Student restaurant rejuvenates Hokkaido city

MIKASA, Hokkaido (The Japan News/ANN) – On one weekend in October 2018 when the leaves on trees began to deepen in colour, the Mikasa High School Restaurant in the city of Mikasa, Hokkaido, was crowded with customers.

The restaurant is located in a facility that was built by the city for about ¥536 million. It opened in July 2018 as a place for students who study cooking at the municipal high school to implement what they have learned.

In addition to the restaurant, the facility includes a cafe and souvenir shop, attracting local people and many tourists from Sapporo and elsewhere.

The cafe Cherie sells pieces of sponge cake, matcha Swiss rolls, strawberry tarts, croissants, apple pies and other food. Its sweets and breads are popular among customers as they are made with creativity and care.

Saya Segawa, 17, a second-year student who is the head of the extracurricular confectionery production club, said, “Customers all say it’s good, and this is encouraging for us. I want to open a confectionery someday.”

Visitors buy sweets made by students at a cafe in Mikasa, Hokkaido
Newly enrolled students receive training outfits and kitchen knives during a ceremony at Mikasa High School in April 2018. – PHOTOS: THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN

Forty students enter the high school every year. Every one of them sets definite goals such as “becoming a pastry chef” and “wanting to advance to a university to become a nutritionist,” and the school has fared well in national cooking contests.

Naoki Endo, 57, principal of the school, said, “Students sharing the same ambitions work hard and inspire each other, so they show rapid growth [in acquiring skills].”

Only a decade ago when the school was operated by the Hokkaido government, it was on the verge of closure as the number of enrolled students had dropped due to population decline in the regional community.

The Hokkaido government announced in 2007 that student enrollment at the school “would stop from the 2010 school year.” The city had explored ways of ensuring the survival of the school, but failed to put forth effective measures over three years.

One day, then Deputy Mayor Kensaku Saijo, 67, who is now mayor, saw a newspaper article reporting that Mie Prefectural Ouka High School had secured student enrollment by introducing an educational curriculum specialising in cooking, and that the number of tourists to the local area had thus increased.

Feeling like he was clutching at straws, Saijo rushed into the mayor’s room and proposed to then Mayor Kazuo Kobayashi, who has since died, the establishment of such a course.

Everything went well shortly thereafter, making it possible for the high school to be reborn as a municipal high school consisting of two courses – one for cooking and the other for confectionery production.

Mikasa High School is the only public high school in Hokkaido where students are able to obtain cooking licences at the time of graduation. The admission rate has increased to one for every 2.2 applicants, the most competitive among public schools in Hokkaido. This came as a surprise to all those concerned.

The restaurant and cafe are both operated by students, who also come up with the menus. They are open only on weekends and during long school vacations such as summer holidays. The number of visitors totaled 7,593 as of the end of September 2018. The restaurant provides 240 meals a day, which often sell out before closing time.

The large number of visitors to the restaurant has brought changes to surrounding areas little by little. School Principal Endo said, “Visitors from outside the city, who are believed to account for 70 per cent of the total figure, tour the city, bringing huge economic benefits.”

Mariko Narita, 63, who lent her restaurant Manpuku to school students as a place for their practical cooking training for about three years before the opening of the school restaurant, said, “The school has become a closer part of our lives.”

In September 2018, when Hokkaido was hit by a strong earthquake, students came to her restaurant to ask if she was OK.

“[The community] becomes lively only because there are students around. The community’s atmosphere has changed from what it was before,” Narita said pleasantly.

There are advanced cases across the country in which community-building has been promoted with high schools playing a core role, such as Mikasa High School using Ouka High School as a reference.

Under the slogan “fostering people to sustain the community,” Hyogo Prefectural Tatsuno Kita High School in the city of Tatsuno, which was created after the merger of two high schools in 2008, gives students lessons on such subjects as clothing design featuring leather and the restoration of traditional buildings. Fashion shows organised by students have become well-known local events.