Thursday, January 24, 2013

Great Buys at the Tokyo International Forum Sunday Flea Market

If you have read a few posts on this blog, you'll know that I cannot resist the lure and allure of a good flea market.
I make a beeline for them when I travel.  Nothing beats the satisfaction of unearthing a "treasure"  -- whether it's a vintage bag, retro accessories, used but still good clothing,  antique bric a brac or sometimes, just eye catching junk!
Tokyo has a few flea markets held during specific times of the month but the one I really enjoy is the Sunday flea market at the Tokyo International Forum grounds.

Located in the Yurakucho area, it is just off the JR station and right across Bic Camera, that holy grail of everything digital, electronic and trendy.  
This flea market has probably less than 30 vendors but it is this very small-ness and cozi-ness that makes it more interesting for me.  You can easily navigate around and discover those  "finds".

The vendors sell a wide range of used and new stuff -- from traditional kimonos to everyday street wear.  I was able to get a gorgeous plum colored yukata or light kimono for just 1,000 yen!

There are a lot of crafts --  most are sold by artisans who proudly tell me that they make everything that they sell.

This table is full of hand knit items -- all lovingly designed and done by the smiling lady who sells them. Kawaii desu ne!

There are also quite a number of vintage items -- from costume jewelry to designer bags.
Shhh, don't tell anyone but on this last visit, I picked up a used but still good Christian Dior handbag -- complete with authenticity card for the unheard of price of .... 4,000 yen!    Now, this is why I love flea markets!

Bargain hunting can make you hungry -- two small food trucks are parked at the edge, serving snacks and coffee.  Grab a sandwich and go back to shopping again!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Dentsu New Year Party

Every year, around the first week of January, Dentsu in Tokyo throws its annual New Year Party.  Held at the same place each time, at that venerable dowager, the Imperial Hotel, it is the event of the year -- three parties spread over one whole day to which clients, media, government and practically any one who is any one in the industry is invited.

I receive my annual invitation sometime in mid December.  I don't always attend but this year, since I have been thinking of retiring soon, I think perhaps that this could be my last New Year party at Dentsu.  So I pack my bags and I go.

This huge centerpiece at the main ballroom of the hotel is where the big bosses of Dentsu stand and where most of the guests, at least those who care to, line up for a photo opportunity.  
Of course I dutifully take my place in the queue.

The New Year party starts as early as 10 am and lasts till 12 noon.  Everyone is ushered out and then the next batch arrives for the 1:30 pm to 3:30 slot.  The last party is held from 4 pm to 5:30.  
I imagine that the Dentsu hosts (who are also all the top honchos)  must be dead tired from standing, greeting and entertaining the thousands of guests who attend throughout the day.  
Just look at this crush of people, party goers all.

There really isn't much to do at the party but to talk, eat and drink.  Dentsu always gets the top notch and most famous specialty restaurants to come and cater the party.  So if you line up for tempura at the tempura station, you can be sure you're not eating just any kind of tempura but the best that money can buy.

The buffet counters are spread out with all sorts of small plates of Japanese food.

I just look and take photos since I'm not really hungry.  The array of food is just so overwhelming.

Every where you look you find trays of delectable looking and beautifully presented dishes.

The longest queue is always at the sushi counter.  There are more than ten sushi chefs from the top sushi restaurant in Tokyo,  yet each line in front of each sushi chef is still more than 10 people deep.  
Serious looking businessmen and CEOs in their best dark suits wait patiently for the sushi masters to fix  them a tray.

A Japanese colleague urges me to line up and have some sushi -- the best you can eat in Tokyo, he promises and definitely not within ordinary price range.
Which is why everyone but everyone lines up -- and some even go back for seconds.

Not all the action is happening in the main ball room.  Dentsu has this floor and the one above it, where the function rooms are -- exclusively for the party.

Upstairs, the atmosphere is more fun and relaxed.  The various function rooms are devoted to specialty restaurants where you can sit and have a meal.   Traditionally costumed Japanese entertainers, typical of old Tokyo, roam the hallways.  This one is trying to cadge a 1000 yen note from these kimono clad ladies.

There is a fortune telling room and a room where artists can do your caricature in 15 minutes.
But they've closed this room early and are now turning away people since only a few guests can be accommodated.
Perhaps if I didn't line up for sushi, I could have had my caricature done.

We see a long line in front of a function room and decide to join it.  Who knows what gourmet delights await us inside?

What we lined up for, we soon discover, is a famous 213 year old restaurant that specializes in dojo or loach fish.  Small and slim, dojo or loach is a fresh water fish that the Japanese love.
This is dojo nabe, cooked in a small pot and eaten with lots of sliced green onions.
The fish is  a bit spiny but once I get the hang of eating it, it's quite tasty.
It looks a bit like and reminds me of our own local version -- the talimusak.

They serve the dojo two ways -- as nabe and with egg in a soft omelet.  I actually prefer the omelet version since the dojo has been deboned and is much easier to eat.
Hmm, this would go well with a bowl of gohan, but none is forthcoming.

The owner of the restaurant is very gregarious and entertains us, our group are the only gaijin in the room.   The waitress says his name is Watanabe san but they all call him "shacho" or  Boss.
He is the sixth generation owner of this restaurant.

It's getting close to 3:30 and soon the party will be over, at least for us, in this time slot.  We move towards the exit and come upon a couple of booths with traditional Japanese crafts and games.

We do some rounds of simple games and win a few prizes.  It's a lot of fun and there's a lot of good natured joshing and clapping and some trash talking too.  

It's time to go and we take a photo for posterity -- these are my long time colleagues and heads of the various Dentsu offices in Asia -- from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Seeing each other at the New Year party is a good way to strengthen bonds of camaraderie and friendship that have been built through the years.

Love, Eat, Pray -- Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo in 30 Days

The travel gods were unusually kind to me as 2012 ended and 2013 began.  I didn't quite plan it that way but after it had all happened, I realized that in the span of 30 days, I had been able to go to my three most favorite cities in the world -- Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
In a way I achieved what author Elizabeth Gilbert had done ... but not in the same order and not in so long a time.

First up - Paris!  Paris is a city for love and lovers.  Who will not fall under her enchanting and magical spell?  Even the most hardened, hard boiled realist (me) cannot resist the romance and the allure that the city brings.

From love to food in less than 24 hours.  I had barely arrived home from Paris when we had to hop on a plane for a New Year holiday in Hong Kong -- for me,  the best place to just eat and eat and eat.  What else is one to do?

A few days after coming home from  Hong Kong, I found myself on a plane bound for Tokyo.
From love to food to prayer -- all within 30 days.
The Sensoji Temple is a must destination for me.
I visit Kannon Bodhisattva, goddess of mercy.
I take my place at the urn and wave incense smoke over me -- to cure me of my ills and rid me of my sins.  I say my silent prayers and give thanks for all the blessings bestowed on me.
And then, when I am done praying, Buddha does the inevitable.
Buddha makes me cry.

Katsukura in Shiodome - Tonkatsu staple when in Tokyo

Jay and I love tonkatsu and we both believe that the best tonkatsu can only be found in Japan.  
Any other tonkatsu in any part of the world is just not up to par.
Our very favorite is this simple, 20 seater place on the 4th floor of the New Shinbashi Building, right behind the train station.  Since the signage is in Japanese, we don't even know the name!  But we do know how to get there.
The president of Dentsu, Takashima san,  brought me there for lunch a couple of years ago and between the two of us, we decreed that it was the best tonkatsu in the world.
For second best, Jay and I like Katsukura in City Center building in Shiodome.  
Katsukura originated in Kyoto and now has a chain of several stores around Japan.  
They source their pork from only the best pigs in the Kanezawa region. 
The tonkatsu there is always good and they have other items on the menu too.

The tables are closely set together and space is maximized since this is a favorite lunch place for many of the office workers in the area.  We arrive just as the place opens at 11 am so we get the only table for 2, in a quiet and secluded alcove. 

Tonkatsu goes best with beer -- even at lunch time!  The small dish of pretty green, white and pink tsukemono or pickles adds crunch and sour saltiness to my mug of draft beer.

 For non meat eaters, Katsukura offers fried ebi -- done in the same crisp and non oily batter used for the pork cutlets.  There are 5 large prawns per order and it comes with the same large pile of grated cabbage that is a staple with tonkatsu.

Katsukura offers three sizes of pork cutlet -- 80, 120 or 180 grams.
Like the French, the Japanese understand the principle of enjoying good food in moderation.
Tonkatsu comes in two cuts -- rossu or belly and thus fatty, oh so juicy and delicious or the leaner, healthier and more expensive hire.
Each set comes with miso soup, a small pot of rice, the aforementioned cabbage and a dish of sesame seeds that you personally grind with a small wooden pestle and mix with the tonkatsu sauce.
Jay always orders hire and during my pork eating days ... I always ordered the rossu.
Katsukura may be just our second best favorite tonkatsu restaurant,  but we're sure we'll always get a great meal.

A Quick Meal around the Hakone Yumoto Station

We had slightly less than an hour before the Romance Car would whisk us back to Shinjuku station from Hakone Yumoto.  An afternoon amidst gorgeous and awesome art at the Hakone Open Air Museum had banished all thoughts of food from our minds.  
Now,  with barely an hour before our train left, we realized we hadn't had lunch and were all of a sudden, ravenously hungry.

 There was a small cafe inside the train station but we decided to do a quick survey around the area.  Surely since this was a tourist town, we would find a place that would serve food, even at the rather un-foodly hour of 4 pm.  We crossed the road from the train station using the overhead walkway.

There were a lot of souvenir shops selling arts, crafts, clothes and Hakone delicacies.  Such a quaint atmosphere.  I would have loved to do some more walking around the town.

This fish and seafood market was very attractive.  There were ready to take home packs of sashimi and sushi and lots of fresh looking fish on the refrigerated shelves.

Aha, food! In between the sweets shop and the souvenir shop was this restaurant and it was open.

A picture menu on the window showed that the specialty was udon -- udon with tempura, udon with egg, udon with yuba,  udon with kakiage.  Hot soup and noodles - this would be just the thing for this cold afternoon.

Obviously, the shop makes its own noodles, as I could see from my bowl of tanuki udon.  
The noodles are irregularly sized and look like they have been cut by hand.  
They are deliciously fresh and chewy.  
Lots of seaweed in the broth make for a strong and rich umami-ness.
The smiling lady at the counter speaks no english and the menus are all in Japanese, as is the sign outside the restaurant.  I guess I will never know the name of this wonderful little udon place.

Before hopping on the train, we have just a few minutes to spare so I grab some traditional sesame paste sweets, which are what Hakone is famous for.  
There is this very venerable looking store called Nano Hana from which I buy just two small cakes -- just to eat and taste on the train ride home.
The store clerks must have been wondering why the gaijin bought only two when all the rest of the tourists were buying boxes and boxes of these small sweets.
These small cakes filled with sesame paste are so delicious -- the steamed rice cake cover reminds me of our very own puto --  puto binan to be exact.  Oishii desu yo! 
We finished both cakes before you could say "Hakone".  
I secretly regret that I bought only two!

Hakone Open Air Museum -- Where Art is Showcased by Nature and vice versa

The last time I hied off to a solo day tour to Hakone, I was not able to visit the place I had originally intended to go to - the Hakone Open Air Museum.  
I got so caught up in doing the "Hakone Loop" that I didn't leave myself with enough time.  
On this last trip to Tokyo, I was glad to have Jay with me -- we would go back to Hakone and we would make sure that the museum would be our primary destination.

It helped that we had an early start and were able to complete the "Loop" by lunchtime.  
We arrived at Chokokunomori Station, a mere 3 minute walk to the museum via the Hakone Tozan Railway just a little past 1 pm.  
The day was clear and bright -- but very cold.  Would traipsing about outdoors, even among world class art, prove to be unbearably chilly? 

From the outside or even from the entrance to the museum grounds, first timers (like us) don't quite have a hint of just what it is that is in store for them.

We walk through the entrance and the vista of art amidst sky and natural landscape opens.

Large bronze and brass sculptures by renowned sculptors and artists in the most amazing forms are all over the grounds.

This massive bull stands perpetually ready to charge or perhaps, he is just about to graze?

On a shallow reflecting pool lies this gigantic marble head, with a lush growth of greenery growing around it -- a veritable verdant hair do.  It is just so overwhelming that I take my time, exhale and just sit and reflect.

There are several galleries within the museum but the art out in the open air is what truly moves and astonishes me.  This giant metal piece is by Calder.

The Hakone Open Air Museum has the distinction of having more than 20 pieces of Henry Moore's large sculptures.  Working on his recurring themes of mother and child, sculptures within sculptures and reclining figures, it is just amazing to see his work all over the place.

The museum is in the vicinity of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park.  Since this area is mountainous, the museum is on land that is about 550 meters above sea level.  The mountains of Hakone and the rolling landscape are the perfect backdrop to the seemingly never ending display of art.

 It is one thing to see art in museums ... framed on walls, kept behind protective glass, placed on pedestals.  
But the art here is out in the open, you don't get to just see it ... you get to  react to it and really experience it.
What an amazing place this is!

These small figures hug the wall and placed one on top of the other seem to be reaching to escape and jump over the borders.

Everywhere you look, you see sculpture in various forms.
Because it's winter, the ground is brown and the trees are bare of leaves but I can imagine, in my mind's eye what this would look during spring or summer.
All these pieces amidst lush greenery must be a totally different experience again.

This large block of Carrara marble that formed these figures probably comes from the same place where Michelangelo got his stones.

Not all art is heavy or ponderous -- or solemn or serious.  Much of it is whimsical, light even humorous.  How we respond and react to art is entirely personal.  Much of the snobbery surrounding art revolves around how one is supposed to be moved by a specific piece.
I believe each person has his own take -- art is purely subjective and personal.
I find myself smiling at this piece by Turner Prize winner  Anthony Gormley.  
It was surely not his intention but this figure lying flat on the ground reminded me of  how I feel at the end of the work year.  Flat out spent and exhausted.

We walk slowly through the grounds, discovering more and more treasures -- as we turn a corner, as we walk up a flight of concrete stairs.

I am truly happy to see so many of Henry Moore's large pieces.  It is amazing that this museum in the middle of the mountains should have such an impressive and significant collection of works by this major artist.

The white building in the background houses Henry Moore's smaller pieces plus a well stocked gift shop and small coffee shop.  What holds our attention though is what you see in the foreground -- an open air hot water foot bath!  It is so unexpected yet so natural in this unique open air setting.  Particularly since Hakone is known for its many natural hot springs, this comes as a welcome feature.
There is no one around and we make a beeline to soak our cold feet in the hot spring water.

The museum have thoughtfully provided for visitors like us who cannot resist the lure of the foot onsen.  There is a small cabinet with  washcloths for sale -- 100 yen, honor system -- get a towel and slip a coin into the slot.  Exactly what you need to dry your feet with.
The water, which is perfumed by large orange halves floating along,  is extremely hot at 65C but as we continue to slowly dip our toes, we get used to the heat and pretty soon, we are having a lovely long soak.
Only the thought of minor degree burns makes us get up, put on our socks and shoes and continue our way through the museum.
Still, it was such a wonderful albeit short interlude -- our feet felt so good afterwards!

Aside from Henry Moore and the others who are all in the international list of who's who in sculpture, the other major talent in the Hakone Open Air Museum is Pablo Picasso.  There is a gallery devoted to over 300 pieces of his work - from drawings, etchings, prints and paintings.

On this side of the museum grounds, the pine trees still  have their green needles and the ground is covered with plants that are a bright green hue.  The winter must be mild for these hardy species to survive.  More gorgeous bronze pieces await you at every turn.

 How I wish I could just sit on a bench and just stay here -- contemplating the stunning panorama of nature and art.  They complement each other perfectly.

This large wooden piece is called Woods of Net and is an interactive work where you can go in and enjoy yourself amidst the swinging nets that are suspended from the ceiling.

We have made the circuit of the museum and find ourselves headed back towards the exit.  This large obelisk has two huge bronze pieces that seem to be floating on air.  It is "Man and Pegasus" by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles.
I think flight could be the theme for this whole glorious place -- flight from the ordinary, the mundane -- flight to whatever and wherever your mind can take you.

The Hakone Open Air Museum is a typical example of the Japanese character "wa"... which means harmony and peace.  This museum, set amidst such a stunning backdrop of mountains and sky, could easily have been overpowered by Nature.
Instead, they co-exist in complete balance and harmony.
Truly wa, truly Japanese.
It has also helped restore my own sense of "wa" -- after just a few hours, I feel I have recovered my own sense of peace and harmony.

An afternoon spent amidst such a spectacular setting is truly an afternoon we will always remember and cherish.  These moments are what make travel so life-enhancing.  These gifts that come my way are gifts that will always be with me.  
Domo arigato gozaimashita, Hakone Open Air Musem -- thank you for your gift of "wa".