Leaving Sendai and the ferry behind, I made my way through Hokkaido’s capital of Sapporo and back into blissful rurality once more. Biei is well known for rolling hills of field and flower, and has been the location for a number of adverts, to the point that some areas, such as Mild Seven Hill, are actually named after the brands that took up the image.
However, as a result of my rural upbringing, I rather felt a little out of place amongst the hundreds of tourists from Tokyo and Beijing taking thousands of photos of a small rapeseed field with gargantuan cameras, completely ignoring the birds of prey wheeling overhead. I opted to cycle some of the way (although not to the hostel – that was an hour and a half of hot, tiring trudging up hills with 20kg worth of possessions that I don’t intend to repeat outside of military conscription), while most drove from signpost to signpost, barely stopping to take photographs. I, however, focused on the heat and rather more impressive (read:terrifying) wildlife on show in this part of the world, from hornets the size of my thumb to the aforementioned hawks.
Rather, my experience of the area was more one of city-to-country culture shock. Although I’ve been travelling for over two weeks now, this is the first time I’ve really been outside Tokyo on my own. If nothing else my internal timetable still needs adjusting, as it seems to custom here to rise around dawn and be in bed by nine, which means that they fall asleep at about the time the city folk start waking up and operate on completely opposing systems. Twice I have been caught out trying to eat dinner after six-thirty, and generally been punished for it, but that brings me to the story at the heart of this stop.
If I had known the above, I probably would have been more insistent on my supposed dinner reservation at the hostel, but instead merrily set off down the lane to nearby eateries, wincing slightly at my feet and sunburn, only to find that they either only served lunch or were fully booked. Although not yet, there was not a soul in sight. I had reservations about walking another two hours in total to the town, but thankfully a friendly café owner lent me an almost broken bicycle with a torch taped on the handlebars by way of a lamp.
After one of the most joyous (and downhill) bike rides of my life, I came across a similar story – most restaurants were lunch-only, with the exception of the 7/11 and an intimidating-looking sushi restaurant. Opaque sliding doors are common for such places in Japan, but not being able to get a glimpse of what one is about to walk into is rather disconcerting for me. Upon steeling myself, I was told dismissively that they only served sushi. It took three attempts before I was begrudgingly let in and sat down in the tatami area rather than the seats, just to be sure. Three locals with varying degrees of speech impediment were my only companions, and I had my back to them. The atmosphere was one of passive-aggressive confrontation of the kind I had heard about but never experienced in the city.
Not pictured is the intimidatingly enormous ikura (fish eggs), mainly because I wolfed it down as quickly as possible. It was clear (to the dramatic side of my mind, at least), that I was expected to prove myself not just able but worthy of partaking in such a meal at such a place. Naturally, each piece was utterly slathered in wasabi, but ginger, the beer bought for me by one rather loud patron and gritted teeth got me through the worst of it. With the final, nose-burning piece of salmon successfully ingested without choking, I left, with many awkward pauses and slightly suspicious looks from the owner, feeling rather exhausted at the experience.
The bike ride back up the hill(s) was less joyous. A storm was on the horizon, with lightning filling the sky at regular intervals well ahead of the thunder. I met no cars and almost no streetlights, the silent fields just visible in the darkness surrounding the meagre, off-centre torchlight which stuttered at every bump in the road.
Trust me to go to a place of outstanding natural beauty and instead catch myself between distrustful locals and a potentially supernatural murder on a dark country road.
In my quest to delve even deeper into the remote countryside of Japan, I left Tome and began the arduous journey up to Hokkaido. This, however, required Shinkansen and ferries, and thus a trip to the big lights of Sendai for a night.
In between eating rather expensive sushi (from my budget, at least) and and drinking a little too much for a far more reasonable price, I was able to sniff out yet another Pokémon Centre (with numerous Tohoku-based events occurring precisely when I leave the country) and taste a local delicacy consisting of battered fish balls on a stick with ketchup, which actually taste remarkably like the former part of fish & chips.
After an hour on the train and a hidden £40 cost I still don’t really understand, I found myself in Hachinohe and boarding the ferry. I booked an overnight trip, and currently type this while the floor sways gently beneath me. As I climbed on, I was somewhat worried about internet. It quickly became clear that I would have other things to be concerned with.
Here’s hoping it isn’t too long a night.
I am not generally to be found soaking up the utterly bizarre counterculture of Harajuku, but some of the less fashion-centric trends tend to find their way out into (relatively) less edgy neighbourhoods like Koenji. Cat cafés became somewhat better known in the UK after one opened in London, but here in Tokyo they are almost old-hat now. Being not quite emotionally ready to handle a maid café, it was to Café Baron that I journeyed on my first morning as a nineteen year old.
A small room, littered with paraphernalia both strigidaean and tytonidaen and run by a quiet man with a long ponytail, the café is dominated (visually, if not spatially) by a corner by the window, wherein two owls can be found sleepily gazing out onto the street outside. Having ordered out cinnamon teas, the owner brought out the first of the two owls. Having fluttered up to the back of a chair in the middle of the room, he began the rather arduous task of preening his many feathers, occasionally pausing to stare in a somewhat shocked manner at the patrons drinking and watching, casting accusatory looks at the owner whenever another customer walked in. His vigilance was such that all who entered bowed to both hosts.
Although there as no touching allowed, we could get very close indeed to the birds. While this larger one maintained his position for most of our stay (he later hopped down and looked very significantly from the door of the enclosure to the owner), the barn owl was rather more mobile, and seemed far more dishevelled from its slumber, although this was soon cleared up by further preening. Both were very quiet and pleasant, posing for photos when needed, although one man who tried to get a clear shot of the back of the barn owl’s head was foiled in every attempt by the its turning round every time he approached with camera primed.
Cats and maids are all very well, but this is one of the few places where one can satisfy strigiformal sympathies in a relaxed and slightly bizarre environment. A little extra research has taught me that such places are far from limited – mice, rabbits and guinea pigs have also joined the ranks of animals that ultra-fashionable Japanese can gaze at and play with while sipping very expensive drinks. Maybe in five years these too will be enjoyed by the folk of London town.
It was in the spirit of pleasant inevitability that I found myself standing outside Ryōgoku Kokugikan last Friday, watching the (very accurately predicted by a Japanese acquaintance) ‘tourists and old people’ milling about and taking hundreds of thousands of photos of the hut-shaped arena while I, perhaps a little more bravely, went for the sumo wrestlers heading home after the day’s bout in one of the six annual tournaments.
Arriving at a little past two, the arena was generally quite quiet and reserved. The standing of the wrestlers increases throughout the day, leading many people to skip the first eight hours of low-ranking bouts and turn up at four to see the sekitori, who make up the top tiers and generally the more exciting fights. This almost scholarly atmosphere was shattered by eight loud Americans who, through no fault of their own (I am sure), seemed to have misread the ambiance and decided that their presence would be best employed by shouting support and derision during fights, imitating the ritual chanting which follows each bout and wondering loudly why it was all taking so long. Either their patience or their nerve seemed to run out after a few hours, however, and they were not heard from once things started really picking up.
Although each actual fight generally lasts less than 15 seconds, there is a great deal of ceremony both before each individual bout and each round. At first, all the wrestlers of a certain level enter and step up to the ring, with the name and origin of each called out. Instead of the mawashi (loincloth) used in actual fights, the higher-ranking sekitori wear an embroidered apron called a keshō-mawashi. These also appear in portraits if a wrestler wins the tournament, and is now purely ceremonial and very expensive. Before the fight itself, there is a great deal of stretching of arms (to show a lack of weapons), clapping, throwing of salt for purification of the ring and general staring down of opponents. This is where one sees the crouching poses and enormous stamping that is so often associated with the sport.
It was somewhat to my surprise that, alongside the classically gelatinous wrestlers, a (relatively) slighter and European-looking man also appeared. Foreigners are far from unheard of in sumo – there hasn’t been a Japanese yokozuna (highest ranking sumo) since 2007, but most come from Mongolia, with Pacific Island dominance common in the 1980’s. This has become so apparent that the Japan Sumo Association has started placing limits on the number of foreigners allowed in sumo stables. It turns out that our man, known as Takanoyama Shuntarō, hails from the Czech Republic. He appeared to win his match with relative ease, but is apparently held back from rising much further by his lack of bulk. Matches begin when both competitors have touched their fists to their corresponding white line, which is immediately followed by both men leading towards each other with a sometimes audible slap. Finally, the result of the match is announced by a man in white holding a fan, who chants the name of the winner and the technique used.
As the matches get bigger, so do the crowds, the excitement and the wrestlers themselves. Sponsors appear, walking carefully around the edge holding large colourful banners. While the atmosphere and tension certainly increases, there is certainly no guarantee that the win itself will be more impressive. There were a few more amateur mistakes (such as embarrassing slips) in the earlier rounds, but many fights end with a wrestler being pushed out of the ring and walking dejectedly back to his place, rather than spectacular throws. Highlights did however, include a sekitori finding himself rather abruptly seated amongst the audience as a result of a particularly vigorous tumble, and a technically forbidden throwing of cushions after one victory by an underdog.
Sumo is something so quintessentially Japanese that my attendance was all but non-negotiable. Although among the Japanese it is very much an over-50’s sport, there is a great deal of excitement and ceremony, alongside the rather base pleasure of seeing two enormously fat men in nappies trying to push each other over.
Nestled amongst Yoyogi Park’s usual consignment of Sunday Oddballs, Tokyo Rainbow Pride and its oddly prominent corporate presence burned yet another oh-so-Japanese image into my slightly unwilling retinas.
On something of a whim I found myself making the hour long trip to Kawasaki last weekend. In my search for ever more obscure and/or zany pastimes and atractions, I had heard of an interestingly themed arcade there. Game centres (as they are generally known) are certainly nothing new in Japan, and given the country’s penchant for jaw-dropping absurdity when it comes to institutions like restaurants and hotels, I figured that this particular establishment was not to be missed.
The number and quality of the arcade machines could not be faulted. Indeed, they have an entire floor devoted to darts, snooker and fake race betting. The strangeness came in the décor, being as it was an apparently very faithful reconstruction of the (in)famous Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.
Large and lithe alike danced wildly, thumped rhythmically glowing boxes and buttons or twiddled knobs with that calorie-conserving efficiency that only a practiced gamer can call his own amongst delicately hand-painted and rusted street signs, individually torn fliers and speakers playing distant Chinese chatter and rat squeaks. The floor changed from bare concrete to plush patterned carpet with alarming rapidity once I walked past the escalators. Evidently the Japanese proclivity to thematic extravagance doesn’t stretch that far.
Every last detail was thought of. Plug sockets and vending machines had been covered with grimy sheet metal. Tiny windows opened out onto the main square, revealing tiny bedrooms and kitchens. Steam from leaky pipes hissed loudly as unsuspecting would-be photojournalists strolled beneath hidden motion sensors embedded in the rough concrete ceiling. The effect was eerie and strangely awe-inspiring
Given that the city was demolished in 1993, this strange arcade is the closest many of us will ever get to experiencing some part of what that bizarre few hectares must have been like (minus the smells, crowds, real rats, heavy drug use, gang violence, prostitution and claustrophobic reality of the place, of course) for those who lived there. I suspect, however that Dance Dance Revolution would have been a little harder to find.
In times of old, there was a demon with very sharp teeth. It fell in love with a woman, but this went sadly unrequited, with her resolving to wed a human companion. Seized by bitterness and anger, the demon secreted itself in a very particular orifice, and, upon consummation, forcibly cleft that one appendage which all gentlemen hold dear from his body. Apparently taking this disconcerting event rather more stoically than her (soon to be ex-)husband, the woman remarried, only to realise the effect of those precisely-placed dentures once again. The woman was understandably somewhat miffed that two in as many grooms had run screaming from her bedchamber trailing blood and masculinity, so she paid a local blacksmith to construct a (rather optimistically sized, I must say) phallus made of iron. The demon, fooled, broke its teeth upon’t, and left the woman forever, presumably leaving her to convince a third man to become her husband. Thence onward, the event was commemorated annually as Kanamara Matsuri. Ladies and gentleman, I give you,
The Penis Festival
Yes indeed. Three Brobdingnagian bishops were paraded through the temple grounds and down the street, amid great cheers and cries of happy laughter. Unfortunately I took an unexpected detour to Haneda Airport, meaning that when I did arrive I was forced into the most tightly packed crowd I have ever experienced. I think it’s safe to say we all learned something about fluid dynamics and crowd psychology that day. There were three in total, the first, which seemed to be metal (but not the John Thomas of the tale), was pulled by burly men. The larger pink pecker by blushing women, and a final wooden wedding tackle by older representatives of the community.
I was lucky enough to find myself standing right next to the stone torii (gate), opposite some ironic Frenchmen and with a clear view of each manoeuvring love muscle. This was the main commemorative event of the festival, and having already missed the daikon (radish) carving competition I let myself be carried in behind the stately procession of pork swords and into my colleague James. We solemnly prayed for fertility and delved in against the jubilant crowd.
A slight hush was apparent around one hut in particular. Upon entering, we saw not only hundreds of charms depicting historical and anime characters doing unspeakable things, but also the legendary longfellow itself. As hinted before, it was of a prestigious size, rising majestically a foot and a half from an anvil and about the width of my neck. The mechanics hardly bear thinking about.
Whilst James was buying himself some 金玉 (testicles) sake, my attention was drawn to the many people indulging in rather anatomical lollipops with absent-minded nonchalance, which was in itself more shocking than the objects themselves. After a long queue, I was able to purchase a couple of ‘kings’. Unfortunately, they were all out of ‘queens’.
Alas, when the rain came there was little to be done but meander home. If only for a few hours, the experience had been one of blissful juvenility mixed with knee-jerk conservatism at seeing an enormous wooden wonder weasel bestraddled by young children. However, when duty called I was only too happy to oblige.
But that is not the focus of this post
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.