Bobby Okamura, one of the owners of Benkyodo, still works long hours at the 115-year-old mochi shop. (Anna Mindess)
sea of little bottles in aqua, pink and seafoam green line the long bar of On the Bridge in San Francisco Japantown. Chef Mitsuhiro Nakamura is proud of his ability to choose the perfect sake from his collection to match the taste of any diner. But when the shelter in place started last spring, the restaurant Nakamura and his wife Yolanda had run for 30 years immediately lost 90 percent of its business due to its location on the narrow, enclosed bridgeway connecting the Japan Center's West Mall and Kinokuniya building.
Without direct street access, On the Bridge was literally marooned.
San Francisco's Japantown, as a whole, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Several businesses have permanently closed, and those located in the malls have been in the toughest spots, in part due to a rent dispute with the Japan Center landlords. Still, legacy businesses like On the Bridge and the 115-year-old mochi shop Benkyodo have managed to keep their doors open in spite of the challenges of the pandemic—even as their owners head into their 70s.
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For On the Bridge, the restaurant’s 85 different sakes and 27 Japanese beers (plus people’s pandemic thirst for alcohol) provided a lifeline to allow the Nakamuras to hold on and slowly inch their way back.
Besides describing the restaurant's physical location in the mall, the name “On the Bridge” also represents the link that its yoshoku style dishes make between Japanese and European cuisines. Chef Nakamura says he was the first Bay Area chef to specialize in this style of fusion cooking, which traces its roots back to 1868, when Emperor Meiji first welcomed Western ideas as helpful for Japan’s progress. Some non-Japanese diners may be unfamiliar with yoshoku’s comforting standbys, but these are the dishes that Japanese mothers often make for their children: curries, cutlets, Japanese-style hamburgers, omu-rice (omelet stuffed with fried rice) and fish roe–studded spaghettis.
At On the Bridge, Yolanda Nakamura says, many first-time customers don’t know what to make of the menu: “They sit down at the long wooden counter and ask ‘Where’s the sushi?’ When I tell them we have none, they say, ‘I thought in Japan everyone eats sushi, tempura and teriyaki—not spaghetti!’ Often, they walk out.”
Curries, in particular, are chef Nakamura’s specialty. “Curry is very hard to make,” Yolanda says. “Chef makes it from scratch, and it takes three to four days of slow cooking. Sometimes younger customers say, ‘I could make that much quicker with a mix.’ If the chef heard that, he would get upset, so I just push my husband away.”
When the pandemic closed the mall, the restaurant’s new reliance on delivery apps and social media presented a big challenge for the Nakamuras. Luckily, their daughter Emi, 29, was able to help hook them up. But a more difficult problem was that since both entrances to the mall were closed, when a delivery app driver arrived, either the chef or Yolanda had to run downstairs—sometimes both of them, one to each entrance. The couple couldn’t leave the restaurant unattended, so eventually they hired back one of their employees to help.
Each of the three times On the Bridge was allowed to reopen for indoor dining, alcohol was one of the bestsellers. Customers would sit down for a drink while waiting for a table at another restaurant. After dinner, they’d return for another round. The Nakamuras are cautiously hopeful now, as business seems to be picking up.
Even in the early weeks of the pandemic, when days went by with no sales, Yolanda says, “My husband was determined not to quit. He does it for the pleasure of cooking, not for the money. He’s 70, but not ready to retire.”
“I’ll be here until my body doesn’t move anymore,” chef Nakamura says. “My job is to spread the love of sake.”
tuff, roll, pinch. That’s the mantra for handmade mochi. Ricky and Bobby Okamura, the owners of Benkyodo, repeat that process over 1,000 times a day, wrapping smooth rice flour skin around dollops of sweet bean paste five days a week for over 30 years now. Benkyodo itself has an even longer history: Open since 1906, the 115-year-old mochi shop is Japantown’s oldest business.
Even the COVID-19 crisis couldn’t completely halt the mochi production line. Like a vintage engine, with fits and starts, it stopped, but eventually started up again.
“The pandemic was hard for us,” Bobby Okamura says. “We had to close for two and a half months.” Pre-COVID, the brothers made about 1,500 pieces of mochi and manju a day in 15 different flavors. Now, that figure is down to around 1,000 pieces in 7 to 10 flavors.
The narrow space on Buchanan Street is about the size of a BART car. Across from the mochi display cases, there’s a low, diner-style lunch counter with red stools that has not changed for 50 years, where regulars would gather daily for coffee and catching up. But no more: With COVID guidelines, only two customers are allowed in the shop at a time—cash only, as has always been the case. Business is way down on weekdays, the Okamuras say, but Fridays and Saturdays often see a line of customers waiting in the plaza.
“We could make [the mochi] by machine,” concedes Bobby, shaking his head. He’s now 66 and works from 7am to 4pm. “But all the pieces would look exactly the same, without the texture from being handmade. Ours have a unique taste, texture and look.”
Ricky, who is 70 and works from 5am to noon, puts it simply: “This is not easy work.”
“Mochi is very important to the community,” explains Alice Kawahatsu, a third-generation Japanese American who has brought visitors to Benkyodo on her Japantown Tasting Tour with Edible Excursions for the past 10 years. “It plays an essential role in several holidays, especially New Year's. And it’s the perfect gift when visiting someone’s home.”
The sweets are traditionally filled with red or white bean paste, but the Okamuras have added a few innovations, incorporating seasonal fruit such as strawberries, blueberries or mango.
Suyeichi Okamura, Ricky and Bobby’s grandfather, opened the original Benkyodo storefront in 1906, a few blocks away on Geary. Suyeichi is the one who coined the name Benkyodo, Bobby explains. He chose a word that means “affordable” to reassure community members that they could shop there comfortably. Suyeichi also penned the store’s motto: “Confections that win affections.”
In 1942, Bobby and Ricky’s grandparents and father were sent to an internment camp in Amache, Colorado. Suyeichi asked his Chinese neighbor to watch over his store while he was gone—which he did. His son, Hirofumi—Bobby and Ricky's father—who was a teenager at the time, met his future wife, Sue, in the camp. They lived in that harsh and desolate place for three years, not knowing if their home and business would be there when they returned. Luckily, they were.
That history resonates with Kawahatsu, the Japantown tour guide, whose own mother and grandparents were incarcerated in Tule Lake. “The first and second generation sacrificed so much so that we could be here today to continue to share our rich history, stories and food with our families and others who visit and want to learn more about Japanese arts and food. There is a sense of obligation, but also a pride in our rich heritage.”
The start of the pandemic in 2020 marked only the second time in its 115-year history that Benkyodo has had to close. Internment wasn't able to kill the business. So far, it doesn't look like COVID will be able to either.
For the Okamura brothers, the store has always been part of their lives, as they lived with their family in an apartment upstairs. But their father didn’t force them to take over the store, they point out. (“It was an option,” Bobby says.) Now, after years of speculation swirling around the community about whether Benkyodo will be sold or closed, Bobby and Ricky have finally decided to retire at the end of the year. They are actively negotiating with possible buyers. “Our strong preference would be for a family member,” says Bobby.
If the Okamuras aren’t able to find a buyer, it would be a huge loss to the Bay Area’s Japanese American community, Kawahatsu says. “No other place compares to its delicious confections or its rich history and legacy.”
Despite the long hours and physical demands of their work, Bobby says, “We have been happy to serve our community and glad that people enjoy what we make.”
On the Bridge is open at 1581 Webster Street #206 in San Francisco, Monday–Wednesday noon–7 pm and Friday and Saturday noon–9pm (closed Thursday). 415-922-7765.
Benkyodo is open at 1747 Buchanan Street inSan Francisco, Tuesday–Saturday 9am–4:00pm. 415-922-1244, cash only.
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