Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff
Arutan Kobayashi (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China)
One day we were browsing through our Facebook feed when we came across a captivating post. It was from a participant of an event we once organized, who visited a “Silk Road Cuisine” restaurant in Yokohama. A quick Google search revealed that the restaurant serves cuisine from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Hearing that the restaurant offers Xinjiang food culture, which is considerably rare in Japan, we decided to visit the restaurant on the day of our upcoming meeting in Yokohama.
On a drizzly September day, we went from Sakuragicho to Mitsukyo on the Sotetsu Line via Yokohama. After a five-minute walk from the station (but without an umbrella), we opened the door to a small, cozy restaurant with a pretty green roof, and a slightly spicy aroma tickled our nostrils. We sat down and asked the waitress what she recommended, and she said “Laghman”. The noodles are made in the restaurant from flour, and after many repetitions of the process of laying them down and stretching them, they are completed with a strong texture. Although we at My Eyes Tokyo have visited many ethnic restaurants in the past, we were nervous about the unknown taste of this dish. After a while, the noodles with vegetables and lamb on top were irresistibly delicious, and we finished them all at once.
Lamb laghman with plenty of vegetables and lamb meat (left). You can enjoy the various flavors of the dish with special chili oil or black vinegar (middle). Accompanying it is a “Xinjiang soda” filled with ginger (right). It is a drink that conveys Xinjiang’s tea culture, created at a time when alcohol could not be served because of COVID-19.
As we were leaving the restaurant, we boldly asked for an interview, and she agreed right away. She, the lady who served us, was also the manager, Arutan Kobayashi.
“We look forward to interviewing you later!” we said and went outside, but it was raining heavily. Oh, no, we thought, having forgotten to bring an umbrella that day… But just as we were about to run to the station to avoid getting wet, Arutan offered us plastic umbrellas, saying, “Please use these”.
This is the story of a Mongolian woman from Xinjiang who has such a wonderful caring heart.
*Interview at Budoen (Seya-ku, Yokohama)
The restaurant is our home. Our guests are our family.
We opened this restaurant in July 2018. We call our dishes “Silk Road Cuisine” because we offer both the cuisine of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and that of our Mongolian people. We work every day with the hope of spreading the taste that we love, the taste of our mothers, like the dishes made with mutton, which are not so familiar to Japanese people.
You can learn about the local lifestyle, geography, and weather from food. For example, in Xinjiang, noodles are mainly made from wheat, while rice is rarely harvested due to the dry air. Our guests imagine such things as they enjoy our cuisine. They must have a rich imagination because they love not only China and Xinjiang but also other cultures around the world.
Polo, an Uyghur rice dish. In Xinjiang, where rice is precious due to the dry climate, it is eaten on festive occasions. The restaurant offers two types of polo: lamb and carrots or dried grapes and carrots.
The shish-kebabs are carefully grilled with attention to detail by her younger brother, the representative of the company that runs the restaurant.
Bansh (mutton dumplings). They use lamb for dumplings in Uyghur!
Laghman noodles are made to order.
Japanese dramas were the gateway to dreams
Ever since I was a child, I have heard about and admired Japan from those around me. In high school, I started watching Japanese TV dramas from the 1990s, such as “Tokyo Love Story”. Rather than being attracted to the story content of these dramas, I guess I liked seeing how ordinary life was in Japan through these dramas.
After graduating from university, I went to Japan to study, which was my long-cherished dream. After that, I got married and devoted myself to raising my children for a while. Eventually, however, I began to feel the urge to do something on my own.
It was then that I thought back to the past. I have been involved in the restaurant business from before I came to Japan until my days as an exchange student. I loved the food itself, but most of all, I loved talking with customers and felt excitement and happiness every time I talked with them. So I came up with the idea of opening my restaurant.
I invited my brother to join me as a strong partner, and together we set out to look for a place to open the restaurant. As we went around everywhere, we arrived at Mitsukyo (三ツ境), and I felt familiar with the Chinese character “境,” which means “border,” the same as the character for “疆” in 新疆 (Xinjiang). So I felt familiar with the name of the place.
The word 三ツ”疆”, (Mitsukyo, originally 三ツ”境”) is written on the store’s cards.
Moreover, silk was once produced in the Mitsukyo area, and there used to be a “Silk Road” that carried the products around here. Feeling a sense of destiny in such a place, we decided to open a restaurant here. We named the restaurant “Budoen” in the hope that customers will increase through word of mouth like budo (ぶどう: grapes) harvested in Xinjiang, and also with our desire to cherish all kinds of en (縁: bonds, relations, connections).
“Grapes” after overcoming hardships
When the restaurant first opened, it was open only at night, and the situation was unpredictably difficult, with days when no one came in and days when only one person did.
Eventually, customers who came to our restaurant started coming with their friends, acquaintances, and families, and the number of customers gradually increased. On the first anniversary of the opening, many customers came to the restaurant, brought drinks and sweets, and told us, “Congratulations! You did a great job!” I was so happy that I cried.
A painting received from a customer on the first anniversary of the opening of the restaurant. Arutan is in the center, his brother is on the right, and her niece is on the left. The three of them founded Budoen.
Giving back to the people and the town with cuisine from my home
I think our restaurant is truly blessed by its customers. We have been nurtured by them. They not only simply came here, but also gave us various forms of advice. We serve curry, pasta, etc. with a Silk Road flavor in response to our customers’ requests. I feel that we are somehow becoming a “culinary bridge” between Japan and the Silk Road, and I am enjoying myself right now.
My favorite Japanese word is “Arigato” (“Thank you”). I feel the happiest when I say “Arigato gozaimasu!” (“Thank you very much!”), I feel the greatest happiness. I would like to convey this word to all the people who have come here and all the people I have met so far.
I also want to return the favor to the town of Mitsukyo that nurtured our restaurant. “It used to be prosperous, but now it has lost its vitality.” –Whenever I hear such comments, I feel sad. On the other hand, some people think, “I can’t go to the Silk Road, but Mitsukyo is not far away,” and they come here not only from the Kanto area but also from Tohoku and Kyushu. I would like to contribute to making Mitsukyo a pleasant town and a pleasant “road” by increasing the number of people who think, “If I go to Mitsukyo, I can enjoy Silk Road cuisine!”
What is Japan to you?
It is the best place for me.
But now that I am here in Japan, I want to be able to give back to my hometown so that the people there will be proud of me.
Our customers are our assets. I will cherish Budoen and want to bring smiles to our customers’ faces.
19-21 Mitsukyo, Seya-ku, Yokohama (*Map)
*4 min. walk from the South Exit of Mitsukyo Station on the Sotetsu Line
Business hours: 11:30am – 10:00pm
Budoen website: foodplace.jp/budouen/