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An East Bay Chef's Japanese New Year Meals Celebrate Intergenerational Joy

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Overhead view of wooden Japanese New Year's boxes filled with simmered chicken and root vegetables.
Chikuzenni, or simmered chicken with root vegetables, is one of the traditional dishes that chef Yuji Ishikata will be featuring in his Japanese New Year's pop-up. (Courtesy of J-Sei)

As a teenager growing up in the East Bay, Yuji Ishikata veered away from formal schooling. Instead, he gained his education by working at local restaurants and grocery stores, including Berkeley Bowl and Tokyo Fish Market. As a Yonsei — a fourth-generation Japanese American — that’s where he embraced his community of elders and peers while developing a love for culinary expression.

Now a chef with over 15 years of experience in the food industry, Ishikata is inviting others to experience the tight-knit traditions he was raised around. And for him, there’s nothing more representative of those traditions than Japanese New Year, which he’ll ring in with a one-day pop-up featuring dishes rooted in the childhood nostalgia and intergenerational joy inherent to the holiday.

“There’s so many different types of foods that represent different aspects of life in Japanese culture,” says Ishikata, who currently works as the Nutrition Program Chef at J-Sei, a senior-focused Asian American cultural center. “I remember those smells. These are things my grandma, aunties and uncles cooked every New Year. I want to modernize it and introduce it to anyone who wants food that represents the Japanese New Year with love and soul put into it.”

Chef in a baseball cap and a sleeve tattoo leans over a table of Japanese New Year's boxes that he's preparing.
Chef Yuji Ishikata cut his teeth in the food industry as an East Bay teen, working at places like Berkeley Bowl and Tokyo Fish Market. (J-Sei)

Ishikata recalls an open-door policy among older Japanese immigrants and Japanese American neighbors who would serve special holiday dishes for friends and guests as a way to start the calendar year with community, intention and gratitude. That’s the spirit Ishikata is bringing to his New Year’s pop-up, a collaboration with Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market that he’s calling “Oshogatsu Offering.

The menu will offer four meal options: an ozoni soup kit, for making a fish broth–based mochi soup that Japanese households eat on New Year’s Day; hamachi kama (the fatty, oily collar of yellowtail fish marinated in sake pulp); a temaki hand roll kit — a create-your-own-adventure food experience that allows diners to make their own sushi with spicy tuna, salmon skin and roe, pickled plums, shiso and more; and the osechi ryori box, the traditional full-fledged holiday meal whose components — including chikuzenni (simmered chicken and root vegetables), umami no ebi (simmered shrimp) and namasu (daikon and carrot salad) — are served up in decorative boxes.


It’s no accident that the foods are steeped in shareability and customization, a reflection of a generous collective mindset and language of exchange. In Ishikata’s rendition, an order of one of the large meals will feed four to six people; ordering all four meals can feed up to 20. The experience is meant to highlight the holiday’s flair as much as its large flavors.

Many wooden boxes filled with traditional Japanese New Year's dishes, including colorful fish cakes, daikon and carrot salad, and sweet black soybeans.
Namasu (daikon and carrot salad), sweet black soybeans and other traditional New Year’s dishes. (J-Sei)

“When you open the box, it’s a celebratory time,” says Ishikata. “I want to be able to share this New Year’s thing because I want to make it special for everybody. It was always a big party.”

Each meal is carefully prepared with attention to “Japanese aesthetics,” like floral patterns on the vegetables created with delicate knife-work meant to elicit the individual beauty of each ingredient. Ishikata is also deliberate with where he sources his produce, having built a relationship with Japanese-owned Hikari Farms in Watsonville. Though the farm’s founders are now 99 and 101 years old, Ishikata hopes to continue their legacy by working with the new owner who has inherited her family’s mission.

“As a chef, this is a special place to me. I’ve taken it seriously as my responsibility to represent for us, regardless of our ethnicity, to be that voice to show that our generation cares about these things,” he says. “If we don’t, who will?”

The Oshogatsu Offering Japanese New Year’s meals are available to order at Tokyo Fish Market (1220 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley) from now through Dec. 24. Pickups will take place at J-Sei (1285 66th St., Emeryville) on Jan. 1, 2023, at noon, 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. Prices vary from $15–300. For further details or inquiries, contact Yuji Ishikata on Instagram.

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