Washoku (the traditional cuisine of Japan) was already familiar to Cagayan de Oro’s well-heeled residents during the 1970s where it was served during private home parties.
However, the name and exact location of the first Japanese restaurant which was reportedly located in Kalambagohan street going towards Burgos street is lost to oblivion.
Thus, the first which residents still remember is Miyuki Japanese Restaurant, which opened way back in October 28, 1992 near historic Gaston Park, which was owned and operated by Koya Takayasu, a former cook with the Japanese-owned Philippine Sinter Corporation in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental.
Compared to Japanese restaurants in Manila and Cebu, Miyuki was a real bargain considering the freshness, taste and authenticity of the traditional presentation which Shacho-san (社長 ) updated every 3-4 months with visits to a friend who ran a washoku restaurant in Kobe.
During a visit to the city way back then, Joukei Fuchigami, assistant director of the tourism division of Asean Promotion Center on Trade, Investment and Tourism based in Tokyo, remarked how Miyuki’s traditionally prepared tsukimono (pickled cabbage and zuchinni), which was already so hard to find in commercialized restos in Tokyo, reminded him of the same dish he used to enjoy as a boy.
Another surprise was Miyuki’s prices. Prices for favorites such as sashimi ranged from P15 (special) to only P70 (for tako or octopus) per serving. Local favorite maguro (yellowfin tuna) sashimi was only P85 per serving.
It would be another four years before the city would see its next Japanese restaurant. However, unlike the spartan ambience of Miyuki, Kamogawa Japanese Restaurant at the corner of Yacapin and Capistrano streets looked more like the pricey, traditional Japanese restaurants of downtown Osaka.
Kamogawa was conceptualized and executed from the ground up by Yukari Hayashi-Saarenas of Osaka-Kyoto, probably the only Japanese in the city then who can actually carry out a conversation in Bisaya!
The interior decoration was done by Yokyok (as she is known to friends) herself, in what she described as a contemporary Japanese. Aside from being the only Japanese restaurant in the city with a real sushi bar, it also has three hirogatsu tables in the first floor with real tatami mats and those convenient holes in the middle where you can dangle your feet so they don’t sleep on you.
The second floor is something else: while there are two conventional tables in the corner for those who preferred to dine western-style, there were three traditional tatami rooms with real grass mats and matching décor in that contemporary Japanese style. And the Nihon ambience didn’t stop there.
Yok-yok had to run all the way to Metro Manila to recruit qualified staff who had previous experience cooking with Japanese restaurants in the capital. Her best sellers were tempura, sukiyaki, teriyaki, and misoshiro, better known to the locals as miso soup. Favorite beverages were sake (served hot), calpis (a health drink), umeshu (plum wine) and shochu (dry gin). The world renowned Kirin beer was also available for only P100 a bottle.
The third Japanese restaurant in the city was managed by Prima Otoza-Rojas Yanagisawa of Butuan City and her Japanese husband. Tomodachi (meaning friend) Japanese-Filipino Restaurant was established as a testament to the friendship between Philippines and Japan, and pioneered the Japanese-Filipino fusion dishes which became more prevalent in the following decades.
Val Cabansag, the Filipino director of the ASEAN Promotion Centre on Trade, Investment and Tourism in Tokyo, who was then visiting the city with Asst. Director Fuchigami, remarked that you can easily get the traditional Japanese breakfast of omyotski (miso soup) with tsukimono (pickles), chahang (Japanese fried rice) or atusyakitamago (scrambled eggs with rice) which are a regular feature of even Tomodachi’s very affordable fast food menu.
Alas, Shacho Takayasu-san closed down Miyuki Restaurant in 1995 following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Japan to rebuild his home in Kobe damaged by the temblor. Tomodachi followed soon after when the Rojas-Yanagisawa couple had to return to Butuan to attend to pressing family matters.
The longest tenured of the three, Kamogawa survived over two and half decades of change and increasing competition from similar themed restaurants, but had to finally close down due to the pandemic on 15 March 2020. Yokyok-san plans to return home to Japan next year when conditions permit.
The pandemic also shut down no less than ten washoku and similar establishments since the global pandemic hit some two years ago. Of six Japanese and fusion restos in one the city’s biggest malls, only one remains. In another, only one washoku and two fusion restos made it through. Five others in various locations also survived.