The warm smell of garlic, ginger and shoyu is the first thing one notices upon entering the basement at Epworth Church.
A short hallway – where a bulletin board advertises everything from events and music lessons to a notice for a babysitter – leads to a small kitchen to the right and opens into a large room full of plastic tables and folding chairs with vibrant orange cushions.
A piano and a small kitchenette full of bins of handmade cards sit at the edge of the room, and the windows look out onto garden beds.
This is Ikoi no Kai, a senior lunch program created in 1979 as a place for Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) to speak Japanese, connect with their community and eat home-cooked Japanese food. Now its patrons are the Nisei and Sansei (second and third generation), the children and grandchildren of the founders. Ikoi no Kai continues to welcome Japanese immigrants and others with ties to the community. The program is run through the Japanese Ancestral Society by Program Director Jeannine Shinoda.
“[The project] allowed me the freedom to experiment and ask these kinds of questions of the community that I wouldn’t have felt the courage to ask before…it has really deepened my connection with the community and allowed other people to get to know the community as well.” -Jeannine Shinoda, Program Director at the Japanese Ancestral Society
In 2022, Ikoi no Kai received a $7,500 Community Placemaking grant to record oral food histories, resulting in the Food that Connects project. The annual grant program supports community-driven, equity-centered, arts and culture-based efforts that strengthen people’s connections to each other and the places they care about.
Shinoda moved to Portland in 2019 and first heard about Ikoi no Kai at a Japanese American Civil Liberties Union meeting where it was described as the “best unknown restaurant in town.” She visited Ikoi no Kai to connect with her own culture. Shinoda is of mixed Japanese and Chinese ancestry.
Food that Connects
Food that Connects video series
Shinoda’s fascination with generational knowledge was a driving force of the project, and the timing of this project is critical due to the limited timeline to engage with the Nisei and Sansei (second and third generation) Japanese Americans. Shinoda felt a need to capture the lived experience of the Ikoi no Kai community and saw food as the perfect conversation starter.
“[Food is] an entry point into so many other aspects of your life because it permeates all these things. And what a cool way to start a larger conversation, have people feel safe and comfortable talking about it, because it's just food at that point, but it actually is much more,” Shinoda said.
The interviews occurred at Ikoi no Kai during lunch and happened in an organic way. Shinoda said that she randomly selected people from the dining room over the course of two days. The resulting project includes 12 individual interviews and three compilations: “Favorite Childhood Foods,” “Ikoi no Kai” and “Matsutake Hunting.”
The videos begin with a simple question: What was your favorite food growing up? The participants described their food memories in detail covering all sorts of topics from the crops their parents grew on family farms in the Metro area to traditional New Year foods. Many also discussed how their families survived World War II – either in Japan or incarcerated in internment camps – and how those hardships impacted what they ate.
Fran Sumida Palk’s favorite childhood food was matsutake. In her Food that Connects video she describes the mushrooms: “[Matsutake is] known for its delicate flavor and fragrance. It’s so fragrant, that you smell it first before you eat it. Like you’re picking it right off of the forest. You smell the forest and that conjures up the memory of your picking it with all the nice forest odors and smells and fragrances, with all the Oregon green and the rushing waters. It’s very memorable to me.”
Reverend Eisei Ikenaga, a linguist and translator, explained the meaning behind Ikoi no Kai: “Kai means group or association, ikoi is someplace where people can feel comfortable and get together, like a shelter. I think this is a perfect name for it because it is a place where people can really be themselves and feel comfortable and absorb all of the good vibes that everybody around them is giving them.”
Shawn Linehan, a local photographer and videographer who focuses on mission-driven and food-centered work, was hired to shoot and edit the project. She believes these oral history projects are important because “it feels like [these stories] could get lost.”
“These are older people telling their stories. And it’s one thing to know about the internment camps, but when you meet someone who was there or whose family was there, and they tell you that story, it just feels more impactful. Instead of it being this historical thing that happened, it’s one degree of separation. It happened to this person who I’m talking to...I think you really feel the impact of what that did to the community even more,” Linehan said.
The Community Placemaking grant from Metro made this project possible. “We don’t normally have a budget for cultural history projects. If you’re going to spend money here, you’re going to spend it on food or labor,” Shinoda said. “[The project] allowed me the freedom to experiment and ask these kinds of questions of the community that I wouldn’t have felt the courage to ask before…it has really deepened my connection with the community and allowed other people to get to know the community as well.”
Wisdom of the elders
There is a feeling of reciprocity and gratitude that permeates Ikoi no Kai. As the volunteers put down each plate, the patrons thanked them. Hugs and greetings are exchanged, and the patrons talk about how lucky they are to come here, be in community and eat wonderful food.
That gratitude goes the other way as well. “You come here and they put everything in perspective for you. You come here just feeling whatever you’re feeling,” Shinoda said. “They’ll be like: ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. You’ll be fine.’”
Kristen Dozono described her experience as a volunteer: “It’s a pretty amazing heart of the community, the older I get the more I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to be a part of it. You come in to volunteer but you realize gosh you get 10 times back in how really much I owe to this community,” Dozono said. “So many things you learn from them, that we would never know. We’re always talking at lunch like, ‘Ok the avocado is not ripe, put it in a bag of rice.’ This is a place of knowledge where you go, ‘Hey, I have this issue, what do you guys do?’ They’ve got a lot of tricks up their sleeve around here.”
Both of Dozono’s grandmothers were involved at Ikoi no Kai, one as a founding member and both as volunteers. When there was a push to move locations, her mother came in to manage Ikoi no Kai in order to keep it in the same place, thus ensuring that patrons and volunteers could stay with the organization.
“We managed to keep it here, which I think was best for the Japanese community,” Dozono said.
When asked about her involvement in the project, interviewee and longtime Ikoi no Kai community member Fran Sumida Palk said that it felt like an honor to be asked about her past.
“[Food that Connects] made people feel important and made people understand that their history is valuable and that we want to hear about it, and that their lived experience is really, really special,” Shinoda said. “And everyone has lived a lot of life here.”
For relative newcomer Michiko Kornhauser, Ikoi no Kai represents community and access to healthy food. Before finding the lunch program she was considering joining a retirement community but was discouraged by the cost and food options.
“This is a part of my life now. I just love every day that I can come, four times a week. And I sing too,” Kornhauser said. She likes to stay after lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the singalongs to a mix of Japanese and English songs.
The future of Ikoi no Kai
The Food that Connects project is part of a larger effort to preserve the history and knowledge of the Japanese-American community in Portland. The Japanese American Museum of Oregon is currently compiling a community cookbook that incorporates the recipes and narratives of community-based cooking and narratives of foods that are culturally important to the Japanese-American community.
Another motive for the Food that Connects project was outreach. The population that started Ikoi no Kai has largely passed on, and their children – who now make up many of the volunteers – are in their 70s and 80s. While Shinoda views herself solely as a facilitator of the community's wishes, she has been thinking about what the future of Ikoi no Kai looks like. Part of that is reaching out to younger generations through different avenues such as social media.
Shinoda wanted the Food that Connects videos to be easily accessible on YouTube and has also begun documenting the lunches on Instagram. The larger question is, “How do we honor what it is to be of Japanese descent?” Shinoda asked. “It’s a question I ask myself all the time.”
For Shinoda, placemaking includes both outreach and visibility: “If people don’t know about you, then you don’t exist. Marking this as a place and letting people know that this place exists enables them to share it to other people and make this more of a place. A community is made up of only people who know about it.”
Any changes will be gradual and focused on preserving the longevity and vibrancy of the community of Ikoi no Kai. For now, the cooks, the volunteers and Shinoda will be serving up lunch to a chattering crowd in the basement of Epworth Church, promptly at noon.