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Although I grew up in Kansas, I’ve had a long interest in Japan with many points of contact along the way. A Japanese history course at the University of Kansas, a two-year Army tour in Okinawa, visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a climb up Mt. Fuji, a sabbatical in Japan studying the Japanese Constitution, and about 20 trips to Japan visiting my wife, Miyo, and taking trips with her in her home country.  But never had we gone to the far or “deep north” of the largest of the four main Japanese islands, Honshu.

Several years ago, I happened upon the excellent travel book by Lesley Downer, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan. 300 years after haiku master, Basho’s, trip to the “deep north,” Downer tried to follow in his footsteps, walking and hitchhiking, eating flowers and sautéed grasshoppers, amongst other things. Before reading her fascinating book, I had not known of Basho. Matsuo Munefusa (1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period (1615 – 1868) in Japan.  His disciples built him a rustic hut and planted a banana plant (basho in Japanese) in his yard. Basho’s disciples called his house the basho house and Basho liked the term so much he changed his last name. Since then, he has been known as Matsuo Basho and his poetry is internationally renowned.

More… “Looking for Basho”

Fritz Snyder, J.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Montana. He has written about the Montana and Japanese Constitutions, the links between great works of literature and the Supreme Court, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He has also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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My better half Rebekah and I are turning our basement into an izakaya. The reason: I’m obsessed. Also, because izakayas have a singular feel that no other social space can match, and I want perpetual access to that.

An izakaya is a Japanese bar that serves food, not the other way around. You drink while you eat a succession of small plates. Aesthetically, there is no one type, and the name izakaya is widely and vaguely applied, but the ones you commonly see in urban Japan have an aesthetic you might call “pub cluttered.” I like the way they look, stuffed with sake and whisky bottles, posters, hanging red lanterns, and people drinking at low tables made of beer crates under wooden signs whose Japanese characters could say “Hey ugly!” for all I know. Izakayas swallow you up. The clutter feels like a cozy blanket. I want to feel that at home. When the world can’t deliver, you have to make things yourself. We’re trying to make a lair, a lounge, a burrow, not a gendered “man cave,” but a cozy place to read books, listen to records, talk with friends, or be alone. And as people in Tokyo know, there are few spaces as snug as a room underground.

More… “Our Basement Izakaya”

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the ebook This Is: Essays on Jazz. An editor at Longreads, his essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, Brick, and Saveur. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. @AaronGilbreath

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The name Ganja Acid combines the recreational sloth of marijuana with the cosmic distortion of the 1960’s most iconic chemical without offering any hint that it belongs to a four-seat psychedelic bar. A friend suggested my wife Rebekah and I visit it while on our honeymoon in Osaka. Although I no longer smoked weed or dropped acid, I still loved the psychedelic: surreal books, occult verbiage, hippie satire, and trippy music that sounded like it was made on mushrooms. They were fun and reminded me of the risky excitement required to warp reality in order to examine it. The thing was, neither ganja nor acid were legal in Japan. While marijuana shops had popped up all over Portland where we lived, over there, even the smallest amount of weed brought first-time offenders a minimum of five years hard labor.

Japan’s 1948 Cannabis Control Act outlawed the commercial cultivation of hemp after WWII. Because modern pharmaceuticals have recreational uses, Japan also outlawed the unauthorized possession of many opioid painkillers like codeine and banned amphetamines like Adderall that are used to treat ADHD. It didn’t matter how commonly they were prescribed in other countries. It wasn’t a matter of clinical efficacy. The laws treated them with the same firm hand as heroin and cocaine. In June 2015, a high-level Toyota Motor Corp executive was arrested for having 57 oxycodone pills hidden in a package, mailed to her Tokyo hotel from the United States. Authorities held her for 20 days, and, after she resigned her high-profile post, and after she was widely discussed in the media, they let her off without formal charges. This is common in Japan, where the process is often the punishment for people who apologize and express remorse. Although oxycodone was legally prescribed there, the exec didn’t have a prescription and she didn’t get official governmental approval in advance.

More… “Ganja-Acid”

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the ebook This Is: Essays on Jazz. An editor at Longreads, his essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, Brick, and Saveur. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. @AaronGilbreath

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When Western eaters think of Japanese food, most think of sushi and ramen, but the Japanese have transformed India’s comforting curry into a national dish. Introduced by the British navy around 1868, the Japanese kept the standard British-style brown gravy — warm and aromatic, spiced but not spicy, thickened with a roux — and created something wholly their own. More… “An Ode to Japanese Curry”

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the ebook This Is: Essays on Jazz. An editor at Longreads, his essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, Brick, and Saveur. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. @AaronGilbreath

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Wandering around Tokyo’s Shinjuku district alone one winter, on a research trip, I found a taco joint. No one who knows me was surprised by this. “Of course you found a taco joint,” my wife Rebekah said. “You always do.” I was raised in the Arizona desert, eating tacos, burritos, and enchiladas every week. Even though I’d moved to Portland, Oregon far from the Mexican border, I still ate Mexican food at a rapid, rabid pace. So when I found a hand-painted sign on the Tokyo street listing “Mexico tacos” and nothing more, I got excited. In Japanese tako means “octopus.” I loved grilled tako’s flavor, and I was curious to taste Japan’s version of my native desert cuisine. More… “Tacos / Takos”

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the ebook This Is: Essays on Jazz. An editor at Longreads, his essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, Brick, and Saveur. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. @AaronGilbreath

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Sushi is old hat in America. Since getting popular during the 1980s and ’90s, sushi has integrated itself into our everyday lives, appearing everywhere from mainstream grocery store cold cases to TV shows and corner restaurants. You see it in malls and on college campuses. Yet some people still find the idea of eating raw fish repellent. For those who hesitate, sitcom writer Phil Rosenthal offers some wisdom to help break the ice on his food show I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. “Here’s how you get into it. You ever have smoked salmon?” he says. “You ever have lox? Lox is the gateway sushi.” I have no motivational equivalent for canned fish. Most Americans are grossed out by the smell, let alone the idea, of canned fish. The fear is as irrational as arachnophobia. It resists logic, but I still can’t resist trying to make sense of it.

One reason I’m so fascinated by people’s aversion is my own devotion to the stuff. I eat canned fish almost weekly. For breakfast, I’ll heat Japanese glazed saury in a skillet to serve over warm white rice. For lunch, I’ll lay oil-cured Spanish anchovies on toasted white bread. On a solo trip to Tokyo, I ate a one-Yen can of sardines for breakfast outside my hotel window and sent a photo of the precarious set up to my other half Rebekah back in Oregon. Pretty much every white person I know thinks I’m disgusting. I think they’re missing out. More… “Ode to Canned Fish”

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the ebook This Is: Essays on Jazz. An editor at Longreads, his essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, Brick, and Saveur. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. @AaronGilbreath

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At 10:30 on Monday night, six young office workers sat at a table outside of FamilyMart, eating snacks and drinking chūhai. As a sticker someone slapped on a nearby wall said: “Be Alive in Kyoto.” They certainly were. My wife Rebekah and I had come to Japan on our honeymoon. She’s passed out early in the hotel this night, so I went out alone. I wanted to live, and FamilyMart was just a block away.

The thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they’re awesome. Called conbini, sometimes spelled konbini, Americans won’t believe this, but conbini are respectable social centers that serve high quality packaged and delicious fresh food that you actually want to eat, rather than avoid. Open 24 hours, three main chains dominate 90% of the Japanese marketplace: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart, with Ministop, Daily Yamazaki, Seico, Poplar, and Circle K Sunkus making up the rest. Around 55,000 conbini operate in Japan. Mostly a get-it-and-go operation, you buy your crisp, cheese-stuffed croquettes, spongy green tea cream roll and egg salad sandwich to take to work or the park or home. Some stores provide a few stools by a counter so customers can eat inside, maybe a few small tables, but space is tight and expensive in urban Japan. Where many rural and suburban convenience stores have enough property to dedicate to outside seating or parking, fewer stores in the centers of large dense cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto do. Somehow this FamilyMart in central Kyoto had enough room to provide five round, white plastic tables out front for customers. It was the space that would be a parking lot in America.

More… “Conbini Life: Kyoto, Japan”

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the ebook This Is: Essays on Jazz. An editor at Longreads, his essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, Brick, and Saveur. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. @AaronGilbreath

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Rudolfo Botelho must have been about 65, perhaps younger, though of course to a 15 year old he appeared ancient. His white moustache bristled on an otherwise mild beige-skinned face. You didn’t much notice his small size; it was always the moustache you saw. And the twinkle — there was the twinkle. I lived in Shanghai, 15 years old in 1948, a Eurasian child of an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and Chinese mother. My parents knew him back in the golden days of Shanghai’s roaring ‘20s like those in America. I met him when he became the accompanist for the choir at St. Columban’s, a church run by Irish priests. More… “Bottles & Me”

Lucille Bellucci grew up in Shanghai with an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and Chinese mother. After exile from China, the family sailed to Italy, where they lived five years before immigrating to the United States. Lucille has also lived 15 years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
She has five novels and has won many awards for her short stories and essays.

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While haunted house goers in the U.S. evade hordes of murderous chainsaw-wielding zombie mental patients, those in Japan take a more personal approach to inducing sheer terror. (Slate)

Some popular Halloween sweets may be more trick than treat … watch out for these killer confections. (Atlas Obscura)

You should probably add a calculus textbook to your zombie apocalypse supplies. (Princeton University Press) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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As I was sitting seiza, kneeling on thin tatami mats with my legs folded tightly underneath my thighs, my feet began to go numb. Our host had yet to even enter the room, still outside of it preparing the utensils on her tray. I had only been seated in the position for a few minutes and was already concerned about the lack of blood flow to my ankles. I worried I wouldn’t make it through my first Japanese tea ceremony, let alone any of my future lessons.

One of my instructors, Drew, was busy explaining the hanging scroll in the cove in the corner of the tea room — too busy to notice my very visible physical discomfort. On this snowy morning, the scroll featured Japanese calligraphy and the characters for beautiful, moon, and flower. “It serves as a reminder that beauty can still be found even in the depths… More…