Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chocolate Covered Chips

If you appreciate a good, chocolate-covered pretzel, then you will relate to chocolate-covered potato chips. Same pairing of sweet & salty, crispy & creamy. But a bit greasy. While we do not indulge in the tuber treat often, we looked twice and purchased once when Ame Pote appeared on the shelves of the local grocer, Food Magazine. What first caught my eye was the product's curious name, a combination of the first syllables of "American" and "Potato". In typical Japanese style, the author simply lopped off the rest of the word. Adding graphic intrigue, "Ame" is written in Roman letters and "Pote" is written in Katagana, the Japanese syllabary designated for words of foreign origin and other aberrations. The plus sign? Your guess is as good as mine.

Then there is the packaging. I like the uber realistic, up close image of Ame Pote in a bowl. In addition to the row of stars framing the box edges, the snippet of Old Glory in one corner acknowledges the Oregon origin of the product's raw material, the "whiteround" potato. Maybe this is one of those heritage strains. Or maybe this is another example of creative English. There is even a little map on the side of the box locating Oregon within the lower 48.

The chips' appearance -- the chocolate napped ridges and the contrasting blond and brown surfaces -- is a feast for the eye. But the taste of Ame Pote was a disappointment: the potatoes were a touch too salty and the chocolate a tad too waxy. Below is a picture of Ame Pote's sister snack food: sweet potato sticks coated with white confectionery product (aka white chocolate). Since sweet potato sweets do not speak to us, we will admire the box from afar and leave the ingestion to someone else.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Top and Bottom of the Swatch Building

I recently re-visited the Nicolas G. Hayek Center (aka the Swatch Building) in Ginza. Created by that Japanese architectural wizard, Shigeru Ban, it is a fantastic solution to the nearly impossible problem of showcasing seven of the company's best-selling brands on a prominent but narrow parcel amid Ginza, Tokyo's high end shopping district. Ban's competition-winning building begins with a four-story void connecting the streets at the front and back of the property. It is also the staging area for seven elevators, each one a tiny, satellite showroom leading directly to the brand's boutique above or below grade. If you would like to read more about the building, here is the link to the piece I wrote for Architectural Record shortly after the building's completion (

The top of the building is crowned with a grand party room overlooking the city. A precursor to Ban's unique building for The Centre Pompidou Metz that opened earlier this year, the room is covered with a wavy roof supported by woven steel strips that morph into organic, tree-shaped, see-through columns doubling as conduits for drain pipes etc.

Accessed via stairs or an elevator cab lined with bands of the colorful clocks all buckled together, the Swatch shop anchors the bottom of the building. The basement-level boutique was not designed by Ban but by Swatch's worldwide space planner. Sorry Swatch people, this was a missed opportunity. Just think what Ban could have and would have done.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Flat Tire

This is a picture of the flat tire that inflicted itself on me last week. Following a particularly unpleasant mishap with the car navigation system, I decided that a quick pit stop at the Hara Museum to pick up a last minute Hannukah gift might be a much-needed pick-me-up. Though the museum's current offering is a show of contemporary Korean art that leaves me cold, the museum's gift shop is the best in town. Besides I love the building -- an early Modernist confection encircling an ample green lawn cum sculpture garden -- and its user-friendly parking. After stowing the car out front, I headed inside only to learn that the shop is open just to museum visitors. (What's that all about ???) Though I managed to talk my way in, I came out empty-handed and got into the car fully intending to return directly home -- I was starving and my eyes felt ready to evict my contacts.

As I pulled out of the museum's gated entrance, I heard a loud banging on the back of the car authored by a frantic, arm-waving delivery man. The reason? My rear tire was nearly flat. Scary. I wonder how long I had been driving around in this compromised condition. I promptly called David who promptly called the Toyota dealer. Conveniently located just a couple of miles away, they offered to send someone to help me out of my fix. About 30 minutes later, a suit-wearing auto exec showed up and, after assessing the situation, he removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and changed the tire. Together we surveyed the damage: some general wear and tear (not the cause of the flat) plus a sharp object embedded in the treads (aha!). Once the temporary tire was installed, I drove to the dealer, turned the car in and very happily hopped a cab home.

Mind Your Manners

While on the subway last week with visiting friends from the US, I was struck by how well-mannered Tokyo passengers really are. When riding, they don't talk loudly, they don't eat food and they keep cell phone chatter to an absolute minimum. Yet sometimes one encounters a transgression. Recently while riding the Oedo Line, I gazed downward and discovered the toes pictured above. They belonged to a snoozing salariman who had slipped off his loafers to air his feet, revealing his toe-socks (yes! toe socks!) for all to see. But for the most part, subway riders are very mindful of their surroundings. They tend to turn inward and focus on their cell phones, ipods, pocket computer games or bunkoban paperback books. And, as a result, Tokyo subway cars are astonishingly quiet. Even the crowded ones.

Lest anyone forget their good comportment, the manner posters mounted monthly in stations and subway cars will keep them in line with gentle reminders of how to behave. I first noticed manner posters when we lived here in the late 80s/early 90s. At that time, the Tokyo Metro had engaged a rather brilliant graphic designer to produce a year's worth of posters, each one bearing a well-mannered and visually captivating message. My favorite depicted a subway interior loaded with open umbrellas of all different colors and patterns. One was crowned by a tiny frog (too cute for my taste but this is Japan). The message? Don't forget your umbrella on the train. I liked the posters so much that I began asking the station master in Yutenji if I could have them. This caused a lot of teeth sucking but sometimes I scored. On his suggestion, I eventually made my way to the source: subway headquarters in Ueno.

Much to my surprise, a very pleasant and very pregnant foreign woman of about my age greeted me upon my arrival. How she landed a job working for the Tokyo Metro is beyond my ken. But, be that as it may, my new friend was a great help. After hearing my quest, she disappeared for a moment only to return with a large roll of posters, all in mint condition and all for me. The following year, the subway commissioned a new designer. Since the new work did not speak to me, I put my collection to rest.

More recently, manner posters have begun to garner my attention again, though not enough to trigger my collecting instinct. Suspended from a subway car ceiling, this one admonishes riders to apply their make-up at home. On the face of it, the wielding of a mascara wand while commuting seems like a minor infraction. Yet to many in Japan it is construed as a private matter that, as the poster says, ought to be handled elsewhere. What a contrast to the CTA.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Cutest Cupcake Store in Kichijoji

Here it is. The cutest little cupcake store in Kichijoji. As you can see from their window display, they do not carry a wide variety of sweets but each one is perfect. I bought Nama (= fresh) Caramel cakes for my sweeties. The slightly retro decor (antiqued table, kettle shaped pendant lights fixtures and a full-height chest of drawers made of blond wood) is the perfect backdrop without crossing over to the kitsch. Called Momen (tel. 0422 21 2508), the shop is just a hop, skip and a jump from Kichijoji Station.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Designer Chairs

These are our new dining chairs. Aren't they great? After 22 years and two Pacific crossings, our old chairs needed replacing. In addition to the usual dings and dents, their cane seating was worn out, causing me to pause every time dinner guests come over. The few intact chairs have been relegated to the kitchen.

Made of oak, the new chairs have a timeless elegance that works well with our glass-topped table (a nice Corb knock off). Designed by Naoto Fukasawa, they are the product of the wood furniture maker Maruni but are marketed through Muji. Though they look small, the seats are remarkably comfortable. According to Wallpaper* magazine, they have a "refined but fresh-from-the-workshop feel that belies [their] manufactured origins." Took the words right out of my mouth.

By contrast, these chairs were made for a workshop but have a distinctly machine -tooled aesthetic. They are actually not as uncomfortable as they look. Composed of wafer-thin sheets of steel, these chairs were designed by Junya Ishigami to accompany his building at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Hon-Atsugi. I re-visited the site last week with friends from the U.S. The focal point of the school's modest campus, Ishigami's low scale, transparent box achieves monumentally without being a monument. In fact, it is barely even a building. The parallelogram-shaped, glass enclosure contains a workshop where, befitting an engineering school, students can make anything they want: ceramics, computer graphics, wood products, metal works or even full size vehicles. The sky is literally the limit. Currently a hand glider made of wood and some kind of plastic graces the ceiling. The building's remarkable lightness of being still takes my breath away.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fiorina the Flower Vending Machine

Even after all this time living in Japan, I still marvel at the goods sold in vending machines. Discovered in the bowels of Shinjuku Station, this one dispenses fresh flowers. Its rotating display offers a range of floral possibilities, from the discrete single blossom to the exuberant cluster of seasonal blooms.

In Japan, where floral shops abound, it seems counterintuitive to buy a bouquet from a vending machine. How do the flowers stay so fresh and perky? How many arrangements can this machine possibly sell in a day? But there is bound to be someone dashing across Tokyo's busiest transit depot -- a million commuters are said to pass through Shinjuku Station daily -- in urgent need of daisies or roses.

A numbered tag identifies each offering. The solitary rose will set one back Y1000 but the autumnal bunch requires a slightly larger investment. By punching in the number (top) and inserting the appropriate quantity of Y1000 bills into the slot (bottom), the flower consumer on the fly can grab a bouquet and still make the express train to Odawara.

Friday, November 26, 2010

November Chrysanthemums

Quick! Before November ends, I had better write about this year's crop of Chrysanthemums (kiku in Japanese). The crest of the imperial family, kiku hold a special place among flora in Japan. But, as in many parts of the world, Japan also regards kiku as November's flower. And in their honor, magnificent exhibitions of the prize-winning plants are put on display every year at parks and other venues around town.

Before I saw one of these annual displays, I was quite indifferent to the densely petalled flowers. But now they dazzle me and no year is complete without a proper kiku viewing. Though the colors do not stray too far from the conventional yellow, white, pink or lavender, the unimaginable range of styles and shapes of displays -- bonsai miniatures to veritable cascades -- always move me. I am particularly partial to the solitary globes. Measuring a meter or more in height, some of these plants look like large softballs supported by leafy stems. Others resemble well-coiffed poodles.

I saw all of these perfect specimens at one of my favorite exhibits held at Hibiya Park, kitty-corner from the Imperial Palace and across the street from the Imperial Hotel. Laid out in the Meiji Period (late 19th century), the park's symmetrical plan, elegant promenades, wide flower beds and plazas punctuated by exuberant fountains were modeled after European precedents. The park's formality is the perfect backdrop for the luscious blooms.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Umbrella Shrug

While we're on the subject of umbrellas ... This is a rather peculiar invention. Designed to prevent umbrella confusion (or swiping) and promote more comfortable umbrella carrying, this is a neoprene cover that slips over the umbrella's hooked handle. On more than one occasion I have mistakenly absconded with someone else's umbrella or mine has mysteriously disappeared from a public receptacle. "Hard to lose", "Happy" and a "Llittle bit stylish," a Shrug could be just the thing.

Here, There & Everywhere

OK, I won't.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Umbrella Bag Rant

Today's rant is about disposable umbrella covers, those long, skinny, single use, vinyl bags whose dispensers (pictured above) come trotting out at the slightest drizzle. While I appreciate Japanese fastidiousness when it comes to unwanted water, I can not applaud the overuse of vinyl bags or the accompanying tsukai suteru (use and lose) mentality. Reader, this wasteful and environmentally unfriendly situation warrants attention.

To Japan's credit, the eco-bag trend seems to be taking root. At least at the stores I frequent. And I sense an increase in public bathrooms equipped with those supersonic hand dryers that practically suck the water right off the skin. Surely this is better than paper towels, yes? Best of all are the washrooms that provide no hand drying mechanisms whatsoever. Though it is a bit of a bother to whip out a hankie or pocket towel with wet hands, one gets used to it (or in this case re-use to it since this practice has been around a long time). But when it comes to wet umbrellas and their bags, change is slow.

Let's backtrack for a moment. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, people in Japan love umbrellas. Myself included. I am certain that I carry an umbrella far more frequently here than I do in the US. This is partly because it rains more in Japan (I think). And when it does rain, I simply take an umbrella cover from the discard pile and re-use it, if I need to go inside a store, office or other public facility. Not ideal, but better than the alternatives. I am waiting for someone to design an appealing and reusable umbrella cover. The old lady version already exists but it is not a big seller. Why doesn't someone do for the umbrella bag what was done for the shopping bag?

Given my strong feelings on the subject, you can imagine my elation when a friend and I encountered this umbrella drying device at the entrance to a Ginza eat-and-drink building. It consists of felt panels arranged radially to wipe the umbrella's outer surface and a plastic box to catch the runoff. All it takes is one quick twist of the wrist ... no bags or electricity needed. Please note the conventional umbrella bag dispenser hovering in the background. Was this relative positioning intentional? We stood and watched for a few minutes -- almost no one chose the bag over the dryer.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Uwabaki on Wheels

Putting a new spin on wheelie shoes, this fancy footwear combines two Japanese icons: a pair of uwabaki, the canvas indoor shoes worn by all school kids in Japan, and a soroban or abacus, the traditional precursor to the calculator. I do love a product that knows how to multitask! Spotted at Tokyo Designers' Week, they were created by one Naoko Kusakawa, a student at Mukogawa Women's University.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Castella Tables

This pair of tables looks good enough to eat. Eve spotted them -- giant slabs of Castella cake realized in lacquered wood -- the other day when we visited Gallery Do's Design Tide spin-off exhibit. At first I thought the tables resembled Japanese puring aka custardy pudding. Nothing to get excited about in my book. But when I realized they are Castella cake my mouth began to water. Perfectly proportioned, the tables are a little darker than the real thing but the caramelized yellow color sandwiched between top and bottom layers of brown is actually more appealing than the cake's normal hue.

The tables are the product of a young designer who hails from Nagasaki. He also made the little model boat sitting on top. The boat is a bit finky and detracts from the main event. That said, I certainly appreciate his hometown pride.

There used to be an ancient Castella store in Azabu Juban. Dimly lit, the shop sold only Castella but in a wide variety of shapes and styles, most displayed in their old-fashioned, glass-fronted cases. Though Abby was quite fond of their big seller, a light spongy cake that the proprietor cut from a big slab, it never really floated my boat. Simply put, the cake lacked definition. But during a Golden Week trip to Kyushu a few years ago, I revised my opinion.

One of our main stops was Nagasaki, the birthplace of Castella. Centuries ago Portuguese missionaries introduced the cake (and a few other things, like tempura) to Japan. During our trip we encountered many Castella speciality shops. This inspired us to do a cake rating. I was really surprised by the range -- some were definitely more palatable than others. I gave my highest mark to one with a crunchy, sugary topping. If you used your imagination, it almost evoked the essence of caramel. Though I would not go out of my way to find Castella, I have a certain fondness for the confection as I look back on that wonderful holiday.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Caught in the Act!

So this is how it is done. I have seen worker bees down on their hands and knees diligently scraping the chewing gum off station floors and dutifully polishing escalator handrails while commuters stream on by. But until today, I had never seen anyone clean those raised yellow lines that always seem to be under foot, especially if I am in a hurry and/or wearing heels of any sort.

Leading from platform to ticket wicket, they are intended to aid the visually impaired and remind the rest of us not to tread too close to the edge. Within the yellow strips, the dot pattern means "stop" (as in you are at the top of the stairs) and the dashes indicate "go straight."

The cleaner's dedication and perseverance were nothing short of awe-inspiring. What a contrast to the New York City Subway! I slowed for a moment to admire her handiwork but then slid back into high speed as I made my way to street level.