A Homesick Hawai‘i Student Find a Home Away From Home in Yokohama
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
At 86 years of age, Kei Komuro may just be the busiest retiree in Yokohama. Between running his okonomiyaki shop and cooking up the savory Japanese pancake four days a week, swimming laps at a local sports club, visiting his great-grandchildren in Kamakura on weekends and making time to eat dinner with his girlfriend, Komuro rarely has a minute to spare.
I first met Kei Komura, whom I call “Ojisan,” in October 2016. Having dreamt of studying abroad since high school, I was thrilled to be spending my junior year as an exchange student at Keio University’s Mita Campus. I arrived in Tökyö in September and spent my first month exploring the city with new friends, attending school orientations and dorm welcome parties and settling into my exciting new life in Tökyö. But by October, the inevitable homesickness started to seep in as I began to understand the reality of living abroad. I dreaded the hour-long commute to school from my dorm in Hiyoshi. I was done fighting weekend crowds in Harajuku. And, worst of all, it hit me that I wasn’t going to see my family for another five months.
I remembered that my friend Tulsi, who had lived in my dorm a year earlier, had mentioned an okonomiyaki shop across the street that was owned by a nice old man. The shop was called Hiroshima-fu Okonomiyaki Ju~ Ju~. After passing the shop countless times, I finally decided to go in and try it one October night.
Several college students were already seated at the counter when I came through the door. The counter could only accommodate about seven people comfortably. It felt cramped, but cozy. I later learned that the restaurant was a small extension of the first floor of Ojisan’s house.
“Irasshaimase! . . .” Ojisan called out, quickly handing me a menu. He was in the process of working on several orders when I decided on mine: the mini green onion okonomiyaki with soba. I watched in awe as he crafted a pancake out of batter, cabbage, bean sprouts, thinly sliced pork and tenkasu (tempura scraps) on the grill. He placed the pancake on a bed of fried soba noodles and an egg, topping it off with a handful of green onions and Otafuku okonomiyaki sauce. I chatted with Ojisan for a bit about being a gosei, a fifth-generation Japanese American, in Hawai‘i, although I mostly enjoyed my food quietly. I went home that evening feeling full and content.
I visited Ju~ Ju~ again a few weeks later, on Halloween. The shop was packed. Ojisan asked if I wanted to help. I happily agreed and joined him behind the grill, learning how to make okonomiyaki, serving water, preparing complimentary yogurt desserts and chatting with customers. From that day on, I made a point of visiting the restaurant at least once a week to help with the dinner rush.
Ojisan continued to coach me on how to make Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which requires several steps. “Joozu, joozu,” he praised me when I remembered the correct order of ingredients, or flipped the pancake without letting its contents spill out. When I made mistakes, he simply laughed it off. “Maa, ii ya (it’s fine, don’t worry about it),” he said. I started volunteering at the shop so often that Ojisan started calling me his deshi, or apprentice. But I wasn’t there solely to learn how to make a perfect okonomiyaki. I enjoyed speaking with the customers, who varied in age, gender, ethnicity and occupation. From college students to working people in the neighborhood, a mother helping her son move into his new apartment, even elderly ladies looking to share a late-night snack with someone, Ju~ Ju~ attracted a range of customers . . . Reiko and Chanakya, a couple in their thirties living in the neighborhood; Tora, a shy high school student; and Josep, a classmate in my Japanese cinema course, were regulars at the time. Chanakya and I took turns behind the grill, so Ojisan could relax. I looked forward to meeting everyone at the shop every week, where we talked late into the night about the mundane events in our daily lives.
I also looked forward to long chats with Ojisan when the dinner rush slowed. They were the times when I learned about his life.
Ojisan was born in Shenyang in northeast China on Aug. 10, 1932, (Showa 7) and moved to Changchun City, also in the northeast, before he started school. As a child, he enjoyed reading books, cooking and collecting insects. Ojisan recalled that winters in Changchun were so cold that his schoolyard froze into a skating rink. During World War II, Soviet, Chinese and Manchurian armed forces fought in the vicinity of his house, making it dangerous to live in China any longer. In 1946, Ojisan and his family left Changchun and returned to Japan.
Ojisan rarely spoke about his wife, whom he married when they were both 26 years old. One day, he told me that she had passed away a long time ago.
After returning to Japan, Ojisan studied fiber sciences at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and started a career in industrial chemical research, which he continued until he retired. His wife died when she was 64 years old, just as Ojisan retired.
A few years later, a woman from his church who was 15 years his junior proposed to him. His second wife was from Hiroshima. They opened Ju~ Ju~ together on Ojisan’s 67th birthday on Aug. 10, 1999. Eventually, they separated and she returned to her hometown. Ojisan, however, realized that he could run the shop on his own and decided to stay open.
Religion has played a big part in Ojisan’s adult life; he and his family are devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — his son-in-law is a bishop in Kamakura. Ojisan told me that he has been to the Hawai‘i Temple in Läie approximately 10 times. In November, he invited me to his home to join his church choir group for their monthly get-together. Ojisan and the members cooked up a feast: tonjiru (miso soup with pork and vegetables), takikomi gohan (seasoned rice with vegetables and meat) and white takuan. It was the first time I’d eaten a home-cooked meal since arriving in Japan.
Ojisan eventually introduced me to his girlfriend, whom I call “Obasan.” Obasan is 11 years younger than Ojisan and always chuckles at the word “girlfriend,” saying she’s too old for such a title. She lives nearby with her daughter and grandchildren, but comes to cook dinner with Ojisan nearly every night. On the day after New Year’sº, Obasan told me to invite my boyfriend, Kendrick, to the shop. She served us delicious bowls of ozöni soup and dressed me in her pale lavender kimono. Ojisan lent Kendrick his happi coat and the two of us walked to a nearby shrine for a New Year’s blessing. Ojisan and Obasan provided two kids from Hawai‘i a family with whom to spend the holidays. It’s a gift I’ll never forget.
As I spent more time at Ju~ Ju~, I felt my confidence increase at school. The loneliness and homesickness that hit me in October had faded away. I started making more friends; going on trips to Aomori, Fukuoka and Hong Kong; and I genuinely felt happier. But Ju~ Ju~ remained my home base, a home away from home where I could always stop in for a meal, a chat and a smile.
When it was finally time for me to return to Hawai‘i in July, I had mixed feelings. I was excited about seeing my family again, but I was sad to leave Ojisan and Obasan, who had become my family there in Yokohama when I so needed a family. I vowed to return one day and gave them one last hug, fighting back tears.
I kept my promise and visited the restaurant, unannounced, eight months later, in March 2018. Ojisan and Obasan were surprised to see me and told me it was good that I hadn’t come earlier. Ojisan had been admitted to the hospital. He was better now, but it was scary to think that I wouldn’t know if he had fallen ill. Fortunately, Ojisan had gotten an iPhone in the meantime, so we exchanged numbers and continue to keep in touch by texting each other.
This past March, I took a solo trip to Tökyö and visited Ju~ Ju~ every day that they were open. Ojisan, Obasan and I worked together in the shop until closing, then enjoyed ice cream filled-taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes), popsicles and other sweet treats. I was surprised that my hands remembered how to make okonomiyaki as I worked alongside Ojisan, just like old times.
One night, a customer asked how we were related. “Mago,” Ojisan said with a smile. “Hawai no mago (my granddaughter from Hawai‘i).” We laughed and went back to working the grill. The customer looked back and forth between us. “Kankei wakaranai (I still don’t understand how you’re related)!” he said.
Ojisan said he plans to retire and close Ju~ Ju~ before the 2020 Olympics. His legs tire more easily these days, so it’s hard for him to stay on his feet. Obasan and I tried to suggest other alternatives: How about renting out the grill to students who want to use it as a party space? How about opening fewer days a week? “Yamete wa hoshikunai ne (It’s not that I want to quit),” Ojisan said. “Ja, orimpiku made ganbare ne (Well, keep persevering till the Olympics, then),” Obasan cheered.
Since completing my study abroad program two years ago, I’ve kept in touch with Ojisan more than I have with friends I made who are my own age. We still text each other every few weeks about what’s going on in Japan and on O‘ahu. I’m planning to visit Ojisan and Obasan again in July.
Whenever I go back to Ju~ Ju~, I spend lots of time perusing the visitor scrapbooks that Ojisan has amassed over the years. He keeps them on the shelves of the shop. You see, part of the Ju~ Ju~ experience involves getting your picture taken by Ojisan and creating a scrapbook page with that picture. Ojisan estimates that 30,000 customers from more than 60 countries have visited Ju~ Ju~ since 1999. The colorful pages are filled with happy messages, such as, “Yappari Kei san ga tsukutta okonomiyaki ga sekai de ichiban (Kei-san’s okonomiyaki is the best in the world)!” The messages are written in English, Japanese, French, Chinese and some languages that I don’t even recognize, But the message is clear: Everyone who visits Ju~ Ju~ loves Ojisan and his okonomiyaki.
This past March, Ojisan pulled out a binder I had never seen before. It was labeled “Amerikajin no Ryuugakusei (American exchange students).” He smiled and pointed to a thick section with my name on it. “Kore zenbu ga Jakki da yo (These are all your pages),” he said.
My first scrapbook page starts on Oct. 14, 2016. I’m 20 years old and wearing a floor-length floral dress and black-rimmed glasses. As I flipped through the pages, memories of the restaurant and nights of long conversations with Ojisan and Obasan came rushing back to me. I remembered how alone I felt living in a big city until I met Ojisan, Obasan and the customers at Ju~ Ju~. I was overcome with a wave of gratitude that hit me all at once.
Ojisan may never understand the impact he has had on the thousands of exchange students who visited his restaurant. But he can know for sure that he made a huge difference in the life of one girl from Hawai‘i who was terribly homesick and in need of ‘ohana. Ojisan, arigatou!
Jackie Kojima currently works as a freelance writer and an assistant teacher in the After School Japanese Immersion program at Punahou School. Jackie, a gosei, developed a passion for studying Japanese in her middle school years. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international business and marketing with a minor in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa last year. In her free time, she enjoys singing, listening to podcasts and eating Korean food with her sister Jenny.