Hisako and Ryoichi Maeda (66 and 67) are the proprietors of Torisue, a tiny take-out-only yakitori shop in the Bontan area of Tokyo’s Koto Ward, just a short walk from Monzen-Nakacho Station. Torisue is famous as a B-kyu (B-grade) gourmet favorite and fans from near and far will line up outside on Kiyosumidori Street until their chicken is grilled to perfection over the charcoal.
Hisako: Politically correct or not, meat certainly tastes delicious. Before I got married, I had never eaten meat or fish. I grew up in a Buddhist temple and my family avoided consuming anything that had eyes. But when I met Ryoichi, I tried yakitori for the first time and was astonished by how delicious it was. I’ve been enjoying chicken every day ever since.
Ryoichi: Success means that people love our yakitori. We have no desire to expand the business because we worry that if we did, the delicious flavor of our yakitori would get diluted. Staying small means that we can handle the whole process — from shopping to preparing the sauces and arranging the chicken and vegetables on the bamboo sticks. This is the key to the good taste of our yakitori.
H: When your fortune is about to turn, grab the chance and jump to it! Among our temple’s believers was a lady who was known as a capable fortune teller. As I was single at age 24, which was considered late to be unmarried, my relatives asked her to give me advice. She told me to marry a man who fulfilled three conditions: to have been born in 1947, lived south of my city in Tochigi Prefecture and to have worked with white, pretty things. I asked what the white items could be and she said that it would most likely be food, maybe rice, although she was not sure.
I didn’t think much of all this but later that very same day the mailman brought me a letter from a matchmaker. She introduced a man who was born in 1947, lived in Tokyo, which is south of Tochigi, and who had a yakitori shop. The matchmaker explained that the meat came from Iwate Prefecture chickens, which were completely covered in beautiful white feathers. I immediately boarded a train to Tokyo. When I saw him, I knew we were meant for each other.
R: Every time we meet people, they bring new meaning into our lives. Regardless of how small the encounter is, it matters a lot. It could be a customer who makes an interesting comment that opens our eyes to something new, or a friend whose support helps us in our everyday life. We must pay attention to these once-in-a-lifetime events and try to find the meanings, understand the messages.
H: Thanks to chickens, we can eat healthful and delicious meals every day and we make a living. Every day, as I work, I thank the chickens for sacrificing themselves for us. On Nov. 3., which is Culture Day in Japan, we celebrate and thank the chickens at a memorial ceremony called chicken kuyo at the nearby Fukagawa Enmado temple. We pray for and show our deep appreciation of all the chickens who died for us during the year.
R: The road is made for us. It’s up to us whether we walk straight toward a goal or crawl off it aimlessly. We always walk hand-in-hand together and support each other. For example, I had never had a business before we started our own shop 13 years ago, but it was all easy. All I had to do is follow in our ancestors’ footsteps.
H: The purpose of life is to work. Work is not to gain something or a means to an end. It’s a purpose in itself. It can also be a goal, but one that we should probably never achieve. Without a job, we would feel useless and anxious — life would be sad. Work has so many benefits. It is fun and we make money from it. Since we have no time to spend the little we earn, however, we can also save a lot from it. Staying busy also keeps us fit. What could be better than working all the time?
R: Sleep is overrated. The lights are almost always on in our shop. Six days a week, we start at 7 a.m. and finish at about 4 a.m. the next day. Luckily, we have many part-timers who take turns helping us — but we are always here.
During the day we cook and sell, while at night we prepare for the day. It’s not hard as we take short naps — one hour in the afternoon and two hours in the evening — then at 4 a.m., we go home to sleep until 6 a.m. We feel energized and never get sick!
H: Life is short, even if you live long. This is what my father used to tell me. He passed away when I was 17, just two years after my mother died.
R: Humor is the key to a happy life. We joke all day with our staff. We’re like a family, but better as we truly love each other, which is something that few families can say about themselves.
H: Fame is for those who are outgoing. We don’t want to become any more famous! We’re too shy. We appreciate offers for interviews but we never accept. This is a one off!
Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. Learn more at judittokyo.com. Twitter: @judittokyo