Posts Tagged ‘tokyo’

Swim like Kermit and feast on bagels in Setagaya

December 8, 2016


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.


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 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.


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

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

Ginza lunch: Vegetarian curry buffet

June 30, 2012

At first glance, the above photo taken in a Tokyo restaurant might appear to show a fairly routine assortment of curries with some rice and naan bread. But do you notice that the two pieces of naan are different colors? That’s because the paler one in the background is ordinary naan, while the one in the center of the photo is vegan naan.

I took this picture at the Ginza branch of Nataraj, a vegetarian Indian restaurant whose 1,100 yen lunch buffet I partake of about once a month.

And if you zoom in on the curry near the rear of the photo, you’ll notice something amazing: It’s made with black-eyed peas. These are so rare in Tokyo that all the Japanese people I’ve asked for the name of these lovely legumes—including the wait staff at the only other place I know of that serves them—have been stumped. But thanks to the signage at Nataraj’s lunchtime buffet, I now know black-eyed peas are called “robia mame.” Googling this term led me to the anticlimactic discovery that they are also known as “kurome mame.”

The Nataraj buffet consists of rice, four different kinds of vegetarian curry, the two kinds of nan, a token salad, coffee and tea, and kheer rice pudding for dessert.

The four curries have been different on each of my visits, and I’ve always enjoyed at least three of them. Usually all four. There always seems to be a soupy lentil curry, and on one recent visit it was intensely garlicky – which I mean as a compliment. There’s often one dish spicy enough to make me sweat, while the rest are milder. Sometimes there’s a sweet curry, such as creamy korma made with nuts and fruit. Other featured ingredients include peas, beans, mushrooms, onions, potato, cauliflower and chewy vegetarian “meat.”

As tends to happen at all-you-can-eat buffets, I often eat more than I intended to. But since it’s all veggie, it’s easier for me to tell myself that this is OK.

Nataraj info
Address: 7th floor, 6-9-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Phone/Fax: (03) 5537-1515

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.

Tune in Tokyo: Funny because it’s probably true

April 17, 2012

“The reader understands…when reading, say, David Sedaris, that comedy inherently allows room for exaggeration, and even fabrication.”

Hannah Goldfield
Fact-checker at The New Yorker

Tune In Tokyo” is a humorous memoir by Tim Anderson, “a tall, white, gay Southerner who didn’t speak a lick of Japanese” who got a job as an English teacher in Japan because his life seemed to be going nowhere and he “desperately needed a shot of adrenaline.”

There’s plenty of room for Sedaris-like exaggeration in that set-up, but in reading “Tune In Tokyo” I can’t be sure I found any. However, I am sure that I laughed a lot.

For instance, during one of Anderson’s first rides on a Yamanote Line train, he sits down and finds himself eye-to-eye with a 4-year-old boy standing in front of his seat: “He looked at me with an eerie, inscrutable expression, like the one a child forms when he’s about to command dark forces to descend on you. He didn’t take his eyes off me; he didn’t blink. He just stared, cute and creepy. I averted my eyes…”

With his eyes thus averted, Anderson makes some humorous comments about the architectural mishmash of the Tokyo cityscape outside the train’s windows. His description struck me – a veteran Yamanote Line rider – as vivid, amusing and accurate. And I know I’ve met that same creepy little kid. So far, so good.

Then he turns his attention back inside the train, to “the attractive young girl sitting next to me. She was digging through her purse, pulling out mascara, lipstick, tweezers, blush and an eyelash curler…She had more tools than a smack-addled surgeon.”

Again, he’s describing someone I’ve seen. It struck me as remarkable that he encountered so many archetypes on a single train ride – not only the Staring Kid and the Eyelash Curler Lady, but also a wizened obaa-san he refers to as “Yoda.” I began to suspect he might be blending several different train rides into a single anecdote. But even if so, that would fall well within the bounds of what Hannah Goldfield would allow, and I had no problem with it.

In fact, I was delighted with the way he made it pay off when the young woman took out a cigarette lighter and applied the flame to the end of her eyelash curler: “When she believed it to be hot enough, she put the piping apparatus up to her eye and gave herself a set of shapely, luscious, twenty-four hour lashes. I feared she’d put her eye out if the train should make a sudden jerk, but even with the rolling and swaying of the carriage, the girl’s expert grip on her tools and the precision with which she performed her tasks continued uninterrupted. Amazed, I looked over at the toddler. He was still staring at me.”

I laughed out loud when I read this. I laughed out loud again the second time I read it. It’s perfect. Whether or not the Staring Kid, the Eyelash Curler Lady and the Conspicuous White Guy really were all together at the same time, this is exactly what would happen in those circumstances. So maybe it did.

One chapter in which many readers will likely suspect exaggeration describes severely alcoholic “Ron Faust,” a roommate whom Anderson is assigned by his employer, a chain of language schools he winkingly refers to as MOBA. “He looks like he’d been scraped off the streets of Philadelphia and shipped to Japan while still viciously intoxicated – without being told why. My guess: a Philadelphia MOBA headhunter had been desperate to meet his quota, went out onto the street, found Ron drinking from a brown bag and talking to his imaginary friend Crabcake, and thought, ‘Now there’s a MOBA English teacher!’”

Ron staggers around their apartment on a prosthetic leg like a real-life Jack Sparrow. That is, if Jack Sparrow were hostile, paranoid, and given to dropping hints about having been part of a strange sexual arrangement back in the States. His exploits grow increasingly outrageous, and once again I couldn’t stop laughing as I read.

My laughter was brought on partly by Anderson’s skill as a writer. He ratchets up Ron’s craziness on page after page, and ratchets up his own alarmed reactions to Ron at the same pace. This guy knows how to spin a comic yarn.

But I was also laughing because I’ve been there. Just over a decade ago, I worked as an English teacher for an outfit that was probably the one Anderson calls MOBA. The teachers’ ability levels varied from expert to clueless (one of them liked to say the main qualifications for the job were “round eyes and a pulse”), but the majority were good people making an honest effort to help their students. Even so, the teacher population in those days had more than its fair share of nuts, jerks, drunks, and basket cases. I knew one teacher who seemed to have a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome, another who had a speech impediment that made it impossible to pronounce two of the three consonants in her own name, another who rarely bathed, another who broke down in tears on about a weekly basis, and more than one who took malicious pleasure in tricking students into misusing or mispronouncing English words in ways that sounded obscene. None of the people I directly dealt with were quite as extreme as the character Anderson describes, but I cannot say I found him outside the realm of believability.

The archetypical train ride and the Ron Faust adventure were my own favorite parts of this book, but “Tune In Tokyo” has a lot more to recommend it. The chapter titled “The Vagina Dialogue” is a comical story whose title doesn’t mean what you might think it means, but what it does mean is very funny. The chapter on “Gaijin Man” (a character type better known as “Charisma Man,” a phrase Anderson doesn’t use) offers a surprising insight on the phenomenon of unattractive foreign men hooking up with beautiful Japanese women.

Anderson’s humor is sharp, but never cruel. Many of his jokes are at his own expense. Even when describing what an absurd place Japan is – as most places are – he usually does it by way of deflating his own unrealistic expectations of what life in Japan was going to be like.

How much of it is literally true? I don’t know. But it’s true enough, and more than funny enough.

Tokyo Snow-asis

January 28, 2012

On Monday night of this week, it began to snow in Tokyo. By Tuesday morning (Jan. 24), it was four centimeters deep on the ground, and the TV news was describing it as the biggest accumulation Japan’s capital had seen in four years. Hoping to get a few nice nice photos while the snow was fresh, I made a beeline for the Koishikawa Korakuen garden, which as you can see from the above photo is right next to the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium.

The 70,847-square-meter garden (originally much larger) was built by a branch of the Tokugawa family nearly 400 years ago, so Tokyo Dome wasn’t always part of the view. (Click on the picture of the sign at right to read a brief official history.) The buildings below are probably closer to what you would have seen when the Korakuen was new:

There are parts of the garden where modern Tokyo cannot be ignored:

And there are parts where you might forget that you are in a city at all:

Now, nearly a week later, there are still a few scattered patches of dirty ice here and there in Tokyo’s more shaded nooks, but it was melting rapidly even on the morning I took these pictures. In fact, in this video you can actually hear the melting snow dropping from the trees:

A word of warning about that video, by the way: There’s no plot, and nothing happens. It’s just a view.

To view Korakuen in person, exit Korakuen subway station on the Tokyo Dome side, look for this wall to the right of the dome, and follow it a few hundred meters to the entrance

Admission is 300 yen. Official English details here.