One in two diners at Heianraku, a Chinese restaurant in the city of Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, is non-Japanese, drawn by the chef’s reputation for trying to meet the most difficult off-menu request.
The restaurant is so popular with foreign tourists that it topped a June 21 ranking on the Japanese edition of TripAdvisor, a travel ratings website.
Operated by Hiroshi Furuta, 54, and his wife, Naoko, 51, Heianraku has about 30 customers each day — half of them non-Japanese. It usually allows up to three groups of customers at once, so that the staff can treasure conversations with each guest.
He says some of them ask for vegetarian food, or simply dishes that are not listed on the menu.
“Although we are a Chinese restaurant, we are asked to cook varieties of meals, including sukiyaki and tempura udon (noodles),” he said.
“Out of all requests, the most difficult was cooking sukiyaki without meat. Instead of using meat, we used fu (dried wheat gluten) and vegemeat.”
He said he also made a special sukiyaki soup without using dried bonito, because a customer asked for it with no fish.
In another case, a customer ordered udon. There was none in the restaurant, so Furuta offered to serve the frozen udon he had purchased for himself.
Furuta’s father opened Heianraku in 1963. He took it over in 1990.
In 1993, the restaurant started preparing menus and signs in English to serve an increasing number of foreign visitors. It has now counted diners from over 50 countries.
“At that time, roughly 10 percent of our customers were tourists from abroad. More and more started to come in after hearing about us and seeing the signs,” he said.
At first, the couple prepared a special vegetarian menu aside from the usual one, but now they are doing the opposite by adding meat to vegetarian meals when necessary.
Their vegetarian menu includes stir-fried vegetables and stir-fried noodles.
Commenting on the restaurant’s No. 1 ranking, Furuta said he is more surprised than happy.
“I don’t even know if we deserve first place. People around us were surprised when we were ranked No. 4 in the same ranking last year,” he said.
It is the second year that the restaurant’s name has appeared in the ranking.
Although his wife is fluent in English, Furuta says his level of the language is probably equivalent to a junior high or high school graduate.
“It’s no problem, since only a couple of terms and phrases are necessary for me to communicate with the customers,” he said.
Information from Kyodo added.