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Of Heaven: Sushi Okalani fulfills a couple’s dream

New downtown restaurant serves slices of Japanese cuisine and culture

Photos by Christian Knight

Justin Williams serves up a plate of nuts and bolts at Sushi Okalani, which is scheduled to open next week in the New Yasui Building at First and Oak streets. Below, Amy Williams shares a laugh with the couple’s daughter Brooklyn.

By JANET COOK

News staff writer

July 16, 2005

Justin and Amy Williams are about to make sushi lovers all over the Hood River Valley swimmingly happy.

The Williamses will open Sushi Okalani next week, bringing an authentic Japanese restaurant to Hood River for the first time in more than a decade. The restaurant is located in the New Yasui Building at First and Oak streets.

“This is our dream,” Justin said. “We are so excited.”

The dream of Sushi Okalani has been percolating in Justin’s mind for years, and practically everything he’s done during that time has moved him toward it. A native of Portland, Justin became enamored of Japanese culture as a child when his grandparents hosted a Japanese exchange student. In high school, while his peers took Spanish or French, Justin studied Japanese.

As a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., he spent a year in Japan as an exchange student and graduated with a degree in sociology and Japanese. After college, he got a job as a sushi chef in order to hone his Japanese for what he thought would be a career in international business. It turned out that the combination of interacting with people over a sushi bar, cooking (a life-long passion) and fish were the ingredients of his dream job.

“I was hooked,” Justin said. After a three-year apprenticeship at Koji Osakaya, one of Portland’s premiere sushi restaurants, Justin spent the next few years perfecting his skills at sushi restaurants in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Hawaii before returning to Portland where he landed a job at an Asian supermarket. Amy was working there as a fish cutter while taking a break from her nursing career. She herself was recently returned from three years living in northern Japan.

“I don’t know what he saw in me,” Amy said, laughing and recalling being covered head-to-toe in fish guts. “But fish is the language of love in Justin’s world.” In three months they were engaged and within a year after getting married, their daughter, Brooklyn Okalani, was born. (Okalani means “of heaven” in Hawaiian.)

Amy, who had fallen in love with the culture and cuisine of Japan while living there, was as enthusiastic about the dream of opening a sushi restaurant as Justin was, and the two have worked together for the past few years to make it happen. While working at various sushi restaurants, including the popular Southeast Portland sushi bar Saburo’s, Justin met several Hood River residents and eventually wound up serving sushi during and after the Gorge Games last year from the River City Saloon. Along with falling in love with Hood River, the couple also met Maui Meyer, who told them he had the perfect space for a sushi restaurant in his new building.

The opportunity seemed a perfect fit and the Williamses never looked back.

“Every single time we took a step, a door opened,” Amy said of the couple’s path to realizing their dream in Hood River. “We knew it was the right direction.” Because of Justin and Amy’s love of Japanese culture, they want to create more with Sushi Okalani than just a restaurant.

“We want to make it a Japanese hub,” Justin said. The couple were thrilled when they learned the history behind the New Yasui Building, which sits on the site of the Yasui Bros. Co. Store, a Japanese mercantile established around 1908 which was a focal point of Japanese life in Hood River for 30 years.

“For us to be there, it’s such a great confluence of circumstances,” Justin said. Tatami rooms in the restaurant provide space for private meetings and social gatherings. Amy hopes to eventually offer traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Justin wants to teach Japanese and the couple plan to get involved in the Hood River-Tsuruta sister city organization.

“We want to offer a full package of ‘community’ as well as food,” Justin said.

For now, they are focusing on the restaurant’s opening. Sushi Okalani — which, along with being their 3-year-old daughter’s middle name, is meant to evoke an island influence — will feature traditional sushi and sauces, as well as entrees like filet mignon for those who don’t like sushi. “Aloha Nights” held weekly will feature island favorites like pulled pork, tuna poke and Spam musubi.

But, true to the Williamses’ dream, traditional Japanese fare will be the restaurant’s highlight. Justin will work his magic behind the sushi bar and Amy will help with the myriad of other tasks it takes to run a restaurant. And Brooklyn Okalani will surely be sighted frequently at her namesake — she’s already a sushi lover, according to her mom.

“We really feel privileged,” Justin said, “to be in a community where we can open a traditional, family-style Japanese restaurant.”

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