Even though I have been a South Jakarta resident for more than four years, this was actually the first time I set out to explore Melawai. Dubbed Jakarta’s Little Tokyo, Melawai’s streets are lined with Japanese cafes, restaurants and stores.
In fact, exploring the area made me feel like I was wandering around the back alleys of the popular Shibuya district in Tokyo — well, almost.
Accompanied by one of my colleagues, our first stop was Ajihara.
While this is only one of the many Japanese restaurants in the Melawai area, it came highly recommended by several colleagues and culinary Web sites.
I must admit that the restaurant looks quite unimpressive from the outside — actually, it is very easy to miss the wooden sliding door that serves as the entrance to the eatery, and if I hadn’t spotted the red sign, I might have walked right past.
However, after stepping inside, it felt like I had been transported from the dusty streets of Jakarta to a small tavern in Tokyo.
On the right of the entrance is a sushi counter, where diners can watch the chef prepare food — or the Japanese channel NHK on TV — while on the left, people lounge on tatami (rice straw mats) in typical Japanese manner.
Slippers of different sizes are provided for those who need to use the restroom.
A shelf filled with manga comic books and Japanese magazines offers entertainment for customers who are dining by themselves and the books even be borrowed and returned during the next visit.
“This restaurant has been around since 1997,” our waitress said.
“At the beginning, it was mostly the Japanese who came here for lunch or dinner, but as time went by, it has become increasingly popular with Indonesians as well.”
Owned by a Japanese chef who is married to an Indonesian woman, Ajihara serves authentic Japanese cuisine at very reasonable prices.
There are several bentos (traditional Japanese lunch boxes) to choose from, but my friend and I opted for the shoyu ramen (soy-based Japanese noodle soup) and zaru soba (cold wheat noodles topped with shredded seaweed), which came with crispy tempura (battered, deep-fried sea food and vegetables).
Japanese pickles, a salmon onigiri (rice ball) and the mandatory green tea completed a filling and delicious lunch. At Rp 60,000 ($7) each, this was a very good deal, given the high quality of the food and the unique atmosphere of the restaurant.
A walk seemed like a good idea after the filling lunch. Strolling through Little Tokyo under the beaming sun, we walked past several Japanese bars and cafes still closed at the time — it was still early in the afternoon.
We were curious about the sign that offered “Raku Foot Reflexology,” but unfortunately, like the bars, the salon was not yet open, and we were advised to come back later.
Taking a left turn toward Jalan Melawai Raya, we soon found ourselves in front of the Japanese supermarket Papaya Fresh Gallery.
The supermarket, also owned by a Japanese, has six outlets throughout Indonesia, one in Bali, two in Surabaya, one in Bandung and another two in Jakarta.
The one in Blok M has been around for a good 10 years, according to the store manager, Shimamoto.
“We cater to the Japanese community in Jakarta,” he said, adding that Indonesians fond of Japanese cuisine also frequently shopped there.
“The store gets particularly packed on weekends,” Shimamoto added.
Even though it was not the weekend, the supermarket was still quite crowded, mostly with Japanese women and their children.
Many of them were pushing shopping carts through the aisles, listening to the Japanese pop music playing over the store’s speakers.
Here shoppers can find anything their hearts desire to prepare real Japanese dishes at home.
Freshly made sushi is packed in small boxes and ready for take-out, as well as other Japanese delicacies, such as takoyaki (octopus balls), mochi (Japanese rice cake) and a variety of sweets.
In addition to groceries, the supermarket also carries cosmetics and I was pleasantly surprised when I found the same shampoo brand I had used while living in Tokyo 15 years ago.
A small pastry shop behind the cashier offers baked goods and bread.
On the second floor of the building, a Japanese travel agent organizes plane tickets, while the DVD rental Family Station displays hundreds of Japanese movies, just waiting to be picked up and watched by members of Jakarta’s Japanese community.
While Noah Cafe invites passersby to come in for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, the real gem here is The Daiso, a store that sells Japanese goods.
Crammed with everything imaginable — both useful and completely unnecessary — it is easy to spend a lot of time here hunting for hidden treasures.
From stationery, household goods and bathroom slippers to toys, bags and cute bunny ears, all items cost Rp 22,000.
Adopting the concept of selling everything for the same price, The Daiso is the equivalent of the 100 Yen stores so widely popular in Japan — a quite brilliant business idea that makes customers tempted to stuff their shopping carts to the brim without realizing that in the end what they buy will all add up to a substantial sum.
Loaded with shopping bags, we decided to call it a day and headed back to the car.
Thanks to the city’s very own Little Tokyo in Melawai, Japanese residents in Jakarta have a place to go to whenever they feel homesick.
Being very enthusiastic about all things related to Japan, I can only regret that I didn’t go there earlier.
Jl. Melawai IX No. 3A
Tel: 021 720 1340
Papaya Fresh Gallery
Jl. Melawai Raya No. 28
Tel: 021 7279 3777