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A Three-Generation Restaurant in a Changing Neighborhood

Updated: May 11

Not many restaurants in Nishiogi can trace their roots back to the period of the Second World War. There were places to dine out in Nishiogi back then to be sure, but not many have survived. The wartime destruction is only one factor. Changing tastes is another. The greatest factor in the closure of long-running businesses seems to be the problem of succession. Younger family members often don’t want to take over the burdensome and tiring jobs they have seen their parents doing since childhood. A few neighborhood restaurants last two generations. It is quite rare to find one that has survived for three or more. One of these is Soba restaurant, Tanaka-ya, which lies 900 meters from Nishi-Ogikubo Station, in the shopping street closest to Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. The current owner Shimizu Yasutoshi describes how the family has kept the business going and how he sees it developing in a changing neighborhood.

Continuing the Family Business

Soba restaurant Tanaka-ya was opened by Shimizu’s grandfather in 1938, and Shimizu is the third generation owner. His father, the second generation, still works daily at the restaurant even after handing over many responsibilities to his son. The family thus opened the restaurant in Nishi-Ogikubo during the period of rapid urbanization in this area, especially after the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. Tanaka is not their family name. Rather, the name of the restaurant Tanaka-ya was borrowed from a soba restaurant that operated over a century ago in Ueno.


“My grandfather worked at a soba shop called ‘Tanaka-ya-san’ in Ueno,” Shimizu said, “and he came here to open a branch in this area. I’m not sure why he opened a shop in Nishi-Ogikubo. I just know that there was the women’s university and a ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant) around here. At that time, the high-level people from the nearby aircraft factory (Nakajima Aircraft Company) used to visit the ryotei. Even though it was far from the station, this area had a sort of shopping street. I also heard that my family used to do a lot of deliveries back then, for the neighbors. My family did it by bicycle at the time, but now it’s done by motorcycle.”


Finding a person in the family who is willing to take over the business is always difficult for small eateries. We asked Shimizu, the third generation of Tanaka-ya, about his personal reasons for taking over the restaurant. “I have an older brother,” Shimizu said, “but he didn’t want to do it. He prefers reading books (Apparently, he now is an academic). I, on the other hand, didn’t exactly dislike cooking or making things, so I just went along with the flow. Also, this area is quite a fun neighborhood. I like the community interactions with neighbors, so I thought it was okay to take over the family business. I graduated from university at 22, and for one year, I apprenticed at another (Setagaya) soba restaurant. Then, around 23 or 24, I started working at my family’s place, and now I’m 50 years old. Before that, I didn’t train at the family business. Sometimes I did part-time delivery work. I helped out occasionally, but other than that, I always worked part-time at places I liked, like family restaurants.”


A Changing Neighborhood

Shimizu explains that in Nishi-Ogikubo, there are more independent eateries than chain restaurants. This has remained unchanged from the past to the present. However, having lived in Nishi-Ogikubo for a long time and continuing to operate in the same location, he mentions that the surroundings of his shop have changed considerably. Particularly, the shops that existed long ago have disappeared, and have been replaced by residential buildings such as small apartment blocks.


“I can feel that there has been a decrease in fresh food items and soba restaurants. There used to be a lot more in the past. Between the station and this restaurant, there used to be about five soba restaurants... I don’t think there’s even one now. Also, the greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers – those kinds of shops have disappeared. We used to get our meat, fish, and vegetables from the small shopping street here. There was a greengrocer right in front, and if you went a little further, there was a butcher or something. They’re all gone now. You have to look at a wider area to find shops now.”


As in other areas, small retail shops have disappeared, with eateries being the main type of business that has survived in relative terms. “In this area, many of the previously existing shops have been converted into residences,” Shimizu said. “It’s almost like that everywhere, I suppose. Some buildings with tenants are still there, but with eateries taking up these spaces. This situation is unavoidable. To run a shop, you need to have the sales for it. Also, the disappearance of shops is often due to the issue of succession, like they didn’t have someone to take over.”


The increase in small-scale housing due to the subdivision of originally one piece of land is a common sight in the suburbs of Tokyo. As a result, the population density increases, and the town’s landscape changes accordingly. Shimizu has noted the changes in his neighborhood. “Old large houses, you know, when they go up for sale, they get divided into four or five smaller units,” he said. “And then you can fit in more people there (laughs). So, the density becomes higher, right? I think maybe only about ten percent of my classmates are still in Nishi-Ogikubo now. So, it feels like the town is continuously cycling with new people.”


More recently, due to labor shortages and the additional blow of COVID-19, it seems that the activities of the neighborhood business associations (shotenkai) have also been declining. “In the past,” he said, “we were quite involved in local community activities, but well, our work gets busy, so I haven’t been able to help out much. The meetings for the shopping district association are usually around seven or eight in the evening, but for restaurants, that’s the peak time, so it's hard to make it. This shopping district used to have events like Bon Odori (traditional Japanese dance), religious festive events (matsuri) with mikoshi (portable shrines), and various other things, but now it's all been affected by COVID-related issues... Also, due to COVID, and some people who were involved in the association passed away or moved away. There just aren’t enough people to do it anymore... Every shopping district in Nishi-Ogikubo used to have mikoshi. So before COVID, the adult-sized mikoshi even would be carried out at night. But now, many shopping districts are dwindling away like this one.”


A Family Business and A Broad Social Network

Shimizu took over the family business in his early twenties. He says that the most challenging aspect of managing the shop is the “long working hours.” He starts preparation around 6 a.m., runs the business during the day, and finishes closing duties until around 10 p.m. He spends almost the entire day inside the shop. “From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., I make the broth for the soup, and that takes some time,” he said. “But there’s about thirty minutes while I’m boiling the bonito flakes and such, so during that time, when I have energy, I go for a walk or jog. Then, after having a bit of coffee, I spend about an hour and a half making the soba... After that, I finish up with some small preparations, and we open for business at 11 a.m. The last order for lunch is at 3 p.m., and during that time, I prepare bits and pieces for dinner... I use supermarkets for ingredient shopping, and also the greengrocers near the station. During breaks, I go shopping, go to the bank, things like that. Then we start the evening service from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m., and then it’s cleanup time. After finishing cleanup, it’s time for accounting. It’s pretty much like that every day.”


Tanaka-ya is open every day. We asked where his daily energy comes from. “Drinking after my work!” he answered with a laugh. “I drink with friends from the shopping district, with the local dads, with fellow soba shop owners, and so on... The soba shop owners have a monthly gathering at some izakaya in Nishi-Ogikubo, usually Yorunotaki.”


Also, he participates in a fathers’ social circle associated with his child’s school. “The local dads come to gather at our shop,” he said. “They all bring something they bought from the convenience store, and we just drink until around midnight. We started a group called ‘Oyaji no Kai’ (Dads’ Association) back when my kid was in elementary school. I was the first president, and the relationships have continued for over ten years. Everyone gathers around 9:30 p.m. on Fridays after finishing work. You know, we can’t make a reservation for izakaya if the number of people coming isn’t fixed. Since everyone says ‘I’ll go if I can,’ it’s always uncertain. So, I said, ‘Sure, use my place.’ Starting with drinking, various groups for outings and such have formed, too.”


“Managing the business is a mix of difficulty and enjoyment,” says Shimizu. However, it seems he finds joy in the continuation of old connections by continuing to run the family business locally. “There are charms to it, but there are also plenty of challenges. The most enjoyable moments are when I immediately get feedback from customers about the food we’ve prepared. Also, it’s the conversations with customers. And, because I’m working, I don’t lose touch with old friends—they come to me (laughs). The network of parents from when my kids were in elementary school still continues. It’s nice to have this communication with the community outside of work.”

Tanaka-ya’s Continually Evolving Cuisine

At Tanaka-ya, the soba flour is homemade. They take about an hour and a half each day to complete, combining manual and machine processes, and the soba broth is made fresh daily as well. Additionally, while maintaining some of the original menu items from when the shop was founded, they have gradually made changes to the menu to adapt to the changing times and the needs of their customers.

Making soba and soba soup is the most important daily business. “The soba and the soup are our original,” he said. “I think each of the three generations has a different way of making them. Around the time I took over the shop, there were quite a few requests from customers like, ‘Could you make the soup a bit lighter?’ So, we gradually made it lighter, bit by bit. It’s become lighter over time, especially as health consciousness has increased. I think it has changed quite a bit compared to my father’s time... I believe taste preferences change with the times, so we adjust accordingly. Even the soy sauce we use to make the soup was all dark soy sauce before, but now it’s not exactly light soy sauce, but there are soy sauces that are similar in lightness. There are more soba shops that make it with these kinds of soy sauces now. Overall, I think there’s been a shift towards that kind of (lighter) trend.”

Shimizu told us that soba noodles served on-premise and those that are served through delivery must be made differently. “We have a stone mill here that grinds the soba flour freshly, so we can produce freshly ground [buckwheat] flour,” he said. “So, well, maybe the aroma is nice because of that. It might be better than soba shops that buy flour and make it. Also, the soba we serve in the shop and the soba for delivery are made with different ratios... The delivery soba needs to be stretchier, so we increase the amount of wheat flour in it. We want the soba for delivery to be eaten properly as soba. If we stick to pure buckwheat soba, by the time the customer eats it (after delivery), it might fall apart when picked up with chopsticks. We also change the broth for deliveries. For noodles served in the shop, it’s 80 percent soba flour. For delivery, it’s 60 percent soba flour. This 20 percent makes a big difference.”


The most popular order is “the weekly special set lunch,” he said. “We have this ‘weekly special set lunch’ which includes rice and soba, and the contents change weekly. It’s the most popular item, and we serve it throughout the day and night. When we first made it, we collaborated with the health department to create a well-balanced set meal. We worked together on the concept of a nutritionally balanced set meal, getting guidance on nutrition, and creating it together.”

Over the many years since the restaurant opened, people’s preferences have changed, and accordingly, many new items have appeared on the menu, but many have also disappeared. “Since the founding, we’ve had the same items like Katsudon, Tendon, and Nabeyaki Udon. Also, Curry Nanban, too,” Shimizu said.

But there are also things that are no longer on the menu. “There used to be something called ‘Hanamaki’ before,” he continued. “It was warm soba with seaweed sprinkled on top... I wonder why it was called Hanamaki. Maybe just because the seaweed was scattered on top of the soba, but it was warm soba. It was delicious, but well, we stopped serving it because it didn’t sell. Maybe some long-established soba shops still have it.”


Like many older soba shops they also used to serve ramen, but they stopped. “We can’t make soba-yu (hot soba water) when we make ramen,” he explained. “The water turns yellow. Ramen has this yellow extract [usually vitamin B2] that goes into the noodles. When you cook it, it comes out into the water. So, the aroma and appearance of the soba-yu [the liquid left after boiling soba] change. Also, it adds more steps to the process, so we decided to stop selling them. We had already stopped before I took over the shop.”


The influence of ‘SNS-worthy’ features on customer needs is significant nowadays. Even at a neighborhood soba shop like Tanaka-ya, social media is an indispensable consideration in attracting customers. “Nowadays, we try to make the dishes elaborate and visually appealing,” Shimizu said. “In the past, I think there was a mentality of just wanting to get full, you know? But now, since people are taking the time to eat, I think there’s an aspect of wanting something that looks good as well.”


In addition to personal experience, social media can be useful for market research, Shimizu explained. “Recently, since I go out to eat often, I look at the menus of other soba shops and think, ‘Oh, this kind of thing is popular,’ you know? I also look at social media. I think, ‘What if we bring this menu item to our shop?’ But sometimes it doesn’t sell (laughs). Our area might just not be into it. Well, we try things out... But when something becomes a hit, it’s really nice. I can tell from the customers’ reactions. If they come back for it (laughs). Our regular customers are often the ones who try something new each time. I watch their reactions, and if they come back for it again, I think, ‘Okay, that was good, then.’”

A Neighborhood Clientele

Tanaka-ya has a loyal following among neighborhood residents. It doesn’t strive to be a special destination restaurant but rather to satisfy these everyday needs. “I don’t think we have people coming from far away around here,” Shimizu said. “So on weekdays and weekends, it’s mostly locals. Since we don’t have a parking lot, everyone walks or bikes here. On weekdays, we have individuals from the neighborhood, people related to the university, and also folks from local construction work, for example. On weekends, there are more families, and you can see families and couples coming in. There are quite a few customers who come after work. We have solo customers and also those who come alone. Then there are the patterns like moms with their kids, or dads picking up their kids from daycare and coming straight here to eat. It’s like, ‘Hmm, one of them must be busy today,’ you know (laughs).”


“As for the customer base, it’s quite diverse. In the past, it used to be mostly elderly people, but recently, there are a lot more young people. We have a significant increase in couples or groups of women dining together. I’ve noticed this in conversations with other soba shops too; there’s a lot of talk about young people coming in these days. In the past, there were more men. Nowadays, it’s really balanced. Maybe it’s because there are more working women now.”


The impact of COVID on Tanaka-ya was ameliorated by neighborhood ties created long before the pandemic. A major factor was the preexisting establishment of delivery service. “Well, we did follow the government’s instructions for shortened hours and such,” Shimizu said. “But during that time, we had delivery services, and we also did takeout, so our sales didn’t really decrease much, more or less stayed the same. Also, regarding the plastic containers, there was actually a request from elderly customers for our delivery services before COVID. Our restaurant’s ceramic dishes were heavy and some customers found it difficult to handle them... so we had already introduced disposable plastic containers for delivery quite some time ago. Because of that know-how, we were able to start takeout services quite quickly.”

Soba restaurant Tanaka-ya is a long-standing soba shop that has been in business for over eighty years here in Nishi-Ogikubo. Along with the times, both the dishes of the restaurant and its clientele have changed significantly. Like many family-owned eateries, succession is a common issue, and Tanaka-ya is no exception. In fact, Shimizu himself has no intention of passing the shop on to his two sons or anyone else. He opines that Tanaka-ya will come to an end with his generation. Located far from the station, this shopping street is not as bustling with foot traffic as the streets closer to the station, making it less likely to be discovered by tourists. The surrounding areas have undergone significant changes, with traditional retail shops disappearing and small-scale housing developments taking their place. However, Tanaka-ya continues to operate energetically in the same location, cherished by the local community. When asked about the strengths of the shop, Shimizu says, ‘There aren’t many (laughs). I don’t really aim to be the best. I think it’s important to do the ordinary work in an ordinary way. It’s not about using particularly good ingredients or employing special techniques, but rather just consistently making decent products. On the contrary, I think it’s quite challenging to keep making decent products continuously...’ We found a restaurant persisting amidst the everyday lives of the local people. (James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka May 7, 2024).


(Interview by James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka Oct. 24, 2023; transcription and translation by Nagiko Shimooka; text by James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka; Japanese editing by Kimura Fumiko; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)



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