Archive for September, 2010

Pool review: Ariake Sports Center

September 24, 2010

On a recent Sunday morning, before the brutal 2010 Tokyo heat wave broke, I paid a visit to the Ariake Sports Center in Koto Ward, Tokyo. In keeping with its name, it has a weight room and basketball and volleyball courts as well as a pool. But as usual, I went for the pool.

Here’s what I learned on my recent visit:

Cost: Two hours of pool access costs 300 yen for adults, with kids half price. As at many Tokyo pools, you have to buy a paper ticket from a vending machine and show it to an attendant on your way in and your way out.

Main pool: In photos I had found online, the 25-meter, six-lane pool is under a Crystal Palace-style curved glass roof, which looked like it might be able to slide open in nice weather. To my delight, this turned out to be the case, which meant that I was able to swim in sunshine and fresh air, which really does feel better than swimming completely indoors.

Less delightful was the dense crowd, which gave the pool a March-of-the-Penguins atmosphere. There must have been 100 or more people in the water, mostly parents with children. Only two lanes were clearly set aside for lap swimming. Although that was the least crowded part of the pool, there were about 10 people in each lap lane. I swam a few optimistic meters of freestyle, but had to switch to a deliberately slow breaststroke each time, and I was repeatedly forced to halt and tread water when the crowd ahead of me made forward movement impossible. I gave up and climbed out after a mere 100 meters.

It may have been that my timing was bad. On a scorching hot summer Sunday, it is only natural and proper that parents living nearby should take their kids to the pool. I have no objection to that. And it should be noted that an anonymous reviewer on the website swimmersguide was able to write, in an undated entry, “Facility was not crowded, with only a handful of people swimming.”

Around the pool: But all hope was not lost. It turned out that the Ariake Sports Center actually has TWO main pools. One was designed for lap swimming, but the other is purely for play, and even includes a waterslide that does a complete loop on its way down. Although I was disappointed at not being able to have a serious swim, I thought that two trips down the water slide should just about justify the 300 yen I had paid to get in. But the slide was so much fun that I felt I had gotten my money’s worth after just one trip down. (Then I took two more just to be certain.)

The line for the slide was very short, and so were most of the people using it. In fact, kids had to be at least as tall as a line on the wall to be allowed on, and I saw a lifeguard stop one little girl and make her stand against the wall to see if she qualified. She just barely made it, and that was because she seemed to have her hair up in a big lumpy bun under her swim cap. I think the lifeguard made the right call in letting her get away with it.

Photos are prohibited in the pool area, including from a glassed-in observation lounge about two stories above the pool deck, but you can see what may be official pictures of the facility’s interior here, or better yet, here.

And you can also get an idea of what the pools are like from the diagram, part of the facility’s official pamphlet, below:

Lockers and showers: The locker room is rather small, with no special features to speak of other than a spin drier for wet bathing suits and a hair drier for wet hair.

Wheelchair access: There are ramps and elevators, including a long ramp into the main pool.

The building: The Ariake Sports Center consists of two side-by-side buildings, the taller of which contains the basketball courts and the smaller of which contains the pools. The facility has been reviewed by the website tokyoarchitecture, which likens the larger building to a mushroom, and the smokestack of a nearby garbage incinerator to a tree trunk. But there is another and much clearer botanical reference: The end facades of the pool building are shaped like the gingko-leaf logo of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Location: The Ariake Sports Center is about a 10-minute walk from either Ariake Tennis-no-Mori Station or Odaiba Keihin Koen Station, both on the Yurikamome Line, and a slightly longer walk from Kokusai Tenjijo Station on the Rinkai Line. See the official access map below.

Mitsukoshi’s new Ginza store

September 23, 2010

One hundred and eighty thousand people showed up the other weekend for the grand reopening of the giant Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza, Tokyo. I was one of them, but I was not among the 2,000 who were already waiting on the sidewalk when the doors opened 15 minutes early at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11.

The new store is so gigantic – 36,000 square meters, which is 50 percent larger than its old incarnation – that it easily swallowed the big crowd. By the time I ambled in at 10:15, I was able to move around freely, enjoying a fair amount of elbow room.

The expansion was accomplished by attaching the original nine-story building, which stands at Ginza’s main intersection, to a new 12-story building at the other end of the same block. You can see the original street-corner entrance of the old building near the center of the photo below, with the tall new annex visible further back and to the right.

And here’s a street-level view of the new annex at night:

To see what’s inside, visit the store’s site here, and click on the floor you are interested in.

Most of the space in the building is given over to high-end clothing, jewelry and accessories – Prada, Gucci, Vivienne Tam, Moschino, Burberry, Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani, Tiffany, Bulgari, you get the idea – but I breezed past much of that to focus on Mitsukoshi’s culinary and architectural details.

However, one place I did have to stop in the clothing areas was at the Atelier Longhouse / Piro Racing boutique on the fourth floor, right next to Givenchy, which in turn is next to Celine. This shop is run by Hirokazu Nagaya, pictured below, and his mother Emiko Nagaya.

Hirokazu is a former racecar driver who uses a wheelchair as a result of a crash. He is now in the clothing business, focusing on good-looking garments for people in wheelchairs, who tend to have specialized tailoring needs. You can learn more about him at his Japanese-language website here or in an English-language magazine article that I interviewed him for last year. (It will appear in a future blog entry, so watch this space.)

Turning my attention to culinary topics, I headed for the upper floors of the new building, where there are restaurants representing the cuisines of several nations, as well as Japanese specialties such as freshly made noodles and Okinawan cuisine. As I stepped off the escalator, I found a ceremony in progress at a noodle shop called Hakone Akatsukian. After a moment’s hesitation, I took out my camera and made a video of the tail end of it:

Later, I returned and found the apparent proprietor making noodles behind a glass window, so I made another brief video:

It began to look as if the noodle-making process was going to take some time, so I turned off my camera and went to see what else there was to look at. (A real video journalist would have begun filming the ceremony immediately, and would have filmed the noodle-making to its end, but I’m figuring this out as I go.)

Hakone Akatsukian appears to be a new branch of a place that really does exist in Hakone, a famous hot spring resort area near Mt. Fuji. You can read about the older noodle shop in Japanese here or here, and see a mention of their Roppongi branch in The Wall Street Journal here.

 Now that I work in Ginza, I plan to visit several of Mitsukoshi’s restaurants for lunch in the future, but on my first day the only edibles I purchased were in the Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate shop on the ground floor.

At front right in this photo is the Longchamp Chocolat Lait (630 yen), which the multilingual young lady behind the counter recommended to me as the sweetest item in the shop. As photographed here, it is broken open so you can see the fluffy interior, which seems to consist mainly of frothy whipped butter. Behind that is a slice of Matcha cake (630 yen), the layers of which combine soft and crunchy textures, and in which yuzu citrus is the most prominent flavor even though the cake is named for the green tea it also contains. Next to that is a dark chocolate Guayaquil cake (578 yen), which the shop lady pointed out when I asked her what would be the most bitter cake as a contrast to the sweet one. “Bitter” turned out not to be the right word for this cake, as there was nothing harsh about it, but it definitely was not sweet – a welcome contrast to the stratospheric richness of the other items. Finally, in front, is a sugar-dusted Macaron Chocolat al’Ancienne (662 yen), which begins as a simple macaroon (Hevin’s signature item) but then is covered in several layers of other sweet stuff until it reaches a prodigious size. You can study more of his confections here.

 Shortly after buying these items, I found some other macaroons in a different part of the store:

But these macaroons are not edible. Instead, they are cute accessories that may tie in to Mitsukoshi’s reported attempts to make its new incarnation more attractive to young women, who in recent years had come to view the store as place for older women to go.

And speaking of cute, something I wish I had space for in my kitchen is the nabe pot shaped like a pumpkin in the middle of this photo in the kitchenware department:

As for the building itself, the new annex is full of eating areas and rest areas that occupy relatively narrow slivers of floor space but are characterized by high ceilings and large windows that make them feel spacious by filling them with airiness and natural light.

The nicest part of the remodeled store, though, is how the upper floors of the new part of the building open out onto the green landscaped roof of the shorter old building.

I was pleased to see that the roof area includes a green curtain of the kind I described in reference to the Sumida Ward Gym here.

And finally, nestled into the base of the green curtain is a small religious area featuring a rather massive Jizo statue that was reportedly unearthed nearby during the Meiji era.

Arcade Mania

September 12, 2010

When I was in high school in America in the early 1980s, video games were still a novelty. Arcades full of coin-operated machines had suddenly become a standard feature at shopping centers, but hardly anyone I knew played video games at home. However, in my “computer science” class at school, I got hooked on a very simple geometric game called Qix. I was recently pleased to discover that you can now play it on the for free at the website Arcade Boss. I’m not hypnotized by it like I once was, but it’s still fun for a few minutes.

Nowadays, home video game systems are common in the United States – not to mention portable handheld game platforms – while arcades have largely disappeared. In Japan, however, arcades still survive despite the popularity of home and portable games.

Perhaps game arcades in Japan might serve a social function similar to that of love hotels. They facilitate activities that can be most fully enjoyed outside the small living space that you may be sharing with parents, kids, in-laws or siblings. They are somewhat private but non-home spaces where you can let you hair down.

The 2008 book “Arcade Mania,” by Brian Ashcraft and Jean Snow, documents the Japanese arcade phenomenon. I reviewed it when it came out, and here is an excerpt:

Arcade Mania is a breezy little book packed with color images and peppered with quotes from game designers and champion players. It sheds light on the surprisingly diverse world of Japanese arcades with chapters divided by game genre, including crane games (such as UFO Catcher), photo-sticker games (Print Club), music-based games (Dance Dance Revolution), trading-card games (Mushiking), vintage games (Elevator Action) and more.

It contains a lot of fascinating tidbits of history, such as how “Martin Bromley, Irving Bromberg, and James Humpert had founded the company Standard Games in Hawaii in 1940 to provide entertainment for military servicemen stationed overseas, and…sensed an opportunity in postwar American-occupied Japan. It was in 1951 that the company moved to Tokyo, complete with name change. Standard Games became Service Games of Japan (SErvice GAmes = Sega, geddit?) and the following year began importing pinball machines into Japan.”

Pinball machines may be a thing of the past, but Sega is still going strong.

The book plumbs the depths of otakudom, reporting on a battery-powered vibrating device that hard-core gamers can wear on their fingers. Pulsing at 30 times a second, it pushes a game’s “shoot” button faster than any human finger could. (What did you think it was for?)

A very odd omission in this wide-ranging book is any mention of gambling for money in the brief discussion of pachinko. The practice is technically illegal, of course, but it is not exactly rare…

That last point is my only beef with this book. What it does contain is very interesting. Buy it here.

Tokyo oasis: Sky Garden

September 10, 2010

The Otemachi-Marunouchi area of Tokyo has been in a state of almost constant change since I first began working there nine and a half years ago.

Not long before I arrived, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper company had torn down and rebuilt its Otemachi headquarters. According to old photos, the previous Sankei building looked like a giant cement milk carton, but the new building is a dark glass tower that tapers toward its base and faces a plaza where local office workers eat lunch al fresco almost every day, and where the Fuji TV network sometimes shoots scenes for its shows.

A few years later and a few blocks to the south, a pair of skyscrapers across from Tokyo Station, the Marunouchi and Shin-Marunouchi buildings (commonly known as the Maru-Biru and Shin-Maru Biru), were also torn down and replaced with sleeker versions of themselves. They serve mainly as office towers, but the first several floors of each building are filled with restaurants and shops that have made them popular with the public. Each has a lofty atrium to welcome visitors in.

Also within the past decade, a drab and hulking government building in Otemachi that housed an immigration office where I once or twice renewed my visa was torn down. After that, the three nearby buildings occupied by the Nippon Keidanren business federation, the Nikkei business newspaper, and the Zen-noh agricultural association (which calls itself JA on the English pages of its website) were also all torn down. Only about a year ago, these three organizations moved into a row of three brand new (and much taller) towers on the site of the old government building. And yet another set of towers is now under construction on the site that those three organizations left.

Just a few blocks to the south, the old Palace Hotel has been torn down, and a new building is now going up in its place. And just to the east, a large post office building was leveled several years back. (Last time I looked, the lot was still vacant, but things change fast in Tokyo.) Another large post office building, adjacent to Tokyo Station and the Maru-Biru pair, has been gutted, and its old façade will become part of a modern new high-rise.

This is far from a complete list. Several other buildings in the neighborhood were razed before I had even mentally registered what they were, and the Otemachi headquarters of  The Yomiuri Shimbun is set for demolition and replacement in the very near future.

The good news is that the results of all this activity have been visually pleasing. Despite being filled with private offices, many of these buildings include attractive public spaces. For example, on a fourth-floor balcony connecting the Nippon Keidanren and JA buildings, I recently stumbled across a small but very nicely landscaped “Sky Garden” that includes a stream, fruit trees, tea bushes, a rice paddy and a Shinto shrine.

See for yourself:

Tea shrubs

To find the Sky Garden, go to Otemachi subway station and use Exit C2b, which leads directly into a long corridor full of restaurants in the shared basement of the three office buildings. Once you’re inside, just follow the signs to the Sky Garden.

By the way, this is not the first rice paddy to appear in this part of the city (during its time as a city). The Pasona company also famously had one in its nearby headquarters, which recently moved to the Yaesu area on the other side of Tokyo Station. There’s a detailed description and critique of that project at the blog Tokyo Green Space.

Pool review: Sumida Ward’s new gym

September 7, 2010


In April of this year, a lavish new public athletic facility opened in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. It includes exercise machines, aerobics studios, martial arts areas, several wood-floored courts for basketball or volleyball, two open-air playing fields on its roof, a café, a shop and a one-room museum about local sports heroes. It also has a pool.

I went for the pool.

Here’s what I learned on my recent visit:

Cost: Two hours of pool access costs 500 yen. That may sound simple, but it gets complicated. First, you have to buy a paper ticket from a vending machine. Then you show the ticket to the attendant at the front desk, and mention that you plan to swim. The attendant will give you a plastic card and a plastic token. Holding all this stuff, you must try to get through the automated ticket wicket by scanning the paper ticket’s QR code over a small glass window. Once you are inside the locker room – remember to take off your shoes – you can use the plastic card to claim a locker. Then, once you have gotten into your swimsuit – and your cap – you take the plastic token downstairs to the pool and give it to the attendant there. Finally, on your way out, you’ll need to use the paper ticket to get through the wicket again. Got it?

Main pool: The water in this 25-meter, seven-lane pool was crystal clear on the day of my visit, but this is a fact that I may not bother to mention in most of my future pool reviews. In Tokyo, you can assume that the water will be clean. It is not rare to put your head under at one end of a pool and be able to see the opposite wall as clearly as if the pool were empty. Leave your Secchi disc at home.

The water was about chest-deep on the day of my visit, but the pool had a floor made of plastic planks, so the depth may be adjustable. (So don’t dive in.)

There were three clocks visible from inside the pool, but all of them were on the same wall on the same side of the pool, which made it less easy to glance at them than if they had been arranged around the pool.

The crowd was light enough during my visit (at noon on a weekday) that I often had my lane to myself, so I was able to get some backstroke in.

Backstroke navigation: There are backstroke flags, but the ceiling above the pool is white and almost featureless, which makes it a little hard to tell exactly where the wall is. (I know you’re supposed to count how many strokes it takes you to get from the flags to the wall, I have never found this method satisfactory. I’ve occasionally had lumps on my head to reinforce this dissatisfaction.)

Around the pool: There is a small Jacuzzi and a large wading pool. There is tiered seating for spectators behind glass.

Lockers and showers: The locker room is so large that I actually got lost in it, and took the wrong exit. I had to turn back when I realized that I was on my way to the weight room in my bathing suit. Soap and shampoo are provided in the shower area, which is decorated in shiny black tile and includes a furo bath large enough to hold five or six people. There is also a spin drier to put your swimsuit in so it won’t soak your bag on the way home; this seems to be a pretty standard feature at Tokyo pools these days.

Wheelchair access: There appear to be plenty of ramps and elevators, including a long ramp into the main pool. The locker room includes a spacious wheelchair stall.

The building: Two features of the building caught my eye. The first was that efforts are apparently being made to cover the building in an eye-pleasing and eco-friendly “green curtain” of the type that is described here and shown here and advocated by Azby Brown. The exterior of the building is essentially a giant trellis, and green plants are growing on it in various places. The building is less than a year old now, but presumably the green coverage will expand over time.

The other feature I approve of is that the café operates as a beer garden in the summer.

Location: The Sumida-ku Sogo Taiikukan (Sumida Ward General Gym) occupies the northeast corner of Kinshi Koen park, a short walk from Kinshicho Station on the JR Sobu Line and the Hanzomon subway line. See the official access map here.

Basic rules at Tokyo pools

September 7, 2010

Tokyo has a lot of excellent public pools, and I plan to review a variety of them on this blog. If you’d like to swim in this city, here are three things you should assume:

1. When entering a Japanese locker room, as when entering a Japanese house, you are expected to take off your shoes.

2. When swimming in a public pool, you will almost certainly be required to wear a swim cap – even if you are bald.

3. Most pools exclude people who have visible tattoos. If this means you, then plan to wear your least revealing swimsuit, and cover up further with a T-shirt or even bandages if necessary.

Apartment fire in Adachi Ward

September 4, 2010

About 5:20 on Thursday morning (Sept. 3), a fire began in an apartment occupied by an 86-year-old man and an 84-year-old woman in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, according to local news reports. The two suffered burns on their faces and chests, and a 69-year-old neighbor was also injured. Several surrounding buildings were damaged. Police began investigating the cause of the fire the same day.

I happened to have gotten up early that day for a trip out of town, and I took the above photo at 5:40 a.m., looking south into Adachi Ward from the top of the building I live in. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The burning building was reported to be 700 meters southwest of the Nippori Toneri Liner train’s Ekita Station. To the right of the source of the smoke, you can see Tokyo Sky Tree under construction. The Sky Tree, in Sumida Ward, is already the tallest structure in Japan at 438 meters, and will be 600 meters tall when completed.

You can find the original news stories about the fire here and here.