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Japanese woman keeps dishing out cheap diner meals amid coronavirus economic slump

Hatsue Tamura, the owner of Hatchan Shop, is seen in front of the eatery providing cheap buffet meals in Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture, on Nov. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Koji Osawa)

KIRYU, Gunma -- An eatery in this eastern Japan city has ploughed on providing cheap buffet meals for 500 yen (about $5) to fill the stomachs of customers amid the economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

    Restaurants across Japan have been hit hard as customers avoid spots where people would typically gather in groups. Despite the economic trials of the pandemic, Hatchan Shop in Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture, has continued to run its all-you-can-eat buffet including stewed yellowtail, yakisoba noodles, and stir-fry with chicken skin. The "one-coin" restaurant managed by 85-year-old Hatsue Tamura has been welcoming an endless stream of customers even as the coronavirus spreads.

    Hatchan Shop regulars usually line up outside the eatery before it opens at 11:30 a.m., and its 30 seats are immediately filled. Rice, miso soup, and at least 10 dishes are offered at the buffet, with seasonal vegetables and fish to prevent customers from getting tired of the same dishes. On top of this, the restaurant has continued to offer its fare at the same bargain price of 500 yen it has charged people of middle school age and up since 1997. Younger kids eat for nothing. For a time, it even gave out free meals to people who visited from outside Gunma Prefecture.

    "As we use a buffet style where customers help themselves to whatever and however much they like, I can save myself the effort of serving meals to each table," said Tamura with a carefree smile. Not only locals, but people from Japan's northernmost and southernmost prefectures of Hokkaido and Okinawa who learn of the eatery online also come by for a bite.

    Tamura's warm personality seems to be one reason behind the diner's popularity. Nozomu Abe, 41, from the Gunma Prefecture city of Ota, said, "I'm a fan of Hatsue, and visit the place by bike. The stews and fish are excellent."

    Although the restaurant had stayed open every day except Sundays for over 20 years, it had no choice but to close its doors from June to August 2020 because of the coronavirus. Tamura shows no sign of despair, though, as the one-coin buffet has not once operated in the black. She commented, "I run the restaurant at my own expense, and cover the deficits with my pension. I'm just happy if I can see the smiling faces of customers."

    Tamura was born in Kiryu before World War II, and family matters kept her from staying in school past second grade. She began to work at around the age of 10, and has worked various jobs. At 57 years old, when she was done raising her three children, she went on a moped vacation as a reward to herself. Her cross-country trip across Japan garnered attention from the media.

    Tamura had heartwarming interactions with the people she met during her travels, such as being gifted with vegetables and fruits, and being given a place to stay when she needed one. After encountering such goodwill, she developed the desire to "repay that kindness" by devoting herself to the people she'd meet going forward. And so she decided to put her cooking skills to use and opened the diner at the front of her house.

    Tamura intends to continue fulfilling her customers' expectations even as the pandemic goes on. She said, "I'd like to keep the eatery open at least until I'm 90. I'll work hard for as long as my body holds up."

    (Japanese original by Koji Osawa, Kiryu Local Bureau)

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