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How Lena Turner, a 93-Year-Old Japantown Legend, Brought Ramen to San Francisco

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An older woman in a white shawl smiles while seated in front of a stack of old photos.
Lena Turner, 93, sits inside her now-closed restaurant, Chika & Sake. Turner has been a restauranteur in San Francisco’s Japantown for almost five decades. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

This story is part of the series 8 Over 80, celebrating artists and cultural figures over the age of 80 who continue to shape the greater Bay Area.

O

f all the ways to sum up the remarkable life of legendary San Francisco Japantown restaurateur Lena Turner, perhaps the simplest one is this: She was born to do business.

Still spry and active at the age of 93, Turner has been a Japantown fixture for nearly 50 years. She’s best known for opening Sapporo-ya, almost certainly San Francisco’s first ramen shop, in 1976. At the time, it was one of just a handful of restaurants in the U.S. specializing in what was, for most Americans, an obscure noodle dish. Sapporo-ya was also the first restaurant to open in Japantown’s shiny new Japan Center mall, helping lay the foundation for the neighborhood’s vibrant Japanese food scene of today.

In the decades since, Turner has opened and closed at least a half a dozen other restaurants, mostly in Japantown — the last one, Chika & Sake, closed earlier this year. Even well into her 90s, she’d show up for work every day, taste the food, make small talk with the regulars. Anyone who’s done business in Japantown for more than a minute knows her by name.

Over lunch at Sanraku, a quiet sushi restaurant on the edge of Union Square, Turner worries over me like I’m her own kin. The tonkatsu is quite good, she tells me — and, after we both order it, insists on trading to give me the larger portion.

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“I like business,” Turner says. “I don’t like depending on someone else’s money.”

Even when she was a young girl growing up in World War II–era Japan, she was already showing signs of that entrepreneurial, can-do spirit: As American fire bombs rained down on Tokyo, Turner was the one who, at just 13 or 14 years old, dodged strafing bullets, scoured the black market and bartered with local farmers — all to secure food for her family.

An older woman looks off into the distance while standing in the doorway of a restaurant.
Turner opened and closed at least a half a dozen restaurants over the course of her career, the most famous of which was Sapporo-ya, likely San Francisco’s first ramen shop. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Outside of Japantown, not very many people know Turner’s name. But it’s for good reason that so many within the community look to her as a role model and an inspiration — and it isn’t just because of her sharp business sense.

As her son, Eric Turner, told me again and again when asked to describe his mother: “She was fearless.”

The smell of war

Born in 1930, Turner (birth name Kamata Aoba) was the youngest daughter of a wealthy family in Tokyo’s Kojimachi district. Turner’s father, a professor, died when she was quite young, so by the time Japan entered World War II, her mother was teaching flower arrangement classes to support her three children.

Around that time, Hideki Tojo, Japan’s ultranationalist military leader (and, later, convicted war criminal) visited Turner’s junior high school, which his daughter also attended. His message to the teachers there? No more English was to be spoken or taught. And so, Turner says, “I could smell the war starting.”

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Before long, the American firebombing raids in Tokyo started in earnest. “Planes would come,” Turner recalls. “The sky is all red — everything burning, burning.” Soon, the family was forced to evacuate to an uncle’s house in the countryside.

Those two years Turner spent on the outskirts of Tokyo were a precursor to her long and distinguished career. Her brother had been drafted into the military, and her older sister, Midori, was very shy. But the family needed food to survive, so Turner — barely a teenager at the time — volunteered to travel back into the city to procure kimonos and other valuables from their home, jumping off the train before it reached the station so she could reuse the same ticket. These were dangerous excursions: Sometimes she’d dive onto the ground to avoid machine gun fire from war planes flying overhead.

Back in the countryside, Turner began to hone her business acumen, trading her cargo with local farmers in exchange for food and other necessities. It made sense, then, that after the war ended, Turner also became the family emissary to the black markets that many Japanese depended on for survival during those lean post-war years.

About a decade later, in 1956, Turner parlayed those early connections to buy up a large supply of mahjong dice and other trinkets and transported them to Brazil, where her brother had opened a Japanese souvenir shop — her first time dabbling in a big business venture.

Inside an album of old photos, a black-and-white photo of an Asian woman with tousled curls and hoop earrings.
A photo of a young, glamorous Lena Turner, from when she worked as a model in her 20s. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

A legacy of love

It would be another 20 years before she started her restaurant career in San Francisco — and in that time Turner lived a whole other life. In Tokyo in her 20s, she was a striking beauty who took on modeling jobs and went out dancing all the time. In photos from back then, she looks like a movie star — big, flashy hoop earrings, hair done up in stylishly tousled curls.

Naturally, all of the men in her life were in love with her. And so when Turner talks about those years now, she talks about a series of grand romances. There was the Russian, Alex, who would later go on to work for the KGB, and whom she credits for helping her to escape from her first, ill-fated marriage to an abusive Japanese man. She turned down Alex’s own proposal; a marriage would have included a move to the Soviet Union. (“I cannot stay in that cold place,” she remembers telling him.)

There was the handsome American Air Force pilot she met at a nightclub, whom she still talks about as her “best boyfriend,” with a dreamy look in her eye. And then there was Martin — poor Martin — the young Dutchman she fell in love with on the way to Brazil. He was working as an engineer on the boat, and by the end of the 42-day voyage, the two had gotten engaged. (“Every day I snuck into his room.”) Turner went back to Japan to wait for him, but right before he was supposed to visit, she got word that he had died in a tragic accident — hit by a car in Rotterdam. He was only 21.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I ask Turner what she hopes her lasting legacy will be, she doesn’t say anything about her restaurant empire or the various businesses that she has opened and closed. “Love,” she says instead. “And joy. That’s the best life I had. I’ve met very nice people.”

A photo of a young woman wearing a dress and a swimsuit in a photo album.
By the time she opened her first restaurant in San Francisco, Turner had lived a whole other life that was full of romance. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The accidental restaurateur

It was love, finally, that brought Turner to the Bay Area in the early ’60s. She met her last husband, Jack Turner, an English jazz drummer, while she was helping her brother-in-law run a nightclub in Tokyo. The couple bounced around Oakland, Santa Monica and San José for a few years before Turner decided she would try to apply her business savvy in San Francisco’s Japantown.

“I didn’t have any money because musicians don’t make money,” she says. “My husband — you know, he’s an artist.”

It largely fell on Turner, then, to support her family. In Japantown, her first job was as a salesgirl selling reclining massage chairs, and she immediately found that all those years she’d spent negotiating with vendors on Tokyo’s black market had served her well. “I’m very good at sales,” she says. “Anything I sell, everybody buys from me. I sold a lot of massage chairs.” For each one sold, she would get a $100 cash commission.

Encouraged by that success, Turner opened the first business of her own in 1969 — Kamata Pearls, a pearl oyster shop on Fisherman’s Wharf. Tourists would pay a couple bucks for an oyster from the tanks to see how many pearls were inside. Then, Turner would work her sales magic, convincing customers to turn their treasure into custom pendants or rings.

The business was so lucrative that copycats sprung up all along the Wharf and Pier 39, so, after a few years, Turner started looking for other opportunities. One of her jewelry contacts recommended her to Gido Shibata, the founder of the original Sapporo-ya in Los Angeles, likely the first ramen restaurant in America. He was looking to expand to San Francisco and wanted Turner to partner with him.

It was a risky proposition. “I had never been a waitress,” Turner recalls. “I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business.” And ramen, specifically, was still an unknown quantity to American customers.

An older woman, seated, gestures with her hands as she tells a story. In front of her on the table is a stack of old photographs.
With a stack of old photos in front of her, Turner reminisces about her early years in Japan. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Turner, forever undaunted, decided to give it a go. In the still-nascent Japan Center mall, she found a space that had previously been a training center for the Kikkoman soy sauce company. She brought in a ramen machine from Japan and set it up right next to the front window so passersby could see the noodles being made fresh every morning. Shibata sent a talented, hard-working chef, Yoshiaki, who got along with Turner so well that he wound up staying at the restaurant until she sold it in 2014. (“Forty years and we never got in a fight!” she exclaims.)

These days, there are at least six ramen shops within a one-block radius of the Japantown Peace Plaza. But when Sapporo-ya opened in 1976, it was the only one — and, as Turner recalls, the restaurant quickly became something of a sensation, with customers lining up outside before it opened each morning. At Sapporo-ya, the San Francisco Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman wrote in her 1983 review of the restaurant, “the Japanese version of noodles and soup reaches new heights.” The dining room stayed busy late into the night — until 2 a.m. in those early years.

The restaurant’s success also helped mark a turning point for Japantown as a whole, on the heels of a contentious redevelopment project. When it first opened, the Japan Center mall had a decidedly corporate vibe, with much of its square footage dedicated to showrooms for big Japanese conglomerates like Hitachi and Mitsubishi. But with the advent of restaurants like Sapporo-ya and other small retail stores in the mid-’70s, the mall gradually shifted its focus to what we see today: mostly small local businesses rooted in Japanese and Japanese American cultural products.

Color photograph of long two-story white building with dark trim and cars parked along curb
The view southwest from Post and Webster Streets circa 1978. A sign for Fuku-Sushi and Sopporo-ya hangs near the entrance to the Japan Center mall. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

For Turner, the ramen shop was just the beginning. Within a couple of years, she’d opened a sushi restaurant called Fuku-Sushi in the same building, and then a bar and restaurant called Momiji. (By this point, the Examiner was calling her “Japantown’s queen of sushi bars.”) For a while, she also had a fur coat business in the Japan Center, an outpost of her pearl shop in Redondo Beach, in Southern California, and another sushi restaurant, Nobuyuki, in the Outer Richmond. The Turner restaurant that recent Japantown visitors are probably most familiar with is Takara, a longtime Japan Center favorite for lunch bentos, which she bought a couple of years before the pandemic.

The glory years, though, were when Sapporo-ya and Fuku-Sushi were at the peak of their popularity, in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Fuku, in particular, was a magnet for celebrities: Robin Williams, Keanu Reeves, Tony Curtis and Francis Ford Coppola all ate there. But while Turner collected their autographed photos to display, she was never especially starstruck. One time, she recalls, she came back to close the restaurant after having gone out dancing at the Tonga Room and her staff told her that Yoko Ono had stopped by — she’d requested a tatami room and walked into the restaurant barefoot. The time Keanu visited, Turner remembers one of her servers was so happy she burst into tears.

“I didn’t care,” Turner says. “I talked about the menu. I took his order.”

A black-and-white photo in an old photo album shows a young chef in a headband straining noodles over a big pot.
A photo of Yoshiaki, the ramen chef at Lena Turner’s restaurant Sapporo-ya, straining a batch of noodles during the restaurant’s early days. He and Turner worked together for nearly 40 years. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Mostly, Turner is just happy that she was able to provide a good life for her two children. She says it as though that were an easy thing. But her son, Eric, a real estate agent in San Francisco, remembers his mother being a superhero-like figure. He was about 11 years old when she opened Sapporo-ya, and the family was living in San Rafael at the time. Turner would get up early in the morning to fry fresh chicken for sandwiches — to, as Eric puts it, “send us off to school with the best meal she could give us.” Then she would drive back and forth between San Rafael and the city, often twice a day, so that she could spend time with the kids when they got home from school before heading back to the restaurant at night.

“She never complained,” Eric recalls. “There was no hesitation.”

Mostly, Eric says, he’s inspired by how strong his mother has always been. Even starting in a new industry that she’d never had any experience with, she moved forward with complete confidence.

“I look back on her legacy as someone who had no fear,” Eric says. “She was all of five foot tall, 100 pounds — no worries. She was all guts.”

Bottles and posters sit on shelves along a wall.
Bottles of sake decorate the interior of the now-closed Chika & Sake, Turner’s final restaurant — at least for now. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The next chapter

In recent years, the difficulties of the pandemic have soured Turner on the restaurant industry. At the height of lockdown, she and the other tenants of Japan Center West were entangled in prolonged dispute with their landlord, a Beverly Hills–based developer that refused to give tenants any discount on back rent or maintenance fees, demanding the full amount — close to $20,000 a month for Takara — even when businesses in the mall weren’t allowed to open. The situation was so grim that when I spoke to Turner at the time, she essentially pronounced the neighborhood dead. “I think Japantown is no more,” she told me.

In the end, she wound up closing Takara. She opened a new restaurant, Sushi Aoba, a few blocks away on Laguna Street, then later rebranded it as Chika & Sake, partnering with a local sake expert. But neither project worked out the way that Turner had hoped, and by this past spring she’d shuttered the space altogether.

Still, even at 93, Turner shows no signs of wanting to retire. Over the course of the many weeks we communicated for this story, she spoke constantly about wanting to find some new project. She says she’s sworn off restaurants for good — that there’s no way to make any money doing it. The young people she sees crowding into Japantown every weekend? “They have ice cream — they don’t eat food, young people.”

Eric, her son, wouldn’t rule anything out. Who’s to say she won’t get the itch a few months from now to bring San Francisco some new dish the city has never seen? Or that she won’t dive head-first into a completely different business?

“I always want to do different things,” she says. “Nobody was doing ramen. Nobody was doing jewelry shops. So I want to do it.”

An older person sits at counter indoors with posters hung on the wall behind them.
Turner sits for a portrait in her now-closed Japantown restaurant, Chika and Sake. Even at 93, she’s still contemplating her next business move. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Mostly, she says, she feels gratitude for the amazing life that she has led — for all the people who have loved her, for this country that she now calls home. “When I hear the American national anthem, I am like this,” Turner says, clenching her fist on her chest. “This country raised me, not Japan.”

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When she talks, it’s easy to see the young girl who bravely dodged bullets and jumped off moving trains to provide for her family — who never turned down an adventure. That willingness to try new things has made her a bedrock of the neighborhood. Turner still walks down to the Japan Center every day from her home on Van Ness. Every day, she’ll run into someone she knows — someone who’ll call out, “Lena! Lena!” and have a piece of gossip to share. Every day, she has a new story to tell.

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