Archive for April, 2012

Ginza lunch: Pizza and pasta at Vomero

April 27, 2012

I have a new favorite Italian restaurant in Ginza. It’s Vomero.

It opened just last week (April 18), but I’ve already been there twice. My first visit was for a late lunch around 3 p.m. on the first Saturday Vomero was in business. They had a 1,260 yen deal that day that included a plate of antipasti plus one choice from a variety of pizzas and pastas.

While enoying the atmosphere of the place (the nighttime photo at the top of this entry will give you an idea), I savored the antipasti bite by tiny bite: the potato salad, the tomatoes and mozzarella, the slice of mortadella ham, the green salad, the bread, the sliver of quiche, and the slice of chicken loaf whose Italian name (which I immediately forgot) sounded a lot fancier than “chicken loaf.”

It’s a good thing I took my time eating it, because I had a very long wait for my pizza – nearly 30 minutes. Since everything else about Vomero was perfect, I’m willing to attribute the delay their still having been in the “shakedown cruise” phase of operations. They had opened only three days earlier and will presumably improve.

That was the only negative aspect of my Vomero experience, and it does not reflect the otherwise high quality of service I received overall. The waitstaff on my two visits were young, cheerful and attentive. I drink a lot more water than most people, especially during meals, but they saw to it that my glass was never empty. They kept me well-supplied with oshibori towelettes too, including one to wipe off my fingers before touching the bill at the end of my meal. And they were very apologetic that my pizza was taking so long.

But when the pizza arrived…

… it was a thing of beauty. It was covered with big chunks of zucchini, red pepper, yellow pepper, yellow carrot and onion, interspersed with snowy patches of mozzarella. The puffy edges of the crust were lightly and attractively stippled with tiny charred bits, and the interior of the crust was light and chewy. The center of the pizza was awash in juices from the vegetables, so I had to eat the beginning of each slice with a fork. (Pace, Jon Stewart.) It was delicious. And it was much bigger than a pizza for one person normally is in Tokyo. Definitely value for money.

I was so pleased that I went back for a second visit on Monday. I arrived at 2:38, not realizing that their last lunch order on weekdays was 2:30. They were kind enough to let me in anyway, which I mention as another example of their good service – but I wouldn’t advise putting them to the test on this.

Their weekday lunch deal was only 1,000 yen. Reflecting the difference in price, the antipasti plate was a bit smaller, but tea or coffee was also included. This time I went for a pasta dish – chicken ragu with white asparagus – on the theory that it could be prepared quickly.

It came to my table fairly swiftly, and while it wasn’t as startlingly large as the pizza, it was still a good-sized serving for the price. It was slightly larger than the photo above may make it look; those were some very thick chunks of asparagus. The pasta was firm but fully cooked (al dente) and the flavors were about what one might expect from the visible ingredients – not as exciting as the pizza, but pleasant enough.

There are many more pizzas and pastas to choose from. I will definitely go back.

Vomero info
Address: 3-12-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Phone/Fax: (03) 6278-8984
N.B.: At least until the autumn of 2012, Vomero will be closed on Sundays.

Ikebana on steroids

April 20, 2012

Ikebana flower arranging, an old and respected art bound by many strict conventions, also has an avant-garde side. This can be seen in at least 15 experimental works on display in the Flower Art Award 2012 exhibition through tomorrow (April 22) in the Galleria shopping mall at the Tokyo Midtown complex. The works on show are distinctive in at least three ways.

The first thing that makes these arrangements different from the flowers you may have seen in a living room of a Japanese home is their scale. They’re huge. The photo at the top of this entry shows a piece by Sho Sogabe in which the main element is a tilted disk covered with dozens of roses. A string-guided waterfall trickling down from the ceiling of the atrium three stories overhead passes through the hole in the center of the disk, and additional strings with tiny ornaments dangling from the extend toward the ceiling at angles.

The second thing to set these works apart is their use of non-floral materials. It is not unusual to see twigs and stones in ordinary ikebana, and of course the ceramic vessels in which conventional arrangements are displayed are carefully chosen for their visual effect. But these works go further.

Motoko Minami and Minoru Nagai used birch trees:

Koji Nagasaki used bamboo and fabric:

Noriko Sato used gauze:

The third distinguishing characteristic of the works in the show is complex design. For instance, this is what the piece by Michiko Kitamura and Masaki Miyoshi looks like at first glance:

Move closer and you’ll notice that the spherical portion of the work includes feathers as well as flowers:

Get closer still, and you’ll see that the INSIDE of the sphere is filled with roses suspended in space:

Another work that cannot be done justice in a single photograph is by Takayuki Noguchi, Takashi Onizawa, Yuka Amagai and Miki Yokosuka:

It is a sculpture made of waribashi disposable chopsticks. From certain angles, it vaguely resembles a human head. If it were displayed in an art gallery against a background of plain bare walls, the image would be easy to recognize, but when one looks through it at the busy background of a shopping mall, it becomes much harder to discern. (Of course, if it were tucked away in an art gallery, fewer people would see it at all.) Here’s one of its eyes:

The last arrangement I photographed, by Yuichi Yoshimoto and Yasuyuki Kaburagi, was so weird that I don’t know what to say about it. I’ll leave you with these views of it:

Tune in Tokyo: Funny because it’s probably true

April 17, 2012

“The reader understands…when reading, say, David Sedaris, that comedy inherently allows room for exaggeration, and even fabrication.”

Hannah Goldfield
Fact-checker at The New Yorker

Tune In Tokyo” is a humorous memoir by Tim Anderson, “a tall, white, gay Southerner who didn’t speak a lick of Japanese” who got a job as an English teacher in Japan because his life seemed to be going nowhere and he “desperately needed a shot of adrenaline.”

There’s plenty of room for Sedaris-like exaggeration in that set-up, but in reading “Tune In Tokyo” I can’t be sure I found any. However, I am sure that I laughed a lot.

For instance, during one of Anderson’s first rides on a Yamanote Line train, he sits down and finds himself eye-to-eye with a 4-year-old boy standing in front of his seat: “He looked at me with an eerie, inscrutable expression, like the one a child forms when he’s about to command dark forces to descend on you. He didn’t take his eyes off me; he didn’t blink. He just stared, cute and creepy. I averted my eyes…”

With his eyes thus averted, Anderson makes some humorous comments about the architectural mishmash of the Tokyo cityscape outside the train’s windows. His description struck me – a veteran Yamanote Line rider – as vivid, amusing and accurate. And I know I’ve met that same creepy little kid. So far, so good.

Then he turns his attention back inside the train, to “the attractive young girl sitting next to me. She was digging through her purse, pulling out mascara, lipstick, tweezers, blush and an eyelash curler…She had more tools than a smack-addled surgeon.”

Again, he’s describing someone I’ve seen. It struck me as remarkable that he encountered so many archetypes on a single train ride – not only the Staring Kid and the Eyelash Curler Lady, but also a wizened obaa-san he refers to as “Yoda.” I began to suspect he might be blending several different train rides into a single anecdote. But even if so, that would fall well within the bounds of what Hannah Goldfield would allow, and I had no problem with it.

In fact, I was delighted with the way he made it pay off when the young woman took out a cigarette lighter and applied the flame to the end of her eyelash curler: “When she believed it to be hot enough, she put the piping apparatus up to her eye and gave herself a set of shapely, luscious, twenty-four hour lashes. I feared she’d put her eye out if the train should make a sudden jerk, but even with the rolling and swaying of the carriage, the girl’s expert grip on her tools and the precision with which she performed her tasks continued uninterrupted. Amazed, I looked over at the toddler. He was still staring at me.”

I laughed out loud when I read this. I laughed out loud again the second time I read it. It’s perfect. Whether or not the Staring Kid, the Eyelash Curler Lady and the Conspicuous White Guy really were all together at the same time, this is exactly what would happen in those circumstances. So maybe it did.

One chapter in which many readers will likely suspect exaggeration describes severely alcoholic “Ron Faust,” a roommate whom Anderson is assigned by his employer, a chain of language schools he winkingly refers to as MOBA. “He looks like he’d been scraped off the streets of Philadelphia and shipped to Japan while still viciously intoxicated – without being told why. My guess: a Philadelphia MOBA headhunter had been desperate to meet his quota, went out onto the street, found Ron drinking from a brown bag and talking to his imaginary friend Crabcake, and thought, ‘Now there’s a MOBA English teacher!’”

Ron staggers around their apartment on a prosthetic leg like a real-life Jack Sparrow. That is, if Jack Sparrow were hostile, paranoid, and given to dropping hints about having been part of a strange sexual arrangement back in the States. His exploits grow increasingly outrageous, and once again I couldn’t stop laughing as I read.

My laughter was brought on partly by Anderson’s skill as a writer. He ratchets up Ron’s craziness on page after page, and ratchets up his own alarmed reactions to Ron at the same pace. This guy knows how to spin a comic yarn.

But I was also laughing because I’ve been there. Just over a decade ago, I worked as an English teacher for an outfit that was probably the one Anderson calls MOBA. The teachers’ ability levels varied from expert to clueless (one of them liked to say the main qualifications for the job were “round eyes and a pulse”), but the majority were good people making an honest effort to help their students. Even so, the teacher population in those days had more than its fair share of nuts, jerks, drunks, and basket cases. I knew one teacher who seemed to have a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome, another who had a speech impediment that made it impossible to pronounce two of the three consonants in her own name, another who rarely bathed, another who broke down in tears on about a weekly basis, and more than one who took malicious pleasure in tricking students into misusing or mispronouncing English words in ways that sounded obscene. None of the people I directly dealt with were quite as extreme as the character Anderson describes, but I cannot say I found him outside the realm of believability.

The archetypical train ride and the Ron Faust adventure were my own favorite parts of this book, but “Tune In Tokyo” has a lot more to recommend it. The chapter titled “The Vagina Dialogue” is a comical story whose title doesn’t mean what you might think it means, but what it does mean is very funny. The chapter on “Gaijin Man” (a character type better known as “Charisma Man,” a phrase Anderson doesn’t use) offers a surprising insight on the phenomenon of unattractive foreign men hooking up with beautiful Japanese women.

Anderson’s humor is sharp, but never cruel. Many of his jokes are at his own expense. Even when describing what an absurd place Japan is – as most places are – he usually does it by way of deflating his own unrealistic expectations of what life in Japan was going to be like.

How much of it is literally true? I don’t know. But it’s true enough, and more than funny enough.

Japanese curry: Asteroid memorial

April 5, 2012

What was the first country to land a spacecraft on an asteroid? What was the first country to bring asteroid samples back to Earth? What was the first country to celebrate these achievements with at least four different movies … and a commemorative curry?

The answers are Japan, Japan and of course Japan.

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa was launched in 2003. Its destination, which it reached using cutting-edge ion engines, was the asteroid Itokawa. The asteroid is a peanut-shaped mass of rock and dust about 500 meters long, usually described as being 300 million kilometers from Earth. Just reaching a target of that size at that distance is an amazing feat.

Unfortunately, a lot of things went wrong on the mission. But in most cases, engineers at JAXA (Japan’s space agency) were able to improvise solutions.

The worst problem was that a device meant to collect material from the asteroid malfunctioned. When Hayabusa returned to Earth in 2010, making a fiery landing in Australia, its sample canister appeared to be empty. Microscopic inspection, however, revealed tiny particles of asteroid dust that scientists are continuing to study. Although not the hoped-for treasure trove, it was a historic achievement nonetheless. Itokawa and the moon are the only celestial bodies from which humans have ever managed to bring back any material to Earth.

I recently learned, though a Yomiuri Shimbun article, that the Sunkus convience store chain was selling “Itokawa Curry” for a limited time. A block of rice in the shape of the asteroid was positioned on a plate of curry sauce that represented the darkness of space. Floating in the background were a meatball standing in for Earth and a sliced egg playing the sun. Crowning it all was a bite-sized piece of fried chicken perched on the rice to represent Hayabusa landing on the asteroid. (This is appropriate, given that Hayabusa is named after a bird – albeit a peregrine falcon, not a chicken.)

I was desperate to try this historic dish for myself, and over the past week and a half I have made a total of six visits to four different Sunkus locations, but it wasn’t until yesterday – the very last day of the promotion – that I finally found the coveted curry in stock.

Asteroid sampling tool

In case you’re disappointed at not being able to try it yourself, I can assure you that the flavors were well within the gray middle zone of convenience-store standards and thus totally forgettable. But the symbolism was delicious.

It turns out that this product was meant as a promotion for the Shochiku film company’s new 3-D movie about the Hayabusa mission. It’s called “Okaeri, Hayabusa,” which means “Welcome home, Hayabusa.” Here’s a trailer:

That movie is just the latest of several on the topic. Twentieth Century Fox also came out with a film simply called “Hayabusa,” starring Toshiyuki Nishida, an actor best known for his lead role in the movie series “Tsuri Baka Nisshi” (Diary of a fishing fool). Here’s the trailer:

The Kadokawa film company made a computer-graphic retelling of Hayabusa’s journey called “Hayabusa: Back to the Earth.” The final line of this trailer, “Saa … kairou … natsukashii chikyu ni” (Well … let’s go home … to our fondly remembered Earth) actually chokes me up for some reason. Maybe it’s the accompanying music. Maybe it’s the fact that I actually understood it. Or maybe there was a mood-altering ingredient in that curry. Watch:

The Hayabusa film with the most star power (pun unavoidable) is Toei’s “Hayabusa Harukanaru Kikan” (a title I would roughly translate as “Hayabusa’s homecoming from afar”), with Ken Watanabe as an awkwardly coiffed engineer:

I don’t think any of these movies could be described as massive hits. Does this reflect on their cinematic quality, or were there just too many of them for the market to absorb? Not having actually watched the films, I’ll leave that for others to judge.