Benkyodo: The bittersweet end of an era at S.F. Japantown’s oldest business

THE END OF THE LINE IS NEAR — In its likely final days, the line at Benkyodo snaked down Sutter Street, around Webster Street, and to Post Street — with some waiting for more than six hours.
photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Ricky Okamura clocks in to work at 3 a.m., typically hours before the first customer walks in to his store, but on March 26, his first customer beat him there by three hours, pitching a tent and lining up for manju outside Benkyodo Company in San Francisco’s Japantown. 

Lines have wrapped around the block, starting from the corner of Buchanan and Sutter streets where the store’s entrance is located, down the full length of the block on Sutter Street and around the corner of Webster, reaching the New People Building halfway up the block on Post Street after locals heard the more than 115-year-old family-run cafe and confectionery was set to close.

The Storm Before the Calm

Ever since KQED reported Okamura and his brother, Bobby Okamura, were planning to retire at the end of the year in May of 2021, longtime customers and newcomers curious about the glutinous traditional Japanese confections have been lining up outside to get a taste before it’s gone. 

In the recent past, the shop operated from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, but with the lunch counter closed due to the pandemic, the store has been closing at around 1:30 p.m. after they run out of manju each day. 

Ricky Okamura said he typically makes 1,500 pieces of manju a day on the weekends, using 50 pounds of mochiko flour and 100 pounds of sugar, as well as a mountain of anko (red bean paste).

“You’re trying to make enough so people in the back of the line can get it, but they get to the front and everything is sold out by 1:30,” Ricky Okamura told the Nichi Bei Weekly. He lamented that he felt bad for the woman who had lined up at 8:30 a.m. for five hours, only to be turned away. “I said, ‘Gee, I’m really sorry, I wish I could just give you some mochi for waiting,’ but there was nothing left. I felt so sad for them.” 

The rush to get manju came in waves. The first wave came in May after the initial announcement when the Okamuras said they planned to close at the end of the year. They later said they would likely stay open until the end of March 2022, while they search for a buyer to take over. The shop got busy again in January as KPIX 5 reported about their impending closure in December of 2021, making it sound like they would close in January. With the shop’s final date approaching, the lines started to lengthen even more.

photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Customers started lining up outside the store, first just before opening, then starting at 7 a.m., then 6 and 5 a.m. On March 30, the day before their final day of business, Monica Lee arrived at 2:25 a.m. She didn’t want to stand out as the first person in line, so she waited for someone else to get in line before getting in line behind them.

“When you step into the store when they open, everybody turns their head, … and I just feel everybody staring and that’s a lot of pressure while ordering. I’ve been first before,” the life-long San Franciscan said.

Lee said the lines were not as long when she was first in line last December, and she scored the spot at 8:15 a.m. Lee grew up eating mochi, a treat her friends brought her over the years. Since learning Benkyodo was closing, she has made it a point to come as often as she could.

Due to the demand, orders have been limited to six pieces per customer, and only one or two pieces of the popular fruit-filled manju, a specialty developed by the brothers a decade ago to attract younger customers, along with the popular peanut butter mochi.

“As you know, the lines have just been, not just unbelievable, but there’s been nothing like that in Japantown’s history,” Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The unfortunate part since the closing has been announced and those long lines, a lot of Nisei and other people from the community haven’t had an opportunity to have manju in months!”

A 115-Year Tradition

Benkyodo co-owners and brothers, Ricky Okamura and Bobby Okamura. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Benkyodo’s role within the community is far larger than just a popular confectionery. 

Established by Suyechi Okamura sometime in 1906 at 1533B Geary Blvd. and moved down the block to 1638 Geary from 1939 to 1959, the Benkyodo Company is a Japanese confectionery and “the last remaining manufacturer of mochi and manju (Japanese desserts) using traditional methods” in San Francisco, according to its Legacy Business recommendation report by the Small Business Commission in 2019. 

The store survived the Okamura family’s incarceration in Granada, Colo. during World War II, and opened its now-retro lunch counter corner store at 1747 Buchanan Street in 1959. The report states that Hirofumi “Hippo” Okamura and his wife, Sue Okamura, took over in 1951. Ricky Okamura took over the business from his father in 1990 after his brother joined him to help in the late 1980s.

Sometime around 1914, Japanese Tea Garden creator Makoto Hagiwara is said to have commissioned Benkyodo to create what would become the fortune cookie, served at the garden, according to the company’s Legacy Business application.

The business is known for its pounded rice cake-based confections known as manju, as well as seasonal mochi-based products like kasane mochi (stacked mochi) with Satsuma Mandarin oranges for new year’s and kashiwa mochi for Children’s Day, which are annual traditions for many Japanese American families. The store also has donated to countless organizations and events, supported their programs and services over the years, including donating mochi to Kimochi’s senior lunch program twice a month and kasane mochi to the various Japanese American churches in the ethnic enclave. 

Dean Ito Taylor and Rich Eijima honored the Okamura brothers March 26 for their contributions of mochi for ozoni at the Oshogatu Matsuri for more than 50 years. Ito Taylor, executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, also presented a recognition on behalf of his organization.

photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

“I think people under-appreciate the presence in the Japantown community, of a traditional business like this, so we just wanted to say thank you,” Ito Taylor said, after offering a toast of sake.

Lori Matoba, the Okamura brothers’ second cousin, said the store served the Japanese American community on a variety of occasions, as well as donated their product to countless nonprofit events and organizations. She told the Nichi Bei Weekly the store’s closing is bittersweet, knowing how much of a cultural asset it is in San Francisco’s Japantown.

“I think as a family member, it makes it even tougher that it’ll be gone. It’s something that my grandma, great-grandfather and my grandmother and Rick and Bob have just kind of kept going,” she said.

Matoba said she has worked at the store since she was little, sweeping and making cardboard boxes in the back, and started helping make manju 20 years ago. She now works down the street at the community center, which is putting together a sign board display to let the community express their thanks to Benkyodo and talk about its history.

“People waiting in line or community people, if they wanted to leave them a note or message, we’re going to put a couple signboards up. And then one other thing that I was going to do was either near those signboards or somewhere in the window, put a little bit of Benkyodo history,” she said. “I don’t know if people know the process of making manju, that they steam the rice, that they mix it. It’s not just, ‘Here’s the stuff’ and then eating. Kind of let people know that there’s a process.”

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Benkyodo served as a nexus for the local community. Like the now-closed May’s Coffee Shop, which served as a gathering place for the Nisei crowd, Benkyodo was a stop for countless community members, both English and Japanese speaking. It was where the community heard about the news of the day or met people for lunch. Local real estate agent and community leader Allen Okamoto recalled sharing a cup of coffee with “hundreds” of fellow community members.

“I remember sitting next to Yori Wada, Wayne Osaki, Takako Ishizaki, Tut Tatsuno and Ben Ishisaki eating and talking about the goings on in Japantown. I will miss the fun banter between Bobby and Ricky Okamura,” he said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Paul Osaki recalled his father, Wayne Osaki, who liked to get a cone of orange sherbet every day. 

“My favorite memory is that my dad would go there almost every afternoon to get ice cream. You know, his office was just down the block, and he loved ice cream, and so he would go there every afternoon and often I would see him walking up the street from my office window,” he said.

Linda Mihara, owner of Paper Tree, also remembered the ice cream from when she lived up the street from Benkyodo when she was seven or eight years old. 

“We would walk up to the park every day with my grandfather after school — my sister, brother and I — and then we would come back and he would treat us to an ice cream cone there. And it’s usually rainbow sherbet. And he would treat us to ice cream every day, which was like amazing,” she said. “And I remember seeing Ricky and Bobby’s father, running around in the back.”

Mihara said the memories continue as her family opened their paper store next door in 1974. Aside from the chili dog lunches and sandwiches they ordered, Mihara said the two stores support each other, physically and spiritually, even signing for deliveries for each other when they were closed on days off.

It was also a place that attracted Japanese-speaking community members, especially after Yoshiko Sasa joined the staff some 20 years ago. While the pandemic closed the counter, Sasa said she recalled many Japanese-speaking community members telling her Benkyodo was a “convenient” place to go to meet people.

“It was a place where you can meet people who were otherwise hard to get a hold of,” she said in Japanese.

Sasa and Benh Nakajo, a fellow long-time employee, both said they were unsure what the community would do once Benkyodo closes for good. Amid the pandemic, they no longer know what has become of many of the shop’s regulars, especially their most elderly patrons.

“I’m going to be lost wandering around if that building is empty. I don’t know what I’m going to do. So it’s a really big step for me, and I’m still trying to get my head around it,” Nakajo said.

Longtime employee Yoshiko Sasa, Ricky and Bobby Okamura, and Bobby’s wife Terry, have helped to staff the community institution in recent years. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Terry Okamura, Bobby Okamura’s wife, who works at the front counter, said she will miss the regulars who come in. Having worked full-time at the counter since being laid off from an office job during the 2008 financial crisis and working occasionally to help since marrying Bobby Okamura 34 years ago, she said she developed a good relationship with customers, seeing them as family.

“The older people, I serve them coffee in the morning,” she said. “I know they like the paper, so I save the paper for them, so when they’re here, I really treat them special like, you’re my father, and here’s the coffee. I will miss all those daily routines that I served the customers.”

Working at Benkyodo

Aside from the customers, Nakajo said Benkyodo’s employees were like a family to him after working together for decades. The Okamuras, both Ricky and Bobby, as well as their father and mother, seemed to hire their employees without formal interviews. Sasa said she was hired when Bobby Okamura needed to find a replacement for an employee who quit. 

“I was a housewife. My kids were attending (Nihonmachi) Little Friends and Hatsy (Yasukochi) drove us to Japantown each morning. We’d have tea at Benkyodo after dropping the kids off,” she said in Japanese. “Hatsy said, ‘Yoshiko’s free, she should work here’ and Bobby said it was an ‘easy job’ — it was not ‘easy’ at all.”

Despite it not being “easy,” Sasa said she has worked at the counter for 20 years and wondered if things were not as bad as she said it was, given she had lasted this long. 

Another longtime employee, Nakajo, said he was working part-time as a weekend receptionist at Kabuki Springs and Spa to support his single mother and three siblings on top of his office job at Japan Airlines in the 1960s. 

“I would come and have a cup of coffee before I go to work, … and Hippo would work in the evening to close the store, and he said, … ‘Where are you going all the time?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to work, I work down at the Kabuki Hot Springs.’ And he said, ‘Well if you’re going to work there, work here.’”

Looking Toward Retirement

Both Sasa and Nakajo will likely retire once the store closes, as will Terry Okamura and the Okamura brothers. Terry Okamura said she has adult children from a previous marriage in the Philippines and plans to travel to see them more. Bobby Okamura said he’s looking forward to traveling as well, but will miss having friends drop by.

He won’t, however, miss his commute across the Bay Bridge from Hercules, Calif.

“I’ll still come into the city, but that’s what I’ll miss most, the people that come around, the customers and friends that come by, working with my brother, you know?”

Ricky Okamura said he’ll miss his parents. He agreed to take over the family business to make them happy and said he feels like they continue to live on in spirit within the building. What he won’t miss, however:

“Getting up early. And listening to the customers b—h, stuff like that,” he said.

Ricky Okamura said his long-time regiment of waking up early means he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. daily, even on his days off, but he hopes to adjust his sleeping schedule in a month or so. He also hopes to spend more time with his two grandsons, especially once they are out of school.

Aside from traveling and spending more time with family, the brothers don’t have too many plans. Ricky Okamura just resolved to retire while he was in good health at the age of 70. His younger brother Bobby turned 67 in December.

“I just hope I don’t die … a lot of people die too when they retire,” Ricky Okamura said.

“Yeah, another thing is that, friends our age, they’re passing,” Bobby Okamura added. “We’re in there, right? So we gotta enjoy it while we have our health still right?”

Bobby (above left) and Ricky Okamura are the third generation of the Okamura family to run Benkyodo since it was established by their grandfather Suyechi Okamura in 1906, and handed to his son Hirofumi (Hippo) Okamura and his wife Sue in 1951. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

The brothers said they were looking to sell their building, equipment and all. Ricky Okamura mentioned the Japantown Task Force hoped that they would sell to a buyer interested in maintaining the space as a manju shop. While they said they will sell, the brothers said they were hoping to sell the business to someone within the family to continue the confectionery.

“We have potential buyers. One’s real close. It’s a relative,” Ricky Okamura said. “This is how it works, if I sell it to a relative, they don’t have to pay for the name and the equipment. Outside the family, I’m going to charge.”

The brothers, however, declined to elaborate on the deal, not wanting to put their relative prematurely in the spotlight.

After he retires, Ricky Okamura said he would consider coming back to train the new owners if they need it. 

“Not too long, just a couple hours a day,” he said. 

Fellow community members wished them well in retirement.

“Enjoy yourself. Go travel. Have some fun. Sleep in,” Phil Ashizawa, proprietor of Soko Hardware, said.

“For the community, it’s a real loss because it’s been kind of something that is uniquely Japanese American. Ricky learned how to make mochigashi from his father, and it’s always been kind of a touchstone for the community. People come back and they want to get mochigashi so they know they can go to Benkyodo,” Robert Sakai, former proprietor of the Uoki K. Saki Market said. “So, on one hand, it’s very sad, but on the other, I certainly understand that there comes a time when you just say it’s time to close shop.”

Bobby Okamura, along with his brother expressed they were sad to close the business down, but it was something that needed to happen “sooner or later.”

“Of course it’s emotional, we’ve been doing this for all these years,” he said. “I’ll look forward to the next chapter. You have to retire sooner or later. You can’t go on forever, so now’s a good time to do it.”

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