Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about some of Anchorage’s past restaurants, including the Garden of Eatin’, Clinkerdaggers, and short-lived Kioi. The response was very positive, as readers wrote to me about all the other fondly remembered eateries in Anchorage history, places like the Downtown Deli and Elevation 92. But one restaurant was mentioned far more than the rest, Nikko Garden, owned and operated by the Kimuras.
More than perhaps any other family, the Kimuras are intrinsically tied to Anchorage history, from its highest booms to its lowest shames. In 1880, Yusuke “Harry” Kimura was born in Nagasaki, Japan. Wanting to see more of the world, he left home at age 13. In 1908, he immigrated to the United States, and in 1913 married Katsuyo Yamasaki. They were running a restaurant in Seattle when they heard of the new Alaska boomtown, Anchorage. Harry and Katsuyo moved here in 1916. He opened the first Asian restaurant in town, the Chop Suey House, and she ran a laundry operation, which evolved into Snow White Laundry. Two of their children opened the first cold storage facility in Anchorage while still teenagers.
Everyone knew the Kimuras, but when World War II arrived, all those years here — they were as “pioneer” as any other family in town — mattered little. The night after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, the FBI raided the Kimura home, seized many of their possessions, and sent Harry to a detention center at Fort Richardson. In the darkest of coincidences, one of his children, George, was there for his basic training. As part of his MP duty, George had to guard the building containing his father. Decades later, George could smile when he said, “My friends couldn’t figure out why my dad was in the stockade, and I was carrying an M-1 rifle.”
In 1942, the rest of the Kimura family, other than George, were also arrested. During World War II, the United States forcibly relocated and interned more than 100,000 residents of Japanese descent. The Kimuras spent most of the war at an internment camp in Idaho before returning to Alaska, where they struggled to recover their losses and pay substantial back taxes.
[Previously: From Clinkerdaggers to the Garden of Eatin’, here are the histories of some of Anchorage’s most unique restaurants]
In 1946, the family reopened the Chop Suey House as the Golden Pheasant Café on D Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Two of Harry and Katsuyo’s children became prominent artists, photographer Sam and painter William. Sam spent many years as a commercial photographer in New York before returning to teach at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where an exhibition gallery is named after him. As an added bit of trivia, his wife, Joan, designed the Anchorage flag.
Harry died in 1957 while visiting Tokyo. By then, Katsuyo spent much of her time as an unofficial, if very regular, goodwill ambassador. More often than not, she met Asian arrivals at the Anchorage International Airport and guided them on their Alaska experience. In 1971, the Emperor of Japan awarded her the Zuiho Sho, the Sixth Order of Sacred Treasure in recognition of her service.
George managed the Snow White Laundry before selling the business. He surveyed the Anchorage landscape for opportunities and decided the time was right for an upscale Japanese restaurant. Years later, he said, “People here in Anchorage were having steaks, chicken, roast beef, and a limited variety of food then. I thought Japanese food and tempura would be a change.”
On April 10, 1966, he opened Nikko Garden near the southern terminus of Spenard Road. The interior was divided into Western and Japanese sections, plus a cocktail lounge. In the former, there were chairs, tables, silverware, and a menu containing standard American fare. A rock garden and stream ran through the space.
The Japanese section consisted of seven rooms built in Japan, shipped to Alaska, and reassembled in Anchorage. On entering the rooms, patrons removed their shoes and were offered traditional Japanese sandals. There were also low tables, chopsticks, and authentic Japanese food that were new to many locals.
Nikko Garden was nothing less than a portal to another world, a gateway somehow located in humble Spenard. Outside the doors was the city of Anchorage, surrounded by natural wonders but sometimes limited in its urban appeal. Inside was high-end cuisine, legendary food for the generations fortunate enough to eat there.
In 1970, Willis Decker of Anchorage won a “Millionaire for a Day” contest from First Federal Savings and Loan, which was launching a new location on Dimond Boulevard. As the contest name suggests, Decker and his wife lived a life of luxury and celebrity for a single day. The prizes included an engraved silver tray and a check for $164.39, one day’s interest on a million dollars. A chauffeur drove them around town as they were pampered, celebrated, and even appeared on local television. And to close out the day, there was no other option than a champagne dinner at Nikko Garden. Nowhere else in town would have better suited the contest theme.
The restaurant was also a pillar for the growing Japanese community in town. The Kimuras often imported staff from Japan and assisted them toward citizenship. Similarly, the restaurant was a can’t-miss destination for any Japanese visitors. In 1967, the Kumagai Gumi-sponsored baseball team toured Alaska, winning that year’s Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks. The climax of their visit was dinner at Nikko Garden.
Unfortunately, all good things end, all glory eventually fades. On March 31, 1979, a refrigeration motor on a cooler inside the restaurant seized and sparked, igniting the insulation. From there, the fire spread to the ceiling before racing through the building. The blaze lasted for four hours before firefighters could bring it under control. No one was hurt, but the business was gone, a crushing blow to the family. They soon sold the property, but the burnt-out building remained derelict for another decade, a visible scar for what they and the city had lost. When it was finally cleared, a McDonald’s was built on the site, a very modern Anchorage transition.
Two years after the fire, George’s son Roger reopened the Nikko Gardens in the Denali Towers North, on Denali Street near Fireweed Lane. To state the obvious, the fifth floor of an office building lacked the charm of the original, handcrafted location. The restaurant had returned, but it was not the same, something the owner openly acknowledged. “It’s not really authentic, said Roger. “There are no Japanese carpenters left to build the old way, even in Japan. They’re all going to the American way.”
The customers also failed to show up in the same numbers. The restaurant declared bankruptcy in 1987 and closed for good in February 1988. The debris from the original Nikko Gardens lasted longer than the second iteration, as crews began clearing that site in late March 1988.
Most restaurants open, exist, and die without becoming famous outside their town or even neighborhood. But these less glamorous — and less expensive — options are the backbone of the industry. Relatively few Anchorage residents could afford to dine at Nikko Garden regularly. Many more could eat at the Chinese Kitchen every week.
The Chinese Kitchen opened at 2904 Spenard Road on July 21, 1959, back when people still called Spenard Road the “Miracle Mile.” The little red building lasted for decades and was either unpretentious or dilapidated, depending on your perspective. It was the sort of place for when you had just a few dollars but needed a lot of food. As much as anything, the generous portions were the defining characteristic of the food there.
For most of its lengthy existence, it was run by the Woos, a way to keep the business in the family and costs low. In 1982, the staff consisted of Shanghai-born patriarch Walter Fok Yin Woo assisted by his wife, oldest son Joe, and younger son Victor. They had no illusions about the business. Walter said, “We don’t expect to make millions.” They kept it simple, comfortable food at comfortable prices. “We used to offer lunches, but it got too crowded,” said Walter.
Their demise was less dramatic than Nikko Garden. There was no great fire, no memorable last night of operation. Instead, they slowly declined and closed sometime around 2008 without fanfare. By then, the aged building was painted white. They lasted nearly 50 years, an admirable run. With few very long-lived exceptions, like the Lucky Wishbone, any restaurant would be fortunate to last as long as the Chinese Kitchen.
Dean, Michael. “Perennial Dining Spot Serves Last Course.” Anchorage Times, March 29, 1988, C7.
McPherson, T. Massari. “Pioneer Family Enriches Alaska.” Anchorage Times, May 19, 1991, H1, H5.
“‘Millionaires’ at Nikko Gardens.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 14, 1970, 3.
Murkowski, Carol. “For Dining Out: 2 New Restaurants.” Anchorage Times, April 12, 1981, L1.
“New Japanese Restaurant Opens Doors Sunday.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 9, 1966, 3.
Piper, Sharman. “Woo’s Chinese Kitchen Keeps It All In the Family.” Anchorage Times, November 3, 1982, G1, G3.