Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2017

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Arakawa Yuen

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.

 

View From Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center

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.

 

Snowboarding Trip to Jouetsu, Niigata

To be honest it was about three weeks ago now, but I really wanted to mention it here because it was a really good trip: Snowboarding at Kandatsu resort in Joetsu, Niigata. Not only was it my first time snowboarding, but also it was my first time to visit any snowy mountainous area. It was pretty unbelievable coming out of the 15km tunnel that has been cut through an entire mountain. As you leave the mouth of the tunnel you basically enter a canyon of compact snow as high as the coach windows. There was 5 metres of the stuff the day we arrived. It had snowed heavily before and had stopped around dawn to leave clear sunny skies and no wind.

The two things that struck me most were how difficult snowboarding is and how beautiful the mountains in Japan are in Winter. These areas are inundated with snow and the communities there have adapted to deal with it. All the roads have walls of snow on either side and buildings strain under the weight of enormous mounds of it that form into rounded mushroom-tops. Huge icicles hang from the eaves of the traditional houses that are dotted around. There is also no shortage of ski resorts, they seemed to be everywhere. I can’t comment on the quality of the one I went to as I was a first-timer, but it seemed to have everything you’d want from a ski resort, and it was packed. There were a lot of good skiers and snowboarders out too.

One of the highlights for me was enjoying the view of the mountains from the ski-lift riding up and down. There’s a piste map below. I stuck strictly to the beginner slopes. Definitely not much transferable skill from skating or surfing unfortunately, but great exercise and a really good place for a trip. I’ll definitely do it again as you need more than one occasion to master the basics and I’ve been told that it’s more enjoyable once you can control the board.

 

2012 Update

I know I’ve been threatening it for a long time, but the new version of Tokyo Story is coming VERY soon. It’s in the final stages of development right now, with some new features to make it easier to explore the content on the site. Posts have been really slow over the course of last year, that will change too.

The new features will include slightly improved typography and colour schemes, a search box, better pagination, easy access to all podcasts and videos, and new categories for posts with navigation in a new sidebar. On top of all that, a much needed facelift all round which I hope doesn’t compromise the atmosphere of the blog, which I’ve always been happy with. I always wanted to keep things simple and not detract from the main content, but I feel now that the site is too ‘bare bones’ and this gives it a slightly lifeless quality which I want to remedy. It feels static, and I think the new inclusions will add a bit more vibrancy. If anyone has any suggestions, requests or recommendations please feel free to put them in the comments.

Looking further down the line, I will be pushing the freelance web design side still more and seeing where that will go. I’ll also be creating one or more WordPress themes which I might even offer for sale if they turn out OK. As a platform for these things, the website languishing in the root folder of this server will change completely, as it damn well should. This will be built on WordPress and will feature articles detailing side projects, client work, and written pieces about web design and development as I see it, as well as of course offering my services.

I’ll be making more videos too. Now 2011 is behind us, setsuden is over with, the lights are back on, the video screens over Shibuya crossing have flickered back into life and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant has acheived cold shut down, there’s a renewed air of optimism in Tokyo again. With due reverence to those that lost their lives in the disaster and all those affected by the aftermath of the biggest earthquake in recorded history, we can tentatively look forward to and hope for, even expect, great things from 2012. There’s a lot more energy around already – and it’s only 3rd January.

Radio Tokyo Podcasts will continue as planned without any particular interval. I’ll fit them in when I can and when the mood takes me. The key to all of this stuff for me is striking a balance between having it a passion and making it a chore.

I’m in the process of elaborating on an idea for what I like to call a geographical bookmarking tool for us city dwellers that will, providing the model stands up under scrutiny during the early stages, make an appearance in open beta form with the eventual plan of having a partnering iOS app. I have other ideas for web services and apps I’d like to see, purely because I’d like to use them myself, and that’s the best reason to build one. And build them I shall!

 

Happy 2012!

The dust has finally started to settle from the New Year’s and Christmas celebrations. I spent Christmas in the UK then flew back to Tokyo for New Year’s Eve. Didn’t go to a party as such this year, just ventured into the city and saw where things would lead. I ended up at the foot of Tokyo Tower for the countdown. Having been there just recently I was able to find my way back there despite the champagne and beer haze. That however probably explains why the picture above is so poor.

Fortunately, before I went out, I had lined my stomach with Toshi-koshi Soba (New Year’s soba, lit. year-change soba) as is customary. The only things I haven’t had yet is Osechi-ryouri (New Year’s Dishes), Oshiruko (sweet red bean soup), and Ozoni (savoury soup with Mochi rice cake floating in it). I managed to eat some crab at a sushi restaurant I went to after I finished at the shrine as crab is traditional and sushi is pretty popular to eat during new year in Japan also.

On New Year’s day I did the customary Hatsumode at Nishi-Arai Daishi Shrine. That went pretty smoothly as I was lucky enough to have a ¥5 coin in my pocket. After that, I bought an Omamori (lucky charm) / Omikuji (fortune) combo and got Daikichi (best possible outlook) and a Manniki-Neko (lucky cat) charm which is supposed to bring money and success in business. All-in-all, regardless of whether or not you choose to believe in such things, feeling very positive about 2012. I think it’s going to be an awesome year!

Here’s hoping you get everything you wish for in the coming year and best wishes for 2012, the year of the dragon!

 

Hanabi 2011

Hanabi 2011

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.

Hanabi 2011

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.

Hanabi 2011

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.

 

New Loft Store Opens In Yurakucho

Loft Yurakucho

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.

Loft Yurakucho

 

Sumo – May Tournament 2011

Sumo - May Tournament 2011

For the first time in the 3 years I’ve been living in Tokyo I finally attended a Sumo tournament at Kokugikan, the official venue of the sport in Ryogoku, east Tokyo. I have a basic grasp of the rules but don’t know much about the ceremonial nature of this ancient traditional sport or its relationship to Japan’s national religion, Shintoism. All the same, I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle and soaked up the atmosphere. The building is worth visiting in itself, being a huge octagonal arena; modern, but in the Japanese architectural style. It embodies much of an Edo period Tokyo and is popular with elderly men turning out in their droves wearing sports jackets and trilbies, gold-rimmed glasses and smoking cigarettes, perusing the seemingly undecipherable match programmes. The area around the Sumo arena and the train station bears all the hallmarks of ‘shitamachi’ Tokyo – the old part of the city, with seedy hotels and shabby drinking establishments with their tumble-down facades and dated signage.

Sumo - Kokugikan

Now is the time to go to the Sumo tournaments as the official governing body was recently indicted with widespread match fixing. As a result, and bizarrely, the sport has been required to offer tickets at massive discount as punishment. Fans willing to get themselves to Kokugikan around 8.00 AM will even be able to get free tickets, albeit for the worst seats. My ticket was ¥1500 (about $18 / £11) which may sound expensive, but is usually sold for about three times that price. The most expensive seats (sunakamuri-seki / masu-seki) can cost as much as ¥45,000 (about $550 / £350). An exhibition of status for the ranks of Tokyo’s heads-of-industry and underworld. On the one hand they do get a free Bento, Sumo merchandise and complimentary green tea, but on the other, they have to assume the Seiza position for the whole time (cross-legged on a large square cushion known as a Zabuton). Incidentally, these cushions have a secondary use as a projectile, thrown in the direction of the Dohyou (ring) when things get exciting – usually when an underdog beats the Yokozuna (current Grand Champion).

Sumo - Yokozuna

Things I enjoyed most: The extravagant signature Yukata and Kimono of the match officials and the Rikishi (wrestlers). The Yokozuna’s exhibition (a choreographed set of moves which included a lot of stomping of the feet). The thing which struck me most was the fact that you could virtually mingle with the stars outside the entrance as they came in – they all have a particular odour, possibly of wax used to set their Chonmage (topknot hairstyle). I mean, you can tell when a Sumo wrestler is around even before you see them.

“Dosukoi!”, as E.Honda would say when he wins a round in Street Fighter II.

Sumo Wrestlers

 

Japan Airlines in Review

Japan Airlines in Review

Despite having gone spectacularly bankrupt last year I can say that Japan Airlines’ standards haven’t slipped. The price however, has. Which is why I flew with them when I traveled from Tokyo to London this past Monday. I’m not leaving Tokyo permanently as many chose to do after the recent quake and in light of the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, but only returning for 2 weeks to see family and friends. I’ll be back in Tokyo from 26th April.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to recommend JAL to anyone thinking of flying to, from or within Japan. Before I traveled with them I had heard good things about the service, interiors and the food and can now confirm that this is deserved.

I was only in economy this time, but the seats were roomy enough even for me and one of the first things that struck me was the exterior camera during taxi and takeoff. That was pretty interesting to watch and helped to kill the time between leaving the terminal and reaching cruising altitude. Once we were above the clouds and the camera was switched off I checked the movie selection, which was great. Norwegian Wood, Space Battleship Yamato and samurai movies from the Japanese cinema selection; and Black Swan, The King’s Speech, Tron: Legacy and The Tourist from western cinema which I thought was pretty decent.

After one hour came the first of a number of oshibori – Japanese warm scented towels. These should be provided by law on all flights I’ve since decided. The service was actually the best thing about the flight and typically Japanese. All smiles and politeness with even the bags of rice cracker snacks delivered with orchestrated elegance.

The meal choice was Hayashi rice or seafood (sorry, I can’t remember exactly what as I chose the hayashi rice). There were lots of small dishes to accompany the main Hayashi rice dish consisting of inari, pickles, dumplings, vegetables, even sashimi. They also gave us Haagen Dazs ice cream for desert, and I was really suprised to get miso soup too.

To complete a very Japanese flying experience I also recommend Asahi beer (because they always seem to have the cans with the special livery) and the electronic versions of Mahjong, Go and Shogi. Or Pacman for that matter.

 

The Way I Work

The Way I Work

I don’t usually put techie stuff on here, but I wanted to talk about what, in my view, is the best web development environment you can have for a freelancer or a small team, especially if you’re pushed for space and have a restrictive budget. Now I don’t care what other people think but I believe that if you’re involved in designing interfaces and user experiences, and especially if you’re in any way involved in typography, you should be on a Mac. I live in Tokyo, so space is at a premium, therefore I use a MacBook Pro to save space and also to give myself the option of working in a cafe or while traveling. After all, with the right amount of RAM the MBP is as powerful as a desktop, give or take. Having said that, for design work the screen on the laptop is probably not sufficient, so I also have an Apple Widescreen Cinema Display. I usually run the MacBook Pro in clamshell mode when it’s connected to the Cinema Display, although it is of course possible to use the laptop screen as a second monitor. I have a wired network at home because speeds are reliable that way, and I don’t want to be bathed in constant radiation living in such a small apartment. At the center of this is the network hub which is in turn connected to the broadband router. The network hub allows me to easily add other machines to the network should I be working with someone else on a project and also connects to the server which is a Mac Mini. The Mac Mini is perfect as a server as it is small, silent and energy efficient. The great thing about Mac OS X is that I can schedule it to shutdown and startup at any given time. Right now it automatically shuts down at midnight (I seldom work past that time nowadays) and then restarts at 8.00am. This saves power and is therefore better for the environment. When the server starts up, Apache and MySQL start up automatically too and I don’t have to do anything. The server sits on a bookshelf and has no keyboard or mouse connected to it. If I need to administer the server, I just open up Mac OS X’s screen sharing feature and do everything through there. Backups are made through Mac OS X’s Time Machine to an external HD, so client’s work and all other data on both the workstation and the server is safe should anything happen. Couple this with SVN version control for scripts and it’s all I will ever need for my home development environment. It’s not even that expensive!

 

One of my photographs gets printed on the back cover of the 2011 Hobonichi Brochure!

Hobonichi Brochure

I’m certainly not a professional photographer, so I’m particularly pleased to have one of my photographs printed on the back cover of the new 2011 Hobonichi Techou Brochure! I mentioned the Hobonichi Techo line of personal organisers in a previous post because they’re actually really well designed. It looks like next years collection is going to feature a collaboration with non other than Yoshida & Co.’s Porter bag label. Thanks go to Erica for sending it in – it’s the one on the right with the rainbow in the picture above. Taken back when I used to live in the projects!

 

At Hong Kong Airport

Hong Kong Airport

Just checking in from Hong Kong Airport, where it’s clouded over with wind and rain. It was a bumpy landing, and I’m only here for another hour or so before I head to London. The city looks great from the window of this observation deck despite the miserable weather. So far, the customer service has been miserable too. Is that because I’m used to Japan? No, actually, the last woman I asked for information was totally out of order. This wi-fi is terrible too, but at least it’s free. I’m not staying anyway.

 

Climbing Fuji

Mount Fuji

On the 29th of August 2010 we started climbing Mt. Fuji, and on the morning of the 30th of August this is what greeted us as we arrived at the summit. It was without doubt one of the most physically challenging things I’ve done and the altitude sickness was a big problem for me, but this view made it worthwhile. I definitely won’t be doing it again in future though.

 

Hanabi, Summer 2010

Hanabi

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:

Hanabi Firework

 

TiltShift Generator for iPhone

TiltShift Generator for iPhone

The TiltShift Generator iPhone app by Takayuki Fukatsu is part of his popular Toy Camera series. Since moving to my new neighbourhood, I haven’t posted a picture of it as I usually do – so here is the view from my balcony (above) given the TiltShift treatment. Those not familiar with tilt-shift photography can get a definition from Wikipedia here, but the technique produces a picture that simulates a scene in miniature. For those interested in taking tilt-shift pictures themselves there’s the app mentioned in this post as well as another app by Michael Krause simply called TiltShift. The Michael Krause version arguably has more features, but I prefer the Takayuki Fukatsu one which also happens to have a better icon (very important!).