From right: Hiroko Yamagata, owner and chef, Restaurant Aoi; Grace Maruyama, sister and Aoi manager; daughter Mika Yamagata Iden; and waitress Sanae Aizawa celebrate at the end of a busy Nisei Week in the late 1990s.
By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
For 37 years, patrons of Aoi Restaurant on First Street in Little Tokyo knew what to expect: delicious, homestyle Japanese favorites such as saba shioyaki, nabeyaki udon and tempura-teriyaki combinations.
Hiroko Yamagata, owner of Aoi Restaurant, passed away on April 15. She was 84.
Alongside her sister Grace Maruyama, Yamagata served generations of downtown office workers and Japanese Americans visiting and working in Little Tokyo. The sisters were honored in 2014 by the Little Tokyo Community Council for their contributions to the neighborhood.
Daughter Mika Yamagata Iden said that the hominess was a big part of Aoi’s appeal. She explained that her mom made everything herself, coming up with the dishes by trial and error.
“People would come in routinely, it was like their second home. It’s hard to find a place that serves that kind of home cooking,” Iden said.
Aoi Restaurant was recognized by the Little Tokyo Community Council in 2014. From left: Chris Aihara, Grace Maruyama, Hiroko Yamagata, Evelyn Yoshimura, Craig Ishii. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Yamagata opened the restaurant in 1976, at a time when construction of the New Otani Hotel had just begun and there were few Japanese restaurants in Little Tokyo. In 1968, Yamagata emigrated from Hiroshima to join her sister, first working as a dressmaker. A neighbor who owned a building on First Street offered the sisters the opportunity to start their own business.
Regular customer Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-Do, said Aoi is “what Little Tokyo is supposed to look like. It’s the Little Tokyo I treasure and long to keep.”
He recalled going to eat there at least two or three times a week, and always running into someone.
“It was like a family eatery. You always knew somebody there, kinda like Cheers,” Kito said.
Iden said her mother welcomed old and new customers, noting that her okonomiyaki, was a particular favorite among the young foodies on Yelp.
The restaurant offered a bento of salmon shioyaki, chicken teriyaki, kimpira gobo, tamagoyaki, cucumber salad and steamed broccoli with homemade dressing for $6.50.
The restaurant’s name was a reference to the Tokugawa shogunate, which used the “aoi” mon.
“JANM would order the bento for all their meetings,” Iden said.
Aoi closed on June 30, 2014 when new owners purchased the building and asked all of the tenants to vacate.
Yamagata named Aoi in honor of the Tokugawa shogunate, a dynasty that ruled Japan for nearly 300 years.
“She hoped she could last a fraction of time — she went through hard times, but she kept at it,” Iden said.
“She always said the trials you go through in life are the opportunity we are given to improve it. Everything is a blessing.”
Funeral services for Hiroko Yamagata, 84-year-old Hiroshima-ken born resident of Los Angeles and the owner of Aoi Restaurant in Little Tokyo for 37 years, who passed away on April 15, will be held on Saturday, May 5, at 1:30 p.m. at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, 505 E. Third St. (at Central), Los Angeles.