By Brandi-Ann Uyemura—You may have already felt it. Maybe it is the crowds peppering the streets at all parts of the day or the fact that it takes longer to find parking than it used to. But there is definitely something happening to Japantown San Jose. Just a few years ago, Japantown was on the verge of becoming a ghost town with storefronts bare, shops left vacant and finding parking was easy. Portland Taiko performer Dane Fujimoto who was born in Hawaii visited Japantown just three years ago. On a recent trip to the area, commented on its change today. “It just doesn’t seem like the same Japantown.”
Things changed when a tropical breeze made its way to Japantown in the cluster of new businesses cropping up selling their Hawaiian wares. With island stores like Island Sol, Ukulele Source, Ukulele Jam, Cukui, and Sonny’s Place, Hawaii transplants (those who moved to the mainland from Hawaii) now have a place to call home.
Rodney Takahashi, owner of Ukulele Jams was lured in by the location. After a successful start teaching students how to play the ukulele in his home, a vacancy in Japantown was the incentive he needed to transform a dream into reality. He saw this “quiet little community town” as a prime location-an inviting place drawing new out-of-town tourists and festival goers.
Kau’i Isa-Kahaku is the owner of Island Moves Family Center, a business that includes Sonny’s Place, a Hawaiian retail shop, her hula troupe Halau Na Wai Ola (or Living Waters) and Island Moves productions. Isa-Kahaku also perceived the change in Japantown as a positive thing with new businesses revitalizing the area. She said, “Of all the places, we have the most foot traffic here.” Though she believes the initial draw was the promise of new customers in a burgeoning community, it is the people that has made the move worthwhile.
Japantown may not exactly be Hawaii per se. Takahashi, for example, was the only owner out of the stores I spoke with that was born and raised in Hawaii. And Smiley Kai of Ukulele Source who was born in Los Angeles and moved to San Jose in 1970 said, “I wouldn’t consider this store a Hawaiian store, I would consider it a store that specializes in ukuleles.” Yet, there is “where everybody knows your name” kind of feel to this small tight knit community that is reminiscent of old Hawaii.
Kai who opened up his ukulele shop on North 5th Street in September 2008 said, “we’ve been here almost three years now and I don’t think I’ve ever felt this close to a community.” In fact, all of the owners I spoke to described owners as “friendly,” and with a “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch my back” mentality.
This may best be described by Roy’s Station owners (a coffee shop in Japantown) whose name kept coming up in conversation. Takahashi said, “Frank Rast from Roy’s goes out every day sweeping the street. He goes all the way up this part of Jackson and comes back around by...It’s unbelievable!” Island Sol owner Jesse Parungao also mentioned the Rasts. He talked about how “Carole, Frank’s wife waters everyone’s plants and puts coins in all the meters.”
It is definitely not something that would happen in every town. According to Takahashi, “I believe that a lot of it has to do with the owners, their attitude, friendliness and willingness to help.”
Parungao who took over an old optometry office also feels happy about his decision to move to Japantown. He expressed his love for the community and gratitude for local Hawaii ties in fellow store owners such as Minato’s restaurant and next door neighbor Cukui.
The passion shared by the individual owners really defines the area, making this small town stand out among a sea of strip malls so commonplace in Silicon Valley. Isa-Kahaku, for example, juggles three jobs in addition to being a wife and mother. But her effervescent personality and warm demeanor exudes passion and aloha for Hawaiian culture, not the weariness you would expect. In talking about her store and hula studio she said, “I want it to be a place where they can come and just enjoy whether it’s just sitting here and classes are going on. I want [the store] to have a feeling of ohana (family) when they come.” Her positive energy is catchy and may explain why she is the only paid employee there. Everyone else who works for the store volunteers. But with soft Hawaiian music playing in the background and friendly staff, this Hawaiian retail store/hula studio that replaced Soko Hardware feels like a place you want to be at.
And with their dark moody tattoo art displayed on unique T-shirts, Cukui also sets a name for itself drawing in a new crowd and exciting vibe to the community. Owner Orly Locquiao grew up in San Jose, but learned tattooing in Hawaii and brings his culture, lifestyle and experience with tattoo art to the store. His brother Jason Locquiao said, “Japantown has evolved into its own thing.” And they have been dreaming of being a part of it. He sees the store as a visual representation of their lifestyle -”a mix of Polynesian and Mexican designs, fusion of stuff from San Jose, tattoo art, the culture in San Jose.”
Whether it is T-shirts, ukulele or ukulele lessons, one thing is clear-the passion shared by owners Isa-Kahaku, Parungao, Takahashi and Kai. Maybe it is this combination of small town community and passion for perpetuating culture that underlies and connects the stores in Japantown. A place that is not quite Hawaii, not quite Japan, and not quite San Jose.
Perhaps the best way to explain this Hawaii, Japanese, San Jose mix is what Kai said about what turns him on most about his job. After 30 years of working at Lockheed Martin as an engineer, he began dreaming of his retirement. He said, “There used to be a fishing tackle store right across the street. There used to be a bench outside. I used to see those retired guys sit out there. I said when I retire that’s what I want to do. I want to have a little store like that, a ukulele store. I want to have a bench and sit out there and play. If we have to go somewhere, we just close. We don’t worry about it you know.” Passion, play, low-key, laid-back attitude, and a sense of community. It may not be Hawaii, but it sure feels like it.