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…
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.

Eating your way through Japan – a photo gallery

The phrase “Japanese food” has a fairly standard meaning in the United States, conjuring images of sushi, instant noodles, seafood and teriyaki chicken. But as I discovered during my recent trip to Japan, the cuisine is far more diverse, delicious and surprising than I could have ever imagined.

Over the course of his trip, this intrepid Gadling blogger left no culinary stone unturned and no meal uneaten. Not only did I taste some of the freshest sushi and most savory ramen, I also ate some of the tastiest French creme puffs and the most tender Italian spaghetti. Let’s also not forget the many slimy, tentacled, raw and downright horrific things I ate too, which I’ve included as well for your viewing pleasure.

A special thanks to Gadling blogger Matthew Firestone for serving as my Japanese translator and food guide for this post. Don’t let him in front of a menu after he’s had a few cocktails!


Have some sake with your friend Super Mario

The Gadling crew has been spending a lot of hours in Japan recently. And as I discovered on my recent trip to Tokyo, the Japanese are completely obsessed with video games. The country that is home to Nintendo offers all manner of ways to get your gaming fix. In Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood, I discovered a store that sold nothing but vintage video game consoles, where systems like the Sega Game Gear to Neo Geo were available for purchase. Meanwhile, the gaudy neon-lit streets near Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station are lined with huge multi-story arcades, offering everything from head-to-head Tekken gaming stations to a video game where you can be a DJ with turntables.

This fanaticism for all things video game also extends to Japan’s nightlife scene, which is how I stumbled upon Muteki Mario. Located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, Muteki Mario is small bar based around the theme of Nintendo’s most famous video game character, Super Mario. My friends and I went head-to-head on the bar’s Mario Kart Wii game, complete with wireless steering wheels, while imbibing a few of my new favorite cocktail, single-serving glass jars of sake (Japanese rice wine). The bar’s theme even extends to the decor, which includes all manner of Mario and Luigi figurines, power-up mushrooms and star pillows that play the game’s invincible music when you squeeze them.

Part of the fun is trying to find the place…the website isn’t particularly helpful unless you speak Japanese, but I will say that it’s in the neighborhood just northeast of Shinjuku Station. Check the rather plain website and see if your hotel concierge can assist. Whether you’re a video game fanatic or just a casual Mario fan, I promise a hilariously fun night out.

Big in Japan: Sake tasting notes

I really love sake (?????????, nihonshu).

If you think about it, variety is indeed the spice of the life, especially in the bar. In the modern era of microbrews, alcopops and flavored vodkas, we are all secretly becoming closet gourmands.

Of course, all of these self-aggrandizing styles can’t match the sheer variety of flavors and styles of the sweet, delicious nectar that is sake.

Think sake is just rice wine? Don’t believe me that no two bottles of sake are created equally? Allow me to educate you on the high culinary art that is sake.

Much like wine is divided into red, white and varying shades in between, sake runs the spectrum from sweet and rounded with fruity overtones to dry and crisp with a powerful bite.

Of course, true wine connoisseurs can distinguish the variety of grape, just as true sake connoisseurs understand the different brewing styles.

Although there are literally dozens of sake brewing methods, this basic list will help you get started:

Yamahai (???) One of the most traditional methods of brewing sake, the mash is allowed to sour, which gives the final product a more intense flavor.

For more tasting notes on the sweet, delicious nectar that is sake, click on and keep reading!

Sokujō (速醸) Referred to as modern sake, lactic acid is added to the mash to speed up the production time, and subsequently yields a crisp and clean drink.

Muroka (無濾過) ‘Unfiltered’ sake is spared the charcoal filtering process, which creates a slightly cloudy brew that is extremely bold and complex in flavor.

Doburoku (濁酒) This classic unfiltered style is reminiscent of traditional homemade sake, and can come in a variety of flavors depending on the individual brewing methods.

Nigorizake (濁り酒) One of the most unusual types of sake, this unfiltered sake contains a large amount of rice sediment, and must be shaken before it can be served. The texture of nigorizake is extremely smooth and creamy, while the flavor is surprisingly sweet and rounded.

Namazake (生酒) ‘Fresh sake,’ which may can be made by any of the processes described above, is not pasteurized and best served chilled.

Kuroshu (黒酒) Something of an acquired taste, this Chinese-style sake uses unpolished (brown rice) to create a rough and ready brew that quickly overpower the palette.

Taruzake (樽酒) Absolutely delicious but difficult to find, this premium sake is aged in cedar casks, which imparts a unique spiciness to the final product.

Koshu (古酒) Although sake is meant to be drank immediately, a few varieties can be aged, resulting in a honey-flavored brew that is as rich in taste as it is in price.

Now that you know lingo, don’t be afraid to experiment with whatever varieties of sake are available at your local liquor store or Japanese restaurant.

Truth be told, the best Japanese sakes are sadly rarely exported to North America, though every once in awhile it’s possible to find the real staff.

Happy drinking, or as they say here in Japan, kampai (かんぱ, cheers!)

Big in Japan: The history of sake

I love sake (o-sake, ?????).

For some, it’s the subtle sophistication of a finely aged scotch whiskey. For others, it’s the enticing froth and savory goodness of a perfectly-poured pint.

For me, it’s the sweet, delicious nectar that is sake.

I mean, how many other drinks out there are the products of centuries of culinary revision? How many other drinks out there are so in tune with the changing of the seasons? How many other drinks out there have been adapted and re-adapted to local tastes time and again?

Wine may have been drunk since antiquity, beer may have been a staple in the Middle Ages and tea may have built empires. But, none of these drinks hits the spot quite like a carafe of ice cold sake on a balmy summer’s eve, or a carafe of gently-warmed sake on a chilly winter’s night.

The history and lore behind this sweet, delicious nectar is worthy of textbooks.

Although the date when sake first hit the scene is fiercely debated by academics, what is agreed upon is that it would not have come about without the ancient discovery of a simple mold known as kōji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae, 麹菌). Used to ferment the starch in rice to make sugar, kōji-kin is the key to making sake, just as it is the key to making miso paste and soy sauce.

By the time the Heian Era (794-1185) rolled around, the art of sake was refined enough to warrant a government-sponsored guild comprised of professional brewers. During the centuries that followed, brewers became increasingly skilled at isolating kōji-kin, pasteurizing their products and creating new types and flavors of sake.

In the early 20th century, the Japanese government opened up a sake-brewing research institute, and started holding annual taste-testing competitions. As a result, the masses took to the drink like never before, ushering in the modern era of sake brewing. Yeast strains were isolated, enamel-coated steel tanks were invented, and sake become exalted as the national alcoholic beverage of Japan.

Although the Second World War put a damper on the festivities, sake made a brief come back in the 1950s. Sadly, this reign was short lived as beer was soon to replace sake as the drink of the masses. Today, beer remains the most popular tipple in Japan, though it doesn’t inspire even a fraction of the respect as does sake or nihonshu (日本酒), the ‘Japan alcoholic beverage.’

Although sake is still making a slow but steady comeback in Japan, the quality of the drink is at an all-time high. In recent years, breweries have begun to shifting away from mass-production, and returning to traditional small-batches brewing methods. And, with the popularity of sake on the rise in North America and Europe, better methods of preservation are being put into practice.

Getting thirsty? So am I.

For more on sake culture, including some delicious recipes you can try at home, see An Ode to Sake.