Uojyu - Yedo's Kitchen with the spirit of "Kippu"  
 

Usually, Japanese traditional restaurant "Shinise" displays short split store curtain, so-called “Noren,” at its entrance. Hanging from top of the door, "Noren" expresses its identity of the business, and it is one of the most important things for traditional Japanese businesses - sometimes it is thought as its soul. Owners of Japanese traditional businesses often say “my job is to save Noren,” which means to continue its business and preserve tradition.

In case of Uojyu, which is called as the oldest restaurant in Yedo - former name of Tokyo, it does not matter much. Instead of Noren, Uojyu displays a small flag at the right side of the front door. This flag is called “Nobori” in Japanese, and it is usually used for another purpose, for example, decorations for festival or whatever. “Yes, we do not display Noren, but we have Nobori instead,” says Kimiko Takeuchi, 13th successor of Uojyu. Inside the restaurant, a copy of an Ukiyo-e(*) is hanged on the wall, and Uojyu displays Nobori in the picture. “We’ve been raising Nobori since the past,” she added. The reason why Uojyu does not raise Noren has a little to do with they way generations of the family has been running this restaurant.

*Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings which were made between the 17th and the 20th centuries. Usually, it featurs people's daily life, seasonal customs, and landscapes.

As it can be shown in the fact that Uojyu places Nobori instead of Noren at the entrance of the restaurant, the Yedo's oldest restaurant has been run with different belief, from others.

Usually Japanese Shinises prioritise their tradition - perserving taste, menu, technique, taken over from generation to generation. However, what Uojyu cares most is not its traditional recipe or technique, but its spirit and loyalty to their customers. The current owner Takeuchi says Uojyu does not have traditions which others usually have.

Yedo, a city with gourmet and Kippu spirit

Sometimes Yedo is said to be the most cosmopolitan ciity in the world during in that period, with more than million population in 18th century, which was larger than London or Paris, and people's literacy rate at that time, for example, exceeded 70, while it was 20% in London and 10% in Paris. Although the government closed the country to foreign commerce during Yedo Period (1603-1868), many cultures flew in from overseas, for example, Netherland or China. And it is also said that people in Yedo Period were gourmet - they invented Sushi and Tempura, which are sophisticated Japanese cuisine well known all over the world.

 


Photos by Urban Heritage Chronicle

Entrance of Uonyu, Nihonbashi Odenmacho.
It has Nobori, not Noren.



 
 

The fact that Yedo people loved food and eating can be seen by many publications which were written at that time. Saikaku Ihara, for example, a famous Japanese poet in Edo period, is said to be gourmet and he wrote a lot about Yedo cuisine in his book. "Tofu Hyaku-Chin," which was published in 1782, is another example. The cooking book covered 100 recipes of Tofu dishes and was one of the best sellers during Yedo period.

Although Yedo people were interested in food and drink, restaurant did not exist in its early period. Its first restaurant was born right after the Great Fire of Meireki* in 1657, and since then the number of restaurant in Yedo increased as the city is becoming more and more important for the country. In 1700s and 1800s, many restaurants opened in the city and there was even a book that compared and ranked restaurants of the city, like today's Michellelin Ranking.

*The biggest fire in Yedo Period. It is said that the fire destroyed 60-70% of Yedo and claimed over 100,000 lives on March 2, 1657. It lasted for three days .

Unfortunately, compared to other traditional Japanese businesses like confectionary or apparel, today is very difficult time for these Shinise restaurants to survive. Competitors are everywhere with trendy menu which attracts tongue of modern people. Traditional Shinise restaurants have to adjust their menu to meet contemporary preference, while keeping their tradition which was given by their ancestors.

However, in Uojyu's history, such difficulty does not exist at all. Uojyu has been operating since 1688 in Nihonbashi Odenmacho, downtown of central Tokyo which was busy and crowded with wholesalers at that time. The restaurant has been doing business in the same place for 320 years, under its vision to help local people. "We do not care much about perserving tradition, or 'Noren.' What's important for us is to serve foods for local people and make them happy. And we have to have good 'Kippu,'" told Takeuchi.

In Yedo, people prioritized being heady and ghani, which were called "Kippu" in Yedo words. Sometimes Japanese uses this word when appreciating someone, like “You have a good Kippu.” The word, in another way, was ideal which Yedo people wanted to be - truly voluntary for others without any compensation. Yedo people used to be said that they spent all of the money which they earned in the day for themselves and neighbors , and left nothing for tomorrow - this story is sometimes used to represent good Kippu of Yedo people.

"We just want to serve food for local customers."

Bakin Kyokutei, famous author of Manso-Satomi-Hakkenden which was written in Yedo period, a story about dogs and venture, noted his own personal diary that he liked to have lunch at the restaurant in Daimaru department store after he enjoyed shopping there. Bakin marked that the lunch was very good.The restaurant is now called Uojyu.

“I am fine to take an interview, but I do not have anything to tell,” said Takeuchi, “We do not have traditional recipe that other Shinise preserves.” At the beginning of the interview, she reiterated, “First of all, Uojyu does not follow tradition. We do not have traditional technique or things that were carried over generations. We just serve food for local customers." Uojyo is often introduced in gourmet guidebooks as the restaurant of traditional Yedo cuisine. She agrees in a way, but she also disagrees in another way, however.

"It might be unthinkable for Yedo people, but Uojyu even adjusted our taste to meet preference of those who came from western part of Japan, when many merceries came from Kyoto to Tokyo in Taisyo Period (1912-1926),” Takeuchi says. Usually, Yedo food is more salty than Kyoto, and Uojyu dilute salt from the dishes."

It somtimes happens that people from west and east, or south and north, are at strife even within the same country, in terms of food, culture, language, habit, attitudes, or traditions. People in Yedo, which was located in eastern part of Japan, did not think good about those who are from west, and whose who are from western part of Japan do not think well about easterners - they could not get along well. In Osaka or Kyoto, western parts of Japan, they preserved their own cultures.

"It might be surprise for easterners that Yedo restaurant like us adjusted its tast for westerners. However, for us, customers are customers. We do not care where they are from," she says.

Some written materials refer Uojyu as the oldest Edo restaurant. However, originally, Uojyu was not a restaurant, but catering. Uojyu brought half finished dishes to the customer and finished cooking at the customer’s kitchen. In mid 1700s, Daimaru, a department store established in 1717 and still exists as one of the biggest in Japan now, opened its branch in Odenmacho. Uojyu was a catering division of Daimaru, as Bakin wrote, until Daimaru withdrew from the town when the government made land adjustment in the town. Since then, Uojyu is running its business in Odenmacho which is about 1.5 kilometers away from Tokyo Station.

During its history, Uojyu went back and forth between catering and restaurant business. Recnet change was in 1978 when Uojyu came back from catering to restaurant. Now 80 per cent of its revenue comes from restaurant, and the rest 20 per cent came from catering.

In early Edo Period, cotton wholesaler huddled together in Odemnacho, and the town was lively. Then, many types of wholesalers such as clothing and daily goods came here. In late Yedo Period more and more wholesalers started runnig their business here, such as medicine, smoking goods, or books, and Odenmacho experienced glory days. Uojyu’s customers were these wholesalers.

“We do not have anything that we preserved during 300-year history,” says Takeuchi, “Taste and technique were changed often. One thing which was unchanged and we cared the most, has been always our customers. We have been focusing on serving foods for local customers.”

Today, its main customers are still wholesalers doing business in this town. “80 per cent of our customers are wholesalers who are doing business here. They use us for lunch, dinner, or business entertainments. The rest of 20 per cent are from other cities - they usually come to us for business entertainment,” says Takeuchi. Recently, many of wholesalers left here or went out of business, and its old customer base is shrinking. However, Takeuchi does not think about moving to other place.

Takeuchi says repeatedly that Uojyu does not have technique or other things to preserve. “But it does not mean we care less on taste. We try to give Yedo taste to foods as much as possible.” Yedo, currently Tokyo, people like strong taste, and Uojyu tries to keep it. Another thing Takeuchi also takes care is how to arrange each food in a box. Usually, Uojyu serves foods with a wooden, food box, which is called "Jyu Bako," in Japanese. Takeuchi places each food tightly in the food box, because of Yedo tradition - Yedo people liked the way foods servied with less space in the box.

“We are always prioritize customer’s demand. My predecessor said not to think about business expansion but think about customers. These days, some wholesalers left the town or went out of business. Uojyu’s customer base is changing. After wholesalers left, condominium buildings are built in vacant lands. Residents of these condos are coming to have lunch or dinner at Uojyu. Types of customer changed, but customer is customer. These customers do not cook at home, so Uojyu lined up home-style dishes in its menu for them."

Carrying over Kippu from Generation to Generation

Like other Japanese traditional businesses, Uojyu experienced two disastrous events: Kanto Great Earthquake and Second World War.

Essentially, Yedo people liked to have a good Kippu, behaving smart and graciously. They liked to help others in trouble. As mentioned above, it was said that Yedo people spent all of their money they earned within the day, and they never left money for tomorrow. This means they did their best in the day, and next day they did their another best. Uojyu succeeded such "Kippu" mind that Edo people preserved.

When the Great Earthquake hit the Kanto Plane, Uojyu’s storage house was burnt. The area around Uojyu became burnt ruins, and many people were soon in trouble to spend daily life. Seeing such situation, the 11th owner thought the recovery could not be done without foods.

In order to help local people recover from the disaster, the 11th served foods to the local people. Uojyu prepared whatever they could get, including rice ball or anything. Then local people went to Uojyu because there was a rumor that “You can get food at Uojyu.” It was a big help for them to recover from the damange which the earthquake gave.

“I heard that my grandfather thought to provide foods to help local people and contribute to rebuilding this town. He even hired actors as a dish-washer because theaters were burnt and they did not have job. He had a really good Kippu,” says Takeuchi.

As well as other traditional businesses Shinise, another big challenge for Uojyu was the post-Second World War. “After the war, my parents experienced difficult days. The parents had raise six kids, including me. When I returned the evacuation, our building was burned completely. Most difficult thing was that every dishes and plates were also burnt. Without this, we could not to anything. We had some deposits, but the value of money dove down rapidly. My father was adopted by my mother’s family and he felt enormous pressure not to stop Uojyu’s business. Since he was not biological successor, he strongly felt to do something for Uojyu."

Recently, Takeuchi had a chance to chat with her successor, 15th owner, about the taste of Uojyu and its history. "We agreed it's important to meet demand of customers, however, it is not good to change our taste too much. We should preserve our history and tradition. We are now studying Yedo Cuisine. One important thing is, whatever happens, we are royal to customers, rather than taste and technique. This belief will not change. Our mission is to feed local people, whatever thing happens. This is the spirit of true-born Kippu.”

People lived in Yedo era were said to be gourmet, and there were many restaurants or caterings in the city of Yedo. Out of them, very few are still running its business today, unfortunately. Uojyu is one of few precious exceptions. "After my father, my old brother took over the business. However, he died in his young day. My role is to bring my brother’s will to his son and connect the two. I’m just running this restaurant just because I want to continue and connect to the next generation,” Takeuchi continues.

When Takeuchi talked with her mother, the two always concluded what they took over was not taste or technique, but customer. “The happiest thing for us is to get good comments from costumers, for example,I enjoyed dinner/lunch very much and I will come back again." However, the words which really satisfied Uojyu must be, "Oh, you have a good Kippu, as ever," from customer.

 
     
 
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