At Ayame Japanese Market, Akemi Eguchi surveyed the contents of one of the freezers — the one tucked behind the imported DVDs and rice cookers. She lightly brushed her forefinger through the condensation on the glass door, drawing circles around each item she identified: red bean sweets, melon bread (“Famous with American anime kids,” she noted), pickled vegetables, daikon radish.
Spread across the store — which is tucked in a nondescript strip mall in southeast Lexington — are a few more coolers stocked with dumpling skins, fresh-cut fish and meat. Then there are four short aisles packed with brightly-colored candy, hair-care products, curries, thin packets of instant miso soup and tea.
“People tell me it’s a really small store, but you have everything organized well, a little bit of everything,” Eguchi said as she sidestepped a pyramid of rice sacks by the register. “They say it’s like a little version of a grocery store in Japan. I think that’s a great compliment.”
And a small Japanese grocery store in a college town in central Kentucky isn’t as out of place as you may think. Since she opened Ayame four years ago, Eguchi said her customer base has only continued to grow. Part of that is due to the now 30-year-old Toyota manufacturing plant in nearby Georgetown.
“Toyota has been here for many years,” Eguchi said. “And they brought with them many suppliers and many families.”
And, she said, those families brought with them a demand for the food traditions of home, which has made Central Kentucky an unexpected epicenter in the region for authentic Japanese cuisine.
“When I first moved to Lexington 28 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of choice; I got homesick for the food,” Eguchi said as she began to ring up the contents of a customer’s basket. “But now, not so much.”
How Toyota Came to Kentucky
In 1985, the chairman of the Japan-based Toyota Motor Corporation, Shoichiro Toyoda, announced that Georgetown, Kentucky, would become the location of the company’s first manufacturing plant in the United States.
“They began construction in 1986 and production started in 1988,” said David Carpenter, executive director of the Japan/America Society of Kentucky, or JASK, which is an organization “dedicated to sustaining a favorable business and community relationship between Japan and Kentucky.”
As he spoke, Carpenter dragged and poked the eraser-end of a pencil across his desk, like he was creating and punctuating an invisible timeline of the company’s involvement in the state.
“So when Toyota settled here, that whole economic development industry looked at whether it could be successful for a Japanese company to be in the United States, let alone in Georgetown,” Carpenter said.
The venture worked well. In a follow-up call with Kim Menke, the manager of community and government relations for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, he cited the 10 manufacturing plants now in the U.S. as proof.
Toyota’s success prompted other Japanese-run businesses to move to the area in quick succession.
“When Toyota came, I think we had four or five Japanese companies and now we have 206 [Japanese] companies in Kentucky, so the population of the Japanese community exploded, more or less,” Carpenter said. “And when they first landed here, and in their numbers, it was very difficult to get Japanese food.”
But there wasn’t just demand for the food from new immigrants to Kentucky.
Before Toyota began production, they had to train their American workforce.
“And one way they did this was they sent them to Japan,” Carpenter said. “So at the very beginning of startup, almost all the team members — they call employees team members — spent two, three, four, six months in Japan. And where Toyota is, it is more in the country, not a lot of American influence for food.”
He continued “So the Kentuckians that went to Japan got a taste of true Japanese food as well, and when they came home — just like anybody else — you want to share that experience with your friends and families.”
Tachibana and School
Carpenter noted that this cultural exchange began long before there was sushi available at every local supermarket.
“So, I think the first authentic Japanese restaurant here was a place called Tachibana,” he said.
Tachibana has been open in Lexington for about 25 years. Designed to look like a traditional Japanese home with post-and-beam construction, it now looks a little out of place as two chain motels have opened on either side.
“I think Tachibana was initially designed for the comfort for Japanese that are here,” Carpenter said. “And then it caught on with everyone here. For many years they had a Japanese market, too. It was really one of the first.”
Since then, Japanese restaurants and markets continue to dot the city’s map — more so, Carpenter said, than someone from outside the area might expect.
“We’re still seeing that boom of Japanese restaurants following that initial economic investment in the ‘80s,” he said.
An example of the continuing boom is found in downtown Lexington at a trendy bank building-turned-sushi restaurant called School.
“You know, like school of fish,” said owner Tomoka Logan as she walked past the sushi counter. “At our old location, we used to have a conveyor that would go around the tables, like a school of fish swimming around.”
Logan has been in Lexington for 18 years. Born in Tokyo, she and her husband moved after he was offered a job at the Toyota plant. She vividly remembers the first time she ate at Tachibana, which was the location of her first job interview in the city.
“It was my first sushi since I moved to America,” Logan said. “I remember how good the sushi was, but don’t remember anything about the interview.”
Several years later, she opened the first School location. Then after eight years in business, she had the opportunity to move to a more central building downtown, and brought two Japanese chefs with her.
“Since we have a large Japanese community in town, and I just wanted to share real Japanese [food] with everyone,” Logan said, gesturing to two tables in the corner of the restaurant.
At one, there’s a family telling jokes in Japanese, at the other, there’s a couple ordering drinks in English.
It’s Business and Personal
While there are many Japanese restaurants and markets in Central Kentucky — like Tachibana, School and Ayame — JASK and Toyota continue to make a concerted effort to connect immigrants and visitors from Japan with food that will make them feel at home.
According to Menke from Toyota, there is a fair amount of orientation before new workers move.
“But once they do move, there is a woman who works here where that is essentially her job,” Menke said. “To help foster their activities and give them the necessary orientation of the geography, different parts of the community and how they can best fit in.”
JASK has something similar.
“What we provide is a real thick Japanese booklet that we produce called ‘A Welcome Guide to Kentucky,” Carpenter said. “It will tell you things like how to get a driver’s license, how traffic works here — because it’s totally different in Japan — but a big part is where the restaurants are, where you can get a traditional Japanese breakfast and that sort of thing.”
Part of this outreach, Carpenter said, is that it’s just good business sense for the state; 47 percent of all foreign investment in the state comes from Japan.
But there’s an emotional aspect about the cultural and culinary exchange, too.
“The purpose of the Japan/America Society is to bridge a gap between those two cultures,” Carpenter said. “Japan is one of our most important allies. My son, when he first heard the word ‘ally’ several years ago, he asked what that meant, and I said, ‘friend.’”
Carpenter continued: “So then he asked, ‘Oh, so Japan is our friend?’ And I responded, ‘Yeah, they are one of our very best friends.’”
And, Carpenter said, it’s always nice when you can share a meal with friends that everyone enjoys.