Monthly Archives: December 2011

Top 5 Records of 2011

Missed doing this last year as I was toasting myself to a crisp on a beach in Thailand, so it seems long overdue!  I know you are probably all a little weary of ‘best of’ lists, but it has been such a cracking year for music that it would be an awful shame not to share some of the love with your ears.

1. I Break Horses – Winter Beats

In a year so full of albums to fall in love with – from Slow Club to Oneohtrix – it seems cruel to have to choose one, but I Break Horses’ debut Hearts demands the accolade.  Layers and layers of perfection, so the songs blow you away on first listen but still keep enough back to reveal further delights on subsequent plays, it is a beautiful, beautiful piece of wonder.  If you don’t already own it, you MUST.  No question.  And if you don’t believe me, trust The Line of Best Fit, who made it their album of the year.

There are a couple of gems I could have picked, but I have gone for the one I discovered first, the stunning Winter Beats:

2. Octo Octa – I’m Trying

A sublime, silky, Amerie-sampling, soul-laden piece of loveliness from American producer Octo Octa, certain to get you in the mood for whatever tonight’s celebrations may bring:

3. Sully – Let You

I first discovered Sully via his mix for FACT magazine, yet it has been difficult to find out much else about him, as he seems to be that rare breed of producer that shuns publicity.  First album Carrier is another essential listen, mixing strong beats with soulful melodies to sound, in the way all good dance music does, brand new and classic at the same time.

Again, it is tough to choose a favourite, so here is the one that first caught my ears’ attention, with its sparse beats and tough bassline, Let You:

4. I Draw Slow – Goldmine

Slight change of pace for this one, a song I discovered via a friend and have rarely gone a day without playing since, a true mark of quality.  I Draw Slow meld American bluegrass and traditional Irish melodies to provide the perfect accompaniment to this haunting tale of a bad girl falling for a good guy:

5. The National – England

No-one following me on Twitter or reading ten minutes hate this year could have missed how much I fell for The National, even more so once they were able to play their long-delayed Tokyo gig.  I know that latest album High Violet was released in 2010, but hey – my site, my rules.  So I choose this stunner, the words to which never fail to put a tingle up my spine:

So, that’s my 5!  I am sure to have missed many other gems, so please let me know yours in the comments.  It has been such a crazy year for news, politics and life that concentrating on music seems at times dreadfully self-indulgent.  However, I like to think the opposite is true and that we need great music more than ever right now.  Whatever comes, I wish a very happy Year of the Dragon to everyone who has read the site this year.  Thank you!

Leave a comment

Filed under The Golden Country

Christmas in Tohoku Part 1

Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Christmas would be like.  It is not a Christian country and New Year is a much more important festival in the Japanese calendar.  So I wasn’t expecting to see many Christmas trees.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The shopping centres and public areas around Tokyo have their decorations up even earlier than many do in the UK and – kids being kids – everyone is excited about Santa’s arrival, presents and cake.  In school we play games, make Christmas decorations and sing songs, much the same as you do.  In one class, a student got the words to ‘Jingle Bells’ slightly muddled and all his classmates jumped in to tell him the right ones.  You’ve got to get it right for Santa!

Despite – or perhaps because of – everything they have been through, the small people of Ishinomaki are no strangers to the Christmas anticipation.  I could imagine kids in temporary housing asking their mums if Santa would be able to find them, just as my brother and I did after our family moved house late one year.  The charity Free Tohoku was determined to give them a reason to smile this Christmas and so ‘let them eat cake!’ was born.

The idea was to give each family some treats – Christmas cake and cookies – as well as shopping tokens for other things they needed.  Thanks to the generosity of so many, fundraising efforts were a great success.  23 December saw an assortment of friends, colleagues and Twitter acquaintances meet on a cold winter’s night at a remote station in Chiba (about 20 miles from central Tokyo).  We loaded a brightly painted rainbow bus with all the essentials, including but not limited to: helium for balloons; a Santa costume; a hot water heater and – of course! – a Christmas tree.  There was so much stuff I wasn’t sure there would be room for all of us, but somehow everything squeezed in and then our journey could start.

(For the fact fans, it is around 250 miles)

This was my first trip so far to the north of Japan and I would love to tell you all about everything we passed.  But it was after midnight and motorways being more or less the same the world over, there wasn’t much scenery to speak of.  Instead, it was time to try to snatch some shut-eye.  We had lots of kids to entertain soon!

We woke to a gorgeous morning breaking over a much more snowy and hilly landscape than the one we had left behind.  As always when I am awake at the crack of dawn, I was surprised to see how many other cars and trucks were on the road, the days in Japan start early!  We had a quick wash and brush up in the service station toilets before heading into the centre of Ishinomaki, via a slightly circuitous route to the primary school hall, where we met the volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud to get everything unloaded and ready for Santa’s visit.  It seemed like there was so much to do – however would we finish in time?

Many hands made light work of it all and soon the helium balloons and the cafe were up and running:

The bouncy castle was waiting for the crowds:

The Christmas tree was beautifully decorated:

And we had hung up the handmade or decorated Christmas cards sent to Ishinomaki by children in Ireland, Japan and the UK:

I had thought this way of hanging up cards was quite usual but it seems to just be a British thing as many visitors and volunteers asked about it… maybe this will start a trend next year!  Much nicer than putting them away and they helped to cheer up the chilly school hall.

Then suddenly everything was ready, the doors opened and the kids arrived.  The first part of the day flashed by in a blur, but there were huge queues for the bouncy castle and trampolines, as well as a craft area to make decorations, while the parents stopped for a chat and a coffee.  We also had a visit from a clown who made balloon animals and swords, which came in very handy for clobbering friends:

Delicious onigiri was served for lunch and then came the moment everyone had been waiting for…

Excitement was running very high as the kids got their gifts and treats and it was lovely to hear the hall ring with their shrieks and laughter.  We sang Christmas songs, while some made beautiful thank you notes and pictures:

You can see some of the results by clicking on the link in this tweet:

All too soon it was time to load up the bus and head back to the city, feeling  exhausted but happy – as I hope all the partygoers did.  To those who donated either cash or time, a huge thank you!  To the wonderful team of Our Man and Our Woman in Abiko – who asked if I would like to come along – thank you so much, it was a pleasure!  And to all the It’s Not Just Mud team, thanks for everything, I’ll be back before long.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Before leaving Miyagi, the Free Tohoku bus made another stop.  Christmas in Tohoku Part 2 is here.

2 Comments

Filed under Japan

An exotic, foreign taste

Women’s minds are more intricate and labyrinthine, their perceptions deeper, and what they tell you is generally new stuff.  Male friendships are ham and eggs, toast and coffee meals.  Men-Women friendships are an exotic, foreign taste – delicious in odd ways, like fresh paprika, like fennel.

- Jonathan Carroll, Outside the Dog Museum

Leave a comment

Filed under The Golden Country

After the rain

Plans to walk in the park, always happily made, are often ruined by the kind of rain Tokyo sometimes to unleash without warning.  Even though I come from England I am still surprised at the weather here and how it manages to drop a month’s worth of water on my head in a couple of hours.  Still, we decided to brave it and were lucky as the downpour stopped right before we got off the train at Rikugien Park.

(click on any picture to start the slideshow)

Another perfect day under the trees in Tokyo, thank you Tomoka!

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan

Street Portraitist

Spent an afternoon in the park taking pictures with the Street Portraitist and this was the happy result.  It is always interesting to watch someone learn by doing it, figuring out what works and what they like as they go.  I was also lucky he is really patient as it was one of the first times I have been in front of a camera like this and so it could have been nerve-wracking!  Instead it was a really good day, at least until the chill winter air killed all enthusiasm for standing in a freezing park and we decided to go and occupy the nearest Thai restaurant.  Their bold yellow wall inspired this final shot, which is one of my favourites – after all, if you’re going to take something over, it is vital to make sure there is a good food supply handy:

Check out the Street Portraitist website here.

1 Comment

Filed under Japan

Tyrants destroy their own freedom

Seeking to rebalance the world and make the major changes needed to bring about financial justice are laudable aims, but rarely achieved easily.  Those ‘doing quite nicely, thank you’ out of the current system can hardly be expected to hand over the reins of power and, more crucially, the cash, without putting up a fight.  Meanwhile those involved in the Occupy protests are discovering that the police forces of the world have amassed some astounding toys to use against people armed with nothing more threatening than placards and a belief in a brighter future.

This has led to some shocking, but perhaps not surprising, incidents at the sites of protests.  In the States, University of California students were on the end of some particularly vicious police actions.   As Conor Friedersdorf writes:

The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They’re given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they’re sent out in force. If they were in a video game they’d be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We’re used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.

The riot gear itself demands a significant response, whether the situation warrants one or not.  And if the pictures being sent from phones to generate a howl of outrage also convince a few would-be protesters that demonstrating isn’t worth getting a plastic bullet in the head for, then the actions have succeeded, according to Glenn Greenwald:

If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed… many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.

Perhaps with a similar motivation, UK protesters have been caught up in protracted legal battles following arrests.  The case against the ‘Fortnum and Mason 145′ took a year to rule that members of UK Uncut protesting against tax-dodging were guilty of intimidation – for outrages including a game of volleyball – and to fine them £1,000 each towards the cost of a prosecution which can only have run at a loss.

Similarly, UK Uncut protesters in Brighton waited months to learn that they were to be acquitted of criminal damage for gluing themselves to the windows of tax avoiders Top Shop, although five of the group were convicted of recklessly causing criminal damage for knocking over some mannequins.  For such temerity they were fined £200 each, after a two-week trial the costs of which will have run into thousands.  In such trying financial circumstances as the UK finds itself, spending such sums can only be justified for the message it sends to others thinking about involving themselves in dissent.

The title of this post is taken from ‘Killing an Elephant’ by George Orwell, quoted in the Atlantic article above, in which he notes that all this weaponry and repression creates a prison as much for those wielding the power as those being crushed by it:

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

We all have to live in the same society, after all, and even if you have oodles of money in your own bank account, it can only do so much to insulate you from the suffering of your neighbour.  When even the mega-rich can see that things are broken, how long can change be delayed?  As Matt Taibbi observes:

…the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.

All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more – all of this is symbolic of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.

In that case, every baton charge, pepper-spraying and trumped-up arrest brings us closer to the moment when we realise that to live as if money is more important than people, putting our faith in the markets and failing to provide for the many so that the few can live gilded lives behind gated community walls, is beyond stupid.  Those taking such treatment from the police and standing firm are to be applauded and supported in whatever way possible, as for now, they are all that stands between us and what Hunter S. Thompson knew:

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together:

Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely…

If these protests have ‘them’ so riled, they must be doing something right.  How to turn the anger on both sides into a brighter future for the many will be the next, greater challenge.

Artwork by Barney Meeks

1 Comment

Filed under Miniplenty