Miguel Jaime G. Ongpin on Little Tokyo’s closure rumors

No establishment represents the cultural nook that is Little Tokyo better than Izakaya Kikufuji. Word has it that it, and the rest of the compound, is set to close. A longtime regular reacts.

by Miguel Jaime G. Ongpin, art by Aaron Asis

Illustration by Aaron Asis, edited for web


This article was originally published in the Slant section of Rogue, April 2017.


Ironically, when I did receive this upsetting news via Messenger, I was in fact on a rare, brief holiday in Tokyo, Japan.


Confronted with this, a number of negative emotions began to kick in. There was a sense of numb resentment combined with a stubborn disbelief. While there were feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty, there was also a sense that things must work themselves out.

Push will come to shove but something will have to give.


For myself, the real reasons for the closure are moot and in a way, unimportant. Any longtime resident of Metro Manila will tell you he has seen things like this happen before. The conventional thinking on this type of matter will lead a seasoned observer to deduce that the leases of the establishments that comprise Little Tokyo are up, and that whoever might own that large property has either sold it or will redevelop it via a joint venture with some moneyed partner.


As a self-styled Metro Manila diner and gourmand myself, like so many others, I took this rather unpleasant upcoming reality very personally, and very directly, simply because Little Tokyo in Makati is where we all went for sushi. Little Tokyo is, in fact, where many Manila gourmands went for quality but affordable sushi, and many other precious but monetarily and readily accessible dishes.


I found myself unconsciously drawn, as if by muscle memory, to the certainly famous Izakaya Kikufuji, no less a veritable shrine of Japanese cuisine in Manila. In a recent poll conducted over Facebook, the restaurant received more votes than its smaller and marginally pricier rival, neighbor Seryna, which many gourmands also swear by. Izakaya Kikufuji is a compelling case study that merits much discussion.


I can’t really remember the first time I walked into Izakaya Kikufuji. I can only guess that it had to have been some time before the year 2000. I suppose I should ask myself now if much has changed. It’s a bit difficult for me to say whether it has, in a vast way. I should say that when I ask myself this question now, I do really think my recent trip to Tokyo has indeed put a few things into perspective.


When I last departed Izakaya Kikufuji very recently, the sushi bar was almost entirely occupied and there was already a line starting for people waiting for tables. At 6:45 p.m.


In no way had I imagined recently that I would be taking a trip to Tokyo. When I found myself there, I was in a state of fascinatingly joyful disbelief. There was so little time and yet so much to see (and taste).


I found myself so exhausted at one point that I had briefly fallen asleep on the train. Something I had seen many Japanese people do in photographs in the past.


I discovered that my railway journeys in Tokyo were far longer and more complicated than the LRT 2 Cubao to Recto commutes that I was used to. One distant trip with shopping in mind may take 30 minutes. Furthermore, the pace of everything I found myself doing was frenzied. Sleep seemed necessary but it was often limited during my trip.


I suppose my first images of Izakaya Kikufuji then are indeed quite different from what I see today. Nowadays I see more people like me, Manila diners and gourmands, there for the sushi and other culinary spectacles. In the past, I had the undying image of this place as the one-stop shop for the Japanese salaryman based in Manila. The kind of guy who would walk in there as a stranger in a strange land off Manila’s streets and find a bit of home. Load up on some sushi, yakitori, and others, and maybe enjoy some Japanese beer, whisky, or sake before heading elsewhere or home for a nightcap.


Nowadays you can imagine the dining population has exploded. One may now have to show up at 5:30 p.m. or be relegated to sharing a table in the smoking section in the rear.


While it is true that the likes of my Japanese brother-in-law and many other similar experts may call it “Good but not (representatively) good enough,” I would like to argue that Izakaya Kikufuji (and Seryna, in a slightly lesser sense) is simply what is geographically and monetarily accessible to most Manila gourmands. I can easily demonstrate that I could purchase and consume a nearly excessive amount of 10 pieces of premium sushi for about P800. Closely trailing and certainly worth mentioning is Pasig’s Haru in Kapitolyo, which has the remarkable blue marlin belly sushi and sashimi. And few can afford Makati Shangri-La’s Inagiku, Mandaluyong’s new star Tomo, or even Fort Bonifacio’s Ogawa. Tanabe of Remedios Circle, Malate, and now Jupiter Street, Makati, I am told, appears to be one of few viable contenders.


There is also one very interesting point to bring up. I have always held in much wonder restaurants with overly large menus that have the ability to execute most, if not all of their items with praiseworthy competence. For instance, a latecomer to dine at my table during my last visit was advised to try the chicken wings (I am assuming fried and basted with some sort of sauce). I myself can vouch for the ebi tempura, wagyu yakitori, and a variety of grilled fish as well as the oysters and scallops. In a sideview glance, I observed a couple of women served what appeared to be a very well executed bowl of Japanese beef curry. The latecomer’s Japanese husband would subsequently comment that it is rare, even in Japan, to have such a restaurant with this wide a spectrum of dishes executed with such success.


Here is another interesting story. When I last departed Izakaya Kikufuji very recently, the sushi bar was almost entirely occupied and there was already a line starting for people waiting for tables. At 6:45 p.m.

Three visits prior, I was obliged to sit in the rear smoking section (which I did not mind) and share a table with what sounded like a Cebuano-speaking couple. I noticed that they had ordered many small dishes, none of which included any raw fish.


Now perhaps you can imagine that I would order my usual 10-12 pieces of sushi and that these would eventually arrive.


The gentleman of the couple with us suddenly broke into English:


“You sure know and enjoy your sushi, don’t you?”


I sheepishly replied in the affirmative.


It turned out that he, Victor, hails from Dapitan, Zamboanga Del Norte, and began his career in 1980 at (the then new) Musashi, which was once up the street from the former and original incarnations of The Oar House and The Hobbit House at the corner of Remedios and Mabini streets in Malate.


Today, he is a respected and multi-awarded sushi chef working in Los Angeles, California.


Hot damn. Word gets around.

I can only say that the realm of my experience in Makati’s Little Tokyo is modestly confined to Izakaya Kikufuji and Seryna. With the little time left, I suppose I must urge all of you to visit as soon as you can, and discover what you still can before it all disappears.


But hang on. An important postscript is in order.


It was profoundly difficult to substantiate the truth behind the rumor of Little Tokyo’s impending closure.


I did find one unimpeachable source who is also a disinterested party because he owns a non-Japanese restaurant nearby and is friends with one of the managers of a restaurant in Little Tokyo.


His text message to me read: “Miguel, interested parties are spreading the rumor…bka tayuan condo…no deal sa owner ng Little Tokyo…yehey!…”


I prodded further and he would subsequently reply: “Hehehe…the resto owners just had a meeting with the owner of the lot. No deal with the interested parties…”


Yehey,” indeed!