Two Friends Talk About Good Times Spent at a Favorite Hangout for Honolulu Locals
Karen Shishido and Grant Murata
Special to The Hawai’i Herald
Editor’s Note: On Sept. 16, Club Genji owners, Gaye Misemer and Keiko Yamashige, announced that they were shuttering Genji’s doors for good.
A recent post on Facebook from Misemer read, “Aloha, everyone. I have made the difficult decision to close Genji today … it’s been a tough call for many reasons. A heartfelt THANK YOU to you all for patronizing and making Genji’s a place for friends and a very special family away from home. However, due to COVID and the ongoing shutdown, there is no business to stay in business. Sadly, this affects not only me, but everyone on staff here. I’m sure you feel it too. Genji has been my life, along with [my husband] Art’s, for decades … We had good times [and] great memories with the best of friends. We will miss every[one]. ”
Patrons were then encouraged to share photos and memories on the Club Genji Facebook page. Everyone seemed to have some kind of anecdote of the McCully pub on S. King St.
While I wasn’t a “regular”at Genji’s, it was probably the only drinking establishment I went to with my parents who loved karaoke. My mom’s go-to song was Fuyumi Sakamoto’s “Kimagure Dochu” and my dad loved to sing BEGIN’s “Shimanchu Nu Takara.” We would all join in and sing the “IYASASA” hweeshi (encouraging cheer between lyrics of Okinawan songs); the more we drank, the louder the “IYASASA!” Usually, my selection was Anri’s ballad “Oribia Wo Kikinagara.”
My friend, the local singer and musician Galen Takushi, said that his dad, Dr. George Takushi, introduced him to Club Genji. The late Dr. Takushi was the bandleader of “Dr. T’s” Big Band Hawaii. Like many local people, Galen has fond memories of good times at Genji — or maybe he was like some of us, who might have had “one too many” on a night we couldn’t remember, or worse yet, would have liked to forget …
Here, we pass the “mic” to Genji friends, Karen Shishido and Grant Murata, to say “aloha and mahalo” from all of us who will miss the aunties and uncles, bowls of kake udon and the music.
“Another one bites the dust” is not a term that can be taken lightly during these COVID-19 times. In fact, it has affected everyone in some way or another. Well, today, I’m saying “Aloha” to one of my favorite hangouts — Club Genji, which was my home away from home every Friday night for the past 12 years.
A little hole-in-the-wall situated on S. King Street, Genji’s has been in business for the past 31 years starting in 1989. Genji’s took over the former bar, Club Taiko, with four partners in place: the late Art Misemer, Gaye Tomikoshi Misemer, Keiko Yamashige and Kazuo Koike. It started with a karaoke-video system from Toma’s Enterprise which had a mix of English and Japanese songs.
I recently spoke with Gaye over the telephone about a week after her official closing announcement. After many rings, Gaye sheepishly answered the phone. I could almost hear the pain and heartbreak in her voice. I announced myself, and she immediately said she was still having a hard time conversing with anyone. I could feel her pain as the closing of Genji concludes a chapter in my own personal life.
Genji’s has been a place for life-time relationships, the blooming of courtships (to which I can personally attest), family and social gatherings, golf and karaoke clubs and sports enthusiasts. Gaye named the Nakano, Sakuma, Nakai and Arakawa families that frequented Genji for generations.
It has also been a place for some notables to gather, such as sumo wrestler Konishiki, (Japanese singer) Ikuzo Yoshi, Chefs Russell Siu and Lydell Leong, and Jake and Bruce Shimabukuro. Many of Hawai‘i’s singing and karaoke teachers, such as John Sakai, Dennis Oshiro and Craig Shimizu also hung out, just to name a few.
Food from Gaye’s kitchen was superb with favorites that included nabeyaki udon, shrimp tempura, pork tofu, and hamburger. I asked Gaye to share her hamburger recipe with our readers (which appears on Page 9). Gaye said she was taught to cook by former co-owner, Koike, who was an ex-sushi-chef at Akasaka. The most requested pupu were always the hamburger and teriyaki chicken.
Gaye is not sure what the most requested karaoke song was, but she said the most-ordered beer was Miller Lite, and Friday nights were always the busiest. She chuckled when asked if she ever had to stop someone from singing, to which she replied “not to my recollection.”
Genji was known for its popular karaoke and Halloween-costume contests. Gaye’s late husband, Art, was an Aoyagi Music Studio student who had won several karaoke contests throughout Honolulu – pretty good for a hakujin singing Japanese songs.
Gaye and Keiko Yamashige were the two remaining owners of Genji’s and when asked, “What will you miss the most?” Gaye replied, “My customers.” Her customers were loyal, like family and, without a doubt, friends! The closing of Genji’s was purely a financial decision. On the horizon, she will retire and tend to the long-overdue cleaning of her home, picking up her old career of being a pattern maker and seamstress and continue her love of watching Korean dramas.
Gaye’s last words expressed her gratitude to her family of customers for all the years of support and friendship and also gave a special thank you to Toma’s Enterprises for always being there in time of need.
There was always a parking problem at Genji. When the parking lot was full, customers would just double park. It would be such a welcomed sound, if I could again hear Gaye’s recognizable and resonating voice throughout the bar yelling “Double park! Double park!” Aloha to our good friend, Club Genji. And mahalo for the memories.
I went to Club Genji in the early ʻ80s for the first time, when I was finally old enough to wet my whistle. At that time there were a lot of local watering holes around town besides the KBs (Korean Bars), and for us younger guys who just started working, those places were easy on the wallet. I remember singing karaoke and hamming it up at places around town like Yamagoya, Aozora, Cho Cho’s, Chidori, Shirakaba, Yuurakucho. These karaoke joints hold so many memories close to our hearts.
When I was working at All Hawaii Tours, the older local Japanese tour drivers took me under their wing and introduced me to their favorite hangouts. In those days, Club Genji was known as Club Taiko. Keiko (Yamashige) Mama was the manager at the time, and although there were a few young waitresses, most of them were around our moms’ age. Some were probably even our grandmothers’ age.
If you stayed until closing time, they would serve everyone a bowl of Chef Koike’s kake udon. I have never eaten a kake udon as ʻono as that since. Through the years, more karaoke places popped up. Then came the video-karaoke machines.
Eventually Keiko Mama, Gaye Mama and Art joined hands and the name changed from Club Taiko to Club Genji. They took over the hostess bar next door, used the private rooms for karaoke and remodeled it to the Genji we know today.
Slowly, as the Japanese karaoke craze started to die down, enrolling in karaoke classes became increasingly popular. I speculate that singing may have become more important than getting intoxicated; therefore the business had to be revamped. Art expanded the menu to include more local dishes and popular brands of liquor which started attracting more English-song singing customers to Genji. He did a great job; it was a success!
The unspoken rule of Genji was that one side of the lounge was for the English-song singers and the other for the Japanese-song singers. Private parties were held in the newer Japanese side and our sanshin club bought out the room a few times to get together after the annual Hawaii United Okinawa Association’s Okinawan Festival.
Sometimes, we even got together to entertain professional Okinawan singers. Many of my friends in Okinawa still talk about good times spent at Genji. The rustic old karaoke system seems to have left an impression on them. The nostalgia of Genji is likened to the heydays of minyö (folk music) bars in Okinawa.
Most of the old-fashioned minyö bars in Okinawa are now gone. That’s probably why Okinawans who have been to Genji will hold fond memories from trips to Hawai‘i. Local people will remember it with a bit of sadness; especially the Friday night gang. I will miss walking in and seeing Uncle Masa and Aunty Karen waving us in, throwing our money in the till and yelling at the hard-of-hearing, age eighty-something waitresses to take our order.
I will remember it as a place that nourished my early adult years as well as my thirst for Japanese enka and saké! Ha, Ha, Ha!
Thanks for the great memories Club Genji! I’ll never forget you!
Karen Shishido is a sansei born and raised in Nu‘uanu who has worked for the City and County of Honolulu for 36 years in appointed positions under the Fasi, Anderson and Harris administrations. She retired after working with Ann Kobayashi and serving as a fundraising specialist with Partners in Development Foundation.
Grant Murata, a Hawai‘i-born yonsei, is The Hawai‘i Herald’s advertising manager and a community-based scholar of Hawai‘i Okinawan culture and history. He also leads the Ryukyu Koten Afuso-ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi Kai USA, a school for classical Ryukyuan uta-sanshin.