Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

Muji Notebook App

Muji Notebook App

Could the new app from Muji entitled Muji Notebook be a success? And more to the point, could it be useful for web designers? I actually think it might. At least it’d be good for notating wireframes and draft layouts on an iPad. You could even use it when doing so in the presence of the client. Moreover though, this app is a good idea for anyone who wants an electronic version of what Muji sells in their stationery section – plus a lot more besides: see the promotional video on YouTube for more info.

Available on the App Store.


Cookpad Goes Global

Cookpad Goes Global is a household name in Japan, but if you’re reading this in another country, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of it. Well, you’ll probably come to hear of it over the coming months as it has now officially expanded with a new international version of the website currently in Beta. Leading the new project on behalf of Cookpad in Japan is fellow Brit, John Yongfook Cockle. Based in Singapore, he’ll be overseeing operations and very much hands-on in terms of design and production. If the success of his previous recipe sharing website is anything to go by, it should be a great success and the site will soon be helping people cook great food on every continent.

The unique selling point is the site’s step-by-step photo guide to each recipe. Recipes are created and shared by the public and photos are necessary, but a new iPhone and Android app will soon make that process much easier, presumably by making use of the device’s built in camera.

I really hope this is a huge success and I take my hat off to Yongfook who I’ve followed for a long time, due to the fact he was also based in Tokyo. I’m looking forward to see where this goes and am also thankful that I don’t need to rely on the clunky Japanese version to find good recipes anymore!


Tokyobike Gallery

Tokyo Bike Gallery

I finally made it down to Tokyo Bike Gallery in Nezu/Yanaka, Tokyo this past Tuesday and it was a really worthwhile trip. The place is pretty small and really serves as a showroom for their current line of bikes which can be found on their site here. You can also rent bikes for the day, although not their sporty range, only the town cruisers. When I entered the shop a young guy wearing a hat came out from the back and I asked him if I could take some photos and he said it was OK.

Tokyo Bike Gallery

As you can see from the photo, there are bike frames and hanging on the walls with some built bikes on display. There are wheels hanging from the ceiling and you can pick and choose what components you want on your bike, but you will pay more. The pre-built standard colourways currently in stock work out cheaper. They also sell accessories such as bike locks, pedals, clips, keychains, etc.

After I had finished snapping the interior I asked if I could rent a bike, but it wasn’t possible to rent the kind of bike I wanted to try out, so the guy let me test-ride a couple of versions for 10 mins each. It suffices to say I fell in love immediately flying down the narrow streets and downhills towards Ueno. That was until I got a wave of paranoia as I approached a stern-faced policeman outside a Koban and it was then I decided to stop and take a picture for this blog.

Tokyo Bike Gallery

When I came back to the store the guy was waiting for me with a set-up bike from the other range. This one has gears and is quite a bit more expensive. The geared version was great, but the bike itself doesn’t look as cool, and it’s expensive. The simplicity and style of the first bike appealed to me more.

Tokyo Bike Gallery

Anyway, I’m going to pick up my new bike next week from Tokyo Bike HQ. People in the UK and Australia you can get these bikes at home too. I’m still thinking about which colour to get though. Red, purple or black?


Tokyo Metro iPhone App

Tokyo Metro iPhone App

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).


New Studio Ghibli Movie, Kokuriko-Zaka Kara

Kokuriko Zaka Kara

When I was at the cinema this week, I saw the trailer for the new Studio Ghibli movie Kokuriko-Zaka Kara (From Kokuriko Hill), due out in Japan this summer (2011). Unfortunately UK, US and the rest of the world probably won’t get to see it until much later – as much as a year judging by what’s gone on with The Borrower Arrietty, which has now finally got a cinema release date for 29th July 2011 in the UK.

It would seem that this new movie is about the life of a girl living in Yokohama, the large port city conjoined with Tokyo. In the story, based in the 60’s, her father had gone missing at sea and her mother often worked abroad as a photographer so she spends her time hanging out with friends in the many school clubs and after school activities common for students in Japan. When the time comes for the school clubhouse to be demolished to make way for preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the friends unite to defend it from the wrecking ball.

There’s absolutely no way of passing judgement on this until it comes out this summer, but I’m disappointed by the lack of supernatural themes, wizards, giant beasts, airships, robots, ghosts and so on, and there’s more than an outside chance that this could be a schmaltzy and overly sentimental offering from the once great studio.

EDIT: I’m just messing around because actually, I was a big fan of Mimi wo Sumaseba and Omohide Poro-Poro.


MOS Burger x JAL

MOS Burger x JAL

JAL often collaborates with famous brands on its in-flight meal offerings. It was only this April just gone that I was treated to a tub of Häagen-Dazs as a part of my in-flight meal. JAL’s newest collaboration sees it teaming up with Japanese fast food outlet MOS Burger. It will be served in Economy and Premium Economy classes and will be called Air MOS Burger. This is only available on flights departing from Japan to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Frankfurt and London. So if you’re on one of these routes, do your bit to continue JAL’s extraordinary bounce-back from bankruptcy and fly with them. You can try this novel in flight meal and check out the fleet’s new livery having by now gone retro and reverted to their old logo.


Sony Retro Battery Vending Machine

Sony Battery Vending Machine

Like any traveler, I love stumbling across relics from a bygone age, so I couldn’t help but take a picture of this Sony battery vending machine when I came across it on the street in Tokyo. It’s the only one I’ve seen of these, but there are lots of other examples of slightly antiquated technology dotted around the city and lots of bizarre vending machines besides. From looking at it, I would say it rarely gets used, if ever, but only stands now as a monument to a time when people’s need for batteries was at its highest in the 80’s or 90’s. I really like the multicoloured stripes on it.


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




Whilst out in Yurakucho I spotted this MUJI Book on sale in their Tokyo flagship store. The book has been released to commemorate MUJI’s 30th anniversary and offers an insight into the history of this unique ‘brand’, covering the products and the philosophy behind them. It also includes input from designers including Naoto Fukasawa, Kenya Hara and Takashi Sugimoto. Lots of great photography and whitespace throughout!



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.


Japan Earthquake 2011

Japan Earthquake 2011 People gather in Shinjuku’s central park in the aftermath of Friday’s earthquake

Well it’s the end of Sunday now following the huge earthquake that rocked Tokyo and the horrific events that then unfolded north, closer to the epicenter on Friday. Throughout the weekend I’ve been watching the news reports constantly monitoring the situation in coastal areas of the country and at Japan’s stricken nuclear facilities.

Before I write on I want to offer my condolences to the families of people who lost their lives in the disaster, the number of which are forcasted to be in the 10’s of 1000’s. Friday was a dark day in Japan.

Japan Earthquake 2011 A diagram showing where the earthquake happened, it’s relationship to Tokyo

I was literally just stepping out of Tokyo train station when it started. I was just arriving at the pedestrian crossing that faces the tall buildings of the Marunouchi area. Because of the renovation work taking place at Tokyo station there are temporary floors and scaffolding everywhere – I was standing on one such piece of temporary floor that felt hollow underneath so when the ‘quake began I wasn’t sure what was going on. I thought maybe it was vibration from a passing truck but the rocking quickly became more intense and people started to scream and run into the street. All the traffic had stopped so I quickly did the same, partially because I was worried about falling debris from the station building but mainly because I wanted to be on firm ground.

I ended up in the central reservation of the wide street that passes in front of Tokyo station. Those around me were mostly office workers. It was Friday afternoon at 2:46pm so very busy in that area. As we all looked up the buildings were swaying violently and I, like everybody else, thought this was the big one – the giant earthquake that has been overdue in Tokyo for the best part of 30 years. I’m from the UK so I’ve never experienced anything like it before and didn’t know what was best to do – this was the first 30 seconds of the earthquake. After that, what seemed to be an already huge earthquake got stronger and there were gasps and shouts from the crowd as the buildings made long deep groaning noises, the traffic light post at the crossing jerked back and forth violently and on one building a hanging servicing platform slammed into the wall repeatedly. I think the event lasted about three minutes but I couldn’t have estimated the length of time because I was kind of in shock.

After that, all the transportation was down so people were just milling about trying to contact friends and relatives but with little success as the communication networks were also badly effected. I was unable to email, SMS or call at that time, so I used the Facebook app on my iPhone to contact people. Guys with hardhats came spilling out of the buildings with sophisticated-looking equipment to assess the damage. I was freezing after 2 hours of standing around in the street so I walked following the train line until I reached Yurakucho where I had some Thai food in a small restaurant beneath the train tracks. Strong aftershocks continued throughout my meal although the staff in the restaurant seemed indifferent. From there I wandered over to Ginza and then as night fell I went to a pub that I knew had a TV and that’s when I realized just how bad it was in the north of Japan. I was unable to get home that night and so I spent it on the floor of a friend’s house.

As I write this from my apartment in Tokyo, I’m still kind of on-edge as my building continues to wobble almost constantly due to aftershocks. There is a 70% chance of further huge aftershocks possibly reaching up to magnitude 7. If this does happen in the Kanto region where Tokyo is located I have no idea what will happen but I at least have some idea after what happened on Friday, so I hope to God it doesn’t.


Nakagin Capsule Tower Vol.2

Nakagin Capsule Tower Vol.2

I recently put up a new series of photographs of Nakagin Capsule Tower here in Tokyo as a follow-up to my original Nakagin Capsule Tower post from way back. The original series was shot on my old compact which I’ve since upgraded to a DSLR. The difference is huge with this new camera. The camera was in fact first bought because I was invited to display the pictures in a gallery in Berlin but I needed to re-shoot them in order to get the quality and size of print necessary for the space. That later fell through anyway, so here is the series originally intended for the gallery on my Flickr.


In The Glitter

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!


Peter, Bjorn & John Feat. Yoyogi Rockabillies

This great music video for the song Nothing to Worry About by Peter, Bjorn & John features the Tokyo Rockabilly Club. People will probably know them as the guys who rock out in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Check it out – the guy’s got a motorcycle in his apartment!


Norwegian Wood Movie

Norwegian Wood Movie

Currently showing in cinemas throughout Japan is the movie adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s literary masterpiece, Norwegian Wood. The story is set in 1960’s Tokyo where the main character, Toru Watanabe, is a university student. In the book he develops relationships with two very different women – Naoko, who suffers from depression and Midori who is lively and outgoing. I read the book shortly after I came to Japan and I remember one of the cover notes read something like:

“Such is the exquisite, gossamer construction of Murakami’s writing that everything he chooses to describe trembles with symbolic possibility.”

The book was brilliant, but I haven’t seen the movie yet. What reviews I have heard seem to rave about it, so those in Japan should make every effort to catch it before it closes. Those outside Japan, watch out for it when it comes to DVD this year.