“This is a portal to Japan – the real thing,” says Youko Yamamoto as she welcomes Hudson Valley One to her newest noodle shop, Tanma Ramen in Midtown Kingston. Long a culinary and cultural fixture in New Paltz with her much-loved Gomen Kudasai Noodle Escape, Yamamoto quietly opened Tanma Ramen last November, more than three years after leasing the space. There were structural problems to address and permits to be won, and then COVID-19 struck. She had to raise money through Kickstarter to stay afloat through that time of not running a restaurant, but people believe in Yamamoto. They wanted her back.
And now Tanma Ramen is a reality. Its official address is 579 Broadway, half a block from the Ulster Performing Arts Center; the actual entrance is just around the corner at 2 Cedar Street, practically next door to Energy Square. The latter is now home to the Center for Creative Education and the DRAW, but this arts hub wasn’t there yet when Yamamoto signed her lease. “Everyone was saying, ‘Youko, don’t take that spot! There’s lots of robbery,’” she relates. “But I love this corner.”
To complicate matters of siting, Tanma Ramen shares the same building with a sushi restaurant, Yasuda. Can Midtown Kingston, however its increasing appeal as an arts and entertainment destination, support two Japanese eateries side-by-side? Yamamoto thinks so. She has planned her hours and her menu so as not to be in direct competition with Yasuda, which specializes in fish dishes and draws a big lunch crowd. “Local restaurant owners help each other,” she says. Tanma currently doesn’t open until 4 p.m., although Yamamoto is planning to launch a 3 p.m. “late snack time” featuring pork buns in June – around the same time that Tanma’s outdoor seating area will be ready to open.
The space itself presented challenges, but Yamamoto was a designer before she was a restaurateur, and her husband Kazuma Oshita is a sculptor. They turned the quirky, wedge-shaped storefront into a thing of beauty. Big bright windows illuminate a traditional Japanese-style noodle bar with an ornately carved wooden panel overhead. The counter opens right onto the kitchen, where you can watch your meal being prepared from scratch, using only the freshest (and usually organic and locally sourced) ingredients. Adjoining at a sharp angle it is the tavern space where you can explore the extensive sake menu and sample uncommon Japanese beers: dimmer, laid out to accommodate musicians at one end. It’s dominated by a stunning bar made by Oshita from a rough-edged slab of wood, coming to a point where he has inset a round glass serving platform, with tiny LED lights sunk in its depths that suggest a twinkling starscape.
Moving cautiously due to the pandemic, Yamamoto didn’t go for a splashy Grand Opening. Tanma Ramen is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, by reservation only to make it easier to give dining parties ample space. But longtime fans of Gomen Kudasai are seeking her out, and others are discovering the place through word-of-mouth or ecstatic reviews of the simple, elegant, authentic, “super-nutritious” food.
Neither the ramen nor the restaurant is what we’re here to talk about on this visit. The big news is that Youko Yamamoto has been named this year’s honoree for Mohonk Consultations’ annual Distinguished Achievement Award, Each year, Mohonk Consultations confers this prestigious honor on some “exceptional” member of the mid-Hudson community – either an organization or an individual – who has “shown an extraordinary level of commitment in protecting the environment and in making the Hudson Valley more habitable, healthy and participatory.” Last year, Tanma Ramen’s new neighbor the Center for Creative Education was so honored; in previous years, the winners were usually champions for the environment or sustainable agriculture.
Yamamoto is being recognized “for her work as a peace activist, chef and cultural ambassador.” Concomitant with running restaurants that bring authentic Japanese cuisine to our region, she has been the prime mover behind the Bon-Odori Dance Festival for Peace, an annual outdoor extravaganza of Japanese culture that’s timed to coincide with the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. Born in Yokohama, Yamamoto moved with her family to Hiroshima at age 10, and quickly internalized the traumatic legacy of the city’s 1945 nuclear catastrophe and its lingering aftermath.
“We were the first family among our relatives to move to the southwest. At every break, we had guests coming from Tokyo and Hitachi, and we’d take them to the Peace Museum. I must have gone there 20 times,” she says. “Each time I’d go, I’d see something different, about how horrible it was.” She educated herself about World War II history from both nations’ perspectives, got to know people who were hibakusha – bombing survivors – and had a friend who developed leukemia as a result of exposure to radioactivity. “I felt like I needed to do something about it.”
She came to the US to study at the Pratt Institute, went back to Japan briefly, found herself missing New York and returned to pursue her design career here. She and Oshita moved to Gardiner in 2000 and opened Gomen Kudasai in 2008. Events highlighting Japanese cultural traditions, such as mochi-pounding at the New Year, were a feature of the restaurant from the get-go. And each year on Hiroshima Day and Nagasaki Day, she would organize Buddhist prayer vigils.
The 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was the catalyst for the founding of the Bon-Odori Dance Festival for Peace. “I got so crazy about what the tsunami and the earthquake could cause,” she recalls, and set herself to learning everything she could about the nuclear contamination that followed, including the “relationship between nuclear plants and weapons.” With support from Tony Falco of the Falcon in Marlboro, Yamamoto decided to organize a concert series to raise donations for the Japan Society’s aid program for the residents of Fukushima. A single show by jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara raised $4,000 in one night, she says.
Then, one day over lunch, choreographer Livia Vanaver asked Yamamoto what she knew about “Tanko Bushi,” a traditional Japanese folksong about miners at work, who wonder if the sun is shining up above. It’s popularly performed as a boisterous dance at Bon-Odori festivals in Japan, and the Vanaver Caravan wanted to learn it. That was the spark she needed.
Bon-Odori is a traditional Buddhist festival held in Japan each summer to honor the spirits of one’s forebears, ease their passage and appreciate their sacrifices. Japanese families celebrate the three-day holiday of Bon or Obon by gathering in their ancestral towns, cleaning and decorating gravesites, building altars in their homes and making food offerings. It’s also a fire festival, in which people light the way of the dead to their rightful homes by floating lit candles on bodies of water. The Odori part refers to dance – a key component of the festival, since it partially commemorates a dance of joy performed by an acolyte of the Buddha after he succeeded in freeing the suffering spirit of his dead mother from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Because the holiday coincides on the calendar with the grim anniversaries of the nuclear bombings, the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have received special remembrance at Bon-Odori ceremonies since the end of World War II. There are a few such festivals celebrated in the US, but there were none in the Hudson Valley until Yamamoto was inspired to create one. “It all happened in two months,” she relates. “We decided Livia would organize the dance, and I would raise the money and do the PR.” The Vanavers introduced Yamamoto to Burlington, Vermont-based taiko drummer Stuart Paton, who has become an annual mainstay of the Ulster County Bon-Odori Dance Festival. Momo Suzuki of the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York was another early recruit.
The late Dan Guenther brought the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition on board to coordinate the environmental angle of the festival. There were informational tables and food booths and karate demonstrations and “so many bands,” says Yamamoto. “Nobody asked for money.”
The Festival took off and became an annual community event, with the early iterations happening in New Paltz’s Hasbrouck Park and Water Street Market. Beginning in 2017, the event relocated to Kingston Point Park. When Yamamoto discovered that a hibakusha, retired Vassar professor Tomiko Morimoto West, was living in the vicinity, she invited her to speak. Every year the Festival incorporated rituals and exhortations for a more peaceful world, free of nuclear energy and weapons.
When COVID made large public gatherings hazardous, the Festival adapted, marking the 75th anniversary of the bombings in 2020 with a Week of Unity that featured a Kingston Peace Conference via Zoom, outdoor film screenings at Seed Song Farm, concerts broadcast on Radio Kingston and livestreamed prayer ceremonies timed to coincide with others taking place across the globe. A similar series of streamed events was organized around the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in March 2021, and T. R. Gallo Park on the Rondout waterfront was the venue for a scaled-down, dance-free Bon-Odori Festival of films and music last August.
For 2022, the 12th annual Bon-Odori Dance Festival for Peace is planned to return full-scale to Gallo Park, running from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 6. Details will be released as the date draws closer. “We’ve started booking people,” Yamamoto says. “The taiko drummer and Minbuza from the Folk Dance Institute will be coming back.” You can get updates at www.facebook.com/bonodorikingston, and sign up to volunteer or learn more (including a whole page of links to information about nuclear energy and weapons) at www.bonodori.org.
Meanwhile, Mohonk Consultations will be holding its 2022 Distinguished Achievement Award ceremony at the Pavilion at the Mohonk Mountain House on Sunday, June 5 from 4 to 7 p.m. There will be a Japanese buffet dinner and performances by the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York and Burlington Taiko.
“Youko exemplifies the spirit of community service through her work as creator and director of the Bon-Odori Dance Festival for Peace,” says the Mohonk Consultations announcement. “We will also honor Youko’s support of farmers in our region through her restaurants…her offering of performance and exhibition venues to regional musicians and artists, and her creation of educational opportunities for students and teachers of calligraphy, ikebana and the Japanese language. We celebrate Youko’s mission to cultivate peace, educate the public about the many dangers of nuclear proliferation and nourish the body, mind and spirit of our community through Japanese culinary and cultural experiences. We are deeply inspired by Youko’s many contributions to building a strong, peaceful world dedicated to healthy foodways and a clean, safe environment.”