Over 500 students representing universities across the globe set sail on the MV World Odyssey this January for the Spring 2016 Semester at Sea program. Their floating campus will take them around the world to 15 cities in 11 different countries in just over 100 days. Among these world travelers is Paula Pecorella of Stony Brook University, who will serve as a correspondent for The Statesman this semester.
For over 1,000 years, Kyoto represented Japan’s state capital and is best known today for the relics of ancient times in the form of Buddhist temples, shrines and bamboo gardens. Past 6 p.m., the city appears completely desolate as the lights turn off, the shops close up and the people go home. But in one small corner of the city, not far from Ukyo-Ku metro station, a traditional family-owned restaurant stays open for business.
Tadao Nomura opened Donkaku in 1983, and his restaurant remains a local favorite according to frequent diners, with the help of his wife and four children. The family members make up the entire restaurant’s staff and make their livelihoods solely from the income of their traditional Japanese restaurant.
Tadao, who is also the head chef, and his wife, Shishi, provided overwhelming hospitality to a group of student tourists who dined on their one night stop in Kyoto. With the menus providing no English clues besides pictures, Tadao was happy to cook up some fresh favorites of his at no charge when he noticed the students’ trouble deciphering the menu.
“I thought the food was amazing,” said Allison Romanski, an American tourist and first-time customer at Donkaku. “We came here because it was the only place open in Kyoto, but in hindsight I’m really glad we picked it.”
Leo Tringali, another first-time diner, said: “I have no idea what I had for dinner. We kind of went in blind and just pointed. We asked for ‘sukina,’ which is Japanese for favorite, and everything just came out so good.”
While American tourists are far and few between in this small “hole-in-the-wall” eatery, Tadao said Japanese students are the regular customer base at Donkaku.
Now 65, Tadao attributes the success of the restaurant to his family.
“I have two sons and two daughters,” he said. “All of them work here on the weekends on Saturday and Sunday when it is busy.”
“I don’t go to school. I work to help my family,” Hiroshi Nomura, the oldest son and head waiter, said. But the restaurant business is not in Hiroshi’s future, as he expressed his interest in becoming a painter one day instead.
“I practice dish painting,” he said. “I went for two years to school to learn how.”
His unique dish paintings are displayed throughout the restaurant and are used to serve smaller dishes and cups of tea. Each handcrafted dish incorporates eccentric Japanese artwork including drawings of the Japanese cherry blossom and many Japanese symbols.
In a sense, Donkaku is an embodiment of traditional Japanese culture, with no shoes dining, over-the-top hospitality and delicious food. The restaurant serves a variety of traditional Japanese food including everything from squid to teriyaki chicken balls and complimentary hot tea, at a rate of no more than 10,000 yen per plate. Sake samples were provided before the tourists decided what to purchase, and the staff even went so far as to give everyone Japanese names.
Should you ever find yourself in the streets of Kyoto during the day or late at night, Donkaku is a must.