Aja Miyamoto thought she knew her grandmother. They were very close, after all. While Miyamoto’s family life was complicated, she knew she could count on her grandma, Hisako “Mary” Davis. But it wasn’t until her grandmother’s death in 2011 that Miyamoto started uncovering the stories her family hadn’t told.
What she found led her to an intersection of family and Columbus histories, the legacies both would leave and how the past shapes her present.
It all started with the Kahiki Supper Club.
Hisako “Mary” Davis was born in Japan as Hisako Miyamoto in 1927. She grew up in Yamanashi, west of Tokyo and north of Mount Fuji. Her father was a mason and her mother was a seamstress. Their family lived modestly.
As a teenager, she saw her country go to war with China in a conflict that would spread across the globe like wildfire. The Second World War brought devastation, the likes of which are unmatched. The 6-year conflict is the deadliest in history.
When the dust began to settle, her father went to work for a cement business, repairing and rebuilding the roads and buildings destroyed during the war. Hisako Miyamoto got a job at a post exchange on a military base near their village. It was there she met Phillip Earl Davis, an American soldier. They fell in love, got married and had two children, a boy and a girl.
Meanwhile, Hisako Davis’ brother decided he wanted to become a teacher – a highly respected profession in Japan. To support his aspirations, Hisako Davis decided to move to the United States, along with her husband and kids, and send money home for her brother’s education.
So the Davises came to America, landing in Washington. They lived first in Mountlake Terrace, a suburb of Seattle, moved around a little, and then eventually settled here in Columbus. Davis chose Mary as her American name, and she became a U.S. citizen in 1957.
Love and Loss
This much Aja Miyamoto knew about her paternal grandmother. Beyond that, though, Davis had only mentioned having worked in a restaurant in Columbus.
“She would tell me a lot about Japan,” Miyamoto says. “And she would tell me about where she came from, like not having anything, but not really go into detail. She was so focused on me.”
Her relationship with her grandma played an important role in her life. Miyamoto’s parents never married. Her dad, LED Miyamoto, was born as Lawrence Earl Davis but adopted his initials as his first name and his mother’s maiden name as his last name after his parents divorced. LED Miyamoto lived with and cared for his mom, in a big brick house with a red door they built on 60 acres in Marysville.
Growing up, Miyamoto lived with her mom, who was running a clothing resale shop in Grandview, and three older half-siblings. She’d spend each Wednesday and every other weekend with her dad and grandma.
“My grandmother was the person who taught me things like how to use makeup and all the womanly things,” Miyamoto says. “She always wanted to spoil me.”
When Davis died on October 1, 2011, at the age of 84, Miyamoto was a freshman in high school. Grief came first in the form of confusion and anger.
“I almost was confused in the beginning,” Miyamoto says, “when it all happened, like, how can you just go? What am I supposed to do now? And I was angry because I was like, you didn’t tell me what to do.”
Trial and Error
When she thought about it, though, she realized her grandma had told her what to do.
“She had always insisted on me, my entire life – education, go to school. ‘That is your way out,’ because my family didn’t really have much,” Miyamoto says.
All through her childhood, Miyamoto’s family talked about how her wits would make her a great lawyer. So, after high school, she enrolled at Capital University in a program that entailed three years of undergraduate education, followed by three years of law school.
She started working at a law firm while studying at Capital and liked it in the beginning. But when the newness faded, so did her interest in the work. The more she saw law in practice, the less connected she felt to her prospective career.
“I was working on domestic custody work, and I got to see all these families that were similar to my family growing up,” she says. “There’s all these separations and all these kids in custody cases. And that was so painful for me that I was like, I can’t do this.”
In the meantime, boxes of her grandma’s belongings had piled up at her dad’s house. Miyamoto decided to start going through some of the boxes, and that’s when she found five scrapbooks her grandma had created to document different times in her life.
She cracked one open to find photos of her grandma dressed for a tropical getaway, posing next to celebrities including actors Betty White and Jack Carson.
“And looking through this, I’m like, ‘What is this place?’” Miyamoto says. “‘What are all these pictures?’ And my dad’s like, ‘We didn’t mention this?’”
Though Miyamoto hadn’t heard of it, the Kahiki Supper Club solidified its place in the collective Columbus memory as a cultural icon of the second half of the 20th century. The Polynesian-themed restaurant opened on East Broad Street in 1961 – at the height of the tiki culture in the U.S. For four decades, it was the place to be in Columbus.
“It was a booming place,” LED Miyamoto says.
Visiting the Kahiki was an experience from start to finish. Modeled after the New Guinea men’s meetinghouse, the distinctive building looked to some like “an inverted war canoe,” says author David Meyers, who wrote “Kahiki Supper Club: A Polynesian Paradise in Columbus” along with his daughter Elise Meyers Walker, Jeff Chanult and Doug Motz.
The massive structure housed fish tanks, an area designed to look like a rainforest, a giant stone Moai fireplace and more. It was the largest tiki-themed restaurant in the country. People from around the world worked at the Kahiki, including many Cuban refugees and Japanese and Chinese wives of servicemen. They were known as the Kahiki girls.
“She was one of the Kahiki girls,” Miyamoto says of her grandmother. “One of her labels in the (Kahiki) catalog was head waitress. But she did everything from like, she was behind the bar, waitressing, and she did administrative, office stuff. So she was there for quite a while. And she had a lot of friends from the Kahiki.”
Davis worked at the Kahiki through the 1960s and ’70s, supporting her two children while her husband was stationed in Germany. Miyamoto’s dad and aunt would even help out at the restaurant from time to time, and her dad worked there as a dishwasher when he was in high school. What the Kahiki didn’t know was that Davis was also working for the competition.
“There was a restaurant across the street from the Kahiki that was a big competitor, and they were called the Desert Inn,” Miyamoto says. “And it was almost like the Kahiki and the Desert Inn were always competing over getting people in and running specials and going between being, like, the place to go. She was kind of undercover. The nights she wasn’t at the Kahiki, she was there.”
The owners of the two themed restaurants eventually found out that Davis had been moonlighting and vied for her loyalty.
“There was a lot of problems between them,” LED Miyamoto says, adding that the Christopher Inn downtown had also tried to recruit her. “I know one time she quit both of them and worked at another place because she couldn’t take it anymore.”
Eventually the tiki trend went out of style – only to reemerge in 2018. The Kahiki met the wrecking ball at the turn of the century, after Walgreens purchased the property with plans to raze the site and build a store. But the Kahiki brand lives on, in the form of frozen Polynesian-inspired food.
Living a Legacy
Miyamoto knew she had found something special.
“So I ended up looking through these scrapbooks, and they became an obsession,” she says. “I would bring them everywhere. I felt like I needed to tell everyone about it. I didn’t even know why. I was like, I just feel like there’s some purpose here.”
“This thing is kind of gone – the restaurant is gone,” she continues. “But this thing has touched so many lives and people, and people knew what I was talking about. So it was almost like, I made it a priority for everyone I care about. I wanted to share this thing with them.”
LED Miyamoto says his daughter’s fascination with family and Kahiki history came as a welcome surprise.
“I was – I don’t think there’s a word for that type of happiness,” he says. “It was nothing that I expected or anything. Little did I see the years passing by when Aja mentioned the Kahiki. I wish I could find the word for that.”
In sharing her grandma’s photos and memorabilia, Miyamoto made connections with people around Columbus who got to experience the Kahiki for themselves. They told stories of celebrating special occasions at the Kahiki and showed off their own photos from the restaurant. People said the food was forgettable at best, but that it was never really about the food. You’d go for the drinks, they’d say – rum-based cocktails often served smoking or flaming – and the experience.
Taking a cue from her grandma’s photos of herself, Miyamoto thought briefly that she might try modeling. But it didn’t take long for Miyamoto to realize modeling wasn’t for her.
Then came another idea: Someone should reopen the Kahiki – why not her?
“It was almost like I was taking steps into [my grandma’s] life of what she did to see, maybe I would like this or, like, these are my ideas,” she says.
Dreaming of Paradise
Miyamoto made up her mind: She was going to open a Kahiki for the next generation. She left Capital, quit her position at the law firm and took a job at a corporate office in Westerville. But she soon realized that if she was going to open a restaurant, she’d need restaurant experience. And she wasn’t enjoying the new job, anyway.
Her lack of food industry experience made it difficult to land a job in the field. Luckily she had a friend working at the Athletic Club downtown who offered to help get her foot in the door.
So Miyamoto began working as an event server for the club. (She wouldn’t find out until after she started serving that her dad had also worked at the Athletic Club, doing the exact same job.) She wasn’t shy about sharing her aspirations with her new coworkers.
“So I showed all these people at the Athletic Club, like, the chef,” she says of the Kahiki scrapbook. “And they were like, ‘You have something really going here. You just need to share this.’ So it was about a solid year of me just talking to people about the Kahiki, showing this scrapbook, hearing other peoples’ stories. The thing was, I never went to the Kahiki. But all these people I talked to had these profound memories. Getting to hear about that gave me joy.”
And that was what Miyamoto wanted to recreate – an experiential restaurant that would be the go-to in Columbus for special occasions. Because the Kahiki brand is trademarked, she’d call her restaurant The Supper Club. Her brother, who’s worked in kitchens since he was 18, would develop the menu, which would show pictures of dishes and drinks, just like the original. She then started researching suppliers and thinking about details like color choices, table design and more.
There was just one problem with the plan: Miyamoto wasn’t loving serving.
“I was working at the Athletic Club,” she says, “and I was like, ‘I can serve. I’m good at it. But this isn’t what I want to do.’”
So she tried again, trading Athletic Club events for a more traditional serving experience at Trattoria Roma in Grandview. Her new coworkers were also supportive of her ambitions. But Miyamoto still found herself unsure about committing to the industry.
“Whenever I was serving at both the Athletic Club and Trattoria Roma, I had this connection time (with coworkers),” she says. “It’s almost like you build that in the service industry, when you’re working until, like, 1, 2 o’clock in the morning with these people. You’re cleaning up after people the entire night, but you’re still having fun. That’s just kind of the industry. Some of my best nights of my life were working in a restaurant, but also some of the worst.”
Back to School
In all of this introspection, Miyamoto circled back to the idea that her postsecondary education would be the foundation for building the life she wanted – whatever that would be. So she enrolled at Ohio State University, choosing journalism and Japanese majors. She knew she wanted to become fluent in Japanese so she can eventually journey to Japan and meet her relatives there. Her love of writing and search for creative outlets led her to journalism.
“I write about alumni and then student entrepreneurs and basically all feature [stories],” she says of her work for Ohio State’s student-run newspaper The Lantern. “And I love it. I’ve met so many cool people doing cool things, making them happen.”
She also started a business that she runs part-time while in school.
“I mainly focus on web design, but I really help small businesses grow,” she says, noting she’s worked with local businesses on marketing, e-commerce and more.
Now, Miyamoto, 22, is set to graduate in December, with aspirations to turn her side hustle into a full-time gig and focus on food writing when she finishes school. She recently bought a house in Clintonville with her life partner, Bryan Thomas, who she serendipitously met at the law firm where she worked.
As for her plans to reopen the Kahiki?
“There’s no way you can ever recreate it – that’s the thing,” she says. “It will never be what it was, which is good in some ways, but also sad for the future generations. But they have to create something like that; they have to make their own thing.”
While she no longer plans to take on the food industry, Miyamoto is building a website to showcase the photos and memorabilia she inherited from her grandmother.
The Winding Road
In thinking about why her grandma omitted her Kahiki years from their conversations, Miyamoto has a couple of thoughts.
“During the time period, it was frowned upon for women to be working at the Kahiki,” she says. “They were very scandalous. She didn’t like the idea of me working at a restaurant at all because she wanted me to be in school. She wanted me to get an education. And I think that has a lot to do with why she never told me about it, like, she didn’t want to glamorize something that almost wasn’t very glamorous.”
“So it’s cool because I feel connected to her with it,” she continues. “But also, I like that it was almost left for me to find all this stuff. It’s almost like her legacy, and part of my life is sharing her legacy with this. And I don’t think she ever would’ve thought that people would care about this now.”
In retrospect, Miyamoto says her experiences surrounding the Kahiki and connecting with her grandmother’s life has informed her own. Though The Supper Club never came to fruition, she credits her fascination with the Kahiki for igniting her creativity.
Says Miyamoto: “Somehow it has shaped my life, and just seeing all the things I didn’t want to do, like, being in law. I’m glad that I left because I had some inspiration in this. But at the end of the day, it’s just cool to be a part of it and see my grandma’s life with the Kahiki.”
The Kahiki Supper Club
The Kahiki immersed patrons in a world of the South Seas, complete with a tropical rainstorm, aquarium wall, tiki torches and music. Authors Elise Meyers Walker and her father, David Meyers – who, along with Jeff Chanult and Doug Motz, wrote the book “Kahiki Supper Club: A Polynesian Paradise in Columbus” – share stories about one of Columbus’ most beloved former restaurants.