How Lena Turner Introduced Ramen to San Francisco

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.

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 curbThe 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.”

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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