Throngs of people descended upon the Japan Block Fair on Park Avenue Sunday, a result of the amazing weather combined with tremendous offerings of Japanese food, merchandise, and entertainment. Crammed in a narrow block, the fair was difficult to walk through at times, but no one seemed discouraged, as everyone took their time browsing the vendor tents and taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.
Although late-arriving tents set back the set up, the fair hosted appreciative crowds that eagerly sampled a variety of Japanese street food, such as Hakata Tonton’s pork skewers, Mimi and Coco’s teriyaki balls, and Sanuki udon handmade on site by Osamu Miyoshi, a master udon artisan who traveled from Japan for the occasion. As always, the Queen of Okonomiyaki, Kazuko Nagao of Peco Peco, was there, preparing her signature dish, okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake.
It was a feast of grilled squid, croquettes, pork cutlet sandwiches, and yakisoba. Many people were quite familiar with what they were eating; others were trying these foods for the first time.
In between bites, Japan Block Fair visitors bought exquisite Japanese textiles such as kimono and yukata from Kiteya and YokoDana Kimono and tenugui from Wuhao New York. Hair accessories, including hair “tinsels” from Cocoro Salon were also a huge hit.
Yo-yo fishing and other games kept the children occupied while the adults watched calligraphers and talked to travel agents at Amnet about booking trips to Japan.
Artists were “live” painting, including Pesu, the designer responsible for the Love Save Japan T-shirts and bags at J. Crew.
In a small area of pavement that served as the stage, several performers entertained the crowd and people in cars driving by on Park Avenue and 39th Street. A group of black-clad ninjas battled each other with swords and engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
HIP (Home Island Project), a group of young Japanese from Shikoku, did their version of Awa Odori, a traditional dance of Tokushima. In an age when Japan’s traditional arts are dying, it was encouraging to see young people carry on the lively and energetic tradition of Awa Odori, which they modernized with a hip-hop cameo by a costumed character and a brief break dance demonstration.
Yosakoi Dance Project 10tecomai, a dance troupe influenced by a fusion of traditional and contemporary dance, showed off their athleticism with several numbers.
Japan Block Fair also had a taste of Okinawa with Ryu-Kaji, a group that wore bingata and kasuri kimono and played sanshin, a traditional three-stringed banjo-like instrument.
Despite the small space, all of the performers encouraged audience participation and gave 15-minute lessons.
The real draw of Japan Block Fair was the first ever NY Street Ramen Contest, which pitted eight contestants against each other with the goal of creating the quintessential New York-style ramen. People waited in line – some for more than an hour – for the chance to sample and vote for what they considered the best.
Ramen is hugely popular in New York, which inspired the organizers to create the contest in conjunction with Japan Block Fair. Established restaurants Nobu Chan Ramen, the team of Terakawa Ramen and Naruto Ramen, Batten Ramen, Totto Ramen, Ramen Misoya went head-to-head with Ramen Ebisu – a restaurant that is slated to open in Brooklyn soon – and a team of amateur ramen makers from Suzuki Farms in Delaware.
Each team prepared ramen that is not found on restaurant menus in New York, seeking to find a specific taste that will appeal to Westerners. After the contestants spent more than three hours of serving thousands of bowls of these new specialties, the Japan Block Fair organizers and the NY Street Ramen Committee decided all of the contestants were worthy of advancing to the Grand Finale (date and place to be determined). Using this Japan Block Fair as a preliminary round of sorts, organizers determined that no true winner could be named, even though visitors cast votes. So, with this first contest under their belts, organizers will refine the contest and the voting system before the next Japan Block Fair on July 29 in Astoria, Queens.
Visit and “like” JapanCulutre•NYC’s Facebook page to see more pictures from Japan Block Fair.