ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH U Street west of the main drag probably remembers Japan Associates Travel, with its sign promising space travel via rocket.

The sign’s been covered up since last November, but it’s for a good reason: D.C.’s acquired its first Japanese market.

Before Hana on U opened, expats and others craving Japanese flavors had to head to Bethesda or to one of the ethnic mega-markets in Northern Virginia. But this tiny location has almost everything you could need for a Japanese meal. It’s well stocked with sushi rice, ramen, tofu, instant miso, candy and drinks. On Thursdays, the market receives a shipment of fresh Japanese vegetables from a Maryland farm.

Rebecca Cataldi, who spent two years in Japan teaching English, is thrilled to see a row of individually wrapped buns in the front display case. Hana stocks different flavors of bread filled with red bean paste, for example, or chocolate. But the “cream breads”— filled with a tasty and somehow shelf-stable white cream — for $1.50 each are the treat: “I’ve never seen these in this country before,” Cataldi says.

Hana also carries the ubiquitous Ramune sodas, colloquially known as “marble soda” for the glass marble that rattles around inside the bottle. For something more unusual, try Pocari Sweat — like Gatorade — or Calpico, a sort-of-citrusy, sort-of-milky drink.

In the freezer case, look for yakionigiri, or fried rice balls. “Even in Japan, it was difficult to find these,” says Cataldi.

Though the store has only a few tiny shelves, it really does appear to have almost everything needed to create a Japanese meal. And though the smile-inducing sign’s gone, there’s still happiness in the air: “I think it’s good for community,” says co-owner Ikuyo Chisaka. “The people really love this store.”

Written by Express contributor Rachel Kaufman
Photo by Wendy Galietta Williams