When the house owners of Benkyodo, the mochi and manju retailer that stood for 115 years within the coronary heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, introduced in Could 2021 that they intended to close the shop and retire, newspapers and group members decried the upcoming closure as a cornerstone of the Japanese American group misplaced.
“It was actually the place of us may make amends for the most recent information of the group, see outdated mates, and revel in a cup of espresso on the burnt orange counter,” says Eryn Kimura, an outdated household buddy of the house owners who spent the final six months of the shop’s run filming operations for a documentary. Kimura filmed house owners and brothers Ricky and Bobby Okamura arriving within the mild hours of the early morning to combine, pound, steam, and roll the treats by hand within the kitchen behind the shop, simply as their dad and mom did, and their grandparents earlier than. Kimura’s analysis revealed many tales that stretched again generations: One Japantown enterprise proprietor shared that her dad and mom had met at Benkyodo within the Fifties, Kimura stated. “Many people name it the grapevine of the group.”
Benkyodo’s closure announcement was adopted by lengthy traces of consumers that snaked down Sutter Road and would ultimately drape across the total block. The bold arrived as early as 11 p.m. the night time earlier than, outfitted with a tent to ensure themselves among the Japanese confections earlier than they offered out the subsequent day. “There additionally was one night time at 3 a.m. that these faculty college students had been ready in line they usually busted out with essentially the most legit sizzling pot set-up I’ve ever seen,” Kimura remembers. Benkyodo’s remaining day in enterprise was March 31, and it wasn’t the one long-running Japanese confectionary retailer to not too long ago shutter its doorways. In 2021, Mikawaya of Los Angeles, originator of the mochi ice-cream obtainable within the frozen dessert aisles in grocery shops close to you, closed their bodily retailer after 111 years of operation.
However the centenarian Japanese confectionery store isn’t extinct. Fugetsu-Do in Los Angeles turns 119 this yr, and the family-owned enterprise has no plans to give up. Nisshodo in Honolulu simply celebrated its a centesimal yr of operation; Kogetsu-Do in Fresno will have fun its 107th in September. Elsewhere within the American West, a youthful however nonetheless long-established era of confectionary shops are quietly working: Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose is sort of 70 and Osaka-ya Wagashi of Sacramento practically 60; Hogetsu Bakery in Chula Vista practically 40. Gardena, a sleepy hub of Japanese America within the southwest nook of Los Angeles county, is house to Chikara Mochi (37 years), and Sakuraya (62 years). Fujiya in Honolulu turns 70 subsequent yr.
Every of those locations promote mochi, manju, and different palm-sized treats conventional to Japan — collectively referred to as wagashi. Mochi is an immeasurably mushy, doughy confection made from candy rice flour combined with water after which pounded collectively. At confectionary shops, mochi is folded in with sugar and wrapped round bean paste to type a spherical, supple ball. Mochi performs a central function in lots of Japanese festivities. On the most important of them — New Years — dollops of mochi are dropped right into a bowl of soup. Within the springtime, mochi cloaked in cherry or oak leaves are shared for Women’ and Kids’s Day celebrations. Manju, in the meantime, is made with wheat flour, full of bean paste, after which steamed. In conventional tea ceremonies, wagashi are offered with a bowl of matcha from host to visitor.
However the centuries-old custom that’s wagashi has advanced its personal roots in America in flavors, shapes, and customs unseen in up to date Japan. In Hawaii, trays of mochi are given away as wedding favors, and butter mochi — rice flour mixed with butter, coconut milk, eggs, and sugar after which baked — reigns at potlucks. The milk-infused chichi dango can also be given away for springtime celebrations. Sq., fruit-flavored mochi is a typical sight in American confectionary shops.
Linda Nakatani, the proprietor of Sacramento’s Osaka-ya, took over operations of the shop her dad and mom began in 1963. She sells conventional confections, however “the youthful era doesn’t care as a lot for the beans,” she says, “so we have now mochi crammed with peanut butter, chocolate ganache.” Osaka-ya additionally sells sushi, rice balls, spam musubi, and within the punishing Sacramento summers places the shaved-ice machine to make use of, drizzling snow cones with home made syrups and condensed milk.
The outlets, like their wares, are typically small and timeless. A glass case or two shows lacquered trays holding neat rows of mochi and manju. Behind the counter or on the opposite facet of the room may be cabinets cluttered with Japanese candies and crackers and collectible figurines. On the counter will be bins of tea or prepackaged mochi, within the nook possibly a fridge of ice lotions or chilled drinks or a hibernating shaved-ice machine, and most all the time a doorway within the again that results in the mysteries of the kitchen.
Lynn Ikeda is the third-generation proprietor of the 107-year-old Kogetsu-Do in Fresno’s Chinatown. Her grandparents had been among the many 120,000 Japanese Americans pressured by the U.S. authorities to go away their properties and companies throughout World Warfare II for distant jail camps throughout the nation. Throughout internment, her grandparents rented out their enterprise and the constructing to Chinese language neighbors, thus avoiding the lack of property that befell many others.
Her grandfather, Ikeda says, continued to make mochi even within the camps. “He would make everybody depart the kitchen in order that he may maintain onto the recipe,” Ikeda says. The recipe stays a household secret to today.
Ikeda’s household wasn’t alone in weathering assaults on the Japanese group and its companies. In San Francisco alone there have been “three, now 4, waves of pressured removing: exclusion legal guidelines of the Victorian period, World Warfare II incarceration, redevelopment of the Nineteen Sixties, and the hyper-gentrification of the 2010s,” Kimura factors out. Ikeda and Nakatani credit score the devotion of their speedy communities, and the need of consumers to cross down traditions by way of their households, as a part of what stored their companies going. “The purchasers imply so much to me,” Ikeda says. “To me they’re the center of the enterprise.” Then there was the pandemic. Within the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns, Nakatani stated that she needed to lay off all her employees besides her two sons. She threw away at the least 500 items of mochi and manju a day.
Whereas enterprise is best as of late, it’s nonetheless grueling work working a small meals enterprise that depends on bodily craft. Making mochi generally is a multiday affair; the rice soaks for eight hours earlier than being cooked in a course of the place the water should be modified continually. Nakatani says she will simply put in 18 hours on her busiest days. Her son as soon as put in 36 hours straight, stealing hour-long naps at the back of the shop.
“Having a manju store takes a variety of work, and time. It has to come back from the center, actually,” Ikeda says.
Group appears to be the important thing to the wagashi retailer’s lengthy life. Wagashi will be stunning — colourful, jewel-like, formed into flowers or fruit — or spectacularly unassuming, rolled in soybean powder or eaten plain, able to being swallowed in two bites. However a tray of mochi and manju most all the time comes on the pauses of time the place the nice issues in life occur: a small celebration, the gathering of household or mates. It has the markings true to all the best of meals — handmade, scrumptious, conventional with out being unique, infinitely adaptable, and filled with recollections. It’s arduous to not see why it will get handed down from outdated to new.
Immediately in Sacramento, Nakatani’s two sons David and Yoshio Murakami assist run the enterprise.
“I inform my youngsters, if one thing occurs to me and I die, neglect my funeral, simply be sure you get the purchasers’ orders crammed,” she laughs. “I do know it’s morbid, however I don’t wish to wreck their holidays.”
Ikeda additionally has no plans to retire but. “I simply plan to do that for so long as I can, so long as I’ve my well being.”
Kimura acknowledges the bittersweet lack of Benkyodo with gratitude for the Okamuras. “Again within the day, they was once open seven days per week, waking up at 2 a.m. to start out manju-making till about 4 p.m. Think about,” she says. “I’m so joyful they get to relaxation, to spend time with their household and grandchildren, to sleep in, and to experience the truth that they’re certainly their grandparents’ wildest desires in type.”
For now, within the outdated and new, the dream continues.