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Where Ainu food, culture, and community meet

—Interview of Harukor owner Teruyo Usa

Teruryo Usa interviewed by Jennifer Teeter and Takayuki Okazaki,
Long interview (extended version from KJ 83)

No matter which day of the week, Harukor, Tokyo’s sole Ainu restaurant, overflows with the laughter and chatter of its patrons. Tucked away in Shin-Okubo, one of the more culturally diverse areas of Japan’s sprawling capital, the restaurant was opened by Teruyo Usa and her family in 2011. Teruyo sought to create a venue that would serve not only as a place to enjoy the distinctive and delectable cuisine that she grew up with, but also for Ainu people including herself to consolidate relationships and celebrate their culture.  In addition, she wished to carry on the work of her mother, who had also worked at Rera Cise, the only Ainu restaurant in Tokyo at the time, which closed in 2009.

Teruyo is a hardworking woman who is seldom in one place for long. Between flying to Hokkaido to perform with the Yayrenka (meaning “joy” in the Ainu language) group, setting up Ainu food stalls at festivals about once a month, fulfilling her duties as a mother, and managing the restaurant, she managed to sit down with us to talk about food, identity, resilience, and interconnectedness across generations.



Kyoto Journal: What does harukor mean?

Teruyo: “Haru” means something that can be eaten. The word “kor”, show possession of a quality, in this case, edibility. However, “harukor” itself, has a variety of usages, for example, people say it when wishing that people never be lacking of food, or that there would be plenty of game after hunt, or to say that you hope someone will become full, or be surrounded in the richness of food.


照代: ハルコロの意味は、ハルが「食べられる物」で、コロが「持つ」です。色んな直訳があるんですけど、食べ物に困らないとか、捕った獲物に肉がいっぱいついているとかがあります。お腹いっぱいになれるとか、食べ物が豊富ってことも意味しています。

How did your restaurant come into being?

From when I was twenty years old, I was in an Ainu traditional dance group called Rera no Kai with my mother. All of the members envisioned creating a place where people could be immersed in Ainu culture. Given the circumstances, it was quite difficult to establish such a place. Yet, through a restaurant, people can easily come and go and all sorts of different types of friendships can be made. Keeping in mind the way that food culture can connect us to our culture, Rera no Kai opened Rera Cise 20 years ago.

My mother and I used to work part-time at Rera Cise, but about a year before it closed, we both stopped working there. The Mama-san of the “sunakku” bar I was working at quit, so I ended up taking over that business. When Rera Cise did eventually close, five years ago, it was heartbreaking. My mother had put so much energy and passion into it.  I wanted to find a way for her to use her hands again.

I honestly didn’t think we would be able to open an Ainu restaurant so quickly, yet it only took about a year and a half. While I was running the sunakku we started our preparations and opened Harukor on May 22nd, 2011. In honor of our anniversary date, we have a variety of specials on the 22nd of every month. Now Harukor is in its fifth year.

My mother taught my husband, who does the cooking at the restaurant, for 40 days straight until the day she died, which was a month after the opening, on June 30th. Until the very end, we lived every day with her to the fullest. My younger brother Nobu, who was based in Sapporo, hadn’t really been around until that time. When we asked him to come down to Tokyo and help us with the opening, originally we said we only wanted him to stay a month to help, but he is now here indefinitely.






It must have been difficult running two businesses at the same time.

In June, a year after my mother died, I ended up quitting the sunakku. I was 5 months pregnant and pretty much at my limit: at first I was running the sunakku while managing Harukor at lunchtimes, and my husband took care of our restaurant at night. I developed hypertension and other ailments. The doctor told me I was overdoing it.



It seems like you are in the swing of things now.

Yeah, fortunately things have settled down now, thanks to my younger brother coming to help. While we were setting up the restaurant, he stayed half of the time with mom and half the time with us. He was precious to her, being the only son out of her five kids. I opened this restaurant, for my own personal reasons too of course, but also for my mother because I genuinely wanted to make her happy. I called my brother to come help because I knew that would make her happy too. I really feel Harukor has a lot of good energy.



And she adored her son. He told me about how several days before she died they went out for some drinks and my brother came home with her hand in hand.  You don’t really hear about things like that too much- a mother walking home at night holding hands with the son she adores. That made me realize how meaningful it is to open Harukor.

Harukor has brought so many people together. For example, Megu from Yayrenka started working for us part-time. Now she and Nobu are married and have a kid.



Was it your mother who taught you how to cook?

Yes, and she taught us our family recipe for ohaw, that we call Sanpejiru for example. too. Have you had ohaw? It’s a simple soup made with vegetables and salmon simmered in a kombu seaweed broth and seasoned with salt. Some people make it with miso paste. She also taught us how to dress salmon and make different sauces—all sorts of things. We made Ainu dumplings together, and ohaw. It was a short but precious time that we could spend together.

I came to Tokyo when I was ten, but was born in Kushiro. My parents got divorced and my mother brought us five kids here to Tokyo. My grandmother was already working at a cleaning company here, so my mother came and joined her. We were poor of course, so if we wanted something we had to save money ourselves. I was tall enough to pass for someone older so my sister and I would walk from Shinjuku where we lived to Harajuku for work. If we worked one day at a street stand in those hokoten markets, where the street is closed off to cars on certain days of the week, we could make about 5,000 yen selling yakisoba noodles or okonomiyaki pancakes.

I worked in a hostess bar when I was 16. It was then that I realized that no matter how high class, or how good the food is, if the service at a place isn’t good, and the staff don’t treat you warmly, customers won’t come. The atmosphere of a place is what makes it.





The last time we were at Harukor, your daughter Ruino took it upon herself to help out. She was really adorable. How old is she?

She is 2 years and 8 months. She likes passing out hand towels to customers when they come in. We are blessed with customers who accept her being there and accept the way we do things. The restaurant is an important part of our family life. Our customers are like family too. When they come they say, “That’s my granddaughter.” She has lots of “grandpas.” In a way, this is how we pass on our culture.  It’s good for children to see their parents at work.

The other day Ruino heard me say “dozo” (“here you are”) to a customer, and she just picked it up like that and now says, “Hai, dozo” to customers. The same goes with Ainu dance, she just picks it up. It’s not like I have to teach her. She learns by herself and just does it. It’s so fascinating. It’s the same with my Ainu culture group, Yayrenka. If culture isn’t learned in a fun way, it can’t be passed on well.




Who would you say is your customer base?

Of course people who work or live near by come to the restaurant, but of course we have guests who have come after doing their own searching to find out more about Ainu food. Lots of foreigners, and Japanese people come here saying, “I knew that if I came to Tokyo, I wanted to come here.” We also have visitors who used to go to Rera Cise. I am grateful that people come here through so many different connections.

We also open up stalls at events all over the Tokyo metropolitan area about once a month at different events, like the Ainu Thanksgiving Celebration in October or the joint Ainu-Okinawan Caranke festival in November. The day after Ainu Thanksgiving, Shin Okubo, where our restaurant is located, is closed to traffic for a festival celebrating the rich diversity of the community. (Background: After becoming known as a Korean town in 2002 after Japan and South Korea both hosted the World Cup, people from all sorts of backgrounds started living in the area.)

There’s also a festival in Kawagoe celebrating the collaboration and friendship between Korean and samurai peace envoys during the Edo period (1600-1867).  We really look forward to this festival. People from all ethnic backgrounds- Koreans, Peruvians, Brazilians, Japanese, come together for a parade that stretches for miles to share in their wishes for peace. A member of the Ainu-Japanese solidarity group Pewruetar is on the organizing committee, too.  Another important one is the “Everyone’s different, everyone’s good” festival in May.

Sometimes I get invited to schools and we make potato dumplings together too. Another unique way I’ve been able to share Ainu food is through the radio actually. Some radio hosts tried our rataskep and said they had never tasted a type of bitterness like that before. 






Could you tell us a little bit about Ainu food culture?

There aren’t many people who eat Ainu food now in the way that it was eaten long ago. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the menu at our restaurant has food exactly like the food in the past. But we try to incorporate as many Ainu ingredients as we can.

We don’t have many items on the menu, and we clearly can’t make the every item on the menu exactly Ainu food, but little by little we are trying different ways to include traditional Ainu food and ingredients. For example, we have dishes which use the fruits of trees used in traditional Ainu cuisine. After all, it is difficult for us to obtain those ingredients here in Kanto, but we try to through people we know.




What kind of foods can’t you make in Tokyo?

Fermented things, like muninimo, shibareimo, or poceimo. They are all preserved foods made from the starch of fermented potatoes. The potatoes are buried in the ground and left to sleep for a winter, until they decompose. The starch is then removed from the potatoes and dried into a donut-shaped ring that is dried and hardened over a fire pit.



What about bear?

We sometimes have bear on the menu, but not too often. We serve it in a stew, just grilled, or flame-grilled with a torch. Seasoning would be salt and pepper.



You also have rataskep on the menu. What is rataskep?

“Rataskep” means “to mix”. There’s no single way to prepare it. Basically, it has a mashed squash or pumpkin base with various vegetables mixed in it, like corn or beans. The kihada cork tree berries give it that distinctive slight bitterness.



How do you get the ingredients for your restaurant?

Some I get from Hokkaido, or I ask people to send them to me. If Yayrenka has a performance planned at an event in Sapporo, I get ingredients from people I know there. I sometimes ask my younger sister to find someone who has certain ingredients. Just the other day, a friend of mine who went to Hokkaido sent us some things. So basically, we get ingredients through connections with other people. There are so many things that can’t be found outside of Hokkaido.



What kind of changes have you seen in your lifetime or even before that impact how you prepare Ainu cuisine?

Of course there has been some influence by the prohibitions of fishing and hunting by the Meiji government. Now you can be arrested for fishing in certain places and it’s prohibited to hunt deer without special permission. I imagine people must have found replacements for these foods. Take shibareimo, for instance. Potatoes only entered the Ainu diet from the Meiji period. The same goes for corn too, which is used in ohaw or rataskep. Squash is probably one of the newer foods, too. Ooba Yuri, a type of lily root was originally used for fermented foods. But now you don’t find many people using ooba yuri, so there aren’t many chances to eat it.

It is amazing that my restaurant is still the only Ainu one around. One foreign traveler was surprised when he heard that. This is now the only place in Tokyo where you can get Ainu food? He just couldn’t believe it. But that is the reality. It’s hard to believe, especially coming from the point of view of a traveler from overseas.

Someone on Twitter actually commented that, “I’ve had Okinawan food and every other cuisine in Japan, but not Ainu food.” It’s interesting, you can get Italian, Chinese, French, restaurants, run by Japanese people and no one thinks it is strange. But when someone who is not Ainu cooks Ainu cuisine, people find something distasteful or odd about it.





From what I can see, Harukor has a variety of foods.

Well, we don’t want people to think that we are purely an Ainu restaurant. If we only serve Ainu cuisine, then we only have a limited selection of what we can make. The Ainu foods we serve are things like rataskep, munini-imo, ohaw. I would consider other items on our menu like kitopiro (a garlicky herb also known as gyoja ninniku in Japanese), and deer meat to be typically Hokkaido food.

Ainu food is more based on the natural flavors of ingredients, rather unlike Hokkaido foods, which rely on strong flavors. We just use salt for seasoning; no additives. Nowadays more and more people, kids and adults alike, have allergies from the surprising amount of chemical additives increasingly being used in cooking. I can always tell when there are additives in food because the taste is so unnatural. Kids with wheat or butter allergies can eat our dumplings or rataskep here safely. We make an effort to be open about the ingredients that we use.




Could you share with us a little more about the culture that surrounds preparing Ainu food?

Traditionally, women prepare food, and men go out hunting. Ceremonies are also very important. There are ceremonies for gaining permission to enter the mountain without encountering any problem, for before hunting for deer, or for taking the bark from the kihada cork tree, which is used for treating the stomach. After taking bark from the Manchurian elm for making a waterproof clothing, you give thanks to the tree by tying it with its own bark to prevent the parts that weren’t removed from falling off, so it can keep regenerating. In terms of ceremonies, there are certain foods that are used —rice, beans, fish, kombu. These foods are offered to the kamuy [deities].



Are you thinking of opening up another branch of Harukor?

Maybe someday. It would be great to open a restaurant in the middle of Susukino, which is Sapporo’s entertainment district where everything is happening. But now, it would not do so well. In touristy places Ainu restaurants can be opened, but the time isn’t right for Sapporo. Recently, there were there was that incident whereby a Sapporo City member of parliament, Kaneko said that Ainu don’t exist and that, paradoxically, are taking advantage of welfare funds. These statements make us want to open a restaurant in Sapporo even more, for when people say something negative about Ainu, we feel compelled to turn the negative into something positive. These people don’t make us weak but make us stronger.



Finally, how do you envision Harukor?

As Ainu, our food and our culture are one. We want to keep it alive for the future. Food is an entryway into Ainu culture, especially for children who don’t know much about Ainu traditions.

I want it to be a place where people can reacquaint themselves with their Ainu ancestry. For example, Harukor ended up being the first entry point into the Ainu community for a man who recently just learned of his Ainu heritage. We invited him to come along to events we had in Sasazuka and Gin no Shizuku (Silver droplets slowly falling) in honor of Chiri Yukie, who dedicated her life to translating and transmitting Ainu epic tales into Japanese. Like this, I want Harukor to be a place where anyone can feel welcome.

I also want Harukor to be a place where our friends and supporters can come together and talk and support one another or just come together to casually meet up and have a laugh over some drinks. A place where people who are visiting from Hokkaido can easily come and drop by. I think it is growing into a place like that and I am so grateful to everyone who comes, Ainu and non-Ainu alike.







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