"I feel more Genki when helping others," says Yoshida Masakiko, using the Japanese word for high spirits. She is the owner of a wine shop in Kyoto. She maintains a staff of 16 employees and sells to about 400 restaurants. But despite her positive attitude, business has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic.
Yoshida says April sales to restaurants will likely be down 80% compared to the same month last year, adding that the worst part is not knowing how long the situation will last. Her client restaurants are all either temporarily closed or only receiving a few customers a day.
She says dealing with the pandemic has been the biggest challenge of her life. But instead of accepting the state of affairs, she decided to be positive and "do something helpful." Yoshida learned that a number of her clients were offering takeout menus. She quickly created a website listing those restaurants in early April and added a hand-drawn map of their locations a few days later.
She says the reaction to her website was more positive than she could have expected. A number of people stepped up to help, including a friend who offered to create a Google Map showing the locations of all the restaurants. Another friend who works for a bento box company donated masks and gloves to the restaurants. And many volunteers gathered information on other restaurants offering takeout throughout Kyoto. Yoshida's website went from including information on 13 restaurants to over 40. She started to receive messages of thanks from people who were tired of cooking at home and were glad to find a site that offered some options. Many restaurants have also expressed gratitude.
But Yoshida wasn't done. She learned of similar efforts in other parts of Japan and was eventually able to create a tie-up.
Katori Miyuki, the co-founder of the #STAYHOME and #SaveRestaurants! project, is coordinating the joint effort. She started a website collating takeout information on restaurants in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures with two of her friends. Like Yoshida, she was overwhelmed by the positive reaction.
Katori is a research professor at Shinshu University in Nagano Prefecture and also works as a food and wine journalist. She has been hearing about the effects of the pandemic on farmers and producers around the country. Most of them say their businesses have been devastated She says she wants to expand the website to include restaurants across the country and help develop a "farm-to-table" movement. She thinks that more take-out restaurants shown on the website will mean more happy diners at home and more potential customers for farmers, fisherman, and other producers.
So far, 70 people have signed up to help. They include not only those who work in the food industry but also lawyers, web designers, journalists, and students. They work in groups to research different regions of the country, write and edit entries, and upload menus and delivery information. And it's all a labor of love—they work as volunteers.
About a month has passed since the project began and Katori says there has been some encouraging news. One restaurant says sales have rebounded by about 30%. Katori hopes the positive effects will soon be felt by farmers and producers, too.
Katori says her personal income has been cut in half over the past few months. But she says she's happy to be in a position to help others and has been encouraged by the passion shown by those around her. She says this sense of shared purpose has kept her going through these tough times.
Cooking at home with the pros
Waki Masayo is somewhat of a celebrity in Japan, appearing on cooking shows and in magazines with her popular home recipes. Her daughter Pari was about to fly to Spain earlier this year to start working at a restaurant when the country went into lockdown. Together they launched the #cookingrelay challenge. It started with uploading Waki's recipe on Facebook and Instagram and challenging two other chefs to do the same. The rules are simple: the dish can be made using only about three main ingredients.
After starting in late March, the challenge has spread at a speed Waki says she could never have imagined. She says she's lost track of how many people have taken part. A quick search on Facebook shows people from as far away as France have contributed.
One person who took part is Ushiro Hiroyuki, a chef currently in lockdown in Paris. He has plans to open a Japanese-French restaurant when life returns to normal. In the meantime, he says he hopes the recipe he uploaded will be like a flower on a dinner table and raise the spirits of families everywhere. He also says the bond created by the relay is showing people that they can overcome any challenge through unity.
The pandemic is having a devastating effect on social life around the world. But in kitchens from Kyoto to Tokyo to Paris, people are showing their resilience through kindness and compassion.