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.