Higashijūjō: A Visit to Tokyo’s Little DhakaFood and Drink Culture
Famous Restaurant of “Unknown” Cuisine
The main shopping street of Higashijūjō in Kita, Tokyo, feels like the Japan of yesteryear—apart from the fluttering world flags. Each Friday, men, many sporting handsome beards, appear in the area dressed in long, loose-fitting tunics and pajama pants and other traditional dress, some also donning skullcaps. Their destination is Madina Masjid Tokyo, a small mosque three minutes’ walk from the station. Friday is an important day of congregation in Islam, when believers gather for prayer.
Most of those attending the mosque are from Bangladesh, where around 90% of the population are Muslim. Higashijūjō, nicknamed “Little Dhaka,” and the nearby areas of Ōji and Akabane are home to Japan’s largest Bangladeshi community, numbering around 1,500.
Higashijūjō’s connection with Bangladesh started in the early 1990s when a Bangladeshi immigrant opened a halal grocery store in the neighborhood, attracting fellow countrymen like exchange students and IT engineers to the area. Soon, eateries and other grocers opened shop, and eventually, through donations from believers, a mosque was established.
Local resident Komatsu Ken’ichi has provided various support to Bangladeshi residents over the years. “It must have been around 2018 when a Bangladeshi friend wanted to open a halal mart,” Komatsu recalls. “I helped build the interior and even worked as a shop assistant, although I struggled with the names of all the sweets, spices, and vegetables.”
From the east exit of Higashijūjō Station, the fragrance of spices fills the air, drawing attention to the Bangladeshi restaurants and stores. I drop into Prince Food Corner, just behind the mosque. The owner, Ali Jalal, opened the restaurant three years ago. Although it is a relative newcomer on the scene, it has already established a following among Tokyo lovers of international food.
The shop is a tiny nook, seating just six diners indoors. There is also an outdoor counter, with space for two or three more people. I secure a spot at the counter and order beef biryani, recommended by Arif, the restaurant’s cook.
The biryani arrives promptly—a colorful arrangement that includes a lush tomato and cucumber salad with lime. It is quite a sizable serving. The spicy, aromatic beef whets my appetite, and there is no stopping either my spoon, or the sweat dripping from my forehead. The vegetables add a refreshing accent, and I finish it in no time.
After I am done, Arif treats me to a cup of mint chai, a sweet and sour concoction made with finely sliced ginger: “Everyone drinks this in Bangladesh,” he explains.
A Friendly Community
Arif moved to Japan five years ago. He is the youngest of seven siblings, and having lost his father at a young age, he entered the workforce after graduating from middle school.
“I worked as a cook at a five-star hotel in Dhaka,” he says. The hotel had Indian and Italian restaurants and employed 50 chefs. “I prepared Italian food—really, I can cook anything. But the hotel restaurant business is highly competitive, and it’s hard to get ahead.” Although he was promoted to group leader, the hotel cut staff pay when the economy took a turn for the worse, so Arif left.
After 17 years at the hotel, he decided to travel to Japan after a friend who lived in Tokyo encouraged him to come.
“When I arrived, I settled in Higashijūjō,” he explains. He applied to work as a chef of Indian cuisine at several high-end hotels but struggled to find a position. “There aren’t many restaurants here that serve Indian food, and also my Japanese isn’t very strong.” Rather than ending up at the luxury Prince Hotel, Arif found his place at Higashijūjō’s tiny Prince Food Corner. He has no regrets about moving to Japan, though—in fact, he feels right at home here. “Japan is so safe and clean. And the people are very kind,” he declares.
While some eateries that cater to a specific ethnic group can feel daunting to a solo Japanese diner, this is not the case with Prince Food Corner—it has a very welcoming vibe. Worshipers who arrive from the mosque as I was tucking into my biryani strike up a friendly chat with me.
“What do you think of the biryani here? It’s the best in Tokyo, you know!”
“It tastes better if you mix in the cucumber and tomato some more.”
“I’m a carpenter here. Tokyo’s summer is unbearable!”
“I like the counter here because it reminds me of food carts in Dhaka.”
Many take Japanese lessons, and conversation flows freely. Something I learn as we talk is that there are many Bangladeshi Japanophiles. One reason for this is that, for many years, Japan has played a major role in the country’s development through official development assistance. The impact is felt by people in a range of fields, from agriculture to education to IT.
Another reason is the popularity of a Japanese drama series that was broadcast in Bangladesh in the 1990s—Oshin, the tale of a woman’s brave struggle through hardship during the wartime and postwar eras. The series was shown in 68 countries, and I have heard that in Iran it was so popular that the streets were deserted when Oshin was on. It was also well-received in Bangladesh. Perhaps the heroine’s strong character in the face of adversity struck a chord with Bangladeshis, who are no strangers to poverty and hardship.
The Perfect Match for Biryani? Cola!
After prayers at the mosque, the worshipers mill about the streets nearby. Some buy cucumbers or mangoes from nearby stores, sharing a bite with friends.
I am joined at the counter by Rana, who arrived in Japan just two months ago. “Everyone is like this back in Bangladesh,” he explains, watching the scene.
Rana came to Japan with his Japanese wife, who worked with the Japan International Cooperation Agency in his hometown. “For me, cola is the perfect drink with biryani,” he declares, and buys me a bottle, although I have already finished eating.
I drink my chai, followed by the cola, and then being offered more cucumber, I wind up staying quite a while. It was then that I learn more good news. Stirring a large pot of food, Arif mentions that there will be a large gathering and a feast at the mosque that evening. “In Islam, we celebrate Eid to end Ramadan, our month of fasting. I’m cooking this curry for that celebration.”
The pot is filled with a beef curry, bubbling away in preparation for the feast. I notice an enormous beef bone protruding from the mixture. It looks so delicious that I have to inquire further. “I’m not Muslim, but would I be able to join the feast at the mosque?”
“Probably,” comes the quick reply. Aware of the prohibition on wearing shorts at a mosque, I run home and change into trousers.
At the mosque, I sit on the carpeted floor in silence. Not knowing the proper etiquette, I follow the example of my new friends from the restaurant. Soon, a reading from the Quran is played over the speaker, and the room takes on a solemn spirit. At a certain verse, everyone spreads their hands, as though holding an open book, and shuts their eyes. Next comes the beef curry.
I mimic those around me, mixing the curry and feeding myself with my right hand. The smooth-textured curry grows tastier the more I mix it with rice. The beef seems to melt from the bone—I could learn to love this.
My casual visit to a local Bangladeshi eatery ends with me gaining a glimpse into the local Muslim world thanks to the friendly people. It is experiences like this that make me want to keep visiting such unique restaurants.
Prince Food Corner
- 3−17−2 Higashijūjō, Kita, Tokyo
- Tel.: 03−4361−1430
- Open 11:00 am to midnight
- Open 7 days a week
- Just outside Higashijūjō Station
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Arif, all-round chef at Prince Food Corner. All photos © Kumazaki Takashi.)