Across the Hudson River from New York City, in Edgewater, N.J., lies a place of succor for those who miss the taste and look of Japan: an authentic Japanese shopping mall where you can find fresh bamboo shoots, an international bestseller in Japanese, the latest fashions from Tokyo or a bowl of fox noodles to eat while viewing the New York skyline. It is Yaohan Plaza, better known to locals as "Tokyo on the Hudson." Believe it.
"It is shopping just like Japan," said my friend Kazuko. A homemaker from Westchester County, she makes the trip to the three-building complex once a week to lay in treats for the family and staples that are unheard of in Westchester.
In Edgewater, a few miles south of the George Washington Bridge, an eclectic assortment of shacks and dazzling apartment buildings lines a narrow two-lane road, taking advantage of the spectacular view. From the road, Yaohan's three-building complex looks like any strip mall, more efficient than attractive. The only Oriental note is the pagoda-like roof of the restaurant facing the river.
American shopping malls depend on easy access, but Yaohan's relative inaccessibility is immaterial: Japanese from 600 miles around are customers. "We associate shopping with leisure," a Yaohan spokesman said. "You are here to have a good time."
According to Kazuko, it is well worth the trip.
She took out her shopping list and headed for the Food Plaza -- 49,200 square feet of supermarket, fast-food shops, a restaurant, a video shop, a real estate office and a dry cleaner.
Even if you consider yourself knowledgeable in Japanese cuisine, prepare to be stunned at the quantity of ingredients here. Eighty percent of the goods have been imported from Japan. There is tofu in endless forms, including one for kids that is extruded from a plastic bottle. We saw more crackers than Nabisco ever thought of, in shape as well as taste. In the meat department, thinly sliced, well-marbled beef
was folded and tucked to resemble a rose. A liquor section had sake bottles of such opulence that I was tempted to buy one for a lamp base.
The frozen fish alone was a revelation, with whole scallops in the shell, enormous exotic mussels in the shell and other delicacies that even Kazuko couldn't find the words to describe. In the fresh fish section, a small steamed octopus held us all in thrall, its bright red legs curled under like an exotic lily.
Pickles are an important category of food to the Japanese, almost as indispensable as rice. They crowd the refrigerated cases in a rainbow of small clear packages, from rosy red pickled ginger to saffron-yellow pickled radish. There were tiny plums, eggplant slices and, for a touch of green, cucumber bits and pieces.
An enthusiastic woman in a white uniform dispensed free samples -- a little sea vegetable, a little ginger sprout.
"Try this," she said, offering me a glass dish strewn with pale pink kernels. The flavor was elusive, only vaguely familiar through the soft crunch and rice vinegar. "You can't tell yet?" she teased. "They're garlic cloves. We have a customer who comes over from New York just to buy them for his martinis." Well, why not? Only one step away from pickled onions.
The Yaohan bakery sells a square loaf of bread suspiciously like that squashy stuff loved by small children. But Kazuko passed it by to get through the checkout line and go on to the next phase of her shopping. Here, fast-food stalls are arranged to look like a village street, with a chicken shop full of skewered wonders, a Chinese take-out, familiar trays of fresh sushi, and the place that drew Kazuko: a pancake stall where an attendant turned raw dough into impressive golden ovals.
The Fashion Plaza is an entire department store on one level, with jewelry, perfumes, and elegant fashions and accessories. There are men's sports clothes, suits and shoes, and delightful children's clothes so expensive that only wealthy grandmothers could succumb.
Other departments are devoted to the home, with the newest Japanese kitchen appliances, housewares and tableware for sale. Whatever comforts the Japanese homemaker, she will find it here. Everything necessary to set a Japanese table is offered in a small crowded area near the front windows, where porcelain and earthenware of museum quality can be inspected closely. Trays, ceremonial sake bottles, bowls for soup and rice, and domburi bowls with matching tops are on display. A set of wasabi (horseradish) dishes in imaginative shapes and bright colors caught my eye. The Japanese count five in a set, not six as in the United States. "It is considered a lucky number in Japan," the manager of the department said.
We wandered over to the restaurant Chinzan-so, not to eat but to admire the building's classic shape. Its traditional roof is molded in copper and aluminum, the two stories beneath it wrapped in glass with a 24-foot skylight that bathes a 1,000-square-foot rock garden and pool below. The newest structure at Yaohan Plaza, it is patterned on the 500-year-old Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, with a temple and landscape garden that is already underway.
Anyone who has indulged in a four-star Japanese restaurant in any American city knows that expense must be no object. At Chinzan-so, three orchestrated dinners of descending magnificence are described on the menu, at fixed prices of $100, $80 and $50 per person. There is also a sushi bar and an a la carte menu (entrees start at $14). But if money matters, you are better off at the Food Plaza, where you can eat just as authentically and stare out at the same glorious view of New York City, from the mists beyond the George Washington Bridge to the Battery.
Yaohan Plaza is an old story in California, where the company has six malls. The company began 30 years ago with one pushcart piled high with fruits and vegetables in the hot spring resort of Atami in Japan. Now it has operations in two hemispheres.
Most of the key personnel are Japanese, but there are non-Asian employees as well. Do they have to sing the Yaohan song? (There is one.) Or memorize the company slogan ("If we desire, dreams always come true")?
M. Yamada, the mall administrator, was vague, but he did say that a group from the home office arrived at intervals to train the local workers. After all, stocking the cases with tofu products alone would be impossible without an education.
Sally Tager is a freelance writer in North Hampton, N.H.
GETTING THERE: To reach Yaohan Plaza from Washington, take Interstate 95 to the New Jersey Turnpike and take the Weehawken exit, turning east. Stay on Boulevard East until you reach 60th Street. Turn right, and continue as 60th Street turns into River Road. Yaohan Plaza is three miles north. Or, you can exit the New Jersey Turnpike at 46E just before the George Washington Bridge. Drive down Hudson Terrace, which turns into River Road. Yaohan Plaza is three miles south.
If you are in New York without a car, you can still get to Yaohan Plaza easily and quickly. A clearly marked shuttle bus leaves regularly from a parking lot in front of the north exit of the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street. The fare is $1 each way.
HOURS: Yaohan Plaza is open from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays to 9 p.m. The restaurant Chinzan-so is open from noon to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.
INFORMATION: Yaohan Plaza, 595 River Rd., Edgewater, N.J. 07020, (201) 941-9113.