Food & Drink

At family-run izakaya Kurasuno, the secret ingredient is a smile

by Matt Kaufman

Contributing Writer

Kurasuno, a small izakaya bar-restaurant near Taisho Station on the Osaka Loop Line and beloved neighborhood treasure in the hearts and minds of residents since it opened in 1949, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

The restaurant’s founder, Toyokazu Matsubara, was born in Tawaramotocho, Nara Prefecture, in 1916. In 1942, Matsubara joined the Imperial Japanese Army and was sent to Manchuria. When the war ended in 1945, he was captured by Soviet troops and sent to a prison camp in Krasnoyarsk, a city in Eastern Siberia, where he was forced to perform hard labor for two years in temperatures that often fell to minus 50 degrees Celsius.

In Krasnoyarsk, Matsubara’s task was to grow tomato seedlings, but he wasn’t allowed to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He was given only one meal a day — 300 grams of bread — and spent most days in near starvation.

Over 60,000 Japanese prisoners of war in Krasnoyarsk perished from starvation and overwork, but Matsubara was one of the fortunate ones who survived the ordeal. He was repatriated to Japan via ship in May of 1947 and reunited with his wife, Nobue, whom he had married while on leave a few months before his capture.

Upon his return to Japan, Matsubara taught himself to cook by reading books in order to make a living. When he opened his restaurant two years later, he chose to name it after the city where he was held prisoner: Kurasuno is a shortened form of the Japanese word for Krasnoyarsk, Kurasunoyarusuku. Matsubara wanted to remember the hardships he experienced, and also wanted to show people in society that they, too, could endure any difficulty.

Matsubara eventually retired from Kurasuno in 2009 at age 93, after six decades, while his wife Nobue, 97, stopped working at Kurasuno about two years ago. Sadly, Matsubara passed away in 2017, at the age of 101, though his presence is still felt throughout the restaurant, which is now run by his son, Kazuyuki, 65, who first started working there in 1978; his wife, Noriko, 60; and their son, Hirotomo, 29, who has worked there for about six years.

The next generation: A Kurasuno customer (back) looks fondly at chef Hirotomo Matsubara
The next generation: A Kurasuno customer (back) looks fondly at chef Hirotomo Matsubara’s son. | ROSS RANDLES

I ask Tsugio Yoshida, 70, a regular who has been coming to Kurasuno once a week for 40 years, if anything has changed. Yoshida says there’s an old Chinese proverb that states the first generation accumulates wealth and the second generation sees the value of hard work. “In this case, it’s true,” he elaborates. “(Kazuyuki) has worked like a demon to continue what his father started.”

Kurasuno’s menu hasn’t changed much since 1949. It’s famous throughout Osaka for dashimaki tamago (¥270), a rolled omelet cooked with tentsuyu — tempura dipping sauce made from dashi soup stock, mirin (rice wine) and sugar. It seems like a simple dish to make, but requires a lot of skill to get the soft texture and flavors just right. Kurasuno’s dashimaki tamago is so delicious that many customers order two servings, which is exactly what I do.

Enduring classics: Kurasuno is known for its kuwayaki grilled skewers and dashimaki tamago rolled omelet (top left).
Enduring classics: Kurasuno is known for its kuwayaki grilled skewers and dashimaki tamago rolled omelet (top left). | TUSYOSHI TAGAWA

Kurasuno is also well-known for its mouthwatering kuwayaki, Osaka’s version of teppanyaki (iron grill cooking). Kuwa is the Japanese word for “hoe,” and farmers would cook wild game meat on their hoes by holding them directly above the fire. These days, garden tools are no longer used and restaurants cook skewered food on a flat iron grill with a variety of sauces.

Along with a large bottle of beer (¥550), I choose from a selection of 12 different kuwayaki: juicy grilled beef with sauce (¥320), lotus root stuffed with curry-flavored beef (¥220) and yakitori (¥220), each of which comes with two skewers. If you are unsure of what to get, order the kuwayaki omakase (chef’s choice) set (¥680), which comes with six different meat and vegetable skewers and a small lettuce and tomato salad topped with delicious homemade mayonnaise.

Not just for carnivores: A vegetarian-friendly meal at Kurasuno.
Not just for carnivores: A vegetarian-friendly meal at Kurasuno. | TSUYOSHI TAGAWA

Non-meat eaters, too, are not left out at Kurasuno: There are more than enough options to make a filling meal. From the kuwayaki menu, order the grilled eggplant (¥170) or the konnyaku devil’s tongue (¥220); both are flavored with sweet miso paste. Round off the meal with salad (¥120); eggplant tempura (¥220); onigiri rice balls with a side of pickled vegetables (¥120); and sliced cucumbers with moromi miso (a mildly chunky miso condiment) for ¥220.

There are two vegan-friendly tofu dishes: hiyayakko (chilled tofu with green onion and ginger) or yudōfu (hot tofu cooked in konbu seaweed broth), ¥120 each. Just be sure to order them without katsuobushi skipjack tuna flakes.

Where friendships are forged: Longtime Kurasuno customers clink their glasses over a meal.
Where friendships are forged: Longtime Kurasuno customers clink their glasses over a meal. | TSUYOSHI TAGAWA

The yudōfu is particularly good, and I pepper Noriko with all sorts of questions about the ingredients. My enthusiasm attracts the attention of an older man, sharply dressed in a black suit and hat, sitting at the table behind me: “You want to know what makes it so good, I’ll tell you,” he says. “It’s made with a smile. That is the secret ingredient.”

Approx. ¥2,000/head; English menu available

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