If you go to Nezu station on the Chiyoda subway line of the Tokyo Metro you will find these unusual bookcases in the shape of metro trains. The books on the shelves can be read whilst sitting in the driver’s compartment of the fist carriage, or you take them with you to read on an actual subway train. It’s things like this that I like most about this city, and that’s the communal nature of the way things work here and how everyone looks out for one another and they aren’t always trying to get one over on someone else, etc. People in Tokyo also don’t feel so desperate that it’s necessary to steal books, and have a great enough sense of civic duty to make sure they return any book they borrow after they’ve finished with it. That’s also why there is no litter on the streets here, I suppose.
I was out in Yanaka the other day with the intention of going to SCAI The Bathhouse (which was closed again – looks like I missed the recent exhibition although I’m sure it was listed as open on TAB), but this time I came from the main street, Kototoi Dori, instead of through the backstreets where the shrines and temples are, and to make up for my disappointment at not being able to go into the gallery I discovered this great cafe on the corner. I’m sure many of the people who have been to SCAI The Bathhouse are aware of this little gem, although if you don’t pay attention you could dismiss it as just another old style Japanese kissaten. From the outside this what it looks like. Apparently it’s been in business since 1938, but it has recently had new life breathed into it by Yuko Nagayama & Associates architectural firm who have been responsible for the mix of modern and retro inside.
The staff are young and fashionable and the coffee is really good. The homemade cake isn’t bad either, you can get both as a set for about ¥800 as of writing. It seems like a lot of cafe lovers come here to smoke cigarettes and read books while enjoying the atmosphere. The whole building shakes when heavy vehicles pass by and the furniture is just a shade too small for those of us over 6ft, but you put up with that to enjoy what for me is one of the best cafes I’ve been to in Tokyo so far. There are a stack of them in Omotesando, but isn’t that where everybody else goes? I’m taking my laptop next time and I’m going to make the most of my free refills.
If you take the old Toden Arakawa street car line somewhere along the route you will come to the station Arakawa Yuenchi Mae which is, as the name suggests, is the stop for Arakawa Yuen, possibly Tokyo’s worst theme park. There’s a small ferris wheel, a tame rollercoaster, various other tedious attractions and a ‘zoo’, although that’s stretching the term just a bit. I didn’t bother riding anything, the ticket was only ¥400 anyway. All the staff were elderly, no doubt retired people working voluntarily. There were almost no visitors.
The reason for visiting this place isn’t for the rides or the excitement, it’s just a really oddball little place. I discovered it once when I was cycling, just stumbling upon it accidentally. I remember at the time I thought it was closed down, abandoned, but apparently not, though it might as well be. Even on a weekend it’s a haunting place, and the ride there on the Arakawa tram is a quaint and quirky side of northern shitamachi Tokyo that visitors rarely see. Definitely an unconventional spot to visit in Tokyo with a great atmosphere.
In a connected chain of events which began with me spending time in London last week, coming back to Tokyo and watching a documentary on the England’s capital city called The London Perambulator I discovered Deep Topography, also known as Psychogeography or Cryptoforestry. The documentary follows an eccentric English writer and researcher called Nick Papadimitriou as he goes on a series of what he refers to as his ‘Long Walks’. These can last anywhere between one hour and a full day, and often take place in one of Nick’s preferred locales, almost always on the suburbs, fringes and hinterlands of London. The preoccupation of deep topography is not with finding conventional beauty in and around our built environments but with deriving stimulation from appreciating the overlooked and anonymous corners of our cities and examining the functional areas where mankind, nature, and necessity overlap.
It was through this documentary that I came to understand why I find Tokyo to be so stimulating and rewarding as a place to live and explore. For those who have become deluded with the beaten track of the world’s maintream heritage sites and historical architecture, Tokyo provides a veritable goldmine of deep topographical rapture, providing you are prepared to get lost in its streets.
If you have the opportunity, I seriously recommend seeing the documentary as it also features Will Self and Iain Sinclair. Next time you’re out with your camera taking pictures of bleak industrial landscapes, water treatment works or unremarkable suburban vistas you might feel vindicated.
It was not so long ago I posted about the construction of a new building in old Tokyo called the Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center. Well now it’s finished and I’ve been over to take a look. I was extremely rushed as it was closing in 10 minutes upon arrival, so I just rode the elevator up to the eighth floor (the top tier) and was greeted with the sight you see above. There were two open terraces, a small lounge and a small bar on that floor, and making my way down I saw some of the installations and displays as well as the cinema floor. All in all, it’s a great building, although I was not so sure about the quality of the finish of the exterior. What is great though is the view from the top terraces. As you can see it was a full moon when I went, and in the foreground you can see the buildings around Asakusa metro station, behind those the Sumida River complete with blue lanterns floating on it for the Tokyo Hotaru (firefly) Festival, and on the far bank the Asahi building with the equally iconic and controversial sculpture on the roof designed by architect Philippe Starck and towering over everything is the new Tokyo Skytree Tower.
Asakusa Tourism & Culture Center closes at 8pm, so make sure you go just before then to catch this night view. Also look north for equally amazing views of Nakamise Dori and Sensoji.
Like most underground railway systems in the world, on the Tokyo Metro you can often use your phone at the stations along the way, but you can’t use them in the tunnels in between stations. Well all this is slowly set to change by the looks of things as the 3 main mobile phone providers, Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank have announced they are going to gradually introduce service to the tunnels. It’s still a no-no to talk on the phone while on the train but it’s going to make it a lot nicer for browsing the web and using apps that require connection to the internet. It’s certainly good news to me.
As part of their Metro Smile initiative, Tokyo Metro are introducing iPads for station staff to use in order to help people navigate the complicated subway system. They can plan routes, zoom and pan an interactive network map, and also access station plans that show the exits and platforms, etc. I think this is aimed at people from out of town, tourists and the elderly. I could never see myself ever needing to use this service. If you’ve got an iPhone, this service is completely redundant, and even if you haven’t, I would say the map above the ticket machine is enough for people who’ve been living in Tokyo for any period of time. The fact that they are using iPads though, shows how the Japanese have really embraced Apple products, since the iPhone and iPad came out especially. In that sense, I’m all for it – regardless of how useless it is to me.
You can see it in action in this follwing clip:
(Sorry, Nihon Television don’t allow embedding.)
As has become customary for us, we attended the Sumida Fireworks Festival this year for the 4th time I think, since I came to Japan. It was spectacular as usual and crowded as usual also. Thanks to the British and Irish pub, The Warrior Celt, in Ueno we had one of the best spots. Actually, some trees did kind of get in the way but the fact is we had an enormous private space, whereas most other people were standing room only, squashed into the public areas often with nowhere to sit or with completely obscured views of the fireworks. In that sense we were really lucky, so thanks to the organisers Andy and Miwa for securing the spot.
I also took my new Canon EOS Kiss X4, also known as the 550D/Rebel T2i. It was the first time for me to shoot fireworks so it took me a while to set it up to get some OK pictures. Also, the wind was blowing straight towards us so the smoke was drifting and obscuring the fireworks and this was much more noticeable in the camera which was using a slow shutter speed and a tripod. Still, I was pretty pleased with the results as a ‘first attempt’ and it was good learning experience. Also, I have to say thanks to Yasuo-San who was on-hand to give me tips and advice on how to best set up the camera for fireworks.
This year, 50% of fireworks displays in the greater Tokyo area were cancelled in respect to those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region. There was also a set of loud ‘bangers’ kind of like a military salute halfway through the display. Tokyo is virtually back to normal, but people haven’t forgotten about those who died or those without homes in the north of Japan.
As of tomorrow, Loft will be opening their doors to customers in their giant new store right next to MUJI in Yurakucho, central Tokyo. If you’re not familiar with Loft, let me direct you to their website – but if you can’t be bothered to click, they’re basically a designer homewares and stationery store. I usually go there to get my diaries and planners that I usually end up not using. I’m going to try to pick up one of the new Harris Tweed Hobonichi Techo if I can beat the crowds.
When I first came to Tokyo I was planning to do this. It was on my list of things to do, along with; ride the Shinkansen, read Japanese manga, etc. However, I’ve only just got round to doing it now, after being here for over 3 years.
People have suggested exporting the concept of the Japanese capsule hotel to other parts of the world, but I can’t see it being popular in places like US and Europe. For me it remains something which can only exist in Japan. I personally think it’s a shame as I very much enjoyed my stay at one in Shibuya, central Tokyo on Monday night, but for precisely that reason – it’s unlike any other accommodation I’ve stayed in before. It’s bizarre for me but at the same time exhilarating. Not having a clue what to do, puzzling over truly baffling flow charts and diagrams in the lobby and in the elevator, not knowing what the elevator door was going to reveal when they slid open on curiously labelled floors. It turns out the Rest Room was not in fact a toilet but was filled with massage chairs and snoring salarymen with the shopping channel playing on a huge flatscreen TV. It was then I had my first massage chair experience.
After you get your ticket to stay the night from the vending machine in the lobby, you receive your first key. This key opens a small locker in a carpeted area off the lobby in which you must remove your shoes (as is usual in any home or place of lodgings in Japan), and place them in the locker. You then trade this key for another, larger key which opens another locker on the second floor, accessible by the nearby elevator. The larger locker upstairs contains your relax wear. Kind of short pyjamas with a distinctly Japanese feel as the two large sides of the loose jacket cross each other and tie off to the side, the sleeves are short but gape open around the wrists like a yukata. You also get a small and a large towel for bathing. This is where I would be heading next I had decided as I was feeling pretty terrible having been out all day in the Tokyo summer heat and pollution. The bathroom is a typical Japanese sento style affair with two large public baths, one hot, one cold. You shower first on a stool then cover yourself as best you can with your smaller towel and slip into one of the main baths. I didn’t stay long as I was curious about my capsule on the 7th floor.
It was as expected: a capsule. I was chuckling to myself at the incredulity of it, and also at the guy beneath me who was snoring loudly with one foot sticking out of his pod. I guessed there was more than a few drunk guys who had to be at work the following day. I used a small ladder to climb into the capsule, which was suprisingly comfortable to lie in, just not built for doing anything else.
I turned on the TV and watched that for a while. There was an adult channel which I heard was rumoured to exist in each capsule hotel, and that proved to be accurate. I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it however, surrounded by strangers. The thought crossed my mind of previous guests that had stayed in pod 712 and that made it all the more difficult to sleep.
I awoke early and the view from my floor allowed me to get a decent shot of people walking to work. There was a Matsuya restaurant across the street so I had breakfast there. Sausage, egg, salad, miso soup, nattou, dried seaweed and pickles. Another must-do crossed off my list, I thought.
I’m now the proud owner of the Tokyobike I’ve been planning to buy from pretty much as soon as they were introduced. I decided on the SS model. Not only are they my initials, but also it’s cheaper and lighter than the Sport 9S. It doesn’t have gears which makes it a little tough up hill, but the way I look at it is, it’s better exercise. Currently going everywhere on it, and loving the fact that you see stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise see riding the metro. You don’t have to squeeze onto packed trains, you save money on tickets and you’re free to return home whenever you like. I definitely should’ve done this before!
I saw an advertisement on the train for a new iPhone app developed by Tokyo Metro, so I decided to download it. You won’t be able to ditch your Jorudan (Norikae Annai) app just yet, but it’s a worthy addition to your tool set for navigating around Tokyo. You can search for your nearest station (Metro only), explore the map of the Tokyo Metro network, find information about in-station facilities and exits, see a map of the inside of each station, and of course plan your journey from one place to another by Metro.
When you fire up the app, you are presented with a screen showing the symbol for each metro line. From here, clicking on the appropriate icon will give you information on service disruptions. This page is therefore totally useless unless in the event of some huge natural disaster as I’ve never experienced any service disruptions during my journey in the 3+ years I’ve been here. Another word of warning is that you will probably need to read some Japanese to use this app properly. Most of the functions are pretty self-explanatory, but the route planner is somewhat hard to find, but if you tap around you should work it all out.
As I said, this won’t replace your main Tokyo train app, because you can’t get the time of the next train and you can’t get the time of the all-important last train. Also, it doesn’t cover any other lines apart from the Tokyo Metro. It’s still worth downloading though I think, and the design is not too bad (better than Jorudan for sure).
This is the movie I made to celebrate the millions of neon lights in Tokyo. In Tokyo you can’t see the stars at night due to light pollution, but that’s OK, the Japanese made their own constellations. Next time you’re in Tokyo at night, remember to look up!
It’s the height of summer in Tokyo and all over the city firework displays are being held, as is the tradition all over Japan at this time of year. The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi 花火, literally: ‘fire flowers’, and this theme influences the way they are designed and appreciated in Japan.
For example, this year, I went to Koto-ku firework display where a commentator introduces each section of the one-and-a-half hour display, explaining which flower the fireworks are supposed to resemble (Japan’s national flower, the chrysanthemum, is pretty common), and sometimes which animal or symbol. I even heard there is a Doraemon head firework at some festivals. As usual, Japan outdoes every other country I know of in these events with huge displays using domestically produced fireworks. Also, there isn’t just one display in Tokyo, but over twenty each attracting thousands of people. As well as Koto-ku, I also made it to a prime spot for downtown Asakusa’s display held on the banks of the Sumida river.
Film fans will recognise the picture that introduces this post as Takeshi Kitano’s painting which was featured in his movie of the same name, Hanabi. If you’re in Tokyo right now, I seriously recommend catching the big one at Tokyo Bay (Aug 14th) and the one in my own neck of the woods, Edogawa-ku (Aug 7th).
UPDATE: Taken with my iPhone, so a bit blurry, but it gives you an idea of size:
On Chuo Dori, a.k.a. ‘Ginza Street’ (in Ginza, Tokyo) there’s a new bar open ready for the summer. It’s operated by Asahi, one of Japan’s biggest beverage companies, and sells only their mainstay, flagship brew, Asahi Super Dry. What’s unique is that the beer is freezing cold, as is the interior temperature of the bar – perfect for escaping the balmy Japanese summer.
Each glass costs ¥550, is served at a strict temperature of between 0°c and -2°c, and you can even pour the beer yourself from the bar taps! The temperature of the interior is shown on the outside of the bar and you can just see it in the picture I took at the top of this post. The Asahi Super Dry Extra Cold Bar in Ginza is open now until the end of August 2010.