Konnichiwa, NYC: More Japanese Must-Sees

Here’s part two of this series, which spotlights a few of New York’s top-tier Japanese offerings.

Aburiya Kinnosuke

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What: Choice sashimi and shochu restaurant in Midtown. Totally rocking that slick, simple, Japanese aesthetic that so many Japanese restaurants do. It’s a bit pricy, but highly recommended. Think of it as a tonier version of Yakitori Taisho, which I mentioned in my previous post. They’re both izakayas, but Aburiya’s fancier.

Where: Midtown East

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Takahachi Bakery

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What: Beautiful cakes aside, check out the Japan-tinged baked goods, like edamame-and-cheese rolls, yuzu-and-chocolate buns, tuna avocado sandwiches, green tea crepes, and “veggie boats” (a dough cradle filled with tomatoes, broccoli, and lotus root). Fresh bread is made daily, as well. Super clean and nice (like 99% of all Japanese establishments), and there’s a big window where you can watch the cooks work.

Where: TriBeCa

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Book-Off

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What: Similar to Kinokuniya, which I mentioned in the last entry, but all discount or used books. Book-Off is a chain in Japan, so it really took me by surprise to see one nestled in Midtown’s skyscraper-lined gorges. Like Kinokuniya, the entire bottom shelf is Japanese-language books and manga. They also sell other discounted stuff, like DVDs and video games.

Where: Midtown West

 

Konnichiwa, NYC: Your Guide to New York’s Incredible Japanese Scene

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So you’re visiting New York. You’ve got your reasons: a Broadway show, that sublime pizza slice, Central Park strolls, spotting a bed bug in the wild, people-watching par excellence, Times Square weirdness.

But one of the biggest pluses of coming to NYC is also one of the littlest-known: New York is an American hub for Japanese culture. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities with big Japanese populations, but I’m finding New York’s scene to be just as robust — if not more so. I hear the language everywhere, and izakayas, ramen-yas, shochu bars and Japanese specialty stores run high in volume and authenticity.

So, I’m starting something that’ll hopefully be a fixture on this blog. Here’s how it works: I’m going to be your Japanophile-about-town. I cruise Gotham’s extensive sushi-and-sake scene, then report my dispatches back to you guys.

Whether you’re a fellow New Yorker, an out-of-towner, an udon-seeking foodie, a hairspray-loving cosplayer, or just looking for a decent tuna roll, these tips will help you get the most out of this town’s numerous Japanese offerings. Here are three to start.

Cafe Zaiya

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What: Japanese cafe selling freshly made bento boxes, made-to-order lunches like curry and hot soba, rice balls, and Japanese baked goods, like melon-flavored bread and green tea-black sesame swirled soft serve (see below). All of these individual foods could warrant their own blog post. (They likely will.) And at Zaiya, they all taste like they’re straight from a corner mom-and-pop bakery in Anytown, Japan. Great lunch spot, especially if you’re checking out the main library, Times Square, Bryant Park, Radio City, or Rockefeller Center, all of which are nearby.

WhereMidtown EastMidtown WestEast Village

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Kinokuniya Books

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What: If you’re from San Francisco, LA, Seattle, or just a couple other lucky American cities, you’re already acquainted with this Japanese bookstore chain. If you’re everyone else, but have even a flickering iota of interest in Japanese culture, go here. The main floor is a Barnes and Noble-worthy collection of American and Japanese books. The bottom floor is almost entirely in Japanese, and is filled with nihonjin shoppers. (You’ll also find a cornucopia of Japanese study materials here.) The top floor: otaku nirvana, packed with manga and comics galore. There’s also a Cafe Zaiya (see above), Japanese crafts and stationery for sale, and a great view of Bryant Park, my favorite park in New York.

Where: Midtown West

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Yakitori Taisho

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What: An izakaya is a very casual Japanese pub that serves tapas-style dishes that go great with booze. Here, you can get a solid izakaya experience, focusing on yakitori, skewers of assorted poultry parts: thigh, gizzard, heart, liver, what-have-you. Grilled in a sweet sauce and served on a stick. All mad delicious. The menu is extensive — in both food and libations. If this is your first izayaka experience, however, opt for a nice mug of draft beer, and be sure to exclaim kanpai! (cheers) before digging into your savory chicken miscellanea.

Where: East Village

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That’s it for now. But check back here for more NYC travel tips that’ll tell you the best ways to dive headfirst into our city’s vibrant Japanese scene. Remember — in New York, Japan is closer than you think! (Also: If you go to the Times Square TGI Friday’s instead of Yakitori Taisho, do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.)

Stay tuned!

Japanese Shaved Ice Puts Slush Puppies to Shame

This coming from a guy who loves a good Slush Puppy — preferably Smurf-hued and from a gas station.

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But during my first summer in Japan, my palate for syrup-drenched ice dishes evolved to new levels of sophistication, thanks to kakigori, Japan’s luxe version of a snow cone.

You’ll find this stuff everywhere during Japan’s wicked hot, wicked humid months, particularly as street food or summer festival fare. In many cases, it’s the same as American shaved ice: Essentially a reconfigured popsicle, it’s finely crushed or shaved ice doused in synthesized, sugary juices, served in a paper cup.

But kakigori can also be very different. First, it often comes with just the right amount of syrup drizzled on top. (Not like Fla-Vor-Ice, whose empty sleeve often leaves behind a few shots’ worth of slurppable lemon-lime liquid.) Instead, Japanese people often pile on toppings, like fresh kiwi, melon, whipped cream, or macerated berries.

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Another common topping is azuki, which are red beans whose flavor is extremely common in Japanese desserts, particularly as a paste. A solid kakigori combo? Green tea-flavored ice topped with mountains of the semisweet, maroon legumes.

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If you’re a Westerner reading this, my guess is that you probably think this looks pretty gross. Well, if you live in a large, cosmopolitan city, you might soon be whistling a different tune, because kakigori is one of the latest dishes riding the washoku wave into the Anglosphere’s culinary circles.

Beard Papa, a Japanese cream puff chain that’s already up and running in places like New York and San Francisco, now has kakigori on its menu. Not the azuki variety (yet), but mango. They’re calling it “mango ice shower,” which sounds vaguely like a Chris Kattan SNL it. But hey, whatever reels ’em in!

Stay cool out there, beans or no beans.

Above the Fold: Origami Drives Robot, Satellite Design

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Earlier this summer, Wired ran a story I wrote about a new type of solar-powered satellite. The twist? The satellite unfolds like a huge paper blossom once it’s in space, making it easier for researchers to launch large hardware up to the cosmos. (Before launch, it’s wrapped and folded up into a tiny package, then strapped to a rocket.) This collaboration between BYU and NASA is one of many origami-inspired projects found among today’s emerging technologies.

Now, researchers from Harvard say they’re working on thin, light, easily transportable robots that fold themselves up like paper. The researchers say that this technology could be applied to robots designed for space exploration, where the machines can essentially re-build and re-program themselves, free of human aid.

Check out the “self-folding crawler” in this video:

At $100, the robots are super cheap to make, and even include some paper in their composition. (Paper, as well as Shrinky Dinks. I hereby nominate this for tech story of the year, solely on that.) The idea is that they can be easily re-configured, on the go, to fulfill any number of tasks. The paper and Shrinky Dinks (!) allow the robot to be light and flexible, and to morph on command.

“In the same way that if you have a Word document and you want to change a few words — you just reprint it at your home computer — you could take a robot’s digital plan, change a few things and reprint it,” Sam Felton, a member of the Harvard team, told the press.

Robert Lang — origami grandmaster, paper crane whisperer, textile acrobat — served as a consultant on the BYU/NASA project. His career draws clear connections between the ancient Japanese handicraft and physics, as well as math. Check out his website for what he has to say on “computational origami,” a phrase that I hope reaches buzzword status in coming years.

Future pop-up technologies could include self-assembling emergency shelters, super-compact airbags for cars, and cardiac stents that safely unfold in the human body from within.

Read the Harvard press release here. And oh yeah, I’ll leave you with this:

I mean, c’mon. Do they still make Shrinky Dinks? They should. They’re retro and hipster enough. Urban Outfitters should be all over it…

How to Be a Tourist (and Not a Clueless Schmuck) in Japan

I follow Travel + Leisure on Facebook, and yesterday they re-posted an old slideshow of theirs: The Anti-Tourist Travel Rules. It got me thinking: How does one be an “anti-tourist” in Japan? That is, how can you blend in and know the ropes, before even getting off the plane?

So I gathered some of my own observations from my time in Japan, in hopes that it will be of use to you. This practical primer will help you feel (and appear) less like a wide-eyed noob on your first trip to Japan. Navigate metro lines and sashimi menus in good faith, for I come bearing wisdom! Read on, anxious traveler!

1. Be very polite. Because everyone will be very polite to you. One of the things I love about Japan is that everyone takes pride in their jobs, and people genuinely want to help you. Here in the States, gas station attendants or store clerks can act bored as hell, or outwardly surly, frustrated that this “lowly” minimum wage gig is what’s putting bread on the table.

But in Japan, everyone realizes that their job plays an integral role in society, making for the best customer service on Earth. This makes the country refreshingly devoid of scorned patrons screaming cuss words, and threats of frosty Yelp reviews, to restaurant staff. (Which would be a very un-Japanese thing to do, anyway.)

2. Bring a coin purse. You’ll be using lots of coins. In Japan, coins aren’t Tiddlywinks flirting with extinction. Yen coins reach values of up to five U.S. dollars. Five dollars! That’s a drink! When have you ever bought a drink with a coin? Pretty awesome, but on this last trip, it left me digging in my pockets a lot. It also made for a clumsy checkout at 7-Eleven when I was buying my plastic-wrapped, melon-flavored French toast.

Now’s a good time to mention Japan’s a cash society, and very few places take cards. So, coin purse = OK. Fanny pack = still not OK.

3. DON’T BE THAT LOUD AMERICAN. Especially on trains. Japanese trains hover around “pin drop” noise level, so refrain from talking loudly, and from talking on your phone at all. You won’t find any breakdancing or other raucous means of solicitation on these subways.

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4. Bring shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Lots of places require you to take off your shoes before entering. (You’ll always take them off if you’re in somebody’s house.) On this last trip, I was constantly hunched on the ground, lacing and re-lacing my Chucks, when I should’ve brought sandals or boat shoes or Crocs (which are absolutely still a widely-worn item in Japan).

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5. Don’t tip. Like a lot of other countries, Japan doesn’t expect gratuity for servers, barbers, cabbies, porters, skycaps, bellhops, acupuncturists, court jesters, soothsayers, human footrests, or anyone else.

6. Load up the apps. I suggest bringing your phone, leaving it on airplane mode, and connecting to Wi-Fi when it’s available. Outfit your mobile with downloadable city guides and metro maps you can use offline. I recommend City Maps 2Go and the official Tokyo subway app.

7. Sign up for free Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is strangely spotty in Japan. Your best bet is Starbucks, but for some very counterintuitive reason, you need to sign up on the Internet… before being able to use their free Internet. You can do that here, then log in once you’re at Starbucks, sampling a matcha Frappuccino.

8. Follow the rules. If it says walk up this staircase and down that staircase, then do so. If it says no smoking in front of the building, then abstain from cancer sticks for now. Signage is your friend. Japanese people are ridiculously kind, and expect foreigners to be utterly confused, so don’t get super stressed out over unintentional infractions. Plus, any signs you’ll see will never be preachy, threatening, or litigious. It’s just that, in Japan, people don’t regularly break the rules, take advantage of the system, or generally be douche bags. They just think that following the rules yields a safe, organized society — which for them, it does.

Just remember that when you’re abroad, in any country, you automatically become a representative of where you’re from. You’re a grassroots ambassador. If you show up and act like an unruly asshole, oblivious to the environment around you, then the locals will think everyone from your country is like that. This is especially true, I think, in a homogenous, island nation like Japan. (When I lived there, I once met a little girl who said me and my friends were the first non-Japanese people she’d ever seen in real life.)

9. When in doubt, bow. And say “sumimasen,” a Swiss army knife of a phrase that can be used as “excuse me,” “sorry,” or “thank you,” depending on the context. While in Japan, there’ll be times when you’ll have no idea what’s going on: There’s the lack of English, the byzantine metro systems, the zany TV, the mystery meat on your plate. But that’s what makes it fun. Be patient, friendly, flexible, polite, and willing to learn.

Send me a postcard!

Who Doesn’t Love Burritos?! Like, Most of Asia.

How Americans feel about Chipotle:

How the Japanese feel about Chipotle:

While Mexican food exists in Asia, the place does not observe Taco Tuesday. In America? Nachos are as much a staple in our cultural pantry as apple pie, Snapple, and Chicken in a Biskit.

But there is no Taco Bell in Japan. Or Chipotle. Or Moe’s, Qdoba, or Del Taco.

My burrito-less year in Japan — which I sometimes refer to it as Dinner: Impossible, or An Elegy for a Quesadilla — made me acutely aware of my near dependence on warm, cheesy, spicy foodstuffs.

In January, Chipotle reported a nearly 18 percent increase in sales for 2013, bringing revenue well over $3 billion. What does this mean for you? As the company opens more locations, you’ll likely have even more access to midday barbacoa bowls on your next strip mall crawl.

But if you travel to eastern Asia for work — and more of you will, as U.S. companies continue strengthening ties with that region — you’ll observe cities replete with McDonald’s and KFC, but still no Taco Bell.*

According to NPD, Mexican restaurants make up no more than 1 percent of the food market in any country, besides the U.S. That study is including Asia-Pacific markets, such as China, Japan, and Australia.

Even in London, Chipotle struggles to make it big. Experts suggest that international customers gravitate more toward “real” American food — or what they perceive to be “real” American food — like burgers or fried chicken. That might explain why, unlike Chipotle, Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts have really been hitting their stride on the global stage.

When you’re ordering refillable chips and salsa at happy hour, you’re engaging in a very American activity. Due to geographic consequence, our south-of-the-border neighbor’s cuisine can be found among Zagat-rated restaurants, holes-in-the-wall serving $5 “life-altering” fare, and Applebee’s nationwide.

In fast food, it’s dominated, even pre-Chipotle: Ballparks and cinemas schlep tortilla chips with hazardously yellow “cheez,” and Taco Bell’s cinnamon twists are Dollar Tree churros.

As an American, it’s easy to forget how pervasive Mexican food is. In this country, anyway.

Bonus factoid: I just got back from Japan last week, and I did notice that avocados are casting their creamy, fatty spell on the populace. “Avocado and cheese” even happens to be a flavor of Jagariko now, a crunchy, potato stick junk food in Japan.

So, who knows. Maybe Chipotle will infiltrate Japan someday. I’d be interested to see if Japanese people develop their own cultural soft spot for the increasingly profitable chain.

Japanese already spend a certain special occasion at KFC — lots of people line up in long queues there for Christmas dinner. God bless us, everyone. Including Colonel Sanders.

 

*: Which is fine, because you should be eating the local cuisine anyway. 

How Forests Act as Mega-Shields Against Tsunami

Here’s a front-of-book story I wrote for Wired earlier this year that was cross-posted on Wired UK. It’s about tsunami.

Bad news: All the X-Men-generated force fields in the world can’t prevent ’em. And draining the Pacific? What a hassle!

Good news: Akira Miyawaki, a tree-crazed professor closing in on 90 years old, promotes protective shields using certain super strong, deep-rooting trees. The natural wall could be a game-changer for Pacific Rim dweller Japan, one of Earth’s most quake-prone nations.

Since my story was published, Professor Miyawaki’s methods have been shown to trickle into the startup world. After Miyawaki worked with Toyota to plant a garden on their campus some years ago, he inspired Shubhendu Sharma, a TED Fellow and former industrial engineer at the car company, to quit the auto industry. Sharma launched Afforestt, an effort to standardize and increase forestation around the world.

“So far, we have planted 43,000 trees for 33 clients,” Sharma told TED. The for-profit company’s clients include farmers, corporations, and city governments.

Sharma volunteered with Miyawaki to study his sapling-sprouting methodologies. Miyawaki knows his stuff — he’s planted over 40 million trees worldwide. (I can barely keep the Walmart cactus on my windowsill alive.)

See Wired’s own story about Sharma: The Next Big Thing You Missed: How We Can Manufacture Forests Like Toyota Makes Cars