Love Notes: Together, and apart

RestaurantsDining and DrinkingLifestyle and LeisureYohji Yamamoto

A long time ago, back when Katsu and Haruko Imamura began dating, they walked into a multiplex — then sat in different theaters.

"She went into 'Driving Miss Daisy,' " Katsu remembers. "And I went in to see 'Glory.' "

"He likes samurai or action movies. I like more drama," Haruko says, smiling. "People laugh that we go to movies together but in different rooms. ... We need separate time."

So Katsu plays golf, Haruko the violin and piano. Katsu listens to country music, Haruko to classical.

"If I want to go play golf, she can play golf too," Katsu says. "But if she doesn't want to go, I don't want to push too much."

"We both learned from our previous marriages. There's nothing like divorce. That's a very painful thing," Haruko says. "So we work very hard, and being away from our own families, being in a foreign country we both kind of rely on each other. But the happiness — it's like we each individually have to be happy."

That doesn't mean Katsu, 69, and Haruko, 56, never spend time with each other. Not at all. The Imamuras work together seven hours-plus a day, five days a week and have been doing so for 25 years, ever since they opened the much-lauded Katsu Japanese Restaurant on West Peterson Avenue.

"After 28 years being together, we're still talking and working together," Haruko says.

"Most of our customers say, 'Oh, that's unbelievable,' " Katsu adds.

A conversation with the couple inevitably involves one finishing the other's sentence, a dash of humor, a smile. That they've arrived at this comfortable balance in their 22-year marriage is testament to the value of communication, built on a deep respect for each other's talents and the lives they lived before meeting.

It is a story full of career changes, divorce, dreams and a long-shuttered restaurant on State Street named Yanase, where they met.

Katsu was born and raised in Tokyo, with his mother, Masako, a skilled cook, nurturing his palate. "His generation in Japan, right after the war, they had very pure tastes and not disguised with many chemicals," Haruko says.

Yet it was fashion design, not the culinary world, that first engaged him; he studied at Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College (alumni include designers Kenzo and Yohji Yamamoto), then worked in fashion, traveling to Europe several times a year.

He was 36 years old when he arrived in Chicago to work in fashion. "It wasn't fun," he remembers, and his next step was the kitchens of Yanase.

Haruko, born on Japan's Shikoku Island, majored in textile arts in Kyoto. She arrived in Chicago at 23 to work at a company owned by her first husband. By the time Katsu and Haruko met, their marriages had ended.

Why did you notice Katsu, we asked Haruko. "He's a very handsome man," she says.

"I used to be," Katsu counters.

"No, no. Don't joke," Haruko says. "I thought he was very passionate about the food, and even though he was working for someone else, he treated the customer just like he owned the restaurant. And I could picture him being the owner of the restaurant."

Eventually they started dating. "He mentioned he wanted to have his own restaurant," Haruko says. "I was not sure what I wanted to do but thought it would be nice to work together to make the dream come true."

It was a scary time, she says, looking for a location for the restaurant "and the only place we could afford was this."

"Sushi was not so popular then," Katsu remembers, and the Japanese pub restaurant they opened drew mostly Japanese customers plus chefs who worked at such restaurants as Suntory and Benkay, both now closed. "We stayed open late, so they would come here."

But a six-day workweek, workdays that ended with the restaurant's 2 a.m. closing, was trying. In 1998, they remodeled the restaurant and focused on more traditional Japanese cuisine. Haruko also set out to remodel their lives.

"I was desperate to design our lifestyle in a much more convenient way, to live closer, have less hours," she says, of their move from Highland Park to Chicago and shorter workdays. "We did, and we are very happy."

Which is not to say they never disagree.

"He doesn't take criticism very happily, but I see he does take (it) seriously," Haruko says.

"I'm always serious," counters Katsu, adding that he considers her his best helper — and recognizes the importance of letting her know that. "One of my American friends told me, 'Katsu, you must allow for the American way. You have to say, "Oh, I am sorry, honey. You are right." Don't forget this.'

"I try," Katsu adds with a laugh, "but it's not easy."

While Katsu oversees the culinary aspects of the restaurant, Haruko manages everything else. "But when it's time to make a big decision, we always consult each other, and he's very good in making decisions."

They were married almost 22 years ago at City Hall, "but we feel like we've been married for over 100 years, working together every day," Haruko quips.

"Everything I trust to her," Katsu says. "I can't always say my feelings, but I always think about that too. I'm a Japanese man; I can't say directly, 'I love you' or something.

"She's very talented, you know. She's very kind and she understands me," he adds. "Maybe that's why she trusts me. That is why I can trust her too."

jhevrdejs@tribune.com

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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RestaurantsDining and DrinkingLifestyle and LeisureYohji Yamamoto
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