Every member of my immediate family has suffered embarrassment or celebrated triumphs – or both – at Tokyo Garden.
The Appleton clan began frequenting the downtown Fresno restaurant in 1956, when my great-grandmother brought in my 6-year-old father. He took my mother there on an early date in 1984. He celebrated his 21st, 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th birthday parties there – as well as the start and subsequent demise of three marriages.
My older brother and sister had their 21st birthdays at Tokyo Garden in 1990 and 1991. My younger sister had her high school graduation party there in 2015. She hopes to celebrate her 21st birthday there in 2019.
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I spent my 21st birthday there in 2009, which I vaguely recall. In 2015, Tokyo hosted my college graduation party. Earlier this year, I brought a woman who became one of my few dates not to break a glass at the bar. That bar is wiser than all of us, and it was trying to tell me something. So in August, I married that woman – at Tokyo Garden.
Celebrating our milestones at Tokyo Garden has been a tradition for my entire life, so it broke my heart to report that the restaurant may close. One of the owners – Tommy Yoshioka – was in a horrible accident, and doctors told him he may never work again. He was one of only three employees, the others being his brother, Toshi, and sister-in-law, Esko.
As I walked into the familiar restaurant at the tail-end of the lunch rush on Tuesday afternoon, I knew Toshi Yoshioka would not be able keep our interview appointment. I found him in the kitchen, slicing a beautiful piece of tuna as his 20-year-old son juggled what could only be referred to as a mountain of tempura.
“Should I come back in 30 minutes?” I asked.
He smiled. “Yes.”
Co-owner Tommy Yoshioka suffered injuries to his legs and back in a car accident near the Highway 168/Highway 180 interchange on Aug. 27.
It was a busy lunch. As news spread of Tommy’s accident and the potential closing of the restaurant, the community jumped into action. A Facebook event was created asking people to support the restaurant by ordering lunch or dinner this week. It ballooned to over 500 interested people over the weekend.
“It really touches my heart,” Yoshioka said, standing at his usual post behind the bar. His brother normally handles the cooking. “There’s not people like that anywhere else. Most people I’ve met here are so nice.”
Yoshioka lived in San Francisco for a while but never developed a taste for it. He bought Tokyo Garden on Oct. 1, 1980.
Behind him, his cherished mural – painted by Bennett O. Wilson, an American spy in World War II. Wilson trained locally in traditional Japanese painting before serving in Japan.
The world’s only captive Godzilla – just ask Yoshioka or any regular – sits nearby. His much larger, inflated cousin looms over the wall dividing the bar from the dining area. Near that, an unopened copy of the Fresno board game – created by radio station Y94 at the end of the ’70s and sold through the old Fresno Gottschalks. There’s also a cartoon drawn by metal gods Judas Priest, who enjoyed themselves quite a bit during a stop in the early ’80s. It’s there that Yoshioka delivered the gut punch: He has decided to sell the place.
“It’s time to stop,” Yoshioka said after recounting his brother’s substantial injuries – two broken heels, a fractured leg, a shattered knee and several busted discs. “I think maybe it’s a sign to stop.”
Yoshioka is open to selling the business, the entire corner building or both. He hopes that someone will want to keep Tokyo Garden alive, as he has. Should someone buy only the business, Yoshioka would retain some control over the new tenant’s choices. Most of the decorations are bolted into the building and have been since 1952. Disturbing them would require permission from the landlord.
Changing the interior could also cause a dust-up with code enforcement. Tokyo Garden is grandfathered into the city’s development code. Disturbing anything may void that, and Yoshioka said the building would need major improvements to satisfy the current code.
But if someone wants to buy the building and turn Tokyo Garden into a Mexican restaurant or something, he said, then so be it.
There are great people (who visit Tokyo Garden), but I’ve got to get out of here before they kill me.
“There are great people (who visit Tokyo Garden), but I’ve got to get out of here before they kill me,” the 69-year-old Yoshioka said. “If we keep going, my wife is going to get sick or something. I’d rather hang out with the people.”
Esko Yoshioka said about 10 tables were full Wednesday night, when only she and her husband were working. She waited on all 10 tables while her husband cooked the food. They both split the bar duties.
“We wake up at 6 or 6:30 (a.m.),” she said when asked if she too is ready to retire. “And we leave here around 11 (p.m.) and go to bed. We don’t stand while eating and driving – that’s it.”
A lack of business was not a problem for the Yoshioka family. By employing family members and serving fewer customers, he was actually taking home more money than in the ’80s when the place was jumping and had a full staff. A larger food order and staff can waste money on a slow night. If it’s slow now, the Yoshioka family just goes home.
“A restaurant has to find that zone, and we found it,” he said.
With his brother gone, Yoshioka would have to hire someone, which would limit this flexibility. His son is helping out now, and his daughter plans to come up from Los Angeles to lend a hand.
Instead of hiring, he’d rather just get out now. He has a few interested buyers already lined up, but he did not want to go into specifics on his price or negotiations. The area is a lot younger now, as new Granville Homes developments have sprung up on all sides of Tokyo Garden. Fulton Street will soon be open. Everything is changing.
“There’s energy now,” Yoshioka said. “I think it’s better for someone new to bring some new energy.”
Yoshioka is looking to relax after 37 years at Tokyo Garden and a lifetime working in restaurants. He also has a side hustle going – he’s part of a group currently negotiating terms to export California wine to restaurants in Japan. That’s why Tokyo Garden was closed last week. He was meeting officials in Kochi, Fresno’s sister city, to smooth out the details.
The loss of Tokyo Garden would go beyond the personal feelings felt by my family and many other longtime Fresno residents. The place has history.
It is often cited as the first place in Fresno to host karaoke nights. When my mother first took up evening residency there, she tells me, Yoshioka used cassette tapes. You held the mic and sang from the bar, and you’d better know the words. There was no screen or book with them written for you.
Yoshioka himself is known far and wide for his rendition of the 1961 Japanese hit song “Sukiyaki,” known originally as “Ue o Muite Arukou.” I’ve heard that my father, a baritone if ever there was one, has been known to join in.
And then there’s the drinks.
Two will always race to the front of my mind: The Kamikaze, the nectar of my father, and the Singapore Sling, a favorite of my mother and pretty much everyone else, Yoshioka confirmed. The latter’s origin story and recipe are topics of great discussion among downtown Fresno liquor lovers.
“Someone ordered (a Singapore Sling), and we didn’t know how to make them,” Yoshioka said.
He knew they had gin and were pink but had no idea beyond that, so he experimented the first few times. Eventually, a mixture of gin, Collins mix, lime and a splash of cherry brandy was a hit. Bartenders from around the city have asked him how to make it. He’s happy to tell them, but he won’t slow down and show them. They must figure out the portions on their own.
Other recipes call for pineapple juice or bitters and yield beverages of various questionable colors. The superior sling, served only at Tokyo, is light pink.
The Kamikaze is far more simple.
“Vodka, triple sec, lime,” Yoshioka said, pulling each item from the bar as he spoke.
“You don’t need anything else,” someone else at the bar added.
Hopefully, the drink recipes come with the business.