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If you can’t beat the Japanese, serve them

Three foreigners find peace in Tokyo

by Dan Riney

If you’re looking for contentment in Japan, serve the Japanese. At least that’s the impression one gets from being around Andy Lunt, Kerry Cox and Johnny Miller.

These three entrepreneurs do what most foreigners here would never think of doing. They run bars or restaurants catering largely to Nihon-jin.

While they have taken different paths — Lunt runs an izakaya, Cox a ramen shop and Miller a Spanish bistro — they have one thing in common: an aura of serenity that’s almost nonexistent in Tokyo’s expatriate community.

MR. COOL

You know someone is content when he says he really doesn’t want many more customers at his restaurant. Or when he expresses gratitude toward the woman who helped him clean blood off his walls — blood that got there from the pummeling she just put on her date.

“Of course she helped me clean it up,” says Johnny Miller, owner of the Spanish bistro Las Meninas in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. “She was Japanese.”

Over the phone, the imperturbable Miller sounds like a choirboy.

“Yes, I recognize your voice,” he says in his Newcastle, England, lilt. “Come in any time you’d like. Sure, 7:30 would be fine. Bye.”

One would think he was speaking to his mother, not the crosstown owner of another Spanish restaurant who called unexpectedly to announce he was coming to check out his rival’s cooking skills.

“Oh boy. Now I’m nervous. I don’t have anything special to make for him,” says the 41-year-old Miller, displaying not a hint of nerves.

In fact, Miller hasn’t even broken a sweat despite slaving away in his tiny kitchen on this hot and humid Sunday.

But there are times when even Miller has had enough.

“One of our former regulars — this little guy with a foul mouth — started abusing customers one night. He wouldn’t leave when I asked him to, so I just picked him up and carried him out.

“But he didn’t want to go. He was clinging to anything he could get his hands on. It was like trying to put a cat in a bag. That was the last we saw of him.”

While quietly chuckling at reminiscences that would make most others cringe, Miller is interrupted by two locals stopping by to return his dishes and thank him for catering their party. Despite the pressure he claims to feel over the impending visit, Miller spends ten minutes chatting amicably with the visitors.

“Look at that. They not only washed the dishes, but they got them cleaner than I’ve ever had them,” he says as he calmly slides back into the kitchen.

THE GAIJIN BUDDHA

Andy Lunt is the manager and part owner of Shin Hi No Moto (New Rising Sun), a family-run Yurakucho institution since 1945.

Sitting at one of his short wooden tables with a coffee and pastry before the evening starts heating up, the shaven-headed Lunt brings to mind a fitter, trimmer Buddha.

“I’ve been through the confrontation stage with living in Japan, and now I’m really enjoying myself,” the native of Leicester, England, says.

Lunt came to Tokyo 17 years ago to run the izakaya. His wife’s parents are the original owners, and they didn’t have a son to succeed them.

With the air of one who’s been given a new lease on life and knows it, Lunt, 44, looks back on his days of running restaurants and bars in the center of London with a certain befuddlement.

“I’d never go back to that. We would have two to three handbag thefts a week there. I spent half my time testifying in court. It was basically part of the job. We’ve never had anything like that here.”

Of course, it hasn’t all been easy. Lunt spends three mornings a week at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, and has paid his dues there.

“The change came when I went to buy tuna from my usual supplier one day only to find he had a new guy filling in. I refused to pay the inflated price he quoted, so he started saying very loudly to everyone within earshot that a cheeky foreigner was telling him what to charge.”

Lunt bought his tuna elsewhere that morning, but when he got to his car he found 6 kg of gift-wrapped tuna waiting for him, with a note saying the substitute fishmonger had been fired.

“I appreciated the tuna, but I didn’t want to get anyone fired. So I took the note back to his boss and told him I wanted the guy hired back. He was — and after that I was thought of as a decent guy, not just a gaijin.”

Other than that, Lunt’s main source of aggravation has been ill-intentioned media looking for a sensational story.

“A reporter from a U.K. newspaper came in one day wanting me to tell him how terrible the alcohol problem is in Japan. He obviously had the whole story figured out in his mind before he even sat down with me.”

Lunt refused to play the game, instead telling the reporter about how much easier it is to deal with Japanese drunks than British ones.

“When you look at the U.K. and Japan in terms of alcohol consumption and the trouble caused by it, there is simply no comparison.”

HIS WAY

On the other side of town, in Suginami Ward, Kerry Cox takes a more aggressive approach to achieving inner peace.

The New Zealand native, who has also been in Japan for 17 years, cut his entrepreneurial teeth at a yakitori shop he owned and operated near Tokyo’s Gotanda station. He left that to take over Abura Tei, a ramen shop specializing in a less fatty, soup-less type of ramen.

The mood at Abura Tei is friendly and casual as Cox banters freely with his Nepalese, Chinese and Japanese staff.

“I have some great workers at the ramen shop, so I try to work as little as possible,” the 45-year-old says with a Cheshire-cat smile.

When it comes to heading off trouble, the gregarious Kiwi takes a proactive approach.

“I’ve learned that if I do the right things socially and become a member of the community it makes life a lot easier. The first thing I do when I move in is introduce myself to the local police.”

When asked how he deals with the inevitable instances of racism in his shop, Cox shrugs it off.

“I practice reverse racism. I kick them out if I don’t like the looks of them. I treat all my customers the same. I don’t let the old guys intimidate the younger women. There is no sempai-kohai situation in my places,” he says.

The mischievous Cox has also learned to turn potential trouble into fun.

After barring a particularly troublesome customer from his yakitori shop, Cox was forced to take matters into his own hands when the man took to creating disturbances in front of the shop.

“A friend of mine had a pellet gun. He and I would take turns taking target practice on the guy, and he finally stopped coming around.”

And then there was the yakuza experience. One of the gang’s heavies showed up at his place one evening and went after one of Cox’s customers. Cox and a friend threw the character out.

“A few days later he came back in and told me his boss wanted to see me. I went outside and the boss was standing next to his car. I walked right up and glared down at him. “All he said was, ‘I’m just down the road.’ They left and that was the last I ever saw of them.”