By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
Rafu Online Editor
On the final day of my trip to Seattle a few weeks ago, I set out early in the morning with a list of all the places I still wanted to see, knowing full well that all of it would take at least two days longer than the six hours I had left. As I walked through Capital Hill, the city’s Silver Lake equivalent, with an un-lidded cup of coffee, it started to rain—not pour but mist, in that gentle but inescapable Pacific Northwest way. I still had about half a mile left to my first destination, and several miles left in my day, but as the rain slowly soaked my hair and bag, and as my coffee slowly became diluted, I felt unreasonably happy. There’s something about Seattle, in its fresh air and walkability, that makes the rain feel secondary.
At Momo, you’ll find all the beautiful objects you’d expect from a well-curated boutique: clothing, handmade jewelry, letterpress stationery, and more.
But what makes Momo special is its mixed aesthetic, embodied by the shelf of vintage Spam tins behind the register. Lei Ann Shiramizu, who opened the shop with her husband, Tom Kleifgen, in 2007, says the inspiration for Momo comes from the general stores of Hawaii—Shiramizu’s home state—and the “select shop” boutiques of Japan.
Here you’ll find the refined (Cop Copine clothing) beside the playful (tiny pocket-knife necklaces), the expensive (antique Buddhas on consignment) beside the cheap (wooden hiragana blocks), and the Japanese beside the French and American.
The result is a blend both cohesive and unexpected that feels uniquely American and makes at least this mixed-race person feel perfectly at home. 600 S Jackson St. Seattle 98104, (206) 329-4736.
Kobo at Higo
Located right next door to Momo, Kobo also provides a blended Japanese experience, beginning with the history of its storefront. Originally the Higo Variety Store, it was built in 1932 by Issei couple Sanzo and Matsuyo Murakami, who were forced to board it up and leave it in the care of its tenants during WWII.
After their release from Minidoka in 1945, the Murakamis returned to reopen the store, but only eight days later, Sanzo died of a heart attack. The couple’s children kept Higo open until 2004, when it changed hands and became Kobo, an art gallery and shop focusing on work by Japanese and Northwest artisans.
The new owners kept the variety store structure of the space, with its aisles and glass cabinets. Photos aren’t allowed here, which encourages visitors to either purchase the pieces they admire or commit them to memory.
You can expect ceramics, textiles, Japanese dolls, books and a whimsical children’s section. Like Momo, Kobo also sells goods at a wide range of prices, so there’s something here for everyone. 604 S. Jackson St., Seattle 98104. (206) 381-3000.
This bakery shares with Momo the Japanese-French connection. Rafu readers who have been to Japan know that French influence is relatively common there, seen especially in stationery and desserts.
French cakes and pastries done Japanese-style retain the look of their European inspirations, but in taste and texture they’re adapted to a different palate, usually becoming lighter and less sweet.
Fuji Bakery goes the other direction. The French pastries here—from classics like croissants to more local concoctions like smoked salmon-stuffed brioche—feel more French: flaky and buttery, with more texture and less of the characteristic softness of Japanese versions. The Japanese pastries, like anpan, get the same treatment. These aren’t the fluffy anpan of L.A.’s Yamazaki Bakery but rolls cooked until they’re golden with a more substantial crust.
Whichever way the influence flows, the result is delicious. 526 S. King St. Seattle 98104, (206) 623-4050.
Thanks to Jamie Ford’s novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” many know about the role the Panama Hotel played in Seattle Japanese American history, providing people with a place to store their belongings when they were forced away to camp. Some of these belongings were never collected after the war and remain on view in the hotel today.
Downstairs, in the hotel teahouse, a hole has been cut away in the floor and covered with plexiglass, so you can peer through it and see the suitcases below. Historical photos of the neighborhood before WWII line the café walls and vintage Japanese dolls sit in the windows.
The hotel, which has National Historic Landmark status, still rents rooms, and also offers tours to the public. If you have limited time, the teahouse alone is worth a visit. Tea connoisseurs will appreciate the large selection of loose-leaf tea, but everyone should try an alternative to the now-common matcha latte: the more mellow hojicha latte. 605 1/2 S Main St. Seattle 98104. (206) 223-9242.
Other places to stop in the International District: Kinokuniya for book lovers curious to compare it with its L.A. location. Seattle Best Tea Co. for tea drinkers who like oolong as much as sencha.
Elliott Bay Book Company
This bookstore, housed in a brick building with hardwood floors and open wood ceilings, is both one of the best and one of the most beautiful independent bookstores in the country. It’s also full of resources for those interested in local Japanese American history, from either academic or fictional perspectives.
Staff member Karen Maeda Allman was kind enough to walk me around the entire shop, pointing out books where Japanese Americans and the Pacific Northwest come together. Below is a small handful of her recommendations.
“Seattle: The City in Prose” (Edited by Peter Donahue and John Trumbold, 2004)—For a taste of Seattle literature, start with this anthology from University of Washington Press. It includes excerpts from John Okada’s classic “No-No Boy” and Lydia Minatoya’s “The Strangeness of Beauty,” a novel that follows Etsuko and her six-year-old niece as they move from jazz-age Seattle to Japan to reunite with their family.
“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki (Penguin, 2013)—Ozeki’s most recent novel alternates between stories of Ruth, a novelist in British Columbia, and Nao, whose diary Ruth finds washed up on the beach after the 2011 tsunami. Themes explored include Buddhism, kamikaze pilots, suicide, and the struggle to fit in when your history is even slightly different from the people who surround you.
“Requiem” by Francis Itani (HarperCollins Canada, 2011)—When artist Bin Okuma’s wife dies suddenly, he sets out on a cross-country trip to make sense of his life, including his Japanese Canadian family’s internment during WWII and his nonexistent relationship with his father. Itani herself is not Japanese, but her husband, like Okuma, is Japanese Canadian.
“Camp Harmony: Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center” by Louis Fiset (University of Illinois Press, 2009)—History buffs may appreciate this look at “Camp Harmony,” an assembly center outside Seattle. Fiset combines first-hand accounts with archival material to paint a picture of life for Seattle JAs at the start of WWII.
1521 10th Ave. Seattle 98122, (206) 624-6600.
Grand Tsubaki Shrine of America
When I lived in Kyoto, I loved being able to visit Shinto shrines, like the famous Fushimi Inari with its long pathway of side-by-side torii (gates) or the more modest Ujigami down the street from my house.
While Buddhism has widespread representation in the United States, Shintoism doesn’t have that kind of reach outside Japan. To see torii or shimenawa, those thick braided ropes that designate sacred Shinto sites, there’s only one officially recognized place to go in the mainland United States: Grand Tsubaki Shrine of America.
Located about an hour north of Seattle in Granite Falls, it combines the familiar hallmarks of a shrine—omamori (fabric amulets) and ema (painted wooden plaques), basin and ladles for purification bell at the entrance—with a quintessentially Pacific Northwest landscape of evergreens and moss.
For people who have seen shrines in their country of origin, this one doesn’t quite feel like a pocket of Japan: the kannushi (priest), Koichi Barrish, is hakujin, as are most shrine members, for one. Barrish found Shintoism through aikido, and when he founded the shrine, he made one of its patron kami Ame-no-mura-kumo-kukisa-muhara, the kami of aikido.
The shrine is open to the public, and Rev. Barrish will perform personal prayer ceremonies with a $50 donation. 17720 Crooked Mile Rd., Granite Falls 98252. (360) 691-6389.
One more note: stop in at Umaido for traditional Japanese okashi and to visit their sweet dog.