Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This hard-working survivor collects empty aluminum cans and turns them in to the local dealer in used aluminum cans, who pays him 2 yen each. One hears the cans are most often shipped to China.

Announcement on train

The next stop is Shinjuku. The doors on the left side will open. Please change here for the Yamanote Line, the Chuo Line, the Shonan-Shinjuku Line, the Saikyo Line, the Odakyu-Odawara Line, the Keio Line, the Marunouchi Line, the Toei-Shinjuku Line, and the Toei-Oedo Line. Please watch your step when you leave the train.

Sorry, could you run that by me again?

Hint: Wandering in Tokyo, as is the best way to see the city, you are sure to get lost, just like everybody. (It doesn't help that most streets have no name, or if they do it is just an informal name bestowed by the neighborhood and on no map. As, for instance, Cat Street in Shibuya, so called because there used to be a lot of cats around here.) But the solution is just to ask anybody where the nearest station is. (Ichiban chikai eki wa doko des' ka?) This question will get you instant sympathy and as all stations are connected will get you back to your home station in a jiffy. 

- Jimmy Nakamura

Sunday, October 28, 2012

French food

The Spectator, that wonderfully quirky English weekly, reports that last year France entertained more tourists (79.5 million) than any other country. (Next was the US at 62.3 million, then China at 57.6. Japan wasn't even on the list.)

It seems clear that the greatest draw to France is the French table. No doubt, the French eat well, but so do we. In fact, anyone who knows both Tokyo and Paris will tell you that Tokyo far outclasses Paris as far as eating goes. The Michelin Guide to Tokyo has certified this by giving out many more stars to restaurants in Tokyo than any other city.

Can it be that Tokyo has come to appreciate fine French cooking through the taste and precision presentation of kaiseki? Our standards are high, that is true.

All this was brought to mind by an exquisite meal last night at Marie Claude, an intimate, hard-to-locate little French restaurant nestled in the luxurious canyons of Roppongi. There Chef/owner Kazuko Nagao is creating her own innovative version of French cuisine. Her dinner menu is something like 6,000 yen, a gift.

If you are in the mood when you visit her, you might like to sit at the counter on a high stool which pretty much puts you right in the kitchen. Curiously, watching a craftsman at work sharpens the appetite, but it does mute conversation. Ah well…

On your first visit, you should set aside plenty of time to track the place down, as while it's in the midst of things it's hidden, a very Tokyo trope.

Marie Claude, Akasaka 2-17-52. Tel. 03-6459-1158. Nearest station Roppongi 1-chome. 

- Rick Kennedy, author Good Tokyo Restaurants

Friday, October 26, 2012

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A craftsman at work

What holds us together
A being from outer space coming down to take a closer look at this great rambling civilization called Tokyo might well conclude that the city is held together by a confusion of telephone lines and power cables. 

Tokyo's profusion of lines strung across the sky is why when Tokyoites go abroad to Amsterdam, to Vienna, or to Los Angeles and look up to see a simple, innocent blue sky uncrossed by cables of any kind they wonder how the city they are in defines itself. They think: aren't power lines a necessary element of a dynamic urban civilization? Can these cities be alive?

- Natasha Nakamura

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A bin of rice bowls and tea cups
                                for sale at the station

A deluge of umbrellas
Briggs of London, who make exquisite umbrellas, don't sell many in Tokyo. When it starts raining and we don't happen to have an umbrella with us, we duck into the nearest convenience store and pick up one of those aluminum-frame clear plastic umbrellas for 170 yen, the price of a MacDonald's hamburger.

This is a purchase of the moment, nothing to be treasured. The manufacturers of these umbrellas gear up for the rainy season each year because they know from experience that nobody has managed to hang onto last season's cheap plastic umbrella.

But really, these cheap umbrellas are a plague. People on the train hang their new cheap umbrella on the nearest protuberance and then forget about it. When the train comes to the end of the line, the conductor announces Kasa! Kasa! Kasa! (Umbrella! Umbrella! Umbrella!) because when a passenger forgets theirs, the conductor  must collect it and turn it in to Lost and Found, where the government requires it to be kept, properly tagged, for a year.

- Perry Arguable

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why two railings? Ah, the lower one is for 
shorter people, who have smaller hands. Seen all over.

Remote-controlled living
I see Panasonic is massively advertising their new line of remotely controlled household appliances, including by movies in the trains. I think they're on to something here, although it's hard to see how useful it would be to be able to turn a washer/dryer on and off remotely. (Being able to drop your clothes in the corner and at the press of a button have them washed, dried, folded, and put away is another matter.) 

But just think how handy it would be to turn on your coffee maker ten minutes before you roll out of bed, just by pushing a button under your pillow. And how fine it would be on a blistering summer day to turn on the air-conditioner in your apartment while you are still on the train going home. Or on a frigid winter day to remotely turn on the heater so you'd open a door to a cheery apartment. At the touch of a button you could have the bath all ready for you when you get home.

The idea is sure to catch on and to be expanded. Wouldn't it be a fine thing, for instance, if instead of having to go shopping for groceries you could just press the CROISSANTS, MARMALADE, EGGS, and BEER buttons on your remote controller and have your refrigerator automatically restocked? Press a button and the daily newspaper would be delivered directly to your easy chair.

You would only rarely have to go to the office because all paperwork would be available to you on the display of your computer at home and you could sit in on any conference you think might be interesting represented by a remote-controlled effigy, which you could make pound on the table to emphasize a point. The cellphone of that attractive lady whose desk is by the window could be contacted by your cellphone who would ask her to press either the LOVELY! or GET LOST button in response to your remotely controlled invitation to dinner.

But after all there are somethings we just won't be able to do by remote control.  Like die, for instance.

- Zeke Suzuki, Dreamer in Residence 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bicycle built for three, a common arrangement

Quiet Delivery

In Tokyo, practically everybody reads a newspaper. The Yomiuri Shimbun, the most popular, sells about 15 million every morning and about as many of its evening edition. (The NY Times sells 800,000 every day.)

In our neighborhood, newspapers are delivered by a rackety motorbike around four in the morning. To be as unobtrusive as possible, the boy delivering our newspaper parks his bike up the hill from the little community of five houses in our valley, and scampers down to jam the morning news into our mailboxes. For us early wakers, this is the beginning of the day. 

Lads delivering the other papers drive their rackety machines down the slope and right up to subscribers' mailboxes, and so we have come to think there are two kinds of newspapers, the noisy ones and the quiet one.

Maybe it's no coincidence that when it is raining or even if there's a prospect of rain, the quiet newspapers are delivered in a clear plastic envelope.

- V.S. Heliotrope

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Trees as vertical gardens

We know what au revoir means--"until the again seeing". And auf wiedersehn (same thing). And goodbye--"God be with ye". But what does sayonara mean?

Well, sa means something like "thus" and yo means "like this."  Nara is a suffix indicating uncertainty, so here something like "maybe." 

Run it all together and sayonara means "If that's the way it has to be…"

 - Zeke Suzuki

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sauces on the shelves of a supermarket

Here comes the foreigner who loves stamps
I have a friend in New York who is particularly appreciative of good design. When he visited Tokyo recently, he was blown away by the imaginative typography of public advertising and the fine printing  of throw-away pamphlets--so when I write him I include a few printed ephemera and I like to put a nice-looking stamp on the envelope.

The staff at our local post office have gotten used to this little eccentricity of mine and now every time I go there to buy stamps and mail a letter I am greeted with a smile and without my saying anything given a choice of the most recent commemorative yen stamps issued by Japan Mail.

     Airmail postage to the States is 130 yen for an ordinary letter. If airmail is somehow too abrupt, you can ask Japan Mail to send your letter by boat. It will cost only 90 yen but it may take a month. 
   - Rick Kennedy

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Returning from school

Money for stamps
"Ha! Meester Kennedy! I have mail!"
It was Mr. Mochizuki the mailman on his red bicycle, happy to have a chance to practice his English, and I was up on the deck overlooking our little garden and our battered mailbox.
"Mr. Mochizuki, we will leave next week for Italy. So for the next three weeks please keep our mail for us. I will send you a postcard from Rome if you give me your address."
"Ah! Italia! A postcard from Roma? I will give you my address."
And the next day, Mr. Mochizuki put in our mailbox a card with his name and address carefully inscribed.
And from Rome we did send him a postcard of the glorious marble sculpture in the Piazza Navrona.
When we returned home three weeks later, the mail began again, right on time. In the first delivery, we found a card from Mr. Mochizuki saying "Grazie," with a 100-yen and a 50-yen coin scotch-taped to it. 
- Rick Kennedy

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tokyo's parks
        One way to define a city is by its parks. London is good. New York is miserable, with Central Park, though a showpiece in itself, awkwardly cutting Manhattan in two.
        Tokyo has its showplace parks too. Shinjuku Gyoen, Yoyogi Koen, and that park open to the public in the grounds of the Imperial Palace come to mind, but the great thing about Tokyo's parks is that there are so many of them--at least 7,000 as far as anyone can make out. Every neighborhood has its own.
        But then you have to think: what is a park? In Tokyo, a park can be just an open space with a bench. It just might have a swing or a slide or a sand box and there might be a patch of greenery looked after by the neighborhood green thumbs. Sometimes there's a bulletin board for notices about swimming contests, cooking classes, and lost dogs. There might be a very sturdy but battered wooden table where the neighborhood go players can play a quiet game.
        Tokyo's parks are often what amounts to the neighborhood living room, a place for dozing, a place for gossip, a place for making mad plans.
 - Natasha Nakamura

Monday, October 8, 2012

Entrance way to a serene private dwelling

The neighborhood provides
The wife of our neighbor Kazama-san died recently and most of us attended her as she lay in state at home, at her cremation, and at her wake. Kazama-san is a gifted gardner who provides the neighborhood with a constant supply of flowers in season, but he himself never learned to cook. 

With no discussion, the wives of the neighborhood have in rotation been providing Kazama-san every day with lunch and dinner, each meal brought to his door by a different member of the family.
- Phu

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Competing technologies

Why unemployment in Tokyo is not high
Every day three or four people on foot visit the mailboxes in our neighborhood to leave brochures exalting the local pizzeria and announcing sales of rain gear and cooking pots. 

Our road is being resurfaced and to make sure this is done without incident, a man in a yellow helmet and white gloves waves a flag to warn approaching motorists that work is being done and another man in a yellow helmet is stationed at the end of the construction work to toss off a quick bow to thank motorists for their kind consideration and to wish them on their way. Three more yellow helmets are stationed at the site to relieve these men at intervals, to answer questions about when the work will be completed, and to sweep up debris.

Leaving a local department store with our parking ticket certified as our having spent at least 2,000 yen so parking is free, we locate our car in its immaculate parking space and drive to the exit. There is a machine at the exit to accept our ticket then to raise the barrier but the store decided that this was too offhand. Accordingly, they stationed a uniformed guard at the machine to take our stamped parking ticket from us and insert it into the machine, then thank us with a brisk bow when the barrier rises.

At the exit itself there was another uniformed guard who, after determining whether we would be turning right or left graciously checked the traffic for us in that direction, then waved us on.

Also notable in this regard is the practice of many businesses of not letting anyone go when they have reached the age when they are not as useful as they once were, but simply finding them a job--any job--they can do without strain. For instance, computer displays have to be kept polished and someone has to straighten up the newspapers and magazines on the low table between the couches. No one actually appoints these people to these jobs; they just slip into them. 

Some will argue that this approach to the problem of too few jobs degrades honest employment by putting people in jobs they must see are not really useful and so which have little meaning. But recall there was a time not so long ago in department stores when as the doors of elevators closed it was the sole job of a crisply uniformed lady was to toss off a graceful bow. Those jobs are now almost all gone. Surely this progress of a kind.

 - Amelia LaGordo

Saturday, October 6, 2012

After lunch, browsing at Tsutaya Books in Daikanyama

Whispering vs. waving
      This afternoon in the expansive Cafe Veloce in Shibuya a young lad was talking sotto voce on his cellphone, his hand folded around the mouthpiece. In Tokyo, the use of cellphones is still officially discouraged in most cafes, but that's changing. Discrete short conversations on a cellphone are gradually elbowing their way in.
     Then suddenly the lad slapped his forehead and stood up and looked around the room, which is the size of three tennis courts. Across the room in a far corner a young lady stood up and waved, the wave being an older, but more immediate, technology.

- Patricia Avocado

Friday, October 5, 2012

Foundations of a new house in which no room is larger than a car

Our mobile convenience store
Every Monday just after lunch, a truck backs down the driveway of our cluster of houses. "It's the Vegetable Man!" bawls out the driver, and after a minute or two the housewives gather round. 
       Everything's fresh and about the price of everything at the supermarket downtown. In addition, the truck provides gossip about adjacent neighborhoods.
      Actually, the Vegetable Man usually doesn't sell much in our neighborhood because we like to go downtown and browse around, but some of us don't have a car and to go downtown by bus and haul our purchases up the hill is a chore. So it makes sense to keep on the good side of the Vegetable Man and every Monday most people buy something, even if they don't really need it.
   -Hisae Tanaka

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A young couple and their two sons, Shibuya

Plugging people in
      Yamada Denki in Kohoku New Town is a huge six-story appliance store that can offer you a choice of a  hundred different electric fans. They are also prepared to teach anyone interested how to buy things over the internet. Just slip into one of the half dozen seats at their special counter to learn what the internet has to offer.
      The idea is not only to instruct people how to find and buy what they need, but also to provide a way for people (mostly older) who haven't gotten around to buying a computer how to buy things such as medical supplies which local stores don't carry.
      Yamada Denki also provides a bus service for people who might otherwise find it difficult to get there. All at no charge.

- Ernest LaForge

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Customer Service
Kookai is my favorite brand store but there are no Kookai stores in California where I live so whenever I go to Tokyo on business I squeeze in a quick visit to a Kookai store to see what they've got. On a visit to Tokyo year ago I had a chance between appointments to visit the Kookai branch inside Mitsukoshi in Ebisu and I found a beautiful top for my daughter (for a not-so-cheap price), and then I dashed off to a nearby shoe store before jumping in a taxi for my next appointment.
When I got back home I discovered I didn't have my Kookai package! I thought I must have left it in the taxi and so I thought that's the way it goes...
Well, this year on a trip to Tokyo I had a chance to go back to the shoe store. I told the sales lady that I live in California but make it a point to visit her store every chance I get and the sales lady remembered me from my visit last year! She said, "Oh yes, and you left your last purchase here, didn't you?" She told me that when she discovered I had left my Kookai package in her store, she ran over to Mitsukoshi to try to find me but I had left. She went to Kookai to try to get my address from my credit card but no good because I live in the US. So she left my package with Mitsukoshi's Lost & Found.So now that I was back, the sales lady called Mitsukoshi to see if they still had my package, which I doubted since it was all over a year ago. Mitsukoshi said they were happy to hear from me and that they would check. I was just happy to find out what had happened.
That evening I got a call from a Mitsukoshi guy, who said they couldn't find the package and apologized as only can be done in Japanese. I kept telling him it was OK, it was my fault for leaving the package behind, but he said that because Lost & Found had accepted it, it was Mitsukoshi's responsibility. He told me they had spent the afternoon calling every Kookai store in the country to find a replacement top, but no good because it was out of season. He then, ever so humbly, asked me if I would be so kind as to let him come to my house to let him reimburse me for the cost of the top! I had to tell him it would be easier all around if he would just mail it to my home in California. Which he did, in crisp US banknotes.
 -Mie Yaginuma

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Election posters

A handy expression
Waza waza--"to go out of one's way" as in wasa wasa sumimasen, meaning "I'm sorry to have given you reason to do something that ordinarily you might not have had reason to do and really I would never have expected you to do in any case." Such as, for instance, being so kind as to bring me my mail.
Japanese can be very concise.
      - Jean-Claude Folgaritsen

Monday, October 1, 2012

Meeting spot, Hiyoshi Station