Tokyo – Fitting in

Posted by jerry on February 3rd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

With a population of around 12 million – how do they all fit in to a city the size of Tokyo? The answer lies in efficient use of space. Perhaps there are lessons here for Sydney.

The cars are designed to make really good use of space. The majority are small cars, and the good road surface means that small wheels are no disadvantage. One popular car seemed to be one called ‘the cube’

Tokyo cars

Tall and box-like it seems easy to park and a fine example of how to get the most interior space with th e smallest external footprint.

Or you could go for the classic motorcycle, as this individual has done, getting around on a beautifully maintained Royal Enfield motorcycle. This one is an older example of the new classic bikes made in India.
Tokyo Royal Enfield motorcycle

There were quite a number of larger motorbikes being ridden around Tokyo, with teh Japanese marques being well represented, as well as a fair sample of Harley Davidsons.

And for firms with a lot to deliver, you could always use the all-weather scooter. Although it has three wheels, the cornering is still quite stable as the rear wheels stay firmly planted while the rider and front wheel lean like a motorbike. There are hundreds of these on the road. Interestingly, I rarely saw a parked one without the key in the ignition. And very few pushbikes are locked – clearly this is a city with a low rate of property crime.
Tokyo - scooter

With parking at a premium, you could make use of the ‘rack and stack’ method as seen here

Tokyo - parking

Though it’s hard to see how you would get out in a hurry if yours was the car on top!

In a city, one of the challenges is to keep all the cars on the move, and petrol stations which typically take up a lot of room have found ways to minimise their footprint too – just get rid of the fuel pumps and hang the hoses from the ceiling 🙂

Tokyo - service station

Once again we could learn much from this use of space in our cities 🙂


Tokyo – The Art of Manhole Covers

Posted by jerry on February 2nd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

After observing some really unusual drain covers in Tokyo – part of the quirky side – I found that some people have built up quite a collection of such photos. And some are truly exquisite works of design.

The ‘damn cool pics’ blog has some fine examples – the flower designs are amazing.

Tokyo manhole cover
I photographed this one in the Ginza district – apparently a sewage cover.
And here’s another fine collection – from all over the world. But they include Japanese ones, and not just from Tokyo either!

Manhole Covers of Tokyo provides a useful typology of the covers, including information on what they are covering – whether utilities or sewage or fire hydrants.

Tokyo manhole cover
This one I found near the wharf in Tsukiji district not far from Takeshiba station. Probably another sewer cover.
So I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees beauty in industrial design – and who looks down, as well as up, in cities!


Tokyo – The quirky side

Posted by jerry on February 1st, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

You can look at Tokyo and see a city and shops and hotels. But it is in the small details that the soul of the place emerges. The trick is to look at what goes without saying.

Take the ground, for example. Beneath the flashing lights and skyscrapers is the place where you put your feet. Look down and notice the grill behind the flowers – that’s the subway and you can feel the air being pushed along by the trains.

Tokyo street

Everywhere there are wonderful details hidden in plain sight, like the chrysanthimum on this drain access

Tokyo manhole cover

And near the wharf area there is a delightful series of painted ships rendered in concrete for another drain cover

Tokyo manhole cover

All these treasures at your feet!

And like any city there is a dynamic building program going on – but even construction sites have their distinctive visual impact. Take this sign, warning of hazards above

Tokyo construction sign

Even without an English translation its message is clear – Beware!

Tokyo is host to a huge number of press clubs – Kisha clubs – with press rooms for journalists. As I rounded a corner I glanced up to find myself looking at a crest with crossed fountain pen nibs and surrounding text in English declaring the place as the ‘Blue Red Blue Club’. It took a while, before I considered that maybe this refers to the drafting process – writing in blue, then red pen for editing, then blue again for the final copy. The approximately 1000 press clubs have come under fire in recent times for their exclusivity as well as their power to control rather than report the news.

Tokyo - press club

According to the Kisha Club guidelines:

“The kisha club is a “voluntary institution for news-gathering and news-reporting activities” made up of journalists who regularly collect news from public institutions and other sources.

Japan’s media industry has a history of applying pressure to public institutions reluctant to disclose information by banding together in the form of the kisha club. The kisha club is an institution and system fostered by Japan’s media industry for over a century in pursuit of freedom of speech and freedom of press. The fundamental purpose of the kisha club system, which has been so closely involved with the general public’s “right to know,” remains unchanged today.

Today most large institutions and companies have their own press club to ensure their own message becomes the public face of the company.

Sometimes you can be between crosswalks – and here there are signs to point out where you can find the nearest safe crossing point

Tokyo crosswalk

And when you do get to the crosswalk, there are lanes for people and lanes for bicycles – just look down again 🙂

Tokyo crosswalk

Signs are everywhere – and they are often graphic so as to be independent of language. I was thumbing my way casually through the hotel information pack in my 14th floor room when I encountered this gem. I was abruptly reminded that I was on the 14th floor in a city built on one of the most seismically active zones on the planet. The instructions tried to calm my irrational fear of collapsing buildings by getting me to focus on the little things – like hiding behind a chair so the earthquake monsters don’t get you!
Tokyo earthquake safety

Interesting how they are all depicted as Westerners – do the locals know something that I don’t?

I must admit I didn’t expect to have a complex control panel to operate the toilet – my single button toilet at home seemed somehow simpler.

Tokyo toilet

Clearly I have to watch the water pressure lest I get elevated on a fountain, like the poor person depicted above the button marked ‘bidet’. But reassuringly, there was a standby button so I would have some warning perhaps.

But the designers waited until I lifted the lid to give me the bad news – the warnings and cautions – perhaps they could have told me BEFORE I sat down! Toto was no longer in Kansas 🙂
Tokyo toilet

And it’s also worth checking out the advertising billboards – even these have a charm of their own

Tokyo billboard

As you can see, it is all about selling cars – isn’t it? This is an ad apparently for a company called Car-seven Japan. And I thought they were advertising face cream.

So it just goes to show – you can learn a lot about a place from looking up, down or around corners – anywhere but straight ahead. You only see a city that way!


Tokyo – Textures

Posted by jerry on January 31st, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

Perhaps it was the origami crane placed for good luck in my hotel room, but very quickly I gained the sense that this is a country that loves texture. Japan has a long association with paper and paper arts so it seemed fitting that I would seek out some handmade paper when I arrived. There was also a beautifully wrapped sheet of instructions on how to make a crane – along with a small square of patterned washi paper.
Japan - paper

And sure enough in my fairly random arrival at Ginza district I was amazed at the variety and quality of the paper. Naturally I had to bring some back. There were rolls of the stuff, so I found a couple of really nice neutral paper that held out the possibilities of its texture.

Japan - paper

Photos don’t really do it justice

Japan - paper

Japan is also known for its fine silk kimonos and I was delighted to find a couple of ceremonial kimonos displayed in the hotel

Japan - kimono

The detail work was fantastic – if difficult to photograph!

Japan - kimono

You could tell how much into texture are the Japanese women – in the high end of town the simple classic black coats gave way to camel hair and cashmere coats and capes.

Tokyo is also a quirky place – but more on that tomorrow!


Tokyo – The shopping experience

Posted by jerry on January 30th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

Are you looking for some ‘washi’ traditional handmade paper or a watch by Cartier or perhaps a Burberry coat? How about a diamond from Tiffany’s or a Mont Blanc pen? Tokyo has it all. I found it almost by accident, taking a long meandering walk from my hotel, I found myself in the Ginza district – the high end of town on the east side.

The Ginza district, Tokyo

I was vaguely on the lookout for some handmade paper – after all the Japanese have made an art form of it for hundreds of years. But mostly I was enjoying the ambience, the combination of the strange and the familiar.

One prerequisite of shopping is of course to have some cash in your wallet. And here is a tip for the unwary – most banks have ATMs in abundance. The downside is that not all of them offer an English language option. And many of the Japanese banks service only the domestic market and so international credit cards are not always accepted. Here is where I encountered another aspect of Japanese culture – businesses offer service.

I went into one bank which according to the window stickers supported my credit card. After queuing briefly I went to an ATM and found I could not read any of the options – was it asking for my account? or whether I wanted a withdrawal or account statement? I pressed the red button which I figured was the cancel one. It cancelled alright – and said something quite loud and possibly quite rude about my card in computer-generated Japanese. An assistant rushed over. I said there is no English language – I can’t read the buttons on the machine. The assisted rushed away, gesturing for me to wait. They came back moments later with a card with pictures and about five language options. I pointed to ‘withdrawal’ and ‘credit card’. The assistant bowed and rushed away to fetch someone else. They directed me to the post office up the street. I thanked them and went off to find it.

The post office had no ATM machine, but there was another bank over the road. Bank of Tokyo I think. I tried again. Once more there were no English language options on the machine. I looked puzzled and cancelled the transaction. The doorman came over – ‘you have problem?’ he asked. I explained about the ATM and my language difficulty. ‘Follow me’ he said and he led me about 100 metres up the street to a rival bank – the Hongkong Shanghai Bank Corp (HSBC) where the ATM was in English. I thanked him very much ‘No problem’ he smiled. Now THAT’s service!

I found the paper in a large stylish and very ‘establishment’ department store called Mitsukoshi, along with handmade cards and some wonderful stationery. The assistants (yes more than one) handled the transaction. One carefully wrapped the paper in other paper that could easily have had its own price tag, while the other wrote up a chit and showed me the amount on a calculator. I pulled out notes to cover it and she took it to a third cashier who counted out the change onto a silver tray. Then the first assistant brought my rolls of paper, carefully wrapped, followed by the second assistant with the tray for the change and receipt. I was told that tipping is not the norm in Tokyo, although some places will add a small service charge in the fancier restaurants. If you go there, the basement has a great food display. The place started up in 1673 selling kimono fabrics and grew from there.
Much bowing and ‘Arigato’-ing later (thank you) and I found a taxi to take me back to the hotel. The taxis are all brand new versions of old Toyota Crown cars. They have become a Tokyo icon much like the old London black cabs so they are made still in the old shape. Inside the driver wears white cotton gloves and a waistcoat. And the headrests are fitted with white lace covers.


After a brief respite it is time to find the Tokyo of William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ in his novel Neuromancer. The place to go is Akihabara district where you will find Denki-gai – ‘Electric Town’ – a suburb of electronics markets with every conceivable gadget and computer component. It is an experience of sensory overload with flashing lights and neon and loud pre-recorded spruikers and sales jingles extolling the virtues of this phone or that computer and this DVD player. This is geek heaven and if you are looking for an obscure computer component or chip you will surely find it here somewhere.

Akihabara – ‘Electric Town’

The mac shop goes for five storeys. Ground floor has iPods and new laptops. Next floor has new desktop macs, then the used laptops, floowed by a floor of used desktop macs going back to G3 models, and the top floor has music interfaces, keyboards, midi devices, microphones and effects pedals – everything for the mac on five floors!

I wound up being very restrained and bought a wireless mouse for a little less than I would pay at home. The real entertainment was the experience of shopping in a crazy Asian electronics market, and marinating in neon and visual noise.


Like the ad says – this is the 21st century digital dream. And if the gadgets are not enough, you can always have your appearance modified – here the sign says: “Cosmetic Plastic Surgery” above a grimy door in a side alley. Inviting huh?

One can picture a Manga villain seeking out a place like this to have an implant upgraded illegally and away from prying eyes. That such a thing is imaginable speaks volumes about the atmosphere of this place. Perhaps it’s that interspersed between the hi tech buzz of biz there is also a roaring trade in pornographic manga books and graphic novels. Most shops are open until 8.00pm – even in winter.
It’s time to seek out the sanctuary of the hotel and get online. The coffee shop has wifi access and bottomless coffee… the Chiba is making just a little too much sense now. The trusty iPaq handheld and fold-up keyboard attracts little attention in the coffee shop as I email home and prepare some blog entries. Upstairs, I insert the camera’s SD card straight into the portable CD burner and run off a couple of CDs of the photos – backups in case the airport scanners corrupt the photos on the camera card.