Archive for October, 2010

Jimbocho (2)

October 26, 2010

After dropping in on the Bean Book Carnival the other day [see “Jimbocho (1)” post], I wandered through the back streets of Jimbocho in search of Kissako, a coffee shop I’d visited before.  In the busy noisy outer world, Liu Xiaobo had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Norway was taking a lot of flak from the Chinese government as a result.  But in the quiet slow-paced inner world of Kissako, I found Norway being appreciated, like a cup of very good java.

To find Kissako you have to get lost first.  You go down the street you think it might be on, or off, and then you don’t find it, so you follow your instincts and turn left or right at the next corner and the next until you find yourself in a narrow back alley with no idea where you are or by what route you got there.  You have left behind the rushing traffic and crowded sidewalks of Jimbocho, and are now alone.  At that moment, an old house with lots of potted plants out front and a sign that says 喫茶去 appears in front of you.  This is Kissako.

“Kissa” means coffee shop or tearoom.  Our translation staff found the “ko” part trickier.  By itself, it means “gone.”  So they googled around and came to a website featuring information on the Japanese tea ceremony [ Japanese)].  Here they learned that kissako is a word in its own right, a Zen term meaning “Nice to see you! How about some tea?”  (It does not mean, the website warns, “Drink your tea and be gone!”)

Green tea is on the menu at Kissako, but its specialty is coffee.  The aroma of fresh-ground beans greeted me as I entered.  Though the street outside had been empty, the shop was full, except for one table right inside the door, which the Master (proprietors of coffee shops are called “Master”), who was working alone, quickly cleared up for me.  I sat down facing the wall to the immediate left of the entrance.  When I’d come here before that wall had been covered with an enlarged print of Art Kane’s famous 1958 photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem.”  It was gone now, and in its place was a collection of CD covers.  Then I noticed the music.  It was not jazz.  It was fiddles, playing something that might have been the accompaniment to a barn dance somewhere in Appalachia.

Kissako is a jazz-kissa, a coffee house that plays jazz recordings, hence the wall-sized print of “A Great Day….”  But today, for whatever reason, it was fiddles.  The menu was inside an old 45 album cover: “Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic, vol. 9” from CLEF Records.  Various coffees and teas were available from ¥600 to ¥700 [$7.00 to $8.50], and something out of the ordinary:  a piece of cake called mor monsen made from a Norwegian recipe.

I ordered my coffee and the cake.  Then I noticed the windowsill to my left.  It was piled high with CDs—I counted over 100—with a little note explaining that these belonged to the Norwegian Culture Cafe, and I could choose any CD I wanted to listen to and request it (kind of like a non-mechanical jukebox).  Now I was confused.  Had Kissako changed hands and become the Norwegian Culture Cafe?  A closer look at the CD covers on the opposite wall revealed that these too were from Norway.  In front of them was a stack of Norwegian picture books.  I concluded that the Master had made a recent trip to Norway, fell completely in love with the place, and returned with CDs, picture books and mor monsen recipe, determined to remake his jazz-kissa into a museum celebrating Norway.  (It turned out this conclusion was wrong.  Read on.)

The door kept sliding open and people poked in their heads—where were they all coming from?—only to be told that the downstairs was full but they were welcome to sit upstairs, reached by a narrow, steep and creaking stairway opposite the entrance.  It took a while for my order to come, so while the fiddles fiddled on and on, I browsed through the pile of CDs.  They were all Norwegian jazz.  I had heard of none of the groups or musicians.  There was Embraceable You:  The Warm Symphonic Moods of Bjarne Nerem, which included standards like “Stardust” and “What’s New”; The Zoo is Far, by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble (piano, harmonium, toy piano, trumpet, violin, Hardanger Fiddle, viola, cello, baroque harp, drums, percussion and glockenspiel), which included intriguing titles like “Music For One Cat” and “Need Elp”; Bushman’s Revenge Cowboy Music, with titles like “Bad Feng Shui,” “Supersonic Macho Blues,” and “Makes It Worth a Beating.”

The coffee and mor monsen arrived:  six small cubes of butter cake laid out on a plate and sprinkled with powdered sugar, with a daub of plum jelly on top and 2 small triangles of pineapple to the side.  A feast for the eyes and the palate.

When I went to pay my check the Master asked me if I were from Norway.  I told him no, but that I had enjoyed being in Norway for the past hour.

When I got home, I googled Norwegian Culture Cafe and found out what’s going on.  The is an “imaginary cafe” which circulates in “volumes” around the Tokyo area, manifesting now and again at a local cafe and occupying it for a while.  It is the creation of the Society of Japan-Norway Musicians and aims to introduce Norwegian culture through its music CDs.  At its website [ (in Japanese)] I found a recipe for mor monsen, which uses the following ingredients:  unsalted butter, sugar, flour, eggs, grated lemon rind, currants, almonds and powdered sugar.

On Wednesday, October 27 there will be an exhibit at Kissako of aurora borealis photographs by the Japanese photographer Hiroyuki Kudoh.  Norwegian Culture Cafe, Vol.4 will be in residence at Kissako through Sunday, November 14.

[Kissako:  Kanda Jimbocho 2-24, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Ph.: 03-3229-6969.  Open every weekday, 7AM – 9PM; Saturday, noon – 9 PM; Sunday, noon – 6PM.]


What If?

October 24, 2010

Almost every neighborhood in Tokyo has a Seiyu—part department store, part supermarket—located right near the train station.  When I first moved to Nishiogikubo in the early 1980s, there were actually two Seiyu’s:  one next to the station, and one diagonally across the street.  The former had a more up-to-date atmosphere in the groceries section, while the latter, two stories high, had a greater selection of housewares and furniture.  The one next to the station is still there but the one across the street closed down long ago and is now the site of a pachinko parlor.  The items you could buy in Seiyu in those days were not discounted but they were reasonably priced, and among all the cheaper sorts of women’s clothing, I often found something unique and to my taste: a winter jacket in black and white tweed—the only one on the rack—or 100% wool shawls in interesting patterns and colors to cover my shoulders and add some warmth to a Tokyo winter day.

Since the bursting of the bubble in the early ’90s, the merchandise available in Tokyo stores has slowly and subtly undergone change.  The riot of color that used to greet my eyes when I visited the appliance or household goods section of the supermarket has faded to white and gray or a limited choice of anemic pastels.  Jackets, like all the other clothing, come in two or three styles and colors, all subdued and ill-fitting and made in China.  Everything looks the same as everything else.

Seiyu, in the meantime, has been bought out by Wal-Mart, which may also account for the deterioration in quality and variety of the goods on offer.  As the Seiyu shopping bag proudly declares in English, they are now “part of the WAL*MART family.”  Prices are boldly advertised as being boldly slashed, and the racks and shelves have sprouted large gaudy red and yellow tags boasting the items’ low cost.  They hurt the eyes.  And no doubt hurt the earnings of smaller shops who cannot afford to discount their goods as drastically.  One by one they close down and leave the neighborhood:  the hardware store where you could buy a small pot for heating up milk, with flowers painted on the side; the boutique that sold women’s clothes in all sizes, all 100% pure silk; the corner fruit and vegetable store with all its wares out on the sidewalk so you could easily pick up a bunch of bananas as you walked by.

An article in the Daily Yomiuri, “Wal-Mart to open smaller stores in U.S.” (Fri., Oct. 15, ’10) tells us that Wal-Mart “sees a ‘true need’ for stores smaller than its supercenters….’After years of development we are now prepared to accelerate growth’ of smaller stores, [U.S. stores chief] Simon said.”

Let’s get this straight.  First you build these huge stores outside of town that offer merchandise at such low cost that you drive the in-town shops out of business and turn main street shopping centers into ghost towns; and then you decide that after all there is a “true need” for small shops in “urban markets”?  Well, if Simon says so, then I guess everyone else will just have to go along with it, but we here at the Tree are refusing to play the game.  Instead, we’d like to pose a “What If?” for you to ponder.

What if one day we go out to do our shopping and find that the only stores around are all “part of the Wal*Mart family,” and are all selling exactly the same thing as each other?  And what if, because they now own and operate every possible outlet for goods and food, Wal-Mart has a brainstorm and realizes that if they are the only game in town, and therefore there’s no competition left to put out of business by underselling them, then there is no longer any need to keep their prices so low?  Think about it.


October 24, 2010

Slime Mold Wins Prize! We wrote in an earlier post [see “Slime Mold Strikes Tokyo!!!” under “Train Story,” Mar. 25, ’10] about the research that found a similarity between slime mold networks and the Tokyo railway system map.  Now, the Daily Yomiuri reports (Sat., Oct. 2, ’10), the nine Japanese and British researchers have been awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, which was recently presented to them at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research.  No mention of an award for the hard-working slime mold, who the Tree thinks deserve at least some of the credit.

Bathhouse Revival. A recent Tree post [see “Bathhouse Blues,” Oct. 12, ’10]  lamented the demise of a favorite Tokyo bathhouse.  Efforts are underway in another part of town, however, to keep the tradition alive.  A story in the Daily Yomiuri (Fri., Oct. 22, ’10), “Tokyo bathhouses scrub up to lure visitors,”  informs us that the Ota Ward Public Bathhouse Association is encouraging foreign visitors to make use of the 57 bathhouses in the ward as a way of drumming up business.  Ota Ward is home to Haneda Airport, which has recently expanded its facilities to accommodate more international flights.  Thus the bathhouses hope to pick up some of the anticipated influx of tourists through the ward.   Posters in four languages illustrating how to use the baths properly have been prepared, as well as other special souvenirs for visitors.

We recommend checking out the Ota Ward bathhouses if you are coming through Haneda Airport.  A soak in the hot baths will remoisturize and refresh you after a long flight.  And if you want to know what to expect at the bathhouse, you can read all about it in our story, “Bathhouse Blues.”

Jimbocho (Part I)

October 15, 2010

The other day I attended a “Bean Book Carnival” held at the Tokyo Secondhand Book Hall.  “Bean book” is a literal translation of a word that actually means “miniature book.”  The venue was located in a part of Tokyo called Jimbocho, an area with a high concentration of secondhand book shops.

I didn’t know what to expect, but from the little I already knew about miniature books in Japan, I had built up an image of high school girls or college-age women both as readers and creators of these tiny highly artistic and ultimately “cute” works.  When I descended the stairs to the basement room where the “carnival” was being held, I found it mobbed, but not just with the very young.  There were plenty of thirty-and-forty-somethings and plenty of men, too, both as makers of the books and as admirers milling about in the crowd.

The so-called “carnival” was actually an exhibition by 28 miniature book artists, as well as a few workshops held at the back of the room on how to make your own miniature book.  The way it was set up was interesting and reminded me of the lay-out of a traditional Japanese garden.  The room was not that large, but there were 28 exhibits on view.  If it had been me in charge of the layout, I probably would have set everyone up side by side around the edges of the room.  Maybe you would have done it that way, too.  But only numbers 1 through 4 and 21 through 28 were at the edges of the room.  The other 16 booths were in the center of the room, in four sets of four.

In each set of four, each booth was side-by-side with one booth, and back-to-back with another one.  And the numbers in each set of four, rather than proceeding 5, 6, 7, 8, as you might have expected, were instead 5, 6, 9, and 10; 7, 8, 11, 12; 13, 14, 17, 18; 15, 16, 19, 20.  This arrangement created an interesting flow pattern, because if you wanted to view each booth in numerical order, you had to move from one booth, not to the booth immediately next to it since that was not the next number, but to the booth immediately behind it.

Although this was confusing at first, it had the interesting effect of making the distinction between each side-by-side booth much stronger.  Because of the limited space, these booths were very narrow, with only room for three or four shelves about one foot wide and a few inches deep, a small table holding a change box and leaflets, and a stool for the exhibitor to sit on next to the table.  So it would have been easy to confuse the two side-by-side exhibits with each other had it not been for this interesting order of viewing.

The overall effect was of a much larger room than it actually was, a sensation I have experienced before when wandering the pathways of a Japanese garden, whose twists and turns within a small area created the impression of a much larger space.

In each of these narrow booths the world of the tiny was on show.  Each exhibit was different from the others, both stylistically and in some cases in the wares on offer.  Most dealt with miniature books, but many also showed other miniature items, such as tiny carved animals, a basket of miniature mandarin oranges, or thumb-sized books attached to phone straps.  At one booth, a young girl–the daughter, it turned out, of the woman who had made the books–offered me a basket and the chance to have my fortune told.  I pulled out a slip of paper, and she opened it up to reveal that my fortune was “Small Good Luck.”

“Ring, ring, ring.  Try getting in touch with a close friend–there might be good news,” the fortune slip said.

I wanted to take a picture of the room, but when I asked a young woman standing at the doorway wearing a yellow armband if I could use my camera, she informed me that I had to ask the exhibitor for her or his permission first.  “What about a shot of the whole room?” I asked.  “In that case too…,” she replied with a smile.  As I wasn’t in the mood to go around asking 28 people if I could photograph the whole room–what if numbers 1 through 27 all said OK, and number 28 said no?–there are no pictures here of the carnival itself.  But I did purchase a miniature book, and brought it home and photographed it.  The book measures 2 by 2 and a half inches.

Its title:  Sky:  A Collection of One Line Poems.  The poet and creator of the book itself is Rukawa Tohmei, which I suspect might be a pen name since it means something like “crystal running river.”  The Tree translation staff found three poems it especially liked, to share with you, and rendered them in one line like the originals.

From a journey in search of myself, my self did not come home.


From a journey in search of myself, my self did not come home.


* * *


Evening:  inside the silent computer there is no one.


Evening:  inside the silent computer there is no one.


* * *


God:  Is it that you are forgetful, or are you just not there?


God:  Is it that you are forgetful, or are you just not there?


* * *



[The Tokyo Secondhand Book Hall (東京古書会館) will be the site of a Foreign Books Bargain Fair on Friday, October 22, from 10 AM to 6 PM, and Saturday, October 23, from 10AM to 5 PM.  Address:  3-22 Kanda Ogawamachi, Chiyoda-ku.  Ph.:  (03) 3291-5209.]


Train Story

October 12, 2010

On Monday, October 11, 2010, I got on a car of the Toei Shinjuku subway line at Shinjuku Station.  Just before the doors closed, a man wearing a baseball cap and thick-lensed glasses began to shout angrily and pound the end of a long pilgrim’s staff on the platform.  The top part of the staff was decorated with colorful strings and bells, and the latter jingled melodically if a bit crazily each time the man pounded his staff.  Around his neck was draped a white towel on which were printed neat rows of Chinese characters in black ink, suggestive of the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist scripture pilgrims like to chant during their long walks from temple to temple in search of salvation.  I could not understand what he was shouting.  Could it have been the mantra with which, according to Wikipedia, the Heart Sutra ends?

“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!”

The juxtaposition of the baseball cap with the pilgrim’s staff, the angry shouts with the sutra towel got me to imagining Alternative Pilgrimages, where pilgrims travel not the usual established routes to the usual holy places but by routes understood only to themselves to the unholy seemingly god-forsaken places—-like subway platforms, or garbage dumps, or Home Depots, or Starbucks cafes—-where instead of chanting Buddhist sutras they shout out their complaints about everything to whoever is within earshot.  Oh what an awakening, all hail!

The train pulled out of the station, leaving the Alternative Pilgrim still pounding his staff and ringing his angry bells.

Bathhouse Blues

October 12, 2010

A July 16 story in the Daily Yomiuri headlined “Condo supply in Tokyo up for 1st time in 6 years” ends with this enlightening analysis:  “The [Real Estate Economic] institute traced the rebound in the condo market partly to a reaction to a plunge in the corresponding period a year earlier that stemmed from the global recession.”  Oh, so that recession is over now, is it?

If you turn a blind eye to the growing numbers of blue plastic tents gathering in public parks and along riverbanks, or the permanently shuttered small businesses hidden in the shadows of skyscrapers and overhead highways, Tokyo does appear to be as  prosperous and glittery as ever.  Everywhere you go, something new and big is under construction.  Or else, in preparation for the new and big, something old and no longer profitable is under destruction.

To make way for the new, something old must be removed first.  In the case of the condos, the old thing, as the Tree has previously reported, is often a single-family home with garden attached, or a small shop, run by a family, specializing in one commodity, like hand-made picture frames.  In the case of at least one of the new condo buildings, recently opened for occupancy on a back street of Nishiogikubo, the old thing was a much-loved public bathhouse, Tama-no-yu.


According to the Tokyo Sento [public bath] Association, the number of bathhouses in Tokyo has fallen from 2,687 in 1968 to just over 1,000 in 2006.  [A recent story in the Asahi Shimbun (Wed., Oct. 13, ’10) sets the current number at 813.]  The bathhouses of Suginami Ward, where the Tree office is located, made up 120 of that 1968 figure, and fell to 40 by 2006.  I now count 30 on the map at the Suginami public bath website [].

What makes bathhouses so vulnerable to encroaching developers?  The main reason is probably that they are no longer an absolute necessity.  You can still find older apartments around without a bathtub, but these are now few and far between.  Most housing units in Tokyo are fully equipped with their own private bathing facilities.  People go to the public bath to relax or to catch up on neighborhood gossip, not because they have no other choice.  This means, of course, that fewer people use bathhouses now than they did in 1968, and consequently all bathhouses struggle to stay alive.  I do not know the specific trigger behind the decision to close the Tama-no-yu, but given the general economic circumstances for all bathhouses, any one thing could have occurred to push the family that owned and operated it over the edge financially.  It might, for instance, have been a death in the family which left the heirs with huge inheritance taxes to pay and only one way to pay them:  take down the bathhouse and put up a lucrative condo building in its place.

So take it down they did.  I had been planning to make a visual record of its destruction, but as soon as the bulldozers and excavators arrived and started pulling the building apart, the property was covered with plastic sheeting so no one could see what was going on.  A sign said the sheeting was to keep the noise level down.



Passing by the site one day, after the destruction had been completed and construction of the new had begun, I found a sign advertising the new condos, and informing us of the new building’s name:  GAGA.

No Comment

So, okay, I know what you all must be thinking now:  What was so great about the old bathhouse that you are lamenting its replacement by a shiny new “city mansion” with the glorious name of GAGA?  Oh, I don’t know.  Allow me to indulge in a little reminiscing for a moment….

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I park my bicycle out front, grab my carry-all full of towel, shampoo, razor, soap, bottled water and comb, and duck under the noren that both indicates the bathhouse is open for business and marks a point of separation between the outer world of rushing Tokyo and this inner world where movement stops and you have nowhere else to go but into the hot tub, and nothing else to do but soak, for the next hour or so of your life.  Removing my shoes, I step up onto the wooden floor to my right, the one on the left being where the men go.  Here is a bank of old wooden shoe lockers.  I deposit my shoes in one of them and lock it by removing the small rectangle of wood that keeps it unlocked when inserted in a slide in the door.  I put this “key” in a pocket of my carry-all and step behind a screen.  Here is an opaque glass door leading to the women’s bath.


I slide it open and inhale the peculiar damp odor of the bathhouse.  Sounds echo from the bathrooms on both sides of a dividing wall that does not quite reach up to the ceiling, which is several stories high:  Voices calling out greetings, water splashing as it pours over a body, the clatter of plastic seats and basins against the tiled floor.


Immediately inside the door is the bandai, translated by our office dictionary as “the elevated seat between the women’s and men’s baths at a public bathhouse.”  A young man with wet hair and a red face is usually sitting here facing the door, behind a little counter where I place the ¥450 [about $5.50] fee.  He calls out “Welcome!” when you come in, and “Thank you!” when you leave.  On the other side of his seat he can see and talk to the men who are entering the other side of the bathhouse.  But the rest of us can’t see those men and those men can’t see us, which is a good thing, because I am now in the changing room, and all the women in here are stark naked.  I suppose if he really wanted to, the young man sitting with his back to the room could lean around and take a gander at the naked flesh, but I’ve never seen him do that.


There’s a glass case here by the door full of bathing needs like soap and towels in case you forgot yours, and another one full of cold drinks for sale.  You pay for all those things, too, at the bandai.  The changing room is spacious and airy and full of activity.  A TV is broadcasting the news from a corner near the door to the baths, and under that is a weighing machine.  In the middle of the room are two raised tatami platforms where you can sit and chat or put on your socks.  Against the further wall to the right are the lockers for keeping your clothes in while you bathe.


I grab a big wicker basket from the pile by the glass case and head for the nearest free locker.  I take off my coat and fold it up and place it in the basket.  Everything else, including everything I’m wearing, goes into the locker.  I put my towel on top of my coat and carry the basket along with my smaller plastic carrier full of bath items to the door to the baths.  I leave the basket near this door, slide it open and step into the bathroom.  It’s much noisier in here, much warmer and steamier.


I help myself to a plastic seat and basin from a stack by the door and look around for a free spot at the washing trough.  There are four rows of these:  One against each wall and two facing each other in a row down the middle of the room.  Each spot has a round mirror and a shower head and faucets delivering hot or cold water.  I place my seat in front of one of these spots and start my ablutions by pouring hot water all over myself with the basin.  I wash lightly with soap and water, pouring out the dirty water into a gutter at my feet that carries it away down a drain somewhere.  I thoroughly rinse all traces of soap away and then head for the bath tub.


There are three to choose from.  One has hotter water than the others, and water jets for both back and feet.  The one in the middle is larger and has slightly less hot water and water jets for the back.  The third one, full of white water, is a “milky bath,” billed as something that restores your youthful skin.  This is the most popular bath, but I prefer the ones with the water jets, which give a good massage to the aching muscles in my shoulders and lower back.  I stretch out full length and let the jets do their thing.  A woman says “excuse me,” and climbs into the tub next to me.


Behind us on the wall is half of a huge mural of Mt. Fuji, the other half being in the men’s bath.  Above us is the very high ceiling, painted powder blue as if to indicate heaven.  I stare at the windows way up at the top of the bathhouse and wonder how they open and close them.


No one stays in for long.  You get too hot if you do.  The trick is to take several short soaks in the bath, rather than one long one.  I usually take two or three.  In between the soaks, I scrub at the washing trough, each time getting a little bit cleaner.


After 40 minutes or so, I’m done.  I rinse off my stool and basin, returning them to the stack by the door.  I slide open the door and feel the cooler air all over my heated body.  I retrieve my towel from the basket and pat down by the bathroom door before padding over to my locker to dry off more thoroughly and get dressed.  Then I go over to the massage machine area, where other women are sitting under hair dryers or leaning back with eyes closed into coin-operated chairs that undulate all over your back.  I prefer the leg and foot massager.  I sit down on one of the tatami platforms and deposit ¥100 into the machine.  For ten minutes my legs and feet are pummeled and squeezed and kneaded by this mechanical device.  I drink lots of water, and then it is time to go home.


Wet-haired and red-faced, I put the basket back by the door and say “thank you” to the person sitting in the bandai, now a young woman, who thanks me in turn for coming.  I slide open the door and go out into the cool night air.  I unlock the shoe locker, remove my shoes and put them on in the entranceway before ducking under the noren and re-entering the rushing current that is life in Tokyo.

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That’s how it was, and how it is no more.  Instead of that we now have this: