Dear Alice,

My 76-year-old mother recently made her first visit to Japan. Before she flew home, I took her to Tokyo to see the sights. She quite enjoyed cruising the Sumida River on the suijo basu (water bus) and is still chuckling about something atop a building on the right side as we got to Asakusa. I promised I'd find out what it is. I'd rather not say what she thought it resembled lest I reinforce the stereotype that we British are obsessed with lavatory humour.

Janice W., Nagoy

I wouldn't worry about perpetuating stereotypes, Janice; I knew exactly what you meant and I'm not British. That's the Asahi Beer headquarters, built on the site of one of the company's old breweries in a spectacular location across the river from Asakusa.

In fact, it's two buildings. Looking from the river, on the left is a 22-story tower called the Asahi Beer Azumabashi Building. It was designed by Nikken Seikei and completed in 1989. It's meant to look like a mug of beer -- the slanted white panels at the top are supposed to suggest a head of foam. Next to the tower is a low black building called Super Dry Hall, built to commemorate Asahi Super Dry beer, a runaway best seller when introduced in 1987 and still the company's top product.

Perched on top of Super Dry Hall is the gold objet that so amused your mother. It is the work of Philippe Starck, a French architect who has lent his hand to everything from trendy furniture to kitchenware. While poking around on the Internet to see what else he designed, I found ad copy that amused me no end. A retailer described a Starck lemon juicer, grandiously, as "the most controversial citrus fruit squeezer of the 20th century." It does look like a spider from outer space, but just how can a juicer be controversial? In any case, it's positively tame compared to what Starck deposited atop the Asahi Beer headquarters.

I called the company and asked, as delicately as possible, what the heck that thing is. It's called "Flame d'Or" ("The Golden Flame"), a company spokesperson explained, and represents the yakushin of Asahi Beer employees. I thanked the spokesperson and went to look up that word. The first definition I found was "a rash caused by a drug allergy," but I'm pretty sure he meant - "remarkable progress," as in Nihon no keizai teki yakushin (Japan's rapid economic development) . Starck's design, the spokesperson said, honors employees' vision and gatsu (guts) in developing Asahi Super Dry, a product that has contributed so much to the company's bottom line.

You may be relieved to know, Janice, that your mother isn't the only one with a potty mind. My Japanese friends refer to Starck's creation as o gon no unko (the golden turd), and tourists frequently ask for directions to the unchi biru (poop building).

But all jokes aside, I raise my glass to the Asahi Beer Co. for bringing interesting and provocative modern architecture to Tokyo. Vision and guts, indeed.