Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tastes Like Ass

Literally. It tastes like ass because it is ass.

Exploring the dining options - there are many - on the blocks fanning out from the Kurasumori Exit of Shimbashi Station, the Ajimi team came upon a little izakaya, Aoki (青樹). The owner, Aoki himself, a small, tightly built man harangued us with his bare rasp of a disappearing voice to set on down and have a heapin' helpin' of his hospitality.

Aoki's xeroxed menu highlighted a mess of bargain drinks, some of the usual yaki suspects and its main claim to fame, motsu. Motsu being innards - liver, tripe, gizzards and more - the unknown and forbidden animal parts that most Americans would throw away in a heartbeat. That is if they even had the option of throwing it away. It's often difficult to even find liver in the meat department of a US grocery store these days.

Feeling intrepid... well, perhaps we had had a few to drink before landing on the stools outside of Aoki... we decided to order something we've never tried before. There were many never-before seen words on the menu, so a random choice led to teppou (テッポー). When quizzed as to what it was, the waitress pointed vaguely "down there" and with a giggle confirmed that it was very tasty indeed.

A beer later, the plate of teppou arrived. A couple of skewers with squares of gray-white meat stuff, lightly bronzed by the grill. All in all, it didn't look bad. I offered a piece to the wiser member of the Ajimi team, who chose to demur.

The first bite - tough. The second - tougher still. Several chews into the unknown organ meat and it seemed to be getting tougher and more rubbery with each mastication. Plus, to confound matters, a not too pleasant outer layer of fibrous material seemed to be getting more straw-like as it seemed to cling harder and harder to the layer of rubber it adhered to. Imagine a bicycle tire, cut into pieces, bleached white and laid to the flame.

But I can say that it probably didn't taste quite as good as burnt bicycle tires. As teeth crushed tissue a sort of pork-funkiness squirted forth that soon began reacting on those little glands at back of the mouth above the throat that emit an acrid sourness in times of danger. You know, the ones that signal its time to vomit. Now I like my pork as funky as any swine lover does. And in the immortal words of George Clinton - "you gotta funk yo' butt." But this pork/funk/butt axis definitely tasted a bit evil.

I managed to choke the thing down and foolishly tried a second piece.

I signaled to Aoki-san and queried "OK, what animal part is this?" He grabbed me by the hand, brought me to a poster from the Japan Livestock Industry Association and gleefully pointed to a picture of unidentifiable roadkill labled chokuchou (チョクチョウ), yet another name for the unmentionable body part that lies south of the intestines but barely north of the anus. Still in some denial, yet fearing the worst, we looked it up in our electronic dictionary only to confirm the obvious.

At least now, whenever I say "it tastes like ass!" I will be speaking with some authority.

The website for Aoki is here -

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kamakura-area Restaurant Highlights

The Ajimi Team took a few weeks this summer exploring dining options in Kamakura and the Shonan beach area of Kanto. The results of our research are now available for your consideration at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Densha Otoko

There are times, particularly when the weather is dull and rainy, as it was in the days leading up to last Thursday's typhoon, when Tokyo feels like an obstacle course. Its 12 million or so inhabitants are channeled into the same tunnels and concourses, the same steaming trains, and their sole purpose seems to be to keep you from getting where you want to go. But these past few post-typhoon days have been glorious, sunny and crisp, and Tokyo has once again opened up, ours to explore, our fellow residents becoming objects of wonder.

On Saturday we decided to head to Hibiya to visit both the Japan Sake Brewers' Association and the park where we thought there was a Kyushu food festival going on. The sake brewers are located in an architectural desert around Toranomon between the fortified enclaves of the national government and the glitz of Ginza. The district is one of the few in Tokyo where the street pattern resembles a grid and it represents the triumph of efficiency over charm. The only human presence in non-business hours is the odd septugenarian moonlighting security guard. It would be a terrible place in which to be attacked by a pack of zombies but you can totally imagine it happening. Unfortunately, the JSBA was closed for the weekend but through the window we could see row upon row of nihonshu bottles as well as dusty dioramas depicting the sake-brewing process. If there's anything the Ajimi Team loves more than booze it's dioramas so we vowed to return. And off we went to Hibiya Park.

It turned out that the Kyushu festival was happening elsewhere. Instead, we followed the sound of an old-fashioned steam whistle to the 16th annual Railroad Festival. All the lively quirkiness that Toranomon lacked could be found in the surrounding few hectares of the park.

If the Ajimi Team had its entrepreneurial wits about it, it would design a series of train-related sex toys, such is the ardour that a certain (largely male) segment of the Japanese population holds for railroads. Imagine anatomically correct inflatable shinkansen cars ("Hi, I'm Nozomi. Let's go for a ride."). Cosplay subway attendant uniforms. The vibrator possibilities are endless. (NB: There are already places in seedier sections of town where you can grope simulated school girls in simulated subway cars so train-related porn is not, um, virgin territory.)

None of those kinds of things were on display at the railroad festival but it seemed that very little else had been left unmarketed. There were booths for 20 or more local and national train lines. They were selling old tickets, calendars, route maps, t-shirts, water bottles, key chains, train models, mascot stuffed animals, ekiben - the generally semi-edible lunch boxes sold at many stations, schedules, towels, socks. One booth even had a couple of rusty valves on offer. The free attractions included a wee Thomas the Tank Engine ride powered by a real steam engine (the source of the train whistle) that hauled kids and grownups around an oval track. It was also a rich environment for people-watching. One large, round 20-something lad, his waistband hiked up to just under his armpits, was marching around murmuring the names of the stops along the Yamanote Line into his clenched fist, perhaps living out a lifelong train conductor fantasy. No one batted an eye.

There were things of interest for people like us, too, you know, normal people. The Ajimi Team are suckers for "Showa retro" images of old Tokyo so we hung around the stands screening images of long-dead subway riders and vanished tram lines. We also loved the exhibit of Japan's historic wooden train stations, the subject of a recent NHK documentary series. We do love trains, just not in THAT way.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Baby Bags!

In Japanese they're called kobukuro (コブクロ). "Little bags," or as I prefer "baby bags." They've been calling out to me for some time, but a certain squeamishness would take hold every time I had the opportunity to order them. Last night the Ajimi team was in need of a low budget celebration, so we went to our favorite moderne retro izakaya in Kichijoji, Tecchan.

Tecchan (pronounced tay-chan) is a place that can't and shouldn't be missed. North of Kichijoji station is a small honeycomb of small covered alleys called Harmonica Yokocho. Dozens of little watering holes, noodle shops, a handful of boutiques and more fill this last reminder of the black market shanty towns that sprang up around stations throughout Tokyo in the immediate post-war years.

In the heart of Harmonica Yokocho, you will find Tecchan, a medium sized yakitori-ya, with ever-billowing smoke and an ever-full bubbling cauldron of motsu (innard stew). A funky counter snakes around the theatrical serving and preparation area. Two charcoal grills seem to never be empty as busy workers fan the flames with singed red fans. The best tsukune on the west side can be found here, in addition to mune, momo, negima, lamb, buta bara, miscellaneous innards and various vegetables.

All of this and a great selection of nihonshus and shochus. This is the place where the Ajimi team's love affair with Kumesen, a favorite awamori, began.

But back the the "baby bags." For some time, I had watched enthusiastic revelers chowing down on what looked like caducei of some unidentifiable organ meat. It intrigued me. It was finally revealed that these strange little curlicue meats were none other than pig uteri. I didn't jump immediately at the chance to scarf them down. But for some reason - maybe it was the moon, maybe my looming mortality - I decided, by way of special celebration, that it was time to partake of this delicacy.

At 100 yen a stick, a true deal. And raw, to boot! Slightly gray and of trembling flesh - not me, the kobukuro - in a pool of ponzu and sprinkled liberally with chives, they beckoned. The first bite revealed a mild meatiness, with a slight tooth and good give. They were a fine accompaniment to the tall glass of amakuchi nihonshu that we were sampling. With the enthusiasm of a new discovery, I offered a taste to the more demure member of the Ajimi team. She politely passed.

Map to and pics of Tecchan are available at


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Vida brevis. Esselunga!

The Ajimi Team wanted to commemorate our last night of housesitting in Kamakura (thanks again Denise and Robbie!) with a really special meal. Over several weeks we had enjoyed tasty Japanese restaurant experiences, yummy beach food, lots of good crunchy korroke, plus some marvelous meals prepared at home from local provender. We were hardly starving but we wanted to round out the dining out portion of our stay with something continental: the European continent, that is. Weeks before a friend had enthusiastically recommended a new Italian place near Hase station on the Enoden Line, started with an "I" or something, couldn't exactly remember the name. On a walk in the neighborhood the distaff member of the team stumbled across Esselunga, which fit the description. Windows overlooked a sunny garden, which was filled with culinary herbs. Yes, indeed, this was the place that our friend had recommended, and on Sunday the team settled in for a two-hour dining experience that could have occured in Rome or Florence or maybe Palermo.

Esselunga opened in spring 2009 on a sidestreet a few blocks from Hasedera. The building appears to be of fairly recent vintage but is modeled on traditional Japanese architecture: viewing the spotless wooden floor from the genkan we asked if shoes were allowed. Of course, they were, and we were escorted to a table for two overlooking the herb garden. There was just one other couple dining at 6 pm on Sunday (the room seats around 20). We settled in with the help of a friendly, unstuffy and English-speaking waiter who guided us through the selection of white wines by the glass. We selected the vermentino by Poggio di Paterno, a marvelously citrusy and slightly frizzante wine.

There were about 8 choices in each of the antipasti, primi and secondi piatti categories, chalked on a board suspended over the dining room. Choosing took some time. For starters we decided on the carpaccio of the day's fish, inada, or young yellowtail. It was served in an almost fugu-like ruffled arrangement on a large plate with fresh dill and red peppercorns, sliced leeks, lemon and a light vinaigrette accompanied by homemade foccacia and sliced baguettes. The toughest decision was the pasta course. Three varieties of homemade pasta were on offer in addition to an array of other secondi. We ordered the polenta with ragu of lamb and beef and a kind of miter-shaped ravioli (all the pasta is made on the premises) stuffed with the same ragu and topped with a sage and butter sauce. A light sangiovese accompanied the pasta course.

The pasta portions were large and delicious enough that we could have stopped there but, hey, who are we kidding? We moved on to a meat course, roasted cubes of pork paired with dry roasted potatoes. The pork was heaven, slightly fatty, flecked with rosemary and perfectly cooked. We were told that it came from a farm in Yamagata prefecture. We discovered this during a tableside chat with the chef, a young Japanese man who had studied cooking in Milano and elsewhere in Italy. The waiter, for his part, had spent some time travelling in Spain. Their combined periginations help to explain the decidely mediterranean sensibility of this place: service is relaxed yet attentive, and the dishes are perfectly executed.

We skipped the dessert course, feeling constrained by the mental calculation that the bill we were racking up was fast approaching the 12,000 yen we had with us. But we plan to go back, next time armed with (1) more cash and (2) more people so that we can savor more of what Esselunga has to offer.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hockney Days in Wadabori Koen

Somewhere in the top 5 of our personal favorite Tokyo summer phenomena (along with cicadas, butterflies, summer festivals and strawberry kaki kouri with evaporated milk) is splashing around in outdoor swimming pools. Our nearest and dearest is the public pool in Wadabori Koen, about a 10-minute bike ride from Ajimi HQ. Like most municipal pools, it opens on the first of July, about a month later than our biological thermostats tells us it should. By mid-June at the latest summer in Tokyo is literally going full steam and we find ourselves longing for a sunny pool to plunge into.

For the first few weeks each season the 50-meter pool is relatively empty for most of the day and one can spend blissful hours floating through a David Hockney world of sunlit bright blue and do actual laps without running into anyone. But as schools let out for the summer around mid-July and the heat becomes increasingly insufferable, the pool becomes a tangle of legs and floatation devices. It is then hard to advance more than a few meters without getting broadsided by a 1/2 scale inflatable killer whale. One gives up hope of doing any real swimming but surrenders to the joys of splashing around and goofing off like a 9-year-old. There's plenty of real wildlife to relate to there, as well, among the inflatable kind. Dragonflies dart along the water's surface on bright afternoons and bats emerge from the adjacent woods in the evenings. Then there are the buzzing near-corpses of doomed cicadas bobbing along in the water which we gently move to the drier pool edge as much to avoid swallowing the damn things as out of respect for their final agonies.

But my platonic ideal of a neighborhood pool is still the first one I encountered when I moved to Japan. I lived then in Urawa, Saitama prefecture, and Harayama was my local pool. The main pool was an oval course about 7 meters wide and 200 meters in circumference. In addition, there was a lap pool located within the oval and a kiddie pool with a slide. But the oval pool was the main attraction. On hot days it was packed with people walking, floating, occasionally swimming in the same direction, a great tide of humanity. In fact, the current created by this movement was so strong that it was impossible to walk against it in the opposite direction. I could spend hours in that pool, chatting with friends, watching young families float by on air mattresses, occasionally stepping out for a lunch consisting of a footlong hotdog and yakisoba. I started work around 1 pm in those days so most mornings I hit the pool and I got brown as a nut.

The Wadabori Koen pool closes this week for the season, a bit too early, of course. We could happily swim there well into October. We will hit the nearby indoor pool from time to time but it won't be the same. The mood at the indoor pool seems more geared toward the inner geriatric than the inner 9-year-old.


Monday, August 10, 2009


The arrival in the mail the other day of Bradford Peck's classic of utopian literature,The World A Department Store, got the Ajimi team seriously thinking of utopia - and why there seems to be a dearth of progressive positivist thinking toward what the future holds in store. As a bit of an exercise we challenged ourselves to think of what a 21st century utopian novel might envision and came up a bit short. Even with the huge sea-change of positive energy that hit the world with the election of Barack Obama, the hard realities of realpolitik, the legacies of the monumentally misguided misadventures of most world leaders during the last several decades and the continued intransigence and irresponsibility of anyone associated with the Republican party still makes the future appear a lot less than rosy. Dystopia seems to be the common currency.

The the crushingly damp heat and daily grayness of a Tokyo summer doesn't exactly move a mind to lofty thoughts either. One of the most memorable and enduring dystopias to catch the public imagination in recent years (1982!) is the brilliantly designed mise-en-scene of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even though the ostensible setting of the movie is Los
Angeles, everybody knows it's based on Tokyo.

The utopias of the late 19th century and of the 1960s tended to an idea of returning to the land, creating new agrarian communities - a long-held Christian metaphor of a return to the garden. Dystopia has often been associated with cities, the hard and evil urban wilderness - manifestations of the hubris of Babylon. Biblical metaphors notwithstanding, we at Ajimi believe in the possibilities of cities. Especially great cities like Tokyo.

And there have been others who have seen the potential for utopia in Tokyo.

In 1959 a group of young architects, under the rubric of the Metabolist Movement envisioned a new architecture and way of living with a vision for the future that addressed the problems of the real world - housing, movement, social and physical function. The movement itself was fractured by the mid-70s, though many of the architects involved continued on with visionary architecture. Like similar movements in England (Archigram) and Italy (Archizoom), the Metabolists embraced the possibilities of cities with a true utopian fervor.

The future never turns out the way it's supposed to. Particularly for a utopia. But monuments to these ideas, though they may become a bit worn around the edges and ultimately crumble and fade, never lose their luster.

Case in point is Kishio Kurokawa's Nagakin Capsule Tower. Completed in 1972, Kurokawa made manifest his ideas of modular construction, architecture as evolving form and solutions for mobile transitory late 20th century human kind. It's noteworthy that the tower stands quite close to the Tsukiji Fish Market, a sprawling complex that has organically created the metaphors and ideas that Kurokawa put into his building. The building at the southern edge of Ginza is now a bit forlorn and forsaken. The tenants, tired of cramped living spaces and poor maintenance are giving up on it. Though not scheduled yet, plans are afoot to tear the structure down. Kurokawa had offered to refurbish and update the units, but passed away before any of these things could happen. In a city of largely uninspired and uninspiring architecture, this brilliant failure stands out. Its Skinner box-like cubes still look stridently modern - a vision of what utopia could be. For some it may be resolutely dystopic - controlled living in brutalist boxes - but the intent was far nobler. The realities of the world tend to subvert intent. But still, it lifts the spirits to be in presence of such a vision. It may not be long for the world. When in Tokyo, be sure to give it a visit.


Click here for a recent article in the New York Times on the Nakagin Tower.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Do It for Hachiko

If you don't yet know the story of Hachiko, the Akita who faithfully -- and futilely -- awaited the reappearance of his dead master at Tokyo's Shibuya station, it will be coming soon to a theater near you.

Hachiko would trot each morning to Shibuya station with his master, Hidesaburou Ueno, a University of Tokyo professor, and greet him there after work. One day, Ueno-san suffered a fatal heart attack while lecturing. No one told Hachiko the news. The faithful dog returned daily to the station awaiting his master who would never return. Cared for by doting commuters and neighborhood folk he waited for a long time - 10 years!

There's now a mainstream motion picture out, Hachiko: A Dog's Story, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Richard Gere. The new film places the story in a New England town, but the enduring tale of faithfulness crosses all cultures. A word of caution - this same tale was used by right-wing propagandists to stoke the fires of virulent nationalism and helped lead a nation to war in the 1930s.

Wading through a wall of smoke from the ever-packed smoking area outside of Shibuya station, one comes to a pleasant little alcove where a bronze statue of Hachiko waits. It's appropriate that the monument for the dog who waited so patiently has become the most popular place in Tokyo to meet friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Hachiko was found dead on a Shibuya street in 1935. His stuffed and mounted body is now on display at the National Museum of Science in Ueno. Near Shibuya is Aoyama Cemetery where one can find a funerary monument to Hachiko near his master's gravesite. Unlike the newly spruced up and well cared for foreign section of the cemetery, where such people as William Clark Eastlake, "dental pioneer of the Orient" are interred, Hachiko's monument is rather decrepit. Not to put down the memory of Mr. Eastlake, but judging by the general state of Japanese dentistry, his legacy has not been all that impressive. One would think that the truly famous and continually inspiring canine would deserve better.

So, the Ajimi team put their heads together and came up with an idea. We would like to suggest that Mr. Hallstrom and Mr. Gere take a small portion of the profits they will make from the new movie and fund a clean-up and restoration of Hachiko's monument. Perhaps a small fund would maintain it into perpetuity? Please help us in this endeavor by contacting their respective agents and gently recommending that they pony up a bit - for Hachiko!

Lasse Hallstrom can be contacted through his agent at United Talent Agency, Tracey Jacobs -

Richard Gere can be contacted through his agent at the William Morris Agency, Ed Limato -

Below is a sample letter. Feel free to cut and past it into an email for Mr. Hallstrom or Mr. Gere - or write your own.

Dear ____,

As a devotee of faithful dog Hachiko and the spirit of loyalty he represents, I am thrilled that you are bringing his story to an international audience.

However, unlike such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Napoleon and other exemplars of civic virtue, poor Hachiko's monument has fallen into a shocking state of neglect.

Yes, there is a fine and well loved statue of Hachiko at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, but near the gravesite of his master in Aoyama Cemetery, the monument where his soul is enshrined has lain unattended for years.

I would urge you to put aside a small percentage of your profits from Hachiko: A Dog's Story to set up a fund dedicated to the restoration and continued maintenance of Hachiko's memorial.



Sunday, July 5, 2009

Making Noise

Yesterday the Ajimi Team attended a going-away party for Tony and Yasuko who are headed off for a new life in the US. The party kicked off around 4 pm at the Hachioji branch of Rinky Dink Studio, a chain of 15 rehearsal and recording spaces throughout Tokyo that musicians can rent by the hour. The party room was about 20 feet square, more than adequate to accomodate performers on one side of the room, and an audience of about 30 on the other side. It came equipped with a drum set, ear-bleed speaker columns, microphones, a sofa, and vending machines for soft drinks and beer.

Places like Rinky Dink perform an important public service in Japan where it is frequently impossible for musicians to practice at home. Our apartment lease, for example, stipulates that no instruments be played in the building, not a uke, not a piccolo. As I write this, however, a neighbor demonstrates the benefits of homeownership: we can hear the strains of "Long, Long Ago" being played on a violin next door.

In search of a place to make creative noise, the Ajimi Team has frequently taken the band to a local karaoke box where, for a few bucks an hour, you can make all the ruckus you want. The cheaper places are hardly soundproof, and it is always fun to sit back, munching on a pizza and drinking a cold beer, listening to the random orchestrations that can be appreciated while sitting in a room between a blues band and an opera singer, with some Celine Dion being screeched out in painful falsetto across the hall.

The public sector provides practice spaces, too. Suginami-ku, the Tokyo ward we live in, has a few comfortable and acoustically lovely spaces (sans beer vending machines) complete with good Yamaha pianos, amplifiers and drum sets in the basement of the Saison community center in Koenji. Any ku resident can rent these spaces for two hours for a nominal fee but they are often booked weeks in advance. The more accessible public option is the park and the park land along the Zempukujigawa, in particular, ofters plenty of quiet groves where musicians can practice in relative privacy. We've dubbed one slope that rises from the river to Omiya Hachimangu "the horn section." In fair weather one can almost always hear a trumpter or trombonist or two battling the mosquitos to work on his chops.

Meanwhile, from the farewell party at Rinky Dink, here is a video of Ice Cream Man featuring Nogio Angel singing a lament about his alcoholic roommate.

We'll miss you Yasuko and Tony! Have a lovely life in Buratobaruru.

NV and VS

Saturday, June 27, 2009

In Hot Water Again

A beautiful day in the heart of tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season - no rain, warm and breezy - greeted the Ajimi team this Saturday. A brief look-see at Sumiko Enbutsu and Mimi LeBourgeois' Water Walks in the Suburbs of Tokyo, a little homespun guide to off-the-beaten track walking tours throughout the greater Tokyo area, and we decided to take a quick train ride to Izumi Tamagawa station and explore a section of the mighty Tamagawa. The promise of finding some remnant old farmhouses piqued our inquiring minds.

First off, though, was lunch. In the shoutengai just south of the station we stopped in an unassuming soba shop, Maruya, where we found thoroughly delightful summery zarusoba to fortify ourselves for the afternoon. A short walk through the neighborhood and we hit the Tamagawa, where there was some serious teen action - grilling, flirting and showing off stuff - going on under the massive pylons of the Tamasuidou Bashi. The upriver walk took us past spits and embankments where people were fishing, wading or merely staring at the flowing water, wasting away a sunny afternoon. Makeshift blue-tarp homeless shelters hid in the sparse copses that dotted the wide riverbank, their residents sunning themselves.

Looping back into the neighborhood we followed the guidebook's directions to the farmhouses of the Ishii clan who dominate this area. It seems that since the 2000 publication of the Water Walks book, the Ishiis have done the classic Japanese thing - torn down the historic farms and replaced them with spanking new houses and apartments made of particularly repellent building materials not found in nature. Ah, well, such is progress.

Hot and sweaty, we jumped on the train and headed even further west to Miyamaedaira Onsen (宮前平 温泉). On a hill above the station in the somewhat severe suburb, sits the modern, well-appointed onsen. When the Ajimi team soaks we have three criteria that we look at - the quality of the water, the amenities and/or amusement level of the baths, and the general ambience and feel of the place.

Like many natural onsen in the Tokyo area the water that feeds the baths at Miyamaedaira Onsen is kuroyu (黒湯) - black water. Strange and wonderful, soap-silky, dark as cola, the water has a slight tingle and leaves your skin about as soft as your grandma's inner arm. There were plenty of different baths at different temperatures, a pleasant rotenburo, a sauna, a salt steam bath for the ladies, jet baths and a wonderful utataneyu (うたた寝湯) bath (the napping hot water bath) - a bath partitioned with shallow, bed-like units, with just enough hot water to immerse one's back, leaving the ventral side open to cooling breezes and the perfect conditions for a good snooze. All in all, a wealth of options with subtle variations. For a few yen extra one can take advantage of the stone bath.

In the lounge were the usual phalanxes of TV/Barcaloungers. The room was softly lit and the low sounds of piped in mood music mashed up with the patter of variety shows that bath-drained customers slept to. Ice cold beers completed the after-bath ritual chill-out.

The Ajimi team loves to get into a bit of hot water after hitting the urban trail. Country trails too. It's the only way to hike.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday in the Park with Henjin

Tokyo parks on Sunday afternoons are great places to witness all sorts of pretty out-there performances. Yoyogi Park may offer the greatest variety. The live rock bands have been exiled, making the park a quieter if less pulsating place, but there is still plenty to see along the paths through the park's interior, once you get past the wall of dancing Elvises and Elvisettes, the goth Lolitas and the pathetic "free hugs" cultists. (Why do they always look like lonely Moonies?)

But nearer to home is Kichijoji's Inokashira Park, a setting dotted with ancient trees surrounding an elongated, spring-fed pond. It's been a point of pilgrimage since roughly the 12th century since it houses a celebrated shrine to Benzaiten, goddess of love and music. It was also a favored hunting ground for the Minamoto clan and a long-time source of drinking water for Edo via the Kanda River. Nowadays people come to float in swan boats, visit the zoo, parade around with their sumptuously dressed pets, paint, neck, do park stuff. There is also an officially sanctioned group of artisans and performers on hand to entertain the public. The artisans offer fairly unexciting merchandise, but the performers for the most part are unlike anything you are likely to see elsewhere.

We first got to know Broomduster Kan a few years ago during our first visit to the park. Leather clad and playing a cool retro-looking Czech dobro, Broomduster draws rapt crowds as he cranks out energetic blues for about 8 hours a day on weekends. We have had the honor of sharing a bill with Kan-san (indoors, elsewhere) and can attest that he is in the running for the title of the hardest working man in showbiz.

Then there is the storyteller. Touhou Ikimaru (東方力丸)comes to the park each Sunday with a couple dozen manga which he lays out on the ground. Customers choose the story they want to hear -- there are love stories and histories, but most of them seem to be tales with plenty of action. Touhou rips into the story, doing all the voices, providing explosive sound effects, looking like a long-haired shaman trying to cure his patient through the power of fable. He brings his street performance to other areas of Tokyo as well, and has been featured on Japanese television and in the new Sabu film, Kani Kosen (蟹工船 or "Crab Factory Ship"), based on a manga which is based on a 1920's proletarian novel detailing the squalid conditions and crew mutiny on a fishing vessel.

Last weekend there was a new addition to the Inokashira Park performance squad. We didn't catch his name, but he seemed to be offering a stream-of-consciousness description of a ride on the Yamanote Line, stopping along the way for commentary about Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, President Bush, and Faithful Dog Hachiko. He was wearing a Popeye T-shirt and atop his head was a flu mask with the kanji for "weird" (変 or hen) markered onto it. We will return to catch his act.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fearless Eating

I don't know how I managed to get through nearly 7 years of living in Japan without discovering tamago gohan but, tragically, this was the case. Tamago means egg and gohan means rice and that is about all there is to the dish. We ordered it for the first time at Kokekokko (コケコッコ - it's what Japanese roosters say), a lively Showa-retro fashioned izakaya near the south entrance of JR Asagaya station. The waiter brought us a biggish bowl of steaming rice, a bottle of flavored soy sauce, and a bowl of eggs. We were invited to select as many eggs as we liked (two is the standard number). We cracked the eggs into a smaller bowl, whipped them up with a tablespoon or so of the soy sauce, then stirred the mixture in with the rice and a bit of chopped leek and some shredded dried seaweed. Oh man! A new favorite instantly entered the Sorrells/Vroman comfort food cornucopia.

Yes, the eggs were raw and they had been sitting unrefrigerated on the counter, perhaps for several hours. This idea has a very high ick factor in the US where we have become conditioned to fear contact with raw eggs. They are vectors of all kinds of nastiness picked up in the chicken factory and you are supposed to cook the hell out of them to kill the contaminants if, indeed, you are going to eat them at all which you probably shouldn't. The raw eggs I've eaten here (in sukiyaki, soba, and ramen as well as gohan) have bright orange yolks and taste rich and slightly sweet. And, yes, I'm still alive.

Japanese eggs are typically unrefrigerated at the supermarket, too. At more upscale markets, where 10 eggs can run $4 or more, it is not uncommon to see pictures of farmers cuddling their hens, presumably the mothers of the eggs on display or close relatives. We only buy the $2 variety so we don't get the family portrait with our purchase but we trust that our eggs come from very clean homes. Same with chicken, beef, organ meats, and other animal products which are also commonly eaten raw or nearly raw.

What accounts for this relative level of food safety in Japan? Better inspection? Smaller farms? More independent craft farming? I will look it up and get back to you.

Kokekokko (03-3220-7922) is located in Asagaya Minami 3, a few minutes' walk from JR Asagaya station, in an area filled with bars and yakitori joints. Turn right when leaving the station, follow the street that runs along the tracks for a couple of blocks and you'll bump right into it. They feature a lot of tasty and fun variations on traditional Japanese pub fare and a wide selection of shochu. They also hand out gifts to every customer: bath salts for the ladies and rice flavoring packets for the gentlemen.


Sunday, May 17, 2009


Peace dropped from the sky on August 6 and 9, 1945 in a cataclysmic rain of terror, death and destruction. Six days later the Japanese surrendered and a nation at war was suddenly a nation at peace. Of course, this peace did not come easy. Several years of military occupation and martial law imposed it. The rebuilding of a society took its time. But Japan has since enjoyed an unprecedented nearly 64 years of relative peace.

In the early 50's, as Japan was jump starting its "economic miracle," the great American industrial and graphic designer, Raymond Loewy, was invited to redesign the package of Peace cigarettes. Unlike his simple tweaking of the Lucky Strike logo - creating the most iconic* of American designs, with its clean simple typeface; its red, white and er... gray target; and its straightforward American-ness - Loewy had the chance to begin anew with a completely fresh design.

Peace cigarettes tend to bring chuckles to the foreign traveler in Japan. Who would name a cigarette Peace? Or Hope, another long-running brand? And why? One may ask why name cigarettes Now or True? Peace, the cigarette brand, had been around for a while. The whims of marketers are sometimes hard to fathom.

Loewy turned his imagination to an iconic, yet troubling, image of the dove of peace. As the hope and promise of peace was being embraced by a destroyed nation, Loewy made a beautiful, modern and streamlined representation of this ancient symbol. Steamlining and modernity were Loewy's M.O. His dove represents the inviolable march of the future - the modern world of no nonsense, no frills, no embellishments, no sidetracks. Modern design equalled honesty in his eyes. But a closer look at the design reveals a complex undercutting of the basic iconography of the image - the image of peace. The dove itself is plummeting downward. it looks almost like an airplane, or more specifically, a bomber. The dove is not falling from the sky. It is diving toward the earth. Strange behavior for the symbol of peace. The tail, feathers shaped in a V, the Great War's symbol for victory**, adds yet another layer of metaphor to the iconography. What does this dove represent anyway?

Perhaps it's the image of the allied victory over Japan. Peace from above, enforced on a nation that lost, printed on a cigarette package. In the immediate post-war period, cigarettes, one of the cheapest and most easily consumable of items, lacked the deep stigma of cancer death and health nuisance of contemporary times. In fact, cigarette smoking is still generally accepted in Japan without the social hectoring that accompanies it now in North America. The ultimate victory over Japan was the opening of new markets to the western world. The Japanese have had their moments of turning the tables on market capitalism, but in the current global recession, all nations seem to be in the same sinking boat. Nonetheless, the ubiquitous image of peace remains in the marketplace. And at about 3 bucks a pack, Peace comes pretty cheap these days.

Peace, the logo, seems to show up as a common name/theme for numerous kissaten, the classic coffee shop of Japan. In their 1960s heyday, these often homely places added a pretense of western sophistication in their third place-ness, by not only serving up a strong cup of Joe, but also by being the venue for serious jazz listening and general hanging out. Occupying a seat for hours over a single cup of coffee is not merely an instance of western imperialism of the coffee place, it's a welcome respite in keep-it-moving culture of Tokyo. And coffee and cigarettes go hand in hand. At least they used to.  Near the Bic Camera store outside Odakyu Line west exit is a lovely old fashioned kissaten that goes by the name of Peace.

The Tobacco and Salt Museum's current exhibition (until 5/29/09) is about the history of cigarette package design in Japan. Click here for more information. 

*Other classic American cigarettes, Camels and Marlboros, are much less "American" in their concepts and designs. Camels refer to the exoticism of the Middle East and Marlboros tend toward a elitism, despite their rebranding in the 60s as a cowboy smoke. Marlboros in package design and original intent speak of high class pleasures. Though it should be noted, despite image, all American cigarettes were and are marketed to the lower and middle classes.

** The index and middle finger displayed in a V sign during and after the WWII years represented victory. The image was changed by the student protest movements of the late 60s and early 70s into a symbol for peace. Nixon tried to reclaim the image as one of victory, but managed only to make of joke of it and himself. The current generation of Japanese have managed to render the symbol totally meaningless in usage in its constant display posing for snapshots.


Friday, May 1, 2009

In Praise of Korokke

Our good friend, Kiyo Marsh, is publishing a cookbook - tentatively titled  Goddesses in Grundens . The cookbook relates her experience cooking in the galley of a crab boat that she and her sister, Tomi, ran off the coast of Alaska a few years ago. Anecdotes, peppered with recipes, lore and a healthy respect for the legacy of the comfort food (fried baloney with soy sauce, anyone?) she grew up with in a Japanese-American household are the heart and soul of her new book.  She wrote us the other day asking for some background on korokke (コロッケ) - potato croquettes - one of the great and simple crossover food pleasures found throughout Japan. 

So, the Ajimi team did a little research. 

Its history in Japan is not very precise. At first thought we conjectured that it may have been introduced along with tempura by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century. But it doesn't appear to have been.

Most online sources put its introduction to Japan in the Meiji era (1869-1912). Apparently a recipe for korokke appears in an 1895 cookbook. Takaoka, a city in Gifu prefecture is making a bit of a claim as the place where where Japanese korokke started. There's a local chain there promoting Takaoka korokke and they have a winter festival at their main temple where one of the featured foods is the daibutsu korokke (the big Buddha korokke). According to the Takaoka Korokke (the chain restaurant) business website there is a reference in a newspaper dated 1900 of a western-style restaurant selling korokke - on the second floor to be exact. It makes a bit of sense as Takaoka was an important port during the early industrialization of Japan. Seems like things western could have been easily introduced there.

Moving into the Taisho era, there was a novelty hit called "The Song of the Korokke" in 1917. The song's popularity led to a popularity of consumption. This hit simultaneously with the introduction and popularization of kare risu and other things from beyond Japan's borders. We haven't found the original recording of the song, but here's a version -

Like many humble foods, there is an essence of the sublime in these mashed potato fritters. The Japanese stye can be perfectly simple or enhanced with either shrimp, crab or meat - often served with a squeeze of Bulldog Sauce, the sweet thick soy variation favored with fried foods. A personal favorite is korroke pan - your basic bun with a couple of korroke in it. We love our potatoes and bread.

Of course, we at Ajimi love our mashed potato fritters in many styles, not just the Japanese way. Noted are cuchifritos, the great Puerto Rican fast food we've found wandering the the Lower East Side in New York. Rellenos de papa (a tennis ball sized fritter of spiced meat covered with potato mash and breading) and alcapurrias (made with taro) are a couple of favorites. 

And then there's this place in Madrid that we were told had the best croquetas in the city. It's a funky little bar on the Calle de Esparteros, near the Plaza Mayor, where a copa and a plate of fritters come cheap. Little fingers of breaded bechamel creamed spuds are all they are. And yes, they are the best.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's That You Say?

The aural landscape of Japan offers many pleasures and many annoyances. Between the big black trucks trundling down Yasukunidori, broadcasting nationalist anthems and sloganeering at top volume and the general din of overcrowded urban spaces, one recognizes that contrary to the stereotypic notion of Japan being a nation of silence and contemplation, the reality is that it can be really LOUD here. When hackles aren't being raised from the general noise pollution, the Ajimi team often finds mixed pleasure - amusement tempered by amazement before forefingers unconsciously find their way into ears - in the sounds of Japan.

Among the more interesting phenomena is the hawking of products by yelling.  The most egregious must be Yodabashi, the giant vendor of all things electrical, photographic, laundromatic and gadget-errific. Take for example, the flagship store in Akihabara. Outside said store, there will be several workers shouting through megaphones about sale items. Upon entering the store, one will find more people shouting, either through acoustic or electric bullhorns, adding to the din of customers talking, and the incessant PA playing the Yodabashi theme song - a variation on the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Then, in particular sections of the store, a voice will break in over the  theme song, yelling about this or that item on sale. The din becomes overwhelming. The message is always lost.

Perhaps the most amusing are the poor workers sent out to the sidewalk with small plastic or paper megaphones. A shift of yelling oneself hoarse unintelligibly to unfazed passersby must do wonders for self-esteem and doing a meaningful day of work. But these  young workers are often relentlessly enthusiastic. Perhaps the act of doing - and doing enthusiastically and well - is reward enough. Perhaps being in the center of, and being part of a loud (think rock concert or rave) public event every day gives the hawker a pure dopamine rush.  We hope it makes up for the minimum wage. Or maybe it's just a bad cultural habit.

Recently we were in Kawagoe where we observed this young hawker hiding behind his prop. Note that the product is manju for only 10 yen. IT'S A BARGAIN!


Peoples' Theater

In Jujo, a neighborhood at the northern edge of Tokyo, the Shinohara Engeijo (篠原演芸所), built in 1951, is one of the last surviving examples of a style of entertainment that was once widespread throughout Japan. An "engeijo" is a theater or variety music hall where performers engage in "peoples' theater" or taishuengeki (大衆演劇). On a recent Sunday afternoon, guided by our friend Kokubo Shinichi, we went there for a performance by the Hasegawa Gekidan (長谷川劇団).

The performance began at 12:30, but, as we entered the theater at 11:30, it was clear why we had been advised to arrive an hour beforehand. Spectators were already sprawled out across half of the tatami area, and all of the prime seats near the stage had "reserved" signs attached. It was like a lively indoor picnic: everyone was eating, drinking and chatting in a very familial way. Hanging from the ceiling were large colorful banners with pictures of the players, members of the Hasegawa family, mainly, with a few non-Hasegawas for good measure. The mother of Hasegawa Takeya, one of the leaders of the troupe, was taking the tickets. We bought some onigiri and tea from the snack bar and sat back to wait for the show to begin.

Oddly enough, we learned just before the opening curtain that the afternoon's entertainment would include a segment on the life of Okichi, the maiden who allegedly was seduced and abandoned by the first US consul to Japan. Coming on the heels of our recent visit to Shimoda, where it was all Okichi all the time, this seemed to augur well for an interesting performance, or at least one whose general countours we would be able to follow with our limited Japanese.

But first there was the opening act which gave the actors a chance to introduce themselves and to engage in a bit of interaction with the audience. The first few segments looked a lot like voguing, with the younger and hunkier members of the troupe dancing across the stage to J-pops, occasionally pausing for a sexy pose to enthusiastic applause. The audience called out to the performers and offered them gifts: an envelope was slipped into a kimono sleeve, a bottle of health drink appeared, later a can of coffee. There was a very good onnagata (女形) act in which a middle-aged man in full geisha gear impersonated a sweet young girl.

Then came the star of the show, Aikyouka (愛 京花), wife of Takeya and co-leader of the troupe. A very appealing actress, she performed a couple of lively dance numbers, then moved through the theater, shaking hands with every one of the 100-or-so members of the audience. She later returned to the stage for a more formal Japanese dance during which an onlooker attached a fan of thousand-yen bills to her costume. After a little more dancing from the full troupe (with the aid of a smoke machine), the curtain rang down for the first intermission.

When the curtain rose again we were in the 19th-century. Shimoda Elegy -- or Shimoda Aika (下田哀歌) traced Okichi's tragic story from the arrival of Townsend Harris to her eventual death. Or, at least we assume it did. The story was told in three hour-long acts and, despite Aikyouka's lovely portrayal of the doomed woman, we could only manage to stay rapt for the first two. We left before the final denoument, after the murder of her lover but before Okichi ended up in the river.

A different touring troupe is featured roughly every month at Shinohara Engeijo, which has afternoon and evening performances (12:30 and 6:00 pm) on Saturday, Sunday and holidays, with evening performances through the week. Tickets are 1500 yen for adults and 800 yen for children. Here's the current schedule and location information along with links to other Tokyo- area Taishuengekijo in Asakusa and Kawasaki:


1. Banners outside the theater
2. An actor grabs a quick snack while getting into costume
3. Onnagata
4. Ai-san onstage
5. Ai-san works the crowd


Thursday, March 19, 2009


When going anyplace in the world, the Ajimi team always does a bit of advance research on local foods, booze, tourist attractions and the like. Shimoda is all about promoting all the Admiral Perry stuff, the Okichi - Townsend story, the onsen, but generally leaves its cuisine to the imagination. Unlike many Japanese towns, promoting either the best noodles in Japan or the best local fish (no doubt shipped from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo) the tourist literature on Shimoda tends to underplay the local dining options. This is all a bit surprising, because Shimoda actually still has the remains of a local fishing industry, kelp and seaweed beds, and a working waterfront where the locals spend lazy mornings fishing for iwashi (鰯) or whatever else may be swimming by. Plus they have a few blocks of the small town devoted to the himono (干物) - dried fish - business. When the Ajimi team popped into town on a perfect off-season day, the old heart of town had many local businesses with racks of drying cuttlefish and sardines spilling into the streets catching the sun and salty air of this famous little port.

Of course with the proximity of the wide Pacific we queried the local tourist office on where to partake of the local catch. A false start brought us to a decent but ultimately unmemorable restaurant. The second night, Friday, braving rain and wind, we hit the empty streets looking amongst the few open places for something local and delectable. And find it we did!

We noted an unassuming storefront, classically funky Japanese-style izakaya during our afternoon walk. It was one of those places that can be a true risk, perhaps gawdawful, or maybe at best acceptable, but Kanogawa (かの川) had the advantage of a posted menu describing a list of fare that we a) had never tasted in our lives and b) we were completely unfamiliar with. Always a good sign.

Sliding open the front door revealed a warm wooden room modestly outfitted with 3 tables, a small irori (open hearth) dining area and a small bar with seats for about 6 people. Sitting at the bar was the woman of the house busying herself with cleaning seaweed. Her husband sat behind the counter, watching the TV set high above the dishware-cluttered back bar. He, also, when not glancing at the tube, was attending to a large bunch of seaweed. We were their only guests the entire evening.
We asked for some local sake and were informed that there really was none, or at least none worth serving, but happily, the masters of the house were true sake lovers and had chosen about a dozen bottles, mostly from the Niigata region, to highlight the fare that came from their humble kitchen. Our hostess was more than enthusiastic in describing some favorite nihonshus, so leaving ourselves in her hands the sake poured and the feast began.

We started off with the most brilliant of otoushi. A long glass box with 3 compartments featured a classic gobo and carrot salad, vinegar-cured wasabi shoots, and an intriguing seaweed that was gathered that morning. In fact, the piles of seaweed that they were cleaning was the very stuff itself. We had never had anything quite like it. Not quite as strong as cured konbu, but not as delicate or silky as a wakame, this seaweed had a beautiful brinyness, a whisper of smoke and a satisfying tooth - just enough to give it a soft crunch. The wasabi shoots had a touch of heat, but none of the acridness that wasabi can sometimes smack you with. The vinegar was puckery and demanded a sip of sake to tame it.

We followed that with three little tokubushi (常節) - small abalones. And in great Japanese style, the little critter was served up whole, not just the foot. The faint muskiness and softness of the innards complimented the fresh chewiness of the perfectly cooked foot. After that, a small selection of bite-sized miso-cured iwashi himono. These little sundried sardines still had a bit of moisture in them, their already oily tastiness intensified by the sun and sea air.

Next came some local turban shell sea snails - sazae (栄螺) - which in the local parlance are called maimai - small blue shells where we pricked off the hard estivate and corkscrewed the tender flesh out with toothpicks.

We then ordered some locally caught kinmedai (金目鯛) as a nimono (煮物), a simmered dish.

As it took a bit to cook, our hostess brought out a little bowl of namoko (海鼠) - little bits of sea cucumber. We had seen these odd creatures in fish shops but had yet to try them. We were greeted with a light sea-y taste and an amazing texture. A rubbery toothiness turned immediately into a sort of nothingness, or rather liquid state at each bite. This relative of the sea urchin is apparently under close scrutiny from bioengineers for its ability to turn its tissue from solid to liquid and back again. There's nothing in the world quite like it.

The kinmedai arrived - a whole fish, red with a big eye staring at us, laying in a puddle of shoyu. We picked at the mildly sweet flesh, drank our last of several rounds of sake for a perfect end to the eating portion of our experience.

And then it was time for dessert.

We had noticed several large glass jugs of mysterious infusions behind the bar. In the best of izakaya traditions, Kanogawa makes their own fruit infusions. The classic is umeshu (梅酒), made from local Japanese "plums." In June every year, many bars and households put up this fruit in shochu. The Ajimi team is no different: our first batch is resting on the back of a low shelf awaiting its 1st anniversary in June 2009. Kanogawa, however, in addition to umeshu had several other fruit liquors on hand. We had a sampling, on the rocks with a splash of soda, of local yamamomoshu(山桃酒 - mountain bayberry) - delicate, with a slight astringency to its basic sweetness - and yamabudoushu (山葡萄酒 - mountain grape )- slightly more robust, with a touch of grapey funkiness.

Kanogawa is not exactly a rare find, but an important one. In a country, or rather a world, where tradition and localness have become brands - controlled and tailored to create a homogenous "experience", its always wonderful to stumble into the unhyped, unhurried and exceptional places that honestly do carry on local traditions and allow experience to become an adventure.

Kanogawa is located a few blocks from Shimoda's waterfront, a 3-minute walk from the train station, at Shimoda 1-12-22. Telephone 0558-22-2649. No English is spoken.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Searching for a taste of the sea

South of Tokyo the Pacific seashore is mostly encased in concrete. This concrete was ostensibly poured to control erosion, but, along with massive dam projects, river channelization, and the general de-naturing of many of the country’s once wild and beautiful places, the disfigurement of Japan’s seacoast has mainly served to stave off erosion of the national public works budget. Thus, one has to travel several hours by train from the metropolis to find a relatively unspoiled stretch of ocean.

Eager for some contact with the Pacific, we headed for the Izu peninsula. At its northern end, the spa town of Atami is another testament to overbuilding. The highrise hotels and endless crowded shopping streets -- not mention a storied red-light district -- have managed to obliterate whatever natural features might have attracted visitors there in the first place. But head farther south along the eastern coast and the towns become smaller, the buildings shorter, the views of unspoiled seashore more frequent. By the time you reach Shimoda, it is possible to imagine what life in that part of Japan might have been like 150 years ago.

In Shimoda, making you imagine the historic past is the main touristic purpose. It was here, in 1853, that the Black Ships (kurofune – 黒船 – in Japanese), a fleet of American vessels led by Admiral Matthew Perry, sailed into port, the key event in opening Japan to American influence. The Kurofune/Perry theme is omnipresent. So is the story of Townsend Harris, the first US consul to Japan, and the Japanese maiden Okichi. The most romantic legends have it that Okichi became Harris’ lover and right hand for many years, only to be abandoned once her usefulness was over. Other tougher-minded historians claim that Okichi lasted but a few days in Harris’ employ, only to be tossed out on suspicion of having syphilis. She may or may not have run a bordello after that (or was it a saloon?), and may or may not have committed suicide in her early '50s (or did she just fall into the river in a drunken stupor?). Whatever the real tale, local tourism promoters never let the facts get in the way of a marketable story. The Harris/Okichi story has become a cottage industry. (You may recall it as the subject of the film “The Barbarian and the Geisha” starring John Wayne as Townsend Harris). There are also some lovely remnants of 19th-century streets and buildings to stroll around in while you take in the lore.

But of course the Ajimi Team was mostly there for the food. All along the Izu coast one sees signs for himono (ひもの), fish of one kind or another that is dried in the sun, with or without flavorings such as miso or salt. Kinmedai (金目鯛) is another heavily advertised local specialty. This version of tai, or sea bream, is served in many ways, including stewed whole or atop kamameshi (釜飯), a hearty dish which usually combines rice, vegetables, mushrooms and meat or fish which is then baked in a metal bowl. We also tasted wonderful wakame (若布), fresher than we’d ever tasted it, pulled that day from the sea, and were introduced to fresh nori in its original red state in our miso soup. Overall, Shimoda is not a grand dining destination but we found a few excellent izakaya (居酒屋)and shokudo (食堂)that served up memorable meals built around local products. Snails were eaten. More on that in the next post.

Photos, top to bottom:

1. The Pacific coast from the seaside walkway south of Shimoda

2. Harvesting wakame

3. Kinmedai and ginmutsu (Japanese bluefish)


Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Ajimi Team in the Japan Times

Howdy, y'all. Please take a look at our recent article about the Tokyo bluegrass scene:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jōmon Style for the 21st Century

The Jōmon (縄文) people of ancient Japan may have hit their aesthetic heights at about 2,500-1,500 BCE. Jōmon means "twisted cord" and refers to the distinctive decorative style that marked their ceramics. As any dynamic art, their ceramics developed from the small lightly decorated rough pottery of their early period (roughly 10500-1,200 BCE) to massive and ornate storage and cooking pottery marked by intricate patterns and fancifully fluted lips and brims. These "prehistoric" folk certainly left a historic legacy throughout Japan with bits and shards of their distinctive pottery - which are generally accepted to be the oldest known functional ceramic ware in the world - for future archeologists to speculate upon.

The Ajimi team was out strolling a bit ago in Takaido-Higashi through a little park off the mighty Kanda when we came to a little plaza strewn with some classic/contemporary examples of Jōmon clay work. 

Individual stools, with faux reconstructed body sherds, shaped in classic inverted cone of Jōmon ware were planted solidly into the paving stones along the edges of a small plaza.  The collars were etched in a simple pattern referring to early period Jomon style. Two opposing curls of clay referred to primitive handles, binding the seat tops into a graceful whole. The seat tops were glazed to protect the fired clay from the elements. Glazing was unknown to the Jōmon people.

Next to stools was the Jōmon ashtray. Again in the distinctive inverted cone coil construction of much of Jōmon ware. This oversized object highlighted simple yet pleasing castellations on the edges of the collar. Spare and tasteful decorations made by pressing a twisted cord or piece of rope graced the body of the free standing ashtray.

Perhaps the highlight of the ceramic pieces was the drinking fountain. Again in the classic conoidal style of middle period Jōmon ware, the surface was beautifully decorated, the collar simple and functional - as befits a contemporary simulacra of a spring for potable water.

And last, but not least, the garbage can. A bit more Baroque in decoration, referring to late middle style, the shape was more of an inverted bell. The modern and Duchampian touch of a bicycle rim was not only fanciful and art historically resonant, but functional - a great way to keep crows from making a mess of refuse.

Some smart ideas for the 21st Century.  These pieces of public furniture were part of a permanent display that also included a reconstruction of a Jomon hut (Tokyo residential designers take note - these ancient people certainly had better ideas than most of what passes for housing design in contemporary Tokyo apartments) and an information center/museum where the Ajimi team could marvel at genuine pottery on display.


Friday, January 16, 2009


Shortly after the New Year, the Ajimi team took a trip to Enoshima (江ノ島), a little island just south of Kamakura, accessible by a short walk across a long bridge from the mainland. Sometimes referred to as the Mont-Saint-Michel of Japan, it, like the noted French Island, is overrun with tourists, yet still holds a certain enchantment behind the clutter of souvenir shops and tourist cafes and the special way certain shrines maximize profit where there are guaranteed to be a lot of visitors.

Benzaiten (弁才天), one of the seven lucky gods, is the mistress of the island. She's the one in charge of everything that flows - water, words, music, money and sometimes, love. Jostling with the streaming crowd up the bustling shopping street (where curiously many shops sell padlocks amongst the tchotchkes, dried fish products and senbei) one reaches the vermillion torii demarcating the entrance to Enoshima jinja (江島神社), a shinto shrine promoting Benzaiten, a Buddhist goddess.  There's a place to wash one's money under her watchful eyes and for 200 yen one can enter a pavilion where you can see her naked - a lovely and rare sculpture of the goddess unclothed.

Perhaps this bit of titillation is to get one into the mood for love. We humped our way up the hill beyond the jinja past hucksters, through crowds to Okutsunomiya (奥津宮) shrine, where one can see an image the all-seeing turtle seeing all.

Just a bit down the path and to the left a solitary souvenir shop stands, doing brisk business selling padlocks. It's here where couples make their purchase and walk arm in arm up a path to a bluff overlooking the Pacific. A small pavilion on a cement platform houses a bell. Festooning the low cyclone fence on one edge of the platform are locks. All kinds, from simple padlocks to bicycle locks, each sharpie-inscribed with  statements of enduring love, from the simple x loves y to perfect haikus and longer tomes. And it is here where they attach their own.

This is Lover's Hill (恋人の丘), a relatively recent - sometime in the 1960s it seems to have started - promotion that's now become tradition. As the story goes there was this dragon god, Ryujin, who was seriously bugging the mortal folk living on Enoshima. Benzaiten stepped in and vowed to marry Ryujin-san, but only if he left the island and people of Enoshima alone. She may have had other motives - judging from the dragon that guards a cave/shrine near Okutsunomiya. Whatever, the story's a good one and now a few generations of young and old lovers have made the pilgrimage to Enoshima to hang their locks of love, ring the bell, and slyly pocket the key, just in case. As the fences get filled to capacity, they're taken from the posts and laid on a nearby path, creating a lovely found sculpture to modern love. The bodies and shackles of layers and layers of locks, rusting and slowly returning to the earth.