Archive for September, 2011

A little Tokyo nightlife with Bob Arnold

September 29, 2011

Singer-songwriter Bob Arnold was part of the entertainment this past Sunday night when I went to a book launch party for “Calling All Shadows” at What the Dickens, a British-style pub in Ebisu, Tokyo.

Bob is friend of mine, so I won’t pretend to be an impartial observer, but I always enjoy his songs.

Bob is a versatile lyricist whose work ranges from the silly (Toe Jam”) to the profound (“The Beautiful Americans”). He also touches many points of the spectrum in between. Some of his songs make you think, and many of them make you smile.

His short set on Sunday tended toward the cheerfully playful side of his oeuvre. In the videos below, he plays “Suzy’s Just a Little Floozy” with accompaniment by a Canadian flautist, and “Mike Rides a Bike,” a new song he was performing in public for the first time.

“Calling All Shadows”

September 29, 2011

This past Sunday night I went to a book launch party for “Calling All Shadows,” a collection of 97 photos by Leigh Norrie with poetry by Adam Touhrig on the facing pages. Leigh is a friend of mine, so I won’t pretend to be an impartial observer.

Nonetheless I will say that I was impressed by the moody quality of his photos, which are mostly black-and-white and were taken in a variety of melancholy places around Japan, plus a few in Britain. Leigh shows us waves crashing on a desolate coast…a cast-off store mannequin lurching zombie-like through a rice field where it was repurposed as a scarecrow…and a couple of nocturnal street scenes from the city of Fukushima, with not a soul in sight.

“Fukushima” is a name most people outside of Japan had never heard last year, but now the emptiness of the streets in Leigh’s photos will be striking to almost everyone.

One of the few color photos in the book is of the Nagasaki peace statue. When personified, “Peace” usually appears as a graceful woman, but the Nagasaki statue is a muscular man in a dynamic pose. Leigh photographed him as a slightly wavy reflection in some rain-slicked paving tiles. In this image, Peace, seemingly sealed off under a blue glaze, looks distant and unreal. Leigh took a concrete representation of an abstraction, and made it abstract again.

Many of the pictures have been manipulated in deliberately noticeable ways, mostly around the edges. In one example, a jumbo roller-coaster car with passengers sitting eight abreast has just begun a steep plunge at the top of the photo. The space around it is bleached as white as the surrounding page, so that the car and tracks seem to be hovering in infinite space. And the tracks below and ahead fade raggedly into the nothingness like the trailing end of a calligrapher’s brush stroke. Where will the passengers be a moment from now?

“Calling All Shadows” is available through Printed Matter Press at

Ginza lunch: Furutoshi

September 26, 2011

In every section Tokyo, you can usually find at least one building that is under construction or renovation. I’ve had my eye on the under-construction Solaria Hotel in Ginza for some time now, and last week it finally opened. More to the point, its restaurant opened.

The restaurant, Furutoshi, is on the second floor, and the rough-hewn wood in the stairwell leading up from its street-level entrance still smelled freshly cut when I stopped in on Sunday. A stone plaque on the landing revealed that the restaurant is not entirely new: It has just moved to Ginza after a decade of business in the upscale Tokyo neighborhood of Azabu.

The décor is very airy and relaxing. Furutoshi has floor-to-ceiling windows along the entirety of two walls, looking out onto some Ginza side streets. It’s decorated with a variety of art, including two textile collages hanging in glass frames against one of the windows.

Lunch begins with an “appetizer buffet,” a few selections from which you can see in the photo above. I had to go back for seconds on the carpaccio, and I was very impressed by the ordinary-looking but highly flavorful broccoli florets, whose dark tips tasted as if they had been well sautéed in spicy oil even while the stems remained matchstick-crisp. There was also a tureen of a creamy and mild gray-flannel mushroom soup.

There were two options for the main course at the time of my Sunday visit: duck with orange sauce or wagyu beef cheek in a faintly sweet red wine sauce. As you can see from the photo, I chose the beef, which came in a generous portion nearly the size of my fist. My place had been set with a butter knife, but the beef was cooked to such softness that even that dull blade almost fell through it.

This was an expensive lunch. On weekends, lunch at Furutoshi is 2,500 yen, which I confess is a lot more than I normally pay for a midday meal. A member of the staff told me that on weekdays the price is reduced to 1,800 yen, but the main dish on those days is pasta.

By the time I finished my main course, though, I felt I had gotten my money’s worth. And then came dessert.

Or perhaps I should say, then came desserts. When the waiter brought me a platter of five items, I thought I was supposed to pick one, and I was astonished when he left them all for me. Each was nice in its own way, but the grapefruit at upper left in this photo was especially memorable since it taught me the surprising lesson that fresh rosemary goes wonderfully well with that particular fruit.

Furutoshi info
Address: 2nd floor, 4-9-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Phone: (03) 5565-0577

A note on the Solaria Hotel: The Ginza location is the second hotel to be opened under this brand name. The first is in Fukuoka, and a third Solaria Hotel will be opened in Kagoshima in 2012. While the brand may be new, it is actually part of the well-established Nishitestsu Hotel Group.

Pool Review: Swim outdoors at Aqua Field

September 13, 2011

I’ve lived in or near Tokyo for most of my adult life, and until yesterday I never knew that one could swim outdoors in a 50-meter pool just a stone’s throw from Tokyo Tower. This city is full of surprises.

For a swimmer accustomed to doing laps indoors, it a glorious change to set off across a 50-meter pool under bright blue skies while the bubbles your arms create with each forward stroke dance before your eyes like tumbling jewels in the ever-changing sunlight.

That last line may seem a bit overwrought to some readers, but serious swimmers will know what I’m talking about.

At the time of my visit to the Aqua Field pool, near Shiba Koen Station on the Mita subway line, two wide lanes were set aside for lap swimming. The rest of the pool was a vast open area for general frolicking.

The pool, whose adjustable floor was set to a uniform depth of one meter, is fenced in and surrounded by shrubbery. One could easily miss it while walking past in the street, but within the  enclosure there is a tremendous feeling of openness, with views of several tall buildings, including Tokyo Tower, framed against the surrounding sky. There is also a large raised terrace with even better views (including Zojoji temple nearby and the Izumi Garden Tower in the distance), with plenty of tables and chairs where one can relax and dry off in the breeze.

Unfortunately, the Aqua Field pool is near the end of its season. Sept. 15 is the last swimming day. After that, the pool will close for a couple of weeks to undergo a transition into a futsal field, which is how it will remain until next summer. You can see photos of Aqua Field in both its summer Aqua and winter Field forms at the official website here.

I wasn’t able to photograph the pool myself because there were signs everywhere forbidding it. (The photo at the top of this post was taken from a public street outside.) There were also signs everywhere reminding tattooed swimmers to keep their skin art covered up. Unfortunately, these are common prohibitions at public swimming pools here. But one rule that was not on the books was the usual Japanese requirement for everyone to wear a swim cap. Feeling the water flow through my hair was another refreshing change from the usual Japanese pool experience.

The only aspect of Aqua Field that left anything to be desired was the locker room. It was cramped and crowded, and the floors were thoroughly wet even in areas that should have been mostly dry. There was an insufficient supply of benches or seats, meaning there was no dry spot to put anything down. For visitors who are simply changing into shorts and a T-shirt before heading on their way, this is not a huge problem. But if you want to swim before work or on your lunch break, getting changed back into business clothing becomes an elaborate chore. (But that won’t stop me from visiting again next summer — or maybe tomorrow.)

Adult admission to Aqua Field is 400 yen for two hours, plus 200 yen for each additional hour. Hold on to the ticket you get on the way in, since its time will be checked on your way out. To reach Aqua Field, use Exit A3 of Shiba Koen subway station, turn left at the top of the stairs, and walk a short distance down a tree-lined path to find the entrance on your left.

Monsters besiege St. Luke’s Hospital

September 9, 2011

I visited St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tsukiji yesterday, and discovered that Tama Art University is putting on a sculpture exhibition on the grounds. It runs until Sept. 24.

There were many large wooden sculptures on the grass, looking like an army of monsters marching toward the entrance of the hospital’s older wing. One especially startling work, considering the setting, depicted an emaciated woman whose pregnant-looking abdomen was opened up and hollowed out to resemble and empty bucket. She also had a hole in her head – apparently a result of a natural knot in the wood. But at least she was smiling.

A snake, although it might make some people nervous, is a little more appropriate for a hospital since snakes have been used as symbols of healing since antiquity.

The salamander has legendary associations that might make it a good mascot for a burn unit, but whether any symbolism is intended here, at least it looks happy.

I have no idea whether this creature is happy, but it would be right at home in a Clive Barker painting or a Tim Burton movie.

Continuing the horror, it looks like at least one sculptor is a fan of H.P. Lovecraft.

And I have no idea who these guys are.

On a more serious note, I think St. Luke’s is to be commended on the quality and quantity of the artwork on display. Indoors, there are many paintings and a few small sculptures in the corridors, elevator lobbies and waiting rooms. There are also some nice gardens there. The commonsense proposition that pleasant surroundings are conducive to healing has been gaining more currency in recent years, so this is an important thing for a hospital to do.

If you’d like to see these sculptures for yourself, St. Luke’s is a few blocks west of Exit 3 of Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya subway line.