Glimpses of Contemporary Japan: Or Octopus Balls for Breakfast
United States-Japan Foundation Media Fellows Program
An overcast sky drains some of the color from the Edo-style garden but none of its beauty. Dogwood, plum, zelkova, magnolia, and gingko trees harmonize with a collection of leafy bushes and ornamental shrubs. It's hard to believe such a place exists in the middle of Tokyo. I stare out the window and notice how several impressive cherry trees, their long branches heavy with pink blossoms, act as exclamation points inserted at strategic intervals in the graceful composition; how a pond with a miniature island and decorative stone lantern provides the requisite water note to this horticultural essay. As I take a forkful of eggs, I watch a morning breeze set the cherry blossoms in motion.
It’s my third day in Japan and I’m enjoying a view once reserved for the Kyogoku clan and guests to its residence in Edo. After the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867, the family’s house and garden fell into the hands of Kaoru Inoue, a foreign minister in the Meiji government. After World War II, the property was acquired by the International House of Japan, which kept the garden and built a new residence hall and cultural center. For a hundred dollars a night, I get a taste of the feudal lord’s life.
Spreading grape jelly on toast, I glimpse something moving in the garden. Lurking in the ornamental grasses at the edge of the pond, a white cat eyes the slow-moving carp trapped in the garden’s exquisite water feature. The cat inches closer to the pond, its rump in the air, front paws ready to spring.
The Japanese garden abstracts nature, substituting a carefully chosen rock for a mountain, raked sand for ocean waves, a trickle of water for a river. It trains branches into painterly strokes of color and teases the wild into the tame. Spend a few moments here and you feel part of a world apart, separated in time and place. It’s a lie. Knowing that, of course, is an essential part of its appeal.
The garden here at I-House is a carefully staged performance. Every tree, every stone has been set in its proper place. Every flower has been cued when to bloom. But I don’t think the cat is part of the design.
A white paw strikes the water and pulls out a glistening rainbow. As I finish my coffee, the intruder in the garden retreats to the bushes to enjoy his breakfast.
# # #
Looming just a few blocks away is a different kind of intruder. Fifty-four stories tall and sheathed in aluminum and glass, Roppongi Hills is the latest attempt by developer Minoru Mori to change the landscape of Tokyo. For all its intense urbanism, its streets packed with people, its buildings crowding one another, Tokyo has never been a truly vertical city. A history of earthquakes and catastrophic fires (once called Edo no Hana or “the flowers of Edo”) has made the Japanese suspicious of very tall buildings, pushing development out rather than up. Mori wants to change that. Advances in structural engineering now allow highrises to ride out earthquakes unscathed. Rival cities in Asia, such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, are reaching relentlessly for the sky. Mori doesn’t want Tokyo to be left behind.
Before arriving in Japan, I had seen all of Mori’s promotional literature on Roppongi Hills. An all-star cast of international architects: Kohn Pedersen Fox, Jon Jerde, Richard Gluckman, Sir Terence Conran, and Fumihiko Maki. A 4-million-square-foot office tower topped with a museum of contemporary art, a swank members club with eight restaurants and five bars, and an observation deck offering some of the best views in town. More than a hundred shops, including Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Tam, Armani Jeans, Mandarina Duck, Coach, and Bally. A Grand Hyatt hotel with a Shinto wedding chapel and a separate Christian chapel. A 4-acre Japanese garden. An outdoor performance space. A new headquarters and broadcasting center for TV Asahi. A public art program with works by Louise Bourgeois, Sol Lewitt, Tatsuo Miyajima, Toyo Ito, Karim Rashid, and EttoreSottsass.
Everybody I know in Tokyo hates it. Too big, too commercial, too insensitive to the fabric of the city, they say. It doesn’t open for another three weeks and it already is the object of universal critical scorn. Can it really be that bad, I wonder. I decide to try to like it.
# # #
Like I-House, which sits in its shadow, Roppongi Hills straddles two very different parts of town. To one side is Azabu-Juban, a quiet neighborhood of family-run stores, low-key restaurants, small office buildings, and upscale residences. You can't call it quaint or lovely, because—like the rest of Tokyo—it doesn't have much in the way of old buildings or public open space. But its low scale and laid-back pace give Azabu-Juban a certain urban charm. For good reason, it has become a favorite area for well-paid expats to call home.
On the other side of Roppongi Hills lies the urban scramble of Roppongi, a high-octane district of relentless commercialization: hostess bars, nightclubs, noodle shops, convenience stores, Starbucks, and a Hard Rock Café. The Japanese are experts in the art of stacking. They put one restaurant on top of another, tack on some dark, smoky bars, a few floors of private clubs, maybe an import-export office, and an apartment or two. Even the Starbucks and supermarkets have two or more floors. In Roppongi the roads are stacked too—with an elevated expressway running above one of the area's major streets and giving everything a moody, Bladerunner-ish grit.
My favorite establishment is the Don Quixote Amusement Center: eight floors of discount appliances, health and beauty aids, dry goods, housewares, and almost anything else an expat might need to survive in Tokyo. Alarm clock? Sixth floor. Multipurpose contact lens solution? Third floor. Crest toothpaste? Second floor. Off the sidewalk, in front of the multilevel emporium's recessed entry are a few large tanks sporting brightly colored backdrops and languid, tropical fish. In the U.S., if a discount store happened to have an aquarium out front, the water would be cloudy and the fish floating near the surface. But here, the colorful fellows swim happily in the most transparent water a gilled guy could desire. Wooden benches in front of the tanks offer a welcome place to rest, catch a smoke, watch the streetlife go by. Sitting there, I begin to understand this city a little bit. Only in Tokyo would an off-price retail outlet call itself an "amusement center." Why Don Quixote, I have no clue.
# # #
Although a piece of the Roppongi Hills complex, the new TV Asahi headquarters does its best to set itself apart. Instead of tall and slick, it is low (just 9 stories) and refined. A great curving curtain wall, brilliantly engineered with a series of elegant vertical trusses, provides the visual drama, not the latest combination of architectural tricks. Ninety feet high, the trusses are connected by horizontal and vertical pins—no welds or bolts—a feat that recalls traditional Japanese timber construction, which shunned nails and glue in favor of precisely fitted tongues and grooves. TV Asahi seems timeless rather than ofthe-moment.
Fumihiko Maki, the architect of TV Asahi, is a master of understatement. For five decades, he has been designing graceful modern buildings whose crisp lines, refined details, and engaging compositions have earned him international acclaim. While others of his generation—such as Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki—made their mark with bold forms and sweeping architectural statements, Maki has always employed a more subtle and arguably more rigorous aesthetic. Born into a powerful family, trained in Japan and the United States, Maki is a trim and elegant man whose relaxed manner exudes accomplishment. In a profession filled with people happy to bad-mouth their colleagues, he is universally described as a "gentleman."
Maki is giving me a tour of TV Asahi, which will open officially in two weeks. As we enter the building, I nod at the 54-story giant next door and ask him what it was like working for Mori. "My client was TV Asahi," he explains. End of subject.
We walk through the great curving atrium and I stare at the hand-plastered walls anchoring one side of the grand space. The walls are peach colored, a remarkable departure from the gray and white palette Maki usually employs. At first it's shocking: fleshy and ripe. Voluptuous is not a word normally used to describe Fumihiko Maki or his work. But the colored planes face the bold curve of the trussed curtain wall overlooking a garden shared with the rest of Roppongi Hills and they need to be assertive. The longer I look at the lush-hued plaster, the more I realize it works.
We continue on the tour and a young associate in Maki's firm runs to the elevator to push the up button. Maki-san points out some details to me and ambles slowly ahead. By the time we catch up with the young associate, the elevator is waiting for us. We get off at one of the television production floors and the associate races ahead to unlock a studio. When we're finished there, the young man locks the room and dashes for the elevator. Maki-san maintains the stately pace of his tour. Architectural royalty doesn't break a sweat.
# # #
The Japanese have a penchant for specialization, even hyper-specialization. I notice this particularly in their approach to food. Of course, they have sushi bars, where almost everything is eaten raw. But they also have restaurants serving only tempura and even places where the only thing on the menu is ton-katsu, fried pork cutlets. Dana Buntrock, who teaches architecture at U.C. Berkeley and had lived in Japan for many years, takes me to a tofu restaurant. I think tofu is okay, but the idea of eating only tofu for dinner is a bit unnerving. I fear culinary tedium and the embarrassing urge for a hamburger at the end of the meal. Dana is in Tokyo showing a group of her Berkeley students the city's architectural highlights and has let me tag along for a few days. I can't really say no to her choice for dinner.
The restaurant is on a street near the heart of Ginza and is an oasis of calm in a turbulent sea of upscale shopping. We take off our shoes in the entry foyer, put on slippers provided for customers, and walk to a low table where we sit cross-legged on tatami mats. We order one of the set menus of eight courses. I wonder, "Can they really find eight different ways of preparing tofu?"
The first course arrives on a long, wooden plate that seems to be a beautifully warped plank pulled from the hull of a great old boat. Three balls of fried tofu, each encrusted with a different ingredient and stuffed with yet another offer a subtle medley of hues and textures. Next comes a small porcelain bowl containing a quivering block of cool and slick tofu, a delicious counterpoint to the warm and crunchy experience right before. Then the waitress brings over a shallow pan filled with a milky substance and sets it above a flame. As the liquid cooks, tofu skin or yuba develops and floats on top. We pull it off with our chopsticks, dip it into soy sauce poured into exquisite little bowls, and slide it into our mouths. Delicious. I lose track of all the amazing things that show up at our table, enjoying each of these unusual treats. At some point near the end, the waitress deposits a small ceramic chest of drawers in front of each of us. I pull a twine handle on the top drawer and find several little packages of food. Pull the middle drawer and there's a different collection of morsels. Try the bottom drawer and I discover yet another repertoire of taste sensations. By the time we get back into our shoes, I'm dazed and not the least bit interested in a hamburger.
# # #
Taka Tezuka always wears black pants and a royal-blue shirt. His wife Yui wears black and fire-engine red. Taka says he has 40 blue shirts in his closet. Their 5-month-old daughter Buna wears only banana yellow, the same color as the couple's classic Citroën. They have a system, says Taka. Whatever is his is blue. Whatever is Yui's is red. And whatever they share is yellow. I wonder how long it will take until Buna rebels and insists on wearing green or white or some blouse with an awful floral pattern.
The Tezukas are rising stars within Tokyo's circle of talented young architects. In their mid-30s, they have already attracted international attention with a series of provocative houses that explore new ways of defining living space and the relationship between inside and out. For their Roof House, the architects created a gently sloping roof that serves as an outdoor living room, accessible from below by a series of ladders. Although it sounds like an architectural gimmick, the roof-as-room doubles the amount of space in the house and offers its residents unusual views of their neighborhood. In the Wall-less House, the Tezukas reinterpreted traditional Japanese shoji screens, designing a system of exterior glass walls that can slide out of the way and open the house's ground floor living spaces to the outdoors. On pleasant days, the living and dining rooms become extensions of the grassy yards surrounding them, employing a modern version of the old Japanese trick of "borrowing" space.
Taka and Yui have organized a road trip from Tokyo to Matsunoyama in the north of Honshu where a science museum they designed is nearing completion. They've rented a big van, piled a few of their employees and Buna's kiddie gear in the back, and picked me up at 6 a.m. We get out of town before rush hour and take the expressway to Niigata. Everyone is sleepy and quiet, except Taka who peppers us with running commentary on urban development in Tokyo, building technology, snow patterns in northern Honshu, and Japanese food. He drives and talks, while the rest of us nod and soak in the scenery.
Two hours outside of Tokyo we pull into a reststop for breakfast. Taka grabs his daughter from Yui and straps the little bundle to his chest. Japanese fathers have the reputation of being hands-off and distant guardians who view pregnancy and children as embarrassing realities of marriage. I remember an American colleague telling me about the time she interviewed a famous Japanese architect while she was six months pregnant. The architect, a man in his 50s, was distinctly uncomfortable with the situation and tried his best to ignore any mention of the journalist's condition. Finally, at the end of the interview, he made an awkward, glancing nod to the woman's belly and asked, "When will it be done?"
Taka is hands-on in everything he does. He gives Buna a few energetic bounces and she wakes, giggling. With her spiky black hair growing mostly on the sides of her tiny head, she looks like a baby samurai ready to take on the world.
We stumble out of the van and over to the food-service building where I check out the offerings: hot noodles, cold Western pastries, and bags of expensive shrimp chips and other sorts of glazed and flavored snacks. I find an old man frying up dough in what looks like a waffle iron modified for golf balls. He dishes out a serving of half a dozen golden spheres to a hungry truck driver, squirting a brown sauce on top and tossing on some sesame seeds. Looks good. Fried and sweet is just what I want right now. I ask the old man, "Nan desu ka?" and he answers, "Tako yaki." I know yaki means fried, but I have no idea what tako is. What the hell. I order a batch. The chopped scallions should have alerted me, but I'm too sleepy to notice. And the brown sauce turns out to be salty, not sweet. Hey, this is Japan, I figure. I bite into the warm dough and hit something a little crunchy, a little chewy. Not what I'm expecting. I decide to investigate. I pull out the offending object from the center of the dough and stare at a stubby piece of tentacle studded with suction cups. Octopus balls for breakfast, a Japanese tradition.
Back in the van, Taka talks about the science museum we're heading to see. It's a rusting Cor-ten steel building that snakes along the base of a mountain in Japan's snow country and culminates in a windowless tower rising 180 feet. The folded steel structure is engineered like a submarine because in winter it will be almost completely covered in the 30 feet of snow that falls in this part of Japan each year. At certain bends in the building, the Tezukas have sliced away the rusting metal skin and replaced it with huge rectangles of transparent acrylic—10 inches thick—the same material used in the giant fish tanks at public aquaria. In winter, snow will pile up against the sides of the museum and daylight will trickle inside, filtered by walls of snow. I want to come back and see what that's like.
The science museum is part of an art triennial organized by Niigata Prefecture and the federal government as a way of attracting attention to a part of the country that has been losing population to places with less extreme winters. The triennial will showcase dozens of public artworks and—in addition to the science museum—major buildings by Hiroshi Hara, an important Kyoto-based architect, and MVRDV, a trendy firm of Dutch architects who come from the Rem Koolhaas school of in-your-face design.
We arrive at the science museum, where construction crews are busy getting the building ready for an opening that's just weeks away. It's overcast and drizzling and the site is mostly mud. But the burnt-orange of the rusting metal building looks spectacular against the green hills all around. I imagine it surrounded by snow and winter mountains and guess it will be even more remarkable then.
At construction sites in the U.S. everyone wears heavy work boots. Here in Japan, we take off our shoes and put on backless slippers before walking inside. My wide Western feet never seem to fit well in these slippers and I struggle to keep them on as I shuffle around. Taka and Yui have no such problem and I find myself playing catch-up with them, constantly looking for Taka's shirt-matching blue hardhat and Yui's red head gear. Strapped to Yui's chest in a yellow (of course) harness, Buna seems undisturbed by all the noise and commotion. "She loves going on-site," says Yui. "We take her all the time." I make a mental note to find a small yellow hardhat for Buna once I get home.
"Ready to climb the tower?" asks Taka. I look up and see a metal staircase wind up and around a great shaft filled with scaffolding. I don't really like heights and often find interesting excuses to stay away from steep drops. This climb doesn't look too bad, though, since the scaffolding blocks most of the view down. But the risers of the stair are open and the steps are just metal mesh waiting for concrete to be poured over them. "The view from the roof is fantastic," says Taka. That's what I'm afraid of. But I can't chicken out. So I take a few steps up and immediately feel a slipper sliding off one foot. I stop to push it back on, take another few steps, and clunk my head against an angled metal bar supporting the scaffolding. I discover that my hardhat indeed works. Stunned but unharmed, I push on—knocking my head only three more times and somehow keeping both slippers on my feet.
When completed the tower will be a dark shaft of space with the only illumination coming from light-emitting diodes under the steps. Right now naked bulbs hanging from the scaffold provide the only light. I manage to keep my head from smashing any of them.
"C'mon up!" yells Taka at the top. I imagine an open metal ladder leading to the roof and dangling above a 180-foot drop. To my relief, I find the stair leads directly to the roof, with no vertiginous design tricks along the way. Nothing I can't handle. Out on the roof, the parapet rises neck high, so I don't feel death is just a misstep away. And the view is truly magnificent with the green hills enveloping the wiggling orange building and offering the kind of serene backdrop that is almost impossible to find today in Japan.
On the way down, I lose a slipper and have to wait as Taka retrieves it for me. I'll never make it as a geisha or Japanese construction worker.
# # #
There's a large, scowling black man who seems to be following me around Tokyo. I see him everywhere—on the subway, in the streets, and on television. His bald head, open mouth frozen somewhere between a growl and a grin, and bulging, slightly crossed eyes grace (if that's the word) billboards, posters, and ice-cream wrappers from Shinjuku to Tsukiji. In one picture he has two Japanese girls under each of his heavily muscled arms. In another he seems to be selling computer software. Who is this guy?
"That's Bob Sapp!" says a Japanese friend as we take the Oedo line from Roppongi. "Don't you know him? He's American." A nobody at home, he's famous here.
Once upon a time, America was where people could go to reinvent themselves. Now Japan has become a strange land of opportunity where washed-up baseball players, failed musicians, and frustrated artists can find receptive audiences for their talents. The guy who designed the Miata tried selling his idea to Detroit car-makers for years without success. So he came to Japan and Mazda turned his design into a bestseller. Bob Sapp couldn't make it in the NFL (where his brother Warren is a star defensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), so he came to Japan and hit the K-1 kick-boxing circuit. I ask my Japanese friend why Sapp has become so popular here. "He's a monster, but he looks friendly." All the other kick-boxers do their best to look mean. And it helps that Sapp is African-American at a time when Japanese kids are enthralled with hip-hop culture. Walk around Harajuki and you'll find a lot of teenagers—especially girls—with their hair in dreadlocks, their skin tanned as dark as possible, and their headphones packed with rap. You'll also find the Sapp Station, a small store filled with customers and everything Sapp (from comic books to decals to T-shirts).
In 1890 Lafcadio Hearn landed in Japan after bouncing around Britain, the U.S., and the Caribbean. The product of a marriage between an Irish major in the British army and a young Greek woman, Hearn never felt comfortable anywhere. After school in Ireland, he escaped to America, where he became a journalist, wrote about Creole culture in New Orleans, married a black woman from the West Indies, and eventually ran off by himself to Japan on assignment from Harper's Magazine. In Japan he finally found a home. He married, had a family, and wrote what are still considered some of the most perceptive essays on Japanese culture and religion. Although a difficult and cranky person, Hearn was embraced by Japan, made a citizen, and given pretigious teaching positions in Kumamoto and then Tokyo. In Matsue, the small town on the Sea of Japan where he met his wife and wrote some of his best-known essays, Hearn is still a big star—his distinctive silhouette on signs all over town, excerpts of his writings on plaques in front of places he described in his books, and his home now a museum to all things Hearn (his very own Sapp Station!).
In 1946 Donald Ritchie came to Japan as a civilian employee of the U.S. occupation forces. A 19-year-old kid from Ohio who didn't speak a word of Japanese, he would become one of the foremost authorities on Japanese film and, like Hearn, write trenchant essays on a broad range of things Japanese—from tattoos to food to smiles and their meanings.
Having read a collection of Ritchie's work and appreciated his wry and knowing view of Japan, I want to meet him. But I'm told he recently had open-heart surgery and is recuperating in the States. No one is sure when he might return to his home in Tokyo. I wonder if an era is passing in America's relationship with Japan. Instead of sending East our bright, restless minds, now we're exporting extreme sports figures.
# # #
The Japanese are connoisseurs of impermanence. That's what cherry blossom mania is all about—the annual adoration of nature's short-run show of pink and white. What doesn't last is beautiful. I think of all the people sitting on blue-plastic tarps and toasting the falling blossoms in Ueno Park when I hear architects talk about changes in Tokyo's built environment. Despite Japan's economic doldrums, the pace of construction seems to have barely broken stride. Highrises are going up all over the city and fancy retailers like Prada and Luis Vuitton are opening stores as fast as Starbucks.
To make way for the new, much of the old is coming down. During the Bubble years, I heard stories of buildings only 8 years old being demolished for something bigger or better. Now I hear architects bemoaning the loss of important mid-20th-century buildings, the first fruit of Japan's postwar modernism.
Donald Ritchie has written about Japanese attitudes toward change, explaining how things considered "foreign," no matter how deeply embedded in daily Japanese life, are liable to disappear with bewildering speed. In one essay, he recalled the time when his preferred cigarette filter, which had been sold at nearly every tobacco store in the country for as long as he could remember, became unavailable everywhere seemingly overnight. It was gone, replaced by a different kind of filter that Ritchie didn't like nearly as much. Things considered "Japanese," however, such as the kimono or the traditional backless shoes called geta, haven't changed in any essential way in more than 500 years.
Kinya Maruyama is telling me the history of the Dojunkai housing projects, which the government built after the Great Earthquake of 1923. Led by a group of progressive thinkers, the Dojunkai agency created a series of social housing complexes that mixed together Western and Japanese-style apartments and engendered a sense of community among residents. Maruyama grew up in the Dojunkai project in the Edogawa neighborhood and, as an adult, set up his architectural office—Team Zoo—in an apartment in the same complex. He is walking me through these buildings on a chilly, rainy spring afternoon and explaining the social experiment behind the crumbling stucco walls and leaking roofs. "It was a great place for a kid. We all felt part of this big, vibrant group." Writers, teachers, and civil servants—many of whom struggled financially before and after the war—lived here, sharing tea and conversation, raising families, and soaking together in communal baths where strict matrons sat in raised chairs and made sure the kids didn't misbehave and no one lost a shoe or a towel.
Although not identical, the Dojunkai projects followed a basic formula: long, low buildings about five stories high with storage and baths in the basement and courtyards between facing blocks of flats. To most people, the buildings don't look like much—just old structures that have seen better days. To architects and social historians, they represent an important chapter in the transformation of a defeated nation into a place where modernism in all its messy vibrancy took root and flourished.
After decades of wear and tear, the Dojunkai complexes are falling apart. Instead of repairing them, the government is tearing them down. The project in Aoyama, across the street from the beautiful new Louis Vuitton building designed by Jun Aoki, will make way for a new housing-and-retail complex by Tadao Ando. The one where Maruyama grew up and where I am visiting today has been emptied of its occupants and will come down soon. Some of the apartments still have worn tatami mats, wobbly chairs, and chipped cups lying around, abandoned by people who have, no doubt, bought new mats, chairs, and cups for their current homes. We take a peek inside the apartment that has served as Maruyama's office for the past 20 years and I see boxes of drawings and architectural paraphernalia sitting on the floor. He's going to have some of his young associates move the boxes any day now. But letting go clearly has not been easy.
It's a miserable rainy day, but a couple of hundred people—mostly architects and students—have come to the housing project for a last look. In the main lobby, a group of preservationists hands out literature on the Dojunkai buildings and sells hot tea and snacks to raise a few yen. I'm amazed at how many people have come to pay their last respects to a bunch of condemned buildings. I must admit, there's a lovely veil of memory and loss enveloping the buildings today, obscuring their faults and suggesting a beauty that may not have been evident before they were sentenced to meet the wrecking ball. Perhaps I too am falling prey to the cherry-blossom effect.
# # #
In August 1951, Keio University opened a new faculty club at its Mita campus in Tokyo. The building, designed by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi in collaboration with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, represented progressive thought at one of postwar Japan's key institutions, a school that had been mostly leveled by Allied bombing during the war. Taniguchi was one of the leading architects of his generation and four decades later his son, Yoshi, would win the commission to design the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Noguchi was attracted to the project because his father had taught for many years at Keio and the new faculty club (or Shin Banraisha) was to be dedicated to his memory. Complicating the design challenge was Noguchi's strained relationship with his father, a charismatic man who had abandoned the sculptor's American mother and was a distant figure during Isamu's childhood.
The Taniguchi-Noguchi collaboration turned out to be a remarkable success, resulting in a club with a lounge and garden that was a favorite place for teachers and students to gather and talk after hearing important lectures at the Public Speech Hall next door. Merging traditional Japanese notions of indoor-outdoor relations with modernism's fluid approach to space, Taniguchi and Noguchi created a simple but rich setting for people to relax and exchange opinions. In the lounge, Noguchi designed all of the furnishings, including a curved rattan seating platform, rattan benches, a lozenge-shaped wooden table, and a stone hearth. Changes in floor height and materials (rattan, wood, and stone) establish a medley of areas to gather without resorting to any kind of vertical partition. Outside, hardscaping and plantings work with Noguchi's sculptures to create an open-air room that complements its indoor sibling.
Spurred by a government initiative to educate more lawyers (yes, the Japanese feel they don't have enough), Keio is starting a new law school and plans to build it right where the Shin Banraisha stands. Plans call for demolishing the Taniguchi-Noguchi building and reassembling part of it on a roof terrace several floors above the ground.
Architects, artists, and various groups including the Isamu Noguchi Foundation are suing Keio to stop the project, grounding their case in a Japanese law that protects artworks from being altered. These groups argue that the Shin Banraisha is a piece of art, so moving it and separating it from its garden would be illegal. The university says if such an argument is accepted by the courts, then property owners would be prohibited from tearing down or changing almost any building.
I tour the Shin Banraisha with Masaru Yanome, who works for Keio's department of maintenance. Walking through the lounge, I find myself touching everything—the sensuous wooden table, the rugged stone fireplace, the concrete columns and pillars, the rope backs of the rattan benches. Noguchi's deep understanding of materials and his mastery of the simple gesture imbue the lounge and garden with a gentle elegance that has lost none of its power. It's hard for me to imagine this place moved to a third-floor roof terrace.
I ask Yanome if there isn't another place on campus for the new law school to go. He assures me the university explored every other option but couldn't find enough room for the 200,000-square-foot building anywhere else. Pointing at the nearby Public Speech Hall, which was built in the Meiji era by Keio's founder Yukichi Fukuzawa (whose face appears on the 10,000-yen note), I ask if the university would tear down that building if the law school needs to expand in a few years. "Oh, no," he exclaims. "That would be unthinkable."
# # #
Roppongi Hills opened a few days ago and half of Tokyo seems to have descended on its shops and attractions. Rivers of pedestrians flow from the Oedo and Hibiya line subway stations and up the escalators to the complex's landscaped plaza one level above the street. The tired and hungry queue up at dim-sum parlors, French cafés, and smartly outfitted restaurants. The longest line winds outside the Le Chocolat de H, which someone told me was cited by one Japanese publication as offering the best European sweets in town. Christian Lacroix, Issey Miyake, Kate Spade, Yoshie Inaba, Cole Haan, Coach, and Bally all seem to be doing great business. Looking at all the people with shopping bags, it's hard to believe Japan has been suffering through a rolling recession for most of the past 10 years.
Walking through the stone-clad maze of retail alleys that snake around the base of the 54story office building at the center of Roppongi Hills, I think of an ad I saw on the subway. As is common here, the ad used both Japanese and English to get its message across. In English it declared, "Get. Shop. No Reason." It could be modern Japan's national mantra.
Adolescent girls, dressed in their Navy-blue school uniforms even though today is a holiday, run between the gnarly legs of a giant metal spider. A sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, the spider stands at a prominent spot on the outdoor plaza, one level above White Trash Charms Japan and on the path between Wolfgang Puck's New York Kitchen and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. I've seen this spider at Rockefeller Center, in front of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and at the Tate Modern in London. Bob Sapp may be following me around Tokyo, but this monstrously scaled arachnid seems to be chasing me around the globe.
Tokyo's streets are notoriously crowded, chaotic places. Getting around them on foot without crashing into bicycles, clusters of bowing salarymen, or flocks of brightly clothed teenagers is an art perfected only with much practice. Crossing the five-way intersection of Shibuya at rush hour for the first time is one of those life-defining moments such as climbing Kilimanjaro and riding the spring rapids on the Colorado. (Not that I have first hand experience with such natural thrills.) To a large extent, the Tokyo experience takes place on its streets, where shopfronts, rows of vending machines, slow-moving seniors, impatient commuters, and gawking tourists all compete for space. Getting in the way are bag-laden shoppers and cliques of young women handing out packs of facial tissues wrapped in advertisements for software companies, restaurants, nightclubs, and products a non-Japanese-speaking person can only dimly comprehend.
Roppongi Hills, however, sits mostly on a plaza one level removed from the street. Although open to everyone, it is a private development with its own security force and its own set of rules. No smoking on those benches over there, no vending machines anywhere, no African men hawking girlie shows. This is Japan? It is a crowded but sanitized place. Of course, it's brand new, but I get the feeling it will stay squeaky clean for a long time. I appreciate all the outdoor area the Mori folks have provided here— Tokyo being a city with very little green space—but I miss the grit of Shinjuku, the claustrophobia of Harajuku, the madness of Tsukiji.
Roppongi Hills is the Disney version of urban development. It's a theme park to shopping with quaintly curving paths leading visitors to lovely stores, attractive cafés, tasteful art, and even a picturesque Japanese garden. You can pick up a 20-page brochure to guide you around and can stop at the perfectly maintained restrooms where all of the toilets are equipped with expensive seats that are heated for your comfort. Tokyo is famous for being one of the safest cities in the world, but lately some residents have started to complain about an increase in crime, often attributed to immigrants. Roppongi Hills speaks to these fears, providing a secure environment, safe from not just crime but unpleasant surprises such as finding a drunken salaryman losing his dinner on the pavement or a smoky bar that doesn't welcome foreigners.
The crowds keep coming to Roppongi Hills. In its first month open, it attracts 6.8 million people, twice the number its developer Minoru Mori had forecasted. Like Tokyo Disneyland, the theme park in Roppongi taps a deep well in the Japanese pscyche.
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With the economy still wobbly and a bumper crop of new office towers rising in Tokyo, many people wonder how Mori is going to rent out all the space at Roppongi Hills. But he is already planning new projects. One property that has caught his eye is International House. Its location near several of Mori's major developments in a part of town where real-estate values have remained relatively strong make I-House and its immediate neighbors attractive targets for Tokyo's developer of the moment.
Founded in 1953 with the help of John D. Rockefeller III, I-House played a critical role in introducing foreign scholars and businessmen to their Japanese counterparts. In the first few decades after World War II, I-House was a hotbed of cultural exchange. Robert Oppenheimer, Walter Gropius, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow all stayed here and gave lectures. Japanese took out memberships in the organization to rub elbows with international stars of the cultural and academic circuits, while foreigners joined to have a clubby place to stay in Tokyo and gain entré to the opaque and often closed world of Japanese intellectuals. From all accounts, Shigeharu Matsumoto, the man who started I-House and directed it until his death in 1989, was a charismatic leader who was a major player in Japanese journalism, culture, and politics.
Recent years have not been so kind to I-House. Foreigners no longer need letters of introduction to set up appointments in Tokyo and many guests chafe at I-House's old ways—a 1 a.m. curfew, hot water off at midnight, and small rooms (some without private showers). Although relatively inexpensive to stay at, I-House now has plenty of competition from new full-service hotels whose prices have come down in recent years. And the excitement is gone. The only buzz about I-House these days concerns when will it bow to the inevitable and sell. And to whom will it sell.
"One of the major motivations of International House's founders was helping introduce foreigners to Japanese society," explains Mikio Kato, who has worked at the place since 1959 and been its executive director for 23 years. "Perhaps our historical mission has been accomplished," he concedes. "Now we need to develop a new mission for the next 50 years. I feel there is still a role for us to play."
As I-House's leadership searches for a new mission, though, the institution's finances have slipped from solid to shaky. Its endowment of 500 million yen (about $4 million) doesn't generate much support these days, since interest rates in Japan hover barely above zero percent. During the Bubble years, I-House made enough money off wedding banquets (its garden offers an ideal setting for parties and photos) and other events to pay for its high operating costs (which include maintaining an excellent library and a staff of program directors who still arrange lectures and help guests with appointments). These days I-House operates at a loss, says Kato. It has solicited donations from friends abroad and at home. "But we don't have the same culture of philanthropy that you have in America and our tax laws don't encourage giving," adds Kato.
So I-House, along with several adjacent property owners, is negotiating with Mori, who wants to build an office tower on the combined site. Hiroshi Matsumoto, senior executive director of I-House and son of its founder, shows me drawings of what might be built. The plans call for preserving the garden but tearing down the 1955 building and its additions. New construction would include a midrise structure of about 9 stories where I-House would be relocated and a highrise office building right behind it.
I'm sitting with Matsumoto in I-House's comfortable lounge overlooking the roof of the building's lower level, an exquisite plane of grass floating above the garden. Matsumoto is a natty dresser who favors bow ties and gray suits. He speaks loud and fast, especially for a Japanese, and displays an almost puppy-dog eagerness that comes across as more endearing than annoying. He asks me what I think of the architectural plans the Mori folks have drawn up. The scheme looks awful. Although the garden will remain and I-House will get a spiffy new building, the relationship of the office tower to the smaller pieces in the development puzzle is one of conqueror and vassal. The scale of construction envisioned in the plan will overwhelm the garden and cast it in shadow much of the time.
I want to be polite, so I say nothing about the architectural scheme. I tell Matsumoto that I-House needs to define its new role before it can plan a new home. He nods quietly. But both of us know that the financial situation is developing much faster than the institution's efforts to define a new mission.
I sip my tea and look out to the garden. The cherry blossoms are gone, replaced by flowering azalea and Chinese dogwood. The air is warmer, more humid, than when I arrived in Japan. I've grown familiar with Roppongi, Azabu-Juban, and some of the other nearby areas. I've become expert at negotiating the subways and the intercity train system. I can count to 100 in Japanese and reel off a few phrases in passable Nihongo. But the garden at I-House still seems new to me, its colors and textures changing week by week, its dimensions and features evolving as the direction and character of the sun's light moves with the season.
I keep an eye out for that white cat lurking in the garden. I can't see him, but I know he's there, along with other kinds of attractive predators.
Calendar of Events
Lecture + DemonstrationA Comprehensive Intro/Demo to Nihon Buyo with Geimaruza
Educator ProgramExploring Japanese Classics: Theatre, Literature & History
PerformanceNihon Buyo Dance with live traditional music