Sake. Dashi. Soba Shops: Japanese Chic Takes Root in Brooklyn
On a cold Tuesday afternoon in January, four women made their way down Guernsey Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They had just finished lunch at Acre, a Japanese cafe and shop, where they had been served bento boxes and green tea, and were headed to 50 Norman, a new warehouse space nearby that housed three other Japanese businesses.
The women, all Japanese immigrants, had driven in from New Jersey, at the advice of their friend, Chieko Koie, who had already dined at Acre and was interested in visiting the warehouse after seeing it on Instagram.
The group’s first stop at 50 Norman was Dashi Okume, which sells dashi, a soup base typically made from ingredients like dried fish, seaweed and mushrooms. The business, which opened in Tokyo in 1871, offers various ready-made dashi powder blends, as well as bins of dried ingredients for customers to make their own. “For Japanese people, dashi is really important for making food,” Ms. Koie said. “It’s like a piece of home here in Brooklyn.”
The women then perused the high-priced curated goods at Cibone, a shop and gallery space that sells objects made by Japanese artists and designers, like $170 steel clippers from Ono, a city slightly west of Osaka, and $45 handwoven wire mesh tea strainers from Kyoto. Once they were finished, there were several more Japanese places to visit in the area, including a grocery store, a tea salon and a sake shop.
Japanese immigrants and entrepreneurs, who are drawn to Greenpoint’s creative scene and its proximity to Williamsburg and Manhattan, are part of a new cultural shift in this neighborhood, which has traditionally been known as “Little Poland,” with its pierogi shops and Polish bakeries run by Polish immigrants who moved to the neighborhood in the 20th Century. Now, within a seven-block area roughly between Greenpoint and Norman avenues and Guernsey and West streets, a cluster of modern Japanese businesses has emerged.
And the Japanese, as well as Japanophiles and other cultural explorers, are flocking to the area. Some of them, like Hiroko Schappert, have made the neighborhood their home.
“My daughter, when we pass by people, she’ll whisper to me, ‘They’re speaking Japanese,’” said Ms. Schappert, who grew up in Osaka and moved to Greenpoint with her husband 13 years ago. “And I see a lot of people moving here from Japan as a family because of a job or whatever. They move to Greenpoint, I think, for safety reasons and because there is more of a community.”
Greenpoint is not the first neighborhood in Brooklyn to serve as an outpost for Japanese culture. A few miles south, in Industry City, the waterfront complex in Sunset Park, sits Japan Village, a Japanese marketplace that opened in 2018 with food stalls, shops and a loft space. It is the brainchild of Tony Yoshida, an entrepreneur and pioneer behind the Japanese food and drink scene in Manhattan’s East Village.
Up until about a decade ago, Mr. Yoshida’s domain, St. Marks Place and Stuyvesant Street near Third Avenue, was the closest thing to a Little Tokyo concept in the city. But today, there are just a few remaining restaurants in the area, as Mr. Yoshida and others have looked to Brooklyn for a new beginning, and to cater to younger generations with more modern sensibilities.
“The East Village Japanese businesses, what they tried to do was recreate old Japan, like a traditional, retro sort of ‘Japanesque’ that echoes with Western peoples’ vision of Asia,” said Yumi Komatsu, a fashion and food writer who moved to New York from Japan in 2005 and spends a lot of time in Greenpoint.
50 Norman, Greenpoint’s largest and flashiest Japanese development, serves as sort of a nucleus for the growing community, which has spread to several neighboring streets, unlike Japan Village, which is contained in one building.
There is the upscale Japanese restaurant Rule of Thirds, about a two-minute walk from 50 Norman, and Bin Bin Sake, a sake store, around the corner. Kettl, a two-year-old tea salon, sells tea imported from Japan and traditional Japanese ceramics made by one of the owners, Minami Mangan.
Her husband and the co-owner of Kettl, Zach Mangan, describes what he often sees as customers making a kind of “pilgrimage” to the area. “People will have a 50 Norman bag, they’ll have their leftovers from Rule of Thirds,” he said. “It’s really synergistic in that way, and I think we all respect each other’s businesses, too.”
Mitsuki Japanese Market, a small family business that sells Japanese groceries and onigiri (rice balls), opened last summer. “I’m a Japanese food lover, and I like the Japanese markets in Manhattan,” said Jay Cao, one of the owners, who moved to New York from China a decade ago. “There has been an increase in Asian hate crimes since the pandemic, so we want to show the love to our community and share Asian culture.”
But if there is one player driving the Japanese scene in Greenpoint, it’s Aki Miyazono. In the spring of 2019, the designer, architect and entrepreneur bought a building there and opened a cafe on the ground floor. On the upper floors, he offered co-working spaces, including a test kitchen, to his friends, many of whom were Japanese chefs and designers.
In 2020, two Japanese women, Nami Torimaru and Ayaka Suzuki, took over the cafe and rebranded it as Acre. The duo remade it as stylish boutique selling upscale pantry items and ceramics from Japan, with a new menu offering home style Japanese dishes. Mari Yoshida, one of the four Japanese women visiting from New Jersey last month, described Acre’s culinary fare as “true Japanese food.”
Before the pandemic, Mr. Miyazono used to travel a lot for work. But like so many other New Yorkers, he has used the last few years to re-evaluate his life. “My wife and I decided to never go back to Japan; Greenpoint is the last place we want to live,” Mr. Miyazono said. “I want to make a nice community here.”
To that end, he helped the chef Yuu Shimano find a space for his new French-Japanese restaurant, which is scheduled to open this spring, along the northern edge of McCarren Park. But Mr. Miyazono really made his mark getting 50 Norman, the warehouse, up and running.
When his friend, the chef Yuji Tani, moved to New York from Tokyo, he wanted to open a branch of his celebrated restaurant, House, in Brooklyn. Mr. Miyazono helped him land a lease at 50 Norman. But the 3,500-square-foot space was too large for the eight-seat tasting counter Mr. Tani had planned, so Mr. Tani asked the owners of the dashi shop and the design store to share the lease.
Next, Mr. Miyazono plans to open a Japanese buckwheat soba shop on the other side of the warehouse this spring, with bar seating and a lounge-like atmosphere. Packages of the frozen soba noodles, under the brand Towari, are already sold inside Dashi Okume. Mr. Miyazono intends to fill the back part of 50 Norman with a variety of shops and restaurants, he said.
His vision coincides with several other Japanese restaurant openings in Greenpoint that are not connected to him. Lingo, which will specialize in Japanese home style cooking, is scheduled to open in the area this spring.
In June, Takusando, a Japanese sandwich shop, is scheduled to follow. “There are more and more independent Japanese businesses in Greenpoint these days, and it is great to build a strong relationship with them, it feels very reassuring,” said Kiyo Shinoki, the chief creative officer and a partner for Takusando and Takumen, an izakaya (a sort of Japanese pub) in Long Island City, Queens. “I’m guessing, especially the younger Japanese business owners, find Greenpoint similar to the more local neighborhoods of Tokyo,” he said, ticking off Brooklyn-like culture hubs like Daikanyama, Ura-Harajuku, Kiyosumi Shirakawa and Kuramae.
Ms. Komatsu, the fashion and food writer, agreed with this sentiment.
“It’s more like Tokyo now, that’s what’s cool about it,” she said. “Me and all my Japanese friends have been waiting for places like Acre and 50 Norman that are design-conscious.”
She added: “It’s at the very early stage, and we need maybe a couple more businesses, but then it could be our center.”