“There’s a new cafe in town, master”

  • A maid looking for new cafe customers in Akiharaba, Tokyo
    A maid looking for new cafe customers in Akiharaba, Tokyo
  • A billboard for a (No. 1) maid cafe in Akiharaba, Tokyo
    A billboard for a (No. 1) maid cafe in Akiharaba, Tokyo
  • Akiharaba, Tokyo
    Akiharaba, Tokyo
  • Manga themed cafes are big too
    Manga themed cafes are big too
  • And so are whatever this is...
    And so are whatever this is...

You can find just about anything in New York City. Most of the world’s cultural exports end up here eventually, from bubble tea to bike lanes. But Japanese culture has only made its way selectively into this city’s cultural landscape. Despite the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture like anime and manga here in the U.S., the Japanese have largely left the weirder stuff back home, until now. The first Maid Cafe has just opened in Chinatown. Theme cafes are big in Japan, and especially hostess cafes which are a special blend of fantasy and female degradation where waitresses dress up in elaborate and often skimpy costumes and flirt with their, mostly socially awkward, male customers. In the Akiharaba district of Tokyo, young waitresses dressed as French maids, school girls and manga characters in platform pumps and thigh highs hand out invitations on the busy streets to passing potential customers. They were all too happy to pose for pictures too, as I found out.

At the maid cafes in Japan, waitresses greet male guests as “master,” listen dotingly, flatter and giggle behind menus. It’s an exaggerated femininity of the kind that feels uniquely Japanese. But, in some ways it’s familiar. What is Hooters if not a fantasy bar where buxom waitresses serve atomic wings instead of matcha? There is one small, but significantly disturbing difference though. There is no mistaking the Hooters waitresses for girls. Whereas the primary look of waitresses at many hostess cafes, and the popular look for Japanese woman in general, is kawaii, meaning cute, as in young, often a little too young. Hence, the popularity of the school girl look. At the Maid Cafe in Chinatown the French maid outfits are maintained but the rest of the experience has been finessed for the American crowd. The cafe holds special events where “traditional” maid service is offered. But regular service involves no references to guests as”masters,” or cartoonish flirtations, just young women in frilly maid outfits serving chicken curry with heart-shaped rice for $6.95.


    Day of the Dead: Hungarian style

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    Kerepesi Cemetery is the Père Lachaise or Recoleta of Budapest; where the city’s rich and famous are laid to rest. Budapest’s streets are named after many of the prominent writers, politicians and national heroes buried among the cemetery’s shady pathways and grand mausoleums. Personally, I find cemeteries to be an uncomfortable tourist attraction. But it’s difficult to resist the allure of these grand cemeteries if only for their sheer aesthetic power. Especially when on All Saints Day, better known as the Day of the Dead or the day after Halloween here in the U.S., the graves are illuminated with candles and covered in flowers to commemorate the dead who have not yet reached heaven- famous and obscure alike. Today’s Halloween traditions are an amalgam of the pagan and Christian traditions commemorating the dead and celebrating the harvest. In Hungary, All Saints Day is pretty sombre stuff – no sexy vampire costumes for miles, just a lot of people coming to pray and pay their respects at cemeteries throughout the country. Here are some pictures I took at Kerepesi on All Saints Day in 2009.


      You’ve come a long way, Columbus Circle

      • c.1894
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      • c. 1960
        c. 1960
      • c. 1980
        c. 1980
      • Columbus Circle as it appears today viewed from the Time Warner Center
        Columbus Circle as it appears today viewed from the Time Warner Center

      In the early 1990′s in New York City, on the southwest corner of Central Park a few blocks down from Lincoln Center, lay a disused blocky convention center, a strange Venetianesque latticework building and a few other functional butnondescript structures. This hodgepodge group all crowded around a traffic circle that was decorated with parked motorcycles and punctuated by a sooty column topped by a statue of a famous dead white man. The buildings all seemed to face this traffic circle expectantly, as if asking: why must our fate be to stare at you day after day? You are a blight on our fair city. Alas, we are doomed to continue staring at you until someone comes along with better plans for us all.

      This was the Columbus Circle that I knew as a child. Today it is the manicured center of high-end shopping and living. Recently, Columbus Circle was named Best Roundabout in the World 2013 by the Roundabout Appreciate Society (which should itself be voted Most Unapologetically British Society 2013). Fountains and careful landscaping have replaced the motorcycles, Columbus and his column have received a scrub down, the weird latticework building whose arcade was essentially a homeless shelter, has been discreetly covered up and is now the Museum of Arts and Design, the abandoned convention center (a Robert Moses creation) was torn down to make way for the billion dollar Time Warner Center, and Donald Trump took over the anonymous glass tower by the park. Actual people, lots of them, sit on the benches backed by a row of fountains. It’s easy to romanticize the “bad old days” of New York and confuse grit and neglect with authenticity, but Columbus Circle itself is a gleaming example of a resuscitated public space. And while I wish it didn’t mean that William Sonoma and Whole Foods are today as much of a draw to this corner of the city as Jazz at Lincoln Center, I am very glad the motorcycle parking lot is a distant memory.


        Takayama Festival

        Takayama festival (2)

        One year (and a week) ago, I was in the alpine region of Japan (yes, there is one) awaiting the start of a festival. Every fall and spring, the tiny town of Takayama becomes the site of a 400-year-old festival that celebrates the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine with ornate floats called yatai that drip with illuminated lanterns. During my trip I kept a travel blog called Massaging the Octopus. Here’s my post from the festival with photos and some observations. On the first night of the festival the yatai get trotted out into the streets of Takayama, carried by teams of very fit locals. At the end of a narrow street, the crowd was especially thick and the music of a flute could be heard.  This is where being 5’2 comes in handy. I burrowed my way through the crowd and got to see this.

          Where’s the boef?

          norman conquest

          I guess lamb wasn’t popular in medieval England otherwise we’d be eating rack of agneau. Let me explain. Ever wonder why we eat beef but raise cows? Why once sheep hit the stock pot, they become mutton? Well, like with most overcomplicated things, we have the French to thank.  The Norman conquest of England brought French habits and words to the English language, specifically, as one would expect, many food words. While the invading Normans enjoyed the luxuries and foods of their newly conquered land, the local Saxons were left on the farm. Thus, the French brought to court their food language: mouton (sheep), boef (cow), veau (calf), poulet (fowl), porc (pig), which eventually becomes mutton, beef, veal, poultry and pork. As with most things, the Supersizers do a much better job explaining this in costume, if you can get past Giles Coren’s deafening chewing noises.

            Ugly Produce

            ugly produce

            The cult of beautiful food is possibly peaking at this very moment. With everyone instagramming their breakfast in all its Lo-Fi glory, we want our food to be beautiful and look perfect. Blemished means unhealthy and despite the rise of knobby heirloom tomatoes, we still value good looking food. Yet shape has little to do with the taste and freshness of a fruit or vegetable, and consumers’ desire for produce perfection leads to billions of dollars in food waste each year. A new report from the National Resources Defense Council cites that $165 billion in edible food is thrown out of fridges, from grocery stores and from farms each year. Much of that waste is due simply to expiration dates which are a loose indicator of freshness, at best. But it’s more than just the tyranny of the expiration date, it’s also the tyranny of food aesthetics that is leading to so much food loss when billions of people around the world still cannot afford three meals a day and the price of food climbs ever higher. The USDA stipulates that all commercially grown produce must be at least 90 percent blemish-free. Though the growth of farmer’s markets has provided some promise in terms of reeducating people to accept what normal fruits and vegetables actually look like, solutions for ugly food waste mostly seem to be coming from the nonprofit quarter. Organizations like New Jersey-based Farmers Against Hunger enable farmers to donate their extra produce to local food charities. But this is America, and if ugly produce is to have a chance, only a market-based solution will ensure their disfigured survival.

            Strangely, the Europeans are beating us to it. Last fall after a turbulent growing season, the British were left with a bounty of aesthetically impaired produce. But instead of rejecting the deformed crops, Sainsbury’s, one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, relaxed their standards and put the misshapen, discolored and undersized produce on their shelves and hoped for their customers’ understanding. Since then there has been a veritable outcry against the food waste and the estimated 30% of UK fruit and vegetables that are never harvested simply because of their imperfect appearance. But it seems that at least in the U.K., consumers are ready for a change. Last year the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published a report that surveyed over 2000 people, 80% of whom said they would buy imperfect produce. A few European grocers are taking notice. German supermarket chain Edeka, just started a pilot program to sell unconventional looking produce and Suisse chain Coop launched their “unique” food line in a third of its stores in August. In the Netherlands where 10% of ugly produce is wasted, a Dutch company called Krom Kommer is “committed to crazy vegetables” linking growers, wholesalers, restaurant and consumers to take a chance on homely fruits and vegetables. You can also buy from them direct on their website where products made out of misshaped produce are sold (check out their Christmas gift basket featuring some nice looking cheese (from a deformed cow?), if you can read Dutch). Hopefully ugly produce won’t just stay big in Europe but will make the leap across the pond to end the tyranny of the beautiful and fill more bellies along the way.


              Vegetarians for voting rights

              life1-500x777It’s World Vegetarian Day! For all our meat-shunning friends it’s a day to celebrate the earth’s bounty while sneering at the barbarians who still partake of flesh (me!). Also, it’s a day to remember a piece of forgotten women’s history. Feminist theory has long highlighted the common subjugation of women and animals in a patriarcal world where meat-eating plays an integral role in male dominance. In mid-19th century America, the early vegetarian movement was closely linked with several reform movements including animal welfare, health reform, abolition and women’s suffrage. The American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850 under the leadership of several prominent American health reformers of the day, including noted vegetarian Reverend Sylvester Graham (of Graham cracker fame). It was the first society of it’s kind in the U.S and attracted supporters the like of Susan B. Anthony, who was known to throw vegetarian dinners but also still enjoyed the odd turkey and cow.

              In the U.K. where vegetarian diets were being adopted up by the upper classes, London was teeming with vegetarian eateries. By the 1880′s, 30 new vegetarian restaurants had opened in London. These restaurants, as well as tea rooms, became popular meeting spots for suffragettes as there were few places where women could gather alone together outside the home. Away from the steaming kitchen and roast beef dinners, vegetarian restaurants also set an example of the kind of simple and fast cooking that could liberate women from the stove. Eventually women created their own spaces. London’s Minerva Club was founded by the Women’s Freedom League in 1920 attracting women from all branches of the women’s suffrage movement. Knowing their clientele, the club’s restaurant advertised that its vegetarian dishes were cooked separately and entirely free of animal fat. Eight years later the Representation of the People Act granted all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.



                Welcome to the Republic of Užupis

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                • A mermaid takes a seat by the river on the Uzupis border.
                  A mermaid takes a seat by the river on the Uzupis border.
                • The constitution has been translated into 18 languages and is exhibited on the street in the heart of Uzupis, that is, just across the river.
                  The constitution has been translated into 18 languages and is exhibited on the street in the heart of Uzupis, that is, just across the river.
                • Like Uzupis, its constitution has some quirky elements. Clauses include:  "Everyone is responsible for their freedom"; "Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday"; "Everyone has the right to be happy"; "Everyone has the right to be unhappy";
"Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation." (That's me behind the clauses)
                  Like Uzupis, its constitution has some quirky elements. Clauses include: "Everyone is responsible for their freedom"; "Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday"; "Everyone has the right to be happy"; "Everyone has the right to be unhappy"; "Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation." (That's me behind the clauses)
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                Having micronations on the brain reminds me of when, a few years ago on a rainy spring day in Vilnius, Lithuania, I unknowingly wandered into another country. On one side of a narrow foot bridge bedazzled with love locks, a standard road sign temps visitors to cross the Vilnia River and enter the Republic of Užupis. Appropriately, Užupis means “on the other side of the river.” This micronation is also a neighborhood in Vilnius’ old town with lots of shops and galleries, which declared itself independent on April Fools’ Day, 1997. At 0.2 square miles with an army of 11, its own currency, anthem and constitution, the Republic’s main agenda is to promote the arts, which they did by erecting a monument to Frank Zappa as one of its first initiatives. This utopian project also has a president: Romas Lileikis, a local artist. After the war, the neighborhood was largely abandoned and by the time Užupis was formed it had become derelict. Today, it is a bohemian nook that is increasingly home to wealthy professionals, including Vilnius’ own mayor. 


                  From the Sea, Freedom

                  photo via Lapham's Quarterly

                  photo via LaphamsQuarterly.org

                  Six miles off the English coast in the choppy North Sea waters stand two cement pylons supporting a platform spanning about 6,000 square feet. This is Her Majesty’s Fort Roughs, an abandoned World War II sea fort. It is also The Principality of Sealand – one of the world’s smallest self-proclaimed nations. For over forty years, the Bates family has clung to their nation of iron and cement, isolated by water, dabbling in business ventures, narrowly avoiding invasions and creating a dynasty based on the freedom of the unclaimed sea. While many projects in micronationalism have come and gone, Sealand lives on. E Mare Libertas, “From the sea, freedom.”



                    The historic healing power of the beach

                    Image via Wiki Commons

                    Image via Wiki Commons

                    What if your doctor actually prescribed you a trip to the beach? These days we go to the beach to relax and rejuvenate. But we used to believe that a trip to the beach would actually cure us. Eighteenth century British beachgoers dunked themselves in the chilly waters of the North Sea to relieve their moral and physical ailments. For decades, taking in sea air and drinking seawater was prescribed with medical certainty. Through the tuberculosis epidemic of the nineteenth century, the seaside was a place of refuge and rehabilitation for the wealthy. Eventually, as the middle class flocked to the beach in the twentieth century, we turned our gazes from the sea to the sun–the new source of therapeutic wonder that rejuvenated and revitalized us with the tans to prove it. Here’s the full story on The Atlantic.