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A taste of home: Life after National Azabu

by Steve Trautlein

Special To The Japan Times

Ask local expats what they miss most from their homelands, and they might tell you about Fig Newton cookies (Americans), Shreddies breakfast cereal (Brits), fresh coriander (Thais) or morning congee (Chinese). In other words, an authentic taste of home.

That’s what Tokyo’s National Azabu supermarket offered since opening in 1962. So when news broke that it would close on Nov. 1, anticipatory pangs of hunger spread throughout the expat community. It seems the shop will be back next year (see sidebar), but here are some other internationally minded shops to keep your stomach happy.

Nissin World Delicatessen

The most obvious beneficiary of National Azabu’s closing is Nissin World Delicatessen, which is already popular with Tokyo expats thanks to its convenient Azabu-Juban location and its vast selection of Western foodstuffs. Nissin is the place to pick up such items as frozen turkeys, hot dogs and A&W root beer. The massive third-floor liquor shop stocks booze for any occasion.

2-34-2 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; www.nissinham.co.jp/nwd.

Seijo Ishii

As the name implies — Seijo is a moneyed neighborhood in Setagaya Ward — this supermarket chain caters to an upscale Japanese clientele. Think of it as a grocery store for jet-setting locals who have developed a taste for the good life. The shop offers a wide selection of European wine and cheese, Raspini Italian salami, Carr’s crackers, international spices, gourmet pasta sauces and organic produce.

Dozens of locations throughout Japan; www.seijoishii.co.jp.

Kaldi

Kaldi made a name for itself as a purveyor of coffee beans, but the chain’s recent expansion is driven by its stock of international foods. The emphasis on good joe remains (each customer is greeted with a free cup), and visitors are encouraged to browse. Kaldi sells boxed and canned foods from all over Asia and the West — think Old El Paso salsa, instant pho noodles and Milka chocolate, plus wine and cheese.

Dozens of locations throughout Japan and online store; www.kaldi.co.jp.

Motomachi Union

After a massive two-year renovation, the Yokohama branch of this National Azabu-esque grocer reopened in August with a new third floor, an in-house bakery and an expanded deli corner. Meat and fish counters share space with Weetabix, Doritos and nonperishable goods, including stationery and cleaning supplies. Seasonal products centered on American holidays ensure the shop’s popularity among Yokohama’s bustling expat community.

4-166 Motomachi, Naka-ku, Yokohama, and other locations around Japan; www.unionex.co.jp.

Kankoku Hiroba

The recent mania for all things K-pop means that souvenir stores near Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo Station are thronged, but if you want a true taste of life in Koreatown, head up the road to Kankoku Hiroba. Kimchi, seaweed, beef, pork, produce, instant noodles, snacks and makkoli liquor are all on offer, and the labeling, as you’d expect, is almost entirely in Hangul.

1-12-1 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, and online store; www.ehiroba.jp.

Green Nasco

If the east end of Shin-Okubo reminds you of Seoul, the other side is redolent of a North African bazaar. Down an alley opposite the station’s main exit lie a cluster of halal food shops offering food products and ingredients from throughout Africa and Asia. Green Nasco, for one, stocks spices, seasonings, MTR ready-to-eat Indian curries and bulk chickpeas and lentils.

2-10-8 Hyakunin-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo.

The Meat Guy

Jason P. Morgan — aka The Meat Guy — hasn’t been running his online shop since the birth of the Internet; it just seems that way to grateful long-term expats. From his base in Nagoya, the congenial American offers Australian lamb, Midwest U.S. Angus, homemade sausage and countless other meat and nonmeat items. Wholesale pricing and prompt, inexpensive delivery are bonuses.

Online store only; www.themeatguy.jp.

Eataly

Massive wheels of Parmesan cheese, Roi extra virgin olive oil, artisanal pasta sauces from La Dispensa di Amerigo, obscure varieties of noodles — Eataly aims to bring the authentic Italian retail experience to Japan. The company’s first shop, in Tokyo’s ritzy Daikanyama neighborhood, was such a hit that several more have been opened around town, including in Kichijoji and Nihonbashi.

Various locations in Tokyo and online store; www.eataly.co.jp.

FBC (Foreign Buyers Club)

Down-home American fare such as Quaker Oats instant oatmeal and Kraft macaroni and cheese make this net-based delivery service a hit with North American expats. Sure, the prices are a good bit higher than back home, but when you’re jonesing for Betty Crocker brownies, money really isn’t a concern, is it? FBC also runs a walk-in shop in Kobe.

5-15-3F Koyocho-naka, Higashi-nada-ku, Kobe, and online store; www.fbcusa.com.

Costco

You know the drill-pay your annual membership fee (in Japan, it’s ¥4,200), then shop the lights out in a warehouselike space that stocks all manner of items in bulk, from fresh-baked muffins to frozen crab cakes to salad dressing and coffee. Costco also offers toys, furniture, clothes and electronics. Good luck carrying everything home.

Twelve locations around Japan, including Sapporo, Yokohama, Kyoto and Chiba. www.costco.co.jp.

Later, not goodbye

Western shoppers were hit by a nasty one-two punch with the closing of National Azabu on Nov. 1 and the announcement in August that British retail giant Tesco would be pulling out of Japan as soon as it finds a buyer.

National Azabu was a belated victim of the March 11 disaster — a company official said a structural check led to the decision to tear down the building to “prioritize customer safety.” An announcement posted online gave no details about the timing or location of the reopening, but an employee confirmed to The Japan Times that the shop will be back on the same property in August 2012. Expats looking for barbecue supplies next summer will be happy to hear that.