National mourning: Tokyo pays tribute to an expat institution

National mourning: Tokyo pays tribute to an expat institution

After a half-century in Hiroo, storied supermarket National Azabu calls it quits
National Azabu
Held in high regard: A watercolor of the store by local artist Diane Rakocy.

When it came, the end -- announced in a simple sheet of paper on a door -- was swift and unexpected:

“To Our Valued Customers: After close to 50 years of serving the expat/Japanese 
community in Hiroo, a decision has been made in regards
 to the future of National Azabu Supermaket.

“Regretfully we must inform you that the store is scheduled 
to close and will be on hiatus until further notice.”

In a city of planned obsolescence, 50 years can feel like a millennium elsewhere. So, it’s no wonder the customers of National Azabu are emotional. Really? But it’s just a supermarket.

National AzabuDale Toriumi, manager of National Azabu, and store butcher behind the (mostly imported) meat counter.

True, but you’d be mistaken to think of National Azabu simply as a place you buy your daily bread -- it was a lifeline for the foreign community, a gathering place and the proverbial corner of Main Street; a place woven into the fabric of many lives.

Still flourishing

“People are speculating that the reason we are closing is due to the bad economy -- this is just not the case,” says Dale Toriumi, the manager of National Azabu.

Those parking lot dudes are the nicest guys in the world.

- Susan Griffen (21 years in Tokyo)

“Actually, our sales have increased since the earthquake. Foreigners are looking for more information about where their food comes from. And we now have many more Japanese customers too -- they don’t trust the ‘domestic chicken’ sign in their local market.

“The truth is, the building just isn’t safe anymore and it needs to come down. We are so very sorry for our customers,” he explains.

The news came on Monday when a poster was tacked on the front door of the store. Within minutes, word had spread throughout Tokyo and in Facebook world -- of course -- as current and former Tokyoites posted their memories online.

To help mark the passing of an institution, here are just a few, all typical of the love locals held for their little Hiroo meeting place:

Vox pop

Abby Radmilovich (Five years in Tokyo): “The go-to place for anything! First stop National, especially after the nuclear crisis! Where is the first stop now?”

Julianne Martin (17 years): “I stop by National Azabu at least once every single day and have done so since I moved to the neighborhood six years ago. It is a beautiful bubble full of happy reminders of the lives we left behind. Without a doubt life will be more complicated without National to pop into every day.”

Linda Singh (Four years): “If you were on a desert island, and someone offered you an artichoke for $20, would you pay it? Hell yes. And that is National. I have never gone in the store without seeing someone I know. More than one person here has commented that if National is closing shop, maybe it is time to leave Japan.”

Hilary Wendel (Ten years): “The staff made us feel welcome -- they went out of their way to make us feel at home. The parking lot on weekends is a festive place -- similar to the farmers’ market atmosphere of small towns in the United States. I am just devastated.”

Cravings satisfied

National AzabuToriumi in front of his famous food-source map.

Kia Helberg (21 years): “What??????? National Azabu closing??? All my years in Tokyo, National Azabu has always been there! A landmark for foreigners will disappear.”

Cathy Noyes (Eight years): “When I was pregnant with my daughter 20 years ago it was the only place I could satisfy my craving for apple sauce. I travelled over an hour to get there from way up in Itabashi-ku.”

Saniya Bloomer (Eight years): “National is like our corner store. It's where we go to feel part of a community as much as where we go to shop for groceries. People like Dale and his staff are extended family ... they ask us about our summers and whether our kids' teams won that weekend.

“And there was the day I was driving down the National hill and one of the parking attendants flagged me down to tell me I had a flat tire ... and then changed it. I can't imagine Tokyo without National.”

Libby Hopkins (Three years): “It is difficult to foresee the overwhelming feeling of helplessness that comes from being ‘illiterate’ as a foreigner here in Japan. Walking into National, and seeing familiar foods or Japanese products labeled in English, is such a huge relief.

“To find Goldfish crackers that will make that homesick kid happy even when 7,000 miles away from home is no small thing. I can't imagine that corner without National Azabu.”

Clearly, National was more than a place to buy high-priced imported groceries; it was a panacea for our longings for home.

National Azabu will hold its final Halloween contest before closing down on October 30. For more information and to read other testimonials, see the dedicated Facebook page. To let the company know you support a re-build, email the management at: toiawase@tfc.co.jp.

Currently on her second stint as a Tokyo resident, American Lisa Jardine has lived in Japan for six years ...

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