If You're Looking For Authentic Japanese Goods And Culture Try...Columbus?

The Tensuke Japanese grocery store in Columbus is a favorite spot for some to pick up everything from sushi to sake to sweets. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

If you’re a fan of authentic Japanese products and cuisine, Northeast Ohio is not overflowing with options. Some Asian grocery stores carry the essentials, and there are various restaurants, but for some people that’s not enough…and they know where to go for the good stuff, like a particular kind of noodle.

“This one is tied, knotted, very convenient, but you can’t get it…at least I know around the Akron area I don’t see something like this specific kind,” says Mariko Becker, sitting in her Northeast Ohio home looking over some Japanese products. 

She 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, but not specialty items.

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

Mariko Becker 

For her, some items she remembers from Japan are just better than the common American fare. From the cuts of meat or fish, to some vegetables, or even other items you might use in the kitchen, like a certain kind of sponge. (She says her preferred Japanese sponge is a little softer in parts, a little rougher on the other side)  

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 around Columbus.  The Tensuke Market grocery…is a 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 a remarkable place, a little Japanese wonderland right here,” says John Millen, standing with his family at the Japan Market Place shopping center in northwest Columbus.  The marketplace is a collection of businesses, made up of the Tensuke (sounds like tens-kay) Japanese grocery store, a Japanese restaurant, gift shop, and bakery.

John Millen and family

“We moved here 20 years ago," Millen says. "One of my most significant fears was that I wouldn’t find the food I had in California.  I have cousins who are half Japanese, and I grew up with Sushi and everything else.  Come to Ohio thinking it’s gonna be small time…no offense, and in fact it’s big time.”

Central Ohio businesses with Japanese expertise extend 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.

But 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…including also Japanese executives and their families are here," she says. "So to support that lifestyle a lot of grocery stores like here and Japanese restaurants, those are the necessity.”

Packaged meals at the Tensuke Market in Columbus (Tony Ganzer/ideastream)

Japanese people tend to like to maintain certain elements of Japanese life while abroad, to be more comfortable, Fukuzawa says. Shops carrying a certain kind of sake, or restaurants offering specialty, authentic dishes, help them do that.

But it goes beyond commerce in Central Ohio. Some public schools offer Japanese, 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 like 1970 when the economy in Japan was really good, Japanese programs were really strong all over the United States.  It’s been changing, but here in Central Ohio it’s different thanks to a lot of Japanese companies," Kiyosue says. "Our students can see if they study Japanese really hard, it’s really gonna be good on their resume.”

The Japan America Society’s Akisa Fukuzawa says despite the businesses, authentic 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. 

She says even after 30 years, it takes a long time to embed in the local community.


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