Month: July 2014

Drugstore adventures, round 4.

Drugstore loot...cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

Drugstore loot…cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

We stumbled upon Don Quixote, or ‘donki’ as it’s called here. It’s not technically a drugstore, it’s a massive discount store that sells everything from cosmetics to electronics to garden supplies to sex toys and maid costumes. Of course we went for the cosmetics and beauty products. Karis and I share a deep fascination for Japanese cosmetic stores and the goodies within. This is quite remarkable as Karis has no stamina as a shopper. My mum and I have failed dreadfully in training her up. I remember one incident in particular in Seattle on a ladies shopping trip where we mistakenly thought it would be fun to bring the girls. Not. They have no stamina. Literally. Ninety minutes in Nordstrom’s Rack and they were rolling around on the floor in-between the racks begging to go home. They were twelve and we were buying stuff for them. This is still the case even though she is a teenager working in the fashion industry…except for the cosmetic and beauty product stores. (And she doesn’t roll around on the floor now.)

These stores are filled with amazing things. It’s mysterious, like a treasure hunt, mostly because we rarely know what products do unless there is a helpful tag line in English which is rare (and often misleading). I’ve heard stories of foot peels gone awry leaving the bottom of your feet raw; moisturizer that is actually face bleach and mascara that is so waterproof that it needs the cosmetic equivalent of paint thinner to remove it. However, that does not scare us as the potential rewards are fabulous. They have amazing face masks, pre-soaked with solution (aloe, mushrooms, lavender, bee pollen, snake venom); rose-flavoured toothpaste; body gel that has some tomato product in it that burns fat; and probably the best sunscreen on the market by Anessa which is Shiseido’s drugstore brand. They’re also not afraid of using facial and hair oils–cosmetic giant Shu Umera makes a legendary facial cleansing oil that has been on the market in Japan since 1967.

The Japanese spend more on cosmetics than any country in the world which has resulted in a lot of money spent on research and development, particularly for sun protection. They have a number of organic and natural cosmetic lines as well and the drugstore brands are far superior to ours…just wish we could read the labels!

Job opportunity for crazy cat ladies in Tokyo.

cats four cats threeWe went to a cat cafe…probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done and wasn’t at all what I expected, though I should have thought a little harder about this one in that most cats don’t really like people that much (Cats look down on you, dogs look up to you and pigs treat you as equals). Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience, albeit a strange one, and worth every penny of the twenty-odd dollars it cost.

First we had to find the cat cafe in a random office building in Shibuya. We headed up the stairs and to stand in the sweltering heat with an American woman and her two kids who warns us that she’s been told to wait outside until they’re ready and that the woman in charge is VERY serious. Karis and I patiently wait and thank our lucky stars that we arrived when we did as two groups come up behind us and we realize we could have been waiting a whole lot longer in the shaded but sauna-like stairwell. When it’s finally our turn, we head inside and remove our shoes…I mean this place has the feeling you get in a serious-ass temple. It’s a CAT CAFE. We are wordlessly handed two laminated sheets of instructions in English–which I would have photographed if I could have gotten away with it but I was actually scared of the cat woman and there was a HUGE sign saying no photos in the entryway. Anyway, you are pretty much forbidden to do much of anything with the cats; if you get scratched they have first aid but they can still kick you out;  if you cause any sort of disturbance they have the right to call the police as well as remove you from the premises. They also have the right to refuse you entry if you smell like another cat or of anything that may upset or agitate the cats. I’m not kidding. They take the cat thing VERY seriously, the American woman was indeed correct. You pay by the half-hour and your fee includes an obligatory drink, a small cookie and a chocolate.

When the cat lady was satisfied that we were sufficiently well-versed in the cat cafe rules we were ushered into the inner sanctum. We had to put on special cat cafe slippers and wash our hands with soap and water and then use special hand sanitizer. She watched us to make sure we didn’t cheat. We put our belongings in a special bag (no personal items allowed except a camera but no flash). We were given a time-stamped receipt noting precisely when our time was up tucked inside a lanyard…that we did not actually wear–I was waiting to see if we’d be forced to put it on (nope). We sat at our couch as directed and the assistant cat lady (who I believe was her daughter) served us our very sweet iced chai with lids. We took the lids off and inadvertently used one of them as a coaster and were reprimanded severely while the head cat lady firmly replaced the lid on top of the cup. I guess it keeps the cats out of the drinks which does make sense, though it was one of the only things that did in the entire experience.

So the cats basically hate people. They are asleep like they’re drugged but of course, I realized while we were there that cats do actually sleep quite a lot and really don’t like being fussed over. There were also several cats with white and pink collars on who were not to be touched as they had ‘sore necks’. So between the cats with the collars and the cats that hated people and the cats that were asleep in ‘tall things’ that were not allowed to be disturbed there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do. It was actually hilarious though…it’s the perfect job for a crazy cat lady. I cannot believe that people pay to do this. The place has a lovely view of the leafy streets of Shibuya but the oppressive presence of the crazy cat mother and daughter duo and the cat-themed clutter makes for a very long 30 minutes. We were hustled out 3 minutes early but Karis was ready to go. They had little cat-shaped comment stickies you could fill out and stick on the cat appreciation wall in the lobby…my daughter the shit-disturber wrote ‘The cats hate everyone’ on hers. Pretty much true…but one of the funniest and weirdest things I’ve ever done. Also, hands down, the grumpiest Japanese people I’ve ever met. Ever.

cats two cats one

Now for the funny part. In the same building is a pet store with puppies and kittens. So we go in and check them out because they’re cute and they’re actually awake. Karis asks the guy if she can hold one and, sure enough, wash your hands and it’s a done deal. So we played with puppies and kittens who were awake and liked us and it was free. Now she wants me to import the puppy back to Canada…

Don't touch the freaking cats

Don’t touch the freaking cats

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It's free...

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It’s free…

Lingerie Francaise: A History of Underwear

Lingerie exhibit

One of the best things about Tokyo is the fact that there are actually a decent number of things you can do for free or almost free. For example, most department stores have gallery and exhibition spaces and host a variety of interesting and well-curated shows. There are also other exhibits in various spaces all over the city such as the Lingerie Francaise Exhibit I saw on the weekend in Omotesando.

I read about this exhibit in the Savvy Tokyo site and thought I’d check it out. It was free but very well done and also offered a detailed brochure in English. It has some big sponsors in the lingerie world: Aubade, Barbara, Chantelle, Empreinte, Implicite, Lise Charmel, Lou, Maison Lejaby, Passionata, Princesse Tam.Tam and Simon Perele just in case you were wondering who the world leaders in underwear are.

Basically it looks like there’s not too much new under the sun. Many of the current corset styles are based on some of the first corsets made over a hundred years ago, though the invention of elastic, nylon and Lycra has made things a lot more comfortable. After WWI the corset was replaced by a bra and girdle (often custom-made) which evolved into machine-made versions that were designed to create whatever female silhouette happened to be in vogue at the time–slim hipped, curvy, hourglass. Which is where we are now…whatever your preference happens to be, there is likely a lingerie designer/manufacturer that produces your ideal underwear.

In Japan the preference happens to be very lacy and embellished (ruffles, lace, ribbons, beads) and almost always padded or heavily lined. The idea of the T-shirt bra (i.e. very smooth to allow for a clean line under a t-shirt) does not seem to be a look they are interested in exploring. Also thong underwear is not popular and is difficult to find…also very expensive. The 5 for $25 deal that is commonly seen at La Senza and Victoria’s Secret simply doesn’t exist here in the land of the rising sun. Make no mistake, there is some very lovely lingerie here but it tends to lean more towards the ‘granny knicker’ size than the ‘G-string’ end of the spectrum. Also tends to be cute (kawaii) not sexy…Karis and I actually saw a bra and knickers set made of terry cloth. Yes, for a grown-up 😉


Better. Stronger. More heat-resistant.

SweatingThe people here in Tokyo are better than me. In many ways, but one in particular: they are not wussies about the heat. If you’ll notice in the photo, which is taken inside Shibuya station, there is a woman wearing stockings and a cardigan. I took this photo on Friday. It was 34 degrees (‘feels like 42’) outside, and it’s much hotter in the bowels of the station though the actual trains are air-conditioned.

The people here are stoic. It’s almost as if they dissociate themselves from the heat, then they won’t be hot. According to a friend who lives here, dissociation and distancing oneself is a necessary survival mechanism in a city this big. I see his point…it’s pretty orderly and polite all in all, otherwise anarchy would quickly take over. Anyway, I digress. The heat is insane. Everyone carries handkerchiefs here and in the summer, it’s basically the equivalent of a small washcloth to literally mop the sweat from your fevered brow. They are quite fashionable, embellished with all manner of brand names ranging from Betsey Johnson to Kitson to Laudree (which is a French baker specializing in macarons). They also have special tissue paper that soaks the oil off your skin. However, many people don’t appear to actually be sweating at all. These are often women, dressed in full kimono or in stockings, a dress and a cardigan. Stockings, as in nylons or pantyhose…with high heels. It actually boggles the mind. To add insult to injury, most of the mid-range and cheap clothing here is polyester (an abomination from biblical times) so it doesn’t even breathe. No cheap linen and cotton from Old Navy. They do have The Gap, Zara and H&M but it’s not as affordable as you would expect, though the Japanese equivalent, Uniqulo, has some good deals.

It’s also a more formal society here so you wouldn’t be seeing casual cotton shorts and T-shirts in the city anyway. Often when women and young girls wear shorts, they wear them with stockings; sheer or skimpy tank tops are usually worn with a camisole and they have special arm gloves to protect your you from the sun should you be wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Men wear full on suits (also polyester) with long-sleeved shirts and ties and many employees and blue-collar workers wear uniforms…also polyester. It’s a bit more casual on the weekend but still, on the whole, people wear a lot more clothing despite the heat. I’m not sure how they do it… Karis and I seem to get the beginnings of heat stroke whenever we’re out for more than an hour. Maybe it’s a Zen thing? Probably not something I’ll be mastering any time soon.

Pinball for grown-ups.

Nostalgic for the bright lights and bad colour combos and the friendly neighbourhood pachinko parlour

Nostalgic for the bright lights and bad colour combos and the friendly neighbourhood pachinko parlour

I was out and about the other night, a few train stops away from Shibuya in a somewhat more residential area when I saw it…a pachinko parlour! In both of my previous apartments in Tokyo in the 90s, I was out of the CBD (central business district for those of you who have happily forgotten high school geography) where pachinko parlours abound. Bright and flashing lights, horrendous colours clashing all surrounded by banners and fake flowers.

What is this pachinko you may ask. Basically an arcade for grown-ups. The game is a lot like pinball but apparently the point is to collect up as many little balls as possible. You then exchange them for prizes on site or coupons which you can apparently exchange for cash offsite. Gambling for cash is not allowed under Japanese law. Apparently gambling for coupons that can be exchanged for cash two doors down is ok 😉

A good time was had by all.

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival_2 Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival

I went to my first official festival in Tokyo today, the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival: “The Eisa Matsuri Festival originates in Okinawa as a ritual of kyu bon (old bon), to honour the spirits of ancestors and pray for the well-being of families and the prosperity of businesses. Teodori hand dancers, sanshin three-stringed instrument players, jutei singers, clown-like characters… form a procession and dance through town to the beat of taiko drums large and small. This nationally renowned traditional event from Okinawa came to Shinjuku, Tokyo and grew into a symbol of summer. This year marks the 12th holding of the festival.”

Japanese festivals are a great way to spend an afternoon…the dancing, the music (especially the drumming) and the crowds…oh the crowds. I totally don’t recommend festivals if you are in the least bit agoraphobic, actually, I’d avoid Tokyo in general as it’s pretty much always crowded. That being said, the crowds are pretty orderly. They have tons of staff (and police) to control the flow of people, to keep passageways free and to ensure everyone can see. If you want to get closer, you just ask and you will politely be invited to step on the other side of the rope which is there to keep an open throughway. When you consider the heat (‘feels like 41 degrees’), it’s actually amazing that there are no fights, no pushing, no bad behaviour of any sort. The homeless dudes (yes, there are homeless people here) drink their sake in the shade and the families just walk on by. There was even one little blond boy who lost his mum. He was just chatting away to a policeman and some festival organizers until his frantic mum found him. No panic, just follow the “lost-child plan” though I’m sure the fact that it was a non-Japanese speaking blond kid threw them for a bit of a loop.

Apparently this festival originates in Okinawa and I was lucky enough to happen to go to Isetan department store (LOVE Isetan) where their special event space on the 7th floor was a one-day market for Okinawan specialties–food, sake, clothing, pottery and all sorts of handicrafts. Now THAT was crowded, but again, everyone patiently waits their turn to be served. No pushing. Line-ups don’t seem to be any sort of deterrent here. I guess people get used to them. I’m still not though, can’t wait in a lineup of twelve people for snacks no matter how delicious they look. There’s always a 7-11 or two on the way home…

Tokyo for everyone.

Eisa Matsura Festival participants and the Braille pathways I keep tripping over ;-)

Eisa Matsura Festival participants and the Braille pathways I keep tripping over 😉

Accessibility isn’t the first thing you would likely think of when Tokyo comes to mind; however, they’ve made a valiant effort with elevators, ramps, stair lifts and a raised Braille pathway along the sidewalk. Most packaged products also have Braille labels. Do we have that in Canada? I’m thinking we don’t but I could be wrong as it may be one of those things you don’t really notice unless it pertains to you or when you’re in a foreign country and everything is novel. Anyway, today must have been my day to notice how the Japanese treat the disabled or partially-abled. I’m not sure what the correct term is these days. I’ve been here since June 30 and scuffled around, stubbing my toes a few times, on the raised yellow sidewalks but I hadn’t seen one blind person in Tokyo using the aforementioned pathways. Today I saw four blind people–one in the subway station and three at the festival (see below). I’m not kidding AND I’m happy to report they were using the raised yellow sidewalk and it seemed to be fulfilling its purpose guiding people safely through the city and subway stations. Personally, I can barely figure out the subway stations and I can see so I have deep respect for those who navigate this crazy place with any sort of disadvantage beyond not speaking or reading Japanese.

Today I decided to go to the Eisa Matsuri Festival in Shinjuku. There was another festival in Kagurazaka but it necessitated a longer time on the subway and a change of trains and it was simply to hot to cope. Shinjuku is a no-brainer–three stops on the Yamanote Line, 160Y. It was, as usual, ridiculously hot–34 degrees but ‘feels like’ (a term I have grown to hate) forty-one degrees; however, this seems to be the way of things and I can’t simply stay inside all day.

So you’re probably wondering how accessibility, the blind, the weather and a festival all fit together. Well, the weather is simply an aside that I can’t help but mention as it is truly oppressive and hard for me to overlook. The other three do come together nicely. I’ll write more about the festival later but the coolest thing about it was that there were kids with both mental and physical disabilities completely participating in the dancing and drumming. I didn’t actually notice any difference between the kids until the one young man in the photo turned towards me and gave me a huge smile. It was a fun experience, despite the heat and I figured if they’re out in the sun dancing and drumming I should stop whining and take a few photos!

Art Attack. Ueno Park, part 4.

national museum of western art

If you’re into art, Tokyo is a great place to be. Not just Asian art, but ALL art. Back in the heyday of the Japanese economy, there were many successful companies and businessmen in Japan. Many of whom bought art. The National Museum of Western Art came to be as  a result of one of those early and inspired collectors, Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950). Matsukata was a wealthy shipbuilder, who was educated in America (Yale) and travelled widely in Europe. He began collecting in the middle of WWI and continued until the late 1920s. His goal was to create a museum to share these great works with the public and indeed, he began plans to do so; however, the economic crisis of 1927 forced him to sell the majority of his works except for an unknown number of pieces that remained stored in Europe. Many works were lost in an undocumented fire in the UK, but the French government confiscated approximately 400 works stored in France as enemy property at the end of WWII. They were housed and cared for at the Musee Rodin and eventually returned to Japan by the French in 1959 with the proviso that a museum be built to house them. Thus the National Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier, opened in 1959 to showcase the Matsukata Collection.

The museum itself is an amazing building filled with natural light, pillars to allow the free flow of air, a large ramp (instead of a staircase) from the entrance to the first floor to encourage visitors to take in the vista of the changing levels, various mezzanines and long horizontal windows. Le Corbusier created the modular system of proportions and used it to design the museum. Click here for more on Le Corbusier and his design.

So back to the museum. It was lovely, the art was beautifully displayed, it wasn’t crowded and it was mercifully cool. The had a special exhibition of rings (jewellery) from the Hashimoto Collection which was very well done as they incorporated clothing and paintings that corresponded to specific pieces which made it much more interesting…I find endless displays of jewellery and artifacts a little tedious. The Louvre comes to mind. A heathen, I know.

Anyway, this is only one of many museums with Western art in Tokyo. Last week I went to the exhibits at The National Art Center, but there’s also The Bridgestone Museum of Art (yes, the tire company) that has an amazing collection of 19th century European art; and the Sompo Japan Museum of Art (yup, an insurance company) that houses one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings and other 19th century European painters as well as Japanese artists. Not to mention the amazing collections of Asian art, sculpture, Japanese woodblock prints, contemporary paintings and installations, calligraphy and don’t forget the PAPER MUSEUM! Stay tuned…

One step closer to the nunnery. Ueno Park, part 3.

Ueno TempleApparently there are many temples and shrines in Ueno Park. This one, Benten-do is the only one I had the actual strength to visit. Based on the fact that it had a big gong in the building, I figured it was a Shinto shrine. Shinto is a general respect for all the gods…sort a pantheistic approach and co-exists easily with Buddhism in Japan.

Upon entering, there is usually a fountain to purify yourself. You are meant to rinse your cupped hands, one at a time and then your mouth. You must transfer the water from your cupped hand to your mouth, not directly from the ladle as that would make the ladle impure for everyone else. Spit the water on the ground. I don’t see people spitting that often…must be one of those customs that is going by the wayside.

You can light incense and put it the sand in the incense-burner thing (Japanese name unknown). You light it (buy it first) and then wave it around to blow out the Ueno temple 2flame but not actually blow out the flame. The smoke is believed to be powerful and healing and people usually waft it towards themselves.

When entering the main building, the offering hall, take off your shoes if it’s indoors.  Actually, you have to take off your shoes at a lot of places that are indoors in Japan, particularly temples and shrines. Approach the Offertory box and throw your coin in. If there is a gong that’s when you ring it to get the attention of the gods. Then you bow twice (some say this is when you make your wish in your heart), clap your hands twice, bow again and pray for a bit.

If you are at a Buddhist temple, there is no gong and you shouldn’t clap as you are praying to the Buddha to help you attain salvation/nirvana not to a group of gods. I guess is that Buddha does not like to be summoned by clapping or loud gongs.

There are very cool little bookmark-like things as well as things that look like cell phone charms. These are called O-mamori and are good luck charms that can be quite specific types of good luck (new job, success on exams, health, wealth, marriage, baby etc). There are also fortunes you can buy called Omikuji that are good or bad luck. Traditionally you would leave the bad luck ones at the shrine thereby ridding yourself of the bad vibes whilst the good luck ones were taken home…but apparently you can increase or multiply your luck by leaving a good fortune at the shrine (which is what I did). The wooden plaques are called ema and you write your wish on the back and hang it on a special spot at the shrine. So there you have it…what to do at a Japanese shrine or temple should you happen to run across one 🙂


Epic storms of warm water.

Lightning collageAn homage to my Thunder Bay roots. I’m not from there but both my parents are and much of my extended family lives there. They would LOVE the thunderstorms here. This is the second one we’ve had in the last few days and they are loud. Loud enough to make the house shake and the windows rattle. The lightning is blinding…check out the blurry photos. The ones that look light daylight are lightning flashes. Epic. Luckily the very kind man from the restaurant (MILAN, Italian place down the road…lucky we didn’t go far) lent us an umbrella…not that it really helped. My flip-flop fell off as we were crossing the road and it nearly floated away. The puddles are warm like bath water.