Undiscovered New York: East Village by way of Japan

Japan lies more than 6,500 miles away from New York, separated by an entire continent and the world’s largest ocean. But don’t let the distance fool you – there’s no place in the U.S. outside the West Coast that packs more Japanese culture per square foot than New York City.

Throughout the city you’ll find numerous Japanese restaurants, cultural events and businesses. Although the variety is great, covering everything from sushi spots to Japanese department stores like Takashimaya to Cherry Blossom festivals, finding New York’s Japanese culture can be a workout. It’s scattered all over the city.

Thankfully there is one area you can go to get a taste of Japan all in one place – Manhattan’s East Village. No area offers a higher concentration of Japanese culture. Though it bears no official title, the area is practically its own “Japantown,” boasting authentic Japanese businesses and cuisine: laid-back izakayas, quirky toy stores, hidden sake bars and authentic Japanese groceries are all waiting to be discovered.

Is that plane ticket to Tokyo not in the budget this year? Cheer up – consider New York as your backup option. Want to eat some of the best ramen this side of the Pacific Ocean? Do you know the difference between hot and cold sake? Looking for a place to pick up that obscure Astro Boy figurine? Then grab your suitcase as Undiscovered New York takes you to Japan by way of the East Village…
Ramen!!!!
If there’s one Japanese food we particularly love here at Undiscovered New York, it’s ramen. The truth of the matter is nothing beats the perfect combination of salty noodles, spicy toppings, fatty pork and crunchy vegetables that comprise one of Japan’s most famous dishes. You really have to try it to understand why.

New York’s East Village is ground zero for some of the city’s best ramen spots. Foodies love to debate which ramen shop has the best and/or most authentically Japanese ramen. Is it David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, a relative newcomer that now includes three sister restaurants? Or what about Ramen Setagaya, the spot many purists claim is most faithful to the Japanese ramen recipe? Not if you listen to the owners of straight-from-Japan Ippudo, the newest addition to the East Village’s brewing “ramen wars.” The only way to decide is to head to the East Village and try for yourself. Forget the fact we didn’t even cover the East Village’s numerous yakitoris, izakayas and sushi spots. That’s enough for its own post!

Japanese Toys
It’s sometimes said that New Yorkers live in a state of perpetual adolescence, always delaying the onset of adulthood for the priorities of career, finances and fun. There’s certainly some truth to that statement when you consider the preponderance of Japanese toy stores in the East Village, offering the latest and greatest in Japanese playthings.

Among the favorites is Toy Tokyo, stocking everything from your favorite 1980′s movie figurines to Japan’s favorite monster, Godzilla. Just a short walk east is J 1 Pan Toy, which carries a similarly impressive collection of Japanese stationery, DVD’s and greeting cards. Just one block north is Giant Robot, a gallery space with a smallish collection that tends to skew more towards the savvy and obsessive figurine collectors. If you still can’t get enough of that Japanese merchandise, there’s Aica, a retailer that specializes in “hard-to-find” collectibles straight from the motherland.

Time for a drink
If all the salty ramen and scouring of Japanese toy stores has made you thirsty, it’s time for a cold beverage. You could do worse than stopping by Decibel, an “underground” sake bar that’s literally hidden in the basement down a flight of steps. Stocking a huge selection of more than 70 varieties of the beverage, it’s a great place to try both hot and cold sakes and hang out with a friend.

If your thirst is more of the non-alcoholic variety, never fear, the East Village boasts several authentic Japanese grocery stores. Grab yourself a cold bottle of green tea or some Pocari Sweat over at Sunrise Mart. Nearby is Korean grocer M2M, which stocks a surprisingly large array of Japanese products, as well as JAS Mart on St. Mark’s.