Chojiya is a restaurant specializing in “tororo” (grated yam) dishes located in Shizuoka city’s Suruga Ward, an area that retains the feel of Mariko-juku, one of the many stations of the old Tokaido route.

The establishment replaced its symbolic thatched roof this spring and continues to attract many visitors from Japan and abroad, yet Kaoru Shibayama, the 64-year-old proprietor, says, “Our business had hit rock bottom at one point.”

Although busloads of guests flocked to Chojiya during the asset-inflated “bubble" economy era in the latter half of the 1980s, the wave gradually receded. Looking back, Shibayama says, “There is no denying that we were resting on our laurels of having a 400-year history and were running the business like amateurs.”

To turn things around, he added dishes that were not tororo-based and tried to turn the place into a general restaurant. But the move backfired.

Then in 2006, Shibayama’s son Hiroyuki, now 39, who had been living outside Shizuoka Prefecture, got married and returned to his hometown. He decided to assist his father in running Chojiya.

Together with their wives, Kaoru and Hiroyuki discussed in depth what sort of restaurant they wanted to pursue, what they should retain in the business, and how to win repeat customers.

They listened to the opinions of their staff and sought the help of a business consultant. They reduced the price of each dish so the guests could try an assortment of tororo dishes, and also increased the number of dishes in a course. They continued to make improvements from the guests’ perspective.

Meanwhile, Hiroyuki made frequent visits to the fields where the “jinenjo” yam--the ingredient of the restaurant’s signature tororo soup--was grown, and learned all about the cultivation of the vegetable, which takes three years to grow fully.

Even today, he visits the fields to help select the seed yam. He does so because he thinks it is their job “to convey the laborious efforts and thoughts of the farmers to the guests.”

To assist the farmers in sharing their experiences, Hiroyuki also creates opportunities for them to visit each other’s fields.

Tororo soup is a “power food” that gave strength to travelers of old who walked the rocky paths. At Chojiya, the miso that seasons the soup is also homemade. The soup is prepared according to an old and simple recipe. Despite its low-key appearance, its taste has such depth that it is guaranteed to leave you asking for more.

INGREDIENTS

(Serves two)

200 grams jinenjo (or yamatoimo, nagaimo)

Seasoning A (2/3 tsp soy sauce, 1 and 1/3 tsp ready-made sauce for grilled eel (unagi no tare)

1 go (about 180 ml) rice

0.5 go pressed barley (oshimugi)

1 egg

1 cup dashi stock

2 Tbsp miso

METHOD

Rinse rice and place in rice cooker with pressed barley. Add water for 1.5-go rice and cook.

Grate jinenjo (peel beforehand if yamatoimo or nagaimo is used) and mix with Seasoning A. Break egg and add to mixture.

Heat dashi stock and dissolve miso. Add this to yam mixture in small amounts and mix.

When barley rice is done, serve in largish bowl, pour yam soup on top and sprinkle with chopped “hosonegi” (thin green onion) to taste.

(This is a recipe intended for home cooking. Jinenjo is in season during winter. Chojiya purchases a batch at harvest time and keeps it in temperature-controlled storage to serve year round. When preparing the dish at home this season, it may be replaced by yamatoimo or nagaimo yam.)

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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column