Saturday, March 23, 2013

Matcha Time: Japanese Gift Shop

Matcha Time Gift Shop
8381 Merryman St
Ellicott City, MD 21043

My half-Japanese girlfriend Amy has been biting at the bit to head to Ellicott City ever since she heard there was a new Japanese gift store there. After all, other than our annual downtown Otakon convention, Baltimore is pretty much a cultural wasteland for anything Japanese-related (or Asian-related, for that matter - we have a China Block on Park Avenue rather than a Chinatown, and other than a few Korean restaurants situated near the Station North Arts district, the Korean community calls Howard County its home). Years ago there was a place called (I think) Japonaise on Falls Road in Mt. Washington (which later relocated briefly to the Fells Point waterfront) that had a koi pond and kimonos and books and such - but, other than the gift shop in the back of Howard County's original Lotte Market, I can't think of any other local hotspots for Japanese-themed gifts and doo-dads. Demographically, one has to head south to Rockville, DC (home of the grand annual "Sakura Matsuri" Cherry Blossom Festival!) and Northern Virginia for the Japanese experience.

So, yesterday we ventured forth to pay the Nippon knick-knacks store a visit, armed with my GPS after reading a Yelp reviewer mention that the shop was not easy to find off of Ellicott City's Main Street - he was so right! Although the address is on Merryman Street, you can't get there from Merryman Street unless you bring hiking shoes and are willing to scale fences and alleyways. Rather, you have to take a circuitous route past Merryman to Parking Lot D from Hamilton St right off Main St.  It's on what is called "Tongue Row," in the back right next to Mexican resturant La Palapa's rear parking lot entrance.

When we arrived, Matcha Time proprietess Hatsumi Watanabe-Smith had not yet opened her shop, so we killed time at the nearby Linwood Center Boutique, which is a sort of combination Goodwill thrift store and community center for autistic young adults (its mission is to allow participants to work in a structured and supportive environment in hopes of one day entering a competitive workforce).

We didn't realize this at first, and I felt guilty when I asked a young man I assumed was the owner (he was hanging clothes on the racks) about the store and he seemed confused and unable to hold a normal conversation. "I think the owner's social skills are on the back burner" I whispered to Amy, only to learn minutes later from a young female social worker what the store's purpose was. It soon made sense, as we heard a lot of screaming and arguments ensue with the young charges. I felt right at home, as the drama and volume level reminded me of a normal day at work at my downtown library. The only thing missing was the security staff.

Amy and I instantly gravitated to the book and record racks inside and agreed that the record collection was outstanding (attention vinyl-collecting hipsters!). I still don't know why Amy passed up recovering her once-beloved Gilbert O'Sullivan ("Alone Again, Naturally") LP, which was in mint condition. For my part, I spent my time sorting through roughly 100 Bing Crosby 78 rpm records on the Decca label - somebody had donated their entire collection of Der Bingle singles! If my record player could play 78s, I would have picked up at least a few (personal fave "I'm An Old Cowhand" with the Andrew Sisters!), which were selling for a $1 buck apiece. Love Bing, he was one cool crooner!

We eventually wandered back to Match Time at Noon, and were excited to finally get a chance to look around. It was well worth the trip! As the (so far) lone Yelp reviewer described the inventory:
Very cute little Japanese gift shop.  They have tons of those little Japanese erasers my kids love to collect.  Plus they have very authentic and no-so-easy-to-find Japanese Matcha teas that you never see in the grocery stores, plus a variety of other teas.  They also have some art/crafts and pocketbooks made out of vintage kimonos that are all silk and really pretty.  Prices are more reasonable than expected for a small shop.
 Got that right! The goods on offer were very affordable. While Amy looked at girly lotions, nail polishes and potential gifts for her Japanese mom, I busied myself looking at the toys and erasers (we both ended up buying the a set of teeth erasers that had gnarly cavities - these make great gifts for your dentist!). But my favorite item wasn't for sale: the 3-piece set of one-eyed Daruma dolls (as shown below):

Daruma doh!

For those not familiar with the purpose of Daruma dolls: their eyes are considered a means to keeping track of one's goals or projects, and serve to motivate one to complete the goal or task. They are often sold blank, with the recipient filling in one eye upon setting the goal, then the other upon fulfilling it. In this way, every time one sees the one-eyed Daruma, they are reminded of their goal.

Amy also talked at length with Hatsumi Watanable-Smith (co-owner of the store with her handyman husband Derek) about Japan and about Amy's mom from Kyushu, and the upcoming addition next door: the Matcha Time Tea House.

The couple had originally expected to open their business as a cafe serving traditional Japanese Matcha tea and assorted light fare (sushi, pastries, edamame, seasoned rice balls) in the summer of 2012, but sorting through the red tape Howard County health permits set back their schedule.

The tea house is an ongoing work-in-progress, though the couple are now looking forward to an anticipated grand opening sometime around Memorial Day 2013.

As she told the Ellicott City Patch, "We'll start out small and hopefully get bigger."

We certainly hope that what's Big in Japan is equally Big in Ellicott City in the coming months. And, hopefully, Hatsumi and Derek will be able to fill in the eyes of their Daruma dolls come this year's Memorial Weekend!


On our way home, we took Hatsumi's advice and stopped at the new Lotte Plaza Market, which is located in the old Toys R Us location at 6600 Baltimore National Pike (Route 40) and Nuwood Drive in Catonsville.

Honey Pig entrepreneur Mickey Kim

What makes this Asian grocery so special is the addition of a Honey Pig Dumpling ( stand inside the store. This is the latest business venture from Honey Pig BBQ founder and co-owner Mickey Kim. The original Lotte Plaza market has its wonderful food court, but I think Amy and I prefer the new place because for $2 you get a softball-sized whale of a dumpling (beef, chicken, curry, shrimp, pork or kimchi)!

Honey Pig Dumpling Stand at new Lotte Plaza

(Check out  Honey Pig Dumpling's menu here. Directions are here.)

As an added bonus, the new store has a small army of employees handing out free samples of everything from kimchi rolls and glazed chicken to ramen noodles and chai-styled teas. I basically got a free lunch just walking around and trying all the samples!

Amy adds her spiffy retort to Lotte Plaza's "Ready to Eat"section

And that was that, on our cultural and culinary journey Westward Ho! 

See also:
Matcha Time Gift Shop (Facebook)
"Just in Time: Matcha Time" (Ellicott City Patch)
"Matcha Time, Much More Than Sushi" (Ellicott City Patch)
"It's Almost Tea Time in Ellicott City" (Ellicott City Patch)
Matcha Time Gift Shop (Yelp)

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