Takashi Ro received some unorthodox advice after the 2011 tsunami slammed into the Tohoku coast, killed thousands and destroyed his “nikuman” Chinese-style steamed meat bun shop. The message was to stay “happy.”
Such words of encouragement and the generous support from Kobe’s Chinatown enabled Ro to reopen the Keijanka shop on Sept. 1 near a subway station in Sendai’s Taihaku Ward, four-and-a-half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Ro said he could not have reopened his business, whose outlets were located in Sendai and the coastal Tagajo city of Miyagi Prefecture, without the help of owners of Chinese restaurants in Kobe’s Chinatown, known as Nankin-machi.
“I was initially counting on local government support, but I eventually learned that it was all up to my own efforts to rebuild my shop,” said Ro, 50.
Many of the Kobe business owners, including Eisei So, the 58-year-old head of the famed Roshoki meat bun restaurant, had firsthand experience of rebuilding their establishments from the destruction of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Three of the owners were on hand in Sendai on Sept. 1 to celebrate the reopening of Ro’s shop.
“The forward-looking attitudes of So and other restaurant owners have encouraged me, and they were essential in my effort to overcome all the hardships,” Ro recalled.
He will return the favor by joining the Kobe Butaman Summit food fair in Kobe’s Chinatown on Nov. 15. Nikuman is also known as “butaman” (pork bun).
The towering tsunami spawned by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, engulfed and destroyed Ro’s branch shop in a shopping mall in Tagajo, located about 1 kilometer from the coast.
It was his second Keijanka outlet, which opened about a year before the disaster.
Still several millions of yen in debt, Ro was also forced to close the original outlet in Sendai after the water supply was cut off for an extended period.
Local governments were initially so busy scrambling to provide first aid to people displaced by the disaster that they seemed unable of helping to rebuild damaged businesses. Ro contacted a union of restaurant operators in Hyogo Prefecture for assistance.
The union referred the matter to So, who was chairman of the Nankin-machi business promotion association.
So visited Sendai in autumn 2011 to tell Ro of his experience in rebuilding Chinatown from the destruction of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which damaged about half of the businesses in the district and destroyed eight establishments.
So recalled that the Nankin-machi business operators organized a “May festival” in Kobe only four months after the Jan. 17, 1995, disaster in a bid to bring back customers.
He told Ro: “Unless a business operator runs his business happily, customers will never return.”
So and others from Kobe’s Chinatown in 2012 started annual volunteer campaigns in disaster-stricken Tohoku towns to provide 3,000 free meat buns to residents on the Jan. 17 anniversary of the Kobe quake. Ro also joined.
Ro eventually decided to reopen his meat bun shop in Sendai.
For the Butaman Summit, his shop will sell the original meat bun with pork and bamboo sprout filling, a recipe inherited from his grandfather.
“I can finally show people in Kobe that I have reopened my shop,” Ro said.