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Saturday, March 17, 2012
Tokyo eateries lend Tohoku a hand
By MAYA KANEKO
Tokyo restaurants have started giving their patrons a chance to support Tohoku reconstruction by serving up traditional food and drink from the region and buying produce from farmers and fishermen there.
An "izakaya" pub in the Ginza district, which used to specialize in traditional Akita Prefecture dishes, reopened in January as a nonprofit eatery based on the cuisine of badly hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
Meanwhile, an Italian restaurant that opened in late December in Chiyoda Ward's Jimbocho area is serving dishes with chicken and vegetables from a farm in Fukushima Prefecture and seafood from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, to support producers whose reputations have been tarnished by the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
The Ginza pub, called the Reconstruction Support Tavern, is the second of its kind.
The first opened in Sendai in September. All the profits, amounting to more than ¥1 million a month, will be donated to the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectural governments through late September, said Masahide Tateoka, the tavern's manager.
Masahiko Murakami, an Akita native and president of Akita-izakaya operator Dreamlink Co., came up with the idea of running nonprofit pubs to help his region, according to tavern manager Tateoka.
"We are proud to present a lineup of local sake from 96 breweries in the three prefectures. We've also invented unique dishes such as pizza and pasta using ingredients from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima," Tateoka said.
Groups of Tohoku natives now residing in Tokyo, as well as volunteers who have worked in the disaster zones, have flocked to the tavern, he said, adding that many of the eatery's employees are also from northeastern prefectures.
Three women in their 40s who got together at the tavern one night last month said they were thrilled to taste sake from the three prefectures and to listen to the music that is played at traditional festivals in Tohoku.
They were also impressed by the decor, which resembles a traditional house and includes such features as bamboo branches with strips of colorful paper bearing wishes for a swift postdisaster recovery. Bamboo branches are featured in Sendai's annual Tanabata star festival
The three women, colleagues at a nearby company, said they visited the tavern to enjoy a good meal while aiding disaster victims at the same time.
"We like drinking sake from the Tohoku region and often travel to hot springs resorts in the northeast. We want to contribute to the recovery efforts while having fun," said one of the women, who declined to be named.
A group of four men in their 60s, who used to frequent the original Akita-cuisine izakaya in Ginza, also said they decided to visit the remodeled tavern because it is now dedicated to supporting reconstruction efforts.
In Chiyoda Ward, however, the Italian restaurant Fujimizaka doesn't go out of its way to inform customers of its policy of using ingredients from Tohoku producers.
Takeshi Yokokawa, president of operator Willplanning Inc., said his main goal is to encourage other restaurateurs to follow suit.
"Unlike large restaurant-chain operators that buy ingredients through wholesalers, small restaurants like us maintain a face-to-face relationship with individual food producers," Yokokawa said.
"I felt that in our own way, we could help out farmers suffering amid consumer fears over contaminated produce. This is a different approach from big firms, which don't have such close ties with producers," he said.
The newly opened restaurant also recruited a 61-year-old chef from Chiba Prefecture who lost his job due to last March's calamities and whose house was damaged by the quake.
To set up the new restaurant, Yokokawa turned to a food company group that formed last June to promote produce and seafood from disaster-hit areas.
The group, Eat and Energize the East, has 35 member firms, including Kirin Brewery Co., major mayonnaise maker Kewpie Corp., and online organic food distributor Oisix Inc. It aims to match local producers with sales outlets outside the region, including restaurants, distributors and food retailers, by creating a database of local farming and fisheries businesses.
The group also advises food producers on additional steps to verify the safety of their products, on top of the central government's radiation tests on food.
Willplanning's Yokokawa said these additional steps guarantee the safety of ingredients purchased in Fukushima Prefecture and Ishinomaki in Miyagi.
Eat and Energize the East aims to generate about ¥20 billion in economic benefits over five years, by using its matching and consulting services to expand sales channels for local food producers who otherwise might risk going out of business.