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Published: June 17th 2015
Was Japan the most testing time of our lives to date? Possibly. Was it the happiest? Almost certainly.
My apologies for the lack of beautiful, relevant photographs. Not that our dear friend, Maho, is not beautiful - she is. But the vast majority of contemporary shots exist as hard copies sitting in a garage in Beccles England and are currently inaccessible. Frustratingly static I simply wanted to reminisce about travels past, even without the accompanying visuals.
We lived in Japan for two - too short - years (late 1996-1998) and have since been back on four occasions: for two weddings, one world-cup, and one serendipitous meeting. For us a brief blog about Japan is an impossibility: it is not a place that can be easily summarised, or essenced. Japan is, in many ways, even beyond India in terms of culture shock; it is just supremely different to anything a westerner has ever experienced. It has a magic, an innocence, a culture that transcends modernity, a people whose decency and honesty defies their “development”. It is unique.
Yes, we had the privilege of living and working there for two years: an experience that was, through the lack
of a viable alternative, essentially forced upon us, and one that Ali certainly wasn’t - initially - up for. In response, it blew our minds. Putting the experience into words has, for almost twenty years, just been beyond me. I don’t expect anyone to read this bloated rambling in its entirety; really it is a record for ourselves as (unlike travelling) we kept no diaries and already there are countless stories and memories that have, sadly, become hazy. Anyway, I guess you can only start at the beginning.
We arrived, sweaty, smoky (Japan Airlines were still very much smoking affairs) and exhausted at Tokyo’s Narita airport to be met by – amidst much reciprocal bowing - a sleek, dashing, Assistant Professor Hirono and the wonderful, sensuous, Tange-san.
You think you have experienced traffic-jams? If these don’t include the grid-lock getting into Tokyo, think again. An interminable period of time later we crawled into Shinagawa Prefecture, close to Tokyo University of Fisheries, where I’d be working. A short-term boarding house (a “weekly mansion” = miniscule studio of bedroom, cooking area and bathroom) had been pre-arranged. We were checked in, taken out to eat (at Denny’s: they had no idea what
such strange people might be able to consume), taken food shopping (I bought some extremely weird items just for effect: Denny’s is not my idea of a restaurant), returned to our lodgings for a quick shower, were given a tour of the laboratory, and then…. It was party time. The Japanese do not recognise jet-lag nor, as we were later to discover, any form of tiredness, fatigue, or exhaustion.
A “welcome party” is unavoidable; it is just the way it is done. And so there we were, wasted, with half-a-dozen undergrads, the same number of MSc students, four PhD students (including Tange-san: -san being a suffix used vocally to show respect for one’s peer), several technicians, Hirono-san, and god: Aoki-sensei (-sensei meaning “teacher”, but in this context “Professor”, although god would be a more accurate term). This was to be my (our) family for the next two years.
Ali and I sat, separated, uncomfortably self-conscious, at two parallel trestle-benched tables in a fairly brightly-lit, none too characterful, eatery/bar. We expected the worst. How wrong we were. The food was fantastic: wave-after-wave of twitching-fresh sashimi and luscious sushi, each accompanied with fiery wasabi and soy
(mix a dab of wasabi in your tiny saucer of soy and into it dip your sushi before taking a bite); subtly seasoned and beautifully grilled, or fried, whole fish; a myriad of salads, including the unknown daikon – a vast white radish, served shredded and dressed; a thick winter stew with lotus root; barbequed delicacies of whole squid and yakitori (tender morsels of meat, vegetables or sweet meats on skewers – the latter including the popular favorites of bird’s crops and chicken cartilage); and heavenly tempura (vegetables, tiny fillets of fish or humongous prawns deep-fried in the lightest, meltiest batter imaginable). Meanwhile, the drink…. Well, this beggared belief. You never pour a drink for yourself; it is impolite to do so. You need only have a single sip and someone will immediately top-it-up: there is no way of monitoring your intake. Not only that, but you sit there with beer glass, wine glass and saké glass (and for many, other additional glasses for whisky or Honshu as well), all of which they expect to be simultaneously full and are drunk in a seemingly random order. Apart from never filling your own glass there is no etiquette as to drinking
practice, just do so heartily. A polite recipient may (as they see the inevitable top-up advancing) raise their glass a few inches from the table and proffer it towards the pourer with deferential support for the glass provided with a flat up-turned palm; but, amongst friends, this is rarely performed.
Meanwhile, people happily smoke as the urge takes them, some even between mouthfuls. Peace Lights (the Lights is a total misnomer, they being stronger than B&H gold or Marlborough Red - although truly tame alongside standard Peace that I’ve never witnessed anyone fully inhale), with their white packet bearing a plummeting (moribund?) blue dove, were soon to become an all-time favourite.
Rapidly we started to relax. Our hashi (chopstick) skills, though extremely rusty, were met with appreciative nods; our keenness to eat raw fish with delighted amazement; and our appetite for liquid refreshment with unbounded encouragement. With the exception of Professor Aoki (a tiny amount), Hirono-san (some), Tange-san (quite a lot), and a girl named Maho-san - who would later become my personal mentor - (even more), nobody spoke English, although they were all trying their best to
do so, particularly as the booze flew down: they were delightful. After an hour much of the shyness had vanished; everyone was swapping seats, talking animatedly and posing for photos (Ali being particularly in demand with the young lads). We even joined in the shouts of “sumimasen” (the beckon for attention - which typically equates to requesting more alcohol), having been assured that this is not like a crass "hey, garcon"; it is just the way things are done (how many times will I write that?). It is certainly not being rude - the Japanese do not do rude. They also do not tip, for anything. That is considered unnecessary, unseemly, and in many circumstances... rude.
Exactly on two hours the party abruptly halted; all parties in Japan lasting for precisely 120 minutes. We were, however, moving on… to karaoke. Ali flashed me a pained look. Little evokes panic in either of us as rapidly as the threat of karaoke; the thought of having to get up on stage and demonstrate our tone-deaf voices, even half-cut, fills us with dread.
The venue was not as we’d expected, it being a block of flats. Really. We got
in an elevator and then popped out in what looked like a rather nice hotel lobby. Then we were led down a series of corridors passed numerous smoked-glass-doored rooms from whose dark interiors emanated muted strangled cries.
We arrived at our "booth" that was dominated by a giant central table surrounded by fixed padded seating and, at one end of the room, a vast screen and mixing desk equipped with multiple microphones. Food (we'd just eaten?) and drink orders were rapidly taken (available around the clock in the majority of such establishments) and phoned through to reception. Desperately scrabbling though the vast catalogue (fortunately multilingual) I chanced upon the Sex Pistols: "Anarchy in the UK", the track that was to cement my position in Japan. I duly delivered it with drunken vehemence and the professor... surreally… well, he liked; and not long after he'd signed me up for "God Save The Queen". By now, almost paralytic, my Johnny Rotten impression was truly, convincingly, repulsive and my rabid gesticulating, now from atop the table, was met with yelps of delight: jeez, I was a natural. Many months later - and now knowing him quite well - I presented Aoki-sensei with
a plaque stating "Work hard, play hard", for this really was his mantra and, as tough as he was/is, he certainly respected someone who could do both. Fail on the first, however brilliant, and you were doomed. Not have an inclination for the second and equally you would not go far, if he had anything to do with it.
On an aside... Somewhat later in the year, during a visit by Ali's conservative, extremely respectable and sober parents, we took them to karaoke (a bizarre notion I admit). Here, her mother - possibly having overly embraced the evening's previous hospitality - on seeing her next track announced, literally dived for the microphone and in so doing knocked over a table of full glasses. However, gone was her lady-like decorum and no rapid mopping/clearing-up ensued; instead she belted out the particular number oblivious to our amazed, sodden states. It was also on this night that Ali discovered her father had a really rather fine singing voice.
Every day at the University started with cleaning. In Japanese universities there are (certainly were) no cleaners and every morning we were all out with buckets, mops and brooms.
That said, the pressure to achieve (the terror of presenting - every week - at the dreaded Monday afternoon lab meeting) meant that numerous students actually slept in the labs, particularly over the weekend if they hadn't had a productive week (there were sleeping bags stored in the labs for the purpose). This, of course, made the labs somewhat less than sterile and, in all honesty, the lab less productive than it might have been: exhausted students rushing in blind panic from one task to another inevitably led to mistakes (and to subsequent repercussions...). You would regularly see some poor student performing the unpopular jobs of boiling used pipette tips, packing the autoclaves and re-stocking tip boxes: having been sent to Aoki-sensei for punishment following a poor test performance or inadequate assignment.
Rather amusingly a shattered Aoki-sensei would sometimes fall asleep during the lab meeting. No one laughed out loud.
What was rather beautiful though was the camaraderie that went with this stress. Admittedly I was only a "gaijin" (foreigner) and was almost expected to disappoint. Equally my career did not depend on the professor's view of me. Nevertheless, ultimately, I was thought to
have behaved like a Japanese, and was, to a certain degree, respected as such. This is high praise indeed because no gaijin is ever truly considered as a Japanese, no matter who you might marry or sire, how long you might live there, how fluent your language ability or how learned your knowledge of Japanese culture and nuance (and of the latter three I was largely pants).
The working day began at 8 a.m. (check-in on the white board) and no-one should leave before all their superiors have departed: for a Masters' student that even equates to a fellow student who is older than themselves. Certainly they could never go home if a PhD. student were still in residence, much less if a post-doc (like myself) or, heavens forbid, the Prof was still there (which he invariably was until 8 p.m.). However, as grim as this sounds, at 12 p.m. we would all go eat lunch together in the canteen and then play sport for an hour. Often this would be softball (so the girls could also partake - and we had the best team at the University), although, on my arrival, it increasingly became football (in
which the girls could - though only a few did - also take part). And then, post-work, like at no other institution I have ever worked, we went out to really play; and how we played. Individuals passed-out at izakayas (bar/restaurants) through fatigue or drunkenness (only to be carried on to the next venue); whilst on leaving karaoke we were regularly disorientated to discover Tokyo in brilliant, dazzling, daylight. Often the switch between partying and work was so transient that the whiff of alcohol emanated from your neighbour’s breath rather than their DNA precipitation technique. We worked damned hard, but we played even harder. We aided and supported each other. We had a ball.
One thing Ali and I were told before I accepted the Japanese position was that you will
be well received, but don't expect to make real, lasting friendships: almost twenty years on and two of my dearest friends in the world are from that laboratory.
As a foreigner attempting to live in Japan is no easy matter. You want to rent an apartment then you must have a sponsor; whilst as a Japanese, vouching for a foreigner is a very
serious matter. We lived in a suburb of Tokyo named Heiwajima and a more gentle, genteel, environ near a big city is hard to imagine: a maze of winding narrow streets of local shops intermingled with houses, shrines, tiny parks and eateries. That said, there can surely be no safer Capital City in the world: whether that is for a woman to walk home alone late at night; or where any visitor (or inhabitant) has to worry so little over the security of personal possessions. Countless times we forgot handbags, day packs, wallets, sunglasses, even - drunkenly, on more than one occasion - our shoes (always left outside on entering a room/building), and without fail they always found their way back to us, usually delivered by some out-of-breath Samaritan running after us. Of course there are one or two exceptions. During the rainy season you leave your umbrella outside a shop/restaurant at your peril (which is why many proprietors provide small plastic sheaths in which to insert your brolly, thereby allowing you to bring it along without trailing distasteful drips). There again, everyone merely views an umbrella as a transient possession. If all have disappeared from a rack and it
is still raining then, almost without fail, the proprietor will loan you one; hell, they were often forced on us.
Whilst on the subject of crime (the-lack-of), I am reminded of a particularly galling tale.... One morning, maybe a year in, we woke with heads throbbing and descended the stairs to our bijoux living room, its windows - as usual - wide open. Things seemed a little out-of-place, just not quite right. For some reason I checked on our stashed money: everyone in Japan has piles of money lying around (people always pay in cash and there were/are minimal interest incentives to store it all in banks; you get paid, you draw a load out and then live off it). It seemed the money had gone. I checked some other places, with similar results. Just then a neighbour rode by on her bike and Ali relayed our increasing fears: that we'd been robbed. Five minutes later the surrounding streets were full of police, police with megaphones… A loose translation of their broadcasts might equate to "citizens, you should all be ashamed; how could you let esteemed visitors be robbed before your very eyes". We had two fingerprint teams dusting
the house, the local Superintendent consoling us and assuring a rapid resolution and dire consequences for the despicable offenders. Over the coming days we received numerous house-calls with people expressing their distress and sorrow as to our plight, whilst others provided gifts of homemade foods. Then, a week or so later, I retrieved a pair of trousers from the wardrobe. This was a pair of trousers that I’d not worn in a while; it was also a pair of trousers with a monstrous bulge in the pocket. They were literally stuffed full of cash. Quite what I must have been thinking that earlier night, how I’d subsequently forgotten it the following morning, and then how it had manifested... to... I was mortified. But, did I come clean to the police (or the neighbours)? To my shame, I did not. Ali likes to remind me that in 28 years of us being together that must have been the only time I have ever hung my trousers in the wardrobe upon undressing.
Anyway, I should stick to the chronology and embarrass Ali instead. For me the first three months were not based at the University but, instead, consisted of eight-hour-days of
Japanese language lessons (with all the humiliation they entailed), held (for that year's contingent of Royal Society Fellows) on the other side of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Ali found two jobs.
Being an English nurse who didn't - not unreasonably - speak fluent Japanese (and there being no ex-pat hospitals requiring someone of her ilk), Ali needed to find something else to occupy her time. Through The Japanese Times she learnt of a school requiring an English teacher. She had no qualifications or experience, but was able and willing. Alas she didn't get that job, but the owner recommended her to his brother, Peter, who also owned an English school. Peter, who does a fair rendition of Pistols' songs himself, did indeed employ her. And he has repeatedly over the last 18 years - bless him - offered her the managership of his school, Kings. He remains a good friend to this day; and has only recently, sadly, after something like 30 years, just sold Kings. Omori will never be quite the same.
Not knowing she was about to be offered that job Ali applied to a different, Japanese-owned school and, in the face of imminently
more qualified opposition, acquired the position with the masterful post-interview question of "I believe it is Girl's Day in Japan today. Do you know where a good place would be to go and view the graduating girls?" The Japanese owner (after his Canadian son-in-law’s translation) revealed where she might do exactly that and stated that none of the other candidates had shown anything like Ali's interest in Japanese culture and that the job was hers'.
This is a running theme in Japan: it isn't necessarily what you know that will see you do well, it is how you portray yourself and how you are perceived that counts.
At this stage we had been in Japan for about a month and Christmas was upon us. Obviously, it being Japan, we both worked. However, one of my Japanese language teachers (at a school situated over an hour away by train) – by the hugest of coincidences – actually lived on our street and, extremely kindly (particularly as it is their most special family day of the year and bearing in mind – as you’ll see – the Japanese take almost no holidays), invited us to spend
New Year with her family.
Smartly dressed we arrived punctually with gifts of flowers and traditional boxed seasonal sweets in hand, removed our shoes, greeted the extended family with deep respectful bows and took our places at the beautifully-laid low table. For the next hour or so we engaged in polite, genteel conversation, nibbled on traditional delicacies and consumed vast quantities of exquisite chilled sakés (the combination of generous attentive hosts and slightly uncomfortable formality seeing the deceptively pungent nectar fly down our throats). A little later Ali excused herself to use the bathroom and stood on somewhat shaky legs. On returning to the dining room her gracious persona had morphed into something much less suited to benign pleasantries: her speech was a drunken slur, her eyes glazed and unfocusing. Almost immediately upon re-sitting she was imploring me to take her home. But, I tried to reason, the meal had hardly begun, how could we possibly leave just then? That was until the expletives began to tumble uncontrollably from her mouth as she lolled and almost fell backwards from her cushion... Amidst my humble cringing apologies, with her arms slung over my and Mr. Taneka's shoulders, we
carried Ali out and back home. With Ali safely tucked-up in bed I turned to leave the bedroom, to which she jack-knifed upwards and vomited over the futon. I stripped the futon, re-made the bed and nipped downstairs to wash the sheets. Thinking I’d heard her call out, I left the sheets soaking in the bath (a magnificent stainless steel construction only five feet long but well over three feet deep - sitting upright that is still almost up to your chin) and ran upstairs to be confronted by the mother of all vomit fests: it was all over her nightgown, matted into her hair, plastered into the tatami (woven-reed) floor panels and she appeared to be rolling in it. I was not amused. There was nothing for it but to carry her downstairs, eject the sheets, and wash her in the bath. Mission accomplished, I left her languishing in some fresh hot water whilst I went to tackle the bedroom floor. A mistake. A howl had me scurrying back to the bathroom to be greeted with a less than perfect smile leering over the bath's rim: one of Ali's front teeth now sheared across the diagonal.
On waking, painfully (apparently to a strange whistling sound that was emanating from her mouth), Ali inquired as to why we were sleeping on a mishmash of blankets on the floor. And, "oh my god, what happened to my tooth?". To her horror I related the tale. Mortified, she rallied and cycled round to the florists before visiting the Tanaka's to deliver a tearful apology.
The following morning a note appeared in our mailbox, from the Tanaka's. They were extremely distressed that they had so upset Ali; it was all their fault for making her drink so much saké. How could we ever forgive them? They so wanted to "share good neighbourliness". Of course, on the back of this, Ali and my teacher Ms. Tanika, became firm friends.
Here, on Travelblog, Ake Och Emma dedicated a whole submission to the subject of Japanese vending machines. Indeed, they were absolutely accurate with their descriptions of their abundance (approaching six million machines) and array of dispensable items available. What shocks visitors from the rest of the world however is that almost all machines are located on the street with no security or “minders” and that products
such as cigarettes, cans and bottles of beer and saké are all readily available, with cash. Such temptation to minors could not be countenanced anywhere else in the world. Yet, years ago, the merchandise obtainable was way more bizarre. Only a year or so before our arrival one could also obtain used white panties. Yes, you did read that correctly. What amazes me is that there could have been such a market: the odd fetishist sure, but dedicated vending machines?
Of course the Japanese are infamous for their sexual kinks and whilst many of them are harmless (between consenting adults), others are truly unpleasant, if not downright illegal. Manga is everywhere and read by an incredible cross-section of the population. Much of it is stunning graphic art, although some Hentai (adult/erotic versions) have extremely dubious and worrying story lines. Ali and I have watched semi-pornographic game shows on mainstream television, such as the ones where scantily-clothed lady contestants wearing sound-activated vibrating devices have to race around an obstacle course of noise; this invariably leaves them writhing in apparent orgasmic torture. No doubt these would have pleased Benny Hill immensely. They are, I suppose, meant to be titillating,
but (ignoring their demeaning and degrading nature) merely provided us with gob-smacked mirth, much akin to Endurance and other equally surreal Japanese television. The Japanese retain a passion for schoolgirl uniforms (and the girls really do glue those baggy leg warmer-like socks to their calves – as evidenced regularly on my morning commutes), although it is unclear quite how extensive the practice is of schoolgirls (and young women posing as schoolgirls) exchanging sexual-favours for lavish (non-monetary) gifts (yes, I know that’s prostitution however it's dressed). Soap bars are, I believe, places where punters go to soap-up the staff - somewhat like dodgy massage parlors with role reversal. The Japanese have provided the English language with words for activities hitherto unnamed, such as bukkake; whilst their printed (legal) pornography (widely displayed in video shops) is far too commonly concerned with the distasteful activity of scat. Wow, I’m quite shocked as to my apparent insight into Japanese deviancy; although I do have to say that their intricate, ornate rope-bondage techniques (kinbaku) are a thing of unexpected beauty. Anyway, I only entered into this line of thought to mention more about panties…
One day Ali was hanging our washing out
to dry in the postage stamp-sized front garden. A woman neighbour saw her doing this and began gesticulating and shaking her head. Confused, but needing to dry our things, Ali continued before heading off to work. On her return she noticed that some items were missing: all of her white knickers, the coloured/patterned ones remaining unmolested… Now there's a business idea...
Anyway. Our first few weeks in Heiwajima were both delightful and bewildering; we were flummoxed yet fascinated by the most basic of things. How do you open a bank account, pay the rent, buy a rail card? The vending machines do indeed sell cigarettes... and chilled beer.... and tins of hot coffee or tea. There's a chilled beverage called "Pokari Sweat". Green tea is drinkable, sometimes deliciously so (particularly those variants containing blown rice), although the green tea ice cream is an acquired taste. Some restaurant windows display plastic models of the dishes available; in others you pre-buy vending machine tickets for your meal. Visually stunning "packed-lunches" may be bought in multi-compartment bento boxes; indeed they may be delivered to your place of work. Of course, most Japanese mothers lovingly prepare bento boxes themselves for their
family members. Women still scrub their doorsteps like they apparently used to in 1940s Britain. Barbers all perform wonderful head/shoulder massages, for free (don't even think of tipping). They also trim your nasal hairs, unasked. In markets, individual perfect apples are lovingly cradled in foam gauze, whilst the finest melons sit in ornate satin-padded boxes. There is a shop, Condomania
, that sells only prophylactics; another is dedicated to some creature called "Hello Kitty", whilst we were rapidly spending a fortune at the wonderful bookshop Kinokinoy
a. The largest department store in the world begins in the subterranean sprawl of Shibuya station. Shopkeepers wrap everything, beautifully, in tissue paper. In Izakayas, free drinks kept appearing from mystery benefactors. Certain individual's faces turn purple after the consumption of a single alcoholic beverage (this depends on lineage and inherited levels of alcohol dehydrogenase). Car parks literally stack the cars one atop the other on great hydraulic racks, whilst revolving platforms negate the need to reverse in tight entrance ways. The train's doors open in the exact position marked on the platform. The trains are never late. Guards bearing white gloves actually push from the rear to squeeze more bodies into the carriages. The extent
of the milling multitudes passing through mainline stations (several million in the busiest) during the morning commute is staggering; the uniformity of these be suited salerymen and women (company employees) further invoking comparisons with vast ants' nests. Those with colds wear a variant of a sanitary towel across their nose/mouth. A huge proportion of commuters appear to be deeply asleep only to awaken and alight the instant the three glockenspiel chimes (think Hi-De-Hi) that precede the doors opening on the Yamanote line announce what is, presumably, their stop. Taxi drivers also wear white gloves; their passenger doors swing open by way of a driver-operated switch and the headrests are protected by the sort of doilies your great grandmother had on the backs of her arm chairs. Our telephone has fax and scan facilities. The hand washing basin's water fills the toilet's flush. The toilet (not ours) may have an attached console to operate such delights as a heated seat and a retractable spout whose water jet cleans your bum. The pantry is a concealed hole in the kitchen floor. The ironing board stands only one foot high and you sit to iron. We have no oven. Real futons, on a
tatami floor, are extremely comfortable. There are dedicated rubber slippers to be worn in the bathroom. Katakana (one of the Japanese alphabets) translates directly into English, more-or-less. Earthquakes might strike at any time and are particularly surreal when experienced as a giddy sway from on-high. The Japanese are so gentle, and so beautiful and so giving, yet still so inscrutable and unreadable...
The weather was literally freezing - that sparkling other-worldly freezing that is as good as a snowless winter can get: clear, still days of pastel blue skies accompanied by billowing clouds of hoary breath, the chill cut by the sun's belligerent warmth that defies its oblique perspective; and bitter, crisp, pitch, yet star-studded nights.
On such a night we were walking home along the convoluted lanes illuminated by the glow of lacquered red paper lanterns, under which scripted split-curtains concealed the entrances to cozy dens. Hungry, but oblivious to what the various establishments might sell (in fact the type of split-curtain often defines the nature of the restaurant, whilst the characters - if you can read them - provide confirmation), we parted one such curtain and slid open the wooden door. Ducking
inside, the steamy yellow light revealed a 1950's US-style diner with the kitchen encircled by a formica-topped counter at which sat a few couples amidst the predominantly old men and suited salarymen. The aged proprietor, with white tunic and matching pill-box hat, beckoned us enter (in the Asian manner, with fingers pointing downwards), accompanied with a cry of "Irashai" (come in). Tentatively we did so, noticing that the menu consisted of dozens of strips of paper hanging from the walls. We sat, glancing around the counter at the delicate tidbits set before the other patrons and then looked blankly at the lists on the walls. At this early stage our Japanese extended to little more than ordering a beer which we duly did: "bin biru, ni-hon kudasai" (two bottles of beer please). Fujio-san spoke to us in Japanese (he spoke no English) and, registering our complete lack of comprehension, simply set about serving us as he saw fit. Regardless, he periodically chatted to us (predominantly to Ali - with her innate ability to feign understanding) and, with us still being present at closing, he shed his work clothes and insisted we join him on a trip to his brother's... restaurant.
Here he plied us with a further feast of sashimi before dragging us off to karaoke.
Fujio's would subsequently be visited at least once a week for the next two years. His seared bonito was to die for. He'd force vast quantities of steaming-hot saké - the glass tumbler filled until it overflowed into, and partially filled, it's wooden box holder - down my throat (Ali had already sworn off the devil's brew); we introduced the whole laboratory to his restaurant (and our great friend Hikima would later invite Fujio and his wife to his wedding); we celebrated numerous occasions in the (little used) upstairs tatami room overseen by a tiny, yet daunting, woman with a deep rasping whiskey voice; he entertained our visiting parents; hosted us during England's miraculous victory over the Argentinians in the 2002 world cup - making the costly error of offering free drinks to the house should England win; and we were forever to pester him into making batches of succulent "ebi dango" (deep-fried prawn cakes). Whilst sitting at the counter your bill would be updated in front of you with each successive order. This took the form of some strange tally system that
we never quite comprehended and we were always amazed at how little our bills seemed to be. On each subsequent visit to Japan we'd return and note with sadness his increasing frailty; and now, with the cessation of New Year cards, I fear he has surely retired to the karaoke in the sky where he is, no doubt, still belting out Elvis's "Blue Hawaii". Both he and his wonderful, diminutive, gentle wife were very special people indeed.
The quality, and range, of restaurants in Tokyo is surely unparalleled anywhere. Actually that is not true; it is not just Tokyo: everywhere in Japan beats the arse off anywhere else in the world when it comes to the quality of eateries. Here, profit (and don't get me wrong, Japan has some of the most expensive restaurants in the world) kowtows at the feet of pride in perfection, of respect for the ingredient, the dish and the recipient. Of course we ate primarily in Japanese restaurants, but also frequented an excellent Nepali, several great Thais, an amazing alleyway (covered by a tarp) East Asian establishment (whose hunks of succulent belly pork have never been surpassed) and an Italian with the best ever
maitre'd (of which more later). Japanese izakayas (bar/restaurants) alone come in dozens of incarnations and may be massive open-plan operations (much akin to German beer kellers), modern trendy hangouts with dark intimate interiors furnished in glass and chrome, or ancient, barely standing shacks with the aroma of wood smoke and low, cross-legged seating. Many have huge menus, whilst others are highly specialised. There are fugu restaurants (pufferfish or blowfish) whose chef literally holds your life in his hands - the gallbladder of fugu containing a lethal neurotoxin and whose sashimi (the most expensive there is) leaves your tongue tingling with its trace. There are garlic restaurants, cook-your-own omelet restaurants (okonomiyaki), places that sell but one type of noodle/ramen/soba (fat white udon noodles in a rich steaming broth are heaven - one of Ali's students owned a wondrous such establishment, with a true lost-in-time feel), others serve only eels, we even - mistakenly, but highly enjoyably - took my parents to a raw chicken restaurant. Where else in the world would you actually choose to eat a dozen variants of raw chicken (in all honesty some were marinaded in the fashion of ceviche and as such were not truly raw, although
all were amazing); indeed, where else in the world would you survive such an experience? Some places serve up two foot sections of tuna jaw bone to enable you to pick off the most tender hidden morsels, at others there are spider crab legs as long as your arm. In the northern island of Hokkaido the meal is finished with a vast bowl of rice broth flavoured with sour plum or green tea. There are also shady places that still sell whale, and, unwittingly, we did try it. Sadly, the bloody hunks of flesh were delicious. The shellfish available extends to abalone and giant sea snails; whilst the prime ingredient of a popular winter stew (motsu) is pig intestines. Many individuals' last meal - ever - is a another winter stew containing doey balls called mochi: they choke on the rubbery chunks. You may be passed your food directly from the chef by way of a wooden paddle (robatayaki); you may have each piece of sushi lovingly crafted in front of you, or you may simply help yourself from a conveyor belt that passes before your eyes (plates are colour-coded as to price: simply take them to the till to
be tallied up when you leave). If some of these dishes sound a little of an acquired taste then there are the ubiquitous crowd pleasers of tempura, yakitori, shabu shabu (meat fondue) or tsuskiyaki (meats cooked on a hotplate), whilst the cooked fish often rivals the sashimi. And the rice is simply unparalleled, anywhere.
You could wax lyrical indefinitely about Japan's food, but there is one staple that should, at all costs, be avoided: nato. This dish, cruelly presented to you at breakfast, consists of soy beans - how bad can that be I hear you say - fermented in bacteria. Its smell and taste - lying, pungently, somewhere between putrefaction and vomit - are well supported by its appearance: a matrix of stringy mucus. The Japanese swear by it. Many times I’ve asked people if they actually like it, to which the answer is always the same: "it's very good for you". Enough said. Indeed, the Japanese are famed for having the greatest longevity of any nationality, but they also lead the world in stomach cancer, the cause of which - I suspect - is nato. OK, maybe not nato; probably their fondness for salt.
Of the countless remarkable meals we experienced I am going to describe but two - ah, OK three, one of which I wasn't even present at. But, before I attempt to describe the Gordon Ramsey of all meals, I’ll have to say something of Japanese women who like to lunch. Ali, of course, had set about learning Japanese in her spare time, with predictably excellent results - results that laughed in the face of my intensive language sessions. During her lessons she met ex-pats who had acquired private students: these, typically, being wealthy Japanese ladies who were looking for an exclusive teacher with whom they could socialise and chat, in English. Ali was subsequently introduced to one such lady - and never have I met any woman more deserving of the title - who would go on to expose Als to some of the finer aspects of Japanese culture. The lady in question, Harumi, would pay Ali to accompany her to galleries, functions, to learn ikebana (the art of flower arranging) and calligraphy, watch the Sumo (wrestling), for cherry blossom viewing (from a private viewing gallery at one of the most exclusive hotels in Tokyo, with accompanying afternoon
tea), and to a succession of spectacular restaurants.
Actually, I have also had the pleasure of joining Harumi for lunch on several occasions. This particular time she took us to a restaurant where each individual table was in a separate grandiose private room, where we gazed out of the 25th floor window over an apparent wilderness of wild grasses and ferns (a clever deception) and where we were personally entertained by a gaggle of Geisha playing traditional ancient instruments as we ate. The food, it goes without saying, was exquisite. Regardless, as magnificent as it was, that restaurant pales into insignificance compared to where she took Ali one night. I have no idea if it even has a name. The establishment, whose chef previously cooked for the Emperor, has but two tables for four and hosts but a single sitting a night; the menu (a beautiful vellum scroll with handwritten calligraphy - which Ali was allowed to take away with her) changes by the month but is set and there are no choices, just seven perfect courses; photography is prohibited and bookings are taken at least two years in advance. Harumi and her husband go once a
month. The night Ali went (in place of Harumi's husband) the theme was fire and water. On entering the dimly-lit, yet glowing room it became apparent that the only illumination was coming from each table's centrepiece and was provided by hundreds of live fireflies. Each course would be presented amidst flames, on glowing coals, perched on steaming rocks or floating on water. The eye to detail and the sumptuous perfection of the flavours and textures were - apparently - awe-inspiring. Equally, we can only imagine quite how much a meal there must cost.
In fact, we are still in contact with Harumi and exchange food hampers at Christmas - the postage costs are crippling (I only hope they actually like Christmas pudding and mince pies). We have also hosted Harumi and her sister back in Scotland, although they opted for the rather grander setting of the Stirling Highland Hotel instead of our spare room.
On a more sobering note I’ll return to the Italian restaurant and its maitre'd. The first time we frequented this rather smart establishment we'd been out shopping and bar-hopping, we were laden with bags and thoroughly drunk already. Unfazed by
our scruffy, flip-flopped appearances and squiffy demeanor, the maitre'd safely stashed our shopping, made us feel totally welcome and saw to our every need with efficient, gracious ease. Somewhere around our second bottle of wine - maybe just after the pasta course - I leant back contentedly on my wooden chair, unknowingly perching precariously on its two rear legs on the highly polished wooden floor. The chair slipped, my legs flipped upwards, the table was kicked completely over and I was left, still seated, on my back. A waiter and the maitre'd rushed over and hoisted me, still sitting, back into an upright position and began to reassemble the table. Staff were rushing to replace the table cloth, our cutlery, to clear the broken glass. The restaurant was silent, transfixed on this obnoxious idiot who obviously couldn't hold his liquor. Ali, meanwhile, was attempting to salvage some dregs of wine from the broken bowl of her wine glass. This was quickly ushered from her mouth and I fully expected us to equally rapidly be ushered from the room. No. The wine bottle, that had been almost empty anyway, was replaced afresh. I was brushed down and assured that the floor
was really quite slippery; it was their fault entirely. Please, the main course would come at no charge. Well... Our surprise was only exceeded when, upon finishing our meal and thanking the staff for their amazing service, the maitre'd invited us to their first anniversary party: a free evening of food and wine that he promised would be a night to remember. And it was. Unfortunately, on about our third return visit the maitre'd had departed: he'd been head-hunted for an even grander affair. I only hope he was paid a fortune.
The Japanese are, I believe, the second least religious nation (of size) after the Chinese. There is, however, a religion that is specific to Japan: Shintoism. This, again I believe, centres around spiritual essences that may be gods, trees or even rocks. I do know that you ring a suspended bell before entering a Shinto temple and that the temples themselves are invariably stunning, old wooden affairs with lots of cross-laid wooden beams and ornately-styled tile roofs (some of the examples in the ancient Capital, Kyoto, are truly stunning), with grounds bearing tori (stonehenge-esque archways of bare, slender tree trunks, typically painted red), racks for
wooden prayer boards, and Zen gardens. They also hold rather fine shrine-carrying (Matsuri) festivals.
The first time we came across one of these we were shopping in the nearby town of Omori. There were a bunch of men sitting, almost on the street, around a grand, ultra-compact-car-sized, gilded shrine. The shrine sat atop, and roped to, a framework of four massive beams which in turn perched upon two great, waist-high, trestles. The men, many in little more than loin cloths, were surrounded by a mass of beer bottles. Intrigued, we enquired as to what was happening and were duly invited to join them in their guarding duties. This, it seemed, was the night before the prefecture's shrine-carrying festival; the shrine was on display and it was their duty to sit up all night and ensure it didn't walk-off. Obviously this duty necessitated a mighty stock of alcohol. Several hours later we bade them farewell and headed on home.
Less than a month later we were ambling back to ours in the dark when we noticed a glow and the sound of animated chatter coming from deep within the grounds of our own shrine in
Heiwajima. Knowingly, somewhat presumptuously and none too subtly, we popped into the nearby liquor store and bought as many beers as we could carry; then we went to inquire as to what was taking place. Of course we were invited to join them in their vigil and were subsequently asked if we'd like to help carry the shrine the next day as it was paraded around Heiwajima's narrow streets.
With somewhat fuzzy heads and minimal sleep we returned the next morning to be greeted by our house-rental agents (two delightful women, one of whom I had an almighty crush on) who promptly presented us with "Hapi" (festival jackets) and before long the street was bustling with others in similar attire. Most take no part in the carrying, but nearly all residents were out lining the streets, drinking beers and generally providing encouragement to those who would. A gang of around forty individuals surround the moving shrine and at any one time maybe a dozen or so bear its weight on their shoulders. The hulking framework of timbers is not padded, it is not even smooth. The shrine alone must weigh well over half-a-ton, and it isn't even
really carried: it is bounced along the streets. With each bouncing decent a beam thuds into your shoulder and sears against your skin. One of my companions - wearing but a loin cloth; white, somehow spat-like, sock/shoes with big toe isolated from the others; and a bandana - had an almighty callous, the size of an apple, on his carrying shoulder: he was a professional. Alongside the shrine, revelers danced and played bamboo flutes or drums whilst, for the carriers, the pain intensified. People enter and depart the carrying melee as they wish (can cope) and more than once I was dismayed to see a mere six of us under the daunting frame (health and safety???). Then, just as the pain became almost intolerable, we'd round a bend and sight two trestles waiting; we'd lower the shrine and collapse onto the road, as the locals rushed forwards with food and beer for us. Several hours later, after countless pit-stops, it was a drunken procession indeed (health and safety!!!). And then, as the sun set, we returned the shrine to the temple that was now lit by hundreds of lanterns, beneath which row upon row of low tables strained under the
weight of a feast and a fearsome amount of alcohol. Two hours later those remaining headed to a newly opened bar and from there my memory deserts me.
Every time we return to Heiwajima some new character (to my recollection) wants to remind us of that event - and our participation in it.
And whilst we are on the subject of festivals... I mentioned earlier that the Japanese take almost no holidays: they don't. You may be entitled to a week's vacation, but it would look bad if you took it, and people really don't. In two years I had four days' holiday and two of those were with Aoki-sensei on a pseudo-sampling trip to the island of Shikoku (equally this represented a year's holiday time for him also). Here we stopped off at another university, toured some laboratories, harvested some parasites and then headed on to a village of fishermen he knew. These leather-faced old sea dogs took us out in a boat sea-fishing (where Aoki-sensei was heartily sick - I, sensibly, pretended not to notice) and then on our return built a mighty fire, around which we sat all night as they plied us
with local sakés and delicacies from our catch.
However, I digress.
Although people don't take extended vacations, there are numerous public holidays and festivals, indeed apparently over 300 - rivaled only by India. Of these I know only a few: Girls' day (previously mentioned, also known as "Doll day" as this is seemingly the gift given) is where girls who have come-of-age congregate to preen in their finest kimonos; Boy's day is similar, without the kimonos (here the gifts are often carp-themed - for their symbolic strength - with windsocks being particularly popular); Bon (ancestral remembrance day) is symbolised by a bowl of rice with hashi/joss sticks sticking out of it, left by the front door, to greet the spirits of the departed - hence, never stick your chopsticks in your rice; Matsuri (shrine-carrying); Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and, in certain regions, Dashi festivals where towering siege-engine-like chariots bearing drummers are paraded around the streets at night. Not that most get a day off for any of these, although nearly everyone does for New Year's Day. O' Hanami (the O' goes before anything sacred) is a fun one, a kind of rambling festival that
lasts for as long as the blossom and for which groups of friends find a nice spot to sit and admire the cherry trees whilst drinking and eating excessively, picnic style. We have particularly fond memories of these with students and staff from both of Ali's schools.
As you can see, the Japanese are partial to the odd alcoholic beverage and there is no shame in becoming a little intoxicated, as long as you are a happy drunk. Indeed, it is a very common sight to see groups of red-faced salarymen unsteadily weaving their weary way home (far more so than youths who would be far too busy studying for their SATs, taking additional lessons, or playing sport: the young are heavily indulged until around the age of six or seven, when they simply knuckle-down). Of course, not all the salarymen actually get to go home at the end of the day: for many there just isn't the time what with early starts, late finishes, expected socialising with colleagues, entertaining corporate guests and lengthy commutes... Consequently, numerous workers stay in company-owned dormitories or in capsule hotels during the working week. Of the latter: whilst we've never actually slept in
one (a capsule), we have examined several. And they are much as you'd imagine: walls of pods somewhat reminiscent of a morgue, but with the doors replaced by curtains. There are also little ladders to enable you to clamber up and into your second- or third-tier capsule. Actually, they look quite cozy bearing a comfy, if snug, futon and covers, an alarm clock, locker, light, suspended TV and just about enough height to sit-up.
Obviously, being so intimately positioned and restrictive, these walls are not made of paper. Yet, in many abodes (old and new), in its traditional lacquered form, paper is still in common usage for room dividers, particularly sliding partitions. And, it has to be said, sliding paper walls and tatami-matted flooring are just so tranquil and soothing and sexy, and so damn quintessentially Japanese - if bloody impractical. I have, admittedly, wrecked a few.
I've mentioned baths in passing before and these are definitely still the preferred way to bathe in Japan. However, a bath is for relaxation, not washing. The washing occurs pre-entering the bath and not to be clean before getting into one is a serious faux-par. Washing is
usually performed whilst perched on a small shin-high stool and rinsing may still involve bucket and jug rather than a shower hose. Indeed, bathing itself is very much a communal event: most towns have a bath house (some private dwellings are simply too tiny to house a bath) and it is not uncommon to see an elderly couple wandering in their Kabata (thin cotton dressing gowns) with towels in hand on their way to their evening bath. There are also large establishments known as korhouses that are a very popular way to kick-back. Here you turn up, pay your money, gather your towels (large for drying and flannel-sized for modesty), enter the designated area for your sex, strip, stash your clothes, wash yourself and then alternate between lazing in steaming hot baths (often with naturally mineral-enriched waters) and re-invigorating yourself in bracing cold pools - your passage between pools accompanied with just your vanity flannel; although, in my experience, most men seem to prefer to keep a cold flannel on their head. There are rumours that the old fallacy (think western swimming pools) of urine-activated dye are actually fact here. I didn't test that one out, but loved the surrealism
of the whole event, not least meeting up in the communal (mixed-sexed) area where you might choose to chill in a cinema full of toweling dressing gown-clad relaxees to watch a latest release.
Then there are the (mainly northern) Onsen - the manifestation of the very best of dreams - which, I have to admit, we have never (yet) experienced. Here, you might relax in a rock pool fed by hot volcanic waters, with just heads exposed to the sub-zero temperatures, as the snow settles around you and staff hurry to you with another beverage; your loved-one locks legs below the steamy haze and you both gaze beyond to the cruel, cold mountains.
Whilst the latter paradise might take a little effort/planning/cost, the following doesn't.. Omit the mountains and service, but central Tokyo (Ueno) has a Ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) with a bath almost as majestic. It is also as cheap as Tokyo Ryokans get: Sawanoya is its name. I wish I could say that the staff are unpleasant, the rooms grim, the breakfasts terrible; but none of that is remotely true. It is a real peach. I love everything about Sawanoya, particularly its
romantic semi-outdoors bath - just don't hog it for too long... Believe me, you would not like the place. Please do not go: you may take a room we require.
Japanese hospitals. It is hard to be objective about the Japanese medical system when you live in the United-States-of-monstrous-insurers; but, fuck me, I have only superlatives for its magnificence. I broke an arm playing football; I had no insurance, but the treatment was immediate, efficient, cheap and - quite importantly - painless. On a later visit some fool fell backwards through an open window (admittedly aided by a slippery sleeping bag on tatami flooring) onto the balcony below, gaining a magnificent gash to his head: the taxi driver had no hesitation in sacrificing his pristine chapel, the receiving nurse (contrary to Ali's supporting advice: "he's too pissed to feel pain, just stitch the idiot") was an angel and her delicate suturing took close to an hour. Really, the Japanese are special, far more special than certain people deserve.
On that note, I am reminded of just how unique the Japanese are: the 2002 world cup. Matches would, often, finish after the trains - should - stop
running: they didn't; they ran on. You came out of a stadium to be greeted by a column of English-speaking volunteers bearing free food and water, plus guidance – if required - as to where you needed to be. People who were feeling angry, maybe because their team had just been eliminated, couldn't help but be pacified. This wasn’t a charged world cup of huge passions. But it was one, like no other I have ever experienced, of friendship and companionship, without even a hint of potential nastiness. One day, between England games, we and our friends - clad in Japanese football shirts and rising-sun face paint – sought out a venue to watch the Japan match. We located a basement bar, more akin to a subterranean nightclub, that was packed with hundreds of passionate Japanese fans. We joined in the chanting of “Ni-pon, Ni-pon”, shared their agonies at near-misses and, ultimately, consoled those around us upon the Japanese defeat. Without exception the local fans were delighted that we were there to support their team. We had swapped round-upon-round of drinks, handshakes and hugs. And then, bizarrely, after the climax, we were pushed forwards through the crowd and onto the
stage before one of the giant screens. Rather dumb-struck we four westerners stood there, isolated, as the whole assembled crowd enveloped us and... applauded. Really, only in Japan…
Japanese weddings are often, now, Western-style, with the bride attired in what we would consider a typical white dress. This is the in-vogue scene for youngsters. Thus was Sonomi dressed when she married Hikima. Maho, however, stuck with the traditional and was - as you have seen - in kimono and severe geisha-esque wig. Her Dutch husband, Remko (a rather Japanese sounding name), gamely also wore traditional dress. The Shinto ceremony is quite something involving snake-like processions led by a priest with shark-finned headwear brandishing a large wooden spatula and accompanied by female acolytes resembling virginal druids. There is much banging on drums, tinkling on bells and - ultimately - much drinking of sake. Of course there has to be room, in the post-party party, for some karaoke also. At Hikima's we had to make a speech in Japanese (Ali handled the difficult parts); at Maho's it was merely in English. They were both beautiful, special occasions that we were so grateful to have been a part of.
I should mention bullet trains (shinkansen), but they merely live up to all you would expect of them: beautiful, pristine, smooth-riding, rapid beasts; nevertheless, they are extortionate: with prices equivalent to flying. Tokyo station is a good spot for shinkansen spotting and there are numerous glorious incarnations.
Tokyo itself has so many wonderful, strange, beautiful, atmospheric, or plain crazy haunts: Akehabara for every imaginable electrical good, and a few more; Ueno for its market strung beneath the elevated railway; Omote Sando - on a Sunday - to watch the crazy mélange of rock-a-billy bikers, goths and transvestites - the latter particularly spectacular with rotund middle-aged men dressed in frilled baby-doll costumes; Rappongi (the ex-pat epicenter) with its clubs and dodgy bouncer overseers (OK, skip Rappongi - we only ever went once); the Emperor’s palace with its lush gardens and moat bearing huge carp; the countless haunting shrines and the odd ancient fort (giant, wooden, tottering, multi-tiered houses that resemble bloated pagodas); Tsuji fish market - possibly the biggest in the world, but certainly the best, with its surrounding eateries offering up some of its finest produce (get there very early to catch the tuna auctions and have
an unforgettable breakfast); the view from atop Tokyo tower (or, for free, an almighty building in Ikebukuro whose name escapes me); a languid cruise down the river, particularly at night (hell... get some mates together and do a feast/karaoke cruise)... There are Pachinko parlours - the Japanese gambling version of bagatelle - whose incessant noise defies belief and modern (really modern) game arcades complete with their instant photo booths (unlike any you've ever encountered - again be prepared for more migraine-inducing noise). Or, simply ride the Yamanote line (the pale green loop) and hop off as and when takes your fancy; wander, relax and embrace.
We know a miniscule bar, literally packed with racks of LPs, where you may select one for the proprietor to play - just beware: his knowledge of music may even surpass that of Dancing Dave; another that let me DJ, although I had to stick to rock music; many hosted solo by serene, attentive older ladies for whom nothing is too much trouble; others by far younger attentive ladies whose hostessing comes at a price; those resembling Amsterdam chill-outs, or where an open party is always available; and yet more where the
gravity and mysticism of the traditional setting make saké the only possible drink of choice.
Tokyo's dichotomy of the hustle and bustle, neon, vast milling crowds and total modernity, against the equally accessible tranquility, peace, ancient tradition and reflection are truly a wonder. The rest of Japan is simply even better. People will wow you with their gentle interest, kindness and humility. Monetary issues aside, there simply are no negatives.
I haven't even touched upon the beauty of Kyoto, Nara or Nagano, Hiroshima's haunting city of peace, or Hokkaido's Hakodate. Oh, and did I mention the food. It is Ali's favourite country on earth and it is hard to argue against her view point. We love it and we love the Japanese. We are so grateful for the way it has received us time and time again. And we have truly been blessed in the friends we have made there.
Seriously, Japan may be the finest country on earth.
Photos of Hikima, Somoni, Katagiri, Tada, Kai Buchi, Naka, Tange, Nam, Mizushima, Aoki, Fujio, Harumi, Peter, Carl, Will, Mark, Shoku, Lee, Andrew, the Tanaka's, (an even younger Maho) and
many others to be added as soon as possible. Thank you all for two very special years. xxx
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