By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
The regulars were at the bar in Oiwake Restaurant. A baseball game was on the big-screen TV, and Rodney Kageyama, seated at the dark wood table in front of the karaoke stage, quietly savored his usual meal.
“It’s ochazuke, agedashi tofu and karaage,” he explained between mouthfuls. “You go to other places, it’s very formal; here at Oiwake it’s very relaxed.”
Oiwake, a popular Little Tokyo hangout in Japanese Village Plaza since 1989, is closing on Sept. 30, and the news has shocked and saddened its loyal customers.
The restaurant, located on the second floor of JVP, has been a vital gathering place for many Japanese Americans looking for a beer or to grab a bite at their all-you-can-eat buffet. Organizations such as the Nisei Week Foundation, Little Tokyo Public Safety Association and Little Tokyo Business Association would hold meetings at Oiwake, and many social hours were spent singing karaoke.
Today, owner James Ota said that the times have changed in J-Town, calling the decision to close “bittersweet.”
“One of the main reasons is just that there’s been a huge development in J-Town. Property owners have been seeing what everyone else is charging per square foot and they believe they’re due that amount and we just can’t keep up with that,” Ota explained.
“Even if we were to try to, we wouldn’t be Oiwake anymore. We’d have to turn customers and we wouldn’t make the connection with the customers who have been so supportive for so long. It wouldn’t be us.”
Ota is a third-generation Little Tokyo business owner. His grandparents, James and Yoshiko Watamura, ran Modern Food Market, which first opened on First Street in 1945 and later moved to a larger location on Second Street. The store was open until 1996 in the retail space that is now occupied by Pinkberry frozen yogurt. His parents, Tsutomu and Marina Ota, run Modern Marketing, a business that distributes Japanese food and sake nationwide. It is located on First Street, east of Alameda.
Ota worked at Oiwake as a server for six years before he bought the restaurant from longtime manager Curtis Moyer in January 2010.
“I grew up with the J-Town spirit. I’m really big on tradition and how things are supposed to be kept,” he explained. “I see others who want to keep the tradition going, but it’s tough when you don’t see other people who appreciate it. Younger people, their parents weren’t involved (in J-Town) so they’re not as involved.”
Angela DeGroot, property manager of Japanese Village Plaza, said that JVP has been working with Ota to try and find a new operator of the restaurant.
“James has been a wonderful tenant for us. Oiwake has been a wonderful asset to the plaza,” DeGroot said. “This is a friendly exchange. This is not something that we are in any way pushing our tenant out.”
“We are here for our tenants. We would love to keep all of them. We love JVP. The businesses are doing really well here. Our goal is to keep them happy, keep it safe and when there’s a vacancy, fill it.”
A new tenant has signed a lease for the Oiwake space. DeGroot said that the new restaurant owners were not ready to announce their plans, but that an announcement would be happening soon. New tenants at JVP in recent years include the Japanese clothing retailer Zakanaka and Gazen Izakaya.
Without disclosing rates at JVP, she acknowledged that rental rates have risen in Little Tokyo, as the neighborhood has become a popular destination. American Commercial Equities, owner of JVP, has invested over $10 million in improvements into the plaza since its acquisition in 2007 and today most of the retail spaces are occupied.
“Market rates have gone up over the years in all of Downtown L.A. and in Little Tokyo and the Arts District we have seen a surge in the rates. We like to see ourselves now as a destination. There are lots of tourists coming, and once the Metro (Regional Connector) project is done, it is going to be great for Little Tokyo.”
On Loopnet.com, a commercial real estate website, listings in Little Tokyo include restaurant spaces in Weller Court that are listed at $3.50 per square foot. Retail space in the 15-story Kajima Building is listed at between $2.20 and $2.30 per square foot. Wakaba, the mixed-use apartment complex currently under construction on Second Street, lists its ground-level retail spaces at $4.25 per square foot.
In addition, it is common for tenants to also pay for the maintenance of the common areas, security and building insurance. For example, listings for AVA Little Tokyo and Brunswig Square indicate that the spaces are structured for a triple net lease (NNN), which requires tenants to pay for expenses such as real estate taxes, building insurance, and maintenance.
But back at Oiwake, there was little talk of dollars and square footage and more about the good times shared at the restaurant.
When former Nisei Week Queen Lauren Kinkade Wong posted the news of Oiwake’s closure on her Facebook page, her post quickly went viral. It was a Nisei Week tradition to hold an after-party at Oiwake following the coronation that would go late into the night.
“It was like our Cheers bar — you know everybody that’s there,” Wong said.
Wong met her husband, Gerald, at Oiwake, and she pointed to the exact spot where the couple first met. Sometimes Gerald would even help out behind the bar. The couple married in 2004 and have two daughters.
“I was sitting over there in Booth 32 and Gerald came up to me. We had our engagement party here, his dad’s 70th birthday party here. There are so many memories.”
Brian Takahashi, who conducts tours of Little Tokyo for Six Taste Food Tours, said Oiwake represented an authentic Little Tokyo experience in an age where dining out is often more about posting foodie photos on Instagram.
“People used to meet at Far East Cafe all the time, and once that closed everybody came here for funeral receptions, wedding receptions, anniversaries, birthday parties, everything,” Takahashi said.
Kageyama encouraged longtime Oiwake supporters to visit the restaurant before it closes.
“People say, ‘Oh it’s too bad.’ Well if it’s too bad, then come in! Time is limited, you need to come,” he said.
“I have such passion and connection with everybody here that I don’t want to lose that. Oiwake will disappear, but we’ll still be together, we’ll find another place where we can unite together. It’s really important.”
Helen Ota, a member of the Nisei Week Foundation Board and the Cold Tofu improvisation troupe, said that many arts organizations would also have their meetings at Oiwake. She said that Little Tokyo community members must reach out to new businesses coming into the area.
“It’s our responsibility that despite the changes in Little Tokyo, that we make sure that our community is heavily threaded into whatever new organizations and new businesses that come through,” Ota stated. “I don’t know how we communicate that, but we’ve got to figure out a way to make sure they understand who was here before them and why we’re here.”
The Oiwake owner agreed and he said that Little Tokyo’s non-profit organizations need to do more to reach out to new businesses and welcome them as a part of J-Town.
“The organizations of the past have been set in their ways and traditions. They are not interacting with new businesses or owners in the Little Tokyo community,” James Ota said. “As a business owner in Little Tokyo, I see that they are a part of the community keeping tradition alive, but are not interacting personally with ALL businesses in the Little Tokyo district. The ones that have supported us the most are the Nisei Week Foundation, LTRoots and Little Tokyo Service Center.
“But these organizations need to open up to the younger generation and new businesses to help Little Tokyo carry on. No one likes changes but it is coming. How do you want it to change is the question … Every business has to pay the BID (Business Improvement District) tax to the city. If they knew they were a part of the community or the organizations running it, it would strengthen what little we have.”
Ota was emotional talking about the closure of Oiwake. He said that there will be some “last hurrah” parties before Sept. 30. Afterwards, he said he would be spending more time with his family, including his one-year-old daughter.
“J-Town has been flooded with new businesses, bars and restaurants. Right now only the strong will survive. It is what it is,” he said.
Oiwake Restaurant will have an “Old School Night” on Friday, Sept. 25, with a reunion of past employees and regular customers. There will also be a final party on Saturday, Sept. 26, featuring the Oiwake deejays. Both events start at 9 p.m. For more information, call the restaurant at (213) 628-2678.