We all romanticize our youth


What about Joseph Conrad?


His story “Youth” has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life—everything is downhill afterward. There’s something of that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified—for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably. But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.

Paris Review interview with David Mitchell. Well worth exploring the interview archive and adding a few to Instapaper.

The Japanese food you need to eat: Ramen

A bowl of Ramen

You know what you should eat if you go to Japan? Ramen, especially if you go in the Spring or Autumn (the best seasons to visit Japan, perhaps because they’re well suited to ramen). So what is it? A giant bowl of thick broth with noodles, sliced meat and other goodness. This article from the Guardian is a good introduction to Ramen, linking in particular to Ramen Tokyo, which seems a good place for English speaking seekers of the perfect Ramen restaurant to start. Ramen Tokyo links to Supleks, which is the Ramen database (in food, above all things, the Japanese are obsessives). Yes, it’s all in Japanese, but you can a) Use Google Chrome which will translate for you and b) learn a bit of Japanese. Ramen is worth it.

A couple of my favourite places for Ramen in Tokyo are the Ippudo chain, and Dokutsuya in Kichijoji.

Fashion versus Clothes (and Apple, of course)

Image: Flickr user JBlaze B

It’s always interesting to look at the choices a successful business makes, particularly, choices that are conscious limitations. So-and-so inc expanding into a new area or launching a new copycat product is fairly dull. Looking for new markets, consumers and money is a given in a modern economy. In contrast, a company opting to depart from received wisdom by not doing certain things, skipping certain processes, provided it’s not doing it for cost-cutting measures, is fascinating.

I’ve found myself reading a couple of articles about clothes retailers in the last 24 hours. One is about a place where I buy 90% of the stuff I wear, the other is a shop I can’t stand. Respectively, these shops are Uniqlo and Abercrombie & Fitch. Both are the centre of articles that have much to say about branding, management and choices.

A cursory sweep through the two pieces reveals both Unqilo and A&F have a founder/CEO who exerts strong control over the company:

“Tadashi Yanai, the founder and owner of Uniqlo, is the richest man in Japan, worth over $9 billion… [he is] clearly obsessed with control, [but] is also a deeply pragmatic manager, and fascinated by failure. In 2005, he announced a reversal of strategy for international expansion… Uniqlo works quickly, and the transformation was surprisingly fast. Uniqlo designed and built the Soho store in about eight months, with 150 workers working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week.”

“Mike Jeffries, the 61-year-old CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, says “dude” a lot… I got a firsthand look at his perfectionism in action when he invited me along for the final walk-through for the Christmas setup of his stores… Jeffries paused in front of two mannequins and shook his head… He stared at the jeans on the female mannequin. “The jeans are too high. I think she has to be lower.” A guy named Josh got down on his knees and started fidgeting with the jeans, trying to pull them down so they hung to the ground.”

However, differences in their approaches are soon apparent. A&F is a typical fashion retailer; it sells a very specific look, and builds up the emotional pull of that look via heavy, distinctive branding that appropriates a series of familiar ideas, images and style cues from the past. Uniqlo is quite unusual; unlike other fast fashion stores, customers expect to wear the clothes until they’re worn out and instead of building stores that are like sets for the movie of the brand, they focus on the way the clothes should be folded and the customer’s credit card is handed back to them. While both A&F and Uniqlo strictly enforce a personality, A&F seeks to sell a certain, specific fashion and style, whereas Uniqlo sells… well, it seems glib to say ‘clothes’, but that doesn’t seem far off:

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Two cool Japanese iPhone apps

Via App.itize.us, a new iPhone apps blog, comes 51 Japanese Characters. Simple but fun, it features 51 Japanese “characters” – otaku, samurai, gyaru etc; give it a shake and it’ll mix and match their body parts.

Secondly, from the Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA) and Heidelberg Japan K. K.,  “(^_^)365(O_O)” (Hello 365) tear-off calendar for 2010. 365 varying images from a variety of designers which the app makes it easy to export, so they’re ideal for use as iPhone wallpaper. The image above is from the 2nd of Feb, and it’s the one I’m currently using.

Added to the wishlist: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

[Book] How could it not be? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is the new one from David Mitchell, my favourite living author. It sees Mitchell’s fiction returning to Japan – site of the many of the stories in his first book, Ghostwritten, and a place that helped shape him as a writer:

“In 1799 the young Dutch clerk of the title finds himself one of the few westerners to visit Japan, a closed society that keeps its foreigners confined to a walled island.”

Amazon doesn’t yet have the cover of the book, but preview copies have been doing the rounds, and you can see it here, along with a positive early review from Seth Marko:

“I don’t want to post a full-on review, filled with information that will ruin things for anyone interested, but I did finish reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet last night. Holy shit, what a book. All I will say at this point is this: it does not have the complex, head-exploding machinations of some of Mitchell’s past work (Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas esp.) but it does prove that Mitchell has been no fluke – his burgeoning talent has hit full stride at this point and Autumns showcases his immense ability to write in any genre he chooses and blow your socks off in the process… There are multiple narrators throughout, as is Mitchell’s wont, but it is structurally done in such a subtle way that you hardly notice – you are just swept along in the flow, wondering, as a foreigner like Jacob, how much of the lush, inner world of Japan you will be allowed to glimpse. My god, if this book isn’t the one that earns him that elusive Booker prize…”

Listed in a pretty good 2010 books preview from the Guardian, which also mentions The Cello Suites.

Utility Pole T-Shirt

Been a while since I posted a new t-shirt design, but this Japanese design is clever and certainly deserves a mention. The wires of the utility poles are both printed and stitched onto the shirt. (One thing I found surprising when I first visited Japan – a place you mentally associate with clean, minimal design and neatness – is the fact that there are overhead wires everywhere).


Available at Tokyo Art Beat.

(via Jean Snow)

Flickr Superstars

A post on the Flickr blog got me thinking about my 12 ‘Flickr Superstars’. As I made my notes, several themes emerged:

i. The Far East, specifically Japan. Having visited the Far East specifically, and having a Japanese fiancee, it’s no surprise that I’m fascinated by Japan, and I think there’s also a sense of me trying to understand it – culture, people, places, feelings – through images.
ii. Fast lenses. Quite a few of my favourite Flickr images rely on fast lenses (f1.8 and below).
iii. Simple, strong, compositions. If you look in the group devoted to these lists of 12, a lot of the photographers suggested are ‘high concept’. Lots of PhotoShop, and self-consciously arty compositions. Not for me – as with film, music (where I’m a big fan of 80s and early 90s alternative US groups such as The Replacements, Pixies, Nirvana), I tend towards images which are more strongly rooted in reality.

My favourite 12 are after the jump.

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Of course

In my previous post, which began as an excuse to post some pictures of autumn, and then changed to become a ramble on seasonal rigidity here in Japan, I mentioned how the large number of rules governing Japanese society – and its perception of the world, gives:

“A sureness and certainty and a sense of organisation to things.”  

But ‘rules are made to be broken’ says the Western saying; they’re perecieved as bad, as limiting. Not always: the Jesteress has borrowed her brother’s keitai, but forgotten the charger and now it has run out of battery. Her mum asked me this morning if it was on the NTT DoCoMo network, like her phone.

“Yes,” I replied. She then got her phone’s charger and – even though it’s a completely different model – plugged it in to bro’s phone.

“All NTT phones have the same charger socket?” I asked, surprised. “Yes,” she replied. “Of course.”

A good example of how rigidity can create convenience. Fat chance of Orange enforcing this in the UK though.

Autumn in Japan

So last week I got to see Autumn in Palau and this week I’m in Japan, visiting the Jesteress’ family and friends, and of course, enjoying Japanorama for myself. Like many Japanese, the Jesteress is fond of saying that one of the reasons Japan is so great is that it has four seasons. At first this seems a bizarre claim – fine, places so close to the equator such as Palau don’t have distinct seasons, but the UK certainly does… but when you’re here in Japan, you appreciate there is a very certain, very definite distinction between the seasons. Even though it’s been quite warm, the people on the trains are often swaddled in woollen jumpers, because it’s autumn. In restaurants we’ve been enthusiastically served mackrel (“an autumn fish”). There are posters advertising particularly scenic autumnal locations at the railway stations.

It’s often said Japanese society is very ritualised and subject to many rules. This extends to the seasons and the observation of the seasons. Whereas in the UK you might say ‘oh, it feels very autumnal today’, or talk about an ‘indian summer’, in Japan, the date says it is autumn, so it is autumn. Although this is rigid, from such rigidty comes a sureness and certainty and a sense of organisation to things.   

Speaking of scenic autumn locations, we’re currently in Gunma where the Jesteress’ mother lives, and along with some friends we went to Lake Haruna this afternoon. I joined in with a horde of photographers comitting the fabulous foliage to memory.    

On the Todo list: Japanese Human Tetris

The Jesteress, the most expert YouTuber I know, just sent me this link to an exerpt from a Japanese TV game show, where contestants play “human tetris”. They’re the last block and must complete the game by fitting into the shape in the advancing wall. It’s a funny watch, but even funnier was what happened when I saved it to Delicious.

Delicious suggests the tags other users have used for any item you save; normally, it’s a very handy time saver, but as you can, its suggestion for this particularl video was…. “todo”.


Blimey. I know it’s something of a passe meme to browse the web and conclude some people have somer strange hobbies, but… human tetris? Really?