Japanese Retailers Find a Market in New York

Muji sells
Muji sells "no-label quality goods" at three New York stores, including one in Chelsea, above. Other shops offer such Japanese items as books, clothing and even desserts. (Muji)
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By JoAnn Greco
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

With its large Japanese expat population and thousands of Japanese American residents, New York has long offered sushi restaurants and karaoke bars. More recently, the popularity of high-end design and funky pop culture from the Land of the Rising Sun and the Sinking Yen has brought a variety of Japanese-based retailers to town. Several can be found nowhere else in the United States, and they emphasize the wabi-sabi (an aesthetic that emphasizes impermanence and simplicity) and the cheap just as often as they do the Zen and the rarefied.

One such case is Muji, which opened its third free-standing store, in Chelsea, during the Thanksgiving weekend. Muji's largest branch, though, beckons calmly across the street from the chaotic Port Authority Bus Terminal. There, on the ground floor of Renzo Piano's supremely climbable New York Times Building, the Tokyo chain's entire cache of "no-label quality goods" awaits in a sea of white, beige and gray. Your booty might include lovely bone china teapots ($31) and handy bamboo baskets ($15), but the real treat lies in the super-necessities. Pick up toothbrushes, shower squeegees, notebooks and cotton swabs wrapped in brown paper. All are under $5 and bear their original Japanese-language-inflected packaging.

A few blocks away, a bigger and fresher Kinokuniya bookstore has opened, replacing a 26-year-old Rockefeller Center outlet. Its first floor features enough English-language books (covering kimono to kitsch, Mishima to Murakami) to satisfy all manner of Japanophiles. Downstairs, gift items such as stuffed bears made from vintage obi and racks and racks of washi, or Japanese decorative paper, are available. Head for the third floor to check out the vast selection of Japanese-language works and to pick up a bento box lunch at Cafe Zaiya. In winter, the postcard view of ice skaters at Bryant Park is a nice bonus.

A much less fancy Japanese bookstore is around the corner. Book Off carries a wide and eclectic selection of used manga (comics), language books and CDs. Coincidentally, the original Cafe Zaiya sits just a few doors down. During weekday lunchtimes the place is a zoo, but a separate stall of the Osaka-based Beard Papa is a must for the city's best cream puffs. In the winter ask for a pumpkin-filled puff or take advantage of the chain's superb Mont Blanc chestnut cream pastry, offered only at this time of the year.

For more sophisticated desserts, try Kyotofu, the first American outpost of a cafe that draws lines of customers in Tokyo's chichi Roppongi Hills shopping complex. Its vaguely space-age vibe of padded white leather banquettes belies the serene pleasures offered by its open kitchen and solicitous wait staff. An artistically presented dessert omakase (chef's choice) offers mini cupcakes, cookies and novel goodies such as meltingly sweet tofu, miso chocolate cake and seasonal fruit yokan (a Jell-O-like offering). Whether you accompany the meal with a pot of jasmine tea or a glass of sparkling sake, it's a perfect respite in a quintessential Japanese shopping day.

Before leaving midtown, try to squeeze in two older staples on the Japanese circuit. The high-end department store Takashimaya (it includes a tea room, an art gallery and an exquisite flower shop) is a treat for the eyes, if not the pocketbook. Those on a budget can indulge by buying a bar of Japanese soap or a box of loose tea, which will be just as generously swathed in tissue paper and ribbon as the pearl necklaces and silk scarves found elsewhere in the store. A few blocks away, Minamoto Kitchoan has been entrancing visitors with its pastel-hued wagashi, or seasonal confections, for years. The shapes and packaging of these treats are certainly delightful, but remember: Red bean filling ain't chocolate.

Downtown, another cluster of retailers has set up shop. Uniqlo, like Muji, prides itself on its quality basics, this time in clothing. Famed for its climbing walls of garments meticulously folded, stacked and organized by color, this huge boutique is a sort of Gap on stylin' steroids. Hundreds of T-shirts imprinted with manga characters such as Masked Rider are available for $15, many of them limited editions created by well-known Japanese designers. Jeans, too, are abundant; look for prized Japanese selvage denim for about $100 a pair. In the winter, cognoscenti scoop up $99 cashmere sweaters. The first U.S. Muji outlet, much smaller than the newer Muji stores, is just a few blocks away.

Also nearby is A Bathing Ape -- or, more familiarly, Bape -- which is credited with introducing Japanese street fashion to these shores. Its limited-edition graffitied T-shirts and $300 day-glo sneakers definitely skew young, but outside the funky Tokyo neighborhoods that originated the cos (for "costume") play craze, it's the best place to get a sense of the Japanese take on hip-hop culture.

From SoHo, an easy walk leads to St. Marks Place (East Eighth Street) and East Ninth Street, where a smattering of Japanese grocery stores, pubs and trinket shops has opened in the past few years. One of the newest, though not a Japanese brand, is Sakaya, New York's first sake-only store. Lined with lovingly lit cedar-plank shelves, this small shop showcases the elegant bottles as an art form, while its emphasis on tastings and information respects the brew as an exact science. Sampling is encouraged, and a visit here is a perfect way to put a finishing touch on your Japanese shopping tour of New York. Kampai!

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