--Mr. Aizawa, we also serve your rice at our restaurant Bistro NOHGA. You're known as the shop owner who became the "first Five Star Rice Meister of Taito Ward". What kind of certification is this?
(Toshiyuki Aizawa, owner of Inaricho Aizawa Kometen) This certificate, which indicates one is an "Expert in Rice" so to speak, is promoted by the Japan Rice Retailers Association as one aspect of its promotional activities for rice. It was created to promote awareness among consumers of the special knowledge held by rice retailers.
We have many restaurants and pubs, along with individual customers, with whom we have long been doing business in the neighborhood. I think there are very few shops that listen carefully to their customers' demands like our shop does, right down to how finely they would like their rice milled. Many customers become regulars without us noticing it.
We have a customer register to help us answer our customers when they ask, "what did I buy last time?" Today we keep about 500 names in the register, and we carefully record each customer who even just visits once a year. The chef at Bistro NOHGA is also written down. We've now accumulated 10 or 20 pages for some customers. It's really nothing special, though...
--No need to be modest, this is really an amazing record. When you are asked, you answer everything about rice including the name of the grower and how they cultivate their rice. Did you run your business this way right from the start?
I am the son-in-law of the previous owner, and it's been about 30 years since I took over the family business. In the old days, though, we did not run the shop this way. Previously, many rice retailers just assumed customers would show up, and didn't do much more than selling what the customer asked for. I was really surprised as I had never been involved in the work related to rice until I entered the business after marrying into the family. At the time when people started buying rice at the supermarket and dedicated rice retailers began disappearing one after another, I thought we would have no future if we didn't draw closer to our customers' needs.
--Thereafter, did you start fostering relationships with rice growers through a process of trial and error?
Making our webpage in the mid-1990s was a particularly big turning point. Rice growers from around Japan started viewing our page, which allowed us to become connected. There were even growers who came to sell us rice all the way from Shimane Prefecture. From that point, we started visiting the growers at their farms ourselves, and speaking directly with them. Having built these relationships, I felt the need to deepen my knowledge of rice even further, so I took the Rice Meister certification.
Even having received the Rice Meister certification, though, there is still so much I don't know about compared to rice growers, having just planted rice a few times myself. That's why I am trying to speak with the different growers in a way that allows us to connect heart-to-heart as I travel around the country. When I ask the secret to what makes their rice delicious, different growers have different answers. Some tell me, "I supplement the nutrients lacking in the soil with fertilizer to make the rice delicious" and others tell me, "it's because of the water and the sun."
--Your shop is just packed with different kinds of rice stacked up everywhere in it. Reading through the explanations of each of them, I see you are focusing on organically grown rice.
Growing rice organically is a real battle with nature, which makes it very difficult to cultivate. At the same time, organic rice clearly offers a very delicious and rich taste.
When I visited the fields of a particular rice grower, he asked me to taste the dirt itself, which was actually sweet and tasty. The field really attracts a lot of weeds, though, which require a lot of care. The dirt where rice plants grow remains soft and it's no problem to take a little taste of it. I speak with the growers because I want to introduce my customers to growers with such special pride in their rice and techniques, and share the unique information about each grower. If you come to us regularly for a while, then you will become able to understand rice growers more and more.
--You really follow-up on the meeting between customers and rice, don't you?
All rice is delicious when it is freshly cooked. That's why I'm careful to carry rice that I can confidently describe as tasty even after it has cooled.
While everyone running a shop in Ueno has already noticed, the restaurants that are loved by customers are very careful about their rice. They spend time on their rice in terms of how they cook it, how they store it, and how they serve it. They offer their customers heartfelt hospitality with brilliantly sparkling rice. That manner of business still has firm roots in this neighborhood.