Taste of Japan

The Bay Area store winning over fans of Japanese pop culture

Photo: The staff of Umami Mart. Owner Yoko Kumano is at center left, with Kayoko Akabori at center right.

Japanese culinary culture is hugely popular in Northern California’s Bay Area​ including San Francisco and Oakland​. For the past 10 years since opening the store, Japanese-American owners Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori have carefully selected a wide variety of unique Japanese food products, alcoholic beverages, kitchen​-​ and bar​wares​, household goods​ and gifts​, making the store a gathering place for the neighborhood community, especially Japanese food ​curious​ and fans of J-pop culture. This bright space popping with Japanese design is ​often​ crowded with customers looking for new discoveries and products they can only find here.

A selection of Japanese household goods and art with a modern twist. They are also popular as gifts. The traditional hand towels, Daruma dolls, and hamaya arrows decorating the walls are just a few examples of Japanese traditions and customs found here.

Oakland, overlooking San Francisco across the Bay Bridge, is a multicultural area with a​n ethnically diverse​ local community. In addition to​ local and regional foods of the U.S.​,​ one can experience​ culinary cultures from all over the world, including Asia, Africa, and Latin America, right at hand. In the hope that the local community would enjoy discovering everyday Japanese sundries and Japanese foods beyond well-known classics such as sushi and tempura, Yoko and Kayoko opened Umami Mart in Oakland in 2012 to encourage people to enjoy discovering new things about Japan. The two owners, both Japanese culinary culture​ aficionados​, curate unique products and share their stories, ideas for incorporating products into daily life, and recipes on their blog and social media, ​for ​curious local ​and online ​communit​ies​. Above all, the duo's desire to help create a community is what ​brings​ people to the store.

​​T​he joy of ​fresh​ appreciation of Japanese culinary culture is shared ​everyday​​ through conversations with the store owners, blogs, and social media​. The Umami Mart website, which also ​hosts​ an online store, offers seasonal sake​ selections, ​​ recipes​ that pair well with ​sake and other drinks​, ideas for cooking with recommended ​merchandise​, and notes on visits to Japanese breweries and ​makers​, with a focus on providing information to inspire people to cook with Japanese ingredients at home or try their hand at making cocktails using beautiful and functional Japanese barware. "We’ve been blogging for the past 10 years, ever since the store opened. Every day, I look forward to seeing​ familiar and new faces at the store and talking to them. It’s the sense of community we come to love​" says Yoko.

F​amiliar products found in Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores​ line the shelves next to​ exciting new items to discover.

To meet Umami Mart's selection criteria, products must be ​"​exciting ​and ​one of the owners personally loves and feels ​good​ recommending to friends and customers" or "items that ​reflect ​ ​the ​producers​’ craft and philosophy​." Japanese ​pantry items​ include tonburi seeds, also known as "field caviar," canned mackerel and azuki beans, dashi soup stock packets, smoked soy sauce, yuzu pepper, curry powder, and other seasonings, as well as a large selection of snack items. It is fascinating to see a mix of products that can be purchased at Japanese convenience stores or supermarkets alongside small-batch handmade products.

The colorful assortment of Japanese sake on the walls is another unique feature of this store owned by Yoko, a certified sake sommelier, and Kayoko, who has bartending​ experiences​. Having established relationships with Japanese brewers and distillers, they carefully select sake and Japanese whiskey​ and other spirits​, which are ​gaining​ interest in the Bay Area, ​and​ ​are in unique position to​ offer ​hard-to-find ​brands and limited editions that are ​unlikely to be found in​ other stores or restaurants. Many customers also visit for the craft shochu, gin, and beer​s​ produced in Japan. For these fans of Japanese liquor, the store also holds tasting events. The "Sake Gumi" and "Shochu Gumi" membership programs are both popular, with over 250 and 70 members ​respectively​. For example, for November, Yoko ​shared​ recipes for ​steamed​ pumpkin and ​baked ​mushroom parcels along with a selection of Japanese sake​.​ "​A rich​, deep, earthy sake served hot, or a full-bodied junmai sake served in a wine glass, is an irresistible way to enjoy the bounty of fall."

The two owners, both sake and shochu lovers, hold regular tasting events.

Yoko, a sake sommelier, explains sake at the event.

​​At the in-store​ bar, patrons can enjoy sake, Japanese craft beer, rare whiskeys, and other beverages accompanied by Japanese snacks arrayed in baskets on the counter, even on non-event days. The bar was full when I visited, and Yoko and Kayoko were celebrating a birthday with beautiful cocktails inspired by the Japanese fall season. "Recently, I’ve been loving the combination of California cheese with sake. Tonburi 'field caviar' marinated in soy sauce and sweet mirin seasoning is also delicious on crackers with cheese," says Yoko. Keep an eye out for more fascinating suggestions from Umami Mart for enjoying Japanese ingredients, California-style.

At a pop-up event featuring Japanese autumn-themed cocktails. The bar was packed with ​customers​​ ​​s​ enjoying the evening. ​Hanging overhead are dried persimmons in the making! ​​

Two styles of autumn cocktail. The Kakiji (back) is made with ​persimmon​-infused Japanese gin and plum wine, while the Ochiba (f​ront​) is a blend of two Japanese craft whiskeys with hojicha tea.

The random selection of snacks in baskets at the bar counter always puts smiles on faces. The friendly atmosphere of Umami Mart is due in large part to such playful details.

Umami Mart, which shares Japanese culture with locals through Japanese food products, is a Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Store.

Photos courtesy of Umami Mart.
Text & photography: Chinami Inaishi

Umami Mart

4027 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611 USA
Tel: +1-510-250-9559

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