Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Pool review: Amusing art near the Shinjuku Sports Center

July 5, 2017


Getting off the subway at Nishi Waseda Station on the Fukutoshin Line last month, I intended to go directly to the Shinjuku Sports Center for a swim.

IMG_7138But as soon as I reached the ticket gate on my way to Exit 3, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a large stained glass window that was clearly the work of one of my favorite Japanese artists, Akira Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi’s art is fantastic – in every sense of that word. He combines traditional Japanese styles and subject matter with intricate renderings of fantasy machines, often in panoramic murals of mind-boggling detail and complexity. His cutaway views of urban infrastructure, like the one in this window, call to mind the work of David Macaulay, even while those views are often framed or divided by drifting clouds in a technique borrowed from Japanese art of centuries past. You could call his work steampunk or Nihonga or both, but Yamaguchi has a surreal imagination and sense of humor that is all his own.

IMG_7137The stained glass window, for example, features a cutaway view of a triple-decker subway train that has a communal bath on its lowest level. That’s the kind of silliness I love about his pictures.

Another little detail worth noting is the woman standing on a platform in front of a sign that identifies the station as 西早稲田, Nishi Waseda.

Continuing out Exit 3 of Nishi Waseda Station, you’ll find a tree-filled park. In the middle of the park stands the Shinjuku Sports Center. The trees make the building difficult to photograph, but the pool is behind these foggy windows:


Admission is 400 yen, and you’ll need a 100 yen coin to use as a deposit for a locker in the rather Spartan locker room. (It has benches and a spin drier, but not much else in the way of amenities.) The locker keys are attached to wristbands you can wear while you swim, but the first locker I put my clothes into turned out to have a broken wristband. So, I moved my stuff to a different locker and headed out to the pool.

The pool is 25 meters long and six lanes wide. One lane appeared to be permanently set aside for walking, and a swimming lesson began in one of the other lanes while I was there, which left the remaining four lanes slightly crowded. There is also a large shallow kiddy pool. Between the two pools, on the side opposite the locker rooms, there is a warming room where you can sit when the lifeguards call a break from swimming, as they seem to do every hour at most public pools in the Tokyo area.

One wall of the pool area is adorned with a large tile mosaic of a rainbow. Part of my mind recognized this as an effort to create a cheerful atmosphere, while another part – which I tried to suppress – found it a bit dasai. This uncharitable thought may have been influenced by the dim lighting at the time of my visit. It was a weekday morning, and most of the light came from outside, muffled by tree branches and foggy glass. It might be brighter inside at night.

But dim lighting or not, I had to admit that the place was immaculately clean and – aside from one broken wrist strap – very well maintained. Also, each of the staff members I briefly dealt with was very pleasant and helpful. This included a guy who came pushing a broom through the locker room as I was getting dressed to leave. When I pointed out the broken wrist strap, he ran out and came back a moment later with a roll of heavy tape that he used to seal the locker shut so no one else would try to use it.

By the time you read this, I am sure it will have been repaired.

Two new curry snacks

May 22, 2017

At the convenience store the other day, I found two new curry-flavored products on the snack shelves. On the left, there is curry-flavored kaki-pi, which is light on the peanuts and heavy on the crescent-shaped rice crackers. These are spicy and peppery, flavored with curry from the Coco Ichibanya curry chain, which has 1,299 shops all over Japan and 158 abroad. This is a limited-time product from Kameda, a major Japanese snack company.
On the right, there is fried mochi that claims to be curry-flavored. The airy nuggets were lightly dusted with a golden-brown powder that was pleasantly sweet and ever so faintly spicy, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was supposed to taste like curry if it hadn’t been written on the package. You can’t beat the price, though. It was just 81 yen for a bag – slightly more on Amazon.

You shouldn’t swim in the Meguro River

August 29, 2016

AA8But there is a great place to swim right next to it.

The photo above shows a view of the river from a bridge that you can find by walking west and downhill from Tokyo’s Meguro Station along Meguro-dori avenue. The trees on the left side of the river conceal the Meguro Kumin Center, a complex of public facilities that includes a 50-meter outdoor pool that is open from July 1 to Sept. 11. (Those are the 2016 dates, and it may not be open on Sept. 4.)

As you walk along the riverbank, the pool will become visible through the trees – along with a typical warning to cover up any tattoos.


I loved this pool. At the time of my visit on a recent Monday afternoon there were a few dozen people using it, but its vast size made it feel relatively uncrowded. There were two wide lanes set aside for lap swimming, with one-way traffic in each so that you had to duck under a rope at the end of each length. The water was clear and cool, and when I realized that swim caps were not required – a rarity at public pools here – I swam my last few laps gloriously naked from the ears up. A 10-minute break was called at the end of each hour.

If the pool itself was wonderful, the locker room was less impressive. It was a small space with nowhere to sit down. The entire floor was soaking wet, and covered with mats of small plastic beads that were uncomfortable to walk on. But with admission at just 200 yen, who can complain?

In addition to the gigantic outdoor pool, there is also a 25-meter indoor pool and a blob-shaped outdoor kiddie pool. Admission to the kiddie pool is a separate 100 yen.


The two outdoor pools are in separate areas divided by a brick walkway, in the middle of which stands a life-size sculpture of a young woman by Fumio Asakura, the “Rodin of the East” who also created the sculptures seen at the Taito Riverside Sports Center across town. Asakura (1883-1964) sculpted the woman in the year Taisho 11 (1922), making this an earlier work than the ones seen at the Taito facility. Its title is “Hana no Kage,” which literally means “Flower Shadow.”


A few of the works in the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture’s outdoor area

If you’re an athlete who loves art, this is the place to be. Not only does the Meguro Kumin Center have three pools, a room full of exercise machines, and courts for basketball, volleyball and badminton, but it is also home to the Meguro Museum of Art. There are other art museums nearby, such as the Kume Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture. On the other side of Meguro Station is the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. And on a less artistic note, Meguro is also home to the small but memorable Meguro Parasitological Museum.


Warped figures line a path at the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture.

Many Tokyo museums are closed on Mondays, the day of my visit to this pool, but the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture has an outdoor sculpture garden you can see at any time. The garden twists its way through several barely contiguous plots of land in a hilly residential area above Yamate-dori avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Meguro River. The Meguro Kumin Center is between the road and the river.


If all of this swimming and art-walking has given you an appetite, look for Ramen Jiro Meguro across Yamate-dori from the Meguro Kumin Center. This is a rather famous place, despite its grungy appearance. Or perhaps because of its grungy appearance: Many ramen lovers revel in the “B-class” status of their favorite dish.


I ordered a “small” bowl of noodles with pork. It was fatty, garlicky and filling – and not exactly small. After a two-kilometer swim, it was just right.



Pool review: Swim like a hero in Taito Ward

July 29, 2016


On July 21, one of my favorite Tokyo pools opened for the summer. The Taito Riverside Sports Center’s outdoor pool – barely visible through the trees in this photo – is 50 meters long by 19 meters wide. I’ve never seen it crowded (though I’ve only been there on weekday mornings). Admission is shockingly cheap at 200 yen.

As you swim through the crystal-clear water, you can gaze up at the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree, whose staggering height makes it appear to loom directly over the pool, even though it and the sports center stand on different sides of the Sumida River. Now and then, a seagull may fly across your view, cruising up the river from Tokyo Bay, about 10 kilometers downstream. It’s a lovely spot.


Sumida River fireworks and the Tokyo Skytree by 桜庭シェリー via Wikimedia Commons

It also happens to be at the center of one of Tokyo’s biggest summer events, the Sumida River fireworks display. A barge anchored next to the sports center’s grounds is the main launching spot for the pyrotechnics, which means that the pool is closed from noon on the day of the event (July 30 this year) until noon the following day.

In contrast to the magnificence of the pool itself, the locker room is Spartan. It has no benches, and no spin drier that I could find. It does, however, have the nicest floor I have ever encountered in such a facility. It’s covered with hard plastic beads embedded in soft plastic gel – very comfortable to walk on and seemingly very non-slip.

Ordinarily, the pool is open from 9 to 5, and then again imageedit_4_7870116349from 6:30 to 8:30 in the evening. However, on my latest visit, the pool’s opening was delayed until 10. The reason, explained by a lifeguard who pantomimed shivering to drive the point home, is that it was just too cold that morning. I doubt it would have been too cold for me, but I’ve got more natural insulation than the average Japanese swimmer. Hopefully, as the summer wears on, such closures will be rare. The lifeguard told me that the pool is also closed when it rains.

The delay of an hour gave me some time to walk around the neighborhood and also have a look at two life-sized statues of athletes on display in the main lobby of the sports center’s building. I had never used the main entrance before, because the entrance for the outdoor pool is around back, on the left (north) side of the building.

Both sculptures are by Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), who was nicknamed “The Rodin of the East.” One of them, titled 競技前 (Kyougi Mae, or Before the Competition), is a man stretching before an event, probably in the ancient Olympics. It was apparently made in 1959.

The other work is apparently from 1927, much earlier in Asakura’s career, but in my opinion it’s a more interesting and appealing work. Titled 水の猛者 (Mizu no Mosa, or Water Hero), it is a man in what was then contemporary swimming attire, walking along with a towel slung around his neck.



His jaunty pose and self-assured facial expression give him a real personality. One can easily imagine that he has just emerged from the nearby river after performing some aquatic feat, and is now strolling away to get a well-earned cup of sake. (Historically speaking, it’s a safe bet that he was adept at sidestroke.) Although his swimsuit places him in relatively modern times, the work has some classical aspects. For instance, Asakura uses the hero’s towel the same way Michelangelo uses David’s sling – to put his figure in a pose with one arm flexed and the other relaxed.

By the way, if you’d like to see another Asakura sculpture, check this blog again in the future. He has a statue of a woman at another public swimming pool that I hope to write about soon.

This year, the outdoor pool will be open through September 4. If the Taito Riverside Sports’ Center has any disadvantages, a somewhat inconvenient location is one of them. There is a bus stop out front, but the facility is not close to any train station. If you take the subway to Asakusa, be prepared for a 10 to 15 minute walk north along the river.

For more information, visit here, here, or here.





On the ingenuity of Japanese crows

April 20, 2016

A pair of architects recently built and moved into a new home just a few blocks from my apartment. The high-rise residence uses traditional building methods to re-purpose modern industrial materials.

I refer, of course, to a crow’s nest made of wire hangers.

 Nest Mark

When I first noticed my new neighbors about a week ago, I wondered where all of those hangers came from. Did a hapless dry cleaner leave a window open? Nearly everyone in Japan hangs their laundry outside to dry, but I assumed that a hanger with clothes on it would be too unwieldy for a crow to handle. Where would they find empty hangers?

The other day, I stumbled across the answer while reading the Yomiuri Kodomo Shimbun children’s newspaper. In an educational manga by Akane Kasugaa group of kids stake out a parking lot to find out who has been removing rubber strips from vehicles’ windshield wipers. The wiper-taker turns out to be a crow. They follow the bird back to its nest, which – lo and behold – is made entirely of wire hangers. 

According to the manga, the crow nest-building season runs from March to May. So we’re right in the middle of it now. 

One of the children in the manga had recently lost a school uniform that she had hung out to dry. It turns out that the crow took that, too, to make a soft lining inside its wiry nest. The rubber wiper blades serve the same purpose. Apparently, hangers having clothes on them is not enough to stop a determined crow after all.

The children talk about the crow having “stolen” the materials for its nest, but I’m not sure this vocabulary is correct (even if I often use it myself). It’s more accurate to say they are “gathering” material to build a nest – just as they would if they lived in a forest.

Japanese crows have adapted to life in a totally man-made environment. And in that environment, they are doing exactly what birds are meant to do.



I love oysters

February 25, 2016

Oyster market shell

I love oysters.

I love the pleasure of eating them. I love their succulent mouthfeel and their umami flavor.

I love the fact that they are considered a luxury item, which makes eating them feel decadent.

Oyster trays.jpg

I love the fact that, despite their luxury reputation, they are often quite cheap. (You can get a tray of five for 238 yen at my local supermarket, meaning each one costs less than half a packet of M&Ms.)

Oyster stew

I love that there are so many different ways to cook them – and also that you don’t have to cook them at all.

Oyster market guy.jpg

I love them for being the ultimate sustainable seafood. Because they are farmed, there’s no danger of depleting wild stocks. And while some kinds of aquaculture (salmon pens, for instance) pollute the surrounding water, oyster farming actually improves water quality and thus helps the environment.

Oyster kama meishi

I love the bizarre idea that oysters are “vegan meat.” There is an argument that since oysters have no brains or central nervous systems, they are no more sentient or capable of feeling pain than potatoes are. Thus, they should be considered vegetables for moral purposes.

Oyster Curry.jpg

I love how nutritious they are. According to the website of Men’s Health magazine, a 3-ounce (85-gram) oyster provides 344 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance of vitamin B12, plus 256 percent of the RDA for zinc, 94 percent for selenium and 61 percent for copper, along with significant amounts of other nutrients.

Oyster spaghetti.jpg

I love oysters so much that I decided to eat at least 100 of them this winter.

Oyster fry restaurant.jpg

Photos of a few of them illustrate this post. But so far, I’m only up to 48, which means I need to try a little harder.

I swim like a samurai (and didn’t even know it)

December 8, 2015

Not long ago, a member of my sports club noticed that I was swimming sidestroke in the pool. He was curious enough to ask how it was that a foreigner had learned 古式泳法 koshiki eiho. This was a term that I had never heard before, but he told me it’s the way samurai used to swim. The term literally means “ancient way of swimming.”

I explained to him that I had learned it long ago it from the American Red Cross when training to be a lifeguard. Swimming on your side means that you can propel yourself forward with your lower arm while using your upper arm to hold your rescue victim and keep their head above the water.

This posture has obvious military uses. Also, the fact that sidestroke is virtually splash-free makes it a stealthy way of moving through the water. This is something that not only ancient samurai but also the modern U.S. military has noticed.

The man at the pool urged me to look up koshiki eiho on the Internet. When I did, I learned the term 日本泳法 nihon eiho, which covers a wide range of ancient aquatic techniques. The best material I found is the video at the top of this post, which reveals a startling connection between synchronized swimming and martial arts. Have a look!

Pool review: Genki Plaza

August 24, 2015

Genki sign marked

During the recent Obon holidays, the sports club where I usually swim shut down for an entire week. This gave me the impetus to get out and try some different pools.

The first one I went to was Genki Plaza, a public facility near Shimo Station on the Namboku subway line in Kita Ward, Tokyo.

Like many of Tokyo’s great public pools, it is adjacent to a garbage incinerator. I assume this is because the facility runs off the heat and/or electricity generated by burning trash, but I’ve never actually confirmed that. Nevertheless, just as a tall, thin, solitary smokestack in a residential area usually signals the presence of a sento (traditional public bath), so does a much taller, much thicker smokestack often signal the presence of a public swimming pool.

Past this forbidding facade is a recreational pool with a 72-meter waterslide.

Past this forbidding facade is a recreational pool with a 72-meter waterslide.

The incinerator is just over a block south of the station. The entrance for garbage trucks faces the main road, but if you walk around to the back of the very large facility, you’ll find the entrance to the pool.

The lobby has a vending-machine refreshment area with a big window looking down at the pools (plural) and up at the top of a gigantic water slide. As usual, there are signs all over the place forbidding photography, but you can see official photos of the interior here and here.

Pay 400 yen for adult admission at a vending machine in the lobby, and you’ll get a plastic card that lets you go inside. The card also lets you use one of the lockers.

The locker room floors have plastic pads all over them, but were very wet anyway. It’s one of those places you should wear sandals to, because you’ll never get out of the locker room with dry feet, meaning socks are a bad idea. There’s very little space to sit down. There is a spin drier, the only amenity to speak of.

As for the pools themselves, the largest one is a circulating river pool in shape of an irregular oval – like an egg with a bite taken out of it. The river surrounds an island on which there is a 25-meter lap pool with just three lanes. On the day of my visit, one lane was for walking and two were for swimming. The swimming was one-way, so you had to duck under a rope at the end of each length. The depth was just 1.0 to 1.2 meters.

It was very crowded when I arrived. A break had just ended, and the pool was full of adults and kids. Given the crowding and the shallow water, I decided to stick to breaststroke. I got 1100 meters in, and in that time the crowd significantly diminished. Most of the swimmers were well mannered and knew how to share a lane, but one foolish old man tried to do a one-length freestyle sprint and predictably ran over a child at the end. Oops.

There was a Jacuzzi off in one corner of the facility and an kiddie pool with a tiny slide in another corner. But what I really wanted to try was the gigantic water slide that emptied into a small landing pool connected to the river.

At first I hestitated to use it because there seemed to be no one on it but kids. But then I saw one little girl go up with her father, which made it clear that adults were allowed. It was quite high. The stairs took me high above the river pool, and then past the 2nd-floor window where a few parents were sitting around sipping vending machine drinks in the lobby.

The slide, with twists and turns, is 72 meters long. After doing it once, laughing all the way down, I had to go back and do it again.

Nobody that day made bigger waves in the landing pool.


Japanese wordplay: A&W

August 25, 2014

In Okinawa last year, I had lunch at an A&W root beer and hamburger shop. The placemat on my tray gave a brief history of the company, which has its origins in California and is named for founder Roy Allen and early co-owner Frank Wright.

Okinawa got its first A&W in 1963, and in the 1970s the company ran a radio ad campaign with a little gag that could only work in Japanese.

AW 001

According to the placemat, the ads connected A&W with the phrase あなたとわたしのドライブイン (Anata to Watashi no doraibuin). As any beginning student of Japanese knows, “anata to watashi” means “you and me,” so あなたとわたしのドライブイン was “our drive-in.”

The notable Irishman and the famous American

January 2, 2014

Back in 2009, I had the honor of being invited to a Christmas party hosted by a notable Irishman who was living in Tokyo.

I had recently written an article about Irish coffee for the newspaper. When the topic came up, the notable Irishman very pleasantly opined that the concoction was a terrible waste of perfectly fine whiskey. Nonetheless, he immediately had his kitchen staff prepare a glass for me. That’s how gracious a host he was.

Here I am in 2009, a bit overdue for a haircut but right on time for a hot glass of Irish coffee.

Here I am in 2009, a bit overdue for a haircut but right on time for a hot glass of Irish coffee.

Irish coffee, by the way, is a cocktail consisting of strong hot coffee with sugar and whiskey, plus a layer of cream floating on top. It was apparently invented in the early 1940s to warm up transatlantic passengers landing at Shannon Airport. It was more of a treat for tourists than something the Irish drink regularly themselves.

As I drank the delicious glass he had arranged for me, the notable Irishman regaled me with a story from another party he had thrown some years earlier while living in the United States. One his guests that evening was a famous American who, when offered a glass of Irish coffee, requested that it be made with decaffeinated coffee and nonfat cream.

“Would you like it with alcohol-free whiskey, too?” the notable Irishman helpfully inquired.

“Sure!” the famous American beamed, before suspicion dawned. “Hey, wait a minute…”

Well, time marches on, and now Japanese technology has made a commercial reality out of the Irishman’s absurd joke. There is now nonalcoholic Irish coffee … in a can.

can marked

Japan has what is almost certainly the world’s most creative canned beverage industry. After enjoying such unlikely flavor triumphs as adzuki-bean Pepsi and canned pancake milkshakes, I was very much looking forward to their take on Irish coffee.

However, I was a bit crestfallen when I realized that there is no actual whiskey in this product. Instead, it is “whiskey-flavored.”

Somehow, it does give off some alcohol-like fumes, but the flavor is more like hazelnut syrup than whiskey. The cream and sugar flavors nearly overwhelm the coffee flavor, so the final result is like drinking a liquefied hazelnut bonbon.

I respect the Japanese beverage industry’s spirit of experimentation, but if I were to drink a toast to that spirit, I’d rather use real Irish coffee.