Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Ode to Tokyo – Part 2

Back for round two!

If you didn’t read Ode to Tokyo – part 1, please check out the previous post.

Quite the weekend I just had; me and a few friends headed down to Zushi on Sunday and hit the beach.  A nice one too!  Relatively speaking anyway – no palm trees or tiny huts offering massages like in Thailand, but nice cool water, plenty of people to meet, drinks and food easily accessible and perfect weather, which brings me to number 11…

The Weather:

Tokyo’s weather is generally pretty nice.  Some people will undoubtedly debate this point, but as I count cycling as one of my hobbies, I notice when and how often I can go out.  Discounting June, which is rainy season (but very nice when it’s not raining), and maybe January which is actually pretty cold, I can get out on the bike nearly year-round.  And if it’s nice enough for cycling, I figure it qualifies as pretty good weather.

August can get pretty hot and very humid, but it’s not the Sahara and there’s air-conditioning almost everywhere, despite the “save electricity” campaign going on since the Fukushima reactors were taken out.
Get a hat, t-shirt, shorts and sandals, or a Japanese “Jimbe” or “Yukata”, and you’re set.  Besides which, I just can’t bring myself to hate summer.

As I write this it’s 30 degrees outside with 66% humidity, so it “feels” like 34.  I don’t mind.  One sticky point is that this year does seem abnormally hot for so early, it’s only July 5th, and with Tokyo being on more than a few “places that will disappear because of global warming” lists, I’d come visit sooner rather than later if you’re so inclined (hint, hint).

Even imagining the worst possible weather for the whole year, Tokyo has over 8 months of useable outside time, as opposed to my home country, Canada, where I hear it’s still minus 20, if the Americans are to be believed.

The Bars:

The bars here vary incredibly.  It seems like a hobby of sorts for middle-aged men here to start up a bar, so there are thousands of tiny little 8-to-20-people bars around.  Most of them serve some variety of Japanese food and cater to local regulars, but you’re more than welcome to drop in and check out the ambiance while sipping your favourite beverage.  Hopping from station to station, you can explore the tiny streets around almost any station and when your feet get tired, have a seat, grab some yaki-tori (grilled chicken) and a pint.

If the little street bars aren’t your style, there’s a Japanese phenomenon known as the izakaya.  This translates roughly to “relaxed-atmosphere-Japanese-booze-and-food-fun-place”.  Nobody goes to an izakaya by themselves, so I don’t really advise that if you’re traveling alone.  Once you’ve made some friends though, don’t miss going.  Izakaya are often mostly wooden structures, the insides having few or no chairs, where customers sit on the tatami-floor with a sunken foot/leg area under the table.  They are plentiful around town, and usually serve a good variety of cheap Japanese foods, but they can get expensive, so best to check the prices – if you can understand them – before barging in.  If not, the quality of the wood usually gives the price away.

For those of you more party-oriented, Tokyo has everything you’re looking for, don’t worry.  DJ’s, live bands, clubs, super-clubs, and if that’s all too much, TGI Fridays and Irish pubs too.

The Convenience Stores:

There are more convenience stores here than anywhere else, I think.  And that’s a good thing!  When I lived in Canada, I hated convenience stores, almost never went to them, and thought everything inside was either junk or bad for me.  Japanese convenience stores on the other hand, are an entirely different species.  For starters, they’re actually convenient.  You can pay almost any bill there (I can even pay my taxes there!), they have toilets, CLEAN toilets, and often one for each sex.  They have a good variety of foods and beverages with a surprisingly healthy slant, unhealthy foods, booze and tobacco for balance, and then essentials, a few party goods and stationary.  Outside, they usually have a garbage and separated recycling, something that wouldn’t merit mention in the West, except that there are very few garbage cans around Tokyo, so people hold on to it until they either get home or find a convenience store.  They are super clean, well lit, the food is fresh, and the service is usually fast and excellent.

Vending machines:

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, there is 1 vending machine for every 23 people in Japan.  That’s somewhere around 5 and a half million vending machines.  They are everywhere.  I don’t know if they really deserve to be on this list as something that makes Tokyo great, but they’re certainly a visible part of the city’s definition.  I probably buy a drink from a vending machine once every two or three days.  The nearest one from my house is 20 seconds away.  There are two more before I get to the convenience store a full two minutes away, and when I get there, there are 3 vending machines outside the convenience store!  If I venture past the convenience store into the park a few minutes down the path, there are vending machines there too.

Having been here for a while I’ve seen an astonishing variety of vending machines – they mostly sell drinks of course, but a few of the more imaginative ones I’ve seen have sold batteries, condoms, fresh vegetables, porn, comics, used girl’s underwear (you read that correctly), Nintendo DS games, iPods, handkerchiefs, tissues and toilet-paper, face-masks, soup, fries, chicken, ice-cream, ramen, cotton candy, and umbrellas.  Besides these wonderful products, I wonder if the Manufacturers Association estimate includes the uber-user-friendly train-ticket machines, which speak English and Japanese, charge your “Suica”(watermelon) or “Pasmo” cash-card, which you can use to buy products from vending machines, convenience stores, or to ride the train, bus or subway.  With the advent of the “Osaihu-keitai” or “wallet-cellphone”, you can pay for your drink with your phone.  Fabulous.

The Facilities:

Like I mentioned the earlier, I went to the beach on the weekend.  I got there by biking to my nearest train station 8-minutes away, and then taking an 80-minute, 10-dollar train ride.  It was so easy!!! – which is a big part of making Tokyo liveable and addictive.  Here, you can live and work in a thriving, exciting metropolis, and escape to nature in a few easy hours.  Within weekend-trip reach, under 3 hours let’s say, are mountains, lakes, beaches, hot-springs, skiing, rafting, and camping facilities.  I’m sure there are many more things to do and see that I’m unaware of.  If you’re not up for the outdoors, you could go explore a nearby city just as easily – Yokohama, for example, is under an hour away.

The Sights:

Tokyo has it’s share of tourist destinations, though perhaps fewer than expected, or not what you might expect.  Akihabara or “electric town”, is the home of otaku/geek culture and all the electronics and anime stores you can imagine, fetishes included.  Mount Fuji is close enough to see on a clear day and a 3 hour bus or 2-hour train trip away.  Sensoji in Asakusa is one of the biggest Temples in Tokyo, right near the center, and there’s also the Emperor’s palace gardens, Ueno park and zoo, and beside Harajuku, Meiji Jingu shrine.  Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku is fun for a few hours during the day, or a bit of trouble at night.  I recommend going up to the top of either Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, or the Metropolitan buildings in Shinjuku for a 360-degree view of Tokyo.  A number of other spots you might want to check out are the Gibli Museum in Kichijoji, Shibuya for Shibuya’s sake, maybe the business district in Marunouchi, and Ginza.

However, my personal opinion is that the best things to see are the various little streets and quaint shops surrounding stations, and the parks.

The Culture:

It’s not just signs in another language, like place names, though that’s cool too, but the minute rules of every day life that have either been passed down from generation to generation or just adopted by everyone because it works.  For example, everyone in Tokyo knows that if you don’t want to walk up an escalator, you stand on the left.  This leaves a clear walking lane on the right which makes things a lot easier in this busy city.

Every morning, millions of Japanese housewives go outside and sweep the streets around their houses and business owners sweep in front of their shops.  The streets are very clean, which is really nice.  It’s maybe one of those things you don’t even notice until you go somewhere messy, and then you realize you haven’t seen even a cigarette butt around your house for months.

About two months ago, while I still had a splint on my hand after breaking my knuckle, I was juggling some change between my two hands and dropped about 10 coins on a busy walking street.  A group of black-clad heavy-metal types were approaching from one way, and a small group of girls from the other.  Every one of them literally jumped to help me pick up my coins, which ended with eight or so people giving me back one coin each.  I couldn’t help but appreciate the kindness.

Before almost every meal at a restaurant, you’re given a hot, wet towel to wipe your hands (or face), or a cold towel in summer.  This is simply a wonderful thing to have just after sitting down, and can’t fathom why western restaurants or culture haven’t adopted it.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of small things that differentiate our cultures.  I wish that I’d written them down as I encountered them, as there are way more than I seem able remember right now.

It’s Safe:

I can walk anywhere, by myself, at any time of the day or night, and feel safe.  I could probably fall asleep drunk on the sidewalk with my wallet beside me and wake up the next day at noon with it still there.  Okay, there are a few exceptions, but I’m serious.  Most Japanese girls say they feel safe almost anywhere in Tokyo, with the possible exception of Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho at night.

It’s Clean:

I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it extends past just the small streets and convenience stores.  Japanese people in general love cleanliness, and this preference has extended to government policy and city budgets.  The parks are clean, outside in general is clean; bridges, walkways, escalator handles, stairs, bathrooms (with some notable exceptions), city squares, shopping areas and train stations.  “Dingy” isn’t a word that describes Tokyo at all.  It’s clean, man!  You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about unless you’ve been here, or perhaps to Monaco.


I don’t know why I left this to the end of the list, but next to train stations, the central organizing feature of city planning is the shoutengai.  A shoutengai is an outdoor, often covered but also uncovered walking street with shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and even apartments or recessed houses on both sides.  The buildings are generally 1 to 3 floors and the upper levels also have shops or apartments.  A shoutengai has no doors at either end and the bigger ones start near a station exit to help funnel pedestrian traffic to parks, bike-parking areas, other stations, or to another shoutengai.  Shoutengai are fun to explore in their own right, and often harbour pleasant surprises like takoyaki (Google it), taiyaki shops, cafes or a place to eat dinner because you’ve been having too much fun walking around and no longer have time to go shopping for ingredients.  No two shoutengai are identical, and each one acts as a focus to, and helps to define the feel of the community it serves.  They’re little gems, and they’re very popular.

Aaaaaaaand that’s it!  Come to Tokyo!  It’s huge!  It’s fun!  It has… all of the stuff I just described!!!

All of these things together form a great place to visit and a very livable city, which is probably why so many people have come to live here and have stayed for so long.  Some of my friends have been here for 5 years, some for 25, and many of them have decided this is where they want to call home.

I don’t blame them at all.


Excuse me, there’s a microsievert in my soup.

Heading back to Tokyo on the bus today, I’m most disturbed by the news that there is radiation in the water. No kidding.

Sure, the levels aren’t enough to kill a fly in a year, but the fact is significant because just yesterday there was no radiation in the water – at least none that I know of.

And that’s how we’re going with everything these days. From water to air to earth we’re incrementally poisoning ourselves, and everything else, with pollution of some kind. Not a day seems to go by where yet another toxin or “dangerous levels of fill-in-the-blank are detected” in someone’s critical resource. The planet is finite and the headlines are gorging on lakes and peninsulas.

As biological entities, our most important requirement is food. Without it, we simply can’t continue our lives in a normal way.

One of the things that differentiates us from 3rd world countries is our bountiful selection of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and all the other foods we take for granted. If that disappears, I’m sure we will quickly notice the difference.

This may not be an imminent crisis, but with the world’s population forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2050 it’s certainly looming large on our collective horizon. We can’t continue to destroy our land and water with pollutants, many of which are symptoms of rampant factory farming and industrial agriculture. As things stand now, we are in big trouble.

With that in mind, how many creative solutions to our food dilemma do you see being embraced by our leaders? Most, if not all of the people with real political power appear to be doing little more than shifting around the small print in the status quo laws that were becoming obsolete in 1995. The people with the “other kind” of power appear to be bank-rolling and lobbying that apathy and the active destruction of even those paltry laws. Their preference is for processed and packaged foods, all of which require factories, more energy, more chemicals, more transportation, and all the other markers of corporate residence.

Yet there is an entire culture of people in each of our countries crying out for real changes to be made that can help their communities to become sustainable and healthy – places you want to live and work in because they’re fresh and innovative and actually doing something that makes our world work better.

So I want to talk about a real solution. Some people have called it a pipe-dream, and it’s realistic to say that it’s technically difficult and will be challenging, but we’ve managed to harness the atom at 442 reactors worldwide to power the lives of countless people. I think we’re up to it.

Vertical farming was recently introduced by Columbia University Professor Dr. Dickson Despommier. He proposes building high-tech urban 50-story buildings, for example, intelligently designed to take advantage of solar and wind power options, loaded with hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic apparatus to take back control of our food systems.

His vision for these buildings includes water recovery and local waste-water treatment, power generation from biological waste, and integration into local community needs. There are many other advantages to the vertical farm that he mentions in his book, but my eyes are starting to cross looking at my iPhone and my stubby fingers have had enough. One important part of the concept: quite a few good-paying jobs.

Despommier estimates that a 50-story building occupying 1 city block could feed 50,000 people, and a quick calculation shows that if we were to build them, 442 vertical farms could feed 22,100,000 people.
How many vertical farms could you build for the cost of one nuclear reactor?

Currently, huge swaths of our countries that used to be invaluable peak-ecosystem hardwood forest are now being plowed, over-fertilized and factory farmed year after year. The toll on soil and water systems is debilitating, and getting worse.

So what are we going to do? Continue to grow the same old way, eating our way through hectares like Doritos at a fraternity party? Or are we going to, as Despommier suggests in his subtitle, grow up?