Tradition, family serve up a hearty fare

by Kris Kosaka

T he band members are dressed in traditional German costumes, and your smiling hostess leads you out in a traditional dance. A modest buffet serves up a bounty of simple, home-cooked German fare: cabbage and sauerkraut, potatoes and sausage. And don’t forget the German beer. Just say “Mahlzeit,” and enjoy the Sea Castle German restaurant in Kamakura.

The Reiff family celebrated 52 years at this location on March 1, but their presence in Japan began at the start of the last century. Travel back 100 years to Europe: families struggle, countries are poor. A young German decides to seek his fortune in a foreign land — Japan. He starts a successful import/ export business, and soon earns enough to make a living and settle his family back to Germany, ensuring that his children are raised in their homeland.

Many years later, his son also ties his fate to the land of the rising sun. Together with his wife and young children, they journey from the family home in northern Germany to Kanagawa Prefecture, settling near the mountainside in Hayama. Originally planning to stay only two or three years, war intervenes, and the Reiff family stays and starts a small German restaurant.

Their daughter, the third generation of Reiffs in Japan, now runs Sea Castle, the successor to that first small eatery, along with two of her brothers. To Reiff , it has always been all about the family, and the reason she gives for insisting on no first names for publications. “My parents wanted to spread German culture,” she says, “and the best way is through the stomach.”

Reiff commends her mother’s bravery in moving to a foreign country and raising seven children while running the popular restaurant in Hayama. “I think it was pretty daring for my mother to come to Japan, because at that time, she didn’t know what she was getting into or anything; it was so different.” Reiff does not say too much about the journey across from Germany, only that she was “a child, taken by the hand.” Her mother had to work hard to ensure the children kept their heritage and native language. “If you want to eat at my table, you speak German,” she told her seven children.

Reiff later attended The German School, at that time located in Omori. In 1957, a landslide forced the original restaurant to close. and Reiff, now fluent in Japanese, English, and German, took the restaurant to a new location two towns down from Hayama along the coastal road.

To get there, take a short walk down Yuigahama Beach toward Hase and you will find yourself in a little piece of Germany.

The walls are decorated with original wood cuttings by one of Reiff’s brothers, and sausage, beer, and potatoes dominate the menu. All ingredients are imported from Germany and everything is made in the restaurant’s kitchen. Frau Reiff handles the floor, and her brothers fix the Sea Castle’s food. “It’s run by the cooking of our family, with no helpers.”

Frau Reiff admits the pace of running a business with only the three is tough, but “if you keep the hands busy, your brain is busy.” Even their German guests are surprised by their adherence to traditional recipes and methods. According to Reiff, cooking in Germany has changed significantly in the last 50 years. She dismisses the now common use of ready-made food, especially at restaurants. Better to stay with the traditional way, she says.

Reiff herself keeps to traditional ways. Raising a family while working full-time running a busy restaurant was no problem for someone who grew up used to hard work. She credits her family upbringing with everything from her varied tastes in food to her strong work ethic. “We have grown up in hard times,” she says . “So we eat what’s there.” Reiff passed these values on to her own daughter, now a teacher at a Japanese school and also fluent in three languages. She conveys the ethics to her own daughter, who does her own laundry and readies her uniform each day for school.

Life is not all work; Reiff also knows how to relax, in a traditional German manner. Many years ago, Reiff hoped to share with her patrons some German culture, a beer festival. The first Sea Castle Bierfest, however, did not resemble a traditional German festival.

The purpose of a Bierfest, Reiff explains, is to get everyone involved and active, not always easy with typically reserved customers. Seeing Sea Castle’s patrons sitting at their tables with uncertainty and some unease, Reiff and her brothers realized the customers needed some help.

She brought in the band “The Blue Trombones” to provide traditional German music, singing and dancing. Reiff added German games and invited participation and soon a true Bierfest was under way. The popular event is now held three times a year, in March, June, and October. The next Bierfest is March 14, but tables have been filled since mid-February. Reiff is proud of the way the Bierfests act as a bridge to German culture. “Everyone becomes friends,” she says.

Reiff has found many ways to promote friendship in the wider community. She again credits her mother with instilling a sense of obligation to others. She remembers, as a child, bringing food to her impoverished neighbors.

Now, one brother teaches German at a local center for truants. The knick-knacks and gifts lining the back wall of the restaurant also help those less fortunate. “Something for poor children in the Philippines, the handicapped in Japan, the Church”: all proceeds go toward donations. Reiff brushes off any praise; it’s all how the family works.

Only some of the seven siblings stayed in Japan, and Reiff is proud of her equally strong international heritage. “This family’s not only in Germany, they’re all over, in the States, too.”

The Reiff family also works as an extended family for the local community, or German tourists or ex-pats l iving in Japan. “People tell us, ‘being in a foreign country, to keep things so authentic, it’s quite a thing.’ ”

The Berlin Opera made a special trip to Kamakura on a recent tour to Tokyo. Neither Reiff nor her brothers could take time off to go to the opera, so the opera came to the Sea Castle. The small restaurant shook with their voices. Reiff obviously savors the memory.

In the end, the Reiff’s attitudes toward food, family, and community run parallel: simplicity, authenticity, sincerity. From her grandfather’s first inroads in business to her mother’s perseverance, from the Bierfests to birthday parties, Reiff looks toward her family and community to keep her heritage alive. “This,” she says, looking proudly around the restaurant, “is our Germany.”