The last night at Koto, a restaurant that introduced many Campbell River residents to Japanese food, was a bittersweet occasion for Kenji Maeda.
The business founded by his parents nearly 40 years ago closed permanently on May 25.
“The last couple of days especially, people have been coming in and bringing flowers and bringing their kids for their last meals here,” said Maeda, gesturing to an array of bouquets and potted flowers in the lobby shortly before the restaurant opened for the last time.
“It’s been emotional for a lot of people,” he said. “Obviously right now we’re just focused on ensuring that people have a good meal.”
He paused from preparations to pose for a photo alongside his brother Taigi and mother Kazue.
Kazue showed the Mirror a red fabric locket containing a small black-and-white photo of her with her husband, the late Takeo (Tony) Maeda, who died in 2016. With Kazue in her late 60s, the family decided to close the restaurant permanently.
Kenji and Taigi Maeda live in Vancouver, but for years they travelled back to Campbell River on weekends to help with the restaurant. Kenji announced the closure in a May 10 Facebook post.
“We are eternally grateful for the countless relationships we have built here, on the unceded territories of the Laich-Kwil-Tach Peoples; the We Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum, and Kwiakah First Nations,” he said. “We extend our deepest gratitude to the many individuals who we had the pleasure of working alongside us; one for more than 30 years.”
Kazue and Takeo came from Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan. The restaurant opened in 1980, and moved to its 10th Avenue location in 1986.
The closure was sentimental for local residents, and photos from the last night at Koto garnered hundreds of reactions on social media, as well-wishers posted recollections of good times at the restaurant.
“A huge part of their success was due to the kind and wonderful owners of the restaurant,” said Wendy Marks Monkman on Facebook. “As customers we were always made to feel welcome and like family.”
Many commenters said the restaurant was their first exposure to Japanese cuisine.
“This was the first place I ever tried Japanese food,” said Milo Murdoc on Facebook. “Thank you for the delicious meals over the years.”
On its last night in business, the popular gathering place was fully booked. Longtime patrons lingered outside the restaurant late on May 25 and said Koto was the standard for Japanese restaurants wherever they went.
Earlier in the day on May 25, a Japanese cultural festival took place in Spirit Square. The closure of the restaurant wasn’t timed to correspond with that event, Maeda said. But it was a happy coincidence, because the family knew many of the people who attended the festivities.
Maeda described the restaurant as a place where the family could share their culture.
“It’s a way of life or a family gathering,” he said. “That to us is basically our most important thing.’”
He thanked the community for a welcoming atmosphere over the years.
”There’s nothing to replace that welcoming, and we’ve made a lot of friends here,” he said. “We’re just grateful that people invited us into the community and they felt welcome in our space.”