Nihonbashi 1960
Nihonbashi in 1960
Nihonbashi recently
Nihonbashi in more recent years.

There were many who saw the spreading spiderweb of elevated expressways crisscrossing Tokyo in the 1960s as progress. There were many others who groaned at the growing eyesore of concrete ceilings blotting out the sky. The expressway section in particular that gets the elderly sighing in memory of yesteryear is the one totally covering Nihonbashi.

Built originally in 1603 out of wood, Nihonbashi, was the start and end point for travelers between Edo (as Tokyo used to be called) and Kyoto (the imperial capitol). In fact, Nihonbashi, which literally translates as Japan Bridge, used to be called Edobashi.

Nihonbashi circa 1922
Nihonbashi circa 1922

In 1911, the bridge was rebuilt with steel and stone, and stayed intact despite the firebombing of American planes during the end of the second world war. For centuries, Nihonbashi, when you crossed from east to west, provided an unimpeded view of Mount Fuji. But as Japan-hand and author, Robert Whiting wrote in The Japan Times, the expressway built over Nihonbashi just prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a travesty.

I remember taking a walk along the canal to see the famous bridge, shortly before the games began. I was dismayed to see its once-charming appearance completely ruined by the massive highway just a few feet overhead, like a giant concrete lid, obliterating the sky. The smell from the toxic water in the canal was so offensive I had to cover my nose. I imagined Mt. Fuji, looking on from afar, doing the same.

The reconstruction effort for the Olympics cost Tokyo much of its navigable waterways. By planting the supporting columns of the highways and other structures in the water below, many river docks were rendered useless, costing even more jobs. Water stagnated, fish died and biochemical sludge, known as hedoro in Japanese, formed.

According to Whiting, while government officials would have preferred to build the expressways underground, they could not raise enough funds to cover all of the infrastructure projects and the additional cost of buying up land in the middle of the city. Elevated highways made it less necessary to purchase land that would instantly increase in value. So up went the highways, over canals and roads, darkening shops and skimming buildings.

Metropolitan Expressway over Nihonbashi being built
The Metropolitan Expressway route being constructed over the historic Nihonbashi bridge in Chuo Ward in 1963 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Over half a century later, the Japanese government has finally resolved that it is time for Nihonbashi to see the light. Land and Transport Minister, Keiichi Ishii, announced on July 21, 2017 that Tokyo will initiate a project to remove the elevated roads above the bridge, and find another place for it underground. As he said in this Asia-Nikkei article, “Nihonbashi is the source of Japan’s roads. It will be reborn as a place where you can see the clear sky.”

The work won’t begin until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But the plan is there. And a wrong will finally be righted.

Garcetti Bach Hidalgo
Eric Garcetti, IOC President Thomas Bach, and Anne Hidalgo

Most Olympians who do not win a gold medal are happy to receive a silver or bronze medal. But in the dramatic selection process, in which IOC members choose an Olympic host city through a series of votes that thousands of people in candidate cities watch with hands clasped in prayer, there has been no silver medal.

Years of planning and millions of dollars spent in putting together a powerful bid can go to waste as a city’s mayor watches powerlessly in a winner-take-all vote by the IOC.

But this year, the mayors of the two top bids for the 2024 Summer Olympics, Anne Hidalgo of Paris and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, have an opportunity to do something that no other mayor has had: to choose when their city holds an Olympic Games. The choices, albeit, are not that broad – the IOC voted on July 11, 2017 to accept the bids of both Paris and LA for 2024 and 2028.

The bids of both cities were too strong to drop either of them. And the fear of having fewer cities bidding down the road was too great, as cities like Hamburg, Rome and Budapest pulled themselves out of the campaign to host in 2024. They withdrew primarily due to growing local unpopularity of hosting expensive big-tent events. For those reasons, the IOC decided – yes, we have two gold medal winners.

According to this BBC article, “The IOC wants….the cities to reach an agreement on who hosts in 2028 by then.” And if the two cities don’t agree to who hosts in 2028, then the IOC reverts back to the original plan of voting death-match at the 131st IOC session on September 13 in Lima, Peru.

Most pundits are saying that a likely scenario is Paris going first. Both cities have many of the major venues and much of the critical infrastructure in place, unlike Rio and Sochi in recent years. But Paris does not yet have an Olympic Village, and keeping the property available for the building of the Village for a period beyond 2024 would be difficult, Paris organizers say.

According to this ESPN article, the mayors Hidalgo and Garcetti understand that this is a historic moment, when the mayors have the decision in their hands, and that they are willing to work together to make it work.

The IOC is lucky in the sense that it wound up with two 2024 bid committees capable of cooperating and a pair of mayors who have an established relationship. What if the only cities left standing had come from countries with hostile relations or diametrically opposed forms of government? How likely is a repeat of this juxtaposition of two urban areas capable of handling and absorbing the unwieldy event and possibly — an important qualifier — emerging without serious post-Games issues?

This is part two of the photographs taken by Dick Lyon, member of the United States rowing team. After his four-man coxless team won the bronze medal at the Toda Rowing course, Lyon had the time to walk around Tokyo with his Bronica Camera. Here are a few of them:

Tokyo 1a

Outside a candy store – It’s a common story during the 1964 Olympics: the best athletes in the world visibly sticking out in homogenous Japan, particularly those who hovered around 200 cm tall. Lyon’s rowing teammates, who joined him in these perambulations around the Olympic Village in Yoyogi, were no exception. Here is Lyon’s rowing mate, Theo Mittet, with two giggling women from the candy shop. Note Mittet’s fancy footwear.

TOkyo 5 001

 

A pub in Tokyo that appears to be connected to a racetrack – The signs appear to list names of horses and jockies. These “taishyuu sakaba” were low-cost drinkeries for the everyday salaried worker, whom, I suppose, had a love for the horses. This one lists all items as selling for 100 yen, or some 28 cents at the time.

Tokyo 11 reading racing forms

 

 

 

A man studying the horse racing data of the day – This image of intent concentration belies the fact that the Japanese government ultimately decided that this form of gambling was a necessary form of recreation for the average citizen, as well as the well as the tax revenue it generated. The Japanese government thought briefly in the early 1960s about banning such forms of gambling, but thought better of it, according to this report.

Tokyo 1b

 

Shimbashi Station – In 1964 and today, this was the hangout for salarymen where they ate and drank in the many tiny eateries underneath and near the train tracks.

Tokyo 12a

 

Ginza and the San Ai Building – In 1964 and today, Ginza is the upscale shopping area of Tokyo, and has for a long time been considered the most expensive real estate in the world. A symbol of Ginza glitz and glamor has been the San Ai Building, a glass tower that has gleamed electric light since it opened in 1962, a couple of years before the Olympics.

Tokyo 13 001

 

A View from Tokyo Tower – In 1964, the Tokyo landscape around Tokyo Tower was flat. And yet, my guess is that 19 years before, at the end of the Second World War, after enduring considerable firebombing by allied planes, the landscape would have been considerably flatter. In less than two decades, Tokyo was re-built and transformed, a miraculous revival for the world to see.

 

Ajinomoto Ad_Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir
Ad from the book Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir 

 

It’s 1964 and Ajinomoto is at the top of the world.

Housewives in the growing post-war economies were benefiting from advances in food sciences. In America, it was easy to bake a Betty Crocker cake, or create a Jell-O dessert, or slap together a meal with a Swanson’s TV dinner.

For those who actually had to cook, particularly in Asia, mother’s little helper came in a little glass bottle with white crystals. This chemical substance, when added to food, instantly transformed bland vegetables, soups of meats into something savory and tasty. Created in 1908 by a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who extracted an element of sea kelp, Ajinomoto (or “the essence of taste”) became a global phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century.

It started with post-Meiji Era housewives of the upper classes, who believed that to be Western and cultured, they had to cook meals themselves. When they learned how easy it was to enhance the flavor of their prepared meals by adding Ajinomoto, sales took off.

Because this was the era of Imperialism, and Japan had colonies in East Asia, Ajinomoto made its ways to the kitchens of Taiwan and China. Restaurants in Taiwan quickly became addicted to the use of Ajinomoto, and this particular flavor and brand became associated with quality. According to this fascinating history of Ajinomoto called A Short History of MSG – Good Science, Bad Science and Taste Cultures, by Jordan Sand, display of the container that Ajinomoto was shipped in became proof of the quality of that establishment.

Some Taiwanese restaurants and noodle shops helped market the product unsolicited. If the tabletop glass shaker symbolized Ajinomoto’s mature position in the metropolitan Japanese food system, in Taiwan it was the square, gold colored, one-kilogram can, which was first imported in 1928. Food vendors and noodle shops displayed these cans toshow customers they used Ajinomoto. Presumably they did so in part to announce they were not using an imitationbrand, several of which had appeared in the 1920s. The large gold cans had particular significance for individual consumers, too, since Taiwanese merchants began opening them in the shops and selling small quantities by weight.

Ajinomoto ad_Jordan Sand
Ajinomoto advertised in a Chinese magazine from the 1920s. From Ajinomoto kabushiki gaisha shashi [Company History of Ajinomoto Incorporated] (Ajinomoto kabushiki gaisha, 1971), volume 1.
To succeed in China, Ajinomoto was marketed as the Buddha’s hand, again, according to Sand, and was particularly useful in making vegetarian food in China more palatable. And once something in China becomes popular or commonplace, it was only a matter of time before it made its way further abroad. The Chinese diaspora is one of the biggest, and when Chinese immigrants poured into America to help build the railroads, Chinese food became a staple of not only the migrants, but also the locals.

Fast forward to the 1960s, and this miracle food enhancer was at its peak, and beginning its descent. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring educated the world on the unintended but dangerous consequences of pesticides in our ecosystem and our food supply, and more generally on man’s impact on nature. Eventually, people began to suspect that Ajinomoto, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate (MSG), was making people nervous because of its linkage to headaches, sweating, rapid heartbeats, sweating and even chest pain and nausea. In America, this particular ailment was informally called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, thanks to migrant cooks inordinate dependence on Ajinomoto.

Eventually, negative reactions to Ajinomoto in the United States spread to Japan. When the 1970s rolled around, Ajinomoto’s sales fell. Ajinomoto diversified and recovered, and today, Ajinomoto is certainly a giant among food manufacturers in Japan. But at the early parts of its existence, Ajinomoto was a company, by virtue of a single product, that had a significant global impact.

And in 1964, during the Tokyo Olympics, Ajinomoto was held up as one of Japan’s great success stories.

phelps vs shark

Jesse Owens was without a doubt the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A black man winning four gold medals in Arayan Germany was interpreted as a symbol of America’s strength in diversity. And yet, when Owens returned to America, he struggled to earn a consistent income, unthinkable if he were a star today.

One way Owens earned a living – he was an owner of a Negro baseball league team, The Portland Rosebuds. In order to bring fans in, I suppose, he footraced against horses between games at double headers.

Michael Phelps never had to do that to make a living.

And yet, the single most decorated Olympian ever, including a record 23 gold medals, Phelps is engaging an even more absurd race….against a shark.

In promotion of Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week”, Phelps will swim a race against a great white shark on July 23, 2017.

What can I say? This is the height of absurdity.

I can see in my head what a race with a horse looks like. I cannot imagine what a race between a man and shark is. How long would the race be? Since sharks are always in motion, does this particular great white shark getting a running start, as it were? Are man and shark racing together, in the same ocean lane? If yes, I imagine that would motivate Phelps in a uniquely visceral way.

But the simple reason why this whole exercise is clearly a gimmick, according to this article, great white sharks reach speeds of 25-35 mph, while a swimmer of Phelps’ caliber tops out at 6.

So silly. But, I’ll watch.

Olympic National Stadium design_Kengo Kuma
Images of Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium

When you walk through Meiji Shrine, a peaceful oasis of green in the middle of Tokyo, your pulse rate drops and you forget the hustle bustle of one of Asia’s most dynamic mega-cities. Its location next to the National Stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Olympic Village made the wooded park of Meiji Shrine a wonderful place for runners to train, a la middle distance double gold medalist, Peter Snell.

When images of the planned National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics were released, there was a mixture of groans and puzzlement. Globally renown architect, Zaha Hadid, presented a design of sleek modernity. Frankly, I thought it looked like a bicycle helmet, somewhat out of place in its surroundings.

National Stadium and Meiji Shrine_google maps
National Stadium and Meiji Shrine on Google Maps

Then suddenly, in July, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scratched plans for the design of the new National Stadium planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was revealed that the estimated cost of the stadium ballooned from JPY252 billion, from the original proposal of JPY130 billion, an approximate difference of USD1 billion. Scrapping Hadid’s design meant a massive delay, resulting in a particularly embarrassing broken promise. Plans to have the new national stadium host the 2019 Rugby World Cup also had to be scrapped, resulting in a move of the tournament to Yokohama.

TOCOG quickly put together another search for a stadium designer. And suddenly, Kuma Kengo, whose design was selected, was in the spotlight. Not only will the cost of the Kengo stadium be closer to the originally proposed estimate (JPY150 billion), the design of the stadium will more seamlessly blend into the environment.

Kuma has built a reputation for his use of wood, and plans to employ wood, particularly wood grown in all prefectures of Japan, to fashion a stadium that folds into the relatively green surroundings, as he explains in this Nippon.com interview:

Instead of the old-fashioned idea of putting up a huge monument, my idea is to create a stadium that people will remember as part of the Meiji Shrine outer gardens, the wooded area in which it’s located. And we’re planning to uncover the Shibuya River, which was put underground during the rapid-growth years, and have it flow at surface level through the stadium grounds. I believe that creating something sustainable for future generations, with the surrounding nature open to the public, is a more important considerations than the physical shape of the edifice, and so that’s what I’ve been focusing my efforts on.

Kuma was 10 years old when the 1964 Olympics came to Tokyo. He remembers witnessing the rapid growth of the post-war years, and being amazed in particular by the two complementary buildings of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the aquatic and basketball events. According to the Nippon.com article, he remembers often visiting the First Gymnasium designed by legendary architect, Tange Kenzo. “The light shining down from the windows in the high ceiling made the water of the pool sparkle. I was captivated by this sublime sight, and that was what made me decide that I wanted to become an architect.”

 

Yusuhara Town Hall_Kengo Kuma
Yusuhara Town Hall

 

Over the years, Kengo has become known for his use of wood in his designs, in ways that recall times when wood was the primary construction material, layered, and exposed to the elements. Design website, Icon, describes Kengo’s work in detail:

Kuma’s approach is perhaps best illustrated by a series of buildings he has built in and around a small town called Yusuhara on Japan’s southern Shikoku island. The Yusuhara Town Hall (2006) sits under a roof and frame of Japanese cedar in a traditional structural arrangement, but one that gives off more than a hint of high-brutalism in the strong articulation of its thick beams and columns. The outside features a series of timber panels of various dimensions, alternating with glazed panels – a genuinely interesting take on the “barcode” facade.

Yuuhara hotel and market_Kengo Kuma
Yusuhara hotel and shops

A small hotel and market (2010) that Kuma built nearby is just as unconventional, with a curtain wall on the main facade made of straw bales and bamboo that can actually be opened out to allow light and ventilation through – a very odd combination of rustic material and hi-tech detailing. But the wooden bridge building (ICON 101) that Kuma built over a road to link a spa and hotel on the outskirts of the town is stranger still. Here is a version of traditional Japanese roof construction blown up to super-large scale, a series of single wooden elements all overlapping and stepping up towards the bridge itself. It is this radical re-imagining of a historic building material or method of construction that one sees time and time again in Kuma’s work.

I’m truly excited for the debut of Kengo Kuma’s national stadium. I feel it will not only be appreciated for its uniquely Japanese sensibilities, but will be a lasting legacy of the 2020 Games, a fitting complement to its green surroundings, particularly the peaceful Meiji Shrine.

“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” Kuma, 62, said in this Japan Times interview. “What people want is soft, warm and humane architecture. We will show the model of a mature society in the stadium. That’s the way to live a happy life relying on limited natural resources from a small land.”

Kengo Kuma profile
Kengo Kuma

Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.

How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?

Enjoy!

Japan 1964

 

Tokyo 2020

 

Random Rambles