Thursday, November 28, 2013

Fortune teller in the Ginza, early evening

natasha nakamura's diary

Last night before meeting with Hugo for dinner at our favorite sushi place at Mitsukoshi in the Ginza, I had a chance to roam the Ginza's back streets.

I noticed that a fleet of taxis  began to pull up to the curb, dozens of taxi like a swarm of bees, crowding out other traffic, and their doors swinging open and out of each taxi lightly stepping a beautiful woman, dressed with quiet taste, with her hair and makeup seemingly done professionally. So beautiful, so poised, so confident.

Then it came to me: these were the ladies who when invited would come to sit at your table in the expensive clubs on every floor of certain buildings in the Ginza. To view them on their way to work is one of the great sights of this city much more glamorous than the early morning fish auction at Tsukiji market, say, and at a much more convenient time of day. I wonder when the tourists will begin to line the sidewalks to take in this elegant scene…

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Drink in Tokyo

In Tokyo, you can buy the best potables the world has to offer: the finest vintage French wines, lusty German and Czech beers, complex Scotch whiskies--but they will be a lot more expensive than if bought on their home ground. More sensible, as well as perhaps more adventurous, would be to drink Japanese. Realize, though, that most Japanese beer is made in the American light-lager style (that is to say, dull) - the products of Japan's many small craft brewers being an exception - and that Japanese wine still has a way to go, although on its own terms it may be coming along. We'll see.

First thing to know is that in Japan "sake" means simply alcoholic beverage.  What you may be thinking of as "sake" is in Japan called Nihonshu. Nihonshu, which of course can be a beautiful, delicate drink, is made of rice and is brewed, like beer. Think of it as rice wine, although Nihonshu doesn't improve with age.

But Nihonshu is not the most popular drink other than beer in Japan: shochu is. Shochu, of which there are hundreds of makers (there are thousands of makers of Nihonshu) is distilled from about anything you can think of--barley, mostly, and sweet potatoes (imo) for the shochu favored by connoisseurs, but also pumpkins, acorns, green tea, cactus, and seaweed. Shochu has a somewhat lighter feel to it than Nihonshu and is usually somewhat more alcoholic. Although shochu is by tradition the drink of  southern Japan, Kyushu in particular, it is now distilled all over the country, but it still has the reputation in self-conscious urban drinking spots of being a less sophisticated drink than Nihonshu. A bit of snobbery there, perhaps, but of course you'll pay no attention to that.

Shochu on the sideboard

Shochu will be difficult to find outside Japan but in cities that appreciate the finer things in life, the city's best liquor dealers should be able to find some for you. It is gaining popularity in New York and San Francisco, they say.

Suntory began distilling whisky in 1923, which at the time baffled everybody, but now Japanese whisky is well established in Japan and is cultivating a market among whisky drinkers abroad. Japanese whisky makers offer a range of styles: peat-smoky, with a delicate flowery bouquet, and well-matured in imported sherry barrels, for instance.  For several years a Japanese whisky has taken top honors at the annual whisky blind-tasting in Scotland.

The lesson to be taken away from this quick rundown of the drinking scene in Japan is: try some shochu if you can. At the very least, you will find it interesting.

--Zeke S.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Japan is now making its own wine. This is going to take some time,
but we've got time...

natasha nakamura's diary

I live on the Toyoko Line, which connects Yokohama to Shibuya and so it is a key component of our urban transportation system. It's a mighty fine line, with its cars always polished and its staff ultra-polite.

Every month the line publishes a free magazine called Salus which gives news of what's going on along the Toyoko Line and connecting lines.

This month there's a rundown of French restaurants along the Oimachi Line--Trois Petits Loups, Allo, Porte Bonheur, and Les Chevreuils. There's also news of a couple new French bakeries. Most everyone knows there are good croissants at Quatre in Hiyoshi but now there may be easy-to-hand alternatives. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Two students in somber school uniforms and spiky haircuts board the Yamanote Line at Shibuya with an enormous drum. They just manage to fit it through the door of the last car and they have to keep it next to the door or it would completely block the aisle. (There are signs in the stations which indicate that surfboards must not be taken on the trains, but nobody said anything about drums.)
The drum is as great a presence on the train as would be Lady Godiva, but nobody evidences the slightest interest. Finally, a little boy breaks away from his mother to go up to the drum and flick a finger against the drum head, causing the drum to give off a timid ping. One of the students takes a large drumstick from his back pocket and hands it to the boy, who grins and belts the drumhead as hard as he can. The sound rumbles through the train. Comes an announcement from the conductor at the back of the train: "No-drum-playing time is between seven to nine in the morning and four to six in the evening We request your kind cooperation in this regard. Thank you."
      Tokyo lives easily with its thousands of vending machines. Commuters scurrying through Shinjuku Station know they can pick up a cheap, healthy breakfast from a vending machine dispensing fresh bananas or sliced apples.
On a gloomy day there might be a choice of six kinds of hot soup. If you're caught in an unexpected shower, a vending machine will sell you a cheap umbrella in your choice of color. Or a necktie for an unscheduled meeting. Or a bouquet of flowers to present as a gift.

      But now a whole new kind of vending machines has begun to appear in large Tokyo stations. These new machines are equipped with a camera and are programed to determine whether the person standing before them wondering whether or not to insert a coin is male or female, young or old, and to use this information together with knowledge of the season of the year, the time of day, and the temperature to present the potential customer with a range of choices which it has calculated they are most likely to respond to. A man, for instance, might be offered a cup of black coffee, if it's late perhaps laced with brandy; a woman might be offered a flute of Champagne with four minutes of Chopin as background music.
      The next level in vending machines, it would seem, would be to offer ninety seconds of psychological counseling, depending on how fast the customer has approached the machine, how confidently he or she has grasped the vending machine's proffered hand, and the tenor of their voice when instructed to read one of the phrases they choose from a list the vending machine offers…

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Procedure for disposing of Sodai Gomi ("Oversized Garbage")

When at last you resolve to dispose of that rickety old step ladder or the rusty folding chair that's been in the shed out back for as long as anyone can remember, first call your town's Collection Center to tell them how big the item you want to dispose of is. You will be told the Handling Fee and when the item will be picked up. With this information in hand, you can go to any convenience store, bank, or post office and buy a Collection Sticker, which will cost between 200 and 1,000 yen, depending. Write your name on the tag and paste it on the item to be disposed of.  Set the item out by 8:00 am on the day it is scheduled to be collected.

TVs, refrigerators, air-conditioners, and washing machines cannot be disposed of this way, however. You should ask at the store where you bought the appliance to pick it up but if for some reason they are not cooperative, call your town's Home Appliance Recycling Promotion Committee for advice on how to proceed.

To dispose of a home computer, contact the manufacturer. If you are unable to get assistance, contact your town's Personal Computer 3-R Promotion Center for help.

Procedure for disposing of an animal carcass

Call your town's Resources & Waste Recycling Bureau to schedule collection.

If the owner of the pet is unknown, there is no fee. If the pet is yours, the fee is 6,500 yen. The ashes will not be returned to you but if you would like to have a separate cremation and take the ashes home, call your area's Ceremonial Hall. 

- from a town's 38-page manual instructing how to dispose of garbage

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Plenty of benches in the Ginza

Parking-lot war
In Tokyo, it is seen to be an advantage to live close to the station. It's convenient, clean, and respectable, and because valued, a good investment.

But what if you live equidistant from two stations? The travel time to your destination will differ only by a couple minutes, so in the morning how do you choose which station to cycle to?

Both stations are aware of their commercial confrontation, of course. The station that attracts more people is in a position to attract more businesses, and therefore the land in the area will be more valuable. What has evolved in my area is a subtle struggle between the bicycle parking lots at the two stations.

The lot at one station is clean and efficient and perfectly acceptable but the parking lot at the other station has devised an edge. Not only is it cheaper (80 yen vs. 100 yen a day), but its manager greets everyone in the morning, immediately gives them change, takes their bike from them and puts it in a rack, and makes a bit of show dusting the seat off. In such small ways is the allegiance of customers forged in Tokyo. 

Awkward, but authentic
The Wall Street Journal tells of a little tapas place in Kyoto, a well-known Tokyo suburb, which  specializes in deep-fried croquetas de jamon--ham croquettes--washed down with canyas--small draft beers. The owner has made a careful study of such places, which abound in Spanish cities, and has gone to the trouble of importing from Spain the napkins used in these places, which are made of thin wax paper, although he knows his customers in Kyoto feel these napkins are unsuited to wiping oil from the lips but nevertheless appreciate that they are authentic.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

natasha nakamura's diary

Lost bird

        A couple days ago a painstakingly written leaflet was pushed into the mailbox of everyone in the neighborhood. It let everyone know that Kawakami-san's pet bird had escaped from its cage and wondered if anyone had seen it. The bird was lovingly described and there was a photo. The leaflet said please let Kawakami-san know if you find the bird or, if you'd like to keep it, please give it a lot of love.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rooftop garden

natasha nakamura's diary

Dinner with Hugo and two couples who he knew at Hugo's club called Century Court near Tokyo Station, the land for blocks around owned by Mitsubishi Corp. We approached from Yurakucho Station down car-less Marunouchi Dori, the trees on both sides lit up by sparkling lights, a great urban scene.

The club itself is in a perfectly preserved art-deco building which was taken over during the Occupation by MacArthur's GHQ, as is the right of conquerors.

Our meal was miraculous, by a Japanese chef who trained at a three-star restaurant in Belgium. We started with Champagne and had a different wine for each of the five courses. To my taste, the most exquisite course was the warm foie gras with a white Burgundy. I have an idea we should call this vision of eating "Western kaiseki". We were just overwhelmed.

Does Hugo want me to marry him? Does he believe in marriage at all? Can two people who don't believe in marriage live happily together? Why not? 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Subway poster

Natasha Nakamura's Diary

Don't Tokyo women realize that high-heeled shoes, particularly ones that have to be strapped on, are not made for walking? They are only for showing off the curve of the leg. This city is too large for traipsing around in high heels. A popular alternative seems to be the athletic shoe, but the problem here is that this suggests the wearer is preparing to sprint 400 meters or at least trek around Mars. They simply do not go with a sweet summer dress. The Italians are the people to design athletic shoes that are not only comfortable to walk in but also make a statement.