Photo/IllutrationCurry shop manager Shigeru Saito serves a Genki Curry plate at his restaurant in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, on May 9. (Yuya Tanaka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KASHIHARA, Nara Prefecture--On the wall of the Genki Curry (Vitality curry) restaurant here in the Shijocho district, about 30 pieces of paper that look like movie tickets are posted.

The papers are known as "Mirai (future) Tickets," allowing anyone in need to take one and dine on a free plate of Genki Curry.

They are the brainchild of restaurant manager Shigeru Saito and a friend, who decided to serve curry free of charge to help children and others struggling in poverty to gain "vitality."

When he heard an elementary school boy lamenting that he does not have enough money to learn a foreign language, Saito thought about poverty in society.

“I started the service, hoping that kindness shown anonymously will lead to helping someone’s future,” said Saito, 48.

Mirai Tickets are donated by charity-conscious customers who want to help individuals who cannot afford to buy lunch. If handing an additional 200 yen when paying their own bills, customers will be allowed to post Mirai Tickets on the wall.

The unique system allows those with modest but good intentions to treat people in need by paying for their meals.

Saito, who hails from Kashihara, also runs an English-language school in Nara Prefecture.

About five years ago, Saito offered a free English-speaking lesson and heard a male elementary schoolboy who took part murmuring, “I envy people who can learn English because my family does not have much money.”

Around that time, the issue of poverty among children and the elderly started to be reported in the media.

“Can I do something to contribute to those on a tight budget in society?” Saito asked his friend Katsunori Inoue, 49, who lives in Osaka and manages a nursing-care facility.

The two hit upon the idea of opening a restaurant to serve curry and rice at very inexpensive prices.

The inspiration came as Saito and Inoue believe what is important is to develop a “place to allow those in need to eat their fill, first of all.”

Acting on this thought, Inoue in 2017 opened the first Genki Curry shop in the Nishi-Tenma 3-chome district in Osaka’s Kita Ward.

The price of the curry plate was set at 200 yen ($1.83) for adults and 100 yen for children of junior high school age or younger, respectively, at near cost.

In June last year, Saito started operations of the Kashihara branch of Genki Curry.

Immediately following the opening of the shop, Saito received feedback from his customers who thought that paying “200 yen for a plate of curry is too cheap” and that they “want to contribute their change.”

Inspired by such customers, Saito got the idea of allowing those visiting his shop to make donations in the form of tickets.

Saito began the Mirai Ticket service in August with the entire wall becoming quickly covered with the meal tickets. When the system was introduced at the Osaka shop as well, the tickets sold briskly.

However, few people initially took the tickets from the wall to enjoy free meals. To rectify that, Saito toured nearby elementary and junior high schools to explain the charity program and sold plates of curry at local events to promote Genki Curry.

Such efforts helped the popularity of the shop gradually grow, resulting in a total of 40 children and others who visited Genki Curry for free curry plates during the spring holidays this year.

Around noon on a weekday in May, office workers and men in work uniforms packed Genki Curry in Kashihara. Another curry meal featuring “tonkatsu” deep-fried breaded pork cutlet is also available for just 450 yen.

When many tickets are removed from the wall, customers spontaneously buy more Mirai Tickets to replenish them.

“I can eat curry and rice for only 200 yen so it is nothing for me to sometimes pay the extra charge,” said Mitsuhiro Yoshimura, 37, who frequents Genki Curry from Nara city. “I feel happy when I find my tickets have been taken, as that means I have helped someone.”

Saito said he dreams of opening Genki Curry outlets in all 47 prefectures across Japan.

“Opening so many shops will help realize a society where people can feel much closer to each other,” said Saito.

Saito also plans to offer "juku" private-tutoring classes for children free of charge at his restaurant. The students will be served Genki Curry for dinner as well.

The Kashihara curry shop is open from 11 a.m. through 2 p.m. on weekdays, while its hours continue until 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The eatery is closed on Mondays.

The Osaka shop is open between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and closed on Sundays and national holidays.