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Home » The 9 Best Ways to Experience Japanese Culture in Chicago From Soufflé Pancakes to Ikebana

The 9 Best Ways to Experience Japanese Culture in Chicago From Soufflé Pancakes to Ikebana

Cherry blossoms near the lotus-petal sculpture by artist-singer Yoko Ono

It is no wonder that Chicago continues to top Condé Nast Traveler’s Best Big City year after year. It has now held this title for six consecutive years. A big reason that makes Chicago such a great place to live, aside from the gorgeous skyline, informative museums, and calming nature is how the city brings the world to your doorstep.

From the finest South Asian flavors to the colorful Mexican murals, Chicago is one place where you can see global truly becoming local. I moved to Chicago in 2011 and I’m amazed at how much this city has to offer.

In a city that is home to vibrant neighborhoods featuring communities like Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Polish, and Greek, you might wonder,

Is there a Japantown in Chicago?

The simple answer is no. Chicago doesn’t have a specific neighborhood designated as Japantown, like several cities on the West Coast. This poignant article by WBEZ Chicago chronicles how several Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated from the World War II incarceration camps to the city. The Lakeview neighborhood started becoming a thriving Japanese community. But it only lasted for a short while and never officially became a full-fledged Japantown due to a strong push for assimilation.

But that doesn’t mean you cannot experience Japanese culture in Chicago!

Japanese culture is rich and enigmatic. It features traditions, customs, and beliefs that have been passed on for centuries. My love and respect for Japan started when my husband came across a cheap flight deal that took us from Chicago to Tokyo for only $545 per person. Over a two-week trip – we explored nature, food, culture, and art in Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, and several small towns along the Nakasendo Trail.

Chicago may not have the clustered Japantown you are looking for. But it still allows you to experience this powerful eastern culture in the heart of Chicago if you know where to look. Let a local like me take you on a tour of 9 fun-filled ways to experience Japanese culture in Chicago. This list features Japanese arts, unique foods, and of course, nature, created and preserved by the efforts of Japanese-American people, businesses, and organizations.

1. Enjoy sizzling okonomiyaki at Gaijin

Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake packed with a variety of fresh ingredients. The name combined two Japanese words – “okonomi,” which means “have it your way,” and “yaki,” which means “griddled”.

Gaijin brings this unique Japanese comfort food to Chicago’s Fulton Market area. The batter for okonomiyaki is made from flour, eggs, and shredded cabbage. Then, depending on the region and personal preferences, various toppings can be added. Some of the most common ingredients include sliced pork belly, squid, shrimp, scallions, and pickled ginger. It is griddled until crisp, then drizzled with a signature sauce, special mayo, and topped with dried bonito flakes, and aonori (dried seaweed flakes).

Gaijin serves up three different okonomiyaki styles: Osaka style, Hiroshima style, and Negiyaki. Each of these has nuanced variations in terms of the ingredients themselves and whether the ingredients are mixed or layered.

The inside is dominated by the bar and a large, open cooking area where you can watch the okonomiyaki being freshly prepared before it is brought to the griddle at your table. It took me back to those magical moments at a tiny Tokyo restaurant where my husband and I learned how to prepare the okonomiyaki on the table grill.

Remember to secure a reservation beforehand at Gaijin to avoid disappointment. And while you’re here, don’t forget to try the kakigori, the oversized Japanese shaved ice dessert that melts in your mouth.

Matcha flavored Japanese soufflé pancakes at Hanabusa Cafe in Chicago
Matcha-flavored Japanese soufflé pancakes at Hanabusa Cafe in Chicago

2. Take a bite of cloud-soft soufflé pancakes at Hanabusa Café

Imagine sliding your fork over a cloud-soft pancake drizzled in matcha sauce, surrounded by fresh fruits, whipping cream, and sweet azuki beans. The Japanese soufflé pancake has a tender and delightful texture compared to regular pancakes.

This seemingly small cafe in the Chicago loop brings the first Japanese soufflé pancake shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market to Chicago. Hanabusa means floral house in Japanese.

My favorite on the menu here is the Matcha Pancake but honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of the options. You can try the Nutella if you want to stick to familiar pancake flavors or try the Taro featuring the root vegetable sauce.

There are a variety of teas, coffees, and lemonades for every weather. Savory foods are served on weekdays so you could even try some takoyaki or ramen in the afternoon after you’ve had your fill of pancakes in the morning.

3. Meditate in the Garden of the Phoenix

The Garden of the Phoenix or Japanese Garden in the Jackson Park neighborhood is a must-see for anyone looking to experience Japanese culture in Chicago. It was originally built for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition and remains a tranquil oasis in a bustling city. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, also known for designing Central Park in New York City, designed the garden.

One of the most striking features of the garden is the Japanese-style pavilion, which is a replica of a 16th-century Japanese building. A large pond near the pavilion is home to several species of fish and turtles. You can even feed the koi fish and watch them swim around in the water.

There are several walking paths throughout the garden, which are perfect for a leisurely stroll. You can enjoy the scenery, take in the fresh air, and even spot some local wildlife, like squirrels and birds. Spend a few minutes on the pavilion steps with your eyes closed in a cross-legged, erect posture (if you can) for a relaxing meditation.

Keep an eye out for events and activities taking place at the Garden of the Phoenix during your visit. You might be lucky to watch Japanese drumming performances or partake in cultural festivals like moon viewing and river lanterns organized by the Japanese Arts Foundation.

View of the Garden of the Phoenix and Museum of Science and Industry
View of the Garden of the Phoenix and Museum of Science and Industry

4. Chew mochi doughnuts at 2d Restaurant

The decor at 2d Restaurant may remind you of Paris but the menu clearly has Asia written all over it. The unique design makes you feel like you have stepped inside the pages of a childhood coloring book.

The mainstay item on the menu here is pon-de-ring style doughnuts, more commonly referred to as mochi donuts due to their close resemblance. These donuts originated in Japan and are a cross between traditional American doughnuts and Japanese mochi.

The airy, fluffy donuts at 2d are made from a blend of mochi powder, tapioca powder, and wheat starch. They have a unique shape resembling eight small, chewy balls of dough all connected in a ring. They come in a variety of flavors including six classics like matcha mochi or chocolate mochi. There are creative seasonal flavors added every month for occasions like Lunar New Year and Halloween.

The owners Vanessa Thanh Vu (Interior Designer) and Kevin Yu (Chef) recently collaborated with Chicago Bulls to bring an elementary school student’s doughnut design to life.

5. Watch anime at the Logan Theatre

The Logan Theatre is a historic movie theater located in the vibrant Logan Square neighborhood. It’s been around for over 100 years and has become a beloved cultural institution for locals and visitors alike. I’m transported back in time whenever I watch a movie at Logan Theatre.

One of the things that set the Logan Theatre apart from other movie theaters is its vintage charm. The interior has a classic Art Deco style, with intricate moldings, colorful lights, and ornate details. The theater’s marquee outside is also a work of art, with neon lights that light up the street and draw people in.

The Japanese Arts Foundation organizes several Anime nights around different themes at the Logan Theatre. This gives you the opportunity to combine two great Chicago experiences in one outing. This year’s events feature horror, space, and POC representation. Check out the upcoming events schedule for a fun way to experience these iconic films with a crowd of fellow fans.

Entrance to 2d restaurant that serves Japanese mochi donuts
Entrance to 2d restaurant that serves Japanese mochi donuts

6. Learn ikebana at the Japanese Culture Center

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arrangement, which emphasizes minimalism and a deep connection with nature. It is not simply about placing flowers in a vase; it is a highly disciplined art form that requires careful attention to balance, proportion, and harmony. You can attend an ikebana walk to see these arrangements on local restaurants and business storefront windows or take a full-fledged course to create your own works of art.

Ikebana is just one of the arts showcased by the Japanese Culture Center, established in 1977. The center has a phenomenal lineup of in-person and virtual events that allow you to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. You can dip your feet on a short visit with short workshops that run for one and a half hours and teach you a unique Japanese skill. For example, you can learn to make delicate wagashi (Japanese sweets) or how to fold the perfect crane while you sip a drink at Konbini and Kanpai.

There are also several longer courses like the Japanese tea ceremony, reiki, Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting), and Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) that run for multiple weeks. Many of these are virtual so you can continue to carry the love of Japanese culture with you even after you return home.

7. Slurp piping hot ramen

A bowl of piping hot ramen on a cold day is a great way to experience Japanese culture in Chicago. Chicago is filled with numerous ramen restaurants so you can take your pick no matter where you are based in the city. Misoya in Streeterville was my absolute favorite spot but unfortunately, it closed down during Covid-19. They still have a location in the suburb of Mt. Prospect.

My husband swears by the authentic flavors of Musashiya Ramen in the East Lakeview neighborhood. There are a number of options but you can start with the classic tonkotsu featuring house-made pork chashu (braised pork belly). I can’t wait for the restaurant to start some pescatarian or vegetarian broth options.

Ramen-san is another great option with four locations throughout the city. Aside from tonkotsu and chicken, they also serve tofu ramen tantan-san in vegetarian broth.

One of the ramen spots I’m super excited to try this year is the newly opened Japanese chain Kyuramen. The restaurant featuring honeycomb seating brings several regional ramen styles to Chicago from Kyushu’s shio style to Hokkaido’s miso style.

Blooming cherry blossom trees in Chicago's Jackson Park
Blooming cherry blossom trees in Chicago’s Jackson Park

8. Watch cherry blossoms in Jackson Park

Japan during the sakura or cherry blossom season is a magical place. But if you cannot make it there, there are plenty of places to enjoy hanami (flower watching) including one right here in Chicago. Late April or early May brings a flurry of these delicate pink and white flowers to Chicago’s Jackson Park.

The trees around the Columbian Basin were planted a decade ago to mark Chicago’s 120th anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce donated fifty more trees to mark its 50-year anniversary. There are now more than 160 trees in the park.

The flowered branches frame the Museum of Science and Industry across the basin and make for a beautiful picture of the museum. Walk among the trees and you’ll find people posing with a low branch, lovers sharing a beautiful moment, and families enjoying a picnic.

The ephemeral nature of cherry blossoms is a philosophical activity, as much as physical. The fleeting beauty of these flowers is a poignant reminder of our passing lives. It is the perfect way to experience Japanese culture in Chicago.

9. Dig into the conveyor belt sushi

Imagine sitting in a restaurant where a conveyor belt circulates small plates of salmon, tuna, and all kinds of sushi. You reach out your hand and grab a plate that piques your interest. Kaitenzushi or conveyor belt sushi is an experience in itself. Eating this at Sushi Plus takes me back in time to gorging on this affordable sushi at a Tokyo train station on our trip to Japan. The restaurant has two city locations – one in Lakeview and another in Chinatown.

If you find something on the menu that’s not already on the belt, you can order it on the iPad placed on every table. It will arrive at your table in a tiny car running on the second level of the conveyor belt. Kids especially get excited to see these tiny toy cars arriving with food. Even the billing here is very interesting. The plates are color-coded for cost. So in the end, the server just needs to multiply and add up the stacked plates for every price point to calculate your total bill.

If you don’t wish to jump on the sushi train, you can head to Toro Sushi for some incredibly fresh and delicious sushi in a cozy sit-down setting. Or arrive at Wakamono for an exceptional candlelit dinner featuring a transportive ambiance to old-world Japan. Water flows from a sōzu into a koi pond with orange fishes swimming around. A paper lantern casts a dim glow throughout as you take another sip of the smooth sake, place a piece of tender sushi in your mouth and marvel at the enigma of Japanese cuisine.

Sushi chefs at work inside Taro Sushi Restaurant
Sushi chefs at work inside Taro Sushi Restaurant

And that concludes my list of 9 ways to experience Japanese culture in Chicago. I cannot wait to go back to Japan and continue my travels there. But in the meantime, these Japanese experiences back home in Chicago are great to satisfy my wanderlust.

What’s your favorite way to experience another culture in the place you live? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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