2020 marks the beginning of the first calendar year for the Reiwa era. With the new year comes an enthusiastic desire for change and renewal, and rejuvenated shoppers will be walking among the glamorous luxury stores of the world-class Ginza shopping district. Beyond the luster of such elegance shops and restaurants, there is a rich culture and history that began in a surprisingly much humbler Ginza.
Mikasa Kaikan Remaining Grounded in a High-class World
The main branch of the famous Mikasa Kaikan restaurant on Namiki-dori Street in Ginza has an astonishingly long history of over 90 years. Just like the various items on their menu that mix flavors and styles to create delicious dishes, the design of the legendary restaurant also creates a different atmosphere on each floor. On the basement floor, there’s a bar serving original cocktails and refreshing drinks. On the first floor, a stylish Italian bar welcomes guests, catching the eye of even the most glamorous shoppers in Ginza. Moving up from there, classy restaurants and party rooms on each floor serve delicious French, Italian, Kaiseki（a traditional multicourse Japanese dinner), and Chinese cuisine. Over the years, it has earned a reputation for being one of the most sophisticated establishments to host important business meetings, wedding parties, and other special events.
The humble origins of Mikasa Kaikan
Though an incredible sense of luxury can be felt from the small details in the tableware to the impressive classic design of the dining areas, customers are still served with the same warmth and respect that was given when Mikasa Kaikan first originated back in 1925. That feeling could certainly be felt as Yoshiki Tani, Chairman and CEO, kindly talked with us about the beginnings of Mikasa Kaikan and the early years of modern Ginza. Mr. Tani’s grandfather, Mr. Zennojo, came from Nara to Ginza penniless. He managed to open his shop and poured his heart and soul into it. He earned the admiration of the people in Ginza, who would help support him during the shop’s humble start. At that time, Ginza was an entertainment district mostly known for Japanese Kabuki theater. Surprisingly, the shop started out selling sweets like shaved ice to those who frequented the programs in the summer. After a slow start, business gradually picked up pace in the winter as sweet red bean soup became a hot item among Geisha in Shimbashi.
The fried chicken revolution
At the beginning of the Showa era, Mikasa, which was then slowly converting to a western-style restaurant, cooked itself up some great success with their legendary fried chicken, or karaage. Mikasa was the first restaurant to serve such Chinese-style, deep-fried chicken with a firm outer appearance while maintaining a moist, fluffy inside. The popularity of the dish, which is now a proud symbol of Japanese food, propelled Mikasa into the mainstream and caught the attention of top celebrities who had to taste it for themselves. Despite the glamorous atmosphere, Mikasa Kaikan still serves its beloved fried chicken today, preserving the authentic flavor.
The evolution of Mikasa Kaikan and Ginza
In WWII, Mikasa Kaikan, along with the rest of Ginza, was burned to the ground. The area was rebuilt, and the shop relocated to its current spot along Namiki-dori Street. After the war, the Ginza area became more high-class, and so did Mikasa Kaikan. As more high-brands set up shop in Ginza, the area quickly became associated with prosperity and the upper-crust of society. There was so much enthusiasm by local business owners of Namiki-dori to create the world’s premier shopping street that members of The Association of Ginza West Namiki-Dori District pooled their resources to lay 850 million yen worth of beautiful granite on the walkways.
Dedicated to the craft
Mikasa Kaikan continues to evolve and try new combinations and techniques while also preserving tradition and its roots. Head chef Mr. Toshihiko Kawahara explains that to pass down the traditional recipes to the next generation of Mikasa Kaikan chefs, he analyzes and records them, and even though the recipes remain the same, the individual ingredients will always vary over time. To stay true to the original taste, it takes a skilled chef who can adjust and carry on the legacy of Mikasa Kaikan’s classic flavor. Another challenge is maintaining the same level of quality across the different restaurants within Mikasa Kaikan — an extremely difficult task that can only be executed by experts in the kitchen. On top of that, the menu changes at each store every one or two months. The grand menu even swaps out main dishes four times a year with the seasons, keeping in mind new cooking trends and fresh seasonal ingredients. At the end of the year, Mikasa Kaikan sells Osechi, a New Year’s meal, which is traditionally made and eaten at home. It also sells western-style Osechi. As times have changed, this kind of Osechi has become more available, but it was Mikasa Kaikan that was the first to introduce it. Now, Mikasa Kaikan’s celebratory meals are popular among customers who want to bring in the new year with excellently prepared food.
The future of Mikasa Kaikan
Despite Mikasa Kaikan’s dedication to preserving traditions, Mr. Tani still is looking to integrate future technology into the long-standing restaurant — even mentioning the possibilities of having AI in the kitchen. He compares the kitchen to a lab, where new combinations are tested and flavors are discovered. The CEO aims to seamlessly blend the modern-day with traditional dishes in an old-fashioned building and ensures that, although Mikasa Kaikan will continue to move forward into the future, it will always strive to create the same excellent eating experience and honor the long history of the legendary Ginza restaurant.
With inspiration taken from famous cities around the world, like Paris, New York City, and Portland , Mikasa Kaikan certainly appeals to an international crowd. It almost seems like a contradiction that a mostly western-style restaurant has such a long and important history in Japan, but while it cooks up a variety of dishes, Mikasa Kaikan has never lost its identity. Head chef Kawahara says that the number of international customers has increased, but that hasn’t changed the way Mikasa Kaikan does things. People hear about the restaurant and come to enjoy their meals. So, Mikasa Kaikan continues to operate the way it always has to ensure that, no matter where in the world a customer comes from, they will always be able to enjoy the same great authentic Mikasa Kaikan food that has made the restaurant famous. Their philosophy is always about sustainability, and loyal patrons are looking forward to the next 100 years of outstanding service and taste from Mikasa Kaikan.
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A New Year in Ginza, Where Luxury Meets Centuries-Old Tradition