Pool review: Swim like a hero in Taito Ward

July 29, 2016


On July 21, one of my favorite Tokyo pools opened for the summer. The Taito Riverside Sports Center’s outdoor pool – barely visible through the trees in this photo – is 50 meters long by 19 meters wide. I’ve never seen it crowded (though I’ve only been there on weekday mornings). Admission is shockingly cheap at 200 yen.

As you swim through the crystal-clear water, you can gaze up at the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree, whose staggering height makes it appear to loom directly over the pool, even though it and the sports center stand on different sides of the Sumida River. Now and then, a seagull may fly across your view, cruising up the river from Tokyo Bay, about 10 kilometers downstream. It’s a lovely spot.


Sumida River fireworks and the Tokyo Skytree by 桜庭シェリー via Wikimedia Commons

It also happens to be at the center of one of Tokyo’s biggest summer events, the Sumida River fireworks display. A barge anchored next to the sports center’s grounds is the main launching spot for the pyrotechnics, which means that the pool is closed from noon on the day of the event (July 30 this year) until noon the following day.

In contrast to the magnificence of the pool itself, the locker room is Spartan. It has no benches, and no spin drier that I could find. It does, however, have the nicest floor I have ever encountered in such a facility. It’s covered with hard plastic beads embedded in soft plastic gel – very comfortable to walk on and seemingly very non-slip.

Ordinarily, the pool is open from 9 to 5, and then again imageedit_4_7870116349from 6:30 to 8:30 in the evening. However, on my latest visit, the pool’s opening was delayed until 10. The reason, explained by a lifeguard who pantomimed shivering to drive the point home, is that it was just too cold that morning. I doubt it would have been too cold for me, but I’ve got more natural insulation than the average Japanese swimmer. Hopefully, as the summer wears on, such closures will be rare. The lifeguard told me that the pool is also closed when it rains.

The delay of an hour gave me some time to walk around the neighborhood and also have a look at two life-sized statues of athletes on display in the main lobby of the sports center’s building. I had never used the main entrance before, because the entrance for the outdoor pool is around back, on the left (north) side of the building.

Both sculptures are by Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), who was nicknamed “The Rodin of the East.” One of them, titled 競技前 (Kyougi Mae, or Before the Competition), is a man stretching before an event, probably in the ancient Olympics. It was apparently made in 1959.

The other work is apparently from 1927, much earlier in Asakura’s career, but in my opinion it’s a more interesting and appealing work. Titled 水の猛者 (Mizu no Mosa, or Water Hero), it is a man in what was then contemporary swimming attire, walking along with a towel slung around his neck.



His jaunty pose and self-assured facial expression give him a real personality. One can easily imagine that he has just emerged from the nearby river after performing some aquatic feat, and is now strolling away to get a well-earned cup of sake. (Historically speaking, it’s a safe bet that he was adept at sidestroke.) Although his swimsuit places him in relatively modern times, the work has some classical aspects. For instance, Asakura uses the hero’s towel the same way Michelangelo uses David’s sling – to put his figure in a pose with one arm flexed and the other relaxed.

By the way, if you’d like to see another Asakura sculpture, check this blog again in the future. He has a statue of a woman at another public swimming pool that I hope to write about soon.

This year, the outdoor pool will be open through September 4. If the Taito Riverside Sports’ Center has any disadvantages, a somewhat inconvenient location is one of them. There is a bus stop out front, but the facility is not close to any train station. If you take the subway to Asakusa, be prepared for a 10 to 15 minute walk north along the river.

For more information, visit here, here, or here.





On the ingenuity of Japanese crows

April 20, 2016

A pair of architects recently built and moved into a new home just a few blocks from my apartment. The high-rise residence uses traditional building methods to re-purpose modern industrial materials.

I refer, of course, to a crow’s nest made of wire hangers.

 Nest Mark

When I first noticed my new neighbors about a week ago, I wondered where all of those hangers came from. Did a hapless dry cleaner leave a window open? Nearly everyone in Japan hangs their laundry outside to dry, but I assumed that a hanger with clothes on it would be too unwieldy for a crow to handle. Where would they find empty hangers?

The other day, I stumbled across the answer while reading the Yomiuri Kodomo Shimbun children’s newspaper. In an educational manga by Akane Kasugaa group of kids stake out a parking lot to find out who has been removing rubber strips from vehicles’ windshield wipers. The wiper-taker turns out to be a crow. They follow the bird back to its nest, which – lo and behold – is made entirely of wire hangers. 

According to the manga, the crow nest-building season runs from March to May. So we’re right in the middle of it now. 

One of the children in the manga had recently lost a school uniform that she had hung out to dry. It turns out that the crow took that, too, to make a soft lining inside its wiry nest. The rubber wiper blades serve the same purpose. Apparently, hangers having clothes on them is not enough to stop a determined crow after all.

The children talk about the crow having “stolen” the materials for its nest, but I’m not sure this vocabulary is correct (even if I often use it myself). It’s more accurate to say they are “gathering” material to build a nest – just as they would if they lived in a forest.

Japanese crows have adapted to life in a totally man-made environment. And in that environment, they are doing exactly what birds are meant to do.



I love oysters

February 25, 2016

Oyster market shell

I love oysters.

I love the pleasure of eating them. I love their succulent mouthfeel and their umami flavor.

I love the fact that they are considered a luxury item, which makes eating them feel decadent.

Oyster trays.jpg

I love the fact that, despite their luxury reputation, they are often quite cheap. (You can get a tray of five for 238 yen at my local supermarket, meaning each one costs less than half a packet of M&Ms.)

Oyster stew

I love that there are so many different ways to cook them – and also that you don’t have to cook them at all.

Oyster market guy.jpg

I love them for being the ultimate sustainable seafood. Because they are farmed, there’s no danger of depleting wild stocks. And while some kinds of aquaculture (salmon pens, for instance) pollute the surrounding water, oyster farming actually improves water quality and thus helps the environment.

Oyster kama meishi

I love the bizarre idea that oysters are “vegan meat.” There is an argument that since oysters have no brains or central nervous systems, they are no more sentient or capable of feeling pain than potatoes are. Thus, they should be considered vegetables for moral purposes.

Oyster Curry.jpg

I love how nutritious they are. According to the website of Men’s Health magazine, a 3-ounce (85-gram) oyster provides 344 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance of vitamin B12, plus 256 percent of the RDA for zinc, 94 percent for selenium and 61 percent for copper, along with significant amounts of other nutrients.

Oyster spaghetti.jpg

I love oysters so much that I decided to eat at least 100 of them this winter.

Oyster fry restaurant.jpg

Photos of a few of them illustrate this post. But so far, I’m only up to 48, which means I need to try a little harder.

I swim like a samurai (and didn’t even know it)

December 8, 2015

Not long ago, a member of my sports club noticed that I was swimming sidestroke in the pool. He was curious enough to ask how it was that a foreigner had learned 古式泳法 koshiki eiho. This was a term that I had never heard before, but he told me it’s the way samurai used to swim. The term literally means “ancient way of swimming.”

I explained to him that I had learned it long ago it from the American Red Cross when training to be a lifeguard. Swimming on your side means that you can propel yourself forward with your lower arm while using your upper arm to hold your rescue victim and keep their head above the water.

This posture has obvious military uses. Also, the fact that sidestroke is virtually splash-free makes it a stealthy way of moving through the water. This is something that not only ancient samurai but also the modern U.S. military has noticed.

The man at the pool urged me to look up koshiki eiho on the Internet. When I did, I learned the term 日本泳法 nihon eiho, which covers a wide range of ancient aquatic techniques. The best material I found is the video at the top of this post, which reveals a startling connection between synchronized swimming and martial arts. Have a look!

Pool review: Genki Plaza

August 24, 2015

Genki sign marked

During the recent Obon holidays, the sports club where I usually swim shut down for an entire week. This gave me the impetus to get out and try some different pools.

The first one I went to was Genki Plaza, a public facility near Shimo Station on the Namboku subway line in Kita Ward, Tokyo.

Like many of Tokyo’s great public pools, it is adjacent to a garbage incinerator. I assume this is because the facility runs off the heat and/or electricity generated by burning trash, but I’ve never actually confirmed that. Nevertheless, just as a tall, thin, solitary smokestack in a residential area usually signals the presence of a sento (traditional public bath), so does a much taller, much thicker smokestack often signal the presence of a public swimming pool.

Past this forbidding facade is a recreational pool with a 72-meter waterslide.

Past this forbidding facade is a recreational pool with a 72-meter waterslide.

The incinerator is just over a block south of the station. The entrance for garbage trucks faces the main road, but if you walk around to the back of the very large facility, you’ll find the entrance to the pool.

The lobby has a vending-machine refreshment area with a big window looking down at the pools (plural) and up at the top of a gigantic water slide. As usual, there are signs all over the place forbidding photography, but you can see official photos of the interior here and here.

Pay 400 yen for adult admission at a vending machine in the lobby, and you’ll get a plastic card that lets you go inside. The card also lets you use one of the lockers.

The locker room floors have plastic pads all over them, but were very wet anyway. It’s one of those places you should wear sandals to, because you’ll never get out of the locker room with dry feet, meaning socks are a bad idea. There’s very little space to sit down. There is a spin drier, the only amenity to speak of.

As for the pools themselves, the largest one is a circulating river pool in shape of an irregular oval – like an egg with a bite taken out of it. The river surrounds an island on which there is a 25-meter lap pool with just three lanes. On the day of my visit, one lane was for walking and two were for swimming. The swimming was one-way, so you had to duck under a rope at the end of each length. The depth was just 1.0 to 1.2 meters.

It was very crowded when I arrived. A break had just ended, and the pool was full of adults and kids. Given the crowding and the shallow water, I decided to stick to breaststroke. I got 1100 meters in, and in that time the crowd significantly diminished. Most of the swimmers were well mannered and knew how to share a lane, but one foolish old man tried to do a one-length freestyle sprint and predictably ran over a child at the end. Oops.

There was a Jacuzzi off in one corner of the facility and an kiddie pool with a tiny slide in another corner. But what I really wanted to try was the gigantic water slide that emptied into a small landing pool connected to the river.

At first I hestitated to use it because there seemed to be no one on it but kids. But then I saw one little girl go up with her father, which made it clear that adults were allowed. It was quite high. The stairs took me high above the river pool, and then past the 2nd-floor window where a few parents were sitting around sipping vending machine drinks in the lobby.

The slide, with twists and turns, is 72 meters long. After doing it once, laughing all the way down, I had to go back and do it again.

Nobody that day made bigger waves in the landing pool.


Japan Writers Conference 2014

October 29, 2014

I spent last weekend in Morioka at the Japan Writers Conference. It’s a free, English-language event held in a different part of Japan every autumn.

For the third year running, I interviewed a handful of the participants about what they write, what presentations they gave or attended, and what they would say to anyone who is thinking about coming next year.

Here’s what they told me:

You can see the JWC video from Kyoto in 2012 here and the video from Okinawa in 2013 here.

For details, visit japanwritersconference.org.

Japanese wordplay: A&W

August 25, 2014

In Okinawa last year, I had lunch at an A&W root beer and hamburger shop. The placemat on my tray gave a brief history of the company, which has its origins in California and is named for founder Roy Allen and early co-owner Frank Wright.

Okinawa got its first A&W in 1963, and in the 1970s the company ran a radio ad campaign with a little gag that could only work in Japanese.

AW 001

According to the placemat, the ads connected A&W with the phrase あなたとわたしのドライブイン (Anata to Watashi no doraibuin). As any beginning student of Japanese knows, “anata to watashi” means “you and me,” so あなたとわたしのドライブイン was “our drive-in.”

Tokyo: City of Azaleas

May 18, 2014
Near Tokyo Station

Near Tokyo Station

Azaleas are the most underappreciated flowers in Tokyo. For the past several weeks, they’ve been bursting out all over the city, but hardly anyone pays them any mind. Azaleas have a tough act to follow, as they come into bloom not long after the cherry blossom season has ended.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

When the last of the sakura cherry petals have blown away, Tokyoites may think they are “done” with flowers for the year. Maybe they fail to notice the azaleas all around them because the flowers literally keep a low profile, growing mostly below eye level.

Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line, Toshima Ward

Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line, Toshima Ward

But for me, azaleas’ humility is part of their appeal. Cherry trees are aloof, appearing almost exclusively in parks or along riverbanks. Azaleas are more active participants in the everyday life of the city, crowding alongside major traffic arteries, wandering down little side streets and even pressing up against busy rail lines.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Cherry blossoms are prized for their delicacy and fleetingness. But azaleas should be admired for their durability. Twice in the past few weeks there have been heavy rain storms that I thought must spell the end for this year’s blossoms. Although many have indeed wilted or been beaten to the ground, I keep stumbling across azalea bushes filled with flowers that look as fresh as ever.

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Azaleas show that one can be both beautiful and strong. But even the hardiest flowers don’t last forever. The photos in this blog post range from three days old to three weeks, and I think the end of this year’s azalea season may be nearly upon us at last.

Shiba, Minato Ward

Shiba, Minato Ward

Cherry blossoms are iconic for Japan. But for more of its time and over most of its space, Tokyo is really a city of azaleas.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Don’t miss them next year.

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Equal facilities for working dogs

January 9, 2014

The Tokyo building where I worked for the last three years was also the workplace of hundreds of other people — plus a couple of guide dogs.

A building so full of living beings must make provisions for certain biological necessities. For the men, there were men’s rooms. For the ladies, there were ladies’ rooms. And for the dogs…

Dog Mark

… there was this eminently practical bit of canine infrastructure, discreetly tucked away in a corner of a third-floor utility balcony.

The notable Irishman and the famous American

January 2, 2014

Back in 2009, I had the honor of being invited to a Christmas party hosted by a notable Irishman who was living in Tokyo.

I had recently written an article about Irish coffee for the newspaper. When the topic came up, the notable Irishman very pleasantly opined that the concoction was a terrible waste of perfectly fine whiskey. Nonetheless, he immediately had his kitchen staff prepare a glass for me. That’s how gracious a host he was.

Here I am in 2009, a bit overdue for a haircut but right on time for a hot glass of Irish coffee.

Here I am in 2009, a bit overdue for a haircut but right on time for a hot glass of Irish coffee.

Irish coffee, by the way, is a cocktail consisting of strong hot coffee with sugar and whiskey, plus a layer of cream floating on top. It was apparently invented in the early 1940s to warm up transatlantic passengers landing at Shannon Airport. It was more of a treat for tourists than something the Irish drink regularly themselves.

As I drank the delicious glass he had arranged for me, the notable Irishman regaled me with a story from another party he had thrown some years earlier while living in the United States. One his guests that evening was a famous American who, when offered a glass of Irish coffee, requested that it be made with decaffeinated coffee and nonfat cream.

“Would you like it with alcohol-free whiskey, too?” the notable Irishman helpfully inquired.

“Sure!” the famous American beamed, before suspicion dawned. “Hey, wait a minute…”

Well, time marches on, and now Japanese technology has made a commercial reality out of the Irishman’s absurd joke. There is now nonalcoholic Irish coffee … in a can.

can marked

Japan has what is almost certainly the world’s most creative canned beverage industry. After enjoying such unlikely flavor triumphs as adzuki-bean Pepsi and canned pancake milkshakes, I was very much looking forward to their take on Irish coffee.

However, I was a bit crestfallen when I realized that there is no actual whiskey in this product. Instead, it is “whiskey-flavored.”

Somehow, it does give off some alcohol-like fumes, but the flavor is more like hazelnut syrup than whiskey. The cream and sugar flavors nearly overwhelm the coffee flavor, so the final result is like drinking a liquefied hazelnut bonbon.

I respect the Japanese beverage industry’s spirit of experimentation, but if I were to drink a toast to that spirit, I’d rather use real Irish coffee.


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