KYOTO -- For decades, a sign in a venerable Chinese eatery nestled in Kyoto's Kamigyo Ward proclaimed, "Customers who can't pay for their meals can eat their fill if they wash the dishes." It was put up by an owner who knew firsthand what it means to be hungry. However, come the end of October, the community mainstay will switch off the lights for the last time.
"People say you need clothing, food and shelter to live, but I think the order is food, shelter and then clothing. If you don't eat first, you can't live," said Sadahiro Inoue, 70, who has supported generations of young people from his kitchen at the Demachi branch of Chinese food chain Gyoza Ohsho. Just days remain until the signs come down. Streams of customers reluctant about the closing have been asking him, affectionately using a slang term meaning middle-aged man, "Occhan, why do you have to close?"
The restaurant is all counter seating, with over 20 seats, and situated near a shopping street popular with locals, and Kyoto University, Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine and Doshisha University are all close by.
"It was more than 20 years ago now, but he really looked after me," said one 48-year-old customer as he took his seat at the crowded counter for a crab omelet on rice and a plate of gyoza dumplings just before noon, one day in September.
When he was an undergraduate at Kyoto University, he was a busy member of the American football club. It took him six years to get his undergraduate degree, after which he went to graduate school. Even with a part-time job he struggled to feed himself, but he couldn't bring himself to ask his family to increase his allowance.
It was then that Inoue came to the rescue, quietly setting aside a plate of deep-fried chicken and gyoza dumplings for the hungry student. Inoue also gave him free meals sometimes if he washed the dishes after. Even now, busy with work at a fruit wholesaler in the city of Osaka, he remembers when Inoue told him, "It's good to struggle when you're young. Keep going."
"So I put a bit more on their plates as a bonus, right? The kids who at that moment think 'Occhan gave me that to help me' can succeed in life," said Inoue, who stands over 180 centimeters and has quite imposing features, before breaking into a big smile.
Born and raised in western Japan prefecture of Kyoto, Inoue eloped to the neighboring prefecture of Osaka when he was about 20. A senior colleague he worked with couldn't bear to see the young couple without even enough to eat, so he would invite them to his home and treat them to sukiyaki.
At age 23 he returned to Kyoto, and it was from their apartment close to JR Nishioji Station that he saw the sign for the Gyoza Ohsho restaurant chain. To feed his young children, he got a job there. Despite being shouted at in the kitchen, Inoue said, "Even though I thought I wanted to quit right then and there, my children were waiting at home, so I couldn't say it."
In 1982, he was made the manager of a separate store, and amid the unstinting waves of customers, he came up with the idea of letting people eat for free if they agreed to wash the dishes for half an hour. "When I was young, I also struggled to feed myself. I wanted to help people who could help me."
In 1995, he struck out on his own, becoming the owner of the Gyoza Ohsho franchise in Demachi. There, he put up the sign about the dish-washing deal, too. Due to hygiene concerns, he stopped offering the exchange two years ago, but now offers free meals to "students who are getting their allowance late, or who haven't eaten since the day before."
"I think I've fed 30,000 or 40,000 people for free, but doesn't it make people feel good to know that even without money there's a place where they'll let you eat? By doing that I think it helps make the world a better place," Inoue said.
The shop is closing because Gyoza Ohsho franchise contracts end when the owner the hits 70. This summer, he mentioned it to one customer, and in the blink of an eye the news had spread across the internet.
Expressing her thanks, 43-year-old novelist Toko Sawada who has been visiting the shop from her student days at Doshisha University, said, "Occhan always made small kindnesses a reality as much as he could, without overdoing it. To have someone like that close to you changes your way of seeing the world. The things Occhan has done will always remain, and the seeds he sowed are still sprouting."
"Encouraging students has been my reason for living," said Inoue of his around 40 years working. "When I was young, I had to endure so much," he said, before addressing me, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, "You too should give everything to the work right in front of you."
Once he has stepped back from his role supporting others in the local community, what will he do? Inoue says he's still thinking it over.
(Japanese original by Yoko Minami, Kyoto Bureau)