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Famed east Vancouver sushi restaurant Koko to close after 42 years

Restaurant was opened by the legendary sushi chef Koji Shimamura, and for the last three decades has been run by his son Kuni

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Tojo’s sushi restaurant on West Broadway may have the international reputation, but for generations of sushi lovers in East Van, the go-to spot has been Koko on East Hastings near Victoria Drive.

Not for much longer. Owner/chef Kuni Shimamura will close Koko on June 14, after 42 years in business.

“We did our time,” said Shimamura, 53, who has been working at the restaurant since he was 16. “The majority of my staff in the kitchen, they’ve been with us since my father’s time. Everyone’s older, they’re ready to retire too.”

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His father was Koji Shimamura, a legendary sushi chef who immigrated to Canada from Hokkaido, Japan, in 1971.

After a spell at Aki, Vancouver’s first sushi restaurant, Koji opened his own place on East Hastings in the Downtown Eastside in 1976.

“He opened up Koji restaurant,” relates Shimamura. “Got in with a bunch of shareholders. Didn’t get along with the shareholders, and opened up here (at 2053 East Hastings).”

Koko opened in 1982, when there were only a handful of sushi restaurants in Vancouver. For many people, it was their introduction to sushi and Japanese food, and it retained a loyal clientele for four decades.

It was set up like a traditional Japanese restaurant, with private tatami rooms featuring low tables and bench seating. You take your shoes off before entering.

The tatami rooms look very formal, but were family friendly, which meant you often saw kids at Koko.

“We used to come a lot more before we had kids,” said Chris Yip, who came in for a last Koko lunch this week with his wife Anna Kam. “But even then we used to take them here because they had the tatami rooms, and the kids would kind of play in the back. They always had toys here, so kids would come, grab some toys, bring them back to the tatami room. They’d play and we’d eat dinner.”

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The traditional Japanese look continues behind the sushi bar, which features a giant reproduction of the famed woodblock print by Hokusai, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

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Kuni Shimamura, owner/chef at Koko Japanese restaurant in Vancouver, BC, June 5, 2024. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

But the main attraction was always the food, which is incredibly fresh and tasty.

“We judge all dynamite rolls (at other restaurants) by the one we eat here,” said Yip. “We’d say ‘Nope. Not better than Koko.’”

Darrell and Barb Milne are big on the dynamite rolls as well. So big that when they read on social media Koko was closing, they drove in from their home in Maple Ridge.

“We’ve been coming here for 32 years,” said Darrell Milne. “We grew up in the East End here, it’s an East Vancouver tradition. All the (working) people from the waterfront come down, East End people. A lot of hockey players and movie stars came here, too.”

Milne is a retired longshoreman who used to work on the docks just north of Koko. The restaurant was so popular with his fellow workers the restaurant had a roll named after a longshoreman whose nickname was Godzilla.

“They had a Godzilla roll they had made up,” said Barb Milne. “It was like a California roll with a prawn inside.”

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When the Milnes arrived Wednesday for lunch, they were greeted by a packed house. When word leaked out the restaurant was closing on social media, Koko was flooded with calls, and it’s booked straight through to closing day.

“Somebody leaked it on the social media thing that we were closing down, and after that the phone has just been going off the hook,” said Shimamura.

“I didn’t like that, because then it squeezes out my regular customers who want to come.”

Shimamura is incredibly fast at making sushi, but this week he seemed to be at warp speed, trying to keep up with the demand.

“The key of being fast? You look at the customers and they look at you with their hungry faces,” he laughed. “(But) being one person you can only do so much.”

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Koko Japanese Restaurant chef/ owner Kuni Shimamura prepares food at the E. Hastings St. restaurant in Vancouver on June 5, 2024. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Koko used to have two sushi chefs, but Shimamura has been working solo since the pandemic. The restaurant was shut down for much of COVID, because he only wanted to do in-person dining.

“Doing takeout, it’s no fun,” he said. “You make the food, someone comes picks it up, bye bye, that’s it.”

Shimamura is a very friendly fellow, with an easy laugh. So is his wife Shizue, who is one of the waitresses.

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He worked alongside his father until Koji retired at the age of 52. Now, he’s retiring himself at 53. It’s a family restaurant, and nobody in his family wants to take it over, so he’ll close and try and sell the restaurant.

“My daughter is doing her own thing, she’s 28,” he said. “My son is an electrician, he’s 23 and doing his own thing.

“Nobody wants to take over the restaurant, so we figure, ‘Ah, just retire and enjoy life.’ Because when you run a restaurant, everybody takes holidays except you.”

A modest fellow, Shimamura said he doesn’t have any great secrets to making great sushi. But he does offer up one personal note — he doesn’t make sushi at home.

“No, I’m a steak guy,” he confided with a big laugh.

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Diners in the tatami rooms at Koko Japanese Restaurant on E. Hastings St. in Vancouver on June 5, 2024. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG
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Kuni Shimamura. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG
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Kuni Shimamura preparing sushi. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG
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Kuni Shimamura, owner/chef with wife Shizue at Koko Japanese restaurant in Vancouver, BC, June 5, 2024. The reproduction of Hokusai’s famous wood-block print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa was painted by UBC students when the restaurant opened in 1982. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG
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Barb Milne and Darrell Milne wait for a table at Koko Japanese Restaurant on E. Hastings St. in Vancouver, BC Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG
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Anna Kam and Chris Yip outside Koko Japanese Restaurant. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG
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Sushi prepared by Koji Shinamura at the Koko Restaurant in 1984. Koji was Kuni Shimamura’s father, and founded the restaurant in 1982. Steve Bosch/Vancouver Sun Vancouver Sun

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