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Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji



Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji

There are plenty of places to grab a quick lunch in the Nanokamachi (or Nanukamachi, depending on which reading you use) city center, but there is one café that caught my attention the very first time I saw it. Not because it is ostentatious or flashy – quite the opposite, actually. From the street, all you see is a narrow, faded shopfront below a vintage green awning bearing the words “Café hakujuji.” When you peer through the glass door on the right, you see a counter under a row of glowing pendant lights, and a few low tables between comfy-looking low seats covered in a velvety red fabric, draped here and there with blankets. Everything about this place looks comfortably old-fashioned – and that’s where its charm lies. It’s like stepping through a door into the past, and you can feel the Showa vibes.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji

All of this is reinforced when you see the women who run the place. There is Hiromi, who prepares the meals behind the counter, and her mother Keiko, 95, who brings customers their coffee and trays of food, fills up the kerosene heater in winter, and occasionally heads out to pick up a few things at a nearby market. She moves slowly but deliberately, and no one volunteers to help her because they know that she can – and prefers to – do things by herself.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji
Filling up the kerosene stove on a cold day

The menu features classic yoshoku fare such as curry rice, Spaghetti Napolitan and thick buttered toast, but there are also daily specials. I started coming here for the Tuesday (formerly Wednesday) steak donburi lunch, but ended up returning for the atmosphere and conversation.

Many of the customers who come here for lunch are regulars, and you can sense this not only by the frequency with which people call each other by name, but also by the feeling you get that people are continuing conversations that began long ago, and will stretch indefinitely into the future. It’s fun to join these conversations, but I also like staying on after everyone else has left, because that is when Hiromi and Keiko will tell me stories about the old days, and how Hakujuji started.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji
The steak donburi lunch has many fans

Working as an electrical engineer in Tianjin during WWII, Keiko’s husband Seigoro was a frequent customer at Hakujuji, the Tianjin branch of a Tokyo restaurant. The restaurant was located in the French Concession, and its bright and sophisticated atmosphere – and French waitresses – made a lasting impression on him. After returning to Yamagata, Seigoro opened an electrical appliance store and café in Nanokamachi in 1955, and Hakujuji (“White Cross”) was the name he chose for his new business.

With the Prefectural Office (now the Bunshokan) and the bustling Matsuzakaya Department Store in the immediate vicinity, the café tended to be thronged with customers from morning to night. It was not unusual to have 90 customers in the morning alone, but after the electrical appliance store shut down following Seigoro’s death and the Matsuzakaya Department Store closed its doors in 2000, things also quieted down at the café, which now mainly serves midday meals.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji
Some old snapshots from an album found on the café bookshelf

Hiromi only started working at the café about 6 years ago, but her mother has been at Hakujuji for 64 years, nearly its entire history. If you wonder where Keiko’s energy comes from, it helps to know that she has excelled at athletics since her youth, taking part in everything from table tennis to Nordic skiing, and even enjoying the occasional session of tightrope walking during her younger days. While in her 60s, she was selected as a member of the Yamagata delegation to the “Nenrinpic,” a national sports and recreational “olympics” for senior citizens – and that was some 30 years ago.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji
Keiko with Hiromi as a baby

Her skiing days may be behind her, but she commuted to the café by motor scooter until she was 92 – and still regrets having returned her license, she tells me. She continues to work at the café every day, is on her feet for most of the time, and clearly has no desire to take any days off.

When she has some time to sit down, she will tell me old stories of sirens and air raids and encounters with foreign soldiers during the war, or will recount the active days she passed with friends in more carefree times. Her words etch pictures in my mind, and I get a sense of some of the things she has lived through.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji
Hakujuji then
Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji
and now

But her mind is also very much in the present, and I will see her frowning over an article in the newspaper about the upcoming U.S. elections, or getting ready to do this year’s tax returns.

And that’s what’s nice about Hakujuji. It’s retro – but not just retro. Keiko wears the traditional sankakukin bandana on her head, but the university student who comes in part-time has hair dyed a sunny blonde. Customers include longtime acquaintances from the neighborhood, businessmen in suits, and young mothers with their babies. And the conversations ricochet from stories of the past to discussions of Pax Americana to the latest news from overseas.

So come to Hakujuji for the conversation, or a cup of coffee, or one of their lunch specials.
If you like Yamagata beef, you’ll enjoy the steak lunch.

Yamagata Life Diary: Café Hakujuji


Café Hakujuji
Address: 2-7-15 Nanokamachi, Yamagata city
Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (weekdays), 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (weekends and holidays)
Steak lunch: Tuesdays