been really good people.... They don't flatter [the customers], but it's not a stiff atmosphere. It's not like following the manual of a chain store, probably, they are just good kids."
One of the interesting facts about Chidori is that there are no recipes. "I don't have any,” Oki said with a laugh. “I think it might be good to write down recipes,” he said. But in the end, you don’t need them.
Changes in Era and Customer Demographics
The ongoing importance of regulars at Chidori can be seen in the bottles still kept at the restaurant. A few customers are still regulars from the previous generation, but their numbers naturally are decreasing. "There are still customers who have been coming for a long time,” Oki said. “But true regulars from the old days are getting older. Still, when those who have been coming for a long time are in the restaurant, there is a sense of reassurance. They understand the place, and that might be the most significant factor. I appreciate that.”
Customer preferences in alcohol are becoming a bit more specialized and refined, he said. This includes a trend away from generic “warmed sake” (atsukan) to more refined local brews. “In the beginning,” Oki said, “if someone mentioned alcohol, it was only warmed sake, almost one hundred percent. It was from a bottle of Hakutsuru or Kenbishi. People would start by drinking it hot. Most customers just said, ‘warm sake.’ Of course, beer too. Now, it has changed. Now, sour drinks [mixed drinks with flavored soda water] are much more popular. Sake has also increased gradually. It wasn't like this before. So, I've been gradually adding more varieties. In that sense, both the drinks and the food have changed from when the old master was running the place.”
One thing that has changed is a greater emphasis on vegetables. “There were hardly any vegetables back then,” Oki said, “only spinach and oshinko (a lightly pickled vegetable). Tomatoes... Nowadays, it's challenging to find vegetables served in a restaurant. So, I try to have some vegetable dishes on the menu."
Among the regulars in the past, many used to get off the train halfway between work and home on the main Chuo Line. "Quite a few people used to get off midway,” Oki said. “In the past, I don't know where they're coming from now. In the past, they lived beyond Nishiogi, on the West side of Tokyo, and they used to get off midway and then get back on the train. It was quite common. It's a hassle to go all the way back, but getting off midway is not that troublesome. People from Nishiogi also used to come a lot, like the florist in the shopping street behind us and the eyeglass shop near the station. In my dad's time, there were a lot of people from Nishiogi, like Marumiya [a food products company famous for furikake and other items]. Their main office was on Inokashira Street, and people from there used to come. Also, people came from the Nittsu Driving School, trainees from there and Nittsu employees. Also, after the Tokyo Metropolitan Tax Office renovated their office, they came from Ogikubo, relatively close to here. When I started, it was mostly white-collar workers, salaried men... Overwhelmingly male. There were hardly any women, maybe coming a few times a month. Couples rarely came."
We asked why so few women patronized the restaurant. "When I started, it was mostly men,” he said. “It might have been challenging for them to enter. The people working here were quite elderly, and the customers were also elderly. Even I never came in here as a customer when I lived in Nishi-Ogikubo.... Even before working here, I liked old izakayas in Tokyo, like those introduced by Kazuhiko Ota. He has a show about izakayas on TV and has written books. I liked old places like Edo Ichi in Otsuka and Kishidaya in Tsukishima. So, when I started living in Nishiogi, I saw this place, and I thought, 'Oh, nice,' but when I saw the customers here, I felt I couldn't go inside. It had that [forbidding] kind of atmosphere. (The customers at that time) were already in their 50s or 60s, mostly, and they were people with a certain level of financial comfort."
Oki showed us faded color photos he took of the old interior. "Just during Golden Week when we were cleaning the upper warehouse, we found the old master’s photo album,” Oki said. “This is the landlady, the landlady from the previous generation, before the renovation. This is before this renovation. This is the old master. This is it (photos of customers drinking). This is the kitchen. Where you're sitting now... um, it's about 40 years ago. In 1970, I remember that much."
The photo from 40 years ago showed a group of men sitting along the counter all in ties and jackets. It was a typical scene from a Showa Era izakaya. However, things have changed from the Showa era, and now, in the Reiwa era, the customer demographic is now evenly split between men and women. "It has become about half-half,” Oki said. “At early hours, there are mostly older men, but at late hours, there are younger couples. I don't know if it's because of the influence of COVID, but anyway, there now are more couples, young couples, in their thirties, around the time before getting married or after getting married but before having children. There might be more couples than anything else. There are some with a certain income, and eating out is part of their daily routine. For some reason, they find this place convenient. It's calm and easy to drink here, not too noisy."
In May 2023, the Japanese government lowered the alarm level for COVID-19. The regulations on operations and hours of eateries were relaxed. Since then, it seems that Chidori's customer flow has been steadily recovering. "After the pandemic, it became a bit busier,” Oki said. “However, we are staying with the reduced number of seats. The counter seats are four fewer than before. Before COVID, we had seventeen counter-seats. Now we have fourteen. There used to be three more seats here (near the entrance) But now, people have gotten used to social distancing during the pandemic. It's challenging to go back to crowded conditions. Also, because we are busy now, we are deliberately keeping it that way."
Looking at Old Photos: The Past of Chidori and the Changes in Nishi-Ogikubo Town
While looking over the album of old photos, Oki reminisced about the changes he observed both in the restaurant and in the surrounding alleyways. "There used to be a television here,” he said. “We had a TV from the opening. Around the 1950s, I guess, when probably not everyone had a TV at home, people would overflow here to watch. This photo is from around 1970. The sign is the same. .... The old master was a dance teacher, so he was very stylish."
Not only Chidori but the surrounding street has changed, he said. "When I first came here, only two or three places were operating at night on this street. That was twenty years ago. There was a sushi place, Kou Sushi, and an izakaya called Saikai that was open at night. And a yakiniku place. That's it.... There were some clothing stores, vintage... Well, not exactly vintage, more like tailoring. And a pharmacy. Also, a photo studio. Right. And Hatsune, the ramen shop [the only one still there]."
The nearby drinking street Willow Alley (Yanagi Kōji), of course also existed, but it was also a very different place. "At that time, it was mainly older ladies running the places,” Oki said. “But gradually, since I started working, younger people started up. Like Handsome Shokudo. There were more used books and antiques. The town has changed a lot. The people who have been doing business for a long time are getting older, so they probably started renting it out to someone else. Tenants opened restaurants, making it easier for younger people to come in. It was cheaper than Kichijoji, so it was easier to start a restaurant."
It seems Chidori's shop is also a rental. The building itself served as the family residence and business of the previous generation, so he and his wife are "renting it from the previous family." The daughter of the former owner still lives in the upstairs apartment above the restaurant.
Oki came into this business by a string of coincidences and connections. When asked how he ended up where he is, he replied, "I couldn't do anything else. I wasn't training for another job, and I was really not able to do anything, but I started gradually with the old master's suppliers, and gradually my skills improved, and the customers increased, so it's really a good shape. I was blessed, I guess. Yeah, it's probably fate [en]."
Whether one interprets it as “fate,” as Oki does, or a talent for making personal connections, it is clear that Oki made a difficult transition from being an employee into taking over the management of a successful restaurant. Listening to Oki’s story, it seems to have been a combination of both timing and trust. Chidori’s reputation in the area played an important role. In Nishiogi, even many famous eateries are facing this succession crisis. In some cases, family members can take over. In other cases, without a successor, we have seen restaurants go out of business, including the neighborhood standby Coffee Lodge Dante, which was next door to Chidori. Chidori is a case in which “fate” (or good relationships) allowed the business to continue with a new owner. (James Farrer Dec. 25, 2023).
(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Aug. 16, 2023; transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation and English editing by James Farrer; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)