Note: Frank Striegl runs Tokyo Ramen Tours, a tour company that has business relationships with multiple sources in this story.
Two months ago, Tokyo’s hospitality industry felt a swell of optimism about 2020. It’d already been a banner year — inbound tourism to Japan was surging (up more than 250 percent since 2012) — and the swell would be punctuated by the Summer Olympic Games in July. The city’s 150,000 restaurants were preparing for another massive wave of domestic and international visitors, with crowds expected to reach nearly 10 million, and Goldman Sachs projecting $5 billion in additional spending.
That optimism quickly transformed to uncertainty and dread when cases of COVID-19 began to spread around the world. For a while, some Tokyoites held out hope that the Olympics might take place as scheduled — it was months away. But on March 24 the International Olympic Committee announced it was officially postponing the games a full year, until July 2021. Combined with the national emergency declaration announced on April 7 — which technically allows restaurants to remain open but puts limits on hours and other aspects of operations — it’s been an unfathomable double whammy for an economy that already contracted in Q4 last year.
Like most of the world’s major thoroughfares today, Tokyo’s iconic Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) in the touristy Shinjuku area appears startlingly empty. The narrow alley of miniature counter-seat bars and yakitori restaurants that usually buzzes with tourists during the spring’s cherry blossom season is currently a ghost town, lined with shuttered restaurants and hand-scrawled “closed” signs taped to the doors. Reports show that bankruptcies in the hospitality industry are already mounting. Vendors at the famous Tsukiji fish market have reportedly lost between 70-80 percent of their business, and one local sushi chef told CNN that the economic damage already surpasses the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
While some restaurants have successfully pivoted to delivery, take-out culture is not as well established in Tokyo as one might think. While grab-and-go food options abound, there is still a strong emphasis on traditional family meals cooked at home, and many locals live in small apartments where they don’t want to deal with excess trash from deliveries. Until recently, pizza and Chinese restaurants still made up the majority of take-out options, with many other restaurants eschewing delivery for fear their food would deteriorate in quality or even become unsafe to eat. Then, as businesses flooded onto UberEats in March, without substantial user growth, the platform became crowded and impossibly competitive.
For restaurants whose business model relied primarily on tourists, or the incoming wave of tourists for the Olympics, delivery wasn’t much of an option anyway. Bocata is a 12-seat Spanish bocadillo restaurant in Tokyo’s Yutenji neighborhood. Owner Takahiro Katsumura was hoping to draw Spanish nationals looking for a taste of home during the Olympics, but the emergency declaration saw his weekend sales decline by 50 percent, and he was eventually forced to close altogether, at least for now. “There is a big chance that I might even have to close permanently if this situation drags on well into the rest of the year,” says Katsumura-san.
The themey Ninja Restaurant, which recreates an Edo-era village complete with ninja performances, treated visitors in Shinjuku to dinner and a show for almost 20 years before it recently closed its doors permanently. While the restaurant still runs a branch in Akasaka, if the situation worsens, it may too be forced to close.
Ramen restaurants in particular have felt the pinch — ramen has become the go-to dish for foreigners visiting Japan, and many operators made huge investments in expectation of an Olympics influx, costs they now have to absorb. Toki Okumura owns Shinbu Sakiya, a ramen restaurant in the tourist-heavy Shibuya area of Tokyo, not far from the famously swarmed pedestrian crossing. Okumura-san expected the Olympics to bring record-breaking revenue, projecting a 135 percent increase in business in July and August alone. Instead, sales have trended sharply in the other direction, with year-over-year revenue down in March by $62,000 USD and April set to decline by $83,000 USD.
But the damage had been done. In preparation for the Olympics, Okumura-san revamped his menu with foreigners in mind, advertising vegan, gluten-free ramen, and “non-pork” (chicken and fish) ramen options, and cranking up social media marketing to attract non-Japanese diners. He also bought a snazzy touch-screen ticket machine with six different languages. Those investments weren’t cheap — gluten-free noodles cost 350-400 yen per 100 grams, eight times the cost of standard ramen noodles (about 50 yen for 100 grams), but they only have a shelf life of six months (if the current situation goes on past summer, he’ll have to toss them). And that ticket machine cost around $37,000 USD, double what a standard machine might cost; it’s a luxury he can no longer afford.
Across the street from Shinbu Sakiya, a branch of the ramen chain Kourakuen recently introduced vegetarian gyoza dumplings aimed specifically at foreigners (only an estimated 3.8 percent of Japanese are vegetarian). A custom-printed “Recommended Menu” sign out front advertises the new plant-based options in both English and Chinese. Similar investments were made by another ramen shop, Regamen, which opened in October in the Kita-Sando area not far from the new Olympic stadium. A fresh bright paint job and new English signage — “YES, WE’RE OPEN” — were meant to draw visitors. The owners also paid to print both English and Chinese-language menus, and spent time training the staff to field special substitution requests from tourists. Now, the team is trying re-focusing on catering to locals.
When he’s not operating his shop Ramen Emoto in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Naka-Meguro, Masahiro Emoto is busy receiving tourists on ramen walking tours through the city. [Disclosure: These are through the writers’ company, Tokyo Ramen Tours]. For the Olympics, he had begun planning a special “nagashi tsukemen” event, a take on the classic summertime experience of nagashi somen, in which guests snap up noodles as they race down a bamboo shoot. “I was definitely expecting more sales,” says Emoto-san, who also printed English menus for the occasion. “Since there had been an actual increase in tourists up to now, I think people across the country had really high hopes.”
Some restaurateurs remain positive about the future. “If we think about the coronavirus situation, it’s a good thing that the Olympics were postponed,” says Okumura-san, adding he’s thankful that the Olympics are just delayed, not canceled altogether. Emoto-san agrees. “With the virus still spreading around the world, business uncertainty will remain. We’ll just have to do our best to prepare until the Olympics is safely held next year. I’m hoping things return to normal around the world soon.”