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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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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!

Picture Books are a treat throughout the world.  There are so many different kinds, designed for children and adults of all ages.  But Kamishibai are a special treat that I think are pretty unique to Japan.

Kamishibai is, literally, “paper drama” or “paper theater”.  It is a type of storytelling in Japan that started in Buddhist temples around the 12th Century.  In the modern era, kamishibai is much closer to vaudeville or some kinds of puppetry, in that the storytellers were often traveling entertainers and even minor hucksters, playing in and around carnivals and festivals throughout the countryside.   This was particularly true after the 1920s, when the Great Depression in the United States had an impact worldwide.  Although the protagonist in the long-running movie, Otoko wa Tsurai yo, Tora-san, never was a kamishibai storyteller, his character was a travelling salesman, who tells humorous and glorified stories to help boost the sales of his trinkets and wares.  This is precisely the kind of world in which the kamishibai storytellers thrived.

Kamishibai storytellerWhile travelling kamishibai storytellers have all but disappeared, there are a number who are trying to revive the old art.  This artist is part of a small group – I’ve seen him twice around Tokyo with a compadre – that tells an original story that is an adaptation of an oft-told historical tale.  His version is supposed to be a frightening one, but being told in the daytime and with his style of delivery, it becomes a comical horror story.

In this Creative Commons photograph from Wikipedia, you can see the storyteller carrying a pair of sticks hoyshigi, that he uses to announce his arrival and capture the audience’s attention.  The wooden case is a special stage that the storyteller uses to show the frames of his storybook.

The stage has an open rear, from which slides are changed, and with the story lines written on the back.  Because the frames are removed from the side facing the audience, the back side of the slide contains the text pertaining to the next slide.  When the slide that is just finished is removed and the slide replaced back into the frame furthest away from the audience, then the words on its back side are read to the audience.  Of course, street performers tend not to read from the slides, but perform ad lib while a compadre changes the slides.

In the past few decades, kamishibai have experienced a revival, due to their use in libraries, elementary schools, and kindergartens.  In many libraries there are special rooms, equipped with a kamishibai stage and filled with books.  There are now publishers that have divisions that focus on kamishibai books, such as Doshinsha (Japanese).  However, due to a growing popularity of kamishibai around the world, the company now publishes English and French translations of many of their books.  The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California has a wonderful and beautiful kamishibai demonstration online in electronic format.

There is also a great site about kamishibai for kids.  Based in New York, the three people associated with the site, Margaret Eisenstadt, Donna Tamaki, and Eigoro Futamata, have created quite an amazing resource, including materials for schools and teachers and a range of publications that they have translated and illustrated for Doshinsha.  They also apparently conduct readings and other events in the United States.  I’ve also found kamishibai sites in German, Spanish, French, and other languages, showing that their appeal is cross cultural.

Watch this short video of a kamishibai master, Yassan, on YouTube – it’s in Japanese, but you might become a fan!

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