Saturday, December 31, 2011

Grand cleaning

In Japan, the last few days in December is when people clean up their home on an extensive scale (we call this oo-soji or grand cleaning). And today I helped my parents do this grand cleaning, well, only a little bit. :P

Which reminds me of what I always don't understand: why is any modern house designed to be difficult to clean up? Perhaps talented, influential house interior designers in the Western world only have wealthy clients who can afford hiring house cleaners and thus never care about whether it is easy to clean.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Monocle Cafe

Every half a year, Tokyo sees something new. The latter half of the year 2011 saw the opening of Hankyu Men's Tokyo, a department store specializing in men's fashion, in Yurakucho (the area right next to Ginza). Although it may sound unusual to people outside Tokyo, the whole department store building dedicated to men's fashion is nothing new in Tokyo: Marui Men for youngsters and Isetan Men's for grown-ups have been around in Shinjuku for ages by now.

What's really new about this department store is a cafe on the lower ground floor: The Monocle Cafe. Monocle is a magazine that has been advocating for the ideal urban environment which, of course, includes cafes. Perhaps unusual for such a magazine, the editor Tyler Brule has decided to open the magazine's own cafe in Tokyo.

Omotesando Koffee, one of the best coffee houses in Tokyo, is in charge of coffee served. The food menu includes katsu (Japanese pork schnitzel) sandwiches, which consist of a succulent pork fillet, crispy deep-fried breadcrumb, thick tonkatsu sauce, and slices of toasted smooth-textured bread. It's probably one of the best katsu sandwiches served in Tokyo.

But the Monocle Cafe is not only about coffee and foods. The wooden interior design, implemented by Maruni, a Japanese wooden furniture manufacturer in business for more than 80 years, creates a heartwarming atmosphere. Especially, their Hiroshima lounge chairs, designed by Naoto Fukazawa, the leading Japanese product designer, have such a smooth, beautiful surface of the back rest that is comfortable both to lean against and to watch when the chair is not occupied.

Last but not least, the cafe staff is super customer-friendly, even by judging from very demanding Japanese standards of service quality. When the kitchen ends up serving a different food than the one I order, they don't just apologize but first throw away my cup of espresso to replace it with the one just brewed in time for my food served. Then they deliver everything to my table (by default, customers order coffee and foods at the counter and take them themselves to their table). When I realize I need some sugar for my espresso, the waiter standing nearby just notices it and brings a sugar container to my table. This kind of services can be overwhelming to customers, but the Monocle Cafe staff know how friendly services do not feel too much.

Also great about this cafe is that customers can read a sample Monocle magazine and that some of the tables offer electric sockets.

When you visit Ginza, do stop by at this cafe. You won't get disappointed.

Added on 8 January
On the second visit, I had Monocle curry (curry with rice in Japanese style) and yuzu squash (Japanese citrus sparkling juice). For foreign visitors, these must be interesting. But for Japanese people, they are nothing special. And today's staff was less professional. Another problem is the cafe's WiFi access. You first have to email a blank message to obtain the password to get access. For foreign visitors like me who have no 3G internet access, this is super useless. Having said that, it's still worth visiting for cozy interiors, katsu sandwiches, and Omotesando Koffee's coffee kashi.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rolex Learning Center, and the future of architecture exhibitions

I visited an exhibition entitled "Architectural Environments for Tomorrow" held at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo. Co-curators of the exhibition are the Prizker prize-winner Japanese architect duo SANAA.

The exhibition begins with a model of the Rolex Learning Center, designed by SANAA, and ends with a short, looping 3D movie entitled "If Buildings Could Talk" by Wim Wenders, which features the Rolex Learning Center. There are a few other interesting installations by other architects and artists (the boundary between architecture and art is increasingly blurred these days), but at the end of the day, the whole idea of this exhibition seems to be symbolized by this SANAA creation.

The Center, located in the campus of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, is a future of the college building. Three things characterize the building, all of which enhance the academic and learning environment. First, it is a one-floor building with no wall separating rooms. You can easily spot where your buddies are. In an academic environment, the exchange of information and opinions out of casual meetings is often quite important a trigger for coming up with (and triaging) new ideas. If your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances hide in a room, upstairs, or downstairs, this won't happen. I myself experience a tall wall between different floors in an academic building, both in London and in Stockholm. It is really tall. Trust me.

The second feature of the building is light. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows separate the inside and the outside of the building throughout. There are several circular "courtyards" which allows the sunlight to flow in to the area far away from the outline of the building. The wavy building structure allows the light and the shade created by the sunlight to change over time in a day not in an obvious way.

Finally, the hills. The floor of the building is a rolling field. There are gradual, organic slopes up and down. It is like a park. And in a park, people often go up on the hill and sit down there to get relaxed with the vantage point view. The hill slope also helps people to lie down in a natural way. With the light flowing in and the distance view thanks to the open-plan one-floor structure, the inside of the building can play a role of a park with hills.

What's important in studying is taking a break from time to time. Hard-working is important, but breakthrough ideas often occur to people's mind when they feel relaxed after hard-working. Very few academic buildings can provide researchers and students with this relaxing atmosphere. The Rolex Learning Center just does that.

Now, everything I just wrote here is what I noticed by watching the Wim Wenders's 3D movie of the Center, by sitting close to the screen on the floor with low-height sofas to lie down against, so that I feel like I were actually inside the building. (The movie does show students lying down on low-height sofas placed on those slopes.) The Learning Center's model that I saw at the beginning of the exhibition didn't really help me understand SANAA's design concept this way. Here I saw the future of the exhibition on architecture. Understanding architecture (or space design in general) without actually visiting it is essentially impossible. Most exhibitions on architecture face this problem. With 3D movies, this eternal issue can be resolved as Wim Wenders successfully did.

Seafood in Japan

A good friend of mine took me to his favorite upmarket sushi restaurant. Since it was the last minute booking, we ended up at "table seats" instead of "counter seats" and because of this, the waiter on the phone apologized to my friend. I, as a Japanese person brainwashed by European dining culture, thought sitting at a counter in a restaurant was inferior to sitting at a table. In a proper Japanese restaurant, however, it's the other way around. Sitting at a counter is more desirable, perhaps because the chef works inside the counter and sitting at the counter allows customers to see how the chef cooks foods.

I didn't know this before. I'm foreign to Japan.

At a luxury sushi restaurant, you don't eat sushi only. You start with other seafood dishes. So we first had raw oysters with ground black pepper. I didn't know black pepper goes well with oysters. Then we had two kinds of fish grilled: nodoguro (also known as akamutsu) and mehikari (also known as aome-eso). Both tasted impressive (and I'm frustrated as I don't have enough vocabulary in English to describe the subtle taste of different kinds of fish).

The variety of fish eaten by Japanese people is just beyond my memory capacity. The other day, my mother served sashimi of sayori and kohada (which is the name of a child konoshiro). Some fish even changes its name as it grows (kohada is an example). For most of the fish, the translation into English doesn't make any sense as foreigners don't eat them. So I just use the Japanese names here.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Omotesando Koffee

If I'm asked to recommend the best coffee shop in Tokyo, I immediately mention Omotesando Koffee because it combines the Japanese tradition and the 21st century design philosophy at its best.

The traditional side is represented by the house that houses the shop. It's a small, old-style residential house. Facing the alley is an old-style wooden gate with a roof. Inside the gate spreads a small garden surrounded by a concrete block wall (typical of the mid-20th century Japanese urban landscape) and a wooden house. A narrow flower bed along the wall accommodates non-conspicuous flowers and grass plants.

Inside the house sits a cubic kiosk within which the shop owner brews and serves coffee to customers over the counter. The design of the shop is all based on the cubic shape. The signage at the entrance on the alley is a black metal square ring on a stand. The white paper menu on the counter divides its surface into multiple squares each of which lists one particular coffee (espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, etc.). Each component of the kiosk is also a cube, since it's meant to be mobile: the house is planned to be demolished soon (though the house owner just decided to postpone the plan). Finally, the koffee kashi, the original baked custard designed to stimulate your appetite for coffee, is cube-shaped. All this consistent design philosophy, along with the interior of a Japanese old residential house, creates a tranquil atmosphere, tranquil enough to focus your five senses to the present moment of tasting coffee.

There's no seat or table inside. The shop is more of an Italian bar where people just hop in and quickly gulp a cup of espresso. It is in the middle of a quiet residential area three blocks away from the busy Omotesando boulevard. A little bit difficult to spot, but it is worth visiting as nowhere else can offer such an experience.

If you need a second opinion, I would mention that Monocle magazine editors love this place so much that when they opened their own cafe on the basement of Hankyu Men's department store in Ginza last autumn, they asked Omotesando Koffee to train their barristers and decided to serve its coffee and koffee kashi at the cafe.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hackney Pearl

The Hackney Pearl (11 Prince Edward Road) is a cafe located within a minute walk from Hackney Wick London Overground station (one station to the west from Stratford). Once you get off the station, you might wonder if you come to the right place, as the area is quite run-down. But you are right. The cafe is located almost like in the middle of nowhere. Still, it is one of the best places to eat in London. My onglet steak (for 15.50 pounds) was simply awesome, the best steak I've ever had in years. The staff is super friendly. The decor is homey, in stark contrast to the landscape through the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street (which increases the feeling of coziness inside). If you visit London for the Olympic Game next year, it's worth a trip.

Monday, December 12, 2011


There are quite a few Spanish tapas restaurants in London. But most of them are rather disappointing. Pinchito Tapas, a couple of minute walk from Old Street station, is an exception. The black-and-red interior invites you to the trendy Barcelona bar atmosphere, vibrant with Spanish-speaking customers while maintaining the right amount of noise. Each tapas dish is presented beautifully and tastes delicious. The service is proper.