Shiba Ramen Update from 38,000 Feet

We are somewhere over the Pacific, maybe halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco. I like it here. It’s dark, I have a bottle of my favorite [non-alcoholic] drink, Ito-En Oi Ocha green tea.  A cinnamon roll beckons at my right. Music is playing. I played math puzzles on my sumaho, then scrolled through the hundreds of photos I took in Japan.  There is no Internet [my choice], no toddler, and nobody needing me to write a brief, sign a document, or cut a massive check.  As far as I know, there is nobody on this airplane I need to yell at, although I’m quite sure there are people on the ground who have something coming to them. Perhaps best of all, Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen; I am blissfully unaware of which unqualified individual he appointed to lead a federal agency today.  In short, life on United 876 is pretty good. 

Hama-Rikyu Gardens.  This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Hama-Rikyu Gardens. This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

I’ll tell you something: I needed this trip.  People tell you not to bite off more than you can chew.  That’s good advice, but it’s often hard to know in advance just how much you can fit in your mouth.  I tend to assume my mouth is big. It’s not cavernous, but it’s definitely oversized. In 2016, I’ve been exploring the limits of my capacity.  I’m working through a massive bite right now, and I think I’m going to make it through, but my jaws are seriously aching.  Just as we were coming up for air from opening Shiba Ramen almost exactly a year ago, we signed not just one, but two new leases in August.  The first was for our downtown Oakland Shiba Ramen, set to open in roughly January.  The second was something of a calculated lark, the kiosk adjoining the original Shiba in Emeryville Public Market, to do an entirely new concept—The Period Table, our taproom and sake bar.  These two excellent opportunities came up at the same time. Were we supposed to turn one down?  

Unsurprisingly, each project requires a not insubstantial amount of blood and treasure.  Also unsurprisingly, the amount of each is quite indeterminate until you’ve traveled well past the point of no return.  So I’m out looking for money.  Lots and lots of money.  I’m learning where money hides, and I’m learning how to flush it out.  People keep wanting more of it, so I need to keep finding more of it.  That’s the way it goes.

Shiba Ramen Oakland.   Should be finished in January.

Shiba Ramen Oakland.  Should be finished in January.

In the meantime, we have to execute the projects.  Shiba Oakland has been the big one.  It’s been a live design-build scenario since Labor Day.  That is, the design is unfolding as the construction happens.  We're taking over a café that went out of business, but even though a lot of infrastructure was in place, it’s a huge renovation.  Total makeover of dining room and bathroom, all new kitchen equipment and corollary plumbing and electrical work, and significant upgrades to storage.  In addition to overseeing the contractors’ execution of the project, we have spent positively inordinate amounts of time choosing all the finishes, fixtures, and furniture.  You cannot imagine how many pendant lights we’ve looked at; the Internet is a vast sea of them, and 99.9% are no good for one reason or another.  Anyway, there are worse ways to spend your time.

The Periodic Table project, mercifully, is on a staggered timeframe.  This is a full buildout from a cold dark shell, not a renovation.  The architecture has to be done and permits obtained before anything can be built, and that’s a still-ongoing process.  The only bills have been for the architects.  Construction will happen this winter-spring.  The architects curated most of the finishes and fixtures, but we did go pretty deep ourselves looking for pendant lights.  It’s unavoidable.

Would you believe it if I told you we’ve been negotiating even more deals for new Shiba Ramen locations?  Of course you would.  It’s the natural order of things.

Robot Restaurant.   Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Robot Restaurant.  Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Now here’s the real problem: the monasticism that pulling all this off requires.  Recall I’m a practicing lawyer, so I need to bill my hours.  My firm (thanks, DWT!) lets me work at home, which is great as a time-saving measure.  The downside is that I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone at home in front of a computer, doing one or the other of my jobs, often too tired and stressed to be as efficient as I want to be.  When my kid comes home from school at 5:30, I usually just give up until he goes to bed.  Then the gravitational pull of the computer kicks in again, and more progress is made in fits and starts.  I drink too much sake and stay up way too late.  The next day invariably proceeds according to the template set by the last.  Things are better or worse depending on how many cooks have called off at Shiba Ramen on a given day—a staggeringly bad problem—and thus how much time Hiroko has to spend at the restaurant cutting onions or peeling eggs.

And let’s not forget the backdrop to this year’s stint in solitary: watching the Great American Trainwreck unfold in slow motion on the Internet, compulsively checking an ever-expanding roster of websites, distraction begetting distraction, escalating through September and October, and reaching critical mass on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  The nauseating palpability of our National catastrophe savaged my productivity in the days that followed.  At least in this, I’m certain I was not alone. 

But now I have been to Japan, and I feel good.  Today I was eating four different kinds of toro at 9:30 a.m., photographing red leaves and white herons in a gorgeous urban park after that.  I had amazing tours at three sake factories.  I saw a show at the Robot Restaurant.  I visited Hiroko’s parents, the original hipsters, in their artisanal/local/sustainable 19th Century world where they make their own charcoal and salt, and grow a substantial percentage of their own food.  Twice I ate fugu and survived the threat of tetrodotoxin, and twice I ate the seasonal delicacy—soft roe—a coiled membrane filled with cod sperm.  I am outfitted with sake bottles and sake glasses, and the enjoyment of Japan will continue when I land. 

For the moment at least, I'm excited to see my dogs and my tyrant 4-year-old.  This exceptionally long day started with sushi breakfast, and it's going to end with cheeseburgers and milkshakes.  Hello California.

Pre-Flight Breakfast . Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Pre-Flight Breakfast. Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Postscript, 3 Days Later: In the three days between writing this post and its publication today, I've decided I'm pretty much ready to leave again.  

Postscript, 4 Days Later: Ben Carson appointed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  The Rapture really may be upon us.  

Weird Japan Interlude: The Curious Case of Detective Butt

I am reminded there is more to life than lawsuits and childcare and learning how well the Second Law of Thermodynamics--i.e., the entropy of a system always increases, the inexorable trend in the universe is toward disorder--explains the experience of managing and retaining a restaurant staff. We can always return to Japan, the country that produces the "Moist Diane" line of hair-care products, and it is amazing. 

Last week, a small but very satisfying slice of Japan arrived in my house. Hiroko went kids book shopping in Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore in SF Japantown, and came back with the delightfully weird Detective Butt (Oshiri Tantei in Japanese, and in some places translated as The Butt Detective or The Bum Detective). I couldn't read the title when Hiroko thrust it in front of me, but I could see what was on the cover. 

I did a double-take.  I said to her, "is his head really a . . . butt?"  "Yeah," she said, "his name is Detective Butt." And so it is, reader, so it is. 

Only in Japan.  Japan is an amazing filter of foreign culture. Here, the input is Sherlock Holmes. The output is Detective Butt. Also, should we be surprised that of the two translations currently on the market, one is  French ? The other is Korean.

Only in Japan. Japan is an amazing filter of foreign culture. Here, the input is Sherlock Holmes. The output is Detective Butt. Also, should we be surprised that of the two translations currently on the market, one is French? The other is Korean.

Detective Butt, believe it or not, is a completely serious and very smart book. It's a Japanese kids repackaging of Sherlock Holmes, wherein the Holmes character just happens to have a butt crack in place of a nose and mouth (although I presume there's a breathing apparatus buried in there somewhere). But otherwise he's completely Holmes: logical, sophisticated, intense and intellectually rigorous. His eyes (one on each cheek) are fierce. The book takes kids through a surprisingly thorough investigation of a candy theft from a sweet shop. It forces them to examine evidence and identify witnesses on the way to figuring out who did the crime. Detective Butt is joined by a cast of cute characters, like a dog policeman and something that looks like a cucumber mated with a balding, goateed middle-aged man. There's even a scene in a ramen shop!

Perhaps you've started to wonder where the punchline is, am I right? I mean, why is his head a butt? Is that part of the story? What's the point of the whole thing? That's what I asked Hiroko, at least. "It's just that his head's a butt," she responded. So that's how it is.

And that's where we come to Japan, possibly the only country in the world where Detective Butt could not only be created, but end up a bestseller. My other comment to Hiroko was to the effect that there is something so completely Japanese about this book. Like, if some nation is going to make a book like this, it's of course going to be Japan. She agreed. 

But why do we think this? What's so Japanese about it? Sure the animation style is definitely Japanese, but it's more than that. It's the book's ability to make the butt/head so conventional, so incidental to the story. The whole thing is just so matter-of-fact. In this world, there's nothing unusual about a man with a butt for a head. The butt is unremarkable and unthreatening. It's just human anatomy, it doesn't have to be sexual or fecal.

Makes Complete Sense.  Two Butt Detectives, Japan (L) and America (R). The one on the right is what you find if you search "Detective Butt" on Google.  If you want the one on the left, try searching "Oshiri Tantei."

Makes Complete Sense. Two Butt Detectives, Japan (L) and America (R). The one on the right is what you find if you search "Detective Butt" on Google.  If you want the one on the left, try searching "Oshiri Tantei."

Japan is a country where the urinal stalls on trains sometimes have a see-through window rather than a "vacant/occupied" sign. People would freak out in America. To see the back of a man peeing on public transportation would certainly herald the End Times, I have little doubt. 

On my first trip to Japan 13 years ago, we were in Tokyo Station the morning after I arrived. I announced a need to use the bathroom. Hiroko said "do you know what's in there?" She laughed and called out "good luck!" Inside, I found myself face-to-face with a squat toilet. What madness is this? What am I supposed to do with that? Sensing my obvious confusion, a cleaning lady grabbed me by the shoulders and thrust me toward the next stall, which housed a western toilet. In the end, I'm not sure which part surprised me more: that squat toilets were a thing, or that a lady was in the men's room tidying up in and directing confused tourists to the proper facilities.  

And let us not forget about the toilet slide museum exhibit where, according to Huffington Post, children "are greeted by cartoon stools and singing, interactive toilets that guide them through lessons about what feces are made of, where they go and how different toilets are used around the world."  Oh, and the human body exhibit where museum-goers walk into a giant inflatable butt.

I repeat, completely different sensibilities.   

Scenes from  Detective Butt .  

Scenes from Detective Butt.  

It's this innate Japanese neutrality toward its potentially scatological subject matter that makes this book possible. Combine that background with the Japanese ability to make pretty much anything cute (see, e.g., poop emoji and toilet/butt museum exhibits, supra), and Detective Butt starts to appear more inevitable than anything else.

Brilliantly, Detective Butt sustains the joke with barely a wink at the reader until our sleuth finally corners the culprit (a pig) in a gritty back alley at the end of the story. Now comes the punchline: Detective Butt deploys his secret weapon--a potent blast of facial flatulence--to disable the crook. So a butt is a butt after all.  But even then, as soon as the air is clear, Detective Butt is back to his life of sophistication, soaking in a hot bath, then enjoying tea and potato cakes in his bathrobe.    

When I told Hiroko I could imagine Detective Butt as a whole series of books, she informed me that there are already seven of them! Of course there are.  

Google Translate!  While searching, I found this Japanese  bookstore page  announcing a  Detective Butt  event. Clicked translate, and voila, this!

Google Translate! While searching, I found this Japanese bookstore page announcing a Detective Butt event. Clicked translate, and voila, this!

It's a Fox, It's a Cat, It's a Shiba Inu

The Shiba Inu, the iconic Japanese dog with pointed ears and a curly flourish of a tail, is a magical creature. It is a dog possessed of almost feline characteristics, fastidious, quiet, sensitive, refined, elegant, and somewhat aloof. There is nothing slobbery about the Shiba, no rolling around in shit. On walks, puddles are delicately avoided. Its stature and proportions are those of a much larger dog, but in a house dog sized body. It's insanely cute, without ever being silly. Everybody thinks it's a fox. And have you ever seen the Shiba puppy cam?

Shibas in the Garden. Momo (L) and Toro (R). 

When we got our first Shiba (Toro) eight years ago, Shibas were a relatively new phenomenon here in the U.S. Nobody knew just what he was, and countless people asked about him when we were out and about. We heard "he looks just like fox!" everywhere we took him. Once we were strolling through a small park at the base of Mt. Shasta, the volcano towering above us and rainclouds in the sky as dusk approached. The park was almost empty, except for us and little boy and girl with their mother.  After we passed them we could hear their children's voices arguing. "It's a fox," said one. "No, it's dog," said the other. "No, it's a fox!" 

Maybe it's because we rarely go out anymore, having become hermits in our life of ramen and toddler mayhem, but it seems people ask about the dogs a lot less now than they did five years ago. I think breed recognition has grown significantly, so fewer people feel the need to comment on their foxy looks. Now I see Shibas around all the time here in the Bay Area. Two years ago, I had dinner with a friend in New York, who told me she'd never seen a Shiba there. But it's definitely a question of whether or not you're looking. The next morning I went out to do some exploring, and spotted five of them in the Lower East Side, all before lunch! 

When we made the abrupt, almost spontaneous, decision to start our ramen business two years ago, the Shiba Ramen name was all but set. Just hours into the project, we were confident enough to buy the domain name shibaramen.com as our very first corporate act. We never really talked about other names. We just kind of understood this was it. And of course this was it! What other name could there be? We're just wild about our dogs.

Let's learn a bit more about this amazing animal and companion, from its ancient origins to the ideal orientation of its majestic tail.

Japanese Dogs

The Shiba Inu is the smallest of six native Japanese breeds of spitz-type dogs, the others being the Shikoku, Kishu, Kai, Hokkaido, and Akita. It has its origins in prehistory, its ancestors coming to Japan with immigrants from the Asian mainland beginning in around 7000 B.C. By 200 B.C., continued interbreeding of the ancient dogs with more recent immigrant breeds produced a dog similar to the modern Shiba: small size, pointy ears, curly tail. In the 7th Century A.D., the imperial court established a dogkeeper's office to help maintain the native dog breeds as an important part of Japanese culture. Through the medieval period, Shibas were bred by Samurai for hunting deer, wild boar, and small game. Three regional sub-breeds of Shiba ultimately evolved: the San In Shiba, Mino Shiba, and Shinsho Shiba. 

Six Japanese Dogs. Clockwise from upper right: Hokkaido, Kai, Kishu, Shikoko, Shiba, and Akita. All are named after the region of origin, except the Shiba.  Image from http://obaka.atja.jp/. 

World War II almost made an end of the Shiba. Due to bombing, food shortages, and a post-war distemper epidemic, the breed was almost wiped out. The surviving members of the three Shiba strains were bred together to produce the modern Shiba Inu. 

Modern Shiba. After WWII reduced the Shiba to near-extinction, the survivors of the three regional sub-breeds were combined to give us the Shiba we know today.  Image from My First Shiba.

What a Tail!

In our Shiba Ramen logo (which you now understand is not a cat!) we chose to emphasize two features of the Shiba: it's pointed ears and curly tail. These twin traits stand out when you see a Shiba for the first time, the tail especially. According to the American Kennel Club breed standard, the Shiba's tail "is thick and powerful and is carried over the back in a sickle or curled position. A loose single curl or sickle tail pointing vigorously toward the neck and nearly parallel to the back is preferred. A double curl or sickle tail pointing upward is acceptable." I now appreciate what this means. Our younger Shiba, Momo, has the "preferred" tail, a loose single curl that drapes elegantly along her back. 

Our older Shiba, Toro, has the latter (i.e., merely "acceptable") kind of tail. It's tightly curled, sits up on his back, and resembles a cinnamon bun. It's high on cuteness factor, but it can't fully unfurl and has a limited range of motion. When he wags his tail, the wound-up tail clicks back and forth on his back. His tight tail was at least one reason the breeder didn't keep him to show. Nevertheless, it is a pretty amazing emotion-conveying tool. When he drops his tail 90 degrees, such that it hangs parallel to the ground with core still coiled, it's a sure sign he's nervous.

The Shiba ears, meanwhile, are incredibly soft and velvety, and are at least as expressive as the tail. They can lower into a high-cuteness airplane-like position or, like a satellite dish, they can rotate around a vertical axis to pick up sounds coming from behind. 

Our abstract logo fails to pick up on one significant Shiba feature: it's coat and markings. The Shiba comes in four color varieties: red, sesame, black & tan, and cream. Red is the most common. If you've seen a Shiba, odds are it was red. The first three colors are the only ones accepted in competition. According to the AKC, cream coloring "is a very serious fault and must be penalized." Good grief, I say to that, but whatever. The apparent issue is that the cream Shiba doesn't have urajiro markings--i.e., white color on the underside of the dog from the muzzle through the tail.

Four Flavors of Shiba. Black & Tan, Red, Cream, and Sesame (L to R).  Photo credit here.  

Toro, My Personal Stalker

The Shiba temperament is different from the other dogs I've experienced. There's an aloofness and independence in the Shiba; it is not a lapdog. But that doesn't mean it doesn't want to be close. It wants to be next to you, not on you. It wants to interact on terms of its own choosing. When Toro arrived as a four-month-old puppy, he was unlike any puppy I'd met. Cautious, nervous, even depressed by his changed circumstances, it took a long time before he warmed up to us. Eight years later, he still only allows himself to be handled in certain ways, but the strength of our bond is undeniable. He is near me almost all the time. He's the most needy kind of aloof you can imagine. 

Momo is a bit different. She's not the nervous type, and doesn't need to be in the same room. But she enjoys--and sometimes even initiates--physical affection. In a demure Shiba sort of way, she'll come up and poke you with her nose, inviting a pet. Where Toro was something of a basket case when he arrived, Momo bounded out of the crate and got straight to the good times. Where Toro doesn't bark, Momo thrusts out her chest and runs around the house and yard throwing around her tough girl bark at every squirrel and passing dog. Not uncommonly for Shibas, both dogs arrived as 3-4 month-old puppies essentially housebroken. Shibas really want to be clean.  

What a Stud! Taro, father of Toro and grandfather of Momo. Great logo inspiration.  

The personality difference we see in our dogs may be a reflection of male vs. female Shibas generally. Toro has had a lot of anxiety issues over the years, and under certain circumstances can be prone to dog-dog aggression. Last year when my mom's male dog visited for a couple months, Toro was aggressive with him when food was around, especially when my mom was doing the feeding. But as soon as we learned Toro needed to feel like the alpha around her (he already was with me), so he should be fed first, the problems diminished. There are lots of reports of male Shibas being difficult. Momo, on the other hand, isn't prone to mood swings or any type of aggression. Her personality is light and eternally good-natured. Toro's foibles aside, both dogs are remarkably gentle around people, kids included.  

To learn more about the Shiba Inu, click here, here, here, or here.

 

Don’t Forget the Font! The Complexity of Written Japanese and the Shiba Ramen Logo

I have a confession to make: I don’t speak Japanese. I can’t read it or write it. I do understand lots of words and phrases (foods, cultural miscellany, petty vulgarities), but that’s pretty much it. Nevertheless, I live around Japanese, I hear it and see it every day in my house, and I’ve learned a lot about it over time. Critically, this level of knowledge is enough to make informed decisions about how, if at all, Japanese language should feature in Shiba Ramen’s brand image (especially because we have an in-house technical expert).

Earlier this year, I wrote extensively about our logo design strategy: suggesting Japanese authenticity while seeking American accessibility. We wanted to use Japanese text in the logo, but we knew we’d need to strike a delicate balance if we did.  

I’m going to explain how (I think) we struck that balance, but first I need to explain a fact about Japanese language that is pretty surprising for westerners: Japanese uses three sets of written characters.

Shiba Ramen Logo, Cast-Iron Brand .  We use a single Chinese character ( kanji ) saying only "shiba."  The text font and the logo itself evoke a traditional Japanese  hanko  stamp (see below).  Here with our Shiba Scream ice cream prototype (minus the ice cream).  

Shiba Ramen Logo, Cast-Iron Brand.  We use a single Chinese character (kanji) saying only "shiba."  The text font and the logo itself evoke a traditional Japanese hanko stamp (see below).  Here with our Shiba Scream ice cream prototype (minus the ice cream).  

Two Syllabaries: Hiragana and Katakana

English is written with a set of 26 Roman letters known as “the alphabet.” But alphabet is actually a technical term: it means a set of letters, usually arranged in a fixed order, each one of which represents a perceptually distinct sound. Japanese is a little different. It doesn't use an alphabet; instead it uses a syllabary. The characters in a syllabary each represent an entire syllable, instead of just a sound. For example, the syllable “ba” is made up of two distinct sounds, “b” and “a.”

Actually, Japanese uses two sets of parallel syllabaries, known as hiragana and katakana. Hiragana and katakana have just under 50 characters each, which represent the same set of sounds. The only obvious differences between the two are their visual appearances. The hiragana and katakana characters for the same sound typically look quite different, and the overall appearance of katakana is sharper and more angular.

Japanese Syllabaries.   http://szmoon.deviantart.com/art/Green-Tea-Hiragana-Chart-61880535

Japanese Syllabaries.  http://szmoon.deviantart.com/art/Green-Tea-Hiragana-Chart-61880535

At this point it's only understandable to ask why in the world the Japanese need two sets of characters representing the same sounds. The historical answer is that the two character sets evolved separately in medieval Japan, both as simplified versions of Chinese characters (kanji). Interestingly, katakana were typically used by men, who controlled the translation of Chinese literature and the writing of official documents. Hiragana, meanwhile, were considered women's script, and were used in unofficial communications like personal letters and literature. Apparently, Japanese women traditionally wrote Chinese characters in a cursive style, which is why hiragana has a decidedly more cursive appearance than katakana. Eventually, the gendered usage was abandoned, and the two scripts took on different functional uses.

And that's how things stand today. Hiragana is set that is used for Japanese words, especially those that can't be written with kanji. Katakana is the set used for foreign words and names, onomatopoetic words (lots of those in Japanese), and for emphasis (as we use bold or italics).

So why the need to signify foreign words with a separate character set? For one thing, the Japanese borrow a lot of words from other languages. But so does English, so what gives?

I'm Actually Wearing This Right Now.  Katakana in Action. グッド・タイムズ = "Guddo Taimuzu" = "Good Times"  

I'm Actually Wearing This Right Now.  Katakana in Action. グッド・タイムズ = "Guddo Taimuzu" = "Good Times"  

Well, something funny happens when words from an alphabet-based language are written in a syllabary. Look at it this way. We can combine and manipulate our Roman letters to represent almost any sound, although we often have to memorize a word's pronunciation as a result. In a syllabary, the sound is manipulated, as well as the spelling. All of the syllabic characters in Japanese are either stand-alone vowels (a, e, i, o, u) or a vowel paired with a consonant (i.e., ha, ba, na, ka). There is only one stand-alone consonant (n). Everything must be spelled using this limited universe of sounds, each of which is always pronounced the same way.

Any foreign word must be modified so that it can be written and spoken in Japanese, unless, of course, that word is comprised only of syllables in the Japanese set. Use of katakana signals that a word is not Japanese; that it has been altered to fit into Japanese.

Here are a couple examples. It’s impossible to write my name (Jake Freed) in Japanese, because Japanese has no standalone “k” or “d” and no “fr” consonant blend. My name becomes “Jeiku Furido.” And some of my absolute favorites: Starbucks becomes “Sutaabakusu.” Alcatraz becomes “Arukatorazu.” McDonalds becomes Makudonarudo. Lots of extra vowels, no letters like “L” or “V.” Katakana would be used for all these words. By the way, the Japanese are also very proficient at abbreviating words. Sutaabakusu becomes Sutaba; Makudonarudo becomes Makku.

Katakana.   Makudonarudo Hanbaagaa = McDonald's Hamburgers

Katakana.  Makudonarudo Hanbaagaa = McDonald's Hamburgers

One Logography: Kanji

If things aren't tough enough yet, it gets yet more complicated. In a single sentence, you might see hiragana and katakana. You will probably also see kanji. Kanji are logographic characters, which means that they are associated with meanings, not sounds. They were imported to Japan from China in late antiquity. Many characters are similar or even the same in Japanese and Chinese and, for that reason, a Japanese person who doesn’t speak Chinese can often understand the rough meaning of basic written Chinese, even if they have no idea how it sounds.

There are well over 5000 kanji, but most Japanese only know a fraction of these. Japanese kids are required to learn a government-mandated set of 2136 by the end of high school, and those are the ones that are typically used in newspapers and media publications. Some kanji are inordinately complex or obscure, and they can be hard to read, let alone write. But if you understand them, kanji are more efficient for reading: symbols can convey the same amount of information in less space than letters can.

Back to the Logo

For Shiba Ramen's logo, we wanted to use some Japanese language element. We considered using either hiragana or kanji. We initially looked at some designs that said “Shiba Ramen” in both English and hiragana. Although we liked the hiragana, the look with a single kanji (“shiba”) was just cleaner and more refined. Using two kanji would start looking Chinese. Incidentally, “ramen” is often written in katakana in Japanese because it's actually a foreign (Chinese) word.

Hanko Inspiration .  Remembering the old Uniqlo soy sauce t-shirt in my closet (left) led us to our logo font.  This shirt was done in the style of a hanko stamp (right).

Hanko Inspiration.  Remembering the old Uniqlo soy sauce t-shirt in my closet (left) led us to our logo font.  This shirt was done in the style of a hanko stamp (right).

Just like Roman letters, Japanese characters come in all sorts of fonts. The reality, though, is that many of the available fonts are meant to evoke calligraphic brushstrokes. Our view was that brushstrokes were too traditional for Shiba Ramen, so we spent some time looking for alternatives better suited to the image we want to project. After a few days of waffling, I recalled the kanji on the back of a soy sauce t-shirt Hiroko bought for me at Uniqlo in Japan over 10 years ago. I dug it out of the closet and showed it to Hiroko. This font used clean lines of uniform thickness and right angles.

Hiroko explained that this font is the kind used on a hanko stamp (the stamps all Japanese use to sign their names on official documents). A hanko-type font, we realized, would fit with our more modern image while still retaining something of the traditional Japanese. We played around with a few hanko-type fonts, picked one, and our logo was complete.