Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How Do I Do Hatsumode?

I was in Japan last year for New Year's, and was able to do hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year) at a few different shrines, both local and not so local. I was hoping to be able to do it again this year but it's looking pretty difficult.

You'd think, what with all of the people of Japanese ancestry in California, that there would be a shinto shrine here. And if this was 10 years ago, you'd be right. But in 2001, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, the first shinto shrine erected in North America, was moved from Stockton to its present home in Granite Falls, Washington, outside of Seattle. Although I briefly considered making the trek, it really is too far. You can order omamori (amulets) through the website, so maybe I'll do that instead.

But that still doesn't help me come the new year. According to Wikipedia there are also shrines in Hawaii, Colorado and New York, and as much as I'd like a trip to Hawaii that's just not going to happen.

I guess instead of hatsumode I'll just go to Japantown and do hatsukaimono, that being the first shopping trip of the year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Fluency

Having just graduated with a B.A. in Japanese, the question is, am I now fluent in the language? People often ask me this. They assume that since I've spent four years studying the language I should have some high level of proficiency in it. This is sadly not the case. I do OK—I have all the basics down and can understand most of what someone says to me—but what I understand still outpaces what I can say, and what I say often comes out haltingly. I remember reading somewhere that getting a degree in Japanese is "a good start." So when will I be fluent?

Perhaps first we should define exactly what fluency is. Is it being able to communicate day to day, bar some extraordinary circumstances like ones that require medical jargon? Or is it being comfortable in any situation, no matter how rare?

Let's ask Oxford. "Able to speak, read or write a language, especially a foreign language, easily and well." Pretty vague, this definition. Let's say I can hold court at my neighborhood bar "easily and well," but a conversation with a doctor or the stone-faced man at the immigration office finds me lacking. Am I fluent? Perhaps my fluency is situation-dependent.

Let's look at the Japanese word for fluent, "pera pera." This is an interesting word because it means fluent, eloquent, glib, etc. but also to blab or go on and on. Where we say "blah blah blah," the Japanese say "pera pera." So in this case, to speak fluently is to have the ability to babble on in a language.

If the latter is my yardstick (and since I'm talking about Japanese it may as well be) I am not fluent. I cannot babble on in Japanese. Not yet. After a year or two living there I am fully confident that I will have reached babble stage. Whether I can babble on with doctors and lawyers and IT specialists is another thing.

How do other foreign language learners define fluency? Or if not fluency, than being comfortable with how much you know of a language? Comments, please.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Decade In Me

All of the usual media outlets are doing their decade in review pieces these days so I thought I'd do one too, although one of a more personal nature. Instead of talking about technology or music or movies, I'm going to talk about me. Hey, it's my blog.

Ten years ago I was facing the new millennium as an editor at IGN. I had helped launch the site a few years before, had maneuvered myself into lifestyles content (music, movies, gear) and was making more money than ever before (or since). It was the high-flying days of the internet boom and we were all told (repeatedly) that we were going to be rich. Like the Y2K bug, it was all hype, and soon, with the market crashing, things started to fall apart for the internet.

As for myself, I realized that I had sold my soul for the promise of riches. I was moved away from music and onto IGN For Men, a Maxim-like site where I wrote about the "Babe of the Day" in the most salacious prose imaginable. I was routinely called a sexist and a pig, and although it stung I rationalized it as being a "persona," not really me. But real or not, it was eating away at my insides, and after the crash I had a sort of revelation about what I had done. So I took off for Los Angeles.

A change of scenery would do me good, I thought, and for 6 months it did. I was still working for IGN, albeit from home in L.A., and I was off the babes and onto music technology. A significant improvement. It was not to last, though, and I soon joined the growing ranks of the unemployed. I went on unemployment, cashed out my 401k, and drank beer with my other unemployed friends.

With lots of free time I decided to devote myself to making music and soon was releasing breaks records as Kemek the Dope Computer. I got DJ gigs, did some traveling, did some remixes, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills so I went back to work, this time as a copy-editor (and later managing editor) on a pair of automotive magazines in Anaheim.

Looking over this now, I can see how I got more and more off-track from what I wanted. I dropped out of college at 23, my rave lifestyle having taken precedence over scholastic pursuits. Because of an innate ability to write (and with the help of a friend) I ended up at IGN. But the days of finding a job with no college degree were disappearing. With so many people looking for a job, getting through that HR filter was harder and harder without a diploma. So I took a job writing about something I had no interest in (cars) in North Orange County, an average 2-hour crawl of a commute away from my home in Hollywood.

By spring 2004 I had had enough. I quit, sold my car, and went to Japan. At age 32 I was finally being spontaneous. It was a tremendous gamble, as any hope of a visa sponsorship hinged on finding a job at an English-language publication willing to overlook my lack of a college degree. Teaching English, the usual route for Japan transplants, was out of reach for those without a diploma. With no degree, and no real editorial jobs available, I had no choice but to go back home to the Bay Area, my tail between my legs, and start over.

But the seeds were planted. I fell in love with Japan and decided that no matter what, I was going to get back there to live, work, and do whatever else it is people do. And so, in the summer of 2005, I started back to school to get a B.A. in Japanese, first at a local community college and then, in January 2007, at San Francisco State University. I also spent 2008 in Japan as an exchange student. And now, knocking on the door of a new decade, with almost a full 37 years behind me, I am finally a college graduate.

The next step is to go back to Japan. I've already applied to the JET Program, to teach English in rural Japan. If that doesn't pan out, however, there are all kinds of other English teaching jobs. Now that I finally have that degree, nothing is going to stop me from living in the place that I love. And, this time 10 years from now, I hopefully can look back on a decade of living in Japan and tell you all about it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Walking With Alan Booth

Back in 2003, when I first decided to up and move to Japan, I hit the libraries to read up on the country that I hoped would soon be my home. Those hopes didn't quite come true but those first trips to the library yielded some pretty good results. One of those, The Roads To Sata, by Alan Booth, has become a favorite.

Alan Booth, a Brit, went to Japan in 1970 to teach English and never left. In the late '70s he embarked on a trip to walk the length of Japan, a 2000-mile excursion from the northern point of Hokkaido down to Cape Sata, at the southern end of Kyushu. Along the way he refused a lot of offers for rides, stayed in a lot of ryokans, and drank a lot of beer. I loved it.

I recently picked up the book again, eager to once again travel along with Booth. I was surprised at how much I remembered, and at how much my thoughts on Japan were colored by his book. Historical anecdotes, observations about the people, cultural differences—I saw so much of myself and my own interests in Booth's writing it was surprising. Did reading his words shape the way I think about Japan, or did they stay with me because they so mirror my own experiences?

A decade later Booth took three more walking trips, shorter this time, and again wrote about them. He walked around Aomori, at the northern point of Honshu; he followed Saigo Takamori's retreat through Miyazaki and Kagoshima; and he walked north from Nagoya into the backwoods. I also read this book in 2003, and again I was surprised at how much seemed familiar, even down to coincidentally having visited some of the same places. I certainly didn't get the idea from the reading the book. Or did I? Well, no matter. Let's just put it down to kindred spirits.

Unfortunately, Alan Booth died in 1993 of cancer. His two excellent books are still in print and are highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Japan, travel writing, or of course drinking beer.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Big In the West

An article up now on Metropolis lists the all-time best Japanese songs, as chosen by a variety of editors living in Japan. The one that really caught my attention was Frank Chickens' "We Are Ninja," a throwaway '80s dance track with a very silly video. What grabbed my attention wasn't so much the makeup, or the fake Godzilla, or even the awesomely '80s video effects, but the fact that it was obviously made with the foreign market in mind (the English-language lyrics are a big clue). And suddenly I remembered how '80s Japan was.

In the '80s, Japan had unparalleled visibility in Western media and fashion. Now, I don't mean that Japanese fashion designers like Issey Miyaki were on the lips of the kids at the mall (although he was pretty famous at the time) but I mean that imagery that recalled Japan was all the rage. Take, for example, the Rising Sun. The symbol for wartime Imperial Japan suddenly appeared on muscle shirts, on shoes, even on those ubiquitous painter caps with desert flaps that have thankfully not had a comeback.

So how did it come to this? How did Japan go from being the butt of jokes about poorly made electronics ("Made In Japan" is the old "Made In China") to being the height of urban fashion? I'm not an expert (although I act like it sometimes) but if I was going to trace a time line, it would start with the Germans.

Kraftwerk's 1981 Computer World changed the game for electronic music. It was incredibly influential amongst the burgeoning inner city hip-hop scenes, particularly with the track "Numbers," which actually broke through into the R&B charts for a brief period. This is amazing in and of itself, that a minimal track comprised of little more than a beat and robot voices counting to four in different languages shoud be a hit with anyone, let alone inner city breakdancers. But hit it was, and it was likely the first time for many Americans to hear Japanese spoken. I know it was for me. I remember in 7th grade, thinking, "Now I know how to count to four in Japanese."

It didn't stop there. Afrika Bambaataa took Kraftwerk's blueprint and tweaked it for US clubs. The result was "Planet Rock," a massive hit that still gets regular play to this day. In amongst his free-form rapping, Bambaataa hypes the crowd by encouraging: "Everyone say ichi, ni, san, shi!" It was the Japanese numbers he latched on to, and not the Italian or French, perhaps because they were the most exotic sounding. But whatever the reason, what started as a fluke had now become a trope. Everyone did indeed say "ichi, ni, san, shi" and breakdancers were now aware of Japan. Rising Sun logo shirts would soon follow.

White kids were learning about Japan too. Now you can't throw a rock without breaking the front window of a bad sushi restaurant but there was a time not so long ago when sushi was completely unknown outside of Japanese expatriate enclaves. I distinctly remember the scene in the movie Valley Girl when Nicolas Cage crashes a party in the San Fernando Valley and balks that they're serving sushi. It was the first time I had ever heard of it and wondered why anyone would want to eat raw fish. Before the early '80s, sushi was a specialty item only, but by the mid '80s it would be everywhere. To take a phrase back, it was a sushi boom.

Also experiencing something of a boom in the West during the '80s was Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto. More than any other Japanese musician, Sakamoto broke through into international stardom and was accepted as a kind of Japanese David Bowie, with whom he appeared on screen in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also a sign of expanding Japanese visibility). The makeup and international fashion sense fit right in with the way the West wanted to experience Japan—that is, as an exotic and slightly feminine other—and collaborations with David Sylvian, another androgynous performer, followed.

Being big in Japan became a "thing" in the '80s as well. Although it started in the '70s with Cheap Trick and its runaway success Live at the Budokan album, things really peaked in the '80s. Western bands could become bona fide superstars in Japan when they couldn't even get run over in the West. Although already popular outside Japan, INXS experienced a different kind of popularity in Japan when its nerdy, bespectacled sax player became the band's sex symbol there, not Michael Hutchence.

Of course, no article on Japan in the '80s would be complete without a mention of anime. Although the popularity of Japanese cartoons then was nothing like it is now, it was still popular among a certain group of pre-teen and teenage boys, albeit in dubbed, TV broadcast form. I remember rushing home from middle school to watch Robotech, actually three different shows crammed into one, and of course Voltron. It wasn't until the theatrical release of Akira in the early '90s that anime would really get going over here, but back in those '80s days there was nothing else like it.

The same thing that contributed to Japan's international visibility in the '80s, mainly its economic miracle, eventually led to a backlash in America. The feminized other, bolstered by a strong yen and unprecedented economic growth, suddenly became the aggressor (in the eyes of many Americans) with its buying up of American properties. No matter that European companies owned more property in the US at the time than did Japan, our pride was wounded beyond rational reasoning, and pop culture followed suit into Japan-bashing territory. Movies like Gung Ho were indicative of the time, as were—inexplicably—ninja movies starring white actors. Perhaps seeing one of our own claiming the title of "ninja" made the humiliation of losing (pieces of) our homeland to our former defeated foes a little easier to bear.

Friday, November 27, 2009

TV Japan

If you're looking for a way to improve your Japanese listening skills and can afford it (and already have cable), I highly recommend signing up for TV Japan. It's basically an international broadcast of NHK, Japan's national television network. Although this means a preponderance of shows about old people and their farms, there's still quite a lot to recommend.

Here are the shows I watch regularly.

Welkame ウェルかめ
This is NHK's current 15-minute morning drama, known in Japanese as 連続テレビ小説 (continuing television novel). It's about a girl from Tokushima who works for a small magazine (something to which I can relate) while her family runs a minshuku (inn) for pilgrims doing the 88-temple circuit. At first the Tokushima dialect made it tough for me to understand the Japanese but I'm getting the hang of it. (Did I mention most shows on TV Japan have no subtitles?) And if you're wondering about that title, it's a combination of the English word "welcome" with the Japanese for turtle, "kame."

Music Japan
It's not that I'm the biggest fan of current J-pop, but I am the biggest fan of Perfume, who co-host the show. And there is the occasional good artist like Kimura Kaela.

The worst named show on the channel is also one of the few bilingual shows. Like Music Japan, it's a music show but with a broader focus than just what's on the Oricon charts, so you get stuff like jazz and classical too.

Cool Japan
Also bilingual, this one takes foreigners around Tokyo and shows them things that are "cool," like fake food in the windows of restaurants and otaku in Akihabara. However, the show's been on for quite a while now so they're running out of cool things to show off so lately the themes have tended towards things like waste disposal.

There's lots more too, including the Taiga Drama, which NHK does every year. Right now it's Tenchi-jin, which has English subtitles. I haven't been watching this (even though it's about samurai) because the show runs for all 52 weeks of the year. Unless you get in on the ground floor it's hopelessly complicated.

It's come to the point where I hardly watch US TV anymore. If I turn on the TV it's to watch TV Japan. I can record the shows I want on the cable DVR and watch them any time. The only draw back is the price. $25 a month is pretty pricey, but it is nice to be able to sit on the couch and watch Japanese TV in good quality as opposed to on YouTube.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kissing In Japan

I read somewhere (probably Wikipedia) recently that kissing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Japan. Up until about 1900, if an unsubstantiated quotation is to be believed, there just was no romantic kissing. Coming from a culture with a long history of kissing, romantic as well as in greeting, this is hard to come to terms with. Kissing seems like such an obvious, natural thing to do, how can one not kiss? But there are in fact cultures that do not kiss.

I first came across this notion, that kissing is not an instinctual act but a learned custom, in a novel (I forget the name). A Bronze age Germanic chieftain attains immortality and travels around the world, ending up in India where he first encounters kissing. Sure enough, India was one of the first kissing cultures. This blew my mind. Then, sometime recently, I started wondering about the history of kissing in Japan.

There is very little information about this online (in English, at least). But from what I know about kissing in Japan today, it could very well be true that it is only a recent import.

First of all, it's my understanding that traditionally the mouth was considered an unclean place. This is why women cover their mouths when they laugh, and married women in the feudal age blacked out their teeth. You also clean your mouth as well as your hands with water to purify yourself before praying at a shrine or temple. If it's unclean, it makes sense you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time in another person's mouth.

Kissing in public is considered bad manners. Kissing seems to be associated specifically with sex, and not with the more innocent showing of affection as it is in the West, where greeting kisses are common. This article in the NY Times from 1995 talks about young people kissing in public and how horrible it is to the older generation. It also suggests that public perception of this is changing and soon won't matter so much. I don't think I've ever seen people in Japan kiss in public, so it must be more entrenched than they thought in 1995. In fact, couples don't really even hug in public. The only way you can tell that a couple is indeed a romantic couple is when you see them together all the time.

The kissing as foreplay argument is covered here, in an excerpt from a TV show where foreigners argue with Japanese men about showing affection to your wife with a kiss. The Japanese men counter that kissing is something they do when in a heightened emotional state (i.e. foreplay), so why do it any other time?

I find this endlessly fascinating. Has anyone else come across any information on this subject?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Review: Shinjuku Mad

Director: Koji Wakamatsu

Koji Wakamatsu made underground movies in the late '60s and early '70s. He was working within the pink genre, which meant they were essentially pornos, but as long as there was the requisite simulated sex scene every 20 minutes nobody cared what else he showed. And what he showed was usually violence.

In films like Go, Go, Second Time Virgin and Ecstasy of the Angels, Wakamatsu explored the nexus of sex and violence, with the films taking place in claustrophobic, single-room apartments. He was also interested in young people, student activism and the coming revolution, when the old ways would be thrown out in favor of a more egalitarian society.

Shinjuku Mad was released in 1970, a year after student activism reached its peak with the shutting down of college campuses in Tokyo. Although his previous films were critical of young people, his sympathies still lay with them. However, Shinjuku Mad seems to be going another direction.

The father of a slain young man comes to Tokyo to find the killer, known as Shinjuku Mad. The police are no help so he sets out on his own, poking around in (sometimes literally) underground coffee bars and crash pads in Shinjuku, then ground zero for the Japanese counter cultural movement. He's straight-laced and square but he's not insensitive to young people. In fact, he likens what they're doing to the architects of the Meiji Restoration, the men who helped bring Japan out of its feudal age.

It's clear Wakamatsu and his usual screenwriter, Masao Adachi, have more respect for the honest working man of Japan than the "revolutionary," who talks a lot but never does anything except squabble with others. Even more than the fact that Shinjuku Mad feels like a real movie, complete with coherent plot and resolution, it's this aspect that surprised me the most. That a revolutionary filmmaker should take the position of the conservative working class says a lot about how he felt about the state of the revolution.

Wakamatsu and Adachi were definitely on to something. A few years after this, the Japanese Red Army, of which Adachi was a former member, would self destruct in a one-room cabin in the woods, killing 14 of its own members and eventually having a stand off with police. Wakamatsu last year made a movie of these events, which is fitting because the event itself seems to have come straight out of one of his films.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Last Train

There's an interesting piece in Metropolis about the phenomenon of missing the last train in Tokyo. Anyone who's been to Tokyo and stayed out late has had to tangle with the last train, or likely even missed it. Trains stop running frustratingly early, and, as the author of the Metropolis piece points out, taxis are expensive. He then goes on to offer that missing the last train might be some kind of face-saving exercise, an excuse to let loose.

I wonder.

Lots of places have last trains, including Seoul, one of the places he mentions as being not like Tokyo, convenient bay comparison. And apparently Seoul is also not big, like Tokyo. Um, Seoul is massive. But if you're visiting, perhaps you're staying at a centrally located hotel. This goes for New York as well. No trains? Just split a cab with your coworkers. It's a bad argument because the situations are different. Yes, Seoul cabs are cheap, but NY cabs are just as expensive as Tokyo's, and if you live in the buroughs it sucks just as much as living outside the Yamanote loop.

OK, so the fact that the trains stop running around midnight is annoying. I've missed a few in my time. I like to walk so didn't mind hoofing it, even when it took 3 hours to get home. Usually I would just plan to miss the train and stay out all night. But the way the article paints it, missing the train is a license to party hard. As if Japanese people need this excuse to drink a lot.

The trains stop at midnight. So why are people smashed and falling down at 7pm? You think these people need an excuse? If anything, the fact that people know the trains will stop may encourage them to drink more, faster, so they will in fact not miss it.

If you do miss it, what do you do? If you've been smashed since 7pm you probably can't see so you pass out in front of the station gates and wake up when they open at 6am. Or you crash at a capsule hotel (it's why they're there) or a manga cafe, which the author oddly sites as a reason people might purposely miss the last train. Has he ever even been to a manga cafe? They're not that great, and sleeping in a chair in a cubicle is no good time.

No, people stay out all night because it's fun. All over the world people do this. Whether there's train service or not.

Film Review: Yellow Fangs

Director: Sonny Chiba

For his 1990 directorial debut, Yellow Fangs, Sonny Chiba seemed to have it all: a great story about bear hunters in early 20th century Hokkaido on the trail of a killer bear with a taste for woman flesh; a cast featuring his Japan Action Club, starring Hiroyuki "Henry" Sanada, and headed by Bunta Sugawara; and the beautiful, snow-covered mountains of Japan's northernmost island. Unfortunately, he also had the worst bear suit ever.

Sonny Chiba is no stranger to bad bear suits. In fact, he actually fought one in 1977's Karate Bear Fighter. As with that film, the bear suit only appears in Yellow Fangs when it's time for a closeup. The rest of the time it's a real bear walking around. But oh man, those closeups are hilarious. Imagine suddenly being attacked by a mangy bear rug, with the head and mouth being operated like a puppet. Scary, that's not.

The movie also has some issues with physics. Now, I'm no expert on early 20th century Hokkaido frontier houses but I'm pretty sure that structural integrity would be compromised if, say, a 7-foot-tall Asian black bear jumped on the roof. This is assuming, of course, that such a bear could leap two storeys to said roof. Also, sliding on your butt down snow covered hills—even in slow motion—is not that exciting and a waste of JAC talent.

However! There is one amazing scene involving a real bear. The hunters advance on a bear that they think has been killing the women. They chase it into a clearing and just as Henry (also composer of the synth rock score wailing behind him, what a guy) is about to take a shot, a dog leaps at the bear. Cut to surprised Henry. Cut to supposed-to-be-cute-but-isn't-really female owner of the dog. And cut to the bear and the dog fighting. Actually fighting. A real bear mauling a real dog. The dog is then thrown away by the bear suit, the girl shoots, and the poor bear (the real bear) stands up, dances around, and appears to be tripped or pulled down by wires. It's not often you get to see that in the movies anymore. Thank you, Sonny Chiba, for that scene of horrible animal cruelty.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Bad Old Days

It's funny the things you get nostalgic for. You'd expect that it would be for all the things you remember fondly, the good times but never the bad. But this is not the case. At least, not for me.

I was talking with a Japanese friend today about numerous things, among them tea, which prompted a memory of drinking hot herbal tea purchased from a vending machine on a cold day. In case you didn't know, Japan is jam-packed with vending machines that offer drinks heated or chilled, depending on the season. Winters are cold, so often while waiting for a train home from school I would buy a heated bottle of tea to warm up with. I'd hold it in my hands for awhile before even opening it, letting it warm the skin on my hands. Then I'd drink a little, let the warmth seep inside, and then hold it a bit longer. Sometimes the train wouldn't come for 30 minutes and there was nowhere warm to wait. So I'd be standing there, freezing, with that little bottle of warm tea.

And then there's summer. Hot, humid, sticky. Just terrible. I loathed even going outside. I preferred to just sit inside with the A/C turned way down. But of course I had to go outside. And after walking around in the heat all day, there was nothing better than a mug of draft beer. I'm telling you, absolutely nothing tastes better than an icy mug of Japanese beer on a hot day. And it really is an icy mug. The beer is served so cold ice crystals form on the head. It's magical.

I remember these two things vividly, these wonderful little moments encountered amidst temperature extremes. Perhaps that's what makes them worth remembering. It's not the bad that I remember, but the wonderful good that could only be experienced from having had the bad too.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Wrong With San Francisco Japantown?

I go to the Japantown in San Francisco often. It's my lifeline to things Japanese, and I like to browse the magazines and books at Kinokuniya. But after a Japanese friend of mine called it "depressing" I can't help but feel the same way. She's right. Despite how crowded it gets on weekends, the place still feels uninspired and bland, and if I eat there I always leave dissatisfied. What's going on? Why is it like this?

It wasn't always like this. San Francisco's Japantown is the oldest in the country and first sprang up when Japanese Americans, displaced by the fire after the 1906 earthquake, relocated to the Western Addition, which was spared destruction thanks to the fire break of wide Van Ness Ave. The area around Geary and Fillmore was a vibrant community until Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into concentration camps during World War 2. After the war, many returned, and in 1968 what was a rundown part of the area was reborn as the Japan Center, essentially a mall for Japanese culture. The courtyard across the street from the pagoda was completed in the mid-'70s.

So what happened? I'd say the first mistake was moving everything into an enclosed space. I'm sure everyone had good intentions but this mallification of culture is kind of creepy. Not to mention that it's always hot and gross inside the Japan Center.

But the major force behind what's wrong with Japantown is that it's ceased to be relevant to Japanese people. Japanese people don't live in the area en masse anymore, so to continue to be attractive to Japanese people the place must exist as a destination spot. But aside from the book store and grocery store, which provide necessary goods, the rest of the "town" is superfluous.

What keeps the place going are tourists and weekend shoppers, who mostly come for the restaurants. Now, I might be setting myself up for a fall here, but I just don't like eating in restaurants where the ethnicity of the cooks doesn't match what's on the menu. And in Japantown, it seems like a lot of the restaurants are run by Chinese and Korean people. (Actually, this is true all over San Francisco.) If the food was good I wouldn't complain, but it's not. It's terrible.

I guess the issue here is Japanese people aren't opening restaurants in Japantown. If you want good Japanese food you have to look hard, often outside of the city. San Mateo has a lot of good places, as does the South Bay. Like LA's Chinatown, the original people have moved out to be replaced by a new group.

As a comparison to San Francisco's Japantown, I'd like to offer Sawtelle, a strip of Japanese shops and restaurants in West Los Angeles. Also known as Little Osaka, Sawtelle has a lot of the same things as SF's Japantown, with a distinct difference. It also has Japanese people. The food is good, the shops modern and relevant. There's even a Giant Robot store. Two, actually.

I'm not asking for some kind of ethnic purity. That would be ludicrous. But I am asking for vitality. Getting scowled at when I ask for water doesn't cut it. The New People store, for all its faults, is a step in the right direction, as is the new Daiso discount store. Why did Sweet Breams, a gourmet taiyaki shop, open in San Mateo and not SF Japantown? Why do we have to drive all the way to Sunnyvale to go to an izakaya? Why is the best restaurant in Japantown, Doobu, not Japanese but a Korean restaurant? The Japan center needs to encourage new business and bring in new excitement. The Miyako mall (not the main mall but the other one) is dying, with lots of store fronts just sitting empty. But the fact that the Japantown website is basically just a glorified ad for the parking lot says a lot.

San Francisco Japantown is one of only three official Japantowns left in the US (the others are Little Tokyo in LA, and San Jose, both of which are also dying). If SF Japantown doesn't make itself attractive to new Japanese business people, it's just going to get worse. Browsing for magazines is fine, but based on how lively Sawtelle is, it could be a whole lot more.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Yakihito V2.0

What's this? Yakihito V2.0? Yup, I've decided to restart Yakihito on a new site. I've been shelling out $10 per month for the last three years and it seems like a really unnecessary thing now. I'll also be doing my movie reviews here, which I used to do at Slash and Burn.

OK, thanks for reading. これからもう頑張ります。