July 27, 2011

World's Tallest Aloe Vera Plant (Uncertified)

 Walking around the Waseda area, I came across the tallest aloe vera plant I have ever seen. It's difficult to be sure whether this is even aloe at all, but according to an old man in the neighborhood, that seems to be the story everyone is sticking with.

From afar, I thought I was looking at an abnormally tall chrysanthemum plant. These yellow flowers are no longer in full bloom.

 The leaves are the clearest indication that we are looking at aloe.

It really is a ludicrous sight.

July 26, 2011

Kagurazaka Festival

Kagurazaka Festival, held from July 20 to 23. Taking place on the main street running from Kagurazaka Station to Iidabashi Station, the entire stretch of road was closed to traffic for several hours on Friday and Saturday as hordes of participants danced the Awa-odori -- a type of traditional dance set to traditional music.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the festival. After the devastation of the March 11 earthquake, it was comforting to see thousands of people dancing and partaking in a uniquely Japanese celebration. (Last year's photos can be viewed here.)

Hozuki plants (with the orange lantern flowers) were sold for 1,500 yen each, with a part of the proceeds going to the Tohoku area.

All the shops and the eateries in the surrounding area got into the spirit. Even supermarket employees and conbini workers were allowed to dress up in yukata. Here, a goldfish-scooping game is set up inside a conbini.

There are any number of Japanese restaurants tucked into the narrow streets of Kagurazaka. This restaurant advertises beers served at -1℃.

I cat hiding out on top of a restaurant sign.

Ghoul dancers that would have broken out into a "Thriller" dance in any other country.

A rain leaf used as a fan. These leaves are not exactly abundant in the area.

A kid fascinated by the policeman's light stick.

A dancer in a group named "Kagura". Judging by the polished movements of the teams, some must have practiced for months.

A street stand selling oden.

July 23, 2011

Introducing Chi-ba-kun

Chi-ba-kun, the official mascot for Chiba Prefecture. Originally conceived in 2010 as an "image character" for the 65th National Sports Festival/10th National Sports Festival for the Disabled, the little red dog proved so popular that Chiba Prefecture adopted it as their official mascot this January.

To coincide with the Sports Festival, Chi-ba-kun cell phone straps and pins were sold in municipal centers in Chiba. Since Urayasu hosted the karate meets, among others, Chi-ba-kun is wearing a karate uniform here. This pin cost a mere 160 yen (2 USD).

After becoming the mascot for Chiba, commercialization of the character began in earnest. Here, he is the face of a cookie sold around the Tokyo Bay area. The cookie contains peanuts, which Chiba is famous for. At the Chi-ba-kun Shop, you can find everything from stickers to neckties showing the character in its many incarnations.

By the way, the dog, when standing upright, resembles the shape of Chiba prefecture itself.

Another one of its responsibilities: promoting road safety. A pair of disgruntled policemen snapped photos for the handful of passers-by who couldn't resist asking for a photo.

July 19, 2011

Watermelon Manju

The title is quite self-explanatory: manju (steamed cakes with red bean paste filling) colored -- and flavored -- to resemble a watermelon. The black seeds inside are sesame seeds! Sold only in the summer, one manju is around the size of a child's fist and costs 1,365 yen. 

July 18, 2011

The Drugstore as a Playground

 A drugstore/pharmacy in Meguro.

Inside is makeup, toiletries...and a parking space for Anpanman,one of Japan's quintessential anime characters. The owner of this store is an old lady; her grandson often scoots around the store in his Anpanman car. The sign on the box reads, "Anpanman's Parking Space".

July 16, 2011

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, built in the early 1600s as part of Yorifusa Tokugawa's Edo residence. The gardens are greatly influenced by Ming dynasty-era Chinese Confucian concepts.

Korakuen has been designated an important historical site and is therefore protected by the government. This has given the gardens a certain status; there were just as many tourists as everyday visitors.

But perhaps summer is the least desirable part of the year to visit the gardens. If you visit in February, you can see ume (Japanese apricot), cherry blossoms in April, wisteria in May, irises in May and June, and the changing color of the leaves in December. 

But in the summer, unless you go first thing in the morning, you can't see the water lilies and lotuses in bloom. (They don't flower when the sun is out in full force.) There were hardly any ducks to be seen, and even the koi looked lethargic, stirring around in the mud to find the coolest place possible.

A vine inching its way inside the glass wind chime.

An accidental leaf boat.

A ball made out of fern.

July 13, 2011

An Act of Kindness

A message to deliverymen in the entrance of an apartment building:

"Dear Deliverymen,
Thank you for your hard work. Please refresh yourself with some barley tea." 

July 12, 2011

Unattainable DIY

An office building near Korakuen, in a completely nondescript area, with the most fabulous idea for doorknobs that I have ever seen:

Huge slabs of rock. I wouldn't be surprised if someone simply pried those off in the middle of the night.

July 10, 2011

中国茶芸苑 馥

The Chinese teahouse "Fuku" on the first floor of the Japan-China Friendship Center in Korakuen, right next to Koishikawa Korakuen Garden. The 12-floor building houses offices for Japanese companies, but is also the headquarters for the Friendship Center. The building next door is a dorm for students from China. The Friendship Center celebrated its 25th anniversary just yesterday.
The cafe is in its seventh year. It's first-floor location and affordable lunches probably means a large portion of the clientele is office workers.

In a way, it's a shame. The tearoom is beautifully decorated, and boasts an extensive variety of teas. You could easily spend a quiet hour drinking your tea, but the lunch crowd is more likely to be the "get in, get out" type.

The cash register, with individual rooms to the left.

An individual room, decorated with embroidered window covers.

The collection of tea leaves, with the kitchen in the background.

The chair and tables have an inlaid shell pattern. No strainers for this tea -- you place the lid on a tilted angle so you don't drink in the tea leaves.

Seen from the lobby of the building.

July 8, 2011

Calligraphy Brush Graffiti

(Near Toyama Park in Waseda.)

The graffiti reads, "Have you forgotten?"

Looking at the consistency of the black color and the actual brushstrokes visible in the kanji, I would venture to guess that this has been written with sumi ink and a calligraphy brush.

Esther Williams in "On an Island with You" (1948)

Esther Williams posing pretty in the opening credit sequence of her 1948 vehicle, On an Island with You. The word "vehicle" doesn't apply to her in the way that it does to most actresses. For someone like, say, Reese Witherspoon, a vehicle is merely a comedy/light drama in which she can channel her blend of cute and steely and fall in love. 

An Esther Williams vehicle was something more specific to her unique talents: a combination of romance, musical, and lavishly choreographed synchronized swimming numbers that showed off her swimming and diving skills.

A singing-and-swimming actress sounds like a novelty today, and it was a novelty back in the 1940s and 50s, when she was at the height of her popularity. (It should be noted that she didn't sing and dance in all her films. In On an Island... the swimming is up to her; the singing is carried out by Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cugat, and Kathryn Beaumont; and the dancing is handled by Ricardo Monalban and Cyd Charisse.

It's hard to imagine a studio today allowing their lead actress and major asset to dive off platforms dozens of feet above ground in film after film. Williams starred in around 10 of these water musicals, and in each film, each swimming sequence, and each dive, the camera captures her movements in no-cheating-allowed long takes. No stuntmen and choppy editing for her.

Unfortunately, apart from the dance numbers and swimming numbers, On an Island with You is not a particularly memorable film. Williams plays an actress shooting a film in Hawaii, Ricardo Montalban plays her Latin lover and co-star, Peter Lawford plays an Army Lieutenant who acts as a consultant on the film. Trouble ensues when Lawford's character announces that he is in love with William's Rosalind, who is engaged to Ricardo (Montalban). The lack of chemistry between the three leads and the creepiness of Lawford's Lieutenant is almost beside the point -- they provide a stopgap in between the singing and swimming numbers.

A chihuahua, here with Xavier Cugat, is used as a running gag.

Blatantly "ethnic" numbers (and William's mean foundation-applied tan) are a sign of the times.

The aforementioned Cyd Charisse plays second fiddle to Williams as her co-star. She has far too little to do, but gives it her all in a couple of astonishing song numbers.

Where Williams is all-American apple pie with her thick blonde hair, healthy figure, and dazzling smile, Charisse is the epitome of exotic allure. (As much as I hate that word, it perfectly captures the film's simplistic portrayal of any non-white character.)

On an Island With You [VHS]
The gorgeous dance scene with Montalban and Charisse can be viewed here on YouTube. Seeing her incredible grace, arresting face, and scorching chemistry with Montalban, it seems unimaginable that anyone would cast Charisse in a supporting role. Yet, in a few short years she would be taking on her best-known roles with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

P.S. Check out the gloriously campy Million Dollar Mermaid photos here: Part 1, Part 2.