A gathering place in Japantown

Photo illustration of Benkyodo by Frank Wing

Photo illustration of Benkyodo by Frank Wing

Benkyodo, with its colorful counter and corner tables, for decades has been a gathering place in Japantown for local business people, tourists and generations of Japanese Americans who love mochi and manju.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

After turning out more than 800 dessert treats a day for more than three decades, some people might lose their sweet tooth.

But not Bobby Okamura, co-owner with his brother Ricky of Benkyodo, the Japantown fixture at the corner of Sutter and Buchanan.

“Well, I have to taste the beans while I’m cooking to make sure the flavor’s right,” he says, admitting that his favorite is Shiro an, or white bean. The beans eventually become filling for either mochi, a molded sweet and soft treat, or manju, a bean-filled delicacy with a baked outer shell.

Bobby Okamura was in the back bakery of the popular Japantown spot recently, taking a rare brief break from his chores. At the front counter, two teenagers were deliberating between blueberry and mango mochi, while a no-nonsense mother with a toddler in tow quickly pointed out her selections. Two elderly men sipped tea and chatted in Japanese at a corner table and other customers of all ages — these days a 50-50 mix of Asians and non-Asians — wandered in and out selecting mochi, manju and other treats.

Benkyodo was founded more than a century ago, in 1906, by Ricky and Bobby’s grandfather, Suyeichi Okamura. It was originally located on Geary Boulevard near Buchanan, where it remained until the store was forced to close during World War II. The senior Okamuras and their children were interned during the war at Camp Amache in Colorado. It was there that Ricky and Bobby’s parents met.

“I think it was hardest on the older generation,” Bobby says. “The kids just wanted to get on with their lives.”

During redevelopment, Benkyodo was relocated to its present site on the Buchanan Mall. Ownership soon passed to Ricky and Bobby’s father, Hirofumi Okamura. The two brothers took over in 1990.

Bobby Okamura with mochi and manju at Benkyodo, started by his grandfather in 1906.

Bobby Okamura with mochi and manju at Benkyodo, started by his grandfather in 1906.

Benkyodo, with its colorful counter and corner tables, has been a gathering place for local business people, tourists and generations of Japanese Americans.

Warren Eijima, 96 and semi-retired from his career in finance, still occasionally goes there for coffee with his son. Of the group of men who met often for breakfast at Benkyodo throughout the last half of the 20th century, he says: “They were a stick-together bunch.”

Riyo Kunisawa was a breakfast regular while she worked at nearby Kimochi. “I would come in early and go to Benkyodo,” she says. “The regulars now are most often the shop owners, merchants and other business people of Japantown.”

A fourth-generation family ownership seems unlikely. Bobby has stepchildren who live abroad; Ricky’s three children are grown and pursuing other careers. With the closing of two other Japanese confectionaries in the 1990s, Benkyodo became one of the few remaining sources of mochi and manju in the Bay area.

Asked if he might consider training a few young people in the art of creating mochi and manju so the tradition won’t die, Bobby says, “I’m not thinking that far ahead.”

For now, the shop is a family affair in ownership, management and atmosphere. Bobby’s wife Terri runs the front counter, where coffee, tea, deli fare and conversation are regularly served. Across from her, longtime family friend Benh Nakajo greets customers seeking treats to go.

Ricky starts the days off at 5 a.m. Bobby joins him later, and the others are there to open at 8 a.m. Benkyodo is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for the first and third Monday of each month.

Bobby and Terri close up together, but then stay out of the kitchen. As for dinner, Bobby says, “We get take out.”