Sacramento’s J-Town to lose longtime business as neighborhood continues to change

MOM-AND-POP TO CLOSE ­— Sacramento, Calif.’s Sakura Gifts, which sells Japanese dishes, craft supplies and apparel, will close Aug. 21. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Sacramento’s once thriving Japantown was devastated in the 1950s as redevelopment pushed much of the Japanese American community out of what is now downtown Sacramento. A pocket of Nikkei businesses relocated south of the original ethnic enclave, but few Japanese American businesses remain today, and one more store has announced their closing at the end of the month.

Sakura Gifts From Japan, a shop selling Japanese dishware, craft supplies and apparel, announced their intent to close in early August, stating their final day will be Aug. 21. Nobuko Saiki, the store’s proprietor, said she decided to close after she learned her rent would increase.

Saiki told the Nichi Bei Weekly she wished to close the store on her terms.

“All I want to say is, ‘thank you’ to my customers,” She said. “Thank you for your longtime support. I want to end it there.”

Saiki took over the business from its previous proprietor Hiroko Arimoto in 2000. The two had worked together since 1984 when Arimoto first opened Sakura Gifts. The Shin-Issei proprietor, who moved to the U.S. in 1976 from Tokyo, said the community supported her over the years. She added that she considers her customers family. She called the connections she made with her customers her “treasure.”

While 10th Street once was home to several Japanese restaurants, a salon and other Japanese and Japanese American businesses, the street now only hosts a fraction of the Japanese American businesses that once occupied the area. Osaka-Ya confectionery, Royal Louis Florist and Sakura Gifts sit on the east side of the street, while Binchoyaki Izakaya is across the street. Further up the street, what once was the Ouye Pharmacy at 10th and V Street now houses the Tensile Strength fitness gym, adjacent to the Japanese American-owned Valley Custom Drapery, Sacramento chapter of the Japanese American Citizen League’s office, along with the Elica Health Center.

One of the latest additions to the former pharmacy building is Lo/Fi, taking over what once was June’s Cafe. Owner Bryan Widener said he enjoyed eating at June’s before it closed, as it was a convenient place to go when he first moved to Sacramento. He opened his restaurant, which currently sells sandwiches and other comfort foods that work well for take out, a month before the pandemic hit.

The pandemic has hit several of the businesses hard in the neighborhood, Binchoyaki a block away, was a no-reservation sit-down restaurant that opened six years ago by General Manager Tokiko Sawada and Chef Craig Takehara. Sawada said the pandemic required the restaurant to change drastically from a sit-down only establishment to enabling customers to place their to-go orders online. They now offer outdoor patio seating, and only seat diners by reservation. She said the restaurant managed to survive by participating in government programs such as Great Plates Delivered and Family Meal Sacramento to distribute meals to those in need to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, Linda Nakatani of Osaka-Ya said her sales have also suffered due to the global pandemic, but local community members have supported her throughout the pandemic.

“I gotta really thank these people for doing all this for me throughout the time that it was really hard, because it’s not just one year, it’s actually the two years that I was struggling,” she said. She said she’s had days where she had to throw away two-thirds of the manju she made that day.

While in-store purchases have recovered, Nakatani said her wholesale business still lags behind. “I used to send out to Seattle and Denver, and I don’t have any orders from them for the last year,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, merchants in Sacramento’s Japantown recognized that times have changed and both the neighborhood and community are no longer the same. Nakatani said most of the Asian community has moved further south in the city, while the “old timer ladies” who would walk to her shop are now homebound or have moved to nursing homes. To help suit younger generations and people who don’t eat the bean-based fillings in her confections, she’s developed new fillings using chocolate ganache, peanut butter and matcha.

Beyond its shifting tastes, Saiki said the neighborhood has gotten lonely as longtime businesses have closed. She recalled how people would gather for receptions after funerals at Wakanoura, a restaurant once located above her store. She said she wished she could keep the business going for the customers who continued to rely on her store for a sense of community.

Sawada also said she and her husband opened the restaurant on 10th Street hoping to revitalize the Japanese American community as a Shin-Nisei and Yonsei couple, but she admitted the business environment has recently suffered due to the large presence of homeless people living under the freeway a block away. The issue has only become worse as the pandemic hit.

“Japantown itself, not just our business, but other businesses on the street, are experiencing vandalism,” Sawada said. “It’s been a tough year ever since the COVID hit.”

Saiki did complain about homeless people, noting she started each morning cleaning the back of her store where someone appears to be sleeping and smoking each night. Her biggest stressor at the moment, however, is cleaning out her store by Aug. 28.

“There’s still all these little things I need to do, but I only have 10 days to do it, that’s really stressful,” she said.

Janice Yamaoka Luszczak, president of the Sacramento JACL, said she learned of the closing just weeks ago and said many within the community are trying to help Saiki.

“Everyone’s trying to help her out, buy whatever she has left,” she said. “I am going to miss it. I don’t think we have any other stores like that in Sacramento.”

Aside from gifts, Saiki said her store helped keep the Shin-Issei community connected. She said she stocked and mailed magazine subscriptions from Japan to customers and ran a mini rental library of Japanese books compiled of donated books from the local Japanese residents.

“We’ve been lending them out for 50 cents each. Everyone looked forward to renting out books, but now I need to figure out what to do with them, maybe donate them to a church or something,” she said.

A tenant for Sakura Gift’s location already plans to open their own store. According to Nilda Valmores, executive director of My Sister’s House, her organization serving Asian and Pacific Islander women and children survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, will open a retail space. Valmores said she is excited to open the new store, as the location offers great visibility and is located in a historically Asian neighborhood.

“Our board president was saying he grew up in the area and this has always been kind of an Asian street for him. So he’s very excited that we’re going to be part of that street,” she said.

If all goes according to plan, Valmores said she hopes to open for business Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, Saiki has a few plans once she retires. She hopes to take care of her husband and spend time with her two grandchildren.

“He’s looked after me all these years, and now it’s my turn to look after him,” she said.

Though not under the best circumstances, Saiki said she should keep a positive outlook as she chooses to retire.

“As you live, there’s ebbs and flows, but I think there’s more good in life than not,” she said. “So don’t be picky, or there will be no end to things to nit pick. I just have to say this is it.”

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