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Ice cream man Tokuya Hirose

by Judit Kawaguchi

Tokuya Hirose, 82, is the second-generation owner of Ze-roku, a tiny ice-cream shop in Osaka city’s Hommachi area. Established in 1913, Ze-roku served traditional Japanese sweets till 1952, when Tokuya’s father and this three sons came up with a brilliant combination that melted everyone’s hearts: the Ze-roku monaka. This sweet of delicious creamy ice cream served inside crisp mochi rice wafers is still made to the original recipe every morning by Tokuya and his son Mitsunori. Fans drop by for a daily dose of the Ze-roku experience, which includes not only morsels of monaka with sips of freshly brewed hot coffee but also the cheerful banter between members of the Hirose family and other regulars, who all squeeze themselves into the 10 sq. meters of this retro shop. Cramped it is, but that’s the fun of Ze-roku, where at ¥100 a monaka and ¥200 a cup of joe, you only need pennies to experience something out of this world.

It’s OK to repeat yourself. I use four expressions over and over again: “Thank you,” “thank God,” “sorry” and “I’ll do it.” That’s enough for life.

Hang on to the excited and happy feeling you had the moment you got your dream job. That’s how I have felt every morning since 1950. When you work for a long time, it’s easy to forget how you felt when you first started. Don’t let that happen to you. Being blown around like a leaf is not good; you’ll get carried away and you’ll never know where you might end up.

Just as humans can’t survive without air, neither can ice cream. Ice cream is filled with air, which is mixed into it little by little. How much air we breathe into it determines how delicious it gets.

A good cook doesn’t dirty the workstation. Once you’re a pro, you don’t make any unnecessary movements and you don’t waste even one crumb of food.

Quality depends on quantity. I get lots of offers to mass produce our monaka but I refuse because it would be the end of Ze-roku as we and our customers love it. Our monaka is this good and this cheap because we make such a limited amount, and we do it by ourselves. If we went into mass production, the taste would deteriorate but the price would go up, and what good would that do? Make us more money? No thanks, we already have enough.

In business, there is no theory. Just copy. I watched my father’s back and learned the trade. My son follows me and our grandchildren are right behind.

Aging is great: The older we get, the more people accept us as we really are and have been since day one. Being a stubborn old fool turns into a compliment once one passes 65.

If you work hard, you’ll sleep well. I do. When I was a boy I heard about Tekijuku, a school in 19th-century Osaka where students lived together. Each month they were evaluated and those who did well could choose which tatami mat to sleep on. They could pick the mat in the coolest spot in the summer or the warmest in the winter. The lads with poor exam results ended up sleeping in the hallway, on wooden planks.

Success is not measured with money. We have no stress. Everyone smiles here, and they all say: “Thanks, that was delicious, see you tomorrow.” Money can’t buy that!

To pray, there’s no need to put your palms together. Just don’t do anything bad and work hard. That’s true religion.

Church teachings are sometimes confusing. If you’re a Catholic, you’re supposed to be good to others. But in church we are taught to love our enemies. I always wondered where enemies come from. I have no enemies but if I had some, I would love them.

Never take advantage of others. During the oil shock in the 1970s, coffee-bean prices shot through the roof. A cup cost ¥300 everywhere but we still managed to sell it for ¥150.

Having a long line in front of a business is a real shame. It means the staff can’t take care of the customers. In the summer, that happens to us. I feel horrible seeing people sweating in line. That’s just not cool. I’m sorry I have to make them wait.

When you see a customer, jump! I’m a skinny old guy but I can be as fast as (Olympic champion sprinter) Usain Bolt when I’m scooping ice cream. I love my job so I feel energized.

If you succeed in Osaka, you can do well anywhere in the world. People here are frugal and know quality. There’s no way to fool them. In Osaka, the less we pay for something, the happier we are. In Tokyo it’s the opposite; people are proud of buying expensive stuff.

If you love making money, you’ll appreciate that others love making money, too. So you can’t be greedy.

It’s not what you say, but how you say it. I’m a grandpa and I talk like one. With time, we soften, just like ice cream.

Life is tough, so we all need something sweet to make it bearable and something with caffeine to keep us alert to better times. Salesmen buy our monaka for their clients. Since it must be consumed immediately, it’s the perfect icebreaker.

Jeans are one of best inventions ever. I’ve been wearing denim since the end of the war. I also like dressing it up with a spiffy hat and my wife on my arm.

Same-old is same-great. For me, every day is the same: same job, same shop, same ice cream, same coffee, same customers. Real happiness is doing something small well and for a long time.

Always have a goal, even if it’s the same one you already reached. In 2013, Ze-roku will be 100 years old. I hope I’ll still be around, making ice cream in the morning, just like I did today.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/