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A Woman Chef Creates a Space of Her Own

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Exiting left from the North Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo JR Station, pedestrians, buses, and cars jostle along the narrow Fushimi Street. Passing a host of small shops, bakeries and eateries, we arrive at a wooden structure partly covered in vines. This is Itokichi, a wine and dining bar that has been beloved by many regular customers for over a decade. Cracking open the door, we overhear the voices of the female owner, Yabe-san, and her customer engaging in lively discussions about Haruki Murakami's new novel. A stuffed shark and a decrepit teddy bear lounge at the window-side table, taking no sides in the literary debate. "I used to love Haruki Murakami when I was young," says Yabe-san, the female owner. "But at some point, I moved on from his works."

Having majored in philosophy in college and having made her own life path since the bubble era when gender discrimination was more blatant than now, she said she is skeptical about Murakami's works which are sometimes described as depicting a male-centric world. The customer, who had eagerly awaited Murakami's newly released book, smiled at Yabe-san’s assessment, reflecting her familiarity with Yabe-san’s worldview.

Yabe-san never hides her opinions. Numerous customers have been captivated by this frank atmosphere and her underlying smartness. She grew up in a town in Ibaraki Province, moved to Nishiogi more than thirty years ago as a student and has lived here ever since. "I was actually a newspaper scholarship student when I went to university,” she told us, referring to a scholarship system through which newspaper companies pay students to deliver papers. “When deciding the assignment location, I had a slight curiosity about living in Suginami Ward even though I had no knowledge of this area, so the newspaper distribution office in Kami-Igusa became my workplace. As the nearest JR station was Nishiogi, I started coming to Nishiogi on a daily basis."

A Winding Path into Gastronomy via Corporate Japan

Yabe-san did not start out her career planning to work in gastronomy. On the contrary, it was the shocking gender discrimination she faced in corporate Japan that motivated her to seek an alternative career. "During the bubble era, the model for women was to get married and have children,” she said. “The gender gap was more significant than today, and which I thought was absurd. Although I enjoyed the work and it was a good company, I felt that I wouldn't be able to work the way I wanted to if I stayed there. So, I decided to quit the company."

"Thinking about what I could accomplish on my own in a business sense, becoming an owner chef came to mind, since cooking was a hobby, and I was also good at it. So, I thought I wanted to be a chef and own my own restaurant as an owner chef. In 1998, I decided to leave the company where I had been for six years and enter the world of gastronomy."

While making a break with corporate life Yabe-san began thinking of a career in gastronomy. As a college student, she had already spent several months in Australia on a “working holiday” visa, so going abroad to learn the culinary arts was a ready option. "After leaving a company,” she said, “I immediately went to Europe with my savings to think about what kind of cuisine I wanted to pursue as a career in gastronomy. So, I traveled to various places and tried many different foods. Eventually, I thought that it would be either French cuisine or Japanese cuisine. After coming back to Japan, I started job hunting, but every restaurant rejected me because of my ‘lack of experience,’ ‘being a woman,’ and ‘being old’ [laughing]. I couldn't even get my resume accepted. However, by chance, a small French restaurant hired me, as they were short-handed."

Around the age of 30, she took a job at a restaurant in Koganei together with a female colleague whom she had become close with at her first restaurant job. This encounter and her experience as a chef in Koganei became a significant turning point that inspired Yabe-san to pursue further training in French cuisine. "After various things happened, and when I was around thirty, I had the opportunity to manage a restaurant in Koganei together with my female chef friend who was such a talented lady. She was raised in France, went to graduate school in Italy, and came back to Japan and for some reason, she became a chef. She was incredibly intelligent, being fluent in French, Italian, and so on. It was really enjoyable to listen to her stories about France.... Also, hearing stories from a young man who used to come to this Kichijoji restaurant every day and went to France for his culinary training, made me also want to go to France. I saved up money and went there in 2005."

So, after her experience in Koganei, she went to France to learn more about French cuisine. However, her plans did not go as smoothly as she hoped. "Since I didn't have a work visa, I was only able to do part-time jobs,” she said. “However, when I went to the market, there were local ingredients available, and even at supermarkets or butcher shops, things that would cost thousands of yen in Japan were being sold at incredibly low prices. So, I practiced cooking various dishes at home using those ingredients. I also learned from that chef friend who used to come to a restaurant in Koganei as he was already there. Nevertheless, I ended up returning to Japan after a year for reasons of not having a visa."

Unexpected Encounters in Gastronomy

After returning from her training in France, Yabe-san worked at several restaurants. In addition to the difficulties that she faced getting a position in the kitchen as a woman, she also experienced some of the mistreatment and harassment faced by many entrants into the restaurant industry.

"The culinary industry used to be quite physically demanding, with incidents of punching and kicking being common,” Yabe explained. “I, being a woman, probably was spared from such treatment. The restaurants I worked were a bit unique but the chefs there were not inclined towards such behavior. However, I have heard from friends in the same profession, especially when they were younger, that they have been punched or kicked."

"When I returned from France, my first job was at a French restaurant where I experienced harassment. I didn't like it, so I quit. But then I had trouble finding another job, so I sought advice from the chef I used to work under. He told me to come back, so I returned. However, there were conflicts regarding the ownership succession at the restaurant, and I thought I couldn't handle it anymore, so I decided to switch jobs."

"While I was drinking in Nishiogi by chance, I was discussing my job situation for the next month. At that time, the owner of a certain restaurant said, 'The restaurant I used to work at is struggling to find staff.’ He asked me if I would be interested in working at a Spanish restaurant. So, I joined this Spanish restaurant based on the connection from Nishiogi. It wasn't a Spanish restaurant in Nishiogi, but rather in Kagurazaka. Similar to our place, it was a Spanish-style restaurant with a counter. While working in the kitchen, I also did customer service. I stayed there for about five years…. It was an amazing place, unlike any other. I could have stayed there forever. However, when the owner initially hired me, he told me, 'I want to close this place down, so everyone needs to study hard and be able to support themselves.' Well, his dream actually came true, and the restaurant closed down completely about five or six years ago. Many of the staff members who worked there are now running their own restaurants in different places. It was a bit of an unconventional restaurant, and I personally found it very comfortable.”

“The owner kept saying, 'I don't know when I'll quit,' so everyone worked diligently, continuing to learn and improve their own skills. Around the fifth year, he finally said to me, 'I think it's about time.' "

Introducing Itokichi to the “Nishiogi Patrol”

All this time, Yabe-san had been living in Nishi-Ogikubo, so when it finally came time to open her own restaurant, Nishiogi was an obvious choice for her. "I had originally planned to open a restaurant in Nishiogi,” she said. “So, I was primarily looking for properties there. But if Nishiogi wasn't available, I also searched around Kugayama."

" I didn't have a reason to go to other neighborhoods," Yabe-san explained. "Nishiogi is a comfortable place to live, and it's close to Kichijoji for shopping. It's also conveniently located near Shinjuku. So, I just don't have a specific reason to go elsewhere."

"I have been living here for a long time, so I've seen the changes in the neighborhood. In the past, there weren't many restaurants in Nishiogi. But it gradually started to have more, and while I wasn't in a rush, I did think that if I didn't start my own business soon, it might become difficult in the future. It's tough to open a restaurant now, I believe. The rent has gone up significantly, and Nishiogi has become an incredibly popular spot."

Small restaurants like Itokichi can only survive by attracting a group of loyal regulars. These can be previous acquaintances, Yabe-san said, but word-of-mouth communications among local foodies plays the key role in deciding which restaurants will find a broader following. "Initially, some people who are from the restaurants I used to work and who lived in this area came to check out my place,” Yabe-san said. “Additionally, since I used to drink and socialize in Nishiogi, my drinking buddies also came to support me."

However, there was another factor that significantly contributed to attracting customers—the “Nishiogi patrol.” “The restaurant underwent a substantial one-and-a-half-month demolition and reconstruction process,” she said. “As a result, people passing by would start to wonder and spread rumors about what this place would become. Nishiogi has a considerable number of individuals who are Nishiogi patrollers, and once they noticed the new establishment taking shape, they began checking it out. The first check would be along the lines of ‘Looks like a new place is opening,’ followed by a double-check confirming it was a dining establishment. The third step involved speculating about the cuisine, whether it was Japanese or Western, or if it had a counter. These speculations were often shared among drinking companions and spread even before the restaurant officially opened. Some people even entered the construction site to ask what this place would be. So, by the time we opened, those who had been patrolling Nishiogi came to check out my new place. Consequently, we didn't have to worry about attracting customers—they were already curious and interested due to the patrols and rumors circulating even before the opening."

Women Customers as Mainstays

In Nishiogi, new restaurants open one after another, and the fluctuating trends also contribute to the high customer turnover, making it challenging to run a business. The customer base at Itokichi has also undergone significant changes over time, but one of the steady features of her clientele has been the presence of female customers.

"We have overwhelmingly large numbers of female solo customers,” Yabe-san emphasized, “from the beginning and continuously…. Because there were so many women and people were saying that men couldn't get in, we made efforts to attract male customers starting at some point. Now it's around a 6:4 or 7:3 ratio, I think. After the COVID pandemic, there was a period where it was almost an even split, but it has been consistently mostly female. Due to COVID, some of our long-time regular customers suddenly stopped coming, and new regular customers, mostly women, started coming instead. Although it's not so much about age but more about their personality, I believe, some of our new customers said, 'Because of COVID, I can't meet people, so this is my first time drinking alone.'"

We asked Yabe-san if women prefer her restaurant because she herself is a woman. "I've heard in the past, there used to be a general saying that male customers would come to female-owned establishments, and female customers would go to male-owned ones,” Yabe-san mused. “In our case, it's a bit reversed and twisted. When I'm the one working alone, the number of female customers increases, and when our male staff member, Ryo-san, is working, the number of male customers increases. So, I think we're a bit twisted in that sense. However, I don't really understand the psychology of our customers."

During the COVID pandemic, there was a noticeable decline in customer traffic at restaurants. Itokichi was no exception. As a countermeasure, Yabe-san transformed the second floor, which was previously used for seating, into a weekend-only wine shop.

Yabe-san reflects on the changes in customer behavior during the pandemic. "Recently, the trend of using our restaurant as a second location has significantly declined,” she said. “Many of our customers now prefer to spend their entire evening just at our establishment. Previously, our busiest hours were around 10 or 11 p.m., but now the peak hours have completely shifted to around 6 to 7:30 p.m. I believe this change is due to the altered lifestyle of customers. They may have started going to bed earlier or stopped visiting multiple places in one night. It has changed. When you had to have a different lifestyle for three years due to the pandemic, that new lifestyle becomes the standard."

Interactions with Customers

To anyone who visits Itokichi, it is obvious that one of the attractions of the restaurant is the lively conversation with Yabe-san. Yabe-san, however, points out that she tries to respect customers own sense of personal distance. "If a customer approaches me and starts a conversation, I make it a point to engage with them. But if they don't initiate, I won't intrude. Although most people do approach and talk to me (laughs). However, there are also customers who prefer to read books alone the entire time."

"I used to make efforts to facilitate conversations and connections among customers. It's a challenging aspect because there are various types of people so it can lead to interpersonal troubles to some extent. Sometimes people become too close and end up having arguments. It's not necessarily confined to this place; for example, if two of our customers become friends and then have a fight elsewhere, both of them may stop coming here. Such incidents tend to occur within small communities, like a village society, even within the restaurant. So, I try to maintain a balanced atmosphere, but I must admit that sometimes I am the one who pushes someone’s buttons (laughs). I can be quite direct at times. The only rule in my restaurant is not to make me angry. If someone angers me, that's not good."

"Standing here, talking to customers who come here or observing the street, witnessing the turnovers of restaurants, and conversing with people who become friends in different moments—I have had a lot of experience in observing human interactions. It's like me being a fixed-point observation camera, in a way (laughs). However, even cameras have biases (laughs)."

While it can be challenging, many connections among customers are initiated through Yabe-san. Her frequent interactions with customers, living in the neighborhood, and her varied experiences all contribute to her ability to bring people together.

Designing the Itokichi World

When you step inside the shop, you notice a distinct Itokichi aesthetic. Not only does Yabe-san's creative personality contribute to this atmosphere, but the diverse interior design reflects her personal taste, evoking a sense of nostalgia and home. One noticeable feature is the abundance of anime merchandise, manga, books, and magazines.

On the right side of the restaurant, there is a staircase with a variety of books arranged vertically along the lattice. "I've loved anime and manga since I was a child,” she explained. “It's kind of like my home, in a way. This place used to have regular stairs, but somehow it turned into a bookshelf."

On the right wall, you also can find calligraphy works displayed, which apparently is an annual tradition with regular customers. Creating calligraphy works has become a sort of status symbol among the regulars. "Every year in January, we write down our goals for the year,” Yabe-san said. “Interestingly, there were quite a few cases where our goals actually came true so we started taking this seriously. Since customers comes at different times, they write their goals whenever they visit. People often ask me if I teach calligraphy classes. Some say, ‘I feel I became a regular’ by writing these goals for the first time. Regular customers really change over time, and some who wrote their first calligraphy piece are no longer here. It's a constantly changing display."

The entire interior structure of Itokichi is dark wood, creating a nostalgic and warm ambiance. It was remodeled with great care by a young man who had just started his own Interior design company. "I told the designer's construction company that I wanted a restaurant with this kind of vibe,” Yabe-san said. “I used to love antiques and old furniture. I used to collect and visit places to see furniture from the Taisho era. So, I wanted that old-fashioned feel right from the beginning. Not a brand-new, shiny appearance, but something that feels like it has always been here, like a place where a grandmother would live. That was the concept, at least."

Finally, we asked about the origin of the name "Itokichi." "When you break down the kanji character '結' (musubu), it becomes '糸吉' (Itokichi),” she explained. “It's a parody of the manga 'Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei’ (literally, Goodbye Mr. Despair). In fact, in that manga '絶望先生’ (Zetsubou-Sensei), the main character's name is '糸色望’ (Itoshiki Nozomu), too. So, it's kind of a parody. I thought of it while walking through the manga section of Konno Bookstore (a famous bookshop Nishiogi). I was shopping, and I kept thinking, 'I want that manga, Zetsubou-Sensei.' Then it just hit me like, 'Hey, maybe this could work.' When I asked the staff at the restaurant where I was working at the time, 'Hey, what do you think of this name for the new restaurant?' they all responded with, 'That's great!' Also, I even designed the logo myself."

Wines and Fusion Cuisine at Itokichi

The centerpiece of the Itokichi experience is wine. Yabe-san features distinctive wines from Southern and Eastern Europe at a good price point. Her choices are facilitated by her wine expert, Ryu-san, who started working part-time at Itokikichi, gradually becoming fascinated with the world of wine. He now works in a wine shop in Ginza during the week. On the weekends, he is at Itokichi, introducing novel wines to regulars.

The dishes do not disappoint the innovative wines. While the base was originally Spanish cuisine before the COVID pandemic, Yabe-san recently produces creative dishes fusing cuisines, referencing experiences from previous European ventures and training in various restaurants. She even makes a delicious beef stroganoff. "Lately, I've been making a lot of Russian cuisine for some reason,” she said. “But until just before the pandemic, we identified ourselves as a Spanish restaurant. Around the time of COVID, it became like, 'Why not try something new?' But what's wonderful about Spanish cuisine is its rustic charm. While there are many high-end restaurants in Spain, the overall feeling is somewhat rural. Traditional local restaurants usually serve dishes that are all brown! (laughing) The presentation isn't vibrant; everything is brown, like your mother's home-cooked stew. That's the basis of Spanish cuisine. In recent years, there are many places in Japan that excel in Spanish cuisine, but as it becomes trendy, it inevitably becomes fashionable and gradually refined. So, in search of rustic charm, I have turned my attention to Eastern Europe, including Russia."

It's common for chefs to sample other restaurants for inspirations, but Yabe-san, who considers herself inherently introverted, has gradually stopped going out to eat at other places. When she does take inspiration from dishes from other establishments, ultimately, it becomes Yabe-san’s own unique creations. "When I eat at various places, and I apologize for the rude phrasing, but I see it as ideas or materials, like 'Oh, this combination works' or 'This sauce is delicious' or 'They use this ingredient in an amazing way.' Based on those thoughts, I decide what I want to create. I tend to immediately incorporate ideas from other restaurants, but even if I borrow something, it becomes something different in the end."

Itokichi as a Battle with Herself

When asked what her biggest challenges were in operating her own restaurant, she laughed and pointed at herself. "For me, it's myself,” she said. “I dislike when my own personality and actions hinder me from succeeding. It's not so much a mood thing, but more about my character. I dislike my lack of perseverance or the fact that I'm not putting in enough effort, that I could do better but I often slack off. It's a constant struggle against the realization that I am someone who can't do certain things."

Yabe-san has a thick notebook called the "Hobonichi-techo" (Life Book), which she affectionately refers to as her "brain" and has jotted down countless ideas for developing the weekly menu, reflecting her strong attachment to Itokichi. Despite a cheerful and confident exterior that customers enjoy, Yabe-san is secretly a perfectionist who ruminates about her cuisine and her business. "I use a weekly spreadsheet of my beloved Hobonichi Techo,” she said. “I use one spreadsheet per week for menu planning, making sure not to repeat dishes. In the past, there were customers who came every day, but now there are those who come every week, and I want them to try different dishes as much as possible. So, I think about it and sometimes ideas come to me quickly, but when they don't, I keep revising and refining."

Through daily planning for her dishes and managing the restaurant, Yabe-san sees running Itokichi as a battle with herself. However, she feels a sense of pride in what she has accomplished over the past eleven years.

"Thanks to good fortune, I have done everything I wanted to do,” she said. "For example, the first thing was being able to 'do everything by myself,' including serving customers, procurement, cooking, and all the aspects of running the business. Then, it was also about having 'regular customers.' Without them, the business would fail (laughs). Next, it was about being able to 'pay my staff a proper salary,' so I started hiring employees."

"When I was young, I had considered expanding to multiple locations. So, I tried hiring a full-time male chef, thinking I could take up that challenge. But it revealed that I lacked the skills for managing multiple locations (laughs). That's when I realized that I'm not suited for running multiple establishments. So, I decided to continue steadily, and there is still a male staff member [Ryu-san] who has been working with me. He used to be someone who had no connection to the food and beverage industry, rarely drank alcohol, and only had a drink or two when going out with friends. But now, he's able to handle wine procurement as well. 'Nurturing people' was another bit of a goal for me, and thanks to that, I believe I have been able to foster his growth…. I feel a bit lost now that my list has come to an end. I don't have a goal anymore, and it's a bit troubling (laughs).”

Many Nishiogi bar and restaurant owners, both men and women, have escaped the corporate world to seek self-expression and self-determination in gastronomy. Yabe-san’s story points out how much harder both worlds – corporate work and gastronomy – are for women. Gastronomy has long been a male-dominated field in Japan as well. Yet, Yabe-san has succeeded in creating her own oasis of conviviality and smart conversation in this quirky space of Nishiogi. Naturally, women are particularly attracted to the space, as are any Nishiogi men who enjoy a good glass of wine, and friendly banter with a philosophical barkeep. (James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka Sept. 10, 2023).

(Interview by James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka May 26, 2023; transcription and translation by Nagiko Shimooka; Japanese editing by Kimura Fumiko; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)



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