Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Toto Showroom...

OK... so you don't usually take time out to review bathroom technology. But then again you're not in Tokyo everyday with easy access to the showroom of Toto Corporation, the world leader in toilet & bathroom technology!

It's kind of hard to describe the vibe in this cool showroom; even photos don't do it justice. It's very future/modernistic, while, at the same time, quiet and Zen like.

Of course, there are fringe benefits; going to the loo allows you to test drive some of the latest models on display in the showroom. Models with remote control features, seat warmers, bidets are standard issue. Models that sense your approach and open the lid automatically are a little extra. But, who couldn't enjoy this luxury? Of course, all kinds of functions for hands-free (meaning hygienic) cleaning are available. Ever had your back-side blow dried? It's not often you wish you could sequentially move down a line of stalls; each sports a different top-end Toto model with unique functions worthy of trial.

You can drop a load in more ways than one; a particular tub on display cost a cool $27,000. More modest toilet models still retail for over $1,000. However, this might be seen as an investment, given frequency of use.

The latest bath models connect the ofuro with the gas company's system. This is true in our apartment, which sports some of Toto's latest hardware, which got the kids excited about visiting the museum in the first place. A speaker in the kitchen area speaks to you in Japanese telling you that the bath's ready. Sweet.

Given the aging population here, many models cater to older demographics, providing ease of ingress and egress to people with disabilities or limited movement. My parents, in fact, after visiting our old apartment in Tokyo, came back to the States & ordered up a Toto loo. I have a feeling that as Anne & I go into retirement, a Toto will be on our list!

Tokyo Architecture

Tokyo is a great place if you love architecture. The Japanese march to their own taiko drum; not only do they dare to think differently, they often do so on a massive scale. One of our favorite buildings -- new since we departed -- is the Mode Gakuen (Cacoon) Tower. It houses three schools of higher learning, with the cacoon like structure representing the place where students can develop their skills before, like butterflies, emerging into society. The work is by Tange architects, whose other works include the Fuji TV tower in Odaiba and Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

Another favorite is Toyo Ito's Tod's Building. The exterior glass & concrete structure is meant to echo the crossed branches of the zelkova trees that line Omote-sando, a busy shopping street leading up to Meiji Shrine.

In a more modernistic/futuristic vein, we went to the other the Kenzo Tange building in the area, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. There, you get a great view over the rest of Tokyo from the observation deck on the 45th floor. More photos here...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Komaba Park & the Japanese Garden

We visited Komaba park today to see the Japanese garden again. It's a little known park that's close to where our first apartment was located in Kami-Meguro. Anne used to take Forrest there to play around. It's very close to the University of Tokyo, and was once the property of Marquis Maeda Toshinari, head of the Kaga family. Currently, the park houses the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature.

The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and at times it looked as if it were snowing, so many cherry blossoms were falling to the ground. Little kids were having a ball; one little guy had a Japanese style sword and was chasing around the other kids who were squealing with delight. Amelia couldn't stop laughing while watching them.

The grounds have both a Western and a Japanese style house, and the combination is wonderful. Makes you want to build a
tea house in your back yard [Hmmmmm...]. The Japanese house has one particularly stunning room that looks over an elegantly planned garden. It's one of the most peaceful places I know on earth. More photos of the park can be viewed here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Took the family over to Asakusa at twilight last evening. It was hard to take a bad photo of Senso-ji temple; very picturesque. Legend has it that two fishermen found a statue of Kannon in the nearby Sumida river. The temple was built to worship the statue in 645, which is about the time that Buddhism was coming across from India to Japan via China and nearby Korea. The pagoda was lit up beautifully, and the shopping street on the Nakamise-dori (traditional shopping street leading up to the shrine) was incredibly scenic. We picked up some small traditional gifts for friends. A light rain was falling, which gave all the colors a deep saturation. More photos here.

Afterwards, we darted into some of the back streets around the temple grounds to grab some warm ramen in a cozy restaurant, which was a welcome respite from the cool rain that was falling outside.
It was blah & rainy earlier in the day, so we decided to go to Akihabara (the electronics district) and visit Yodobashi camera, Japan's largest electronics store. The place is massive, with nine floors of nothing but electronics. Forrest was in heaven. Of special interest was the latest Japanese mini-computers.
While there, I shopped around for some camera equipment, and ended up getting my filter fixed (it had jammed onto the lens casing via my mis-threading it). The staff was unbelievably kind & fixed it for free. I ended up getting a lens cap, and one of those elastic straps that keep it attached to the lens.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Navigating a Different Culture

One of the great challenges in visiting any culture, but especially Japan, is deriving meaning from your cultural context. In a country with a different system of writing, this can be particularly difficult. Before taking off, we worked with the kids on their katakana & hiragana, something that, with the advent of apps on iTouches, has become immensely easier to do. Now that they're here, they are getting better & better; the motivation is certainly higher. It's pretty cool to see them increasingly pick up on the symbols. Suddenly, a light goes off, and what was once just a jumble of strokes provides meaning to them. The code has been broken!

Another interesting aspect for me to observe is how richly brands play a role in helping you navigate a culture. The kids love watching Japanese TV -- especially game shows -- but they absolutely love watching the ads. Then, when they are out in the subway or the shops, and see the products, they are very excited. Maybe that's not a good thing... but, as it puts the food on the table in my house, I'm good with it. And it just happens to be a very, very fun aspect of this culture. I really enjoyed making ads here -- almost as much as I enjoy watching them & explaining the in-jokes to the kids.

There is this other tantalizing aspect to Tokyo; it is highly modernized, but is not necessarily Westernized. And that's an important distinction; it's probably the single biggest learning I'm hoping the kids take away from this trip. In my view, the world will continue to modernize, but, as cultures such as China and India continue to naturally expand their influence in the world, our collective future will become less and less Westernized. And that's not a bad thing at all; over two thirds of the world's population lives in Asia.

So, it's Anne & my hope that this trip will give the kids a compelling glimpse into the future, arming them with a lifetime's worth of insight into what may be coming their way as they grow older.

Venus Fort at Odaiba

OK, so back in 2000 I was giving a talk on trends in the Asian shopping experience. As part of the research, I came across a Japanese mall in Tokyo called "Venus Fort", which was the first mall in the world to be dedicated to a narrow-cast target audience. In this case, all women.

So on this trip, I really wanted to see it for myself. I figured Amelia would like to see this as well, as she's kind of a mall rat. The place is akin to the size of a very large US shopping mall the exception that it has forty foot ceilings and is decked out in enough faux Italianate architecture to make the Venetian in Las Vegas blush. To get a sense of the size, you can see the pdf of the floor plan here. The bottom floor is "Venus Fort Family" with family goods, while the upper two floors are "Venus Fort Grand", with very high end clothiers. So you walk in to the Grand floor, and are immediately blown away by this massively scaled Italian city scape. To top things off, the ceiling cycles in between dawn & dusk every couple of hours. Yes. It's way, way, over the top. See more photos here.

So we walked around & browsed in the shops. There was an amazing pet store with miniature dogs (note: mini does not mean cheap; the most expensive was around $5,500). Thought we'd lost Amelia there, as the dogs were just too cute. There were a world of clothiers; American, European, Japanese. We ended up eating pasta dishes in the piazza (indoor al fresco, anyone?).

Off to the side, there's a car museum run by Toyota called "History Garage", where they store many of their key acquisitions of great cars from around the world. Very cool. Presumably, this is a place to go for the men while the ladies shop. Forrest & I were pretty pumped. Each of the cars had it's own personal movie showing in the background, giving cultural context via impressionistically edited film footage. Then they got me. Just as I was exiting, they had one a tri-wheeled Messerschmitt KR 175, which is very high on my personal lust list.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Teien Metropolitan Art Museum

One of the great pleasures of Meguro is the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. While now a museum, it was originally a house owned & lived in by members of the royal family. The timing of our visit was perfect, as usually you can't walk up into the rooms on the upper floors. Once a year during cherry blossom season they allow you to do this.

This year a special exhibit on Art Deco was on display. The museum used to be the residence of Prince Asaka, the eighth son of Prince Kuni, who lived here with his princess Nobuko, the eighth daughter of Emperor Meiji (not unlike many royal families, the Japanese Imperial household gets a little incestuous).

Anyway, it turns out that Prince Asaka & his wife were hanging out in Paris in the mid to late 20's and really loved the Art Deco scene. They commissioned some of the great artists of Europe, including Rene Lalique, to fit out their place. In traditional Meiji era style, the Western style grounds are counter-balanced with the moderating influence of a Japanese tea house on the grounds. The East meets West theme is further played out with a Western style garden giving way to a Japanese version. A very pleasant day. More photos here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Meiji Jingu Shrine

Meiji Jingu is located in a beautiful nature preserve in the heart of Tokyo dedicated to the memory of the Meiji Emperor & his wife. The two were much beloved by the Japanese, and the shrine was built after their deaths in 1920.

The Shrine itself has an exterior courtyard, called the Gaien, with a broad, sweeping walkway leading up to the shrine. Broad trees mass into an arch overhead, adding drama to the walk. Huge tori gates made of Japanese cypress trees mark the entrance to the inner courtyard, called the Naien. One of the doors to the inner courtyard is shown here. It bears the Japanese family crest of the Toyotomi family, which features the go-san no kiri mon (five-three blossomed paulownia leaf symbol). So, I'm guessing either the Meiji Emporer or his wife was a member of this clan. The symbolism in these shrines is constant and a bit overwhelming; you scratch it, and it keeps coming at you. I'm always trying to learn, as it's all so fascinating. However, it's best sometimes to just let it all wash over you.

The Japanese aesthetic, which uses simple, natural materials, and treats them with such incredible craftsmanship, always blows me away. The swoop of the roofline of temple buildings is grace itself. Very moving. More photos of Meiji Jingu here.

Afterwards, we visited Yoyogi park, which was absolutely jam-packed with people laying out blankets and having picnics under the cherry blossom trees. It was truly spectacular... so many little things; a street performer, memories of playing with Forrest with a remote control boat, watching all the groups of Japanese get loose together.

Feeling very special about sharing these things with the kids.

A Japanese Wedding Ceremony

During our visit to Meiji Jingu, a Japanese wedding party formed a train and walked into the Naien (interior courtyard). Very special. In the ceremony, a Shinto priest purifies the couple, drinks of sake are taken, and the groom then reads the words of commitment. At the end of the ceremony, symbolic offerings are given to the kami (local gods). The couple here are dressed in traditional kimono.

After the ceremony, the couple welcomes all the guests, and a reception party is held. Usually the party is visited by about 20 to 200 guests among whom are relatives, friends, and co-workers of the bride and groom.

These affairs are extremely expensive. The bride's kimono might cost $3,000 to $5,000 to rent for one day. I can't imagine what it might cost to hold a wedding ceremony at Meiji-Jingu. This couple must be very well connected.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cherry Blossoms Along the Meguro River

Meguro is an upscale neighborhood in the Western edge of downtown Tokyo. It's one of the 23 wards of Tokyo, and it has a lot of the foreign embassies in it. The Meguro river gives it its name, and cherry trees line its sides.

The Japanese love the coming of the cherry blossoms as they signal the arrival of spring. In the first weeks of April they attend matsuri (festivals) and hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties). The matsuri associated with Daienji Temple (the local Buddhist shrine by our apartment) will occur on April 8th, so we're pretty excited.

"Hanami" have been a Japanese custom since the 7th century when aristocrats enjoyed looking at beautiful sakura (cherry blossoms) and writing poems & haiku. Nowadays, everyone takes out blankets, gathers with friends in a par, brings out food & generally gets tipsy from wine & sake.

The blossom season is lasting an unusually long time this Spring, as the weather has dropped mid-way through the season. It's great fun to hang out by the river and view the blossoms at night. See some more photos here.

Tokyu Hands

Tokyu Hands is a hobbyist's paradise. It's stuffed full of the crazy kind of stuff that you might only find in Japan. In my first job in Tokyo, my advertising agency's partner was the Tokyu Group, which is a massive rail line & retailing conglomerate -- one of six that built up modern day Tokyo. One of their stores is Tokyu Hands, which was a favorite place for Anne & I to browse & shop. We brought the kids. Here, Amelia & I are wearing Onigiri masks... onigiri are big triangles of rice, wrapped in seaweed (nori), usually containing something like pickled plum or fish inside. They're an inexpensive mainstay of the Japanese commuter's diet.

Amelia bought a bunch of erasers in different shapes, and Forrest found the "Gun O'Clock Red" alarm clock he was looking for. If you've got some time to kill, you can browse their site for all kinds of crazy stuff, like endoscopy ear cleaners or emergency underwear kits to use during an earthquake. Use the Google's 'translate this page' feature!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Apartment in Shima-Meguro

We got lucky on the apartment. We were going to pull the trigger on a serviced apartment in Meguro. Just before we did, we checked Craig's list and found Charlie, who was planning to leave for England around the same time two and a half week period we were coming to Tokyo. His flat in Shima-Meguro was near our first apartment in Kami-Meguro. Perfect.

Of course, all the kids care about is watching Japanese game shows and playing with the Japanese language Wii system. Sweet! The sun flooded apartment looks out at Daienji Temple, and we can look down on Cherry Blossoms. See some more pictures of the apartment here.

The Long Flight to Tokyo

Amelia here is looking at her camera in the passageway between terminals at O'Hare, which she loved. You can follow her blog at Our routing took us from Burlington to DC to Chicago to Tokyo on United. We took off at 5:30 in the morning. Grandma & Grandpa drove us to he airport. They stayed with us the week before we took off so that we could get everything done; a blessing! From departure from our house in Burlington to the apartment we are renting in Tokyo's Shima-Meguro district was a total of 25 hours door-to-door. It was a long slog, but the kids were really great. It was pretty surreal on the twilight drive from Narita on the airport limousine bus into downtown Tokyo, which we hadn't seen as a family for ten years. We took the bus from Narita to the ANA Hotel in Roppongi, and caught a cab to our apartment. Charlie, the owner of the apartment guy we're renting from, had his Philipino maid meet us & get us settled. We took some melatonin at 8:30 pm Tokyo time, and crashed hard to try to get onto Tokyo time; as Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the US EST, it's important to have strategies for making the adjustment.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Anne & I had the great good fortune of living in Tokyo for five years. We'd lived together in Seoul prior to landing a posting there, and would later go on to live in Hong Kong & Singapore, yet no place so thoroughly enraptured us as our days in Japan. Our stay there spanned the first days of our marriage, visits to temples, museums and nature preserves, attendance at sumo matches and, of course, the births of our two children.

We always knew we would take the kids back. And, as we've watched the kids grow up (where did the time go?), the urge grew stronger. This Spring, with Forrest filling out forms to attend High School this year, we knew we needed to get this done. We started to plan in earnest...