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Lauren Griffin Published

Yama: A Japanese Community Space In Morgantown, W.Va. 

Six smiling people are shown - five women and one man. They pose for a photo from behind a counter at a restaurant they work at. Some are dressed with black aprons.
Some of Yama’s staff members. (L to R) Miki Carducci and her son, Hugo Carducci, Yama owner Min Kim, staff members Natsuko Uchida and Jenny Corona.
Lauren Griffin/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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This story originally aired in the Feb. 11, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

High Street in Morgantown, West Virginia is a bustling strip of activity. On any given day, university students and locals can be found enjoying the many restaurants, bars and special events that downtown has to offer. Tucked away off the main drag is a place called Yama. It’s a cozy diner that’s been serving up authentic homestyle Japanese food since the 1990s. 

As you walk into Yama, the workers greet you with a warm smile. The restaurant invites you to slow down and spend some time connecting. You can pick up a manga comic to read, or enjoy the Japanese TV playing in the background. 

A woman stands at a counter while a cooking show is seen on the TV next to her. Above her are colorful fish decorations that look like they are made from paper.
Anna Hayhurst followed in the footsteps of her two older sisters and started working at Yama this year. She takes orders while a Japanese cooking show plays in the background.

Credit: Lauren Griffin/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The food here is different from what you typically find in nearby Japanese restaurants. Less sushi, more comfort foods. Like katsudon, a pork cutlet over rice. 

Yama attracts diehard regulars, like Sun Lee. Lee is from Korea but has been living in Morgantown since 2005. She visits Yama once or twice a week. She became friends with the staff and has tried most things on the menu. 

“Honestly, I got a little bit annoyed when they closed down a lot during COVID. I always had to check my Instagram or Facebook to check their business hours,” said Lee. 

Yama the restaurant was started in the 1990s by Mitsuo Yamashita, but everyone calls him Yama. Yama prioritized hiring staff that were Japanese or Japanese American. People like Miki Carducci. Carducci is from Osaka, Japan, and she has been working at Yama for years. She loves the food, especially the crispy teriyaki tofu.

“Teriyaki tofu isn’t what Japanese people eat. That’s his creation,” Carducci said. The restaurant serves up classic dishes, but Yama also put his own spin on things. 

Yama trained as a chef back in his home country of Japan. He made his way to Pittsburgh, where he worked in a sushi restaurant. Japanese students attending West Virginia University (WVU) begged him to open up his own place in Morgantown. So, he decided to open up a casual restaurant for college students.

An older Japanese man smiles for the camera while holding a tray full of food. He wears a black ball cap.
Mitsuo Yamashita, or Yama, started the restaurant in the 1990s. Here he is showing off some myoga, or Japanese ginger.

Credit: Min Kim/Courtesy

About half the workers at Yama are students. Miki Carducci’s son, Hugo Carducci, recently started working at Yama with his mom. 

Growing up in West Virginia, Hugo rarely met other Japanese people. The Japanese community is very small. He said he regularly encountered people who had never met an Asian person before. 

Hugo and his family moved to Pittsburgh, and eventually Morgantown. Now, he’s a student at West Virginia University down the street. For him, Yama is a community space that lets him explore and share in his Japanese identity. 

“The other day, someone came in and we got in an entire conversation in Japanese for like 10-15 minutes. We’re one of the only places here in Morgantown that can offer that,” Hugo said. 

A woman takes an order. In front of her is a line of delicious looking Japanese food on a counter. She smiles for the camera and wears a black apron.
Staff member Ryoko Kijimoto serves up rich rice bowls and ramen in Yama’s diner atmosphere.

Credit: Min Kim/Courtesy

I actually used to be a regular at Yama. I studied Japanese at WVU, and I would hang out at Yama for hours with friends, like Kaoru Shirashi. I called him up recently, and he told me how he felt a little afraid when he first arrived in Morgantown. To him, the area was so rural and sparse. 

But Yama became a comforting place for him and other Japanese students at WVU. It reminded them of home in a place where the familiar was hard to come by. 

“I feel like I’m in Japan, even though I’m in Yama restaurant in West Virginia,” Shirashi said.

Yama himself was a big part of that comforting atmosphere. He would remember customers and sometimes bring you a little treat, like mochi ice cream. 

Yama’s not at the restaurant anymore, though. He retired a few years ago and moved back to Japan. Now there’s a new owner. 

Min Kim has operated Yama since 2016. Before she took over, she had never worked in a restaurant. Her primary focus was raising her daughter. She heard from a friend that Yama was looking for help. Kim needed a job, and Yama needed a successor, even one that didn’t know much about running a restaurant.

Kim apprenticed with Yama for four years, learning his recipes and the ins and outs of the kitchen. 

“The most challenging dish was tempura. Because Yama-san, he graduated from culinary school,” says Kim. 

Two bowls of freshly made Japanese food are shown side-by-side on a counter.
Teriyaki chicken and tempura udon are some of the dishes on Yama’s menu.

Credit: Min Kim/Courtesy

Even though she doesn’t have formal culinary training, Kim has perfected all of Yama’s dishes. But she’s not Japanese — she’s Korean. Some customers ask her if she’ll add Korean dishes to the menu, but she insists she wants to keep Yama as a Japanese homestyle restaurant. 

Kim said her apprenticeship with Yama was more than just learning recipes. She also became part of a family. 

“Yama has its own energy, like a living creature. It’s just not a place,” Kim said. 

Papering the corner of the restaurant are postcards, letters, and doodles from customers expressing their love for Yama — its food and its people. The restaurant provides food, but also something more.

A corkboard is shown full of papers. Some are cards and others are drawings. All appear to be testimonials from satisfied customers.
A corkboard in Yama shows off the letters, doodles and cards that friends and fans have sent over the years.

Credit: Lauren Griffin/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Sometimes you see customers really down, depressed,” Kim said. “But they still come because they need comfort food. Just bring some sweetness to them. Come on, this is extra for you to make you cheer up.”

Yama is a little pocket of Japan among the hills of West Virginia. It’s a space where Japanese students and staff can share their language, culture and food. It’s also a place of comfort and connection for the larger community.

Many who come here simply love the food, but there are also hidden depths in a bowl of Yama’s ramen.

——

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.