Our first morning in Japantown dawned delightfully stormy and moody, though the rain was rather of the torrential variety, and we quickly ducked inside Japantown's indoor plaza for shelter. We have still to get used to the fact that "QQ hours" are not the same as business hours, and nearly all of the stores were still locked and shuttered. The morning cafes and bakeries, however, were already beginning to bustle with early customers, and let me tell you that the bakeries in Japantown are nothing to be sneezed at! We found a little watergarden cafe where M. ordered an omelet (QQ pursed her lips and refused to try it). But the real draw was on the side of the cafe where a little takeout window with a painted sign advertised "Taiyaki" - a sort of moulded fish-shaped cake filled with either red beans, banana, or bananas with melted chocolate.
We were instantly smitten, and spent a half hour or so watching the little cakes being poured, browned and trimmed.
I have to tell you, I am a sucker for both Japanese design and Japanese cooking. I mean, if you're going to make a pancake, is there any reason why it shouldn't be this beautiful to look at?
In the end, we ordered a chocolate and banana taiyaki.
Unwrapping our culinary delight. One of my favorite things about the Japanese aesthetic is that, put simply, the journey is the destination. Unwrapping something as beautifully crafted as this is half the pleasure. Whether it's the slow, methodical ritual of the Japanese bath, the tea ceremony, or the elaborate preparation of a simple dish, the craftsmanship, the artifice, the presentation make the experience. It is truly breathtaking, and gets me at the core every time.
The taiyaki were so pretty and so perfectly prepared that I had a hard time taking the first bite. As you can see by QQ's expression, she was resistant even to the idea. But I tell you what, I have a feeling that we'll end up with a taiyaki maker at home...and one day when QQ's tastes have expanded beyond cheese puffs, she'll be glad of the introduction!
One little girl, done with breakfast and ready for the next adventure.
Most of the stores were still closed after our leisurely meal, but even window shopping is a pleasure in this environment. Everything the Japanese design is pleasing to the eye.
Q was mesmerized with these little bobblehead toys which nod their heads in a meditative rhythm thanks to a tiny solar panel embedded in the base. I have one in my studio which M. got me last year on my birthday - mine is a monkey, and as it dances it also infuses the air with a delicious scent of lemon blossoms...delightful, and so soothing to the senses!
Just so pretty.
See what I'm talking about? These were from the windows of an enormous and comprehensive Japanese book and collectible emporium that headlines the Japantown shopping center. I was a goner the moment I glanced in at their displays through the glass, and, hard as I tried to feign indifference, my husband saw right through me. We were among the first customers in the door when they opened that morning.
I don't know what it is, but even the kawaii stuff just appeals to me on some very basic level.
Is it just me?
The kicker on these - the real genius of the concept - is that they come in "mystery boxes". Each set has a single box design, inside of which (like a high-end version of the prize inside the cereal box) is one of a dozen or so different models. Of course, you wind up wanting to collect them all. At about $6 a pop, they seem like an affordable indulgence....
There are sets of curious little dolls like the ones above (the pigs in costume are also strangely appealing), sets of kitchen items, sets of meals (see the lobster dinner with champagne on the table here), sets of traditional Japanese country foods, sets of home furnishings....
...but I knew I was lost when I came upon the sets of modernist designer chairs. This is my realm, my "fetish", and my downfall. I adore classic modern designer chairs. In design school, I longed to take the seminar on chair design (though I didn't have time, since I was attempting to cram an entire degree into two mean feat). The names Bertoia, Eames and Le Corbusier strike my heart like a bell. In real life, I can't even come close to affording these chairs. I have a single knock-off Bertoia diamond chair which I use as my office chair, and even that was a splurge. Design Within Reach is sadly out of reach for my budget. So the sight of these tiny miniatures set me instantly lusting. I bought one that first morning, and went back for another one each day of our trip, waiting until we were back in the hotel room of an evening to open my "mystery box" and see which chair I had! Sigh. I did not collect all of them - that would have been a bit over-indulgent (and then what would I have to look forward to?) - just one for each day of the trip. But I did end up with some good ones...enough little boxes that I had to have my loot shipped home via UPS. Now I excitedly wait for the box to arrive so that I can unpack them for a second time and find a shelf for them!
Even QQ saw the attraction of the designer chairs! Maybe she'll inherit her mama's obsession. Or maybe she'll design chairs of her own! At any rate, she'll have the coolest dollhouse furniture on the block when she's old enough to handle them carefully. Oh, yes, she will.
A Yoshitomo Nara book which, showing great restraint, we did not purchase.
The funniest thing we saw while in Japantown were the teenaged Caucasian Harajuku-girl-wannabes. I had no idea such a thing existed (though we have thriving Vietnamese and Korean communities here in Denver, our version of Japantown - Sakura Square - is really too small to be called a community). It was really quite a sight to see. And it looked labor-intensive to create this kind of cosplay hairdo with fine Caucasian hair. They were like bees to honey in this bookstore, needless to say! I asked my husband what he thought their goal was, hanging out in Japantown dressed up like a bunch of groupies. He promptly said, "Waiting for Sailor Moon to come sweep them off their feet, I imagine. He's dreamy!"
My husband is a crackup.
Q leading the way.
A world of Japanese books and magazines. To my credit, I kept my book purchases to a single miniature volume of Hiroshige woodblock prints.
The Japanese have a way with textile and paper prints. Oh, the exquisite simplicity.
A happy girl.
Kawaii overload.
As you can see, this restaurant was apparently attended by John and Yoko at some point, as well as Keanu Reeves. Since we did not eat here, we can't vouch for it. But we did sample several others in the neighborhood, and the food was consistently superb. In fact, I don't think I've ever had so many really exquisite meals during the course of a single trip before.

Q taking in a miniature historical diorama (note: Q is Chinese by birth, of course, Chinese-American now that she has her citizenship, but I am a firm believer in being a citizen of the world as much as is humanly possible. The more we know about the various and rich cultures with which we share this planet, the better).


Anonymous said...

I am loving your posts about the trip!!!

Maryam in Marrakesh said...

Sounds like a very fun (and yummy) trip!

And yay for world citizenship!

PS I clicked over to your website -had no idea you were such a talented artist!! Really love your works in graphite and you know what I think of your peacock on a leash....fantastic!

Anonymous said...

What a cool place! I'd love to go there one day. And I'll definitely search out those fish-shaped cakes. There are a couple shops in Little Korea in Toronto, Canada, that makes similar walnut and red bean cakes in the shapes of walnuts. So cute, so yummy!

And it's so great that you are teaching your daughter that she is not only a citizen of the U.S. but also a citizen of the world. We need more of that positive, responsible perspective, I think.

FDChief said...

Fun trip.

I think the castle behind Q in one of the lower pictures is 姫路城, Himeji-jō, also called the "White Heron" castle.

What I also find attractive about the traditional Japanese ways are the combination of extreme simplicity around delicate complexity. Nothing is evr as simple as it looks, and nothing is a complicated. Even the most utilitarian objects have an elegance that pleases hand and eye.

Interestingly, several Japanese I have spoken with about this complained that this is a mixed blessing. Japanese, they said, are often trapped inside the elegant rituals of their own culture. It makes for a much more civilized and polite existence, but they felt that it stifled a vitality that was allowed to be openly expressed in less refined cultures

Geisslein said...

Again such a cute post!!! Q looks so happy...Thanks for sharing with us! Wish you an inspiring day today :o)

Yoli said...

Maia, how did you contain myself. My husband would had had to carry me away so that I would not bankrupt him.

There is that element of simplicity in Japanese design. They have the art pat down of conveying volumes with a single item, a single flower. It is impressive and stunning. I too believe that children should be raised as citizens of the world. When a trip to a foreign land is not easily accessible, there is no better travel to a culture than through its art. Wonderful photographs, thank you for taking us along.