Category Archives: Architecture

Surreal Hiroshima Part 2

The producer had told me a narrator named Hara was coming from Tokyo and that he’d pick us both up at the hotel in the morning. When I got to the lobby….



Producer: “You guys know each other?”

No, actually. We’d never met, but had known each other peripherally, through other connections, for years.

The recording only took a couple of hours. She had made arrangements to spend the night with a friend and I had to stay until the next morning to do the final program check, so we decided to spend the day together. First stop was the peace museum, ’nuff said about that yesterday. Then as we were making our way to the dome, one of us said something funny and we burst into giggles. I said, “Hey, I don’t think we should be laughing here!” And that made us laugh even more.

I was planning to head back to Tokyo the next morning after work but Sachiko asked me to go to Miyajima with her. She  pointed out that it had taken four hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. Or 28 years and four hours in my case, seeing as I’d never been there before. We suddenly found ourselves on an unexpected mini vacation, some time to enjoy and good company to share it with. We both kicked it into silly gear, laughing like little girls who’d run into a clown on roller skates bearing balloons and cotton candy.

Miyajima monument

It took about 40 minutes on a charmingly rattly train and then a 10 minute ferry ride to get to Miyajima, but the journey was worth every minute. It was one of those almost impossibly perfect days. The sun was shining, the sky was clear. Buying my ticket at Hiroshima station, a wondrous feeling of freedom surged through my body. I realized that, for just a few hours, I  could get away with not having a care in the world, which was my oyster and therefore appropriate for lunch, along with some freshwater eel.

I was feeling good.

Breathing the ocean scented water deep into my lungs, I used my superpowers to nearly topple this monument.


Upon landing and monument toppling, one walks past an arcade of restaurants and souvenir stands and an oddly large number of coffee shops, then one is expected to kiss a deer before entering the shrine, a lovely old wooden edifice built over the Seto Inland Sea. At high tide, the complex seems to float on the water, one of the finest examples of Japan’s traditional, elegant architecture.

We were there at low tide. We saw a lot of barnacles.

Sachiko tried and tried to get a good selfie of us with a deer, but most of them were more interested in the contents of my shirt and Sachiko’s purse, which was pretty much covered with deer snot by the time we left the island.

two deerAnd that was that. We took the ferry and train back to the city, then the shinkansen back to Tokyo and the mini vacation was over. But what a treat. I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere just for fun. Thank you, Sachiko, and thank you, world.


Death by Noise

140916_1511~01A few months ago, the Powers That Be tore down two old houses next to mine, subdivided the land into three small plots, and construction has begun on two of them.

This is how I’m going to die.

They, or rather, one guy with a staple gun, started a few weeks ago on the furthest away. It’s the most gawd awful cheap construction, nothing but a pile of plywood boxes held together with staples. They built some like that near where I used to live and there were cracks in the outside walls before the owners had even moved in. Most likely this house will fall down long before the owners can finish paying for it. I guess you get what you pay for, but still, I feel bad for them.

Work started on the closest plot a few days ago, two guys this time, with the obligatory staple gun, plus a nail gun. Everything is being done with power tools. Gone is the sound of a hammer hitting a nail. Instead of Dueling Banjos, we have dueling staple guns, a fast forward kacha-kacha-kacha attack on the senses, not unlike a woodpecker attacking a tree, without any of the charm.

No more the gentle voo-bah, voo-bah of Bill Cosby’s Noah building the ark. Instead they have electric handsaws that produce a high pitched screeching whine that is threatening to rip my brain out through my ear canals. Take the sound of a dentist’s drill, amplify by a thousand, and don’t forget the delightful way the sound goes on and on as it ricochets off the surrounding houses.

One of the guys is bronzed and muscled and had an attractive dusting of sawdust on his black tank top today. That didn’t stop me wanting to go test my kick boxing skills on him. I fantasize that they will suddenly see the light, lay down their tools, and join the peace corps. Don’t they realize I only quit smoking a few months ago? Don’t they know I’m living with a crazed feline who attacks my feet when I’m asleep and produces poo more pungent than the chicken I left in my gym bag last summer? How much patience am I expected to have?


I just learned a new word: Gun-Tama-Chi-Bara-Gi. It refers to Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Ibaragi and Tochigi Prefectures, and infers that while those areas are included in the Great Kanto Plain, they are Japan’s unsophisticated outback and the people who come from there are yokels and hayseeds. The cool kids all come from Tokyo; a few from Yokohama are also acceptable.

FYI, I have lived in Tokyo for all of my many years in Japan, but of course, that goes without saying.

MapofkantoThe irony here is that when I was small, I lived in a big old farmhouse five miles from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. When I was nine, we moved to Pittsburgh, which for me was a big step up in the world. In case you don’t know, as image and reputation go, the only thing worse than Pittsburgh is New Jersey.

On top of that, I hate crowds and am slightly claustrophobic. You can’t begin to grasp the concept of crowded until you’ve ridden a Tokyo morning commuter train or attended the annual Tamagawa fireworks. And everything is smaller here, the houses, the food, the people. There’s an elevator at a studio I work in that I can’t ride because it’s only slightly larger than a pair of coffins. I’d rather climb the four flights of stairs, even when my knees are hurting.

There was an elevator that small in my hotel in Venice, where my room was on the sixth floor, but after getting crammed into it with an over-sized German couple, I took the stairs. And I nearly had a panic attack when I went into the tomb chamber in the great pyramid at Giza.  The chamber itself is big enough, but the passage to get to it is terribly narrow and one has to maneuver past over-sized tourists both coming and going.

So how did a Pennsylvania yokel end up in Tokyo? Or Italy, or Egypt? Or any of the dozens of other countries I’ve been to?  I guess I just decided to go. I think I’m part cat; I always have to see what’s around the next corner.

What really baffles me is people who don’t–and don’t want to–go anywhere.

Blown Away

Yesterday, we went to a shakuhachi concert held in a Catholic church during a typhoon.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAOur friend Alec, the one in the middle, invited us. The church was surreal, with a Japanese priest and a primarily Philippine congregation.  We arrived in time to catch the tail end of the afternoon mass and I realized I had never been inside a Catholic church before, except as a tourist, but we duly stood and sat as instructed and it was over soon enough.

I’ve always been fond of wind instruments in general, and the shakuhachi in specific. It’s just a bamboo tube with some holes drilled in it, and it’s played using only the five tone Chinese scale, yet by varying the angle they blow across the mouthpiece, wiggling their  heads around in weird ways and partially covering the finger holes, players can achieve variations of sound that are quite astonishing. A lot of it is based on sounds existing in nature, so if you close your eyes you can hear the wing flaps of soaring birds, the cajoling flow of water over rocks in a shallow river, the haunting, lilting cries of small animals in pain or fear, the wailing of high winds through mountaintop trees. The tones range from bottom-of-the-ocean deep to make-you-cringe shrill. Alec managed to create the sound of a nesting crane using the way you roll an R in Spanish.

They played a variety of songs. Some were traditional, although I wouldn’t be able to tell you if this is sheet music or a restaurant menu.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThe tall guy, Chris, is a composer and arranged this somewhat less traditional piece.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAYup. Look closely. That’s I Feel Good by James Brown, highly stylized. I didn’t recognize it beyond “gosh, that sounds familiar”, until I saw the sheet music.

The only negative was the two little girls sitting two pews ahead of us stuffing their faces with potato chips and shrimp crackers all the way through the concert. They should consider themselves lucky that there was an old lady in the intervening pew, because otherwise we might have clunked their skulls together. Their mother was too busy playing with her phone to notice so we probably could have gotten away with it.

Otherwise, it was a pretty groovy way to spend a blustery Sunday afternoon. And when was the last time anyone got to use the words “shakuhachi”, “Catholic church” and “typhoon” all in one sentence?


A friend recently asked if we’re the kind of people who keep our windows closed and locked. Nope. Unless there’s a downpour, they’re pretty much always open. We’re rather fond of air.

“But you close them at night, of course,” says she.

Nope, not even then, but a lot of our neighbors do. At our old house, the people next door closed and locked not only the windows but also the shutters, even on the second floor. It would take a rather determined thief to bust in from there, and they really didn’t seem like the type of people to have diamonds and rubies and stacks of cash lying around, although you never know.

My current next door neighbor closes her shutters round about 5:00 every single day. And she doesn’t just close them–she shuffles outside in a pair of over-sized slippers and slams them with a vengeance. I have come to associate the sound with nice things like having a tooth pulled or finding a package of rotten chicken in my backpack.

Come to think of it, in the fourteen years we lived in the old house, I only closed the shutters once, and that was because a typhoon hit us head on. In four years, I have never closed them here.

As close to idyllic as life in Japan seems, petty thievery is not uncommon. But honestly, we really don’t have anything worth stealing. On the other hand, we do have a custom designed, highly sophisticated system of old shoelaces we use to tie the screens closed.

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This is not intended to keep bad guys out. If they want in that badly, they’ll find a way. But it does keep Twitchy in, and keeping her safe is much more important than protecting the Prada handbags and tiaras and mink coats that I will never own anyway.

A Tale of Zen

Years ago, a friend and I went to Kyoto. While we were there, we visited Ryoanji Temple and its renowned rock garden. It was a cold, overcast weekday and nobody else was there. We sat on the wooden porch next to the garden and as we watched, a single snowflake fell. It was one of those rare and very special moments; I could swear I heard the sound of one hand clapping.

Unfortunately, most of the time, this is more like what my life looks like.

Zen garden school

Although I only very rarely dress up in an orange sheet, I do often feel like the guy at the side with his head in his hand. More often, though, I’m one of the clowns playing in the sand. And that’s probably just as it ought to be.

Veggies in the Sky

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA There’s a 26 story building right over my station, a very convenient landmark. No matter where I wander in the ‘hood, if I look up long enough I’ll eventually spot it and be able to find my way home.

Remember that this is Setagaya-ku and its narrow streets were once rabbit paths and deer runs. They often go off in odd directions that would only make sense to a rabbit or a deer; people have a harder time getting oriented.

The building is called Carrot Tower, which is also odd. It isn’t shaped like a carrot. It isn’t orange. I would never attempt to grate it and put it in my jello salad. And you’d have to make an awfully big snowman to use it as his nose.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThe name is hard to deal with, too. If I’m talking to an English speaker, fine, but if I’m talking to a Japanese person, I have to pronounce it Japanese style, which is kind of like kyarotto tawa, and that is decidedly harder to say.

So I have taken to calling it Ninjin Toh, which means the same thing, but for some reason, nobody seems to get the connection.

Why would anybody name a building after a vegetable anyway?

This could easily get out of hand. I mean, who wants to stay at the Yokohama Burdock Root Hotel or go watch a ballgame at Bamboo Shoot Stadium? Want to catch a flick at the new Shiitake Cinema Complex in Shibuya? Care to join me for a performance of Aida at the Eggplant Opera House?

Really, now. That’s just silly.

A Perfect Day

“Have you got any plans for tomorrow?”
“No. Why?”
“I want to DO something. I worked so hard last month—we both did—and next week will be crazy busy again, but I’ve got this week off and I want to DO something.” Normally when the weather is good and neither of us has to work, we take a long walk around the neighborhood, which is both good for us and free, but I wanted to DO something.
“Like what?”
“I don’t know. A museum or something, something we haven’t done before. Let me go see what I can find on the interwebs.”

What I found was the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum. According to their website, “Since the Edo period, Tokyo has lost many valuable historical buildings because of fires, floods, earthquakes and warfare. Today, the city’s valuable cultural heritage is still being eroded due to social and economic changes.” That’s true enough. Just the other day, we were on one of our epic walks and came across this:

DestructionSee the shape of the supporting beam just under the roof? Gorgeous. Many old Japanese farm houses feature that type of construction. I was surprised to see it in a city house and saddened to see that it was being deconstructed, which made the open air museum sound that much more appealing. I had never even heard of it, for one thing, and it was situated in a vast park I had also never heard of. Apparently, Koganei Park is the second largest park in the metropolitan area and has been enjoyed by the public since 1954. The only one bigger is Kasai Rinkai Park, which is an upstart having only opened in 1989, but it does have views of both the sea and Disneyland, and one of those oversized Ferris Wheels, and an aquarium with a pretty impressive tuna tank. OK. I take back the upstart comment. They’re both pretty cool.

I’m a big fan of both parks and architecture, so off we went. It took four trains and a bus to get there, but it was worth it. The park is truly vast:

img_125_2_2The bright green bit is the museum, the rest is park, and the museum itself is 17 acres, so that gives you some idea of how big it is. The park also has nearly 2000 cherry trees. The day was one of those rare springtime gifts from nature, clear and sunny, warm but not too warm. Sakura viewing season was nearly over, but there was just enough of a breeze to send the petals swirling and fluttering toward the earth, a sight that always makes me want to clap my hands and dance around like a little girl.


The museum itself was a collection of old houses from different parts of Tokyo that the metropolitan government deemed worthy of relocation, preservation, and exhibition to the public. It was also a little overwhelming. I was not expecting such a concentration of elegance and beauty. Maybe it was the perfect weather, or the joy of not having to work, but it seemed like it was impossible to take a bad picture. You could go inside all the buildings and wander around the rooms, losing yourself in the awareness of past lives and the waves of change Japan has experienced over time.

The west part of the museum featured the oldest houses, thatch roofed wooden farm houses, lovely to look at but hell to live in. They’re cold, dark and drafty and there’s nothing but sliding paper doors to divide the rooms, so the occupants had little to no privacy. Plus, I know from visiting the Nihon Minkaen (Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum, another very cool place) that the smell of thatch in the heat of summer will make you retch. Still, the craftsmanship alone makes these buildings museum-worthy.

ThatchSometimes we would turn a corner and suddenly be faced with a world of such exquisite beauty that it couldn’t possibly exist.

GatesAnd then there was all of this.

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As you move toward the east, the houses are newer, and that’s where the astonishment sets in. The Japanese are truly adept at absorbing and adapting foreign things. An otherwise thoroughly western style room with elegant parquet floors might feature tiny-paned windows echoing the shoji paper window screens of earlier design.

Someone had left the window open. Those are sakura petals on the floor.
Someone had left the window open. Those are sakura petals on the floor.

One house had an A frame design that reeked of Frank Lloyd Wright, if the man himself had been Japanese. The little yellow house strongly reminded me of Miss Nancy’s house, except for the tiled roof. (She was my grandfather’s southern belle girlfriend from North Middleton, Kentucky.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI think that’s what inspired such astonishment. Growing up, the one thing my parents had in common was a love of old buildings and antiques. On family vacations, we spent a lot of time visiting old houses and historical museums, so these buildings felt sort of like old friends, except for the nuanced and delightfully unexpected differences in culture and tradition. Almost all new houses are built in Western style these days, including all of the five (5!) being built around my house right now, but it’s rare to find old Western style Japanese houses.


The east part of the museum is a somewhat Disneylandesque collection of shops and other businesses, mostly from the 1920’s but some were older.


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My grannyphone pedometer says we walked 16,659 steps, 10.8km, that day. Needless to say, our feet were tired, but our eyes and hearts were full of images that will stick with us, and getting away from the familiar always jump-starts my joie de vivre. It was a pink petal paradise, with sakura ice cream providing the final, perfect tweak.

You're right, Jonelle. It tastes pink.
You’re right, Jonelle. It tastes pink.