That is the hairstyle of exertion.
That is the hairstyle of exertion.
Spring is beginning to emerge. The days are lengthening and the birds are singing. What better way to celebrate than to replace the gentle chirping of our avian companions with mildly-to-moderately embarrassing yells of ‘DO!’ and ‘MENNNNNN!’ (an exclamation particularly painful to the ear of one with a singing background. Lengthened consonants are never a pretty sight/sound) at my reasonably local kendo dojo? I type this but a few hours after my first attempt, my right arm still limp and feeble.
Beginning this practice feels rather odd, particularly as my preliminary research told me that it’s actually reasonably rare for people to begin as adults. Indeed, there were many, many children in full bogu (armour) going at it with practiced ease while my party fumbled about with sticks.
Although the group of beginners are split very definitely by height and age, through careful observation of their mannerisms and particular attention paid to their shouts and state of dress I have been able to construct an entirely fanciful and likely thoroughly contradictable classmate classification during the hour I spent thwacking things and self-consciously yelling.
Given away by his brand-new shinai and almost-as-feeble-as-mine proto-facial hair, The Otaku has a battle cry not dissimilar to that of Link’s cry of woe as he falls from a great height, which is particularly fortuitous as it makes even mine appear manly as the roar of the tiger. His glasses are stashed in a bag which seems improbably large considering he isn’t changing his clothes and has yet to purchase any kit other than the eponymous sword. His technique is, naturally, almost perfect, but bears marks of having been practiced in front of a mirror rather than against a solid object. He is fiercely motivated, and dreams of becoming a master swordsman the likes of which have not been seen since the great Miamoto Musashi, and who can blame him? That’s why we all join up in the first place.
The eldest of the children (not counting yours truly — if I am to write in English I shall conform to our legal system within the confines of this blog) and the one with the greatest carefree abandon. He has little need for stale technique or targeted cries. His style, described as wild by some, is loose and free. As far as we can tell, he’s just here for the hitting.
Resplendent in two-tone robes and flowing headband, this tiny ball of rage is distinctly characterised by his ability to make apparently full-force strikes without breaking step. This comes at the expense of a straight back, sound foot stamp or any real indication that Sensei’s teaching has gotten through to him, but should he face a myriad of foes in a dramatic rooftop chase in Kyoto he’ll likely survive much longer than the rest of us.
Of a similar size and decoration to his sibling, he is the most learned of all. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why he was relegated from the group above. All too often, his role is one of slightly bemused guinea pig. His visage is marred by the memory of conflicts past, and of the realisation that he must once more suffer trials with his mortal enemy by his side.
Slightly wizened but (un)fortunately not nearly as stereotypically bearded or unforgiving as his reputation and title may suggest, The Sensei bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter Capaldi, although likely without quite the same creativity when it comes to language. He shall be a worthy opponent when my journey draws to a close.
The fact is, most of this past month has already been covered by previous posts, but there has been no mention whatsoever of my most recent Significant Event, the knowledge of which has been made known to only a few people (most of them related) outside the walls in which I here write.
This level of secrecy (if it can be so called) stemmed from a desire to avoid looking like too much of a plonker if the whole event fell through. Participation in the event itself may seem somewhat counter-intuitive in this respect, as this (much) aforementioned event was the filming of a television programme devoted to educating foreigners about Japanese culture, to be aired on TBS on Sunday the 16th of March at 2pm Japan time.
As yet, I have no idea how available it will be in England. I have been assured that a copy of the finished programme will be sent to me, but if this is through a file hosting website (intimated and very easy to share) or DVD (expected and very difficult to share) remains to be seen. Given that the programme will be almost completely unintelligible to most viewers, I invite you to read on for a somewhat abbreviated and sadly pictureless summary of my Monday.
The day began early with me being bundled into a waiting van on-camera and meeting some of my companions for the day. In the photo, we are sitting on the back seats in our defined order. From the left, your intrepid correspondent, Carolyn the New Yorker, Malaysian Phoebe and Chris from Australia. As our hosts, we had Ami the idol, Ken(ichiro) the neuroscientist and (‘other’) Ken the comedian. Finally, on the far left was Maiko, our main point of contact and translator, towards whom we were perpetually facing as she explained what we had just laughed along to. The hardest thing was trying to match the level of constant exclamation which seems standard in Japanese TV. For those of us accustomed to waiting our turn to speak and listening quietly, suddenly learning to shout ‘suigoi!’ at every development is harder than it seems.
After a short introduction in front of a temple in the freezing cold, we were bundled into a coach to film a link and reach our first proper destination. This turned out to be the venerable Toto bathroom store, where we were treated to a history of the washlet and (forcibly) invited to try out the New Wonder Wave system. So much for not making a fool of myself.
Next up was an arcade which was only slightly quieter than the pachinko buildings which dot the city (which tend to feature 140 dB ear-bleeding levels of noise) and had rather more variety than the bewildering ball bearing shrines one normally sees. Within we were treated to a display of a man who was absurdly skilled at Dance Dance Revolution and a girl who was similarly talented at a rhythm game which looked like an enormous 1980s space-age washing machine. Naturally Chris and I were magnetically drawn to the Gundam pilot cockpits, but were also encouraged to try our skill/luck at the grabbing machines, all paid for in a fashion that made me slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps it felt a little like we were being groomed.
After a short break eating bento outside and being courted by a famous actor who had come to promote his TV series (in his defence, we were presented with expensive chocolate from Kyoto, so I can’t complain), we were bundled back into the coach to head to Ken’s choice of entertainment, the house of his friend and grandson of a famous prime ministerial advisor back in the day. This may have been because he was the only one to speak any functional English (and I was the only one who spoke any Japanese), but Ken(ichiro) was very pleasant, and sat at the back talking to us while the other presenters slept and/or generally did their own thing. I have even remained in contact with him, which caused some distress in my housemates when I addressed my email to ‘Ken-san’ rather than ‘Mogi-san-sama-senseigozainasaimasen’.
Nevertheless, we made it to the house, which has full of antiques, mostly in the order of 5000 year old vases and the like. Whilst waiting for the aged wagyu beef to cook, we were treated to some delicious and expensive sake, drunk out of incredibly old cups. Unfortunately, being the age that I am, I was obliged to drink water during the filming, and afterwards tasted some 特に美味しい水 (‘particularly tasty water’). I was (possibly only out of courtesy) invited to return at some point, and given an antiques magazine of which our host is the editor as a souvenir. This, combined with the most delicious beef I have ever tasted, made the stop my favourite of the day.
The final stop was a traditional izakaya, wherein I drank ginger beer (which was, in fairness, delicious) and participated in a general roundup of the day, all whilst eating ramen and mashed fish cakes. I was also able to whip out a haiku which was penned during the day, as per the recommendation of the producer at the first stop. Perhaps it would be a fitting end to the post, as it was to the day. I’ll leave the translation to you.
Living as I do out in the suburbs, beyond even the reach of the blessed Chūō Rapid Line, the opportunity of joining an Bradley at the end of his stay in Japan and, as he so poetically put it, have “the tourist guide the literate” was one that, to my as-yet not completely thawed mind (more on that later), was to be seized with both slightly frost-bitten hands.
Such enthusiasm was not abundantly evident in our first meeting. I personally blame my housemates for apparently deciding that sleep is the crutch of the weak at heart. Nevertheless, it was two hours late that I arrived, sheepishly, in Akihabara. This district is home to the enormous monolith that is Yodobashi Camera, of Harrods size but full of electronics. The clientele in certain smaller shops can get more classically otaku, to the point where one feels they might need a shower after viewing some of the items on sale. Culutral differences, we explain to ourselves.
Paul, a friend of Bradley’s, joined us in Ueno for the classic ‘let’s feed cake to the sparrows‘ tour which has become a mainstay of my wanders. It seems that they have come to associate humanity’s presence with the promise of sacchariferous sustenance, even in such foul weather. This has already been the subject of a post, but allow me once again iterate the entertainment that can be gleaned from buying a slightly expensive piece of cake and having half the avian class fight in mid-air for the honour of taking it from you. Even Paul was impressed.
So it was that, after much meandering and a worryingly long time spent in a department store in Tokyo Station and an ‘English pub’ in Ueno, we found ourselves battling with mother nature to reach the equally legendary Kura Sushi. In addition to the usual carousel of delicacies, there is an iPad ordering system, which operates on a separate belt above. Those who survive the experience are known to suddenly twitch and salivate at the sound of the doorbell which is herald to such orders. We left pleasantly
full, and my personal collection of mini sushi phone charms grew by a respectable one at the hands of a game of chance which runs after every fifth plate.
We ended Valentines’ Day gasping for breath at the entrance to Shibuya Station, part way through the process of very effectively camouflaging ourselves with snow. In Japan this is marked by women giving chocolate to men, who have a whole month to steel themselves before they reciprocate on White Day. I can only assume mine are in the post.
This time the delay came from the snow, which seems determined to match the severity which is (apparently) expressed in the British media. Now that we’re on Snowstorm II, Nature seems to have adjusted her tactics in order to cause maximum inconvenience. Gone is the chilled marshmallow of a few days ago, and replaced with puddles and grey sludge. One must be exceedingly careful and cannot afford to rush anywhere. The latter was expressed wholeheartedly by the trains (even the venerated JR Line), as evidenced by their great reluctance to take me back to Kōenji at the end of the day.
Despite the weather, our choice of breakfast was all but decided for us as we happened to walk past a café. While Paul remained sensible, it quickly became apparent that, between myself and Bradley at least, brunch (as it turned out to be) was a test of moral fibre and honour. Behold my entry.
This monolith of sugared delights (at first) surpassed Bradley’s in bulk, even if his did reach such as height as to remove the necessity of cutlery or even leaning down to take the first bite. The challenge was great, but in the end both of us succeeded.
When we are younger, we believe that one of the greatest advantages of adulthood lies in the ability to make our own decisions. It is only later that we realise that decisions are comprised predominantly of mistakes. I can confidently say that, as adults, we made tho particular decision and paid the price in stomachache.
We were nearing the end of our meeting, and headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building for a view of the city, Mt. Fuji and (principally) because it required no walking whilst exposed to the elements. One of the underpass is a favourite spot for the homeless, who seem untroubled by the authorities as long as they are quiet and tidy. I have resolved to return when I look less like a tourist and more like a serious (and more low-profile) photographer.
Thus my first meeting with extra-Japanese agents was concluded, and I left with nothing but a half bottle of vodka and memories of a not-so-distant chill to work my way round the Journey of a Thousand Detours back home.