My Pushcart in Yokohama

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a year off to teach English in Japan to help pay for tuition. Having experienced taco truck street food while attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, I yearned for the late night snack and saw an opportunity to introduce a decent street taco to the Tokyo late-night crowd. Japan had not discovered Mexican food back in the 80s. Tacos were a caricature of the real thing, cabbage was often substituted for lettuce and the only tortillas you could find were El Paso’s fried hard shells at the expat grocery store. 

There is a long tradition of street food in Japan. Scores of ramen or oden pushcarts (yatai) could be found at every railway station with groups of salarymen grabbing a bite after a long day at the office or a night of karaoke. The yatai business is hyper-competitive and you would often spot dusty old pushcarts under railroad bridges, abandoned by someone who had tried and failed to bootstrap their career. My thought was to reclaim one of these old carts, fix it up, and introduce my tacos in the streets of Tokyo after my evening English lessons. Encouraged by my fellow English teachers, I felt I had a core group of regular customers with which to start and it seemed easy enough to fix up an old yatai, find a spare spot, and set up shop. Boy was I wrong.

Locating an old yatai that was abandoned and in decent condition was easy enough. During my spare time between classes I found some carts that were parked a good distance away from any station that appeared no longer in use. There were several of them in what looked like an old yatai graveyard. I found an old one that clearly had not been used for a long time and left a note asking if I could take it. I came back several days in a row to check. When I was confident the owner was long gone, I set to work refurbishing it for service.

I visited the local government office to ask what was required to open a yatai and received a document with several pages of requirements. My basic Japanese translation of the document listed out things such as a source of running water, refrigeration, and a way to keep the food warm. All these would be examined at an inspection by the health authorities before I could get a license.

Perhaps it was my naiveté but I chose a creatively liberal interpretation to meet these requirements:

  • Running water? A 20-gallon plastic jug with a hose connected to a spigot running into a “sink” which was a plastic bucket with a hole drilled out of the bottom.
  • Refrigeration? I cut a series of styrofoam panels and glued them to the walls of a cabinet and fashioned a door to seal it shut.
  • Burner? I placed two portable table-top gas burners into a rack I fashioned to hold them and the pots of taco fillings I would serve.

I think the old health inspector took pity on the innocent gaijin kid with a capitalistic gleam in his eye because when I rolled my contraption to the government office for my appointment, he took a cursory glance, listened patiently to my explanation of how I satisfied all the checkboxes on the form, grunted his approval, and stamped my certificate! All I needed now was a location, this is when I learned about the yakuza.

The yatai business in Japan, is lightly regulated by the government (as demonstrated by my easy approval), but strictly controlled by the yakuza. The area immediately around each train or subway station, while clear during the day, hosts a warren of cozy little noodle stands that crop up around 8 or 9 pm each evening. Every open spot is “controlled” by the local gang who takes a share of the revenues as “protection money” to keep things running smoothly. The yakuza runs interference with the local government, police, and rival gangs to keep them out of the hair of the proprietors and for this service, each yatai owner pays the gang a cut of their profits. A noodle stand can clear between $1000 – $3000 a night so it’s a good business so long as everyone’s happy and things are running smoothly.

My English school was near Yokohama station, a major terminus south of Tokyo so the streets leading to the station were already crowded with many yatai, all with their own specialties and faithful regulars. Of course no one was serving tacos so I felt that was my in. I had scouted out a location on a street under a nearby highway overpass that was in between a busy nightclub district and the station so I felt I could grab some people on their way home or going out for the evening. It was also on the way home from the English school so convenient for the teachers and students as well. It appeared that the space was open so I asked the nearby yatai owners if it would be ok if I opened my stand in that spot.

There is a clear pecking order among all the yatai and I was directed to one stand lording over a fork in the road, a prime spot at the nexus of two major walking routes to the station. The yatai was a ramen cart and the broad shouldered proprietor had such a steady stream of clientele that he required two satellite tables to serve all his customers. I bought a bowl of his excellent tonkotsu and after making small talk about the secret of his broth, explained my street taco concept and how I might go about securing a spot down the road and how much the “protection money” would cost. He explained to me that I would have to meet “the man,” explain my business, and this person would negotiate a fee and grant his permission. I asked when I might meet this mysterious person who didn’t have a name and was told that he would introduce me when appropriate.

Several nights passed and each time I would stop by the ramen stand and ask if “the man” was around and each time was told I had either just missed him or that he had not come by that night. Finally, after about two weeks, I decided that the only way I was going to meet this guy was just to set up my stand and he would come by sooner or later, the chips would fall and I would then know what I was working with. I made final preparations, cooked up a batch of taco fillings to open for business after my last lesson.

Opening night was a roaring success. All the English teachers and several students came by to try out my 300 yen tacos. I sold cans of beer out of a cooler and all the activity attracted a few curious barmaids on their way to work and they promised to tell their friends. No “man” came by on the first night, neither on the second. Just as I was beginning to wonder if such a guy existed, on the third night a cheery guy just looking for a good time stopped by and was full of questions about what I was doing.


My imagination prepared me for some scarface gangster in a black suit and red tie but I was totally thrown off by this guy with the fashion sense of a carnival barker. He was such a bundle of joy I showered him with free beers and tacos and me and my English teacher friends quickly won him over. He clearly enjoyed the music we were playing (I think it was Aretha Franklin) and loved the vibe. Later that evening, as I was cleaning things up and he was on his 5th can of Asahi Dry , I broached the topic of “rent” and he shrugged it off and patted me on the shoulder and said that he wanted to do his bit for international relations and sponsor my stand gratis!


I continued the stand the rest of that year, later bringing on a partner who ran the stand on alternate evenings so I could get some time off. One evening it was pouring rain so my partner and I decided not to open for business. The next night, when I was setting up, he was waiting for me, sitting on the curb. He scolded me saying that if I wanted to establish regular customers it was imperative that I be open, rain or shine. A fundamental rule of business that I have never forgotten.

My yatai adventure ended that Summer as I got ready to return to college but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. The hardest part of starting a business is starting. Once you gain momentum, people and promise have a way of materializing and turning your dream into reality. And with the right attitude, barriers that you imagine for yourself are just that, your imagination. Chip away at anything and it’s all just people.


A tale of two incentives

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today, The Guardian

It is standard practice for a Japanese company to pay for an employee’s commute expenses. The government will not tax the company nor will the employee be taxed for the cost of their monthly commute pass. In a sense, the government bears the cost of transporting a company’s workforce, which allows them to spend their resources on locating themselves as close as they can to their customers and vendors who are, mostly, in Tokyo.

As the Guardian article points out, this has allowed for a network of “bed towns” to spring up along the spurs of each of the high speed rail lines to branch out from Tokyo supporting further centralization of the city. Think of Tokyo as a the capital of government, entertainment, media, finance, and business all rolled into one megalopolis. The equivalent of Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago all rolled into one. It is very difficult for a business to be located outside of this center and succeed and, with the commute subsidy, very little reason to do so.

The Japanese commute expense subsidy gives incentives for people to use the public transportation industry so, as a result, Japan has one of the best public transportation systems in the world.

Contrast this with how the tax incentives in the United States work. Mortgage interest is by far the biggest deduction you can apply to your income which supports the housing industry and, more directly, the banks. While this has allowed for distributed population centers to pop up around the country where ever people decide to invest in their home but has also contributed to successive housing bubbles.

Which would you rather have? A kick-ass public transit system that efficiently gets you where you want to go or an over-valued ranch house in the suburbs and an hour commute by car each way into work?

Radio Taiso

Radio Taiso (ラジオ体操) is as core to growing up in Japan as the Pledge of Allegiance is to an American. Before school, kids are lead through these exercises which have been a standard for years. Wikipedia says that Radio Calisthenics was something actually imported from the US where the MetLife was broadcasting a 15 minute exercise routing during the 1920s.

Here is your plain, vanilla, NHK-approved Radio Taiso video.

Because it’s so universal, there are endless parodies. Here are a few I found.

and my favorite, Salaryman Taiso

Bonus Video – Japanese Precision Walkers

Japan as the great curator

The Smithsonian Magazine shares a trend that any American who has spent anytime poking around the back alleys of Tokyo knows in their bones. The Japanese have a loving appreciation of American culture that runs deeper that Americans.

From burbon to jazz, denim to hamburgers, the attention to detail of the Japanese is flawless. If you have a chance to peruse the magazine racks of Kinokuniya, a Japanese book seller found in several US cities, look for magazines dedicated to fashion where issues will go into great detail on how to dress as a fixie-riding hipster or a 1920’s dandy, the Japanese have taken loving imitation to a new level of reverence.

In keeping with the “same as is ever was” theme of this blog, when new trends from Japan make it to the shores of America, we see refined American culture filtered, improved, and made better for the discerning retroactivist.

  • Blue Bottle Coffee and the barista culture? Think of it as the Japanese tea ceremony applied to coffee.
  • Moleskin notebooks? The Japanese have a deep appreciation of calligraphy and Evernote’s success in Japan as an online version of the notebook is a reflection of that. Japan’s love of stationary is legendary.
  • High End Audio? Only in Japan will the local record shop let you sample the inner tones of Ella Fitzgerald on a set of McIntosh tube amps.

japanese knife

There’s a special way that the Japanese sensibility has focused on what is great, distinctive and worthy of protection in American culture, even when Americans have not realized the same thing. It isn’t a passing fad. It’s a long-standing part of Japanese culture, and, come to think of it, as more Americans are exposed to U.S. products revived or reinterpreted by Japanese designers, the aesthetic is becoming part of American culture, too. If you ever wonder which of the reigning American tastes, sounds, designs or styles will last into the future, there’s no better place to answer that question than in the stores and restaurants, the bars and studios of Japan. They often know us better than we know ourselves.

Further Reading:

Wonderful story of a Japanese furniture craftsman in Osaka – Beyond Jiro of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”: Japanese Craftsmanship at its finest; furniture edition

The Importance of Being Human

The New York Times has a front page story about the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition. In this day of automated voice mail trees and customer service forms, Japan still stresses the importance of having a human answer the phone  promptly and efficiently.

Reception desk at NTT Docomo
Reception desk at NTT Docomo

What is ironic is that, to the Western ear, the high-pitched tones and honorifics used by the people that answer the phones sound almost saccharine in tone (check out the video). There are strict protocols on how to address the caller that come from a long tradition of customer service in Japan. The customer is not only always right, in Japan, the customer is God.

As an American, it’s tempting to poke fun at the robotic, rule-based behavior of the elevator operators and department store greeters but look at us. The West has automated itself to the point where many hi-tech firms do not even advertise a phone number or, if they do, have re-directs on their voice mail instructing you to shoot off an email into the ether.

Which would you prefer, a person that sounds like a robot or an actual robot?

Why Ise is rebuilt every 20 years

Ise Shrine

The Shinto shrines of Ise in central Japan are famous because they have been re-built every 20 years for hundreds of years (2013 is a re-building year). In an example of long term thinking, there is a special grove of cedar trees that are grown specifically so that they may be harvested in time for the next rebuilding. The same family of carpenters have been taking care of the rebuilding, each generation being trained by the one before.

But there are some even more interesting details about Ise that I only learned today. The shrine is designed in the style of old rice warehouses. One might think that any design that needs to be rebuilt every 20 years must be flawed but there is, in fact, a reason for this design.

via The Long Now blog is this quote from Junko Edahiro on why the Ise shrines are designed this way.

A great deal of rain usually falls in Japan’s early-summer monsoon, and as the thatched roof absorbs rainwater it becomes heavier. The heavy roof presses down on the walls, and this closes gaps between the wall boards, keeping the inside dry. In summer, the roof dries out and becomes lighter, allowing air to pass through the building and this also keeps it dry. Thus, the roof and pillars function together like a living organism to securely protect the seed rice from moisture and pests.

It seems to me, this harmony between form and function is uniquely Japanese, uniquely Shinto.

So now you know.

Specialty Coffee around the World


The New York Times has a piece about the San Francisco coffee scene, specifically the barista training upstairs from the local temple of the perfect cup, Sightglass.

While the West Coast style of brewing is making it’s way to Japan in places like Shibuya, Japan has it’s own professional brewing method which they take very seriously. It’s called siphoning.