Looking up in Tokyo

I’ve been seeing some strange things lately while looking up as I traipse past shops and buildings in this gleaming metropolis.

The first time this happened, I was being given a tour of the sprawling Tokyo Metropolitan Government tower in Shinjuku three weeks back. Positioned along a high wall, it loomed large from above, a bouquet of paraphernalia – cat figurines with their left paws lifted, fish figures, fans, flowers, a neatly tied pillow, small drums a set of gold coins.

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Maybe just a casual, albeit odd, decoration, I thought.

The second time I spotted this Mysteriously Large Object was at the Edo Tokyo Museum located within walking distance of the Ryogoku Station. This assorted hive was huge and overflowing with even more items – paper cranes, golden balls, several wood panels with inscriptions in dark ink and the large lit-up mask of a chubby child, right smack in the centre of this strikingly bizarre creation.

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By the third encounter, when I saw a simpler version along a small sweet shop in the Yanesen area, I told myself I had to do a bit of reading up.


As it turns out, these intricate creations are called kumade – bamboo rakes that have been decorated with various ornaments for good luck.

These rakes were traditionally used to sweep away fallen leaves, but from the Edo period also began to be adorned with various items as symbols of good luck – I guess in line with the phrase ‘raking in good fortune’.

The cranes you saw in the second picture above represent long life, as does the tortoise, while the cat figurine and its raised paw are harbingers of prosperity; virtually a must-have in shops and restaurants. Gold coins are too are a metaphor for good business and success.

The smiling lit-up face, it turns out, belongs to Otafuku, not a child, but a plump and cheery female character from traditional folklore and Japanese mythology. She represents fertility, fortune and happiness.

Every year in November, the Tori-no-ichi festival (days of the Rooster) is held at various Otori shrines across the country for believers to pray for good fortune, good business and lots of luck in the coming year. At shrines such as the Otori Jinja Shrine in Asakusa, (where the festival originally began during the Edo period), the large-scale festivities involve some 200 stalls in the area selling kumade. Just imagine that – a kumade fest!

Japan’s National Tourism Organisation website tells me that the fun part comes from observing these transactions – sellers and buyers clap their hands together in a coordinated manner and say a little cheer – all in the name of good fortune.

I checked the dates for Tori-no-ichi this year, the rooster days start on November 10th, just a day after I’m scheduled to fly back home to Singapore, sadly.

But if I take home the pictures of the my three kumades, perhaps that can count too?


Downtown girl

It’s nearing the end of my second week here in Tokyo – time sure flies. It’s been quite a scramble this week so I couldn’t be happier when Ayaka, our extremely adept intern at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, took me and my colleague Charli away from the office today.

We headed to Yanesen, a part of what the folks here refer to as “downtown Tokyo” or shitamatchi. The word has taken on differing meanings over the many ages, but Ayaka tells me shitamatchi essentially refers to what one would call the real, traditional Tokyo. Old school, in my books.

Yanesen itself is actually an abbreviation of three neighbourhoods that are all within walking distance of each other – Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. They all possess a similarly rustic, traditional feel and hearken back to the days of a much older, quieter Tokyo; one that is quaint, uncrowded and authentic. After facing the massive sardine fest in trains and along major streets on a regular basis, this was a much-welcomed respite. I’ll let some of the pictures do the talking.

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The Yanesen area is a dotted with shrines and temples – this particular shrine had an adjacent cemetery right in front of it.

A majority of the buildings in and around Yanesen largely escaped unscathed during the incessant bombing of Tokyo in the second world war, which explains why a lot of the area feels distinctively well-preserved.

Most of it never had to be recreated or rebuilt in the first place, unlike many other parts of the city. You notice these nuances in the rusted and peeling metal gates and when you walk past rain-beaten wooden doors and walls.

Some of the structures here have been around for more than a century, and the shitamatchi area was once regarded as the heart of Edo (Tokyo as it was known during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate between the 17th and 19th centuries).

Yanesen has an eclectic mix of traditional snack stores, tea and craft shops, artisan cafes, souvenir stalls and narrow alleys with hidden restaurants serving up a bowl of soba – hot or cold.


The entrance of this antiquated sushi shop gives you a pretty detailed idea of what you’re in for.


Yanesen is abound with little craft shops like these peddling handmade ceramic creations


The eclectic mix of goods at this one particular store also provides the perfect pair of traditional shoes – extra large available if you need more space for those toes

Many of these spaces have retained their traditional wooden facade, just like this restaurant right here.


What I really like about the Yanesen is how removed it is, or feels at least, from the hustle and bustle of the rest of this metropolitan city. There weren’t even many tourists, which was a nice change from the more popular spots like Ginza, Shinjuku, Asakusa or Shibuya.

You get the sense that time has stopped for a moment, and while you’re there, it’s easy to soak in the atmosphere and boy was I soaking and dipping and rolling in it.


A traditional snack shop selling an assortment of coated biscuits, crackers and the likes

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There’s a lot to snack on in this part of town, and as part of an overarching attempt to immerse myself in all things Tokyo during this trip, I had to forcefully (read: wilfully) indulge, starting off with a traditional 100yen ($1.16) sweet white bean snack, with the paste sandwiched between two generous pancake layers.


For some reason, Yanaka Ginza, probably the most popular street in the Yanesen neighbourhood, is filled with cat-related souvenirs and crafts, which are supposedly a harbinger of good fortune. There’s a lot of cute to be had.


Entrance to Yanaka Ginza

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Just before heading off, I stopped to have a chat with 66-year-old cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa, who gamely sat me down to explain the charms of Yanesen.

The area, he said, was in the past a thriving mecca for both craftsmen and artists as well as regular folks to gather, and that old-school suburban ambience can still be keenly felt today, a century on.

The spritely-looking sexagenarian is himself a true shitamatchi native who has lived and worked in the surrounding neighbourhood for most of his life.


Cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa

I liked the one phrase he left me with: “You can feel it right? The old Tokyo, all you need to do is walk through here and you can even smell it.”

I could, I really could.

Graphic design and the ’64 Tokyo Olympics – just look!

Next week, Tokyo celebrates 50 years since it hosted the summer Olympics in 1964. You see reminders of this historic year most everywhere you go these days, plastered on pillars in subways and printed on free plastic fans at museums as you try to generate a hint of a breeze on a sunny afternoon.

There has already been so much written on Tokyo’s next chance to take the global stage in 2020, when it becomes the first Asian city to host the summer Games for a second time. Naturally, comparisons, questions and criticisms of hosting the Games are abound this year, as the city celebrates the memory of a successful and momentous first Games while bracing itself for a bumpy six years ahead.

In the spirit of commemoration, I thought I’d forego the comparisons (for today, at least) and instead highlight one of the most ingenious facets of the ’64 Olympics: its unparalleled use of graphic design.


Tokyo ’64 revolutionised the role of design in communicating messages to both an international and linguistically diverse group of elite athletes and a global audience spanning the many far-flung corners of the globe. Its sheer simplicity and accessibility was, and is, utter brilliance.

The gear that set these wheels in motion had actually been oiled four years earlier in 1960, at the World Design Conference which was also held in Tokyo. There, top minds from the design world at the time – including Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, Italian designer and artist Bruno Munari and Swiss graphic designer Max Huber, discussed why and how contemporary graphic design could and should be made useful for the masses.

Recognising the need for a basal, common understanding that could cut across languages and cultural barriers at such an international event, Tokyo ’64’s Olympic design team, led by design critic Masaru Katsumi alongside graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura, did away with the use of words, opting instead for pictograms. This was the first time ever that graphics were being systematically used. The result? Just look!

The pictograms you see here were pioneering work at the time and paved the way for similar symbols to be used at subsequent Games. The work of Tokyo’s Olympic design team would also influence the use of signages and pictograms globally. Sugoi-ne (amazing!). It’s hard to imagine a time before they became such a natural and familiar part of the Olympics.

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The Tokyo ’64 Olympic pictograms depicting various sports

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Above and below: another set of pictograms was also developed to provide service-related information – familiar toilet sign anyone?

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A culture magazine I picked up here earlier last week featured a short commentary by local design director Koichi Yanagimoto, who touched on how the use of these pictograms in the ’64 Games permanently changed the development and prevalence of contemporary graphic design.


When modern design first emerged in the later half of the 19th century it was used only by a select few, but the ’64 Olympics, he wrote, “brought it to the masses and the concept went on to permeate the daily lives of the public.”

Today – be it in Tokyo, Singapore or Seoul, I can’t imagine getting around bus stations, airports, shopping malls or hotels without the use of pictograms. That must be testament enough to the legacy left by Katsumi-san and his team.

The dateline for submitting emblem designs for Tokyo 2020 opened earlier this month and will close next Friday.

There will be undoubtedly intense pressure on Tokyo to set the bar even higher than it did in ’64.

But if Japan could, half a century ago, be so forward-thinking as to completely revolutionise the way in which design could be universally understood, I wouldn’t bet against the Land of the Rising Sun’s ability to impress again, more than half a century later.

Ichi-go ichi-e


It’s day seven in Tokyo and last night the weather took a nice chilly turn, so it looks like autumn is really here and winter will be upon us soon.

Today I headed to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum on the west side of Shinjuku to get a sampling of my first tea appreciation ceremony, also known as nodate. I wrote up a piece describing the disciplined and intricate ceremony which I hope to share here soon, but I’ve got to say it was quite an experience – I’ve never seen such measured grace and refinement in an activity like tea drinking – something I’ve always regarded so casually.


The appreciation ceremony was held out in the open with rows of seated guests surrounded by trees and their leaves rustling in the wind. I don’t mean to be dramatically poetic here but it all felt so poignant and contemplative. I might even have written a haiku there and then:

Among the flowers,
they had so much time to share.
She didn’t tell him.

That hits the 5-7-5 syllable rule for a haiku, no? I kid – I wrote this some time back in secondary school (during a haiku lesson. Knew it would come in handy). But oh, the feelings, they were there for sure.

There’s a lot more to the tea ceremony than mere procedure. It’s considered an art form that allows for the development of an individual’s sense of discipline both physically and spiritually and is a cultivation of ‘right thinking and right feeling’ –  rooted in the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

The whole 30-minute session that I sat through (which costs an affordable 300 yen or $3.60) had an air of austerity and I didn’t want to spoil that by jumping around with my camera like the bumbling fool that I usually am. So here are a few shots I did manage to get.


The young tea-maker sets up just before the ceremony begins. The lady wearing a nice green kimono on the right details each step of the process. A shame this was all done in Japanese so I couldn’t understand, but nonetheless, you could get a sense of what was going on just by sitting there and observing everything.


Before the tea preparation begins, guests are served with a sweet snack called higashi – a biscuit of sorts.

What I also found interesting were the other participants I sat with, all of whom were local Japanese. They seemed completely oblivious to everything else during the appreciation, paying attention only to the tea, and enjoying every sip of it, completely absorbed by the entire process. They had wide, peaceful grins after finishing their bowls of matcha, as did I. It was a very refreshing experience.


Just check out the amount of detail on this little porcelain bowl


It’s hard to describe the taste – nothing else comes to mind right now except for “just right”

I was reminded of the phrase that you see in the title of this post on the way back from the museum, as I thought about the whole ceremony. On my first day here, I bumped into a Japanese engineer at the sharehouse I’m currently lodging in. We exchanged pleasantries and cracked a few jokes, and I was about to return to my room when he told me he had genuinely enjoyed our brief encounter, and threw out the phrase ichi-go ichi-e (translated directly, this means one time one meeting).

Intrigued, I looked this up on the net and asked my friend Mai what it meant. In essence, the phrase captures the transience of life and the uniqueness of each experience, coupled by the fact that you will never be able to reproduce the same experience as the one you’ve just encountered. In a nutshell, enjoy each moment because when it passes, well, it passes. Perhaps a slightly more nuanced version of carpe diem?

The phrase was coined by a tea master in the 19th century and is closely associated with the concept of the tea ceremony, which I guess could explain the complete immersion of the folks I had met earlier at the museum.

I’m hoping to use ichi-go ichi-e as a metaphor for my time here too, once it’s gone I’ll never get it back, so let’s go, Tokyo!

Konnichiwa, komenasai, arigato and hello Tokyo!

I’ve arrived! It’s day four of my two-month long sojourn in Japan and I still can’t quite believe this is all happening – I’m both excited and nervous, as well as literally and metaphorically hungry for a taste of what Tokyo has to offer.

This blog is a chronicle of everything I’m able to see, experience and dissect about this city that is at once captivating as it is confusing.

Tuesday, September the 23rd was a public holiday in Japan – the autumnal equinox signals the start of fall and is celebrated as a day off here in the land of the rising sun – it’s the only two days each year where the number of hours for day and night are equally split.


Passing through the impressive kaminarimon or thunder gate, before entering the Senso-ji temple

I spent the day with my local friend Mai Sasaki, and hundreds of other people -Japanese and tourists alike – at Asakusa, home to Tokyo’s oldest temple, the Senso-ji, which was built in the seventh century as a dedication to the goddess of mercy Bodhisattva Kannon.

We make our way through the teeming entrance and pass through an impressive kaminarimon gate, with the rain and thunder gods sitting on each side watching over us, marvel at an adjacent five-storey pagoda and then make our way up to the main prayer hall.


The five-storey pagoda is adjacent to the main prayer hall of the Senso-ji temple

After ascending a flight of stairs we manage to eavesdrop on an English-speaking tourist guide next to us, who explains the way in which to offer a prayer – throw a coin, clasp your hands together, bow and make a wish.


The main prayer hall of the Senso-ji temple

Mai, an old friend from our days as exchange students in Seoul, Korea, then pulls me over to the side of the hall and shoves two 100 yen coins into a slit of a wooden deck, which holds several rows of square-shaped drawers, each marked by a Japanese character. “For you, for good luck,” she says and nudges me to pick up and rattle a cylindrical metal box.

I do, and eventually a wooden stick falls out – it bears a particular character and we look for its matching partner on the wooden shelve. My fate, it seems, has called out to me – and the little white slip claims fortune will come, eventually.


Are lucky times to come, finally and lastly?


I would show you a picture of Mai’s fortune slip, but it had an ominous “X” sign marked at the top, which means she can’t leave the temple with it as it bears little good news. Tough luck.

Cheerfully, she walks over to another part of the temple and knots it on a steel wire, in the hopes better luck will come her way.

We step out of the temple, and five minutes later bump into a former colleague from Singapore, who is here on a business trip. The central kitchen of a leading airline caterer has been given halal certification, and a press conference is to be held just the following the day. He invites me along.

I’ve written up the story which I’ll share in my next post; it also touches on the ever-growing global Muslim tourism market, and furnishes some numbers on the increasing number of Muslims tourists flocking to Japan.

Mai and I look at each other and then at my Singaporean friend. What are the odds?

It’s been an interesting four days, Tokyo.