Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pecha Kucha Night

The Pecha Kucha Night concept is simple. A presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds each. The total show is 6 minutes and 40 seconds. It's like show and tell but with cocktails. The original presenters were architects and designers and artists who would meet up to show their works or works in progress, but now anything creative or informative goes -- a travel slide show, a collection of hairstyles, a community history, even the many applications of gum tape in the streets of Japan. The format is designed to show as many works as possible without dragging on the time, and the good thing is that if a presenter is boring, at least they'll only be boring for less than seven minutes. But they are rarely boring.

Me and Akira

Last Wednesday I went to Pecha Kucha 61 at Super Deluxe, a subterranean creative space located next to Roppongi Hills. Akira Uchimura, who I knew virtually from my work at Discover Nikkei, was scheduled as one of the presenters. This was the first time we met and he introduced me to his crew. Like him, they were Latin American Nikkei now living in Tokyo. Akira's presentation was about Latin American Nikkei and his website

Akira's presentation at Super Deluxe

There was a 1,000 yen entrance fee (about $10), and that included a drink. The space was great because they had four projectors set up so everyone could see and had just put in a brand new sound system earlier that day that made it easy to hear. In keeping with the 20/20 format, the event started at 20:20. The MC's were Astrid and Mark of Klein Dytham Architecture in Tokyo. They originated the Pecha Kucha Night concept in 2003 and it has now grown to encompass 189 cities. There were a dozen or so presenters including Akira. A Fulbright scholar named Erika Nishizato was the first to go. She introduced her research on "surface" -- the visual nature of things in Japan or the nature of visual things, I don't know, it's a scholarly thing. There were artists and designers. And a girl who was into hooping (they're not called hula hoops people!) even did a demonstation. I thought it was cool that she learned how to do it by watching YouTube. The presentations were a mixture of English and Japanese. There was a presentation of an eco living magazine called eco + waza. And there was the gum tape guy.

Astrid, MC and co-creator of Pecha Kucha Night

That night I got to meet some of the presenters. I met Deanna, the hooping girl. She co-runs a website called Tokyo Made that I am familiar with from when I had my Japanese fashion site. So it was cool to meet up with her and Masao (the other half). My favorite was artist Miu Kiuchi. At first glance, her work looks like an abstract painting. But you have to take a step back to see that it's really a close up photograph of a city street or rusted metal and chipped paint. What a brilliant eye! I asked her to sign one of her postcards for me and she said that was the first time anyone asked her to sign anything. Yea me!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Okinawan music

As soon as you step foot on Okinawa, a unique sound greets you. It is the lively rhythm of a stringed instrument called a jabisen, or sanshin in the local dialect. The sanshin is like the shamisen except that the body is covered with the snake skin of the habu (shamisen is made from cat skin!). I guess you can call it a Japanese banjo.

There is something about island culture and music. The locals in Okinawa gather together to play sanshin and sing old folk songs (and drink awamori!). During a party, people will get up and dance. The dance is called kachashi; they wave their arms back and forth and step up and down to the rhythm. At a festival, people dance to the sanshin and taiko. The largest festival is called Eisa Matsuri that takes place throughout the island in August. They wear colorful costumes that conjure up images of when the island was called the Ryukyu Kingdom, but what you really feel is the Uchinanchu spirit -- Uchinanchu is the name the Okinawan people call themselves.

Eisa Matsuri dancing (youtube)

Traditional Okinawan folk music is not lost among the young people on this island. In the 80s musicians like Rinken Band added a rock back beat to the sound of the sanshin to created a fusion of folk music with a modern sound. Today, other musicians continue to create and perform. On Saturday I went to Kokusai Dori -- a lively shopping street in the main city of Naha -- to meet a friend and stumbled across a music stage set up in front of a department store. I stopped to listen to a girl with a violin backed by a sanshin and acoustic guitar. I wanted to buy her CD right there except that I promised myself not to buy anymore CDs! (Digital download only from now on!!) She is called Aria Asia.

Aria Asia (my video)

I met my friend and she told me that Rinken Band opened up a place in Chatan where you could watch live music. Really! I had to go! As luck would have it, I was having dinner with my aunt's friend that night near the live house. So I dropped a friendly suggestion and it was decided we would go! Ironically, the venue is located in a new development called American Village - an American style entertainment megaplex with a movie theater, shopping, restaurants and a giant ferris wheel located right next to an artificial beach.

The venue is called Kalahaai. It is a stage with table seating in front. It cost about $15 for the cover and you can order drinks (Orion beer!) and traditional Okinawan food (pig ear!) The hour-long show featured three acts, Tink Tink, Isa Yumi and churaku. At the end everyone got up and danced kachashi! Shows are nightly and start at 7 and 8:30. If you visit Okinawa and would like to see a live music performance, make sure you check out the Kalahaai live house in American Village!

Rinken Band (youtube)

How to Kachashi (youtube)

Huge Kachashi (youtube)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Haisai from Okinawa!

"Haisai" is "hello" in the Okinawan language.

I'm now in Okinawa visiting family from my mother's side before I settle down in Tokyo. This is my sixth time here and I love Okinawa. My family lives in northern Okinawa in a city called Nago. Let me share a little bit about this island and its rich culture.

Okinawa is a beautiful island located between Japan and Taiwan. It was once called the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Kingdom was independent and had close ties with China before being invaded by Japan four hundred years ago. During World War II, a terrible battle was fought on the island with over 100,000 civilians killed -- many by Japanese soldiers or by suicide. My aunt was actually born in the middle of the fighting. I can't imagine how it must have been for my grandparents during that time. After the war, Okinawa was placed under the control of the U.S. government until 1972. Today, there is still a strong U.S. military presence on the island.

Okinawa prides itself on its unique culture. It has its own language, food, music and other traditions. Let's start with food!

Okinawan soba is one of the island's most popular dishes. We found this great place in Nago that makes its own soba noodles. Okinawan people love to eat pork. This bowl is topped with "souki" (stewed pork spare rib), "sanmai-niku" (stewed pork belly) and "kamaboko" (steamed fish cake, a kind of fish hot dog). This bowl cost 500 yen, about $5.

This funny looking vegetable is called "goya." It has a bitter taste that takes some getting used to, but once you learn to love it, you really love it!

Goya is commonly served in a stir fry dish called "goya champuru" with tofu and/or meat and egg and served with rice.

This nice lady is selling saataa andagi -- an Okinawan donut -- from a stand for 90 yen each, about 90 cents.

Andagi can be plain, with brown sugar or with sesame seeds.

This is beni imo ice cream. Beni imo is a purple potato. I tried to find Foremost brand ice cream but the super market only carried this one for 250 yen, about $2.50 for a small cup.

One interesting fact about Okinawan food is that there is a strong influence from American culture through the military. In addition to Foremost ice cream, Okinawa has A&W drive ins and tacos!

As for drinking, Okinawa is famous for it's own brand of beer called Orion and it's own sake called "awamori." A special kind of awamori is made with a snake in the jar called "habu sake." Habu is a poisonous snake indigenous to the Ryukyus and habu sake is said to pass along special powers to the drinker.

image credit: panduh

More cool Okinawan culture to follow!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Shabu Zen

What is the sound of thinly sliced beef swishing in boiling hot water? And if no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

My second night in Tokyo I had dinner at Shabu Zen in Shibuya, an all-you-can-eat shabu shabu joint. Dinner starts at around $38 and goes up with higher quality of meat.

There are several Shabu Zen restaurants in Tokyo. This one is Shibuya is famous for being in the movie "Lost in Translation."

In Japanese, all-you-can-eat is called "tabe-houdai." And an all-you-can-eat buffet is called "viking."

After finishing up the shabu shabu meat, the broth is used to make a noodle soup.

LINK: Shabu Zen

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Early morning walk along the Meguro River

I moved out of LA and so won't be interviewing any more APAs for Fresh Off the Box for the foreseeable future. But for now, I'll use this blog space to write about the things I do in Japan, which is where I will be living as of yesterday!

This morning I took a walk along the Meguro River that runs through Tokyo. It's a river that can be described as a large concrete ditch flowing with smelly black-greenish water and you are surprised to see anything living in there. Considering the conditions however, it could be a lot worse and is nowhere near an open cesspool that you see in some major cities. In fact, it is something of an urban oasis that is lined with walking paths and cherry blossom trees. Thanks to the jet lag, I was up early with the dog walkers and morning joggers and the garbage collectors and even a few late night party-ers trying to get home before the sun rose. One thing that caught my eye was all the people out sweeping the fallen cherry blossoms petals. It's probably more of a morning ritual thing, petals or not, they were keeping their spaces tidy.

The Meguro River Sakura trees at full bloom. The river is not as bad as I describe it!

I arrived in Tokyo just in time for the blossoming of the cherry blossom trees. Sakura is very symbolic of Japan and represents the nature of beauty (as well as the beauty of nature) and impermanence of life. The blossoms also represent the coming of spring and renewal and the people go outside and celebrate with hanami--a picnic under the cherry blossom trees. The blossoms have peaked and now the petals are starting to fall. I took some photos, but to be honest it's hard to capture the beauty of the moment in two dimensions. Later this evening I want to go out again when the place is packed with people and maybe have a beer or three.

The river is to the right. Some parts along the path are lined with small eating places and tiny boutiques. The walking area along the river is pretty long. My walk lasted about two hours and I didn't go all the way.