Maybe this is a story about the drawbacks of technology. Or the soothing power of impulse buys. Or simply nostalgia. But, many years ago, I was a sixth-grader taking the bus home from school in Tokyo. I didn’t have a cellphone, because cellphones only existed in movies about spies or the future. I was learning Japanese, but I was far from fluent. Still, the commute was easy enough: Just get on the 97 and take it to my stop, a straight shot. It worked every day, until it didn’t. The 97 made an unexpected turn, pulled up to a bus stop I had never seen before, and announced via recorded message that this was the end of the line.
I got off with everyone else and looked around. Nothing was familiar at all. But there was a multifloor mini-department store in front of me, and lacking any better ideas, in I went.
Tokyo department stores, the posh ones, are about the best thing in the world for people who like food. (Tokyo, in general, is about the best city in the world for people who like food.) The basement level showcases nothing but: glorious bento boxes, regional sweets, seasonal cakes, precious fruits swaddled in protective foam. If there’s a line, get in it. Whatever’s at the end is going to be good.
But this wasn’t a posh one. It was a workmanlike neighborhood spot where people bought plastic contraptions for making pickles and sponges shaped like adorable forest creatures, cheap slippers for wearing into the bathroom and towel-kets (blanket-size towels that are perfect for summer sleeping). In short, heaven for an 11-year-old with a few weeks’ allowance burning a hole in her pocket. All I remember is that I bought my first cassette tape with my own money that day: “20 Greatest Hits,” by the Bee-to-ru-zu. And that, when I walked out of the store, an hour closer to dusk, the world suddenly rearranged itself into familiarity. I walked around the corner to the usual route, caught the next 97, and went home.
That hour had such a specific feeling to it. I get it sometimes in airports when I’m traveling alone. It’s stolen time. No one knows exactly where I am, although I’m expected somewhere soon. I can do what I want, look at what I want, be who I want. I can purchase as many adorable forest creature sponges as I want.
That hour is conjured up with perfect clarity whenever I wander into Maruichi in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. (There’s one in Arlington, too.) Its two storefronts offer the best of both worlds: On one side of Harvard Street is the boutique-ier branch (Maruichi Select), and on the other a grocery (and more) store (Maruichi Japanese Food & Deli). I don’t know which I love better, but this isn’t a contest.
Maruichi Select is perhaps the closest you come to the depachika (department store food floor) experience in these parts. There’s a little cafe, plus prepared sushi and onigiri. Shelves are filled with artisanal foodstuffs and lovely housewares: ceramic teapots, fancy knives, lacquered lidded bowls for miso soup; fish sauce aged in whiskey barrels, fragrant genmaicha and oolong tea, matcha milk jam. Who could resist tiny bags filled with beet pasta shaped like spring cherry blossoms or carrot pasta shaped like fall maple leaves? The Japanese understanding of seasonality makes American farm-to-table chefs look like dabblers.
Regionality, too. There are curry powders from different parts of Japan — Akita, Aomori, Morioka, Yamagata — for making different styles of the ever-popular curry rice; shiranui mandarin juice from Wakayama; miki, a nondairy probiotic drink from Okinawa. Regular events focus on specialties from different areas, showcasing the wares of Fukushima, Hokkaido, Shimane. Several kinds of Japanese rice are milled in-house; there’s a helpful matrix charting their sweetness, stickiness, chewiness, and flavor.
I’m obsessed with the amanatto, candied beans, I purchased recently — some varieties tiny and earthy, others large and meaty, all sweet and coated in plentiful sugar. And I love the assortment of patterned tenugui available here. These cloths are extra-absorbent, endlessly useful, and very pretty. They make great gifts.
But the grocery store across the street is a more regular visit, for produce, meat and sashimi-grade fish, soy sauce and soba, Kewpie mayonnaise and thick-sliced white bread, plus all of the snacks: seaweed-salt potato chips and koala-shaped cookies, Kit-Kats of many flavors, litchi gummies. This is just the beginning, because as you progress through the store, you find the kind of things that would attract an 11-year-old with allowance in her pocket or, you know, any rational grownup. I’m likely to come home with the makings for dinner, but also facial sheet masks, Japanese sunscreen, a tiny whisk, a daikon grater, a fish-shaped sponge, a tote bag picturing a shiba inu gazing at a bowl of ramen, or Pokemon stickers and socks for my son. Origami paper, notebooks, Japanese glue, pens, Hello Kitty pencil cases — it’s all here. There are even some house slippers, over by the large selection of heat packs and bath salts. I haven’t seen towel-kets. Not yet, at least. Summer is still a few months away. I’m sure the change in seasons will bring different specialties from different regions to taste at Maruichi.
It’s the store at the end of the alternate 97 bus route in pre-cellphone Tokyo all over again. These days it’s harder to get lost, but it’s always possible to discover something new.
Maruichi Select, 299 Harvard St., and Maruichi Japanese Food & Deli, 306 Harvard St., Coolidge Corner, Brookline, 617-487-8171, Instagram @maruichibrookline