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.


Japan Writers Conference 2014

October 29, 2014

I spent last weekend in Morioka at the Japan Writers Conference. It’s a free, English-language event held in a different part of Japan every autumn.

For the third year running, I interviewed a handful of the participants about what they write, what presentations they gave or attended, and what they would say to anyone who is thinking about coming next year.

Here’s what they told me:

You can see the JWC video from Kyoto in 2012 here and the video from Okinawa in 2013 here.

For details, visit japanwritersconference.org.

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.”

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

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…

Dog Mark

… there was this eminently practical bit of canine infrastructure, discreetly tucked away in a corner of a third-floor utility balcony.

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.

Santa wants your blood

December 24, 2013

Santa blood

I ran into him the other day outside a Japan Red Cross clinic in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. The sign he is holding says “kenketsu.” It means “blood donation.”

Tokyo snapshot

November 17, 2013

Ghost bike marked

Is this a piece of accidental artwork? Is it a cleverly engineered illusion? Or is there really a ghost on a bicycle riding across the front of a small building full of bars in Roppongi?

Around Japan in 47 Curries: Mrs. Matsui’s Ishikawa Slugger Sauce

November 13, 2013

This is Part 16 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Ishikawa map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Ishikawa map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

For 500 years, “Maeda” was the most famous name in Ishikawa Prefecture. Nowadays, it’s “Matsui.” The Maeda were a daimyo family who ruled by the sword; Matsui was a baseball player who ruled with a bat.

Ishikawa is a broad swath of coastline on the Sea of Japan. Covering 4,185 square kilometers, it is about the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island. The Noto Peninsula accounts for about half of its land area.

The Maedas built a castle in the city of Kanazawa, in the mainland part of Ishikawa, in 1583. According to a prefectural website, they were one of the most powerful families in Japan, second only to the Tokugawas who ruled the nation from Edo.

AAAA castle

When I visited Kanazawa a few years ago, the wealth and power of the Maeda family remained evident not only in their sprawling castle, but also in Kenrokuen, the vast and magnificent garden they had built in the 1700s. One of its most fascinating features is Japan’s oldest fountain. Set in the center of a pond, it shoots a jet of water 3.5 meters into the air, powered simply by having its water supply piped in underground from a different pond at a higher elevation.

AAAA fountain

I thought I could see why the Maedas had been so prosperous. First, Tokyo (as Edo is called nowadays) is separated from Kanazawa by row after row of mountains, which would have made it difficult for the Maedas and the Tokugawas to molest one another militarily. Secondly, there was a lot of nice-looking farmland along the coast. And the coast itself – its length multiplied by the peninsula – means plenty of seafood is always nearby. The area seemed to have other natural resources as well: The name “Kanazawa” means “gold marsh,” and the manufacture of gold leaf is an old traditional industry there.

Your blogger, shopping for gold cake

Your blogger, shopping for gold cake

During my visit, I ate some spectacular multicourse seafood dinners at my hotel – including an unforgettable baked apple stuffed with crabmeat – and I bought some pound cake topped with gold leaf as omiyage to share with my coworkers back in Tokyo. This is not as extravagant as it sounds: With the gold leaf being just 0.0001 millimeters thick, it cost only slightly more than any other pound cake. Unfortunately, the leaf was so delicate, and the cake so moist, that most of the gold wound up smeared across the inside of the box by the time I got it to the office.

Such tourist fare is all well and good, but if you really want to understand a place, it helps to sample its home cooking. And that’s where Matsui comes in.

Hideki Matsui  Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Hideki Matsui
Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Professional baseball player Hideki Matsui was born in 1974 in the town of Negari,* now part of the city of Nomi, Ishikawa Prefecture. Most mothers want their sons to grow up to be big and strong, but few succeed as dramatically Mrs. Matsui did. As a kid, he was already such a powerful right-handed hitter that the other boys wouldn’t play with him unless he switched to batting left-handed. He did – and still went on to become one of the top batters in the world.

There must have been something in his mom’s cooking. Maybe it was her curry.

Matsui became a star while still a Kanazawa high school student, attracting national attention in 1992 with a record-tying seven RBIs in his first game at the Koshien national baseball tournament. Japan baseball authority Jim Allen** describes the repercussions in an article here. Matsui went on to become a star of the Yomiuri Giants and the New York Yankees before ending his career in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. A Tokyo Dome ceremony to mark his retirement was attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Throughout his career, Matsui bore the nickname “Godzilla,” which most fans associated with the power he brought to the plate. (Allen reports that in earlier days the nickname referred to his “coarse complexion.”) At some games, the Blue Oyster Cult song “[Go Go] Godzilla” would play as Matsui stepped up to the plate. This was doubly appropriate since the number he played under, 55, can be pronounced “go-go” in Japanese.

Now that Godzilla is retired, he has taken to hawking a brand of curry called “Matsui-ke Hiden no Kare,” or the Matsui family’s secret curry. Dressed in a jacket and tie, Matsui is shown holding a bat on the front of the box, which bears the slogan, “The ‘Mom’ flavor Hideki Matsui was raised on, re-created.” On the back of the box, a more casually dressed Matsui holds a spoon and declares, “The flavor of this curry is exactly like my Mom’s flavor I was accustomed to when since back when I was a kid.” Further text on the back says the contents are “just like” the stuff that “the first World Series MVP from Asia” grew up on.

The wording makes it pretty clear that this is not really Matsui’s mother’s recipe, but just a reasonable commercial approximation. That makes me feel a little better about liking only one of the two varieties it comes in.

Matsui curry 001

In a clever bit of marketing, there is garlic-free “renshu-chu” curry for “during training” and also “shiai-mae” curry, which is loaded with garlic, for “before the game.”

Both come in a brown sauce so thick as to be almost pasty, not soaking into the rice at all. In that regard, these are the most typical Japanese curries I have tasted for this series. Both included soft potatoes, softer carrots, and a few random bits of meat sliced only a little thicker than gold leaf. Both are billed as “medium spicy,” but the training curry tasted pretty mild to me. It would have been right at home in an institutional cafeteria.

However, the sharp smell of the pre-game garlic curry told me it was going to be something special. And sure enough, it had a fantastically strong garlic flavor. It actually created a slight burning sensation on my tongue. I was very impressed.

Matsui hit 507 home runs in his pro career. I have hit only one home run in my life – and that was 20 years ago in a softball game. After eating Matsui’s curry, I doubt that my batting prowess has improved. But it did give me something in common with the original Godzilla: incredibly powerful breath.


*The mayor of Negari at that time was Shigeki Mori, who was in office from 1953 to 1989. Mori’s father had been the mayor before him, and his son Yoshiro Mori went on to become prime minister from 2000 to 2001. The Maedas may be gone, but dynastic politics is alive and well.

**If you like that, go listen to Japan Baseball Weekly, a podcast that Allen and fellow expert John E. Gibson produce together here.  Yes, that’s a plug. Go listen.

Voices from the 2013 Japan Writers Conference

November 10, 2013

Last weekend I flew down to Okinawa for the Japan Writers Conference. It’s a free annual event at which English-language writers from a variety of fields give presentations about the art, craft and business of writing. Over the next several weeks I plan to blog about some of the things I learned there, but for now I’ll let a few of the other participants speak for themselves through this video:

If you want to get in on the action, the next conference will be held in Iwate in the autumn of 2014.