Natsukashii in New York

*Down Home Japan in NYC*

by Steven Horowitz & Justin Tedaldi  with lots of input from the JET Alum Community

(Summer 2006 Issue)

Ever have a moment when you need a good dose of Japan?

Well, here’s a guide to help you get your natsukashii on, broken down into categories to strike back against culture shock and help you maintain (or at least simulate) the Japan experience in a way that brings it all back, even if just for a moment.

Nothing brings back the fun (or painful) memories like exercising your vocal chords with some lively Carpenters tunes or a nice heavy enka. While it’s hard to truly re-create the Japanese karaoke bar environment, the closest you’ll come are any of the Japas locations (Japas 38 on E. 38th St., Japas 55 on W. 55th St., Japas East Village on St. Mark’s and a new one near E. 23rd) where you can sit at the bar and sing or get your own karaoke box.  Duet on E. 49th St. or Sing-Sing on 2nd & 2nd have similar offerings and ambiences.

KaraokeOne7 on 17th St. between 5th & 6th Aves has all those options plus a flat-rate group room for those seeking a more communal experience.  Their website boasts over 80,000 songs and even shows the top-requested tunes.  But the best song for your buck is easily Bar Toto in Korea Town on 32nd St. between Broadway & 5th Ave., especially if you’ve got a big group.  It’s BYOB, so make sure to hit the Korean grocery store across the street for tasty beverages if you need some social lubricant to help you nail that Morning Musume tune. They do have Japanese songs, though perhaps not as extensive a collection as some of the Japanese places.

For the wealthier and more courageous, you can try seeking out one of the “piano bars” tucked discretely behind unassuming doors in Midtown East.  (They often have signs in Japanese saying “knock 3 times.”)  These are hostess bars and generally don’t let in non-Japanese, but they skirt the legal issue by calling it a club and allowing entrance only to members.  (Ed. note: Let us know if you get into one.  We’d love to have a first-hand account for the next Newsletter issue. )

While most of the rest of the U.S. just has “Japanese” restaurants (or worse, Benihanas), New York City is blessed with some real authentic Japanese joints—including izakayas, ramen-yas and even kaiten-zushi—that come as close to approximating that paradoxically exotic, down-home feeling of being back in Japan.

But before you run out and hail a cab, you might want to first peruse, which is a site obsessed primarily with ramen and soba in Japan, NY and elsewhere, and also the Japan in New York section of the website (bottom of the menu on the left).

Contenders for the top izakaya might be Yakitori Taishou and Yakitori Taishou II, both on St. Mark’s Place off of 3rd Ave. where you’re given a friendly “Irrashai!” every time you walk in along with all the standard Japanese tapas as well as daijyouki nama beer and even chu-hais in those gi-normous glass mugs. Right down the street on St. Mark’s is also the notorious Kenka, marked by the big red-eyed tanuki and the random dip-your-own cotton candy machine in the front. It’s also a great noisy izakaya, with retro Japanese posters, pachinko machines and music blaring (including an occasional un-PC nationalist tune).  But the main attraction at Kenka is the price—$1.50 draft beers Kirins and Sapporos!  You can’t beat that anywhere in Manhattan, or outside as well. Indulge in the aspara-bacon or the jagaimo, but stay away from the bull penis!  (We’re not joking.)

For a more Japan-East Village fusion experience, move a block up to 9th St. and walk downstairs to Sake Bar Decibel. Those seeking a classier izakaya ambience can head up to Riki on 45th St. just off of Lexington Ave or to Donburiya on 47th St. between Lexington & 3rd Aves.  And if you’re stuck in the neon prison of Times Square and looking for a nice escape, slip downstairs to Sake Bar Hagis (152 W. 49th St.) which has good cheap natsukashii eats including that old fave – spaghetti with ketchup.  Ariyoshi on 53rd St. between 2nd & 3rd Aves is as close as you’ll get to the thousands of little family-run izakayas in Japan, right down to the mostly-Japanese clientele and Japanese programs on the TV.

In the mood to make your own izakaya experience? Get some take-away okonomiyaki or takoyaki at Otafuku, the hole in the wall okonomiyaki-ya on 9th St. between 2nd & 3rd Aves, brown-bag some beers and grab some seats outside at the Starbucks at St Mark’s & 3rd Ave. Better yet, hunker down into a yanki-zuwari squat by the Astor Place Cube with your food and beverage while your friend strums some Nagabushi Tsuyoshi tunes on the guitar.

Everyone knows there’s plenty of good sushi in New York, but for the authentic sushi eating experience, go to Kaiten Sushi at E. 27th St. & 3rd Ave. to pick your sushi fresh off the conveyor belt.

On the ramen front, the go-to spot used to be Menchanko Tei on W. 55th St. between 5th & 6th Aves.  While they still serve a great bowl or ramen, vets say they’re coasting a bit on reputation at this point.  The best bowls of ramen now might be Minka (E. 5th St. between Aves. A & B) and RaiRaiken (E. 10th St. between 1st Ave. & 2nd Ave.), and also Menkuitei on 56th St just east of 6th Ave.  (There’s also a location just below St. Mark’s place but more of a small izakaya and not as much variety on the ramen.)  For tonkotsu ramen, go to Rokumeisha in the West Village (11 Barrow St between 4th & Bleecker.) Another great homestyle restaurant with excellent al dente udon and one of the only places to get both Sapporo-style butter ramen and Kyushu-style tonkotsu ramen is at Sapporo on the northeast corner of 1st Ave. & 10th St.  If you’re more of an upscale non-traditional type, (which I suppose misses the whole point of natsukashii) then across the street is Momofuku.  Its modern approach to ramen includes top quality ingredients such as Berkshire pork and fresh veggies, making it the most unique bowl of ramen in the city.

For shabu-shabu, the number one choice among Japanese and gaijin (which in this context we of course mean Americans) is Shabu-Tatsu on E. 10th St. between 1st & 2nd Aves.  If you like your shabu-shabu a bit thicker, Chie of NYdeVolunteer recommends Lan on 3rd Ave.
just below 12th St.

Note that Yoshinoya in Times Square has been intentionally excluded from this list because it tastes nothing like Yoshinoya in Japan and it feels like a McDonald’s.  But if you do happen to go, make sure to ask for a raw egg, because health regulations require that they not provide one unless you specifically request it.

For Japanese tea and desserts, there’s the Cha-An Tea House (also see the section on Japanese Culture) on 9th St. between 2nd & 3rd Aves.  For choux-creams, green tea-flavored puddings and various red bean pastries and Japanese-style cakes, check out Cafe Zaiya on 41st St. between Madison & 5th Ave. and now also on 3rd Ave just below St. Mark’s Place, JASMart on St. Mark’s, and Beard Papa at 77th & Broadway and also at Astor Place. You can also get your own Japanese tea at Ito En on Madison Ave. or Takashimaya on 5th Ave., and your own Japanese rice balls or other sweets at Oms/b on 45th St. between 3rd & Lexington, and at the high-end Minamoto Kitchen, right near Kinokuniya Bookstore on the south side of Rockefeller Center.

If you want to recreate the true Japanese shopping experience, go to Canal Street and snap up some nisei mono Louis Vitton bags. But if you want to recreate the experience you had shopping in Japan — and the idea of crossing into New Jersey doesn’t frighten you — then shell out $4 for a 30-minute bus ride to Mitsuwa in Edgewater where you can get everything you need including a kotatsu or even a heated toilet seat!

If you’re the type for whom leaving Manhattan violates deeply-held principles, you still have plenty of options:  JASMart in St. Mark’s Place or Katagiri Japanese Groceries on E. 59th St. between 2nd & 3rd Aves to get that Japanese mayonnaise you love so much. The Sunrise Mart on 9th St. (2nd floor), and the Family Market in Astoria can help you recreate that Japanese convenience store ambience.  Also in Queens you can find Sakura-Ya in Forest Hills.

Alternatively, if you want cheap basic clothes that don’t look exactly like the Gap threads everyone else is wearing, then go to Uniqlo in Soho where they’ll even hem your pants for you within an hour at no extra charge!

And for the kecchi (i.e., stingy) among us, there’s the Saumurai chain of 99-cent shops, just like the 100-en shops back in Japan.  There’s one on 8th Ave. just south of Port Authority, as well as locations in Forest Hills, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Flushing and Grand Street in Chinatown.

Another way to keep that Japanese connection alive is to re-immerse yourself in the language.  One great option is the Japanese language group which meets once a month at a pre-designated cafe somewhere. Just go to and sign up to get the updates.

Another excellent option are the JETAA NY Nihongo Dake Dinners, which are announced occasionally in the weekly JETAA NY e-mail. (If you’re not getting the e-mails, contact to fix that. Non-JET alums can be on the e-mail distribution list too as Friends of JET (it’s pronouned FOJ’s)).  If you don’t see any happening, then that just means you have to take the initiative and organize one yourself.  Folks will definitely show up.

If you’re more into the idea of doing an activity in Japanese, a great organization to get involved with is NYdeVolunteer, a Japanese volunteer organization founded by the wonderful and entrepreneurial Noriko Hino. NYdeVolunteer is for Japanese people in New York who want to get involved in the community and help out. Their meetings, volunteer activities and communications are primarily in Japanese (though they have an English version of their e-newsletter) meaning you can do something for the betterment of society while simultaneously using your Japanese. Go here to learn more and subscribe to their weekly e-mail.

For straight-up studying, the classes offered at the Japan Society are top notch. Not much reason to go anywhere else.  But if you want a somewhat unorthodox approach, kill two birds with one stone and use Craig’s List or the classified postings at Sunrise Mart or JASMart to find a Japanese person to teach you guitar, yoga or whatever—in Japanese.

Miss talking about Japan?  Get yourself to the JETAA NY Happy Hours when you see them in the weekly e-mail.  Miss all the people from other countries that you used to meet in Japan? Try volunteering at The International Center on 23rd St. between 5th & 6th Aves. You’ll find yourself surrounded by people from around the world.  Make sure to check out the bulletin board for events and activities, or hang out in the conversation lounge where you can sit at any table and join in the conversation.

Or, get yourself a job teaching at any of the numerous English language schools where you’ll teach students of all backgrounds and meet other teachers who are also likely to be well-traveled.

Also, check the mailing lists or websites for the Japan Society and Asia Society, which are always hosting cultural exhibits, lectures, discussions, networking parties and various classes.

Step 1:  Look for good Japanese recipes on or, or any other good websites you know.
Step 2:  Go to JASMart, Sunrise Mart, Family Market, the Park Slope Food Co-op, Whole Foods or any other bourgeoisie upscale establishment to get all the daikons, tofus, squid, etc. that you want.
Step 3:  Cook it all up yourself, or get some JET alum friends together. Or take it a step further and organize a JET alum potluck dinner, or even a JET alum Iron Chef event like the JETAA Portland chapter.  (Of course, if you really want to recreate the cooking experience you had in Japan, then just challenge yourself to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner with a rice cooker, one burner and no stove.)

Not enough tea ceremony at home or in your office? Enjoy and appreciate the Cha-An Tea House on 9th St. between 2nd & 3rd Ave. which not only looks like a classic Japanese cafe (if such a concept even exists), but has a separate tatami tea room inside it where they hold three tea ceremonies per day that you can attend and also participate in.  For art exhibits, film and lectures, the Japan Society on E. 47th St. (employer of several JET alums) always has interesting cultural activities to choose from and is a great place to meet new people.  Across the river in Queens you can take in the Noguchi Sculpture Garden and enjoy peace and quiet on par with visiting your local temple in Japan.  The Hammond Stroll Garden and Museum in northern Westchester is tough to get to without a car, but it is a lovely Japanese-style garden.  Visit for more details.

There are two Japan-related bands you need to know about in New York.  One is good time natsukashii in a unique and hip way, and the other will tickle that irony bone that kept you sane at times on JET.  Happyfunsmile ( is one of the more engaging bands you’ll ever experience.  With a posse of American and Japanese members, this Okinawa-style chindon band takes over whatever joint they’re in and dances around while playing those bouncy Okinawa-style tunes that you’ll recognize as soon as you hear it without ever realizing you knew it.

For your irony fix, you’ll relate well to Gaiji-a-Go-Go ( — get it —  55?  Go go?), with their entourage of Japanese and gaijin who lived in Japan and who not only play B-52’s style pop tunes sprinkled with Japanese slang about life in Japan, but dress the part as well (we’re talking backup singers in kimono mini-skirts made of American flags) and come to party.  Get on both of their e-mail lists to know when they’re playing and learn what else is out there.

Maybe you like to keep your connection with Japan by watching your favorite Japanese TV shows, reading manga or keeping up on the Japanese news in English or in Japanese.  To watch Japanese TV programs in NY you have three options: 1) Get cable TV and find that
channel that shows Japanese news and do-ramas at random select hours during the day. 2) Order from Video 7 Seven at 718-786-5166 or go to Sunrise Mart, Family Market, Oishii’s or Katagiri and rent all the episodes of your favorite do-rama or comedy that you want. 3) Hang out in Japanese restaurants such as Ariyoshi where they have Japanese TV programs running all through the night.

Actually, there’s a fourth option now. Check out JET alum Janak Bhimani’s video log Japanese program here where you can watch a new episode each week of Janak and a fellow gaijin adapt the Japanese comic form of running around the streets of New York and getting people to do stupid things. It’s mostly in Japanese, but you can get the gist of it pretty easily regardless of your nihongo level.

Everyone knows Kinokuniya in Rockefeller Center has all the Japanese books, magazines, manga, music and DVDs you need (not to mention a quaint little café inside).  Asahiya on E. 45th St. has a lot of this as well.  But the less known Book-Off discount Japanese bookstore on E. 41st St. between 5th Ave & Madison will really rekindle that Japanese bookstore feel you may not even realize you’ve missed.

For all the manga otaku, find the manga group at which meets monthly.

To keep up on Japanese news in English, the one-stop source is which aggregates and has links to all the Japanese news sources.

And for the gaijin perspective—in Japanese, no less—read Nikkei bilingual reporter and JET alum Stacy Smith’s weekly column on whatever suits her fancy that month here.

By now everyone in New York knows that Japanese haircutters are among the best — all that late-night practice in the Harajuku salons has paid off. So make the mundane more interesting by getting your own Japanese stylist. Make gossipy small talk about your hometown on JET.  Recreate the conversations about the differences between Japanese straight hair and gaijin curly hair. While there’s an endless array of mop-choppers out there, a couple that have been recommended to us are the Cutting Room on Green Street (ask for Chie) and Hair Mates Hair Salon at 2 St. Mark’s Place.

None of this really clicking? Maybe your craving for Japan is a masked desire for something deeper, in which case finding a good therapist ( might help you figure out what it’s all really about.  And if you’re seeking a Japanese therapist in New York, see the article on Hope Nozomi Konno in the Spring 2003 issue of the Newsletter.

Finally, if this is all too much information to process, just go wander around the East Village and you’ll figure most of this out for yourself.

In the bigger picture, re-creating the JET experience is actually very difficult, particularly in New York.  One of the key dynamics underpinning much of our experience was the limit on choice, forcing us to bond with and experience people and places in ways we otherwise wouldn’t.  New York is, in a sense, the opposite — there are infinite choices, people, scenes and niches where you and everyone else can always choose something new.  Hopefully JETAA NY creates a bit of an oasis that lets you occasionally regain an occasional bit of that elusive natsukashii.

This is an admittedly far from complete and extremely biased list.  Plus, New York changes faster than you can say, “This is a pen.”  So if we missed something so natsukashii that you nearly choked on your omu-raisu, let us know by e-mailing

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