Though not defined by borders or a welcome sign, New York’s Little Tokyo has much to offer a roving Japanophile.
While there isn’t an official Japanese district in New York City, there is a cluster of Japanese shops and restaurants in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, that together make for a walkable Little Tokyo that serves as a lifeline to homesick Japanese ex-pats and Japanophiles alike.
Getting your fill of Japanese food and culture requires a bit of an eagle eye, however since there is no signage welcoming you to Little Tokyo and the area itself isn’t exactly defined. Instead, you’ll find businesses and restaurants scattered throughout the East Village, though East 9th Street between Third Avenue and First Avenue is definitely the main drag.
Stroll those few blocks, and you’ll encounter everything from a tiny shop serving authentic Japanese street food to a quaint, traditional teahouse. From a store that only stocks sake to a one of the best Japanese supermarkets in the city, here are a few of our favorite Little Tokyo spots.
A slender space where patrons sit on stools at a long counter, Hi-Collar is, by day, a traditional Japanese cafe serving everything from fluffy, Japanese-style pancakes to fried pork cutlet katsu sandwiches as well as delectable desserts like chocolate parfait. But it’s the coffee that Hi-Collar is known for, which is brewed one of three ways—via siphon, AeroPress or pour-over. Pull up a stool and watch the barista make the coffee, and if you are feeling adventurous, you can let her choose the beans. In the evenings, Hi-Collar transforms into a sake bar.
214 East 10th Street, 212-777-7018
If looking for beauty supplies, Ichimi Cosme is worth the visit. Specializing in Japanese cosmetics, makeup and skincare products (there are items from Korea, too) this beauty shop is packed with pretty merchandise, perfect for some leisurely browsing. The employees are friendly and happy to translate the all-Japanese labels – and hand out samples. If you visit, be sure to stock up on sheet masks: Popular in Japan, they are thin cotton sheets that have been soaked in serums made up of moisturizer and vitamins, and are a luxurious treat for your skin.
320 East 9th Street, 646-964-4348
If you’re into udon, get to Raku – a small, minimalist spot that opened just last year and specializes in the fat-noodle soups. Menu offerings include niku udon with beef short-ribs and honeycomb tripe; wakame udon with wakame seaweed and tororo konbu; and kitsune udon with fried bean curd. No matter which soup you order, chances are you won’t leave a drop of the light, flavorful broth in the bowl. While Raku is known for udon, make sure to order the chicken tatsuta-age appetizer, a light and tasty marinated fried chicken. The maguro kakuni – braised tuna – is also delicious.
342 East 6th Street, 212-228-1324
Have a hankering for Japanese street food? Otafuku is the place to go. The tiny shop serves an assortment of delicious delicacies, including takoyaki (those are grilled octopus balls slathered in a sauce made up of mayonnaise and dried bonito flakes), okonomiyaki (a Japanese pancake), medetai (a fish-shaped dessert made of red bean or Nutella and banana) and yakisoba (sautéed noodles with shrimp, cabbage and scallions). FYI: This is not a sit-down restaurant – there is a small counter you can eat at if there is space and a bench outside. On a nice day, most patrons stand outside and eat from to-go containers. Another tip: This place is cash only.
220 East 9th Street, 646-998-3438
If you spent any part of your childhood in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s be prepared to eke out a good amount of time to spend in Toy Tokyo. The store’s display cases are filled with vintage toys, such as old Superman and Charlie Brown dolls, that will send you down memory lane. As the store’s name rightly implies, it also imports all kinds of fun stuff from Japan, including loads of robots and Godzilla figures as well as Hello Kitty merch and the latest in vinyl collectibles. Warning: those with tendencies toward collecting best show some restraint as it would be easy to drop some serious cash in this smartly curated shop.
91 Second Avenue, 973-759-0200
If you love sake, Sakaya is your place. a shop that specializes in. Run by Rick Smith and his wife Hiroko Furukawa, who was born in Japan, Sakaya only sells the Japanese rice wine. While that might seem intimidating, this airy, cedar-planked shop welcomes both the sake aficionado and the sake newbie, who will benefit from the shop’s sake-tasting events as well as guidance from the helpful proprietors who enjoy sharing their knowledge. From artisanal and small-batch sakes to traditional favourites, Sakaya’s inventory is always changing.
324 East 9th Street, 212-505-7253
A quiet second-floor oasis full of small wooden tables, tatami benches and paper lanterns, Cha-An Teahouse is a lovely spot for all kinds of tea. Naturally featuring matcha and senchas, the tea house offers leaves from all over the world, including nearly two-dozen green teas alone. Cha-An is best visited with a friend so that you’ve got someone share the chef’s dessert sampler. If you are alone, you can’t go wrong with the black sesame creme brûlée or the ice cream sandwich made up of green tea rice crisps and hojicha ice cream.
230 East 9th Street, 212-228 8030
Open for more than 20 years, Hasaki neighborhood sushi shop, full of regulars and locals who appreciate the traditional Japanese cuisine and attentive service. Aside from the fresh and delicious sushi, part of Hasaki’s appeal is the calm room in which you can actually carry on a conversation. If you are dining alone or with a friend, sit at the sushi bar where you can watch the chefs work, and order omakase if you are willing to let the chef choose your sushi for you. Hasaki doesn’t take reservations, so don’t be surprised to find a line outside.
210 E 9th St., 212-473-3327
Famous for its ready-made meals – including sushi sets and bento boxes – Sunrise Mart is a culinary treasure trove for those staying in an Airbnb and looking to add some Japanese flair to their meals. Here you’ll find fresh produce, fish, meat, spices and sauces, plus all kinds of tea and candy, including an assortment of Pocky. The shelves also include everything from hair dye to toothpaste straight from Japan in the toiletries/cosmetics section, helping transport you. Keep a keen eye out for Sunrise Mart – tucked on the second floor, accessed by elevator,you could easily walk right by without even noticing.
4 Stuyvesant Street, 212-598-3040
Part of a worldwide chain of ramen restaurants founded by Shigemi Kawahara (aka the Ramen King), Ippudo NY’s East Village location is an upscale and modern space serving what many foodies consider to be the best ramen in the city. If it’s your first visit, you have to try the shiromaru hakata classic – the tonkotsu pork broth is out of this world. That said, this soup is served really hot – so hot that there is a warning on the menu – so let it cool down a bit before you start slurping away.
65 Fourth Avenue, 212-388-0088