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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

100 yen shops


All 100 yen.What do a pot plant stand on wheels, a pyrex pie dish, a shoehorn, a china mug, a tin can, 40 clothes pegs, a plastic bowl and sieve set, 4 CDs, a pack of dental floss sticks, a pair of socks, a pair of batteries, a roll of masking tape, a large cutter knife, an aluminum ruler, and an art file all have in common? You guessed already: 100 yen.

Virtually no neighborhood in Japan is without its 100 yen shop. As of today that’s an 83 cent shop. The range of goods on sale is as wide as any department store: storage racks, sewing sets, gardening tools, kitchenware, seasonings, instant noodles, soap, mirrors, cane baskets, stationery, snacks, sweets, vacuum packed foods, waste paper baskets, cosmetics, office files, pens and pencils, underwear, socks, bathroom goods, kitchen utensils, dishes – you name it

They tend to be slightly out of the way. The one nearest me is a relatively small place above a grungy old supermarket, up a difficult to find staircase; but the several times I’ve been there it is always bursting with goods and being wandered around by at least half a dozen other bargain hunters.

100 yen shops are a thriving business in Japan, especially with the economy having been in the (relative) doldrums since the mid-ninties. One of the leading companies is ‘Oh Three Co. Ltd. which runs ‘100 yen shop Silk’ with 259 stores nationwide, and an annual turnover last year of about 133 million dollars (14,150 million yen). Other leading 100 yen retailers in Japan are Daiso, Cando, Seria, Watts and Kyushu Plus. The secret to their success is bulk buying from foreign suppliers, particularly in China. A cursory look at the labels reveals an overwhelming Chinese input.

100 yen coin.One thing that will keep you in a 100 yen store much longer than you ought to be is if you start looking for that ‘something nice’. Stop it! Everything you can buy basically works, but it goes without saying that it’s generally stuff you want to simply work, and not stuff to express your personality through.

Finally, FYI the Japanese 100 yen coin (pictured here) is a cupro-nickel coin with a reeded (i.e. milled) edge, of which 204,903,000 were minted in 2004. It features cherry blossoms on one side and the number ‘100’ plus the date of minting, on the other.

Check out the Japan Mint homepage.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Osaka Motor Show


Osaka Motor Show OsakaOsaka (City Guides/Osaka) is no longer even the second most populous city in Japan; it lost that distinction to Yokohama (City Guides/Yokohama) some years back. Still in the minds of Japanese, and certainly to Osakans, the city is the counterbalance to everything that is Tokyo (City Guides/Tokyo). It is rough and working class, unpolished and a bit uncouth, loud and gaudy at times. But it has an edge and “feeling” that corporate Tokyo never will.

This past week saw the annual Osaka Car Show, which - of course - is, after Tokyo’s, the number two showing of new automobiles in Japan. It featured the newest models and parts; a lot of middle-aged guys in suits; and many, many young women in shiny hot pants and bikini tops with unnaturally high-pitched voices. It was a great day out.

Among the more interesting models was the Jame Bond-like car pictured above. For those on a more modest budget, the hatchback of the future (below left) may interest. And, for the George Jetson fans out there, Toyota's auto-auto is one of the highlights of the Show.

Osaka Motor Show hatchback The Show runs through today at Intex, which is located on the OTS Line at Nakafuto Station.

Osaka Motor Show MercedesFrom downtown Osaka it takes about 15 minutes to get to Intex.

Take the Chuo Line to Cosmo Square and then change for the OTS Line.

Osaka Motor Show

Osaka Motor Show hot rod

Osaka Guide Japan

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Tokyo Design Festa No.22

東京デザイン・フェスタ 22

Going to Tokyo Design Festa.Going to the Tokyo Design Festa.
(Click on images to enlarge.)

Tokyo Design Festa 22 flyer.I went to the massive Tokyo Big Sight exhibition hall in Koto ward today to see the 22nd Tokyo Design Festa. Tokyo Design Festa is a biannual event that always takes place at Tokyo Big Sight. It provides an affordable and conspicuous opportunity for relatively (through to completely) unknown artists of various kinds to display their creations.

Tokyo Big Sight, Koto ward, Tokyo.(Left) Tokyo Big Sight, Koto ward, Tokyo.

Jewelry, drama, pottery, film, sculpture, music, ornaments, lamps…virtually every art form is represented in a darkened maze of booths and spaces. I went with a Japanese acquaintance who works at the local convenience store. He has developed a huge circle of customers, myself included, and networks relentlessly. Thanks to him I was introduced another customer and fellow resident of my neighborhood, Yukinori Maru: basically a musician, but a musician who has added film to his scores, rather than the more usual other way around. Indeed, as sophisticated and compelling as the visuals were, from the outset it was the equally, if not more, sophisticated and compelling soundtrack that initially got me hooked. It was therefore no surprise to be told later that the music actually came first.

Design Festa SM movie.Maru displayed three short films. The first was a moving, completely unpreachy, dramatized commentary on what it is that draws young people into extreme movements like Aum Shinrikyo, the religious group which under its leader, Asahara Shoko, was responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The second was about a Chinese couple in Japan featuring murder and questions about the meaning of life, and the third was an almost Chaplinesque comedy about a chubby masochistic salaryman getting his desired desserts.

There is probably not a more free and easy, stimulating and varied large-scale exhibition for individual creators anywhere in Japan. Design Festa is a grassroots cultural highlight that should be on everyone's calender. If you have something you want the world to see, why not start thinking about exhibiting at Design Festa 23?

The Design Festa English language website is worth bookmarking to find out when the next one is.

What is Tokyo Design Festa?

Design Festa No #23, May 2006

Design Festa No #25, May 2007

Tokyo Design Festa, bull.(Left) Bull - front of - at Tokyo Design Festa.
Design Festa bull balls.
(Right) Bull - back of - at Tokyo Design Festa.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Belly Dance in Sakae Nagoya

Belly Dance in Sakae


Belly dancer at Antarica, Sakae, Nagoya

Tonight's entertainment was a superb belly dance at Antarica (Restaurants/Bars/Clubs/Nagoya) a Turkish restaurant directly opposite the iD club on Sumiyoshicho in Sakae.

The dancer, who was Japanese, arrived with her Egyptian coach and choreographer, who spends 2 months a year in Japan teaching and managing a growing troupe of Japanese dancers.

I have always been a fan of the music and the dance is certainly sensual - the powerful voluptuousness of the dancer had the small group of diners and me spell-bound for its duration.

If you wish to catch the dance, Antarica presents a short program at around 8pm every Saturday night.

Belly dancer at Antarica, Nagoya

Map of Antarica Turkish Restaurant

Noa Bldg. 2F
3-2-31 Sakae

Tel: 052 251 5779

Antarica map

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Isamu Noguchi

イサム ノグチ

What's on in Tokyo and Kyoto

Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.Yesterday I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. The Museum is presently showing works of one of the 20th century's paramount sculptors, the Japanese American Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988).

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo itself is only ten years old and is the ideal space for work of such modernist caliber as Noguchi's. His works, rendered mainly in either plate metal or stone, are modern icons in the true sense of the word, not trying to shock or make a statement so much as reflect the world as Noguchi saw it: as something cruel and lonely but at the same time voluptuous and bearing the marks of an ancient endowment of the miraculous and mysterious.

The Museum is located in the middle of a completely unremarkable neighborhood of the generally unremarkable Koto ward of Tokyo. It is, however, a remarkable structure cutting a unique sharp silhouette against the huge pale autumn sky and full of huge spaces with numerous clean empty corners that sit there pregnant and silent, barely conscious of the great projects that concern the center of the rooms.

Noguchi's plate metal sculptures appeal with the clarity of their apparent simplicity, but a cursory circumnavigation reveals dimensions and perspectives that defy complete comprehension - indeed, often threaten to overwhelm. Slightly larger than average human size, they draw the onlooker towards them with their boldness, and maintain their hold with the purity and unexpected sophistication of their sensuous curves and surfaces and angular spaces that are often so sharp as to appear solid.

That sensuousness of line is taken to new heights in Noguchi's stone and sculpted metal (as opposed to plate metal) sculptures. His 17-ton 'Energy Void' is the masterpiece of the exhibition: a massive upright ring over 2 meters tall of simply yet erotically sculpted black granite that is the focus of the the Museum's vastest, plain-cathedral-like room. This loop of polished stone has a sinuous vibrancy that has to be witnessed - to have been with for at least five minutes and conscientiously walked around - to truly comprehend.

His other smaller stone works are similarly powerful. Their smooth weightiness invites you to touch, but the profundity expressed in their form keeps you circling at a respectful distance. The work in particular that epitomised this power was 'Origins', a hug-sized dome of black stone with a chiselled matte surround that gradually aspires to a highly polished apex.

For all their depth, however, the works appeal at the primary level with their simplicity and sense of fun. There is an outside, courtyard display of his works that the kids can clamber all over, as well as a small room in the Museum where they can put together cardboard 3-D jigsaw pieces of his sculptures and create new ones as the spirit moves them.

This is an incredibly popular exhibition and as of yesterday saw its 100,000th visitor. Don't be put off by the lengthy queues: they move fast and you're in and entranced before you know it. Nevertheless, worth a long wait.

Good shop with a great selection of reasonably priced goods.

Isamu Noguchi: From Sculptures to Spatial Design - Omnificent Creativity
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 10am-6pm (last admission 30 minutes before closing time). Closed Mondays.

Until 27 November, 2005.

Kiyoizumi-shirakawa Station on the Hanzomon Subway Line, exit B2. 10 minute walk. Follow the signs.

Adults 1,300 yen, College and vocational school students 900 yen, junior and senior high school students 500 yen, over-65-year-olds 500 yen, elementary school students and younger, free.

What's on in Tokyo and Kyoto

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Labor Day kinro kansha no hi

November 23 kinro kansha no hi - Labor Day


Today's public holiday is based on ancient imperial harvest and thanksgiving festivals, 1n 1948 this day was officially dedicated to all workers.

The Niinamesai (新嘗祭) was and still is an offering of freshly harvested rice by the emperor to the gods. The festival came to be held November 23 during the Meiji era.

Following this agricultural theme, I visited Nagoya Agricultural Center (名古屋農業センター), which is the nearest bit of open-space to where I live. It's free to get in, there's a cafe, a shop selling often organic vegetables as well as plants and health foods, glass houses, streams and even a model farm with battery chickens, pigs, sheep, goats and cows.....lovely!

Nagoya Agricultural Center

The nearest station is Hirabari on the Tsurumai Line - head east from the station on the road to Toyota. The Nagoya Agricultural Center is about 15 minutes on foot.

Guide To Nagoya

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dawn Over Izumo

Dawn over Izumo I awoke this morning at on top of a 432 metre peak in the Kitayama range north of Izumo. As the first rays of the sun hit the land began to steam. Here in Izumo this month is known as Kamiarizuki, The Month With The Gods. In the rest of Japan it is The Month Without The Gods as they are all here in Izumo for their annual meeting. Many are gathered down below in Hirata as they are said to particularly enjoy the sake of this town. It is, after all, a Japanese business meeting.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Gundam: Generating Futures Exhibition

Gundam exhibition ticket.
The legendary Japanese animated science fiction Gundam phenomenon officially hit the West in 1998. ‘Mobile Suit Gundam’, the brainchild of Yoshiyuki Tomino, began life in April 1979 on Japanese TV. At the time there was nothing particularly new about fighting robots in Japanese animation, however in Gundam the robots were not mythical invincible beings but ordinary machines operated by complex human characters – not just ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Introducing human and mechanical vulnerability plus the sophistication of moral ambiguity into sci-fi proved to be a hit, and the series has evolved ever since. The legend is still developing and is still as popular as ever. The latest incarnation of the Gundam story is a movie that came out last month called ‘Mobile Suit Z Gundam II – The Lovers’.

Gundam exhibition billboard.I went to the Gundam Art Exhibition ‘Gundam: Generating Futures’ at the Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo. There was a 10-minute wait to get in and an air of enthusiasm and excitement amongst those waiting. At 1,300 yen it wasn’t cheap, but I was prepared to forget about the money and be dazzled by high tech dreams of the future.

The style of the exhibits was fairly much what I expected. There was Photoshop pop-horror art depicting the terrible wars of the future between humans and aliens. There was a mammoth model of a female fighting machine that took up a whole room. She was on her hands and knees, issuing what looked like a mighty cry, right fist raised to be smashed down on some hapless enemy. There was a replica Gundam spaceship. There was Gundam art that blended sci-fi and traditional Japanese art. There was a small ‘bedroom’ on a spaceship with a screen on the wall projecting the faces of anonymous Japanese boys. But 1,300 yen’s worth? No.

Gundam postcard by Tenmyouya Hisashi, on sale at exhibition.Postcard by Tenmyouya Hisashi, on sale at exhibition.

The exhibition was no doubt purposely minimalistic in its layout. However, the relative smallness of the space meant that it came across less as minimalism and more as sparseness and lack of material. Also, the curators had obviously made the decision to make the exhibition as faithful to the story as possible by immersing the viewer in the myth rather than presenting it as a pop artifact. This meant that there was virtually no objective explanation of the exhibits. It was all fantasy presented as fact: great for those who are familiar with the background of Gundam, but for those like me who wanted a peep behind the scenes there was nothing. There was a voice guide available for an extra 500 yen. Perhaps it provided a wealth of background information, perhaps not. I was not prepared to fork out what would have been a total of 1,800 yen to find out.

Not only was the content itself rather thin on the ground and the nitty-gritty on it lacking, but I was disappointed by the technological level of the displays. It seemed as if little had changed since 1979. The atmosphere distinctly lacked the cutting edge feel that I expected. It was more like walking through a second hand electronics shop than the ‘corporate lab’ vibe I’d been looking forward to.

Gundam sculpture.There was a Gundam shop at the end of it all selling Gundam models, postcards, books and various Gundam souvenirs. Gundam models were selling like hotcakes, but sales of the commemorative book seemed sluggish.

If ‘Gundam: Generating Futures’ is an accurate rendition of the future, then may something else beginning with G please help us!

If you’re going to go to Ueno, you’d be better off checking out the rich array of human cultural artifacts from the past that are housed in the area’s many museums.

‘Gundam: Generating Futures’ is on until December 25 at the Ueno Royal Museum in Ueno Park, Mon-Thu 11am-5pm; Fri, Sat & public holidays 11am-8pm; Sun 10am-6pm.
Adults 1,300 yen; high school & university students 1,000 yen; elementary and junior high school students 500 yen. Voice guide (Japanese only) 500 yen.

Buy Gundam books from Amazon.

Ueno Park Tokyo Guide

Tokyo Tower Area Guide

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Umeda Osaka


Umeda OsakaYesterday was Buy Nothing Day. Not in my city. No one I know gave up shopping. No one even knew about it. You might as well ask people not to breathe.

We walk south from Osaka Station, head past the Hilton Hotel. Women are bedecked in thousands of dollars of jewelry and frippery. A night out in groups of two or three, each carrying brand name bags to show the world that they have made a purchase. The newest Osaka cathedral devoted to their needs is located just opposite the Hilton, and beckons with blue, neon-like lighting in the dusk.

Shopping is entertainment, shopping is my hobby, shopping is life.

For all your Japanese shopping needs, 24-hours a day.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Buy Nothing Day in Japan


It's Buy Nothing Day in Japan (and many other countries across the world) next Saturday - the last Saturday in November. According to the organizers: "Buy Nothing Day exposes the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism."

Buy Nothing Day was started in 1993 by the founders of Adbusters in Canada and is now an international event celebrated in over 50 countries. The Japan version stars "Zenta Claus" - an anti-consumer icon from Kyoto.

Buy Nothing Day - Japan

Kamaboko - best served with wasabi and soy sauce

It was also Kamaboko Day (蒲鉾デー) on Tuesday according to a quick snippet I caught on NHK FM (82.5). Though I'm not overly-keen on the stuff (most cheap kamaboko is made from the left-overs of the fishing industry), I tried to buy some at the local supermarket but it had all sold out. Maybe the marketing had an effect? Kamaboko actually dates back to the Nara and Heian periods in Nara and Kyoto when white filleted fish was made into paste and shaped in pieces of cut bamboo. Chikuwa (竹輪) is kamaboko formed in the shape of bamboo - which can be seen in the Chinese characters that make up the name.

Anyway, I'd like to declare today and every subsequent third Saturday in November Happi Day, when people around the world don a Japanese happi coat. Okay.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thoughts in mid-autumn/fall


Japanese maple in autumn.They’re telling me autumn/fall in Tokyo isn’t as good this year. Being my first year here (after several years in western Japan) I don’t know. Seems plenty deep, colorful, effulgent, enough to me. I took a few more photos at my Friday Takushoku University today of what the season is offering. However the autumn/fall colors may compare with other years, the days this week have been comic strip blue, the nights velvet and diamond clear dark, and everything resigned, sighing with a smile on its rusty face, to summer’s slow decay.

(Click on images to enlarge)
Autumn dragonfly.The balder the trees the more fiery, insects land on you as if seeking solace, you find yourself walking up to people you’ve never had the urge to talk to before, and vice versa, and not only is the time between sunset and bedtime longer, it is more than before lacking in sound. No boys rev engines, no girls clap in jest, no bands of drinkers are out on the bridge sharing beers. It’s too cold, and darkness has put its foot down since about 4.30pm. This is the time for taking to the floor, for reviewing bold opinions formed in excesses of greenness and warmth. Boundaries are sharper and clearer now; things have to be reckoned again in what is now colder air.

Autumn carp.The alternative: escape, has become an object: whether to stay - in effect, resign – or where to head for. I'm thinking of Portugal, via a few days in London. Warmth, revival, migration, temporary victory. Surely that body soaked in sweat just eight weeks ago wasn’t yours really. It feels like it’s always been chilly; memory alone retains hope of a warm return.

Articles on Japan and Japanese culture What's on in Tokyo Tokyo

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Scandal - Shusaku Endo

Scandal - Shusako Endo
遠藤周作 - スキャンダル
Scandal - Shusako Endo
Scandal by Shusaku Endo

ISBN: 0-8048-1558-5
237 pp

What would you do if someone posing as you were going round the red-light districts of Tokyo committing acts that besmirched your character? This is the conundrum faced by Suguro, the respected Catholic novelist who is Scandal's protagonist. The Kafkaesque premise of the licentious doppelganger is enough to engross the reader in a tale where the twisting alleys of Shinjuku, stalked by pimps and harlots, become a place to explore the darker aspects of what makes us human.

Endo, as usual, explores morality and mortality through a uniquely Japanese Christian perspective that is more interested in considering personal responsibility and enlightenment than achieving some kind of heavenly salvation. Nor is Endo's purpose to judge and condemn, but rather to try to understand the human psyche.

Indeed, the pursuing reporter who is the embodiment of moral indignation is shown to represent a red herring: it is not outside retribution that we should be afraid of, suggests Endo, but rather the power of our own minds to corrupt our lives. Scandal's main players are complex characters in which dark and light elements coexist - they are, Endo is telling us, moral doppelgangers of all of us.

Van C. Gessel's translation deftly retains the page-turning impetus of Endo's original, and propels the reader towards an ambiguous conclusion that reminds us how precarious our constructed realities are.

Richard Donovan

Buy this book from Amazon

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hail to the Chief George Bush in Kyoto


Martial law has been declared in Kyoto. In preparation for President George Bush’s layover in the ancient capital, more than 5,000 police have been dispatched from around Japan to protect the Imperial Palace and other sites—and to ensure that Bush gets in and out safely. Bush arrives today, will spend the night in the new State Guest House located in the now cordoned off Imperial Palace Grounds, known locally as Gosho, and on Wednesday will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Junichi Koizumi before flying on to South Korea, China, and four quality hours in Mongolia.

Check-points and random bag searches have become a feature of daily life for the last week in Kyoto. Particularly along Imadegawa Dori and Marutamachi Dori—the east-west thoroughfares that pass by the north and south, respectively, sides of Gosho.

The Palace grounds themselves have been closed to all visitors since last Friday. Known as the “lungs of Kyoto,” Gosho is a massive slab of green just north of the downtown area. Unlike Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, it is open all year long every day 24 hours a day. Joggers, bike riders, dog walkers, lovers, children, and students from nearby Doshisha University all use the park on a daily basis.

Farther south, my seven-year-old daughter and I were riding into central Kyoto on a bicycle on Sunday morning, and were ordered to ride on the sidewalk—not in the street—by a young cop. He was calm and used the most polite possible verb forms, but it was clearly a tense situation. What was surprising, though, was where we were: in front of Nijo Castle, which is more than a mile southwest of Gosho.

To welcome Bush, both Japanese and foreign groups will be demonstrating near Shijo-Kawaramachi in the heart of downtown Kyoto. Here is the schedule:

November 15 (Tues)

2-5pm Americans (and friends) will be demonstrating against Bush and the Iraq War at Shijo-Kawaramachi in front of Takashimaya and/ or Hankyu department stores.

6:30pm Protest march sponsored by Kansai Committee to Oppose Koizumi-Bush Meeting. Meet at Maruyama Koen Park radio tower (15 min. walk east of Keihan Shijo station).

November 16 (Wed):

10:00am Protest march sponsored by Kansai Committee to Oppose Koizumi-Bush Meeting.

Other groups unhappy about the meeting include the powerful local tourist industry.

The timing of the trip could not be worse: it is the middle of Kyoto’s fall foliage season, and tourists flood into the city every year in November.

Tours have had to be cancelled anywhere near where Bush's entourage will be traveling or staying. Tour buses and all vehicles have been banned from driving near Gosho.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Tokyo Tower and environs


-One of Tokyo's most popular landmarks attracting over 3 million visitors per year.
-Erected in 1958, the tallest self-supporting steel tower in the world at 333 meters (1093 feet).
-Located in Tokyo’s elegant Minato ward, surrounded by parks and temples and dotted with relaxed high class eateries.

(Click on images to view at full size)

Tokyo Tower.A red and white web of sky-high steel by day, a breathtaking beacon of lights by night, Tokyo Tower is the most prominent and distinctive feature of Tokyo’s cityscape. Tokyo Tower is situated near the city’s port in the elegant Minato (i.e. ‘Harbor’) ward of the city, and is located on the edge of Shiba Park, one of Japan’s oldest. Tokyo Tower was built in 1958 as a TV and FM radio broadcasting tower. It serves the whole of the Kanto region (i.e. Tokyo and surrounding prefectures) in that role and in 2003 began transmitting digital signals as well. At 333 meters (1093 feet) it is 13 meters (43 feet) higher than the Eiffel Tower, but thanks to modern engineering technology it is 43% lighter in weight.

Tokyo Tower attendant.Being the Tokyo’s tallest structure makes Tokyo Tower the prime spot from which to view the metropolis. Tokyo Tocho (Metropolitan Government Building) in west Shinjuku gives you equally good elevation, and for no entry fee, but without the unbroken panorama afforded by Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower’s Main Observatory is 150 meters (492 feet) above ground level. Entry is 820 yen for adults, 460 yen for elementary and junior high school students, and 310 for children over 4 years old. You enter the first floor of the building under the Tower greeted by women dressed something like 1970s airhostesses. You first line up at the ticket booth to pay for entry and then board the elevator. The elevator takes you to the upper of the two Main Observatory floors.

Tokyo Tower attendant
(Photoshopped to preserve anonymity)

Once up there, there are several explanations available to help make sense of the urban jumble below. The simplest are the signposts indicating direction and pointing out names of major locations and famous features, including Mount Fuji (that, given Tokyo’s smoggy horizon, you would be very lucky to make out even in the best of weather). There are also coin-operated (100 yen) binoculars, plus some interactive touch-screen displays (no coins required) that let you match up parts of the urban conglomeration with flashing and labeled counterpart shapes on the screen. Take the stairs down to the lower floor of the Main Observatory floor where you can enjoy the free thrill of looking through glassed-over holes in the floor 150 meters (492 feet) to the ground below. The lower floor also has a café, a souvenir shop, and even a small Shinto shrine.

Tokyo viewed from Tokyo Tower Main Observatory.If you have at least an extra sixty to ninety minutes, 600 yen and a large endowment of patience to spare, you can ascend to the Special Observatory which is another 100 meters (328 feet) up at an elevation of 250 meters (820 feet). The special ticket office is on the upper floor of the Main Observatory. Be warned, however, that with the crowds that visit, just the wait to get on the small (approximately 12-person capacity) single elevator that goes up will be at least 40 minutes, with a similar wait at the top to get back down. Added to that, the view from the Special Observatory is arguably no better than from the Main Observatory.
Tokyo viewed from Main Observatory of Tokyo Tower

Cityscapes are cityscapes, and Tokyo’s is particularly drab. If it is worth looking at at all, it is only for its breathtaking scale. Massive buildings stand random sentinel over a drab creamy brown jumble of buildings loosely ranked from squat to tiny as far as the eye can see, the murky monotony broken only by freeways along which cars coast as if on conveyor belts. When looking from the Main Observatory 150 meters (492 feet) up, you at least still feel as if you are inside the city. Tokyo is ranked around you, tangible, in its true (albeit unexciting) colors, easy to make out. However, from 250 meters (820 feet) up in the Special Observatory you are loftily surveying a distant, smoggy anonymous model-like urban sprawl so far below you that it has lost the color, dimension and resolution it still had from the Main Observatory. Fifteen minutes wandering the confines of the Special Observatory is plenty, even with the help of coin-operated (200 yen) TV screen binoculars. Calculated against the time you must wait to get up there and then back down, plus the exorbitant 600 yen additional charge, it is not really worth it.

You can take the elevator from the Main Observatory back down to ground level, or you can take the outside stairs: about 600 steps that take about 8 minutes to descend. Check out the occasional landings on the way down. You will see padlocks in the wire mesh there with lovers’ names on them (some so old that the names have worn off): mementos of old trysts. According to a sign, the stairs are not open every day. When open they are available for the ascent as well as the descent.

Lovers' lock on Tokyo Tower.
Lovers' lock on Tokyo Tower.

Lovers' locks on Tokyo Tower (names can be just made out on the left-hand lock)

Tokyo Tower Foot Town
Once you’ve taken in the landscape and come back down, the four-storey Tokyo Tower Foot Town building nestled underneath the Tower – where you started from – is definitely worth investigating. This reviewer actually found it a lot more noteworthy than the trip up and down the Tower itself.

Government Information and Statistical Information
The roof of the building is a children’s playground. Downstairs on the fourth floor of Tokyo Tower Foot Town are the ‘Trick Art Gallery’ for children and the Government Information and Statistical Information galleries. A lot of money and imagination have been spent in the Government Information and Statistical Information galleries on making the facts and figures of Japanese national life interesting and memorable. Unfortunately, however, the information is in Japanese only. Exhibits include among others a post-World War Two Japanese history mural, a cost-of-living flowchart through the years, and a similar display showing how average Japanese body height has steadily risen since the end of the Second World War. Recommended for those with knowledge of Japanese.

Raamen price exhibit in Tokyo Tower.Exhibit in the Government Information and Statistical Information galleries showing the price of a bowl of raamen (a traditional fast food in Japan) through the years.

Wax Museum
The 3rd floor is shared by the Wax Museum, the Guinness World Records Museum and the Holographic Mystery Zone. The latter two seem strictly for the kids and require an entry fee. The Guinness World Records Museum charges 1000 yen for adults, 600 yen for elementary and junior high school students, 300 yen for children over 4 years old, and seems to be well done. The Holographic Mystery Zone charges 500 yen, and has a distinctly cheesy air.

In spite of being advertised as a paying attraction, the Wax Museum is, unlike the other two, free, (at least at the time of writing) and is definitely worth a stroll through – even if you do have to pay. The wax figures themselves can’t be called uniformly superb, but do provide some titillation. Just try holding the fierce gaze of Ulysses S. Grant without being slightly freaked! English captions are randomly available: Gandhi and Lincoln get them but Brad Pitt and Mother Teresa don’t; Chiaki Mukai and Einstein get them but George Bush and Princess Diana miss out. Prepare to be taken aback by the rendition of the Last Supper. Turn a corner and suddenly there it is right before you. The gesticulating, pathos and passion of 13 lifesize adult men, complete with a voice in the background to a church organ declaiming in Japanese an account of the crucifixion!

Inventions for Electric Guitar
‘Inventions for the Electric Guitar’ is part of the Wax Museum, but deserves a special write-up of its own. This shrine to rock and roll has, of course, its wax figures: Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, Ian Anderson, James Hetfield, Richie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, Keith Emerson and, in the special 'German progressive' rock section, Mani Neumeier, Faust (Wedner Diernaier, Hans Joachim Irmler) Klaus Schultze, Manuel Goettsching, and Lutz Ulbrich (no Michael Schenker!) However, more memorable than the wax figures themselves is the iconic collection of rock posters, rock books, rock cassettes, and general rock memorabilia. Cabinet displays chock-a-block with pop culture artifacts from the 1970s will wake the memory and stir the heart of anyone who lived and loved through that decade, and even rouse the interest of anyone who didn’t. The Wax Museum finishes up in a 70s rock memorabilia shop full of rock and roll CDs, posters, T-shirts and other memorabilia. Five stars.

Restaurant/Food Court
The 2nd floor of Tokyo Tower Foot Town is a touristic nightmare: what seem like hectares of endless restaurants (mainly junk food) and souvenir trinket stores, all under the full cold glare of fluorescent lighting. Avoid unless hungry. There is a traditional tofu restaurant, 'Ukai', less than a minutes walk from Tokyo Tower Foot Town (on your left as you walk up the slope to the Tower from 'Tokyo Tower Shita' intersection), and the chic Restaurante Garb Pintino just across the road from the Tower's main entrance. There is also the nearby Tokyo Prince Hotel with various options for high class dining (see write-up below.)

Tokyo Tower Aquarium
Tokyo Tower Aquarium is located on the first floor, i.e. on the same level as where you first enter the Tower. Outrageously priced at 1000 yen, it is no more than row upon row of plain ordinary biology classroom fish tanks. Features coral reef fishes, South American fishes, Asian fishes, African fishes, and goldfish. But unless you’re really addicted to looking at small fish, you’d be much better off wandering through the tropical fish section of a decent-sized pet shop.

(Tokyo Tower access information at bottom.)

Around Tokyo Tower
To make the most of your visit to Tokyo Tower, JapanVisitor recommends a wander around the neighborhood.

Shiba Park
If you came from Daimon station, you had to walk through Shiba Park to get to Tokyo Tower.
Shiba Park is Japan’s oldest, being the first to be officially designated as a park in 1873, only five years after the beginning of Japan’s modernization. It originally encompassed the adjacent Zojoji Temple, but with the separation of church and state after the Second World War, the temple was separated from it.
The park is home to the ancient Maruyama burial mound (kofun), one of the biggest in Tokyo at 110 meters (361 feet) long. It is actually very indistinct: a simple mound covered with trees indistinguishable from a natural feature of the terrain. Nothing is known of its history.
Shiba Park also has an artificial ravine, Momiji-dani (‘autumn leaf valley’) restored in 1984. As the name suggests, it is a sight to see in autumn. It features a massive Japanese zelkova tree, 20 meters (66 feet) tall with a trunk circumference of 2.5 meters (8 1/4 feet).

Rear view of Zojoji at dusk, Tokyo.Zojoji Temple
Zojoji is the main temple of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism. It was founded as the sect’s eastern Japan seminary in 1393 and was relocated to its present site in 1598.
In those days it was a massive complex containing 48 subsidiary temples, over 3000 priests and over 150 grammar schools. Times have changed and it now occupies but a fraction of its former area. However, the atmosphere of its magnificence has in no way subsided. It is still very much a Buddhist cathedral, exuding a splendor – albeit it one restrained to the point of dourness - that is enhanced and reflected by the wide open spaces surrounding the massive bulk and imposing outline of its recently rebuilt main hall. Step inside and taste the incense-imbued atmosphere in front of the imposing central statue of the Buddha.

O-jizo-sama at Zojoji Templw, Tokyo.The temple was closely associated with the Tokugawa family that ruled Japan in the Edo era, and is home to the mausoleums of six Tokugawa Shoguns and their family members.
Coming from Daimon or Hamamatsucho stations, the first you will see of Zojoji is its huge 21meter (69 foot) high gate, the Sangedatsumon, built in 1622, the only remaining part of the original temple.

'O-jizo-sama' at Zojoji Temple, Tokyo.

Cat and buddha at Zozoji Temple, Tokyo.Also of particular interest are:
The Daibonsho, a giant 15 ton bell cast in 1673 and tolled six times a day. It is just inside the grounds on the right after you enter the Sangedatsumon gate.
The Himalayan cedar, between the Daibonsho bell and the Sangedatsumon gate, planted by General Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president of the United States, when he visited the temple as a guest of the nation in 1879.
The rows of colorfully clothed and decorated stone jizo, the bodhisattva of children, lined up at the back of the temple on your right as you walk towards Tokyo Tower.
The air of the temple wracked by the coarse cries of crows, soothed with sweeping, chanting and the occasional dull solitary bell.

Cat drinking at the foot of the Buddha, Zojoji Temple, Tokyo.

Zojoji Temple
4-7-35 Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0011 Japan
Tel: (81)3-3432-1431

Zojoji Temple website

Tokyo Prince Hotel
Just north of, and next door to, Zojoji Temple is the deceptively squat, plain, almost shabby-looking Tokyo Prince Hotel. Actually one of Tokyo’s finest, like many things Japanese, it has to be investigated to be appreciated.
For those who want better and more expensive fare than what is on offer in the Tokyo Tower Foot Town restaurants, Tokyo Prince Hotel has 15 excellent bars and restaurants, variously priced. Feel like blowing a month’s salary on a cup and saucer? Go down to Seibu Pisa shopping department on the 1st floor (reception is on the second floor) and wallow in the often literally dazzling treasure trove of fine art and craft affluence.

Tokyo Prince Hotel
3-1, Shibakoen 3-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-8560

Phone: 81-3-3432-1111

Tokyo Prince Hotel website

Tokyo Tower Access
Akabanebashi station on the Oedo subway line.
Turn left out of ticket gate to the Akabanebashi Crossing exit. 5 minute walk.

Daimon station on the Oedo subway line, exit A6.
Daimon station on the Asakusa subway line, exit A6
10 minute walk.

Onarimon Station on the Mita Line, exit A1.
10 minute walk.

Hamamatsu-cho station on the JR Yamanote, Tokai-hondo, and Keihin-tohoku lines.
Exit B2. 12 minute walk.

Hours: Main Observatory 9am – 10pm (last admission 9.45pm)
Special Observatory 9am – 10pm (last admission 9.30pm)

Tokyo Tower: Nippon Television City Corporation
4-2-8 Shibakoen,
Minato-ku, Tokyo,
Japan 105-0011
Tokyo Tower website

Tokyo Resources

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Tokyo Guide

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sumo - Kyushu Basho

相撲 九州

The Essential Guide to Sumo The Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament held at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center begins today.

Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu 朝青龍 can claim two records by winning this tournament: 7 consecutive wins and a Grand Slam of tournament victories for the year.

His main challenger, as in the previous basho, could well be up-and-coming 22 year old sekiwake Kotooshu 琴欧州 - the Bulgarian is also hoping to gain promotion to ozeki rank with a good showing and a majority of wins.

Japan Sumo Association

Books on Sumo

The Essential Guide to Sumo (Paperback)
by Dorothea M. Buckingham

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The Perfect Guide to Sumo by Ito Katsuharu (the 34th Kimura Shonosuke); Translated by David Shapiro

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Japanese humor


Japanese humor is as extreme as Japanese seriousness: it’s no holds barred, often lunatic stuff. One of the latest comic phenomena to sweep Japan has been the ‘Hard Gay’ character played by the (straight) Razor Ramon Sumitani of Osaka. Check out the Mainichi News article about Hard Gay.

While Hard Gay is funny, it is, like 99% of Japanese humor, strictly slapstick. While the Japanese are indeed fond of puns and wordplay, it doesn’t feature nearly as much in popular TV comedy as it does in the West.

Cartoons abound in newspapers and magazines but even when translated don’t really work. Here’s one from the weekly newsmagazine, the Shukan Bunshun. Follow the number at the bottom right of each frame. Translation of relevant frames below.

Comic 1st half from Shukan Bunshun.
Comic 2nd half from Shukan Bunshun.Frame 1: (speech bubble) Oh, oh! (Sound effect)
Frame 3: 'There's one!'
Frame 5 shows a sign which says 'Cleaning in progress'.
Frame 11: 'Seems like the suave types can use the toilet, but not plain ordinary types like me.'
Frame 12: 'No one said anything like that.' 'Please read the sign.'
Frame 13: (sign) 'Cleaning in Progress. Desperate people, please apply.'

Tokyo Confidential; Titillating Tales From Japan's Wild Weeklies
by Mark

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Japan's autumn scenery


One aspect of Japan that Japanese are fond of asserting is that 'Japan has four seasons': a claim that is lost on the ears of most foreign listeners as, indeed, most of the world shares this trait. However, given the extraordinary clarity of the divide between the seasons in Japan and the distinctiveness of the accompanying changes in scenery, the population here could be forgiven for considering the seasons unique to Japan.

One of the places I visit every week is the campus of Takushoku University in Hachioji City, west of Tokyo. Like many universities not in the middle of urban areas, Takushoku has beautiful - particularly beautiful - grounds that spectacularly reflect every gradation of the seasons.

Here are a few shots of Takushoku University's grounds taken this week. Enjoy!

(As always on this blog, click on the images to see them at full size - then once more to enlarge further.)

Takushoku University autumn gardens.

Takushoku University building.

Takushoku University autumn trees.

Takushoku University, carp pond.

Takushoku University stone steps in autumn.

Takushoku University stone steps in autumn.

Takushoku University autumn branches.

Takushoku University autumn grove.

Takushoku University, autumn leaves.

A dragonfly in the hand.Yes, it's a live one!

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