Monday, December 11, 2017



Hi, all.

Valerie here.

Some of you may have seen that I took a short trip to Tokyo back in October.  It's about time I showed you some pictures from my trip.

I lived there from 1981 to 1992.  I still have friends there, and of course deep roots, so I try to get back as often as possible, but this time it had been nine years.  I had the great good luck to stay with my friend Kazu, who lives in the heart of the city.

That's us one day after brunch at a French restaurant in Shibuya.  Left to right: me, Kazu, Sachiko and Takeo.  Missing is Fumiko, who recently moved back to the Osaka area, where her family still lives.

Kazu took me to visit gorgeous Nezu Shrine, close to his home, on my first day.  The torii gates in the opening photo were only a small part of the very carefully kept and beautifully manicured shrine.  Tokyo temperatures, like temperatures everywhere, were higher than normal.  I don't remember being able to go around without a jacket in October.

Early in my stay, I took a two hour train ride out to Chichibu to see the Chichibu Meisenkan - once a manufacturer of kimono material, now a museum.  Below is an old photo of two fashionably dressed women: one in chic western wear; the other in what was then a very modern kimono, in a style called meisen.  Meisen was made of an inexpensive starchy silk, and hand stenciled with multiple bright, brash chemical dyes.

This antique wooden loom shows a design with arrow fletches.  Red and arrows both indicate a design for a young unmarried woman.  The idea, as a staff member explained to me, was that a young woman, like an arrow, should go in only one direction: from her home to the home of her husband.  If the marriage went well, she would not return home.  That day, the Meisenkan had an exhibition of various kimono with arrow motifs.

In the entrance to the Meisenkan were several origami insects painstakingly fashioned from fresh leaves.  Here's one of them.

Several of my friends deal in antiques.  On Saturday, I went to Nishi Ogikubo Station to meet up with my friend Takeo in one of the increasingly rare spacious old wooden homes in Tokyo.  It's a long walk from the station, and numerous antique and craft shops line the way.

In this large (perhaps one foot high and eighteen inches in diameter) antique vessel outside a store front swam tiny goldfish.  You should be able to make out several in the spots clear of greenery.

Among the wonderful things I found at the flea market was this lively looking hanging doll, about ten inches high.  It has a base of sturdy flat paper onto which a variety of sumptuous silks of the period are applied over cotton wadding, to give them dimensionality, and details such as facial features, hands, etc., are then painted on.  The other side is equally elaborate.  From the materials and painting technique, this infant is a good hundred years old.

I bought myself this hand carved wooden obidome (a sort of brooch that slides onto a cord which is tied around the obi on a kimono) in the shape of an old Japanese ship, complete with waves at the hull.  Under the layers of red lacquer are layers of black lacquer, so that if the red lacquer is worn away here and there the black lacquer will be exposed, giving it an additional sophisticated touch.  This fits more or less into the palm of the hand.  I bought a gorgeous hat from the same dealer.  More on that later.

I also couldn't resist this toy killer whale, complete with blow hole, on wheels.  In the west, we are accustomed to thinking of dogs or horses or dolls on wheels, as we subconsciously substitute the wheels for legs.  I was thrown by the killer whale, though, as the four wheels do not translate into anything.  Whaling was central to Japanese culture at one time, so it's not surprising to see it made into a toy, but from the western perspective, the wheels don't seem as natural on a killer whale as they do on a four legged animal.

If you subscribe to our Instagram, though, you have already seen my favorite find at the flea market, from my friend Takeo's booth.

The workmanship is amazing.  I didn't buy it, so if it tickles your fancy, I'll get you in touch with Takeo.  It was Y28,000, an excellent value for a very unusual Edo period piece.  It's close to 200 years old, and in superb condition.

A friend of mine complained that there is too much gray concrete in Tokyo, and he's right, but on my way to trendy Kichijoji station after the flea market, I passed by these small buildings whose owners had made an effort to add some flavor to their neighborhood.

I also passed by this gent, who told me he was dressed head to toe in Comme des Garcons.

Every morning I turned on the television, not so much in hopes of finding anything of special interest to me, but to get my free Japanese lesson.  Over the course of the week, I noticed two new (to me) trends:

One is that on any program with multiple panelists, it's a pretty sure bet that one - and only one - of them will be wearing some kind of hat.   My friend Takeo assured me that the gent wearing the hat in the photo below is a comedian, and always dresses somewhat outlandishly, but I saw hats on too many shows for it to be explained by mere comedy.  In this photo, it's also interesting that one guy is wearing a suit, one looks like a Formula One driver, and the other looks like a priest.  It's hard to imagine it's mere coincidence that they are all dressed very differently.

The other interesting trend I saw was that newscasters wield pointers with large round dark tips.  (See red circle below.)  I imagine these are to ensure that the viewer can clearly see what's being pointed out.  Japan has a very large aging population, so one wonders if this is a concession to viewers with compromised eyesight, or is simply a visually appealing gimmick.  As in the United States, most announcers don't work solo.  There's always someone standing by to say "Yes", or "Really?" or to giggle mirthfully where appropriate.

Another trend, not tv-related, is matcha combined with chocolate.  I found matcha Kit Kats!  There is matcha hot chocolate at cafes, and at Andersen, a very tasty bread chain named after the fablist Hans Christian Andersen - and I presume at many other shops as well - there are now matcha and chocolate glazed doughnuts.

Some of our readers will remember Yuka Hasegawa.  Yuka is a milliner (among her many other talents) I first met at the Easter parade many years ago.  I've seen her sumptuous and amusing hats selling at Barneys, and they also sell at better Japanese department stores.  Yuka is a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology's millinery program.  (Fun fact: I took one semester of the four semester program.)  She's back and forth between the United States and Japan, and I was able to catch up with her on a day when she had gathered several other milliners and a host of other interesting folks.

In the photo below, Yuka is wearing one of her creations.  (And an Issey Miyake shirt that she daringly cut and restyled to her own liking.)

Yuka introduced me to devilishly handsome Tokyo milliner Teruyuki Mizunuma, wearing a hat of his own creation.  Mizunuma-san calls his business Wabisabism, from the Japanese term wabi sabi, which you should look up here.  He wears his hat at a devil-may-care rakish angle, but he is very serious about his craft, making all his hats by hand, one at a time.  You can find his Instagram here, his Facebook page here (check out the fabulous blue hat near the center!), his Twitter account here (where you can see the same hat in red), and his website,, here (where I recommend you purchase or custom order a hat of your own!).

I have to show you what's so special about this hat.  In addition to the very crisp v-shaped crease in the crown, can you see the double row of raised dots at the bottom of the photograph?  These are created with a custom hat block.  See the secret to creating and revising the design in this video.

I was absolutely stunned and honored when Mizunuma-san gave me this hat.  I'm going to do my best to do it justice.  His work is beautifully and painstakingly crafted.  Most hats today are made of felted wool.  This hat is made of rabbit hair.  (Some of you may know that hats in previous ages were made of beaver hair.)


After an all too brief visit with Yuka and her friends, I rushed off to meet more old friends, the Asada family.

I met them in New York back around 1995, when I tutored Mr. Asada's younger daughter in English, while their elder daughter was in college, in Tokyo.  Mrs. Asada, an astonishingly good cook, invariably made me the most amazing meal to satisfy my craving for Japanese food.  When they returned to Japan, we kept in touch.  Today, both daughters are married, with children.

To get to their home, I rode the small Setagaya line, which is notable for having decorated one train with a maneki neko (beckoning cat) theme in honor of their 110th anniversary.  I was very lucky, and was at the station for the cat train, and not one of the undecorated ones.  What straphanger wouldn't want to hang on this strap?  The maneki neko is often seen in shops with its paw raised.  The cat is beckoning good fortune to enter.  There were also large paw prints along the floor.

It was such a treat to see everyone again and to meet the children.  Everything on the table was scrumptious.  Mrs. Asada's cooking continues to be astonishing, and the children are delightful.

At the end of the evening, the elder daughter and her husband took me on a gorgeous tour of Tokyo by night.  We drove past all sorts of visual treats that light up by night, and look completely different in the daytime, on highways and bridges that give a bird's eye view of the city.  It was beautiful and fascinating.  Immediately post-war, Tokyo was a hodge podge of what could be done and what had to be done, and aesthetics took a back seat.  The new additions seem to have been made very thoughtfully, in accordance with the modern tenets of urban planning.  Below, standing beneath the Tokyo Skytree, which replaced the old Tokyo Tower.

When I lived in Tokyo, one of my favorite hangouts was the Nihon Mingeikan or Japan Folk Crafts Museum, housed in a beautiful old traditional building.  They have an extraordinary collection of beautiful, and sometimes very simple, hand made objects that were part of daily life for hundreds of years.  I went to see their changing exhibits of textiles, but I invariably saw countless other fascinating objects in wood, ceramics, paper and other media.  The Museum's founder, Soetsu Yanagi, is generally credited with establishing the mingei movement, and himself collected many objects which otherwise might have been lost in Japan's overwhelming drive to modernize in the early 20th century.

Below, lotus plants in front of the Mingeikan.  I'm wearing the hat I found at the flea market, mentioned earlier.  I had been told that Japan was enjoying balmy weather, even in October, and packed accordingly.   In the photo, I've layered almost everything I brought with me and sporting a very un-chic look because several days after my arrival it rained for four or five days in a row, and temperatures dropped by about 20 degrees.  Lesson learned!

When I left the Mingeikan, I passed by a private home with a high concrete wall.  Appropriately for the area, the owner had taken bits of decorative ceramics and embedded them here and there in the drying wall.  This small traditional fan shaped plate is decorated with gourds in fanciful colors.

Traveling around the city is fast, efficient, and pleasant (except at rush hour).  Tokyo now has a commuter pass called the Suica Card.  Insert your Suica Card into a slot at the train station, and use cash or credit card to refill the card with as little or as much value as you want (for a single ride or hundreds of rides).  Then tap the card on the electric eye at the turnstile, and you're in.  When you arrive at your destination, tap the card on the electric eye again as you exit, and the cost of your fare is automatically deducted.  In Tokyo, price is determined by distance, and commuters used to spend time calculating fares before entering or, if they'd miscalculated, making up the difference on exiting.  The Suica Card has eliminated those problems to a large degree.  My friends showed me that I could also use the Suica Card at vending machines on the streets, eliminating the fuss of searching for change.  I'm sure there were other uses as well, but I wasn't there long enough to discover them all.

This handsome facade inside Shibuya Station frames a small niche for ATM machines.

At the same station, I was happy to see that lockers are still an affordable amenity, and happier still to see this woman's fabulous umbrella.

On a trip to Roppongi, I saw a man checking messages in front of this lyrical black and gold mural in the station.  Cell phones are everywhere in Tokyo, but while checking messages is fine, talking loudly on one's phone is frowned upon.  The few times I was with people talking on their cell phones in public, it was always preceded and followed by profuse apology for the interruption.  We could stand a bit of that here!

Below, probably the wave of the future.  In another part of Roppongi station, several pillars were fitted with video screens showing repeating advertising loops.  Just two steps to the right of the pillars   is the edge of the platform, where the train comes in.

Omotesando is perhaps the Soho of Tokyo: once run-down and inexpensive (fertile soil for unusual shops on small budgets, with a thriving artistic community), it is now the land of large scale international fashion dynasties with huge modernistic buildings that proclaim their status.  It was a bit of a shock seeing the new Omotesando.  When the first MacDonald's arrived on the Champs Elysees in Paris around 1970, it was reported in the newspapers as an unwelcome but landmark event.   Seeing Omotesando was a bit like that.  Nevertheless, I found any number of things to enjoy.

Above, a large swath of old buildings had been torn down, and a small planned commercial center has been put up in its place.  On the plus side, any new construction in New York would all be 40 stories tall, or more.  Here, these brand new structures retain a warm, personal feel at two stories.

One of the shops,  Happy + Life + Plastic, sells exclusively items made of plastic, while reflecting Japan's continuing love of, and uneasy relationship with, the English language.

This wonderfully lit plastic and aluminum awning marks the entrance to a hair dressing salon.

Several Tokyo locations, including the Spiral Building (below) in Omotesando, were participating in an art fair during my visit.  This photo shows only a portion of the Spiral Building's lively and entertaining interior.  The circular barrier in the foreground is made of plywood; the waist-high barrier inside that is made of corrugated cardboard.  Both were constructed for the art show.

Embedded into the cardboard barrier was a parade of tiny origami animals made of leaves, at least 20 feet long, by Yoshihiro Watanabe.

This wooden stand displays a series of chunky painted wooden modernist masks by Nao Matsunaga.

They say everything in life is a trade-off, right?  If I was wistful about Omotesando's glitzy new facade, I was impressed by the efforts every company made to give their store a unique look.  Below, the Woolrich store, on a side street, was a standout in textured red and black paint mimicking a traditional Woolrich weave.

And Chanel had this wonderful astronaut print dress in their window on the main drag.

Not everyone on the main drag looks to Paris for their inspiration, though.

For me, one of the highlights of Omotesando was the discovery of CA4LA (pronounced KAshira), a store with nothing but hats, many if not all of which were custom made by the staff, whom one could see at work in a small second floor atelier.  Below, I try on one of their more outrageous hats in red felt.  Quite fabulous!  I'd like to meet the person who designed the hat block.  I got into a long and enthusiastic discussion with one of the sales assistants, who told me the CA4LA milliners are graduates of Bunka Gakuen, Issey Miyake's alma mater.  It turns out that I'd found one of several branches of the store, another of which is now in London.

Tokyo loves its convenience stores (called Konbini), and Omotesando had one centrally located.  They are what they are, but how could you not like a convenience store with a tissue box display like this?

Of course, when you're in Omotesando, you have to stop at in at Issey Miyake.  I have a feeling I saw all sorts of things there that are never going to show up in New York.  Each item on the racks and shelves had something new and unique about it to delight the senses.  Here, I try on a hat (the hats almost never show up in New York) and an accordion-like knit-in-the-round shawl with small peaks and valleys knitted into the fabric.

This shop, below, was actually in Shimokitazawa (a kind of Tokyo version of Williamsburgh), but I couldn't resist including it.  Anyone could have guessed that Hard-Off sells electronics, right?

One has to spend some time in Ginza, and I did so happily.  I stopped briefly into a store to take a short video of a robot.  There is much talk of robots in Japan, as aides to the aging population.  If you watch carefully, you'll see him do the robot equivalent of blinking his eyes.  I passed another display of robots one evening after closing time, and noticed that their heads were bowed.  I wondered if that was a cultural reference or no more than coincidence.

My friend Bonnie advised me to stop into Matsuya department store to see their art floor, where I wandered around blissfully for more than an hour.  Weaving wizard Reiko Sudo has a branch of her store, Nuno, there.  In my travels, it was impossible to ignore that Japan is going through a cat motif craze.  Cat towels, cat bags, cat purses, cat umbrellas...  anything you can put a cat image on is available somewhere.  I found a shop in Yanaka Ginza, famous for its stray cat population (and completely unrelated to the better known Ginza), that carried nothing but cat motif souvenirs.  Among all of Sudo's sophisticated weaves and designs I found this black handkerchief embroidered with white cartoon cats in a variety of poses.  You'll notice I'm wearing a raincoat (it poured for days) and sandals.  Since the weather was quite summery before my departure, I brought an array of summer clothes.  When it rained, I was completely unprepared.  I wore sandals in the rain because they had leather soles - I was afraid my rubber soled shoes would slip on the pavement.  By rights, the sandals should be ruined, but they held up like champs.

On another part of the same floor, I found that Hisaya Ide, a Japanese potter whose powerful work I first saw around 2005, was having a one man show.  Ide specializes in rough textures and red and black glazes, and makes anything from huge abstract vessels to handsome dinnerware.  (Enlarge photo for a better view.)  I wound up buying the plate I'm holding.

Everything about his work appeals to me, including his attention to detail.  This is the underside of one of his bowls.  The seven exactingly placed squares are what the bowl would stand on while being fired in the kiln.  Although one might never see them, he's given them as much care as he gave the upper side.  Much of Ide's work is characterized by the use of gauze cloth to add texture to the clay.  You can see the cross hatching in this photo.  The cross hatching also allows the glaze to attach unevenly to the surface, so there is a mixture of black underglaze within the red.

Then I met up with Sachiko and her friend, and we had plates and plates of traditional Japanese cuisine in a small rustic restaurant in the heart of Ginza.  On another evening, Sachiko took me to a small Japanese hot spring (onsen) just a bit outside central Tokyo, and we spent several hours going from shower to hot bath to jacuzzi to sauna to outdoor bath.  It was a quiet evening at the onsen, and for the most part we had each of the baths to ourselves.  The jacuzzi had a mild electrical current installed here and there, which provided marvelous electro-stimulation for tired muscles, and the outdoor bath had, well, the outdoors.  I really would have loved to take pictures of that, but Sachiko pointed out no one there would take kindly to a camera, and besides I didn't have any pockets to carry my camera in.  But you've seen pictures of onsens, so you can imagine how much fun we had - two women of a certain age stretched out under the moonlight in our altogether.

After I'd had my fill of the big city, I wanted to visit a small town, and Kamakura, home of the great Buddha, was the place to go, at little more than an hour away.

Built in the 13th century, and living outdoors since his temple was washed away in the 15th century, the Great Buddha is one of the best recognized symbols of Japan.  I meant to get off at the station that has a small museum nearby, but got off at the wrong stop (it's been a long time, after all), so I skipped the museum and took a little city bus ride straight to the Buddha.  For less than a quarter, one can also step inside and see how he's constructed.  It's a wonderful extra privilege.

On my way to the Buddha, I ran into this very fashionably dressed pair, who had also come for a visit.

And on my way back I ran into these three women.  Did you notice that all five are dressed completely differently from one another?  And did you notice that they're all wearing flats?!  I love seeing that women of a certain age are expressing their independence - and their love of comfort - internationally.

I took a slow stroll around the town, which has any number of charming antique shops and souvenir stands.  I found a shop that makes beautiful bamboo baskets and vases for great prices, and was tempted to bring one or more back home, but they are fragile, and I worried that they would not do well in my suitcase.  The last thing I expected to see on my stroll was a Lamborghini.  Import taxes are high to discourage the purchase of foreign cars, so inquiring minds would really like to know who the owner is, and how (s)he came by a Lamborghini.  A yellow one, no less.

Ages ago, my friend Takeo and I developed a habit of meeting at the flea market and having pancakes afterward at a chain restaurant called Royal Host.  Their pancakes (with eggs and bacon) were as good as any I could have made myself, and were a Sunday treat I came to look forward to.  So on the morning of my departure, we reprised that experience for old times' sake.  Here we are, clowning around.  In Japan, no photograph is complete without a peace symbol.

We were close to Asakusa Shrine, which is famous for its huge paper lantern, so we stopped by there.

At the entrance, I saw a man in traditional dress, hawking a local product, and wearing a marvelous Japanese hat.  As I was wearing my own Japanese hat, the one made by Teruyuki Mizunuma, it seemed only right to take a picture.  What a perfect way to end my visit!