Members of the Sakae Sushi family (from left): Etsuko Tani, Sugako Kato, Emi Tani Castillo, Jeff Tani and Jason Tani. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

GARDENA — Oshogatsu is a time to celebrate the traditions that keep families and the community together.

One such tradition actually starts a month earlier at Sakae Sushi in Gardena. In the early morning hours of Dec. 1, a line forms in front of the small sushi takeout shop on Redondo Beach Boulevard. Well before Sakae opens at 9 a.m., customers are waiting patiently, bundled up in jackets, to place sushi orders for New Year’s.

In no time they are sold out, a testament to the loyalty of a customer base that has come to love the flavors of a sushi that many say reminds them of the taste of home and Obaachan’s kitchen.

“It’s tasty, it’s the only place in town,” said Morris Fukumoto, a regular who stopped by on a recent weekday to pick up a box. He said his favorites are norimaki, saba and inari.

Naomi Kobayashi said her family members ask her to pick up the sushi, even though they have moved away from the South Bay to South Coast in Orange County.

“If we’re going for bento or on travel, they always want to come here and pick up to have in the car,” she said.

Morris Fukumoto, a regular customer, stops by to pick up a box of sushi. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Sakae Sushi was opened in 1962 by Sumizo and Aya Tani. Sumizo worked as a gardener and Aya worked at a nursery, where she would sometimes make sushi for the workers just as she learned as a young girl in Uragami, a small fishing village in Wakayama Prefecture.

“They said, ‘Your sushi is so good,’ so they started selling it at Motoyama Market on 162nd and Western,” explained their daughter Sugako Kato.

Sakae Sushi hasn’t changed very much since the early days, although in the beginning they had a small seating area for customers to dine in. For Japanese Americans, the flavors evoke the sushi that we grew up with. It isn’t the fancy, expensive sushi served at so many restaurants today; it has a homey taste that evokes family gatherings, celebrations and summer picnics.

Their signature white box tied with a green string offers just six varieties: ebi, norimaki, inari, saba, California roll and tamago. The business is very much a family affair with Emi Tani Castillo and her brothers Jeff and Jason representing the third generation of sushi makers. Their parents Tom and Etsuko ran the restaurant until Tom’s passing. Tom’s brother Joey has been working at the sushi shop for more than 30 years, as well as a hard-working crew.

Aya Tani (right) with a guest from Japan in front of Sakae Sushi. Aya and her husband Sumizo started the business in 1962.

Owner Etsuko remains the heart of Sakae Sushi, leading a staff that is keeping true to the original flavors and high standards set decades earlier.

“We’ve stayed with the same vendors that my grandparents started with, the same ingredients. We didn’t change anything, we try to keep it all the same,” said Emi.

Their busiest times are the holidays, as well as Super Bowl. But busiest of all is Oshogatsu.

“The last couple years have been a little longer. We only have one phone line, so it’s a lot more difficult to get through, so people come and stand in line,” Emi said.

With so much change and discord in the world, it is somehow comforting that Sakae Sushi is there serving sushi the old-fashioned way for a new generation of customers.

“We don’t do any advertising, it’s pretty much word of mouth. We’re a little mom and pop, nothing fancy but we try to do what we do well. We try to make our grandparents proud,” Emi said.

Sakae Sushi, 1601 W Redondo Beach Blvd, Ste. 112, Gardena; (310) 532-4550

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