Archive for the ‘Ginza’ Category

Ginkgos in Ginza

December 21, 2012


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.





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
N.B.: At least until the autumn of 2012, Vomero will be closed on Sundays.

Pinhole photography in Ginza

February 24, 2012

Take a box. Put some photographic film in it. Punch a tiny hole in the side of the box opposite the film. Wait.

That’s the essence of pinhole photography. The light coming through the tiny hole projects an image of whatever is outside the box onto the film. The principle is the same as the one behind watching a solar eclipse with a shoebox viewer.

I’ve been aware of the concept of pinhole photography for a long time, but I never gave it much thought until yesterday, when I went to Edward Levinson’s pinhole photography show in Ginza.

Edward Levinson is a pinhole photography genius.

The exhibition, titled “Mind Games, Vol. 2,” is in a small gallery on the second floor of the Ginza showroom of the Eizo color monitor company, but the first works one sees are displayed on the landing of the staircase leading up to it. These are horizontal color prints about meter wide, and each is an arresting composite image that Levinson created with a “Pinhole Blender.” It’s a cylindrical box the size and shape of a cookie tin with not one but three pinholes, which project images onto different but overlapping areas of a single curved piece of film.

The results are bizarre and amazing.

The first photo is titled “Coffee High.” The central image is of a man drinking coffee, blended into images on either side of him that show a wavy decorative pattern on the glass of the coffee shop. Because of the curved film, the side images are slightly distorted in such a way that the wavy pattern almost forcibly focuses the viewer’s attention on the man drinking coffee. It’s actually difficult to move your eyes to any other part of the picture. You get kind of woozy just looking at it.

(You may or may not feel that effect looking at the image at the top of this post, but trust me — it works when you’re standing in front of a meter-wide print. Incidentally, you can click on any of the images here for a slightly larger view.)

Next to that is a photo called “Dharma Watching” in which the central image is a close-up of the grotesque face of a rather ugly-looking metallic Daruma doll. The other two images, both of which are lower down in photo, show the tops of some mountains (in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, where Levinson lives), making it look as if the Daruma is looming in the sky.

In the main room of the gallery there are many more blended pinhole photos, some of which look at one subject from multiple angles, while others juxtapose different subjects in interesting ways. All are in color.

In addition to the photos hanging on the walls, there are three Eizo monitors set up on a table, continuously running slideshows of Levinson’s previous work. And there are copies of his books laid out.

I should disclose that Levinson is an artist to whom I have a slight connection. Long ago, he and I were fellow members of a writing workshop that met in Chiba City. When I used the Golden Week holidays in 1991 to ride my bicycle all the way around the Boso Peninsula, Levinson and his wife kindly let me sleep in their barn when I passed through Kamogawa. But soon after that, I returned to the United States, and we fell out of contact for 20 years – during which he took up pinhole photography, in 1993. We ran into each other again totally by chance at the 2011 Japan Writers Conference in Kobe, and he encouraged me to come to his show.

With that history, I admit that I was inclined to think positively of his work. But I must say with equal candor that I was far more impressed than I expected to be.

In addition to his amazing “Pinhole Blender” work, I was stunned by the black-and-white photos in his book “Timescapes Japan: A Pinhole Journey,” which I sat down and leafed through at the show.

In pinhole photography, according to Wikipedia, a smaller hole in the box leads to a more sharply focused image, but since a smaller hole admits less light it also requires a longer exposure time. This can range from seconds to hours. When photographing buildings or landscapes, this is fine, but it poses a challenge when photographing things that move – like people.

In “Timescapes Japan,” Levinson found multiple ways to turn this challenging aspect of pinhole photography into a tremendous advantage. For example, two of his photos show monks standing on busy city streets with their begging bowls. In each photo, the monk appears to be alone. But then you gradually notice wispy, ghostly figures of other people passing by. The monks remained motionless long enough to appear solid and real in the pinhole view, while it is the laypeople flitting about on their daily business who appear ethereal and unreal.

In another photo, taken from a tall building and looking down at the Sumidagawa river in Tokyo, a boat caught in the act of turning around is blurred into a crescent shape that calls to mind a fat koi wallowing in a small pond. But a photo of actual koi on another page makes the white fish in their muddy water look like calligraphers’ brush strokes drawn in milk on slate.

“Timescapes” is a fitting title, not only because the passage of time can be seen in each photo, but also because at least one of them has taken on a layer of irony that only the further passage of time could supply. Called “Growing up,” the 1997 photo shows a boy standing beside a body of water while a high-rise building looms in the background. The building is recognizable as the Akasaka Prince Hotel, a Tokyo landmark. It looks as solid and as permanent as can be. The boy is not recognizable because he couldn’t hold still the way the building could, and thus is blurred and semitransparent. He looks fleeting and insubstantial.

Today, 15 years later, we can reasonably assume that the boy has grown up and is now a man.

The hotel is slated for demolition.

Practical details

“Mind Games, Vol. 2” will run at the Eizo Galleria Ginza, at 3-10-6 Ginza on Showa-dori avenue just north of Higashi Ginza subway station, through March 3, 2012. Levinson will give a talk there, mostly in Japanese, from 2-3 p.m. on Feb. 25. Admission is free.

Levinson’s website:
Eizo Galleria Ginza site:

Look inside my lucky bag

January 10, 2012

At the beginning of every year, most Japanese retailers sell fukubukuro “lucky bags” filled with excess merchandise they want to unload. Customers can’t see what is inside the bags, but it is generally understood that the price of one bag will be much lower than the ordinary price of its contents. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

You could look at this as a combination of two vices: retail therapy and gambling. Or, if the price isn’t too high, you could look at is as a harmless bit of silly fun.

Over the many New Year’s seasons I have passed in Japan, I have merely looked on at this phenomenon with puzzlement. But this year I actually bought a lucky bag for the first time.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, and the governments of most (probably all) of them maintain “antenna shops” in Tokyo that showcase local products and promote tourism. I recently visited the Iwate Prefecture antenna shop in Ginza, hoping to buy a new soy sauce flavored dessert that I had read was being produced in that prefecture. There were none available, but I did see lucky bags on sale.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given the bags a second glance, but Iwate is one the three prefectures hardest hit by last year’s tsunami, which makes me think that buying frivolous Iwate products is a way to do an economic good deed while also being self-indulgent. Besides, the price was amusing and not too high: 2,012 yen.

Although I couldn’t see inside the bags, there was nothing to stop me from picking several of them up one after another to see how heavy they were. The Iwate antenna store sells many types of local sake and microbrew beer, and I was hoping that a heavier bag might indicate some of those goodies inside. Each bag did seem heavy enough to contain at least one can or bottle, but more than that I couldn’t tell. I picked a bag at random and hoped for the best.

In retrospect, since there was no notice prohibiting people below the age of 20 from buying the bags, I was foolish to hope for alcohol. Here’s what I did get:

Top row

A handkerchief with a poem printed on it. The poem is by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of the most famous people to come from Iwate.
A bag of rusks – slices of bread baked a second time to become hard and long-lasting. Rusks are a Western invention, used long ago to provision ships, but Japan is the only country I have ever seen them in.
Jajamen – fat udon noodles with chunky, spicy sauce. This bag contains servings for two.

Middle row

“Seagull egg” petit fours – little round cakes with a white chocolate shell and yellow anko filling.
Youkan – a thick, heavy, gelatinous, bean-based confection that in this case has a sesame flavor.
Soba noodles.

Bottom row

Horohorozuke – spicy minced vegetable pickles to put on top of rice.
Pickled wakame seaweed snacks – rubbery and sour.
A mixture of a dozen types of grain, including millet, barley and amaranth, to mix into plain white rice before cooking to make it more interesting.

Was it worth it?

On the one hand, the usual retail prices of these items probably add up to about twice the amount I paid. I do intend to eat and/or share all of the food items shown above. As for the handkerchief, I have a friend may have a bit of an interest in Miyazawa, so I’ll probably give it to that person.

On the other hand, NONE of these items are things I would have chosen to buy if I could have seen them first.

Such is the nature of lucky bags.

Asian zodiac animals

December 30, 2011

Two days from now, the Year of the Rabbit (2011) will end in Japan, and the Year of the Dragon (2012) will begin. To mark this occasion, I made this silly little video introducing all twelve zodiac animals in the order of their upcoming appearances.

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.

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.

Ginza dimmed

March 14, 2011

On most evenings, the luxury stores that line the boulevards of Ginza, Tokyo, sparkle like electric jewel boxes. But tonight, with an earthquake and tsunami having just killed thousands of people, and amid calls to conserve energy as a series of nuclear mishaps disrupted the regional power supply, most of the big stores left their exterior lights off – if they opened at all. Ginza had a quiet, somber feel as dusk fell.