For Great Japanese Cuisine And Grocers, Head To Central Ohio (Really)

May 11, 2016
Originally published on May 11, 2016 1:52 pm

When Mariko Becker wants a particular kind of Japanese noodle, she can't find it near her northeast Ohio home.

"[I like the kind that] is tied, knotted, very convenient, but you can't get it," she says.

Becker is Japanese, and she's lived in various Ohio cities for more than 20 years. She says Asian markets are good for common things like soy sauce, but not specialty items.

"When you get into some Japanese brand, or specifically catered to some sort of cooking style, then it's a little bit harder," Becker says.

For her, some items she remembers from Japan are just better than common American fare. Becker mentions cuts of meat or fish, vegetables, even kitchen items such as a certain kind of sponge.

And because of these preferences, Becker likes to stock up on Japanese products when she can. And a prime place to do that, believe it or not, is Columbus, Ohio.

The Tensuke Market "authentic Japanese grocery" is one favorite spot.

"If I go back to Japan and my friends say, 'Oh, Mariko, this is convenient stuff that has come out recently, and it's good,' then I can find some of it at the Tensuke," she says.

"It's this remarkable place, it's a little Japanese wonderland right here," says John Millen, standing with his family at the Japan Marketplace shopping center in northwest Columbus.

The Tensuke Market is there, along with J Avenue Japanese Collections, a sort of small-scale Japanese department store; the Akai Hana Japanese restaurant; and Belle's Bread, a self-described Japanese French bakery.

"We moved here 20 years ago," Millen says. "One of my most significant fears was that I wouldn't find the food that I had in California. I have cousins who are half-Japanese, and I grew up with sushi and everything else."

"And you come to Ohio and you think, 'Oh, it's gonna be small time,' " says Millen. "No offense. And in fact it's big time."

Central Ohio businesses with a Japanese link include everything from hair salons, to ramen noodle shops, to restaurants praised over the years by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Ohio-based food writer Michael Ruhlman.

You might be asking: Why central Ohio?

The Honda plant in Marysville has a lot to do with it, according to Akisa Fukuzawa, executive director of the Japan-America Society of Central Ohio.

"Because of this big Japanese corporation being here such a long time," she says, "Japanese executives and their families are here. So to support that lifestyle, a lot of grocery stores [are] here and Japanese restaurants."

Fukuzawa says Japanese expatriates seek out reminders of home. Shops carrying a certain kind of sake, or restaurants offering authentic dishes help them do that.

The Japanese influence in central Ohio extends beyond commerce. Some public schools offer Japanese language, and students look to Japanese firms for job prospects, according to Teppei Kiyosue. He's president of the Ohio Association of Teachers of Japanese.

"Back in 1970, when the economy in Japan was really good, Japanese programs were really strong all over the United States," says Kiyosue. "It's been changing, but here in central Ohio it's different, thanks to a lot of Japanese companies.

"Our students can see if they study Japanese really hard, it's really going to be good on their resume."

The Japan-America Society's Fukuzawa says despite the businesses, stores and restaurants, Japanese culture is still a little under the radar in central Ohio. It's why she'll continue hosting cultural events and trying to get the word out.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go to Ohio now for some Japanese food. As Tony Ganzer of member station WCPN in Cleveland found, grocery stores there and in much of the country are changing.

TONY GANZER, BYLINE: When Mariko Becker wants a particular kind of noodle, she can't find it near her northeast Ohio home.

MARIKO BECKER: But this one is, like, a tied, knotted - very convenient, but you can't get it. Well, at least I know around in Akron area, I don't see something like this specific kind.

GANZER: Becker is Japanese, and she's lived in various Ohio cities for more than 20 years. She says Asian markets are good for general items like soy sauce and rice vinegar, but not specialty items.

BECKER: When you get into some Japanese brand or the - specifically catered to some sort of cooking style, then it's a little bit harder.

GANZER: Becker prefers some items she enjoyed in Japan. From the cuts of meat or fish to kitchen sponges or washcloths, she stocks up when she can. And a prime place to do that is about two hours south.

JOHN MILLEN: It's this remarkable place. It's a little Japanese wonderland that right here.

GANZER: In northwest Columbus, John Millen and his family are standing at the Japan Marketplace shopping center. There's a Japanese grocery store, a Japanese restaurant, gift shop and bakery.

MILLEN: We moved here 20 years ago. And one of the most significant fears was that I wouldn't find the food that I had in California. I have cousins who are half Japanese, and I grew up with sushi and everything else. And you come to Ohio and you think it's going to be small time (laughter) - no offense. And in fact, it's big time.

GANZER: From hair salons to a restaurant praised by the likes of chef Anthony Bourdain, Akisa Fukazawa heads the Japan-American Society of Central Ohio and says a nearby Honda plant provided the spark.

AKISA FUKUZAWA: Because of this big Japanese corporation being here such a long time, including also Japanese executives and their families are here. So to support that lifestyle, a lot of grocery stores like here and Japanese restaurants.

GANZER: It's not unique for regions to take on the tastes of an immigrant population, but specialty grocery stores and restaurants are reacting much quicker. Take a look at California. Laresh Jayasanker teaches history at Metropolitan State University of Denver and studies how globalization and immigration have changed American eating habits. We spoke via Skype.

LARESH JAYASANKER: You have people coming from India and China to work in the tech industry or in Hollywood. And so because they're going back and forth, there's this expectation that they have whatever they want in both places.

GANZER: Jayasanker says you also see this influence with grocery chains adapting for Hispanic and other ethnic consumers. Akisa Fukuzawa says it sometimes amazes her what she can find.

FUKUZAWA: There's a certain brand of sake that I found here. And I took a picture and put it on my Facebook. And my Japanese friends saw. Oh, my God. That is very difficult to come by, even in Japan, in Tokyo. Why Columbus, Ohio, you have this sake?

GANZER: Maybe it takes a visit to the Midwest to get a taste of the Far East. For NPR News, I'm Tony Ganzer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.