Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Derelict Store, Ōokayama

I found this shop the other week right near my daughter Cocoa's kindergarten in Ōokayama, one stop from our place on the Oimachi Line.

Ōokayama is full of some interesting old architecture, some of it condemned and falling apart - like this particular gem, apparently a Singer Sewing Machines store in its time.

Anyway, I went back there yesterday just prior to picking up Cocoa and took these photos.

The place is open to the street, yet - as per most Japanese derelict abodes - no squatters have ever lived there, and it looks like it had a party only once recently in the form of a two-litre bottle of shōchū that I discovered upstairs.

The building is completely collapsing and probably a dangerous place to explore when you're not exactly a featherweight gaijin, but I found these closet doors (above left) covered in what looks like old '60s or '70s clippings.

The tatami mats are still there but water-logged and buckled up, and there are gaping holes in the floor and ceiling; thank god it was decent weather.

The two flights of stairs were death-traps in-the-waiting but still supported me in both directions. In the drawers were old clothes including kimonos, but no sewing machines that I could find.

The toilet downstairs was one of the ugliest I've yet seen, easily out-rivaling the worst JR station loos, and the lack of decent reading material made it even less attractive. I didn't take too close a look at the hole itself.

There were the remnants of shōji doors with torn and ripped washi paper, electrical cables dangling from the ceiling, and the feeling that even the ever-present Tokyo cockroaches had renounced this place.

Ironically right next door is a popular take away eatery frequented by big groups of students from the university down the lane.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chanko-Nabe: Sumo Food

Sumo is one of Japan’s more internationally famous sports, probably because the spectacle of two exceptionally fat men - in a nation of exceptionally skinny people - wrestling one another, clad only in loin-cloths shaped like sexy G-strings is, well, hilarious.

What most accidental spectators don’t realize is that there’s so much more to the sport than its remarkably hefty rikishi (wrestlers).

Behind the bulldog bravura of cataclysmic grappling that goes on in the ring are centuries-old traditions like the Shinto-related throwing of salt (that one’s for purification).

And sumo competitors’ hair - which is precision-slicked into top-knots - is coiffed using a waxy substance called bintsuke abura, the main ingredient of which comes from the berries of the Japanese wax tree, Toxicodendron succedaneum - a member of the same family as poison ivy. It’s been used cosmetically and in hairdressing in Japan for around a thousand years, and is also used by geisha as a waxy base for their make-up.

Incidentally, in July 2008 the Japanese newspaper Nikkan Sports reported that a 15g container of the oil rose from ¥685 to ¥735, prompting sumo stars to demand a pay raise.

Even that remarkably revealing loincloth, known as the mawashi, has a story: it’s made of silk, approximately 30 feet long, weighs up to 11 pounds (about 5kg), and sometimes bears the name of a sponsor.

Ryōgoku, located here in Tokyo near the historic centre of this monolithic metropolis, is the home of the sumo. Right outside the west exit of Ryōgoku JR station stands the mammoth Kokugikan, the Sumo Hall, with a capacity of 13,000 people. Three of the six national Grand Sumo tournaments happen here.

Unlike ogling geisha in Kyoto, train spotting sumo sorts in the streets around Ryōgoku is relatively easy, especially since the practitioners of the sport aren’t exactly the waif-like types that geisha or maiko typically are.

But sumo wrestlers would be nothing without their diet, and - yes - we dangle the word “diet” here in its most strictly ironic sense. You won't find these people anywhere near a Diet Coke or low-fat mayonnaise.

Chanko-nabe (ちゃんこ鍋) is the food of the sumo - a huge, simmering hot-pot that’s chock-full of meat, fish and vegetables, best mixed with soy sauce, but sometimes also blended with mirin, miso, sake, and dashi stock (shavings of dried skipjack tuna mixed with edible kelp).

Leftover broth is often then consumed with a hefty plate of noodles.

It’s as highly nutritious (think protein city) as it is gut-busting, and is the principle dish gorged by sumo wrestlers to extend their hefty waistlines and add to already impressive girths.

Some wrestlers enjoy the concoction so much that they quit the ring and instead become the chanko-cho, or chief chanko chef, for their wrestling stables, and eventually open their own restaurants - often with sumo memorabilia from their workhorse days adorning the walls.

And, to my blinkered eyes at least, there’s no finer chanko-nabe to be had in Ryōgoku, than at a fine establishment called Yoshiba.

The building that houses Yoshiba was erected in 1948 as a prominent sumo wrestling club and practice stadium for the famous, 200-year-old Miyagino stable, and nine years later the premises were handed down to the stable’s coach, former distinguished yokozuna (sumo grand champion), Yoshibayama, who passed away in 1977.

After that, the building was recast as a restaurant (in 1983), maintaining the sumo ring and the practice rooms in their original state.

Kappo Yoshiba, named after the aforementioned yokuzuna, is hardly a small place itself. The restaurant can seat up to 250 people, it boasts a sushi bar and a voluminous fish-tank, and while the place is invariably busy, the service from the staff is brilliant - so much so, it leaves you despondent that the custom of tipping is a foreign one in Japan.

There’s also daily entertainment in the sumo ring in the center of the restaurant, which veers from guys in yukata (summer robes) singing traditional sumo songs, to a group of rowdy musicians strumming away on a shamisen in a more quirky, contemporary style.

But the focus here, of course, is the chanko-nabe, and the seriously skewed attempts to finish this herculean dish. Give yourself a day or two to recover - and try not to remember that sumo champions and their lesser ilk guzzle gallons of the chunky nectar on a daily basis.


So anyway, this may be completely unrelated but here's the sexy Suburu commercial from a few years back - featuring a bunch of sumo washing a car:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hamarikyu Gardens

Sometimes it does tend to feel like Tokyo is all concrete, but you'd be sorely mistaken - there's also bitumen, ceramics and glass thrown into the mix.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

While this city isn't quite so famous for its parks (aside from Yoyogi kōen, which is overrated) there're some open space gems to be found if you try looking hard enough.

Hamarikyu Gardens (浜離宮恩賜庭園, Hama-rikyū Onshi Teien) is one of these elusive baubles.

Dubbed "the family garden of the Tokugawa Shogun" in the brochure you can get for free at the entrance, it's a huge park that dates back 350 years and features a 300-year-old pine tree and a Peony Garden that claims to stock 60 different types of paeony.

There're two wild-duck hunting sites (called kamoba) used for falconry by the Shogun families, and the more recent addition of a kamozuka - a grave built in 1935 to console the spirits of the ducks that were killed.

There's even a tidal pond carrying water from Tokyo Bay, something I think the relevant Park Association would be better off to play down.

After the Meiji Restoration the garden apparently became a detached palace area for the Imperial Family, but it was devastated during both the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake and World War II bombings.

In 1945, after the war, the garden was given to the City of Tokyo and it became open to the public the following year - some 300 years after it was first conceived.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Time Wasters

I have a couple of excuses for not updating this blog lately as much as I'd like to.

While I usually decry the whole excuses tangent - who cares, anyway? - these excuses are ones that actually warm the cockles of my devious heart and are seriously depriving me of sleep most nights lately.

The first excuse is my new vinyl record - yep, I'm going all old school black wax - which finally hits streets (and hopefully decks) from today.

It's out through my label IF? in conjunction with Gynoid Audio. The record itself is called 'Metropolis How?' and is actually a track I made under my hack Little Nobody alias almost 2 years ago , but comes with fresh remixes by the inestimable James Ruskin, Justin Berkovi and DJ Hi-Shock.

It's already got support from people like Luke Slater, Laurent Garnier, Chris Liebing, Ade Fenton, Dave Clarke, Tommy Four Seven, Ben Sims, Ken Ishii, Perc, Len Faki and Trevor Rockcliffe.

Yep, I guess you could call this techno. Maybe.

Check out the sample sounds HERE.

The other time-waster is the sub-editing of the novel I've been working on for - well, forever, basically.

There are a few are these projects tucked under various beds in Japan and Australia, but this particular one is called 'Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat' and is actually going to be published by the way cool cats at Another Sky Press in the USA once we finish the edit. This should (hopefully!) be done by June.

Oh yeah, and the cool cover is by the very awesome Scott Campbell.

You can read the first 2 chapters online for free HERE - just be aware that there've been substantial edits since then and the new version is a helluva lot tighter. I think.


In the meantime, if you're bored, here's the video clip we did for the original mix of 'Metropolis How?'...