Posts Tagged ‘tokyo’

Architecture alert! Go see Tod’s while you can

October 31, 2011

A defining characteristic of the Tokyo cityscape is that it is always changing. Stay away from any given neighborhood for a few months, and you may not recognize it when you go back. I was reminded of this for the 9,000th time a few days ago when I walked along the Omotesando shopping street for the first time in quite a while and saw what was happening around the Tod’s building.

Since its completion in 2004, the Tod’s building has been a major landmark of the area, and a darling of architectural critics. It was the designed for the precise spot on which it stands, but that spot is now changing around it.

As the Tokyo flagship store for a luxury Italian shoe brand, this building had a mission to be eye-catching, but the facade had to be squeezed into a narrow sliver of street frontage. Architect Toyo Ito’s design, however, doesn’t look squeezed at all. The building’s exterior is more window than wall, especially near ground level.

The building is criscrossed by seemingly random strips of concrete that, at second glance, turn out not to be random at all. A few thick pieces at ground level branch out and become thinner as they climb skyward, just like the trunk and branches of the zelkova trees that famously line the boulevard out front. (In Tokyo, a tree-lined street is something of a novelty, and Omotesando is by far the most famous one.)

Watch this video I quickly shot the other day and see if you think the design works for you.

When the Tod’s building was new, a video with these views would have been impossible. The building sits on an L-shaped peice of land, with most of its bulk set back from the street. Until recently, an unrelated building standing in the crook of the L (which you can see on the second page of this presentation) prevented Omotesando pedestrians from seeing much of Tod’s sides.

But now that other building has been torn down.

With its neighbor out of the way, you can now see two more of Tod’s walls — each bigger than the front — and thus appreciate an otherwise hard-to-discern aspect of Ito’s design. He took one silhouette of one tree and repeated it at irregular intervals to create a forest motif that wraps all the way around the building in one continous pattern.

But these views won’t last.  According to signs posted on construction barriers, a new 8-story retail building is set to go up in the crook of the L. The planned completion date is April of 2013. And right next door, on an even larger lot that is slightly uphill, work has begun to build a 9-story office and retail building. In a further sign of how quickly Tokyo changes, there is another active construction site right across the street, and even the famous Kiddy Land toy store nearby has been demolished to make way for a new incarnation of itself.

So if you want to see the Tod’s building’s wraparound design with your own eyes, don’t wait too long. This chance may never come again.

A little Tokyo nightlife with Bob Arnold

September 29, 2011

Singer-songwriter Bob Arnold was part of the entertainment this past Sunday night when I went to a book launch party for “Calling All Shadows” at What the Dickens, a British-style pub in Ebisu, Tokyo.

Bob is friend of mine, so I won’t pretend to be an impartial observer, but I always enjoy his songs.

Bob is a versatile lyricist whose work ranges from the silly (Toe Jam”) to the profound (“The Beautiful Americans”). He also touches many points of the spectrum in between. Some of his songs make you think, and many of them make you smile.

His short set on Sunday tended toward the cheerfully playful side of his oeuvre. In the videos below, he plays “Suzy’s Just a Little Floozy” with accompaniment by a Canadian flautist, and “Mike Rides a Bike,” a new song he was performing in public for the first time.

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.

Pool Review: Swim outdoors at Aqua Field

September 13, 2011

I’ve lived in or near Tokyo for most of my adult life, and until yesterday I never knew that one could swim outdoors in a 50-meter pool just a stone’s throw from Tokyo Tower. This city is full of surprises.

For a swimmer accustomed to doing laps indoors, it a glorious change to set off across a 50-meter pool under bright blue skies while the bubbles your arms create with each forward stroke dance before your eyes like tumbling jewels in the ever-changing sunlight.

That last line may seem a bit overwrought to some readers, but serious swimmers will know what I’m talking about.

At the time of my visit to the Aqua Field pool, near Shiba Koen Station on the Mita subway line, two wide lanes were set aside for lap swimming. The rest of the pool was a vast open area for general frolicking.

The pool, whose adjustable floor was set to a uniform depth of one meter, is fenced in and surrounded by shrubbery. One could easily miss it while walking past in the street, but within the  enclosure there is a tremendous feeling of openness, with views of several tall buildings, including Tokyo Tower, framed against the surrounding sky. There is also a large raised terrace with even better views (including Zojoji temple nearby and the Izumi Garden Tower in the distance), with plenty of tables and chairs where one can relax and dry off in the breeze.

Unfortunately, the Aqua Field pool is near the end of its season. Sept. 15 is the last swimming day. After that, the pool will close for a couple of weeks to undergo a transition into a futsal field, which is how it will remain until next summer. You can see photos of Aqua Field in both its summer Aqua and winter Field forms at the official website here.

I wasn’t able to photograph the pool myself because there were signs everywhere forbidding it. (The photo at the top of this post was taken from a public street outside.) There were also signs everywhere reminding tattooed swimmers to keep their skin art covered up. Unfortunately, these are common prohibitions at public swimming pools here. But one rule that was not on the books was the usual Japanese requirement for everyone to wear a swim cap. Feeling the water flow through my hair was another refreshing change from the usual Japanese pool experience.

The only aspect of Aqua Field that left anything to be desired was the locker room. It was cramped and crowded, and the floors were thoroughly wet even in areas that should have been mostly dry. There was an insufficient supply of benches or seats, meaning there was no dry spot to put anything down. For visitors who are simply changing into shorts and a T-shirt before heading on their way, this is not a huge problem. But if you want to swim before work or on your lunch break, getting changed back into business clothing becomes an elaborate chore. (But that won’t stop me from visiting again next summer — or maybe tomorrow.)

Adult admission to Aqua Field is 400 yen for two hours, plus 200 yen for each additional hour. Hold on to the ticket you get on the way in, since its time will be checked on your way out. To reach Aqua Field, use Exit A3 of Shiba Koen subway station, turn left at the top of the stairs, and walk a short distance down a tree-lined path to find the entrance on your left.

Railway safety in Tokyo (a lesson for New York)

August 21, 2011

A great thing about living in Tokyo is that trains can take you anywhere, quickly and conveniently.

A bad thing about living in Tokyo is that if you fall off the station platform, a train can kill you.

Those two statements may sound like a pair of eternal truths, but the second one is gradually becoming less true as safety barriers are installed along platforms in more and more stations.

Earlier this year, a good friend of mine was hit by a train in New York. Fortunately, he survived. When I went to visit him, I read in the New York Daily News that the Big Apple was considering installing its own safety barriers. But there was some resistance to the idea, not the least of which came from the Daily News itself.

Resistance to the idea of safety barriers seems unfounded. It reminds me of the resistance that once existed to the idea of wearing seatbelts in cars, and I’m sure that in the future people will look back on it as being just as silly.

I made the video at the top of this post in an effort to shed some light on the issue. I start by visiting the sites of a few notable accidents in Tokyo, and then demonstrate how the safety barriers operate.

Production note: A couple of scenes shot at train stations include background noise, so I added subtitles. In future efforts, I’ll either look for quieter spots or buy a quality microphone.

Everyday artifact: Train delay certificate

August 2, 2011

“Sorry I’m late, boss. My train got stuck in a tunnel.”
“A likely story, Tanaka. Prove it.”
“Sure thing: Here’s my train delay certificate.”

Tokyo trains are so punctual that you can set your watch by them. Literally. On the infrequent occasions when they are not, the railroad will give you documentary proof to show anyone you’ve let down by turning up late.

The proof is called a chien shoumeisho (delay certificate). You can ask for one at the ticket gate at the station where you get off your delayed train.

I received the one in the photo after my subway train was delayed by 10 minutes on July 28. You can see where the man at the ticket gate punched “28” to indicate the date and “10” to indicate the length of the delay. The text in the center of the paper is headed “Chien Shoumeisho” in large print, followed by a message of apology from the Tokyo Metro company and the stationmaster of Kourakuen Station. Other rail lines may issue certificates with slightly different formats, but they all operate on the same basic concept.

Imagine how the above dialogue would play out in a country where everyone commuted by car.

“Sorry I’m late, boss. I hit every single red light on the way in.”
“Sure, Jack. Prove it.”

Fish in Ginza

July 26, 2011

Now through the end of this month (July 2011), there is a large saltwater aquarium set up on a Ginza streetcorner in front of the Sony building.

It has been drawing crowds, which of course is its purpose. Sony hopes that passersby, once their attention is caught by the sharks and a giant moray eel, will step inside to see more fish – and not incidentally peruse some of Sony’s latest products.

There is a tank filled with exotic starfish and other invertebrates in the lobby, and once you’ve come that far, you may as well have a look around at their 3-D video wares, most of which are currently displaying images of Okinawa sea life.

Sony’s 3-D TV sceens display images with more impressive depth than I have seen in 3-D movies in theaters in recent years (including the last Harry Potter film just this weekend), but what really caught my eye was a home video camera with a built-in Steadicam-like feature. It and an ordinary camera, both pointed toward visitors entering the display area, are attached to a gyrating platform, with TV monitors on either side to show the results. On one screen, you see a blurry image of yourself whirling wildly about, while on the other screen you see a much clearer image of yourself (jiggling slightly).

While I’m sure that would come in handy, I’m satisfied for now with my current camera – made not by Sony but by Canon – which I used to shoot the video at the top of this post.

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.

Take the stairs. Save a life.

April 3, 2011

Escalator closed to save electricity at Higashi Jujo Station in Tokyo, April 1, 2011

The title of this post may sound like hyberbole, but if you’ll bear with me you may see that it could be literally true for people living in eastern Japan.

As a result of damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the region is suffering a serious electricity shortage. It will not be quickly or easily fixed. Consequently, Tokyo Electric Power Co. has instituted a system of rolling blackouts (see video here) to ration power.

Meanwhile, many other organizations have been doing what they can to save electricity. Train service has been reduced on some lines, and stores and other public places are operating with reduced lighting (see photo here) or have turned off some of their escalators (see photo above). Individuals have helped, too, such as by turning off unneeded lights at home.

These widespread efforts have reduced electricity demand so much that on many recent days TEPCO has called off its planned blackouts.

So far, then, we’re muddling through quite nicely.

But this summer, when millions of people turn on their air conditioners, demand is going to soar. Any blackouts to happen then will leave a lot of people baking.

To me, this sounded uncomfortable. To Charles Stross, it sounded deadly. He recently wrote on his blog:

Summer in Tokyo is savage…
Greater Tokyo also has 30-million-odd people, of whom a large proportion — maybe 20% — are 75 years or older.
Elderly folks do not handle heat waves well; they get dehydrated easily and if they don’t have air conditioning they die in droves. Normally it’s not a problem in Tokyo because 80% of households have air conditioning, but with rolling blackouts and insufficient power it’s another matter…
If TEPCO can’t get some of those 15 reactors back on stream by June, and if Tokyo experiences a heat wave this summer (as happens every few of years), then going by previous incidents (like the heat emergency in Paris in 2003 that killed 3000 people), the deaths from heat stroke, among the over-75s may rival the direct fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami combined.

With this dire but not unrealistic prediction in mind, we should all be looking for ways to save even more electricity. We probably can’t prevent every blackout or heat-related death, but we can at least minimize them.

As one realistically doable way to lower my own electricity consumption, I decided to stop using elevators.

Join me in the elevator game…

Since I live on the 8th floor of one building and work on the 5th floor of another, staying out of elevators should be doable for me. And if regular stair-climbing helps me shed some weight, making the eventual loss of air conditioning a little more bearable, then so much the better.

I was thinking along these lines for several days – and using elevators all the while – until 11:00 yesterday morning. Less than half an hour later, I gave myself some additional incentive by sending the following tweet:

Tokyo_Tom_Baker Tom Baker

To save electricity, I’m making a game out of seeing how long I can go without using an elevator. It’s been 27 minutes so far.

It wasn’t long before a few of my coworkers noticed what I was up to, which provided them some amusement. But as I added minutes and hours to my time count, even after going downstairs for lunch, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

And then, at 10:04 this morning, I smacked my palm against my forehead and loudly uttered a rude word because I suddenly realized that I was in an elevator.

Barely conscious of what I was doing, I had simply stepped aboard out of blind habit. I hadn’t even made it 24 hours. My outburst startled my fellow passengers, but they gracefully accepted my apology.

Oh, well. It wouldn’t be much of a game without the occasional setback.

At the time of this post, it has now been 7 hours and 30 minutes since I was last in an elevator. By summer, I think I should be pretty good at this. Follow me on Twitter to see how far I make it this time.

If you live in eastern Japan, I urge you to consider giving the elevators in your own buildings a rest. I happen to be playing the elevator game against myself, but you could save even more electricity – and perhaps some elderly people’s lives – by getting some friends together, putting some money on the table, and making a Seinfeldian contest of it.

Update (April 29, 2011)

My first round of the elevator game may have lasted less than 24 hours, but my second round was much more successful: I didn’t use elevators at all for a period of 13 days, 6 hours and 43 minutes. That was a pretty good run, if I do so myself.

What broke my streak? I bought a new bicycle. There is no good place to park a bike at ground level near by building, so I had to take it up to the eighth floor, where I live. I made a good faith effort by carrying my bike all way up the stairs – once – but that experience was enough to tell me that I was going to have to use the elevator if I had the bike with me. So, now I do sometimes use the elevator in the building where I live.

So the elevator game failed, right?

Actually not. It continues to be a tremendous success. I use the elevator at home much less than I used to, and I still haven’t used the elevator at work – where my office is on the 5th floor – even once in the four weeks since April 2. Considering that I used to take the elevator every day when I arrived in the morning, and then when I went out to lunch, and then when I came back from lunch, and then when I left in the evening, and also at other miscellaneous times during the day, I estimate that I have avoided at least 30 elevator trips every week – or about 120 so far.

So, though I no longer have the fun of watching my time total get longer and longer, I am consuming less electricity than I used to. And that’s the whole point.

Kawaguchi in the dark

March 18, 2011

The city of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, just outside of Tokyo was dark for several hours this evening as part of the rolling blackouts that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has implemented in response to a power shortage following last Friday’s major earthquake.

The damage to a nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture has been the focus of much media attention, but according to a recent article in The Daily Yomiuri (which you can read here), the quake and tsunami also shut down the Onagawa nuclear power plant in Miyagi Prefecture, and damaged some conventional thermal power plants as well. Moreover, a rundown of damaged factories (which you can read here) includes one belonging to Hitachi in Ibaraki Prefecture that is “a major production base of equipment for thermal and nuclear power plants. If the suspension of production stretches on for weeks or months, it could hurt the company’s performance and hamper its construction and repair of power plants at home and abroad.”

So, it looks like these blackouts may be part of life in the Tokyo area for quite some time.