December 30, 2008

The Resting Weary

Tokyo Station, where 15 different train and shinkansen (bullet train) lines intersect. It is chaotic at the best of times, but the station was downright claustrophobic this afternoon when Tokaido Shinkansen, the busiest high-speed train in Japan, halted operations for close to two hours. The reason? A woman had commited suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming bullet train in Kanagawa, creating a ripple effect that hit Tokyo Station particularly hard. Train suicides have become a disturbingly common occurrence, with hardly a day going by without reports of one.
This was an extra blow for the millions of people heading back to their hometowns to celebrate the new year. Yesterday (the 29th), a glitch in the system affected 250 shinkansen trains throughout the country, delaying 137,000 people. Today's suicide stalled 170,000. In Tokyo Station, travellers rendered immobile were sitting in clusters all around the labyrinthine underground passageways, their mini-suitcases and overnight bags piled next to them. At the very least, this proved to be good news for the food stands nearby. With nowhere to go, what else was there to do but eat and wait?

December 28, 2008

In Cows We Dream

Just two of the cows created for the Cow Parade public exhibit held in Marunouchi this past fall. A collaboration between junior high schools in Chiyoda ward and Japanese artists, this marked the third time the Cows came to Tokyo.

("Omission Cow" by Shinichiro Tanaka)

While this year's cows were designed freely according to the artists' interpretation, the Cow Parade in Marunouchi held two years ago were based on very Japanese images. To wit, these daruma (Dharma doll) and policeman cows below. Note the nightstick holder in the police cow.
Around 75 cows are created each time and strategically placed in the area. Next time, I will hunt them all down.

December 27, 2008

Krafty Krispy Kreme

For the uninitiated, the popularity of Krispy Kreme donuts in Japan can be baffling. I'm sure they're much loved in America, but "popular" is too mild a word to describe the situation here. The first Krispy Kreme opened in Shinjuku in December 2006, and in a crafty move, the company has resisted a Starbucks-style domination. Playing the oldest rule in the book, they have added only three more stores in Tokyo since, and yes, people are still wanting more.
(Donuts are rotated up and down with these chain pulleys, keeping them warm.)
Two years later, I've yet to walk past a Krispy Kreme that didn't have a line of customers winding all around the store, quite easily extending outside. Such a feat it is to actually make it to the register, those who do tend to buy donuts by the dozen, sharing them with family or workplace colleagues. You can spot these people a mile away, gingerly carrying a large rectangular box and attracting glances of envy.

I can easily reel off these observations but having never tasted one for myself, I couldn't tell you whether the craze is warranted. Yet tonight I found myself in line at the Krispy Kreme in Yurakucho, tagging along with a friend and stubbornly refusing to buy anything when an employee handed me a glazed donut wrapped in paper, still very warm. It seems they hand them out to customers to placate them during the long wait. I still haven't tried it, but I'm told they are ideal after eight seconds in the microwave.

December 24, 2008

Turn the Light Out

(In front of an apartment building/office in Yoyogikoen.)

"For watering plants, for watering fields. We give these poly tanks to you."

Until about 15 years ago, kerosene (toyu) heaters were the norm in Japan. Winters in Tokyo are relatively mild, and a portable kerosene heater was often enough to keep a room warm. Where I grew up, nearly every house on the street had one. About once a week, a man in a small truck would drive slowly around the neighborhood, offering to replenish your kerosene supply. It would signal its presence with a female voice calling, "Toyu!" over and over. (This was actually a recording played in a loop.) The kerosene would invariably be filled into red or white polyethylene tanks, called "poly tanks."
Looking back, it's surprising that kerosene heaters endured as long as they did. With rising oil prices, growing eco-consciousness, and worries of fire safety, the switch to environmentally friendly, convenient heating systems feels almost like a natural progression. This phasing out means that all related paraphernalia is becoming unnecessary, hence this free giveaway of poly tanks. Filled to the brim with water, some poly tanks have a second life as weight anchors, emergency water supply, and, as suggested in the sign, giant watering cans.
As the heaters gradually become obsolete, it has drawn attention to the unexpected ways in which it became a part of Japanese culture. It's not just the aforementioned kerosene delivery truck, or the unmistakable red of the poly tanks. I have memories of carrying huge kerosene heaters up flights of stairs every winter in elementary school. A teacher would always mark the space around the heater with red tape, telling us to never cross the line, and for god's sake keep the windows open a bit. I feel as though yet another part of the Japan I grew up with is disappearing.
Come to think of it, I have no idea why a movie camera is lined up alongside the poly tanks.

December 21, 2008

Strung Up

Shiitake mushrooms strung through hanger wire. Drying them out makes them easier to store.

December 20, 2008

December 18, 2008

The Only Cigarettes I Condone

In front of an intimidatingly outlandish clothing shop in Yoyogikoen. I have got to start recording the actual names of places I photograph.

December 16, 2008

That Fashion Puzzle

This "cher" bag I've been seeing everywhere from around the beginning of this year has me puzzled. It's not cute, it doesn't look expensive, and it's not a name brand. These aren't necessarily the cardinal rules of Japanese fashion, but when something isn't even one of the three but still massively popular, it becomes worthy of dissection. Perhaps they were included as a free gift in a magazine? Or maybe it's the cheapest item in a very expensive line?

Also fairly baffling is the ubiquity of Dean & Deluca tote bags, size small. Dean & Deluca isn't even a particularly large chain in Japan, with only ten cafes and stores in all of the country. Does this mean that people are simply purchasing the bags online? Or could it be that all first-time customers are given their own canvas bags, and everyone who was given one has resolved to use it in public? The tides of Japanese trends can be genuinely inexplicable at times.

December 15, 2008

Peaceful Coexistence

A mom-and-pop rice store in Yoyogikoen, flanked by two vending machines. Notice the 20-kilo sacks of rice piled up in the back. Those can't be easy to carry.

December 13, 2008

Great Inflatable Santa

(Giorno Coffee, a cafe in Yoyogihachiman.)

Can't you just see Santa leaping down and going King Kong on your ass as you walk in?

December 12, 2008

Humble Christmas Tree

(A Japanese maple Christmas tree in Yoyogikoen.)

The ornaments seem to be made of dyed wool and sequins, a fresh take on tree decorations. A tiny patch of the maple leaves have started to turn red, but a red tree would clash horribly with the colored balls.

This is as Japanese as a Christmas tree can get.
Align Center

December 11, 2008

The Chivalrous Route, Part 2

(A street crossing in Yoyogikoen.)

I'd thought the "after you..." graffiti was a onetime discovery, but here it is again. It makes sense, since Yoyogiuehara, where I first saw the tag, is one station over from Yoyogikoen. I've formed hazy suspicions about this tagger, but who knows if I'll see more of these to be able to confirm them?

December 9, 2008

December 6, 2008


A surf shop in Takatanobaba in Tokyo, at least an hour and a half away from the nearest waves.

December 1, 2008

Shinjuku Ward Hates Cats

There are pockets of residential areas in Tokyo that are seemingly overrun with stray cats. It would seem almost wrong to call them strays; some are so well-fed that they have gone beyond pleasingly plump and possess bellies that look almost ready to burst.
Shinjuku Ward's public health centre attempts to solve this situation by putting up signs that appeal to people's conscience. This one reads, "If you are going to feed the cats, clean up after them and get them castrated and spayed!" Clearly this is not happening, although I did once run across a tiny flea market in Shibuya (different ward) where a woman implored the customers not to haggle over prices because the she was raising funds to get the local strays cats neutered and spayed.
In the end, the signs have become yet another addition to the notifications that pepper the area. The ones here include everything from warnings for unlawful entry (which includes dogs and cats!) to garbage dumping, but the majority are reminders about pets: to pick up after them, to keep them on a leash, and to assume general responsibility.

November 30, 2008

No Right or Wrong...or Is There?

Yet another one of Hermès' eccentric window installations in its Ginza store. Yes, this is right side up according to them.

November 27, 2008

Accumulating Dots to Make a Non-Illusion

I'm still slightly mystified by the QR Code reader ("quick response" reader, or "barcode reader") program in my mobile phone. The system has been around for a few years now, but for the longest time I thought it was used to scan for prices, like you would in a supermarket. These barcodes actually function as quick links to websites, and are scanned with and accessed through cell phones.

When I finally understood that the computer chip-like accumulation of black dots arranged in a square were barcodes, I started seeing them everywhere. They're used most predominantly to advertise websites for companies, and can be seen in the corners of ads everywhere,
from posters in trains to magazines to postcards that come in the mail. I even saw one on TV once, in a sweepstakes promotion: "to apply, just scan this barcode with your phone and follow the instructions on the website!" (The TV screen changed while I was still scrambling to activiate the barcode detection program.)

While the mere thought of viewing the internet on a narrow cell phone is enough to make me feel claustrophobic, the fact is that over half of cell phone users in Japan use the internet solely through their phones. This number is expected to rise in the coming years. Having gone from pilot project to phenomenon before acheiving ubiquity, the next step, it seems, is breaking away from the ugly black molds. This can be evinced by the Estee Lauder ad in the photo, with its cute Christmas tree icon. (Or it could be that they've already run out of variations of black dots and have decided to use color.) In the future, we'll probably be able to use photos as barcodes, zapping away at ads with our cell phones. I wonder if I'll still be loyal to my computer when that time comes.

Let Down by 2009

The "2009" in twinkle lights is certainly pretty. They do add an extra bit of sparkle to an already stylish Ginza street. But these banners are hanging from streetlamps, surely you wouldn't need more light to read the things? Far be it for me to scorn creativity, but this lavish use of electricity stuck me as odd in these ecologically-conscious times.

Japan has always excelled at making things aesthetically pleasing, but that can no longer be a top priority when there is a bottom line to be met.

So far, the only way the country has contributed to "saving" the planet is by commercializing -and cashing in on- eco-life. Eco-goods have become such a popular trend that stores are stocking enough nylon tote bags ("eco" bags) and aluminum tumblers to outfit the entire population. Is it any wonder that Japan is failing to meet its carbon emissions goals for 2012?

November 25, 2008

Bad Man's World

Jenny Lewis-"Bad Man's World"

As much as I love this song, with its heavy-handedness; I can't help thinking that Jenny Lewis just wanted an excuse to sing, "I'm a bad, bad girl."

Spot the Monster!

It's been about 10 years since I last bought stickers, but seeing these in a bookstore, I couldn't resist. Of all the things to turn into cute stickers, ancient Japanese monsters would be the last thing I could think of. These one-eyed, long-necked, fire-breathing creatures all have names, and can be traced back to literature and folklore from hundreds of years ago. As with so many mythical creatures, they were most likely conceived to explain the inexplicable, but they also have their roots in the Shinto religion.

These demons and ghosts gradually made their way into pop culture, as can be seen in the animated short "A Fox and a Badger in Rivalry”, below. Made in 1933, this film tells the tale of a badger who holds a competition to see which can out-trick the other. (Both animals are said to have transformative powers, which they generally use for evil, according to Japanese folklore.) The animation may remind you of Disney, but the appearance of one-eyed kiddie goblins, demons with iron rods, and snakelike ghosts, the resulting short is distinctly Japanese.

Kids nowadays will recognize these monsters from folktales and ghost stories, though some of the creatures, such as the laquer umbrella with one eye and one leg, or the red lantern breathing fire, invoke images of Japanese life so far removed from what we know today that their scare factor is debatable. With these stickers, it seems, they have transcended their mythical origins and finally emerged as yet another batch of cute Japanese characters.

November 22, 2008

Dreaming Big

A cat gazing at a statue of a shachihoko. I always assumed the cat was seeing it with food on his mind, longingly thinking of the delicious meal it would provide.

But then I realized that a shachihoko isn't exactly a fish; with the head of a tiger and the body of a fish, it's actually a tiger-fish. Even the kanji, 鯱, is a combination of 魚 (fish) and 虎 (tiger).

So which was the cat reacting to, the shachihoko as kindred spirit or possible prey?

November 21, 2008

Drawing and Manual Arts Education

My packrat grandmother has had this box for over 45 years, a toolbox that was required for my father's drawing and manual arts class in elementary school. The basic contents:

I'm guessing the wrench and the blue plastic plus driver are new additions, but the rest is all still in place. In this age of overprotective parents and cautious children, it's slightly refreshing to think of 10-year-olds using handsaws for arts and crafts, the general assumption being that they would know how to handle them in a responsible manner.

November 20, 2008

Two-Faced Electric Boxes

(In Ginza.)

(In Aoyama.)

These are:
a. Logos for an electric company.
b. A street artist's tag.
c. A gang sign.
d. Please tell me because I have no idea.

November 19, 2008

The Seal of Approval

Free with a purchase of a stack of nengajo (New Year's cards): a mini mailbox. Modern mailboxes are actually rectangular,with two slots, one for regular mail and the other for express delivery, but Japan Post went with a classic look. In recent years, some towns have gone out of their way to revert to this old version, replacing the ugly square mailboxes with the old-school style.

Lest you think that it's just another cute trinket, the bottom flips open to reveal that it is, in fact, a seal case. In Japan, family seals are used for everything from finalizing bank accounts and other important documents to accepting package deliveries.

There's even a tiny inkpad stained with vermilion ink. Other things included with the nengajo were a memo pad and some pocket tissues, decidedly less delightful. Yet, it's a far cry from last year, when a two-hundred card purchase yielded two pocket tissues and a dishwashing sponge that crumbled after the first use.

November 18, 2008


(Dove balloons from a wedding in Chiba.)

Irène Némirovsky's five-part plan for her novel Suite française, which she started writing in 1941:

1. Storm (later changed to Storm in June)
2. Dolce
3. Captivity
4. Battles?
5. Peace?

Set in France, Suite weaves together multiple storylines to tell the intersecting fates of the French during World War II. Storm in June follows Parisians of various social backgrounds as they flee to the countryside, while Dolce focuses on a small rural town under German occupation. The bare bones of the latter three parts were in place, but before they could be written, the Jewish-born Némirovsky was sent to Auschwiz. She died there in 1942, after a month in the concentration camp.

Published in its unfinished form in 2004, Suite française gained worldwide attention for being a rare war novel that was written while the events were still unfolding. While this immediacy is one of the novel's its greatest assets, it meant that Némirovsky could only imagine what remained to be seen. The question mark at the end of the final part, Peace, is indicative of the despair and uncertainty she must have felt.

November 16, 2008

Things That Are But Aren't

Not a 1000000 yen bill.
(A pocket tissue ad for a probably frightening money loaning company.)

Not a mop.
(A shaggy dog in a suspicious pet shop in Shinokubo.)

Not a donut.
(A dog's chew toy.)

Not a dog.
(A jewelry store in Ginza.)