Monthly Archives: September 2011

I ♥ Hatsudai Awa Odori

I love Japan the most when it’s a public holiday. It seems like everyone agrees to put the frantic pace of life to one side for a day and act like they were born to indolence and enjoyment instead.  I realise from speaking to students that they will have done five days’ work in three this week, to make up for two holidays, but I hope it felt worth it on Friday morning.

Tokyo woke up to a gorgeous autumn day, and as the sun went down, we headed to Yoyogi for the Hatsudai Awa Odori:

The drums were loud and infectious:

They are also punishing to the drummers.  I saw one with hands covered in blood, still playing, laughing to his friends about the cuts.

Laughing because it was worth it, playing through the blood and dancing away any tiredness or aches and pains.  Letting the neat bag of empty tins grow bigger, ignoring the line between participant and onlooker, as the cool night air gave a promise of the winter chill to follow.  What better way to say farewell to summer than with a final frenzy:

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Roke encounters

Roke wasn’t my first typhoon so I thought I knew what to expect: the windows would rattle, there would be a ton of rain and it wouldn’t be very pleasant to be outside.  I checked the Japan Railways website before leaving for work and all seemed normal.  I got a bit soggy on the walk to the station, but no more than you would expect on a winter’s day – or a summer’s day – in Manchester.  Here is a picture I took of the rain streaming off my neighbour’s house:

The garden seemed to be enjoying it, anyway!

Things started to get a little out of the ordinary part of the way through my first lesson.  The school building was jumping around like in an aftershock and more than once the student looked up from the books and raised a concerned eyebrow.  Take care out there, I said as he was leaving, but thought nothing more of it until after my second class, when I heard that the schools were being closed and we were being advised to get home sharpish.

That turned out to be easier said than done!  With many other unhappy commuters I waited on a train that couldn’t move because the wind was rocking it back and forth so much that to leave the shelter of the station would have been madness.  Through the pelting rain I took this admittedly not very great shot of the one on the next platform:

You might just about be able to make out a carload of passengers calmly reading newspapers…

And there we waited.  In the end, a couple of hours went by, my water and chocolate ran out and I began to get a little restless.  Then we were asked to leave the train and wait on the platform, the doors shut but still nothing moved.  I went down the stairs, back into the station, where not much was happening.  Realising from a quick look at a map that I was about 5 km from home, I decided to walk.  The weather was definitely calmer now, although as I couldn’t be certain if that was the end, or the eye, of the storm, I made sure not to dawdle!

As I walked I saw bikes lying in heaps like discarded toys, cliché though it is, exactly as if some giant children had been playing with them and suddenly got bored.  Trees were uprooted, huge plant pots overturned and leaves and twigs crunched underfoot, as if everything had been shredded.  I saw a building site’s hoardings toppled over and another one whose netting had been sliced as if with a knife, leaving the ends flapping like a sail in the still full breeze.  Then the human detritus, hundreds of broken umbrellas, a lost baseball cap and a scarf, their owners maybe somewhere in the next ward, wondering exactly where their belongings had ended up.

It was such a relief to get home, find it still standing and to sink into my own pillows.  Then the final pay off, as always happens on the post-typhoon morning, you wake up and throw open the curtains to witness this sight, whereupon all the inconvenience and mayhem seems strangely worth it:

If only there was some way to have the post-typhoon freshness without the big wind…

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The tip of the iceberg

The News International scandal is just the tip of the iceberg of unelected oligarchies and corporate power in Britain’s democracy, according to a new report by David Beetham of the LSE, arguing that:

it serves to distract attention, as the MPs’ expenses affair did, from the ongoing embrace of the corporate world by politicians, of which their toadying to Murdoch has been such an egregious example.

Meanwhile, using a piece of legislation for other than the intended purpose, the Met is seeking to force the  Guardian to produce its source for the Milly Dowler phone hacking story by way of the Official Secrets Act.  Precedent seems to suggest that they won’t get very far in this course of action, but it is an unnecessary, not to mention expensive, battle for the Guardian to face.  Especially at a time when they have been picking up almost universal plaudits for pursuing the story in the face of so much hostility.

After a summer of revelations, it looks like this one has got much further to run yet.

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A Nice Cup of Tea

On my recent trip back to the UK a great pal asked me what it was about George Orwell that I thought made him so relevant over fifty years after his death.  A couple of vodkas to the good I blethered on about the politics, writing and all round genius.  How his being of the Left but often despairing of his fellow travellers means that his writing still speaks to those who support left-wing causes and those who oppose them.  Obliged to Offend is much more eloquent on the subject here.

That is all correct, but what I should really have done is what I am about to do now.  Which is to point everyone who needs further convincing in the direction of this essay by Mr Orwell, on his instructions for a perfect cup of tea.   I consider myself to be no mean slouch in the tea-making department and have made tea that has wowed drinkers on three continents.  But even I don’t have an eleven-point programme for the correct way to go about it.  My favourite method is to have someone else do all the hard work:

And I could have an argument with him from now until the end of time about point 10.  But far all that, I still believe there is no more perfect way to spend a day, especially a Sunday, than curled up with George Orwell and a favourite brew.  I have a feeling he would approve.

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New term, new tunes

You can tell it’s September.  This time of year always feels like the start of something for me, maybe because my birthday is fast approaching, or because my arrival in Japan was 12 months ago and I’m reminded of how it was when everything was new.  Anyway, record companies must operate on similar lines, because there are loads of new tunes flowing through my headphones at the moment.  Here are some I think you will enjoy…

The first one ‘Yeah So’ has not been very far from my ears since it came out in 2009, so I was really happy to discover a stream of Slow Club’s second album ‘Paradise’ on the NME site.  On first listening it seems to be more to the darker side of their earlier songs, so there’s nothing here as joyful as ‘It Doesn’t Always Have to Be Beautiful’, for instance.  However, that is no bad thing, their voices and songwriting having matured so that the ‘difficult second album’ conundrum has been deftly sidestepped.  I especially love the line, ‘and I know, soon you’ll go’ on the utterly gorgeous ‘You, Earth and Ash’, as well as the sultry ‘Where I’m Waking':

After finding Swedish band I Break Horses and the slice of wonderfulness that is ‘Winter Beats’ via Twitter, I am completely in love:

Totally coveting the album ‘Hearts’ and will write more as soon as I have it!

I always knew local lad Betamax DC made great hip-hop, but he’s been so entertaining on Twitter lately that the music had slipped to the back of my mind.  And that was really stupid of me, because ‘Gringos’ is a cracking album and no-one should wait any longer than necessary before grabbing themselves a copy.  Blending an array of influences into something that sounds like nothing else is the mark of greatness:

Welsh band Masters In France have been compared to Snow Patrol and Kasabian on various websites, but that can’t be true because – unlike those other generic indie stalwarts – I like them.  Masters In France are streaming six songs on Sound Cloud here, my favourite of which is the very danceable Mad Hatter:

I’ll always be happy with an Alice-tinged video as well.

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Old stories, old music

From a friend who told me she had started to re-read the Brothers Grimm to tell the stories to her young son, discovering unremembered darkness within the familiar tales,  to one of the last books I read before I left the UK for Japan: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, in which books whisper in the night while the wolves and worse-than-wolves howl.

From the stories I want to finish writing down to all the ones I tell out loud again and again, honing them as if they were the blade of a sword wielded by a handsome prince, in a tale told by everyone’s favourite cinematic Grandpa, now sadly no longer with us…

Stories are on my mind a lot at the moment.

Here is a secret that you probably already know: the stories you tell and the stories you hear are nothing less than tuning forks that you strike again and again. Your innermost being hears the notes and responds, not to the story, but to the music that carries it… This is the secret – the music underneath the story is what carries the magic.

- Tom Hirons, storyteller

Then I hear that today is Dahl Day, the birthday of one of the great music makers of storytelling, whose tales sang through my childhood and still ring deep in my heart today.  There are many, many, of Roald Dahl’s books I could pick as my favourite, Matilda, the BFG or the autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo.  Instead, I think I will choose Danny the Champion of the World, with its gypsy caravans and poachers in the woods, Danny and his Dad cocking a snook at the landed gentry and their gamekeepers.  What better way to celebrate than to curl up with your own favourite.  Happy Dahl Day!

The Princess Bride picture kindly borrowed from here

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Six months

Today is a day of anniversaries, perhaps rightly, the 10-year one garnering more attention worldwide, while the six-month one occupies minds closer to home.

As central and local governments in Japan set a 10 year goal to restore the ruined areas in the north-east of the country, it is difficult to see how that task could be any tougher.  The Japan Times cites the huge costs involved, the need to rethink communities to ensure residents are protected from future disasters and the ongoing catastrophe of Fukushima nuclear power plant as areas of concern:

… the massive piles of debris kept in temporary storage sites along the coast are just one indicator that a huge amount of work remains to be done.

Creating new jobs is a priority, as many people who worked for businesses that were wrecked in March remain unemployed. A recent labor ministry survey showed that at least 70,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures lost their jobs because of the quake-tsunami catastrophe.

It all makes for a full in-tray for Japan’s brand new Prime Minister, not helped by yesterday’s resignation of industry minister Yoshio Hachiro over ‘controversial’ comments that the radiation-riddled areas close to the crippled Fukushima plant were now like ghost towns.  Perhaps his also-reported jest about wiping radiation from his clothes onto those of journalists was a little weak and poorly timed, but criticism and his resignation serves to avoid the obvious truth in the words.

In the days after the disaster, as Japan collectively held its breath and accurate information trickled out from TEPCO while contaminated water gushed from its plant, the response was characterised by mishap and unpreparedness, according to the Mainichi Daily News:

The government hoped that if the plan was successful, it could lift emergency evacuation preparation orders for areas lying between 20 and 30 kilometers from the plant. However, a series of minor accidents, including temporary malfunctions and leaks from the 4-kilometer-long hose used to carry the water, slowed down the operation, and the operations of the system has not yet been stabilized. According to official data, 32 mishaps with the water purification system had occurred by mid-August.

As the old Irish joke goes, if you were going to restore the ravaged areas of the country, you wouldn’t start from here.  In the face of such official dereliction of duty, it does offer some comfort to read of people finding hope and strength, from the Otsuchi convenience store owner in the Japan Times story above, to the family of young Nozomi Sato, born on March 12.  In the words of her father, Shigeru:

When I go back home everyday my wife and children are there. It may sound so trivial, but to me it is an everyday relief.

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