Interview
2020.08.19

Setting Down Roots in the Community to Broadcast the Appeal of His Hometown: The Community Created by Omusubi Rice Ball Stand “ANDON” and How it Connects the City and Countryside

Setting Down Roots in the Community to Broadcast the Appeal of His Hometown: The Community Created by Omusubi Rice Ball Stand “ANDON” and How it Connects the City and Countryside

ANDON is an omusubi rice ball restaurant opened in 2017, which makes and serves omusubi using Akita Prefecture rice during the day, as well as Akita sake by night. Located at the crossroads of the Gokaido highways that connected medieval Japan, the Nihonbashi area is dotted with showrooms that broadcast the charms of regional cities. As one such business, ANDON seeks to convey the charms of Akita primarily through food, and also features a book store, event space, and more on its upper levels. It has won over the people of the area as a community space that generates interactions between diverse people. For this issue, we spoke with ANDON’s representative – Mr. Masahiro Takeda – about his feelings on their journey so far and for his origins in Akita, as well as what sort of communities should connect cities with other regions, all as ANDON has just opened its second establishment inside the new “BONUS TRACK” commercial facility in Shimokitazawa.

I want to share the rice from my home prefecture, Akita

-First, what was the process that led you to open ANDON?

I moved to Tokyo from Akita in order to get a job at a game company, then saw the place I was from becoming a ghost town around age 24, and wanted to do something on Akita’s behalf. Then I started selling Akita vegetables at an Aoyama farmer’s market as a volunteer, and that made me want to learn more about agriculture, so I visited 100 farmers in Akita over a three-month period while working in Tokyo. Over that period, I was shocked to find out that the rice various farmers grow is blended after they ship it to JA, and formed the “Tora-o” (phonetically “tiger man”) manly tractor-farming group with three young farmers in Akita, in order to sell single-grower Akita rice. I started selling their rice online and at events all over Tokyo each month, and attracted a number of customers that grew steadily. Then we started to want a fixed location in Tokyo to publicize our products from, which gave us the idea for an omusubi restaurant where rice was the star ingredient.

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“Tora-o,” a group of three professional Akita farmers, formed to work to expand sales channels and reform logistics for young rice farmers as the number of farmers in Japan continues to decline(Image from website)

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Mr. Takeda held regular events all over Tokyo to allow guests to sample single-grower rice from Tora-o(Image from Facebook)

-Why did you open ANDON in Nihonbashi?

It started with an introduction to a property in Nihonbashi via Mr. Hiroyuki Ono, a longstanding acquaintance of mine and co-representative of ANDON. Since ANDON is located along the route of the old Nikko Kaido highway, itself, it’s at the start of the Gokaido highway that links the city of Nihonbashi with other regions, and it felt like a nice story of “taking omusubi rice balls along at the start of a journey.”

-What’s the origin of the restaurant’s name?

Just like how the name for the closest station – “Kodenmacho” – is drawn from the Edo-era system of “denma” transport horses that would carry baggage for people visiting from all over via the highways, this area used to be a vibrant place that served as the entryway to Tokyo for people. Furthermore, ANDON’s location -Nihonbashi - used to be a central location, as its name implies, and the city once went completely dark when the power was off in the offices, with the commercial area on the other side of Showa-dori street. That said, this area also has a lot of longstanding, established businesses, and a lot of people are proud that this is the heart of Nihonbashi. That’s precisely why we wanted to shine a spotlight on this city, with it losing its original nature, and so we went with the name ANDON (“paper lantern” in Japanese).

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“ANDON,” an omusubi rice ball stand located in a renovated home in an office area a two-minute walk from Kodenmacho Station, and also a short distance from Nihonbashi’s commercial area(Image provided by:ANDON)

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ANDON serves “neo-sushi restaurant-style” omusubi squeezed to order with freshly-prepared rice as a form of live entertainment(Image provided by:ANDON)

Building a restaurant to suit the region’s needs

-Aside from the omusubi stand on the first floor, ANDON also has a book store on its second floor, and an event space on its third floor. What made you decide on that format for the business?

This neighborhood had a strong image as an office complex, so at first I just wanted to build a restaurant. But when I actually visited, I realized there were a lot of people that actually lived in Nihonbashi, too. That made me want to go with a multi-functional space that also incorporated elements like reading and learning instead of just food, in order to make it easy for residents to drop in, just like it is for workers in the area.

-What sort of people actually come to the restaurant, now that it’s there?

We see everyone from workers in the offices around us to residents of the area, as well as people who come to Nihonbashi from other areas because they know our staff. We’re a small restaurant, which means that people who sit at the bar get to know each other fairly quickly. Currently, Nihonbashi residents, workers, and outsiders are all mixing at the restaurant, and that sometimes leads to new projects and so forth. Furthermore, we’ve also held a fairly high number of events up to this point. For example, we’ve done things from full-facility events where guests listen to a farmer speak on the third floor, learn about how to prepare rice from a rice dealer on the second floor, and then make their own omusubi together on the first floor, all the way to talk shows where we invite authors, local producers, and so forth. The events draw a wide range of customer demographics, and I feel like we’ve formed a diverse community around the restaurant.

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ANDON hosts frequent events, inviting growers from all over Japan, local business representatives, notable authors, and more(Image from Facebook)

-You started out selling Akita rice, and before you knew it you had expanded into building a community, then?

Yes. Having a restaurant seems to bring you into the community, and it’s important to blend in fully and become a presence that community needs. We worked to build a restaurant that would suit the region’s needs rather than just communicating about Akita as a region or pushing our rice. I feel that that’s precisely what we call a local business.

The Shimokitazawa restaurant, opened during the coronavirus pandemic

-You opened a second restaurant in Shimokitazawa this April. This time, the theme is “okayu rice porridge and sake,” isn’t it?

This also ties into the topic about becoming a presence the region needs, and our second restaurant lies on the road that connects Shimokitazawa Station with Setagaya-Daita Station. We anticipated a lot of people passing by as they commute, so we wanted to serve breakfast for people on their way to the station. That said, it’s another small restaurant, so takeout-friendly food would be ideal, and that meant replacing our usual omusubi with okayu rice porridge – a staple breakfast in Asia. We went further and also serve sake at night, so it’s a warm, reassuring place any time you visit.

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We hear that the Shimokitazawa restaurant launched after a representative from Odakyu Electric Railway – the business operating BONUS TRACK – visited ANDON in Nihonbashi shortly after its opening(Image provided by:ANDON)

-This restaurant is also quite distinct in being in the middle of a residential area, as compared to the Nihonbashi restaurant and its location in an office area.

That’s true. Right now people can’t visit from outside the area due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, eliminating most distance between us and local residents. Even though we’ve only been open a few months, our clientele is already heavy on regular customers (laughter). Also, unlike Nihonbashi, a lot of people walk their dogs in the evening in this area, so we noticed that the day after opening. First we created sampler omusubi for dogs, and found they sold well from day three onward.

-That’s impressive! You must be quite observant, and good at following through on things.

I think that might be what it means to blend into an area. We even have dogs as regular customers, now (laughter).

02

-You mentioned that you opened the restaurant during the peak of the spread of the novel coronavirus. How did you feel about that?

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what the right move was as I prepared, but the residents in the area also had high hopes for BONUS TRACK as a facility, and I felt that they might need a restaurant for takeout when they headed out for a walk or similar, precisely because it’s a residential area. So we went ahead as planned, and opened on April 1st. Despite initially only offering takeout and reduced hours when we actually opened, we got a full 1200 customers in our first month.

-Strangely, I get the feeling that being vital to the community is becoming more and more important to restaurants and bars, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Consumption will be more active in walkable ranges going forward, and I suspect that so-called “walkable economic areas” will get time in the spotlight. The important thing for a restaurant in that scenario is being in a location people can walk to each day, so I always want the restaurant to be fresh and have something new going on whenever anyone visits. I’ve challenged myself to do something new once every two or three days, lately, so our restaurant menus are growing steadily (laughter). The new “refreshing dish” of chilled hiyashi-men noodles we’ve been serving in Shimokitazwa lately was prompted by a customer asking for noodles given the hot weather. We also deliver rice within a 200-meter radius of the restaurant, and we’re very conscious of working to win over the people who live near us.

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In addition to using Akita-grown “Tora-o rice,” the restaurant also serves savory umami-rich okayu rice porridge made using dashi broth from renowned Akita Chinai-dori chickens(Image provided by:ANDON)

A new form of “regional publicity”

-Is there anything you’re thinking of at the same time, to make “Omusubi Stand ANDON” even more fondly regarded in its region, after blending in fully with the residents and workers?

I want to continue properly serving the workers in the area with lunch, going forward, but with events being difficult to hold right now, we’re also considering changing how we use our second and third floors. For example, we could make the third floor into a massage and chiropractic floor, so people could come in and ease their aches and fatigue, then have something delicious to eat on the first floor before leaving. That would make it a place for physical and mental energy recovery, and we want to improve our function in that regard to change in a way that suits the era, little by little. Also, since the number of intriguing establishments in the Kodenmacho neighborhood has been on the rise lately, we’re working to shift from interesting points to an area that’s interesting across the board. I want to do something to energize the entire city.

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After closing for a while in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, ANDON omusubi stand reopened on July 6th in Nihonbashi, and now works to combat infection using ventilation, alcohol sanitization, and masks worn by employees(Image from Facebook)

-Nihonbashi is dotted with showroom-type shops representing regions all over Japan. How do you feel it’s going, sharing the appeal of Akita through the restaurant?

Since we began as a Nihonbashi restaurant and had a strong drive to give people a natural sense of Akita through our overall atmosphere, we deliberately don’t bring up Akita on our own. I felt that it was somehow unappealing to say “this is an Akita home-cooking style restaurant” or “we’re a showroom-type restaurant that broadcasts the appeal of Akita,” at any point. But given that I manage the Shimokitazawa restaurant myself, I tend to explain all sorts of things fully, which means we ended up fully announcing the restaurant is “promoting Akita.” (Laughter) But speaking about Akita here, I can sense the customers enjoying it. That made me want to share more from our side even at the Nihonbashi restaurant, and I think it would be great to have more fans of Akita in both Setagaya and Nihonbashi.

-I can sense some potential that conventional showroom-type venues lack, in ANDON, with its process of blending into the region and sharing the appeal of your hometown to a community you know.

ANDON’s menu includes “bodakko” marinated salmon, “damako soup,” and other Akita home-cooked meals, but just hearing that doesn’t tell people much about what they are (laughter). Still, our regular customers are used to ordering “one bodakko,” which amazes me each day. I put those on the menu partially out of a desire to hear customers use Akita dialect, and I think it’s quite important that they’re using words they never knew before. Also, I often say that “omusubi are a medium.” I think it would be great to gather and spotlight delicious ingredients from all over Japan – not just from Akita and not just at this restaurant – using omusubi as a medium to convey their appeals when we put the ingredients inside the rice balls.

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ANDON offers customers the chance to discover Akita ingredients and dishes like “bodakko” (salted Akita salmon), “iburi-gakko” (fermented, pickled daikon radish), and more(Image from Instagram)

A community connected with the region, from a location in the city

-You’re also working on a project called “Share Village,” Mr. Takeda. It aims to refurbish old homes in the town of Gojome, Akita. Would you say that a major theme of your endeavors is in connecting the city with rural areas, even beyond sharing the appeal of the region in the city, like you do with ANDON?

Yes. The rate of population decline and aging in Akita is the highest of all prefectures in Japan, and with this incredible loss of population coming in the future, the area needs to connect with people elsewhere to survive. Being born in that sort of place and living in Tokyo now, I can act as a bridge between the two. I think it’s important to both share things about Akita from a base in Tokyo, and also return to Akita and attract people from other areas. I want to travel between the city and the countryside and create a community with a cycle in that regard, by letting people eat Akita rice at ANDON, then inviting them to try harvesting rice in Akita, for example.

-ANDON is also positioned as the “village hall” where villagers (members) of Share Village gather, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. And we’ve also seen the reverse, too, where regular customers at ANDON become Share Village members and visit Akita. There’s a lot of talk about promoting moves to all over Japan currently – not just Akita – and also about encouraging tourism, so each region is serenading people in its own way. But until now, the only option people had for a response involved visiting the region. However, there’s a pretty high barrier to entry against that, and I think it would be great if people had more opportunities to get involved with other regions even while living in the city. Share Village came out of a desire to allow for a “slow start” where people became “villagers” while still living in the city, so I want the community and space to stay a gateway that leads people toward visiting Akita even in the form of ANDON, and even to moving to Akita.

シェアビレッジ2

“Share Village” renovated an old home on the verge of demolition, in the town of Gojome, Akita. Anyone can become a villager for an annual “tribute” of ¥3000, and in addition to a variety of rural experiences and a place to stay on “returning home,” villagers are also treated to “yoriai” parties with drinks in the city, among other benefits. This unique system serves to create a community that links the city with the countryside(Image from website)

-I feel like there may be more spotlight on approaches and methods of helping people feel close to a specific region while still living in the city, or helping them support a region they love, especially with movement restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic right now.

Share Village aims to increase the number of people involved with the village, all over the nation, and to create a “village of a million people.” But over time, we’ve come to feel that the ideal community size would be about 100 people. This is also true of “Share Village Nio” in Kagawa Prefecture – which we temporarily paused due to the coronavirus pandemic – but I think we could build much stronger relationships between the city and countryside by creating structures of about 100 passionate supporters for each region, based in the city.

-Does it seem like the sudden, rapid spread of online communication tools could expand your possibilities even further?

I think so. With the Akita summer festivals cancelled completely this year due to the coronavirus, we’re planning to hold an event for enjoying Akita sake and cuisine this August at both ANDON establishments. We’ll be airing video of past “Kanto Festivals” and more, during the dining. Also, we’re offering calendars and other gifts showing Akita scenery alongside the rice and ingredients in the regular packages we send out for the online shopping website we started during the coronavirus pandemic. I want to be proactive in planning ways to experience Akita even without actually going there.

ネットショップ

ANDON’s online shop, “The Namahage-Mark Rice Store,” featuring the name of the Namahage figure from Japanese folklore. Focused primarily on scheduled sets that allow buyers to enjoy a variety of Akita ingredients and especially rice, the store also sells seaweed, miso, and other ingredients from the restaurant individually. It even streams online events through its “Namahage Shopping Channel.”(Image from website)

Interview and text: Yuki Harada (Qonversations) Photography: Daisuke Okamura

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