It all began when the owner a popular south Kyoto yakiniku-ya (Korean-style barbequed meat restaurant)* went searching online for a family pet, and landed on some animal rights web sites.
For the first time, Tai-ichi learned about the way breeders and pet shops abused animals, how meat production is cruel to animals and pollutes the environment, and that eating animal products was harmful for one’s health, too.
Like most people, he had always believed we needed meat to survive. But the more he learned, the more he questioned his values and came to understand a vegan lifestyle was the right path for him. Within a week, Tai-ichi proceeded to give up meat and fish, quickly followed by eggs and dairy products.
He had kept it a secret for a month, before his wife became suspect. “Why don’t you eat meat any more?” she asked. He feared telling her, especially since the yakiniku-ya had been their livelihood for 10 years. Thankfully, Atsuko (along with his 3 young children) agreed to share his vegan crusade, yet doubted the former meat-lover would stick with his decision for long.
But while Tai-ichi never questioned his own ability to stay vegan, deciding the fate of his yakiniku restaurant consumed him with worry and depression for months.
As much as he wanted to shut it down immediately, he had just taken out a loan to double its capacity to 80 seats, occupying two floors of his three-story house. Making his decision still harder, his restaurant was growing increasingly popular, while neighborhood competitors had come and gone.
For a brief while, Tai-ichi rationalized that he would continue operating the yakiniku-ya–and that it was enough for he and his family to have become vegans. Next, he considered selling the restaurant, but couldn’t bear the guilt of meat being served under his own roof
Finally, he reached the conclusion he would close the yakiniku-ya and reopen it as a vegan restaurant. His regular customers and even his own mother thought he gone crazy, Tai-ichi recounted. Once having made up his mind, Tai-ichi traveled around Japan and visited Taipei, as well, trying dozens of vegan restaurants of various styles (Western, Asian, Shojin Ryoori, macrobiotic, fusion, etc) searching for information and inspiration.
Even after being vegan for over a year, he and his wife felt clueless when it came to cook for themselves, much less for customers. As few vegan cookbooks are available in Japanese, and neither Tai-ichi nor his wife can read English, a vegan cooking instructor friend from Tokyo spent 10 days showing them how to prepare, and allowing them to sample, over 50 different dishes.
Following another month of mental and physical preparation–including renovations to give the restaurant a wide-open feel (Tai-ichi, a former carpenter, grabbed a hammer to hold costs down), the “Vegans Cafe and Restaurant” opened its doors in October, 2011.
The limited menu consisting of a choice of pasta with soy “meat” sauce, Genovese pesto or a mushroom soy cream sauce, as well as a choice of curry and ramen, reflects the Matsuda’s concern for quality over quantity.
After three days in business, they closed four days to make some tweaks to their operations. “We had several people order spaghetti at once, and our slow service was inconveniencing our customers,” Tai-ichi explained, admitting his perfectionist nature.
In addition to the main courses, he and his wife prepare baked goods such as pita breads and muffins. They also serve espresso and matcha drinks made with soy milk, and desserts based on soy milk soft-serve ice cream.
Tai-ichi and his wife are enjoying work more each day, despite the cafe staying open longer hours than the yakiniku-ya. Even Tai-ichi’s mother is helping out in the kitchen. “She’s not quite yet vegan, since she eats fish occasionally,” he says.
In order to keep learning from their mistakes, the Matsudas haven’t advertised the new restaurant yet, but business is slowly picking up through word of mouth. “Of course, our customers are completely different than previously. Vegetarians are so grateful when they discover us.”
Many Vegans Cafe customers are attracted for health reasons: “People are looking more closely at their diets,” he says, “worried about radiation contamination following the Fukushima reactor accident, as well as food allergies.” Tai-ichi’s own health has benefitted, too, since becoming vegan: he’s lost weight, has more stamina, and doesn’t become sick.
“There are more vegetarians coming in than we expected,” he says, noting he is happy to allow them a spot to leave their animal rights brochures to educate people. After all, that is what drove him to embrace a vegan lifestyle.
*In Japanese, “yakiniku” means Korean-style meat (usually beef and pork) cooked on a barbeque grill, and “ya” means shop or restaurant. Combining the two, “yakiniku-ya”, is a restaurant that serves Korean-style barbeque.
4-88 Nishiura-cho, Fukakusa, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan 621-0029
This post is also available in: Japanese