A semi-Japan Town in Manhattan

Diversity on St. Marks The ebb and flow of New York neighborhoods is a great example of how cities evolve.

When I attended Pratt Institute in the late 1970s, the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan along St. Marks Place (8th Street becomes St. Marks Place east of 3rd Ave.) was a haven for punk rockers and hipsters, with used record stores (this was pre-CD) and tattoo shops. Drugs were a currency on the street, and leather the couture of choice.

I can recall walking the block of St. Mark’s between and 3rd and 2nd Ave. shopping for rare British import albums and marveling at all the street vendors with their wares — jewelry, records and cassettes, used books — spread out on blankets on the sidewalk.

That was then. This is now.

I was in the neighborhood the other night to meet someone for dinner at Veselka, a terrific Ukrainian restaurant on 2nd Ave. at 9th Street, and took a leisurely stroll down St. Marks. There is an explosion of Japanese culture on the block, mostly in the form of restaurants that have sprouted like matsutake mushrooms in the urban shadows.

It’s not just Japanese businesses on the block — there are still vestiges of the old St. Marks Place, with used CD shops and tattoo parlors, plus lots of other ethnic restaurants, a typical New York mix. You can sunter past a skull-and-crossbones sign advertising a punky shop right next to a restaurant with its menu in Japanese. I stood at one point mid-block and wrote down the list of eateries and businesses I could see from my vantage point:

Zen Noodle Cafe, JAS Mart (a Japanese deli and dessert shop), Go Japanese Restaurant, Dojo Restaurant, Tasty Falafel, Addiction NYC Tattoo and Body Piercing, Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, two fast-food chains (Chipotle and Subway), and Khyber Pass Afghani Restaurant. That’s standing in one place.

The couture these days is still hipster, but more designer and less leather. I could hear Japanese spoken everywhere as groups of people walked by, along with that American English accent that’s particular to New York, and a spattering of Spanish and what I assume is Russian or Ukrainian (there’s a long-established ukrainian neighborhood east of 2nd Ave.).

The cultural bounty extends around the block from St. Marks Place. If you start from 3rd Ave. and walk along one block north, 9th Street, you’ll find Sunrise Mart (a tiny but well-stocked japanese supermarket crammed into a second-floor space), Yoko Cho restaurant, Panya bread and pastry bakery and Sharaku restaurant, on one short diagonal stretch that curves into 9th Street proper.

Then there’s Hasakim Tsampa Tibetan natural home cooking restaurant, Hoshi Coupe offering shiatsu massage (it’s a salon, not a restaurant), La Paella Spanish restaurant, and Yakiniku West restaurant all next door to each other. Farther down the street: Cha An Tea House, Soba Ya noodle restaurant, and a tiny walk-up place called Otafuku, serving only three items: yakisoba fried noodles, okonomiyaki, a Japanese egg, veggies and meat pancake, and takoyaki, tasty balls of fried octopus.

The place is simple. And very popular, with lines waiting to step inside to order, and folks sitting on the bench out front, waiting for their food.

It was hard to hold off from pigging out on japanese food the other night. I was glad, because I had a great Ukrainian meal that started with borscht (beet soup) and was topped off with a meat combination dish that included pirogis and kielbasa sausage.

I know if I go back next week, I can choose from all those Japanese joints down the block. The challenge will be to pick one instead of having multiple meals.

But if I wait 10 years and go back, who knows what the old neighborhood will be like? There’s one clue: kitty corner from Veselka at 2nd Ave. and 9th Street is a Starbucks (where, I admit, I sat and had an iced Matcha — green tea — Latte while I waited for my dinner date.

Maybe in a decade, the area will be all yuppified. After all, it’s happened in lots of other bohemian areas of New York.

That’s the thing about the evolution of a city — you can’t stop it. You can sit stop by and have a bite to eat at whatever sprouts up. For now, I’m thrilled that there’s a semi-J Town there.

Note: Here’s a thought-provoking essay and response (and counter-response) about “How to Tell a Real Japanese Restaurant.” I’ll blog about this later, after I digest all of the text, because this is a subject I think about a lot.

I don’t quite agree with the original writer — I think he goes off on a tangent and I think the guy who wrote the response was at least partially correct in his assessment of the writer. But the concept of “authenicity” and what’s a “real” Japanese restaurant is something I experienced just a few days ago…. More to come!

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8 Responses to A semi-Japan Town in Manhattan

  1. Justin says:

    Hola dude Gil!
    So very good to see you writing again, mon. I’m enjoying it all and especially the renewed Nikkei View.
    Sorry to have missed you when I was back over Christmas, but hope this year will take me to the NYC area for at least a short stay before I go upstate to see my dad and sister in Syretchcuse.
    As ever,
    Justin in HK and SZ

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Justin, great to hear form you. I took a long break from keeoing up with your blog (note to readers, I have it in my blogroll, click to Shenzhen Zen), but the other day I was reading it again and enjoying your take on being in Hong Kong. I’m glad you’ve kept it up!

  3. Stephen says:

    Hello Gil Asakawa,

    Just wondering if you would help me out in finding the Japanese Community in New York. I have a Japanese Documentary that I am showing in New York in September and was wondering if you would help me out in reaching the Japanese community.

    I am posting on the net as much as I can, but would really like some insider help. Great site by the way.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Stephen, got your comment on my blog, and I wanted to respond with a quick note to say I should be able to get you some contacts, but first, I need to know:

    Are you talking about the Japanese Japanese community (first-generation Japanese immigrants or businesspeople or diplomats on assignment in the area), or a community of japanese Americans? There’s some overlap, but not always, between them.

    Also, I may not be able to get you info immediately until this weekend… It’s nuts here in Denver because of the DNC, and I work in the media (online) and am involved in Asian American issues, so I’ve been crazed all week.

  5. Stephen says:

    Hi Gill,

    I know you have been super busy. I just wanted to say thank you for have such a fun site. Just leaving a comment left me with 87 backlinks. How do you manage this?

    Anyway I still am not having very much luck contacting New Yorkers. If you get any free time I am up for advice.

  6. Stephen says:

    Sorry Gil for adding an extra L above.

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    Yo Stephen, I’ve sent you an email with coupla contacts for JAs in NY, and some suggestions for reaching out to the Japanese community. I wondered, though, what is your documentary about? I see you’re involved in a lot of Asian cultural audio recordings as well as film….

  8. Stephen says:

    Hi Gil,

    Well we had a really good turn out for our movie. Just wanted to say thank you for all your help. I wanted to ask if you would post our trailer on your site just in case someone out there might be interested.

    Thanks again,

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