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!

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