A set of chopsticks holding delicious Japanese food.
Travel & Culture

In the Heart of Brooklyn, Japan without the Jetlag

On a sweltering June day, when the thermometer pushed into the high 90s, I sat in the courtyard of Japan Village with co-owner Erina Yoshida. The concept is a verifiable world contained with Industry City, the shopping and dining complex sitting on the East River in South Brooklyn. 

To my back was a food court, complete with a ramen stand, omakase sushi counter, and onigiri stall, among others. In front of me was yet another restaurant — an izakaya spot serving skewers of charred fish and meat, accompanied by intricate cocktails. And that only scratches the surface of what Japan Village offers, including a full-service grocery store and one of the best-stocked Japanese liquor shops in all of New York. 

The original mission of Japan Village, which opened in November 2019, was to make people feel like they were traveling internationally without leaving the five boroughs. During Covid, where destinations such as Japan became inaccessible, the location took on even greater significance. I was sitting with Erina not to hear about the countless delicacies available within 10 feet in every direction, though — I wanted to learn how it came to be. It turns out that the story of Japan Village began in 1960s New York, with her father and an ice cream shop.

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Humble Beginnings

When he was 21 years old, Tony Yoshida moved to the United States. He had worked in the corporate world in Japan, but he wanted to explore. What better place, he thought, than New York City. 

Tony started off as a dishwasher, quickly immersing himself in the food industry. He opened his first shop in 1970: the Ice Cream Connection, in Lower Manhattan’s East Village on St. Mark’s Place between Second and Third Ave. He made flavors with Japanese ingredients — green tea, red bean, ginger — which at the time were quite novel for New York. 

He would also push an ice cream cart around the East Village, wearing traditional Japanese clothing and a sword. Jim Somoza, the director of development at Industry City, said that Tony once told him a story about those rough-and-tumble days, when the area was more dangerous than the yuppie haven it has since become. According to Somoza’s telling, Tony actually carried his signature sword around for protection. One day, kids came into his store causing trouble. Tony grabbed his sword and chased them down the street. As the lore goes, John Belushi happened to be coming out of a nearby bar. The incident inspired his famous SNL skit, Samurai Night Fever. 

It wasn’t just the Belushi episode, though, that made Tony a staple of the neighborhood. He expanded his food offerings, opening an affordable health-focused restaurant called Dojo. He experimented with soybeans and tofu, creating perhaps some of the first iterations of alternative meat hamburgers in the United States. It became a local establishment — a second home for students, aspiring actors, and other people looking for nourishing food on a budget.

“He wanted to introduce more and more Japanese cuisine to everyone.”

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Even so, Tony dreamed bigger — he aimed to bring his favorite foods to an American audience. “He wanted to introduce more and more Japanese cuisine to everyone,” Erina told me. He opened a sushi restaurant, an izakaya restaurant, a bakery, a speakeasy, and a 24-hour-diner. In 1995, he also opened his first Sunrise Mart, a Japanese grocery store, in the East Village. Just a couple decades after moving to the United States, he had created his own footprint of home in Manhattan. 

Erina was born in 1988. She remembers growing up at her father’s restaurants — hanging out at the diner and having birthday parties at the sushi restaurant. Other parents would say, “This is not a child’s party, to give raw fish,” Erina recalled. Still, her friends were hooked — for a few of them, sushi became their favorite food by the age of five. 

Erina would also spend every summer back in Tokyo. She actually had to enroll in Japanese school during what was supposed to be her vacation, but she was happy about it. “I was able to really immerse myself into the culture and really get to know my Japanese side,” she said. Her grandmother would feed her her favorite foods, like pickled plum (ume) and fermented soy beans (nattō). Her grandfather favored awamori, a strong Japanese spirit, and would pass her bar snacks: dried anchovies, raw octopus, and rice crackers. 

When she was older, Erina did not immediately sign on to the family business. She spent time in the arts, as well as at a design firm in New York. Working with her father was always in the back of her mind, though. About ten years ago, she finally joined the team with her father and brother, Takuya. The idea for Japan Village materialized not too long after.

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Introducing Japan Village

Jim Somoza approached Tony about Industry City in late 2016. Jim traveled frequently to Japan. When he was back in Manhattan, he would shop at another famed Japanese grocery store, Katagiri. When he started working on Industry City, he realized there was not a single Japanese store in Brooklyn. He decided to try to recruit one for the new market. 

Jim approached the owners of Katagiri, but they were not interested — they had been at their same flagship store on East 59th street since 1907 and were not looking to expand. He went to Sunrise Mart next and talked to Tony. “I knew in ten minutes that this was the person I wanted to do this with,” Jim recalled. He cancelled all his other appointments. 

Tony was intrigued, but he did not just want to open another grocery store — he wanted to create a whole concept, from food stalls to a liquor store. “It turned from 2,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet,” Jim told me. 

Since it opened, Japan Village has been a juggernaut for Industry City. It drives more traffic than anything else. Much of this can be credited to Tony’s vision. Jim said that Tony would come to their meetings with watercolor paintings he painted of how he wanted Japan Village to look. “It was just a really amazing collaboration and partnership,” Jim said. “Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever had.” 

As Jim explains, the goal for Industry City was to be an immersive experience. He tells people that he is in the transportation business as much as the real estate business. When you walk into Japan Village, he wants you to feel like you have just stepped off the plane.

“He did not just want to open another grocery store — he wanted to create a whole concept, from food stalls to a liquor store.”

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Part of this is achieved by creating new supply chains and storefronts for Japanese products and foods that otherwise would not exist in New York. The spirits shop, Kuraichi, is a perfect example. When I wandered in, I was immediately greeted by a knowledgeable clerk who could walk me through the particularities of each sake, shōchū, and Japanese whiskey. You would be hard-pressed to find such a collection, which includes small batch bottles from local breweries, anywhere outside of Japan. 

The food options, too, are endless. One stand serves homemade soba and udon noodles in steaming broth. Another offers okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake, topped with seaweed, sweet mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and all sorts of delights, from octopus to pork to sunny-side up eggs. You can even add gooey mozzarella cheese. My highlight, though, was a stall specializing in onigiri, a vinegary rice ball wrapped in seaweed and finished with a variety of offerings, from fish roe to Erin’s childhood favorite, ume. 

Hidden in the back of the food hall is a sushi counter, where a world-class chef serves up impossibly tender pieces of nigiri, each packed with its own layers of complex flavor. And just outside the courtyard is the izakaya restaurant, Wakuwaku, a more intimate respite from the organized chaos of the main building. Here you can order yakitori — skewers ranging from chicken skin to beef tongue, seared in the perfect combination of smoke, fat, and salt — and watch the cooks roast them over open charcoal grills.

Photos by Leo Schwartz

“You wouldn’t even know he owns Japan Village — he just meshes with the crowd.”

Japan Village fits into a new tradition of food halls that aim to recreate a concept around a single culture and cuisine, such as Eataly or Mercado Little Spain, both in Manhattan. Yet tucked away in the south of Brooklyn, Japan Village feels like an entirely different experience — less polished and shiny, contributing to its immersive and homey feel. 

Japan Village starts and ends with one man, Tony Yoshida, whose ice cream cart has morphed over the years into an expansive culinary empire. Amid this success, Erina said that her father has remained as humble and tireless as ever. 

“You wouldn’t even know he owns Japan Village — he just meshes with the crowd,” Erina told me. “You’ll just see him manning the noodle-making machine.”

Photos by Leo Schwartz

Written By Leo Schwartz Multimedia Journalist A multimedia journalist featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Culinary Backstreets and BuzzFeed, writing everything from street vendor rights to food.
A multimedia journalist featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Culinary Backstreets and BuzzFeed, writing everything from street vendor rights to food.