“If you build it, they will come”

The self-conscious creation of the East Village’s Little Tokyo

Cathy Kaufman

In the fall of 2016, I participated in an ARCGIS project through New York University’s Department of Food Studies to map various “ethnic” neighborhoods around New York City. As a resident since 1977 of what is now known as NoHo, I chose the East Village’s sub-neighborhood of Little Tokyo: I was curious about how and why this area had changed before my eyes, from a neighborhood that mixed a druggy, punk art scene with vestiges of Eastern European and Italian food shops, with only a minuscule number of Japanese establishments in the late ’70s, to one where the predominant flavor was Japanese. The following essay is an updated version of my original 2016 investigation; it notes several very recent closings and relocations of some of the Japanese-inflected businesses, proving the constant flux of New York. Nonetheless, Little Tokyo remains culinarily marked, even as it defies the logic of so many “ethnic” neighborhoods, having neither a significant resident Japanese population nor an exclusively Japanese workforce in the Japanese-inflected shops: many of the Asians working in the shops are Mandarin-speaking Chinese. Perhaps this should be expected, given the 2010 census data showing that there were six times as many Mainland Chinese living in the neighborhood as Japanese.

Sometime in the early twenty-first century newspapers, magazines, and tourist guides started buzzing about “Little Tokyo,” a trendy enclave in New York City’s East Village. The neighborhood’s heart occupies, from south to north, St. Marks Place, Stuyvesant Street, and 9th and 10th Streets, and stretches from Third Avenue to First Avenue. Japanese and Japanese-inflected restaurants, bars, shops, hair salons, medical offices, and massage studios dominate these blocks nearly to the exclusion of other businesses. Spreading out from this core into the surrounding streets in the 10003 and 10009 ZIP codes are many other Japanese businesses, but no other blocks are as densely and visually Japanese.

One can be forgiven for thinking that Little Tokyo must serve an affluent mix of local Japanese immigrants and sojourners homesick for the familiar, an urban version of the suburban Edgewater, New Jersey, located less than three miles away in Bergen County. The town of Edgewater is home to nearly 6,000 Japanese and is a place where “company men” settle in with their families for extended professional stays and whose culinary needs for a taste of home are amply satisfied by the large Mitsuwa Marketplace superstore.1 But while Edgewater and its environs have a sizable number of Japanese residents, Little Tokyo does not. It is not a traditional live/work ethnic neighborhood, and its Japanese population is one-fifth that of Bergen County’s. Nor does business explain the high concentration of Japanese shops and services: like most foreign corporations with New York offices, Japanese corporations tend to center in midtown’s business hub.

Little Tokyo is an odd duck for what appears, on the surface, to be an “ethnic” neighborhood. Its Japanese-inflected businesses are patronized by an ethnically mixed clientele. The Japanese and Japanese-Americans who patronize Little Tokyo’s businesses tend to live outside the neighborhood and travel to the East Village, often from Brooklyn, Queens, or other Manhattan neighborhoods, even though Japanese markets, restaurants, hair salons, and shops are scattered throughout New York City.

But Little Tokyo is a Japanese food-lover’s paradise, a cornucopia of dining options from cheap to high end. In the first ten months of 2016 alone, 61 Japanese restaurants were registered to do business in the 10003 ZIP code. With a total of 639 public eateries in the entire 10003 zip code, nearly 1 in 10 was Japanese; if we exclude alcohol-only bars, coffee bars such as Starbucks, and chocolate and ice-cream shops, and the percentage of Japanese food and drink venues was even greater.2

These percentages are stunning given the tiny Japanese population. Census data identified the year 2000 as the official height of Japanese residence in ZIP codes 10003 and 10009 when the Japanese comprised slightly less than 1.6% of the area’s population. By 2010, it had slipped to 0.98%, ranking fourth among the Asian populations in these ZIP codes. And uniquely, unlike any other Asian immigrant group, the absolute number of Japanese residing in the neighborhood declined from 2000 to 2010.3 How did this neighborhood become such a magnet for Japanese businesses?

Little Tokyo can be seen as the culinary analog of the 1989 motion picture Field of Dreams, with its famous tagline, “If you build it, they will come.” In Field of Dreams, the protagonist Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, hears voices encouraging him to build a professional baseball stadium in the middle of an isolated cornfield in his money-losing farm. Magically appearing in the cornfield are the ghosts of famous baseball players, visible only to Kinsella (and the theater audience, of course), but once the stadium is built, the ghosts become visible to everyone. Fans from far and wide join a caravan to watch them play, saving Kinsella from financial ruin and fulfilling his “every boy’s dream” of tossing a ball with baseball greats. Like Kinsella’s stadium, Little Tokyo is largely the product of the imagination and efforts of one man, a Japanese immigrant who, in the 1980s, opened Japanese restaurants that eventually, if unpredictably, acted as a magnet for many other Japanese businesses, creating an ethnic-feeling neighborhood utterly divorced from a resident ethnic population.

Before there was a Little Tokyo

CGBG, 1973-2006
315 Bowery
Cynthia MacAdams

Time-travel back to New York City in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s. The East Village air is pungent with cheap marijuana, its streets glisten with used hypodermics in the morning light. Graffitied buildings punctuate every block, their window glass smashed into ragged incisors. On October 30, 1975, the Daily News headline screamed, “Drop Dead,” a reference to President Gerald Ford’s notoriously shunning aid to the city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. St. Marks Place, the icon of East Village street life, boasted a raw, counterculture art scene. Andy Warhol and his punk-ish light shows played at the Velvet Underground, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat joined the circle of Warhol protégés and became famed denizens of the neighborhood. Legends of rock ‘n roll charged stages at the Fillmore East and CBGBs.4 Rents were cheap and the East Village still retained vestiges of the Eastern European, Jewish, and Ukrainian immigrant populations that had lived in these tenement blocks for generations, along with a healthy dollop of Italian businesses clustered at the East Village’s northern boundary. But as the last of these first-generation immigrants were dying off and their children moving up, the shops, restaurants, and theaters catering to these tastes were vanishing.5 Our story opens against this tattered backdrop when two young and scrappy Japanese men, Tadao “Tony” Yoshida and Shuji “Bon” Yagi, started small food businesses in the late 1960s. Yoshida’s Ice Cream Connection on St. Marks expanded into the inexpensive Japanese healthy food restaurant Dojo, which became a New York University standard on West 4th Street (recently closed after a more than 40-year run), while Yagi opened a fruit and vegetable stand on Second Avenue at 6th Street.6 Yagi will become the Ray Kinsella of Little Tokyo.

Yagi-san and the T.I.C. Group: the engine of Little Tokyo

Yagi painting the sign for his Second Avenue fruit and vegetable store. Credit: Discover Nikkei | Nancy Matsumoto

In the early 1980s, Yagi had saved enough to graduate his fruit and vegetable business into a 24-hour diner/coffee shop on Second Avenue, just south of St. Marks Place. With its expensive (for the era) 75-cent cup of coffee, the eponymous 103 Second Avenue was a hip place to linger: Yagi boasts that Madonna, Basquiat, and Haring all were patrons in the early days. Yagi designed 103 Second Avenue to be deliberately generic in feel, hesitant to draw attention to his Japanese ethnicity. Basquiat and Haring regularly graffitied the bathroom, which Yagi just as regularly painted over, ruefully not predicting the art world’s future embrace.7

During the1970s and early ’80s, Yagi made regular trips back to Japan, but eventually adopted New York as his home. Determined to allow others to “experience Japan here in the East Village, without paying expensive airfare,”8 in 1984 he opened his first Japanese restaurant, Hasaki, a sushi bar at the bend of Stuyvesant Place and East 9th Street. It was a groundbreaking step in creating Little Tokyo.9 Still open, Hasaki was the first entity in what would become the T.I.C. Group. T.I.C. is a conglomerate of restaurants and the T.I.C. Washlet Service owned by Yagi and his family.10 T.I.C. stands for “Total Information Center,” but Yagi’s daughter Sakura, who is the chief operating officer of T.I.C. Group, prefers to think of it as “Tokyo in Change.”11

T.I.C. Group has owned a dozen Japanese restaurants, snack bars, and sake bars, with all but two located in Little Tokyo. When asked why he continues to open new food venues, Yagi explained that each showcases a different aspect of Japanese culinary culture, whether the Zen-like tea house Cha’an the raucous izakaya Sakebar Decibel, the (now superseded) storefront for street food Yoneburger, which served your choice of protein sandwiched between two moist rice cakes and now has been transformed into a take-out shop for Japanese confectionary, or the coffee connoisseur’s Hi-Collar. Yagi and the T.I.C. Group now have considerable (and welcome) competition, allowing those who find themselves in the East Village to choose from a cornucopia of Japanese and Japanese-inflected business.

Why the East Village?

Photograph of Yagi in a 2011 New York Times article.
Josh Haner/The New York Times

Affordable real estate drives business ventures in New York City, but when Yagi launched his empire, the East Village was just one of several neighborhoods where commercial spaces and rents were well within reach of fledgling entrepreneurs. I return to the Field of Dreams analogy: Yagi claims nineteenth-century ghostly inspiration to open his first Japanese restaurant within a block of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. The church, located just where Stuyvesant Street merges into 10th Street, is New York’s oldest site of continuous religious observances, dating back to the 1660s. The current building, started in 1799, has no obvious significance for Little Tokyo but for the special meaning Yagi ascribes to one of graveyard’s temporary inhabitants: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the naval officer responsible for the opening of Japan to America and the West in 1854, was interred in Vault 95 for eight years before his remains were relocated to a family grave in Rhode Island. Yagi, a Buddhist, feels spiritually connected to the site, to Perry’s role in Sino-American relations, and to his own reciprocal gesture of bringing something of Japan to New York. He honored this heritage by opening Hasaki in the shadow of St. Mark’s.12

To make explicit this “Japan-in-New York” connection, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yagi organized annual matsuri street festivals along Stuyvesant Street. Matsuri festivals offered thanks to nature and “beautify the spirit”; they included carrying a ritually purified shrine that held the spirit of ancestors along the two narrow blocks of Stuyvesant Street to the church door. According to Yagi, these matsuri festivals brought thousands of people—Japanese living throughout the region and others—to the neighborhood to witness different expressions of Japanese culture, including dancing, singing, martial arts, and food, much of which he provided. The matsuri festival has outgrown tiny Stuyvesant Street and now is run by the Japan Society along broader, uptown avenues.13 Nonetheless, Yagi may have sensed something in the church’s gestalt, for he was not the first to perform Buddhist rites at St Mark’s: in the early twentieth century, the rector of St. Mark’s, William Guthrie, controversially incorporated Buddhist observances (as well as other non-Christian elements) in some of the church services, generating national (often horrified) press attention.14

Whether one believes in Yagi’s magical thinking or simply sees a clever capitalist who recognizes the value in a good story, the Little Tokyo that Yagi launched carries an undeniable mantle of Japanese-ness.

A gastronomic flâneur’s tour of Little Tokyo 

© Zack DeZon / Culture Trip

Morning coffee at Hi-Collar (214 East 10th St.) (a T.I.C. Group establishment)

The large part that coffee plays in Japanese culinary culture often surprises those who associate Japan with tea and chado. While the Way of Tea epitomizes traditional, inward-looking Japan, coffee represents modernity and Japan’s flirtation with the West in the early twentieth century. Japan’s better coffeehouses, known as kissatens, are independently owned, and each has a distinctive atmosphere, with many being venues to hear Western jazz.15 The name Hi-Collar is meant to evoke Japan’s interpretation of the Jazz Age, when men sported Western dress featuring heavily starched, high collars.16 Appropriately, period jazz plays softly in the background.

By day, Hi-collar focuses on high-quality coffee, brewed by one of three techniques: siphon, flash brewed, or over ice. Customers select their beans from a menu listing regions and roasts; the same attention to details of technology, terroir, and processing is found in Japan’s kissaten. One must be patient, as each coffee is handmade, mimicking the attention given to coffee in the best Japanese kissaten.

Hi-Collar’s kissaten menu is a melding of Japanese and Western cuisines. A signature dish is the omurice, or rice omelet, prepared in a French, tender baveuse style and torpedo-shaped, rather than the firmer Japanese style, tough enough to be cut into dominoes and found as part of inexpensive sushi platters. Filled with tomatoey rice, the omelet is garnished with ketchup. Other daytime fare includes fried pork katsu, sandwiches with crusts neatly trimmed from the bread, spaghetti dishes, and thick, sweet pancakes, all an overlay of Western culinary influences on a Japanese substrate. As afternoon slips into evening, Hi-Collar transforms into a sake bar, and the stylish night manager, recognizable by his exaggerated Elvis Presley pompadour, saddles up to the bar, chatting in Japanese with the barista. The clientele is mixed Asian and Western, and Japanese is often heard being spoken by patrons.

Ramen for lunch: Ippudo (65 Fourth Avenue) (non-T.I.C. Group)

There are many outlets for ramen, including Yagi’s Rai Rai Ken, adjacent to Hi-Collar. Rai Rai Ken (the name pays homage to a shop in Tokyo that some consider the first shop to serve ramen in its contemporary guise) opened in 2000 and was Little Tokyo’s first ramen shop.17 But many consider Ippudo, located on the western fringe of Little Tokyo, as the place to slurp Little Tokyo’s best ramen, notwithstanding stiff neighborhood competition from celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar and many others with the less well-known proprietors. The lists of “best ramen” are updated regularly, always with more than a dozen contenders.18

The line starts to form shortly before Ippudo’s 11 am opening and continues through its peak service hours, with the crowd heavily skewed toward Asian and Asian-American students attending any of the neighborhood’s universities: the New School, the Cooper Union, New York University, and a branch of St. John’s. Service is quick and loud, echoing the rapid pace of Japan’s ramen shops.

Until its folding in 2017, the magazine Lucky Peach was the hipster’s arbiter of culinary fashion and offered mixed views on the cultural meaning and importance of ramen. According to Peter Meehan, one of Lucky Peach’s founders, ramen is no longer just a fast, convenience food designed to sate culinary homesickness in ex-pat Japanese: it is now a gastronomic tour de force.19 His colleague and co-founder of Lucky Peach, David Chang, begs to differ, albeit not so politely, arguing with his trademark vulgarity that through overexposure, ramen has lost its cultural connection.20

Ippudo prides itself on authenticity. Best known for murkily rich tonkotsu, an unctuous pork broth that lubricates the copious bowls of noodles, the eater at Ippudo garnishes her order with as many à la carte add-ons as appetite and purse allow. Ippudo’s ramen attracts an almost reverential deference from both employees and patrons. YouTube is saturated with videos of happy diners closing their eyes in sensual pleasure as they savor the heady aromatics.21 It is as if these millennial reviewers have never seen the ultimate ramen movie, Tampopo, whose opening scene brilliantly satirizes over-the-top foodie-ism in pursuit of the ideal way to eat ramen. Master and disciple stare intently into the bowl, delicately caress the three slices of pork with their chopsticks, and continue in their efforts to appreciate ramen’s “gestalt.”22

An alternative to ramen: Sushi on Jones, 348 Bowery at the corner of Great Jones Street (a kiosk with a serving bar and stools at the Bowery Market, built on the former site of an auto repair shop) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Sushi on Jones is an alfresco sushi bar serving omakase meals for $50,23 with a 30- minute seating limit. Aficionados of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, profiling the chef of one of Tokyo’s finest sushi restaurants, will recognize both the speed and unlikely location that these establishments share: Jiro’s restaurant is in the corridors of a train station, and patrons similarly consume their much higher-priced meal in 30 minutes.

Shopping for dinner, part 1: Japan Premium Beef (formerly at 57 Great Jones St., relocated in the summer of 2019 to Brooklyn) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Japan Premium Beef (JPB) is a luxury shop catering to the very well-heeled with its washugyu beef, an American-bred version of Japan’s vaunted Kobe, and mugifugi pork. Opened in 2009 by Eiichi Yamamoto, the shop relocated to Brooklyn in 2019 (likely a victim of Manhattan’s nine-year commercial lease cycle, with dizzying rent demands). The shop also stocked expensive condiments that flattered the super-premium meats. Among the shop’s distinctive equipment is a specialty slicer imported from Japan that slices raw beef thinly enough for shabu-shabu, eliminating the need to freeze the meat before slicing. JPB was the first Japanese butcher shop in the United States and at first, employed only Japanese butchers; American butchers now work behind the case.24

Adjacent to the JPB space lies the “secret” entrance to Bohemian; it is one of a series of sister restaurants to a famous Tokyo cocktail bar. Starting as a Members Only spot, the restaurant now extends invitations on receipt of an email; the cuisine is a blend of American, French, and Japanese small plates, served in a room with a Zen aesthetic: white walls and tatami mats. The building has a storied history, as it was once owned by Andy Warhol; to reach the restaurant, you pass through a hallway nicknamed “Basquiat Road,” in honor of the artist who died in the loft provided to him by Warhol.25

The gastronomic flâneur notes, but passes by, most of the cacophony of St. Marks student-priced haunts.

St. Marks Place is home to Little Tokyo’s cheaper student haunts; none are part of the T.I.C. Group. Among the spots are Ramen Setayaga (34 St. Marks), Hakata Hot Pot (31 St. Marks), Kung Fu Tea (28 St. Marks), and the thrill seeker’s Taishu Izakaya Kenka (25 St. Marks), with its fabulously graphic entrance, Jebon Sushi and Noodle (15 St. Marks), Udon West (11 St. Marks), Nohohon Tea Room (9 St. Marks, upstairs) Oh! Taisho (9 St Marks, downstairs), its sister restaurant, Yakitori Taisho (5 St. Marks), and St. Marks Karaoke (6 St. Marks). But one retail establishment deserves investigation:

Shopping for snacks and beauty aides: Chi Snack Shop (22 St. Marks Place) (non-T.I.C. Group) 

A September 2016 addition to Little Tokyo, Chi Snack Shop replaced Mamoun’s, the venerable Middle Eastern institution turning out falafel and classic stuffed pitas for decades (it relocated down the block). “Chi” is impossible to translate confidently here, with multiple meanings in Japanese, depending on the surrounding characters: it could mean “thousand” or “wisdom” or “scattered” or “flower.” In Chinese, “chi” refers to energy or life force. Whichever the intended meaning, the shop sells chocolates, cookies, candies, and packaged snack foods, mainly from Japan, although Korean and Japanese cosmetics geared to teens and young women increasingly dominate the shelves. Asian ex-pats are thrilled to find these products: one Yelp reviewer gushed enthusiastically, “They sell Tokyo Banana in NYC!!!” Most reviews are written in the slightly stilted language of proficient, but not idiomatically fluent, English, suggesting that the shop successfully targets the sojourner university crowd. 26

Shopping for dinner, part 2: Sunrise Mart (4 Stuyvesant St.) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Leave the hurly-burly of St. Marks Place and return to the relative calm of Stuyvesant Street, continuing east from Fourth Avenue until you reach a wide, open vestibule with a stainless steel elevator. The sluggish elevator leads to the second-floor emporium, opened in 1995, when the Japanese ex-pat population of Little Tokyo was estimated at 3,000, including folks who were under the radar because of visa issues. According to Sunrise’s manager, when Sunrise opened, virtually all its customers were Japanese; by 2013, more than half the clientele was American.27 Sunrise’s website, sunrisemart-ny.com, defaults to Japanese: a small button at the top allows the user to switch to English. Sunrise is the sole surviving Japanese grocery store in Little Tokyo: in recent years, JAS (on St. Marks Place) and M2M (on Second Avenue) have shuttered.

Sunrise functions as a community center for Japanese life in Little Tokyo. The bulletin board next to the elevator holds flyers, half of which are in Japanese; there is a small charge for the privilege of posting a notice for one month. English and bilingual flyers tend to advertise language and music lessons. Japanese newspapers and copies of ChopsticksNY, an advertorial for all things Japanese in New York, were free for the taking, although ChopsticksNY ceased print publication as of June 2019, a victim of the trend to online news sources.28

Enter the store and turn left to find an array of Japanese produce: several grades of fresh shiitake mushrooms, shiso, skinny Japanese eggplants, and cucurbits greet the visitor. A refrigerator case of prepared foods, bento lunches, pickles, onigiri, and prefab sushi and sashimi packs stand ready for the grab/go diner. Meticulously trimmed tuna, salmon, and other fishes and seafood glisten, delicately sliced beef and pork are ready for shabu-shabu, and Jidori chicken awaits the grill; can be purchased for cooking at home. The assortment of dry and canned goods, especially beverages, is impressive: many packages lack English translations, making shopping daunting for the shy Anglophone. At the back of the shop, a lackluster selection of kitchen and tablewares can serve in a pinch; of more interest to the Japanese-speaking audience is the selection of DVDs filling a small wall.

Continue down Stuyvesant Street, passing Village Yokocho (an izakaya, upstairs at 8 Stuyvesant), Panya Bakery (downstairs at 8 Stuyvesant), the empty shell of Autre Kyo Ya (an elegant French-Japanese fusion restaurant, at 10 Stuyvesant, that sadly closed in 2019), and Sharaku (14 Stuyvesant), before bearing right onto Ninth Street. None of the Stuyvesant Street establishments are part of the T.I.C. Group.

On the south side on the street, you will pass several restaurants: T.I.C.’s original Hasaki, Hisae, a self-described “Asian Gastro Pub,” Yakiniku West (non-T.I.C. Group that is currently undergoing renovations; whether it will reopen as a Japanese restaurant is unclear at present), and another T.I.C. outpost, Otafuku x Medetai, a hipster storefront serving fried street snacks such as takoyaki (fried octopus balls), okonomiyaki (pancakes stuffed with shrimp or pork), or medetai, whimsical red snapper-shaped pastries stuffed with bean paste or Nutella. Medetai is the goddess of mirth; it is another example of Yagi’s deliberate and meticulous references to Japanese culinary history and culture in choosing names for T.I.C. Group restaurants.

Afternoon tea and sweets: Cha’an Tea House (232 East 9th St., 2nd fl.) (a T.I.C. Group establishment)

The serene atmosphere evokes an authentic teahouse where chado, the Way of Tea, is performed. Dark wood and bamboo plants behind artificial windows give the effect of overlooking a garden, and a separate, tatami-matted room all were designed by an architect whom Yagi employed from Japan.29 More than a dozen exquisite teas are served (the menu boasts that specially alkalinized water is responsible for the superior flavor), along with mochi, Japanese sweets, and light meals based on salmon, eel, rice, and pickles.

Cha’an will arrange special tea ceremonies on request. The bar separating the kitchen from the dining area displays the ladle, whisk, and water jar used in a formal tea ceremony. These implements are not used for a quotidian bowl of tea, but beckon one to surrender to the ritual of chado.

The importance of chado to Japan’s ex-pat community is unclear; many Japanese in New York appreciate the unbounded cultural freedom that New York provides, which runs counter to the highly choreographed tea ceremony that allows no deviation. The Japanese tea master Souheki Mori, proprietor of Tea-Whisk Inc., splits her time between New York and Tokyo. She offers classes in teaism and performs chado throughout Manhattan. I attended one class with the three other participants; all were Japanese women working or studying in New York. According to Mori, only a small percentage of women in Japan, perhaps 2 to 3%, participate in chado.30 For Mori, chado becomes an important statement of identity for migrants and expats. In her words, “my kimono feels tight in Japan, but is comfortable in New York.” When I asked Hiroko Furukawa, the Japanese-born proprietor of Sakaya sake shop whom we will meet shortly, about her experience with chado, she admitted no interest in this very Japanese marker of identity; she has never attended a chado, whether in Japan or New York.

After a bowl of tea, descend to Ninth Street and head east, passing on the south side the storefront where T.I.C. Group’s Yonekichi snack stand operated until the spring of 2019. It specialized in assorted proteins wedged between burger “buns” made of glutinous rice grains held together. It has now been transformed into a take-out shop for aesthetically styled Japanese confections. As he does with all of the T.I.C. eateries, Yagi wants to showcase different aspects of Japanese culinary culture; starting with the iconic sushi, he has moved through cooked fare, different noodle cuisines, to the more casual street grub that is unfamiliar to most New Yorkers. On the north side, pass Keisy Shiatsu (229 East 9th St., 2nd fl.) and T.I.C. Group’s Soba-ya, specializing in handmade buckwheat noodles (229 East 9th St.). The restaurant space at 231 East 9th St. has been home to several Japanese kitchens, first Robataya, formerly a T.I.C. Group restaurant, but sold to the Ootoya restaurant group, and is now home to Sakagura East Village, specializing in traditional and regional cooking.

Robataya captured the distinctive Japanese grill-restaurant. Patrons sat at a wooden bar, facing a team of cooks separated by a wide counter. Nestled on ice or in woven baskets set into the counter were raw fishes, meats, and vegetables enticing the diner. Selections made, the food was skewered and grilled in front of the diner and presented by the cook on the blade of a long-handled paddle, stretching over the raw ingredients. Sakagura East Village offers grand tasting menus that focus on sake, rice, and miso.31

The last Japanese spot on the block is T.I.C.Group’s Sakebar Decibel (240 East 9th St.), a basement hideaway identified by a small wooden sign.

Shopping for sake: Sakaya (324 East 9th St) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Proprietor Hiroko Furukawa, along with her American husband, Rick Smith, opened Sakaya in 2007; it claims to be New York’s first sake shop. The large assortment is displayed on tranquil, blond wood shelves, and Hiroko and Rick stand ready to educate the neophyte about different styles of sake, as well as conducting scheduled tastings. Both credit Yagi with advice and support while they were opening Sakaya.

Hiroko followed the path of many Japanese migrants, coming to New York as a student in the 1990s to learn English. She had no plans to stay in the city permanently, although she acknowledges that she and her friends fit the pattern of “self-reinvention,” when many young, artistically inclined Japanese left economically stagnant and culturally straight-laced Japan to pursue studies or artistic and design careers in New York. They sought individualism and the caché of professional success abroad, with the intention of returning to Japan, flush with the triumph of having “made it” in New York.32

Hiroko studied journalism at Hunter College and landed a prized job with Tokyo Broadcasting Company upon graduation. She has never lived in Little Tokyo, rooming on the Upper East Side while a Hunter student, and then in more budget-friendly Astoria, where other Japanese migrants also lived, although she did not specifically seek out a Japanese community. She is not interested in traditional markers of Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony or kimonos, and only became interested in sake when she met Rick, a passionate oenophile. Together they explored Japanese restaurants and learned about sake, and Hiroko made New York her home.

Hiroko estimates that about 20% of Sakaya’s clientele is Japanese or Japanese-American, traveling from throughout the metropolitan area to take advantage of their unparalleled selection. In recent years she has noted an increase in the number of Chinese purchasing sake, but she is frequently unsure of the nationality of her Asian customers. During a 45-minute interview in the shop, three different groups, each with Asian ancestry, came in; all started by speaking English to Hiroko, although they spoke other languages among themselves. One man with dyed blond hair asked, in American English, if Hiroko spoke Japanese; they then chatted in Japanese. He paid by credit card, and after he left, Hiroko told me that, while he spoke fluent Japanese, his last name was Korean. She speculated that his family had left Korea and immigrated to Japan, perhaps during the active shooting of the Korean War.

The luxe of Little Tokyo: sushi omakase at Cagen (414 East 9th St.) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Cagen, Japanese for “just right,” is one of several high-end modern Japanese restaurants in the East Village (Kyo Ya, Jewel Bako, Kura, Secchu Yokota, and Momofuko Ko are others). One could easily walk past its unassuming entrance; although awarded a Michelin star, no sign boasts the accolade. Specializing in sushi, the omakase (“leave it to the chef”) menu (seatings at the sushi bar at 6:00 or 8:30, is pricey, if delicious, while à la carte options are available at the few small tables adjacent to the bar.

Cagen is a destination. Women in black dresses flashing décolletage would seem out of place at most restaurants near Avenue A but glide seamlessly into Cagen. Chef Toshio Tomita imports his fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. He keeps laminated flashcards of the different species and varieties behind the bar, which he places in front of the diner to identify each piece of sashimi as it is served, one by one, from his hand. Tomita spent years at restaurants in Japan before coming to the United States. in 1987. His résumé includes more than a decade at Nobu before opening Cagen in 2013, where a large stone mortar sits behind the sushi counter: it is where Tomita used to grind buckwheat for his ethereal handmade soba; it seems to have fallen off the menu on recent visits. His son, Rei, was born in New York and manages the sake list; he previously worked the hot kitchen, as Cagen offers New Japanese cuisine, such as lightly seared washugyu beef.

Rei comfortably navigates American culture and the culture of being Japanese in New York; his first language is English, and he learned Japanese as a childhood second language to speak to his father, whose English is proficient, but not fluent. Rei also speaks Japanese to patrons at Cagen, at least those who want to practice a limited, school-learned vocabulary. Most ultimately default to English as the conversation strains their skills. According to Rei, Hi-Collar, where we started our gastronomic stroll, is a center of gravity for the young Japanese community. While many options for Japanese food and drink exist in Little Tokyo, Rei believes that Hi-Collar is a favorite because of the status associated with drinking high quality, expensive coffee, and its very hip vibe. He recommends returning to Hi-Collar after dinner for a sake nightcap to see the “authentic” Japanese enclave.

Practicing “Japanese-ness” in New York

Japanese food is unquestionably in vogue, but that alone cannot explain the growth and success of Little Tokyo as a densely packed culinary mecca. Part of its vitality and the continually increasing concentration of Japanese-inflected businesses may be related to the desire of Japanese migrants, Japanese-Americans, and people interested in Japanese culture to perform or experience “Japanese-ness” in changing ways. Current

Japanese students and migrants seem to have a different approach to Japanese-ness than did the previous generation as exemplified by Hiroko Furukawa. Japanese migrants in the latter twentieth century—indeed, as recently as 2011—commented that their countrymen were not interested in creating a Japanese enclave in New York.33 While not flocking to a residential enclave, Japanese migrants nowadays seem eager to perform aspects of Japanese-ness as part of their New York identity, something that can be “worn” when desired and just as easily shed. This contrasts with the desire of earlier migrants to perform cosmopolitanism.34

No demographic reason justifies situating a Little Tokyo in the East Village; indeed, the spread of Japanese businesses in the area has grown inversely to the Japanese population. Like Disneyland, Little Tokyo was artificially and arbitrarily founded, largely through the vision of Shuji “Bon” Yagi, whose successful establishments opened in the 1980s and ’90s attracted other Japanese-inflected businesses. Yagi insists that his purpose was to introduce Americans to Japanese culinary culture, rather than to provide refuge to homesick migrants and Japanese tourists, although they, too, take advantage of Little Tokyo’s familiar products. As the T.I.C. Group website proclaims, “Enjoy Japan without the airfare.” Little Tokyo is a place largely for outsiders to sample a constructed, concentrated Japanese culinary culture, one that appears more authentic by the fillip of pan-Asian sojourners that stroll Little Tokyo’s streets.


Personal interviews and communications:

Hiroko Furukawa, 26 October and 4 December, 2016

Souheki Mori, 23 September 2016

Bon Yagi, 25 October 2016

Sakura Yagi, 25 October 2016

Rei Tomita, 29 October 2016 and 11 March 2017

Elizabeth Andoh, 10 December 2016

Books, articles, and selected online journalism:

Arizona Republic, January 12, 1924 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/4822220/william_guthrie_of_st_marks_in_the/ , accessed March 16, 2017.

Besonen, Julie. “Big Taste of Japan, From Katsu to Kitsch.” New York Times, November 27, 2016, MB4.

Calhoun, Ada. St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street. New York: W.W. Norton (2016).

Chang, David. “And now, a public service announcement: RAMEN IS DEAD.” Lucky Peach, January 12, 2015, http://luckypeach.com/the-state-of-ramen-david-chang/, accessed 18 November 2016.

Dolnick, Sam, and Kirk Semple. “For New York’s Japanese, A Desire to Meld into the Mainstream.” New York Times, March 16, 2011, A23.

Lombardi, Linda. “The Social History of Ramen.” https://www.tofugu.com/japan/history-of-ramen/, accessed 3 December, 2016.

Meehan, Peter. “Long Live Ramen.” Lucky Peach, January 12, 2015, http://luckypeach.com/the-state-of-ramen-peter-meehan/, accessed 18 November, 2016.

Schuhmacher, Clara Inés. “Market Tours: Sunrise Mart, a Japanese Market Hidden in the East Village.” Serious Eats. http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2013/01/sunrise-mart-japanese-market-east-village.html, January 15, 2013.

Solares, Nick. “An Eater’s Guide to the East Village.” Eater NY, November 28, 2016. https://ny.eater.com/2016/11/28/12063332/nyc-east-village-best-restaurant-italian-japanese-burgers-pizza-thai

Sooudi, Olga Kanzaki. Japanese New York: Migrant Artists and Self-reinvention on the World Stage. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press (2014).

Surak, Kristan. Making Tea, Making Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press (2013).

“The 15 Best Places for Ramen in the East Village, New York.” https://foursquare.com/top-places/east-village-new-york/best-places-ramen, published September 4, 2019, accessed 8 September, 2019.

White, Merry. Coffee Life in Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press (2012).

YouTube Videos:

“This is some of the best ramen in NYC,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmzIxBrnJ8, published 13 September, 2016.

“How to Eat Ramen,” from Tampopo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2blfrQBH1g last accessed 7 September, 2019.


NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Health/Japanese-in-10003-10009/8rr3-zfnv/data, accessed 3 December 2016.

Wu, Sen-Yuan. “New Jersey’s Asian Population by Asian Group.” New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, n.p., February 17, 2012. https://lwd.state.nj.us/labor/lpa/pub/lmv/lmv_18.pdf.



Population Breakdown by Asian Ethnicity in Zip Codes 10003 and 10009


Year 2010 2000 1990 1980
Total Population of zip codes 124,691 112,268 109,042 105,205
Mainland Chinese 7,541 5,883 3,886 2,544
Indian 2,767 1,783 593 823
Korean 2,395 1,197 474 468
Japanese 1,227 1,783 1,295 439


Source: InfoShare Online, accessed 3 Dec 2016, compiled from multiple searches via http://infoshare.org/mod1/main.aspx.

Several of my sources believe that the number of Japanese is underreported for the 1990s and very early 2000s, due to a hidden population that lacked current visas or work permits. All agree that the Japanese population in the area has declined over the past decade.



  1. Wu, Sen-Yuan. New Jersey’s Asian Population By Asian Group. New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, n.p., February 17, 2012. https://lwd.state.nj.us/labor/lpa/pub/lmv/lmv_18.pdf; Besonen, Julie. “Big Taste of Japan, From Katsu to Kitsch.” New York Times, November 27, 2016, MB4.
  2. NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Health/Japanese-in-10003-10009/8rr3-zfnv/data, accessed 3 December 2016
  3. NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Health/Japanese-in-10003-10009/8rr3-zfnv/data, accessed 3 December 2016.
  4. See generally, Calhoun, Ada. St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street. New York: W.W. Norton (2016), especially chapters 15 and 20.
  5. After the December 2014 closing of De Robertis Pasticcheria and Caffé on First Avenue, Veniero’s Bakery on East 11th Street is all that remains of this once-vibrant Italian neighborhood, while Veselka restaurant, the Ukrainian National Home, and J. Baczynsky Meat Market, just north of St. Marks place on Second Avenue, are the surviving remnants of the original eastern European community.
  6. Calhoun at 313.
  7. B. Yagi interview, 25 October 2016
  8. Ibid.
  9. Solares, Nick. “An Eater’s Guide to the East Village.” Eater NY, November 28, 2016. https://ny.eater.com/2016/11/28/12063332/nyc-east-village-best-restaurant-italian-japanese-burgers-pizza-thai
  10. Yagi is the New York distributor for high-end Japanese bidet-toilets; all the restrooms in Yagi’s restaurants, as well as most of the other Japanese restaurants in the neighborhood, are equipped with Japanese fixtures.
  11. S. Yagi, personal communication, 25 October 2016
  12. B. Yagi, 25 October 2016
  13. Ibid.
  14. Arizona Republic, January 12, 1924, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/4822220/william_guthrie_of_st_marks_in_the/ accessed March 16, 2017.
  15. White, Merry. Coffee Life in Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press (2012).
  16. www.hi-collar.com, last accessed 8 September 2019
  17. Lombardi, Linda. ‘The Social History of Ramen.’ https://www.tofugu.com/japan/history-of-ramen/, accessed 3 December 2016.
  18. The 15 Best Places for Ramen in the East Village, New York.”https://foursquare.com/top-places/east-village-new-york/best-places-ramen, last updated 4 September 2019; last accessed 8 September, 2019.
  19. Meehan, Peter. ‘Long Live Ramen.’ Lucky Peach, January 12, 2015,  http://luckypeach.com/the-state-of-ramen-peter-meehan/, accessed 18 November 2016.
  20. Chang, David. ‘And now, a public service announcement: RAMEN IS DEAD.’ Lucky Peach, January 12, 2015, http://luckypeach.com/the-state-of-ramen-david-chang/, accessed 18 November 2016.
  21. ‘This is some of the best ramen in NYC’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmzIxBrnJ8, published 13 September 2016.
  22. ‘How to Eat Ramen,’ from Tampopo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2blfrQBH1g last accessed 7 September, 2019.
  23. Recently raised to $55.
  24. http://japanpremiumbeef.com/ , last accessed 7 September 2019.
  25. http://www.nymag.com/listings/bar/bohemian/ , accessed 3 December 2016; http://www.playearth.jp/eng/bohemian_ny/, accessed 7 September 2019.
  26. https://www.yelp.com/biz/chi-snack-shop-new-york (review of Shiu Lei W., dated 28 September 2016).
  27. Schuhmacher, Clara Inés. “Market Tours: Sunrise Mart, a Japanese Market Hidden in the East Village.” Serious Eats. http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2013/01/sunrise-mart-japanese-market-east-village.html, January 15, 2013.
  28. http://www.chopsticksny.com/downloads/May_24_2019_en.pdf, accessed 8 September, 2019.
  29. B. Yagi, 25 October 2016.
  30. This number is consistent with the findings of Kristan Surak, Making Tea, Making Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press (2013).
  31. https://www.sakagura.com/eastvillage, accessed 8 September 2019
  32. Sooudi, Olga Kanzaki. Japanese New York: Migrant Artists and Self-reinvention on the World Stage. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press (2014).
  33. Dolnick, Sam, and Kirk Semple. ‘For New York’s Japanese, A Desire to Meld into the Mainstream.’ New York Times, March 16, 2011, A23.
  34. Adachi, Jiro. ‘How Q Found Her Groove.’ New York Times, January 30, 2005.
Cathy Kaufman is an adjunct professor of Food Studies at The New School specializing in the intersection of food and culture. She has been the chairman of the Culinary Historians of New York since 2003 and is a Trustee and the Programmer for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. In addition to authoring numerous articles, she was an editor of Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America. When not thinking about food, you can find her practicing tai chi in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

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