The first onsite interview this year at Tsukushiya

After conducting online interviews for a year now, I was very happy to be able to go to a Japanese restaurant in Berlin to conduct an interview. I met with Kazuko and Niels at Tsukushiya. Kazuko is the chef and Niels the owner and manager of this Japanese restaurant that offers Japanese home-style food (katei ryōri). This includes for example okonomiyaki, donburi, curry rice and karaage. Kazuko came to Berlin in 2016 and Tsukushiya opened in February 2017.

I first spoke to Kazuko in Japanese for about an hour before Niels joined us and the interview continued in German. We touched upon several issues that came up in interviews with other restaurateurs and chefs during the past years as well, particularly vegan and vegetarian variations of Japanese food and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. When we met, Tsukushiya had just reopened for outdoor dining two weeks ago. The restaurants in the street received an extra permission to put more tables and chairs outside in spots that are usually designated parking lots.

Kazuko and Niels both confirmed what we have heard from other Japanese food entrepreneurs and food workers in Berlin before. Despite the economic difficulties, the pandemic enabled them to have more time for themselves. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the restaurant opened at noon and in the evenings with only one day off during the week. During the first lockdown in spring 2020, they had offered takeout and the summer business in 2020 went surprisingly well, but during the second lockdown from November, they closed their restaurant until March. After the reopening in May, they decided to just open in the evenings and changed their menu to less laborious dishes. Both are very  happy that customers have returned and view the future with optimism.

Ethnographic “Schnitzeljagd”: Observing at Japanese restaurants

by Sungmi Kim, Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu), Tim Pantenburg and Antonia Vesting*

On Friday June 11, an especially hot day, we went to three Japanese eateries located around Kantstraße in Berlin Charlottenburg. Our general assignment was to observe the restaurants, talk to either customers or staff, take notes and pictures, and buy some food to try. We also had to hand in our field notes afterwards.

Enjoying food in front of a Japanese bakery (Copyright © Frank Tu 2021)

While observing we had to pay attention to many things. Quickly drawing maps or pictures can be a challenge especially to novel researchers. This is also true for taking pictures of the locations. Other customers or staff could get in the way and it is better to ask first before taking photos. By doing so, we realized that most people were rather kind and gave their permission. For our future projects on Japanese restaurants, it will be important to take enough time and to go to the location at different weekdays and times of the day. We also learned that participant observation can be a good way to obtain information that we otherwise would not get from interviews easily. In particular, among the three places we visited, at one place card payments was not accepted. Based on this observation, we wondered how payment options may affect the number of customers.

Decoration outside of a Japanese restaurant (Copyright © Antonia Vesting 2021)

It was interesting to observe how restaurateurs presented the food and other information and how the restaurants were decorated. For example, in Korean restaurants the names of the food are usually written both, in Korean and in German, but the three Japanese restaurants we visited, offered only menus written in rōmaji. To decorate the menu, at one place hand-drawn cartoons were used. At another restaurant there was a big puppet with the menu around the neck, it’s face decorated with the Japanese letters.

We also paid attention to the kitchens and their respective menus. For example, Kame is mainly be a bakery, but it was interesting that they have added things like karaage to their menu. A small look at their kitchen in the back revealed that they don’t make use of many automated tasks and most dishes seemed to be handmade. We had the impression that adding new dishes to the menu seems to be easy and that owners and customers alike are very flexible when trying new things.

One eatery only offers take-out food (Copyright © Tim Pantenburg 2021)

By visiting the restaurants, we were also able to collect information about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Japanese restaurateurs. On the one hand, the owner of one eatery told us that his place did not suffer much from the pandemic, since it exclusively offers takeaway options and that he had already used delivery services before the pandemic. Therefore, there was not much to change. During Berlin’s two lockdowns, the income had even increased slightly. On the other hand, an employee at one of the other restaurants stated that they did not have many customers during the lockdown.

Impressions of a Japanese bakery (Copyright © Sungmi Kim 2021)

We hope we could give some insights on how Japanese restaurants in Berlin operate and present their uniqueness and what kind of data field research can bring to the table.

*Sungmi Kim, Tim Pantenburg and Antonia Vesting are students at Freie Universität Berlin’s Japanese Studies MA Program. Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu) is a research assistant in the research project “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan” at Freie Universität Berlin.