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Monja-yaki restaurant owner Minoru Maruyama

by Judit Kawaguchi

Minoru Maruyama, 68, is the owner of the Maruyama Monja restaurant. Located in Tsukishima’s Monja Street in Tokyo, his tiny joint is one of the 70 or so mom-and-pop shops in the area that all serve monja-yaki, a, pan-fried loose-batter shitamachi (downtown) snack food that is loved by children and adults alike. Maruyama’s signature jet-black squid-ink monja-yaki helps his diner stand out from the crowd. Its special sauce, Maruyama’s secret recipe, makes sure that diners’ teeth don’t go black as they eat it. Always striving to serve only the best he can create, Maruyama spent 10 years experimenting and perfecting his other specialty: the miso monja-yaki, a delicious miso-paste-based dish that constantly turns walk-ins into regulars.

Keep the quality high and prices reasonable and your customers will stick with you for life. Monja-yaki has an image of being cheap street food. But I pride myself on using the best ingredients, as only those can make dishes delicious and healthful. Nagoya and Kyoto are famous for miso so I mix three types of miso from small makers in those cities. I also add my own special dashi (stock) sauce. It took me 10 years to perfect the mixture and it shows! Still, monja-yaki at my place only costs from ¥900 to ¥1200.

Progress is inevitable, so go with the flow and enjoy what may come. Tsukishima used to be an area full of small houses until big developers started asking people to sell their property. When they came to my area, I was the only one who agreed to sell instantly. I understand the risks of living in old wooden houses among high-rises in an earthquake-prone country. The real fear is fire, though. If one started, with the wind gushing between the tall buildings toward our small houses, the whole neighborhood would be in flames. I love my house, but change is good and will come, no matter what. It has taken 10 years for the construction company to convince my neighbors to sell. Now more than 95 percent have agreed, so a high-rise will be coming here soon.

When you walk backwards, you see a new world. I walk an hour and a half to two hours every two days, and most of that I do backwards. I can walk backwards as straight as an arrow because I have been practicing for 23 years. In Tokyo there are many places where it is safe to do this — on overpasses, bridges and in parks. The view is great! Now I feel like am so sensitive it’s as if I can see and hear from the back of my head.

Times change but what’s constant is that my timing is usually off. I was a furniture-maker for 23 years, but in the 1980s I had to shut down my business because I couldn’t find any young people to work for me. It was the bubble era and young people wanted MBAs, not vocational skills. Nowadays, everyone is into handmade things again. And Japanese quality is important, so we have a monozukuri (making things with skill and precision) boom. But it’s too late for me.

Being happy comes from constantly working on being content. Always smile and laugh, even if you’re in pain. When my wife was in the hospital for a month and I was scared for her life, I acted like everything was just fine. Then it became so.

Tough experiences at a young age are the best preparation for life. I was 16 when my father took me to his friend’s furniture factory because he thought I needed discipline. I did. I worked at the master’s business and his house as a minarai, a kind of free laborer who’s there to learn the trade. It was a tough job. I worked from 8 a.m. till 11 p.m. every day. I cried a lot but I survived.

There are no guarantees in life, ever. But once you near 70, there’s one certainty: You don’t have much time left. All we can do is do the right thing and have fun. Luckily I have my wife, so even though our days are numbered at least they are fun.

Aging means we feel great but we look terrible! I once had a great day at the races and booked a luxury cruise to celebrate. I was hoping that cute young girls would be sunbathing on the decks and I’d be flirting with them while sporting a nice tan. Instead, all the guests looked like they had rolled in from a fancy nursing home. They were all old and wrinkled! I felt dizzy and the ship hadn’t even left the port. What’s going on? I wondered. Then I saw my reflection in one of the windows. That really made my stomach turn. I realized that I was just like them — old and wrinkled. That was a shocker because in my mind, I thought of myself as a hot 40-year-old. But I’m not. I just feel like it.

People should have the right to decide how they live and die. I don’t get sick much. I don’t drink, I quit smoking a long time ago and I exercise regularly. All this helps but at the end of the day, I guess good health is just luck. As far as the end goes, here is what I would like: a pill that I can buy and take when I am ready to call it quits. I’d sit in my cozy living room, the horses would be running on TV and I’d be watching them, just like I do every week. The difference is that I’d fall into a sweet dream and never wake up. That’s the kind of happy ending I’m looking for and I’m ready to pay top yen for it, too.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com Twitter: @judittokyo.