A Taste of Japan at Mitsuwa Marketplace in the Chicago Suburb of Arlington Heights

A few years ago, my family started a winter holiday tradition where we drive out to the Northwest suburbs to go to IKEA and Mitsuwa Marketplace. It's hard to remember why we started this admittedly unusual tradition, but for some reason it has stuck. So this past December, we made our annual trek to the suburbs to enjoy a trip to both establishments. And, while the Swedish food at IKEA is actually pretty good and very reasonable, we opted to do most of our shopping for everyday home goods and seemingly essential items like coffee mugs, reading lights and storage containers there and saved our appetites for an Asian feast at Mitsuwa.

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Japanese Books, Housewares, Cosmetics, Groceries and More!
Every time I set foot in Mitsuwa, I'm quickly reminded of why I love it so much. From the moment you walk in the door, you feel the thriving hustle and bustle of this Japanese marketplace that houses individual retail stores (or kiosks) that sell books, housewares, cookware, cosmetics, groceries, beer, sake, and more. But, it's not just any marketplace. Mitsuwa, which operates nine stores across the U.S., opened its only Chicago-area store in 1991. The Chicago location is currently the largest Japanese supermarket in the Midwest, attracting people from across Illinois and neighboring states as well.

Highlights of the retail offerings at Mitsuwa include:

- Sanseido Books. The Japanese bookstore is located just off the main entrance and it beckons you in with a busy, colorful display of books, magazines and more. This time our sons took off into the store on a mad hunt for Pokemon books - and scored big. Sanseido Books has a great selection of Pokemon books, magazines, stickers and the like - in Japanese and English. The store's kids section has lots of Japanese books for children to look through and read at a small table and chairs. I was drawn to the store's selection of origami kits, which allow you to make everything from tiny paper sushi rolls to pirate ships.

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- Japanese Housewares. Tucked back behind the liquor and cellular phone stores is a housewares kiosk with an amazing selection of plates, bowls, spoons, chopsticks and other items. The colors and patterns of everything stocked on the shelves always attracts my attention, and I have a hard time resisting the call of a new set of chopstick rests, soy sauce bowls and more. A toy vending machine with Japanese anime figurines is located right across from the store, which makes it easy to have our sons stay clear of the breakable items while we browse the store's small space.

- Grocery Store. The biggest part of Mitsuwa is its Japanese grocery store, which includes produce, meat, seafood, dry goods, sushi and much more. I always immediately go in search of the store's amazing selection of fresh and frozen mochi (Japanese rice cakes made of glutinous rice often stuffed with a sweet filling like sweetened red bean paste). Our sons, as expected, always head to the candy aisles to pick out treats emblazoned with their favorite cartoon characters including Thomas the Train and Pokemon. The grocery store really is the place to stock up on any Japanese food or cooking item you may need for the next meal you whip up at home.

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- Pastry House Hippo. It is hard to resist the pull of the bakery at the far end of the grocery store. Pasty House Hippo stocks an amazing selection of breads, cookies and cakes, including the cutest panda-shaped sweet bread I've ever seen. Everything they had on display looked fresh and delicious. After staring at the contents of the bakery's glass cases, I'd have to recommend trying the homemade mochi rice cakes, red bean-filled sweet buns, and beautifully shaped breads. I just need to be sure to add them to our shopping cart on our next visit to Mitsuwa.

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Chinese, Japanese and Korean Dining Options Abound at Mitsuwa
While the book, housewares, cosmetics and grocery stores at Mitsuwa are unique and offer an amazing selection of Japanese goods, the real highlight of our annual trip to the marketplace is dining in its food court. At the back corner of Mitsuwa, you can get a taste of Japan, Korea and China - right in Arlington Heights. Usually when we go there, the place is packed with people enjoying steaming bowls of Ramen, sushi and more Asian delights for lunch and dinner.

A few of our favorite food court selections at Mitsuwa include:

- Santouka. If you have to choose just one place to eat at Mitsuwa, Santouka is the one. The small storefront, which has its name only written in Japanese, has a great selection of incredible Japanese ramen noodle soups. Pick your type of broth and size (small, medium or large) and then enjoy a steaming hot bowl of ramen noodle soup topped with gourmet items such as pork, mushrooms and green onions. We usually go with a medium-sized bowl of miso ramen soup, which truly is the best we've ever had.

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- Mama House. You can't go wrong with anything from a place that bills itself as serving up Korean "soul food." Mama House is our favorite place to get bibimbap, a signature Korean dish that can be translated as "mixed rice." Mama House's bibimbap features warm white rice topped with sauteed vegetables, beef and an easy-side-up fried egg. A chili pepper paste is often served on the side. It's recommended that you add in the chili pepper paste, mix it all together and then dig in and enjoy.

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- Jockey Express. Our sons love to order one of the many Chinese food and drink selections available at Jockey Express. We always order a mango black pearl (tapioca pearl) smoothie for our sons to share and usually get our younger one the "kiddie meal" that includes fried rice, a pot sticker and a shrimp roll. These days our older son is more adventurous and this time he opted for the seafood thick noodle soup - with an order of egg rolls on the side.

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Other delectable options include Daikichi Sushi, which offers a large selection of sushi rolls, nigiri sushi, gunkan sushi, and party trays; Gabutto Burger, the first Japanese-style hamburger shop in Chicago, which offers unique "burger" selections such as its teriyaki wasabi burger, BBQ pork rice burger and shrimp burger; and re Leaf, a Japanese-style ice cream parlor with unique ice cream flavors like green tea.

A Great Way to Be Introduced to Japanese Foods and Goods Right in Chicago

Our family thoroughly enjoyed our annual visit to Mitsuwa. It was a great way to continue to expose our sons to Japanese foods, goods and culture - all in one place. We encouraged their blossoming infatuation with Pokemon, and have enjoyed looking at the stickers and books in Japanese. It's even been fun to read a English Pokemon book - from right to left - and talk about why it's made that way. And, we love that our sons enjoy trying new foods and being introduced to new products from Japan right here in Chicago. The only change we'd make is to try to go to Mitsuwa more than once a year.

Here's to world citizens!

Aimee

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