Haircut and history

NOTE: I just heard today that Mas Nonaka, a member of the local Japanese American community who has cut hair at several iterations of his barbershop, Nonaka’s, in and around Sakura Square since before the block was called Sakura Square, passed away.

Nonaka’s was where I first got my hair cut when my family moved to Denver from northern Virginia in 1972, and his shop at the time was on 20th Street across from the Buddhist Temple. Mas and his wife Yasuko (who styled women’s hair in the shop) were familiar figures whenever my family and I went to Sakura Square.

In recent years, I would see Mas and Yasuko at many Japanese American community events. He was always upbeat and very warm, even though I could see the years had cloaked themselves around him. He always called me “Gilbert” because that’s how he knew me, from my dad. It was when I went to college, everyone started calling my Gil. I never minded him calling me by my full name.

He had moved his shop to the ground level of Sakura Square for some years, and I know he wanted to sell the business, but it seemed younger barbers weren’t interested in small, family-owned barbershops. They would rather work for a chain, or maybe save money to buy a chain’s franchise. The past couple of years, Mas had relocated his shop to the mezzanine level of Sakura Square but it was rarely open when I walked past it.

I’m sad on hearing about his passing because Mas was the subject of the second-ever “Nikkei View” column I wrote way back in 1998, when the Rocky Mountain Jiho newspaper, now long-gone, asked me to write weekly columns for them.

I’m “repurposing” that second column today in his honor. Rest in peace, Mas…
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Read who, how and why Japanese settled in Colorado

Most books about Japanese Americans focus on the West Coast because that’s where Japanese first arrived and settled on the US mainland.

So few well-known books tell the stories of Japanese as they crossed the country and decided to live in the mountains, or the midwest, or the northeast or the south. Yet I know of communities of JAs in New York (not surprising), Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska and Utah. I have JA family in Atlanta who speak with a sweet Southern drawl. I recently interviewed a JA woman in Nashville, Tennessee (who admitted the Japanese community there is minuscule and good Japanese restaurants hard to find).

The point is, the Japanese American story isn’t just about California, Oregon and Washington (and Hawai’i). We’re spread out, and quite often, the stories behind our arrival away from the West Coast can be compelling and as rich with history and promise, hopes and dreams, tragedy and triumph as the stories of the pioneering families who settled on the coast.

That’s why I enjoyed reading “We Chose Colorado,” a collection of oral histories from Japanese and Japanese Americans who live in Colorado — mostly in the Denver area. The book is by Joyce Lebra, Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado and a longtime expert on Japan and India. She’s written non-fiction books about the history of Japan, as well as novels set in Japan. Lebra was raised in Hawai’i and lived in Japan for 10 years. She received her doctorate in Japanese History from Harvard and Radcliffe, and lived through a big moment in Japanese history herself.
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Real ramen is finally coming to Denver, and it’s about time

osaka ramen

My most recent Denver ramen was at the original Osaka Ramen location in the RiNo district. I had the special Miso Ramen of the day with an order of kara age fried chicken.

sobadeliveryjapoan1960sI grew up in Japan when I was a kid, and have vivid memories of bowls of ramen and soba noodles stacked high in bowls or boxes, being delivered by crazy men riding bicycles through crazy Tokyo traffic like the photo on the right. Ramen had been around since the late 1800s in Japan, but it was during the post-WWII years, and particularly in the 1960s, when ramen became the ubiquitous Japanese comfort food it is today.

I loved ramen as a child, and when my family moved to the states in the mid-‘60s I was sad to find that ramen wasn’t sold in the few Japanese restaurants that were available here. But in 1970 Nissin, the company that invented instant ramen in 1958 began selling instant ramen in the U.S. The next year, the company rolled out Cup Noodles.

Several generations of college students have grown up with instant ramen and Cup Noodles since the ’70s. Who can argue when each savory serving can cost just pennies? Lots of people even use instant ramen as a base for fancier dishes by adding meats and vegetables. But I think that’s cheating. If you want to have some “real” ramen, nothing beats going to a good ramen-ya (shop) for a steaming bowl.

The steaming hot soup of a real bowl of ramen is salty and meaty with hints of chicken, pork and fish bathing together like it’s a friendly hot tub of flavor, and the noodles are firm and chewy (though a good ramen-ya will offer the option to have your noodles hard or soft to your liking) with just the right amount of absorption of the soup, and the toppings can be creative but respect tradition. The experience is several cuts above plopping a square of fried dried noodles into a saucepan for five minutes or pouring boiling water into the styrofoam cup and waiting two minutes with the top flap closed (no peeking!). Instant ramen is cheap, but it’s not food for the soul. The noodles are immediately limp, the soup is flavored hot water (though it can fool your brain into thinking you just ate some real food) and out of the box the topping are… well, there are no toppings.
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Meet Frank Jang and the Chinatown Photographic Society

Frank Jang at the Chinatown Photographic Society in San Francisco.

Frank Jang at the Chinatown Photographic Society in San Francisco.

As a visitor walks down the steps to the gallery space, he’s greeted by the buzz of people discussing photography. Bright lighting illuminates dozens of great photographs mounted, framed and arranged on the walls. Photographers are looking through their portfolios of work, giving each other advice. In a separate room, a group of photographers is crouched around a computer screen, clicking through images and discussing which is best.

This is the Chinatown Photographic Society (CPS) in San Francisco, and it’s a hub of creative energy, humming with purpose and resulting in an incredible high level of artistic work on the walls.

And, surprisingly, most of the photographers in the room are 50+. Many of the Society’s members are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The oldest member is 94. He, along with several other current members, were on hand at the start, when the CPS was formed 48 years ago. Just think: in 1967 San Francisco was in the throes of “The Summer of Love” and Chinatown was the undisputed center of Northern California’s Chinese community and culture.
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Book reviews: End-of-summer reads about JAs and Japan

When the Japanese Canadian newspaper Nikkei Voice asked me to write about my favorite recent books related to Japan, I realized that I’ve read some books in the past year that I never got around to writing about, and was also finishing an innovative new book, or to be precise, a new ebook.

In any case, I tend to read many more non-fiction books by and about Japan and Japanese Americans than I do any fiction titles, so it’s sort of surprising to me that two of these books are flat-out fiction (albeit based on the author’s childhood for “Kazuo’s World”) and that another is fiction manga based on history and another is history told through a fictionalized manga lens.

Standing Tall: The Extra/Ordinary Life of Mizuko Takahashi Nomura

standingtallThe most recent book I’ve read is “Standing Tall: The Extra/Ordinary Life of Mizuko Takahashi Nomura,” by Sansei artist, filmmaker and film professor Art Nomura. It’s a biography of Nomura’s grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, made as an interactive iBook for iPads, iPhones and Macs. The family history is well written but what makes it special is the chockfull of extra information, side stories, games, clickable images and links to other resources that Nomura includes. The book is a fascinating, well-researched read — though Nomura admits he’s made up conversations and details of his grandmother’s early days in Japan, it’s as detailed and factual as possible. It’s certainly a great look at one Issei woman’s epic life, and the experience is made that much richer with all the extra information Nomura adds, utilizing the iBook format to its fullest. The downside of being on the cutting edge, of course, is that unless you have a Mac computer, an iPad or an iPhone, you won’t be able to read this delightful loving biography.

Still, I find myself reading more and more on my tablets or even smartphone, but none of my other ebooks are native to the digital format. Reading is evolving like everything else in our digitally-connected society, and people like Nomura are taking full advantage of the new technology. Kudos to him!

The following four books are all dead-tree books, though. Graphic novels especially, just don’t translate to digital page:
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