Friday, May 28, 2010

David's Door Prize

The other day, while waiting for the girls in front of the Matsukata House with Pippi, an unnamed school administrator asked me to give David this door prize from the school's recent golf outing. Intrigued by the box and its mysterious contents, I happily obliged but blanched when said official informed me that it contained "some plastic wrap I could use in the kitchen." The girls were horrified when they heard this! Where-oh-where was my snappy come back???

But let's put that sexist comment aside. There was something about the arrangement of the goods inside that caught my eye. In part it was the graphic design -- direct and to the point in a clinical sort of way. In part it was the artful orchestration of boxes of various shapes and sizes, each one tailored for function and space efficiency. And in part it was the vivid, primary colors -- lemons yellower than life, bagels (yes! bagels!) appealingly light brown and strawberries so red and luscious they practically jump off their cardboard, kurerappu box!

While some of the products are intended for re-use, the bulk are tsukai-suteru items, i.e. disposable. Left to my own devices, I make an effort to cut down on future landfill. In some ways Japan makes this easy since size appropriate food storage vessels are readily available -- there is a designated shape for every major food product, big or small. In my kitchen drawers alone there are individual soy sauce dispensers, triangular containers for rice ball transport and, thanks to a thoughtful friend, a deep, plastic box configured perfectly for a loaf of Japanese bread.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Egg of Steel, Column of Concrete

A tangle of rusty rebar rescued from a scrap yard or demolition site, this giant egg graces a gallery entrance in Heyri, Korea. A new town devoted to arts of all types, Heyri is about 40 minutes outside of Seoul by car (providing traffic cooperates). Dotted with construction sites, it is a fairly recent development being built by a group of like-minded land owners devoted to artistic pursuits of all types. On my recent trip to Korea I had a chance to see it for myself.

During the car ride back to Seoul, my guides and I got into a lively discussion about Korean aesthetics and how they differ from Japanese. Both cultures extol the beauty of nature. But they manifest their appreciation differently. As it was eloquently explained to me, the Japanese are partial to art and architecture that is beautifully crafted and perfectly complete. Even in its incompleteness, if that makes any sense. Natural flaws and irregular forms are cherished but incorporated with a high degree of refinement, witness the beams in a minka farmhouse. These massive trunks retain the twisting form of the tree from whence they came, but their surface is stripped of bark and "encouraged" to develop a lovely patina.

By contrast, the Koreans have a penchant for the coarse, the unfinished and the imprecise. This seems to reflect a desire to show the human hand. Bumpy edges, rough wood and uneven paint are not the results of poor craftsmanship but welcome signs of humility. Initially this sensibility had no appeal to me. But the more I think about it and experience Korean aesthetics firsthand, the more I appreciate this point of view. There is something very free and liberating in not striving for perfection. Instead of exquisite materials and detailing, the strength of Korean artistry is embodied in bold forms and overall composition.

Both the egg above and the column below, illustrate this idea. Their surfaces are not smooth to the touch but they please the eye. From afar, both pieces have a strong presence. But on close inspection, the steel's mottled color reveals itself and the concrete's inconsistent grain comes into focus. There is something enticing about this change in perception. I also like the rendering of two iconographic objects in unexpected ways. The column's faceted surface resembles classical fluting but its flat planes are all board-formed. And the egg, the start of everything, gives new life to a throw-away material destined for the dump.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Buddha's Birthday Lanterns

Last week I had the good fortune to be in Seoul on Buddha's birthday. A national holiday coupled with lovely weather meant everyone was out enjoying the day. Many of the major streets were lined with these cheerful lanterns in multiple colors. And every Buddhist supply store had several varieties on sale for home use. I bought one apiece for Abby and Eve who like to hang things from the ceilings in their respective bedrooms. It was very difficult to choose colors. I really wanted to buy one of each. But economy (space and otherwise) prevailed. To really get the full effect, the lanterns ought to be seen in groups, hence the photos below.

On the street.

In front of a shop.

Above a river.

At a temple entrance.

Next to the temple's red columns.

Next to the temple's polychrome, roof underpinnings.

Arranged in a decorative formation, the rainbow lanterns completely covered the central courtyard within the temple precinct.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Korean Pancakes

My second morning in Korea, I went to a friend's house for breakfast. Here is what we ate: buckwheat pancakes (no syrup needed), fresh fruit (watermelon, apple-pear and strawberries atop the cake), roasted sweet potato (skin removed) and a cup of strong coffee (no milk). Freshly squeezed apple-tomato juice (better than I expected) preceded the meal. Don’t you just love how the food is composed on the plate? I also admire the artful napkin folding and its adjustment of the basic, square geometry. This is what happens when an architect and his equally creative wife translate their talents to the kitchen.

I am certain that the food tasted even better because of the beautiful setting. Buffeted by lovely, spring cross breezes, we sat at a magnificent wood table (also designed by the architect) running the length of the dinning room. This skinny space is sandwiched between a picture window framing a fabulous view of the valley below and floor-to-ceiling glass opening on to the house’s interior courtyard. The unusually crisp light coupled with the fresh air was practically Californian.

The product of a Korean studio potter, the dishes influenced my taste buds as well. Perfectly round with a raised edge, the matte-finished plates were the ideal backdrop for the colorful foods. Maybe this is why Brad Pitt bought them. And the coffee cup, slightly over sized but thin-lipped, sat elegantly on its wooden saucer. The muted blue glaze reminded me of a watercolor painting. If the eye is happy, then the stomach may follow.

Which is it?

Please make up your mind. Discovered on a cafe door in New Songdo City, Korea.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Self-Walking Dog

For years Pippi has had this lovely habit of walking her humans. When she encounters something scary, like the yakitori stand in Azabu Juban, or when she wants to go home, Pippi grabs the leash's retractable cord in her mouth and steers us in the right direction. As the thin strips of plastic fabric are not impervious to her rather impressive bite, this antic has cost us a few extra leashes. But this is a small price to pay for a behavior so charming.

Recently Pippi has taken to walking herself. Instead of simply holding the cord in her mouth, she pulls on it until she gets the entire handle between her teeth. The red plastic piece firmly in place, Pippi happily trots along beside us. The other day she walked herself all the way home from Hiroo. Fortunately we were camera ready and captured the event on film. What a dog!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Swinging Chair

During our recent trip to Sado Island, while hiking around a scenic spot, we chanced upon this peculiar device. Implement of torture? Accident waiting to happen? Innocent play equipment? Naturally Abby and Eve had to give it a whirl and then we walked back to our car.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Two Turtle Rocks

Futatsugame. This is the name of these two rocky protuberances off the coast of Sado Island. Do you think they look like turtles? The last day of our trip, we drove up to the island's northern tip to take a gander at them. Thanks to the Japanese Government's hyperactive civil engineers, there is a mostly two-lane (depending on your definition of "two") road ringing the s-shaped island as well as on the flat bit connecting Sado's semi-mountainous lobes. Thanks to our trusty Harrier, we traversed most of them.

Compared to Honshu, Sado is less developed. There are many small hamlets (don't blink) along the coast as well as a few bona fide towns. The main attractions for us were the island's rustic temples and shrines (we visited many) and its natural scenery -- snow-capped mountains, sea coasts and sakura still in bloom. Most of the development is concentrated in the southern lobe where the ground is somewhat more hospitable and the water more accessible. Because of its rugged topography and steep cliffs, the northern lobe is far less populated. Here the distant views are unspoiled but the beaches are littered with trash and detritus. Most of it probably washes up with the tide. I wish someone would pick it up.

Despite my injured foot (I did not find out about the torn ligaments and tiny fracture until after we returned to Tokyo), we hiked along the coast for a stretch. This gave us the chance to admire the amphibious outcroppings from multiple angles. Our journey culminated at a temple (I think) sequestered in a cave looking out to sea.

How's the Asparagus n o w ???

A few weeks ago, those scissors-happy hair stylists on TV Asahi Street harvested the asparagus growing in front of their shop (I blogged about it while back). That is, all but one stalk. Yesterday morning Pippi and I checked up on its progress and were quite surprised. Clearly it is not destined for the dinner table. It is so long that the resident gardener has tied it to a stake for support. And the "flower" end has gone off to do its own thing. Each little petal has now spawned a shoot of its own -- I have often wondered what would happen to an asparagus stalk left to its own devices. Now I know.

If leafy greenery is any indication, their goya bitter gourds are also flourishing and their strawberry plant is already producing fruit -- tucked between the leaves we saw a single greenish-white berry that will probably be delicious if it ever ripens. In the meantime, it seems to be content to sit there and look pretty.

Friday, May 14, 2010


For once, I am nearly speechless.

We sighted these shoes in the genkan of Yumeya, the extremely elegant ryokan in Niigata Prefecture where we stayed during our recent Golden Week trip. They look so benign -- plain, creme colored leather with low heels and bow-bedecked toes -- until you read the name written inside. a-bomb? What was the designer thinking? The next morning the pumps were reclaimed by their owner -- a very average-looking, middle-aged lady. I wonder if she realizes that she is walking around on shoes named for a deadly explosive ... I considered asking her but decorum got the better of me.