Japanese Food and Stores in Austin, part 3.

I had some errands to run this morning up in Cedar Park.  On my way back, I decided to stop at Lakeline Mall to see what they had to offer.  I was not disappointed.

However, I was indeed disappointed by their “Japanese” fast food restaurant in the food court.  It was kinda sorta Japanese food, but just barely.  I had a chicken bento, and while nothing in it was particularly bad, it was just not of any quality at all.  Basically, Japanese food of mall quality.  I’ll pass.

So after that, I decided to take a walk through the concourses.  I found a “pokemaniac” store, with lots and lots of pokemon paraphernalia.  I bought a little pokeball plush. I found a store called “Cool and Eclectic” – which lived up to its name.  Very few specifically asian items, but there were a few racks of plushes, where I’m sure you could find something of interest if you looked.

But the mother lode was a store on the other side of the mall, on the first level, called “Gift World“.  There were figurines – actual anime figurines.  There were plushes – whole racks of plushes.  Shelves of Japanese gifts.  And a couple of racks of kimono-style robes that were quite beautiful, I thought.  There were so many kawaii things that I could barely choose which one I wanted – I finally settled on a hamster holding a little waffle.  And I bought a royal blue kimono-style robe.

This is a place that never showed up on any google searches, and I would have walked right past it if they hadn’t had the kanji in the window.  If you are at all a fan of Japanese gifts and trinkets, this is a must-see stop in Austin.

Shave and a Haircut, HAPPY

I am, by training, a classical musician, so from a musical perspective I find most idol music trifling.

This does not mean it is always uninteresting.  Every piece of idol music I hear (well, almost) has  something interesting or thought provoking.  Sometimes it’s even in the lyrics, which are mostly insipid but with glimmers of depth to them.  For example, the lyrics of “what is love” by Morning Musume:

If you can't even make one person understand you
how will you seduce the world?
If you leave one person feeling sad
will you be able to make the whole world happy?

This is reminiscent, to me, of the story about the boy who was tossing starfish back into the ocean, was stopped by someone who told him it didn’t matter, and he pointed to a starfish he threw back – “it mattered to that one”.  Actually surprisingly deep.  So I’m not entirely unappreciative of the music (though I could not honestly be considered a fan – if I had a choice I’d much rather listen to a piano concerto, and no idol music is on my phone).

But that’s really the only reason it interests me, truly.

So I was listening to one of the songs on the more insipid side of the scale, Happy Summer Wedding by Morning Musume.  It is actually a rather sweet song, I suppose, but it’s obviously not meant to appeal to either my gender or age range.  Fair enough, I guess.  But right in the middle of the song is a rendition of “Shave and a Haircut”.

This struck me as surprising and incongruous.  Right in the middle of the song a small fragment of something that honestly does not fit culturally (or, honestly, even musically) was dropped into it, rather like a little drop of oil in a sea of water.  It just didn’t match, and I’m not sure why Tsunku, or whoever wrote the song, decided to do that.

And it’s something that I’m not sure if most Japanese would even pick up on – it’s almost as if it’s a little nod to their Western audience.

So today my boss made a statement about the “Goldilocks sweet spot” and my mind went back to the incongruous “shave and a haircut”, and I realized that there are aspects to a culture that cannot be taught in a language class, or at least cannot easily be taught.  And that’s when I fully realized that learning how to speak a language is only half the battle, if that.

And it’s also why I post about things that are not specifically language related.

I cannot understand Japanese without at least being familiar with the underlying culture.  And that is very important to me, and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time familiarizing myself with Japanese popular culture, reading books, manga, and other things that will help me to understand the underlying cultural assumptions.

But make no mistake – I’m not otaku.  Many Japanese pop-culture things are fun, and cute, yes.  And I’m always looking for ways to integrate them into my own culture.  But they’re not of any great interest to me past being a curiosity.  If I ever behave in a way in which I could be consider otaku, or even worse, weeaboo, it will be time to hang it up, dust off my cowboy hat, and spend some time on a ranch where there is no Internet or phone.

I learn the language because it fascinates me.  I study Japanese pop culture because it fascinates me as well, and helps me to learn the language better.  But I refuse to make a fool out of myself worshipping all things Japanese.  And I think that’s how it should be.

Pranks

One thing that has singularly impressed me about Japanese culture is their utter dedication to pranks.

Here in America, a prank is a pie in the face or pulling a chair out.  But the Japanese take it to an absolutely absurd level.

This, however, has to take the cake.

In this prank, they led the Japanese idol group to a concert hall in the middle of nowhere, built an entire building in the middle of the hall with collapsible walls, waited for them to go to sleep, bussed in 400 fans, and then, at 6 in the morning, had them perform a surprise concert.

That is utterly breathtaking in its complexity.

But the other surprising thing about pranks is the reaction to them.  I have yet to see someone actually get angry.  They usually seem happy that someone thought enough of them to prank them, or barring that, are impressed by the skill of the pranker.

But some of the pranks go way, way too far, and it’s no wonder that those kinds of pranks don’t happen here. The lawsuits would be flying before the day was over.  And for a few of them?  With good reason, honestly.

But it’s yet another difference between cultures, and I’m interested in why there is such a difference on this topic.

Japanese Food and Stores in Austin, part 2

I have been continuing my search of Austin, and found a couple of interesting places of note that I thought I’d review.

The first is Asahi Japanese Store on Burnet just north of Koenig.  It is a store that carries only Japanese groceries and gifts, and is manned (womaned?) by Japanese speakers.  It is a small, out of the way place, but it has a lot of unique Japanese treats you will not find anywhere else.  I found some berry and mikan daifuku, and while I couldn’t eat the whole thing, I found it a very interesting experience.  I shared some with my coworkers and they found them just as delicious.

The other place I found was Kura (Kula?) sushi on Airport just south of Lamar.  It is the most authentic (definitely the most modern) revolving sushi place I’ve ever been to, and the only one I know of in the Austin area.

When you walk in, you are walked to a table or bar chair, which has its own touch screen.  You can take sushi out of the little containers that trundle by you, or you can order special sushi to order on the touchscreen.  Special order sushi arrives on a second conveyor belt just above, right to you.  If you put in enough plates, there are also little cartoons and at some point something they call a “bikkura pon” (basically gachapon without the gacha) will drop out.  I apparently didn’t order enough sushi to get a toy.  Maybe next time.

Bikkura, by the way, is a play on the word “bikkuri”, which means “surprise”.

Is it the best sushi I’ve ever eaten?  No.  But it was decent and edible, and to be honest, the experience was exactly like a real Japanese sushi place I saw on YouTube – and that one was in Japan.  So it is cool to have a little bit of the Japanese experience here in Austin, even if it’s just a sushi place.

I have a list of sushi and Japanese cuisine places I want to try, and will review them as I do.  I’ll also review products from the stores as I get a chance.

Kami

Spiritual content ahead.  I won’t make it a habit, but I want to take this blog where my linguistic and cultural explorations take me, and I found this fascinating.

A few days ago, while I was reading up on Shinto, I learned something very interesting.

See, Japanese nouns have no concept of singular or plural.  It’s something that’s simply not encoded into the language.  I mean, you can use the “tachi” suffix to specify plurality, but in general, when a noun is specified, you don’t know whether it’s singular or plural.  It could be one or the other, or conceivably even both.

That last one may seem nonsensical, except there is one situation where that question is completely germane.

The Japanese word for “God” is “kami”.  “Kami” is a noun.  Nouns are neither singular nor plural.

We in the west (at least we Christians in the west) have a concept called the “trinity” where God is three in one.

This is a concept that would be utterly uncontroversial to the Japanese, at least based upon their linguistic structure.  Kami can be many, or one, or even both, and the word makes no attempt whatsoever to make that dinstinction.

This makes me wonder if part of the struggle we have with the concept of the trinity in the west is that we have one word, “God”, and it can only be singular.  If you attempt to add a plural aspect to it, it becomes “Gods”, and the idea that “Gods” could then be singular is nonsensical.  I could, however, easily see the Japanese saying “meh”, and just moving on with it, not necessarily accepting it but having no real reason to reject it either.  Essentially, the ambiguity is built into their language where it is a complete impossibility in ours.

If the trinity were true, of course, it’s no less of a contradiction when expressed in Japanese than in English, but this seems one of a few places where the vagueness and contextuality of Japanese seems to offer a way to see the world that we in the west perhaps have not considered.  It’s certainly making me rethink how I see God, or Kami.  As with Japanese nouns, perhaps he is singular or plural depending on how you look at him.

Akimoto Yasushi – Good or Evil?

 

 

 

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this interview with Akimoto Yasushi, the mastermind of AKB48 and all of its different sister groups.

I listened. I was thoughtful.  And then I lost a little respect for him.

I have posted previously about AKB48.  My feelings about them have been conflicted ever since watching “Heavy Rotation” – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a music video with more sexualized connotations since “Anaconda” (though in fairness I don’t watch many at all).  These are girls of various ages wearing lingerie having a slumber party, throwing pillows, kissing mirrors, coming very close to kissing each other – it’s egregious in almost every way.

So I listened to Akimoto-san’s justification for it.

He said something similar to this (and it is a paraphrase):

These words are not coming from the girls.  I try to write music that speaks to what is on the mind of youths.

Okay, fine.  I get that.  This is how people have been making money ever since the music business started.  Where do you think rock music came from in the first place?

But I think this justification is just stupid.

The reason is this:  children were not put on this planet for adults to exploit for a quick buck.  So what is on the minds of children really doesn’t matter in this context.  At some point you have to make a choice – am I going to pander to what is on the mind of children in order to make a quick buck, or am I going to help shape them into a more mature person?

I don’t think lyrics like “I want to take off my school uniform” really helps to make well rounded children.

I see him as a person that is more exploiting than guiding in that context.

And that bothers me.

I know there may be fans of AKB48 reading this, and I know you are sometimes very easily riled up.  I imagine you have a lot to say.  So let me say this first:  I don’t feel this way about all of AKB48’s (or other idol groups’) songs.  I think Oogoe Diamond, for example, is quite catchy and a bit sweet.   I think Hello! Project has this gift for creating catchy songs that actually make you think (“What is Love” has some very thoughtful lyrics, and “Joshi kashimashi monogatari” is just FUN).  I’m not by any means saying all of the music that AKB48, et al., performs, is exploitative.  In fact, I think Tsunku-san and Akimoto-san have created a very efficient pipeline for giving untalented girls the training they need to become talents later in life.  I’m all for that.

I also don’t think he’s intentionally exploitative.  I read a book by Sashihara Rino which had nothing but good things to say about him.  He apparently had some very good advice for her, and because she chose to take it, she became much more of a success than she would have otherwise – even after she was demoted for breaking the rules against dating.

But songs like Heavy Rotation?  Particularly the video?

Yeah.  I can’t call it anything else.  That’s what it is.  Exploitation.

Japanese Food and Stores in Austin

I have a serious post in the works, but this one is fun, I hope.

Today I went around my current town of Austin, Texas, looking for interesting Japanese things.  I found a store called FIT Japanese Store over on Lamar, in the ChinaTown shopping center.  It had a pretty decent selection of interesting and cutesy stuff, including toys, housewares, plushes, etc.  I was a little disappointed at how small their selection was (I would have hoped there were more plushes and other cute things) but all told, it was a fun little trip.  They had gachapon – I got three Winnie the Pooh figures, a fairy, and a little (oddly functional!) notebook.  A little on the pricey side, but what else do you expect from an import shop?  They even have purikuri, so A for effort for them!

After that I went to Jinya Ramen, a ramen place at the Domain on Esperanza Crossing.  I had the Sukiyaki rice bowl, which was very good – especially with the soft-boiled egg mixed in.  Next time I go I’ll be a little more adventurous and get real ramen.  One selection looked appealing, but it has pork broth, which I have to stay away from for health reasons as much as I can.

One thing I have noticed about sushi (and other) places in Austin – there are (with exactly one exception) no Japanese there at all.  They are mostly Vietnamese and Korean.  Of course, this is fine, except it would be nice to actually be able to speak Japanese every now and then – none of them know it.  Maybe I’ll try Kura on Airport Rd. next.  I LOVE track sushi.

If you want to get a little more pricey, Fujiyama on Braker Lane and Jollyville is quite good.  However, I think Sushi Junai 2 on Parmer and Mopac (in the same parking lot as the Fry’s) is better.  They have a $29 (or so) all you can eat menu, and their philly roll is utterly decadent.  And, at least when I was there, I ordered ala carte and spent more than $29, well, they just charged me for the all you can eat.  In fact, two of the three times I was there, they offered me free sushi while I was eating.  I’d recommend them in a heartbeat.  Across Parmer, there is another place called Odaku Sushi, which I have been to a couple of times.  I had the pokedaku bowl and enjoyed it each time.

If you are willing to broaden your search to other types of asian food, the market eatery at H-Mart over on Lakeline is tough to beat.  I especially like the bulgogi hot dog from the street food place towards the back – it is the absolute best!  It is bulgogi on a hot dog bun with melted cheese.  If it weren’t for my having to watch what I eat, I’d eat that every single day!  They also have an interesting bulgogi roll, which is a sushi roll, but with bulgogi instead of fish.  Very interesting asian fusion, for sure!  They do have a Japanese place (Sushi Momo), and it’s very good, but they never seem to have half the things that are on the menu.

They have live music, too, if that’s your thing.  It’s not mine.  But I’ll put up with it for the oishii food!

Not only is there a high quality eatery, but if you go across the wall, there is also a pretty comprehensive store as well.  Don’t go on the weekends, though, if you don’t like people.  There are a LOT of them.

I realize that Texas isn’t exactly East Japan, but I do wish that there were more Japanese-style experiences to choose from.  I find myself envious of the arcades in Odaiba and other places in Japan, with row after row of claw machines, coin pushers, etc.  There’s nothing like that here and it seems like it would be so much fun.

But here’s the thing, and the important thing:  I don’t live in Japan.  I don’t live in Akihabara, or Odaiba, or Shibuya, or any of the interesting places in Japan with lots of interesting, fun things to do.  I live in Austin, Texas.  I guess it’s up to me to bring a bit of Japan here and fuse it into my culture in a way which honors the best of both.

As the Japanese are fond of saying, I will do my best.