Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Modern World - 1936

Mens' omoshirogara hanten (inside out)
Omoshirogara (おもしろ柄) is a Japanese fabric tradition that flourished in the early part of the 20th century - and there's still a little bit of it going on now. It comes from the words "omoshiro"  (meaning interesting, fascinating, fun, amusing) and "gara" (pattern). It includes kid-oriented fabrics with images from old folk tales; fabrics commemorating historical events and sports firsts; and fabrics used as propaganda, celebrating battles and campaigns, often connecting ancient samurai culture and contemporary warfare, or just showing off the fleet and the armaments of a growing militaristic culture.

And there were a lot of fabrics celebrating modernity. By the end of the Meiji era (1912), through the Taisho (1912 - 1926) and beyond, Japan leapt into the brave new world of the 20th century. This tumultuous time was documented and commented upon in the arts, literature and design.

We came across this men's hanten, its lining patterned with images of trains, automobiles, cable tramway cars and planes. The illustration are fun and futuristic, celebrating an idea of a modern world that has long since past. But they also document a time and place where these aspects of a rapidly changing world were noted, commemorated and meant to be worn close to the heart.

At first we thought these illustrations seemed a bit generic - perhaps an artist's flight of fancy. But they were actually grounded in what was going on at the time. With a little sleuthing, we learned why these images were deemed important enough to print on a garment.

First up is an illustration of a train. It's a C55. These train engines were produced in Japan between 1934 and 1937. The trains were identified by the number on the front of the boiler. For this illustration, the artist took a bit of license and labeled it C55 86. Only 62 were ever produced. Nonetheless, this train, though still a steamer, was a leap forward in power and design. It could cruise along at a cool 90 kph. The last of them operated on regular runs until the mid-70s

C55 Train
On the sleeve of this garment is another pattern - this one with dogs, kids toys and an image of a streamlined train. This "go stop train" illustration, again, is of a C55. Streamlined modernity hit Japan hard in the 1930s. C55 numbers 20 through 40 were fitted with deco features, a bit reminiscent of Raymond Loewey's magnificent streamlined locomotive of 1936. Loewy would come to Japan after the war and leave his indelible mark with the iconic package design of Peace cigarettes.

C55 Streamline Train
In the 1930s, cars, too, began to move from the flivvers of old to new streamlined designs. In 1936 Ford introduced its thoroughly modern Lincoln Zephyr. But more importantly, De Soto started manufacturing its Airflow in 1934. Its look was pretty revolutionary. The designers at Toyota took a good hard look at it and in 1936 came up with the Toyota AA, from the outside almost an exact copy. Here, the illustrator seems to be copying an Airflow, but it's awful close to a Toyota AA.

DeSoto Airflow

Toyota AA
And finally, there's an illustration of the China Clipper, which Pan Am introduced for the first trans-Pacific air mail service (from San Francisco to Manila) in 1934. Though the Clipper didn't stop in Japan, it was the harbinger of a faster, more connected world, that would soon reach its apogee, only to run headlong into the disruption of World War II. But the advances made during wartime, in the massive transport of people and materials, would morph soon after the war into the transport of business people and vacationers.

China Clipper
Every picture tells a story and serves as a window into a particular time. This time - 1936. The promise of progress would soon be undone by the horrors of World War II. In this fabric are images of the best,  coolest and most modern transportation of the particular world that was Japan at that time. Trains, cars, planes. Things that connect the world becoming more efficient, looking more beautiful, speaking to a better world tomorrow.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Textile Trails

Once upon a time in Japan, pilgrims donned handwoven hemp jackets like this as they traveled from temple to temple. At each stop, the jacket would be stamped or inscribed with sutras. These days, pilgrims generally carry books to receive such blessings. This jacket was probably made around 1900. We'll post more lore about this piece as we uncover it. Stay tuned!


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Mr. Abe's Neighborhood

The Ajimi team found a trio of komebukuro, which are decorative patchwork bags meant to carry rice as offerings to temples and shrines.  The lining of each bag was inscribed with the name of a man, Abe Sukezo;  his business, Abe Beikokusho (a rice shop); some dates, March and April 1915; and some vague addresses that didn't quite tell us where his stomping grounds were. Our conjectures about Abe-san's life and the bags themselves appeared in a previous post, History Embellished.

Friends who read Japanese better than we do set us straight on the place names - and helped us do some Google-sleuthing. Lo and behold, we found the neighborhood - even if we didn't find Abe-san's shop.

We now had two place names  to work with: Shirone and Ichinocho.

The pieces fell into place pretty quickly. Abe-san lived and worked in the city of Niigata in  Minami ward, about 7 or 8 kilometers from the city center. The neighborhood is a bit of a backwater, and was probably even more so a hundred years ago.

Ichinocho 1-chome was written on the linings of two bags and Inaricho 3-chome on the other.  These are two different blocks in the same general area.

The 1-chome address is largely occupied by a shrine. Did Abe-san write down the destination for the rice rather than his own address?

However, in 3-chome, a classic run-down block of mostly shuttered  businesses,  one building was identified on Google Maps as a rice shop. It's the one on the left, below. It appears to have been closed for some time. Was this Abe-san's place of business?

We did find, a short toss of a rice bag away, a genuine, old-fashioned, still-functioning rice shop associated with someone named Takahiro. We like to imagine Abe-san and his family had a place like this.

Here's a link to the neighborhood in Google Maps.  Please visit, and let us know what you find.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

History, Embellished

Let's say you were a prosperous rice merchant named Abe Sukezo, living in Japan in the early years of the 20th century. You'd be expected to make offerings to the local temple, assuring not only continued good fortune, but establishing your presence and beneficence as an upstanding member of your community. Your offering? Rice, of course. It was not only your business, but a form of currency in a land where it was the main food staple. You'd bring your offering in a special bag, a komebukuro - a patchwork of fine fabrics from retired kimonos worn by the women of your household.

The Ajimi team came across a trio of Abe-san's komebukuro about 100 years later. We put together his story from the things he wrote on the linings of the bags - his name and that of his business, his address and the date. His shop was called Abe Beikokusho. It was located in Shiranemachi, Sannocho. Two of the bags were dated March, the 4th year of the Taisho era, or 1915. We put on our detective hats to track down the exact location of the shop. We did find Abe Beikoku, a rice business in Yamagata. Is it the same business? There are few Shiranemachis and Sannochos around Japan, none corresponding to the same location. Names change. Townships and neighborhoods are subdivided and incorporated, their original identities disappearing from the collective memory.

However, some evidence gets left behind - here in a trio of komebukuro. Each tells its own story, about the fabrics it was made from and the women who wore them, of the man who carefully wrote his name, address and the date inside, of life at the beginning a century of profound change.

Imagine Sukezo-san, dressed in his finest kimono. It's a fine, sunny day in March. The air is still a little winter brisk.  He's walking to the temple with his wife and young daughter. He carries a komebukuro filled with rice, the bag's rich silk patchwork contrasting with his dark haori. His wife carries a similar bag. Her simple pale green kimono is offset by a bold haori splashed with branches of red and pink cherry blossoms. Their daughter follows behind with a smaller offering, in a garment strewn with white ume blossoms, symbols of spring. They make their rounds - the temple, a tea house, a sake merchant, then return to their home above the rice shop.

Stories are found in any number of things. Sometimes they're obvious. Sometimes you have to do a bit of sleuthing. And when the reasearch only takes you so far, you sometimes have to let your imagination fill in the rest.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Tip of a Textile Iceberg

Hiroko Iwatate began traveling the world to collect textiles about five decades ago and has not stopped since.  Her Indian collection alone amounts to several thousand pieces, a small part of the overall inventory.  Southeast Asia and Japan are also heavily represented. Her small museum can accommodate only a fraction of what she owns at one time, but the exhibitions are beautifully curated.  Iwatate-san is usually on hand during the limited opening hours and, if she’s not busy, she’ll tell you the stories behind each and every piece.  

Up now at the Iwatate Folk Textile Museum: Homemade Children's Garments - India to Japan. All but a few of the items are from Hiroko Iwatate's vast collection. We visited yesterday and got a personal tour. The photo is from the museum's home page.

It's an amazing place, one we'll highlight in our upcoming guide, "Textile Lovers' Tokyo." To receive your free copy, click the Ajimi Ichiba link on the right side of this page and sign up for news and deals at the bottom of page one. We'll pop the guide into your inbox as soon as it's available.


Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm (last entrance at 4:30 pm) during exhibitions.
Address: Jiyugaoka 1-25-13, Iwatate Building (岩立ビル) 3F
Telephone: 03-3718-24 61

Nearest station: Jiyugaoka on the Tokyu Toyoko Line and the Tokyu Oimachi Line.
English website:

Monday, April 18, 2016

Haori: The Inside Story

It can be tough to assign a precise date to antique and vintage haori.  One helpful hint: the more elaborate the lining, the older it is.  The patterns on the linings of many early 20th-century haori in our collection are almost as exuberant as the patterns on the outside. By the mid- to late-20th century, haori linings had become far more tame.  They were still made of silk, and sometimes out of rinzu brocade, but in shades of ivory and pastel rather than the riot of colors and images of a half-century earlier.

One line of thinking is that, under centuries of sumptuary laws that dictated what kind of clothing people could wear - class by class - the lower orders got accustomed to hiding their most elegant textiles where the authorities couldn't see them.  That applied to garment linings, as well as undergarments such as juban whose fabric designs can be quite elaborate.  Or maybe the pattern-mad Japanese designers of 100 years ago simply couldn't resist covering every square inch of fabric with as much color and imagery as possible.

We hope you enjoy these examples from the Ajimi Ichiba collection.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Nick vs. David Chang

David Chang, of Momofuku fame, wrote a piece recently in his trendy food magazine, Lucky Peach about Why Tokyo is the World's Best Food City. As a long-time resident of the city - and one who is admittedly getting a little tired of uncritical fealty and knee-jerk, cliched pronouncements about food in Tokyo - I felt the need to set the record straight a little bit. Particularly in response to a guy, whose just blowin' shit out of his ass. 

Yeah, Tokyo's got some great food. But the best in Japan? Let's take a look at Kyoto or Kanazawa or... And in the world? Give me a fuckin' break! Madrid! Donostia! Rome! Paris! And any number of of other places! Whenever I leave Tokyo, I find myself indulging in better fish, meat, veggies, breads and pastries than I can ever find anywhere in Tokyo. Fact really is that Tokyo's got a lot of food, much of it on the just OK side of things. 

Below is Mr. Chang's article, with my rebuttals. The gauntlet is thrown! That said, David, got a job for me to write for your magazine?

- Nick


It’s pointless to engage in any debate about which city has the best food without mentioning Tokyo.

Yes David, Tokyo should be mentioned, but it also should be measured, compared and held up to something more than a statement about the nature of pointlessness. Assumptions are best put to the test, critically and pointedly.

Tokyo is the answer I give when friends and I kick around the question, Where would you live for the rest of your life solely for the food? Why? Because Japan as a country is devoted to food, and in Tokyo that fixation is exponentially multiplied. It’s a city of places built on top of each other, a mass complex of restaurants.

Cool, you would live for the rest of your life in Tokyo solely for the food – and you give up such a lame answer as to why. Is Japan really a country devoted to food? I would say it’s devoted to consumption. Much of it, and Tokyo in particular is like a giant vertical shopping mall, with thousands of chain restaurants ready to fill the hungry maws of suited salarymen, who have little or no concern about quality and have little or no time to enjoy whatever they’re wolfing down.

Let me rattle off the reasons why Tokyo beats all other cities: 

Do your best, buddy!

It has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, should you choose to eat that kind of food. I’d argue that some of the best French food and some of the best Italian food is in Tokyo. All the great French chefs have outposts there. If I want to eat at L’Astrance, I can go to Tokyo and eat it with Japanese ingredients. The Japanese have been sending their best cooks to train in Europe for almost sixty years. If you look at the top kitchens around the world, there is at least one Japanese cook in nearly every one.

You undercut your argument in your first sentence – “if you should choose to eat that kind of food.” Why give the fact of Michelin stars a qualifier? Those of us who live and travel without expense accounts usually have to be a little more creative in where we go. And who would even want to go to Joel “let’s-just-add-more-foie-and edible-gold-leaf-to-that” Robuchon’s ridiculous chateau in Yebisu Garden Place or be condescendingly force-fed and rushed out to make way for some real Nipponjin at Jiro’s sushi joint? Best French food? No. The basic quality of things like vegetables in Japan leaves much to be desired. And sure, the 3 star French outposts import their provender, but … I rest my case. Best Italian food? Definitely not. There are some things that Japanese don’t understand, like bread and abbondanza.  By the way, there is no L’Astrance in Tokyo. And sure, there are many talented chefs here. Many French-trained. And many try to do their best with the limited resources here, but they can only go so far.

Japan has taken from everywhere, because that’s what Japanese culture does: they take and they polish and shine and they make it better. The rest of the world’s food cultures could disappear, and as long as Tokyo remains, everything will be okay. It’s the GenBank for food. Everything that is good in the world is there.

Since when has Japan polished and shined things to make them better? To make things more polished and shiny, yes, but better? No. Case in point, Chinese and Korean food. Pale imitations of the real thing in any and all Chugoku ryori and yakiniku places here. There’s a thing here known as Nihon no aji, the Japanese taste. It’s all about reducing the fire, reducing the spice, reducing the taste. It’s been defended as the subtlety of the Japanese palate. In reality it’s love of blandness. And as for everything that is good in the world being here, where are the artichokes? Where’s the cheese?

If I want to have sushi, there’s no better place on the planet. All of the best fish in the world is flown to Tokyo so the chefs there can have first pick of it—whether it’s Hokkaido sea urchin or bluefin tuna caught off of Long Island, it all moves through Tsukiji fish market before jokers in any other city get a crack at it.

Yes, the world market for fish is flash-frozen and international. It’s the same stuff you can get anywhere in the world. So what makes Japan special, huh? Sure they import a mess of seafood. It’s a hugely populated hungry nation that likes its fish. And sure, the best chef’s get the best picks. But, us hoi polio will never see it. And if you’re still eating Atlantic bluefin tuna David, you can go fuck yourself. Not happy until you can eat the last one? I could go on and on about the fish in Tokyo. It’s much better closer to the source, like in Kanazawa or Hakodate or Seattle or Portland or New York or Spain, Italy and France. 

If I want to have kaiseki, there are top Kyoto guys who have spots in Tokyo, and they’re pretty fucking good. If I want to visit places dedicated to singular food items, from tempura to tonkatsu to yakitori, they’ve got it all. They have street food, yakisoba, ramen. They have the best steakhouses in the world. They have the best fucking patisseries in the world. The best Pierre Hermé is in Tokyo, not in fucking Paris. You know why? Because of the fucking Japanese cooks. I can eat the best food in subways, I can eat the best food in the train station, I can eat the best food in the airport. It’s the one place in the world where I have to seek out bad food. It’s hard to find.

Pretty fuckin’ good kaiseki? Damning with faint praise. So what if Kyoto guys have kaiseki places in Tokyo. Go to Kyoto for the best. Most kaiseki is pretty much phoned in anyway. It’s one of the few styles where they give you a lot of stuff, most of it pretty forgettable. And yes, they’ve got tempura, tonkatsu, yakitori, yakisoba, ramen and stuff. Cool. So what. It’s all food, some better, some worse. Fried, grilled, made into soup, what’s not to like. It gets a little tiring after a while. Especially when there are so few other options. And could you tell me where to get a good steak in this town? I haven’t found one yet? And it’s rather stupid to say the best fucking patisseries in the world are here. You know there're not. Go into any small village in France and you’ll get something much better. And there is a lot of food at the train stations. Lots of chain restaurants pumping out the same old shit. And really, David, have you eaten at Narita airport? It’s one of the worst airports in the world for food.

They have no stupid importation laws; they get the best shit. Europe exports their best shit to Japan, because they know the Japanese have better palates than dumb Americans. It’s true. Go to the local department stores and buy cheese. It’s amazing.

This, as you well know, is complete bullshit. What’s considered the best cheese shop in Tokyo is the Tokyu Food Floor in Shibuya, where you’ll find Fermier, where they have limited selection of affined to ammoniated French cheese at ridiculous prices. It’s nearly a cheese desert here. It’s not Europe’s or anyone’s best shit that get imported here, it’s merely their shit. 

The produce is the best. It’s the best in the world, in my opinion. I’d argue Japanese produce is the best because it’s not the equivalent of a beautiful dumb blonde who just looks great. It looks great and it’s got brains. From root vegetables on up, somehow they just grow the best shit.

Again, let’s look at some facts. Some 60 percent of all the food consumed in Japan is imported. And that's a lot of vegetables. The things grown here are grown for looks, but really their quite jejune. And bland. And really sad. I would kill for a decent tomato. Or an artichoke, period.

The best chicken in the world, the best eggs in the world, the best beef in the world (if you like that kind of beef). Shit, the McDonald’s there still cooks their french fries in beef fat. It’s awesome.

Hey, the chicken here ain’t bad. As are the eggs. General quality is high, but I’ve had better elsewhere. As for the beef, again you undercut your argument with your qualifier. Can you tell me where to get that good beef, again? And what the fuck are you doing eating at McDonald’s. Nothing from McDonald’s is awesome. 

I can craft a great meal from convenience stores. A fantastic meal. From properly made bento boxes, to a variety of instant ramen, toonigiri, to salads, to sandwiches, it’s all really good. The egg-salad sandwiches at all the convenience stores are amazing. All the fried chicken, delicious. The chain restaurants, amazing. KFC, Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays, Tony Roma’s, you name it. I’ve been to all of them. Guess what? They’re all awesome. You know why? They care a little bit more. That’s it. They just make better fucking food than anywhere else. It’s awesome.

Convenience stores and chain restaurants. Sorry, buddy, they make food just as shitty, if not more so than in any convenience store or chain restaurant around the world.

Now let’s keep it interesting by switching and going over the cons. There really are only a few.
There’s no real Southeast Asian food that I know of. But guess what, I’m not looking for it. If it exists, it’s probably really good. That’s what you need to understand: generally, everything in Tokyo is better than what you can have anywhere else.

To confirm for you, Southeast Asian food is not all that available and what you get is pretty bad here. To clarify, things, generally are not better here than what you can have elsewhere. Things aspire to a certain standard of mediocrity. It’s a hamburger nation. Lots of food for lots of people, that’s safe, not too demanding and delivers the calories.

They don’t really have slices of pizza. But guess what New York doesn’t really have much of anymore, either? Slices of pizza. Tokyo does have pizza, though. Their Italian food is great.

A straw man argument. Now there’s no reason to take you seriously. And yes, Tokyo does have pizza. It’s odd and indefinable. Like most of the Italian food here.

Tokyo doesn’t really have Spanish food. But you know what I don’t ever really eat? Spanish food. I don’t have to eat paella ever again. Spain’s a country I like to visit, but we’re talking about foods that I generally eat or I want to eat on a day-to-day basis.

Now you’re just talkin’ out of your ass. Go to Spain, David. Paella? Even Spaniards don’t eat paella? Are you really that ignorant about one of the greatest cuisines of the world?

I genuinely don’t give a fuck about any other place on the planet. I just want to go to Tokyo to eat. Look at the other food cities in the world, such as Paris. Can’t live there, because I don’t want to eat only French food. It’s great for a week and then you know what I want? Anything but French food. Same thing with Italy and Italian food. I think it’s got to be the most boring food culture in the world. For fuck’s sake, can you eat anything besides fucking pasta?

I don’t know if you looked recently, but Paris has far too many Japanese restaurants. And North African. And Chinese. And Spanish. And… and they’ve even got fucking McDonalds. By your very own measure, it measures up.  For fuck’s sake, can you get a life?

You know what I eat in New York? Japanese food. And Japanese food that’s based on what’s in Tokyo. I save money to go to Masa. I don’t understand why this is even a question in the Versus Issue. Everyone else should just bow down. Tokyo is like the Borg, because they take from everyone else and they make it better.

Good for you. Glad you found a way to save money eating at a pretentious overpriced restaurant. I think you were trying to be funny, but I detect a serious sense of entitlement in everything you write.

Everyone who argues for anyplace that isn’t Tokyo is saying Salieri was a better composer than Mozart. No. Fucking. Way. It’s like arguing that there was a better basketball team in 1992 than the Dream Team. It’s not even worth anointing a second-place winner—it’s ridiculous.


Maybe you’re wondering, If  you like it so much, why don’t you open a restaurant there? I’m scared. It would be like being the best basketball player on a European team. I’d feel like Toni Kukoč getting on the court with Pippen and Jordan and being like, Oh, this isn’t fun. I suck. That’s my great fear. It’s not like swimming with sharks. I’d probably be the shark coming to Tokyo. But little fish eat sharks in Tokyo.

Strange analogy to end a perfectly ridiculous piece of attitude presented as opinion.