At Sayonara, a new Japanese-themed bar in Salt Lake City, the beauty is in the smallest details.
Owner Ashton Aragon and his wife, Elle Aragon, brought all of the knickknacks, prints, lanterns, posters, flags and other decor back with them from their trips to Japan, where Elle (pronounced “Ellie”) was born in Tokyo.
The concept of the booths in the center of Sayonara (Japanese for a form of “goodbye”) is straight from Japan as well. Made to resemble Tokyo’s historic Harmonica Alley, where narrow lanes are packed with tiny bars and restaurants, each of the bar’s four booths has a different feel.
It’s all part of the Aragons’ vision of bringing a bit of Tokyo to the downtown bar scene. “I really love it in Japan,” Ashton Aragon said. “It’s my favorite place. It’s our favorite place.”
An introduction to Japan
Ashton Aragon met Elle at his comfort-food-centric restaurant Tradition, which he opened with business partner Max Shrives near Liberty Park in 2017. The Aragons — who got married last year — were inspired to open a Japanese bar after they started traveling to the country together.
Elle Aragon’s Utah-born father met her Japanese mother while he was on a proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tokyo, she said. While her parents ultimately decided to raise her and her three brothers in Utah, they’d always spend two months each summer with their Japanese family.
Elle Aragon now describes Japan as a “second home,” and still has several aunts, uncles, cousins and a brother who live there. Her family has a house in Tokyo that was built by Elle’s late grandmother, Masako Anzai, and she and Ashton Aragon stay there whenever they visit.
After Elle Aragon introduced Ashton to her family, they in turn introduced him to parts of Japan and its culture that outsiders typically don’t know about, he said.
“You can look at travel blogs, you can get on YouTube and look up the top 10 best things to do in this neighborhood,” Ashton Aragon said. “But I’ve gone to places with ... her family where people look at me like, ‘How did you find this place? You’re the only non-Japanese person I’ve ever seen here.’”
In the winter of 2022, when he and Shrives were looking to expand beyond Tradition, they snagged the sought-after space at the southwest corner of 300 South and State Street, where Ginger Street was previously located.
After a seven-month buildout, Ashton Aragon opened Sayonara with Shrives in July.
Sayonara’s visual charm
Within the four booths in Sayonara, “we wanted each booth to feel like its own little shop in Tokyo, how they’re all different,” Elle Aragon said.
In the old-fashioned Kewpie booth, look for the vintage Kewpie doll from Elle Aragon’s childhood — and see if you can spot the photos of her grandmother, Masako. Japanese records and more vintage knickknacks line the shelves.
Hand-painted fox masks decorate the orange inari booth, which is brightly lit with a cluster of Japanese lanterns. Pages from a book about samurai are pasted on a wall in the samurai booth, where a red lamp glows dimly over the table.
In the flashy anime booth, decorated with neon and more lanterns, the walls are plastered with scenes and characters from various animes. One neon sign says, “SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY,” a nod to the Japanese animated show “Cowboy Bebop.”
Also featured in Sayonara is the art of Elle Aragon, whose work as the bar’s unofficial creative director gives it its unique look.
You can spot her paintings of motifs such as a snake, a beckoning lucky cat, a frog, a geisha, a koi fish and a demon in one of the bathrooms. Look for her paintings of characters from the animated movie “Spirited Away” — Kaonashi (also known as “No Face”) and Boh the mouse being carried by Yu-Bird — in the bar area.
Look for even more visual details soon: Elle Aragon is about to take another trip to Japan to bring back more decorative items for Sayonara.
An izakaya experience
Whether you decide to cozy up in one of the themed booths, belly up to the bar, sit out on the patio, or crowd around one of the large wooden tables with your friends, Sayonara has plenty for you to sip on while you do so.
The drink menu — Elle Aragon drew it by hand — features house cocktails like the ume martini with shochu, gin and pickled plum ($12); the wasabi mule ($11); and the snow cone chuhai, with shochu, ramune syrup, yuzu and nigori sake floated on top ($13).
There’s a range of about 30 beers, including several local beers and imported Japanese beers, as well as a small wine list. The spirit list features speciality Japanese whiskeys including Nikka Coffey Malt ($23) and 18-year Hakata Sherry Cask ($49).
The several highballs on the menu are examples of the drink that’s so popular in Japan, with options like the O.G. (just Suntory Toki whiskey and soda water, $12) and the lemon umezu (with gin, plum vinegar, lemon and soda, $10).
And it wouldn’t be a Japanese bar without sake. Options range from Gekkeikan blended sake ($6 for a 5-ounce pour) to Tensei Song of the Sea ($24).
Since Sayonara is new, Ashton Aragon said the bar is still a bit of a work in progress. But he said that when Sayonara is running at full speed, it will provide the experience of a Japanese “izakaya,” or pub, with street food to nibble on while sipping a drink. Elle Aragon said the menu will comprise “easy finger food that sounds good when you’re drinking.”
For now, there is a limited food menu of tsukune (grilled chicken meatballs, $2), housemade gyoza (or potstickers, four pieces, $10), and yuzu & togarashi shrimp skewers ($4). There are also snacks in a vending machine near the door — a tribute to the ubiquitous vending machines of Japan — with items including imported rice crackers, candy and chips.
Sayonara is open seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Follow the bar on Instagram at @sayonaraslc.
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