Konnichiwa, NYC: Your Guide to New York’s Incredible Japanese Scene

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So you’re visiting New York. You’ve got your reasons: a Broadway show, that sublime pizza slice, Central Park strolls, spotting a bed bug in the wild, people-watching par excellence, Times Square weirdness.

But one of the biggest pluses of coming to NYC is also one of the littlest-known: New York is an American hub for Japanese culture. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities with big Japanese populations, but I’m finding New York’s scene to be just as robust — if not more so. I hear the language everywhere, and izakayas, ramen-yas, shochu bars and Japanese specialty stores run high in volume and authenticity.

So, I’m starting something that’ll hopefully be a fixture on this blog. Here’s how it works: I’m going to be your Japanophile-about-town. I cruise Gotham’s extensive sushi-and-sake scene, then report my dispatches back to you guys.

Whether you’re a fellow New Yorker, an out-of-towner, an udon-seeking foodie, a hairspray-loving cosplayer, or just looking for a decent tuna roll, these tips will help you get the most out of this town’s numerous Japanese offerings. Here are three to start.

Cafe Zaiya

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What: Japanese cafe selling freshly made bento boxes, made-to-order lunches like curry and hot soba, rice balls, and Japanese baked goods, like melon-flavored bread and green tea-black sesame swirled soft serve (see below). All of these individual foods could warrant their own blog post. (They likely will.) And at Zaiya, they all taste like they’re straight from a corner mom-and-pop bakery in Anytown, Japan. Great lunch spot, especially if you’re checking out the main library, Times Square, Bryant Park, Radio City, or Rockefeller Center, all of which are nearby.

WhereMidtown EastMidtown WestEast Village

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Kinokuniya Books

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What: If you’re from San Francisco, LA, Seattle, or just a couple other lucky American cities, you’re already acquainted with this Japanese bookstore chain. If you’re everyone else, but have even a flickering iota of interest in Japanese culture, go here. The main floor is a Barnes and Noble-worthy collection of American and Japanese books. The bottom floor is almost entirely in Japanese, and is filled with nihonjin shoppers. (You’ll also find a cornucopia of Japanese study materials here.) The top floor: otaku nirvana, packed with manga and comics galore. There’s also a Cafe Zaiya (see above), Japanese crafts and stationery for sale, and a great view of Bryant Park, my favorite park in New York.

Where: Midtown West

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Yakitori Taisho

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What: An izakaya is a very casual Japanese pub that serves tapas-style dishes that go great with booze. Here, you can get a solid izakaya experience, focusing on yakitori, skewers of assorted poultry parts: thigh, gizzard, heart, liver, what-have-you. Grilled in a sweet sauce and served on a stick. All mad delicious. The menu is extensive — in both food and libations. If this is your first izayaka experience, however, opt for a nice mug of draft beer, and be sure to exclaim kanpai! (cheers) before digging into your savory chicken miscellanea.

Where: East Village

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That’s it for now. But check back here for more NYC travel tips that’ll tell you the best ways to dive headfirst into our city’s vibrant Japanese scene. Remember — in New York, Japan is closer than you think! (Also: If you go to the Times Square TGI Friday’s instead of Yakitori Taisho, do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.)

Stay tuned!

Japanese Shaved Ice Puts Slush Puppies to Shame

This coming from a guy who loves a good Slush Puppy — preferably Smurf-hued and from a gas station.

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But during my first summer in Japan, my palate for syrup-drenched ice dishes evolved to new levels of sophistication, thanks to kakigori, Japan’s luxe version of a snow cone.

You’ll find this stuff everywhere during Japan’s wicked hot, wicked humid months, particularly as street food or summer festival fare. In many cases, it’s the same as American shaved ice: Essentially a reconfigured popsicle, it’s finely crushed or shaved ice doused in synthesized, sugary juices, served in a paper cup.

But kakigori can also be very different. First, it often comes with just the right amount of syrup drizzled on top. (Not like Fla-Vor-Ice, whose empty sleeve often leaves behind a few shots’ worth of slurppable lemon-lime liquid.) Instead, Japanese people often pile on toppings, like fresh kiwi, melon, whipped cream, or macerated berries.

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Another common topping is azuki, which are red beans whose flavor is extremely common in Japanese desserts, particularly as a paste. A solid kakigori combo? Green tea-flavored ice topped with mountains of the semisweet, maroon legumes.

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If you’re a Westerner reading this, my guess is that you probably think this looks pretty gross. Well, if you live in a large, cosmopolitan city, you might soon be whistling a different tune, because kakigori is one of the latest dishes riding the washoku wave into the Anglosphere’s culinary circles.

Beard Papa, a Japanese cream puff chain that’s already up and running in places like New York and San Francisco, now has kakigori on its menu. Not the azuki variety (yet), but mango. They’re calling it “mango ice shower,” which sounds vaguely like a Chris Kattan SNL it. But hey, whatever reels ’em in!

Stay cool out there, beans or no beans.

Who Doesn’t Love Burritos?! Like, Most of Asia.

How Americans feel about Chipotle:

How the Japanese feel about Chipotle:

While Mexican food exists in Asia, the place does not observe Taco Tuesday. In America? Nachos are as much a staple in our cultural pantry as apple pie, Snapple, and Chicken in a Biskit.

But there is no Taco Bell in Japan. Or Chipotle. Or Moe’s, Qdoba, or Del Taco.

My burrito-less year in Japan — which I sometimes refer to it as Dinner: Impossible, or An Elegy for a Quesadilla — made me acutely aware of my near dependence on warm, cheesy, spicy foodstuffs.

In January, Chipotle reported a nearly 18 percent increase in sales for 2013, bringing revenue well over $3 billion. What does this mean for you? As the company opens more locations, you’ll likely have even more access to midday barbacoa bowls on your next strip mall crawl.

But if you travel to eastern Asia for work — and more of you will, as U.S. companies continue strengthening ties with that region — you’ll observe cities replete with McDonald’s and KFC, but still no Taco Bell.*

According to NPD, Mexican restaurants make up no more than 1 percent of the food market in any country, besides the U.S. That study is including Asia-Pacific markets, such as China, Japan, and Australia.

Even in London, Chipotle struggles to make it big. Experts suggest that international customers gravitate more toward “real” American food — or what they perceive to be “real” American food — like burgers or fried chicken. That might explain why, unlike Chipotle, Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts have really been hitting their stride on the global stage.

When you’re ordering refillable chips and salsa at happy hour, you’re engaging in a very American activity. Due to geographic consequence, our south-of-the-border neighbor’s cuisine can be found among Zagat-rated restaurants, holes-in-the-wall serving $5 “life-altering” fare, and Applebee’s nationwide.

In fast food, it’s dominated, even pre-Chipotle: Ballparks and cinemas schlep tortilla chips with hazardously yellow “cheez,” and Taco Bell’s cinnamon twists are Dollar Tree churros.

As an American, it’s easy to forget how pervasive Mexican food is. In this country, anyway.

Bonus factoid: I just got back from Japan last week, and I did notice that avocados are casting their creamy, fatty spell on the populace. “Avocado and cheese” even happens to be a flavor of Jagariko now, a crunchy, potato stick junk food in Japan.

So, who knows. Maybe Chipotle will infiltrate Japan someday. I’d be interested to see if Japanese people develop their own cultural soft spot for the increasingly profitable chain.

Japanese already spend a certain special occasion at KFC — lots of people line up in long queues there for Christmas dinner. God bless us, everyone. Including Colonel Sanders.

 

*: Which is fine, because you should be eating the local cuisine anyway.