An Interview with Shoichiro Aiba of LIFE

Interview: Tadatomo Oshima and Takahiro Shibata
Translation : Aya Takatsu
Photo: Megumi Seki

January 10 2016

The past year has been a bit of a whirlwind for us, what with the opening of our two Japanese locations in the heart of Shibuya Tokyo and in the charming Kumamoto. As we made the leap into Japan, we partnered up with the folks behind the restaurants “LIFE” and “LIFE son” to help us round out our offerings with dining to accompany our shops. Along with the opening of Need Supply Co. in Kumamoto, we are introducing “LIFE Daily Meals”, an Italian cafe perfect for lounging around after an afternoon of shopping. Just before the opening of the newest shop and restaurant, the folks behind IDÉE’s online magazine LIFECYCLING paid a visit to founder and head chef Shoichiro Aiba’s beautiful Tokyo home to chat about life.

Shoichiro Aiba is a managing chef of Italian restaurants “LIFE” at Yoyogi-hachiman shopping mall near Yoyogi Park and “LIFE son” opened last April in Sangubashi. Most recently, he opened “LIFE Daily Meals” inside Need Supply Co.’s newest shop in Kumamoto. In addition to his role as a chef, he has been involved in many other activities such as developing original products, publishing a local free paper called PARK LIFE, organizing local events with other shops and so on.

Aiba’s house is located between those two restaurants. He lives in a forty-year-old vintage condo in a quiet residential area near Yamate Street. “The landscape here is similar to my hometown in Tochigi”, said Aiba. As you step out onto the balcony from his large living room, the view of luscious green landscape refresh your mind as if you were not in the center of Tokyo but in the forest. As Aiba said “although I try not to have too many stuff in this house, I do feel relaxed with hobby tools”, there are guitars, cameras, surfboards and other hobby tools in every room. How many hobbies he has!

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we talked with him about his work and private life while enjoying the view from the window.

Let us start with the reason you chose culinary career.

Because my parents ran a delicatessen in Tochigi, I thought I would do something related to cooking in the future very naturally. Also my uncle’s a log cabin-style restaurant influenced me a lot.

You went to Italy right after graduating from high school without attending Japanese vocational college, didn’t you?

My father encouraged me to do so because he thought that I should gain more and more experiences while young. Since all of my cousins went abroad to study, I always though that my turn would come next.

Why did you decide to go to Italy?

When I was a high school student, there was a big “Italy boom” in Japan. I saw a young chef from an Italian restaurant on a Japanese cooking program called “Ryori-no-Tetsujin (Iron Chef)” and admired him.

So, do you like Italian food most?

No, I love Chinese food! My family always spends New Year holiday in Yokohama. My father has lots of fond memories in the city because he enjoyed his college life there. I may love the time with my family in Yokohama China Town rather than Chinese food itself.

What did you learn in Italy besides cooking technique?

“Give first priority to your family, and leave your work on the back burner”. This way of thinking had a profound effect on me. Therefore I say to my staff that they can get some days off if there is any family commitment. All the people working for my restaurants have good relationships, too. And I cherish the time with my family, such as sitting at table together.

What did you do after you came back to Japan?

In Italy, I met an apparel brand owner who often came to the restaurant I used to work at. After I came back to Japan, he told me that he would open a restaurant in Harajuku and asked me to be its manager. I said yes and worked there for three years.

And then you opened “LIFE”. Is there any particular reason to choose Yoyogi-hachiman?

When I worked for the restaurant in Harajuku, I had to bring monthly sales reports to the head office in Hatsudai by bike. Because I wasn’t familiar with Tokyo at that time, the places I knew were only Yoyogi-hachiman and Yoyogi-uehara where I always passed to go to Hatsudai. So, when I decided to open my own restaurant, the name of the area in my head were these two only.

These last few years, Yoyogi-hachiman shopping area has become livelier with many cafés and restaurants run by people of your generation. But I suppose it wasn’t like that when you opened “LIFE”. Was it a decision that required much courage?

To be honest, I was very anxious in the beginning. What really did it were the words of my father.

Did he give you any advice?

Since my father had run a delicatessen for long time, I asked him to come with me when I looked some properties beforehand. When he saw the place where “LIFE” is, he said lightly “I’m quite sure that local people will come this place”. His words gave me a push I needed.

Did you have a certain image of your ideal restaurant before you opened “LIFE”?

When I came back to Japan, there was a big “café boom” in Japan. I saw Japanese cafés after I came back and felt really comfortable to stay there, as the place for young people to chat with their friends although it’s totally different from the ones in Paris or Milan, where café has its own culture. So I had a rough image of my ideal restaurant which has a style of café and serve Italian food.

Why did you give English name to the Italian restaurant?

After studying in Italy, people tend to give an Italian name to their own restaurant. But there were so many Italian restaurants in Tokyo at that time and I didn’t want my restaurant to become one of those. Mine had to be unique, one-of-a-kind restaurant. That’s why I gave an English name, “LIFE”, to it.

The interior of “LIFE” is also impressive. Did you use any shops or restaurants as a reference?

I used my favorite furniture shop “TRUCK” as a reference. When I visited their shop in Osaka, their “self-build” concept inspired me. So I decided to use my own hands when I open my restaurant.

How was the reputation for “LIFE” when you opened it?

As my father advised me, local people soon accepted us as a “local cafeteria”. Since the locals became our regular customers, I didn’t have serious financial problems. I think I was really lucky.  Now most of our customers come regularly.

What do you think is the reason you could have so many regular customers?

Although it’s an Italian restaurant, we serve Japanese daily dishes like cooked seaweed and sweet radish on the side of lunch plates. My father cooks those dishes. We could attract elder people and give relaxing atmosphere in the restaurant because of his dishes, I think.

So your father cooked those relishes!

I served prosciutto or salami in the beginning, but my father said, “You can’t serve salty relish with salty food” and gave me the daily dishes he cooked forcibly. I wasn’t happy with this at first because I thought it wouldn’t match. But our customers really love it despite to my worry. Now all the ex-LIFE members who started their own restaurants use my father’s dishes.

Your second restaurant “LIFE son” opened last April in Sangubashi. Did you have the location in mind when the idea came up?

I was thinking to have my new restaurant in Hatsudai or Sangubashi. Since I have to go there everyday, it’s not practical to have my working place far from my home. So this condo is located between those two restaurants. And I like to invite people to my place. I often meet up with my friends at “LIFE” and have a meal together before I bring them to my house.

How long have you lived here?

For three years. I used to live in a different place in same area and was interested in this condo. I looked for larger places in this area because my child was born. The condo has perfect living environment. I’m sure that I couldn’t find better place.

The view from the balcony is amazing.

This area is so green that you do not even feel like you are in Tokyo. I feel relaxed being here because the landscape is similar to my hometown in Tochigi. As I bring greens and plants from my restaurants to home during winter, the inside of my house is also very green now.

Do you have any particular taste for interior?

I like warm wooden furniture. Because we have a child now, I try to live simple without too many things. An Australian magazine called Smith Journal is a good reference for interiors for me.

Your house is really enjoyable with cameras and guitars around.

I have lots of hobbies and feel comfortable surrounded by things I love, such as cameras, guitars, surfboards, skateboards, radio control cars… I always buy new things after chatting with my friends with same interests. A photographer who lives near here has this camera case from Patagonia. I came across it at a shop in Kamakura and bought it on impulse. I took all these pictures here. I keep taking it since I was in Italy. As the overseas sceneries are just perfect for a picture, I really enjoyed it.

Where is your favorite place in this house?

This sofa is my place in this house. I always sit here with the footstool to unwind myself. My son does same thing when I don’t use it.

Do you have a piece of furniture that you are emotionally attached to?

It should be a natural wood table I bought at “Pacific Furniture Service” about fifteen years ago. I went there to buy a sideboard, but I fell in love with the table at first glance. After thinking and wondering for very long time, I bought both of those. When we moved in this house, in fact, we were about to buy a new bigger table because our baby was born. However we decided to buy an extra top board to cherish it forever. My wife and I have a special fondness for this table. Also, this kid’s high chest specially ordered from TRUCK is a notable piece for me. Since it’d take about 6 months to get this, I ordered soon after my wife told me that she was pregnant. I asked TRUCK to make it slightly bigger than ready-made ones. Now it’s full of my son’s stuff. My wife and I thought that this chest should be at a place where we can always see. That’s why it’s in our living room. My son can’t reach its top drawer, though.

After visiting your house, I feel you value your relationship with your family and friends. What kind of activities would you like to do through “LIFE” in the future?

Recently, there are many like-minded shops in this area and all of the shops get along really well. Mr. Hamada at “Little Nap COFFEE STAND” and I often discuss about the event we’d like to do in the future, which will give back something to the local community. We organized an event called “Yoyohachi Hashigo” last November. During the event, one hundred people who bought tickets beforehand, could have free refills of wine at any participating shops and restaurants. To our surprise, the tickets were an immediate sellout. It was fun to see red-faced happy people staggering along.

You always do things with community-based approach. Do you have similar concept to publish the free paper PARK LIFE and Base magazine?

There is a café called SHOZO in my hometown, Kuroiso, Tochigi and the café’s always tried to develop the town. The café’s owner, Shozo, has created new communities long before the “café boom”. His thoughts and ideas influenced me in some way, I think. The encounter with the editor, Mitsuharu Yamamura (BOOKLUCK), also changed me. We met through an interview and found that we have similar thoughts and hobbies. Since then we start to make magazines and free papers together.

The idea of “a free paper made by a restaurant” is interesting.

Go to shopping after walking around Yoyogi park and having lunch in “LIFE” – I felt that our customers would like us to set some “walking routes” like this. I though it’d be great if they become happy to see this paper with some information of some local shops. Apart from publication, it’s always good thing if my activities can give back to the local community. Yoyogi-hachiman is different from downtowns like Shibuya, Harajuku, Daikanyama or Jiyugaoka. I’d be grateful if “LIFE” could produce communities and good feelings with our own local style.

This interview originally appeared in IDÉE’s online magazine LIFECYCLING on February 5, 2013

Special thanks to Mako Ayabe, LIFECYCLING Producer Tadatomo Oshima and Harumi Kobayashi of the IDÉE Sales Promotion Division.