Benkyodo mochi shop closes after 115 years
SAN FRANCISCO – For decades, Ricky and Bobby Okamura started their days in the early morning darkness before most of the city was awake, making Japanese wagashi confections at the family-owned Benkyodo store in San Francisco’s Japanese Quarter.
It’s a delicate and repetitive task, carried out in the scullery by painstakingly shaping each manju cake or fresh mochi by hand, then filling the cushion balls with traditional red bean paste or the unique fillings of blueberry, mango or peanut butter that has become popular.
The two brothers are grandsons of Sueyoshi Okamura who founded Benkyodo in 1906. This story is recorded on a plaque outside the store facing Japantown’s Buchanan Outdoor Mall.
Now, longtime loyal customers and curious wagashi newbies line up on the street and around the block.
They hope to taste this story before it disappears.
Ricky and Bobby will serve their last manju and mochi on Thursday as they retire.
“Yes bittersweet. We’re really very touched. We’re very touched by how they’ve waited so long to come here,” Ricky Okamura said.
Finally, the brothers will be able to get more sleep in the morning, after years of serving the community and leading their family’s inherited business through tumultuous times, including the most recent pandemic.
“It’s been a long time,” Ricky said, “I just want to rest.”
For weeks, people lined up from Benkyodo’s front door down Sutter Street and around the block.
“We stood in line at 4:30 a.m.,” said Javier Chen, a Benkyodo customer who says he stood in line for almost six hours to get a box of 12 candies on his second attempt. “Yesterday we missed it. We missed the cut.”
Souriya Hounthavong filmed the long line with a drone. He too waited for a candy box.
“This is just crafted with love,” said Hounthavong, who says he’s a cook at Moraga Country Club, “Everything is going perfectly. I feel the consistency and the quality.”
While they waited, some customers wrote on message boards, sharing memories of their first visits.
“It was 1968, it was my first cherry blossom festival,” said Benkyodo customer Alice Eubank.
The story of Benkyodo is also the story of Japantown which was also established in 1906, surviving two world wars and the forced evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans by the US government.
“We are talking here about the 115-year history of Japantown marking everything from pre-war, the establishment of Japantown in 1906, through to war,” said Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of Japanese American National Historic. Society.
The Okamuras were among Japanese-American families forced from their homes and businesses. Some people have lost everything. The Okamuras said their grandfather was among the lucky ones.
“My grandfather had a neighbor who had a grocery store next to Benkyodo and he ran it as a grocery store in both places, so when my grandfather came back he still had the business, the store,” said RIcky Okamura.
Since then, for many Japanese Americans, the store has been a community gathering place.
“If you didn’t know where to find a community member, you would drop by the store during lunch and you’d probably find them at the counter eating a hot dog or a hamburger with Bobby and Ricky,” Max Okada said with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. Just the conversations with Ricky and Bobby at the counter, meeting other community members at the store just over lunch. These are things that I will return to and that I will miss very much.”
At the nearby Japanese Cultural and Community Center, people painted signs with these messages of love and gratitude. A community farewell celebration is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, the final day of the Okamura brothers.
Mochi and manju have been central to many Japanese American family celebrations.
“They’re sort of markers of every family event, every community event, festivals, births, deaths, and funerals,” Tonai said, “It’s the only one. It’s probably the long history of this traditional type of this manju. and the making of mochi in America.”
“They’re the last,” Tonai said, “That’s probably the long history of this traditional type of manju and mochi making in America.”
“I don’t know what the secret ingredient is, but the community has been so supportive of me all these years. It makes you so happy,” Ricky Okamura said.
In Japanese culture, there is a saying “wabi-sabi” which is often translated as “beauty and sadness”.
It’s the recognition that moments of beauty are fleeting, and it brings sadness when they end.
Like the sakura cherry blossoms that have bloomed for generations in front of Benkyodo’s door, the sweet wagashi and memories, small gifts from the Okamura family, will live on.
Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.