Sweet San Francisco memories: Benkyodo mochi shop closes after 115 years

For decades, Ricky and Bobby Okamura have started their days in the early morning darkness before most of the city is awake, making Japanese wagashi confections at their family's corner shop Benkyodo in San Francisco's Japantown.

It is a delicate and repetitive task, carried out in the back kitchen by painstakingly shaping each manju cake or fresh mochi sweet by hand, and then filling the pillowy balls with traditional red bean paste or the unique blueberry, mango, or peanut butter fillings that became popular.

The two brothers are the grandsons of Sueyoshi Okamura who founded Benkyodo in 1906. That history is noted on a plaque outside the store facing Japantown's Buchanan outdoor mall.

Now, loyal longtime customers and curious first-time wagashi novices are lining up down the street and around the block.

They're hoping to have a taste of that history before it's gone.

Ricky and Bobby will serve their last manju and mochi on Thursday as they enter retirement.

"Bittersweet yes. We're really very touched. We're very touched by how they wait so long to come in here," said Ricky Okamura.

Finally, the brothers will be able to get more sleep in the morning, after years of serving the community and steering their family's legacy business through tumultuous times including the most recent pandemic.

"It's been a long time," said Ricky, "I just want to rest."

For weeks, people have waited in lines stretching from Benkyodo's front door down Sutter Street and around the block.

"We lined up at 4:30 a.m.," said Javier Chen, a Benkyodo customer who says he stood in line nearly six hours to get a box of 12 sweets on his second attempt, "Yesterday we actually missed it. We missed the cutoff."

Souriya Hounthavong took video of the long line with a drone. He, too, waited to get a box of sweets.

"This here is just crafted with love," said Hounthavong, who says he is a cook at the Moraga Country Club, "Everything one just turns out just perfectly. I feel the consistently and quality."

While they waited, some customers wrote on message boards, sharing memories of their first time visits.

"That was 1968, that was my first Cherry Blossom Festival," Alice Eubank, a Benkyodo customer.

Benkyodo's history is also Japantown's history which also was established in 1906, surviving two world wars and the forced evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government.

"We're talking about the 115-year history here of Japantown marking all the events whether it's prewar, the establishment of Japantown in 1906, all the way up to the war," said Rosalyn Tonai, Executive Director of the Japanese American National Historic Society.

The Okamuras were among the Japanese American families forced to leave their homes and businesses. Some people lost everything. The Okamuras said their grandfather was among the more fortunate.

"My grandfather had a neighbor who had a grocery store next door to Benkyodo and he ran it as a grocery store both places so when my grandfather came back, he still had the business, the store," said RIcky Okamura.

Since then, for many Japanese Americans, the store has been a community gathering place.

"If you didn't know where to find a member of the community, you swung by the store during lunch, and you'd probably find them at the counter having a hot dog or hamburger with Bobby and Ricky," said Max Okada with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. Just the conversations with Ricky and Bobby at the counter, meeting other community members at the store just over lunch. Those are the things I'll look back on and miss a lot."

At the Japanese Cultural and Community Center next door, people painted signs with those messages of love and gratitude. A community farewell celebration is being planned for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Okamura brothers' final day.

The mochi and manju have been a central part of many Japanese American family celebrations.

"They're sort of markers of every family event, every community event, festivals, births and deaths and funerals," said Tonai, "This is the only one. This is probably the long-gone history of that traditional type of this manju and mochi-making in America."

"They are the last," said Tonai, "This is probably the long-gone history of that traditional type of this manju and mochi-making in America."

"I don't know what the secret ingredient is but the community has been so supportive all these years. It just makes you very happy," said Ricky Okamura.

In Japanese culture, there's a saying "wabi-sabi" which is often translated as "beauty and sadness."  

It is the recognition that moments of beauty are transient, and that brings sadness when they come to an end.

Like the sakura cherry blossoms that have bloomed for generations outside Benkyodo's door, the sweet wagashi and the memories, little gifts from the Okamura family, will live on.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at jana.katsuyama@fox.com and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.