Imperial Valley’s bite of Japanese culture

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Masuko Akikuni rolls a fresh California roll in her restaurant, called Japanese Restaurant Kyoto, located at 1560 Ocotillo Drive in El Centro.

EL CENTRO - In 1999, Japanese engineers were not uncommon in the Imperial Valley, and often made the trip into Mexicali to acquire authentic Japanese cuisine. Masuko Akikuni and her husband saw that as an opportunity to start a business venture to provide authentic, original Japanese cuisine in the Imperial Valley.

“There were no Japanese restaurants. There were a lot of Japanese engineers that wanted to eat Japanese food and they had to go to Mexicali,” said Akikuni.

Masuko Akikuni, otherwise known as Suzy to her friends and patrons, wakes up every morning to begin cooking for her restaurant, called “Japanese Restaurant Kyoto.”  Her husband is responsible for the hot dishes, while Akikuni hand rolls all of her sushi.

All ingredients are fresh and prepared to order. From fresh rolls to steaming ramen, Akikuni and her husband prepare their food with utmost enthusiasm. They also offer a variety of rolls, soups, dumplings, edamame, and more.

The restaurant is decorated with Japanese symbols, geishas, and colorful plants. Akikuni even sets the television to Japanese channels to provide an authentic vibe for her customers.

Akikuni spent her childhood learning to cook from her neighbor, who was a sushi chef, thus her sushi skills have been passed down from an authentic Japanese chef.

“In my childhood I grew up with Japanese food, like Mexican people do too,” she said.

Although her restaurant competes against larger chain restaurants such as Sushi Park and Kotori, Akikuni said she does not see it as competition.

“The sun is for everybody. Everybody has to live,” she said simply.

According to a KPBS website, Tori Avey said the origin of sushi cannot be pinned down to an exact time and place, but most likely originated because of Buddhists’ dietary restraints. Fish was an appropriate substitute for meat, and it was later discovered that fermented rice extended the shelf life of the fish.

Regardless of where and when sushi began, Akikuni built her life around it and with her restaurant, the Imperial Valley can get a small taste of big culture with authentic Japanese cuisine.