Quirks and Cool Stuff

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ

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…

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.

Ueno Park is big. Part 2.

liliesThe water lilies are amazing! It’s like a forest of water lilies if you can have such a thing. Apparently Ueno is not the best part of town…lots¬†of sex shops and weird bars but not really an issue during the day. I did meet a very friendly transvestite whilst admiring the water lilies, but she/he just wanted to know where I was from, if I liked Japan and if I needed any help finding anything. On my way to the Shitamachi Museum there was an area with people selling used goods. It looked like a bunch of junk so I didn’t spend much time. Also it seemed that there were mainly drunk men hanging out in the area.

Back to the water lilies. I had no idea they could get so tall. They cover the entire pond/lake and are a lovely oasis of green in the middle of the (sort of dirty) city. The wave around in the breeze and the light is amazing. Monet would have appreciated them ūüôā

Ueno Park is big. Bigger than I remembered. Part 1.

ShitamachiAnother art gallery/museum day today. It was ridiculously hot and the museums are like refrigerators so I thought it would be a practical expedition. I had taken¬†a few notes on Ueno Park earlier and noticed that there were a lot of museums there AND quite a few temples and shrines as well. It never sounds that big on paper. I think it would realistically take a few days to see them all. It’s huge. Like Stanley Park but with museums. Maybe bigger.

I headed out at 1pm, paid my 200Y and hopped on the Yamanote line which is the circle line that goes around the city. It’s above ground and I wanted to check out the scenery which is why I chose it instead of the subway. So arrived at Ueno and thought I’d head to the Shitamachi Museum first (free with my Grutto pass). Exiting the station, the heat is like a wall…so ridiculously hot.

The Shitamachi Museum was pretty cool. Very small. It’s a replica of what the area would have looked like in the Edo period showing houses that ordinary people would live in as well as the merchant class and the working class. Much like the old-fashioned street scene at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. Sorry the pix are a big blurry but I couldn’t use the flash. You could actually take your shoes off and walk around in the rooms. Very little floor space¬†but super-organized. Not that I expected anything less ūüėČ

Camellia oil. Best. Thing. Ever.

Camellia oil from your local grocery store :-)

Camellia oil from your local grocery store ūüôā

I read about Tsubaki¬†(camellia oil) first on the Savvy Tokyo blog and decided to try it out. It’s a great emollient with Omega-6 and 9 essential fatty acids and easily penetrates the skin. It’s very light with no fragrance. You can use it on hair and skin and apparently it is the traditional Japanese beauty secret behind thick shiny hair and wrinkle free skin. It’s from Japan, hand-picked and the oil is cold-pressed.

I got some at one of the cosmetic superstores though they sell it at the grocery store too, where, incidentally I got a great sports bra for $7 today. The Tsubaki oil is about $8 and apparently lasts a long time. I used it on my hair last night and it is a bit less frizzy…which is amazing considering the humidity was at about 87% today. According to some of the reviews it takes a while to build up in your hair. Read about it here. I’ll keep y’all posted on the frizz-defying qualities. If it works I’m importing a tanker load of it!

Department stores like you’ve never seen…

View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya

View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya

The department stores here are epic. There’s not really any other way to describe them. They’re huge…4-10 floors including a basement and possibly a sub-basement or two. They usually have food like groceries as well as take-out boutique-style food. I mean serious food here…all kinds of Japanese food, Korean barbecue, French patisseries, Italian delis, butchers, bakers, fromageries, chocolatiers…it’s quite something. Anyway, the food does not stop here. There are usually cafes and restaurants interspersed amongst the floors in case of starvation…think high-end food court. There are often art galleries and museums on the top floor as well as public spaces and sometimes even theatres and movie theatres. Up until today I’d only been shopping but today I did my first gallery tour at Hikarie Shibuya. I saw an exhibit on Japanese puppets (amazing), an installation on travel with various ‘objets’ and a modern art exhibit. Hikarie has two floors of restaurants and cafes. And it was packed.

I guess having such a huge population supports stores like this…think Holt Renfrew (10x bigger) with about 20 stores in the downtown area. For the most part, most department stores¬†sell fairly high-end goods and many are boutique style, housing top designers within each store. They usually have a gift section and a kimono department in addition to the usual fashion, household goods, and beauty ¬†departments. The customer service is amazing…if you go right at opening time (usually 10 or 11am), all the staff stand at the door and bow as you enter. They also bow whenever they leave the floor by turning to face outwards, bowing (even when there is no one there) and then going through the door. You rarely have to wait…if they see a lineup forming clerks will rush to a till to serve you…so that you, the honourable customer (o-kyaki sama), does not have to wait. It’s quite radically different from shopping at the Bay.

Here are some of the big ones; Marui;¬†Parco Shibuya¬†and Shibuya Hikarie¬†Isetan, Keio¬†and Odakyu¬†in Shinjuku;¬†Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, Matsuzakaya,¬†Printemps and Takashimaya¬†in Ginza; Seibu¬†and their partner stores Loft¬†(my favourite in terms of affordability and selection for household, beauty and paper) and Muji;¬†¬†Shibuya 109 (horrendously loud on the weekends); Tokyu; Tokyu Hands¬†(which is like Michaels on steroids); Tobu in Ikebukuro; and Daimaru. That’s not to mention the stores that specialize in health and beauty aids; the 100 yen stores like Daiso¬†(which we have in Richmond); and all the designer boutiques that are at least 2-4 floors. There’s a lot of stuff to buy here. It’s hard to resist…already checking out the price of suitcases to haul my prizes home ūüėČ

Sumo in the neighbourhood

For those of you who don’t know much about sumo… It’s an ancient art based on the Shinto religion and sponsored by the Japanese Imperial Court. The successful top-tier sumo wrestlers¬†makuuchi¬†have rock star status in Japan. They can be demoted if they lose but the grand champion, Yokozuna,¬†cannot be¬†demoted; he’s expected to retire if his performances get sloppy. They bow, throw salt (purification) and throw their hands up (Hey guys, I’m unarmed) before they start. Matches are pretty short and whoever pushes the other guy out of the ring first wins. Weight is important and the athletes in the training stables eat a high-calorie stew called¬†Chanko Nabe.¬†There are many training stables in the Ryogoku section of Tokyo as this has been the centre of sumo for over 200 years. There are also many restaurants serving¬†Chanko Nabe if you’re interested in trying it out.

All that high-falutin’ sports stuff aside, there was a charming sumo tournament for kids in my ‘backyard’ sumo ring on Saturday. Cutest thing ever! Anyone could try. Even girls, though women are not allowed to compete professionally. And one intrepid toddler who fought everyone and was either indulged by a kindly older child or simply pushed over immediately. One girl beat about four boys. They all cried. She laughed and walked off with her prize watermelon and her somewhat bemused parents who weren’t sure if they should be proud or horrified. A good time was had by all–except the little boys who were pushed out of the ring by the little girl in the pink dress ūüėČ

Heads up to the sumo world...the toddler and the little girl are the ones to watch. They've got HEART!

Heads up to the sumo world…the toddler and the little girl are the ones to watch. They’ve got HEART!