Fukushima residents hope reopening of burger shop augurs return of good times

Located in the middle of town, in front of the train station, the Penguin hamburger shop was something of a watering hole for residents of Futaba Town, Fukushima Prefecture. For nearly 30 years, the shop was a place where people could stop for a bite and, more often than not, bump into a neighbor. But in 2007, the local institution was forced to close after the owner fell ill.

After almost 15 years with the shutters down, Penguin was an unlikely candidate to be the first restaurant in Futaba to reopen following the 2011 nuclear disaster. But the new owner says a familiar taste is exactly what the beleaguered town needs.

Penguin is located only two kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This March, the Japanese government finally lifted the evacuation order it had put in place for the district, making it the first area of the town people could return to following the disaster. The district has relatively low levels of radiation compared to the rest of Futaba. No residents have returned so far as the water and gas supply have yet to be restored. But Penguin still has customers to serve.

Right next door to the restaurant is The Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum. It opened in September and aims to highlight stories and lessons from the disaster. Penguin is popular among staff and visitors alike. Elsewhere in town, more than 1,000 trucks carry in reconstruction materials every weekday. Penguin also caters to these workers.

And there are those who are back in town to satisfy an old craving.

"I used to come to this restaurant when I was in high school," said a man in his 40s who visited Penguin on October 1, the day it reopened. "The town has changed but I'm happy to see that the restaurant is back. It helps me remember life as it used to be."

Penguin opened on October 1 next door to The Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum.

Yoshida Takako, now 75 years old, ran the old Penguin. Her huge burgers, loaded with toppings, and thick-cut French fries were especially popular among high school students, who often stopped by on their way home.

Takako was forced to close the shop back in 2007 when she fell ill, so reopening was never really an option for her. Instead, it was her son Tomonari's decision to bring Penguin back. He says he was motivated to do so after seeing how much the town had changed as a result of reconstruction work.

"The nuclear accident has taken a lot from Futaba," he says. "I thought that by bringing back something that existed before the accident, it could help people remember what the town used to be like."

Tomonari is usually busy running a nearby gas station, so Penguin's everyday operations are left to his sister, Atsuko, who had left Fukushima after the disaster but decided to return in 2018 to help with the reconstruction of her hometown. Atsuko used to watch her mother in action and saw how she would take care of her guests, and—most importantly—knows exactly what ingredients to use to make the beloved Penguin taste.

On reopening day, many former residents returned to their old haunt. Some saw familiar faces for the first time in years, and the event had the feel of a highschool reunion. And for Atsuko, the new matron, this is exactly what Penguin is for.

"We still can't live in Futaba," she says. "But I hope young people eventually come back and help restore it to what it used to be like."