I see you Jiro (and apprentices).

5 November 2012 Jiro Dreams of Sushi Film Food Sushi Jiro Documentary Japan

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“Hai, hai. We are here, but uh…our boss is not here.”

“So…does that mean you’re open? Should we still come in?”

Six of my friends and I were in Tokyo on vacation when the earthquake hit. We had arrived the previous Saturday and enjoyed a full week of taking in everything we could before seismic waves threw a curve ball. While Tokyo was relatively unaffected—broken glass, closed shops, stopped trains—we woke up Saturday thinking: Now what?

Amidst the periodic aftershocks and emergency sirens with instructions in Japanese, the decision was unanimous. We needed a drink.

Star Bar in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district was at the top of our wish list. Their bar master, Hisashi Kishi, is a legend. An International Bar Association World Champion by the age of 24, he’s hailed by cocktail aficionados as the best bartender in Japan. As Executive Director for the Nippon Bartenders’ Association, he writes their official handbook recipes. You can say he wrote the book on cocktails—literally.

And there we were at his doorstep. We had originally gone to the nearby Bar High Five, which also appears on many of the “World’s Best Bars” lists. Owner Hidetsugu Ueno actually got his start at Star Bar before going on to open his own place.

The scene there was heartbreaking. Ueno (the sweetest looking man in glasses and natty suspenders) was alone in the bar. The floor was covered in broken glass; the air filled with the overwhelming smell of alcohol.

“We’re so sorry. This is terrible. Are you ok?”

He is “depressed,” he says. He wished he could have made us a drink; we wished so too. He bowed a lot, told us Star Bar was still open, and said that we should “please, enjoy his country tonight.” We walked the 15 minutes or so to Star Bar, still contemplating the chances of him letting us help with the cleanup.

A bronze plaque on a granite pillar welcomes you before you descend the stairs to the basement level.

“Come linger about for awhile,
Gossamers of warmth kindle your heart,
Holding lasting memories of this night.
Celerity, sincerity, and with a smile…”

The bar is minuscule by American standards, but that’s the thing with most in Tokyo. It’s dark and cozy, decorated in rich leather, stained woods, and vintage wallpaper with a soundtrack to match. It’s traditional without being stuffy; old school without a soupçon of kitsch. It’s also completely empty. 

Hesitating in the doorway, we’re greeted by three of the cutest, bow-tie clad Japanese men you can imagine. The one closest to the door explained to us, in rather good English, that the bar master is gone. A second or two of confusion passed while we gauged whether or not they still wanted us to come in before it’s clarified. Apprentice Yamasaki Tsuyoshi will make our drinks in “the boss’s” absence.

Tsuyoshi is quite accomplished in his own right. He worked for over three years before being allowed to even mix a drink. He mentions being especially interested in sherry. Looking online later, I realize that he’s actually a sherry world champion.

Our first round of drinks is semi-bartender’s choice. A few of us asked for specific cocktails, a few named a spirit they enjoy (gin or whiskey). He suggested to me a fresh strawberry cocktail made with rum and “very rare strawberries.” They can’t be bought at the grocery store he says, “only farm.” It’s delicious.

Just as we were ready to order our second round, from around the side of the tall banquette, arrives Kishi himself. Caught up in the moment of being in Tokyo, being in such a renowned bar, sipping one of the most expensive drinks I’ll probably ever have—my excitement was on par with seeing a Beatle. Our next rounds would be prepared by him—his selections, naturally.

As we sipped our second drinks, Kishi arrived tableside with a wooden cutting board and a block of ice. A private demonstration! Japanese bartenders in particular are obsessed with ice. The large slabs of ice they use are frozen slowly over the period of three or four days so they are crystal clear & highly dense. Kishi shined a flashlight through the block.

“No bubbles. Special ice water, very special ice.”

Holding a large knife fashioned out of the same carbon steel used in Japanese swords, he gently tapped the edge through the ice with a mallet.

“Slowly, slowly, slowly. No ice pick.”

He then carved a cube into the shape of a diamond, placed it in a rocks glass, poured vodka over the top, and passed it around the table for us to appreciate.

Ice class over, we enjoyed a round of sidecars, Kishi’s signature cocktail. He prepares it with a hard shake he actually invented: The Infinity Shake. The short figure-eight movements cool the liquid without smashing the ice and watering down the drink. (On a portable DVD player, he showed us video of him and his famous shake featured on a show called Einstein TV.) At that point, the night couldn’t have gotten better.

Every drink we had was superb; they were definitely the best I’ve ever had. A mint-julep arrived in a pewter tumbler and was a refreshing version of the Southern classic. A fresh-fruit cocktail made with sour kumquats was kicky and sweet. My gimlet was impossibly cold—an elegant blend of juniper notes and tart lime. Small snacks were brought to the table, including salted soy nuts and a lovely bite of raspberry cream cheese atop a delicate wafer.

Kishi really is the best of the best. His passion towards the art (and science) of mixology is apparent in the care that he gives to every drink component. His lifelong dedication is emblematic of the Japanese spirit that appreciates even the most elemental aspects of daily life. Simplest luxuries—from a single-stem flower in a vase to a folded cocktail napkin placed next to your glass for a discarded toothpick—are elevated. The commonplace is lifted enough to graze something divine.

And what made everything sweeter was the humility with which they shared their talents. There’s no swagger or bravado to be found. However, that doesn’t mean Star Bar is unaware of its excellence. Kishi’s face beamed as he showed us a magazine with his picture on the cover.

The final drink of the night was the Star Bar take on the Bloody Mary. Freshly juiced tomatoes—passed around the table and admired before being pulverized—Absolut Peppar, a dash of fresh pepper, and a salted rim are a far cry from the spicy brunch-table staple. This one tasted like Summer and awakened sentiments about the afternoon you last enjoyed something so simple and refreshing.

“You are very lucky, because of the earthquake, that you are here tonight. Usually, we are very, very busy. No seats.”

I winced a little inside at Tsuyoshi’s word choice, thinking about the Japanese to the north. A native English speaker would’ve phrased it differently, but I understood what he meant. The whole night felt parenthetical—magically separated from the outside world. We spent an entire evening in an empty bar with a legend who opened his home to us. All seven of us. On a Saturday.

When we walked up the stairs to leave, all three of the young bartenders follow us up to the street. Bow-ties, suspenders and smiles—it made me melt. They waved to us while we walked, at least for a block or two until we turned. I don’t remember if we were even supposed to take that left or just turned so they could walk back inside. I left feeling more in love with Tokyo than ever before. Lucky indeed.

Star Bar Ginza, B1F Sankosha Building, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku,Tokyo; (03) 3535-8005 

Bar High Five, 4F No.26 Polestar Building, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3571-5815

Extend your hand. Donate to the earthquake & tsunami relief today. Or, download The Morning Bender’s Japan Echo EP. All of the proceeds will go to the Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund. 

26 March 2011 reblog: littlebink Japan Tokyo Hisashi Kishi Star Bar Ginza Alcohol Beverages Nightlife

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Japan Stands Strong by James Hilger

Timothy Phelan, a professor at Miyagi University is a Sendai resident who runs the Japan Observer. He reached out to me to use my image and words on his site which is a wonderful resource for understanding what’s happening in Japan and all the ways you can help. Please give it a look and help in any way you can. I can’t imagine what he’s going through right now but he seems to be standing strong, just like the rest of his country. 

A view from a different perspective regarding the earthquake disaster in Japan, by one of my friends who was there. Give it a brief read, then donate if you can.

(via consumermachine)

17 March 2011 reblog: consumermachine Japan Earthquake Consumer Machine Japan Observer

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Sleepover at the Studio Ghibli Museum

As you know, a devastating 8.9 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011. I happened to be visiting Tokyo at the time, staying at a hotel in Asakasa with a group of friends. To be more specific, myself and three others from our group of seven were at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka (45 minutes away) watching a Miyazaki short film in a theater. What followed over the next eighteen hours was an experience I will never forget.

To say the least, the initial rumblings were a surreal event. The Ghibli short, Pan Dane To Tamago Hime was playing and we were in the small Saturn Theater enjoying the film. The score’s piano was playing to a crescendo just as the earthquake struck; initially with some small rolling, but nothing too severe. At first I thought it was people moving around on the floor above, shaking the room. All of our Japanese counterparts were still focused on the film, so I kept watching as well, unaware. As the trembling and shaking continued though, my California upbringing convinced me it was an earthquake. People’s focus started leaving the screen, but they all stayed calm despite the quake lasting for minutes. It seamed like forever. After the rumbling finally quit, we sat around waiting for the staff let us know what was to happen next. A nice Japanese man who spoke wonderful English helped us understand what was going on, but what they knew at the time was very minimal; only that an earthquake had struck northern Japan and the trains had stopped running so everyone should stay put. They eventually allowed us all to continue the tour of the museum and things seemed to be back to normal. We all were a bit shaken, but not too unsettled. We finished the film and then returned to enjoy the rest of the museum.

As we continued our visit we began talking about the aftershock possibilities. One of us mentioned that this precarious bridge that connected the two sides of the second floor (which were currently crossing) was probably the worst place to be. As soon as the sentence was complete, an aftershock struck. Again everyone was held still and waited for things to settle down. After a few more aftershocks, the staff was instructed to clear out the museum and we were all ushered out into the park that sits adjacent to it. At this point I think we all realized that something larger was going on and the quake had not been a standard one. Luckily for us we ran across the same Japanese man from the theater and he was able to interpret the messages that were being sent out over the loudspeaker and megaphones.

“7.9 earthquake struck northern Japan.”

“All trains are no longer running.”

“You are welcome to stay in the museum until we have further information.”

They eventually let us back in and people started settling into holding patterns around the museum: inside the cafe, the outside patios, and the main halls of the museum. We were all just waiting to see how this would play out, although we were quite worried about what would happen. Are they going to close the museum? Can we take a bus back to our hotel? Would we need to find a hotel? What’s happening back in Tokyo? Would the trains start running again? Would we be able to return to our loved ones tonight? How bad was the damage across the country?

Announcements were continually being made and the few English speaking museum workers were helping us out with what was going on since we had lost track of our earlier friend once we re-entered the museum. They started serving tea to people and were stationed around the museum helping people however they could. A few times while we were sitting upstairs in a hallway they approached us to make sure everything was ok, if we were scared, or if we needed food or anything. They were very concerned for our well-being and it was heartwarming. Overall, everyone who was trapped there was calm and quiet throughout the whole ordeal.

Eventually as the 6 PM closing time of the museum approached, they told everyone that the trains were not going to resume that evening and that they were unsure what time they would resume in the morning. They told us we would be able to stay at the museum for the night if we wanted and that they would offer us tea and whatever food they could. This is how my three friends and I ended us spending the night in the house that Miyazaki built.

The place turned into a shanty town of sorts. People spread out into the hallways and little nooks of the building. The staff shut the doors of the exhibit rooms, but the rest of the cavernous space was open to us. A central control center was set up at the bottom floor hall with tea, water and snacks. They had the radio on, streaming news in Japanese, as well as a white board with information written on it. I assumed it was train status updates and other pertinent information, but I couldn’t be sure. We eventually were able to get in contact with our hotel and thus alert our other friends back in Asakasa to our well being and to find out they were safe as well. We were still unaware of the damage that the earthquake had caused and the magnitude of its affects.

Throughout the whole ordeal the staff and our fellow residents made the evening pleasant and endurable despite the external situation. Blankets and cardboard were handed out to sleep on. Everyone made the best of it. We ended up making our home in two nooks that overlooked the central halls of the museum. A few people were even allowed to sleep in the ‘kids area’, which featured a giant Catbus in the center of the room. People were nestled up against its furry side, sleeping on its paws.

The whole night was surreal. Trapped in a far away place. A historical and devastating natural disaster had just struck. We had been offered shelter at the famed Studio Ghibli Museum. We were disconnected from information. It was a foreign experience in all senses of the phrase.

Around 5 AM, just as the sun came up, they announced that some of the trains were starting to run again and people slowing started waking up to head to the stations. We got our things together, thanked our hosts as best we could and went out into the cold morning to make the long walk back to the station.

During the return journey I just couldn’t get over the calmness of the whole ordeal. Especially once we returned to our hotel and actually found out how severe the quake had been and the damage it had done. Everyone else in that museum knew the severity of the situation the entire time. They knew their country was in crisis and possibly someone they knew and loved was in danger or hurt. Despite all this they remained calm and civil, enduring the horrible possibilities in silence, respectful of the situation and their surroundings. I can’t say enough for the kindness we were treated with, the compassion and warmth that was extended to us by the staff at the Ghibli Museum. We felt at home that evening and it’s a testament to not only the graciousness of those workers, but the Japanese people as a whole. Godspeed Japan.

(thanks to James, Mark, and Laura, my stranded companions)

This is a first hand account of what my friends, who were visiting Tokyo at the time, went through when the 8.9 earthquake disaster struck Japan. Only they would get stuck and spend the night in a Miyazaki Museum. Definitely a unique experience for them all. I’m just glad everyone was safe.

17 March 2011 reblog: thebinfox Japan Earthquake Studio Ghibli Museum The Bin Fox

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In remembrance of Hamilton. 

October 2(ish), 2009 - March 4, 2011

I came home from Japan to find out he had died while I was gone. I loved him so much & I know he loved me (in a hamster sort of way). When I got him, I knew his time with me would be short, so I tried to give him everything. I spared no expense—the silent super spinning wheel, the most expensive freeze-dried fruits, a school bus to travel in.

I tried to make sure that when he died I wouldn’t have any regrets & I think I did a pretty good job of that. With a hamster, it’s easy to do because the perimeters are small. To show him love was simple & to exceed his every need didn’t cost very much. We could never fight; he could never disappoint. With people it’s a lot harder.

I am heartbroken about Hamilton. But in my sadness, I’ve thought about the friends & family that I love. The people who texted me & emailed me & prayed for me while I was in Tokyo during the earthquake. The people who hugged me & let me cry about hammy. I want to renew my approach to them in light of the way I did with Hammy. Love them more. Try to take better care of them. Yes, it won’t be close to perfect like my life with Hamilton. Human relationships are complicated & I will always fall short & disappoint. But life is short & I want to love more & live with fewer regrets.

Thank you for the memories Hamilton. We will never forget you.  

17 March 2011 reblog: littlebink Hamster Hamilton Japan Earthquake Little Bink R.I.P.

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A night on the town


13 March 2011 reblog: ourtriptojapan Japan Friends Nightlife Travel

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amazing Tsunami footage

When I thought of Tsunami’s, I figured it was a giant wave that crashed and immediately flooding everything. Like the water swept through at an amazing pace and destroyed everything in it’s wake.

Turns out, they’re more like The Blob or some horror movie villain. It’s a slow stream of flooding that seems miniscule, until a minute into it, you realize fucking cars and trucks are now floating down channels where what used to be streets existed just moments before. That’s when the housing goes. The water is like a zombie, not an imminent threat, but a somewhat silent, slow, and unrelenting killer.

12 March 2011 reblog: kellyoxford Kelly Oxford Japan Earthquake Flood Tsunami

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earthquake in tokyo. very scared, but everyone is safe.

A small message, but the biggest! So glad my friends are alive and unhurt!

(via ourtriptojapan)

11 March 2011 reblog: littlebink Tokyo Japan Earthquake

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