Some of the best travel hours are spent wandering around making discoveries even though you didn’t make any plans to make discoveries.
In an effort to stay dry indoors on a rainy day in Seattle, my daughter and I hopped onto the city’s light rail and got off at the International District/Chinatown station, just to see what was there.
There’s a nice 45-foot-tall gate over South King Street that helps anchor the area. It is pretty new (dedicated in 2008) and also has Ofo rideshare bikes nearby, if your weather is cooperative.
A block or two past the gate was a discovery that occupied us the rest of the day – Uwajimaya Asian Grocery and Gifts.
The store has a long and proud history since founder Fujimatsu Moriguchi began selling fishcakes from his truck in 1928 in nearby Tacoma, Washington.
There are all sorts of fresh and prepared foods. It is not only Japanese products; for example, I thought these purple items were mochi cakes, but they are sort of a Filipino equivalent called puto …
Don’t miss the large seafood department, where a cook can see his or her food wriggle before they buy it:
What impressed me was the enormous variety of oysters.
I like oysters – raw, grilled, fried – but I’ve never paid much mind to what kind I’m eating. At Uwajimaya, there was a whole row of little tanks that each held a certain type of oyster from a specific region.
One said, “Dabob Bay oysters – available September to July – [harvested in area that] extends off the northern end of the Hood Canal.” Another specified “southern Puget Sound at the Nisqually Flats.”
Wow, that’s really knowing your oysters …
We wandered the store and found lots of items that we hadn’t seen before, like this flavor of the popular Pocky snack …
There is a big section for non-food items and gifts, including home decor, tea and sake sets, rice cookers, and clothing like cotton yukata robes.
We laughed (or groaned) at some of the jokes on these stationery cards:
There is a branch of the Kinokuniya Bookstore inside Uwajimaya, with lots of Japanese books, manga, and magazines, plus plenty of gel pens for the pen cultists among us …
We were getting pretty hungry at this point, so we looked at a few of the menus in the 12 different stalls/restaurants in the Uwajimaya Village Food Court (Thai, Korean BBQ, Vietnamese, and more.)
A nice big bowl of phở from Saigon Bistro was perfect for a rainy, slightly chilly day:
There’s one more stop that you should make in Seattle’s International District/Chinatown, and to go there is a tribute to Uwajimaya founder Moriguchi, who along with his wife and children was forced to move into a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II.
The tiny historic Panama Hotel and Tea House on South Main Street is a National Historic Landmark; it opened in 1910. Always a community hub for the Japanese in this part of the city, it became a place where they could leave their belongings when they were forced into internment camps. It is still a working hotel today.
Of course, many were never able to come back and claim their boxes, bags, suitcases, and trunks. Today you can still see them down in the hotel basement, through a plexiglass “viewing window,” pretty much exactly as they were left in the early 1940’s (although the contents have been reviewed and documented by museum curators.)
There is also a well-preserved Japanese-style sento bathhouse in the hotel basement, and you can tour it with a little advance coordination with hotel staff.
After a few hours exploring the bounty of Uwajimaya, it was poignant to end our visit to this part of Seattle by standing outside a hotel that holds the heartaches of so many in its basement.
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