Heno Heno, a Dream of Japan

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Before ever visiting Russia, I had a small inkling as to what “Russian” could mean via its music I was dealing with. First, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and later the major symphonies of Shostakovitch. In the finale of his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovitch has the violins repeat the same high note for 30 bars. Similar to the continuous drops of water hitting the scalp of Soviet torture victims, this note etches itself irrevocably in the auditory memory of the audience, aggravating the nervous system. Yet the piece ends with life, not death, as every German composer would have had it end. On the way from the airport to the center of Moscow I saw so many log cabins out of Prokofiev’s symphonic poetry from the window that upon reaching the tower blocks on the outskirts of town I was laden with melancholy. Every now and then a small basilica with the most beautifully colored dome would peek out of the concrete desert. From afar, Stalin’s towers looming, an expression of a socialist utopia, a gray infinity permeating Moscow. In it were people, laughing, in the same way Shostakovitch’s folk melodies had nothing to do with naivete, but rather a mix of joy and melancholy incomprehensible to us in the West.

Yesterday I ate at Heno Heno. My co-worker, Anna, had told me that the small Japanese diner that used to be on Kantstraße had reopened. Anna is a Berliner like me, a miracle really, as you don’t find so many of us in offices in Mitte. We both had fond memories of the place and decided to head there right after work with a few co-workers. I could hardly wait for the afternoon to be over and thought back to my days as a music student living in Charlottenburg. Whenever I didn’t practice until late I would stop by Heno Heno and order two onigiri for a total of EUR 2.60. Sometimes I would even go home early just to eat there. The two onigiri were not only filling and cheap, but with the unique warmth of a perfectly balanced umami flavor, they gave me, a soul-searching, driven, busy-bee student, the comforting feeling that some day everything would be all right.

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Having finally entered the restaurant, I didn’t know what struck me the most. The setup or the chefs and waiters with their beaming faces, which did not express Japanese politeness but rather the pure joy that the restaurant was succeeding. And then we ate. Over the course of three hours we sank into the unique warmth of perfectly balanced umami flavors letting us know that everything – here and now – was all right. Aromatic onigiri balls, filled with small treats of plum or salmon, steaming guydon bowls with paper-thin beef strips, poached egg and freshly pickled ginger, silky udon noodles with seaweed and pungent curried buckwheat soba noodles. Warming teas. Crispy fermented vegetables. Not much had changed. Though a few things did: on the menu there are seven instead of five dishes, and, of course, the location. Heno Heno is no longer on Kantstraße but on Wielandstraße; it’s now a small restaurant rather than a diner.

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When diners want to expand bad things happen, leading to the painful realizing you can never go there again. That’s not so with Heno Heno. Despite the move to a chic side street off the KuDamm, they have ingeniously managed to keep their diner feel by combining simplicity and elegance.

I have never been to Japan. But if Heno Heno is only half as representative of Japan as Shostakovich is of Russia, then Japan must be heaven on earth.

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Photos by Anna Küfner

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