How Was Your Day ... Sushi Chef in Bogotá? - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.

By Ryan Hiraki

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Kenji Tokai
Bogotá, Colombia

Everything is good. I have no complaints. Other than that I used to like to watch soccer, but I don’t really have time for that anymore. In 2006, I decided to open my own sushi restaurant. The days usually go smoothly. We have fish flown in weekly from the coast; every week is fresh. We hope we have the best sushi in Bogotá.

I was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, my country’s second-biggest city. But it began as a small fishing village. My father owned a print shop, and my mom always made us sushi. I knew I wanted to be a sushi chef when I was 10. I used to tell my parents, “One day I’ll have my own sushi restaurant.” 


Creations by Chef Kenji Tokai

Source Restaurante Arigato

We just moved to a new and better location. It’s in the heart of the Zona T, the tourist zone, right across the street from Parque 80, a place a lot of people pass on a daily basis. Next year we’ll celebrate our 10-year anniversary. Our idea is to take the best of fish from Colombia and use the best recipes from Japan, at affordable prices. There are hundreds of Asian restaurants in the city, but I’m not sure there’s a competition among us. Bogotá is such a big place, and everyone is always so busy; no one has time to worry about that.

She pulled her name out of a hat and got Colombia. We didn’t really know anything about Colombia at the time, just that the country is in South America and has good coffee.

I came to Colombia in 1999, when I was 37. My wife, Maki, had moved here five years before me. She came through an organization called Federación de Familias, which promotes peace by visiting schools and villages. Volunteering was a calling for her, something she felt she had to do, and we all supported her. The matching process was 100 percent random — she pulled her name out of a hat and got Colombia. We didn’t really know anything about Colombia at the time, just that the country is in South America and has good coffee.

It was too expensive to visit her, so I stayed in Japan and worked. She came back only a couple of times. After five years, we realized we couldn’t live like that. We missed each other too much. So I moved to Colombia to be with her. That first embrace — we knew we would do everything we could to never be apart again.


It was really tough at first. I didn’t understand things at the bank; I had to have friends accompany me to the doctor. My first job in Bogotá was as a chef at Wok, a popular chain of Asian restaurants. After three years of struggling with Spanish, I could finally get by. I was learning a lot at Wok, how to make all different kinds of sushi — and make it fast. Eventually, it was time to open my own restaurant. To fulfill my childhood dream.

When the day finally comes when Maki and I retire, we plan to stay here. We want to do more volunteer work to help other people, children from broken families. We want to do our part to make sure Colombia keeps improving. We have a son, Sono. He’s 11. He speaks Spanish with his friends and Japanese with his family. We want him to have a good life, whatever he decides to do. He likes sushi. He hasn’t said he wants to be a sushi chef someday … But he’s always in the kitchen.

—As told to Ryan Hiraki

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