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The Free Online Dictionary provides this definition of the word, “loaf”: To pass time at leisure; idle.  Of course, this is the 2nd most common definition; the first is a single piece or mass of bread.

Japan’s staple grain, its principle carbohydrate, the primary source of calories in a balanced diet, is, of course, rice.  But in the past several decades, the per capita consumption of rice in Japan has shrunk to roughly half from the early 1960s.

Per Capita Consumption of Rice and WheatWhile the chart shows that the overall consumption of wheat has not risen substantially during this same period, it is clear that bread, pasta, and other wheat products are making a strong impact on the palates of many contemporary Japanese.

This, in turn, seems to be linked to an alarming trend that parallels the west – obesity.  A Washington Post article from October 16, 2007 by staff writer Lori Aratani noted that,

The shift to Western foods has had other implications for Japanese — notably, their waistlines. The trend is most evident among men and children. In 1988, 18.9 percent of Japanese children were considered obese, according to a survey. By 2005, the percentage had risen to 24.3.

No Wonder!

A perfect loaf of bread

The perfect loaf of bread!

But in my 25 years in Japan, I’ve found that one good reason for the decline of rice consump- tion is the high quality of bread that is available in every local community in Japan. I know that it is not just Tokyo, but I’ve found great bakeries in every nook and corner in Japan.  But just in my neighborhood, I can count at least a dozen wonderful bakeries that provide a plethora of scrumptious delights, starting with the perfect loaf!

And this loaf – a perfect cube – can be found in every bakery.  But the perfect loaf is just a start.  I know, it is virtually impossible to find a real baguette, or a good bagel, or a buttery croissant fit for a mademoiselle, but finicky people will find fault with everything.

I find the bread in Japan to be astounding!  The bread I find in our neighborhood of Nishi Ogikubo in Tokyo is nothing short of wonderful.

Burg Bakery in Nishi-Ogikubo

Burg 03-3399-8827

I’ll start first with Burg.  The bread here tastes like the recipes haven’t changed since the bakery was started, in 1951.  While everything is great, its rusk is phenomenal!

Rusk is a twice-baked bread, often coated with sugar, chocolate, condensed milk, cinnamon, garlic, and other more exotic flavors, such as anise and lemon poppyseed.  Rusk is popular in many parts of Europe, including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Another favorite in our family is the Patisserie Ansen.

Patisserie Ansen

Ansen 03-5382-8660

Ansen is noted for its use of both domestic flour and special flour imported from France.  The flour from France is used in special baguettes, which are more dense and hard than the ones using domestic flour.  Ansen, too, has wonderful rusks; my elder son is particularly fond of their garlic flavored rusk.  But the most popular item at Ansen in our family is their Honey, a light and crispy sweet danish.

We are not the only people fond of the Honey.  It is often sold out by early afternoon.  On this particular day, I was able to purchase 2 or 3; it was a rainy day and, with fewer customers, their supply held out to late afternoon.

Finally, one of the most popular new bakeries in our town is the humorously named, Boulangerie Soo See Ji (pronounced like sausage in Japanese). This bakery is most famous for its use of – as one might easily guess – sausages and meat.  On the other hand, the bakery also has some famous cakes, too.

Boulangerie Soo See Ji

Soo See Ji 03-6454-2577

Recently, at the elementary school our boys attend, the 5th graders made advertisement posters for shops in the community.  These advertisements followed a project in which the 5th graders interviewed in groups shops in the community and then helped with promoting the shops by busking for them in the area in front of the local train station. This project helped the kids to develop a sense of what aspects of a shop and products to feature – quality, price, warmth (it was a winter project), etc.

When the 5th graders made their individual advertisements, several of the 73 5th graders made ads for Soo See Ji, more than for any other shop.  This is particularly surprising, because the shop is not only fairly new, but located fairly far from the station, where most foot traffic congregates.

A World of Bread

As can be assumed from the names of the shops, the bread found in our neighborhood is quite diverse.  Burg is quintessentially Japanese, I think.  It has elements of post-war occupied Japan western flavor, with some parts mimicking the United States and others the United Kingdom, in particular.  But like any good mimic, the things that are personal and unique are what gives Burg its charm.

Ansen, no doubt, borrows most of its origins to French style baking.  Still, there is no mistaking Ansen for a bakery cafe on the Champs-Élysées.  Though some of its four may come from France, the style, form, and flavor of its baked splendors is very unique.  Ansen is cozy, much as Nishi Ogikubo is a cozy community tucked in the west side of Tokyo.  Not exactly urban or suburban, Ansen, like the town of Nishi Ogikubo, combines the richness of international and cosmopolitan tastes with the comfy-ness of home.

Soo See Ji is a Boulangerie.  French-styled, certainly, but I find that many elements in its kitchen have some other continental flavor, including German, Dutch, and Danish.  But, true to its name, the breads and pastries laced with bacon, ham, and sausages are supreme!

What more is there to say?  Not much, really.

Bon Appetit!

Bon Appetit

Bon Appetit

Breaking Bread in Nishi Ogikubo

Breaking Bread in Nishi Ogikubo

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On its website, Japanese company Maywa Denki is “an art unit produced by Nobumichi Tosa”.  I suppose their description is as good as anything, because it is extremely difficult to describe what the company is.

Opening page to Meiwa Denki Website

The opening page to Maywa Denki Website

It was once a typical Japanese SME, a small manufacturer of electronic products, started by Nobumichi’s father, Sakaichi Tosa.  The company originally was a subcontracting firm to large corporations such as Toshiba and Matsushita.  However, the company went into bankruptcy in 1979.  The company was revived in 1993 by Sakaichi’s two sons, Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa.

The company’s second president was Nobumichi’s elder brother, Masamichi, with whom Nobumichi made its most successful product to date, the Na-cord, and transformed the company to an art/performance/music/toy company.

The Na-cord

The "Na-cord" a fish skeleton shaped extension cord.

The Na-cord was probably successful only because of its interesting shape, converting a completely utilitarian object into something whimsical and entertaining.  But its shape, really, is instructive, even if only to the subconscious mind.  The skeleton serves as a reminder of the (dangerous) power of electricity, bringing to mind cartoons in which a victim is electrocuted and transformed momentarily to a skeletal form.  The media were quick to take up the story, probably for its novelty, but the product won several awards and interest in the company grew.

Maywa Denki had already started to promote itself as an art unit, with a strong focus on music and new experimental musical instruments.  Their inventions and performances started minimally, with Nobumichi’s “Pachi-Moku” and Masamichi’s “Koi-Beat”.  While their first exhibition in 1993 drew interest, it was limited to the two instruments and one “song”.  Later that year, they extended their products and performance, with gadgets such as Na-Uchi-Bou and Harisen-bomb.  During the performance, one of the instruments short-circuited, starting a fire.  The small frenzy that ensued probably led to some of the growing interest in Maywa Denki, their products, and performances.

Instruments by Maywa Denki

Instruments used by Maywa Denki, circa 1996

1996, when the Na-cord was released, coincided with Maywa Denki’s first national performance tour.  It was a perfect way to showcase their crazy and creative instruments, innovative toys, and strange otaku expression to the entire nation, which was really just starting to feel the pinch of the growing recession after the bursting of the so-called Bubble Economy.  For the kids that were starting to become Maywa Denki’s fans, these nerdy heroes were cool because (and not in spite) of their extremely uncool look, preoccupation with electronics and other weird and unpopular gadgets, and their cute but vacuous pop music. Maywa Denki was helping the kids of Japan‘s lost generation – who saw their prospects for the future to appear bleak – feel good about their bland geekiness.

Maywa Denki’s third and current president is, of course, Nobumichi Tosa.  After taking over from his retired older brother in 2001, the company has become an iconic legend.  I think that it has become an art unit, using the company’s own description, as it has become a good representation of what Japan “means” culturally, to many in the world.  There are aspects of Meiwa Denki that somehow ring true when you think of other icons of Japanese culture of the past 25 years, including people and things such as Sakamoto Ryuichi, manga and anime, Towa Tei, Nintendo, Ultraman, Hello Kitty, and Shinkansen.

Maywa Denki has made a huge impact, I believe, on the remaking of a cool image of Japan in the 21st Century.  For that, I think that Nobumichi is owed the greatest credit.

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki, dressed to perform (photograph from Flickr used with Some rights reserved by Ars Electronica)

The company’s performances have become more than just strangely eclectic, but art.  I’ve yet to see them perform live, save for a brief encounter at a trade show and another time at (I think) Tower Records Shibuya in the late 90s) but I find – mostly through YouTube – their music to be quite compelling.  And, though I have yet to purchase any of their products, I am fond of both their Na-cord and one of their more recent products, “Otamatone Jumbo“.  This is a musical instrument, played by squeezing the head of the instrument with one hand while sliding the other along the Stem Switch on its neck.  In the photograph at left, Nobumichi is at the center, holding a Otamatone Jumbo.

Otamatone advertisement

English ad for Otamatone

Most of their musical instruments, unfortunately, are not for sale.  The instruments are generally for performance only.  They occasionally display the instruments at exhibitions, under the banner “Tsukuba Series”.  For the most part, they are based on “real” musical instruments, but have been modified to be played electronically using a series of motors and mechanical parts, or are powered at 100 volts.  The series of instruments is named after a proposed building design for the Tsukuba Electric Town, where one of Japan’s major scientific research centers is based, as well as the technical Tsukuba University where Nobumichi graduated from.

Tsukuba Denki Town design

Tsukuba Denki Town building design

The most convincing thing about the strange beauty and bonafide ingenuity of the Otamatone is in the following video from YouTube.  In it Nobumichi plays the instrument, with a wailing riff of The Star Spangled Banner.

Another more J-Pop endorsement comes from “Nut” a cute idol group, in a collaboration between Maywa Denki and YGA, an entertainment company associated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, the legendary Kansai-based entertainment powerhouse with a stronghold on stand-up comedy in Japan.

Well, to paraphrase the Monkees (RIP recently deceased Davy Jones), “I’m a Believer”.  Hope that you’ll find fun in Maywa Denki too!

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki

This post by Craig Hill reminded me that WatchJapan shouldn’t be concerned only with what is good about Japan. Having permanent resident status has enabled me to avoid the immigration department for years. I’d nearly forgotten how cumbersome and occasionally perturbing the experience of border security and other procedures have been.
I also realize the extent to which Japan has embraced technological accoutrements to border security. I have the 2nd generation “Alien Registration”, which is to be supplanted by a 3rd. The local ward office people have been by my house recently to explain procedures and the rationale for the high tech fingerprinting, but I’ve not been in when they made their visit. They do this door-to-door for residents, apparently, probably because it is something not a lot of foreign residents have been all that enthusiastic about. It is rather difficult to accept the need to be fingerprinted and recorded in a national database, much as convicts are in other nations.
In Japan, this is purportedly for our own security. I can attest that makes me feel quite insecure, that in order to protect my personal well being, the immigration department (and police, of course) need to know my identity here and in my country of origin.
But Craig’s post makes me feel even less secure. If the purported reason for their border control technology can be so easily breached by extremely low-technology, available anywhere in the world, then the systems are designed to only be useful where they are unnecessary. Hmmm.
Which makes me wonder. If the 45 million dollar biometric systems can be foiled so easily, what is it really designed for?
I’m not Richard Nixon, but, “I am not a crook.” Maybe I need to keep a roll of Scotch tape with me the next time I visit the immigration office…

Craig Hill Training Services

So much for biometrics and immigration security. A South Korean woman managed to fool a million-dollar fingerprint reading machine in Japanese border controls using a simple piece of tape stuck to her fingers.

It happened at Tokyo airport. The woman has repeatedly entered Japan using the same trick without anybody noticing. Japanese officials say that they suspect many others have been doing the same things, demonstrating that the biometric systems they installed in 30 airports in 2007, costing $45 million, are completely useless. The woman was deported in July 2007 for illegally staying in Japan as a bar hostess in Nagano, but she entered again with the system, using the tape and a fake passport allegedly provided by a South Korean broker.

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It used to be commonplace to sing songs full of joy and beauty.  It was easier then to wear LOVE on your sleeve, to proclaim clearly and loudly that you are happy to be alive, feeling the warm and bright light of the sun.

I grew up in a time when I think people were less jaded and felt that such open communication through music was cool.  It may be just my imagination – wishful thinking – but I can’t help thinking that there was a bit more Dancing in the Street for Everyday People.

It was probably even more true in the distant past.  Perhaps Mozart and Bach were composing the “love and peace” songs of their time.  In my imagination, those are clearly some of the topics that they tried to present honestly, directly, and intelligently in their music. The Beatles, in their own pop way, tried to directly speak of love and joy in their music, particularly their early works.  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “If I Fell” and many others still ring out loud and true to lovers everywhere.

Then, the flower children and the hippies took the power of love to a whole nuther dimension.  Scott McKenzie‘s version of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” was, arguably, the seminal anthem of the Flower Power movement.

If you’re going to San Francisco,
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
If you come to San Francisco,
Summertime will be a love-in there.

Joy to the World“, by Three Dog Night (but written by Hoyt Axton) was another hugely popular song that featured lyrics that were incredibly simple and honestly joyous.

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

So what happened since the early 70’s to make music that speaks directly of love, peace, and joy seem so childish and unpopular?  I’m not sure, but I am happy that I have found great popular and hip music in Japan that is as direct, simple, honest, and joyous as the Beatles, Scott McKenzie, or any flower child.

Enter Theatre Brook, a hugely successful indie music artist in Japan during the 1st major “indies” boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Led by Taiji Sato(vocals & electric guitar), the band is known for its funk rock music, with an occasional Latin-tinged sound.  They’ve recorded at least 14 albums with several different changes in group members and have a modest following overseas, including in the United States.

While many other popular artists in Japan record songs that are simple and direct about love, for me, Theatre Brook’s Aritttake no Ai (ありったけの愛, or Whole Lotta Love) is really very special. It is, for me, packed with Hippiedom!

その上の太陽は ありったけの愛だけで
出来てると思いませんか?
ありったけの愛だけで あの太陽は
ありったけの愛だけで あの太陽は

My translation:

The sun overhead is just filled with Love
Don’t you think so too?
Whole lotta love, Whole lots of lovin’
Whole lotta love, Whole lots of lovin’

You can hear Theatre Brook perform their original recording in this YouTube video below.  But the best way to hear it is in a live performance, which I’ve embedded below the original.  Enjoy!

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