Walking into Domo Restaurant is like walking into another world. Light streams through skylights in the high ceilings to reveal large flagstone tables and chairs made out of padded, cushioned tree stumps. The walls are lined with dried peppers, Japanese masks and shelves full of figurines and tea sets. Giant wooden lanterns provide just the right amount of ambient lighting. Walk through another door, and you arrive at the patio. The outdoor dining area is structured around a tranquil Japanese garden, where light slides through the rustling autumn-colored leaves.
Domo is an authentic Asian restaurant specializing in Japanese country food. For over a decade it has widely been considered the best Japanese restaurant Denver has to offer, and perhaps even one of the best in the United States, too. But Domo is far more than just a restaurant, and going to Domo is more than just a dining experience. It is an authentic cultural adventure and a way to support international sharing.
The entire facility in which Domo restaurant is housed is known as Nippon Kan, which means “Japan House.” It includes the restaurant, a Japanese garden, a Japanese folk museum, an aikido school and a program known as AHAN – the Aikido Humanitarian Active Network. Gaku Homma, known to his employees and students as Homma Sensei, is the creator and founder of Nippon Kan. He grew up in Japan and is a man of many passions. Among his multitude of titles, chef, gardener, writer, collector, philanthropist and aikido master stand out.
“The restaurant is part of the culture center, and its functions are symbiotic with all the other programs that go on here.”
Emily Busch, Homma Sensei’s student and assistant, has been involved with Nippon Kan since 1985 as an Aikido instructor, restaurant manager and director of humanitarian efforts. “The restaurant is part of the culture center,” she says, “and its functions are symbiotic with all the other programs that go on [here].”
The other programs include a program to feed the hungry. The restaurant’s motto, featured on their menu and website, is “Dine at Domo, Feed the World.” According to Emily, this is no propaganda. “Domo helps supply a lot of the rice that’s donated to our overseas orphanage programs,” she says. “Domo customers are participating in humanitarian programs because a portion of the proceeds go to these programs.”
Nippon Kan began as a dojo where Homma Sensei could teach aikido. In the mid-80’s, he met Emily, who had once been an exchange student in Japan, where she lived on an island with 50 people, a potato farmer and a live volcano. Her personal experiences with Japanese country folk helped her form a bond with Homma Sensei, and she became one of his devoted aikido students. When Homma Sensei decided to open up a small restaurant, she was there to help manage it.
“We built the garden around where the rocks landed.”
The small restaurant was originally kept separate from the dojo. It was well-recognized, but Homma Sensei thought it would be better to have one unified location where he and Emily could operate the dojo and the restaurant together. That is when they bought the facility that became Nippon Kan. Soon thereafter, the Japanese garden and folk museum were created to utilize the extra space in the facility. Sensei Homma and his students did all of the design and building, decorating and landscaping themselves.
The garden was a particularly difficult project. “When we moved here, this was asphalt,” Emily says as she looks over the garden. “We dug up the asphalt… and went up to one of the foothill quarries where we ordered up tons and tons of boulders. When the boulders where delivered, they backed this truck up here, and the truck bed tilted up, and the rocks came tumbling down in the garden. We thought, ‘Well, now what? The boulders are too big to move!’ So we built the garden around where the rocks landed.”
The way the garden was formed is a perfect metaphor for Homma Sensei’s philosophy. He knows when to go around a rock instead of moving it, and he certainly won’t let the rock become an obstacle to his plans. Nippon Kan has no religious basis, but Homma Sensei’s Zen-like philosophy seems to have infused the Japan House with a sense of energized stillness. Even Nippon Kan’s logo, a boy riding an ox, seems to reflect this; it is the sixth in a series of Zen short poems and woodcuts known as the “Ten Ox Chart,” or “Jugyu” in Japanese. “The boy on the ox symbolizes being active, and we are actively involved,” Emily says.
A wall of clocks at the Japan House shows the time in different countries around the world.
And active is putting it lightly. Not only do Emily and Homma Sensei provide authentic Japanese dining and aikido instruction to those in the Denver area, they also work to share their knowledge and food around the world. Homma Sensei’s status as a world-renowned aikido master has opened opportunities for their humanitarian and teaching efforts. “We use aikido as a vehicle to meet other groups around the world, to work in conjunction with them,” Emily says. “What started as ‘Japan House’ has now gone into huge international programs.”
Homma Sensei and Emily often travel the world to teach aikido and feed the hungry. They just recently returned from Myanmar. But they also help to feed the Denver community. Since Nippon Kan has been in existence, Domo has prepared and served over 53,000 meals to the homeless. And those who can afford to pay can go to the restaurant year-round to taste the authentic Japanese cuisine.
“Homma Sensei tries to make Domo a cultural experience as well as a dining pleasure experience... He really wants customers to experience the foods the way they were meant to be.”
Domo’s menu consists of traditional Japanese country dishes like nabemono, a hot pot dish; teriyaki, a kind of Japanese barbecue; and tojimono, fresh vegetables and meats steamed in scrambled egg custard. They also serve hot udon and soba noodles and several sushi dishes over rice, including their trademarked “Wanko Sushi” – miniature bowls of sushi rice with fresh ingredients on top.
Although they contain local vegetables and fish, most of the dishes include shitake mushrooms, seaweeds and other dried ingredients carried back from Japan. All of the dishes are authentic, like the nabemono. “The teriyaki is also very traditional,” Emily explains. “The farmers worked from dawn to dusk, and they would skewer meats and fish, and hang them over a low fire to smoke slowly during the day. At the end of the day, after returning from the fields, they would serve the meats with a porridge from the nabe pot, which had been cooking over a low heat with barley, rice and vegetables.”
Customers at Domo have the singular opportunity to taste this Japanese country food in the manner in which it would be eaten in Japan. “Homma Sensei tries to make this a cultural experience as well as a dining pleasure experience. To that end, sometimes he doesn’t cater to customers’ whims. He really wants customers to experience the foods they way they were meant to be.” One way in which Homma Sensei creates a true cultural experience is by not providing customers with extra soy sauce to go with their meal. While this may seem strange to many Americans, in Japan it is considered rude to ask for extra condiments, and it implies that the chef does not know how to properly flavor the food. “It’s like going to a five-star restaurant, ordering the most beautiful dish on the menu, and then asking for a bottle of ketchup,” Emily says.
So for diners who are used to eating California rolls and having plenty of soy sauce on the table to soak them in, dining at Domo will differ greatly from other Japanese restaurant experiences. But they do not need to worry too much about their Japanese etiquette. They won’t give you extra soy sauce, but as Emily says, “It’s not like you’re going to school.” However, for those who are willing to be students, Domo can help provide instruction on chopstick etiquette, soy sauce use and drinking sake.
A corner of the Japanese folk museum that is connected to Domo restaurant
For those that are not ready for the dojo but would like to complete their cultural experience, aikido classes can be watched from the museum. The folk museum contains a variety of items that can be found in a traditional Japanese country house. “It’s a kind of museum dedicated to the farmers and the fishermen and the local folks,” Emily says. “Not the fine samurai and the lords and ladies in kimonos, but just the real country people.”
All of the items in the museum were hand-carried back from Japan. Most of them were donated by real Japanese country folk. “We have an exchange program with one small village in northern Japan,” Emily says, “and we’ve gone there and asked if we could see what they have in their attics.’ Those items may have been attic material in Japan, but at the Nippon Kan they are all museum-worthy.
With the museum, garden, dojo, restaurant and humanitarian network, it’s hard to figure out when Homma Sensei and Emily find time for their personal lives. According to Emily, who even has a second job as a jeweler, finding time for everything is definitely the most challenging aspect of running Nippon Kan, but for her, it’s worth it.
Emily is proud and honored to participate in the sharing of cultures and to learn from Homma Sensei. “Sensei” means teacher in Japanese. “Technically he’s Mr. Homma as the owner of Domo,” she says, “but his capacity here at Domo is so much bigger than the owner of Domo. So he’s Homma Sensei in the restaurant, too. He’s Homma Sensei whatever he’s doing.” And for anyone out there who would also like to learn from Homma Sensei, whether it is learning about Japanese country dining, Aikido or life, Domo is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday year round.