Kurofunetei @ Ueno

Friday night was special for me.
I got together with some of my old ice hockey teammates and watched a women’s hockey final on TV together. Oh, I really missed them. We recounted all little funny episodes we shared. I do miss hockey but I miss my lovely teammates a thousand times more. We pined for our team which had to be folded because of the circumstance beyond our control two years ago. How we wished if we could turn the clock back…

After finding ourselves firmly locked out of the NMWA, we headed back towards Keisei Ueno Station (京成上野駅). ‘At least we can look forward to our lunch, can’t we?’, I tried to cheer mum up.
The restaurant we decided to have lunch was Kurofunetei (黒船亭), one of the oldest Yōshoku (洋食) – Japanese Western cuisine – restaurants in Japan. It was located about 3 minutes walk from Ikenohata exit (池之端口) of Kensei Ueno Station…

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Contrary to our expectation, the eatery was situated above a branch of McDonald’s. We were a bit taken aback because the entrance to the reputed restaurant was rather understated to say the least – through a discreet lift hall tucked around the fast food restaurant. We alighted the lift at the fourth floor and there they were, we found a door to Kurofunetei. Once we were inside, a waiter in a crisp white shirt and a black waistcoat ushered us to a table by the window…

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Because of our unsuccessful detour to the Monet exhibition early on, we managed to miss the lunchtime rush. The restaurant was sparsely occupied by a few elderly couples.

The present Kurofunetei did not start as a western-style restaurant when the founder, Suga Sōkichi, opened the eatery in 1902. he moved from his home town in Tochigi (栃木) – northwest of Tokyo, and started a Japanese restaurant in which it had not only a dining room but also a hot bath with a waterfall and a pond. In 1917, he and his son, Toshio, renewed the restaurant as a bistro and named it Cafe Kikuya (カフェ菊屋). The new enterprise reflected the mood of the Jazz Age. All “Haikara” (ハイカラ) – anything Western was in vogue. The bistro served imported liqueurs, hors d’oeuvre and Japanese Western-style menu, such as Hayashi Rice (ハヤシライス) -hashed beef rice.
In 1937, as a change of tack, Toshio, folded the bistro and started a Chinese restaurant, Ugetsusō (雨月荘). No expense was spared in building a new premises, a three-story timber structure was all-cypress and equipped with a mechanical lift for the guests. It also sported opulent decor and a sumptuous Japanese garden. The imperial family as well as heavyweight politicians flocked to the restaurant, even Mishima Yukio gave a party there in 1944. The restaurant was a resounding success. However, it was razed to the ground by a large-scale air raid by the Allies on the 10th March 1945. After the war, Toshio resurrected his business amidst of a burnt ground by opening an American-style diner, Nissan Soda Fountain, reflecting the mood of the American occupation of Japan.
Later in 1951, the diner was turned into a cinema, Ueno Park Theatre, as movie-going became the most popular past-time in the post-war Japan. The cinema was closed in 1969 and replaced by a four-story building, housing a men’s boutique on the first floor, a ladies’ one on the second and on the fourth floor, a predecessor of Kurofunetei, Restaurant Kikuya, an eatery specialised in French cuisine and steak. The boutiques imported apparel from Europe and was reputed to rival Wako in Ginze for taste and quality in its heyday. In 1986, Restaurant Kikuya was handed over to Kōichi, the founder’s grandson and rechristened as Kurofunetei.

A view from the window…

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It is hard to imagine how the ground below was covered with cindered houses after the war. I was happy to learn that they managed to weather a cataclysmic event such as WWII and the business stayed within the same family. A seemingly ordinary scenery from the window did not reflect a dramatic twist & turn this particular patch of land went through.

A small salad arrived prior to the main course…

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This bright orange dressing over my salad is quintessentially Japanese. At any old-fashioned yōshoku eatery, the salad has to come with this sweet and sour dressing. A plenty of grated onion is the key to making a dressing flavoursome. And a dash of orange juice sweetens the condiment.

Ta-dah! My Omuraisu (オムライス) – Omelette rice, is here!

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If there were a national contest for nostalgic food memories in Japan, this Omuraisu would be a victor if not within the top fifth in popularity. Omuraisu is simple. The short grain rice cooked in chicken stock is flavoured with ketchup and wrapped in a large 3-egg omelette. Once omelette with rice is transferred to the plate, it is garnished with yet more tomato ketchup or demi-glace, French-style rich brown sauce. I must say the charm of omuraisu lies in its predictability. It’s soothing, gentle and benign – no sudden surprise by spice or chilli. And the colour, yellow and red, it’s uplifting and cheerful. A perfect nursery food I can carry on eating forever.
In my omuraisu, I found large prawns and they were very tasty. By the way, mum ordered the same dish and she enjoyed hers very much too. The omuraise at Kurofunetei definitely saved our day and we headed towards Shinōkubo (新大久保), our next destination with renewed vigour…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

16 thoughts on “Kurofunetei @ Ueno

  1. It’s so interesting to read how the restaurant changed according to times.

    Love Omu Rice to bits especially ones with demi-glacé. It’s also one of those dishes that I can just keep eating. Unfortunately, I don’t know any Japanese restaurants in Frankfurt that does Omu rice and the ones I make at home isn’t as good.

    • They went to through quite a lot since it was founded more than 100 years ago. Unlike many in Ginza, the restaurant didn’t retain an original facade but kept on existing at the same spot over the war must be an achievement in itself they can be proud of.
      There is no restaurant in London which serve Omuraisu either! Why don’t they do this charming menu, I don’t know…💧

    • I know. My frame and built are definitely not made for the sport but I am a bit of tom boy, you see. I still miss hockey very much. Itching for it every time I watch the game.
      Yes, omuraise is my all time favourite. They are an ultimate Japanese comfort food 🍴

    • Oh thank you very much for your kind comment.
      About Omuraisu, opinions are divided, aren’t they? My husband, Paul, doesn’t mind but some of my pals can’t stand the idea of ketchup with rice. In Japan, some people mix rice with mayonnaise! I find it pretty disturbing… 😱

      • I’ve seen it all here in Tokyo!!! Sandwiches with noodles inside, sandwiches with strawberries and cream inside. Love hearing about Tokyo through your stories. I’ve been in Tokyo for 5 years and still can’t speak any Japanese which is totally shameful! Did you see the Masters of Nihonga at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum? Truly amazing. Now off to Daikanyama to check out some things from tokyoartbeat.com

      • Haha-, there are all sorts of weird hybrid mutant western food in Japan. Especially aforesaid Yakisoba-pan, it’s definitely a carb overload!
        No, I missed the exhibition. Just 3 days in Tokyo was too short. What’s up in Daikanyama? I haven’t been to the area for more than 10 years. 😍

      • Daikanyama I imagine has completed changed in the past 10 years. A pair of British/German architects called Klein Dytham built the astoundingly good and giantTsutaya bookshop – it is heaving with people. The whole area is a great Sunday place.

      • I will definitely visit the area next time I am in Tokyo. With my mum with a dodgy knee, we couldn’t ventrue out too far (T-T)
        Thank you for the information! (^-^)

    • Aren’t they indeed? I never knew they had that much drama through three generations until I read their history. Hope the grandson will pass down Kurofunetei to the great grandchildren and the restaurant to stay on the same spot forever 😉

  2. From hockey to knitting, now that’s a story I want to know. Hehehe. I like egg and rice together and you dish makes me hungry. Very interesting story about the history of the restaurant. Makes eating there even more enjoyable! 🙂

  3. You can count me in as someone who gets nostalgic from omurice. Growing up, my grandmother would take me out to eat from time to time and we would always go to the same ramen shop where I’d order a ramen and omurice combo. Seeing the picture of yours brought back fond memories.

    How fun that you used to play ice hockey! M plays too. He’s in a league and games are every Wed night. In the beginning I would go watch but it’s too hard to see him get so banged up! It’s so nice you got to see some of your old teammates.

    • Omurice is Japanese soul food, isn’t it? I remember how excited I was when my mum cooked one for me. Oddly enough, Paul loved it when I made one for him 🍴
      Watching hockey in the Olympic really made me miss the sport. The team has a trial in May and I am wondering if I wanna have a go again. I still have my kit, stick & skates. Paul says I should if I want to but my mum doesn’t like it at all. She thinks I’m too old and crazy 😱

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