WHAT’S NEW IN JAPANTOWN: San Jose’s J-Town welcomes new businesses as longtime restaurant owner retires

SAN JOSE — San Jose’s Japantown is abuzz with changes. A consignment shoe store, Sole on Ice, debuted in March. A specialty hat and cap store called Headliners opened in July during the Obon festival. Another business, Okayama’s Restaurant, has new owners. In addition, a new eatery called Jimbo’s will open soon.

SOLES WITH SOUL — The vintage sneaker store, Sole on Ice, has opened in San Jose's Japantown. photo by Timothy Moran

Randy Le serves as the owner of Sole on Ice, located at 210 Jackson St. The store offers a broad range of rare sneakers, including a variety of basketball and running shoes; Air Jordans are among the brands.

“Many of the shoes are 10 to 12 years old. We sell them because they don’t make them anymore,” said Le, adding that some of the shoes date back as far as the early ‘90s.

Le, who formerly operated the consignment store off of San Carlos Street in San Jose, said that the business relocated to Japantown because it needed room to expand.

“We waited three years for a spot to open in Japantown. I grew up here and have always wanted to be here,” said Le, who formerly played for the San Jose Ninjas basketball team.

“We love it here (in Japantown). We like the sense of community. We all visit and support each other,” said Le, adding that much of his business comes from word of mouth.

Headliners, located at 205 Jackson St., offers a variety of hats and caps for adults and children.

Co-founder My Nguyen said, “We specialize in exclusive fitteds, snapbacks, beanies and more.”

He said that Headliners has been a long-held dream that is now a reality.

“It started out as a childhood hat obsession that lasted into adulthood. We were asked, ‘If you could open your own business, what would it be?’ The hat store came to mind.”

Nguyen, who co-founded Headliners with Allan Illtraxx Dancel, said that the pair always wanted to open their store in San Jose’s Japantown.

“We waited for something to open up. We were drawn by the tight-knit community and the pride of

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK — Allan Illtraxx Dancel (left) and My Nguyen serve as co-owners of Headliners, a specialty hat store located in San Jose's Japantown. photo by Timothy Moran

ownership,” he said.

Kathy Sakamoto, executive director of the Japantown Business Association, said via e-mail that Headliners is a perfect fit for Japantown.

“The owners (of Headliners) grew up coming to Japantown for food, festivals and shopping,” Sakamoto said.

In addition, Japantown will soon welcome an eatery, Jimbo’s, which will sell a variety of specialty foods.

Sakamoto said, “Jimbo’s isn’t open yet but when they do, they’ll have special hot dogs with an Asian flair, ice cream, fresh baked products and desserts.”

 

‘New Stores Breathe New Life’ into Community

She said that Japantown’s mix of stores and restaurants contributes to the vibrancy of the community.

“People have been saying that the new stores breathe new life into Japantown,” Sakamoto added. “We’ve got some, like Island Sol and Cukui, who put on events all year long in other places, but have their base in San Jose, so they [are] looking to do more in San Jose too. Some of them bring an ‘island,’ ‘tribal’ or ‘urban street’ feel to the area and other[s] bring local needs to the forefront, such as Biscuits and Jimbo’s. Then there’s Headliners, Aristocrats and Sole on Ice.”

 

Okayama Restaurant Changes Ownership

WHAT'S NEW IN TOWN? — Okayama, one of the longest running family-owned restaurants in San Jose’s Japantown, has now changed hands. photo by Timothy Moran

While Japantown is welcoming new businesses to the community, it is saying farewell to another. The longtime owner of Okayama Restaurant, Leroy Mayeda, recently decided to retire and sold his restaurant, which had been family owned for 44 years. The new owner, Brian Choi, took over in August.

Mayeda said via e-mail, “Okayama has been run by two generations of our family. It was perhaps the oldest (if not one of the oldest) Japanese restaurant in the South Bay that was still run by the same family since its opening. We’ve had quite a bit of history and it was a great experience.”

He added that he decided to retire from the restaurant business in order to spend time with his loved ones.

“I felt that now was a good time to sell the restaurant and retire. The restaurant business keeps you constantly busy and has taken a lot of time away from family. Most times, running a restaurant keeps you busy six days a week. I have been wanting to spend more time with my family, as well as my close friends.”

He said that Okayama opened its doors in 1967 in the same location where it is today. “My mother has a passion for cooking good Japanese food,” Mayeda said. “She wanted to share this with everyone, which led to the start of the restaurant.”

Mayeda said he began working at the restaurant as a teenager. “I started from the bottom as a busboy helping out when I could and worked my way up to full time chef. I took over as owner about 20 years ago.”

Mayeda said that running the business was rewarding. “I’ll miss the customers the most. Despite the hard work day to day, the customers were dedicated to us. Some came to the restaurant weekly. Some families have been coming to Okayama for generations. I have developed close relationships to them, having known their parents, kids, and even grandkids. Watching them grow and keep coming back to Okayama really gives me a sense of pride that they enjoyed our food so much. Some customers even traveled hours and waited in line to come have one last meal with us before my last day,” he said.

He added that now that he is retired, he and his wife Junko plan on doing some traveling.

“There was never a long enough break to go anywhere too far. After a little recuperation, New York and Japan seem like good places to visit. We also look forward to finding new hobbies to enjoy,” Mayeda said.

He added that the new owners of Okayama mentioned that they would like to keep the menu the same and plan to add a sushi bar at some point.

“(The new owners) are planning to do more sushi than Leroy did, but he spent some time teaching them the recipes,” Sakamoto said. “And the other day, they were testing the sound system with some J-pop music. It’s not the same without Leroy and family, but they are still involved in Japantown. His mother is an integral part of the Buddhist Women’s Association at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and Leroy still owns property in Japantown.”

 

Diversity Leads to Success

Sakamoto said that she believes Japantown’s success lies in its diverse mix of businesses.

“New blood mixed with old. To add to that, there’s a lot of focus around community values. All the new stores also work to abide by these. They are trying to help the community organizations they are involved in, as well as working to become part of Japantown.

“They have their challenges too, and things like constant requests for donations from community organizations (including Spirit!) can take their toll during challenging economic times,” Sakamoto added. “Still, they believe in and love the atmosphere in Japantown. The older businesses help to provide some of that atmosphere. And community organizations really work at trying to support the new businesses while staying true to the new ones.”

She added that the residents enjoy the Farmers Market and finding unique goods at the shops. “They buy tofu, get their island fix at local stores, get their dog a bone, find the Japanese food they want, take a break at Banana Crepe or Roy’s, or find fine art at Art Object Gallery or some of the Japanese stores. It’s small enough to be personal and big enough that you don’t have to worry about getting lost.”

 

Sole on Ice is located at 210 Jackson St. Store hours are Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. For details, call (408) 982-5805.

Headliners is located at 205 Jackson St. Store hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For details, call (408) 306-8287 or visit the Facebook page at Facebook.com/HeadlinersSJ.

Okayama Restaurant is located at 565 N. 6th St. For information on the restaurant’s hours, call (408) 289-9508.

 

 

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