Photo: MAI SHOJI
JAPAN BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT: KANAGAWA

Chigasakiya: Where you'll find a beach boy with a taste for tako-senbei and Aloha shirts

By Mai Shoji
2 Comments

As soon as I walked into Chigasakiya, I was immediately greeted by store owner Judai Takahashi dressed in his aloha shirt, short pants, and beach sandals.

I felt as if I had been transplanted to Hawaii all the way from the small coastal town of Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. Contrary to the current appearance of the store — overflowing with a huge variety of senbei (rice cracker) snacks – Chigasakiya first opened its doors as a Japanese tea store in 1961.

“My father wanted to open either a flower shop or a tea shop,” says Takahashi.

He recalls looking back on his childhood and knowing all along that he would eventually inherit the family business. “Back in those days it was natural for the son of a greengrocer to become a greengrocer, a barber’s son to become a barber, and so on,” he says.

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Chigasakiya sells Shonan souvenirs. Photo: MAI SHOJI

Shonan souvenir

Tea stores in the Showa era (1925-1989) were essential to Japanese people’s lives. They sold not only tea but many kinds of dried foods such as shiitake mushrooms and sweets. As tea became industrialized, being produced on a mass scale, people switched to drinking tea out of PET bottles. “More people drank tea, but they no longer enjoyed making tea themselves,” Takahashi says. “So when my turn came, I looked for a new product.”

He contemplated creating a souvenir for the Shonan beach area, where Chigasaki is located, since it’s one of the Kanto region’s most famous areas for beach lovers — and has been for over 300 years. Still, Takahashi wasn’t sure which would be the right product. “Visitors flock here throughout the year looking for great beaches, but some people leave disappointed because there isn’t much more than a stretch of sandy beach. We didn’t even have a local specialty, either,” Takahashi says.

It was Kamakura, a city famous for its Hato Sabure (dove-shaped biscuits representing the birds that nest in and around Tsuruoka Hachimangu shrine, the city’s symbol) that gave Takahashi an idea. “I asked myself, why does it have to be biscuits?” He noticed that many souvenirs didn’t necessarily adopt local ingredients. So he rolled up his sleeves to explore what local product would best be suited for a Chigasaki souvenir.

Spreading his tentacles

Takahashi grew up in a fishing village where mackerel, horse mackerel, and baby sardines were plentiful. Baby sardines being sun-dried in the neighborhood was a common sight — one that dated back to the Edo era. On Tuesdays when his store was closed, Takahashi would sit by the ocean, sipping sake, trying to figure out a way to use baby sardines as souvenirs. Then one day, he caught an octopus while fishing. He cut off the tentacles and grilled them — perfect nibbles to go with his sake. Then he caught another one. “After about four hours and five octopi later, which happened every Tuesday, by the way, I wondered how come this place was not famous for octopus.”

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Tako-senbei are the store's best-selling product. Photo: MAI SHOJI

This is when Takahashi decided to go with the idea of making tako-senbei (octopus crackers). In central Japan, mainstream crackers are made of deep-fried sticky rice, but it would be difficult to add octopus. Takahashi found out that thin crackers made of starch would work better. The crackers were first smashed into thin pieces with a pressing machine. Takahashi next had to decide what kind of taste would be ideal. “I don’t remember how many samples we made but a Japanese-based sauce with a hint of spice went well.”

After settling on the taste, the package design was next. “I decided that an illustration of Enoshima would be perfect, but hiring an artist would be costly, so I drew it myself. Hiring calligraphers would cost me, too, so I did the wording myself. You know, people can do anything when they’re under pressure,” he says with a beaming smile. After the product and package design were set, Takahashi went to a 7-Eleven store to use the Xerox machine to color copy the drawings, then he packaged the tako-senbei to test-sell for ¥100 each. The product was a hit.

Takahashi’s intuition had been to support Shonan and local residents, but to his surprise, many people, including customers, ridiculed him for taking the liberty of selling “Shonan souvenirs.” Some people didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t a Chigasaki souvenir like baby sardines. So Takahashi went back to the drawing board. He experimented with many types of snacks using the sardines. One day, he took a small piece of mochi (rice cake), added mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and baby sardines and threw it into a pot of oil. “It exploded! I wasn’t aware that you’re not supposed to deep fry roe, and I burned my face and arms…But I tasted a bit and the result was delicious.” His “Chigasaki souvenir” was born. Takahashi drew the symbol of Chigasaki, the Eboshi rock, for the package design.

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Packages of tako-senbei and baby sardine senbei Photo: MAI SHOJI

But his tako-senbei continued to gain popularity far and wide and remains his best-selling product. Some say the best way to eat octopus is takowasabi (octopus marinated in wasabi sauce), which he made. Other customers requested a senbei to pair with their wines, resulting in a black pepper flavor. Some wanted a pizza taste; he chose a basil flavor. His latest request was for tako-kimchi (spicy Korean pickles) flavor. He received a fan letter all the way from Okinawa Prefecture’s Iriomote island, requesting the tako-kimchi flavor because apparently in Iriomote, that’s the most typical way octopus is eaten.

Takahashi is happy to take requests but admits that he sometimes gets a bit carried away with flavors. This is evident in his other products at Chigasakiya. Next to the series of tako-senbei is a Japanese sweets section, which includes Chigasaki-themed delights such as sweet bean jelly shaped like the Eboshi rock; biscuits in the form of Shonan local’s favorite genbei beach sandals; and a mikoshi (portable shrine)-shaped steamed bun.

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Biscuits shaped like genbei sandals Photo: MAI SHOJI

All Star Curry

The idea for another Shonan souvenir came from the pop-rock band Southern All Stars. Takahashi claims he was instrumental in getting the band to perform at a concert in Chigasaki.

The group, formed in 1978, is especially known for their summer songs about the Shonan area. Lead vocalist Keisuke Kuwata was born and raised in Chigasaki, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Chigasaki became well-known because of the singer. Takahashi says he stood at the station collecting signatures for a petition to ask Southern All Stars to perform a concert by Chigasaki beach. His dream came true in August of 2000, which was reportedly the first ever outdoor concert on such a large scale.

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Southern Curry inspired by the pop-rock band Southern All Stars Photo: MAI SHOJI

“After the concert, I was eager to use the word ‘Southern,’ which the group is called for short,” Takahashi says. “I couldn’t use ‘Southern All Stars,’ but I thought maybe I could get away with ‘Southern.’” The result was Southern Curry — in pouch form. Takahashi and his friends waited for complaints from the group’s agency, but none came. Emboldened by Takahashi, the people of Chigasaki started to make new souvenirs with the name “Southern.” Even the beach is referred to as “Southern Beach,” which Takahashi admits to being responsible for. “Well, I guess I might have, but all I want is for more people to love this place.”

His creative instincts next led him to pasta sauce. Chigasaki Meat Spaghetti Sauce is made with lavish amounts of cherry tomatoes from the O-Ishii farm in Chigasaki. The sauce is made under the supervision of an acclaimed local chef from the Italian restaurant Barrique. The package was designed by a former student from Takahashi’s swimming class who grew up to become an illustrator. Takahashi has worked as an instructor at a local sports club for 15 years.

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Chigasaki Meat Spaghetti Sauce is made with cherry tomatoes from the O-Ishii farm in Chigasaki. Photo: MAI SHOJI

Using his noodle

On Chigasakiya’s website is a soba noodle shop. And of course, there’s a story behind that, too.

“Have you seen demonstration sales of rice crackers using the entire octopus crushed in a pressing machine in Enoshima or elsewhere?” Takahashi asks. “Most Japanese people have probably seen this on TV. It’s one of the must-buys in Enoshima sold at Asahi Honten. Well, that store used to be a manju (steamed bun) store. Yonei-san, the owner of Asahi, asked me if he could sell my tako-senbei. They were flying off the shelves to the point where I had to make several trips to Enoshima a day. And one day, Yonei-san said that he’d like to sell something he himself created.”

Takahashi brought a simplified pressing machine and his original sauce to him and experimented on pressing a couple of whole octopi. As they were experimenting, customers came rushing up to them.

“I told him that he’s going to need to put his soul into this because it’s the same kind of phenomenon that happened to me. When the test products are snapped up, it’s going be a bestseller. He didn’t believe me at first, but later he confessed to me that he needed to close down the manju store to concentrate on this new creation.”

Besides his business activities, Takahashi is also currently vice president of the Chigasaki Tourism Department, he helps pick up trash and generally does anything he can to assist in promoting his hometown.

To make use of the empty manju store in Enoshima, Takahashi opened a soba restaurant. At first, the people of Enoshima didn’t welcome an “outsider.” Even though most Japanese there consider themselves a part of Shonan, according to Takahashi, “the people of Enoshima are very strict when it comes to opening stores on the island.” However, once they found out he was asked by Yonei-san, who was born and raised in Enoshima, they welcomed him warmly.

Chigasakiya’s tako-senbei are still selling strong and are available in more than 100 stores across Kanagawa Prefecture, centered on the Shonan area. The only place overseas you can buy them is in Honolulu — Chigasaki’s sister city — where they are sold in some supermarkets.

Perhaps his affinity with Hawaii explains his dress style. Takahashi calls it “formal attire” in Chigasaki. Public transport drivers, shop owners, and even government workers wear aloha shirts to work. “Most izakayas (bars) give you a free beer if you’re wearing an Aloha shirt,” he says.

Besides his business activities, Takahashi is also currently vice president of the Chigasaki Tourism Department, he helps pick up trash and generally does anything he can to assist in promoting his hometown.

For anyone thinking of going to Chigasaki, Takahashi recommends a spectacular annual event called Hamaori-sai that takes place in July. Bearers carry 40 mikoshi into the water at the beach as thousands of spectators look on. The event continues well into the night. Apparently, mikoshi bearers have already started working out at the gym to get in shape.

“Many people move to Chigasaki. Some people see it through media coverage and they fall in love with the place. It’s not too cold in the winter and even during the summer, it gets much cooler from around 2:30 p.m. due to the sea breeze. So there are lots of people walking their dogs around that time of the day on the beach. Your lifestyle will change in Chigasaki.”

From tako-senbei to soba restaurant to festivals to events every week, Takahashi really is the quintessential Kanagawa entrepreneur.

For more information on Chigasakiya, visit https://www.chigasakiya.co.jp/e-commex/cgi-bin/ex_disp_category/id/1/

This is the 11th story in Japan Today’s new Japan Business Spotlight series, which brings the spotlight on Japanese domestic companies, from small-scale family-run businesses to now worldwide corporate giants. In this series, we trace the roots of their foundations, we look at the faces behind their stories and the concepts behind their most recent innovations. Our first series introduces 12 businesses based in or operating in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Read more articles from our Japan Business Spotlight: Kanagawa:

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2 Comments
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I can buy here in Kona Hawaii at KTA Grocery.

Link to a photo of the Tako-Senbei I purchased here in Kona, but not sure if anyone can see. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3523545484337968&set=pb.100000476524990.-2207520000.1562100475.&type=3&theater

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Tonbi, those large flying kites (Not Hawks) love those people that buy anything and walk down at the beach. Beware everyone. They are amazing creatures and will take your food with a nice swoop from behind.

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