Long Live Little Tokyo
Illustration by John Molesworth
Stuyvesant Street slices a small two-block strip across the East Village, like someone dogeared this corner of the neighborhood to remember to come back to it later. For decades, the stretch between 11th and 12th streets was home to a collection of Japanese storefronts: Sharaku, Panya, Village Yokocho, Angel’s Share, Sunrise Mart. They stood together in a line facing uptown, a smiling patch of concrete serving the neighborhood’s Japanese expat community.
The block was the domain of Tadao “Tony” Yoshida, who held court on this Manhattan block for 50 years. Tony landed in New York from Japan in the 1970s, a couple of decades after my grandmother, also nicknamed Tony, made her own trip from what was then Formosa to settle in California. (In this case, Tony was an anglicized abbreviation of my grandmother’s maiden name “Tomimatsu.”)
I felt like a hollow bell when I heard that this angled sweep of stores was set to be boarded up. Rising rents, apartments to be built, etc. New York doesn’t have a demarcated Little Tokyo the way that Los Angeles and San Francisco, where you can take pictures of pagodas and shrines and pretend for a minute that you’re in some Osaka suburb. Stuyvesant Street had to do.
I started going to Sharaku — the one place on the block that Tony Yoshida didn’t own — when I was 12. I would take the train in to visit my brother who was a sophomore at NYU and lived nearby in a dingy student apartment on Avenue B. (Thanks to decades of savvy, voracious real estate acquisitions, the school’s campus sits on top of Greenwich Village like a hole-filled blanket.) I still remember the restaurant’s logo slashing across the building’s facade like it was announcing a new manga, all jagged brushstrokes and calligraphic drama.
The food at Sharaku was always just fine. We would order kanpyo (かんぴょう) and oshinko (お新香) rolls because my brother was vegan, and the waitress nodded her head solemnly as if no one had ever asked for those dishes before. We had both inherited a taste for vinegared root vegetables from our mother and grandmother. The canary yellow oshinko was that rare food that tasted like it looked: bright and slightly funky, like sunshine through haze.
The interior of Sharaku was an architectural pastiche: exposed brick, a frosted glass staircase, those ladderback chairs that you only ever see at sushi counters. It was wonderful because it spoke to my own mixed upbringing. Sharaku looked like every Japanese restaurant in southern California I had grown up going to. It felt like home.
Sharaku and the rest of those storefronts wilted in 2019, cutting out a core part of the city’s Japanese community. But over the decades the pollen from Stuyvesant Street blew to the surrounding blocks and sprouted a bustling community of Japanese restaurants, grocery stores, bars, and hair salons. Instead, there are small, scattered storefronts strewn across the East Village; a few on 6th Street, some on 10th, the apparently immortal collection of spots to order sake bombs and grilled tuna collars on St. Marks.
Hi-Collar is on 9th Street, around the corner from Stuyvesant and part of a lineup of Japanese outposts like Hasaki and Sake Bar Decibel. (Decibel — and its sister bar Satsko — is a good idea at any time, but gets increasingly magnetic as the night goes on.) It’s a kissaten (喫茶店) by day, the kind of place that caters to writers in Japan who want complex coffee and simple foods like omurice (オムライス) and katsu (カツ) sandwiches. In the evening, Hi-Collar lets its hair down and turns into a cozy bar, pouring sake and Japanese highballs. Like any civilized place, it closes at 10, the bartenders calmly and graciously guiding you out towards the East Village like good-natured ushers.
For years, the next stop would invariably be Tony Yoshida’s Angel’s Share, a cocktail bar that opened in 1993 and has some genuine claim to setting off a new wave of high end liquor dens in the city. It was never crowded because the rule was you had to have a seat in order to drink. And for that I was always grateful. (Thankfully, Tony’s daughter Erina is resurrecting Angel’s Share across town in the West Village.)
Instead, head to the Izakaya on 6th Street. (There are two, but I’m partial to this one because the entrance is a perfect homage to the quiet, out of the way restaurants that dot Tokyo. And yes, naming a place “Izakaya” is like calling your pub “Pub.”) The menu is peppered with homesick curing dishes that can be hard to find in New York: an omelet with cod roe and dashi, clams steamed in sake. No matter what you do, order the cabbage.
Late nights belong to the twin bars mentioned earlier. If you’re with friends, go to Decibel; if you want to make friends go to Satsko. The latter has been a popular haunt for neighborhood musicians and DJs for nearly 20 years, with more than a handful of New York club fixtures having tended bar there at some point. They put melted mozzarella in some of their sushi, the molten salt and fat coating the rice granules like a hapa stoner’s happy accident.
Walking back towards Stuyvesant Street, you might pass some of the new additions to Little Tokyo’s scatterplot map like AOI Kitchen or Tsukimi. When Sharaku and the rest closed, I wasn’t sure I would recognize the neighborhood anymore, that the vision I had of this Japanese corner of Manhattan was gone. But walking around and hearing the clips of conversations in a language I don’t understand but instantly recognize brings me right back home.
Like most New Yorkers, Little Tokyo didn’t leave, it just moved a few blocks away.