Plain Talk

Lesser known places to go in Tokyo
Kagurazaka by Simon Duncan

Kagurazaka is an area near Iidabashi centered around Kagurazaka Dori, a sloping shopping street. Perhaps best-known nowadays amongst Tokyoites for French restaurants, there is a lot more to the area, you can take a trip back in time to the Tokyo of old; not only traditional buildings, but also less cars and less people!

The best way to get here is probably by going to JR Iidabashi station, taking the west exit and turning right. Now you will find yourself on Waseda Dori, the long road that leads, eventually, to Waseda University. Crossing at the traffic light you will find the start of Kagurazaka Dori flanked by Starbucks on the left. There is also a McDonald's further up the street, several convenience stores and a pachinko parlor.

Aside from several French restaurants and bakeries the main street boasts many old-style independent shops selling pottery, tea, hats and various traditional crafts that would make great souvenirs. There are also plenty of cafes, restaurants, izakayas and a temple. Even the Circle K has local produce, selling 3 different kinds of Kagurazaka Beer at 565 yen including tax for 330ml.
Local beer is popular nowadays in Japan and with Kamakura and Kawagoe having their own brews it makes sense that Kagurazaka, being another old town beginning with 'K', decided to join the craze in 2009.

Kagurazaka is an old geisha town, although compared with 100 years ago your chances of seeing one will not be so high. Aside from the main street it is well worth wandering along the side alleys, some not much wider than one meter. You will find a variety of buildings, from old houses largely unchanged from a century ago, ryokan and fancy restaurants to a Scottish pub that is smoke-free, much like pubs in Scotland nowadays.

Further up the main street on the right hand side you will find the Akagi shrine, re-opened in 2010 with a building designed by acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma. The shrine has a cafe open until 8 pm.

If you are looking for something else to do in Kagurazaka besides eat, drink, shop and pray then I recommend Ginrei Hall. This can be found one street to the right of Kagurazaka Dori. Ginrei Hall is an independent cinema that celebrated 40 years of business in 2014. The tickets are 1500 yen and the films are usually modern but not the typical blockbusters shown in most theaters. They also have screenings of older films sometimes and I was lucky enough to catch the 1976 Scorsese classic, 'Taxi Driver' here recently.

If all this isn't enough reason to visit, then as a bonus the main street is car free at lunchtimes and also from 12:00-19:00 on Sundays and national holidays.


Plain Talk


The Walls of Politeness That Keep Us Apart by Kohei Usuda

You walk into your local Starbucks in Japan, and between the time it takes to place an order and get your latte, you’re greeted with a torrent of “arigato gozaimasu” from the baristas working behind the counter as they obediently manufacture their smiles and bow their heads. Unaccustomed to receiving such royal treatment after living abroad for a number of years, I used to feel like a minor celebrity just by purchasing a cup of coffee.

Not anymore. Such excessive hospitality or omotenashi can sometimes go to your head. It was a French friend of mine who once exasperatedly confided in me that, living in Japan, he feels as if there’s a “wall of politeness” that separates him from the rest of the Japanese population, an invisible wall that he can never quite get through.

You try your best to make small talk with retail staff, so as to establish common ground, or at least some sort of rapport that is not simply based on a consumer-server transaction. Invariably, however, their responses tend not to stray far from the rigid customer service “manual”, the code of conduct that they’re trained to enact, even when you try to modify that very imbalance of power. Regardless, you’re yet again greeted for the umpteenth time with that impersonal phrase for welcoming customers: “Irasshaimase!”

It’s always dangerous to reductively pass judgment on a certain nationality as such and such. Nonetheless, I get the impression that the Japanese tend to value the “appearance” or the mere “surface” above all else. Philosopher Roland Barthes commented in his observation of Japan that the supreme value here lies in what emerges on the “surface” of things, rather than the layers beneath it. It could be the “wall of politeness” that you encounter in retail stores; it could be the purely visual act of bowing to show one’s gratitude. On the other hand, this centuries-old belief in what emerges on the “surface” can sometimes create beautiful things, such as the exquisitely intricate rock formation of the Zen garden at Kyoto’s Ryoanji that you can contemplate for hours on end, or the playfully innovative “pleats” fabric of Issey Miyake in fashion that plays with the shapes and dimensions of garments.

In other words, the common belief in Japan is that you can tell the content of the book by its cover without it being considered superficial, whereas in much of the West the exact opposite is the case. (Hence the negative connotations attached to English idioms such as “keeping up appearances” or “barely scratching the surface”.)

In the Japanese interpretation of things, a mask is not a mask, as in Noh theater. So that everything appears as if it’s inverted. This is the madly lopsided worldview that’s permeated the Japanese culture. Take for example the ambiguous expression “sumimasen”. It means, literally, “sorry” or “excuse me”, but in reality the same word is widely used to thanking someone, so in Japanese, “sorry” can mean “thank you” as well!





言い換えれば、西側諸国では全く正反対に解釈される所が、日本文化においては中身を読むことなく本を装丁で判断できるという通説が、それが浅はかだったり上辺だけの考えとはとらわれずに設立されるのだ。(逆に英語のよく使われる表現である“keeping up appearances”(平静を装う)や “scratching the surface”(核心に触れない)等、「外観」(appearance)だったり「表面」(surface)といった観念は欧米ではネガティブな意味を伴う言葉となるだろう。)


Unfinished business


HACKETTSTOWN by David Gregory

Boxing Day, raining hard on the two-lane highway winding between dark cliffs, our headlights poking snow piled heavy on fir trees, Yoshi driving, Naomi and Tomoe talking in back, following red tail lights streaming ahead, toward home, all tired after a long Whistler skiing day. “Dave, what is your best Christmas memory?” Tomoe asks me, switching to English.

Ah, Christmas...probably, with Aunt Roberta, about 1993, I think. Hackettstown, New Jersey. The best gifts show people you know something about them that they do not know themselves. That was one of those times.

Hackettstown snuggles up to the Appalachian foothills in the wilderness corner of New Jersey. Aunt Roberta is alone. She has lived most of her life in that big, old house that needs something done to that peeling gray outside. If she had the extra cash. She lost her husband when he was 35; her only son, Richard, in a construction accident a year after he returned from Vietnam; and her later longtime special friend, Joe, to cancer, just before the Christmas I went back.

She has not traveled in nearly 10 years due to her health. But, she holds her head high. Those strong blue eyes that have cried so many times still look straight at you, with love. Her soft voice calms you. Her fine silver hair is casually brushed back; she only takes care of things that really matter.

How does she keep going? She has a way of becoming attached to other families. Allison, next door, loves Aunt Roberta as she had loved her own mother. Allison’s little boy, Kaleb, calls Aunt Roberta, “Grandma”; he never met his own real grandmother. Eric and I always thought of Aunt Roberta as one of our grandmothers, too. She always told us to open her small packages before Christmas day. She knew little boys.

That Christmas in ‘93 I came in from Japan to meet Mom and Dad at Aunt Roberta’s. “Too far away,” she sometimes complained. But, she had always said, “Go.” Find out. Tell her about it. She would be waiting, back in New Jersey. “Write about it.”

The New York bus dropped me into Hackettstown’s snow and cold in front of the boarded up movie theater on Main Street. Mom and Dad came in from Chicago the next day, and we sat around the old table in the warm yellow brown kitchen. It looked like the usual Christmas Plan: early dinner out, gifts, visit Grandma the next day... lots of slow sitting... a routine more than a celebration. Yes, good to be with family, but... then the telephone rang.

Aunt Roberta called from the living room, “David, it’s your friend... he’s in the City... .”

Steve! With Heidrun! They made it... at Kennedy, just in from Germany. Can make a quick stop on their way to Buffalo tonight. “Finally, we’ll meet!” Mom said. After almost ten years, she would have a face to match the name of my good buddy from our early career trainee days at GE. Then, Mom and I sensed a chance. Why not invite a few others, too? Aunt Roberta would love it. I picked up the phone. Of course, Allison said. And with Jay, her husband, and Kaleb, and the new baby, Yeshua.

Allison and crew were already with us when Steve and Heidrun’s headlights finally swung into the driveway. We welcomed them in from the frosty night with hugs. Then, I popped outside and crossed the snowy yard to pull Angie out of her kitchen. “OK, but just for a few minutes,” she promised. “Angie Our Angel,” we called her. She often looked in on Aunt Roberta. Her eyes twinkled.

Coats and scarves piled in the kitchen, we packed into the living room. The party sparked to life all by itself. “So, you are...?”, “How do you know...?” Glasses of juice were poured, plates of baked sweet breads were passed around, fingers poked into bowls of spiced nuts. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about... ”, “Where do you...?” No music, no special lights, no decorations. Not needed. Only the stuffy sofa and armchairs encircling us.

And the old gray house had never seen such a potpourri of people! Look at tall, German-blooded Steve, with his German girlfriend Heidrun, educated in France and the USA. Allison, from Trinidad, descendant of Native Americans, sitting on the sofa. Jay, son of Indian parents, standing taller than us all, a little shy in the big group. Angie, on the other hand, daughter of Italian immigrants, squeezing her happiness into other arms or hands. And Mom, Dad, Roberta, and myself, the instigators, maybe looking like old timers in the New Country, but with roots that also went back to others brave enough to leave their homelands, in our cases Germany, England, Scotland, and maybe Wales. Who knows? It didn’t matter anymore where anyone was from.

“Ah, I’ve always wanted to....”, “How do they celebrate...?” Yeshua just smiled, cradled in Allison’s arms. Kaleb bounced around, greeting and investigating everyone his bright-eyed way, and finally, exhausted, flopped down into Grandma Roberta’s lap.

Swirling, glowing, an hour passed, filled with chatter, munching, and laughter. The old living room had never been so alive. And, in the middle, Aunt Roberta sat, quiet, soaking it in. Just smiling. But, if you looked behind her glasses, you would see teary eyes. “All these people, from so many places... came here... just for this,” she said to me in her soft voice. “You don’t know how happy I am. Oh, it’s just... .” She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head.

You see, Christmas is not always a happy time for Aunt Roberta. Richard was born on Christmas Eve.

Then, almost as fast as everyone had come together, it was over. Angie had food in the oven. Steve and Heidrun were still long hours from Buffalo. Yeshua was already asleep. Kaleb slumped like a rag doll over his father’s shoulder as they walked out. We waved good-byes from the back porch door and slowly returned to the suddenly empty living room.

Over, so soon. But, we made it happen, one magical hour, that year. For Aunt Roberta. She still asks me to write about it.

“My best Christmas memory? That would probably be from Hackettstown, in 1993... .” The four of us watch the wipers swish away the dark rain, the snow piled heavy on the fir trees. Hackettstown had lots of snow that Christmas. I’m wondering, now... how maybe I, too, received a best gift... one time... many times... in Hackettstown... .

The earliest version of this story I printed in my 1998 end-of-year holiday letter; a revision I read at the “Tribute to Roberta Lyon” memorial service in Hackettstown on 6 January 2001. Special thanks to Eric Gregory for editorial assistance.
Copyright (C) 2014 David Gregory. All rights reserved. Chiba, Japan


Tokyo Fab


What Season Are You? by Joshua Lepage

You've undoubtedly heard about the concept of personal colors, or what "season" is right for your skin tone. A lot of large shopping centers in Tokyo offer sessions with stylists who'll determine what your color palette is, but those will usually set you back 20,000 to 30,000 yen. It sounds like an enormous rip-off to me, so my Bunka Fashion College diploma and I will attempt to teach you the basics in a few hundred words instead.

First, seasonal palettes:

Spring: Light, warm colors like beige, golden yellow, coral and yellowish green. Warm blues and purples. No black or white.

Summer: Muted pastels and neutrals. Think hydrangeas -- lavender, baby blue, soft pink. No orange.

Autumn: Warm oranges and reds, golden brown, warm greens. No blue.

Winter: Sharp, bright gem tones, along with white, black, and navy blue. No beige or brown.

Got that? Now all you have to do is to figure out which of these four categories looks best with your skin tone and hair color.

There are a few guiding principles: if your hair is a warm color like reddish brown or strawberry blond, you're likely to look good in either spring or autumn colors. If your hair's a cool color like ash blond or black, you're likely to look good in winter or summer colors. The same goes for skin tone -- if you're a fishbelly-colored white guy like me, try winter and summer colors. If your skin is yellowish or golden brown, go for spring and autumn.

The only way to know for sure, though, is to hold swatches of fabric up to your chest and see what they do to your face. I promise you don't need a fashion school diploma to figure it out. Just sit down in front of a mirror where there's plenty of neutral light, and hold different colors of fabric to your chest. Shirts, skirts, bedsheets... anything will do. Most people have at least one season that looks terrible on them -- those colors will reflect on your face and contrast against it instead of complementing it, making you look tired or vaguely sick. The bright sapphire blue of Walmart and Seiyu uniforms does that to a lot of people. Start there. If it looks good on you, you're probably a winter person.

Whatever your findings, though, keep in mind that you can wear your favorite color even if it's not in your ideal palette. Just keep it away from your face. Pants, shoes, and bags are all great ways to wear a color that wouldn't normally suit you. Don't let pretentious personal stylists tell you otherwise!

What’s App With You?


Scanner Pro:

This paid app transforms your phone into a portable scanner, making it worth every single yen. Whether you want to scan a receipt, white board, paper note, or multi-page document, just whip out your phone and open up Scanner Pro. Once you take a picture of the text you want to scan, the app automatically removes shadows, makes the characters sharper, corrects the perspective and saves the result as a .pdf file. There's no longer any need to bend the spine of a book to scan a page or to type up your paper notes by hand. And for even more convenience, you can sync your documents across your devices or upload them to Dropbox, Google Drive or Evernote.

Grim Fandango:

This fantastic adventure game feels like a film noir, only set in a dark humor-tinged Day of the Dead-inspired afterlife where Mexican folklore mixes perfectly with smoky nightclubs and complex intrigue. You'll be playing as Manuel "Manny" Calavera, a skeletal reaper who's repenting for his sins by working as a travel agent for the Department of Death, selling tickets to the afterlife. Your superiors seem to be scamming the recently-deceased of their rightful tickets, though, and it's your job to investigate. The game is a bit pricey at over 1,000 yen, but there's easily 12 hours of gameplay, amazing puzzles in 100 locations, and 7,000 lines of recorded dialog -- most of which is hilarious. A revamped classic that's recently been brought to the iPhone and iPad and that any adventure game fan should sink their teeth into.

Tokyo Voice Column


Toilet Slippers by Moet Raub

They’re mostly made of plastic, often blue and hard to walk in―yes, that’s toilet slippers. I’m sure we’ve all encountered them at some point during our stay in Japan, but have you ever wondered why people changes shoes to go pee-pee? It doesn’t matter if they are cheap plastic ones at school or fancy wooden clogs at an upscale restaurant, they always seem hard to walk in. When trying to use a traditional Japanese toilet at a ryokan I’m in constant fear of loosing my slipper down the poop shute.

I decided to ask my friend Rina whose dad is a priest where the custom of changing your footwear to use the bathroom came from to see if I was missing something. Turns out I was.

We all know that the Japanese are renowned for their cleanliness and that Shintoism is all about purity and nature. The kami, or gods, live everywhere in Japan―even in Tokyo’s toilets. Ever heard of toire no kamisama? It’s not just the name of a pop song―many believe that kami (deities) also live in toilets. Not surprising really when you consider how many spiritual things are connected with water. Keeping your toilet clean helps to keep the kami happy and is good for the soul. By wearing special toilet slippers you help keep the bathroom neat and dirt free. Wearing toilet slippers is just like changing your shoes when you enter the house, only when you enter the toilet you are entering a more sacred space than the rest of the house. The sacredness of surfaces and striving to keep them clean is an important art of Japanese religion and so we change our regular slipper to special toilet slippers to help keep that balance.

So there you go, just like many things in this country the traditions and customs of the past still permeate the present. At least now I won’t be afraid of loosing my slippers down a pop and squat. If they fall in, I’m sure the kami-sama won’t mind and will give them back!

プラスチック製で、色はたいていブルー、歩きにくいと言ったら、そう、トイレのスリッパだ。日本に滞在すれば、誰しもある時遭遇する。どうして日本人はおしっこをする時に靴を履き替えるのか不思議に思った事はないだろうか? 学校の安っぽいプラスチック製にしろ、高級レストランの情緒ある下駄にしろ歩きにくい。旅館の和風トイレで履く時はトイレの穴にスリッパが脱げ落ちてしまわないか不安になる。




Strange but True


Mysterious radio signal turns out to be from a microwave

Since 1998, astronomers in Australia would pick up mysterious radio signals once or twice a year using the Parkes observatory telescope in New South Wales. Described as "millisecond-duration transients of terrestrial origin", these signals baffled the researchers, who first attributed them to atmospheric activity before realizing, after 17 years, that the signals were in fact coming from the staff microwave of the Parkes observatory kitchen.

Why were these signals picked up only a couple times each year? They only occurred when staff members opened the microwave door while it was still set to heat. In addition, the telescope had to be pointed toward the appliance for the signals to be picked up.

Cremation simulator in Chinese theme park

The Window of the World amusement park in Shenzhen, China, will no doubt be attracting many visitors this summer thanks to "Samadhi -- 4D Experience of Death", a ride created by philanthropists Huange Weiping and Ding Rui.

Promising to recreate "the authentic experience of burning" in a funeral home incinerator, the ride places visitors into a coffin before transporting them to room where they're blasted with 40°C air and fire-like lights. Visitors then have to crawl through a white padded room that simulates a womb before being "reborn".

The ride was funded in part using the website, China's version of Kickstarter. The creators spared no effort to make the ride as true-to-life as possible, even visiting a crematorium and asking to be sent through the furnace with the flames turned off.



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