The well-documented girl crush we have on Japanese culture embarasses most and sickens many, but one day, oh, one day, we will get to Japan, and we will finally say hello to Chococat in person. Until then, Toronto and Los Angeles each offer their own bento box-sized Japanese experience.
Within these walls our imaginations go wild with cuisine possibilities – the shapes of egg to be hard-boiled by tools in the kitchenware stores! The infinite types of bean to be creamed and stuffed into the middle of a bakery’s bun! Panda-faced crackers in the supermarket just screaming to be tossed into Miso soup! Japanese has a modern phrase mostly used to describe the geeky, hard-core fans of Manga, Anime, and video games, but it fits here too: Otaku, translated roughly to English usage, means obsessed, and we are it.
Nestled in between car dealerships at Victoria Park and Steeles Ave. is a tiny courtyard plaza, marked to drivers only by a yellow “J-Town” sign so barely visible from the street that you could nearly cause a car accident turning into the driveway. The mall – which let’s face it, is in Markham – is Toronto’s largest to cater exclusively Japanese products and services. With MUJI-like simplicity, J-Town is comprised of only a beauty supply store and salon, a clothing shop, a book store, a household goods section, a bakery, a grocery, a sushi place, and a meat market. What the heck else do you need! There are a few cafes and restaurants that are in the same complex but they keep their own hours – noodles need a break too! A peek around the mall revealed imported groceries like whole preserved umeboshi plums from Heisei Mart, Eastern-influenced French patisserie like Fuji apple tarts at Bakery Nakamura, and fan-sliced cuts of pink Berkshire pork belly perfect for Shabu-shabu at FaMu Inc. – not to mention enough freshly prepared food to have an actual picnic by the Zen fountain in the courtyard.
3160 Steeles Ave. E
Tues – Sat 10am-7pm
Home of the “California” roll, Little Tokyo is the heart of the largest Japanese-American population in North America at the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Shopping plazas, restaurants and banks opened here in the Civic Centre in the late 1970s as Japanese business began to expand overseas in spite of the heavy politicization of Japanese-American relations after WWII. Though it remains a huge tourist attraction as well as a destination for the Japanese population, it’s here you’ll also find an extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art, L.A. City Hall, and the Arts District, a colourful lane of old warehouses converted to artists’ studios and live-work loft spaces.
Little Tokyo Galleria Market looks like a parking garage – but like a raggedy oyster conceals a pearl, this concrete shell encloses some of the sparkliest gems of fresh food and grocery items available in the city.
The indigo-blue noren curtains at dive ramen shop Daikokuya must definitely signal an old-school treatment of a hot and trendy taste sensation.
Little Tokyo Galleria Market
333 South Almeda St.
Daikokuya Little Tokyo
327 East 1st St.
*How better to capture the magic of twin J-Towns than by iphone camera, since Japanese boys and girls are among the most technologically savvy in the world! If you can’t say it in Emoji, don’t say it at all.