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Tastes of Japan

by Kim Maxwell 31 Oct 2022
Ding Dong food

From matcha tea bamboo whisks and Santoku knives, to sake, sushi and bento, Capetonians are upping their taste for things Japanese. Kim Maxwell explores four good options in the CBD.

If you want to experience Asia’s edible bounty, the best flavours are usually found at outdoor stalls. Ones where passers-by are enticed by the sizzle of food being tossed in woks, the novelty of fresh noodles being handcrafted, or fragrant bites being skewered over coals. Where the next neon-lit corner leads to a narrow alley of steaming broth bowls ...

Ding Dong manager Hilton Marange
Ding Dong manager Hilton Marange in the downstairs seating area.

Ding Dong restaurant in Shortmarket Street was inspired by tachinomi, Japan’s no-frills standing bars traditionally found in working class neighbourhoods. “Tachi” means to stand, with “nomi” to drink. As Ding Dong is waiting for its liquor licence, the current focus is on Japanese-inspired eating.

Hilton Marange has managed Ding Dong for two years. Initially trading in De Waterkant in 2016, Ding Dong reopened as a compact, split-level eatery in town in June 2022. A few dining couples sit communally at a 12-seater table in the charcoal-toned downstairs space. It’s buzzy, with window views of pedestrians passing between Bree and Loop streets or patrons sipping cold beers at outdoor tables of nearby House of Machines.

“This street has good people traffic; a lot of them see us and come in for a take-away,” Marange says. The kitchen hatch is busy, sending out playful Japanese fusion, from pork Shio ramen with pork belly and onsen egg, to nori-dusted Tokyo fries, poke bowls, or a Ding Dong beef burger with pickled wakame and teriyaki sauce.

On an early summer evening, Ding Dong’s crunchy Tokyo tacos are just the ticket. Topped with seared tuna, jalapeno and avo, the trio is drizzled with dark, umami yakaniku sauce, aioli togarashi spice adding subtle heat. Ding Dong’s menu was created by chef/owner Cheyne Morrisby. He recently took a leave of absence for personal reasons.

Tjing Tjing Torii
Colourful Tjing Tjing Torii serves casual dishes inspired by Tokyo street food alleys. Order the same menu up at the Rooftop Bar.


At multi-level Tjing Tjing House in Longmarket Street, Japanese food, cocktails and décor have been honed to an art form. The venue opened in March 2011. Spirited owner Ilze Koekemoer is a long-time fan of Japanese design, food and culture, as are her talented chefs. She remarks how “fashionable all things Japanese have become” in Cape Town, adding that “Japanese youth culture through Harajuku fashion, manga, cosplay etcetera, exerts a similar intrigue”.

So, if you’re a fan of anime, Japanese pop culture and zany colours, Tjing Tjing Torii is a fun spot to grab a Ginza cocktail before choosing some bright options inspired by the Yokocho street food alleys of Tokyo. You’ll find tasty gyoza dumplings and yakitori, to beef takaki or bento …

One floor up, Momiji Lounge is dark and moody, with sunken booths. It leads to Tjing Tjing Momiji restaurant, where tranquil Japanese décor and weekend set menus encourage an elegant edible splurge. Then, it’s up a flight of stairs to Tjing Tjing Rooftop Bar, to admire an unusual urban perspective of the surrounding cityscape. The bar counter pays homage to Japan’s bright red shrines, with seating at low Kokeshi doll-inspired tables. Torii’s menu is also available for lunch or dinner in the bar.

Mochi Mochi pastry shop trading as a pop-up, is also on the mid level. But plans are afoot to move Mochi Mochi to permanent Heritage Square premises in early 2023, with a focus on Japanese nibbles, matcha tea and coffee pour-overs. 

WAZA Japan
WAZA Japan Store sells specialist Japanese retail.


Over in Bree Street, WAZA Japan Store is a tiny retail outlet specialising in Japanese tools and homeware. Owner Botha Kruger started an online store, and later a bricks and mortar version, after exploring Japan with his wife. “We went back, and back again, after having such an amazing experience,” he says. Eventually they took the plunge in Cape Town, and started importing some of the country’s beautiful fabrics, ceramic cups and traditionally crafted implements, found during their travels.

At this specialist store you’ll learn about forgotten arts and covet craftsmanship and quality. “We select products from small family businesses,” says Kruger. If you’re in search of something interesting, there are Santoku knives, cotton Shinto towels woven on 50-year-old looms, and fourth-generation floral and herb scissors with rounded handles. Futons and tatami mats are custom-made to order in Kyoto. And you might just find something for that person who has everything. Kruger showed off a traditional matcha tea frothing whisk, created from one piece of bamboo – the current family business owner is 26th generation.

Papa San - Obi Restaurant
Papa San at Obi Restaurant.


Last but certainly not least, is Obi Restaurant in Long Street. Papa San is a treasured Cape Town-Japanese icon. Where he cooks, loyal customers follow. His sushi is legendary, but he’s equally in demand for tonkatsu ramen, tempura prawn or vegetables, and – at lunchtime – The Obi Bento Box. “I still make everything … sauces for noodles, tempura sauce. I make sushi, or I check on other people making sushi,” says Papa San.

Some customers first tried his menus as teenagers, and now bring their own families. Incredibly, Papa San turns 80 in February 2023. He looks fantastic, with a sprightly demeanour and glowing skin. “I retired at 65 years old, went back to Japan. There two years stay … I don’t like Japan. Boring,” he grins. “Come back to Cape Town, work for five years at restaurant.” He has spent time cooking at local city restaurants Tokyo, Minato, and Takumi over the years. Since 2016, Papa San has been the face of Obi Restaurant. Lucky Cape Town.

Ding Dong, 71 Shortmarket Street (Corner of Shortmarket and Bree). Tel (079) 067-4919.
Tjing Tjing House, 165 Longmarket Street. Tel (021) 422-4374.
WAZA Japan Store, 201 Bree Street. Tel (083) 463-7045.
Obi Restaurant, 14 Long Street. Tel (021) 418-4040.

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IMAGES: Kim Maxwell, Claire Gunn Photography