No.82 Finding Japan in Seattle

Occasionally, when things in the world go awry, fear and some of mankind’s less attractive instincts come to the fore, manifesting in blanket actions intended to protect one group of people from another. But subdividing a population based on a category as general and broad as ethnicity has never achieved any gains in security. What it has done with grim consistency is to create deep emotional fissures in society which, quite opposite to intentions, has made populations weaker, less safe and less productive.

With recent talk of singling out various ethnic and religious populations in response to the actions of organizations and individuals, one cannot help but experience a strong sense of déjà vu. As Philosopher George Santayana famously observed, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And it would seem that in moments of national fear and anxiety, we tend to let much of what history has taught us go out of the window.

At this point you may be thinking “how is this a travel topic?” Well, on a recent visit to Seattle we stumbled across a neighborhood known as Japantown, and it was immediately evident that we had discovered some great places to visit that are not well known: just the kind of places Bearleader seeks out to share. But as we scratched the surface we became aware that the shops, restaurants and museums visible today are but a tiny remnant of a vibrant local ethnic culture that was thriving before World War II. And were it not for the disastrous policies to intern much of the Japanese population of the northwest, this community would have developed to an even greater degree than it has.

We were excited to find Seattle’s Japantown (part of what’s known as the International District). Japanese immigrants were settling in the Pacific Northwest en masse already in the 1850s. They came seeking opportunities in construction, fisheries, agriculture, railroads, and agriculture. Having a long history of expertise to offer, workers adapted quickly to American industry and built strong communities, addressing the unique needs of an immigrant population integrating into the fabric of American culture.


All this came to an abrupt end when, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066, which allowed regional military commanders to designate “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire West Coast, including all of California, and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Approximately 5,000 Japanese Americans voluntarily relocated outside the exclusion zone before March 1942, joining some 5,500 community leaders, already in custody, that were arrested after the Pearl Harbor attack. But, the majority of nearly 130,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their West Coast homes during the spring of 1942. Many had their assets frozen, creating immediate financial difficulty for those affected, and making it difficult for those moving out of the exclusion zones.


Roosevelt had opposition, even in his own home. Eleanor Roosevelt tried to convince him not to issue the executive order. She even tried to recruit Roosevelt’s close friend Archibald MacLeish, the director of the Office of Facts and Figures who was staunchly against the idea. In the end nothing could dissuade Roosevelt from initiating one of the most unjust and unconstitutional acts of government in American history.

In 1945, at the war’s conclusion, the internment finally ended. And so began the long journey back to normality for these American citizens. Having lost their homes, businesses and livelihoods, it would take many years to heal and rebuild from the trauma.

We sought out some of Japantown’s new leaders who are once again leaving their mark on Seattle’s food, architecture, culture, and commerce. We found a vibrant, energetic group of Americans, with a strong sense of history and heritage, but a keen eye focused on the future. Here are our favorite finds of Seattle’s Japantown.

1 Maneki

Our first stop is among the oldest of Japanese restaurants in America and considered veritable “royalty” for those in the know about Japanese food. With over 100 years in business and a coveted James Beard award to their name, it has changed ownership only a handful of times. With amazing fortitude, Maneki has withstood, amongst other things, the Great Depression, two world wars and internment camps.

Today’s Maneki is just around the corner from its original location next to the Nippon Kan Theatre. It was constructed in the style resembling Japan’s Himeji Castle or the “White Heron Castle”. In its original location it was a hub for the Japanese community and the go-to place for weddings, funerals, family gatherings and visiting dignitaries. This amazing building was sadly a victim of the internment of owners, who were nisei and sansei, second and third generation Americans of Japanese descent.


In their absence the “palace” was ransacked and fell into ruin, eventually leading to its demolition. After the war, the current, much smaller location, opened and Maneki rebuilt its reputation for Seattle’s best Japanese food.

Current owner Jeanne Nakayama is the warmest and maybe the bossiest person I have ever met (in the nicest way possible). An amazing storyteller, incredibly knowledgeable about food, she and her mother greet us at the door and immediately dominate the conversation. Seated at our table we don’t even bother looking at the menu, but just ask Jeanne what to she recommends. With a few questions she has it all sorted out, “Don’t worry I know what you want”.

The restaurant is part community center, part Jeanne’s living room. She knows most of her customers, as many of them started coming as kids and now bring their own kids.

The room is simple, a front bar area, a main dining room, and two authentic Tatami rooms and a sushi bar in the back. In the Tatami rooms shoes are not allowed and the table is coffee table height with a well for your legs to dangle in the space below. If you visit with a larger group, make sure you book one of the classic Tatami rooms for a truly authentic Japanese dining experience.


The Sushi bar, Jeanne tells us, is where her husband used to hold court until his passing, and created many original sushi combinations for his regulars, even naming some of his creations after patrons. Sassy Salmon Roll, Jojo Roll, and Big Mouth roll are some of the tamer dish names. Check on the handwritten board for one that takes your fancy.


We spend a great afternoon of Japanese cuisine and having fun at Maneki, with Jeanne and her mom figuring prominently in the entertainment: a truly unique experience. We’re looking forward to our next Japanese feast and some time with Jeanne on our next trip to Seattle’s Japantown.

Be sure to make a reservation well in advance. www.manekirestaurant.com

2 Japanese Memorial – Bainbridge Island

At Seattle’s main ferry terminal, we hop on the ferry for the short ride across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. This small island with 23,000 inhabitants, was also home to many Japanese American farmers. On March 30,1942, the first 270 Japanese American men, women and children, with little notice and no information as to their destination, were loaded onto boats and disembarked on the long journey to the camps.

Long overdue, in 2011, the first part of a memorial to the event was inaugurated. It is built along the path that locals walked on their way to the ship carrying the one piece of luggage that was allowed. “Nidoto Nai Yoni”, translated as “Let it not happen again” is the motto of the memorial.


Seventy-six wooden portraits of the first internees and their stories form the basis of the memorial. Stories of kids ripped out of their community and away from friends they had known since kindergarten. Photographs make the memorial even more moving as you see images of a mother carrying her children with official government tags tied on like luggage.

In one of our conversations with descendants of the internment, we were told that the trains used for transport had the windows blacked out so nobody could see the inhabitants who in turn could not see where they were going. Imagine the cruelty, spending days in the dark with terrified adults trying to keep fearful children calm.


The next phase of the memorial to be completed is the actual pier where the group set off on their voyage. It will be taken out of its current recreational use and restored to its original state to complete the memorial. My personal thoughts are that to walk in the shoes of these 274 men, women and children is the least we should do to make sure we always remember this aberration in American democracy. Now more than ever we need to be reminded of this to prevent a tragic mistake like this happening again. www.bijac.org

3 Paul Horiuchi Mosaic

At Seattle Center’s plaza, ask any local about the mural that forms the backdrop to the outdoor amphitheater and nine out of ten times they will not be able to tell you anything about this beautiful mosaic or its artist.

While researching another Bearleader story, at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, a Horiuchi painting caught my eye . The painting, a large abstract oil painting, was bold, layered and, for me, expressed a feeling of sadness. Making a note of the artist “Horiuchi”, I started digging and slowly unearthed his story: which made more sense of my initial impression of his painting.

Born in Oishi, Japan, in 1906, his mother, brother and he, made the trip to America by following their father, who was employed working on the railroads. A common pattern for Japanese immigrating to America, Paul’s father sent money home each month and once enough was saved the family also made the trip.


Paul and his brothers were teenagers when they arrived in America, settling in Kanda, Wyoming, where Paul started working with his father at the Union Pacific Railroad. He met his wife on a trip to Seattle and she returned with Paul to Wyoming to start their new life together. When World War II broke out the family was far enough east that they were not subject to forced relocation. However, all Japanese Americans were immediately fired from Union Pacific which also meant that they lost their income and company housing. Enduring daily physical threats and only getting menial work, Paul and his family spent the duration of the war in a homemade trailer.

After the war, the Horiuchi’s moved to Seattle and Paul opened a successful auto repair shop in the International district. A few years later Paul was injured and had to close his auto shop leaving him again without support. Having painted throughout his life as a hobby, a friend recognized the quality of his work and asked if he could try to sell some of the paintings. Four paintings quickly sold for substantial amounts of money and Paul became a full-time artist. In the 1960s, big museums started to collect his paintings, and in 1962, the glass mosaic for the Seattle Center’s outdoor amphitheater was commissioned.

I think this quote by Horiuchi best expresses how he saw his art in response to a life of hardship, patience, and perseverance. “I have always wanted to create something serene, the peace and serenity, the quality needed to balance the sensationalism in our surroundings today. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’m seeking beauty and truth in nature. This philosophy of mine hasn’t changed for the last 50 years.”

Paul Horiuchi passed away in 1999 of Alzheimer-related illness but his mosaic lives on to inspire for generations to come.

4 Japanese Guesthouse Bloedel Reserve

Back on Bainbridge Island, we head north to see another great example of the influence of the island’s Japanese-American population, at the Bloedel Estate and Reserve.


The Bloedel Reserve is the former estate of Prentice Bloedel, a wealthy timber magnate turned preservationist. His magnificent gardens are worth a visit for their own sake, however, we are here to look at one interesting piece of architecture and its garden.

In 1962, Bloedel hired local architect Paul Hayden Kirk to build a Japanese-style guest house for him. What resulted from the project is a hybrid which combines the typologies of a Native American longhouse with a Japanese tea house. With much of the facade composed of glass you can view the interior from the wraparound deck. The award-winning garden includes a wonderful lace leaf maple that is about a 150 years old, as well as a large Katsura, a Japanese tree that drops fragrant leaves in the autumn.


Year round a visit to the Bloedel Reserve it is a perfect way to spend an afternoon. www.bloedelreserve.org

5 Kobo

Translated as “artist’s workspace”, Kobo is an artisan gallery featuring fine craft works of Japanese and Northwestern artist. The owners, curator Binko Chiong-Bisbee and architect John Bisbee, realized a dream to expand Kobo into a larger space when they decided to move into the former home of Japantown’s Higo Variety Store.

The Higo Variety Store was central to the Japantown community in pre-World War II Seattle, and was operated by the Murakami family for 75 years. Kobo has maintained much of the flavor of the old variety store by utilizing its vintage fixtures, including 1930s glass cases unearthed from the Higo storeroom.


Uncovered treasures include classic tin toys, an electric train set, and antique cash registers, which are displayed in the refurbished space. A museum wall display, and the “Meet Me at Higo” installation, created by the Wing Luke Museum, are also featured to tell the history of Higo Ten Cents Store in Japantown.

Kobo specializes in both traditional and contemporary works, offering a selection of objects and functional forms in clay, fiber, metal, wood, textile, and paper. Kobo also exhibits the work of small studio artisans from the U.S. and abroad who share an affinity with Japanese folk arts and contemporary design. Special exhibits featuring art, craft, and design are scheduled six times a year.


A visit to Kobo and its predecessor, the Higo Variety Store, is a must-see for a glimpse into the early years of Japantown. And for Japanese and Northwest crafts it’s a great place to find the perfect souvenir of your Northwest tour. www.koboseattle.com

6 Wing Luke Museum

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (also called the Wing) is a history museum located in the International district. A Smithsonian Institution affiliate, the Wing is dedicated to engaging the public in issues related to the culture, art, and history of Asian Pacific Americans. It is the only pan-Asian Pacific American community-based museum in America, highlighting the issues and life experiences of Americans with roots in Asian Pacific countries


The museum is named in honor of the late Seattle City Council member, Wing Luke, who was the first Asian American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest. In the early 1960s, Luke suggested the need for a museum in the International district to preserve the history of the rapidly changing neighborhood. After Luke died in a small plane crash in 1965, friends and supporters donated funds to start the museum he envisioned. The Wing Luke Memorial Museum, as it was first named, opened in 1967 in a small storefront on 8th Avenue.


The Wing’s current location is the East Kong Yick Building, one of two buildings (the other being the West Kong Yick Building) whose construction was funded by 170 Chinese immigrants in 1910. In addition to storefronts, the East Kong Yick Building contained the Freeman Hotel, which was used by Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants until the 1940s. The museum’s galleries now share the building with recreations of the Gee How Oak Tin Association’s meeting room, kitchens, and apartments that were located inside the hotel. The museum also preserves the contents of a general store, Yick Fung Co., which the owner donated in its entirety. www.wingluke.org

7 Kubota Garden

With a stunning 20 acres of hills and valleys, the Kubota Garden in Seattle’s Rainier Beach district features streams, waterfalls, ponds, rock outcroppings, and an exceptionally rich and mature collection of plants. This unique urban refuge displays over 60 years of vision, effort, and commitment to Japanese culture and craft by the Kubota family.


In 1927 Fujitaro Kubota bought five acres of logged-off swampland in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, and started a garden. A 1907 immigrant from the Japanese Island of Shikoku, he established the Kubota Gardening Company in 1923. Fujitaro was a man with a dream. Entirely self-taught as a gardener, he wanted to display the beauty of the Northwest in a Japanese manner and was soon designing and installing gardens throughout the Seattle area. The gardens on the Seattle University campus, and the Japanese Garden at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, are examples of his work.


As Fujitaro’s landscaping business prospered, his Rainier Beach garden grew to include 20 acres. The property encompassed the family home, the business office, the design and display center, and the nursery where Fujitaro grew plants for all the gardens installed by the Kubota Gardening company. The family was very generous in sharing access to the garden, and for many years it was a center for social and cultural activities for the Japanese community in Seattle.

Time permitting, it is worth seeking out some of the Fujitaro gardens for a visit. We were ambitious and visited all of them. While the garden at Rainier Beach is the trickiest to reach, we enjoyed it the most for its rambling trails interspersed with viewpoints characteristic of traditional Japanese gardens. If you can afford the time definitely plan a picnic and make a day of it. For a quicker trip check out the gardens at Seattle University. www.kubotagarden.org

8 Yoroshiku

Next we are heading off to Seattle’s Wallingford district for some authentic Ramen at Yoroshiku. Owner Keisuke Kobayashi was born and raised in Sapporo, Japan, and first encountered Seattle in 2006 while a student. After falling in love with the “Emerald City”, his heart pulled him back home to Japan where he embarked on a career in the restaurant business.

With a bit of experience under his belt, Keisuke reconsidered his choice of home and in 2012 made the trip back to Seattle with a plan for a traditional Japanese restaurant.


Convincing his childhood friend and veteran of Japanese cuisine, Koichi Homma, to also make the move, “Yoroshiku” (a great Japanese word that means both please and thank you) was born, bringing traditional Japanese casual cuisine to Seattle.

Offering a modern take on the traditional izakaya (a type of Japanese drinking establishment where the food is of paramount importance), combined with time-honored ramen from the Hokkaido region, Yoroshiku illuminates an often overlooked side of Japanese cuisine, showing Seattle that there is much more to experience than teriyaki and sushi. With amazingly fresh and greatly priced food, it will keep your Japanese Seattle tour well-nourished. Kanpai! www.yoroshikuseattle.com

9 Hunt Hotel

From 1945 to 1959, in the wake of World War II, the Japanese Language School buildings at 1414 South Weller Street, served as temporary housing for Japanese Americans returning from internment camps. Local community leader, Genji Mihara, established and managed the facility, calling it the “Hunt Hotel” as most residents were returning from the Minidoka Incarceration Camp in Hunt, Idaho.


Within the walls of the historic buildings, over 30 families began to rebuild their lives. Children were raised, loved ones were lost, and little by little the rooms were vacated, giving way to community organizations, classrooms, and storage. Seattle’s Hunt Hotel story seeks to shed light on the experiences of Seattle’s Japanese Americans during resettlement, and raise awareness of the long-lasting consequences of Executive Order 9066. www.jcccw.org/hunthotel

10 Ayako & Family

A few blocks north of Hunt House we meet up with jam entrepreneur Ayako Gordon.

Ayako grew up in Chiba, Japan. Her connection with farms and working with fresh produce goes way back. Ayako’s grandfather owned a farm and she spent summers watching her grandfather growing, harvesting, pickling and, most important, eating the fresh fruits of the fields.

After moving to Seattle and raising a family, it was through a chance encounter while helping out at the farm stand of local farmer Katsumi Taki, that the seed for Ayako’s next endeavor would be planted.


Katsumi Taki’s stone fruit orchard in the Yakima Valley produces specialty European and Asian plums from a mature orchard that Katsumi has lovingly developed. Some of his trees are over 50 years old!

As the day wound down at the farm stand, Katsumi approached Ayako and asked if she knew how to make jam. Katsumi was looking for a productive use for the fruit that had not sold by the end of the day, but Ayako didn’t know much about jam, or at least not any more than your average home cook. Inquiring what would happen to the extra fruit, Katsumi’s only other idea was to compost it. With a strong sense of economy, the prospect of losing such special produce to the compost pile was horrifying for Ayako. If for no other reason than to prevent the fruit’s inevitable fate, she sprang into action and produced the first batch of what was to become the first product of her new company “Ayako & Family”.

From such humble beginnings, Ayako has become the reigning queen of jam. With a small range of handmade preserves from Katsumi’s produce, Ayako has garnered rave reviews from Seattle’s foodies. She now offers three product lines. The Premium line uses fruit exclusively produced by Katsumi. These jams also boast a more complex creation process, providing truly elegant and distinctive flavors. The Signature line, available from season to season so you can always count on being able to grab a jar for your pantry. These were the first flavors Ayako produced and continue to represent the essential qualities that distinguish her jams. And Seasonal, flavors that are new and exclusive to each season. With these jams Ayako explores rare plum varieties grown in the Northwest region, some of which are exclusive to Katsumi’s farm in Yakima and named by Katsumi himself.

My favorite so far is Damson Plum & Quince. Delicious! You just want to eat it right out of the jar. Amber Plum and Coral Pink Plum are next on my list to try. Looking forward to it. www.ayakoandfamily.com

11 Momo

Next, we head back over to the Japantown to meet Lei Ann Shiramizu and her husband, Tom Kleifgen, proprietors of concept shop Momo. Lei Ann and Tom call Momo a “hapa shop”. Hapa is a term in Hawaii, Lei Ann’s home state, for someone of mixed race. With their curatorial blending of Asian and European influences the “hapa” label is spot on. Their curated collection of men’s and women’s clothing, eclectic home accents, and “omiyage” (that’s Japanese for a souvenir), makes this just the right place to find unique omiyage to keep or give to loved ones.


The diversity of choice is dizzying. Where else could you find a mix of Saint James sailor shirts, antique Chinese cabinets, Cop-Copine frocks, local jewelry and adornments created from kimono fabric? Check out the card game called “Hanafuda”. It was brought to Hawaii by Japanese immigrants and became popular with plantation workers and, eventually, the population as a whole.


And don’t forget the Spam. Sorry, it’s not for sale but is a testament to Lei Ann’s diverse influences: She is also a collector of Spam cans. In Lei Ann’s native Hawaii, Spam is a popular picnic food, served like Sushi—cut a piece of Spam place it on rice and bind it together with a strip of nori. It looks like Sushi. I’m not sure I would eat it, but it’s fascinating to see how communities adapt local food to their traditions.


Ask Lei Ann and Tom lots of questions. You will find that every product has a story behind it. You will definitely find something at Momo to bring home. www.momoseattle.com

12 Danny Woo Garden

Just around the corner, we take a quick peek at the Danny Woo Community Garden. Tucked behind a row of tall trees up against Seattle’s busy Interstate 5, you can easily miss it. But don’t let its unassuming appearance deceive you–this community garden is anything but ordinary.


Founded in 1975 the Danny Woo Community Garden is approximately 1.5 acres and contains about 88 gardening plots that are cultivated and cared for by the residents of the neighborhood. It is also home to a children’s garden, chicken coop, and outdoor kitchen. The InterIm Community Development Association, located just steps away, manages the garden and ensures that it remains a space to meet the needs of local urban gardeners and other members of the surrounding community. Located at 620 South Main Street www.dannywoogarden.org

14 Naka Kaiseki

For the “14th” (13 is bad luck, in case you are counting) and last stop on our Japanese Seattle tour, we are off to Capitol Hill to meet Shota Nakajima, the 27-year-old chef at Naka. Shota was born in Japan and raised in Seattle and at the age of 18 decided to attend the Tsuji Culinary school in Osaka. Upon graduation he stayed on in Japan and was able to secure a highly coveted position in the kitchen of the legendary Michelin-starred restaurant, Sakamoto.


As Shota tells it, for the first month his main responsibility was to find and remove the imperfect rice grains from the daily supply so only perfect ones were used for the nightly menu. As frustrating a job as that was, Shota says that Sakamoto was teaching him patience, devotion and sense of perfection. All important lessons that are now at the foundation of his practice in the kitchen today.

Nada Kaiseki, as the name implies, specializes in a style of dining known as “Kaiseki”, an ancient Japanese dining style characterized by the service of several courses. Originating in the dishes accompanying tea ceremonies, it evolved into the dining style used in Japan’s royal court, an art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.

Shota’s interpretation of Kaiseki however is a distinctly northwest version, expressing Shota’s own life experience: growing in the Pacific Northwest under the influence of Japanese parents, and then venturing back to Japan in pursuit of his chosen craft.


Relating some formative memories Shota recalls fishing with his dad around Seattle and his dad building a fire to cook the just-caught fish over cedar. Today that memory translates directly into a dish of cedar wood-smoked halibut served in a small cast-iron lidded dish. Lifting the lid, fragrant smoke wafts up, filling the air with the sweet smell of cedar. The halibut is soft and imbued with subtle, smoky flavors.


Naka Kaiseki offers three menu options each night: The Naka Kaiseki, a 10-course meal with seasonal ingredients showcasing the Kaiseki tradition from beginning to end; a tasting menu, introducing guests to Kaiseki , giving them a sampling of Naka’s culinary team’s work; and the Chef’s Kaiseki, a customized Kaiseki dinner in which Chef Shota incorporates the finest ingredients into a 15-course extravaganza. Reservations for the 15-course option need to be received a week ahead of time to allow the kitchen time to prepare properly.

Dining at Naka Kaiseki is an experience you won’t soon forget and we cannot think of a better way to wrap up our Japanese-Seattle adventure. www.nakaseattle.com

With moments both inspiring and sad, this brief look into Seattle’s Japanese community was a real adventure. The grace and resilience with which Japanese Americans have slowly recovered their place in the community, and their being able to forgive and move on with such dignity, was truly inspirational.


For opening hours and directions go to;
1 Maneki www.manekirestaurant.com
2 Japanese Memorial – Bainbridge Island www.bijac.org
3 Paul Horiuchi Mosaic
4 Japanese Guesthouse Bloedel Reserve www.bloedelreserve.org
5 Kobo www.koboseattle.com
6 Wing Luke Museum www.wingluke.org
7 Kubota Garden www.kubotagarden.org
8 Yoroshiku www.yoroshikuseattle.com
9 Hunt Hotel www.jcccw.org/hunthotel
10 Ayako & Family www.ayakoandfamily.com
11 Momo www.momoseattle.com
12 Danny Woo Garden www.dannywoogarden.org
14 Naka Kaiseki www.nakaseattle.com

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a trip to Japantown in Seattle? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.

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55% humidity
wind: 11mph NNW
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