April 19, 2015

Over the course of six months, while his girlfriend interned in a company in Tokyo, young graphic artist Florent Chavouet wandered the streets with a pouch full of coloured pencils and a sketchpad visiting many of its most well known and even some lesser known neighbourhoods sketching scened of everyday life in the city.

This 208 page book is filled cover to cover with beautiful hand drawn pictures from his journeys. The artist captures more than street scenes and architecture paying particular attention to smaller details such as posters, packaging and what many of us living in Japan consider to be most uninteresting everyday objects which when looked at through the eyes of a visitor are fascinating parts of Japanese life.

 Chavouet is also a wonderful people watcher, his sketches capture the various fashions of each district in the city, from elegantly dressed ladies in Ginza to the street styles of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. His drawings of people are filled with movement and actions, these people were actually doing things hen sketched which he captures in the smallest of details. Handwritten comments often accompany pictures letting you know just what was going on in the scene at the time, or why a particular sticker on a lamp post caught the artists attention.

I love that in each area he visits the artist has paid particular attention to the Koban, or police boxes that can be found all over the city as he showed me something I've not noticed in almost 20 years of living here. He showed me that the architecture of police boxes varies greatly around the city. You'd think these essential public facilities would all adhere to a particular style to cut costs but the truth is there are an amazing number of different styles of Koban. In addition to this more than one page is dedicated to capturing the antics of the local constabulary, including random bicycle registration checks.

Taxis, politicians, laundromats, train stations, garbage bins, vending machines, parks, bicycles, people, stamps, power lines, point cards, cafes, advertising, absolutely anything you can imagine about Tokyo is captured in this book. The artists attention to detail is truly amazing and he even treats us to a detailed look at his bicycle.

Detailed hand drawn maps abound, and the fact that they re slightly dated drives home the point that Tokyo is an city that is undergoing continual change.

When this book arrived my daughters studied the most minute details of every single page from cover to cover, unable to put it down for hours. Over the course of a month I would flip through the book revisiting scenes I'd viewed before always finding something I overlooked on the last viewing, the details are truly amazing.


If you love Tokyo as I do then I'd highly recommend Tokyo on Foot.

April 13, 2015

Last Sunday 319 people and an equal number of bicycles gathered under clear blue skies in the tulip filled gardens of the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Tokyo to partake in the third Tour De Holland to Flanders, Belgium bicycle ride an annual event hosted by the embassies of the Netherlands and Belgium, sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.


I arrived slightly before 9am to find the gates of the Embassy flung wide open (a rare sight indeed) and dismounted to walk my bicycle down a slightly curving driveway lined with trees and flowering tulips to a courtyard filled with hundreds of cyclists all enjoying a complementary breakfast, coffee and Van Houten hot chocolate. I grabbed myself a coffee before joining Deputy Head of Mission Cees Roels for a chat and a stroll through the sea of parked bicycles which consisted of almost every style of bicycle imaginable, mountain bikes, road bikes, mamachari, folding bikes, cargo bikes, and more Dutch bikes than I could have believed existed in Tokyo. Surprising there were also a high number of DoCoMo bike share bicycles indicating quite a number of casual cyclists among the crowd.

It was not only the range of bicycles that was surprising, but also the range of riders. I learnt afterwards that of the 319 registered guests 43% were women, an unusually high number for a cycling event in Japan. Attendees ranged in age from under 10 to over 70 while the group consisted of people from all walks of life including middle age men tight fitting bike wear to ladies in frocks clearly enjoying the warm weather after a week of dreary wet days leading up to the event. (In its three year history, this event has consistently been rained on!)

After a photo opportunity with the heads of the respective embassies, sponsors and other high ranking officials the ride got underway with groups of 10 to 15 cyclists setting off at regular intervals through the embassy gates. Rather than having each group lead by someone who knew the route each rider was given a map, and volunteers were posted at regular intervals cheerfully announcing where to turn left, right or continue on. I quite enjoyed that style of ride as it gave me the freedom to stop for photos without holding up the group as I could easily join the  next line of riders who cruised on past or continue along alone in confidence that volunteers would see to it that I did not stray off course.

The 13 kilometre course began at the Dutch Embassy, and circled Tokyo Tower before heading in the direction of Toranomon Hills. No surprisingly not a single cyclist in my group took advantage of the shiny new, but dangerously narrow, bicycle lanes on Shintora Doori preferring to take their chances on the road instead. After a short stop at Hibiya Koen to collect the KLM stamp in our "passports" we continued on ast Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace where we mingled with even more cyclists enjoying 8 lanes of road closed to traffic on the Imperial Palace cycling course. From there we cycled through the gardens surrounding Nippon Budokan before winding our way through the backstreets, guided by even more cheerful volunteers before completing our journey at the Embassy of Belgium.

At the goal we were treated to Belgium waffles, fries and friendly conversation in the embassy's courtyard gardens. I took the opportunity to speak to as many European guests as I could to learn how they feel about cycling in Tokyo. The overwhelming consensus was the despite the lack of infrastructure it was a joy to cycle in Tokyo as the drivers were perceived to be more courteous to cyclists, something the people I spoke to attributed to the fact that the majority of motorists also being cyclists themselves. Others stated that suburban Tokyo's narrow streets acted as natural speed limiters for vehicles, and that the lack of sidewalks, forcing cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles to mix, did more to improve the situation for pedestrians and cyclists than worsen it.  Surprising comments indeed from nationals of countries with the finest cycling infrastructure on the planet.

But for me the highlight of the day was hearing Ambassadors Radinck J. van Vollenhoven and Luc Liebaut speak proudly of European cycling culture. Citing over 45,000 kilometres of cycling paths between their two countries they compelled Tokyo's cyclists to visit and experience cycling as it should be experienced everywhere. They also spoke briefly of the numerous benefits of cycling including social, economic and health benefits pointing out that cycling plays an important role in long life expectancies of Japanese citizens.

In short this was a wonderful event on so many levels. It gave many of us access to the beautiful embassy buildings and gardens which are normally off limits and also gave us the opportunity to share in conversation and exchange ideas with cyclists from many different countries, backgrounds and walks of life. Amusingly it allowed us to literally cycle from The Netherlands to Belgium without leaving Tokyo as technically the embassies are the territory of their respective nations.  But what I found most striking was how approachable, friendly and "normal" the Ambssadors and other top officials were, a point that was driven home at the end of the event after most people had already left when the Dutch Ambassador simply mounted his bicycle announced his departure and simply cycled off into the distance!













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