Updated: Apr 22
In late March 2022, long lines formed in front of the French Restaurant and Bakery Kokeshiya, directly outside the South Exit of the JR Nishi-Ogikubo. After seventy-three years of continuous service, the famed restaurant was closing, Both the main building and the annex were torn down over the summer. In their place, a high-rise apartment building of more than twenty stories is being built, with a new restaurant space on the first floor, whose opening as a new version of Kokeshiya is planned in 2026.
Even with the promise of reopening, the loss for the neighborhood is enormous. Kokeshiya was undoubtedly the most famous eatery in Nishi-Ogikubo, a favored site for community events and family anniversaries, and for decades, the host of a cultural salon (the “Calvados Society”) that hosted artists, filmmakers, and writers, and cemented the reputation of the neighborhood as a magnet for artists and intellectuals. A landmark is gone, and whatever replaces it will neither be the same place nor the same restaurant.
The local fans of Kokeshiya were shocked by the sudden announcement of its closure. In the week before it closed in March 2022, hundreds of people lined up to purchase items at the bakery, and the restaurant was fully booked by nostalgic regulars, many of whom were in their eighties or above.
To understand the last days of Kokeshiya and gain a glimpse into its uncertain future, we sought out a former chef who was also in charge of its popular Twitter feed, Kobayashi Keita. Kobayashi had been working as a cook at Kokeshiya for ten years when it closed. He ran the Twitter page for Kokeshiya, building up a following of 4,600 people. In his interview with us, he described his own pathway into this famous restaurant, what he observed working there, and his views on the future of the restaurant.
Finding his way to Kokeshiya
For Kobayashi cooking was a second career. “Actually, I was not a cook from the beginning,” he said. I worked as a salesperson until I was twenty-six years old. However, at that time, the company where I was working as a subcontractor for a major electronics manufacturer, was facing some difficulties because of the Lehman crisis. So, I decided to transition to cuisine, since I personally liked cooking,” he said. “I went to the culinary school in Kichijōji called Futaba Vocational College of Culinary Nutrition for a year and entered the restaurant industry after graduating from there. I was a part-time worker at that time though...”
He moved to Nishiogi from Ōme-shi in order to work as a cook. At the culinary school, he learned Western cuisine and several other genres, and he worked at an Italian restaurant after graduating from school for several years. He then discovered Kokeshiya. “After quitting the previous restaurant, I was taking a walk around Nishiogi station where I lived, and I saw the poster advertising that Kokeshiya was looking for an experienced cook,” Kobayashi said. “Kokeshiya has known as the most famous restaurant in Nishiogi, so I applied. I had an interview with the head chef at that time, and I thought he would ask me all kinds of things. But two minutes into the interview, it was more like ‘When can you start?’ Actually, a husband and wife working in the kitchen had just quit, so they were short on staff.”
Kokeshiya was by far the biggest restaurant in Nishi-Ogikubo. The main building of Kokeshiya had six floors and the annex had two. Restaurants and cafes in each building had a different menu. Kobayashi worked back and forth between the two buildings. “We had a huge kitchen on the fifth floor of the main building, where we cooked and prepared ingredients, and a pastry kitchen on the sixth floor, where we only did the finishing process. We used carts to transport the food between the two buildings," he said.
Kokeshiya was known for traditional yoshoku (Japanese western cuisine) and a home-style French cuisine that was quite different from the contemporary French style more common in newer restaurants. Kobayashi said that during his ten years working in the restaurant, the tastes had remained quite stable. “There were monthly specials,” he said. “But when it comes to main dishes, we had been serving the same cuisine without changing. We had cuisine like that listed in the formal textbook published decades ago. Younger staff like me learned those dishes from the senior chef.”
Ten Years with Kokeshiya
In its last decade, Kokeshiya was supported mostly by older visitors who had been regular customers of Kokeshiya for a long time. “There were so many regular customers even when I started to work there,” Kobayashi said. “Many customers were more knowledgeable about Kokeshiya than I did. They would ask me “How is XX, who used to work here, doing?” and I would say “Unfortunately, I’ve never met him.”
When Kokeshiya closed, a group of veteran staff lost their jobs. They will be impossible to replace if the restaurant does indeed reopen. “The first chef I worked under was about seventy-three years old when he quit,” Kobayashi said. “He was one of my strictest teachers. When he quit, he said he still wanted to open up a restaurant with his son. We also had another older staff member, pouring coffee on the annex’s terrace, who was ninety years old, the same age as my grandmother. She said that she was going to work until one hundred years old... Our restaurant’s most famous staff, the [delivery truck] driver, had worked at Kokeshiya for about fifty years. He was a kind and energetic person. When Kokeshiya closed, he was saying that he wants to find work somewhere even though he was already eighty-four years old at that time.”
We asked if they had a strict hierarchy between senior and junior staff in Kokeshiya.
“Actually, no,” Kobayashi replied. “Some people might think in such a way because we are veterans, but the relationship was frank. We were on good terms.”
When Kokeshiya closed, they had no less than twenty employees including part-time workers. “When I joined, there were forty, but most of the younger staff had quit,” he said, “In fact, when Kokeshiya closed, I was the youngest staff member among all employees,” Kobayashi says that in the culinary industry, the young generation tends to move on to the different restaurant for a short period of time to experience different styles of cooking.
The Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 had a sudden and severe impact on Kokeshiya’s business. The banquet hall on the second floor of the annex, which accounted for a large percentage of sales and was used for a variety of purposes, including after-parties and other events for about two hundred people, had to be closed because of COVID. Not only the banquet hall but the restaurant was also affected. “We had only one customer at lunchtime when the government declared a state of emergency,” Kobayashi said with a sigh. “The annex lost half of its customers during the pandemic,” Kobayashi said. “The situation of the main building was worse, losing 90 percent of its customers. We tried to make lunch boxes and do other things but...”
The morning market (asaichi) which is held once a month on Sunday and attracts more than a thousand people, also didn’t take place during COVID. The morning market returned for a few months before Kokeshiya closed, and was packed with loyal regulars. “Our restaurant had quite long lines for the morning market, especially the last months before we closed,” Kobayashi said. “The bakery was sold out by noon. Surprisingly, the morning market starts at 8 a.m., but at 5:30 a.m., there were already two or more regular customers in line.”
On the last day of the morning market, Kokeshiya was crowded with many customers who were sad to see it close. Kobayashi said, “I was in charge of making omelets at the morning market and some customers were sad and said like ‘I cannot imagine it's closed!’”
Social Networking During COVID
Like many old-school eateries in Nishiogi, Kokeshiya had no presence on social media before the pandemic. As a response to COVID, Kobayashi started running SNS accounts for the restaurant. “During the pandemic, I realized that no one could continue running a restaurant without SNS,” Kobayashi said. “We had a website though, but the page was garbled, and I couldn’t read a thing due to the old format. I suggested that we start SNS, but since other staff members were no idea what SNS was, I did it all myself. I created Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts to post menus and events irregularly.”
The effort had an immediate impact, especially on Twitter. “I built up a following of about 5,000 people within three days when I created the Twitter account named ‘Kokeshiya, X months left.’ I wanted to follow back all of them, but it was too much.”
“When I tweeted ‘morning market is open this weekend,’ there were so many people waiting in line that the policemen would often get angry with me,” He said with a laugh. “I think it is because of the name Kokeshiya. More than I had realized, it was the name value of Kokeshiya in Nishiogi and Suginami District."
Kobayashi Returns to his Roots
Since Kokeshiya is out of the picture for the time being, Kobayashi is preparing to open his own restaurant in the future while helping a friend’s restaurant. He is thinking about Ōme, since this is his hometown.“I haven’t decided on a location yet, but Mitake is one of the candidates, and I hope I can target mountain climbers. Besides, rent is affordable in Ōme, and the scenery is nice, though it is inconvenient without a car."
The hurdles for opening up a restaurant in Nishiogi are comparatively higher, he said. “Personally, I like Nishiogi, so I wish I cloud open my restaurant here,” he said. “But in fact, speaking of my budget, it is not realistic because the rent is expensive.”
Still, he said, Nishiogi is a desirable location. “Nishiogi may be unique compared to other Chuo Line stations. I am from Ōme on the Chuo Line, so I thought it would be more urban than Tachikawa here, but Nishiogi was more like the old [human scale and low rise] city center (shitamachi). Personally, I like Nishiogi, and I would like to do it if I could, but the reality is that the rent is too high for my budget.... If the rent is high, the initial cost will be high. One must also consider whether the location is high-traffic or not.”
Kobayashi is uncertain about what sort of style of food he will serve. He is thinking, however, of a restaurant focusing on fish.
Kobayashi seems to be developing his own professional plans for life after Kokeshiya, but reading between the lines, the future of Kokeshiya itself is less clear. The owner of the business, the son of the founder, is now in his sixties and has no experience in the restaurant business. Will he be interested in the difficult business of reopening and running a restaurant? Some Nishiogi old-timers doubt it. Also, by closing the restaurant for three years, it will be impossible to reestablish the business with a significant number of former staff. Many of the veterans were already quite senior, and the younger staff such as Kobayashi will have moved on to other jobs. Even if some of the staff can be reassembled, there is also the question of how the restaurant will position itself in the changing market for French-style cuisine in Tokyo. The cuisine at Kokeshiya was considered old-fashioned twenty years ago. Kobayashi has his doubts. “If it is in the same style will people be able to accept it? It is possible that you could really specialize in this classic style, but if you don’t, it could end up being neither here nor there,” Kobayashi mused. In short, Kokeshiya may return to the new building, but what exactly will return and for how long is quite unclear. (James Farrer and Sakura Yajima, April 22, 2023)
(Interview by James Farrer, Sakura Yajima, and Fumiko Kimura July 26, 2022; transcription and translation by Sakura Yajima; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura)