Creating Cuisine and Raising Children in an Izakaya
Childcare and child rearing are some of the biggest concerns for a family-run restaurant. Even when you are working, the children will be present in the back of your mind. For anyone, work is not just for the sake of work, but also for the sake of the family. But it is difficult to balance work and life in such a busy environment. While worrying about the family, the partners must also work together to keep the business going. That is the life of the small family business. One such family-run restaurant is Taisuke, which has already been operating in Nishiogi for twenty-two years. It is a family business with young children, and thus also a friendly place to bring small children. At the same time, they are more than a family restaurant, presenting diners refined Japanese cuisine, with some original twists.
The Taisuke team consists of Mr. Itagaki Chikara, Mrs. Itagaki Kyoko, their daughter Momoko who is ten as well as their five-year old son Tatsumi.
We met Kyoko for an interview after she had finished selling goods at the Morning Market, an outdoor market organized every third Sunday of the month by the local neighborhood merchant association. She was in a cheerful mood, tidying up the restaurant after the sale, and chatting proudly about her daughter’s participation that morning. “We were just out with our daughter and her friend at the market. Her friend was helping out. The two of them were playing and working. That girl grew up around her grandmother who had an okonomiyaki shop. So, she has the family business in her blood. They are no longer in business, but boy she is really good! They had a basket of tamago yaki and taiyaki which they carried around selling. ‘We sold it all!’ they said! The two of them! The two of them did it!”
Momoko has grown up seeing her parents at work. Seeing those two young girls eagerly selling the family products certainly makes one want to buy something. “Yes, yes, yes, that’s right, she’s really getting good at it. My daughter has always been here, she’s really grown up here. Sometimes I get a bit worried about it. Sometimes I feel a bit emotional. Sometimes I wonder if it is a good thing or a bad thing.”
Kyoko first narrated the history of Taisuke. “It was 1996, when we opened,” she said with a bit of nostalgia, “22 years ago.”
The shop is decorated, more or less, as it was when they moved in, she said. “We came to Nishiogi because a man at the place where my husband was working had opened a shop here. And he knew Nishiogi very well. When he heard we were looking for a place, he told us about this one. This was the connection that brought us to Nishiogi.”
Kyoko joked that she was willing to start a restaurant because she was simply too naïve to know how hard it was going to be. “As for me, I grew up in a salaryman-style family. I literally quit my company job two days before I started at this place. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know left from right in the restaurant business. I only had a bit of previous experience with part-time work.”
Born in Niigata and raised in Gunma, her husband Chikara spent his youth learning to cook Japanese cuisine. Kyoko herself is from Numazu in Shizuoka. The two met in Tokyo and got married. The restaurant’s name comes from Chikara’s nickname in the restaurant where he used to work “Itagaki no Taisuke,” from a made-up association with the historical figure Itagaki Taisuke from Kochi Prefecture.
From the beginning the two wanted to create a traditional Japanese cuisine restaurant. Their main supplier of seafood is one of Chikara’s friends from his apprenticeship days, who sends them fish daily from Tsukiji. Knowing someone a long time assures good treatment, Kyoko said, and customers have come to think of this as an izakaya with quality ingredients and cooking. “This place has the image of an izakaya that you can easily just walk into. But my husband wants to emphasize the cuisine. But, that’s the way it is. So even if we do provide the atmosphere of an izakaya, he wouldn’t really want it to be called an izakaya.”
In any case, the image they have created is of an izakaya-style space with a more gourmet menu than most. We discussed some of the more popular dishes with Kyoko. In the wintertime, the most popular item is the hotpot, which comes in a serving size for one person. “People who come in alone are especially happy that they can see a hotpot in front of them. We really didn’t think of this at first. But after talking to customers, I realized it would be good if people could enjoy a meal alone.”
When we noted that there were a fair number of customers coming in alone and sitting at the counter, she commented: “That’s true. But the in the past there were more. In the past, if you came here you would assume that there was someone you knew here. There were a lot of sideways connections at the counter. That’s my perception. Now I would say there are more families and couples. Well, after we had been running the shop ten years, I had my first child and that changed things. Maybe it is not a good thing, but now when people come in they think, ‘oh, there are children in here,’ so now people are more comfortable bringing their children. I think there are probably some customers who don’t like children, but I think, ‘please come with your families. I am sorry, but we have children.’”
Not only has the atmosphere of the restaurant changed with her children, she said, but her own mentality has also shifted. “To be honest, before I had children, I was into the business with all my mind and body. It is different with men, I think, but with women, after you have kids, you’re always going to put more weight on the kids. And then you have to struggle with all the things you still have to do at the shop. When Momoko was small, her grandmother took care of her quite a bit, and that was a big help. So, with that arrangement, I was able to focus on the restaurant. Now that her grandmother is getting old, it’s more difficult to ask for her help. So now I am always thinking, ‘what are the kids up to?’ So even when I am busy here in the shop, I will be still thinking about them. Yup, it is this period in my life, I guess. It is difficult.”
From listening to Kyoko, we could get a sense of how much of a struggle it is to balance work and family in the restaurant business. If you go to the restaurant at night, you can often find Momoko and Tatsumi at one of the tables in the tatami room, having a dinner made by Chikara, and working on homework. “Many customers will say, ‘letting the children see you at work is a good way of childrearing.’ Actually, only the older child is helping out sometimes, but I think, really, she is taking care of us…. Sometimes I worry that girl is doing too much. I worry about that. She is putting up with a lot, I think. But I think she is always moving forward, I hope that’s the case. My youngest is sometimes here, sometimes he’s not. Now he likes spending more time at home. Each child has their own way of enjoying themselves. But sometimes wonder, are they lonely like that? But I also think, maybe she will grow up to be the kind of girl who knows how to get things done.”
The children eat meals cooked by their father every day, something that would be unusual in most Japanese families. “My oldest child is completely hooked on the food from the restaurant. And as for the lunchbox, a father really likes doting on his daughter, so her lunchbox for school is always a traditional Japanese meal in a two-layered box, like a steamed egg in a tiny cup. It’s really too much!” Kyoko said with a laugh. “The teachers are always surprised. My oldest child is used to it, so we just keep on like this. I make a simple breakfast for them. And there is lunch at school and then dinner here.”
They serve not only traditional Japanese dishes but also some items with a more original fusion spin. “Niigata pizza, that’s a completely original one. We thought that young people might want something that is a little more filling. And maybe they would also want something that has a bit of a Western touch. So, we thought about this so-called pizza, and thought wouldn’t that be interesting? …. It’s actually rice, rice cooked on a grill pan, with a crust held together with a bit of starch. So why is it called, ‘Niigata?’ Well, one element is the rice. The other is the salted salmon from my husband’s hometown in Murakami. We use that salmon. We also use it in the onigiri. This salmon has a bit of a different taste. So, for pizza, we spread miso on the rice, and put on the salmon and grill it with a cheese topping. It’s like a Western version of grilled onigiri.”
Of course, if you think about an izakaya, you think of drinking. The restaurant has a variety of sakes from Niigata, and even has its own original Taisuke-brand sake. “It was about two years into the business, and we thought of doing something new.” She pulls out an album of old photos of their early sake making venture. “So, this started with a customer asking us if we wanted to try making sake ourselves. We said, ‘sure, let’s do it!’ That’s really how it began. And we thought, if we want to make sake, we should do it in Niigata, so we called up the Niigata Sake Brewers Association, and asked, ‘Is there someone there who will make a sake for us?’”
That was the year 2000, and the brewery that offered its services was the Shiokawa Sake Brewery in Niigata city. “They made it for us. But for the first two years, it was not acceptable to us. Both sides were starting from the beginning. So, for the first two years, it wasn't right. Our customers tasted it. It had just come out and they tasted it, and said, ‘No, it doesn’t fit your dishes.’”
After that, communication with the sake brewery improved. “It seems like that for such a small tank, you really have to put in a lot of work. So, at first it was really difficult. But after around the third year the brewer figured out what we needed, and then finally, the first batch of Sake Taisuke came out.”
They now have three types of seasonal sake from this maker: Awayuki, or “light snow,” Haru Shibori, or “Spring pressing,” and the third Taisuke, named after the shop. Nowadays many customers come to the shop for sake, but this demand has had its ups and downs, she said. “A few years back there was that boom in sweet potato shochu. Back then everyone wanted shochu more than sake. Especially sweet potato shochu. Sake was in a slump. But now, there is a boom in sake. The brewers have gotten into marketing, and we can say there is a new sake boom.”
Taisuke recently has also joined in the “Morning Market” where Momoko and her friend, were energetically selling items. They have been participating regularly since the summer. “The morning market… I didn’t realize that it would be so much fun. It is fun to sell things that we do not normally sell at Taisuke. There’s that aspect, and also the fun of conversing with people, with customers. Another fun thing is talking with the people at the other shops there…. Now we are selling a kind of sweet snack. So, it’s enjoyable to think about what we are going to sell, what kind of things we are going to take to the market. My husband thought of the perfect thing last summer though. He grilled ayu on spits outside and we sold that. Customers were really happy.”
We also talked about how the customers have changed over two decades. “Back in the old days, you could say that the vast majority were regular customers. Now I think it is probably the change in the times, but customers can learn a lot about a place even without coming in even once. There are all sorts of sources of information. So, there are many customers who learn about us that way. In the past, it was all word of mouth, one regular customer bringing in a new customer, that pattern. Now with SNS and such things, there are many customers who get information in that kind of virtual space.”
Not only have the means for customers to obtain information increased, but also the town itself has evolved. “Well, I think it's a good thing really. Nishiogi has changed quite a bit. People have started paying attention to it. And it has been picked up in the media. So, I am happy that Nishiogi is really thriving. It’s a happy thing, and I have to thank everyone for contributing to it. At the same time, there are now more restaurants, so the competition has also increased, and this is a challenge. But this is also really something that is up to us, isn’t it? We have to make sure that the customers keep coming. That is why we have to keep on working.”
In managing a restaurant while raising a family, there are many things that small family business owners have to think about in one complex bundle. The owners of Taisuke deal with all these everyday matters, while also creating new products and coming up with original promotions, creating a restaurant, that also is an izakaya, and always a work in progress (James Farrer, April 8, 2018).
(English text by James Farrer; interview by James Farrer and Kimura Fumiko; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; English copy editing by Jason Bartashius; copyright James Farrer 2018)