The final Japan Block Fair of 2012 took place on Sunday, October 14 in the Upper West Side, with hundreds of people strolling through a block of Broadway to sample Japanese food, buy Japanese goods, and vote for their favorite ramen in the NY Street Ramen Contest.
Japan Block Fair provides New Yorkers with an opportunity to experience Japanese culture through its street food, such as okonomiyaki and yakitori. But Japan Block Fair is equally important to the participating vendors. What would make these chefs and retailers and volunteers wake up early on a Sunday morning, drag their ingredients and their wares across town, and spend all over a hot griddle or repeating themselves to passersby?
The simple answer is exposure.
If you cook Japanese food, you’re probably familiar with Ajinomoto’s seasonings and sauces, but you may not know about their line of frozen foods. So on Sunday, Ajinomoto was there with gyoza (dumplings) and karaage (fried chicken).
For established restaurants such as Hakata Tonton, Uminoie, and Ariyoshi, spending Sunday at Japan Block Fair gives extra familiarity to their brands. Some of the longest lines of the day form in front of Hakata Tonton, a restaurant that specializes in pork dishes, and others seem amazed by the look of Ariyoshi’s grilled squid and Uminoie’s yakisoba.
It’s no surprise that Mimi and Coco were there, either. The purveyors of teriyaki balls are often seen at the most popular street fairs throughout the five boroughs. In their local take on takoyaki – a round pastry filled with chunks of octopus – Mimi and Coco replace the octopus with country sausage, shrimp, and organic potatoes to appeal to New Yorkers’ tastes.
Another stalwart of these types of food events is Peco Peco, a Japanese-language website for foodies in New York. Okonomiyaki Queen Kazuko Nagao made her famous Hiroshima-style savory pancake called okonomiyaki and grilled noodles known as yakisoba.
Japan Block Fair is also an opportunity for grassroots, family-run businesses to introduce themselves to the public. Across the aisle from Peco Peco stood OKO-TA, a new Kansai-style okonomiyaki venture by Brooklyn-based artist Rumi Tsuda and her husband and follow artist, Danny Georges. Their friend Stephen Ocone, who manned the grill, says that Tsuda and Georges would like to open their own restaurant one day, and Japan Block Fair was a good way to test the waters.
Another company that was testing the New York market was omusubi (rice ball) restaurant Beiju, which has locations in Japan and Taipei. Masato Izumi, Beiju’s President and CEO, told JapanCulture•NYC that a friend suggested he attend Japan Block Fair to see how New Yorkers react to his omusubi. Izumi says it’s possible that he could open a restaurant in New York.
Seven Bites Foods is a catering company in Brooklyn, rather than a restaurant. Tomoko Okamoto and Hiroko Iida, the driving forces behind the Seven Bites, prepared three kinds of their signature Boo Bites Croquettes: Original (Idaho potato, organic onion, and ground beef), Meat Lover (with 80% beef, 20% pork, organic onion), and Veggie Lover (Idaho potato, organic onion, and soy mozzarella). To Okamoto, the duo participates in Japan Block Fair because “we want to present cool Japan to New York,” she says.
Sunday’s Japan Block Fair was a family affair for Seven Bites, as Iida’s husband, Yuichi, occupied the booth next door with Brown Rice Family, a band that won the WNYC Ultimate Battle of the Boroughs. In addition to producing its “distinctively organic World Roots Music,” Brown Rice Family makes organic green tea rice bran soap. Yuichi Iida imports green tea from his hometown of Shizuoka, Japan. (To see a list of Brown Rice Family’s soap products and where you can purchase them, click here.) In addition to selling the soap and the band’s CDs, Iida also sold his wife’s Brown Rice Crackies at the band’s booth, and other band members helped the ladies chop vegetables. A family affair, indeed.
Healthy food was frequently cited by vendors, and Suzuki Farms delivered on that point with their veggie smoothies. Based in Delaware, Suzuki Farms grows more than 30 kinds of vegetables, including Japanese favorites such as daikon (radish), nira (chives), and goya (bitter melon).
Although food is the main attraction of Japan Block Fair, other kinds of organizations participate to gain more exposure. To Nobuko Sasamoto, Director of Harmony of Shining Women Foundation, a non-profit based in New York, street festivals provide an opportunity for fundraising. Selling their coffee and chicken dish from Hawaii at Japan Block Fair allows the group to help support their programs, which includes the regular lectures of “Be Myself” that help people realize their unlimited potential. Harmony of Shining Women also does fundraising for a group of mentally challenged people in Japan who make eyeglass cases, chopsticks holders, and other crafts by hand.
Table for Two USA, another non-profit, took advantage of the number of people who walk through Japan Block Fair to introduce the organization’s concept to the uninitiated. JapanCulture•NYC interviewed Arisa Nishida of the New York Chapter of Table for Two and Ruri Kippenbrock of the tenugui company Wuhao NY, and they explained their organizations and why they feel Japan Block Fair is important.
Yuichi Tanaka is a Long Island high school student who leads a group of friends who formed a group that raises money for Japan relief. The group, whose slogan is “Smiles for Japan,” is made up of 16 students who are from high schools across Long Island and are fluent in Japanese. The students grilled yakitori, supervised the Japanese festival game of Yo-Yo Fishing – which was donated by Amnet Travel Agency – and collected donations for relief and recovery efforts in the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged towns in Northeastern Japan. In the next booth, Yuichi Tanaka’s father sold Japanese crafts such as ceramics and origami that were made by the parents of the students. Group member Sana Fujimura, whose mother made some of the ceramics for sale, acknowledges the sense of community that Japan Block Fair brings.