Archive for July, 2010

Gallery of Store Fronts

July 13, 2010

Last year, when I discovered that a favorite small coffee shop had disappeared almost overnight and that a frame shop I had used the services of several times had also closed down, the latter to be replaced by a 13-floor apartment building, I decided to start keeping a photographic record of those small store fronts still remaining in our neighborhood.  Several of these photos have already been published in the Tree—before it became a blog.  So we decided to archive them here under the title of “Gallery of Store Fronts.”

We recently came across an article by Bryant Simon, American Studies professor at Temple University, in which he claims that “the spread of …branded symbols of globalization”—such as McDonald’s and Starbucks—“raises the value of the local.  Everywhere multinationals go, they generate a grassroots pushback, an assertion of the enduring value of particular places, tastes and traditions.”  By this same screwy logic, one could also claim that the spread of nuclear weapons serves to generate the anti-nuclear weapons movement.

What Professor Simon fails to appreciate is that while it may be true that the value of our local shops and businesses is raised by the encroachment of fast food chain stores and Starbucks outlets and their imitators, there is not much that anyone can do to “push back” against them.   Unable to keep up with the competition, small shop after small shop in our neighborhood goes out of business and pulls down its shutters for the last time.  Some of the store fronts appearing in this Gallery have already folded but are still standing.  Others are happily still with us–for the time being.  Let’s enjoy them while we still can.

Nihil Cow crafts and gift shop

Tanuki (badger) yakitori (chicken kebab) restaurant

a second-hand bookstore

No longer open for business

a former tatami (straw mat) maker

antique shops


Rainy Season

July 7, 2010


A cat stretches out

under the hydrangea bush:

Rainy season’s here

Cell Phone Mania

July 7, 2010

In a recent issue of the International Herald Tribune, the columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about a growing cell phone addiction in the U.S.  [“Are cells the new cigarettes?” Monday, June 28, 2010.]  This is an area where Japan is well ahead of America.  Perhaps what is happening here now provides a glimpse of what the future holds for the American version of cell phone dependency.

Back in 2003, I took up a teaching post at a university here and found that every student in my classroom not only owned a cell phone but used it while class was in session.  I was fighting a losing battle, but I set up a table in a corner of the room and required every student to put his or her cell phone there for the duration of the class.  Many of them did so grudgingly, and one or two even angrily.  Occasionally during class a phone would start to vibrate or hum or even ring, causing its owner to glance at it anxiously until the “crying” stopped.  It was as if both the cell phones and their owners underwent separation anxiety every time I made them deposit the phones in my makeshift “nursery.”  When class was over, they ran to retrieve the phone-babies and immediately checked to see if any messages had come in.

I’ve long since given up trying to part cell phones from their student owners, who claim they cannot live without them.  And they have managed on their own to adapt them to classroom use.  At the beginning of the school year when I divide the students into groups and tell them to exchange contact information, they all get our their cell phones and hold them up in front of them in a kind of circle.  It looks like some kind of alien ritual, as if each student were transferring her thoughts into the high-tech instruments of the others.

The students in one of my current classes find it hard to believe I do not own a cell phone.  “But how do you get emergency calls?” they want to know, and when I answer that I have an answering machine on my home phone, they stare at me uncomprehendingly.  You would think that “emergency calls” were something that one ought to be getting all the time.

The use of cell phones is now so widespread here that people read text messages while riding their bicycles or walking down the street.  They are of course a menace to traffic safety, and can be especially irritating here in crowded Tokyo where the constant uninterrupted flow of traffic is essential to the maintenance of sanity.  When people wait for a train to arrive at a crowded station, they line up in neat rows.  Then after the train arrives and discharges passengers, the neat rows dissolve into a fast forward charge onto the train in an attempt to get a seat or at least a spot to stand in a less crowded part of the car.  But more and more often lately, when it comes time to move forward into the train, I find myself stuck behind someone moving forward at a snail’s pace, and keeping the rest of us from getting on the train in time to get a good spot.  This snail-person is inevitably staring at a cell phone screen.

Cell phones serve all kinds of purposes here:  to read and write novels; to build social networks; to help people find their way to an unknown location; to keep friends and family members constantly aware of one’s whereabouts; even to bully people and drive them to suicide.  The technology is constantly changing, and I cannot keep up with what the latest use might be.  Now there are ads on the trains for new cell phones from au, a service of KDDI.  The ad pictures five young men, each holding a different rose-pink cell phone.  (This is Japan, where men are not ashamed to be associated with the color pink.)  The ad claims that there are now three different “schools” of cell phone users:  those who text by typing one key at a time with separate fingers (43%), those who text by slipping their fingers over the keys (36%), and those who use both hands to text (19%).  (The method of the 2% “other” is left to the imagination.)  So au is now offering phones with a key pad designed for each of these “schools.”

Maybe cell phones in America also feature these “schools” and make different key pads for them, but I suspect there are no rose-pink phones for the men.

The Color of “Brilliance”

July 7, 2010

The Color of “Brilliance.” The tables here at this chain coffee shop are lined up side by side.  I find a free one, sit down, and tuck into my egg and tuna salad sando. I’m immediately aware of the young man sitting at the table to my left.  Is it the constant clicking of the pen caps as he snaps them off and then seconds later snaps them on again that makes me glance in his direction?  Or is it the array of brightly colored hi-liter pens strewn next to his reading material that catches my eye?

Immediately in front of him is a xeroxed article written in Japanese but printed in horizontal rows as English and other European languages are.  Just above the article is propped an open book, also in Japanese but printed the traditional way in vertical rows which one reads from top to bottom, moving across the page from right to left.

The entire 20 minutes it takes me to finish my sando and drink my coffee he spends ceaselessly looking at the xeroxed article in front of him, looking up from it to consult the book above it, flipping ahead through its pages then flipping back again, then once again returning to the article.  He uses his left hand to flip the pages or pinpoint a passage with his forefinger, while in his right hand he holds one of his assorted hi-liter pens or his one red ballpoint pen.  Each time he changes pens, he snaps off the cap with the fingers of this hand, which then grasp it as he applies the hi-liter to one or two lines or a few words within a line in the article or the book.   The marking is accomplished in one or two rapid strokes, the cap replaced with the fingers of the right hand— “snap!”—another pen picked up, uncapped—“click!”—applied to the page, recapped—“snap!”—replaced in the pile and so on and on and on.

The article begins to look like a rainbow as more and more of the words and lines are marked in various shades of pink, blue, yellow, green, orange and purple.  He uses the red ballpoint pen to make notations in the margins or to draw circles around chunks of words within a line.  Back and forth he moves across the article lying flat in front of him, painting the page with color.  Back and forth he riffles through the pages of the thick book propped above it.  Off and on, off and on click the caps of the pens.

This coffee shop is located across the street from the Mita campus of Keio University, so the young man might be a Keio student, famous, as are students of all the top-tier elite schools here, for being “brilliant.”  Or is he a neurotic wannabe hanging out on the fringes of the campus pretending to study something avidly?  Who’s to say?

I pick up my tray and carry it to the service counter.  On my way out of the cafe I pass the young man still hard at work turning his texts into rainbows.

Nishiogi Notes

July 7, 2010

NISHIOGI NOTES. As we have reported in previous issues, the Tokyo traffic pattern is one of constant rushing movement.  Since there are so many people and so little space,  if you do not keep moving, you are likely to cause a traffic jam.   But only sections of the city’s surface are involved in this fast-moving, straight-line pace.  You can always find an exit ramp along the way and leave the traffic pattern behind.   You then enter a space where time moves slowly, the route meanders, and the hectic rush is left behind.

One such space is the little river that wanders quietly through Suginami Ward:  the Zenpukuji.   It flows at a leisurely pace and winds between the houses that have been built up along its now concreted banks, an ever-present reminder of the possibility of a more contemplative, less stressful way of life.

Wild life, whose rhythms and traffic patterns tend to differ from those of urban humans (with the exception of slime molds, of course [see V. 3, n. 3]), gather here, too.  This egret wades deliberatively with dainty yellow steps along the river’s muddy edge, pausing, eyes alert, long curved neck held at the ready, then makes a sudden lunge at the water and pulls back with something in his beak.  Spotting me and my camera, he spreads his wide white wings and soars through the air to another hunting spot further downstream.

Found Object

July 7, 2010

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FOUND OBJECT: The other day I saw an ad on TV for Spam sushi…

…That’s probably all you need to know, but just in case you are wondering what it looks like:  it’s a slice of Spam laid on top of a bite-sized clump of white rice wrapped in a thin strip of nori seaweed.

I suppose the Spam people are thinking ahead to the days when all the tuna has been fished out of existence and something will have to take its place.