Umami Mart is like an emissary from a parallel universe, where everything is gorgeous and well designed–even the instant ramen. Alongside hard-to-find Japanese foodstuffs, Umami Mart focuses on interesting, attractive kitchenware, barware, glassware, and coffeewares. Japanese products merge with Danish and Californian design, forming an aesthetic that feels utterly current in the Bay Area here and now.
The shop started as a blog and quickly blossomed into a bustling online retail destination; a brick and mortar store followed in downtown Oakland at 815 Broadway, and then a shared space with The Perish Trust off San Francisco’s Alamo Square at 728 Divisadero. I visited the Oakland shop to look at wonderful things and talk to owners Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano.
It might be hard to pin down exactly what unites the products carried at Umami Mart, but I don’t think it’s hard to see that Akabori and Kumano have created a unique collection. There is an emphasis on traditional Japanese design and craftsmanship, Akabori tells me. “As in anywhere in the world, craftsmen are a dying breed–in Japan, too. We hope to highlight and showcase the best of Japan-made, hand-crafted (not always but we try), Japan-designed goods, all at the highest quality and at a reasonable price point.” Akabori says that the two owners try to personally test all of their products before putting them on the shelves at Umami Mart.
In practice, this all means that there are some beautiful objects from a variety of places, including the Bay Area. From fancy ice trays to stirring spoons to teakettles to gorgeous ceramics, Umami Mart has a bit of everything.
A highlight is the crushingly gorgeous ceramics collection from Atelier Dion. This West Oakland spot has been doing cupware for discerning cafes including Four Barrel Coffee, and Bicycle Coffee. Another highlight (that isn’t from Japan) are these bizarrely cute ghosts from Studio Arhoj in Denmark. These hand-thrown earthenware sculptures are useful as “paper weights, door stoppers, toys, wedding ring holders, kitchen talismans, or as company on a lonely night with no friends around to talk to.”
Umami Mart has some similarities to another mecca of design and craftsmanship–the Illums Bolighus in Copenhagen–albeit on a smaller scale. This Danish connection goes deeper than the ghosts and the clean design of the cupware; the aforementioned Studio Arhoj did the interior design of the Umami Mart shops.
The selection of coffee-related goods isn’t huge, but Akabori and Kumano are open to suggestions for Japanese-made coffee gear that might fit into their selection. It’s more about adopting Umami’s smart selection of kettles, cups, and utensils to fit with whatever vibe you’re trying to create, bet it at home or in the cafe. There are a few gems that would be comfortable on any coffee lover’s counter, from the seamless crystal mixing pitchers that happen to be the perfect size to serve as a brewed coffee decanter, to the charming Bee House butter and salt dishes (the brand is known in the coffee world for their ceramic pour-over cones).
And the Oakland shop does carry a bit of coffee, from local roasters Bicycle Coffee Company, charmingly bundled here with a playful porcelain travel mug designed by Anders Arhoj. That’s the thing about Umami Mart: while not a coffee store per se, there’s basically nothing here that doesn’t merit a closer look. And if Akabori and Kumano ever do get around to opening a coffee shop, well…the mind tastefully reels.