Sunday, December 26, 2004

Yoyogi, Harajuku


Musak, instant snow,
Buy cakes, gifts, spend and spend.
Tokyo Christmas.

It’s snowing up in the Yebisu Center. At 5 p.m. and 6p.m. every evening the snow machines blow flocks over the gasping crowd, who capture this magical moment on their digital cameras.

After the snowstorm they crowd around the gigantic Baccarat chandelier, on show from Paris, with the Rodin and Bourdelle statues in the background, and the 1996-vintage Hotel de Ville. And just over the road is the Tsutaya Culture Convenience Club.

In Yebisu it is Heartfelt Christmas. At the nearby Atre store it is Precious Christmas and Queen Christmas as the queues mount up to buy yuletide Christmas cakes, decorated with reindeer and Santa Claus.

And Santa Claus outfits are popular with sales girls, students at end of year parties, many of them in drag, sporting a red Santa Claus outfit over black tights, and little sausage dogs, who scamper around in their red coats and hats.

The public is allowed into the Imperial Palace grounds on 23 December, to wish Emperor Akihito a happy birthday. He laments the natural disasters from behind a glass partition, flanked by his sons, but Crown Princess Masako is still recovering from depression. A few middle-aged guys shout “Banzai, banzai, long live the Emperor. Tourists wave their free Japanese flags. Young Japanese are notable by their absence.

Boxing Day lunch is at Eminence, the surprisingly filling restaurant of a local hotel cum banqueting center, specializing in weddings. We find the Christian chapel, though I doubt whether it is consecrated. And a gringo friend may be invited to “officiate”. Wedding companies offer a menu of Shinto, Buddhist or Christian. For a special price you can combine more than one.

I gaze at the beautiful pike in the aquarium. But wait a moment! A minute ago they were carp!. And didn’t I see goldfish when I came in? I’ve been looking at a fish tank with a video of fish!

A pity, because over the road there is a shop selling tiny colourful tropical fish. The gardens in the tanks are tended beautifully, and each has a particular theme: one is rocky and bare, Zen-like; another is lush and deep green; a third is full of hidden nooks and crannies.

As we leave Eminence, the delegates arrive for the Tokyo Society for the Preservation and Improvement of Schoolgirls’ Uniforms. All are male, most around twenty, some with a grunge look. They are frisked as they go in, unusual in Tokyo, where security is lax. Discussions will take place, position papers will be given, designs will be compared. Then a cutey schoolgirl band will entertain delegates. I enquire about membership.

Chicken and yaksoba were also plentiful at the Postgraduate Student Party of the Dept. of Comparative Literature and Culture at the University of Tokyo. Mixing and mingling is a little restrained. Boys stay in their bands, and girls in their broods. The German Professor tells me: “At my class party yesterday it was the same. I asked about it and one girl told me she would love to talk to the boys but was worried about what the others would think…” The girls leave, and the boys go upstairs to finish off the half-empty bottles of scotch.

Yoyogi Park on Boxing Day is a buzz of activity. Doggies sport their Christmas attire; there are games of frisbee rugby; musicians play Irish folk music with bongo drums; a gringo DJ plays trance music; Elvis rockabillies dance and preen; boys and girls juggle a small rag ball with their feet. This is the successor of kemari, a game played by young Japanese nobles right from the 12th century, in which teams of eight in full kimono would have to keep a leather ball in the air as long as possible. Kemari was played amidst four trees, always a pine, a willow, a maple, and a cherry. Geisha looked on. Last year David Beckham was the idol of all Japan. Surely Beckham in full samurai costume, with a top-knot, would be the ideal way to both revive kemari and his own flagging career.

Harajuku is a fancy-dress party. On the bridge all shades of Gothic. From Byronic black through blood-spattered doctors just out of theatre to demonic angels. The Little Bo-Peep and Little Miss Muffet curds and whey look with bonnets and balloon skirts has now been in for a couple of months, and the latest is the Edwardian chambermaid, a long prim black dress, starched white lacy pinafore, and a prim and proper brushed-back look.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Ebisu

Professor Kurosawa and I lunch at Lever son Verre, the French restaurant on campus, 1,000 yen, US$10, for the setto menu. A salad, or rather a piece of lettuce, two inches by one, and the main course arrives: a square inch of cod on a bed of vegetables, or rather a slice of aubergine and a slice of carrot. Of course, beautifully laid out, as befits a Japanese French restaurant. I ask for more bread. Two thin slices come. Lever son Verre is packed. It has been on TV. Ladies come from all over Tokyo. Pleasant surroundings. Visit the campus.

Meanwhile, in the soba, don and ramen bars all over Tokyo, their husbands, anxious to get back to the office, are slurping their bowls of noodle in three minutes flat. Making noise when downing food is good form, at least in noodle bars.

We leave Lever son Dejeuner with our bellies rumbling. Is there a sadder experience in life?

I decide to follow fifteen-year-old schoolboys to the cheap cafes where they eat, for surely they have an insatiable hunger, and land in an okonomiyaki canteen, where a heavy floury pancake omlette is made on a grid in front of you.

The stodge fills me up for the next two hours, but I am hungry again. Biscuits and chocolate at one of the ubiquitous convenience stores must be the solution. I am pleased to see my favourite McVities Chocolate Digestives. But there are no jumbo-sized packs in Japan. A small elegant box, in which I find four small packs of cellophane each containing four downsized Chocolate Digestives. Then I buy a pack of Mini Milk Chocolate Biscuits to keep me going till later.


In a moderately priced restaurant in Shimokitazawa the sashimi and sushi is beautifully laid out on a bed of finely cut vegetables, placed on a flat rectangular dish with slightly curling corners, emblazoned with kanji. We admire the design, ask after the porcelain, discuss the layout, and might even pick at a couple of slices. But the waitress is actually surprised when I ask for a big bowl of rice to accompany the sushi and sashimi.

Restaurant going in Japan is primarily an aesthetic experience in which one pays 50, 60 dollars or more for a private show of ephemeral art to be discussed over wine or sake. Any idea of actually filling up your stomach is secondary. Better to have something at home before going out.


The art of designing confectionery, Wagashi, is, like Origami and Kingyo, the breeding of beautiful goldfish, one of those peculiarly Japanese arts. At the Atre Food Hall in upmarket Ebisu I buy a box of six bean-paste sweets. The grey-blue frosty wrapping paper is in itself too beautiful even to open. Then I find a polystyrene bamboo-like box containing the six sweets.

Number one is a ball of strips of the green of summer on one side and the brown of the soil on the other. Summer becomes autumn, and the brown is sprinkled with the winter snow. Number two is a snow like sphere, an igloo in winter, but with a gap at the top, a volcano, for Nature can never be completely dominated. Number three is a pink spring flower whose petals are about open while the yellow pistil at the centre welcomes pollinating bees.

We are in full summer in number four as the yellow chrysanthemum is beginning to bloom. But nature must be worked and produce, and number five is square of fertile black soil, with strips of green, fertility, harmony, late summer once again.But winter is again not far behind. Number six is pear-like, but with indented sides. It is a lush autumn brown, but covered with the hoary frost of winter.

Inside this small box
The four seasons of the year.
How can I eat them?

Rice and rice wine, sake, have semi-religious qualities in Japan. They are considered symbols of the Japanese nation and are eaten and drunk as part of formal ceremonies, during which the Emperor and dignitaries will formaly drink cups of sake and eat bowls of rice. At a shrine one early morning I saw a priest passing the cups of sake round to executives whose company was being blessed.

Of course wine at mass represents the blood of Christ, but such ceremonies would be more akin to Queen Elizabeth having the obligation of downing a pint of bitter and a bowl of boiled potatoes or Lula a goblet of cachaca on formal state occasions!


Tucked away in the corner of the Komaba campus is the tea house. I spy students going through the excruciating torture of sitting on their heels for hours on end and smell the matcha tea, the foul-tasting purgative green brew. And of course tea drinking is not just drinking tea but Zen: cultivating an inner field of consciousness and calm by sitting in a simple thatched hut with a beautiful view, listening to the iron kettle boil while the wind rustles through the dead leaves. A gentle incense should burn, and the cups are handmade and simple. A soft gentle light comes in through the shoji paper windows. Decoration is minimal: a calligraphy scroll in the alcove and a single spray of flowers.

Says Lotung, a Chinese poet: “The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third searches by barren entrail but to find there some 500 volumes of ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration – all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup – oh, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.”

The top teamasters are highly-paid celebrities in Japan. Access to the elite circles of connoisseurs is difficult and costly. The greatest of them all was Sen-no-Rikyu(1521-1591), employed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), who unified Japan. Hideyoshi suspected Rikyu of intrigue and ordered him to die by his own hand, an honour for a samurai. Rikyu invited his friends to his last tea ceremony. After sipping their tea, the chief guest praised the beauty of the equipment. Rikyu presented the cups to those present. Except his own: “Never again shall this cup, polluted by misfortune, be used by me”, and he smashed the vessel.

The guests except one painfully take their leave. Rikyu takes off his tea gown and carefully folds it up, disclosing his white death robe. Tenderly he gazes on the shining dagger:
Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
Through Buddha
And through Dharma alike
Thou hast cloven thy way.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Ginza

We lunch at a noodle bar. The salarymen slurp their noodles in six minutes flat and return to their drudgery. I am an interpreter of things Japanese as I teach Professor Nirval, from India, how to use chopsticks.

We return to the Kabukiza theatre for the 2.22 performance of Umegoyomi. Monday matine, surely the house will be half-empty? We queue on the stairs and are told standing room only. We go up into the gods and manage to squeeze into seats.

The audience is voluble and chatty, tucking in to their bentos, their boxed lunches, for most of them have been here since 11 a.m. and have already seen two plays. The second session, with three different plays, will begin at 4.30 p.m., and many will stay for them. The audience is 95% female, retired, middle-aged. No teens. We are in a women’s world, for in Japan social worlds are very divided, and attending the kabuki, even at weekends, as very much a female activity.

Of course, all the roles are played by men. My taped commentary says, rather disparingly, that no women could ever manage to wear the 20 kilo wigs that the male actors playing geishas are required to wear. The pink, green and chocolate curtain open to reveal a 50 metre wide stage. An elaborate set. A riverside Japanese tea house. Geishas talking about the handsome Tanjiro, who arrives by boat. Stylized acting. Tiny steps and elaborate hand movements. Much use of the flounces in the trailing geisha kimonos. No sense of transvestism. No camping it up. Voices are not too high and breasts are flat.

Adakichi, played by the renowned Tamasaburo, an onnagata, an actor specialized in female roles, has stolen the handsome but feckless Tanjiro from the other top geisha in Edo, old Tokyo, Yonehachi, with whom he was almost setting up house. Despite his pusillanimity and inability to face up to problems, or maybe even because of these qualities, Tanjiro is the darling of the house, and his style is rough and samurai-like. When he enters, at at specific moments in the text, my neighbour, apparently a salaryman, shouts out his name, or another, his house name. People cheer. My neighbour is an omuko-san, a knowledgeable aficionado, “great distant people”, as they call out from the furthest seats from the stage.

A tea caddy, a family heirloom, has been stolen. Hanjiro, Tanjiro’s friend, has been responsible for it and must commit suicide if it is not found. Adakichi gives Tanjiro a beautiful haori. Yonehachi rips and muddies it. The geisha fight in a slow stylized way, hardly touching.

A corrupt samurai, Samonta, has stolen the caddy. Adakichi discovers and will seduce the samurai to get it. Her friend Masaji tells Yonehachi that Adakichi and Tanjiro are dining. Yonehachi throws her clog into the dining room, a terrible insult, but she has been tricked as it is not Tanjiro but the samurai who is with Adakichi. Samonta draws his sword. The geisha code forbids Yonehachi to apologise. And as a samurai can never return his sword to its sheath without cutting off at least one head, blood will run. But Kobe, the go-between, the head mafioso in the tea-room quarter, intervenes, Samonta is discovered as the thief, the geisha make it up, and Kobe decides that the handsome Tanjiro should now marry his fiancee, Ucho. And at the end the jilted geisha say together: “Puts you off, doesn’t it?”

The audience, many in kimono, leave, throw their plastic trays in the bins and parade and shop in the brightly-lit dusk streets of Ginza, traditionally the poshest part of Tokyo. At the fin de siecle it was the centre of fashion and culture, newspaper offices, western trends and theatres and well-known for its brick buildings, which all perished in the 1923 earthquake. Brick was seldom used again in Tokyo.

At the Mitsukoshi Department Store coffee is ten dollars a cup, so we switch to the Brazilian-owned Doutor Coffee. Coffee shops are almost exclusively places for ladies to chat and students to works on their laptops. Husbands are still at work, for they may begin late, and hours are long. And after work, even on a Monday night, they drink in a tiny bar run by a consoling Mama-san.

If theatre going fails to follow the Western fashion of a night out for a couple, touching and kissing also have their own codes in the East. Few courting couples hold hands, and many fewer kiss in public. Japanese even uses the English terms, boyfrendo and gurufrendo.Yet there is no moral or religious taboo on sex, quite different to that of the Fathers of Christianity in the West, and love hotels abound in Tokyo.

Last Saturday night we ate in the Campus French restaurant. At the next table a family group, including a young mother and her nine-month-old baby, He is lively and in a good mood. She whispers in his ear, plays with him but gave him not a single kiss, in all of two hours.

But there are a few young couples up Tokyo Tower, Tokyo’s quarter-size Eiffel Tower lookalike. It is a clear windy night, perfect for the view North, to the towers of Shinjuku, East to the dark and mysterious Imperial Palace and the lights of Ginza, South over Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba and the harbour, and West to Yokohama, Mount Fuji-san and the mountains beyond.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Nikko, Komaba

Small is better. Pocket gardens, bonsais. Tachibana takes me to a cheap restaurant where we eat takoyaki, octopus balls, sorry, omelette-like balls with bits of octopus inside. Popular with schoolkids. Four tables sitting two apiece and six seats at the counter. A large establishment by Tokyo standards, where many bars run by a mama-san are much smaller.

But Tokyo is not Japan. And up in the hills outside Tokyo the concept of space is altogether different. At first sight, Nikko, a tourist town up in the hills with famous shrines and hot springs spa hotels, could be... England. Walking up the deserted main street at 6.30 on a dull Saturday evening reminds me of many a country town in middle England. Cars pass, but no pedestrians, I am homesick for the wall-to-wall restaurants, the thundering neon, the pink light zones, and I realize that Japan, outside the big cities, is a very car-dominated society.

I was looking for winter, and I found it in Nikko. In the hills trees bare, brittle branches ready to fall and disintegrate, and dying bamboo shoots. During the night a storm wiped the few remaining maple leaves into the gutter, but next day was summer again, temperatures up to 25C, while heavy snow fell in Hokkaido in the North.

Up above Nikko,
Bare bracken, dry and crumbling.
The leaves have fallen.

And where are all the trendy mini-skirted kawai, cute, girls? The Daily Yomuri warns me: “Japan heading for extinction” due to the low birth rate, while in Tokyo I have been surrounded by a never-never land of schools, universities and young people.

Teenage girls and boys
In Shibuya, Komaba.
Ah! So few of them!

In Komaba I try to buy stamps at the stationer’s. Friday’s lady is not there, and an old couple are in charge: her parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents. A bent old lady, as so many are, from long hours in the paddies, and her husband. 50, 60, 70, 80 years together, for people live till a mighty old age in Japan. She has difficulty in giving change, usually to her advantage. She can’t find the list of charges for Xmas cards to Iran. Husband insults. She retorts.

Couple in the shop,
Together for eighty years,
Insults day and night.
There are few incidents for the flaneur in Japan. Fights, robberies, shows of emotion in public are all too rare. Even the Friday night drunks behave with composure. But last Wednesday after Komabatodaimae Station the crowds gathered round as the station guards retrieved the schoolbag thrown onto the line by a chubby 13-year-old. He was told off in front of a growing crowd and seemed to be breaking down. He had lost his “face”; he was looking a fool in front of others. Ruth Benedict, in her classic study on Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, believes that looking bad in front of others is the worst thing that can happen to anyone in Japan, and contrasts this with Western feelings of guilt.

In traditional Samurai culture this loss of face would often result in suicide. It still often does when business or political frauds are uncovered. And parents have committed suicide through the shame of their child committing a serious crime.

And this can make teaching difficult. Opinions are not ventured; guesses are not hazarded, shots are not taken. The Rabbinical tradition of battering out ideas, interpretations, exegesis, Protestant arguing points of the Bible, Platonic dialogue, parliamentary debate, soapboxes, Hyde Park Corner, la clarte francaise are not part of the Japanese tradition. One must always be sensitive to the feelings of others, always avoiding possibilities of offence or embarrassment. Read between the lines; read the way I say things, not what I say. Watch my intonation, slight body movements, don’t read my words.

After work drinking sessions, almost the norm in many companies, are where bonding takes place and important decisions are taken. At the University of Tokyo clubs, outings, drinking sessions at the Students’ festival have a similar function, bringing together many of those who will play a central role in deciding the future of Japan.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Kamakura, Yasukuni-Jinja

Like Roland Barthes, when I first looked towards the Imperial plaza, the invisible palace and the woods beyond, seeing no more than an embankment, I felt that the centre of Tokyo was empty. And like the many visitors skirting the outer grounds, which are open to the public, I too looked for something like the White House, Buckingham Palace, even the Taj Majal, guardsmen, a show of pomp, a waving hand, a sign of Emperor Akihito, Crown Prince Naruhito, a Rolls-Royce whisking Crown Princess Masako, an ex-diplomat, now a depressed caged bird, off to her shrink.

On this perfect day of late autumn I circle the Imperial Palace once again and turn into a side road separated from what I think is the palace by a moat. I hear a lone trumpet. Chet Baker. Could this even be a member of the imperial family practicing? But no. The sounds were coming from the Kitanomaru Gardens.

It is 15 August 1945. Emperor Hirohito speaks on the radio for the first time ever. Still a living God, blessed by the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, for he will only renounce his divine status on 1 January 1946, announces the surrender of Japan. In his Hiroshima Diary, Dr Michiniko Hachiya, who is treating bomb victims, cannot believe what he has heard. Surely he was going to command us to fight the English and American monsters to the last man, woman or child, even with bamboo staves.

Historian Daitochi Irokawa believes he acted weakly with the military generals and should have seized the initiative to surrender much earlier.
"Was the emperor actually so afraid of a group of army officers? Did he not consider relying on the support of the many in the armed forces and the vast number in the public who were willing to die for him? If he really opposed the war, why didn’t he try to prevent it, even if it meant risking his life, in order to save more lives?

Whatever may happen to me
I put a stop to the war
Thinking only of the people who were dying.
Those who died in the war would surely regret the emperor did not write this poem before, rather than after, the war." (In Search of Modern Japan, p.90)

And the Americans allowed the now mortal Hirohito to stay on. He would be a bulwark against communism. The people would still obey him. Not a shot was fired when the Americans entered Japan after the surrender. In February he was sent on to the streets to behave more like a British monarch to tour and revive the spirits of the impoverished people.

I visit the Jimmu temple, where Hirohito collected botanical specimens while he was still a relatively free Crown Prince, and then descend into Kamakura, some 50km from Tokyo, capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333. I buy some mushrooms and dried sweet potatoes and enter the Meigetsu-in Temple, the Bright Moon Hermitage, founded in 1160, and to where Tojo Tokiyori, ruler of Japan, retired in 1256 at the age of 30. Up the stepping stones, how many centuries old are they? Past the hydrangeas, sadly not in bloom in autumn, to the temple. The left hand room has a gold-inlaid altar; the right-hand room is an eight-mat room which is empty but for a plate containing a single persimmon, for the humble caqui is the national fruit of Japan, sagging and swaying from the single tree of many a tiny backyard even at the end of November. And at the back of the room a large circular opening looks out on to the yellows and golds and reds and browns of the garden beyond. I turn and see a dry garden. Grey sand raked in swirls broken by rocks, small at the front and larger at the back as they blend in with the autumnal maple leaves.

Caqui on a plate.
Eight mat room of emptiness.
Autumn leaves outside.
The Meigetsu-in is one of the most famous Zen temples in Japan. Throw a small coin into the box, make a ten-second prayer to Kannu Bodhisattra, the deity of compassion, make a wish, then go back to admiring the autumn leaves.

At the Bright Moon Shrine
Leaves red, yellow, gold and brown.
Let’s take a picture.
For modern-day Japan keeps religion at an arm’s length. Shinto was the ideological basis of the Emperor-worshipping military machine, which saw the Japanese as a unique and divine race. Disestablished by the American occupation forces, it no longer plays a central role in the life of most Japanese. Shrines are visited, photographed, ceremonies are held there, but devotees are dwindling.

But this is a generalization. Many of those who lost their lives for Japan, including Class A war criminals, are enshrined at the Yasukuni-Jinja shrine in Tokyo, the “Repose of the Country”. The shrine and the adjacent museum have been covered in controversy, and today’s Daily Yomuri reports than Japanese PM Junchiro Koizumi has been criticized by China for having made frequent visits. “The US had no interest in bringing the war to an early end”, I read in the exhibition of war material. “Roosevelt’s insistence on unconditional surrender prolonged the war”, and the “colonizers”, who were “defeated by Japan early in World War II” “could not supress the ideals Japan had advanced after World War I of racial equality and self-determination” as many Asian and African countries achieved independence after World War II.

I pass through the Hall of Memory, see tanks and cannons and fighter planes which have been dedicated to the Shrine and look at pictures of the Jinai, the Divine Thunderbolt Kamikaze Unit, who vowed “to meet again in the next life under the second cherry tree near the entrance gate of Yusukuni Jinja”.

The Visitors’Book makes fascinating reading. For Azumi S. “ it was terrible day for me because I had to come here. I hate this place. I saw many foreigners come here and I beg them not to believe this exhibit as it is. Most of Japanese don’t take the war like that way, and schools tell us a normal history like you had. But unfortunately most of officials support this shrine and I beg you not to take Japan like this shrine shows”.

And Ali: “Why did you join the Nazi side? Why did you do so many war crimes? Why don’t you acknowledge what you did? I feel even Germans acknowledge and regret their past more honourably than you”.

But RJ, a retired US major writes: “As a war veteran I understand the meaning of sacrifice. Japanese warriors should be proud of their warriors as we are”.

Not too many visitors at the museum. The uncontroversial Showa Museum up the road, picturing exhibits of daily life in the war years, draws in the bus loads of the elderly, many of whom lived through the war.