An Edo kind of Tokyo

It’s Tuesday and I got to the Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium two days too late – the sumo season ended on Sunday. You might think nothing of this, but I grew up watching episodes on the lives of sumo wrestlers with my dad almost every, single, weekend as a kid growing up.


The walls of the Ryogoku station are lined with pictures and trivia of famous sumo wrestlers. Underneath the two portraits are the handprints of various wrestlers. I checked. They’re huge.

Musashimaru (sumo wrestler on the left) is a figure I long remember and to see an almost life-sized picture of him just along the Ryogoku station earlier in the evening filled me with excitement (this despite the fact that Musashimaru-san actually retired in 2003). But it was not meant to be and since there was no sumo action to be caught, I decided to head over to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Located just next to the famed sumo wrestling stadium in Sumida, one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, the museum chronicles the history of the Edo period, established by the shogun (General or Commander) Ieyasu Tokugawa in the 17th century and lasting till 1868, when the Meiji Restoration brought the emperor back into power and ended feudalism in Japan.


The first shogun of the Edo period, Ieyasu Tokugawa

The museum captures – in the form of articles, artefacts, illustrations and re-eneactments – what life was like during those 250 years, as Edo became the new centre of Japan. Before this period, Kyoto had been the capital of the country.

There was a separate floor of the permanent exhibition – which explained bushido or  the life of the samurai warriors, Japan’s eventual easing of its isolationist policy at the end of the Edo era and the start of its exposure to westernisation, but I didn’t have enough time to finish the entire exhibit.

I won’t bore you with too many historical details, though so many things here were interesting to look at. I was struck particularly by the Japanese wood block printing style known as ukiyo-e, where various woodblocks used to imprint different colours of a single image were then pressed on paper.


A few stages of the tedious woodblock printing process. You can see with each frame how layers of colours are added.


The third row of this ukiyo-e reproduction shows the different woodblocks – carved in different ways to add layers of colours at various stages.

The museum also served as a fascinating means of understanding longstanding cultural facets of the Japanese that continue to prevail today.

Chief among them was a strong sense of communalism and an unbending adherence to public order. Under the Tokugawa shugunate, hierarchy penetrated almost all layers of an individual’s life – his social standing, his employment, the location of his house, options for entertainment, and in the case of the 300-odd daimyo or feudal lords, even who to marry. Common toilets and baths were, well, common (no wonder no one bats an eyelid at the public bath here in my sharehouse).


The peasant class, represented here in this miniature exhibit, had separate living and working areas from the samurai and the daimyo (or feudal lords).

Social norms were also tightly regulated – the Edo period was a time of heightened isolation from the rest of the world and it’s interesting that in spite of this, the Tokugawa era was also when the arts, popular culture and a class of intellectuals thrived – the performance art of kabuki and ukiyo-e printing developed greatly during this period.

I did a bit of reading up after the visit to the museum and it seems the era’s isolationist policies mentioned earlier – which included the banning of all foreign books and limited contact with the outside world save with the Chinese, Koreans and the Dutch from the late 1600s – fuelled an even stronger sense of nationalism. If anything, the Edo period has given me a beginner’s understanding into the complex and perhaps even hardened perceptions that many Japanese have had towards foreigners in previous years. Has all of this changed today? My understanding of the country’s nuances and complexities are too shallow for me to even attempt to make an informed conclusion, right now at least.

History is nothing new, but it always helps to frame perspectives. Tokyo today holds similarly to a lot of the values that were deeply ingrained during the Edo period – but so much has also changed – individualism has crept in and the country is struggling to arrest its economic slump using Abenomics.

The easing of immigration policies, among other solutions, has been regarded as an important tool to encourage long-term growth, though how and to what extent this will actually be executed has long been a matter of debate. But that’s a whole other story for another day.

The Edo Tokyo museum, for a first-time visitor to Japan like me, provides a great backgrounder and a starting point from which to understand and analyse the history, culture and politics of this fascinating nation.

I’ll be back to finish that second floor, for sure.


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!

Leading airline caterer gets official halal certification for central kitchen at Narita Airport


Airline caterer TFK’s Japanese spread which includes sushi, sashimi and steam-riced dish gohan – all certified halal – was presented at Narita Airport on Wednesday

By Maryam Mokhtar

TOKYO— TO MEET the demands of a growing number of Muslim tourists flocking to Japan – some 1 million are expected to pass through the country’s arrival gates yearly by 2020 – a leading Tokyo airline caterer announced on Wednesday that one of its kitchens at Narita Airport has been officially halal-certified.

At a press conference that included a media tour of its dedicated halal kitchen, TFK Corporation said it pumped some 60 million yen into expanding the capacity of its premises and purchasing new equipment earlier this year to meet the growing demand for such meals.

The company, which was the first airline caterer in Japan with a dedicated kitchen to serve halal meals to customers from 2001, provides inflight meals to more than 40 airlines that take off from both Haneda and Narita airports, in addition to operating a hotel and running five restaurants at the latter airport.

Food prepared in the halal kitchen does not come into contact with ingredients or utensils at the main central kitchen at any stage of the preparation process – from defrosting to cooking and packing.

The upscaling of facilities at Narita Airport will allow the caterer to provide up to 6,000 halal meals a day, double its previous capacity of 3,000 meals. It currently prepares about 1,350 halal meals daily for various airline carriers out of an average total of 20,000 meals prepared.

On the halal menu is a delectable range of authentic Japanese, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic and Western cuisines crafted under the supervision of the caterer’s executive chef Wataru Fukumoto.

Products and food that are halal-certified neither contain nor are exposed to pork, lard, alcohol and meat not slaughtered according to Islamic requirements.

Many Japanese dishes, for example, use mirin, a sweet-tasting condiment containing alcohol, and chefs had to come up with alternatives such as sugar that would replicate a similar taste for the caterer’s Japanese menu. TFK’s halal Japanese menu includes sashimi, Misowan (miso soup) and Nimono (a simmered dish).

Singapore-based Warees Investments, a subsidiary company wholly owned by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, was the official certifying body for TFK’s halal kitchen. Including Japan, the company has given out over 200 halal certificates across seven countries.

Speaking on Wednesday, TFK president Makoto Fukuda said that with the influx of Muslim tourists to the country, “the availability of certified Halal food will be of great importance to meet the needs of these travellers.”

The global Muslim tourism market is growing rapidly and was worth an estimated US $126.1 billion dollars in 2011. This number is expected to shoot up by more than half to about US$192 billion by 2020.

Topping the list of factors most important to Muslim travellers is accessibility to halal food. A 2012 survey on the global Muslim tourism market showed that Halal food was the most important priority for those on a holiday, overriding other concerns such as cost and hotel preferences.

This observation has not been lost on Japan, which has taken concrete steps to lure such tourists to its shores – an easing of visa restrictions and the prevalence of low cost carriers are pulling in more Muslim visitors to the nation than ever before.

In fact, Muslim visitor arrivals have increased by about 7.2 per cent year-on-year between 2004 and last year. The numbers are likely to increase further, by about 18.7 per cent per year over the next seven years, culminating in some one million visitors to the nation by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the summer Olympics for the second time in its history.

Halal restaurants – a growing number of which are authentically Japanese – have already sprung up in and around Tokyo in recent years, and leading airline caterer TFK’s announcement of the expansion of its halal kitchen suggests the city is taking significant steps to establish itself as a key player in capturing a slice of the global Muslim tourism market.

Customised tourism packages for Muslims visiting Tokyo and other parts of Japan are also gaining prevalence, a testament that preparations for the anticipated one million tourist arrivals by 2020, when the global spotlight will be shone on the city, are slowly but surely falling into place.

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.