This 91-Year-Old Japantown Legend Has One More Restaurant Up Her Sleeve

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An older woman in a white scarf stands next to the entrance to Aoba restaurant.
Even at 91 years old, Aoba owner Lena Turner doesn't feel close to ready to retire. (Alex Zhu)

When Lena Turner closed Takara, her 20-year-old Japantown restaurant, earlier this year after a months-long rent dispute, it marked the end of an era. The restaurant was a favorite among locals who’d gotten hooked on its generous bento boxes, impeccably fried tempura and other unfussy, homestyle Japanese dishes. And Turner herself was, in many ways, the face of San Francisco’s Japantown. In 1976, she opened the Japan Center mall’s very first restaurant, Sapporo-ya Ramen. All of the local merchants knew her and had stories about how she’d regale them with tales of the time she served Yoko Ono, for instance.

Even at 91 years old, she didn’t even feel close to being ready to retire.

Everyone loves a good comeback story, though, and this one is sweeter than most: On Nov. 26, Turner will open a new omakase-style sushi restaurant called Sushi Aoba helmed by acclaimed sushi chef Sachio Kojima. Located on the edge of Japantown, in the former location of Kiss Seafood, it will be the seventh restaurant that Turner has opened in the neighborhood over the past four decades.

“I had jewelry shops before that,” she says. “I’ve done so much in my life.”

Artfully arranged sashimi on a dark gray serving tray.
Artfully arranged sashimi will be part of the omakase experience at Sushi Aoba. (Alex Zhu)

In some ways, the new restaurant feels like a form of vindication, especially since the circumstances surrounding Takara’s closure were so grim. Like so many other businesses in the three Japan Center malls, Takara was forced to close entirely for several months at the start of the pandemic because the malls themselves weren’t open to the public. Still, 3D Investments, the Beverly Hills-based real estate developer that owns the Japan Center East and West buildings, insisted on charging the full rent and maintenance fees even for the time the malls were closed. In Takara’s case, that came out to nearly $20,000 a month during a time when the restaurant had no income whatsoever.

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In Turner’s view, the rent disputes—which have affected nearly all of the 50 or so small businesses in the Japan Center malls—pose a threat to the entire neighborhood’s survival. “I think Japantown is no more,” she told Eater SF at the time.

In the end, Turner was able to negotiate a deal with the landlord that allowed her to exit her lease with a discounted back rent payment. “I just don’t like to owe anybody in my life,” Turner says. Meanwhile, she says, her peers in the Japan Center are still struggling to negotiate terms that will allow them to keep their businesses alive.

A sushi chef holds a pair of long chopsticks behind the sushi counter.
Sachio Kojima was considered San Francisco's top sushi chef for much of the '80s and '90s. (Alex Zhu)

When it opens this Friday, Turner’s new restaurant, Sushi Aoba, will have a very different vibe from Takara. The tiny dining room seats just 10 to 12 people at a time, and the only menu option will be a high-end omakase experience—$165 per person for a long sequence of sashimi, nigiri and elegant appetizers like chawanmushi.

And Sachio Kojima, the chef Turner has hired to preside over the sushi counter, is something of a local legend in his own right: For much of the 1980s and ’90s, Kamio was “the acknowledged master of sushi in San Francisco,” as SF Weekly put it in a 2012 review, and his restaurant, Kabuto, was often touted as the best sushi restaurant in the city. After a six-year sojourn in Shasta County, Kojima could most recently be found working the sushi counter at well-respected spots like Sausalito’s Sushi Ran and Michelin-starred Omakase in the Design District. At Aoba, he’ll once again run the whole show.

“I was just looking for the best chef,” Turner says. “Japanese people, everybody knows about Sachio.”

Aoba will be open at 700 Laguna St. in San Francisco, Tuesday–Saturday, 5–9pm, starting Nov. 26. Call 415-517-1339 to make a reservation. See the opening menu below:

The menu for Sushi Aoba.