Cuisine Ahead of Its Time: Mikasa Kaikan's 100-Year Aspiration

Linden trees with heart-shaped leaves line the red granite sidewalks on Ginza's Namiki-dori Street. In these chic and relaxed streets packed with luxury brand stores such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton, the bright red awnings of Mikasa Kaikan catch one's eye. This well-established restaurant was founded in 1925 as a kakigori (shaved ice) shop in front of the Kabukiza Theatre and will soon mark its 100th anniversary. It offers a wide variety of cuisines from casual yoshoku (Western-influenced Japanese food) to authentic French, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese dishes. It preserves traditional recipes such as karaage (Japanese fried chicken), while continuing to offer the joy of cuisine that is one step ahead of its time.
Eye-catching bright red awnings of Mikasa Kaikan in Ginza, Tokyo.

A "Social Hub" on Namiki-dori

It is perfect for a cup of coffee between work or on the way home from shopping. LA VIOLA at Mikasa Kaikan is a café/bar with a stylish standing drinking space in the front of the restaurant facing Namiki-dori and is inspired by Italian bars. When traveling in Italy, you will see these bars on every street corner as places where the local people gather. President Tani Tatsuya, was manager of its president's office when he traveled throughout Italy about 20 years ago and decided to use this style for the new store in place of the tearoom on the first floor.

The concept for LA VIOLA was "a social hub on Ginza's Namiki-dori" where you can enjoy coffee by day and wine by night. "There were no such places in Ginza," Tani said. "That's why we thought we would give it a try." The design was modeled after a long-established bar in Florence.

LA VIOLA on the first floor that Tani opened is a classy café/bar inspired by Italian bars.

At first, they were told off by customers who were not accustomed to the standing style, saying "You're making us eat standing up?" However, when the Italian fashion brand Valentino opened on Namiki-dori, its Italian workers came by every day, drank espresso, and quickly returned to their work. "They came about six times a day. I realized that is the way bars are supposed to be used," says Tani.

Italian food culture is one of the themes that Mikasa Kaikan has focused on. The tiramisu served at Buono Buono, which was opened in the Nishi Ginza department store in 1986 during the bubble economy era was featured in the trend-setting magazine, Hanako, and became a big hit. AGIO, a chain of restaurants also operating under Mikasa Kaikan in the Tokyo metropolitan area since 1988, offers pizza baked in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy as its signature menu item.

Beginnings as a Kakigori Shaved Ice Shop in Front of Kabukiza Theatre

The name "Mikasa Kaikan" comes from Mt. Mikasa in Nara Prefecture, where the restaurant's founder Tani Zennojo (1899-1976) was from. The restaurant's tableware and paper napkins are decorated with a logo of deer, for which Nara is famous.

Zennojo was born the eldest son of a family long engaged in forestry in Yoshino Village, Nara, known for its cherry blossoms and cedar trees. After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, however, his lumber business failed. He then moved to Tokyo to seek help from his relatives. He found a newspaper advertisement for a tiny retail space while working as a trading company gofer and opened a shaved ice shop, Koorimizuya Mikasa in 1925. In winter, he served oshiruko (sweet red-bean soup) in a lacquered bowl, which was well received by Kabukiza Theatre patrons. He expanded his offerings to include light meals, and the shop grew in size.

Mikasa Kaikan's karaage became so famous that people used to say, "When you go to Ginza, you eat Mikasa Kaikan's karaage." The addition of bone-in karaage was born out of the poor business performance of a branch opened in Ginza 1-chome in 1932. One of the chefs proposed an original dish of deep-fried chicken, and when he served it at the restaurant, it became a big hit. The Japan Karaage Association recognized it as the first karaage to appear on a restaurant menu.

Mikasa Kaikan's golden brown "Bone-in Chicken Karaage" is seasoned with light soy sauce.

Kawahara Toshihiko, former executive chef and current culinary advisor, is one of those who have kept the traditional recipe alive. He said: "It is the first dish you are taught when you join the company. I had to practice many times, and it took a long time for me to get approval to serve it to customers."

He cuts whole chickens in the morning and deep-fries them. The key seasoning is light soy sauce. It has more salt than dark soy sauce, but he adds even more salt, along with sake and shochu (Japanese distilled spirits) for extra fragrance. He does not marinate the chicken for long and instead coats it with potato starch and fries it immediately, so that the meat is juicy and the skin is crispy. "We adjust how we fry it according to the condition of the chicken and our intuition. I don't think anyone else can duplicate the texture and color of our karaage," Kawahara says proudly.

An Integrated Restaurant with a Bar

It was not long after World War II that Mikasa Kaikan set up shop on Namiki-dori. In 1966, the building was rebuilt in its current form with nine floors above ground and two below, becoming an integrated restaurant with Japanese and Chinese eateries on each floor in addition to the Haruna French restaurant on the second floor.

カクテル 5517B.jpg
The original cocktail 5517 has a bright green color inspired by Mt. Mikasa in spring.

Bar 5517 on the basement floor opened in 1987 and was named after the address of Mikasa Kaikan. It was led by Inada Haruo (1928-2013), a famous bartender in Ginza. The spacious interior with a gently curved counter is sometimes used for filming dramas.

The original 5517 cocktail that Inada created for the opening was inspired by the spring buds on Mt. Mikasa in Nara. Dry gin is mixed with melon liqueur and fresh lime juice, shaken, and topped with mint leaves. A sip leaves a sweet and sour taste with a refreshing aftertaste.

The "Inada-ism" of standing at the counter with a humble attitude has been passed down to Yuasa Kazuki,  who is now the chief bartender. "I was supposed to just watch and learn, and I don't remember being taught any technical skills, but he was strict about cleaning. That taught me attention to detail. I look at the customer's facial expression and sense what they want me to do. It may not seem to have anything to do with cleaning, but I think it is connected."

The joy of being a bartender is that "customers drink what you make, and the reactions come directly to you," Yuasa says. "Looking at Inada, I think that, as long as I'm healthy, I could do this for the rest of my life. I want to make people naturally think, 'Bars are nice places,'" he says quietly.

100 Years in Ginza

According to President Tani, the three-year-long pandemic was "the biggest crisis since World War II," in which several restaurants were lost in air raids, but new business opportunities emerged from the ordeal. One of these was an online store. Ready-to-eat pouches and frozen foods were developed quickly. The "Indian Chicken Curry", for example, is based on a recipe the members of the Indian independence movement taught the founder as thanks for supporting their cause. At Bar 5517, Yuasa created a non-alcoholic cocktail by adding herbal water to fruit juice to give it depth, so that "even people who don't drink alcohol can now come to the bar."

"The pandemic has caused a significant change in our values due to unforeseen risks. However, we always want to be prepared for a variety of things no matter what happens at any time in the business environment, and we will continue to take on any challenge" Tani emphasizes.

Bottles of commemorative red wine are aging at a winery in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, in preparation for the 100th anniversary in 2025. Tani hopes that the wine will be "of a quality that can be enjoyed for decades." He will continue to aim to create restaurants that preserve Ginza's image while welcoming casual customers.

*This article was originally published by Jiji Press on September 10, 2023.
The contents, affiliations, titles, etc. of the article are as of the time of the interview.

Interview and written by Nakamura Masako
Photos by Irie Akihiro
Translation by Endo Toshio