It’s cheaper in Tokyo: Hong Kong’s Japanese restaurants shut as patrons take off for holidays, sushi and omakase feasts

He estimated at least 30 per cent of Japanese restaurants had closed since the border with mainland China reopened at the beginning of the year.

Hong Kong is known to have one of the largest number of Japanese restaurants outside Japan, with 1,400 last year.

But Chui said restaurants in Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui had been badly affected, and many Japanese restaurants, especially those on upper floors, had already closed.

He knew of a 2,000 sq ft upper-floor omakase restaurant in Jardine’s Bazaar in Causeway Bay that stopped operating earlier this month and the landlord wanted HK$120,000 a month in rent from the next tenant.

Hong Kong in August banned the import of marine products from 10 prefectures, including Tokyo and Fukushima, after the country decided to release treated radioactive waste water into the Pacific. An earthquake in 2011 damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Chui said Hongkongers could have been worried about the origin of seafood served at Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong.

“Some have opted to order seafood online directly from unaffected prefectures in Japan, which is cheaper than dining at a restaurant,” he added.

Chui said many omakase establishments which opened during the pandemic had regular customers willing to pay a premium for Japanese delicacies as they could not travel.

“Now they can fly to Japan whenever they want, and we’re not seeing a lot of tourists either,” he added.

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Michelle Chiu, the Hong Kong director of the retail department of global real estate services firm JLL, said she had noticed a trend of Japanese and Western restaurants closing down or seeking transfer of ownership, particularly from September to this month.

“Some of our clients who operate omakase restaurants need to switch to more affordable meals,” she said.

She added some of her restaurant clients had found business was “worse than during the pandemic”.

The Japanese yen earlier this month hit almost a 33-year low against the US dollar, which the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to, but recovered some ground at HK$5.25 for 100 yen on Tuesday.

At the beginning of the year, 100 yen was equivalent to HK$6.

Some Hong Kong Japanese restaurant owners said prolonged poor business was more of a concern than the seafood ban.

Alvin Lam Chin-cheung, the owner of the Hirou Tsuki izakaya, a specialist in Japanese food in San Po Kong, said he could still get frozen fish such as salmon, tuna and eel from other prefectures.

“The biggest issue is that not many customers visit even on weekends,” he said. “Business in September and October was worse than during the pandemic, with revenues too low to pay my own salary.”

Lam added that the cheaper yen was not much help because of the restaurant’s operating costs, and that he had noticed more customers travelling to Japan.

Total receipts for the restaurant sector dropped 1 per cent to HK$27.1 billion (US$3.4 billion) in the third quarter compared with the previous three months.

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Economist Simon Lee Siu-po, an honorary fellow at the Asia-Pacific Institute of Business at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the cheaper and high-quality options and services offered in Japan, or even in neighbouring Shenzhen, had been more competition for the city.

“The depreciation of the yen is just a minor factor influencing people’s decision to spend their money elsewhere,” Lee said.

“Local restaurant operators face narrow profit margins, which necessitate higher prices, resulting in higher service charges.”

Lee said that he travelled with seven family members to Osaka in May and the bill for their robatayaki meal of Japanese barbecued food came to HK$1,800 – equivalent to what a single diner would pay in Hong Kong.

Software engineer Clement Lai Hing-ho, 41, took advantage of the cheap yen to spend five days in Tokyo last week with his wife and four-year-old daughter – and headed straight to the renowned Toyosu Fish Market as soon as they arrived.

For 11,000 yen, they got two sets of sushi at the popular Daiwa Sushi restaurant and were served seven pieces of raw fish, six sushi rolls, a Japanese rolled omelette, miso soup and tea.

“The experience is unique – watching Japanese chefs deftly prepare the meal, their knife skills and plating on full display,” Lai said.

He and his wife also treated themselves to a 16-dish omakase dinner and some sushi for their daughter.

“That was about HK$850 for the three of us. I know Hong Kong has quality Japanese restaurants, but they charge at least HK$1,200 per person,” Lai said.


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