Sakura-ya: A Sweet Tradition Continues in Gardena

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Sakura-ya co-owners Mas Fujita and Yuki Fujita (Photos by Kathee Yamamoto and Sarah Fujita)

By KATHEE YAMAMOTO

GARDENA — When Mas Fujita carefully crafts the manju, still made by hand at Sakura-ya in Gardena, he’s continuing a tradition that began with their father, Masayasu Fujita, 60 years ago at the Western Avenue store.

“My dad opened Sakura-ya in April 1960,” Mas recalls. “I was ten years old!” Even then he, his younger brother Yuki and older brother Grant helped out by putting the cooled manju into the paper “cups” and pitching in with the New Year’s mochitsuki.

Now, as the senior partner at the store, and the keeper of the family flame, Mas marks 48 years working full-time at the manju-ya where generations have flocked for boxes of the popular treats.

Sakura-ya manju has earned rave reviews for its soft texture and tasty filllings, and are a tradition in many households, especially for New Year’s celebrations, when the store has been at its busiest.

Before California’s “Stay at Home” order, 2020 had been a good year for Sakura-ya through January, February and the first half of March, says Mas, and was on track to have perhaps a record year. “But coronavirus came and changed everything!”

Spring would usually be an especially busy time “because of spring break and people taking five, ten boxes of manju to places like Hawaii,” Mas said, noting that he would also have large orders from customers bound for Europe and Japan.

Taking into account the slower business, Mas and Yuki briefly announced that Sakura-ya would be open only on Saturdays. Spurred by social media, support from the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute and fans of the store spreading the word, that first Saturday, April 4, generated a healthy turn-out. And they eventually decided after that weekend that they would keep the store open Wednesday through Sunday.

Customers missing Sakura-ya’s manju and those eager to help the business survive continue to visit the Gardena store, located along a row of small businesses, wearing face masks and maintaining social distance from each other.

Founding Father

Sakura-ya’s style of manju-making comes from late founder Masayasu Fujita, who started at age 15 as an apprentice under a master confectioner in Japan, spending years, working his way up from low-level tasks to finally learning the art of creating manju. After perfecting his craft at several shops in Japan, with few opportunities there post-WWII, the senior Fujita was able to attain sponsorship to work at a manju-ya in San Jose, bringing his wife and sons.

Sakura-ya founder Masayasu Fujita in 1981.

Later, when he was ready to set up a store of his own, Mas recalls of his father, “He didn’t want to compete with his San Jose sponsor, so he looked at Southern California, and decided on Gardena.” Masayasu had placed ads in Japanese newspapers, likely including **The Rafu Shimpo,** to announce the store’s opening.

Customers who’d had to travel to Little Tokyo for freshly made manju and mochi formed a line on opening day. And the business has sustained through the 60 years since, but now faces the same unanticipated financial stresses as many other small businesses.

“And we don’t do wholesale — we depend on people to come to our store and buy,” Mas points out. In the small, simple storefront, where cases display a variety of manju, mocha and ohagi, the space looks much the same as it did 60 years ago.

Running the family business was never Mas’ plan. A graduate of Gardena schools, like his brother Yuki, he studied aquaculture at UCLA with an eye towards “working with fisheries or the environment.”

Yuki studied criminology at Cal State Long Beach and was at one time with the Beverly Hills Police Department, along with other career paths. But he returned to work at Sakura-ya for several tenures over the years, and has been there as a partner since 1992.

Before the store even opened, Yuki recalls, “I was in elementary school, maybe first or second grade. So I used to walk from Denker Avenue when school finished, I just walked over to the store and helped my dad, as he was building up the inside of it, the furniture and tables and shelves.”

Both Mas and Yuki continued to work at Sakura-ya part-time, through junior high, high school and college.

Their brother Grant, after El Camino College, studied architecture at San Jose State and worked at Sakura-ya for 20 years, also developing a landscaping business that he continued when he moved to Hayward in the late ’70s. Now retired, he specialized in the construction and maintenance of koi ponds, based on a life-long interest in the colorful carp that started in Japan.

Continuous Employment

But Mas has been at the store full-time, without interruption, since his college graduation in 1972. With no promising environmental jobs available at that time, he accepted his father’s invitation to help with the business. “I said OK, I wasn’t thinking about a whole career…I’m still here though!”

Joining his father was a continuation and escalation of work he’d been doing since childhood. “I think I started really doing some heavy work at 15, doing a lot with the mochitsuki machine,” he remembers, describing the industrial mochi-making equipment used then. “It’s really big, there’s a plunger that comes down. You have to flip the mochi. It’s a big, old-fashioned, hammer-like thing that pounds the mochi, really heavy. You have to get your hand out of the way!”

Mas Fujita credits the enduring appeal of Sakura-ya’s manju to the taste, which hasn’t changed in 60 years.

“Some people might think this is an easy job, but I have to lift 50-pound bags of sugar, rice, beans — a lot of physical work. The hours are long,” says Mas.

And the work load traditionally ramps up for New Year’s season, when “I’d start sometimes at 12 a.m.” And at times during the rest of the year, “Sometimes I came in at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock the same night, after I went home, when it’s real busy. Because we don’t have the luxury of a lot of workers here, most of the work Is done by us, my brother and myself.”

And for a two-year period as his brother recovered from back surgery, Mas – working alone — estimates he had 96-hour work weeks.

Even now, Mas puts in a normal 10-to-12-hour day. He had been working along-side Yuki, but with the coronavirus crisis, they decided on shifts that would allow them to practice social distancing from each other.

Yuki explains the work he does, now after hours. “The hardest part is making the an, the filling, because of the way we make It, in batches, where it’s going to weigh at least 50 pounds! Just to carry the finished product on a tray — from the mixer to the table — that part gets a little bit heavy!”

While Yuki is a judo black belt who coaches with the Gardena Judo Club, a runner who took part in last year’s L.A. Marathon and a former bicyclist (“I used to ride my bicycle at least 100 miles a week at one time”), Mas — who had started out in judo with Yuki, and used to enjoy basketball and fishing — laughs that it’s the job itself that provides his daily work-out.

As the store marks it’s 60th year, the manju stays true to the recipes and the traditions set by founder Masayasu, who continued to work until he was 80 years old. He passed away ten years later in 2004.

Remembering Yoshiye

And Yuki remembers his mother, Yoshiye, who worked full-time at the store before retiring in 1980. “She had a pretty incredible history too.”

Yoshiye Fujita was born in Seattle, so had American citizenship, but as a young girl, “she went back to Japan for more formal education. She met my dad there, after the war. And I was born there, so was Mas and Grant.”

Yoshiye had trained as a midwife, which has historically been a well-respected profession for women in Japan, according to Brett Iiamura, a childbirth educator in Japan for many years. “All midwives were required to be licensed as nurses first,” followed by midwifery education.

Studio portrait of Masayasu and Yoshiye Fujita taken in the mid- to late 1990s.

But after returning to the U.S., Yuki notes, his mother “had to endure a lot during those times. It was hard to try to get into it here, because of the language barrier and other certifications,” so she was never able to use her training. Yuki recalls, “She did her best, though, to work at the store and do what she could, always very professional at the counter.”

She passed away in 2008, four years after her husband.

Mas, reflecting on the endurance and popularity of Sakura-ya, says, “I tell my customers that each manju store is special in its own way, their own formula, their own different kinds of variety. And I guess we’re just lucky that people like our taste, they mention how sweet, how soft our mochi is. I don’t really focus on making it soft. I think taste should be number one. But every store has something that’s quite popular; otherwise they wouldn’t last very long.”

Sakura-ya’s most popular is “Pink Mochi,” with its filling of strained, sweetened white lima beans. And according to Mas, manju will stay fresh for three days, and if necessary, they can be successfully frozen, defrosted and then refreshed by microwaving them “for 5 to 8 seconds in the microwave, no more.” He cautions that refrigerating them “actually makes them hard, changes the texture.”

Spanning Generations

Yuki’s two daughters have both worked at the store through their high school and college years, and even now help out during the New Year’s rush, but “they have their own careers,” says Yuki of Sarah, who’s worked as a medical office manager, and Kristie, a veterinarian in Orange County.

With no family member poised to take over the business, Mas, 70, says he’s ready to continue to do what he’s been doing for another 10 years, “if that’s physically possible. After that, I’ll take it easy,” he laughs.

What Mas values most, from his 48 years there, are the many Sakura-ya employees – over 100 – who have come and gone over the years. He keeps in touch with some, even over decades. Many of them having started as young part-time workers, Mas reflects how “all these people are now grown up, got married, have kids of their own!”

Sakura-ya customers Nathlyn Hirohama (holding her box of manju) and Terry Masaoka. (Photo by Janis Hirohama)

Customers, too, span generations. “Lot of people tell me that as a little kid, they used to come into the store, and they’re still coming to the store, after 30-40 years!”

For Yuki, the reason for continuing their father’s business is “to satisfy the needs of the customers we have, that like our products. That’s probably the most important thing for me, to make sure that they can still get it.”

Long-time customer Janis Hirohama, meeting up with friends there recently to purchase boxes of manju, explained why they feel it’s important to support the business: “Sakura-ya is a real touchstone for those of us who grew up Japanese American in the L.A. area, especially in the South Bay. I have vivid childhood memories of going there with my family, of eating their manju at holidays and family celebrations, and of stopping in to buy elegantly wrapped boxes of mochi to give to my grandparents.

“But establishments like Sakura-ya are not just nostalgic — they are living embodiments of our Japanese American history and culture. We want them to survive so that current and future generations can experience — and taste — that history.”

Sakura-ya, 16134 S. Western Ave., Gardena, CA 90247, (310) 323-7117. Open Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Cash and check only; no credit cards.

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