January 21, 2012

The Writing's on the Tofu

Freshly-made tofu at Minokichi on the 48th floor of Shinjuku Sumitomo Building, overlooking Tokyo. Using ume (Japanese apricot) paste, a message has been rendered: "Thank you for coming today. From Hamada." 

Jivin' at Karakan

The lobby of Karakan (Karaoke-kan, a karaoke megachain with the cheapest prices) in Koenji. There was a wall-sized black-and-white photo of a black guy singing, half-heartedly styled to look retro, and on the counter, this horribly macabre-looking sculpture. Looks like something out of the "Thriller" video.

The Karakan had nice rooms, though.

January 14, 2012

Von Jour Caux in Ikebukuro, Part 2

Literally across the street from the Von Jour Caux building in Ikebukuro is another one of the architect's creations. I write this quite skeptically because I couldn't find any concrete information on the internet to back this up (I'm basing this on a fan site), and because this building is so tame in design and careless in upkeep that I can hardly believe it's his.

The use of color and the use of tiling is there.

And there are just about enough odd decorations to convince me. But overall, it strikes me as a lesser work, and that there is a massage parlor on the second floor (not that this should be a surprise in Ikebukuro) doesn't add to my fairly low opinion. I almost wonder if this is an imitation.

Construction began in 1987, several years after the other building was completed.

While looking for information on this building, I came across a page that listed Tokyo buildings in danger of demolition. I was sad to see two of his buildings on the page. At the very least, I hope to visit them before they are demolished. I would not want to be the person who tears down a Von Jour Caux building, dreams and history being crushed so vividly in front of you.

Von Jour Caux in Ikebukuro, Part 1

When I posted about architect Von Jour Caux's creation the Dorado Waseda a couple years ago, I learned for the first time that some of his other buildings were in the Tokyo area. Dorado Waseda is such a singularly unique building, it had never occurred to me that it wasn't a one-off.

It took me a while, but I finally made it to Le Bois Hiraki Minami-ikebukuro, about five minutes' walk from the JR Ikebukuro Station. The building gets its name from Hirakiya, the liquor/food/tobacco shop on the first floor. The "Le Bois" is a guess: read as it is written in Japanese, it would be something like "rubowa".

I actually see more of a moth motif than trees, but who knows?

Built in 1979, Le Bois Hiraki predates the Dorado Waseda by six years. Lest you think he was much tamer back then...

...one look at the entrance will make you think again.

The lobby. The mailboxes are in the brightly lit room on the left.

Taken from the elevator: the lobby and the entrance. The colored glass, the tiles, the eeriness -- it's all there, in his trademark mash of cultures and philosophies.

The elevator, with stairs to the left. I went up to the eighth floor for a peek, but once I got into the elevator, everything I saw was as plain as could be. This seems to be a common feature of his buildings.

Like the Dorado, Le Bois is surprisingly affordable. According to a 20-year-old article, he and his craftsmen used styrofoam molds and concrete instead of rock, use aluminum for fixtures rather than bronze, and use stained-glass pigments to color ceramic tiles.  

I worry that the glass is too fragile for the door to be opened and closed too frequently.

A look at the lobby ceiling.

Another shot of the ceiling. For all I know, this photo could be upside down.

Some interesting info on the architect: Von was "the baby of an actress of the modern theater movement known as shingeki, adoptive son of a Kagurazaka geisha and a ne'er-do-well stockbroker, a child who witnessed the fire-bombing of Tokyo, an avid adolescent reader of Edo-period stories and French literature, a carefree Waseda student, an adventurer in America at the end of the beatnik era, a honeymooner with nisei painter Tamiko Yoshihara, a six-time visitor to Disneyland ('The representation is kitch, but the energy to make fantasy is tremendous') and winner of an art award in Chicago's McCormick Place on the day John F. Kennedy was killed."

In the same way you think "Gaudi" the second you set eyes on Dorado Waseda, the first thing I thought of when I saw the lamp-holding arms was Jean Cocteau's version of Beauty and the Beast, released in 1946. When someone first enters the Beast's lair, arms holding candelabras extend from the walls, flames mysteriously flickering. (Photo above.)

If you're interested, the address is 2-29-16, Minami Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo.

Next stop: his buildings in Suginami. But before that, a minor Von Jour Caux building.

January 12, 2012

Ferris Wheel of Lights

On the most nondescript of streets in Tokyo, a nondescript shop with aluminum shutters. I take this street to get to and from the station for work, and I was shocked when I noticed this burst of color for the first time.

No, there is no Ferris Wheel behind me. It's merely the street signals and shop lights reflecting onto the shutters and creating this burst of color. The lights change whenever a car zooms by, creating a kaleidoscope effect. .

January 10, 2012

Man Candy at Papabubble

Halfway between Yoyogikoen and Shibuya is Papabubble, a recently-opened artisanal candy store. Originating from Barcelona, the company has stores in nine other countries, including two in Japan: Shibuya and Nakano.

The minute you step inside, you get an incredible sugar rush. With brightly colored, beautifully made candies of all shapes and sizes all around you, you can see how it would be a hit with Japanese customers in particular.

The best thing about the store (aside from that they are very liberal with their candy samples) is their workspace, which has been made the focal point of the (fairly small) shop. The employees are engaged in a never-ending cycle of rolling warm sheets of candy, stretching it out to make sticks, and chopping them up to make individual candies.

The whole process had everyone in the shop and all the passers-by transfixed. (This photo was taken from the outside window.) It truly is a smart way of doing business: everyone likes candy, but few people today know how it's made. This way, they can not only draw attention to the traditional techniques of making candy, but also turn it into a performance, creating further interest for customers.

A bonus: the store is completely ok with photography and video. The employees seemed to be freely capitalizing on their attractiveness to entice even more people into the store. As my friend remarked, "What they're doing as a whole isn't amazingly remarkable, but they sure go about it in a savvy way."

The final result from that huge roll: a sweet strawberry-patterned candy.

January 9, 2012

New Year's Eve in Tsukiji, Part 2: Namiyoke Jinja Shrine

Namiyoke Inari Shrine in Tsukiji, right next to the famous fish market. When the shrine was first established in the Edo era, in the 17th century, it stood on landfill at the edge of the water. In the centuries since, even more of the surrounding land has been reclaimed, but the shrine has remained significant. It is considered a guardian shrine to those who work in the Tsukiji fish market.

Since the shrine is a five-minute walk from Hongwanji Temple, it was easy to walk back and forth between the two on New Year's Eve.Visitors were not permitted to enter the shrine between 23:15 and 23:45 on New Year's Eve, as the staff were readying for hatsumode (the first shrine visit visit of the new year) goers.

Compared to the opulence of Hongwanji, Namiyoke Shrine was much more low-key, but there was a surprisingly long line of hatsumode visitors.

Past the new year, the line extended a couple of blocks.

January 6, 2012

New Year's Eve in Tsukiji, Part 1: Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple

(Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple)

On New Year's Eve, major train lines operate throughout the night. Many people prefer to stay at home with their families and watch the annual Kohaku Uta Gassen (Japanese pop culture fixtures split up into boy-girl teams -- white and red, respectively -- and sing their hits) ; others head out to temples and shrines.

Two of the most popular temples and shrines to ring in the new year are Meiji Jingu Shrine, and Zojoji Temple, which is right next to the Tokyo Tower. (An added bonus: if you love your TV, even if you're outside, you'll be able to tell which team won on Kohaku because the tower will light up in the winning team's color.)

Since I abhor the crowds in Japan (they say three million people visit Meiji Jingu during the New Year period), but wanted to celebrate the new year in public, I opted for Hongwanji Temple in Tsukiji. (I've written about this temple before.)

The first impression many people have is that Hongwanji doesn't really fit in with their idea of what a temple should look like. Its structure is clearly influenced by Western architecture, and though it's a Jodo Shinshu temple, it almost looks like a Christian church. Standing outside, you could even hear organ music being played inside.

As you can see on the right, several stands were set up outside. One served fried food, another, the traditional soba you eat at the end of the year, and there was even a stand dispensing free cocoa and sweet warmed sake. Wood was burned in steel cans, and people were more than comfortably warm.
The candles lining the stairs were to commemorate the victims of the Tohoku Earthquake. By midnight, there were two rows on each side of the staircase, and also running down the center.

At 10 minutes to midnight, the priests went around passing party crackers to everyone in the room (close to 200, I'd say). This was in the room with the large Amida Buddha altar, so it felt a bit incongruous, but everyone was excited. After the clock struck midnight and the streamers popped out, the priests tossed these pink "lotus petals" up in the air. The crowd was then called in groups of 10 to line up to ring the bell. It was all over in a flash, but it was a lovely way to ring in the new year.

January 5, 2012

Doctoring My Marimo

I bought a little marimo ball 10 years ago, on a school trip to Hokkaido. These balls of algae have long been a protected species in Japan, but you can buy tiny ones at gift shops. The one I bought was about half the size of a marble.

The woman at the store told me then, "It takes 15 years for them to grow six centimeters in diameter." I made the mistake of giving mine too much light (they live on the bottom of lakes in places like Hokkaido and Iceland, after all), and for several years now, it's been a brown-green mossy color.

Wanting to confirm whether it was still alive or not, I split my marimo into two. (It was deemed safe to do so on the internet.) The rich green color in the middle is the color of a healthy marimo. Hopefully it will revive in another 10 years.

January 2, 2012

Feeding the Birds at Ueno Park

Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. The pond consists of three sections, this being the Lotus Pond. It goes without saying that the Lotus Pond isn't at its prettiest at this time of the year, but there's something oddly striking about seeing all the dead lotus leaves and pods. The pond is also notable for its size -- it's the biggest lotus field I can ever remember seeing in a Tokyo park.

Since this is bird migration season, there were several duck species that you can't usually spot.

The ducks were all swimming oddly, necks stretched out and beaks skimming the water. It made for quite a funny sight.

On one side of the pond, a group of old men were gathered, feeding rice and bread to the ducks and the dozens of sparrows blanketing the bushes.

It was clear that this was a daily routine for them. They had detailed tips on how to feed the ducks, such as rolling the bread into a ball so they could peck at it, or the prime spot to hold out your handful of rice for the sparrows.

They were also extremely generous with their food. The trick is to keep extremely still. As an old man said, "Once you get one, they'll all come."

A duck, mid-flight. Come June, I'll be back here to photograph the blooming lotuses and (hopefully!) duck babies.