This article was originally published in the September 2018 Princeton Echo.
Until recently only wholesalers were aware of the Miya line of elegant, Japanese themed tableware. Since the 1930s the New York and Somerville, New Jersey-based firm has provided merchandise to small specialty boutiques and museum stores. But a few years ago Miya’s president, Bob Matsukawa, and his wife, Heidi Moon, moved to Princeton with their three daughters. They decided the time was ripe to go retail.
“This has always been a dream of mine, to have a little retail shop,” Moon says.
A retail store made sense as an adjunct to their wholesale business. First of all, Moon says, it gives them insight into the world of their many retail customers. Their customers, she says, “carry a few things here and a few there,” and “we wondered why some customers did better than others with our product.”
Although they attributed the varying reactions to their products to both merchandising and location, having a retail store gives them “a lot more direct contact with consumers,” Moon says. Their new store at 41 Palmer Square West, Miya Table & Home, “is definitely educational. We are learning a lot about the retail business and about customers’ wants and needs.”
With these pluses in mind and the empty storefronts they saw in Princeton, they thought it would be “nice to have a flagship store for our company,” Moon says. “In an effort to grow our brand so people know who we are and to merchandise our products the way we want, we thought it was a great opportunity and tried a popup shop in November,” Moon explains. “We thought Princeton was perfect — we have a lot of families, we have students, but also a large international community, and whether they are Japanese or not, there is an appreciation of different cultures, design, thoughts, and ideas.”
She figured Princeton people are open to products that are different and unique. “If there is anywhere it might work, it is here,” Moon says. The popup shop did very well, and they opened Miya at the same location on Palmer Square on April 7, with a five-year lease.
So far their experience has been very positive. A “nice mix” of tourists, students, local families, and people from nearby towns wander in for a variety of reasons, Moon says. Many customers already have some relationship with Japan, through visits or friendships. But, she adds, “A lot of times it’s just the food — a lot of people tell me they want to visit Japan one day because they love the food.” Or sometimes they see the patterns in the window and just like the styles.
Miya began its life in New York City during the 1930s when Matsukawa’s great-uncle, Okinawan immigrant Chosuke Miyahira, opened a small flower shop on 28th Street in Manhattan. Because of that store his great-uncle was able to sponsor family members to work in the business during World War II; unlike what was happening on the West Coast, Moon says, “on the East Coast they weren’t taking businesses away from the Japanese.”
In the 1960s Matsukawa’s father moved to California, where he supported himself by doing gardening. Then late in the decade his uncle invited him to New York for a visit, and then asked him to join Miya — his own children were not interested in joining the business.
Miya’s inventory has changed “little by little, with each generation,” Moon says, as Americans’ interest in Asian-designed products has evolved. Early on Miya imported Japanese-style robes, stone and paper lanterns, wind chimes, lacquerware (made from wood with a black, glossy finish), ceramics, and even whole Japanese teahouses that people put in their backyards. Miya also carried more ornate items — large platters with decorative designs. “Ornate was unique in the 1970s and early 1980s,” Moon says.
During that period Miya “became one of the only companies importing housewares from Japan,” Moon says. “Whatever they brought in would sell quite well — it was unique and, at that time, inexpensive.”
Around 1977 Matsukawa’s father took over from his uncle, and in 1986 moved the business from New York City to Somerville, New Jersey, because, Moon says, “it was getting too expensive for a warehouse there.”
Matsukawa joined the Miya wholesale business after graduating from New York University in 1992 with a degree in business management and took over as president in 2008. He was followed in 1996 by his sister, June Matsukawa, who now handles the firm’s finances and accounting. Matsukawa’s mother and his paternal uncle and aunt have also been part of the business. For most of its history, Miya has had from 10 to 15 employees.
In the 1990s Miya started to change their inventory, “away from super-ornate decorative items to lots of blue and white tableware and small, more practical items,” he says.
Moon says, “The ornate and traditional designs were less appealing to me. Just growing up in New York City and New Jersey, it seemed a little bit old fashioned, something from the older generation. The simpler stuff appealed to me more and the trend was moving that way in the U.S., a simpler, sleeker, modern aesthetic.”
“By moving more toward items that could be used every day — and not just for Japanese cuisine but for any type of food — we were able to appeal to a much larger audience,” Matsukawa says.
“We’re trying to open Japanese design to have a little more universal appeal,” Moon adds.
Aiding and abetting their decision to move in a more modern, pragmatic direction was the American exploration of Japanese food, particularly sushi. “The biggest boon for us was Japanese food,” Matsukawa says. “When the food culture and Japanese food took off in the U.S., that’s when we experienced a really significant increase in demand for our dishes and Japanese tableware.”
“The idea of using the dishes as an everyday part of your lifestyle and the way that you eat is what we are trying to promote,” he continues. “In the past, when the company started, it was about promoting Japanese culture, and it was seen as an exotic type of aesthetic. Now we are trying to make it more approachable and accessible to people.”
Food trends today continue to favor Miya, in particular the heightened interest in ramen, as well as matcha, used in the Japanese tea ceremony, and other green teas. “Millennials are learning about matcha and its health benefits, and it’s becoming pretty popular to have every day instead of coffee,” Moon says.
Another potential boon for their wholesale business involves restaurant tableware. “I think a lot of the restaurants have moved to using plain white porcelain, in particular Asian and fusion restaurants,” Matsukawa says. “We feel like people are starting to be a bit bored of that and restaurants are looking for ways to stand apart. They are adding an additional element to food preparation and food presentation by using the design of the dish to enhance the overall experience.”
This is in line with Japanese customs around carefully serving food. “A lot of the food culture there is based on the presentation and aesthetic of the food when it is served,” Matsukawa says. “Serving it on plain white dishes doesn’t really cut it.”
Miya’s inventory reflects different aspects of Japanese pottery design — all of which are easily identifiable as Japanese. As Moon explains, these include “a very Zen, minimalist design aesthetic,” “a hand-thrown pottery look, with glazes”; and also the kawaii, which means “cute,” and is influenced by anime. The store inventory focuses largely on the first and third categories.
When they started the store, Moon says, “We picked out the most popular lines, which are the blue and white,” she says. This perky, blue-and-white tableware is reasonably priced. “A lot of people come in, and they are surprised that the prices are pretty affordable,” Matsukawa says. Prices range from $40 to $75 a place setting, which includes a large and small plate, a bowl, and a mug.
Some store items are just fun to look at. These small, whimsical kawaii pieces include a popular rice bowl with little faces, cat-eye plates and mugs from Jewel Japan, and ceramic items highlighted by tiny figures from Decole Japan, for example, a mug, with a tiny cat standing on its handle, leaning on the body of the mug. “These little things make especially a workspace a lot of fun,” Moon says.
Some items are not offered wholesale, but only at the store. Examples include rice cookers in four sizes; Hasami porcelain, whose simple, stackable shapes in earth tones can be mixed and matched; and a Donabe, a clay pot for cooking soups, stews, rice dishes, and casseroles that can be used in the oven or in an open flame.
“Over time Miya moved more and more specifically into ceramics — something that was very popular and appealed to a much broader audience in the U.S.,” Moon explains. “The other items were heavier and more difficult to market and ship.”
In addition to the small stores that are Miya’s primary customers, the company also sells it merchandise on the wedding registry website zola.com. “It provides a unique gift for a lot of people,” Moon says. “I think part of its appeal is that it is made in Japan.”
To keep up with evolving tastes and the latest products, she and Matsukawa take separate buying trips to Japan each year; they have similar tastes and always text and e-mail to get input from the spouse at home.
Moon moved to the United States from South Korea with her family when she was four. Her mother, born in 1936 in North Korea, had escaped to the south with her family in the early 1950s, right before the Korean War. Both of Moon’s parents graduated from college in Korea, then came to the United States, where her father worked first for an import company. After a short stay in California, they moved to Flushing, New York, where they lived until her father opened a dry cleaning store on Long Island when Moon was in high school.
At Cornell University Moon majored in Asian and Asian American studies, and right after graduation, in 1993, taught English in Japan at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange Teaching organization. Then she worked at Estee Lauder and then PBS as a marketing assistant.
Matsukawa and Moon met after college through friends. After they married in 2000, she started working with Matsukawa at Miya, which she says was “a natural fit — I had studied East Asian studies, had lived there, and was familiar with the terms and the designs, and somewhat with the culture.”
Matsukawa and Moon have three daughters, Gwen Matsukawa, 15, who will be a junior at Princeton High School; Stella, 14, who graduated this spring from John Witherspoon Middle School, and Lois, 10, who just graduated from Littlebrook Elementary School.
“Princeton is the perfect combination of urban and suburban living,” Moon says. “The school district is great of course, but it’s also the people in the community. We love that our kids go to school with kids that have different experiences and perspectives. It’s a community that embraces learning, traveling, creativity, culture, and world views.”
Matsukawa and Moon have been thinking about incorporating more aspects of Japanese culture in their business, although, she says, “as Asian Americans we’re not sure how authentic it feels for us to.”
“We are trying to figure out ways to balance interest in Japanese culture and figure out how to incorporate it and fit it into the Western lifestyle, which is what we have,” Matsukawa adds. “By doing that, I think we can help introduce Japanese culture and ceramics in a way that doesn’t make it seem too foreign or exotic.”
For right now, Moon appreciates the contribution Miya is making to Princeton’s food culture. “People who love to cook like to put their things on pretty dishes. We want people to enjoy the plates and tableware as much as the food. Food is love — why not put it on something you love as well?”
Miya Table & Home, 41 Palmer Square West. 609-212-0282. www.miyacompany.com.
The retail landscape is changing, and there is no better illustration than downtown Princeton, where stores seem to open, close, and relocate faster than the time it takes to walk around Palmer Square.
Next to Miya, at 39 Palmer Square West, is Custom Ink, the latest addition to the square. The Virginia-based retailer offers custom t-shirts for clubs, teams, and special occasions. The new bricks-and-mortar outpost will have various styles of shirts that can be customized with logos, images, and words. www.customink.com
Also new to the square earlier this year is Plainsboro resident Iryna Kudelya’s Princeton Floral Design, which offers flower arrangements and other gift items at 28 Palmer Square East. www.princetonfloraldesign.com
Rouge, the eclectic women’s clothing store formerly located next to Witherspoon Grill, has also moved to Palmer Square and can now be found at number 45 — the former home of Indigo Princeton, which closed its doors in 2016. www.myrougegirl.com
Chocolate lovers may be distraught to see demolition inside the Lindt store at 68 Palmer Square West, but they should fear not: the store is simply undergoing a facelift, and in the meantime they can get their chocolate fix across the street in the store’s temporary spot. www.lindtusa.com
Similarly, art lovers who grew accustomed to Cranbury Station Gallery at 39 Palmer Square West need only walk around the block to find the new home of Kathie Morolda’s art and framing shop at 10 Hulfish Street, the corner location that housed a Kate Spade store until 2016. www.cranburystationgallery.com
Over on Spring Street, the CoolVines wine store is gone, but the space has been repurposed by Beth Censits, wife of CoolVines owner Mark Censits, and is now home to Princeton Consignment. The store carries men’s and women’s clothing and accessories and tries to fill the void left by two recently closed consignment shops: Jane, at 7 Spring Street, and Milk Money, on Tulane Street. 609-924-0039.