Couple brings authentic Japanese food to Covington

Have you ever tasted authentic Japanese food?

If your only experience with Japanese food is sushi from the supermarket or a teriyaki dish from the fast food Japanese eatery at the mall’s food court, the answer is no. Those foods are Japanese-inspired, not genuine Japanese cuisine.

If you want to taste authentic Japanese food prepared and served by Japanese people, you should dine at Nagomi Japanese Restaurant in MainStrasse Village.

Nagomi is a small restaurant with authentic Japanese food, beverages, and art. Yukio and Reiko Fukunaga, who hail from Tokyo, Japan, own and staff the restaurant. One could say that their business is a mom-and-pop, shop since they are the only two people that work there. Since they have no children, it would be more accurate to call them a husband-and-wife business. Yukio is the chef and Reiko is the only server. Hence, reservations are recommended.

Nagomi’s menu is 100% genuine Japanese.

“What I want to do is authentic Japanese food,” Yukio Fukunaga said. 

If you go

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant

526 Main Street, Covington


Hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

The menu also has eight vegan appetizers: miso soup (soybean paste with uses seaweed stock), house salad, seaweed salad, tofu, oshinko (pickled Japanese vegetables), edamame (soybeans), vegetable tempura, and vegan sushi appetizer.

There are also eight non-vegan appetizers: dobin-mushi soup (seafood and vegetable), takoyaki (octopus), shrimp and vegetable tempura, shrimp shumai, yaki-tori (grilled chicken), chicken kara-age (chicken nuggets), sushi appetizer, and sashimi appetizer. 

Nagomi offers three types of pot dinners: sukiyaki (thin sliced beef and vegetables with a soy-based sauce), shabu-shabu (thin sliced beef and vegetables simmered in broth), and mizutaki (thin sliced chicken and vegetables simmered in broth).

Yukio and Reiko Fukunaga

They offer a box dinner that comes with a choice of salmon, chicken, chicken teriyaki, or chicken kara-age. It comes with miso soup and salad. The box dinner for two has the options of salmon and chicken, sushi and sashimi, or vegan. 

Other hot entrees include unaju (grilled eel), pork cutlet, chicken cutlet, shrimp and vegetable tempura, and vegetable tempura. 

They serve sushi and sashimi ala carte and also offer three types of platters that diners can select. 

“We love their authenticity and kindness,” Erika Peck, of Covington, said. “I feel like I’ve never had sushi before, the freshness and plating are unparalleled.”

The dessert options are matcha (Japanese green tea) pudding and dorayaki (Japanese muffins). Nagomi serves Japanese beer, sake, soft drinks, and green tea. They serve wine, too. 

Their most popular dishes are sushi and box dinners. They recommend dinner for two that includes sushi, sashimi, and tempura (deep-fried vegetables). This option offers quite a few small bites and gives diners an idea of what Japanese food is.

“If they don’t know anything about Japanese food, ask us,” Yukio Fukunaga said. “We can guide them and introduce them to Japanese food. For example, sushi. A lot of people think that everything is raw. Not everything is raw. It is fresh and can be cooked. I used to run a restaurant that serves 150. No personal touch. We enjoy running a small business. We got to know a lot of people in the restaurant and become friends.”

This restaurant can be a great option for someone with limited knowledge of Japanese food.

“The food at Nagomi is great. It was my first time eating Japanese food and it completely exceeded my expectations,” said Francisco Barraza, from Cincinnati. “Besides that, the staff always made us feel at home, even taking the time to chat with us as if we were old friends The ambiance and décor are also amazing. All in all, Nagomi is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the Cincinnati metro area.”

The story of how Yukio and Reiko ended up owning and operating Nagomi is as interesting as the authentic dining experience Nagomi offers. 

Growing up in Japan, Yukio Fukunaga learned about Japanese cuisine from his grandfather, who took him to many nice Japanese restaurants that provided great food and service, ranging from high-end, such as restaurants that required membership, to low-end, such as street food. Sometimes in the fancier restaurants, Yukio dined in the kitchen and observed the business side of it.  

Later in life, Yukio left Japan to attend college in the United States in 1969 at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He had a double major in Economics and Fine Arts. While Yukio was a student, he worked at a Japanese restaurant that was owned and staffed by Japanese immigrants for six years. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to assistant sushi chef. Yukio was trained in sushi, deep-fried tempura, sauteed food, the grill, and plating. 

After graduation, Yukio chose to remain in the United States and moved to the East Coast, where he worked as a fine art painter. After a while, he began managing art galleries in Philadelphia and founded a business consulting firm for international business.

Years later, Yukio moved to Cincinnati and opened Ko-Sho Japanese Restaurant in Downtown Cincinnati in 1996. He said that Ko-Sho means “my place” in Japanese. Five years later, Ko-Sho moved to the north side but kept the same name. 

Eventually, Yukio was introduced to his future wife, Reiko, by a mutual friend, while she was living in Japan and he was living in the United States. They communicated long-distance for a couple of years, and eventually, they met in person. 

Reiko has a doctorate in architecture specializing in historic buildings. Throughout her career, she worked as an executive secretary for a law firm and a hospital. Reiko also created a nonprofit organization to maintain a historic house with a garden that has been in her family for eight generations. The house and garden are open to the public. The house, which is in northeastern Japan, away from the more tourist-oriented southwestern Japan, gets over 1,000 visitors a year. 

Later on, Reiko moved to the United States and married Yukio here. One might wonder if she likes living in Northern Kentucky, which is very different from Japan.

“I love it,” Reiko Fukunaga said. “There are quite a few historical buildings.”

The couple decided to buy a place in Covington to introduce real Japanese culture to locals. In 2012, they purchased a residential building in MainStrasse Village that was built in 1901 and was in poor shape. At the time, Yukio was still operating Ko-Sho. 

Why did they leave Cincinnati for NKY?

“Covington is right across the street from Cincinnati and I like the neighbors,” Yukio Fukunaga said. “Once we married, we lived in Covington by the river. We like Covington. People are more friendly in Covington.” 

It took them years of renovations and effort, but they fixed the place up and created their small Japanese restaurant. The restaurant displays one of Yukio’s artworks and pictures of Reiko’s historic family home. Yukio said that Nagomi means “authentic flavor” in Japanese. The restaurant premiered in July 2020 during the pandemic. It was not easy to operate a restaurant during the restrictions but the quality of their food attracted enough customers to keep them going. 

The restaurant used to be open for lunch on select days but since the vast majority of business happens at dinner, lunch will only be offered on special occasions, such as holidays.

Last year marked 25 years that Yukio was in the restaurant business in this region. He wanted to celebrate but did not because of the pandemic’s restrictions. Hence, this year he plans to make a big announcement on social media to celebrate his 26 years of serving authentic Japanese food to our region.

Nagomi serves more than just Japanese food.

“We like to introduce real Japanese culture and heritage by running a restaurant. We can introduce them to Japanese history, culture, arts, crafts, and food,” Yukio Fukunaga said. 

And patrons seem to enjoy what Nagomi has to offer.

“Wonderful restaurant and service. I cannot eat gluten and they were extremely accommodating. I will definitely go again,” Nicole Marie from Covington said. “I had a wonderful conversation with the owner afterward.”