Goodbye Aloha, Hello Gym
by Jenni "Emiko" Kuida


I was lucky to know my Issei grandmothers. When my Grandma Okazaki died in 1988, I promised myself I would spend more time with my other grandma before it was too late. I’m glad I did. I have fond memories of my Grandma Kuida, walking with her in her vegetable garden, trying to understand her Japanese, and sitting at the kitchen table enjoying her makizushi and red rice (seki gohan). When she died in 1992, I was sad, but I didn’t regret not getting to know her better.

But recently, something happened that filled me with sadness. After 44 years, the family-owned Aloha Grocery on Centinela Avenue in the Venice/Culver area of Los Angeles closed its doors for the last time.

When I heard the store was closing, I was stunned. First, the Japanese American coffee shop, Kenny’s Cafe closed in 1998, and now Aloha Grocery. And even though Aloha was just a store, I still felt like I was losing a part of my family and a part of my Japanese American heritage.

For the past two years, I have spent a lot of weekends at the store, getting to know the owners, Wayne and June Uyehara, the original owners Hiroshi and Alice, and family members who work in the store. During this time, my husband and I worked with the Uyehara’s and the local community, helping to create a 75 foot mural at Aloha Grocery, "Aloha to the Neighborhood," which I have written about in previous columns.

Aloha was one of those mom and pop shops, where you ran into friends, the owners knew your name, and you could count on always being able to find things like tuna poki and kabocha. Aloha’s freshly made makizushi and inarizushi always reminded me of my grandma’s sushi, which was the best on the Westside. In a way, Aloha has kept me rooted to my cultural heritage through the Japanese soul foods that my grandma used to make.

I worry about the future of the once-thriving Venice/Culver Japanese community and small businesses along Centinela Avenue. Many Japanese Americans have moved out of the area, and the remaining Nisei and Shin Issei community is aging. Changing demographics have affected Aloha, and other Japanese American businesses in the area.

I wonder what the Uyehara family will do when the dust settles. I know that they tried a number of things to keep the store going, making store improvements, and focusing on hot foods and ready-to-cook meals. I regret that business was slow and despite these efforts, Aloha had to be closed. I wonder if we had all shopped there a little more, if it still might be open.

I was also dismayed to find out a few days ago that Royal Market, another nearby local independent grocery store for about 35 years, is also closing on April 2nd, and that the old Mar Vista Market is now vacant. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within the last year, a huge Costco and Albertson’s have opened in the same neighborhood as Aloha Grocery, Royal Market and Mar Vista Market.

I am thankful that we were able to complete and celebrate the unveiling of the mural with a huge party in January before the store’s closing. While the Aloha Grocery site will no longer be owned by the Uyehara’s, we hope that the mural will remain as a living legacy to the Japanese Americans, Pilipinos and Latinos who built the Venice/Culver community. I am going to miss Aloha, but I have to remember that nothing lasts forever.

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So while our community is forced to take a step backward, it’s important to commit ourselves to moving forward. We know it’s often easier to dash into the nearest 24-hour Ralph’s, or bulk-shop at Costco, but we need to defend independent mom and pop shops. In my neighborhood, I’ll be supporting the Mexican food mercados and the Pilipino grocery store on Centinela. I’m also going to buy my Japanese foods at Enbun Market in Little Tokyo, and the small stores along Sawtelle in WLA.

Not only am I going to support existing institutions, I’m going to help build new ones. For 25 years the community has been trying to build a gym and activity center in Little Tokyo. Like Aloha Grocery, the gym will help Japanese Americans maintain their cultural roots and give us a place to gather and call our own. The gym would have six basketball/volleyball courts, house a senior lunch program, fitness classes, and more. But this won’t happen without the community’s help.

Spending time with our grandmothers and shopping at places like Aloha Grocery help us understand what it means to be Japanese American. Building for the future and the for the sake of the children is part of the Issei tradition--kodomo no tameni. My grandma would like that.

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Jenni Emiko Kuida lives and shops in the Venice/Culver area of Los Angeles. For more info about how you and your organization can help the Little Tokyo Sports and Activity Center, call (213) 473-1680. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of The Rafu Shimpo.



Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, March 29, 2000

Updated: 11/10/02

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