When I was seven, we visited Florida for the first time, and I fell in love with the Japan Pavilion at EPCOT. At the time, I was just another kid at The Mouse House, but it could very well have been the trigger for one of my epic life’s journeys. Growing up in Florida, I always longed for living in New York or California, so I could have better access to Japanese culture. During undergrad, I took several Japanese language and literature courses that would later propel me to the other side of the planet for five and a half years. Since returning in 2009, I’ve worked on finding slices of Japan closer to home in Florida, aside from my Japanese friends peppered across the country.
Q1: There are many Japanese settlements throughout the U.S., but where can you find Japan in Florida besides the World Showcase at EPCOT?
The Morikami Japanese Museum and Gardens has been my absolute favorite since I learned about in 1998. I have been a member on-and-off since I was a college student. They were very influential in my decision to have a concentration in Japanese language and literature in my degree program. They have consistently served as an ambassador of Japanese culture in Boca Raton, Florida. I always love making my way around the Japanese gardens as well as losing myself in the diverse exhibits. They go all out for the several festivals they have throughout the year, and while event tickets can be a little costly, they are a worthwhile investment toward the preservation of the unique cultural experience so far away from Japan.
Taiko Drumming performance at the annual Hatsume (Spring) Festival
Q2: Japanese restaurants are a dime a dozen, but is there any place authentic that you would recommend?
I am the absolute worst person to go to a Japanese restaurant with because having lived there for an extended period of time, I can be a colossal pain. There are many who try to compare Japanese food in Florida to larger cities with higher concentrations of Japanese immigrant populations. Florida’s offerings are humble, and it would be futile to compare it to places like New York, Hawaii, or anywhere on the west coast.
Sapporo Ramen (Orlando, FL) – Over the last 13 years, I have had my fair share of authentic ramen, so I am very, very particular. Sapporo was recommended to me by a Japanese expat and dear friend here in Orlando. What I love most is that they do not alter their menu too much to accommodate the American palate. While they have a limited menu, the flavor is the most reminiscent of what I used to eat in western Japan.
I’ve waited years to find the perfect bowl of proper ramen in Orlando.
Koume (Plantation, FL) – When I interviewed for the JET Programme, the Miami Consulate had this great guy working in their office. It wasn’t until I returned from Japan that I discovered that he left his government post to open up a Japanese restaurant! When I visit friends in south Florida (which is so rare now that I live in Orlando), I try and make it a point to check in with my old friend for some fantastic food.
All these years later, Sekita-san continues as an Ambassador of Japanese culture!
Remember folks, authentic Japanese food does not have sweet potato rolls or anything involving cream cheese. I love them, too, but it’s the truth. There are other places around the state, but I have yet to experience them all.
Q3: How do you get pantry staples, items or recipes you need to cook Japanese food at home?
There are several Asian markets in Orlando, but I’ve had the most luck finding items at the Dong-A Supermarket on North Mills Ave. It can be overwhelming when you first step in, but if you ask the clerks for help, they can take you right to where you need to go. Living in east Orlando, I finally visited Eastside Asian Market, and I am in love! The hardest part in getting to EAM is that the part of town where it is located (over by UCF and Waterford Lakes) is under heavy construction. I found just about everything I wanted, but I had to make sure not to over spend. I can easily restock my fridge with most of the items I loved from my time in Japan.
I’ve also borrowed a couple of books from the library which really helped motivate me to get back to basics in the kitchen: The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh and the Yum Yum Bento Box by Maki Ogawa. If you want elegant, classic recipes pick the first one. If you are infinitely more artistic and patient than I am, pick up the second one. Both websites have great resources for purchasing Japanese cooking implements and food items. Japanese Women Don’t Get Fat or Old by Naomi Moriyama is another favorite of mine for authentic recipes from a Tokyo kitchen. I have the eBook (which is sadly now a bit outdated), but she sites many online retailers which Japanese expats rely on here in the U.S. to get items they miss from their motherland.
Q4: Do you hold any memberships in local Japanese-related organizations?
As an alumna of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), I do belong to the Florida Chapter of JETAAI (JET Alumni Association International). Unfortunately, I have yet to attend an event because the concentration of events tend to be in Miami and Tampa. I am hoping to reconnect with some Orlando-area JET Alums.There are plenty of groups on Meet Up, but I am having difficulty finding the right match for me.
I would love to get involved in the Japan Association of Orlando. They held a festival in November, but I didn’t find out about it until it passed. Fingers crossed, they will update their website soon with information about 2016.
Q5: What makes Japanese “konbini” (convenience stores) so great? Do we have any in Orlando?
The convenience of Japanese convenience stores blew my mind when I lived in Japan. Not only could you buy to-go snacks, but one could buy alcohol/tobacco products, all the essentials you would need for an overnight stay, get some magazines, pay your bills, order concert and event tickets, take money out of the ATM, save up points for special prizes, and hot and cold fresh foods prepared daily. They were always clean. The staff was always polite and efficient. There were always a multiple recycling station out front which meant less trash to take home.
Konbini – I have yet to visit this wonderland over at East End Market, but the press and local reviewers have been very favorable to it. It replaced Kappo Sushi which was rumored to be the most authentic Japanese dining experience in Orlando. Looking at the photos and videos of Konbini, I do love how they have adapted the style of a Japanese convenience store. Now that summer is here, it appears that Kappo will be making a pop-up return! I was excited for their Summer Sushi Omakase dining experience, but $130 per person is well out of my price range.
When I was based in Honolulu. I truly had my first Lawson fix in years. On several layovers in LA, I also located the convenience stores which had Japanese snacks, prepared foods, and other creature comforts in the Little Tokyo area thanks to 7-Eleven. If Konbini is on the same level as these two magnates in Japan, I am going to be a very happy girl indeed.
Perhaps the wake of MegaCon or my pushing toward attempting the Japanese Language Proficiency Test again, but Japan has been on my mind lately. Summer was always one of my favorite times of year in Japan because festivals and fireworks are going strong every weekend! Living so far away from Japan does have its disadvantages, as does living away from the conveniences of towns and cities with large Japanese populations. After living in New York and Hawaii where I was able to regularly get my Japanese food and activity fixes, being in Florida can be a little frustrating from time to time. However, I’m hunkering down and doing my homework, so I can resume my Japanese lifestyle halfway around the world.
Answer Me, These Questions Three:
- Have you had success finding reputable professional or cultural organizations to participate in?
- Is there a Japanese market, restaurant, or retailer I’ve left off the list here in The Sunshine State? (Let me know!)
- Which location sounds like the one you’d be most interested in visiting?
- I won a second digital image from my portrait session with The Project – A Cosplay Portrait Study after MegaCon!! Thanks to everyone who voted for me.