Founder’s name carried on at Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki restaurant

Courtesy of Ise Hiroshima Sodachi
Mitsuo Ise, right, and Manabu Kamikawa are seen during the name succession ceremony in March.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Manabu Kamikawa, who has become Mitsuo Ise II, makes okonomiyaki pancakes in Hiroshima.

HIROSHIMA — The founder of a restaurant chain in Hiroshima that made the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki pancake popular nationwide passed down his name to his No. 1 disciple this spring.

Mitsuo Ise, 88, allowed Manabu Kamikawa, 50, who succeeded him as the head of the restaurant Mitchan Sohonten, to use his name. Those close to them planned the name succession ceremony, which was held in March, to continue Ise’s legacy.

“I’d like to maintain the taste, as well as the food culture, that was nurtured by my predecessor, and help them evolve,” said Mitsuo Ise II.

According to the restaurant’s operating company and other sources, Ise returned to Japan from Manchuria following the end of World War II. Together with his father, he started a food stall selling okonomiyaki pancakes in Hiroshima when the city was still mostly in ashes.

“We wanted people to eat delicious okonomiyaki in the city that was destroyed by the atomic bomb,” Ise said.

To make okonomiyaki, the flour-based batter is thinly spread on an iron griddle with shredded cabbage and meat on top. If a customer requests additional toppings, other ingredients can be added, such as eggs, which eventually became known as the Hiroshima style.

Ise was put in charge of the stall when he was 19. In 1953, he changed its name to Mitchan, his nickname. Now the Mitchan chain comprises six restaurants in Hiroshima Prefecture and two in Tokyo.

With hera spatulas in his hands, he continued making okonomiyaki for more than 60 years. However, recently, his legs weakened to the point where he could no longer stand in front of the griddle, forcing him to retire. When he thought about who would succeed him, Kamikawa’s name came to mind.

Kamikawa started working part-time at the restaurant when he was 15, and Ise taught him how to make okonomiyaki. Kamikawa was deeply moved as he watched Ise shift the okonomiyaki around the griddle in his relentless effort to make delicious food, so he decided to work there full-time. He not only worked at the restaurant but also traveled to regional food events nationwide to let the Hiroshima-style be known in other areas. Kamikawa is now involved in managing the restaurant chain as an executive of its operating company.

Ise was impressed with how far Kamikawa had come in developing his skills as his top disciple, as well as his ability to train many younger employees, so he decided to entrust him with Mitchan. The company’s management came up with the idea of the name succession as a way to pass down the legacy of Ise, who painstakingly developed the Hiroshima style.

“Name succession is very rare in the restaurant industry, but it can be seen as a symbolic gesture to inherit the vision and ideals of the original person,” said Asia University Prof. Jun Yokokawa, a business science specialist knowledgeable in the food services industry. “It also carries with it the expectations that the successor will take good care of the company and won’t sully the name of the predecessor.”

The name succession ceremony was held on March 3 this year, which is the third year of the Reiwa era. The triple-three day was chosen for the ceremony because “Mi” of Mitchan denotes “three.”

At the ceremony, Ise handed the navy cap and uniform he used to wear at the restaurant to Kamikawa, saying, “I’m counting on you.” Then he happily ate okonomiyaki made by the newly anointed Mitsuo Ise II.

Kamikawa now carries business cards with the name Mitsuo Ise II written on them as he goes to each Mitchan restaurant and instructs the staff how to prepare the food and manage the shop. He wears his predecessor’s cap well.

As a result of the pandemic, the restaurants’ sales remained just 10% of an average year, but he stays optimistic.

“This is Hiroshima soul food, which used to keep the city’s residents going after it was devastated by the atomic bomb,” he said. “I want to spread the love for [Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki], just as my predecessor did.”