Art and Artisans in Akihabara

akihabara1In an area of Tokyo mostly known for its electronics, it was a real treat to find 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, a large warehouse-type structure located under the tracks near Akihabara and full of shop after shop of beautiful works of art.  My friend Jill and I set out to find it on a rainy Tuesday and the whole day turned out to be a treat for the senses.

The concept itself is from the JR East Company and according to CNN, the name comes from the 2.54km it takes to get to Tokyo Station and it’s location between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations.  Jill and I took the Yamanote line to get there, but we realized that the walk to get there from the Akihabara station on the Hibiya Line can be much simpler depending on where you start, so that’s how we got home.

As we walked toward the art center from the station, we ran into a fantastic shop calakihabara5led Chabara that seems to have every Japanese food curiosity in the country.  It even has a sake tasting table and all different types of sauces and tsukemono, pickles.  Of course what fascinated us was the tasting bar for the flavored nut snacks – they came in 20 different flavors, from honey to wasabi to cherry and we tried many of them.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures along most of the lane of 2k540, but the entire lane is lined akihabara3with storefronts of every type of Japanese are imaginable.  There are several shops of ceramics, many of hand-dyed cloth, and quite a number of shops showing jewelry all hand made.  My favorite place was the umbrella shop.  The entire shop was full of handmade umbrellas in every color of the rainbow.  I have a few special occasions coming up and I found one shop that specializes in wedding gifts – personalized, of course.

There were only two small cafes in the entire place, which is almost as long as an American football field, and we did not eat in them.  But rest assured, they looked funky and interesting.  On our random Tuesday, the place was mostly empty, but I imagine it would be quite busy on the weekend.

2k540 Aki Oka Artisan is an oasis of calm and beauty in the midst of the craziness that is Akihabara. If you need any type of gift, I’d highly recommend a trip.

The Gift of a Haircut

nancy picBefore she started, Nancy put her hands on top of my head and closed her eyes for a few moments.  The warmth of her palms penetrated the wisps of hair still loosely attached to my scalp and suffused me with a measure of calm about a procedure for which I felt far from ready.

“Do you mind if I pray over you?” she asked.  I appreciated the asking; Nancy is a Muslim and I am a Jew, but I was in no position to hedge my bets – all prayers are gratefully accepted.

It was only a few days before my second chemotherapy session and my hair was falling out rapidly. Feeling pretty well, I had been out to dinner with my friend Brain the evening before and he had reached over and pulled a hair out of my wine glass. It was unnerving.  I called Nancy that night and she agreed to come over right away.

Nancy Emanian, who works at Images Salon in Chevy Chase, MD, has been cutting, coloring and styling hair forever, and specifically cutting my Maryland Mom, Ellie’s, hair for upward of twenty years.  I visit Ellie and Steve every summer when we are in the U.S. and upon their suggestion, I always get a mid-summer haircut from her. When Ellie called Nancy to tell her that I was staying with them for an extended period, and the reason, she immediately offered to come to Ellie’s house and shave my head when the time was right.

Ellie set a sheet out to cover the kitchen floor and put a chair in the middle of the wigsheet.  Nancy put a cover over me, part of a kit she had taken home from the salon in order to meet me.  Before I sat down, Nancy reminded me it was Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims.  Nancy is from Iran, and her culture and language and religion are very much a part of her everyday life, even in suburban Washington DC.

Nancy’s voice is low and she sometimes has a way of slurring English words together.  She has a heart of gold, and I always feel like I’m her most special customer that day.  I imagine every one of her clients feels that way.  But that day she and Ellie were both focused just on me and making this experience as painless as it could be.  I sat down on the chair.

After she had her hands on my head, she pulled out her scissors.  She murmured a lot as she worked, and the room was pretty quiet, save for some classical music suggested by my friend Saori that I put on my iPod.  She first used the scissors to take off as much hair as she could.  I could tell that she was just pulling on some of it and it fell out into her hands.  Every now and then she would stop, lean in toward me, and caress my shoulder or my head as she prayed.

At first the tears leaked out of my eyes as Nancy worked.  My hair.  It felt like my last vestige of “normal” was being taken away from me.  I already had body problems.  I had the port protruding from the right side of my chest.  I always had a mark on my arm from blood being taken.  My skin was so dry it was flaking regularly.  And for the first time in my life, and hopefully my last, I was too thin.  In the first weeks of being sick, eating was simply not an option.  Everything made me feel stuffed or sick.  Then the after-effects of chemo made everything taste metallic, so I didn’t eat much then either.  Taking a shower had become a nightmare because I didn’t want to touch or look at my body anymore.  My dear husband solved part of that problem by buying me the largest shower “puff” he could find and a lilac scented bath scrub.  Bless him, the puff was even purple, my favorite color.

But Nancy didn’t let me cry.  She caressed my head and my shoulders, murmuring still in Farsi, her hands still warm.  Ellie stepped in front of me, too and held both my hands in hers.  She nodded at me.  Ellie nods at me to reassure me and with her reassurance and strong belief, I really have no option other than to take a deep breath and nod back.  It’s like a signal between she and I.  She signals to me that I’m okay – that I’m going to be okay.  Through all of this, that’s how she has handled it, and this is why I love her so much.  I’m always okay in her eyes, which makes me believe it for myself.

Minutes later when Nancy said her Amen (I’m not sure of the proper form in Farsi), kissed my forehead and resolutely plugged in the razor, I was no longer afraid.  She shaved my head down to a nub, all while exclaiming over the perfect shape of my head.  Ellie said she couldn’t believe how cute I looked without hair.

With the two of them telling me how adorable I was, I did take a look in the mirror pretty quickly.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought.  But before I could stand in front of the mirror too long, Ellie and Nancy were both shooing me out, urging me to take a quick shower, and then bring my wig downstairs for Nancy to style.

What happened next was the real gift of the day.  I showered, put on a little makeup and a new dress my Aunt Helen had sent as a treat for me.  I put on the wig and Nancy touched it up a little so it fell neatly around my face.  Both Nancy and Ellie were still exclaiming over how good I looked, and it didn’t even matter if it was true or not, they both made me believe that I was attractive no matter what.  As a bonus, I brought a scarf downstairs, and Nancy wrapped it around my head and showed me how to twist and tie it properly.

Nancy took what could have been a nightmare experience and made it into something kind and gentle, and even loving.  She brought a feeling of grace to the whole procedure.  I will never forget it.

In Ginza, When is a Mannequin not a Mannequin?

This was the window of Furla, the upscale Italian handbag shop in Ginza two weeks ago.  There was a crowd of people around it!  I peered through the throng just staring at the window, and then, lo and behold, the mannequin moved.  It seems that Furla had hired live women – models – to show off their handbags.

There were four women in total, each more beautiful and still than the last.  When they moved, it was just a slight position change so that shoppers wondered if it had happened or if the window was playing tricks on them.

I didn’t watch for too long, but it was just so fun and interesting – and wildly creative.  I wonder how many more bags Furla sold that they might otherwise not have.



Today I wore yukata for the first time.  Putting it on was a whole process that took nearly half an hour, but it was worth it.  Thank you to Kitamura-sensei at Nishimachi International school for dressing me properly.  I started with a plain white t-shirt and white shorts underneath.  The Japanese wear a small slip-like item that ties in the front.  Then the yukata goes on.  After that, there is a tie around the hips and a special “puffing” out so that the hem comes up.  It doesn’t matter how tall or short one is – a yukata fits.  (One of my friends is so skinny that sensei had to make folds in the cloth so it wouldn’t appear so huge – there were perfect little tucks all across her back when the sensei was finished.)  Then there’s a string around my waist, nice and snug.  The finishing touch is the obi, which can be tied in many many different ways.  An obi is nearly 9 feet long – it wraps around me twice, and then it’s thrown over my shoulder to start the bow, and pulled back to finish off.  Here are a number of steps in the process:


The hip tie

At this point it took two “dressers” to help me.


Putting on – “wearing” – the yukata is an art.  Not everyone knows how to do it properly.








Starting the obi process

Making a very complex bow.

Here I am ready to serve the odango for otsukimi – moon watching, which is the reason I was doing this in the first place. More on the festival later.


From start to finish, it was quite an experience.  It was snug, but not overly tight.  A yukata differs from a kimono in its formality and fabric.  The yukata are lighter in weight, and mostly worn in summer and therefore,  they are less formal. While it was snug, it wasn’t uncomfortable.  I actually felt very um…supported.  I felt all loose when I took it off.  It was a very interesting sensation – putting it on and removing it.

No Purses or Bags on the Floor!

Drop your purse into the green holder and it sits securely next to you, yet not on the floor, while you eat.

In Japan, as in other Asian countries, there is a superstition about putting purses and other bags directly on the floor.  A Cambodian friend of mine once told me that if a purse was on the floor, all the money would fall out of it – and she meant it in a figurative sense of losing all of one’s money. Because of this, many restaurants, particularly those in shopping areas, have bag holders next to each seat at the table. Sometimes there’s one holder for the entire table, but most often, it’s individual.  It’s very convenient.  You never have sling your purse over the back of your chair and worry that it’s going to fall off and you don’t have to set it down between your feet.  Some restaurants, if they don’t have such bag holders, will actually put an extra chair at the table for all of the bags.  This is particularly true if it is a group of ladies dining together. I once went for tea at a very fancy hotel with three other women after a short shopping expedition, and the waiter brought a fifth chair to the table to hold our bags. It’s one of my favorite security items in Tokyo.  I know that I don’t have to really worry about my bag being stolen off the back of my chair like I would in other places, but the security feels nice, and my bag stays cleaner because it’s not on the dirty floor.  Yet another perk of living in Japan.

Sometimes the bag holders nestle securely between two chairs, not just at the end of the table.


One of the reasons I truly love living in Japan is that there is always something new to discover.  In the past 2 weeks my new thing has been Haramaki.  Originally prescribed for warmth by my acupuncturist, now I cannot live in this colder weather without one.

The haramaki were originally made for samurai to wear under their armor as protective belly/waist protection.  Since then, they have evolved to fluffy, cloth under-layers.  Hara means belly and maki means wrap, and the Japanese believe they have some important functions.  According to the NukuNuku (which means warm and cozy in Japanese) website, which makes and sells Haramaki in the U.K., haramaki not only warm, but might even aid in digestive functions and ease menstrual cramps.  They definitely raise a person’s core temperature, which keeps the entire body warm, right down to the toes.  They also have side functions of covering up exposed body parts that could be unsightly, caused by the fashion of low-slung jeans.  There are even pregnancy haramaki that support the ever-expanding belly.

Men, women, children – anyone can wear haramaki and no one else has to know it.  I will admit that sometimes it’s slightly challenging to tuck it in properly and make it lie flat while pulling up one’s pants after using the loo, or any other time pulling up pants is required.

As for me, I’m looking for warmth without bulk.  Very thin, the Japanese haramaki are knitted and colorful.  They surround my belly and sit on my hips snugly.  I am warm inside which has made a huge difference in how the rest of my body feels. Heck, it has yet to be proven, but maybe my heating bill might be lower this winter.  We shall see.

I would highly recommend trying one, wherever you might live.

The Great Shoe Debate

Like any good New Yorker (where I trained in the art of workplace etiquette), now that I’m working and commuting, I try to wear my flip flops or sneakers to work and then change into proper shoes when I get to school.    For years now, I have noted that women in Japan do not change their shoes, but they wear these gorgeous heels and boots right on the trains and buses, and for however long they are walking between public transport stops.

This week, I found out I am mistaken, sort of.  My friend Masami, who owns and runs Fukuzushi – the very best sushi shop in Roppongi (4th generation owner…), casually mentioned that Japanese women are always carrying shoes.

“Where?” I protested.  “I see them in their gorgeous shoes all over the streets!”

“Ah yes,” Masami nodded, “but they carry slippers for the office.”

It turns out that Japanese people have the exact opposite attitude about footwear than Americans.  The Japanese people wear their fancy footwear out in the world – TO the office – and then once safely inside the confines of the office, they wear only slippers.  So they do not wear these beautiful, yet pinching, shoes for a twelve-hour plus day.

This still gives me pause.  If shoes pinch, then they pinch for the thirty minute commute, or they pinch for the five minutes in the office ’til you realize it and remove them to walk in stocking feet, which I’ve done more than once over my years of working.  Frankly, I’d rather be comfortable for the part of the day where I KNOW I’m walking than in the office, where I can usually take my shoes off under my desk and no one will notice.  Of course, that applies to office workers, not for teachers.  Teachers have to have something proper in which to teach, but it does not, apparently, have to be the nice shoes in which I’ve just commuted.

I’m not sure which was is better – for the psyche or the foot, but they sure are completely polar ideas.  Isn’t it great that after about eight years of my association with Japan, I’m still learning new things?