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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Last Farewell to a Beloved Friend

Two days ago, a place, open for over 30 years and very dear to me and my son, closed its doors for good.  We are broken hearted.  For 12 years, we have gone to this establishment, and within its four walls are memories so fine and so dear, that it is almost impossible to describe them.

I am a recovered anorexic. When told that my adopted son, born with cleft lip and palate, would probably develop oral defensiveness and become a picky eater, I thought to myself, “No.  He will not go through the hell I did.”  With that philosophy in mind, 12 years ago, when Chris was 10, I asked his pediatrician where I could take my son for sushi where I knew that the food was safe and good.  “Otani’s,” he said.  “That’s where I take my kids.”

We went the next day, and there I met Bow (as in to bow) our server for most of the years we dined there, and Honda San, the owner.

We loved the food, and when we finished, my son got up, walked up to the sushi bar, bowed and said, “Thank you for the delicious sushi.”  He was not prompted.  Thus began the friendship of my son and Honda, the owner of Otani’s.

The years passed.  We went as often as we could.  Christopher grew, attended high school, enjoyed internships at Meals on Wheels and Cap City Diner, and finally, Otani.

Upon graduation, Honda San asked Christopher to come and work for him, and he taught Christopher the exquisite art of making sushi.  Chris learned well, and an already companionable friendship matured and deepened.  Honda’s respect for Christopher was matched by Chris’ devotion to his mentor and to the Honda family. His devotion was mine, for what mother could not love someone who loves her child?

Tragedy came to Honda’s wife in the form of a devastating stroke.  His son, Rick, tried to keep the business going and fought a valiant fight, but the landlord decided that he no longer wanted a restaurant in his building and Rick was asked to vacate. Otani was no more.

We mourn the loss of our beloved friend.  We pray that Otani can reopen in another location, and we embrace the memory of the years we enjoyed the ambiance, friendship, culinary expertise and companionship of Otani.  We remember birthdays, holidays, special events, the karaoke and comedy nights; the laughter, friendships, good conversations, and of course, the delicious food.  Mostly, we miss our friend:  Otani, the place that brought us so much joy.


By By Bill Chronister
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH  •  Wednesday October 10, 2007 12:17 AM
Picture associated with this article at the beginning of this blog post.

Deep bow from the sushi master -
Kazushige Honda, the man who introduced Columbus to sushi, plans to say thanks to the community this week for decades of success and fond memories.

Honda will mark the 23rd year of Otani Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar -- as well as his 63rd birthday -- Wednesday night with a celebration he calls "Arrigato, Columbus." A commemorative mug will even be issued in honor of the occasion.

Otani brought sushi to the region long before many central Ohioans had experienced Japanese cuisine, so the restaurant has been a magnet for those visitors to Columbus seeking cosmopolitan fare.

"The Beastie Boys, Police, Cheap Trick, they've all eaten here," Honda recalled. He also can recall visits from both George V. Voinovich, now a Republican senator, and Dennis J. Kucinich, a Democratic congressman and a candidate for president.

His favorite memory, though, is of a visit by the Rev. Billy Graham, who dropped by Otani on a weekend about 14 years ago when he'd brought his crusade to Cooper Stadium.

"He came in, and he didn't use any secretary, and when he left, he paid with cash from his own pocket," Honda said, admiringly. "He's a very simple guy."

Honda has become a fixture in central Ohio, but he made his way here via a circuitous route. He left his home in Wakayama, Japan, at 24, wanting "a new experience," and he took a job as chef at Benihana in New York. That was in 1969.

He's been back to Japan once or twice, but he has made his home in this country, first in New York, then Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Honda opened the first sushi bar in the Midwest, at the original Otani in Cleveland's eastern suburbs, he said. And he brought the first sushi to Columbus when he opened the Otani at 5900 Roche Dr. on the North Side on Oct. 7, 1984.

"I came to Columbus at first to cater to the governor's mansion in Bexley," Honda recalled. At the time, Gov. James A. Rhodes was working with automaker American Honda on building a vehicle assembly plant in Marysville. "I kept getting pulled down here to cater -- for Japanese politicians and others who came to Ohio."

Finally, he decided it was time to move, and with the help of the Columbus Chamber, he found the space on the first floor of a six-story office building near I-71 and Rt. 161 that had recently been vacated by the Tamarack Restaurant. He recalls getting help from the Rhodes administration, as well as people working for the next governor, Richard F. Celeste.

Since the restaurant's opening, he's changed Otani only a bit, creating more-intimate settings throughout the
180-seat space and adding a soundproof karaoke lounge. He's also brightened and modernized the space.
Gone from the menu is the old stand-by sukiyaki. In its place, and featured prominently, is "soft-smoked" fish and meat in the Japanese style.

"The sushi has never changed," Honda said.

He has married and put two children through school. His daughter, Lee-Ann, has a doctorate in nutrition, and his son, Richard, is his webmaster. He created www.otanisushi.com, which also provides daily news from Japan.

But if you ask Honda what's changed over the 38 years he's been in America, he doesn't talk about the business.

"So many nice people I have met since I came here," Honda said. "And so many nice people have died."
Honda acknowledges that business has become a bit more strained, now that sushi has become common. He said that some of his customers have been drawn away to restaurants in the Easton area and the Short North in the past eight years.

But he has no plans to move, and he certainly won't add a restaurant elsewhere in the city. "One man cannot manage two restaurants," he said.

The restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner seven nights a week starting at 5 p.m. and running as late as 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

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