Archive for the ‘Tokyo lifestyle’ 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.

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

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.

Work-life balance

August 4, 2013

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Last night I passed a shuttered restaurant with the above sign posted out front. It reads: “I am extremely sorry but today we are temporarily closed to go watch fireworks. [signed] The proprietor.”

This is the exact equivalent of the classic American “Gone fishing” sign – which is something I have never seen in real life.

The establishment is called Sora Dining. It’s a tiny little bar and eatery that appears to have no website, but it is easy to find just half a block north of Kawaguchi Motogou subway station.

I ate there once a long time ago and always meant to go back. Now I’ll really have to make a point of it.

Footnote: In romaji, the sign reads: “Moshiwake gozaimasen ga honjitsu, hanabi no tame rinji kyuugyou shimasu. Tenshu.”

Salt candy: A Japanese summer survival tool

July 15, 2013

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Today’s Tokyo area weather is bright and breezy and warm. It’s a pleasant contrast to earlier this month, when we were in the grip of an outright heat wave with temperatures often reaching the high 30s Celsius (in the 90s Fahrenheit) amid suffocating humidity. Nationwide, more than 2,500 people were hospitalized for heatstroke just in the first week of July, and there have even been a few deaths.

salty lycheeThe media have been full of warnings about keeping cool, drinking plenty of water, and making sure to get enough salt. With that in mind, I singlehandedly a large bag of potato chips between breakfast and lunch the other day, thinking all the while that there must be a better way to get some salt into my body.

salt kanji 001And perhaps there is. The photo above shows an array of salt candy at a Japanese convenience store. The word for salt is “shio,” and it is written with the kanji character shown on the left. See how many times you can spot it on the labels of the candies in the photos.

For the record, I bought a package of salty lychee and salty lime candies. They taste exactly as advertised. The ingredient list specified that the salt comes from Okinawa Prefecture.

Hmm. I wonder if there’s an Okinawa salt curry…

Ginkgos in Ginza

December 21, 2012

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Trees have it hard in Tokyo. There aren’t very many of them (at least outside of parks), and those that do exist are often subjected to extreme indignities. Instead of being carefully pruned, they tend to be thoroughly de-branched. Victims of this treatment look more like lumpy telephone poles than living organisms. In the fall, as soon as the foliage changes color, it is common to see crews of workmen methodically knocking every leaf to the ground so they can all be swept up and trucked away as quickly as possible.

That is why it has given me so much pleasure to see the ginkgo trees along Showa-dori avenue in Ginza left unmolested. Here is a Tokyo street where trees are allowed to be trees.

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Coca-Cola adds a word to the Japanese language

July 5, 2012

A few weeks ago, I began to notice that some of the Coca-Cola vending machines I saw on the streets in and around Tokyo had a new word painted on them: Ecoru.

Spelled with the Roman letters E, C, and O plus the hiragana character “ru,” this was clearly a verb that meant something along the lines of “to be eco-friendly” or just “to eco.”

Lots of Japanese verbs end in the suffix “-ru.” For example, eat, think, sleep, run, throw, forget, and live are taberu, kangaeru, neru, hashiru, nageru, wasureru and ikiru.

According to “Zakennayo,” a 1995 book on Japanese slang, the Denny’s restaurant chain was such a popular hangout for Japanese teens in those days that they turned its name into a verb: “deniru,” meaning “to do Denny’s.” I never encountered that word in real life myself, but I get the concept. And apparently so does some clever copywriter at the Coca-Cola company.

It seems that the ecoru machines have been around for a couple of years. They involve such eco-tweaks as LED lighting and non-CFC coolants, and they claim to put less strain on the power grid by charging up in the off hours so they don’t have to draw on the public electricity supply during periods of peak demand.

You can find technical details in Japanese at Coca Cola’s website here. It shows that some of the machines even have solar panels on top. I haven’t seen those yet.

Condsidering what a big business vending machines are in Japan, this looks like a step in the right direction.

Ecomashou!

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.

Scenes from a slaughterhouse

June 15, 2012

In 1989, photographer Seiichi Motohashi visited a Japanese slaughterhouse where cattle were being killed, gutted, skinned and cut up for meat.

Some of the documentary photos he took there are now on display at the Ginza Nikon Salon, a one-room gallery in Tokyo, through June 19. They will also appear at the Osaka Nikon Salon in Umeda, Osaka, August 9-22.

Having been to the show, I can report that the photos are not as gruesome as I had feared. Nor are they as educational as I would have liked.

One of the first pictures shows a cow walking up a ramp into the building, but after that the real focus is on people. We see them doing a variety of jobs: removing skin, cutting up meat, loading trucks, cleaning the facilities, and cooking lunch for their fellow workers. One of them is seen at the end of the day washing and sharpening an array of knives. Another stands at a workbench, doing something to a cow’s severed head. It all looks like hard work, but most of the people we see are going about it matter-of-factly.

There are plenty of details to wonder about. What is that guy doing to the head on the table? What is the purpose of the various tools we see? Why are things done in the way we see them being done? Unfortunately, there is no text accompanying the photos, so we are left to wonder.

The most memorable person – in part because he is seen in several photos – is the man who kills the cattle by putting a gun to their heads and firing what appears to be a metal rod into their skulls.

In one image, he is standing on left side of the photo, holding his arm out toward a cow on the right. The photo was taken an instant after he pulled the trigger, with the muscles in his forearm tensed and the cow’s body reacting to being shot. Its leg muscles have contracted in such a way that all four of its hooves have left the floor. Looking at it, I couldn’t help thinking about Eddie Adams’ 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning photo, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon.” I’m not suggesting the scenes are morally equivalent, but the similarity in terms of action and composition was inescapable.

Another photo of the same man at the slaughterhouse shows him standing alone and looking rather unsure of himself with the gun hanging in his hand by his side. His job appears to be the least physically demanding of any we are shown, but it is probably the hardest of all.

Tokyo venue information here.
Osaka venue information here.
Motohashi’s “Toba” photo book here.

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
Website: http://vomero-ginza.com/
N.B.: At least until the autumn of 2012, Vomero will be closed on Sundays.