From Micro Ramen Shops to Massive Supermarkets: A Look into Halal-Friendly TokyoFood and Drink Culture Lifestyle
Ramen and Prayers
As inbound tourists return to Japan, one ramen shop in front of Naka-Okachimachi station near the Tokyo tourist hotspot of Asakusa is often filled with visitors from abroad. This is Ayam-ya, part of a Kyoto-based chain known for its white chicken broth.
This shop is unique in that it includes a small space where Muslim guests can perform their five daily prayers. What is more, everything on the menu at Ayam-ya is halal, meaning that it is permissible for practicing Muslims to eat.
“What is halal food?” I ask the shop’s owner, Saifullah, who came to Japan from Sri Lanka over six years ago.
Saifullah, a devout Muslim, answers in fluent Japanese.
“Halal is a way of thinking that covers more than just food. In Islam, conduct is divided into two classes, with good conduct considered halal, and improper conduct haram. If we avoid haram behavior—like theft, fighting, and so on—in daily life and conduct ourselves properly instead, Allah our God will watch over us and reward us in the afterlife.”
While I was initially thrown off by the leap away from food, once I grasp the relationship between halal and haram, it all becomes clear.
“We Muslims follow halal regarding food as well, because good health is part of daily good conduct. In other words, we avoid haram food that Allah teaches is harmful. The most famous forbidden things are pork and alcohol, but even chicken, for example, is not halal unless it is killed and bled in the proper way, in the name of Allah.”
Ayam-ya is popular with both Muslims living in Japan and Muslim tourists, but it is also frequented by non-Muslim tourists as well as Japanese—particularly ramen lovers.
That fact is not disconnected from halal. Ayam-ya’s ramen, made from halal ingredients, is also healthier because it uses no additives. More and more non-Muslims are leaning toward halal food as health-conscious dining spreads.
Owners of restaurants and grocery stores offering halal food share a strong desire to help Muslims worried about food out of their own experience.
Saifullah is no exception, saying, “When I came to Japan and was learning Japanese, I really struggled because I couldn’t find halal food.”
In 2017, groups of Muslim soccer fans came from Malaysia to Osaka for the Asian Football Championships. Many of them brought Tupperware cases of their own food because Japan had such a sparsity of halal offerings.
Japan’s Largest Halal Shopping Street in Tokyo’s Shin-Ōkubo
Japan’s most extensive Halal shopping street spreads out in front of Shin-Ōkubo station in Shinjuku. Known as Isuramu yokochō, or “Islam Alley,” it is filled with the sounds of unfamiliar languages and shops selling spices, vegetables, and meats you cannot find at Japanese supermarkets, giving it a very foreign feel indeed.
This area started attracting more Muslim residents toward the end of the century’s first decade, and now is home to shops selling halal food and ingredients from Asian nations like Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. When I went to the Pakistan-linked Siddique National Mart, I got the sense that halal food has truly taken root in Japan.
Shop owner Mian Ramzan Siddique, from Pakistan, came to Japan 28 years ago. He found Japan’s economy fertile ground for business in those days, and he opened a Pakistani restaurant serving halal food, Siddique Palace, which eventually expanded to 26 locations.
However, the chain’s chefs returned home one after another when the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 struck, and in by 2016 many of the shops had closed. Siddique, though, refused to leave Japan, and began looking for ways to deepen local roots, such as by growing rice and cassava in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture.
In addition to halal restaurants, Siddique operates a farm and seafood restaurant in Kisarazu. His National Mart in Shin-Ōkubo also sells Japanese-style bread, which is rare for halal food shops.
Kisarazu baker Fujinami Yasuo supplies bread to National Mart. The stories he has about Siddique helps create a more complete picture of the struggle to help Muslims in Japan.
“Mian came to my shop to ask me to make Japanese style bread. He explained that lots of Japanese bread uses emulsifiers containing lard, so Muslims can’t eat it. Mian’s enthusiasm for sharing Japan’s delicious-looking bread with Muslims, particularly children, inspired me to start making halal bread.”
After halal ramen, which is no longer a rarity, it seems halal bread was the next step.
Giant Supermarket in a Mammoth Apartment Complex
With Japan’s Muslim population steadily growing, now standing at 200,000 non-Japanese and 50,000 Japanese citizens, the country’s first large-scale halal supermarket opened in 2020, in Misato, Saitama Prefecture. This is Bongo Bazar, found in the Misato Danchi apartment complex famed for its mammoth size.
Bongo Bazar stocks not only Japanese foodstuffs, but ingredients from many Asian nations, in a kind of “world’s fair of food.” The displays are largely divided into “Japan” and “the rest of the world,” with aisles divided by nation: a Turkish aisle, an Indonesian aisle, a Thai aisle, and so on. The store naturally have a huge variety of spices, as well as dates (essential for nourishment during Ramadan), big blocks of goat meat, and even scarlet banana flowers, presenting an array of unfamiliar sights.
The shelves are clearly labeled with “halal,” “Muslim friendly,” or “non-halal” explanations. The staff clearly work hard to avoid confusing customers.
The appeal of Bongo Bazar is more than its massive selection, though, as its elaborate interior decoration is also a draw. It seems to share the desire to convey a unique view of the world with hugely popular variety shop Don Quijote.
“In all honesty, we stock a lot of products that Japanese customers don’t understand,” says shop manager Minowa Ken. “We don’t shy away from that lack of understanding, though. Rather, we arrange the shop in a way that lets people enjoy it just the same.”
As Minowa says, the shop is jam packed with colorful pictures and catchy slogans. There is a sign near the door reading Yōkoso! Miwaku no wakusei Bongo Bazaaru e! (Welcome! To the captivating world of Bongo Bazar!), and the speakers inside play the Indiana Jones theme song.
Enjoying Encounters with the Unknown
This stance Bongo Bazar takes is based on the hopes of owner Badal Chaklader has of “conveying an honest image of Muslims, who are often misunderstood.”
Chaklader, a Bangladeshi Muslim, says he had been dreaming of opening such a large-scale Halal supermarket for around 10 years. But more than just a big store, it had to be a place where Japanese and Muslim people could come into contact.
“That was the point. For example, almost all the customers at shops in Shin-Ōkubo are foreign-born Muslims, aren’t they? And most are men. There are very few women customers. I wanted to make a shop where Japanese people and Muslims, especially women, could come shop together.”
The Bongo Bazar is filled with the world of his imagination.
The store sees visits from women in burqas alongside local families, all shopping with a smile. Manager Minowa’s touch also attracts many Japanese residents from the Misato Danchi apartment complex.
Chaklader says, a smile on his face,
“At Bongo Bazar, we have lots of products you can’t get anywhere else, so we get Muslim customers from places like Nagano, Gunma, Ibaraki, and Tochigi. Lots of people say they want me to open a shop like this near them. Japanese customers, too, are interested in ingredients from overseas, not just Japanese stuff, and they ask us how to use the spices. If we could have more places like this, I think everyone would understand that Muslims are just people, too.”
Cultures are quietly mixing over halal food in places all over.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A Muslim family who says they often come shopping at Bongo Bazar [3-208-1 Hikonari, Misato, Saitama]. © Kumazaki Takashi.)