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Monday, September 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Japanese eatery will serve up a centennial party of its own
By Jack Broom
Jean Nakayama looks at it this way: She can't actually prove her restaurant is 100 years old, but she can't prove it isn't.
"I figure it's within a year or two, based on what I was told," said Nakayama, preparing a "centennial" party at her restaurant, Maneki, widely regarded as the city's oldest Japanese eatery.
Even though Nakayama doesn't know the restaurant's precise opening date, a few things she does know are pretty impressive:
Maneki's first incarnation, a block uphill from the existing 70-seat restaurant, was an immense white castle built by Japanese carpenters, and it seated up to 500 people for celebrations.
One of the restaurant's dishwashers in the 1930s was a University of Washington student named Takeo Miki, who returned to his homeland and later served as Japan's prime minister from 1974 to 1976.
When Seattle's Japanese Americans were sent away to internment camps in World War II, many stored their belongings in the closed Maneki Restaurant.
Among those who gained an appreciation of sushi at Maneki was noted Northwest artist Mark Tobey, who paid for meals there with some of his early paintings.
Her recipe for the Oct. 3 event: one part religion, one part nostalgia and one part community spirit, mixed with a supply of hors d'oeuvres and a no-host bar, with proceeds going to local charities.
"There's a wonderful atmosphere there," said the Rev. Donald Castro of Seattle Buddhist Church, who will spread flower petals, burn incense and ask all the Buddhas of the universe for wisdom and compassion. "Even if people aren't related, they have a strong sense of family and closeness."
Castro has conducted memorials at the restaurant for several former employees, including Nakayama's late ex-husband, Kozo, who bought the restaurant in 1974 and ran it until his death in 1998.
Sea urchins, old suitcase
Maneki, which draws its name from a Japanese term for "to welcome," sits on a steep block of Sixth Avenue South between South Jackson and South King streets. The signature feature of its modest narrow storefront is a fabric "Maneki Neko," a traditional Japanese depiction of a round-bodied cat with its left paw raised as a gesture of hospitality and good fortune.
Don't expect opulence at Maneki. Its stock in trade is authentic Japanese food at good prices.
"There's really nothing outstanding or special about its appearance," said David Enroth, 60, a regular customer, "but there's a spirit that exists there, a spirit of hospitality that's very comfortable."
Enroth, a former president of the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington, says his own taste for sushi dates back to his days in the Air Force in the 1960s, when he was stationed in Japan. At Maneki, which he visits about once a week, he became close friends with Kozo Nakayama, and the two often golfed together on Mondays, the only day the restaurant is closed.
A display of hand-lettered sheets of paper tout more than a dozen specials in Japanese characters and English letters: "NAMAKO-SU, Japanese sea cucumber $5.50"; "KAZUNOKO KONBU, herring roe on kelp, $4.50"; "Conch sashimi $7."
By 7 p.m. on a recent weeknight, the place was full, with more customers waiting for seats. The evening's patrons reflected a roughly 50-50 split of Asian and Caucasian faces. Two tables had families with small children, several groups were college-age customers and those in their 30s, and there were two tables of senior citizens.
"I get the pierced noses and kids with tattoos, and I've had a lot of the dot-commers, when they still had jobs" Nakayama said. "And on Sundays sometimes we'll have four generations at one table."
Authentic Japanese fare
Nakayama is almost as vague about her own age as she is about the restaurant's. "I've been 50 for the past seven or eight years," she smiles.
Her earliest memories of Maneki date to her grade-school days, when she would take the bus from her Seward Park neighborhood to the Sherman Clay store downtown for guitar lessons.
Often, she would rendezvous downtown after the lessons with her mother, who cleaned houses. Nakayama was an only child, and her father, in the Merchant Marine, was away much of the time. So she and her mother often opted to get a bite in the Chinatown International District before heading home.
"Some of the regulars here have told me, 'When you used to come in here, your guitar case was bigger than you.' "
Back then, she said, Maneki was one of the few restaurants they could count on for Japanese dishes that hadn't been reworked for American tastes. One example was a dish made from soy beans that "was kinda stinky and a little slimy, but it was authentic. ... We knew that this [Maneki] wasn't just another chicken-teriyaki joint."
The earliest photograph Nakayama has seen of the restaurant shows Tokuji Sato, who opened Maneki in 1911. But Shi-chan Ichikawa, who revived the restaurant after World War II and ran it until 1974, told the Nakayamas there had been an owner before Sato. So Nakayama believes the restaurant is nearly, if not exactly, 100 years old.
Can it last another century? Nakayama isn't so confident.
Parking seems to get harder to find, especially on Seahawk and Mariner game days, and traffic into downtown Seattle can be so bad some people avoid it altogether.
But Maneki's 74-year-old bartender, Fusae Yokoyama regular customers call her "Mom" is more optimistic: "We're seeing the younger generation and more Caucasian people are willing to try eating sashimi and different Japanese food."
Yokoyama, who started at Maneki in the 1960s, still works every Sunday and Tuesday and sometimes helps out on busy Fridays and Saturdays. She said it's getting more difficult to find people willing to do restaurant work. "But if I could live another 100 years, I'd be happy to keep working here."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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