Far East, Far Out, Faraway Japan

I’ll be filing weekly pieces from Japan for Travel + Leisure commencing 26 June, as well as smaller articles for these estimable folks in OZ: http://karryon.com.au.  I return to Japan tomorrow: 16th visit, 3rd in six months, and no wonder:

The routine DELTA flight was $875, round trip, which is about $700 less than flying to Europe and about the same as going to California, all from the East Coast.  Plus, the $ is now equal to 120-125 Yen, up 20-25% from 18 months ago.  Which means, no kidding, it’s cheaper to eat and sleep in Japan than most major Western cities.

What I find endlessly perplexing and fascinating about the country is its hybridization, which is such a wonderful, ironic counterpoint to its presumed singularity and grave sense of being a mono-culture.  That all translates into a vibe of profound, restless, and almost constant anxiety: In the streets, bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels, and homes.

The anxiety spurs a desire for improvisation and an elusive hope, but more often it results in withdrawal, sadness, and acceptance.

For a writer, no place is more stimulating.


National Restaurant Association & The Minimum Wage

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) is to restaurants as the American Medical Association (AMA) is to medicine: A national organization having as its mission the preservation and promotion of its members’ values and goals.

In the NRA’s case, this means the use of huge amounts of money spent in our national legislature to influence the voting of senators and congress-people.  Of late, the focus has been on keeping the minimum wage at its current levels.

The NRA’s position is that increasing the minimum wage will be a financial disaster for small businesses.  Specifically, they will not be able to expand and hire more employees; will leave sites where current profits are adequate; won’t be able to promote as readily due to wages increased for the least skilled; and so on.

The main way to increase the minimum wage, the NRA notes, is to increase food prices.  Well, um, increase food prices by 2% or 3%.  Lower the salaries of CEO’s.  Come up with business plans that adapt to the new economic reality of increasing wages that will enable employees to thrive and save for the future.

The current minimum wage ranges from $5.15 in Wyoming to $9.47 in Washington state (exclusive of L.A.’s recent increase to $15).  Do the math: At 40 hours per week, that’s about $200 a week or $400 a week, times 50 weeks, or $10,000 a year to $20,000 a year.

We all know that these wages are going to increase imminently.  So rather than waste its membership’s money on lobbying, why not invest in hiring a top consultant firm to help small restaurants develop viable plans that include increasing wages as well as expanding?

More on Japan

This just out today: 

That’s right: The Boston Globe, full page, Kyoto in the 21st Century, and why it offers New Englanders a sense of being at home.
In the weeks ahead, expect to see more pieces filed from Japan on a range of topics, which will be appearing in Travel + Leisure.  On Wednesday, T+L ran my piece on the cross-pollination of restaurants in Tokyo from NYC, and from Japan to NYC.
No place I know is more fascinating, filled with contradictions, ironies, and madly disturbing experiences which awaken the senses than Japan.  And its relationship to the West goes both ways.  No wonder Pico Iyer settled in Kyoto, no wonder Murakami came to Boston.
The first time this happened, when Peter the Great westernized Russian, it caused such great upheaval in identity and anxiety.  In Japan, much of the same takes place.  The crux of that anxiety is fertile ground for writers.


On Turning Thirty

It’s my birthday today, and I’m excited about my thirties, it’ll be goodbye to the amorphousness, indecision, and distractions of the twenties, and a welcoming of focus that ought to include not getting out much.

As usual, the day will include a long run, a visit to the guys in the North End, and the new guy on Fan Pier.

What lies ahead?

EATALY opens in Boston in 2016.  Pepe Bocca, a terrific Italian grocery store opened in Davis Square recently: Great sandwiches, lovely people.

And this week, a Trifecta: My piece on micro brewing in Japan (Beer Advocate); ideology of Japanese cuisine (Gastronomica); and, this Sunday–Kyoto, Boston’s Big Sister City (The Boston Globe).

Meanwhile: hard at work on my book on India, and the novel…

Suddenly, Good Restaurants Galore!

Within the past twelve months, Boston has three new restaurants that have delicious food, good service, and a lively vibe.  Add Giulia to this list, which opened nearly two years ago, and suddenly we have four places where it’s fun to dine out.

Bar Boulud, Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, and The Shepherd.

You have on that list of three restaurants a first-rate and informal French place (BB), a wonderful trattoria style place (BPE), and a terrific neighborhood joint with a nod to France (TS).

The Shepherd opened two nights ago.

I was with my friend N last night.  We started out with drinks at The Beat Hotel.  Then walked to Giulia.  On the way, we saw that The Shepherd had just opened.  A smidge on the geezer side in terms of clientele, but a well-lit room with simple wooden tables and chairs, and pleasant, eager service.  The meal: Raw oysters (Wellfleet), soft shell crab with beets, duck liver, and gnudi with morels and pea shoot greens.  Honestly, the kind of food I cook at home.

I think we’re going to see a trend of restaurants where the emphasis is on well-plated, well-defined food that isn’t about fat, offal, and salt.

A Full Plate

My piece on micro-breweries in Japan is out this week as of Wednesday: http://www.beeradvocate.com/community/threads/beeradvocate-magazine-101-jun-2015.298693/

It’s in BEER ADVOCATE, “the Bible for beer drinkers,” and takes a broad look at the micro-brewing industry in Japan as well as a close look at a few rather idiosyncratic brewers.

Speaking of out: Travel + Leisure invited me to participate in an online Twitter discussion this week on LGBT travel.  A lively group of people with versatility in thinking made for an hour long conversation that was great fun.

Busy, too, with pieces on artisans of Yamanaka, the vistas of Hokkaido, and what-not.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Babbo Pizzeria & Enoteca on Boston’s Fan Pier is doing it in style.  Great price point, delicious food, first-rate service, and lots of vegetables in season.