Review of Rocco’s Pizza in Oji – some of the best I’ve had in Japan

(This review refers to a visit made in September 2011)

One of the common complaints I have heard from Americans in Japan (and felt myself, really) is the lack of certain foods. Mexican, deli sandwiches, and pizza tend to come up a lot.

But the landscape of pizza offerings in the Tokyo area has changed over the past few years. Instead of the typical delivery options with their array of exotic and expensive pies, there are now a few places that at least claim to offer America-quality pizza. Depending on where you’re from that might not sound like an attractive claim, but for me and no doubt many others, it’s oh-so tempting. Today we will focus on Rocco’s but I’d like to review all of them eventually.

Sbarro’s recently opened up in a few locations, and while I haven’t tried them, I have very big doubts about whether they can match even the low standards of their various rest stops and malls across the US of A.

A new craft beer bar in Kanda called Devil Craft also offers Chicago-style pizza that is pretty good and worth trying. There might be some other options in the west side of Tokyo, but it is rare for me to venture out there.

Then there’s Costco, which has a food stand with mainly pizza and hot dogs at their Japan locations. If I recall you need to sign up for a membership to even try it out, so that won’t be an option for a lot of residents here. For those who do join, you can avail yourself of the typical Costco pizza experience you’d have in America – that is, very greasy, thick, and ultimately kind of mediocre. But for a while I thought my infrequent stops at Costco were the only viable pizza option.

No more, thanks to the emergence of one Rocco’s Pizza in Oji. Located in northeast Tokyo near the Saitama border (on Keihin Tohoku line among others), Rocco’s advertises itself as a New York-style pizza chain. After a discussion popped up on Facebook about various pizza options, someone recommended this place and we decided to check it out.

If you read Japanese, the place is very easy to find. If you don’t tell your significant other or friend to get on the Google and find it! There’s a well fleshed-out entry in the Tabelog site and their own bare-bones website. But if not here is a rough approximation:

You enter and immediately see a pile of ready-made pies. You order and they reheat them, or if you order a less common slice or a whole pie they will make it fresh.

We got three slices: of cheese, pepperoni, and sausage & peppers. All the ingredients were fresh and real. These were some of the more conventional kinds, but they also offered exotic toppings like Hawaiian and margherita. Next time I might try the Mexican pizza.

The slices tasted like they should, with a sweet sauce and crispy crust. It was all perfectly cooked and if I had to compare it to back home, I’d say it’s on par with a moderately above-average pizza place. Now bear with me, that is HUGE praise for a pizza restaurant in Japan since decent pizza is so hard to come by.

The owner and operator is an American who moved here from Los Angeles to open the store. It’s a family-run place with a very friendly atmosphere. Apparently, the restaurant was named after the owner’s family cat, which sadly died during the immunization process required to bring pets into Japan.

On a more upbeat note, they plan to install a TV soon with all the channels to show sports for those of you who are into that kind of thing.

Word of mouth is apparently getting around, because the other party that night was another American male-Japanese female couple who came all the way from Yokohama to check it out. They were just as excited as I was to find a real, good place for authentic, real American pizza!

Update: We haven’t been back since, basically because it’s kind of out of the way. At some point we will probably head back over there. Also, I haven’t been able to convince coworkers to go since Devil Craft is so much closer. The owner spoke of opening in a more convenient location in the near future.

Posted in Food, Japan, Reviews, Tokyo | 1 Comment

Added a Japan SLAM Tumblr

On the top of the site you’ll now see a link to the official Tumblr of Japan SLAM. There it’s easier to post stuff that isn’t a complete thought. For instance I just randomly posted one of my favorite JPOP songs “Hane no Oreta Angel” by Ayumi Nakamura. No context – I just like the song. It’s also very easy to post to Tumblr from the iPhone.

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Who woulda thought: Company cafeterias are all the rage in Japan now

 

When I worked for Universal Studios Japan as a burger-flipper, I took my breaks at the company cafeteria. Unlike the park itself which features overpriced Western food, the cafeteria was all your typical Japanese fare – curry rice, soba in fish stock, ramen, fried pork cutlets, you get the idea. Never in a million years did I think a place like this would become anything more than a tolerated necessity.

Boy was I wrong. Now the employee cafeteria for Tanita, a company that makes digital scales and other body monitors, has become a sensation. Last year a cookbook based on the shop’s healthy menu items became a bestseller, and this year a Tanita Shokudo restaurant recently opened to the public near Tokyo Station to enormous buzz.

It’s funny how anything can become a phenomenon if you can market it the right way. In Tanita’s case, promoting their healthy-yet-delicious cafeteria was good way to play up the firm’s products. Also, Tanita is a household name now, which makes it much easier to start conversations with potential distributors.

And the publisher obtained a fresh angle to differentiate itself in the crowded healthy cookbook market. There is a certain WTF factor when you hear that such an ordinary-seeming place like a company cafeteria is suddenly the talk of the town. That edge has no doubt eroded by now since the emergence of many copycat books. I bought one with recipes from an Adachi-ku school cafeteria and so far have been pretty pleased with it. The pumpkin soup was especially memorable.

According to an article in the Nikkei (sub), the Tanita book came about after a publisher saw a puff piece on the Tanita cafeteria on NHK. And interestingly, the company president claims that the cafeteria itself originated in a discontinued promotion where the company operated a facility where people could talk to a nutritionist and learn healthy recipes. After the center closed, the company incorporated the recipes in the cafeteria menu.

 

Posted in Food, Japan, Tokyo | Tagged | 2 Comments

What people might be missing about AKB48 in Japan

CNN recently interviewed Yasushi Akimoto, the mastermind behind ubiquitously popular Japanese idol group AKB48. Take a look at the transcript here, it’s an interesting read. In this post I want to take a look at what it all means and maybe provide some context as a springboard for the comments section.

The big takeaway was the interviewer’s sharp questions about how the group sexualizes girls as young as 13 or 14. Akimoto denied it and said he is just creating art about the real issues faced by girls that age.

The interview has generated some interesting reactions. The message board site 2channel was divided, with one admitting that a video making two girls kiss is stepping over the line, while some drew equivalencies with the US entertainment industry where young girls are occasionally promoted similarly.

In the English language blogosphere, reactions included calling the interview “interesting and horrible all at once” and one Japanese blogger (culled from Google) who defended the group: “it is natural that an idol dresses excessively.”

As a Westerner used to American pop culture and values, it obviously looks weird to see a group of underage and underage-looking performers so brazenly sexualized.

That is all well and good, but to provide some context I think there are a few important things to point out.

First, there is a big industry of “idols” in Japan that are used in all manner of pop culture, and have long been promoted in weekly manga, DVDs, music releases, and TV appearances for some who crossed over. AKB48 came from this tradition and proceeded to completely dominate it. The tactics they used were a bit more creative, and the promoters ramp up the sexy innuendo just a tad more than is typical for a different idol group.

Second, AKB48 is presented in wildly different ways to different audiences, and I think this is key to their crossover appeal. Once upon a time Japanese TV was notorious for raunchy exploitative content. The exploitation remains but the raunchiness has been toned down quite a bit. As far as I can tell, the AKB48 shown in commercials and TV shows has no girl-on-girl action and only a level of sexiness on par with a K-Pop idol group. Their appearance on public broadcaster NHK’s year-end music special (catch this clip on YouTube) was totally family friendly, for instance.

But then there is the other AKB48 presented to the hardcore fans and young men. This includes their ongoing dominance in the color photos in weekly manga, the YouTube videos, the DVDs, and on and on. Here the sexiness is ramped up to near-porn levels to entertain the fans and keep them coming back.

Thing is, very rarely will the mainstream be subject to the sleazier side of AKB48. The CNN interview did just that and made them look unseemly even to many Japanese. That AKB48 can get away with this is kind of amazing.

Also, because of this multi-pronged marketing strategy, the group means different things to different people. In Akimoto’s words:

Every person listening to their music and watching DVDs have different opinions of AKB48.  In other words, because the girls are really cute, the attraction for some people is that they imagine them as their girlfriends or their idols. Girls who are around the same age as the AKB girls try to become like them and work really hard towards that. With the older generations, it’s not that they are striving to realize their dreams like AKB, but they want to cheer the girls on. This idea has spread quickly.

So beyond the hardcore target audience of young to middle-aged males, other people have come to like the group as well, even if they don’t buy the CDs. By dint of becoming popular and being attractive enough, they have gained a legitimacy and likability that makes them suitable to be put on TV and in advertising.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that one of the biggest reasons Japanese consumers like idols or boy bands etc. even if they aren’t traditionally “talented” is that they can identify with all the hard work the people put in. As he mentioned in the above quote, Akimoto knows people will want to support a group if they can see how hard they are working.

This was one of the core insights that SMAP had in the 1990s that has translated into possibly a lifetime of consistent fame. From Philip Brasor’s excellent Media Mix column:

Because they appear on TV so often, the five men, ranging in age from 34 to 39, have occasionally admitted that they know they aren’t talented. It isn’t just false modesty. They aren’t talented; at least, not in the way that people profiled on “The Professional” usually are. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t professionals. They are professional idols…

Idols don’t have to be capable, because they represent the hopes and dreams of people who will never be idols. That’s why they do more talking than singing in concert. It’s why SMAP spent so much time on its Chinese stage patter. “We have to become partners with the audience,” Kusanagi said, laying out the whole purpose of idolhood.

Akimoto denies being a businessman, but all evidence points to him being a major creative force not just in putting the group together but also in formulating the marketing strategy. If nothing else, he deserves credit as, to borrow the words of music critic J Smooth, an “evil scientist of pop music” who has managed to create this amazingly successful group.

Posted in Japan, Music, Ranting | 31 Comments

Inaugural post – why I am starting a new blog

I am stuck home sick today, so to pass the time in a semi-productive way I’ve decided to launch this new blog as a place for thoughts that won’t fit on Twitter. For now it’ll be here but I might move it to its own domain at some point.

For those of you who know me I used to blog at mutantfrog.com, but that site is broken now and the owner hasn’t gotten around to fixing it. I might post there again if it gets fixed, but until now I was stranded.

Basically, I still have a lot I want to express, and I want to make a positive contribution. Twitter has created a really interesting community of people talking about Japan in English, and the increased connections mean it’s possible to have an even more interactive and meaningful conversation than was possible with just a blog.

The idea of starting my own presence again has been kicking around in my head for a while now, but what spurred me into action is the response by Spiked Japan to Eamonn Fingleton’s recent New York Times op-ed. Fingleton used very questionable evidence to make the contrarian claim that Japan is in fact a huge economic success story that should be emulated. And in response Spike Japan offered a rebuttal that I felt was just too mean-spirited and disrespectful. Japan is my home, and it’s got a lot of great things to offer along with the just OK, kinda crappy, and downright despicable. I feel like adding a more even-handed voice could help raise the discourse to a level worthy of such a dynamic and fascinating place.

The blog is called Japan SLAM for a couple reasons. First, one focus of the site will be Japan and its critics. When someone puts the smackdown or lavishes praise on something Japan-related you might read about it here. I always find it interesting to see people’s views on the country or different aspects of it and plan on highlighting them here.

I also mean slam in the poetry slam sense – the cool thing about poetry slams is you can just let out all your frustration and anger in verse form. I’ll be a little more controlled and wonkish here, but hopefully you get the idea. Consider the site a forum on whatever I am interested in at the time.

So I am hoping to go into this project with a few guiding principles:

1. Stay positive – One practice I have tried to develop on Twitter is to avoid negative, hateful or overly sarcastic/snarky comments. Whenever I think of something negative to say often I’ll type it out, read it over, and then just delete it. I mean, it is the Internet after all, so negativity is par for the course. So even when I am talking about things like the Fingleton-Spiked debate, I hope to stay mature and magnanimous enough not to get into a flame war.

That said, when people are wrong they’re wrong, and as Paul Krugman recently said, this stuff matters.

2. Keep it concise – Out of respect for the readers and to keep my own thoughts organized, I want to keep the posts as concise and to the point as possible. Readers are not going to stick around if I don’t out and say what I want to say, so it’s only respectful to be succinct. Some posts like this one might get a little long, but I’ll try and make it worth your while.

3. Don’t worry about people “doing it wrong” – There is an obsession with getting things right and being “real” especially among American nerds like myself, and among gaijin in Japan there is often a temptation to place people in a hierarchy of awesomeness. In general these are not productive or happy ways to go about life. I want to maintain a tone of respect and tolerance for others. There is such a fascinating diversity out there I don’t want to limit myself. Of course, staking out a position on the high ground may itself be condescending and judgmental, but hey at least I am trying to try.

Hatin’ is bad, and one of the lamest things to hate on is other people’s success, especially in the Japan punditry realm – that includes people making money, people getting their work in high-profile publications, getting books published, that sort of thing. I should just come out and say hey, it’s natural to feel a little envy when someone has a cool byline or gets a lot of attention for an article or a book. It’s just an issue that’s out there as someone who is in a related field and is also out there writing stuff. It won’t stop me from commenting on it of course, but keeping that stuff in mind should help keep me honest on  that front.

4. Go with your instincts – Over-thinking and taking on overly ambitious topics were constant problems for me when writing for Mutant Frog. It led to many many unfinished posts. So for this blog it will be more beneficial to keep things simple and go with my gut.

5. Adopt a bottom-up approach – I am not a media pundit or a national security analyst or what have you, so the resources for me to give a overall picture of “Japan” as an entity or anywhere else for that matter are very limited. Indeed, the concept of “Japan” as a monolith is very fraught and should be treated carefully. So the scope of this blog should be granular – based on my own experiences or what I have come across.

These are very aspirational goals, so it’s an open question whether I can adhere to them, or even if I will keep up posting. But that’s the kind of site I want.

Posted in Japan, Ranting | 12 Comments