IN KANSHA: Northern California sake festival raises funds for children’s hospital


WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. — North American Food Distributing Co. Inc. will hold its ninth annual Northern California Premium Sake Festival Oct. 15 at the Double Tree Hotel, educating the public about different types of sake and raising money for the UC Davis Children’s Hospital Pediatric Heart Center.

The festival will include various sake, shochu and Japanese beer vendors from the United States and Japan as well as signature dishes from local Japanese restaurants and manufacturers. The Oto’s Marketplace and Koreana Plaza vendors will sell items from its stores at discounted prices, according to NAFDC President Harley Inaba. There will also be a non-alcoholic booth for designated drivers.

In addition to a raffle drawing, blind sake tasting and a performance from Sacramento Taiko Dan, Inaba said chef Tyler Stone, former contestant of the Bravo reality television series, “Top Chef,” will do an on-stage demonstration with frozen sake. There will also be a sushi-making contest among the sushi chefs from each Japanese restaurant at the event. On stage, each sushi chef has five minutes to make as many sushi as they can using the fresh sashimi that is provided for them. The winner gets a prize and the rest of the attendees get to eat the sushi they made.

The family-run business has been providing Japanese-produced goods to families, grocery stores and restaurants since 1945, but its roots go as far back as the 1920s. Hikotaro Inaba, a Japanese immigrant farmer, bought a small grocery store in Walnut Grove, Calif. with help from his wife and nine children. They called this store Inaba Company, according to Harley Inaba, son of Hitoshi “Flu” Inaba and NAFDC president since 1990.

“There were a lot of Nikkei (farmers) that were laborers out in the Walnut Grove area, so there was a lot of need for Japanese food,” he said. “So at (Hikotaro’s) store, he would sell regular food but then he’d have to import rice and shoyu and that kind of stuff because people wanted it.”

Harley Inaba said that the distribution part of the company started through importing these Japanese products. Years later, when Hikotaro Inaba’s three sons Akira (Richard), Minoru (Edward) and Hitoshi Inaba were old enough to help with the business, he opened H. Inaba and Son in Walnut Grove. With their delivery truck, the family delivered food items like sashimi, shoyu, tofu and rice to farm labor camps because most people could not come into town to buy it.

During World War II, the Inaba family was forcibly relocated to the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado, leaving their business behind. After the war in 1945, the Inaba brothers opened a new business in Denver, Colo. called Inaba Brothers.

However, because of the racism toward Japanese Americans at the time, the family business suffered from hate crimes.

“At that time, people didn’t like Japanese too much,” said Harley Inaba. “So someone threw a brick through their window and broke their glass window.”

Because of the anti-Japanese sentiment, the Inaba brothers decided to change the company name to North American Food Distributing Company.

“That’s why our company is one of the few Japanese wholesale companies that has a name like North American Food. Nobody knows what we are!” Harley Inaba said.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Minoru Inaba moved back to Walnut Grove to restart business there while Akira and Hitoshi Inaba started two retail grocery stores in Fresno, Calif. In the 1960s, Minoru closed retail sales and moved the business from Walnut Grove to Sacramento, Calif., where the distribution company continued to grow to what it is today. North American moved to their West Sacramento facility in 1988.

The Northern California Premium Sake Festival began nine years ago because the NAFDC thought it would be a good idea to have a sake show while various food enthusiasts from Japan stayed in Sacramento in between the restaurant shows in New York and Los Angeles put on by large sake manufacturers. The Japanese visitors stay in the United States for one week, attending the restaurant shows the first weekend in New York and the second weekend in Los Angeles.

The proceeds from each festival go to the UC Davis Children’s Hospital Pediatric Heart Center. This work the UC Davis Children’s Hospital does is important to the Inaba family because more than 30 years ago, it helped save their son’s life.

Harley and Judy Inaba’s oldest son Graig was born with a congenital heart defect called the transposition of the great arteries. When this happens, the positions of the body’s two major arteries are switched. The blood is circulated incorrectly throughout the body, not enabling the blood to be oxidized and causing the skin to turn blue.

“When he was born, he started turning blue the first night,” Harley Inaba recalled.

The doctors did a minor surgery to temporarily correct the blood circulation in his body until he was strong enough to have the major open heart surgery one year later.

“Luckily (the UC Davis Children’s Hospital) saved his life and we wanted to give back to that community for saving his life so this was a perfect event for that,” Harley Inaba said.

Only four years prior to Graig Inaba’s birth, babies born with this defect were called “blue babies” and would die within one day.

Now, thanks to the children’s hospital, Graig Inaba is a healthy 32-year-old who works as an informatics pharmacy technician at the San Francisco General Hospital, and is an active community member.

Graig Inaba is a founding core member of the Japanese American Citizens League-sponsored Nakayoshi Young Professionals, which helps young San Francisco Bay Area individuals connect to the Japanese American community through volunteer work and social events. He is also a Nichi Bei Foundation board member and is a member of the NBF’s Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival Organizing Committee. He was the public speaking and public events trainer for the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program Committee and helps with other organizations like Kimochi Inc., the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and the Buddhist Churches of America.

“I get around and just kinda help where ever is needed,” he said, and added, “Through the organizations that I get involved with, I do my best to either add to the organization to make it better, or to spark the brain that does.”

Not only does Harley Inaba want to “repay” the UC Davis Children’s Hospital for saving his son, but he also believes that having events like these helps promote relationships between the Japanese and other ethnic cultures, which is one reason why Inaba said former Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata attended and supported the event in the past.

It is important to raise money for medical organizations because the longer it can serve the community, the more medically advanced it will become, enabling it to save more lives each year, according to Graig Inaba.

“Each individual whose life has been saved can potentially be a great asset to humanity that would have a great effect on the population as a whole,” he said.

Graig Inaba said he is thankful to the children’s hospital and their staff and to the numerous donors.

“The ones who have saved my life have been complete strangers to me and my family so, in a way, I am living proof that people really do care about humanity,” he said.

The ninth annual Northern California Premium Sake Fest will take place Tuesday, Oct. 15 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Double Tree by Hilton, 2001 Point West Way in Sacramento. Attendees will be able to sample premium sake, shochu and Japanese beer, along with sushi and specialty foods that local Japanese restaurants and Japanese food manufacturers have prepared. To purchase tickets, contact Judy Inaba at (916) 373-1111, ext. 120 or Tickets purchased by Oct. 11, cost $60; at the door,  $70. Attendees must be 21 years or older to attend.

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