Toyko 2012

So I just got back from a week in Tokyo. A place that’s been pretty much top of my ‘places I’d like to go’ list for about ten years. Actually I don’t really have a ‘places I’d like to go’ list. I’m not one for wanderlust, Tokyo pretty much was my list. Travelling over. Time to stay home forever.

But anyway, it was both exactly as I’d expected and completely different. A baffling and exhausting place – I managed one hour’s sleep the second night despite being utterly tired out, which I partly put down to my brain parading memories from the previous two days. If sleep and dreams are how the brain consolidates memories then mine was obviously struggling with unexpected volumes.

Tokyo is huge. Think of the biggest place you can, it’s bigger than that. Twice as big in fact. The famous Hachiko crossing (the one from the iconic shot in Lost in Translation, it’s named after a dog – like the Tokyo Greyfriars Bobby) could comfortably contain the whole of Dinas Powys village square. Everything is much further away from everything else than you think it would be.

To find your way around the subway, just follow this simple map.

If you’re used to going round London on the tube, hopping off and your destination being a few minutes’ walk away then Tokyo is nothing like that. You will get off the subway (assuming you manage to navigate that) then find yourself another 20 minutes walk from where you need to be. You will go the wrong way. A lot. The buildings are numbered according to the order they were built, so assuming you can find a number on them you can’t just assume that building 16 and 17 will be anywhere near each other. Oh to be a Japanese postman…

Thankfully for a couple of days we had a guide in the form of my friend, former Applicants frontman, Fidel Villeneuve. He’s currently six months into a stretch teaching English in Japan, starting to learn the language, and with the partial help of an iPhone app can decipher menus, road signs and such. He took us to a few really good places we wouldn’t otherwise have found.

He also managed to get me a gig there which was nice. I played as Pagan Wanderer Lu – which isn’t the plan for future gigs in the UK – so Tokyo may well go down in history as the place where PWL did his last show. That went well. Though the japanese habit of not automatically clapping every song was unnerving. I assumed they straight up hated me, or just didn’t get it. But then Fidel pointed out they weren’t clapping any of the other bands either. I got lots of comments and interest afterwards which was nice.

Part of my mission in Tokyo was to find some CD’s by Aiha Higurashi, or ideally by the band she used to front – Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her. This is a band I got into at university – I bought their CD based solely on the band’s name and a photo of them. They are trendy, brightly dressed japanese women toting guitars. Their music is quite eclectic and sort of naive. All sung in english, and superficially quite fucked up. Aiha’s lack of depth in her english makes it come across as a little clumsy, but I think the words do reflect some genuine messed-upness on her part, and therein lies the charm. The production is also usually really cheap sounding, not in a lo-fi way. Just in the way that everything’s completely bone-dry. Maybe that’s an aesthetic choice, or maybe the production is as lacking self-awareness as the lyrics are…

My favourite SSKHKH track is ‘No Star’ which includes the lyric ‘I was walking down the street mellowly, on the street there’s no need to hurry (…) I was bit of like outside looking in (…) you never know you a real one star’. Great stuff. I managed to buy two new records by her. Unsurprisingly Tokyo record stores are hard to navigate when you have zero knowledge of Japanese writing. So I had to ask every time.

It turned out Fidel has met Aiha since moving to Toyko and had her mobile number. So he did invite her to my gig, but unsurprisingly she didn’t turn up. Sian asked me what I would have said to her if she had turned up. I didn’t know, ‘I love your music – partly because it’s a bit rubbish’ didn’t seem appropriate.

We were staying in Shinjuku, one of the most bright-lightsy bits of Tokyo, along with Shibuya where I’d played the gig. So it was only a few days before we felt the need to get out of the city a bit. We took a trip to Kamakura, where there are clustered many quite important Buddhist temples, and beautiful Zen gardens. Apart from the background rumble of the trains this was a beautiful and peaceful place and we took a hike through the mountains to get to see the iconic Daibutsu/Big Buddha.

We also did karaoke with Fidel and his girlfriend Nana. Even Sian did a song. Karaoke in a private booth seems to make sense in the way British karaoke in a pub doesn’t. When it’s just you and people you know it becomes a much more communal experience, without the big stage and the element of competitiveness and proto-X Factor stylings you find elsewhere.

Name that tune.

We also played video games at a couple of the massive multi-story arcades. These are truly overwhelming places. The noise, the lights, the seriousness of the gamers. They feature in every travel documentary you’ll ever see about Tokyo – but still when you’re actually there they can be quite suffocating. The games are fun though!

If part of my longstanding desire to see Tokyo originally came from liking Seagull Screaming… then more recently it’s come from my love of Japanese food, and sushi in particular. Japan is a very difficult place to be vegetarian, which Sian is. In Japan fish is basically considered a vegetable, so whilst you could talk your way to an omelette in most places, it’s often hard to tell from the outside if a restaurant is going to be able to feed us both.

Nonetheless I managed to eat most of the things on my wishlist. We had okonomiyaki in Kamakura, this is an egg and batter based dish full of cabbage and onions and other ingredients of your choice. Fidel says it ‘looks like sick’, and he’s basically right. It’s kind of an omlette, but I’ve also seen it described as a pizza. The ingredients come to you raw and you cook it yourself on a hot plate. The main selling point is okonomiyaki sauce, which is a bit like worcestershire sauce, mixed with soy sauce, but a bit thicker.

I didn't take a picture of the okonomiyaki so here's a picture of a fish biscuit.

I also ate takoyaki – deep fried octopus balls, yakitori – barbecue skewers of offal and other meat – at a great authentic/almost falling down restaurant in Kichijoji where Fidel was living until recently, they also did some absolutely amazing gyoza.

I also ate quite a lot of sushi. Including an early morning pilgrimage to Sushi Dai at the Tuskiji market. This is not some expat welshman’s sushi chain, but a sushi bar at the enormous central market where they have the famous tuna auctions. I arrived there just after 7am and there was a queue of about ten people in front waiting for a seat at the tiny bar. I waited about an hour (it was cold), to have the omakase or ‘trust the chef’ menu. This was eleven pieces of nigiri (the little pillows of rice – usually with a slice of raw fish on top) chosen by the chefs. It was great, beautifully fresh fish – probably caught that morning. In one case we were served a piece of clam that was literally still alive and squirming its last when he set it on the counter. That one didn’t bother me as much as the uni – sea urchin – which was quite a step into the unknown, it was actually delicious. Melt-in-the-mouth creamy and so so fresh. Totally sold on it.

If Tsukiji was my pilgrimage then Calico ‘Cat Cafe’ was Sian’s. Cat Cafe’s charge 1,000 yen (about £7) to hang out with a room full of cats for an hour and drink coffee and tea. They’re for people who can’t afford their own cat, or who want to be able to select from a variety of cat breeds. It’s an odd place. We went twice. I was particularly attached to one cat called Kemeko who had a hilarious squashed face and moustache combo. I just sat and laughed at her for about ten minutes. The website’s google translate describes her thus: “Always have to sleep, sometimes awkward like robots and moving up”. The second time there was a couple there who were just reading their manga books the whole time. Not really paying attention to the cats at all. Why not just go to a regular cafe?

Kemeko the cat.

Whilst I found Shinjuku and Shibuya a bit overwhelming, the smaller sub-town bits like Kichijoji and Kamakura had a good feel to them. The very formalised japanese culture leads to a feeling of all round politeness. Every shop you go into you’ll find most staff members greet you automatically. There’s clearly a polite way to hand people their change, and of course the constant bowing and nodding. You feel safe and welcome there. People smile and it feels like they mean it. You find the same thing in America and Canada in my experience. Not always here in the UK.

I asked Nana whether she feels Japanese people are generally happy. The first thing she mentioned was last year’s earthquake and the sense of national sadness. That alone I found quite telling, that a natural tragedy should be assumed to play on the national mood. When I probed a bit more she spoke about the way Japanese people are encouraged to think of themselves as part of a group. I think this chimes with the general western perception of Japan, but she wasn’t sure whether this increased happiness or not – talking about how people work very hard, and sometimes feel stifled by it.

A train watches helplessly as it hurtles towards a small child.

To me what characterised the japanese people, based on my very limited exposure as a gaijin for a week, was a lack of cynicism. Things like cat cafes and giant amusement arcades, as well as slightly less wholesome things like ‘maid cafes’ just wouldn’t work here. There’s more virtue in obsessiveness, if you have one abiding all-consuming passion here in the UK it’s viewed as a sign of being a bit weird (unless that passion is football). In Japan it seems to be more acceptable. Guide books speak of people traveling hundreds of miles to taste a mushroom that only grows for a few days a year.

I’d like to go back to see a bit more below the surface which I’ve only really scratched. But I don’t know if Japan would be somewhere I’d want to call home.

Yes! We're all individuals!

Firstly there’s the culture of conformity, which creates a nice environment and helps people know their place. That’s an undervalued commodity, in the rush to individualism and living life to the full people can feel swamped by choice, or like failures if they don’t capitalise on this supposedly massive untapped potential every human being has. There’s comfort in security in feeling that you have done your best up to a certain point which you could never have surpassed. Obviously that’s intrinsically unfair, and means that people who never had a chance never get a chance. But as animals its in our nature to want to know our place. For me as someone who strives to make things which reach beyond the average and everyday I don’t know that a culture like Japan would suit me.

Also Japan’s attitude to women is a bit fucked up. We saw a truck driving around promoting some singer’s new album, with a photo on the side of her wearing very little bending over and showing her arse (no photo sorry – but we did also see a lorry with Thomas the Tank Engine on it). We also saw an instore appearance by a pop idol style group of six teenage girls in extremely short skirts. The crowd were almost exclusively middle aged men who were chanting along with every word of the songs, and – being seated on the floor – probably had quite a good view of what they might really have come to see.

The song they were singing went 'suki suki suki'.

Posters on the subway advise you to ‘beware of upskirting’ – i.e. of men taking pictures up your skirt. But there are no posters saying ‘don’t take pictures up people’s skirts you pathetic creepy arseholes’.

Of all the western pop culture things, the one I was most surprised to see was a lorry with Thomas the Tank on it.

I went expecting to absolutely love it, but I came away with mixed feelings. I was fascinated by it, I enjoyed myself, and I did ultimately like it a lot. But I didn’t have the same sense of deep connection I did to say Reykjavik or Bologna. When I think of those places it can only be described as being homesickness. Like I feel when I think of Manchester. I miss them. With Tokyo I want to go back, but sort of to check whether it was real…

I think the best way to experience Japan is probably to do what Fidel’s doing and just immerse yourself in it for a year or two. I don’t think the richness of the place can be covered in a short trip – though there are plenty of amazing things to see. Living there would be a challenge, but one I have to say I’d be quite tempted by.