Friday, July 25, 2014

卒業: Graduating from share houses

Living in a share house can be a blast. Although your experience can depend a lot on where you live and your sharemates, it is a good way to save money, while also ensuring that you will have access to a few well-sized shared spaces (spacious living room, kitchen, bath). It is also nice to have someone to greet you and talk with when you get home.

However, it does have its downsides: an upstairs neighbor with an elephantine footfall, people playing music late at night, waiting your turn to use the shower, food occasionally disappearing.
I have been very lucky with my living arrangements and sharemates, and we have had a lot of fun times...but I have come to realize that it may be time to graduate from shared living.

There will be lot to miss. My share house is particularly lovely, with a wild garden and fresh tomatoes everywhere, that you can eat right off the vine. The sunsets over the Prince hotel, pink and lavender, which I can see from the large sliding glass door in my bedroom. The strange call of the mobile tofu salesman, and the distant sound of trains rolling by on quiet evenings. Dinners spent discussing romantic conquests while eating takoyaki and parties in the fairy-light encircled garden.

But I have lived in my share house for almost three years now. And, with the exception of my Fulbright year, I have shared rooms or housing for over 9 years (not to mention, of course, all the years previous to those, when I lived with my parents).

I want to be able to go home and know that it will be quiet, that I will be able to laze about in the bathtub when I want to, walk around in underwear and a t-shirt if I feel like it, or take up the entire floor to do weight training and stretches without compunction.

While I don't intend to move immediately, my eyes stray more than ever before to the 'for rent' posters which cluster on the windows of real estate agencies. Imagining and plotting where to live next is immensely fun for me, as I have a bit of a love affair with real estate. How big is the apartment? How much? Do they allow pets? No, no tatami floors. Is there a park nearby? A supermarket? Could I bike to work? The possibilities stretch out endlessly, like my friend's Maine Coon cat in the air conditioning.

At the same time it is a little frightening. Will I miss the 'instant community' of a share house? How very different it must be to share space with 1 person instead of 7-8. On a more practical level, how annoying to have to pay more rent!

Somehow, despite technically being an adult, this all feels very 'grown up'. Weird.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wind Chime Festival at Kawasaki Daishi

I don't know about you, but I am one of those people who always finds out about a cool festival...right after it has concluded.

The Kawasaki Daishi Wind Chime festival has been on my to do list for years. But, as it only lasts 5 days (of which only two are non-work days) each time I have managed to be elsewhere or forget about it. But this year I actually got my butt into gear (aka: wrote the days down in my planner) and whisked off on the adorable retro trains with a running friend and her boyfriend, to check out the chimes.
The temple is a 10 minute walk away from the tiny Kawasaki Daishi station, and is a nice old-fashioned temple town, the main street dotted with purveyors of kuzu mochi, the local delicacy.
Approaching the temple, the energetic sound of cleavers on wood welcomes visitors, as old fashioned candy stores line the way, interspersed with shops selling bright red daruma . The sesame filled candies are definitely worth a try!
The wind chime market itself is covered and misted with cool water, a nice respite from the July sun. The creators of these lovely crafts come from all across Japan, representing almost every prefecture, to display and sell their wares. The varieties are endless, from classic glass globes and iron bells, to unusual charcoal, bamboo and pottery chimes. The sounds are also very important, although it can be hard to figure out where they come from, due to the sheer quantity of wind chimes! Personally, I am partial to high, light bell tones (from small, heavy iron chimes) and the charming clunky sound of pottery chimes.

The colours and shapes are a feast for the eyes, and it is hard to choose a favorite amongst them all. Eventually I settled on a colourful fuurin from Akita, a heavy bell attached to a hand-decorated silk ball (in the picture above).
These apple chimes were a big hit, lots of children were requesting their parents to buy them. The glass chimes were the most creative, with all sorts of different shapes... including a cucumber which was entirely too suggestive!

My new chime is proudly hanging by the window in my room... now if we could just get a breeze to go with it!

(All photos by the awesome Eugene Roussin, used with permission)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Nihonbashi to Ningyocho: Business in the Shitamachi

In preparation for the Olympics, Tokyo is getting major face-lifts. Nihonbashi, which used to be a shabby but well-beloved shitamachi haunt has now been invaded by the Coredo shopping centres. While they are tastefully wa, and house some interesting traditional shops (for example crafts made using gold leaf from Kanazawa), this is not the Nihonbashi I remember.
Much of the shitamachi is home to traditional Japanese industry. By this I don't just mean artistic crafts (old style umbrellas, lacquerware, wood working) but also businesses that cater exclusively to the Japanese market. Walking from Nihonbashi to Ningyocho you find purveyors of those iconic OL uniforms, small workshops manufacturing a very specific part for kotatsu heaters, printers of promotional uchiwa fans.

The longer I live and work in Japan, the more I have come to realize that there are two business models that do very well here: either be extremely local or go completely global. The interesting thing is that the actual size of the business is irrelevant. Companies that deal with business globally are usually thought of being ginormous corporations... and yet there are tiny 3D printing specialists or app creators in Tokyo that have dedicated customers on every continent. On the other hand Japan Rail, the queen of the 'super local', is massive.

The old and the new coexist peacefully. Although I am often annoyed and flummoxed by how slow business can be here, it comes with some benefits. People will hang on to traditions for dear life, even if they are the last ones chugging along. Even when it is not profitable. Companies are often loath to leave their suppliers, who they have known for decades, in the lurch. While business-wise I fully understand this does not make sense, on a human level it is kind. 
Sometimes I think resistance to change, in Japan, can be a strategy of its own.

In Ningyocho there is a traditional sweets parlor called Hatsune. It has stood in the same spot since 1837, purveying old fashioned anko and jelly desserts, along with traditional kakigori (the type topped with green tea and red beans, or syrupy preserved apricots). They make tea in a cast iron tea urn, which is both time consuming and easy to burn oneself on while bustling past, just because it tastes a bit better.

Time does not stand entirely still at Hatsune, but their dedication to the old has served them well, as the competition for seats is fierce. Well-to-do ladies in expensive summer kimono (obviously regulars, from the chit-chat) smile benevolently at younger customers and the unusual Japanese/foreign couple at the table next to them.

The global and the local sit companionably side-by-side, over ice and tea.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rainy Day in Tokyo: Palm Shoutengai

While the sights of Tokyo are certainly beautiful and worth a visit, it is the hidden, homely sides of the city that I love best.

I will admit that there is a bit of pride attached to this, as I enjoy knowing things that other people don't... let us assume that this is due to too many years in graduate school, mixed with a bit of a character flaw.

However, this eternal search for something new and exciting has also led to a very useful discovery: what to do on rainy days in Tokyo!
The covered shoutengai in Musashi Koyama (just two stops away from Meguro) is almost 1 kilometre long, and like all shoutengai is just stuffed with stores and restaurants. My favorite was, oddly, a store which supplies Buddhist altars and graveyard supplies. There were very realistic candles shaped like beer, sake cups or green tea, which you light when paying your respects to your ancestors. I thought these were adorable and very clever, as leaving actual food and drinks on graves seems somewhat wasteful (Matcha-kun, of course, thought my interest was really weird).

In addition there are arcades, pop-up shops, musical performances and enough odd little stores to keep your eyes wandering!

And of course, you cannot go anywhere in Japan without considering food... of which shoutengai are bountiful purveyors. From croquettes to sweets and bread, there is always a delightful smell to tempt you. In our case, we wandered all the way down to the end of the shoutengai. Right outside the exit was a 'gratin restaurant', serving up wonderfully nostalgic versions of pasta gratin and doria. Matcha-kun remarked that they reminded him, in the best way possible, of Japanese school lunches. I had a potatoe and pumpkin gratin, along with a cup of milky coffee redolent of the Showa era.
The long tunnel branches out near the entrance,  with the right branch leading to (selfishly) my favorite part of the shoutengai. Why selfish? Well, basically it is the oldest part, and a great deal of businesses are closed or largely ignored... but ever so nostalgic-looking. If the rain abates, then you can continue walking straight ahead, until you get to Nishi Koyama, and its open air shopping streets (lots of nostalgia here too!)
Covered shopping streets are definitely worth a look, especially during these wet tsuyu days!