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Toki Masubuchi: Dragon King's Daughter

By Mckenna Graham

Photos by Matt Johnson 

There once was a Dragon King. And this Dragon King, as the Lotus Sutra tells it, had a daughter. At the time this story took place, no one believed that a woman could obtain enlightenment. But the Dragon King’s Daughter stood unmoved and said, “Watch me.”

It was this story from Buddhist literature that inspired Toki Masubuchi, owner of Dragon King’s Daughter, when she bestowed the name upon her now popular sushi restaurant located at 1543 Bardstown Road. 

Toki, who is originally from Osaka, Japan, has spent over twenty years in the restaurant industry, beginning at fifteen years old when she worked as a server in her father’s restaurant. “My family is a food family,” she says, “My dad was working for two chain restaurants. He didn’t own the restaurant but he worked in the restaurant all day long. He started as a dishwasher and then became regional manager.” Many years later, Toki would be owning and operating her own establishment, opening Maido on Frankfort Avenue in 2003 and later Dragon King’s Daughter (DKD) in 2009. 

“My dad came over here to help me open [Maido] but we got in a fight and he left before we could open the restaurant. At the airport when he was leaving he said you’re going to fail. But you’re going to pay me back because I had borrowed money from him. And that was the last word he said and then he was gone.” 

It was not only the words from her father but also locals that warned of the bumpy road ahead, telling Toki the location at Frankfort Avenue (and later the original location of DKD on Bardstown Road) was cursed. The early days of both eateries lived up to the warnings and offered an uphill battle. Toki describes working seven days a week from opening to closing for many years without a paycheck and the terror of empty tables night after night when employees and rent needed to be paid. Yet, necessity was the mother of invention and difficult days at Maido sometimes led to the accidental development of dishes that would later make their way onto the DKD menu. The famous lemongrass miso soup at DKD is one such dish, resulting from day-old miso soup being recycled for Maido staff meal with the welcome addition of coconut milk, invoking the aromatics of Tom Kha. Similarly, the Hawk roll was born from a moment of using leftover odds and ends to feed a hungry staff member named Hawkins. 

“My first employees [at Maido] were from Mexico and they would bring food sometimes and share with me… we started combining things together. So, when I opened another restaurant I wanted to use that as a concept—like Mexican Japanese.” That idea later came to life when Toki opened DKD in 2009. Hard work would accompany growing success for the business, eventually leading to their 2019 move to the former Café Mimosa building. The move increased DKD’s square footage and allowed for the opportunity to reimagine their outdoor seating in a way that was not possible on the sidewalk space of the previous building. 

“The patio space was one of the major reasons we decided to move the business,” says DKD manager, Doug Turner, “Having a space that large for outdoor seating in the Highlands was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up!” Toki and Turner have both traveled to Japan to research elements of the Japanese gardens that would inform the new patio’s design. The outdoor space they crafted feels intimate and peaceful, but still inviting and casual. Booths are protected from the elements under a roof that boasts recessed lighting and ceiling fans, but it’s the space between booths that makes the outdoor area truly special. Instead of focusing on maximizing capacity of seats, Toki and Turner allowed for room between the booths and installed in these spaces skylights, trees and tropical plants. 

“We have always tried our best to bring a little bit of Japan back to Louisville,” continues Turner, “This was just another way in which we could. I personally am a gardener and love the experience of being around plants, and have always loved Japanese Gardens. The essential elements of water, plants, and rocks with simple clean lines create a tranquil retreat.”

Seeing the beautiful patio as it opens for the summer of 2024 and the restaurant bubbling with life, staff members buzzing around busily to attend to all the customers, it’s hard to believe tables at this establishment once sat empty. When asked how she persevered through those years of hardship, Toki defers to the Buddhism that she has practiced since 1999 saying, “I can’t blame anybody for whatever is going on in my life. The only way to change it is to change myself from the deepest level... I have to change my perspective to see why I am here, to see struggle as the opportunity to grow and ultimately be like the dragon King’s daughter. She was the first one to prove everybody wrong. I have to be the person to prove everybody wrong. To prove I have all these obstacles but I can still make it.” 


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