Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2017

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Motto Japan Fine Art Ceramics & Tableware

I haven’t posted on this blog for a LONG time, but today, I just wanted to mention a company I recently did some work with that I’m really excited about. I’ve been interested in Japanese crafts men and women ever since I arrived – be it sword-makers, fan-makers, metal workers or potters. This time it’s about the latter. There will be a new website launching at the beginning of October 2013 called Motto Japan which is to begin by offering never before available fine art ceramics and more everyday use tableware made by the skilled craftsmen and women of Japan. Later it may be expanded to include a wider range, but for now it’s to be focused on ornamental and practical pots, vases, plates, cups, teapots and a variety of other formats of glazed and unglazed clay, porcelain and the like for you table and/or collection. Anyone who’s been to Japan and browsed tableware items in the shops or eaten off of it in any of the amazing restaurants or ryokans over here will know what I’m talking about when I say it’s really wonderful stuff. The online store is currently warming up in preparation for the forthcoming launch by offering visitors the chance of winning one of three teapot and cups sets. It’s free to enter and even if you don’t win you can get free delivery for the first month, so do get over there and see what it’s all about and see if you can win yourself some of the cool ovenware on offer. http://www.mottojapan.com

 

Mag Containers

I really want to get some of these, but they’re really pretty hard to find in shops, even here in Tokyo. I first saw them on TV here in Japan when there was a program about the designers and creators of these innovative little wooden boxes. The concept is really simple but really original. The sides of these boxes and their lids have correspondingly positioned magnets embedded in the wood. This allows you to stick them together in various configurations and create shapes and patterns, even images, whilst also functioning as small tidy-aways for your desk or home office.

In the TV show I saw how they’re first designed on computer in the designer Keisuke Tachikawa’s studio in Tokyo. The designs are then sent off to the workshop of an old carpenter somewhere in the country, I forget where, where they are hand crafted from beautiful Japanese wood, boxed and shipped to buyers and resellers. There’s no shortage of handcrafted wonders like these in Japan and that’s one of the things I really love. The joy of making things well by hand lives on in Japan.

 

niko and…

This brand might not be so new to those living in Tokyo, but recently niko and… is starting to come into its own as it finds its identity and finds a market for itself. Like so many other Japanese fashion and lifestyle companies such as BEAMS and MUJI, it combines lifestyle concept with fashion style in an attempt to create a complete lifestyle philosophy around which to build its range of products. Now, with more new stores, a series of TV adverts and an online shop, they’re set to become the next big thing. It’s more expensive than some comparable stores, but not overly so, and offers some great stuff in this year’s Autumn/Winter range, recently picked up by and featured in Monocle Magazine. Temperatures are dropping here in Tokyo and I’m thinking of moving house soon, so I can see me buying quite a lot of stuff from the Niko and… online shop in the coming weeks and months. If you’re able to do so, take a look in one of their stores in either Ikebukuro’s Parco, Ebisu, or Kita-senju’s Marui.

 

SonarSound Tokyo 2012’s Superb Lineup

This year’s SonarSound Tokyo 2012 sports the most unmissable lineup ever: Squarepusher, Clark, Global Communication, The Cinematic Orchestra, Vincent Gallo, Mount Kimbie, Rustie, Hudson Mohawke and way more(!). It takes place on Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd of April and a one day ticket will set you back ¥7,750 in advance and ¥8,500 on the day and the two day ticket costs ¥14,500. Regardless of cost, this is surely a must-go-to event for any electronic music fan. I’ll certainly be there as it’s my birthday on the 24th! I’ll be here both days, and then off to relax in the hot springs of Izu the following day! It’s going to be a great weekend – let me know if you’re going.

 

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.

 

Thermae Romae

This is a new anime that I’ve been watching recently, and it’s hilarious. It’s about a guy in ancient Rome called Lucius who is an architect responsible for designing the empire’s public hot spa baths. He gets criticized by the emperor for having ran out of ideas and inspiration for how to develop the bathing culture further and reflects on this during a hot bath when suddenly he’s pulled underwater by a mysterious force. When he resurfaces he finds he has warped to present-day Japan and finds himself either in a Sento (public bath) or an Onsen (natural hot spring) or some other location particular to the Japanese bathing culture, depending on the episode.

During his short time there he picks up ideas and is routinely astounded at the technological advancements he sees. After warping back to Rome he employs the ideas in Roman baths and becomes the toast of the empire. For each episode, rinse and repeat!

NOTE: As of writing this post, you can watch episodes on Dailymotion.com.

 

USAVICH

Recently I was introduced to this animation which airs on MTV Japan called USAVICH. As soon as I saw it I was addicted and I’m now in the process of watching all the episodes on the MTVJ website before they disappear. The name comes from the Japanese word usagi meaning rabbit (anyone remember Usagi Yojimbo?) plus the Russian family name suffix vich. So basically the story is about two rabbits Putin and Kirenenko who are trapped in a soviet prison in some other twisted parallel reality. Each episode is 10 minutes long and deals with their daily goings-on in their prison cell, and eventually their time on the run after escaping. No more spoilers, get watching.

Usavich is made by the talented Satoshi Tomioka of Kanaban Graphics.

 

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!

 

Kyoto International Conference Center

I was in Kyoto last week for a two day trip. It’s supposed to be good this time of year because the leaves are red in the autumn, but actually I didn’t really go early enough and I just caught the end of it. Some of the trees had already lost most of their leaves, but because it wasn’t the ideal time to be there, it wasn’t so crowded.

Having just been to the Metabolism – City of the Future exhibition at Mori Art Museum, there was no way I was going to visit Kyoto and not go to the Kyoto Kokusai Kaikan known in English as Kyoto International Conference Center. Of course, I visited a lot of shrines and temples and the usual sightseeing spots, but when I arrived at the site of the conference center I was the only tourist there. The only other human beings there were politicians attending the Fifteenth Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting who I saw taking smoke breaks at the back of the complex from where the two pictures you see here were taken.

The building was designed by architect Sachio Otani, who worked under the better known Kenzo Tange. The building is unique in that it has few vertical walls or pillars. Personally, I was blown away by it, and seeing it was the highlight of my trip. Whilst I was there I couldn’t help feeling that I was on the set of Star Wars. This building was built not long before Star Wars came out, so it makes you wonder if George Lucas saw this too, back in the mid-1970’s before he made the first three films. After all, virtually everything else about the movie was inspired by Japonica. Future visitors to Kyoto should also make the effort to visit this building, it’s incredible.

 

METABOLISM – The City Of The Future

Metabolism, Mori Art Museum

I don’t know a great deal about architecture but I know what I like, and I’ve expressed love for the Nakagin Capsule Tower on more than one occasion on this very blog, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I heard about the METABOLISM – The City Of The Future exhibition at Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, featuring my favourite building. Not only could you see design drawings and advertisements for the Capsule Tower from the 70’s, but there was also a short film detailing the design and construction of the building and featuring interviews with a dapper, younger-day Kisho Kurokawa, the man behind the building. Moreover, there were buildings, designs on cities, marine cities and enormously ambitious living configurations (most of which have never been constructed) by a group of Kisho Kurokawa’s contemporaries of the Metabolism movement I’d never heard of. The exhibition also put on display the original architectural models, now practically antiques. The exhibition is as much about post-war to present-day graphic design as it is about architecture, so I was drooling over a wall filled with the participating countries’ pamphlets for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. As well as being beside myself with joy at seeing the making of Nakagin Capsule Tower on the big screen, I was also made aware of buildings in Japan designed in a similar vein that I had never seen before, a couple of which are located in Kyoto. So, I’ve decided to take a trip to Kyoto as soon as I can. No need to rush, but do go and see this exhibition which is open until 15th Jan 2012.

 

Flowers Outside The Ginza Apple Store

Flowers Outside The Ginza Apple Store

It’s more than a week since Steve Jobs sadly passed away, and outside the Apple Store in Tokyo’s most famous shopping district of Ginza, tributes continue to pile-up in the form of flowers, cards, post-it notes and even half-eaten apples. I’m sure it’s the same outside Apple Stores all over the world – I just thought I’d post this to show that Japan is no exception. Devices here have been hugely popular, although a little bit slow to get started, and up until now, only available on one carrier, Softbank. All this is set to change with the release of the iPhone 4S (the iPhone 4Steve) as it will be available soon also on AU, a really popular carrier with a good brand image. This may be why pre-orders and early adoptions of the 4S in Japan have smashed the previous record set by the iPhone 4. It might also be attributed to the death of Steve Jobs pushing this release to the fore. And of this I think Steve Jobs would be very happy; even in death he was launching and promoting the Apple products he loved so much.

 

Tokyo Metro Staff Using iPad

Tokyo Metro iPad

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.)

 

Radio Tokyo Volume 2 – Ode To Concrete

Radio Tokyo Volume 2 - Ode To Concrete

For the second in the Radio Tokyo series, we will be exploring soundscapes befitting the metropolis. Post-dubstep IDM with plenty of dark undertones and melancholic aural atmospheres in this decidedly city-centric episode ode to vacant plots, government housing projects and urban decay. Showcasing in Volume 2 will be mostly artists from Warp and Hyperdub imprints. Here’s the playlist:

  1. Forgive – Burial
  2. Digital Fauna – Zomby
  3. Out In The Streets – Africa Hitech
  4. Foil – Autechre
  5. Flat Of The Blade – Massive Attack
  6. Klavierwerke – James Blake
  7. 124 – Photek
  8. Midnight Request Line – Skream
  9. Spicy Sammich – Flying Lotus
  10. Gangslap – Africa Hitech
 

View all podcasts in the Radio Tokyo series and download this episode here.

 

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.