Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

Swim like Kermit and feast on bagels in Setagaya

December 8, 2016

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If you’re a swimmer who likes bagels, you should pay a visit to the Setagaya Chitose All-Season Swimming Pool in Tokyo. What are quite likely the best bagels in Tokyo are available nearby.

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The pool is a little over a kilometer south of Hachimanyama Station on the Keio Line, but on my visit to the pool, I got off one stop away, at Kamikitazawa Station. I wanted to pay a visit to Kepo Bagels, which I had been to several years before while researching a newspaper article on the Tokyo bagel scene.

41-lmk55qxl-_sx310_bo1204203200_A bagel, like a swimmer, approaches perfection by spending time in the water. Good bagels are boiled before they are baked. According to “The Bagel” by Maria Balinska, “Cooking the surface of the dough in water … gelatinizes the starch and creates the distinctive glossy crust.” I remembered Kepo Bagels as having the best crust among the numerous Tokyo bagels I tried. It contrasted very pleasingly with the bread’s chewy interior. I was happy to find that Kepo Bagels were still excellent. (The visit I’m writing about now was last fall, so I’ll have to go again to make sure they’re still good. I’m sure they will be.) Visit http://www.kepobagels.com for the latest info.

imageedit_5_8067224878Having stowed a couple of bagel sandwiches in my gym bag, I set off for the pool. Even though it was well over a kilometer from Kamikitazawa Station, I was able to find it easily by using the tall chimney of a garbage incineration plant as a navigational guide. Just like Genki Plaza and the Ikebukuro Sports Center, the Chitose pool gets its hot water and electricity from energy created by burning garbage. As a member of the pool staff said when I asked her about it, “Mottainai.” Let’s not be wasteful.

PANM.JPGLike most pools attached to incinerators, the pool is a gorgeous contrast to its power source. It’s part of an architecturally wacky building that also includes a gym and a café. The pool itself is in a wing of the building that hovers over a sunken outdoor atrium. The ceiling over the pool is oddly angled, like the lid on a rectangular yogurt carton that has been partially peeled open. This makes it slightly disorienting if you’re trying to use the ceiling as a guide to swimming in a straight line while doing backstroke.

However, another part of the backstroke view is quite delightful. At the end of the pool opposite the entrance from the locker rooms, there is a spiral water slide on an island surrounded by a ring-shaped river pool. The slide and its little pool are covered by an indoor roof supported by thin pillars that flare into wide discs at the top. These pillars reminded me of the ones used by Frank Lloyd Wright in his design for the Johnson Wax headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin.

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But what they reminded me of even more was lily pads. As they came into my water-blurred field of vision each time I backstroked toward them, I felt like I was getting a frog’s-eye view from the bottom of a pond.

And of course, when all was said and done, I had to go down the slide a time or two. It was a tame ride, but a nice little post-workout reward.

The pool is 25 meters long and six lanes wide. Its 480 yen entry fee includes use of a locker. Other amenities include a warming room, a spa area and a spin dryer.

After my swim, I walked north along Kan-Pachi Dori (Route 311), a major road that leads to Hachimanyama Station. About halfway there, I found bench where I could sit down and eat my bagel sandwiches while watching the traffic go by. All in all, it was a very satisfactory outing.

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.

Baby on board

October 19, 2013

Common courtesy, like common sense, isn’t quite as common as it should be. For example, some people can see a pregnant woman standing on a bus or a train and not think to offer her their seat.

At the same time, some people are so polite that they might hesitate to send the message, “You look pregnant,” to someone who might not be.

Luckily, there is a Japanese solution to both of these problems: the “maternity mark,” a pendant that pregnant women can use to identify themselves on public transit.

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Available at almost any train station in the greater Tokyo area, the pendant can be attached to the strap of a handbag or otherwise displayed to subtly alert seat-holders to the fact that the bearer is, well, a bearer.

The words in the design’s heart-shaped area say, “There’s a baby inside me.” The works on the bottom of the pendant say, “Please protect from tobacco smoke.”

On a recent stop at a highway rest area near the border of Tokyo and Yamanashi Prefecture (part of a trip on which I bought some Yamanashi fruit curry), I saw a sign giving pregnant women with the badge preferential treatment in parking, too.

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Signs and pendants notwithstanding, some people still don’t get the message. A friend told me that when she was pregnant and carrying the pendant, the people least likely to offer her their seats on trains were young women.

I’m tempted to describe this phenomenon as strange yet unsurprising, but the little evidence I have is admittedly anecdotal.

So, if you’ve ever used such a pendant, please feel free to share how people reacted in the comments section.

Tokyo snapshot

September 24, 2013

Harumi Grand water

The Harumi Grand Hotel in Chuo Ward is right next to (perhaps even within) the area that will become the Olympic Village for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

End of the line for Narita’s hovershuttle

September 18, 2013

AAAAA hovershuttle

If ever you’ve flown to or from Japan via Narita Airport’s Terminal 2, you may have had the chance to ride on the shuttle seen in this photo. But you probably won’t get that chance again. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports via The Japan News that this connection between the main and satellite buildings will be shut down this month, after 20 years of operation. (Read the story here.)

I always enjoyed riding it. It operates something like a funicular railway in that its two separate cars are attached to a loop of cable that shuffles them back and forth between the endpoints of its very short route. But I was amazed to learn from the article that the cars have no wheels. They hover on a cushion of air!

Moreover, according to Wikipedia, “The system is made by Nippon Otis Elevator…It is technically (and legally) not a railway, but a horizontal elevator.”

I’ve gone from thinking of the shuttle as cute to thinking of it as totally awesome. But I have no business at the airport this month, so I’ll never see it again.

This used to be a grungy little curry shop

July 1, 2012

Planted in the center of an underground corridor in Ginza subway station, at the bottom of a flight of stairs from the street, and one flight up from the Marunouchi Line train platform, there used to be a grungy little curry shop where the customers sat elbow to elbow on tall stools and hunched over plates of curry teetering on the edge of a very narrow counter that separated them from the nearly-as-narrow kitchen.

I always meant to eat there one day. I never actually got around to doing so, but I loved that little shop nonetheless.

The Japanese curry they served was of an especially odorous type, and the entire west end of the station was often filled with its earthy perfume. I don’t know how old the shop was, but it looked as if it had been around for decades, and whenever I got a whiff of it as I hurried to change trains, I always felt a gratifying connection to history, imagining that I was inhaling the very same aroma that millions of other people from all walks of life had smelled over the decades since back around the middle of the Showa era.

I didn’t even have to step off the train to enjoy such a moment. On at least one occasion, I was riding the Marunouchi Line with my nose in a book when the train paused at Ginza en route to somewhere else. As the doors opened and closed, an invisible cloud of curry vapor flowed into the car. Without even needing to look up, I said to myself, “Ah. Ginza.”

Becoming a person who knew that smell was a minor accomplishment. Inhaling deeply, I could puff myself up and think, “What a seasoned Tokyoite I am! I can find my way around by smell!”

That may have been silly, but it is true that accumulating the experience to recognize the tiny and unique details of a place, especially the odd bits of reliable coziness hidden away in a big concrete city, really does help turn that place into home.

One day, perhaps about two years ago, the grungy little curry shop was dark. The doors were closed. The smell had dissipated. A paper on the wall announced that the shop had reached the end of the line, and thanked its customers.

I had never been one of them.

Shortly thereafter, a floor-to-ceiling plywood barrier went up all the way around the shop, and also around a little sushi place that had been its close-quarters neighbor. I passed through Ginza Station countless times after that, but I never saw or smelled the grungy little curry shop again.

Then, yesterday afternoon I did a double take at the sight – one flight of stairs down from the street, and one up from the Marunouchi Line platform – of a brand-new, brightly lit, boutiquey gift and clothing store right in the spot where the curry shop had once stood. (It’s in the photo at the top of this entry.)

It’s part of the latest Echika underground shopping mall, following the ones that already exist in Ikebukuro and Omotesando subway stations. Not only is there a boutique where the curry shop used to be, but there are other new stores where nothing used to be, stretching up and down a long underground corridor. It’s all very shiny and new and brand-name, and nothing like the grungy little curry shop.

There are a couple of places that serve food in the new mall, including a nice-looking gourmet deli I’m sure I’ll try before long, and an outlet of the Auntie Annie’s soft pretzel chain where I already bought a snack on the way home last night.

But I wish I had eaten some of that aromatic curry.

Railway safety in Tokyo (a lesson for New York)

August 21, 2011

A great thing about living in Tokyo is that trains can take you anywhere, quickly and conveniently.

A bad thing about living in Tokyo is that if you fall off the station platform, a train can kill you.

Those two statements may sound like a pair of eternal truths, but the second one is gradually becoming less true as safety barriers are installed along platforms in more and more stations.

Earlier this year, a good friend of mine was hit by a train in New York. Fortunately, he survived. When I went to visit him, I read in the New York Daily News that the Big Apple was considering installing its own safety barriers. But there was some resistance to the idea, not the least of which came from the Daily News itself.

Resistance to the idea of safety barriers seems unfounded. It reminds me of the resistance that once existed to the idea of wearing seatbelts in cars, and I’m sure that in the future people will look back on it as being just as silly.

I made the video at the top of this post in an effort to shed some light on the issue. I start by visiting the sites of a few notable accidents in Tokyo, and then demonstrate how the safety barriers operate.

Production note: A couple of scenes shot at train stations include background noise, so I added subtitles. In future efforts, I’ll either look for quieter spots or buy a quality microphone.

Everyday artifact: Train delay certificate

August 2, 2011

“Sorry I’m late, boss. My train got stuck in a tunnel.”
“A likely story, Tanaka. Prove it.”
“Sure thing: Here’s my train delay certificate.”

Tokyo trains are so punctual that you can set your watch by them. Literally. On the infrequent occasions when they are not, the railroad will give you documentary proof to show anyone you’ve let down by turning up late.

The proof is called a chien shoumeisho (delay certificate). You can ask for one at the ticket gate at the station where you get off your delayed train.

I received the one in the photo after my subway train was delayed by 10 minutes on July 28. You can see where the man at the ticket gate punched “28” to indicate the date and “10” to indicate the length of the delay. The text in the center of the paper is headed “Chien Shoumeisho” in large print, followed by a message of apology from the Tokyo Metro company and the stationmaster of Kourakuen Station. Other rail lines may issue certificates with slightly different formats, but they all operate on the same basic concept.

Imagine how the above dialogue would play out in a country where everyone commuted by car.

“Sorry I’m late, boss. I hit every single red light on the way in.”
“Sure, Jack. Prove it.”
“Uhh…”

Straphangin’ in style

July 24, 2011

I went to the Edo Tokyo Museum the other day and learned a new Japanese word: “tsurikawa.”

It means “strap” – specifically, the kind of strap that bus and subway riders hold onto when they can’t get a seat. It’s an item so ordinary as to be practically invisible, which makes it an excellent blank slate for artists and designers to try their ideas on. More than 30 creative people recently tried to reimagine or reinvent the tsurikawa, and their results are on display as part of the museum’s special exhibition on the history of Tokyo mass transit.

Here are my five favorites from the show:

The most humorous design was Hiroki Shinmen’s “Napolitan Tsurikawa,” which draws on Japan’s unrivalled prowess in the field of plastic “sample” food. Although it’s a delight to look at, I imagine it might be difficult to clean if it were adopted in practice. But this could easily be dealt with by encasing the spaghetti inside a clear Lucite ring to give it a smooth, wipeable surface.

Osamu Gunji’s design shocked me at first – it looks like a hangman’s noose. But if the form is alarming, it’s function is admirable. As explained on an accompanying sign, this is a tsurikawa that you can carry with you and install anywhere. It might be handy to use when the train is crowded – or if you are worried about picking up germs from straps that strangers have handled.

Miki Kobayashi’s design is also an interesting piece of engineering, but I give it higher points for thinking outside of the box than for practicality of application. An accompanying diagram shows this double-ended tsurikawa on a pulley being used by an adult and a child together. The adult holds his or her end high, allowing the other end to drop low enough for the child to reach. So far, so good. But if the train braked quickly and the tsurikawa suddenly had to support the adult’s full weight, the child would be catapulted into the ceiling. This could be adapted as a piece of playground equipment, but doesn’t appear safe for use aboard a moving vehicle.

Ayako Natsume was one of several designers who created tsurikawa that could be used by several people at once. Of those, her design was the most visually appealing and probably the most practical. She describes it as being jewel-shaped, and suggests that it could be installed in several different colors. I like its compactness and the fact that it includes firm, straight bars divided into clear single-handhold lengths. Other multi-person designs included hula-hoop shapes hung parallel to the ceiling (which has the advantage of easily allowing several riders to hold on at once, but would be an annoyance to tall riders who would have to duck again and again as they walked down the aisle) and a cotton-string fishnet hung just below the ceiling (which has the advantage of being within easy reach no matter where one happened to be standing, but would present even greater cleaning challenges than the spaghetti tsurikawa).

The most revolutionary design was this one by Shinsuke Sakamoto. It takes a whole new approach to the concept of “grip” by replacing the ring or handle of an ordinary tsurikawa with a small segment of a rock-climbing wall. Sakamoto suggests that using this item could be considered a form of “brain training,” but it seems clear that his own brain gets plenty of exercise.

Practical details

The tsurikawa exhibition is part of a special show on the history of Tokyo mass transit through Sept. 10 at the Edo Tokyo Museum. Admission is 1,300 yen. You can find the show described in English at the museum’s website here, but there is no English signage at the show itself. In addition to the tsurikawa section, the show includes several substantial artefacts (including a vintage trolley car), but most of the items on display are signs, ticket stubs, and other documentary items that are likely to be of interest only to serious specialists.

Antinuclear march in Ginza

May 27, 2011

A few minutes before 8:00 this evening, I was walking through Ginza when I stumbled across an antinuclear protest march.

To say that the meltdowns and ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant have been a major source of public worry would be putting it mildly. I have heard about quite a few protests against nuclear power in the past few weeks (like this one), but tonight’s was the first I’d seen in person.

I am a lukewarm supporter of nuclear power (and yes, I know I’ll have to explain that at some point), so this is not a protest that I was tempted to join. Nonetheless, it did my heart good to see it.

Japan is a democracy, but for a long time it was a very passive one. When I see people who are motivated to take their opinions to the street (peacefully), I see it as a healthy sign of political energy.

The police who escort big protests in Tokyo tend to divide them into segments to avoid impeding ordinary street traffic. I saw two segments tonight. The first segment engaged in a lot of cacophonous shouting, but the second, larger group were repeating a catchy chant of “Stop nuclear power; decomission the Hamaoka plant.”

You don’t think that sounds catchy? Then try this: Translate it into Japanese, have the marchers repeat after a leader, and add drums:

Gem-patsu yame-ro!
           Gem-patsu yame-ro!
Hama-oka hairo!
           Hama-oka hairo!

See? It has a nice beat, and you can march to it.