Tokyo Japanese Restaurant
The owner of Tokyo is royalty – or at least descended from royalty. Seonim (Sun-eem) Kim’s ancestors were the last ruling dynasty of Korea.
So how did she become a restaurant owner in Roanoke?
Kim’s daughter, Julia Yang, was studying aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech with plans to work at NASA after graduation – until she came to Roanoke and visited Tokyo restaurant, owned at the time by Sunghee Lee.
Yang fell in love with the food and the soothing atmosphere of the restaurant and decided to work there despite the 45-minute commute from Blacksburg. During the year and a half she worked for Lee, she found that he was Korean too. Yang also discovered that Lee longed for a change.
“I knew he wanted to sell the business and move to a big city,” says Yang.
She spoke with her parents, who were in Gyeongiu (other common spellings include Yeonju and Jeunju), South Korea. With great enthusiasm she informed them that a fabulous restaurant was for sale in Roanoke. Her father, Heesan Yang, a business professor at Gyeongiu University, asked her for a business plan. Yang was able to produce her plan easily since she had switched majors from engineering to business. Her part-time work at Tokyo revealed how much she enjoyed working with people and that a life of lab work wasn’t for her.
Yang’s father approved her comprehensive 11-page business proposal and sent the money. He also sent his wife, Seonim Kim to be the owner since she had been interested in the restaurant business and traveled to Japan, most of Europe, Thailand, Malaysia, Thailand and many other countries.
“The traveling became the base of experience for this business,” Yang says.
As the restaurant changed their lives – morphing an engineering student into a business major and a housewife into a restaurant owner – they transformed Tokyo.
Yang purchased kimonos for her waitresses, decorated the walls with pictures of geishas and surrounded the art with replicas of shogun temple gates. Three Korean kites (similar to traditional Japanese kites) hang from the ceiling and soothing water sounds trickle from the fountain in the serenity garden.
Wax replicas of the sushi were prepared and placed in a display case in the front. The sushi reproductions took more than a month for artists in Korea to create, but Yang feels it helps her customers can get a better idea of what they are ordering, and it was worth the wait.
Yang and her mother adore Roanoke and the restaurant. So does her father, who visits often. He plans to retire in Roanoke, and through Yang, Kim (who speaks little English) explains why she thinks her husband feels at home in Roanoke.
“Gyeongiu, our city, is one of the oldest in Korea, was full of kings and royalty of the last dynasty,” says Kim, “Now it is full of highly educated people. Roanoke is the same and people are kind. It feels a lot like home.”
Tokyo Japanese Restaurant
3749 Franklin Road SW, Roanoke
Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.