Photo credit: Tony Dondero.

One of the last Japanese restaurants of its kind in Nihonmachi or Japantown is no more—a sign of change in that part of the International District.

Ichiban Restaurant and its home-cooked staples of teriyaki, tempura, sukiyaki and tofu dishes—food that was number one to many of its customers who lined up at its door for 27 years—went out of business on May 31.

Koji Ogawa, 60, who handled the cooking duties, and wife Mayumi Ogawa, 57, who took orders and served up meals could start another restaurant, Mayumi Ogawa said, but not for awhile, if at all.

“At the moment, we need a big break,” Mayumi Ogawa said.

A dispute with their landlord Jan Johnson, sparked the closure, the Ogawas said. Johnson bought the building known as the Panama Hotel, located on 5th and Main Street and in which housed Ichiban restaurant, in 1985 and put her own sweat into restoring and preserving the building into the gathering spot and tea house with free wireless it is today.

This spring, the Ogawas announced in a letter to customers posted on the front door that the restaurant would shut down.

The Ogawas rented on a month-to-month basis from Johnson. They claimed in a letter dated April 30 that: “Due to our unsuccessful efforts to have you take responsibility by repairing serious building infrastructure problems beyond our control as a tenant, we find ourselves with no alternative but to vacate the premises.”

Johnson said when she purchased the building in 1985 from Takashi Hori, the prior owner along with his wife Lily, Hori had an agreement to keep the rent low as long as the Ogawas agreed to do their own maintenance. Johnson said she agreed to respect that.

The Ogawas requested a long-term lease but their pleas were ignored, Mayumi Ogawa said. Johnson said the Ogawas had 27 years to raise the issue.

“You can’t do tenant improvements if you don’t have a long-term lease — that’s my concern,” said Bob Santos, International District advocate and founder of InterIm Community Development Association, an organization that promotes the economic vitality of the neighborhood as well as advocates for its residents and business owners.

The annual inspection of the restaurant found improper methods were used to prevent bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods and insects and rodents present. The inspection report also stated the physical facilities were not properly installed, maintained or cleaned.

“The kitchen was not clean,” King County Public Health inspector Eyob Mazengia said. “A lot of grease on the floor and the cooking utensils, the wall and things like that.”

Said Santos: “There were some issues they should have taken care of but there were some issues that she should have taken care of.”

A written contract between Johnson and the Ogawas to establish responsibilities was needed, he said.

“[That’s] the sensible thing to do and the legal thing to do,” Santos said.

Mayumi Ogawa said the rent was about $1,050 for the last 10 years but Johnson wanted to raise it to $1,800 earlier this year to what she felt was market rate. The Ogawas balked given the recession and reached an agreement with Johnson on a $1,300 figure. The Ogawas believe Johnson asked too much compared to what they believe the going rate in the neighborhood to be.

A ceiling leak in February caused debris to fall into the Ogawa’s work area and they paid nearly $800 for plumbing repairs as well as more than $400 for a new credit card processing machine after the previous one was damaged by a ceiling leak in November 2008.

InterIm, backed by loans from the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing was close to a deal to buy the Panama Hotel building in December, where Ichiban called home, but a sale could not be completed. The building needs work, both mechanical and plumbing, and to be brought up to the current fire code.

“We were hopeful we could acquire the building and keep it as a long term community asset but Jan decided she wasn’t ready to sell,” Ken Katahira, development director for InterIm. “We stopped pursuing it at that point but we were very, very close.”

Johnson did not return calls for comment on what her plans for the space are.

Ichiban was known for its special teriyaki sauce and fresh ingredients from City Produce, bought every morning by the Ogawas. Ichiban also served unique dishes such as chosenyaki, a carryover from the previous restaurant in that space, Aiya’s.

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