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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Take a gander at this chair. At a glance, it is reminiscent of the metal framed Butterfly Chairs we had in the Beverly Shores house during my youth. Those were created in 1938 by a group of Argentine architects who trained with Le Corbusier. But this one was made by a young, Italian designer I met at Tokyo Designers Week. Aptly named "Book,", this new chair consists of a ream of fabric sheets that flip like the pages of Webster's Dictionary. In lieu of the usual upholstery underpinnings, a steel rebar frame and legs support the layers of recycled (I think) denim, burlap, cotton, corduroy, wool, etc. This unique construction has a lot of built-in flexibility. Simply by turning the chair's cloth pages, the user can change its cushion's color to suit any mood or occasion. Just think of all the dog fur we would not have to vacuum up! I am not able to comment on the chair's comfort or utility (I did not test it out) but I applaud the author's clever idea. That said, it will take some editing to turn Book into a bestseller.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rain-Colored Rain Boots

Transparent rain boots! They match everything! Including the rain! Devoid of their own color, they take on the pattern or hue of the socks inside. Just think of the wardrobing possibilities. Unfortunately this clever design is stuck in the prototype phase. And it is likely to stay there, according to the boots' creator, who I met recently during Tokyo Designers Week. Apparently, the idea of see-through boots did not go over well with Japanese consumers. I suppose they felt their feet were a little too exposed. I kind of see the point. Though we take off our shoes in front of strangers all the time, most Japanese people prefer to cover their feet with indoor slippers. Perhaps wearing clear footwear is akin to walking around in one's socks. And out in public to boot.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rental Mini-Refrigerators

The Tokyu Food Show below Shibuya Station is one of my favorite markets for fresh produce and fish. A real throwback, it is a raucous venue loaded with open stalls where vendors hawk everything from sembei rice crackers to salmon and sweet potatoes. The turnover is great and I never come home empty-handed.

Surely I have walked by this bank of lockers many times. On the outside they look like the rental storage bins available all over Japan. But this conventional exterior conceals an unconventional interior: they are actually mini- refrigerators. For a mere Y300 (coins returned upon retrieval of the contents), today's purchases can chill while you finish your errands. How cool is that?