Prolific Japanese actor Ken Watanabe may have achieved stardom both domestically and internationally, but to the residents of a small city in northern Japan, he’s also known for his heart of gold.
Kesennuma (気仙沼), Miyagi Prefecture is one of several coastal cities that was ravaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In the aftermath of the disaster, Watanabe helped build (and now manages) a combined cafe-shop in Kesennuma in an effort to provide economic relief to the locals. Most inspiring, however, is his unwavering dedication to the venture–somehow, despite his busy filming and PR schedule in both Japan and Hollywood, he still finds the time to fax a handwritten letter to the cafe every single day!
Join our ace Japanese reporters Mr. Sato and Yoshio on their recent trip up north to visit this hidden gem of northern Japan.
Ken Watanabe may be one of the most sought-after actors of today, but for loyal readers of our site, he’s also got another claim to fame–he was important enough to have met our own in-house celebrity, Mr. Sato, not just once, but twice! On his journey from Tokyo to Kesennuma with Yoshio, Mr. Sato recalled just how impressed he was after seeing Watanabe’s gracious demeanor and genuinely humble presence in person.
Perhaps it was this selfless attitude that led Watanabe to team up with locals and build a cafe in Kesennuma following the devastating tsunami of 2011. The building was completed in October of 2013 with the help of friends, and it opened for business the following month. The cafe’s name (“K-PORT“) incorporates the English word for “port” in it, illustrating the special significance of the ocean to Kesennuma.
When Mr. Sato and Yoshio arrived in the still-recovering town, they were struck by K-PORT’s decidedly modest and unassuming exterior. Mr. Sato remarked that from a distance, it has the appearance of a polygonal tent, like the kind you might see at an outdoor theater. However, they were greeted by a tall ceiling and inviting atmosphere once they stepped inside. In an unusual twist, they also had to take their shoes off upon entry (the norm in Japanese homes, but not usually at public establishments like a cafe). It might seem strange, but Mr. Sato almost felt like calling out “I’m home!” as he entered the room–that’s how soothing the atmosphere was.
▼The unassuming outside
▼A panoramic view of the interior
The two of them sat down for a meal and immediately noticed the uniqueness of K-PORT’s menu. Many of the food items are prepared through collaboration with local businesses, lending a strong sense of community to the cafe. For example, one of the donburi (rice bowl with toppings) dishes is prepared using fish that’s caught right in Kesennuma and supplied by the fish market right next door to the cafe:
In addition, one of the dessert items, a cream puff-type confectionery called “Shuu-PORT,” is offered on the menu thanks to a joint effort between K-PORT and the local bakery Patisserie Koyama:
After our reporters settled on a few dishes to order, they turned their attention to a stack of plastic binders bursting with letters by none other than Ken Watanabe, who faxes a letter to the establishment every day. And they’re not just generic, typed letters, either–they’re always handwritten messages overflowing with Watanabe’s heartfelt emotion. It’s truly impressive that someone with as busy a schedule as Watanabe’s would loyally send the letters day after day.
▼Binders full of Watanabe’s faxed messages. Look for his signature, 渡辺 謙, in the bottom left-hand corner of each letter.
▼His handwriting is absolutely gorgeous. Maybe he was influenced by his calligraphy-teacher father?
As Mr. Sato and Yoshio perused the letters at leisure, they realized just how much Ken Watanabe truly loves the cafe, its staff, its customers, and Kesennuma itself. Watanabe didn’t just help build K-PORT; he’s an integral part of the town and community, even when not physically present.
Here’s a video of our two reporters sampling a selection of the food at K-PORT. You can hear the surprise in Yoshio’s voice after the waiter tells them what’s on the Kesennuma specialty pizza.
▼Eye candy for your viewing pleasure (we mean the food, not Mr. Sato)
▼”Kesennuma specialty pizza”: That may look like marinara sauce, but it’s actually made from sardines and salted fish!
▼Also on the menu: “Cape Town pizza”
▼The story of how the cafe came into existence after the tsunami, with photographs of Ken Watanabe
▼Yoshio holding some of the letters
▼Some of the goods for sale in the cafe’s shop area
If you’re traveling in northern Japan and happen to be near Keseunuma, be sure to stop by K-PORT to experience this amazing cafe and its resilient people. Even if you’re not familiar with Ken Watanabe the actor, you’ll be more than touched by Ken Watanabe the caring, selfless person.
1-3 Minato-machi, Kesennuma-shi, Miyagi-ken
Mondays/Thursdays/Sundays: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Fridays/Saturdays/Days before national holidays: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.