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East Meets West

Finding the best places isn’t about keeping your eyes open, it’s about knowing where to look in the first place.

So, the next time you’re cruising on 315 toward Downtown, remember this piece, and remember that if you see the exit for Henderson Road, you should will yourself to pull off the highway.

Only in Columbus could the route to the best Japanese cuisine in the city lie between Riverside Hospital and Ohio State.

It’s there off Old Henderson Road that you’ll find Japan Marketplace, a veritable mega-mart of authentic Japanese fare—the result of the vision and tireless effort of owner Takashi Takenaka. He has worked for the last 30 years to build a thriving local empire—one that now includes six different titles under one roof: Akai Hana Belle’s Bread, Tensuke Market, Tensuke Express, J Avenue, and Sushi Ten all boast a wide assortment of menu items and cater to all price brackets.

He’s a long way from the small village in Japan where he was born, but Takenaka has built a burgeoning Columbus hub for the culture of his home country.

Takenaka originally came to the States to help a friend open and manage a restaurant in New York, but landed here and set his sights on opening up his own restaurant in Ohio’s capital.

“I wanted to open a restaurant, gift-shop, and market, but didn’t have the money,” he said.

So he started out across the street from the Japan Marketplace’s current location, opening up a small restaurant with only four employees, himself included.

“I was manager, waiter, and dishwasher—all the while going around the country to help other new businesses open and establish the connections they needed, like suppliers,” he said.

He opened the now wildly popular Akai Hana roughly 25 years ago, and set a long-term goal of establishing his market and gift shop. Today, under a bigger roof (in the Kenny Center strip mall), he’s operating Tensuke Market and J Avenue (formely Hana Gifts). What started as a handful of people supporting a one-man operation is now a true empire—one that has grown to six locations, employing 175 people.

Takenaka is quick to deflect personal praise; he takes the wellbeing of his employees seriously, and the joy that he possesses flows over into the genuinely cheerful smiles of each and every one of his employees.

“I am so blessed to have the employees I do; they are very good people,” he said. “So many big businesses cut corners to maximize their margins—I don’t do that. You do that and your employees don’t make as much money because you are concerned with your pockets. If you don’t do trade-offs, everyone is happy and that trickles down. Your suppliers are happy, your employees are happy, your customers are happy, so you are happy.”

It’s hard not to root for an immigrant who’s built his fortune while still maintaining a keen perspective of the world around him.

  “I want families to be able to afford to eat here,” he said. “I want my employees to be able to live off of their pay.”

That spirit is on display, quite literally, as Takenaka takes us behind the scenes of his restaurants and shows me how the sushi in Sushi Ten is prepared on the Suzumo machine, and how they make the ramen and broth at Tensuke Express. He takes time to say hi, smile, and gleefully shares more with us about their products and process.

“We use natural pork from Iowa for the Tonkotsu [pork bone] broth; they only eat natural food, no bad stuff,” he says of the painstaking process (eight hours) that forms the base of their rich, delicious ramen. Takenaka also proudly points out the machine they use to make the noodles: a Japanese product with a vat of boiling water and six individual strainers on a spring-loaded timer to allow for precise and efficient preparation.

He’s not afraid to evolve, either. J Avenue, the expanded Express, and the newly opened Sushi Ten have undergone a facelift, which allowed him to update the shops’ aesthetics.

“We brought in a designer from New York to help us with the layout of the stores and the menu board [at Express],” he said, adding that you won’t find the stereotypical photograph menu board at the noodle shop. “I don’t like those photos, they always look tacky. But the designer said we needed a menu board, so we made a compromise,” he said, of the minimalist chalkboard menu board they settled on.

One afternoon at the Japan Marketplace and you’ll feel the spirit of entrepreneurship and community. (Not to mention what you’ll smell and taste.)

“I love America,” Takenaka said. “If you have a business in Japan, it’s just Japanese, but here I have so many people working for me from all over the world. They’re from all different backgrounds and so are the customers. We work together… we’re all together.” 

Japan Marketplace is located at 1167 Henderson Rd.

For more, visit japanmarketplace.com.

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