Monday, April 26, 2010

Ode to Almond

Oh, Almond, Almond! Where have you gone? Thanks to the infestation of Starbucks, Tulleys and other coffee bars, old fashioned kissaten (cafes) like Almond are dropping like flies. The first time I walked by Roppongi Crossing after Almond's demise, I felt a profound sense of remorse. And not just because I was not there to salvage some signage from the maw of the wrecking ball (though that would have been nice).

While the name "Almond" suggested that the cakes and drinks waiting inside must be delicious, I only actually drank coffee there once (it was lousy). Yet the retro color scheme -- dainty pink and white awning plus contrasting, black letters -- continued to project such an enticing image. It conjured up associations with ice cream parlors and confectioneries as they ought to be. Like something out of my childhood or at least out of a book I might have read during my childhood.

But now that the Roppongi outlet is gone, Almond corner just isn't the same. I do not even feel right meeting people there anymore. And from looks of things, I would say the two Almonds straddling Nishi-Azabu intersection (see photos above and below) are not long for this world either. Before they disappear, the super-graphics adorning the facade of the above shop merit a little appreciation. I drive past this building several times a week but never noticed the jumbo letters until last week when the spring weather put a spring in my step and I decided to walk, instead of ride, home from the gym. Though faded and worn, it is easy to imagine this signage in all its glory. And despite the smudges, the pink and white color stripes still evoke delight.

My Favorite Tokyo House

I know I shouldn't play favorites. But I am often asked which Japanese house I like best. Every time Tower House wins. Hands down. My apologies for the poor photo.

The original "tiny house" makes a star appearance in the introduction to my book, Modern Japanese House. But I first wrote about it in the 1990s when I interviewed its owner-architect and had the chance to go inside. The designer built this home for his family in the 1970s, shortly after the broad street in front was created in the name of improving Tokyo's infrastructure. Affectionately known as "Killer Dori," it simply cut through a small scale residential neighborhood. True, this development yielded a needed automobile artery where there was none. But it also scarred the urban fabric and left lots of tiny, triangular plots in its wake.

Also in the name of progress, Leavittown-like suburbs began springing up around the city about the same time. Called "bed towns," they really were more like "dead towns" -- even more so today as the country's population dwindles. These lifeless developments offered brand new, bigger homes with gardens, just like in the US (not). But they came at the cost of staggering commutes and isolation from the city's spontaneous vitality.

Understandably, our hero wanted no part of this. On the contrary, he wanted to walk out his front door and go to a cafe, take a walk in the park or visit the local sento (public bath). As a result, he purchased one of said triangular lots and put this amazing, multistory home on it. Made of poured in place concrete, Tower House has one room one on each floor connected by a narrow staircase in lieu of a corridor. Though his office was in the basement, the architect explained to me that he still commuted to work. Every morning he would leave the house and walk around the block before heading back to the drawing board.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Keep off the Pond!

No problem. I do not usually walk on water. Spotted by dog and owner in front of Mohri Pond, Roppongi Hills, at 6 a.m. Sunday.

Milk Chest

In Japan, milk is sold mostly by the liter in grocery stores but delivered in small, glass bottles about half that size. Usually the dairy company deposits the full bottles and retrieves the empties from a small box perched by the customer's front door. Made of white plastic adorned with the name of a dairy supplier, they are hard to miss.

Our neighbors are a bit more discrete. I never even noticed their milk repository until just the other day. Their old-fashioned receptacle is built directly into the stone wall enclosing their fantastic yashiki or traditional style house. Inscribed with the words "milk chest" written in Katakana, a metal door conceals the bottles from view while an opening from behind enables access from other side, kind of like urine samples at the doctor's office.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Form & Function

This elegant, white lamp currently graces the display window of an interior store near my house. Isn't it the perfect marriage of form and function? I just love how the fixture incorporates the cord. What a clever idea! Note how the base circles around, creating stability before beginning its ascent. Infused with a playful spirit, the lamp consists of basic, geometric shapes -- line, circle and (truncated) cone. But these simple figures are all that is needed to articulate a lamp's essential elements. Two or three of these would definitely be welcome in our living room. But I imagine this fixture is Danish in origin (= very pricey) so we will probably have to continue living apart.

I like the black, table version as well but, let's face it, this design is less successful. The standing fixture has nicer proportions -- better ratio of height to base. The smaller model has too many twists and turns in too short a distance. I wonder if the designer could have pared down its form without compromising its function?

The Old, Old Thing

Sometimes the new, new thing is actually an old, old thing. This morning, while walking Pippi, I noticed this gate near my house for the first time. I have passed this way on countless occasions but today the gate's charm registered with me. I imagine it is early Showa vintage -- one of my absolute favorite points on Japan's architectural time line. The original house seems to be extant but so heavily re-done that it is practically beyond recognition. I am not fully convinced that it is even used as a house anymore (but it probably is).

As you can see, the gate is made of wood and has a kind of Medieval aura. I am particularly drawn to the swirly, metal hinges. I also like the way the adjacent masonry wall steps up the hill -- nice composition and abstraction of the natural topography. It is possible to catch a glimpse of the garden beyond though it intentionally remains something of a mystery. The whole shebang seems a bit incongruous with Roppongi Hills across the street but that's Japan for you!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Amazing Lek

In Thailand, elephants are everywhere. You see them on buildings, on clothing, in paintings, on tee shirts, in photographs. I considered collecting images of various elephant items for a blog entry. But that was before we visited the elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai ( and learned that many, many pachyderms in the region do not enjoy the repose of the happy chappy above. In fact, lots are subjected to heart-breaking, horrific abuse. Those suffering animals remain very much on my mind.

This little lady (above) looks like she is taking a dump but in fact lives with a broken hip that never healed properly after she was forced (unsuccessfully) to procreate in a confined place with a very aggressive male. This is just one of the many stories we heard from our guide. Others were even worse.

Fortunately the 34 elephants who live at the sanctuary spend their days roaming freely, bathing in the river (complete with spa treatments by their personal mahouts) and eating loving prepared meals several times a day.

Here is lunch for Tong Suk.

Open wide!

Down the hatch!

The amazing Lek, the founder of the sanctuary, with one of the two baby elephants born at her center.

Basking in the sun at Lek's sanctuary.

So why is it that Thailand champions the elephant in concept but abuses them in practice? Where is the respect and appreciation for these majestic beings?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Art is Everywhere

And sometimes where you least expect it. This is the place setting that greeted me at our first lunch in Thailand. The scene was an indoor-outdoor restaurant near the national park encompassing Thailand's tallest mountain. Most likely intended for bus loads of tourists, the restaurant was lined with tables, each one waiting expectantly for eaters. While the hike did not really "wow" me, this simple still life did.

Reminiscent of an architect's conceptual diagram, this arrangement is the work of an experienced wait person. Composed of a plate, soup bowl, drinking glass, spoon and silverware set wrapped with a napkin, it is lovely balance of circles and lines. While the round elements focus the eye inward, the linear pieces guide the gaze outward. The plate unifies the whole but the smaller objects draw attention away from its static, center point. Folded in a diamond-shape, the napkin bedecked flatware and the soup spoon's oval cup add piquancy. Consisting of plastic, glass, metal and paper, the materials harmonize nicely. And the color scheme -- baby blue, silver and pink -- is very pleasing.

I saw these dishes for sale on our expedition to Chiang Mai Plastic, a wholesale kitchen supplier beyond the beaten tourist track. I fleetingly considered their purchase. I was also drawn to those basket-like, food domes to keep the flies away. A set of six in cornflower blue could be just the thing! But I wondered whether plastic accouterments would look lighthearted and fun or tawdry and out of place back in Tokyo. What do you think???

Look! Asparagus!

Turns out the stylist at the hair salon on TV Asahi Street has a green thumb! The other day Pippi and I noticed a row of earth-filled buckets in front of the shop. Not an unusual finding. Especially in Tokyo where open land is limited but the zeal for gardening is boundless. Flanked by labeled pots with fruits or vegetables waiting to happen, the one that caught my eye held nascent asparagus stalks. What a surprise! Though potted plants and flowering shrubs are common sights on stoops and steps all over the country, the incongruity of finding the tender shoots alongside a busy Tokyo street seems practically poetic.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Eggcellent Easter

On Sunday I went to services at a lovely church about an hour west of Tokyo. The purpose in attending was not spiritual fulfillment (wrong religion) but an Architectural Record assignment. A modest structure made of wood, the building contains a wonderfully meditative chapel bathed in soft daylight. I was very impressed but I won't go into detail here. For my critique, you will have to visit the magazine's web site ( in the coming months. If you visit now, you will find my feature on Tree House, one of this year's Record Houses.

After the service concluded, I mingled among the congregants. Most of the regulars are over the age of 65. One kindly gentleman prepared Easter eggs for everyone and one of the few children, a girl of about 10 years, was entrusted with their basket and distribution. Swaddled in a cute little wrapper adorned with bunnies and topped with a ribbon, the egg I received was your basic hard-boiled. For this reason I chose not to eat mine but preserve it for posterity with these pictures instead. Now if chocolate had been involved, the little egg might not have survived the journey back to Tokyo.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Duly Noted

Pippi and I found this sign in Arisugawa Park the other day. So poetic in English. So ominous in Japanese ("beware of crows" might be a better translation). I once had a friend who was attacked by a crow while running in a Tokyo park. And when the girls were little, we were often warned about toddlers having snacks snatched right from their tiny hands by the big, black birds. They certainly look menacing yet I don't really notice them anymore. But thanks to this sign I will look skyward more often.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thai Treats

While roaming the street markets of Chiang Mai, we chanced upon a number of visually intriguing, though not altogether appetizing, treats. I am a bit squeamish when it comes to food sold by vendors whose cleanliness standards might not match mine. Yet Abby and Eve were brave enough to order ice creams from Scoopy Cool whose motto is "Once is not enough." Not sure I agree. In terms of taste, the flavors and consistency of the frozen confection were better than expected. However, the sight of the serving spoon diving into a pot of murky water between scoops turned my stomach just a bit. Here are some of the other highlights with commentary:

Individual candies on tooth picks. Very artful display. Takes advantage of the shadowy light conditions. Nice array of colors. Not sure how long they had been standing there. Never saw anyone buy or eat one.

Colorful squares of unknown gelatinous substance. Pretty to look at but zero desire to eat. Mysterious fruit flavors. Questionable hygiene conditions.

The name, Ancient Ice Cream, is not very confidence instilling. What exactly do they mean by "ancient"?

The rectilinear blocks of colorful ice creams are attractive (if you don't look too close) and their orderly arrangement speaks to my love of geometric order.

And my personal favorite: vegetable jelly eaten with sugar. Maybe it is REALLY healthy.

Let's hope so. There had to be some reason that the locals were descending on this stall in droves. In response, the little lady behind the counter was busily scraping her spoon across the quivering mass and depositing the resultant ribbons of black goo into take-away dishes.

Plastic Shoes

On the way home on Friday, I noticed these shoes in a Juban shop window. Kind of a Gucci-style loafer but made of pure plastic. Aren't they ridiculous? Who would buy them? Let's hope they are just for display. Given the popularity of plastic shoes among young Japanese women I can not be sure about this. I will keep an eye out for any well-heeled gents sporting the slip-ons but that might not be until Halloween.

In all fairness, I have owned a pair or two of plastic shoes in my life. There were the purple pumps that were all the rage in New York in the 80s, the red Crocs that I held onto for about a week before deeming them too ugly for public viewing, and the black, Issey Miyake slippers I sometimes don during rainy season. They now seem destined for an early retirement since they make socks slip and generate heel blisters. Can you say "design flaw"? While I do like a good pair of high-quality flip-flops (I wonder what happened to those nice Reef brand blue ones that went to camp with Eve last summer?), this whole flip-flop boom has gotten out of hand. And if someone could come up with a suitably fashionable and durable alternative, I would stop buying leather shoes altogether.