Monday, September 27, 2010

Those Wild and Crazy Azabu Boys!

Just look at these guys! They attend Azabu High School, one of Tokyo's ultra-select public schools, which happens to be in our neighborhood. Clearly hair dye is all the rage among the country's rising elite. Needless to say, they were thrilled when this adorable gaijin girl requested a photo. What a bunch of hams!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I know this is a little hard to see. Sorry about the poor lighting conditions in the subway. The hat says "Freaky." I don't think I can top that.

All Tomatoes, All the Time

When I first glanced at this sign the other day in Daikanyama, it took a second or two for the partial outline of a tomato to come into focus. I quite like this graphic -- just enough information but not too much. And the rich, red is the perfect background color. The sign is announcing a tomato specialty restaurant where everything -- and I do mean everything -- contains tomatoes in some form. Since tomatoes are one of Abby's major food groups, I had to inspect more closely. Here is a quick round up of my findings:

As we chatted, the shop keeper took this platter from the cooler case below and gave me a deep purple tomato from Hokkaido to sample. Tomatoes taste much better when unrefrigerated.

Move over square watermelon and make room for this tomato gift assortment. It is so pretty -- the colors, the round form and the artful assembly -- it would almost be a shame to eat it. Probably not a problem.

Little cups containing different types of tomatoes from all over the country.

Tomato Tiramisu. I kid you not. Layers of house-made tomato jam sweeten the concoction but I have to like the idea of what I am eating. And this is a bit outside my comfort zone. Tomato Roll Cake? Let's not even go there.

A more conventional offering for home use: Beef Stew of the Tomato (for two people).

Table salt mixed with dried, pulverized tomato skin. I could not leave without buying this for the tomato lover.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Last Square Watermelon

Elbowed aside by luscious figs and mounds of pears waiting to ripen, this may be summer's last square watermelon. Adorned with a ribbon, it sits forlornly in the refrigerator at the back of a swish specialty fruit shop. And with the autumnal equinox fast approaching, this melon seems destined to stay there. Who is going to pay Y15,600 (about $160 at today's exchange rate) for an out-of-season novelty? Especially one without any taste. Probably not me. Yet the nearly perfect, cubic form appeals to my architect's eye and the oxymoronic incongruity keeps me guessing. Who ever thought of a watermelon with corners? Watermelons are supposed to be round, not rectangular. Groomed only for good looks, the thick-skinned fruit spent its youth cooped up in square mold. Maybe now it will be reborn as a jack-o-lantern.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stonehedge Fiber Mill

As summer slides into fall, I find my thoughts drifting back to those lovely July days. One day, while visiting Abby at Interlochen, I had an unexpected few hours of free time that turned into a wonderful, woolly adventure.

After savoring Abby's morning choir rehearsal, I hopped into my rented roadster and headed towards town -- don't blink or you'll miss it. My first stop was InterQuilten where I was pleasantly surprised to find not just garden variety fabrics but a few skeins of local yarn. My favorite was the hand spun, 100% Coopworth wool in Pink Lemonade, a loose twist of light green and pink plies. Unfortunately there was not enough quantity for even a short scarf. I bought it anyway.

In the hope of finding more, the shop's jovial proprietress got on the horn with Amy, the author of said yarn. Her own stash depleted, Amy kindly steered me towards the Stonehedge Fiber Mill, the best local yarn producer in northern Michigan. I momentarily debated whether to make the pilgrimage to East Jordan 65 miles away. But that hesitation did not last long. Equipped with wanderlust, a full tank of gas and a car-navi, I hit the road.

The drive was lovely. A real slice of Americana. As I got further from Traverse City, fast food joints gave way to farm stands. And the two-lane highway I took north was lined with cherry orchards (about 6 weeks too late), vast fields of sunflowers all gloriously in bloom, and endless rows of corn ready for the picking. Reader, this abundance was a heavenly sight. Eventually I headed eastward, via increasingly smaller roads, until I reached East Jordan, a charming little town with a main street defined by 19th and early 20th century buildings. After a brief pit stop, I headed off to find Stonehedge.

Even the dogs in East Jordan are happy!

This is the wool shop. What an enchanting place! Mostly Stonehedge is a spinnery that turns the boxes and boxes of raw wool that arrive daily from all over the country into yarn of every ply and color imaginable.

But the purpose of my trek was the yarn spun and dyed by the mill owner, Deb. Entering her shop, I felt like a kid in a candy store. While one wall was lined with a rainbow of Deb's worsted weights, the floor was laden with baskets brimming with artisan blends. It was very hard to decide which ones to buy. So I put off the decision and toured the mill first.

Delectable, yes?

Located in an adjacent building, the mill (entrance pictured above) consists of a couple of rooms with various machines that transform the airy fibers into everything from bulky arans to delicate sock yarns. Deb gave me a quick tour and then we went outside where I met some of her animals -- goats, guinea hens, sheep, dogs etc.

Evidently, Deb does not spin her own sheep wool but does harvest and sell yarn from her alpacas. I took a pass on the alpaca but left with plenty of wool to keep me knitting all fall.

Our heroine, Deb, plying her trade.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cookie Cutters & Capybaras

I recently got caught up in a wild goose chase that led me to the International Gift Show at Tokyo Big Site, the city's McCormick Place equivalent for any Chicagoans out there in Readerland. This was my first (and hopefully last) foray into Japan's wholesale gift items market. Filling all of Big Site's ten exhibition halls, the array of merchandise ran the gamut from aroma therapy supplies to entire zoos of stuffed animals. Quite honestly, most of it was pretty ghastly. But I captured a few blogworthy items with my camera (despite the prohibition on photography). Below are two of my personal favorites.

When these cookie cutters appear on the shelves of Tokyu Hands later this year I definitely want to be there. All 47 Japanese Prefectures rendered in sugary dough? Sounds scrumptious. Not sure we have the patience to cook up the entire country but we could certainly try. Perhaps Hokkaido, pictured below, would be a good place to start and then we could head south from there.

Aside from anime and automobiles, one of Japan's most visible exports has got to be character goods. Hello Kitty has a way of turning up in the darnedest places! For the most part, I am indifferent to these fads. But I must confess a great fondness for Kapibara-san who debuted several years ago, just in time for Eve's birthday.

How could anyone resist this genderless critter with its stubby, little legs and endearing expression? Smitten, I bought a mid-sized version for the birthday girl, kicking off a mini-kapi boom of our own. On both national and familial scales, the fever has cooled. Yet I still have a soft spot for these furry friends inspired by capybaras, those water-loving rodents from South America. At the gift show, someone offered to take my picture with this giant kapibara but I took these photos instead.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Matruschka Furin

I covet this furin bell shaped like a matruschka doll -- two of my favorite things merged into one. A few years ago, matruschka frenzy struck Japan and suddenly the cheerful doll motifs were everywhere: on lunch boxes, paper products, wash cloths, etc. While I am fairly indifferent to the actual dolls, I quite like them as a graphic design element. But surely some other figure has taken her place by now, considering Japan's insatiable appetite for the new.

By contrast, furin have a long history and are definitely here to stay. When temperatures start to soar, out come these delightful bells: little domes of clear glass typically decorated with an image that evokes coolness, such as swimming goldfish, shaved ice confections, refreshing water melons etc. Not sure where matruschkas fit in.

Typically, a furin bell is suspended from a roof eave or balcony rail in summer. When the wind catches the paper strip suspended from its ringer, the bell chimes quietly. This gentle sound is a lovely reminder that the air is actually moving, even if it feels like 500 degrees out there. One year the girls took furin to camp. Not sure they had the same impact out in the wilds of Vermont. Back in Tokyo, I usually forget to hang up my elegant, hand blown version. Unfortunately this year was no exception. And now it is too late.

Though the heat still persists, the furin season is fast drawing to a close thanks, in part, to the mini-typhoon that blew through the city earlier this week. For a steady stretch, sheets of rain came down za-za (the Japanese equivalent of "cats and dogs"). I quite like a good rain, providing I am cozy inside.

Those few hours of watershed seem to have washed away much of the humidity that has plagued the city for weeks. The morning after the storm, when Pippi and I went out for our first walk, we got an inkling that fall is right around the corner. While I am always a little sad to see summer go, fall connotes fresh starts and new beginnings.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Initially I questioned the propriety of taking this picture. But then I thought WWED, (What Would Eve Do?) and realized that there was only one possible answer: point and shoot. Amazingly, the flash did not elicit so much as a flicker of an eye lid or a twitch of that texting-happy thumb. I hope she did not miss her stop.

Michigan Cherry Pie

This is a picture of the cherry pie that I should have bought when I was in northern Michigan over the summer. While I definitely make a tidier lattice, I probably could not top that tart cherry filling. My father always loved cherry pie. And I am a great champion of seasonal and regional delicacies. Though the proprietor offered me a fork, I decided to take a pass on the pie and bought a few Red Haven peaches from her instead.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Urban Archeology in Juban

In Japan most buildings have a relatively short shelf life. But those that survive often have a long memory. Take this boarded up building on a corner in Azabu Juban. Today it is overlooked, passed without so much as a glance and probably not long for this world. About five years ago, it was briefly reborn as a tofu "soft cream" shop. But the frozen confection was vile and after a sweet summer of glory, it quietly closed and the corner parcel slipped back into oblivion.

In its heyday, the shop must have serviced the neighborhood's tonsorial needs, judging from the sad looking barber pole above and the weathered, blue-and-red awning below (I doubt the corrugated metal is original). The now shuttered, curving glass show window suggests a more dignified past. Perhaps that kind lady who is still whipping up white bread at the St. Moritz Bakery (another relic up the street) knows the full history.

Whether in Japan or the US, we just don't build elegant windows like this anymore. Construction costs, aesthetics and design abilities have changed. I suppose you could say we don't live like this anymore either. Barbers have been replaced by stylists and here in Juban everyday shops are an endangered species. I am not a hopeless nostalgic but I enjoy urban archeology.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Crow Eats Sandwich

Like Tokyo's above-ground telephone poles, I stopped noticing the city's crows years ago. But ever since visiting friends called our attention to the intelligence of these big, black birds, I have been quietly observing and acquiring a new appreciation of them. If you read the recent issue of Time magazine whose cover story proclaimed that many animals appear to be smarter than we thought (something I have suspected for a long time), you will know that crows have many talents and are surprisingly dexterous, especially considering their physical equipment. My firsthand experience this morning further supports this finding.

So there we were, in front of the 24-hour grocer, Food Magazine. Pippi was sniffing up a storm and I was stalled in an early-morning stupor having woken up only a short time ago. But when a sharp, staccato pecking noise interrupted my reverie, I looked up to see this crow vigorously and systematically attacking a small box with its beak. The tenacious bird appeared to be taking a two-pronged approach: poke a hole in cellophane window and/or lift open the box cover. My photos do not really do the scene justice. Would that I had gone into video mode.

It was not until I approached the crow at work that the contents of the box revealed themselves: a dainty ham sandwich adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayo. This is a crow with a sophisticated palette! When we neared, the crow ascended to a tree nearby where he/she could keep an eye on the bounty. After snapping some pictures, we walked away and left the crow to finish breakfast.