On his deep travels through Japan’s food culture, Matt Goulding meets the improbable Guatemalan master of okonomiyaki
It starts with a thwack, the sharp crack of hard plastic against a hot metal surface. When the ladle rolls over, it deposits a pale-yellow puddle of batter onto the griddle. A gentle sizzle, as the back of the ladle spackles a mixture of eggs, flour, water, and milk across the silver surface. A crepe takes shape.
Next comes cabbage, chopped thin—but not too thin—and stacked six inches high, lightly packed so hot air can flow freely and wilt the mountain down to a molehill. Crowning the cabbage comes a flurry of tastes and textures: ivory bean sprouts, golden pebbles of fried tempura batter, a few shakes of salt and, for an extra umami punch, a drift of dried bonito powder. Finally, three strips of streaky pork belly, just enough to umbrella the cabbage in fat, plus a bit more batter to hold the whole thing together. With two metal spatulas and a gentle rocking of the wrists, the mass is inverted. The pork fat melts on contact, and the cabbage shrinks in the steam trapped under the crepe.
Then things get serious. Thin wheat soba noodles, still dripping with hot water, hit the teppan, dancing like garden hoses across its hot surface, absorbing the heat of the griddle until they crisp into a bird’s nest to house the cabbage and crepe. An egg with two orange yolks sizzles beside the soba, waiting for its place on top of this magnificent heap.
Everything comes together: cabbage and crepe at the base, bean sprouts and pork belly in the center, soba and fried egg parked on top, a geologic construction of carbs and crunch, protein and chew, all framed with the black and white of thickened Worcestershire and a zigzag of mayonnaise.
This is okonomiyaki, the second most famous thing that ever happened to Hiroshima.
Fernando Lopez makes an unlikely candidate for one of Hiroshima’s greatest okonomiyaki chefs. He was born in Guatemala City in 1963. His father worked for Guatemala’s health services, spraying DDT to combat the plague of malaria that gripped Central America in the 1960s. He spent a lot of his time on the road, often in the beds of other women. “He wasn’t a good man,” says Lopez.
His father had Mayan blood, with dark skin to match his dark hair. His mother was fair, with wavy hair and a sweet smile. When little Fernando was born with light skin, blue eyes, and curly hair, his father refused to believe the boy was his, and so Lopez was raised mainly by his grandmother, separate from his four brothers and two sisters.
Even when his father did finally accept Fernando as his own, it wasn’t an easy relationship. At fifteen, Lopez decided to stand between the man he barely knew and a beating aimed for his mother, and years of abuse and philandering came to a head. His father left, never to come back, and the boy who’d grown up alone was left to absorb the blame for chasing away the man of the house.
Lopez survived, working hard to overcome the early challenges life had posed for him. He studied accounting for a year in college, and eventually took a job managing the books for a popular Italian restaurant in Guatemala City. He soon discovered that the managers were skimming off the top, along with other criminal activity, and he fretted over what to do with this sensitive information. When one of his coworkers involved turned up dead in a ditch, he knew it was time to leave Guatemala, possibly for good.
He landed in New Orleans on a visa sponsored by an uncle who had lived in the States for years. He planned to stay for three months to study English, but instead took a job busing tables at an Italian restaurant. The chef had a temper issue, and one day the entire kitchen staff walked out on him. He recruited Lopez to help out in the kitchen, but the young Guatemalan knew nothing about cooking. “He fired me every fifteen minutes. It was a mess.”
AT FIRST YOU’RE A SLAVE, YOU’RE EVERYONE’S BITCH. BUT THAT’S HOW YOU LEARN
Soon after, while working as a dishwasher at the Fairmont, he met Andre LeDoux, a well-traveled hotel chef who would become his kitchen mentor—the first of a series of teacher-student relationships that would shape Lopez as a cook and a man. LeDoux made him a deal: Lopez would teach him Spanish, and he would teach Lopez how to cook. When LeDoux became chef of the French Quarter institute Arnaud’s, he took Lopez with him, and Lopez’s real education began in earnest. “At first you’re a slave, you’re everyone’s bitch, and they can do whatever they want with you. But that’s how you learn.” He moved from station to station, mastering the classics of the French Creole canon: shucking and roasting oysters, making roux for gumbo, sautéing frog legs in garlic butter. “There were twelve of us feeding six hundred people a night. People walked out on him. They couldn’t take the stress. But I loved it.”
When LeDoux left Arnaud’s to run the kitchen at the Sheraton Surfrider in Honolulu, Lopez followed him across the Pacific. The Sheraton’s kitchen staff was on strike, so Lopez entered as a scab, stuffed in a van and slipped into the kitchen under the cover of darkness. He cooked nonstop for forty-three days and nights, until the strike broke and Lopez was left without a place in the kitchen. He took a job as a valet at a hotel where, one night, a young Japanese woman in a beat-up Toyota Corolla with a bad paint job pulled into the parking lot and changed his life. “Nobody else wanted to park the car because it was so beat up, they thought they wouldn’t get a tip.” He didn’t get a tip, but he got a date out of it.
Makiko Yonezawa was from Hiroshima. Her family owned a ryokan back home, and she had come to Hawaii six years earlier to study the hotel industry. They connected right away, but Lopez’s timing wasn’t great: Makiko returned to Japan a few months after they started dating to help with the family business. Lopez soon followed with a surprise visit, a grand gesture of young love that didn’t sit well with Makiko’s parents. They didn’t like the idea of their daughter dating a foreigner, but her father pulled Lopez aside before he returned to Hawaii and told him that if they remained together for a year, then they could talk seriously.
Fernando and Makiko married in 1992, in a small civil ceremony in Hawaii. For their honeymoon, they took Amtrak around the United States, looking for a place to build a life together. They loved Chicago, Denver, and Seattle, but the cold and the rain scared them off. In Phoenix they fell hard for the spice-charged food of the Southwest, and they hatched a plan to open a Tex-Mex restaurant together in Hawaii. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. Real estate was outrageously expensive in Honolulu, and neither of them qualified for the kind of loan they would need to build a business. So in 1995, with dwindling prospects in the States, they made the move to the Far East, to southern Japan, transporting their dream of opening a Southwestern restaurant to the heart of Hiroshima.
People around town tell me to look for the giant wooden egg. “The Giant Wooden Egg!” they say, raising their voices and stretching their wingspans out to mimic its shape—a brown oblong structure eight stories high, inside which I would find the secrets of Hiroshima’s most sacred food.
The egg in question is home to Otafuku, Hiroshima’s famous sauce maker, which doubles as the de facto museum to Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Maybe it’s the exposed ribs, the empty spaces, the nearly naked aspect of the looming wooden structure, but the building looks less like an egg and more like the skeletal remains of the Atomic Bomb Dome, which stands as a memorial to the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. It seems like a grim architectural echo for the global headquarters of a company best known for its sticky-sweet okonomiyaki topping.
That echo, however, turns out to be intentional. Otafuku ties its sauce intimately to the city it comes from, and also to the defining horror that destroyed old Hiroshima and remade everything that followed. It was in the wake of that horror that okonomiyaki took shape.
Issen yoshoku, “one-coin Western food,” gained popularity in the early 1900s as a cheap after-school snack for kids, a crepe rolled with onions and bean sprouts and often sold in candy shops. In the years immediately following the war, as the survivors of the bomb tried to stave off starvation, the snack became a vital part of Hiroshima’s revival.
In a matter of seconds, the bomb leveled every eatery in the city center, in essence wiping Hiroshima’s restaurant culture clean. With nothing else to work with, loose pieces of sheet metal, the bones of buildings lost to the bomb, became street teppans, makeshift griddles heated from below with coal from the shipyard and used to cook whatever scraps of food could be thrown together: a few shreds of cabbage, loose vegetable bits, an egg or a touch of protein for the most fortunate. As American forces arrived in Japan with surplus wheat supplies, cooks in Hiroshima used flour and water to stretch and bind the dish.
The Otafuku tour begins the okonomiyaki story a few years later, after the dust had settled, after the desperation had ebbed. On the main floor of the museum, the first stop is a reconstructed okonomiyaki ya-san from the 1950s. Like many of the early wave of okonomiyaki shops, it was connected to a home, perhaps with a small convenience store for daytime commerce, selling gum and cigarettes. More than anything, the ad hoc diners were a way for war widows to earn some money. The reconstructed space has the plastic feel of demonstration food, punctuated by a few original accents: metal hera(spatulas) from the period, a small black-and-white television with old newsreels, a menu board offering okonomiyaki with egg for 15 yen and without for 10.
As Japan recovered from the postwar depression, okonomiyaki became the cornerstone of Hiroshima’s nascent restaurant culture. And with new variable—noodles, protein, fishy powders—added to the equation, it became an increasingly fungible concept. Half a century later, it still defies easy description. Okonomi means “whatever you like,” yaki means “grill,” but smashed together they do little to paint a clear picture. Invariably, writers, cooks, and oko officials revert to analogies: some call it a cabbage crepe, others a savory pancake or an omelet. Guidebooks, unhelpfully, refer to it as Japanese pizza, though okonomiyaki looks and tastes nothing like pizza. Otafuku, for its part, does little to clarify the situation, comparing okonomiyaki in turn to Turkish pide, Indian chapatti, and Mexican tacos.
There are two overarching categories of okonomiyaki: Hiroshima style, with a layer of noodles and a heavy cabbage presence, and Osaka or Kansai style, made with a base of eggs, flour, dashi, and gratednagaimo, sticky mountain yam. More than the ingredients themselves, the difference lies in the structure: whereas okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is carefully layered, a savory circle with five or six distinct layers, the ingredients in Osaka-style okonomiyaki are mixed together before cooking. The latter is so simple to cook that many restaurants let you do it yourself on tableside teppans. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, on the other hand, is complicated enough that even the cooks who dedicate their lives to its construction still don’t get it right most of the time. (Some people consider monjayaki, a runny mass of meat and vegetables popularized in Tokyo’s Tsukishima district, to be part of the okonomiyakifamily, but if so, it’s no more than a distant cousin.)
Otafuku entered the picture in 1938 as a rice vinegar manufacturer. Their original factory near Yokogawa Station burned down in the nuclear attack, but in 1946 they started making vinegar again. In 1950 Otafuku began production of Worcestershire sauce, but local cooks complained that it was too spicy and too thin, that it didn’t cling to okonomiyaki, which was becoming the nutritional staple of Hiroshima life. So Otafuku used fruit—originally orange and peach, later Middle Eastern dates—to thicken and sweeten the sauce, and added the now-iconic Otafuku label with the six virtues that the chubby-cheeked lady of Otafuku, a traditional character from Japanese folklore, is supposed to represent. including a little nose for modesty, big ears for good listening, and a large forehead for wisdom.
Today Otafuku is the primary engine behind Hiroshima’s massive okonomiyaki industry, and as such, they invest no small amount of time and energy in making sure the city is checkered with successful vendors dispensing dark rivers of its saccharine sauce. That means connecting business owners with cabbage and pork purveyors to keep the teppans humming. That means schooling potential entrepreneurs in the economics of restaurant management. That means helping train the next wave of okonomiyaki masters: disgruntled salarymen, ambitious home cooks, even the occasional Guatemalan immigrant.
Lopez and his wife were determined to bring the flavors of Phoenix and Santa Fe and El Paso to the people of Hiroshima. The only problem was that no one in Japan had ever heard of Southwestern food.
After presenting his plan to a local builder, the contractor told Lopez bluntly, “I don’t build restaurants that fail.”
Lopez and his wife shuffled through ideas—pizzeria, bistro, sandwich shop—but nothing felt right. Eventually the conversation turned where conversations in Hiroshima normally turn when the subject of food comes up: okonomiyaki. “Why don’t you open an okonomiyaki restaurant?” friends and family started to ask.
Why not open an okonomiyaki shop? Let’s consider the reasons: Because Lopez was born seven thousand miles away, in one of the roughest cities on the planet. Because he didn’t look Japanese, speak Japanese, or cook Japanese. Because okonomiyaki isn’t just a pile of cabbage and noodles and pork belly, but a hallowed food in Hiroshima, stacked with layers and layers of history and culture that he couldn’t pretend to be a part of. Because even though they might accept an Italian cooking pasta and a Frenchman baking baguettes, they would never accept a Guatemalan making okonomiyaki.
But friends and family insisted it was a good idea—“Everybody knows and loves okonomiyaki,” they would say, still confounded by the idea of fajitas—and Lopez, with few decent alternatives, agreed to attend a business workshop put on by Otafuku. By the time he emerged three days later, head full of inventory lists and teppan technology, he was convinced enough to give it a run.
Otafuku provided the framework for running a business, but he still needed to learn how to cook okonomiyaki, so he sought out an apprenticeship. Lopez knew a guy who knew a guy working at Hassho, one of Hiroshima’s greatest okonomiyaki restaurants, where every night a line filled with hungry locals and guidebook-clutching tourists snakes around the block of Hiroshima’s neon Yagenbori entertainment district. He was in.
The master-apprentice relationship, in many ways, is still the beating heart of Japanese food culture, an age-old tradition that supersedes stages and cooking school as the primary engine of culinary education. Unsurprisingly, apprenticeships tend to be formal endeavors, and each style of cooking comes with its own set of rules and expectations. Serious tempura students can expect to spend five years filtering oil, stirring batter, and looking over their master’s shoulder before they’re deemed ready to fry. In the sushi world, the apprentice might begin with a year of washing dishes, another few years cleaning and cooking rice, and eventually dedicate a decade to quietly observing the master slice and serve fish before being released into the wild to test his skills. I once met a fifty-five-year-old man in a Matsumoto karaagerestaurant who had been apprenticing under his father for twenty-seven years. After three decades, his dad still didn’t let son fry the chicken.
By these standards, the okonomiyaki apprenticeship is relatively relaxed. Lopez spent just three months working at Hassho, learning quickly the dozens of steps that go into constructing Hiroshima’s most sacred staple. “I had an advantage that most of these guys don’t have: I was a professional cook. I picked it up pretty fast.”
In ninety days, Hassho’s owner Ogawa Hiroki passed along to Lopez an arsenal of tiny tricks and vital techniques it had taken a lifetime to accumulate. He learned that bean sprouts in May behave differently than bean sprouts in October. He learned that fresh noodles, cooked to order, make an okonomiyaki superior to one made with the prepackaged, pre-cooked soba everyone else uses. He learned that touch and finesse are the most vital items in an okonomiyaki cook’s toolkit, because every okonomiyaki behaves differently.
When Lopez had metabolized the meaty lessons of okonomiyaki, Hiroki didn’t just pat him on the back and wish him good luck. He took an early and spirited role in assuring that Lopez would succeed on his own. He helped design the layout of the restaurant; he made sure the teppan was three centimeters thick and had overlapping burners to better hold in the heat, just as he had designed it himself so many years ago; he connected Lopez with all the right purveyors, including the guy with the gorgeous eggs with double yolks that his regulars so adored.
When a new okonomiyaki restaurant opens in Hiroshima, an elaborate flower arrangement adorns the front of the shop, a gift from the master to the apprentice as the latter tries to win over a new clientele. It’s both a sign of respect and an easy way to establish the bona fides of the new business owner. (It’s also a subtle but looming reminder to the apprentice that he better keep his shit together and not bring dishonor to the master.) When Okonomiyaki Lopez opened in the spring of 2000, Hiroki sent an elaborate $200 arrangement, a sign with his shop’s logo, and a metal stand to hold it all out in front for the public to see.
A LOT OF JAPANESE PEOPLE THINK GUATEMALA IS A COFFEE BRAND
But business was slow. To start with, okonomiyaki joints are everywhere in this city, two thousand in total across greater Hiroshima, and it’s not easy to set yourself apart from the competition. It doesn’t help that Lopez Okonomiyaki is located on a quiet street in Yokogawacho, the working-class neighborhood where Makiko’s family once owned its ryokan. This is the kind of area where small neighborhood restaurants rule, and Lopez didn’t fit the profile of your Tuesday-night cook. “People would sit there and watch me with huge eyes, trying to figure out who this guy was making their okonomiyaki.”
Less than 2 percent of Japan’s 126 million citizens are immigrants, making it one of the most homogenous countries on the planet (a 2012 study in the Journal of Economic Literature placed it third to last in terms of ethnic diversity, with only North and South Korea ranking lower).
Chinese and Koreans, many whom have lived here for generations, account for more than half of whatever diversity there is, meaning very few Westerners call Japan home. Part of this stems from Japan’s historic aversion to non-Japanese—from the sealed borders of the Tokugawa shogunate to the forced assimilation of the Ainu in Hokkaido. Modern immigration laws, among the most draconian in the world, and a deep dedication to a belief in Japanese superiority on the part of today’s most conservative leaders, have done little to make Japan a more inclusive society.
The Japanese are heroically hospitable when it comes to foreign visitors, but for immigrants the welcome mat can be harder to find. Even if you do make it here, adapt to the culture, commit a thousand kanji characters to memory, denounce your birth country, and feel deep down in your soul that you are as Japanese as pickled fish and electronic toilets, you will always be an outsider.
Being from Guatemala, which at last count had just 145 citizens calling Japan home, means you’re more outside than most. “A lot of people think Guatemala is a coffee brand. ‘Oh, you’re from the coffee brand!’ ”says Lopez. “Japanese people forget about Central America. They think Mexico is attached to South America.”
Knowing they were up against a formidable headwind, Lopez and Makiko worked hard to make inroads in the neighborhood. So did Hiroki, who created special cards announcing Okonomiyaki Lopez that he distributed around Yokogawacho. He instructed Lopez—who was studying Japanese in night school and by now beginning to grasp some of the many social formalities that dominate basic interactions in Japan—to follow up with free samples of his okonomiyaki, and to solicit feedback from potential customers.
“Many said I could do better,” says Lopez. “I mean, if you ask them their opinion, they’re going to tell you.”
In those early days, Lopez and Makiko cooked side by side. She was pregnant with their first child, but she had trained in kitchens before and proved a talented okonomiyaki cook. Plus, since she was born and raised in the neighborhood, her mere presence behind the counter gave Lopez a sparkle of authenticity.
The combination of the oko offensive and the husband-and-wife dynamics worked to slowly win over the neighborhood. The biggest breakthrough, though, came from the most unlikely source of all: Guatemala. A customer from the neighborhood came in one afternoon while Lopez was making salsa for a staff meal. He saw a pile of chopped jalapeños and asked Lopez to throw a few in with his okonomiyaki. Lopez tried to dissuade the man, told him that jalapeños are spicy and wouldn’t match well with the okonomiyaki, but the customer insisted. He loved it, and came back every day for weeks, ordering the same thing, until finally another customer saw the off-menu alteration and came along for the ride. Soon the spicy supplement became a Lopez staple, and he was forced to add it to the regular menu.
Today, the jalapeño okonomiyaki remains the most popular item at Lopez Okonomiyaki, much to the owner’s chagrin.
“Jalapeños don’t belong in okonomiyaki.”
I eat a lot of okonomiyaki when I stay in Hiroshima, which is to say, I survive on okonomiyaki alone for many days at a time. I eat it in tiny shops down tiny alleys without names on the door. I eat it in the famous places with long lines and dense clouds of savory steam fogging up the windows. I eat it in Okonomi-mura, a four-story building dedicated entirely to okonomiyaki, with twenty-six vendors wilting their way through vast sierras of cabbage. (I’m reminded constantly during my time in Hiroshima that Okonomi-mura is the most popular food theme park in all of Japan.) I eat it with the salarymen at noon and the hustlers at midnight; I eat it with pork and beef, shrimp and scallops, oysters and squid.
My main takeaway, from a strict culinary perspective, is this: If handled improperly, made in a hurry, or constructed from subpar ingredients, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is little more than prosaic drinking food—yakisoba made vertically instead of horizontally.
Made with care, constructed with a deft hand, put together with finesse and talent and a few shakes of soul, it is a glorious amalgamation, so vastly superior to Osaka’s version as to not even warrant a comparison. But nothing about okonomiyaki feels particularly Japanese—not the flavors, not the format, and certainly not the bulk. Which, ultimately, might explain its popularity: after a breakfast of natto and a lunch of grilled mackerel and steamed rice, there’s nothing like tucking into a 1,500-calorie disc of destiny to remind you of the primal joys of eating. (Unsurprisingly, it’s a dish that wins the hearts and stomachs of Western visitors almost instantly.)
Friday lunch at Lopez Okonomiyaki is one of the busiest shifts of the week, a time for a final splurge for the professional set before the weekend begins. I’ve been watching Lopez make okonomiyaki all week now, and occasionally I’ve grabbed a spatula and made a mess of his teppan, but the pace of today’s business allows little time for gaijin high jinks; I take up a chair at the end of the bar and watch the great feast unfold.
Two female pharmacists in lab coats are the first to arrive, followed by a pair of older salarymen with impeccable suits and polished briefcases. Then a mother and her young son. By 11:20 every seat is taken, and the teppan crackles with the sound of sizzling pork belly and wilting cabbage.
The restaurant is small, even by okonomiyaki standards, with a narrow prep kitchen, a sixteen-seat counter, and a U-shaped teppan that stretches nearly the entire width of the shop. From appearances alone, it’s tough to tell where the fantasy of Lopez Southwest ends and the reality of Lopez Okonomiyaki begins. The chairs are covered in poncho patterns, the shop logo shines bright with yellow, red, and green, and the menu contains a few tastes of a dream deferred, including a Guatemalan tongue stew and chicken fajitas, which sit warming in green and red enamel pots at the edge of the teppan.
It’s clear a lot has changed since the years of goosing the neighborhood with free samples. Lopez looks comfortable behind his stainless steel perch, with a white flower-studded bandanna wrapped tight around his head and a denim Otafuku apron covering his chest that reads: “Eat Okonomiyaki All Together a Happy Happy Home!!”
Lopez makes his okonomiyaki with a mixture of repetitive precision and intense personal interest. As soon as a customer walks in the door, before she can even sit down, he drops a ladle of batter onto the griddle and begins to build. The precise layering of ingredients, the way he cups the cabbage between two spatulas, the little beads of water he splashes on the teppan to take and adjust its temperature: all point to a man who knows that the difference between commodity and craft is razor-thin.
Unlike many of the okonomiyaki cooks I see around town, who look as if they changed their suits and ties for aprons and bandannas in a phone booth, Lopez works the griddle like a guy who has fileted a fish, reduced a sauce, ruined a few soufflés in his life. For someone with his rolling-stone résumé, you might think a single savory concoction would be a death sentence, but he exudes a deep sense of calm behind the sizzle and the steam.
“People ask if I ever get bored of making the same thing. Are you kidding me? They have no idea what goes on in my head just to make this one okonomiyaki.”
To illustrate his point, Lopez gives me a primer on cabbage. Cabbage evolves throughout the course of the year, coming from different prefectures across Japan—from the wintry mountains of Nagano to the dry flats of Fukuoka—and as the seasons change, so too does the cabbage’s behavior on the teppan. In spring, it wilts fast and burns quickly, in the fall it retains liquid and requires a longer, slower cook. “It took me a full year just to figure out how to manage my cabbage.”
Multiply that by noodles, eggs, crepes, proteins, and the capricious nature of the griddle, and you begin to understand why he doesn’t seem anxious to add items to his menu or build more restaurants or do anything else beside make okonomiyaki exactly where he’s been making it for fifteen years. That might be the most Japanese thing about Lopez: his ability to accept tiny details like vegetable water content and griddle heat distribution as challenges worthy of a life’s dedication.
Behind Lopez, tracking his every move, are two apprentices. Futoshi Mitsumura, thirty-one, left behind a moderately successful stint as a punk rock drummer in Tokyo to return to Hiroshima and learn to cook the soul food of his hometown. He’s been here one year, and still does most of his work behind the scenes, boiling noodles, chopping cabbage, refilling bottles of Otafuku sauce.
Hidenori Takemoto, thirty, could be the poster child for the salaryman convert, an uninspired mechanic at Toyota who found his true muse in the leafy layers of this Hiroshima specialty.
“At Toyota, I did what I was told and there was no praise for a job well done. With okonomiyaki, I get immediate response.” He’s been working behind Lopez for over a year now, and he shadows his master with quiet confidence, cracking eggs, flipping crepes, splashing noodles with helpful doses of hot water. He already has a space picked out for his restaurant, where he will bring Lopez-style okonomiyaki, jalapeños and all, to the people of Shikoku.
The line of people waiting for a seat at the counter continues to grow, until a small group—a pair of parking attendants, a young guy with huge headphones and a bubble jacket—forms outside. Makiko suddenly appears, apron-clad and spatula-ready, and takes her place beside Lopez at the teppan. She still works the griddle, but mostly during the restaurant’s busiest moments (the Lopez family—husband and wife, two boys, in-laws—all live in a house attached to the restaurant). She shakes spices and fries eggs and efficiently begins to finish the okonomiyaki her husband starts, then slides them across the griddle to waiting customers. Okonomiyaki, in the best places, at least, is eaten with a hera, a thin metal spatula, directly off the teppan—a dish, as Lopez likes to say, that continues to evolve down to the last bite.
These days Lopez Okonomiyaki shows up on the top-ten lists of many local experts, including a perennial slot as one of Hiroshima’s best okonomiyaki shops on Tablelog, Japan’s massive restaurant review website. But a certain contingent of Japan’s food cognoscenti still have a hard time believing that okonomiyaki could come from a Guatemalan. Lopez remembers a few years back when a local journalist wrote a book dedicated to Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki and its many purveyors. He ate at Lopez Okonomiyaki a few times, and politely returned months later to give Lopez a finished copy of the book. Only, Lopez wasn’t listed with the other okonomiyaki shops; he was written up in the “Other” section. (Two of his students, however, had made the real shop list.)
“Some people say I’ve Westernized okonomiyaki just because I’m Western,” Lopez says, with the affectless delivery of someone who appears constitutionally incapable of getting worked up over anything, a walking Venn diagram of Latin American humility and Japanese restraint. He can talk openly about the most extraordinary things—an abusive father, a transcontinental romance, the challenges of being an immigrant in Japan—with the same shoulder shrugs and steady monotone he saves for discussions about vegetables. It’s tough to say if this temperament came with his Japanese citizenship, or if he’s been carrying it around with him since he left Guatemala, but it plays well at the teppan. With the right set of eyes, you might even mistake Lopez for a local.
Today’s customers look comfortable at Okonomiyaki Lopez. They drink beer and take pictures and talk up the man behind the griddle—a sharp contrast to the studied silence of many Japanese restaurants. He chats with old women and young couples as they place their orders, asking regulars about family members, telling stories about mutual friends.
“Out there in the streets of Hiroshima, you don’t talk with people. You live in your own world,” he says. “But here, you pull up a stool, watch the cooking, and you get to know your neighbor.”
One afternoon, as I sit scraping my way through a Lopez jalapeño okonomiyaki at the restaurant counter, an old woman takes a seat next to me and places a large to-go order. She looks surprised to see a foreigner in the restaurant and tells me as much in near-perfect English. We get to talking about the types of things strangers talk about until she, unprompted, tells me that she is a hibakusha, a bomb survivor.
“I was two years old when it happened. We lived a kilometer and a half from the center. Some people survived the initial blast in this neighborhood, but the heat was so intense that it burned for three days and many eventually died. My three older brothers died in the rubble when our building collapsed. My mother and I were the only ones from my family to survive.”
We both sit quietly, staring at the little waves of heat rising off the surface of the teppan. After a few minutes, she breaks the silence.
“I’ve spent my whole life thinking about how amazing it is that in the same apartment four people died and two people lived. Life is full of mysteries.”
Is it possible to write about Hiroshima without writing about the splitting of atoms? Is it possible to walk its streets and visit its markets and eat in its restaurants without thinking about oblivion? I think about it constantly, wonder why I can’t get past it, wonder if I lived here if I would ever get past it. Even as I type these words, I feel a current of guilt coursing through my digits, as if I owe it to the people of Hiroshima to leave it alone, to let them get on with living.
The earth this city is built on was ready to move on before its surface had cooled. They say that after the bomb dropped and nearly blasted Hiroshima out of existence, the grass and flowers grew back almost immediately. Not months or years after the bodies had been burned and the radiation dissipated; by August 12, 1945, just a week after the Enola Gay gave birth to the nuclear age, the city was blanketed in green. “Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones,” John Hersey wrote in Hiroshima, his wrenching minute-by-minute account of the aftermath of the first atomic bomb. “The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them.”
A modern city was transposed onto the ruined one with remarkable speed: skyscrapers were erected, a new system of streets and avenues laid out, and a sprawling memorial dedicated to peace took shape along the water. When Emperor Hirohito came in 1947 to visit the orphans of Hiroshima, he didn’t find a city mourning; he found a city rising.
“This was no beaten people who welcomed the Emperor to their city,” Allen Raymond, a correspondent for the Herald Tribune, wrote at the time. “I have seen most of the war-damaged sections of the world, and one could not find a healthier, stronger, more cheerful population anywhere than that of Hiroshima. The city is simply crawling with new life and energy.” American correspondents were known for dispensing self-serving boosterism in the wake of the war, but so many I meet in Hiroshima tell me various versions of the same story: We were looking forward, not backward.
Every morning I walk from the city center to Okonomiyaki Lopez, crossing the wide boulevards designed by the Americans, cutting through generous parks, where local women hunt wild vegetables in the bushes, getting swallowed by the shadows of buildings electric with the energy of an animated workforce. Men slurp noodles, women sell shoes, kids ride bikes: Hiroshima is nothing but a city being a city.
But every night I walk home along the Ota River, seven murky fingers that splinter the city into a small archipelago, and all I can see is the past. The looming mountains, where people fled that first morning to higher ground, away from the smoldering remains. The T-shaped Aioi Bridge, the original target for Little Boy, until the bomb drifted west and detonated above a hospital instead. The river, where survivors trapped in the center submerged themselves to escape the incendiary temperatures of the burning city. The river, where the skeleton of the Atomic Bomb Dome casts a pale light on the water, a spectral reminder of Hiroshima’s haunted past.
Once known as the Industrial Promotional Hall, the building was located just 160 meters from where the bomb detonated. Everyone inside was killed instantly, but besides a few scars across its facade, the structure survived intact. Many people, frightened by the eerie bones of the building in the city center, wanted to see it flattened and forgotten, but the government elected to keep it, and now it shimmers across the water like an optical illusion—a reminder of either the senselessness or the resilience of man, depending on how you squint your eyes.
Every night I think: How can the walls possibly be so smooth? How can those windows be so square? How can that dome up top still be so round? I think: After all it’s been through, how does it still have the strength to stand? It begins to follow me into my dreams, just one of the many ghosts that chase me around the city.
A CITY OF ORIGAMI ARTISTS, TAKING THE SCRAPS THEY’VE BEEN GIVEN AND BENDING THEM INTO SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL
Those ghosts show up in the form of impromptu tales told at the Lopez counter. Most are stories of impossible survival. One old man, between bites of a squid okonomiyaki, recounts to the entire restaurant how he walked behind a building just as the bomb blew, unknowingly saving himself from its incinerating temperatures. Another day, with a full counter of diners around us, Makiko tells me the story of her mother, ten years old and working in a factory, building plane parts for the war, who survived when two pieces of machinery collapsed onto each other, creating a protective A-frame above her tiny body. “My mom always says, ‘No wonder we lost the war, we had little girls building the weapons.’”
I try to take all of this in, to think of something appropriate to say, but nothing comes out. Being American, with a grandfather who stormed the shores of Okinawa and whose cohort likely celebrated the news of the bombing, only makes it more complicated. The emotions swirl and take shape inside you, one after the next, a tarmac procession of loaded cargo waiting to take off: guilt, regret, rationalization, anger, acceptance, ambivalence. My internal chaos contrasts sharply with the extraordinary sense of calm transmitted by everyone I meet, especially the gentle hibakusha at my side, sharing her story, patiently waiting for her dinner.
I can’t help but try to connect the dots—the smiling old woman with the vanished family, the stone monuments to peace, the people who gather around this improbable postwar food—and when I do, this is all I can see: a city of origami artists, taking the scraps they’ve been given and bending them into something beautiful.
A few minutes later Lopez hands her a bag stuffed full of food—three pork okonomiyaki to go—and her face lights up like Christmas Eve.
“His okonomiyaki is very good,” she says, then shuffles off into the night with her bag of goodies.
I blink back a few tears and look up at Lopez. He shakes his head. “She always orders okonomiyaki with udon. I can’t get her to try it with soba.”
Ever since its owner developed tendinitis in his shoulder back in 2008, Okonomiyaki Lopez has been closed on Saturdays, a reality that doesn’t sit well with the parents-in-law. “In Japan, when you’re young you’re supposed to work hard all the time. My mother-in-laws’ friends in the neighborhood ask her why we take Saturdays off.” He says this with the subtle grin of a man who long ago stopped worrying about the opinions of his in-laws.
Behind the smile, Lopez is nervous, pacing slowly in front of the shuttered shop. He has been meaning to drop in on one of his apprentices for months now, ever since he opened his shop behind Hiroshima Station. He sent flowers, of course, along with a bright Okonomiyaki Lopez shop sign, but today would be the first time tasting the student’s work. To add to the pressure, Lopez has invited Hiroki, his master, along to help assess the quality of the Lopez school of Okonomiyaki.
Hiroki picks us up in front of the shop in his van, and master and student embrace like old friends. “You look good,” says Lopez. “I’ve been worried about you.” The reunion is spoiled in part by a bit of troubling news Hiroki has just received: a former student of his suddenly died last week, and now Hiroki, as cosigner on the restaurant lease, is expected to inherit the shop. The bank delivered the news earlier this week.
Hiroki is seventy-one years old, and clearly in no shape to be running another man’s okonomiyaki shop. He has spent the past few years in a two-front battle against liver and colon cancer, and after three operations and rounds of chemo, his body is starting to give out on him. But his dedication to his students, he says, takes precedence. “The bank told me I either have to pay or go back to work. So I’m going back to work.”
Hiroki was born in Nagasaki a year after the bomb and moved to Hiroshima in 1968. He was working as a bartender in the early 1970s when an okonomiyaki place opened upstairs and the owner offered to train him. Ten years later he opened his own branch and began, little by little, to make the changes to the ingredients and techniques and cooking implements that have come to define one of Hiroshima’s most famous and influential strains of okonomiyaki.
Since then, he’s trained over fifty students in the art of Hassho-style okonomiyaki, an open-door, open-book philosophy that runs counter to the guardedness you find in many corners of the culinary world. “I have no secrets. I want people to do well.”
Okonomiyaki Masaru shares more than a few things in common with Lopez Okonomiyaki: the long U-shaped teppan, the bright colors and Latin music, the crowds that descend upon the place as soon as the sun goes down. We arrive unannounced, and Hiraoka Masaru looks dumbstruck when he sees Lopez and Hiroki walk through the door. He greets us nervously, then retreats to the teppan to tend to his cabbage.
Hiroki watches him work, quietly, carefully, throwing off tiny nods of approval as he analyzes the methodical construction of Masaru’s okonomiyaki: the oval shape of the crepe, the freshly boiled noodles, still dripping with water, the double-yolk eggs, the rising heat off the surface of the teppan.
Hiroki grows silent for quite some time, looks lost in the midst of the teppan, as if he’s staring into a lava lamp of his life. Is he thinking of the fifty young men who have chosen him as their guide? The foul-mouthed kid from Hokkaido, the one who got rich fast in Tokyo, the Guatemalan who surprised everyone? Or is he thinking about the one who just slipped away, and the painful path ahead of him?
Masaru is not his student, which makes the familiarity of his moves all the more meaningful. Why the thick teppan? Why fresh noodles? That’s the way master did it. Why two yolks? Why? Why? Because that’s how master taught me—the simple answer to the most important food questions of Japan.
Three generations, three branches of an okonomiyaki discipline responsible for feeding Hiroshima the food it craves. To Masaru’s right, chopping cabbage, is a fourth branch, his own disciple, who will spread the gospel in some unknown direction. He’ll call it not Hassho style or Lopez style but Masaru style to his customers and to his own students one day, yet the fountain of his inspiration is seated right next to me, cancer-riddled, hard of hearing, watching the little waves of his legacy ripple across Hiroshima.
“I haven’t changed anything. This is exactly as Lopez-san taught me,” says Masaru, wiping off a trail of sweat inching down his forehead. “My goal is to reach his level, to make it just like his. I’m not there yet, but my customers will tell me when I am.” With this last part Lopez blushes just a bit. With this last part, Hiroki snaps out of his silence, mumbles his approval, blushes a bit too.
Another order comes in, and Masaru rushes back to the other side of the teppan and gets to work. He spackles the crepe with the back of the ladle, packs the cabbage lightly, lets the noodles dance across the hot surface, paints it with a generous stroke of Otafuku sauce. And when everything is ready, stacked high and bubbling, double yolk dripping down the side, he grabs a handful of jalapeños and scatters them over the okonomiyaki.
“It’s our best seller.”
Read more of Roads & Kingdoms’ food-obsessed Hiroshima guide here.