Friday, March 30, 2012

charting beauty

This is not good! This graphic shows the percentage of cherry blossoms in Tokyo that will come out and stay out and just be their pretty little selves over the next three weeks. See that middle bit? The peak? Those days in early April when the city will look like it's been dusted by the gods with pink confetti? Like a giant cotton candy machine exploded? On those days, we will be in Vietnam. Which is a great thing, amazing opportunity for all of us, blah blah blah, but, well, shit.

The website shows what's happening with the blossoms and when across the whole country. Sigh.

waffle house

Avenue Cafe in Hiroo is a lovely little spot but a complete waste of money if you bring kids who don't eat salad or drink coffee or know a good Croque-monsieur when they see one.

My set lunch featuring the above "ham & cheese waffle" included salad, a small bowl of plain yogurt with berry topping and a hot drink, all for 1,200 yen. Not cheap but pretty standard for this town. And delicious. My boys, on the other hand, insisted on ordering plain waffles a la carte (900 yen each, with powdered sugar and side of whipped cream) followed by chocolate waffles (930 yen a la carte). Would've been better to get the waffles to go and eat them in the park. Takeaway prices range 250-290 yen.
Avenue Cafe is located at 5-15-20 Hiroo, Minato-ku, on Gaein-nishi dori next to Sunkus, and close to Bondi Cafe. Tel 050-3328-6043, somewhere between Hibiya metro station exits 1 and 3.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

what's on at MOMAT

The most interesting thing about the Jackson Pollock Centennial Retrospective, happening at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo now through May 6th, is that it includes works from New York's Museum of Modern Art as well as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Stop nuclear proliferation, let art bring us together! Give drips a chance.

In his review in Metropolis, C.B. Liddell writes that the show's centerpiece, “Mural On Indian Red Ground" (below), on loan from Iran, "is something of a cultural hostage," having been purchased by the Shah when the country was Westernizing itself - a push that halted with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nowadays, the painting - recently valued at $250 million and considered JP's most valuable work - is generally kept out of sight, stored underground with other "decadent" Western works. I bought the poster.

Mural on Indian Red Ground, Jackson Pollack, 1950

If you do go, don't forget to explore the rest of the museum. Particularly "Tokyoites," black and white street photography from 1966 shot by Takanashi Yutaka; screen paintings of old Edo, and Momat's own vintage museum posters, advertisements for 50 years' worth of exhibitions.

image from "Tokyoites" collection at Momat

Momat is located next to the moat and walls of the Imperial Palace, so you can combine a museum visit with some springtime cherry blossom viewing and stroll through the fabulous Kitanomaru park, featuring gleaming white gatehouses and enormous dry-stacked stone walls (as in no mortar, amazing to behold, much like a wooden temple roof that fits together without nails). Take the Hanzomon line to Kudanshita, exit 2, walk up the hill and enter on the left; you'll pass the Budokan (where you may start singing "Surrender" on sight) and a pretty decent children's science museum. More directly, take the Hanzomon line to Kudanshita and transfer to the Tozai line for Takebashi, exit 1B. 

Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
3-1 Kitamaru koen, Chiyoda-ku
Tel: 03 5777 860
Museum is closed on Mondays.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Scramble in the rain

On a wet Friday night in Shibuya crossing, virtually everybody's got a brolly, and almost all of them are made of clear plastic or pastel cloth. Why do New Yorkers insist on carrying black umbrellas? It's so depressing! (Or have things changed since I've been gone?)

Sorry for poor-quality pics - I shot these with my iphone inside the Shibuya station passageway connecting the JR side with Mark City. Click on an image for a (marginally) better view...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bee-roo and classy broads

Saw these hanging in the window of an izakaya somewhere in the back streets of Yoyogi Uehara...

Where can I get one??

Thursday, March 22, 2012

'Haunted' Tokyo tour

It'd been a while since I had a good ladies' day out, and this one, a "Ghosts and Goblins of Old Tokyo" tour organized by some moms from school, sounded too good to pass up. We assembled one recent bright sunny Wednesday morning outside the Inaricho metro station, one stop past Ueno on the Ginza line, in Taito-ku. From there our guide Lilly took us to all sorts of places, briefing us on temple traditions and regaling us with tales from Japanese folklore. Stops on the tour included:

-A lovely little Shinto shrine guarded by Inari, the fox deity. Here's Anna and Sandra leaving the premises:

-Hokusai's final resting place. That's right, the bones of the ukiyo-e master who died in 1849 at age 90 are at the Seikyo-ji, a Buddhist temple in Asakusa. The gravestone is engraved with the characters for gakyou ryojin, meaning "old guy, crazy about painting." I happen to be a big fan of The Wave," which Lilly held up for all to see. Then, looking around to make sure the coast was clear, she unlatched the side cabinet door to show us a secret inscription that has Hokusai promising to return "as a ball of light, floating around Tokyo." (A haunting!)

-A kappa shrine in Kappabashi, built in appreciation for the sometimes good, sometimes evil aquatic creatures who, back in the day, help pave the way for the area's commercial prosperity. How did they do it? By helping the locals dig drainage ditches, hence solving a chronic flooding problem caused by proximity to the Sumida river.

The kappa like to eat cucumbers, hence the offering, above. It's also why the Japanese name for the cucumber sushi roll is Kappamaki.

-statue of a kappa water sprite in the process of morphing into a human boy, which according to legend they would sometimes do when they weren't dragging unsuspecting women into the water to have their way with them, or otherwise attacking people. (Lilly said something about the kappa enjoying a certain tasty morsel of human flesh from a specific part of one's anatomy but I won't say any more, it's too ridiculously gross.) This particular kappa seems harmless though, and the only remarkable thing on this otherwise nondescript 25th block of Matsugaya 2chome, a few steps off the main drag of kitchenware town.

-A hokora (mini shrine) guarded by sacred toads, to whom those suffering from eczema and other skin ailments pray for relief:

See the toads piled up inside the shrine? each one was inscribed with a message, written in ink.

-the Chingodo shrine in Asakusa, dedicated to the incorrigible Raccoon dog, a.k.a. Otanuki-sama, as he is respectfully called, who is depicted here resting on top of his own over-sized testicles, like a stool. I am not making this up. Lilly said!
Apparently the shrine was built to appease these rascals, who were known to cause trouble. Legend has it that the locals has to grant them some sort of divine power to protect people from fire, so they had status and would act accordingly. Also on these grounds: a lovely Boddhisattva statue (below). Those tiny babies in protective red caps, gathered at her feet, represent the spirits of aborted fetuses and other dead children. Behind the statue is a private fenced-in Zen garden, accessible only to the nearby Senso-ji temple's abbot and his acolytes.

-Ubagaike, a.k.a. Old Hag's pond, or, rather, what remains of it today, that is to say a concrete basin next to a child's playground in Asakusa. The site is said to harbor the spirits of a wicked innkeeper from the 7th century, and the daughter she accidentally killed. The innkeeper would trick guests into sleeping in the "stone pillow" room, then let loose a boulder hidden in the rafters, which would drop on their heads, killing them while they slept. She did it in order to rob them. But one night the rock crushed her daughter instead, and the innkeeper, in her rage and grief, dragged the body to the pond and dumped it, and drowned herself. This story has inspired kabuki plays and at least one horror film.

-Senso-ji, said to be Tokyo's most famous and most frequently visited landmark. According to Lilly some 30 million people visit the temple every year (only 18 million go to Vatican City). The origins of the temple have to do with two fishermen who netted a statue of the goddess of mercy, and, try as they might, could not throw her back, and in seeking council from the town leaders, it was decided a temple honoring the goddess should be built. Like most landmarks in this city, though, the original wooden structure is gone, having burned down during the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII. What's there is a replica of the original, made from reinforced concrete with a titanium roof.

For her grand finale, Lilly performed a quick "exorcism" at the cleansing station outside Senso-ji, which is to say she demonstrated proper purification, a ritual practiced by virtually every visitor to this place: you fill the cup of the consecrated water, pour it over your left hand then your right hand, splash some on your lips and mouth (but don't drink), dump the excess in the gutter (not back into the basin) and tip the cup so that whatever remains runs down the handle, cleansing it. For good measure we made a quick stop at the big incense urn, where lots of smoke was curling off the tips of burning sticks stuck in sand. Lilly waved the smoke over her head, and said this is believed to help boost one's IQ.

Nourished by so much new information, I peeled off from the group and headed down Nakamise street, crowded with souvenir shops, so wonderfully kitsch. It's almost hanami time!

For more info visit the Haunted Tokyo Tours website.

worth saving room for

Behold the chocolate caramel with salt flower ice cream, a house specialty at Benoit in Jingumae on Aoyama dori.

A lovely place to take someone on their birthday. Entrees and apps also nice.

Benoit Tokyo
La Porte Aoyama 10F 
5-51-8 Jingumae 
Shibuya-ku Tokyo 
Tel +81-3-6419-4181

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

after school snack

The smoothies from the Dean and Deluca in Shibuya station are so small, it seemed only fair to allow the boys to have two. Of course, double dose means double the risk of a brain freeze!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Yamagata Zao

Conor and Dylan, and what's left of the Ice Monsters, March 2012

This is a great place for families. We stayed at the Zao Astraea hotel, which practically sits on the Yokokura Slope, on the far side of the resort. It's well situated next to a series of short lifts that lead to the big gondola, or rope way, that takes you to the summit where you'll find a whole mess of Juhyo, the area's famous ice-covered monster trees. It's because of these monsters that this resort draws busloads of tourists, and they don't need to be carrying skis or a snowboard to gain entry to the top, and in fact it's those folks who get to go to the front of the line. So in a way we were lucky that by the time we made it to Zao, the second weekend in March, the scenery was past its prime, there were few tourists about and not that many skiers either. No waiting for the rope way from Juhyo Kogen station, or any other lift for that matter.

In photos, the Juhyo look pretty incredible, like something out of Lord of the Rings, all lumpy and twisted and hunched. In person, having shaken off some of the snow, the trees still looked pretty cool and Tolkien like. Doesn't this one (below) look like a wizard in a white cloak?

How they form: extremely wet snow from the Sea of Japan is carried by the Siberian jetstream over the Asahi Range, where it is compressed and cooled, turning into particle ice, which then slams into the central Ou Range and glues itself on to these Aomori fir trees. What we didn't see:

The boys were not that impressed with the summit until we pointed out the Jizo statue, buried up to its neck in snow, the tip of his sceptre poking out next to the offering box. If you pat the head of a Jizo, does it bring you good luck?

The same Jizo in summer:

From the top there we skied the Zangezaka Juhyogen course, and ended up doing a stretch of moguls that turned out to be part of a black diamond run - a first for the boys.

The other side of the resort had some decent runs as well. We found a ski school for Conor and Dylan at the Zao Base lodge Jupeer, next to the Uenodai Slope (marked No. 5 on the resort map). Their instructor, Yoshida, whom we called Yoshi-san, spoke excellent English, though we paid a premium for that - 15,000 yen for 2 hours, private.

Before he could get started, though, he had to coax them out of this ice cave.

To get to Zao, we took a JR train from Ebisu to Omiya (40 min on either the Saikyo or Shonan-Shinjuku line) then transferred to a shinkansen on the Tsubasa line. From Omiya to Yamagata takes about 2 hr., 15 min., and you stop at Fukushima along the way (the city, not the troubled nuclear power plant). Here's what looks like a taxi waiting area outside Fukushima station:

After arriving at Yamagata station, you can take a coach bus directly to the resort, only 980 yen per adult, 490 yen per child for the 30- to 40-min journey. Take the East Exit to bus shelter No. 1, and a guy in uniform will put your luggage in the cargo hold and point you to the ticket office. (I'm sure this was way more comfortable not to mention cheaper than if the four of us had tried to cram into a not-quite-big-enough Japanese taxi.) The bus dropped us at the Zao Onsen bus terminal, a small place with restrooms and vending machines and an info desk. We called the Astraea hotel, and somebody sent a van to collect us and take us 5 min. further down the road.
 Killing time at the bus station

We slept in Western style beds - four singles in one spacious room - and our package deal - 21,800 yen per adult, 15,900 yen per child - covered the room for one night, lunch and dinner on the Saturday, breakfast on Sunday, 4 hot coffee tickets redeemable at any restaurant on the mountain, and lift tickets for 2 days.

Dinner was Japanese Cuisine 101: tuna and salmon sashimi with shredded daikon and chiso leaf; broiled eel in a brown sauce glaze, stick of ginger root lying on top; cold soba noodles swimming in sweet soy with rings of green onion; fatty slices of raw pork on a bed of cabbage, ready for boiling in the shabu-shabu pot placed in the middle of the table; a basic white fish and shrimp, fried tempura-style; and plenty of pickles and white rice. The boys would only eat the pork shabu-shabu and rice, so Terry and I let them have at it, as there were enough other dishes to go around.

And then there was the onsen. I'm sure there are more traditional onsen to visit in the area - the resort is called Zao Onsen after all - but our hotel had its own, and it was more than suitable (I'll never forget the ladies kneeling by the famous but tiny village bath in Nozawa Onsen, using plastic basins to do the required pre-soak cleansing, as there was no place else to go - these hotel onsen really spoil you, with their individual shower stalls with big bottles of shampoo and body soap). Anyway, ahhhhhh... there's nothing like soaking sore muscles in a mineral bath after a day of skiing. That's something we'll surely miss once we leave Japan. (Funny, you get used to the nudity - women are with women, men with men, so it's no biggie.) Bathers had two options: a basic rectangular pool facing a big picture window with mountain view, late afternoon sun streaming in; or the pool lined with big rocks, exposed to the open air, also facing the sunshine. I chose that one, because it put me within an arm's reach of the snow and the trees (there was some fencing for privacy, but if you stood up you could see a parking lot). Usually these baths are way too hot for me, but the rocky one, steaming against the chill of the outdoors, was manageable.

Hotel Astraea 
Tel: 023-694-9603
Note: Only few on staff speak limited English; best to have Japanese speaker make contact.
Zao Onsen Tourism Association Tel: 023-694-9328
Zao Ski School at Jupeer, Uenodai slope, Tel: 023-694-9381, English language lessons available

Tip for viewing the ice monsters: If you're not staying at Hotel Astraea and are coming from Yamagata station by car, you can park near the Zao Sanroku lift station, marked No. 1 on the resort map, and take that up to the Juhyo Kogen station, and on to the summit from there.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

one year on

Today is the anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, a series of events that began with a big jolt at precisely 2:46pm. Conor, who was 10 at the time, huddled under a table in his classroom in Tokyo to wait out the shakes. He says he'll always remember that as "a moment of pure terror."

We are in Tohoku this weekend, skiing, in Yamagata, west of Sendai, far from the coast that still bears so many reminders of the tsunami's destruction. The resort is called Zao, and it's famous for its mountainside of trees that turn into "ice monsters" for a couple months every winter. We are too late to see them in peak form. In late January-early Feb they were entirely covered in snow, but now they're not. Branches and pine needles are visible, but it's all fantastic as far as we're concerned. We just feel lucky to be here.

It's a shame that the name Tohoku has become synonymous with so much suffering and loss: some 20,000 people dead, another 340,000 people displaced. According to this article, 263 fishing ports were destroyed. It will be several years before these communities come back, if they come back at all. For a good summary of where things stand and the difficulties going forward, read this article in The Japan Times.

Today, for us, Tohoku is a place where the four of us can be together as a family, and a reminder that we should never take anything for granted, least of all each other.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

catch and eat

At Zauo Fishing Boat Cafe in Shinjuku, you fish for your food, with hooks and lines. When you've nabbed one from the tank (it's not very deep) the waiter takes your catch into the kitchen and a few minutes later, you have a plate of sashimi or fried fish in front of you.

What does it say about us that we laughed when we noticed the recently filleted sea bream (snapper?) was still moving, right there on the plate, just the bones and a head and fins, and were not at all put off by it. The fish was feeling no pain, Terry said, and I had no reason to doubt him.

Zauo Fishing Boat Cafe is located at 3-2-9 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku, inside the Washington Hotel, 1st Floor. Tel: 03-3343-6622

Thursday, March 1, 2012

sage advice from savvy business traveler

Email from my husband to my brother who's coming to Tokyo next week from New York:

The [Narita express train from the airport] splits at Tokyo, with half of the cars bound for Yokohama (south) and half for Shinjuku (north), so you can take the N'EX 30 (or the 32 or the 34) and get off at Shibuya or Shinagawa.  Just go to the counter and tell them Shibuya and they'll give you a seat in a car going to Shibuya - just make sure you sit the designated one (it'll say on the ticket and the clerk will helpfully / painstakingly point it out).  You can pay with a credit card.

But really either station is fine - it's not that far to the Westin from Shinagawa, although it will be more than 1,000 yen.  It could be more from Shibuya as well, so you should take out money at the airport (if you forget you can use a credit card, by the way).  Just say "Card-o OK?" and look apologetic.  If they say bakka gaijin that means that they are welcoming you to their country with open arms and hoping to see you in their cab again soon.

But I do recommend you at least consider the bus.  I understand and agree with you about trains versus buses.  But you're not getting on a crusty Gray Line bus from JFK to the Port Authority, with some obese dude noisily eating a bag of Doritos in the corner.  You'll be boarding a gleaming Friendly Limousine Bus where a 75-pound girl will smilingly lug your bag from curb to cargo hold, and you'll be taken directly to your hotel.  No muss, no fuss.