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Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival
Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden/Julie Markes Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival

Experience the best of Japan without leaving NYC

Can't afford a trip to Tokyo? You can experience some of the best parts of Japan without leaving NYC.

By Time Out contributors and Jennifer Picht
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According to our Time Out City Index 2019 results, New Yorkers really want to visit Tokyo, Japan. In fact, it was voted the number one travel destination not only by New Yorkers, but by folks from all over the world.

Judging by all the incredible events and attractions our brothers and sisters at Time Out Tokyo are covering, we can certainly see why! But a roundtrip ticket to Japan will run you about the same amount as paying one month's rent in New York, and that's nothing to sneeze at. We’re not saying booking a flight to experience this incredible country isn’t worth the price—it absolutely is! But if you can’t swing the expense right now, there are many spots in NYC where you can eat, drink, shop and immerse yourself in Japanese culture without packing a suitcase.

New York City may not be as vibrant and trendy as Harajuku or have a train service that's so dependable a Japanese rail company once issued a public apology for leaving 25 seconds early. (Your move, MTA!) But our city does have an influx of incredible Japanese restaurants, sake bars, places to see cherry blossoms and more.

The next time you’re daydreaming about fleeing to Japan, consider living out your fantasy at some of our favorite Japanese-inspired restaurants, bars, shops and things to do in NYC.

RECOMMENDED: See the results from Time Out Index 2019

Experience Japanese culture in NYC

Unagi
Unagi
Photograph: Courtesy Unagi

1. Catch what you eat at Unagi

Restaurants Japanese Nolita

Following similar concepts like the eel-only midtown restaurant and a catch-what-you-eat Flatiron spot, Unagi boasts a 1,000-gallon, 500-Japanese eel tank in the middle of its dining room. As you watch, the chefs catch and grill the snakelike fish, serving them with eel liver, nori (seaweed), sansho pepper, fermented pickle and other fixins.  

Katana Kitten
Katana Kitten
Photograph: Matt Taylor Gross

2. Drink Japanese-American cocktails at Katana Kitten

4 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars West Village

The translation of this bar’s moniker is “samurai sword” kitten, but let us be the first to warn you: There are no samurai, swords, kittens or (unfortunately) cute memes of sword-wielding samurai kittens at this Japanese-American cocktail bar. Instead, you’ll step right into B-roll footage of a Master of None date scene. On a recent Friday night, the buzzy bi-level space was comfortably crowded with hip twentysomethings chattering under noirish red lights and sipping from some exceptionally purr-ty (sorry!) Japanese riffs on classic cocktails. 

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3. Go to secret sake bar Sakagura

Restaurants Japanese Midtown East

You’ll have to work to find this midtown sake den, but the reward is worth the effort. First, go through the unmarked lobby of an office building (211 E 43rd Street), then down some stairs and along a basement corridor. There you’ll find a quiet room done up in understated bamboo and blond wood where 250 types of sake, categorized by grade, await.

Kinokuniya Bookstores
Kinokuniya Bookstores
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Tom G.

4. Buy Japanese flair at Kinokuniya Bookstore

Shopping Gifts and stationery Midtown West

This franchise has established strongholds from Sydney to Dubai and for good reason. It sells super-cool goods—Japanese-centric stuff for the most part. If cartoon characters are your bag, it has the right notebook for you. There's also a cafe upstairs that sells bubble tea and matcha. Order a drink, read a book and enjoy the lovely views of Bryant Park while you unwind. 

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Photograph: Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden/Julie Markes

5. Attend Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival

Things to do Festivals

Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the city’s prettiest spring festivals, and highlights some of the most beautiful elements of Japanese culture. At the cherry blossom festival, NYC-folks and tourists can watch and take part in a bunch of activities while being surrounded by gorgeous, pink-petal trees at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. As one of the top Brooklyn attractions, the must-visit site hosts the beloved tradition every year, and the event is usually always bustling with visitors. 

6. Slurp some noodles at Niche

Restaurants Japanese Lower East Side

Ramen master Shigetoshi Nakamura built a loyal following at his eponymous Lower East Side restaurant. Now he's opened Niche next door to introduce noodle-slurping New Yorkers to a less common style of ramen called mazeman. A brothless bowl of noodles may be topped with steak, smoked salmon or even clams.

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Photograph: Courtesy George Elder

7. Buy some cozy essentials at Gelato Pique

Shopping Lower East Side

Straight from Japan, this too-cute loungewear brand hawks the softest and coziest apparel and accessories for women, men and children. The merchandise runs the gamut from striped hoodies and sweatshirts, colorblock long-sleeve shirts and animal eye mask slippers. Shop here to find your at-home uniform, although you’ll certainly be tempted to sport transitional pieces like spring-ready yellow satin dresses in public. 

Photograph: Courtesy George Elder

8. Shop for trendy streetwear at SNIDEL

Shopping Lower East Side

New York has killer street style, but the fashion in Tokyo is next-level. If you can’t go on a shopping spree in Japan, head to Orchard Street to shop at SNIDEL: a Japanese clothing brand boasting trendy and cool-girl threads. From flirty and girly dresses and tops to edgy, streetwear jackets and pants, Snidel is where fashion-loving New Yorkers should go to add some much-needed color to their all-black wardrobe.

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Photograph: Courtesy Central Park

9. Peep more Cherry blossoms in Central Park

Things to do Walks and tours

If you think the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is the only place you can see those beautiful, pink-petal trees, guess again! There are a handful of spots in the city where you can see them, and one of our favorites is Central Park. Hundreds of cherry trees (many of which were gifts from the Japanese Government) bloom along the Reservoir starting in April. 

Photograph: Courtesy Hanon

10. Eat ramen al fresco at Hanon

Restaurants Japanese Williamsburg

While there are dozens of ramen spots in New York, none have as unusual of a creation story as Hanon. From the team behind Rock'n'Roll Japan (a film production company) and Sagami Rubber (which invented the world's thinnest condoms), Hanon is the team's second venture into noodles. Their first was in Kamakura, a city in Japan known for their soba. Now, they've taken their food to New York, collaborating with Yudai Kanayama, a Japanese food expert who helped to open Davelle and Izakaya. Their Williamsburg spot serves 20-plus ramen dishes and, in warmer weather, there's a backyard for slurping al fresco. 

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