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Takeout containers filled with salmon, soba noodles, and a sesame salad at Ikoi no Kai in Portland, Oregon.

What One Daily Lunch Program Means to Portland’s Japanese Community

For more than 40 years, Japanese Portlanders have gathered at Ikoi no Kai to cook and eat together. Today, it remains a respite among the community at large.

Miso-marinated salmon on a bed of sauteed bok choy and rice with a soba noodle salad at Ikoi no Kai
| Katrina Yentch/Eater Portland

On a quiet, cloudy Monday morning, a crowd of volunteers and patrons gathers in the basement of Epworth United Methodist Church in Southeast Portland to share a meal. This group meets almost every day to cook here, in a fluorescent-lit space that feels much like a grade-school classroom. Neon-colored flyers and announcements cover the whiteboards in the hallway entrance, while homemade cards and crafts sit in plastic tubs along the walls of the room. Tucked behind the announcement board, a spacious commercial kitchen is home to a collection of giant woks, baking trays, and shelves stocked with rice vinegar, soy sauce, and miso.

This is Ikoi no Kai, a volunteer-run lunch program that has been serving primarily second- and third-generation Japanese Americans for more than 40 years. In this kitchen, paid chefs from the community plan and prepare bento boxes filled with classic Japanese dishes like okonomiyaki and miso-marinated salmon, but also other traditional Asian dishes like Thai khao man gai and Chinese mapo tofu. From Monday to Friday, they reserve time to cook lunch for the senior citizens and community members of the Japanese Ancestral Society, the organization responsible for hosting this program and maintaining the bonds of the Japanese American community in Portland. They convene in the basement to enjoy these meals, and once a month on Wednesday, volunteers package and deliver a meal exclusively for homebound seniors.

On Mondays, chef Naomi Molstrom covers the meal; today, it’s presented on a heavy plastic plate, filled with warm grilled chicken and topped with a sweet sauteed scallion sauce. It’s served alongside short-grain rice and stir-fried potato and cabbage, as well as a mandarin, chickpea, and shredded carrot salad. Visitors finish their meals with banana cake and steaming green tea, served out of a diner-style mug.

Many of the people who gather at Ikoi no Kai have known each other for most of their lives. They’ll see each other several times a week, and Ikoi no Kai is just one of several spaces where they gather. Volunteer Cheryl Pomp is one of those stalwarts, whose parents dined at Ikoi no Kai growing up, and attended the Methodist church it is housed in. “I always wanted to volunteer but I was so busy,” she says. “I told myself as soon as I retired I would, and now here I am.”

Others have chosen to volunteer here because their parents did, or because they heard about the program through word-of-mouth at the nearby temples and churches. Regardless of how they got here, Ikoi no Kai has become a haven for them, a place to honor the past and celebrate the present over a thoughtful homemade meal.

A woman in an apron and a face mask stir-fries bok choy in a wok at Ikoi no Kai.
Chef Kyoko stir-fries bok choy to pair with miso-marinated salmon.
Katrina Yentch/Eater Portland

In 1979, Ikoi no Kai was first established as a safe space for first-generation Japanese Americans to come together after World War II, in a time rife with discrimination against Asian Americans in the United States. With the lack of established immigrant community groups in Portland, churches and temples proved to be crucial gathering spaces for the Japanese, and so Ikoi no Kai found its home at Epworth. Ikoi no Kai was also part of a county-sponsored distribution point for Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit dedicated to providing nourishment to homebound seniors, and provided a large portion of the food.

However, when the county stopped funding the program, just over a decade ago, a grant from the Spirit Mountain Casino helped the program become independent, and thus expanded to include the larger Japanese American community. Now, it operates on a largely volunteer basis, from those who help package and deliver the meals to donations by the Japanese American community and local organizations to keep the program running.

Chefs and volunteers work collaboratively to make Ikoi no Kai happen, but Jeannine Shinoda is the conductor leading the orchestra. Shinoda is a mixed-race third-generation Japanese American, and the current program director at Ikoi no Kai. An artist and architect by trade, Shinoda was raised in Dallas and alongside the food world; her grandparents owned a Chinese grocery store in Sacramento while she was growing up, and Shinoda even briefly ran her own bento program during the pandemic.

She first discovered Ikoi no Kai in 2019 through the Portland Japanese American Citizens League, who referred to Ikoi no Kai as “one of the best unknown restaurants in Portland.” Although she was offered a job upon her first visit, Shinoda didn’t officially enter the circle as a staff member until much later. In early 2020, Shinoda had recently been hired at Shizuku by Chef Naoko when restaurants were forced to close. When Ikoi no Kai was in need of help during the pandemic, Shinoda stepped in. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Shinoda has helped orchestrate meal deliveries to community members with local Japanese restaurants, which allowed volunteers and diners to stay at home. In-person meals were halted until August 2021, then once more this past January during the first omicron surge. Upon reopening in February, Ikoi no Kai experienced a wealth of new volunteers and patrons.

Since her arrival in 2020, and with the help of assistant Chika Saeki, Shinoda has brought new life to Ikoi no Kai by showcasing chefs’ meals on Instagram, collaborating with BIPOC farmers to supply produce, and applying for grants to continue serving food affordably. “I started the Instagram account, and a lot more outreach,” she says. “I started to get younger generations in here, people within the community who have never heard of us before but are younger and interested in Japanese culture who are fourth-, fifth-generation or half Japanese, a quarter Japanese, who just went to Japan and really wanted to be surrounded by that again.” Shinoda has also been recording the oral histories of longstanding volunteers at Ikoi no Kai.

“As I’ve come to this program, I’ve become so much more interested in my own heritage and understanding that,” Shinoda says.

A man in two face masks and an apron brushes pieces of salmon on sheet trays with miso marinade at Ikoi no Kai.
Alfred Ono brushes miso marinade on pieces of salmon.
Katrina Yentch/Eater Portland

Many in Portland’s Japanese American community choose to gather at Ikoi no Kai not only for the food, but for the space it provides for Nisei and Sansei (second- and third-generation) citizens, as many share connections to crucial events in U.S. and Oregon history. For them, community bonding spaces like Ikoi no Kai allow them not just to celebrate the joys of their culture, but also to acknowledge the ​​traumas in their shared history that changed their families, homes, and lives 80 years ago.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, permitting the relocation of thousands of Japanese Americans to prison camps for the next four years during World War II. As a result, the Portland Exposition Center, which was then known as the Pacific Livestock Exhibition Center, became a relocation facility, where nearly 4,000 detainees lived before being forcibly moved to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Jerome County, Idaho.

When the Minidoka Relocation camp and dozens of others closed in 1945, many Japanese residents who returned to Portland came back to nothing. Businesses had been sold, homes were gone, and remaining tensions among citizens made it hard to regain these assets after the war.

Alfred Ono, a retired OB-GYN, is a newer volunteer whose uncle was part of a Japanese language program in Fort Snelling, an Army language school intended to equip soldiers with Japanese language skills to interrogate captured Japanese soldiers. “With his being in Minneapolis, he sponsored our family out of the Poston relocation camp in 1944 before the camp was closed,” he explains of his uncle. “That is how we ended up in Minneapolis.” Ono eventually ended up in Oregon to attend medical school; he went on to help deliver the children of other Ikoi no Kai volunteers.

While volunteers like Ono can trace their families’ migrations throughout the States to prison camps, others like longtime contributor Joyce Kikkawa can find their own belongings in historical museums; Kikkawa’s own childhood toys are on display at the Japanese American Museum in Old Town, in particular an elephant that she took with her to the Minidoka War Relocation Center. A translator and newer patron named Yoko Gulde is even transcribing the oral history of the Yasui family; Hood River-born lawyer Minoru Yasui was arrested and fined $5,000 during the Japanese incarceration for deliberately violating the wartime curfew to test its legality.

“I feel like the people here who are in their 70s, the second and third gen, were deeply affected by the internment,” Shinoda says. “They have so much more of a common history and upbringing that those bonds are very deep for them. I think that’s one of the things that’s very special about the people who come here now. They’ve all gone to grade school together. They’ve gone to high school together. They’ve known each other since first grade.”

A woman in a bandana and a face mask adds food to takeout containers on a table. The takeout containers are filled with salmon, sesame slaw, soba noodles, and stir-fried bok choy.
The team at Ikoi no Kai packages lunches in takeout containers. The meals go to visitors at the church, and are also dropped at people’s homes if they are unable to travel.
Katrina Yentch/Eater Portland

Today in Oregon, many of the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated as children are currently in their 90s. Some are homebound and unable to be at Ikoi no Kai in person. For this reason, a monthly delivery service accompanies the program, an addition initiated by Sharon Ogata. Ogata’s family runs Ota Tofu, and she had been delivering meals to her own uncle when the idea came to mind. Now, she visits once a month to lead the operation, creating over 100 meals with the help of volunteers who prepare, package, and deliver them to senior citizens from Hillsboro to Portland metro and Gresham. Drivers will often accompany these seniors while they eat, providing company during an otherwise isolating time in life.

For Shinoda, the best part about being at Ikoi no Kai is that everyone wants to be there. “There’s so much joy here. There’s so much fun,” she says. “When people come in the door, I have 12 volunteers who have chosen to be here that day. They treat this like a job, but they treat it like a job because they have a lot of fun and they get to be with friends.”

Ikoi no Kai operates Monday through Friday at 1333 SE 28th Avenue. To dine at Ikoi no Kai, you must call or reserve in advance via ikoinokai7@gmail.com, and at 503-238-0775.

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