Freak of nature or thing of beauty? Shortly before New Year’s, Abby and I chanced upon this choice cabbage perched regally in front of a chopstick store on the Hiroo shopping street. Just look at its girth! Unfortunately, I no longer remember the cabbage’s exact weight (which was noted on a piece of paper nearby) but it was roughly 40 pounds, or about the same size as our dog, Pippi. Now that’s a whole lot of cole slaw!
Just look at the leaves on that thing! And the veining …. oh my. Hailing from Hokkaido, it is surely as impressive as a country fair prize winner anywhere. Below you will see the cabbage in situ which should give you some idea of its size.
The japanese fascination with large vegetables is by no means limited to cabbages. Aren’t these radishes amazing? Here the small stuff is sometimes very, very big.
After taking Pippi for her monthly check-up at the Kamishakujidobutsubyoin (try saying that three times in quick succession) out in the wilds of Tokyo’s Nerima-ku (its a real shlep but so worth it), we did a little exploring of the neighborhood: a charming, mostly residential community interspersed with agricultural plots. If you read my old blog, The Thing Is, you may remember that I have a real thing for urban agriculture. Imagine my delight and surprise when we discovered rows of artichokes (yes! artichokes!) ready for picking!
But I digress. While wandering, we chanced upon the adorable railroad crossing pictured above. Intended just for pedestrians and cyclists (a metal pole planted in the midway across blocks vehicular passage), it is really cute. It looks like a Brio train set come to life. As you can see, the gate controls passage and drops down, accompanied by a clanging bell, when a train is about to pass. What an idyllic scene.
Imagine our surprise when we discovered this sign near the gate. It is a list of Inochi no Denwa hotlines for those contemplating doing themselves in. Despite this sobering message, the ripe produce and rich, loamy landscape lingered on in our thoughts.
One of the things I love most about Japan is the national enthusiasm for seasonal change. Here the shift from one sector of the year to the next is heralded with great fanfare. The arrival of ume plum blossoms at the tail end of winter, sakura cherry blossoms in mid-spring and, my personal favorite, ajisai hydrangea at the cusp of summer (right now!) are all causes for true celebration. Picking up where nature leaves off are the must-have household goods, like furin bells in summer and hokkairon hand warmers in winter. These items tend to be featured in shops at their appointed times of year only. Sure, some of the bruhaha is just crass commercialism. But behind that is a true love of the year’s cycle.
One of my favorite trends is the spurt of interest in umbrellas that manifests itself every year at about this time. An interlude between spring’s freshness and summer’s full on heat and humidity, tsuyu, or rainy season, lasts for a couple of weeks and has a distinct character. Unlike the strong gusts and torrential downpours during the rest of the year, tsuyu rain has a delicacy all its own. During these few weeks it is likely to drizzle for part or most of the day but the drops are so gentle that sometimes they seem more like mist. Though the constant dampness can be a bit of a bother, I quite like tsuyu. It makes leaves and grass look greener, the sky look grayer and the air feel softer.
In anticipation of the rain, stores begin trotting out all kinds of specialized gear, such as waterproof hats, rubberized shoes and, of course, umbrellas. Equally suitable as sun shade and rain cover, the colorful brollies above are the products of NUNO, one of Japan’s finest textile design concerns. Made of cotton and linen, the individual fibers are waterproofed first at a factory in Yamanashi Prefecture and then woven together. Says NUNO’s Reiko Sudo, this process maintains the fabric’s breathability.
Complimenting the colorful cloth canopy, the structural components are the product of the Osaka umbrella maker Mikawa founded in 1883. The two companies have been collaborating since 2011. The umbrella handles come in two forms: the classic hook, made of either cherry or white birch, and the more wafu-inspired straight shape rendered in maple. All of the hardware is exquisitely detailed. Currently on sale at Matsuya Ginza, these umbrellas are made to last and be loved. By the way, Matsuya is also hosting a beautiful exhibit titled “Do You NUNO?” celebrating 30 years of the company’s textile greatness. The display will be up until June 10 and I highly recommend it.
Despite tsuyu’s predictability, I would venture to say that people in Japan have a bit of an aversion to getting wet. As soon as the sky begins to darken, out come the umbrellas. While working on my recent book, Made in Japan: 100 New Products, I learned that people here tend to own more umbrellas than in other parts of the world. No surprise.
To accommodate all of these umbrellas, Japan churns out a remarkable array of storage vessels and drying methods. As soon as the drops begin to fall, many shops roll out plastic sheath dispensers, enabling patrons to carry their wet umbrellas with them without making a mess. Since most people simply discard the used covers on their way out, this hardly seems like an ecological solution.
Another more appealing option is the umbrella dryer above. Basically, this is a V-shaped trough covered with water absorbing material of some sort.
One simply places the umbrella inside and twirls it around to shake off the droplets. Once dry, the umbrella is ready to be snapped closed and stored.
One thing I love about Japan are oshibori, the little, wet towels often presented before a meal or on other occasions when a refreshing wash-up might be welcome. The other day I was at the golf driving range practicing my newly acquired chip-n-run shot. Located in the heart of Tokyo, our driving range of choice at Meiji Jingu Gaien is a happening place. I always take note of our fellow patrons. Most appear to be retirees but there is always a smattering of younger folk. The other day I saw a woman teeing up in stilettos. Now that was interesting.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I spotted this oshibori dispenser. As you can see, it offers both hot and cold towels, each one individually wrapped in a vinyl pouch. Golfers are free to take the towel of his or her choice to their assigned driving range berth. I have yet to take advantage of my complimentary oshibori but who knows? When I hit the driving range in the heat of the Japanese summer, I will probably be sweating more than just the small stuff.
The other day I had a very STSS moment. I was in the car, hurrying to get to an appointment, when I got stuck behind a garbage truck. Much to my chagrin, there was nothing I could do but wait since the street was quite narrow. Barely able to keep my foot from the gas pedal, I watched as the uniformed trash collectors had loaded the truck’s gaping maul. Unlike in the United States, where those ungainly garbage pails on wheels are commonplace, Tokyoites frequently put their trash out in plastic bags: burnables one day, non-burnables the next and recycling after that. Each parcel is neatly packaged and placed directly on the ground at the appointed collection spot at the street edge. Because Tokyo’s crow population aggressively scavenges for food among these discards, the bags of trash are covered with a protective plastic net while awaiting the arrival of said truck. A litter-scattered street is not a pretty sight. And people here go to great lengths to keep the public access ways clean (but that is fodder for another post). Like anywhere else, the trash collectors hurl the bags as the truck slowly lumbers down the street. But, before trotting off to gather in the next heap, the blue-suited fellows neatly fold the net and return it to the roadside where it sits, a tidy rectangular bundle (see above), until the next collection day.
“Made in Japan” is a simple phrase, but one full of meaning. From cutlery to chairs, Japan creates some of the most innovative, elegant, whimsical and well-made objects in the world. I should know. I just wrote the book. Called Made in Japan, it features 100 of the country’s recent design triumphs, each one meticulously curated by moi. It includes everything from a vending machine down to a thumbtack. So you see, I have been sweating the small stuff. Big time.
A few months ago, while in the throes of writing this book, I got the idea to update my blog. For starters, writing at breakneck speed (yes, this book had a quick turnaround plus we had a little earthquake that shook things up quite a bit) diverted attention from “The Thing Is.” Basically, I got out of the habit of blogging. Wrapped up as I was in book research, my eyes were not focusing on blogworthy material. But I also feel that the birth of a new book warrants the release of a new blog. So here it is.
When I first began my book research, I expected that writing about products would be like writing about small works of architecture – something I could practically do in my sleep. But I am not very good at sleeping and products are not small buildings. Product design engages a whole different set of criteria, most very closely connected to the body. While structure and construction are concerns, more often than not in Japan it is the feel of the object in the hand that determines its form and materials. Even a millimeter or two can make a profound difference.
In blog posts to come, you can expect to hear a lot about product design. I like the subject and intend to keep writing about it here and elsewhere. You will also read about plenty of other minutia, those things – words, deeds, objects — that make daily life in Japan such a pleasure. I marvel at the care, precision and phenomenal attention to detail that exists in Japan like nowhere else.