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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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An All-Night Oasis

Mar. 30, 2017

A 91-year-old chef has been running an all-night diner in western Japan for over half a century and locals see it as a refuge from the difficulties of daily life.

People in the harbor city of Sasebo, about 50 kilometers north of Nagasaki city, know they can always find hot, tasty food at the diner and someone who will listen to their problems.

The city first developed as a Japanese naval base and later, a US base was also built. Nowadays, traces of the lively American military presence have almost disappeared in the downtown area and tourists rarely visit.

A little off the main street is Misako Mizoguchi's diner. She arrives for work at 9 p.m. because the establishment is open around the clock. It operates as a deli during the daytime and in the evening it turns into a diner, which Misako runs by herself.

Most of the customers are people who work late into the night. Mindful of their health, Misako cooks dishes using plenty of vegetables.

People visit the diner late at night for a variety of reasons.

“I had an argument with my wife,” one customer tells Misako.

For some, the diner has become a late-night refuge. The shop opened in 1947, shortly after the end of the World War 2. It used to sell mainly fruits and vegetables.

Misako lost a younger brother in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki City, where he was attending college. At age 22, Misako started helping her parents in the shop so her younger brothers could go to school.

At the time, many people in Sasebo were working day and night to rebuild from the damage caused by air raids. Misako opened the all-night diner to serve them.

“I thought I would make rice balls to sell. Turns out I couldn't make them fast enough. People loved my rice balls,” she remembers.

Misako supported the post-war reconstruction effort by offering hot meals and a warm, friendly smile. Even at the age of 91 she still works through the night, arriving home at 9 o’clock in the morning.

She has always been dedicated to her work, and never married.

“There were a few men over the years who asked me to marry them. But as I recall, I usually refused them on the spot. I think I felt that my diner would suffer if I wasn't there to look after things,” Misako says.

At night, the downtown core becomes quiet and few people can be seen on the streets. One of the regulars at Misako's diner, Masahiro Orihara, runs a sushi restaurant nearby. Over the years, business has declined and his shop's sales are only a third of what they used to be.

“I'm lucky because my shop is still open. Everyone in Sasebo goes through hard times. As many as 20 percent of the stores could close within the year,” Orihara says.

When he was in high school, he lived nearby and Misako fed and cared for him. He still comes to the diner often.

“It was Misako who would call the school for me, instead of my mother. She’d say things like ‘Excuse me, my son’s fever went down, can he come back to school now?’” Orihara says.

He sees how hard she works even under the difficult conditions. He says her efforts motivate him to continue with his own work.

“Coming here gives me the energy I need to work hard the next day. It’s like having your mother tell you to keep at it,” Orihara says.

Women also see Misako as an inspiration. Maiko Hayashida works nearby as a bar hostess and she's struggling with some life choices: continue working or get married and have a family. She often compares herself to Misako.

“I’ll be 35 this year, but I’m still single,” Maiko says. “Misako is also single, with no family and no children. But she likes working here and meeting everyone. I want to be like that, too.”

Misako is worried about Maiko, including how much alcohol she drinks at work.

“You’re young, honey. Take care of your health,” Misako says.

She's worried that Maiko may be using alcohol to escape from her worries, so she gives the young one some tough advice.

“You need to be strong, dear,” Misako says. “You’re still young and you have a long life ahead of you. You need to be tougher.”

Maiko is emotionally overwhelmed.

“Why did you sacrifice your life?” Maiko says, crying.

“That’s not true,” Misako replies.

“But you always put others' happiness ahead of your own,” says Maiko.

Customers frequently come to see Misako to discuss their problems and talk about their thoughts and concerns.

“My life has been filled with work, but it’s fun being at this diner so I don't want to stop,” Misako says. “I’ve met a lot of happy people over the years. And I’ve met a lot of unhappy people too -- often because of their work. When my customers are unhappy it makes me sad. That’s why I like to cheer them up with words of encouragement.”

At the cozy all-night diner, kind words with hot tasty food continue to bring people together in Misako's warm embrace.