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.
Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
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
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.
Posted in Music, Travel, tagged essays, Harper's Magazine, Haruki Murakami, Japan, jazz, jazz club, narrative nonfiction, Peter Cat, Portrait in Jazz, Sendagaya, Tokyo on February 10, 2014| 7 Comments »
Before he became a novelist, Haruki Murakami was a jazz fan. He got into it when he was fifteen, after seeing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers perform in Kobe in January 1964.The lineup that night was of one of the most celebrated in the band’s three decades of existence, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. “I had never heard such amazing music,” Murakami later said. “I was hooked.” Ten years later, he postponed his university studies to open a jazz club in suburban Tokyo, naming it Peter Cat, after one of his pets. In 1977, he and his wife, Yoko, moved the club to Tokyo’s central Sendagaya neighborhood, where he wrote his first two novels, which led to later books whose titles referenced doo-wop like the Dells’ “Dance Dance Dance” and jazz tunes like Fuller’s “Five Spot After Dark.” The music equally influenced his writing style, which he sometimes conceived in terms of jazz rhythm, improvisation, and performance. Continue reading here…
Located in New York’s East Village on St. Marks Place, Oh! Taisho gets busy most nights.
A cool, bustling yakitori, they specialize in skewered meats grilled over Binchōtan charcoal. You order by the skewer: chicken gizzard, chicken wing, chicken skin, chicken heart. The menu even lists a “chicken chunks” skewer called yotsumi, though their many offerings have kept me so busy that I’ve never ordered it. Along with offal and other yakitori classics, Oh! Taisho serves ramen, yakisoba, salt grilled mackerel, seaweed salads, ebi shumai, gyoza, tatsuta age, agedashi tofu, a mixed vegetable sauté called yasai itame, and a pork belly and kimchi sauté called buta kimchee, which is a variation of the Korean dish jaeyook bokkeum.
If you like fish and pork, this is your place.
Long and narrow, cramped and loud, Oh! Taisho’s tables are tightly packed. The counter leaves you elbow-to-elbow with strangers. In winter, traffic in and out of the front door blasts you with frigid gusts, and the small wall rack by the prep area overflows with coats. There’s nowhere else to hang them. For lack of better options, women at the counter often set their purses on their laps.
While you eat, the friendly wait staff leans over and around you, yelling to each other in voices as piercing as alarm clocks. From behind the grill, cooks call out finished orders in Japanese, as customers and servers rush perpetually past you, and others scan the perimeter to understand what all the commotion is about. It’s not the kind of place you come to relax. It functions like an izakaya: you order small plates, drink and eat and talk and have fun.
On a recent visit, between eight and ten staff members waited tables, though they moved too fast to get an accurate count. When I asked my waiter what the whole grilled hokke fish tasted like, he said he didn’t like fish. No fish? “No,” he said smiling. “No fish. Shrimp, the squids. But fish—no.”
I started with a kaisou seaweed salad for $5.75. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavors, offering a nice, light prelude to the meat-fest come.
I followed that with some old favorites: a pork belly skewer, or bara, a shishito pepper skewer, and sasami mentai: a moist hunk of white meat chicken drizzled with bright orange spicy codroe. These cost $1.75, $1.75 and $2.75 respectively.
Despite their name, shishito peppers taste mild—although, for some reason, about one out of ten packs some heat. Dressed only with coarse salt, the little green spears are grilled until a nice dark char marks their sides and the skin melts in your mouth.
The $7 large grilled squid, ika yaki, is the best I’ve ever had. It plumps and turns a lustrous purple when cooked.
I like a little starch with my fish, so I usually order yaki okaka onigiri: a grilled rice ball stuffed with bonito. It’s $3.25. It’s bigger than your fist. Dressed with oil and soy sauce and cooked to a crisp, the outside kernels crunch like corn, while the ones inside remain soft and white. In the center: hot, moist, shredded bonito fish, one of the best flavors on earth. Salty, smoky, rich with umami, a buddy described it as “sea bacon.” Oh! Taisho was the first place I tasted bonito, and it revolutionized my idea of what flavor could be. I now buy bags of shredded bonito to sprinkle on everything from omelets to salads, and to flavor soups.
Don’t let people tell you that all Japanese food is healthy. Oh! Taisho grills greasy seasoned strips of seasoned pork belly and wrap bacon around everything from peppers to scallops, asparagus to enoki mushrooms. They serve sliced roast duck, French fries covered with cheese, and something called chikuwa cheese, which are deep fried surimi tubes filled with dairy.
This mix of fatty and fresh, healthy and decadent, partly explains the crowds. White, black, college kids and businessmen—everyone comes here.
Two couples at a nearby table ordered the $39.50 Party Set: a total of thirty skewers. One man clapped when it arrived, while his wife covered her smile and shook her head at the excess, and maybe at the challenge ahead. “Kampai,” they said, raising sake glasses.
“Order ready!” the staff yells as they try to find counter space to set huge steaming bowls in front of you.
The old wooden counter is resinous and tacky—not dirty, but sticky from lacquer. When you sit there, you can watch cooks chopping, drizzling sauces, garnishing dishes and shaking skillets over bursting flames, laughing and smiling despite the pace and tight quarters. If you sit in front of the grill, you can feel the heat on your forehead. Without room for your bag, you have to set it by your feet. With few places to look, you’re forced to stare at the aluminum foil that covers the grill’s exterior, or to watch neighboring diners stare longingly at the cooks, waiting for their food. Others talk, drink beer. With crowds, it’s not unusual for your food to arrive between five and twenty minutes after ordering.
At the counter, to my right, a Chinese high school girl was on a date with an Indian high school boy. After sitting down he said, “Soy sauce is the real deal.”
She said, “It’s kind average, you know?”
“Okay,” he said, “name a sauce that’s not average then.”
Without hesitation she said, “Worchester.”
“What’s that taste like?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You made that up.”
“No, I didn’t. It’s real.”
She proceeded to teach him Chinese mythology and describe which parts of our bodies symbolized good luck, health, wisdom, and so on.
To my left, a Japanese-American NYU student was on a date with white NYU student. She set her strawberry-shaped purse on the counter by the shichimi tōgarashi. “Well,” he said smiling, “I knew I liked teriyaki chicken, but those rice balls—yum! They’re not even balls. They’re spears.”
At the end of the counter, the cook reached inside a refrigerated case and grabbed prepped skewers. His timing was impeccable. With multiple skewers of varying thickness grilling for multiple tables at once, he knew how long to leave each skewer on the grill, when to turn them so they cooked evenly, how to stagger items, all while pulling new tickets from the hanging queue. He read the ticket, removed skewers from the cooler, dipped them in the vat of tare sauce and draped them over the black cauterized grills. As the food sizzled, he glanced at the door and called out orders.
It’s easy to order more food than you can eat.
To keep from ordering the same familiar items, I branched out and tried the grilled skate wing. Dense and chewy like a moist seafood jerky, el hire carries the strong, deep flavor of the ocean. It arrived with a mayo dipping sauce which I skipped in favor of a squeeze of fresh lemon. My suggestion: eat it fast. When it cools, it dries.
The hotate bacon, or bacon-wrapped scallops, delivered the desired hit of fat, salt and seawater.
The chicken skewer with plum sauce arrived moist and fresh.
The soup made from pork stock, filled with rice and topped with scallion and sliced charsu pork, was equal in every way to ramen.
And the quail egg skewer offered texture and flavor in bite-size morsels that left room for more morsels.
‘Taisho’ is the name of a historic period in Japan, defined by the reign of Emperor Taishō, which ran from 1912 to 1926. I can’t explain what that has to do with this yakitori joint.
For booze, they serve beer and sake, and offer unusual sho-chus made from rice and wheat, sweet potato and sesame and one called jougo made from brown sugar ($6 glass, $50 bottle).
Stay a while or eat fast and get out—no one’s going to rush you, but the sight of people constantly asking staff about the wait will make you aware of how in demand your seats are, and might hasten your pace.
While I ate, a Japanese chef and the Indian cook were forcing seafood dishes on a Latino staff member. They had him seated at the counter by the cold case, eating seafood soup and picking at a weekly special: tiny baby horse mackerel, deep fried and seasoned with a hint of curry, called mame aji no karaage fuumi. The man shoved the little fish in his mouth and shook his head. He liked it. The soup, not so much. He pointed at the fried fish and waved to another staffer who was prepping in back. People kept checking on him. The large Japanese chef rubbed his back and poured more beer into his mug. Another prep cook came out to measure how much he’d eaten from the bowl. He must have been new, and they were testing and teasing him.
A young server came over holding a large plastic cup with a red straw. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Avocado milkshake,” he said, “you like that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He liked it. The kid flashed thumbs up and walked out the front door. Later, a waitress in sweatpants came by and asked him, “Doing okay?” He nodded yes and grinned. He really liked the horse mackerel. When I asked my waiter if he was going to at least try the weekly special, he laughed. “No,” he said, “not for me.”
As part of my book project on crowding, I traveled to New York in August to do some research and reporting. That research brought me to the busy Trader Joe’s in Chelsea, to write about the store’s “End of Line” position and their unique crowd-management technique. Here’s the piece:
In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift.
While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.
Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.
I was riding my bike home last summer when a homeless man laying down at a bus stop yelled, “Nice surfer shirt!”
I flashed a thumbs up as I passed and howled, “Thanks!”
I have a closet full of striped tees like the one I was wearing, some vintage 1960s and ’70s, some reproductions. I’ve worn this style shirt, off and on, for nearly half of my thirty-seven years. I discovered them while thrifting in early high school in my native Arizona, yet I’d never stopped to consider: who invented them? How did they evolve over time? And what makes a striped tee a “surfer shirt,” anyway?
The Hang Ten clothing company set the surf tee standard. The produced the first surf wear clothing line, and were the first to popularize the striped tee in the gaudy colors and color combinations we associate with the 1960s and early ’70s: orange against lime green; brown paired with mustard yellow; yellow paired with turquoise; purple cut with white and pink bands. Along with classic beach culture icons such as Dick Dale, Gidget, Rat Fink and The Beach Boys, the tacky striped patterns helped define the look of the era. The Brady kids wore the shirts on The Brady Bunch. Brothers Kevin and Wayne Arnold wore them on the period piece The Wonder Years. Depending on your age, your parents probably wore them. (Check your family photos.) According to a 1992 LA Times article, the Hang Ten company kept their original, iconic, eye-catching shirt patterns on file.
Contrary to reason, the guiding design principle seemed to be: the gaudier the better. And somehow that approach worked. The best shirts possess the quality that Thelonious Monk references in his song “Ugly Beauty.” Op and Hobie made them. Striped surfer tees were so popular that mainstream companies such as JC Penny, Sears and Montgomery Ward evenmade them, along with a litany of forgotten off-brands like Wentworth. (I have a Wentworth shirt that is a work of freak art.)
Although they eventually fell out of fashion by the late-70s, in some ways, these shirts never completely went away. Any longtime thrifter has run into at least one on a resale rack. There was a brief revival in the early ’90s, when Hang Ten released a line of reproductions after company executives noticed kids in Newport Beach, California sporting vintage Hang Ten shirts with a particular zeal. The bold stripe pattern, both collared and pocket tees, have been experiencing a bit of a moment during the last year, worn by people in the beach pop and garage-pyshe set, some of whom style themselves after ’70s Bowery punks like The Ramones; examples include Nobunny, The Mean Jeans, Jeff The Brotherhood. And Russell Quan, drummer for the legendary Mummies as well as a billion other San Fran garage bands, seems to have been born in one: (See here and here.)
Here’s a cool history of the Hang Ten brand: http://surfcrazy.com/stanleys/hangtenhistory/HangTHistory7080%5B1%5D.htm
And a 2008 article about how Kohl’s was going to revive the Hang Ten brand: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29461529.html