You shouldn’t swim in the Meguro River

August 29, 2016

AA8But there is a great place to swim right next to it.

The photo above shows a view of the river from a bridge that you can find by walking west and downhill from Tokyo’s Meguro Station along Meguro-dori avenue. The trees on the left side of the river conceal the Meguro Kumin Center, a complex of public facilities that includes a 50-meter outdoor pool that is open from July 1 to Sept. 11. (Those are the 2016 dates, and it may not be open on Sept. 4.)

As you walk along the riverbank, the pool will become visible through the trees – along with a typical warning to cover up any tattoos.

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I loved this pool. At the time of my visit on a recent Monday afternoon there were a few dozen people using it, but its vast size made it feel relatively uncrowded. There were two wide lanes set aside for lap swimming, with one-way traffic in each so that you had to duck under a rope at the end of each length. The water was clear and cool, and when I realized that swim caps were not required – a rarity at public pools here – I swam my last few laps gloriously naked from the ears up. A 10-minute break was called at the end of each hour.

If the pool itself was wonderful, the locker room was less impressive. It was a small space with nowhere to sit down. The entire floor was soaking wet, and covered with mats of small plastic beads that were uncomfortable to walk on. But with admission at just 200 yen, who can complain?

In addition to the gigantic outdoor pool, there is also a 25-meter indoor pool and a blob-shaped outdoor kiddie pool. Admission to the kiddie pool is a separate 100 yen.

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The two outdoor pools are in separate areas divided by a brick walkway, in the middle of which stands a life-size sculpture of a young woman by Fumio Asakura, the “Rodin of the East” who also created the sculptures seen at the Taito Riverside Sports Center across town. Asakura (1883-1964) sculpted the woman in the year Taisho 11 (1922), making this an earlier work than the ones seen at the Taito facility. Its title is “Hana no Kage,” which literally means “Flower Shadow.”

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A few of the works in the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture’s outdoor area

If you’re an athlete who loves art, this is the place to be. Not only does the Meguro Kumin Center have three pools, a room full of exercise machines, and courts for basketball, volleyball and badminton, but it is also home to the Meguro Museum of Art. There are other art museums nearby, such as the Kume Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture. On the other side of Meguro Station is the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. And on a less artistic note, Meguro is also home to the small but memorable Meguro Parasitological Museum.

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Warped figures line a path at the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture.

Many Tokyo museums are closed on Mondays, the day of my visit to this pool, but the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture has an outdoor sculpture garden you can see at any time. The garden twists its way through several barely contiguous plots of land in a hilly residential area above Yamate-dori avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Meguro River. The Meguro Kumin Center is between the road and the river.

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If all of this swimming and art-walking has given you an appetite, look for Ramen Jiro Meguro across Yamate-dori from the Meguro Kumin Center. This is a rather famous place, despite its grungy appearance. Or perhaps because of its grungy appearance: Many ramen lovers revel in the “B-class” status of their favorite dish.

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I ordered a “small” bowl of noodles with pork. It was fatty, garlicky and filling – and not exactly small. After a two-kilometer swim, it was just right.

 

 

Pool review: Swim like a hero in Taito Ward

July 29, 2016

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

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