Guide to Japanese Culture in NYC

By Tiffany X Yun

Japanese migration to New York City began in the 1890s, and by the early 1900s there were about 3,000 Japanese immigrants living in the City. Communities grew in Lincoln Square, the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, and in 1907, Japan Society, a nonprofit organization to foster culture exchanges between Japan in the US, was founded. Today, NYC has one of the largest Japanese American populations in the country with over 30,000 Japanese nationals, the majority of whom live in Manhattan.

Read on to discover how Japanese culture has had a lasting influence on the City through art, fashion and food.

Courtesy, Kaede Kimonos

Browse the selection of kimonos, the traditional Japanese dress at Kaede Kimonos Sales and Rental (224 W. 35th St.) with the help of a styling consultant. Founded in 2012, Kaede Kimonos offers kimono dressing classes and certificate courses, which teach basic theories behind kimonos plus how to tie and style them. Learn how occasion, gender, age and marital status can dictate the type of kimono one might wear. Try on the zori, traditional shoes for women that have thong straps and are worn with tabi, socks that separate the big toe. Kaede also offers photo shoots.

A few blocks over, learn Japanese pottery making at Togei Kyoshitsu (5 W. 30th St., 3rd fl.), which has been at the same location since opening in 1994. Navel-height desks, stools, heavy-duty tables and pottery wheels fill the space, and books on the craft line the open metal shelves. One-day or multi-week classes are offered for hand building and wheel throwing, taught in English and Japanese. Guests can glaze their work in a kiln and take it home with them.

Courtesy, KazuNori

For lunch, stop by KazuNori (15 W. 28th St.) in Nomad, north of Madison Square Park. The seaweed served here is imported from family plots on the southern tip of Japan. Order as many as six rolls from the hand roll set menu. Try the toro sashimi, the fatty part of the tuna’s belly and one of the most expensive pieces on the menu, and dip it in the house-prepared soy sauce—which has a hint of smokiness. The venue follows the customs of Japanese culture: it’s a no-tipping establishment; instead a hospitality fee is included in its menu prices.

Courtesy, Kinokuniya New York

Head uptown to Kinokuniya New York(1073 Sixth Ave.), a bookstore spanning three floors. Sections are dedicated to English books, anime collectibles and Japanese stationery. Manga and graphic novels from Japan, which read from top to bottom and right to left, take up a good portion of the second floor. On the same level is Cafe Zaiya, which overlooks Bryant Park and sells pastries, bento boxes, onigiri (Japanese rice balls) and beverages.

Uptown, stop by Katagiri (224 E. 59th St. and 370 Lexington Ave.), the oldest Japanese grocery store in the country, open since 1907, and the first Japanese grocery store in New York. The stores carry bluefin tuna, Wagyu beef, made-to-order rice bowls, onigiri and household goods. When in season, pick up some matsutake mushrooms, a delicacy in Japan found in high elevations and difficult to artificially cultivate. Grab a serving of takoyaki, a round fried street food filled with grilled octopus.

Courtesy, Japan Society

Japan Society (333 E. 47th St.) is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1907 and opened in its current iteration as a brick-and-mortar institution in 1971. The five-story black building with sun grilles was designed by Junzo Yoshimura and George Shimamoto. The space includes a 260-seat auditorium, language center, research library, museum gallery and lobby garden. It offers programs that teach the fundamentals of Kanji (one of three scripts used in Japanese writing) as well as film screenings, performing arts, lectures and sake tastings.

Courtesy, Patisserie Tomoko

Make your way to North Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Patisserie Tomoko (568 Union Ave.) for some dessert with tea and wine. They combine French- and European-style pastries with a touch of Japanese-inspired tastes and flavors, prepared in an open kitchen wrapped with bar seats. Order the dessert prix fixe that comes with wine, coffee and tea, or try à la carte treats like the yuzu mousse cake (yuzu is a hybrid citrus fruit that originated in China); the black sesame cookie (the seeds grow in the plant’s fruit pods and are primarily produced in Asia); green tea cheesecake; or yuzu chocolate mille crepe (paper-thin crêpes layered with cream). Pair with a matcha milk cocktail.

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Japan Village(934 3rdAve.) in Sunset Park has food stalls, a liquor store and restaurants. At night, lanterns illuminate the outdoor dining area. Order some kabocha pumpkin tempura and the pork or chicken katsu and dip them in wasabi mayo sauce. At the homemade udon and soba noodle cart, you can add on sansai—mountain vegetables and wakame (seaweed)—as a topping. Before leaving, grab some goodies at Sunrise Martlike a bottle of Ginga Kogen, which translates to “the plateau of the galaxy,” a beer brewed near Japan’s Mount Wagadake.

Courtesy, The Little One

In Chinatown, The Little One (150 East Broadway) is a Japanese-inspired dessert shop parallel to the Manhattan Bridge. The husband-and-wife owners both grew up on East Broadway. “One” is an acronym for their first names, Olivia and Eddie. Order the kakigōri, Japanese shaved ice. Try the hojicha flavor (roasted green tea), topped with lime zest, whipped cream, kinako (roasted soybean powder) and kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup). Other favorites include the Japanese pumpkin roll cake with kabocha squash, cream cheese and candied walnuts. Don’t leave without getting one of the monaka ice cream sandwiches, wrapped with thin, crispy wafers. Go for the chrysanthemum flavor.

Photo: Nicholas Knight

Get your culture fix at TheNoguchi Museum (9-01 33rd Rd.), which showcases the work of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi, who died in 1988, chose this area in Long Island City as his studio for its simplicity. Today it’s a two-story museum with an indoor-outdoor gallery and a sculpture garden, with bamboo and cherry blossoms throughout.


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