Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was the owner of America’s first ramen restaurant, Kouraku, in LA’s Little Tokyo, has died at the age of 67 from cancer, according to his wife Mihoko Yamauchi, who announced the news on social media this weekend. Hiroshi Yamauchi died peacefully surrounded by his family. Kouraku was famous for serving ramen and other Japanese comfort fare until late every night, often until 3 a.m., much to the delight of Downtown residents and visitors. Despite the closing temporarily in the first few months of the pandemic, the restaurant reopened in early June and will continue to serve takeout and offer outdoor dining.
Yamauchi was born in Fussa, a district of Tokyo, in the post-World War II era, growing up among American GIs who were stationed there. At 23 years old he came to the U.S. to learn English in 1976, working as a server at a Chinese restaurant in Santa Monica. Yamauchi came into the ownership of Kouraku in 1986 through a series of “chance events” and has operated it ever since, according to the website Discover Nikkei. Originally opened in 1976 as the first-ever ramen restaurant in America, Kouraku catered mostly to a Japanese clientele in its early years before growing in popularity, first to Koreans and Chinese Americans and eventually to a wider audience. Apparently John Travolta was a fan in the 1980s, who rolled up in a limousine for Yamauchi’s food.
According to an interview in Rafu Shimpo, a newspaper for the Japanese American community, Yamauchi said Kouraku’s food was inspired by the dishes popularized in Japan in the post-World War II era. Because the work force in Japan had become busy with reconstruction, comfort dishes like ramen and curry rice were affordable and easy to eat. The long, dimly-lit dining room and semi-open kitchen gave night owls the ideal place to unwind after a night of revelry, with a wide menu of noodle bowls, fried rice, and even Chinese-inspired dishes like mapo tofu. Yamauchi opened similar restaurants in Primm (Nevada), Sherman Oaks, and Torrance, though his Little Tokyo place has endured the longest.
While Little Tokyo has seen immense development and change over the past decade, Yamauchi said he felt it was important to maintain the cultural identity of the neighborhood. “The history of the neighborhood and what it means for many Japanese Americans is what makes Little Tokyo unique. For many people Little Tokyo represents their heart and home. There is no better place in Los Angeles where you can learn and experience real Japanese culture,” he said.
Yamauchi was also the subject of an early pandemic article from the LA Times, with the elder restaurateur realizing that his businesses needed to embrace social media and online delivery in order to stay in business. After setting up a Facebook page for the first time, Yamauchi found it encouraging to see such a positive response to longtime fans of the restaurant. In fact, he was known for posting charming, emoji-filled messages that garnered strong engagement. The page is now filled with an outpouring of condolences from the news of Yamauchi’s passing. One customer, Willa Lim, wrote, “Thank you for everything Hiroshi-San. I will always remember your bright and happy manner whenever we came into Kouraku. You will be missed.”
- Kouraku’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, 67, passes away [Rafu Shimpo]