With an average of seven to ten stories filled with clothes, electronics, stationery and kitchen gear, the depato (デパート) are living shrines to Japan’s expert craftsmanship and willingness to pay for luxury goods. Large Japanese train stations usually house at least one department store, because train companies cleverly built their own stores to turn commuters into customers. The Odakyu, Seibu, and Keio stores bear the names of their parent rail lines. Outside the stations, well-respected stores such as Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, and Isetan offer housewares and cutting-edge fashion, each with subterranean food halls. America has department stores, but not like this. Some of the world’s finest food is housed under Tokyo’s streets.
In the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business, author Denis Johnson wrote a short piece about growing up in Tokyo. when his father worked for the State Department. Johnson rarely writes about his personal life, so readers will appreciate this insight into the way his childhood shaped his writing:
I’m sure there were many aspects of those early years in Japan that still work themselves out in my writing, but what comes to mind most immediately is the impact I felt from studying the images on Menko cards and on the posters for Japanese films and for Kabuki–the wild, grotesque images of monsters and dramatic figures.
I truly believe that behind the human characters in my work, or within them, is a soul that looks like the Japanese ghosts and monsters that frightened me when I was a child. On days when I stayed late at school on the Washington Heights United States military base, I went home on the local bus that stopped about five blocks from the compound where we lived in Roppongi. I dreaded the experience, because I’d step down from the bus a little after dark, and I’d be forced to walk past a couple phone poles on my way, to which movie posters were affixed. As I approached the posters I’d avert my eyes, but I could never resist–I would turn my gaze on the monsters and let them scare me to the point of trembling.
The funny thing is that when my parents took me to see Kabuki a couple of times, the show wasn’t nearly as scary as the posters were. I felt that, too, when I finally got up the courage to go see one of the movies. I went by myself, and I didn’t expect to survive the experience, I believed I’d be friend to the point of heart failure. But in fact, the images on the screen didn’t flow with gore, and there weren’t a lot of people wandering around headless–nothing so scary as the advertisements….
Slate republished my list of the 50 best songs about sweets and desserts, which I originally wrote for massive, 920-page The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets as their musical companion. I’m thrilled more people can find it. You can read the full piece here.
I wrote a longform story about the Sacramento instrumental band the Tiki Men. They came up in the 1990s, during the West Coast surf music revival, and they recorded two of the best 45s in the genre I’ve ever heard, just pure, powerful, catchy. The guitar tone is epic.
Below are the opening graphs. You can read the rest of the story, and see previously unpublished photos, here at Medium.
* * *
In 1958, when guitarist Link Wray poked pencil holes in his amplifier to record the song “Rumble,” he was only trying to muddy his guitar tone. Link’s impromptu modification ended up creating a distortion-heavy brand of rock and roll that not only paved the way for punk rock, heavy metal, the Who, you name it, but also lifted the lowly rock instrumental, or “instro,” into the popular consciousness, fueling a style that thrives to this day. What Coltrane is to jazz and Howlin’ Wolf is to blues, Link is to rock in general, and so-called surf instrumentals in particular.
Bob Dylan knew this when he called “Rumble” “the greatest instrumental ever.” John Lennon went further and said, “Gene Vincent and Link Wray are the two great unknowns of rock and roll.” The irony? “The only reason I was doing instrumentals,” Link once said, “was because I couldn’t sing.” He’d lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted during the Korean War, which made it hard to catch his breath.
In early 1993, Scott Miller, Micah Kennedy, and Pete Husing, three friends in Sacramento, CA, went to see the Phantom Surfers play Old Ironsides, a small down- town club that was also the center of what little garage scene then existed in California’s capital. Pete, a guitar player, had suggested the show. Even though Scott and Micah were longtime music obsessives whose broad tastes included everything from pop to the Kinks, John Fahey to Blue Cheer, Pete was the sole surf music fan of the group. For Scott, a drummer, the show proved revolutionary.
Three Feet by Six Feet by Three Feet
What sounded like a scream jolted me awake at 5:54 a.m. Less than two feet away, the man in the neighboring capsule had awakened from a nightmare, but the way he followed it with three quick sneezes made me wonder if his cry was actually the first in a series of predawn sneezes. There in my narrow capsule, at the top of two stacked rows of sleepers in a warren of hallways, I rolled on my side, my knees pressed against the tan plastic wall, and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t fall back asleep.
Every sound was magnified in the polite, labored silence of the capsule hotel: a humming fan; a rattling curtain; a strange mechanical whoosh, whoosh. As time passed and the Tokyo sky lightened outside, the sound of rousing sleepers filled the hall. Men cleared their throats. One crinkled a plastic bag. Others coughed and sniffled. When a guest lowered a piece of luggage from his capsule, it hit the carpeted floor with a reverberating thud. This hotel contained 630 capsules spread throughout its many floors in what entomologists might describe as a human hive. In the neighboring cell, a man… Continue Reading
At The Believer, I talked visual art, music and making things with Shannon Shaw of Shannon and the Clams, Greer McGettrick from The Mallard, and Hannah Lew of Cold Beat. These are smart, talented musicians who offer many fascinating insights into the creativity and creative cycles. You can read it here. HANNAH LEW: I think abstracting on our reality and making our own shapes out of our feelings and responses to our world is vital to our understanding. If we don’t include our emotional responses to things into our vocabulary about our temporal existence, we can’t really move forward as a society. You can get away with confronting a lot of taboo subject matter within the realm of abstraction and reproduction that you can’t in normal dialogue. There is a lot of truth telling by way of telling lies, which is all an artist is really ever doing.
This piece explores the social and economic implications of automating restaurants, and what Americans can learn from Japan’s badass, semi-automated shokkenki restaurants, like the popular chain Matsuya. Here’s the intro:
This spring, at a time when American fast-food workers were marching to demand pay increases, and local governments were voting to raise the minimum wage, the Chili’s restaurant chain installed more than 45,000 tabletop touchscreen devices at 823 of its franchises nationwide. Customers at these locations can now order drinks and dessert directly through monitors, pay without the assistance of a server, play games, and read the digital edition of USA Today. The company has also installed computerized ovens at 1,200 locations. Applebee’s, meanwhile, has announced plans to follow suit with approximately 100,000 tabletop tablets by the end of 2014, while Panera Bread is replacing many registers with self-serve kiosks and adding technology that will allow customers to sit down, enter their orders and table numbers on a smartphone, and have their food delivered to them.