A Souvenir Story

I recently spent a morning among the millennia-old, moss-covered Buddhist statues in Usuki, Kyushu. They were magical.

The statues of different deities are all carved into a cliff-face. In some places, it was hard to see where the rock-face separated from the statue. It didn’t matter. The weathered rock-face itself was worthy of worship. Animism might have something going for it.

Marching about alone in sandals in heavy heat of July was tiring. I was soon craving company and refreshment. By a field of blooming lotuses, I found a wooden teahouse at the entrance to a temple.





The proprietor was a lovable, leathery-faced lunatic. While he poured me tea, my eyes fixed upon a chart of wild plants on display above the counter. The plants were all English, most prominent were the pretty yellow flowers of the gorse bush.

“Where did you get that chart from?”

“Ah, my friend brought it back from England.”

What a strange souvenir, I thought.

Then, and I can’t remember why, the barmy proprietor started talking about his plums. He is a mad-keen plum-pickler. His shop is full of plums, all pickling away in pink plastic buckets in the corner. He spoke with incredible intensity and passion,  like a salesman in a make-or-break pitch.(fuelled by a fair amount of sake judging by his breath).

In a curious moment, an old woman ambled in looking for a cat. He seemed very unhappy about the interruption. Quickly dismissing her, he got straight back into his spiel:

“…these plums are only 2% salt…….they will NEVER go bad…….foreigners BEG me to send them overseas……these plums make great medicine…..in the old days, everybody had their own plum trees…. put a cooked plum in your cup of tea, and it will cure your fever…..not many people know this…..fate brought us together…..that’s why I am telling you ….here, have a pack yourself…take them back to England”.

He made the moss-covered, millennia-old statues seem ordinary. The packet of pickled plums now leaking into my backpack seemed far more extraordinary.

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Feeling ukiuki in Asakusa

Sometimes I fear Asakusa might be becoming a bit boring; not enough nutters on the street, too many business hotels and space station-sized shopping malls sucking up the air and activity. Shortly after arriving back in Japan for a short visit, I went to Rokku Broadway, a street used to be the centre of cinema in Japan, and where Tokyo’s tallest tower, the Ryounkaku used to stand.

With blooming pink sakura taking up all the attention, in the late afternoon this section of Browadway was empty except for myself and a drunk sprawled outside the 4 storey WINS bookmakers.  A young man in round, black rimmed spectacles and wearing a magnificent green sparkling jacket set up his microphone in front of a building site. With no audience and no obvious motivation, he started singing to the Asakusa sky a melancholy selection of post-war pop songs “Tokyo Boogie Woogie (feeling  ukiuki – [floating])”, “Ahh, Ueno Station! (Ueno, the station of my heart)” and “The Sandwich-board Man” (Today again hugging my placard).  I found it hard to believe anybody listens to these tunes now, even Youtube must groan when asked to dig them out.

The only motivation I could fathom for his performance was the sheer pleasure of singing. He sang with such joy; he couldn’t have smiled any wider, it was as if his whole life had been spent preparing for this moment, the chance to sing to an old drunk and a dopey Devonian.

His courage and charm briefly brought Broadway back to life. As if stabbed with a jab of adrenalin, the drunk shot up and stumbled over to me. “Asakusa, wakarimasu ka?” (Asakusa, do you understand?). Then, he pointed a sunburnt finger towards the young champ and hailed him as “Tokyo’s Number Wan”.

When the star – Inuyama Shiro, spotted that I was only pretending to read a sign about an upcoming horse race and that actually, I was listening intently to his performance, somehow he extended his smile even wider, and waved a spare hand across the Broadway at me. It felt like a swallow tilting a wing at a passing pigeon. He became my hero. Some of his spirit even crossed over to me, his smile became my smile, and an hour later,  in my hotel room, I was singing along to the songs myself in front of my laptop (the surest audience of all).

“Sandoicchiman, Sandoicchiman, when I cry, the swallows will chuckle”

** NOTE: All my gigs will be announced here first.**

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Grumbling and gambling

In trying to keep in touch with Japan and Japanese, I regularly listen to podcasts from Japanese radio.  Talk shows are best for catching up with news, and for tuning back into the hymns and hums of the Japanese language.  From each show I always learn something new about Japan.

And after concentrating on Japan, I see England and the English a little differently. Both countries look utterly bonkers.

For example, the other day, I heard an odd idiom involving 4 and 5.  The expression 四の五の言う (to speak of 4s and 5s) apparently means to grumble. Why 4 and 5?  Apparently the 4 and 5 refer to numbers on a dice. It was from the grumbling jargon of gamblers in the Edo period, betting on the outcome of dice-rolls.  The atmosphere at dice dens must have been something like this:

According to Japanese Slang Uncensored by Peter Constantine, gambling was banned in Japan at the end of the Edo period. The buying and selling of dice became illegal. Persistent gamblers were even decapitated. This crusade against gambling was part of the fight to compete with western countries threatening Japan’s borders which all had far more sophisticated methods of corruption and theft.

And you can’t build an empire with dice, unless you’re playing Risk.

There are still no private bookmakers in Japan. but gambling has survived.  Now there is pachinko – pinball without the pins, and state-supervised betting on bicycle races. According to my friend, these keirin bicycle races were developed for gambling purposes during the American Occupation in 1948. In other words, the sport was invented just so that people could throw their money at it.  What a barmy idea!

I switch off the radio and then walk to work, passing on one narrow street 4 bookmakers all a stone’s throw from each other.  All were appealing to punters to invest their earnings on 11 strangers kicking a pig’s bladder around. Utterly bonkers.

There must be an innate need for people to throw money about. If only I could catch.

NOTE:  Guchiguchi and gutaguta are other ways of saying grumble in Japanese. I think the words themselves actually sound like a grumble. Or is that just my imagination?

In a similar way, the word mogomogo means something like mumble. When you can’t think of what to say, you just mogomogo mumble.  Mogomogo sounds like a mumble (a goldfish mumbling maybe).

NOTE 2: I spoke to a Japanese friend about “speaking of 4s and 5s”. He said it was an old, dated expression. Then he added that it was typical of an English person to be attracted to the language of grumbling.  I had a right moan at him for that.

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Translated Christmas

These bleak mid-winter nights are a good time for wild dreaming. Alone in the dark, the world can only be imagined.  Anything seems possible, even faith. Perhaps that is why I agreed to go to church the other day. A Japanese friend, a former salaryman from Tokyo, invited me a to a Carol service at a Brighton Baptist church. He was curious about an English Christmas. And so was I. It was my first service in perhaps 20 years.

The service included a John Lewis advert, starring a family of animated penguins  projected on a large screen, multi-lingual sermons and speeches by 2,000 year-old angels.  I think my friend had asked me along to help him understand. Fortunately, my friend confined his post-service questioning to asking about the filling in our Co-op mince pies.

Christmas is too cringe-worthy to explain now. It is much better translated. The Japanese translation works brilliantly. I heard on the radio this morning that in Tokyo at Christmas, couples were queueing for hours outside KFC and love hotels.  Eros and the Colonel join Jesus around the manger, what a lovely image.

Perhaps Christmas has never been easy to explain. The festival itself might originate not from celebrating the birth of Jesus, but from a pagan ritual related to the midwinter solstice. Iron Age tribes used to gather around stone circles in midwinter to eat Co-op mince pies. It hasn’t changed much.


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The Kintoki carrot

Can you remember your last bite of carrot? I mean, when was the last time you really had the opportunity to taste and consider it’s flavour and source?  Carrots are being taken for granted in the modern world. We have lost our respect for them. Well, I had anyway, until my final night in Tokyo.

I was standing at a crowded oden counter in a Tokyo backstreet when my friend introduced me to the Kintoki carrot. Big, red and juicy, the chunk of carrot, steeped in oden juice, was a real treat. Such is my ignorance though, I probably would not have noticed it had my friend not raised it as a talking point.  “It’s from Kyoto,” he said. I was impressed and grateful. It seemed such a long way for a carrot to travel.


I did not think much more of it, although the name Kintoki stuck in my head. Now, back in England, I have learnt more about it. The Kintoki carrot is part of a revival of Kyo-yasai – vegetables grown in Kyoto which flourished in the old capital before the tidal-wave of western agricultural produce and production techniques took over in the Meiji period. I like their venerable-sounding names, more like titles. Other prized specimens, all on sale online, include the Horikawa Burdock Root and the Kamo aubergine. Kyo-yasai are now so popular they are being exported all over the world.

More details on kyo-yasai are documented in the excellent, Kansai Cool by Christal Whelan.

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Faces I can see

On the 3rd floor, the old living quarters for store employees, I met Katsuyasu, the curator of the exhibition.  Raised in Iwaki, Katsuyasu was working in Tokyo at the time of the tsunami. He made the brave decision to quit his job in Tokyo and return home to help in Fukushimas’s recovery. Many other people of his age – mid 30s, also returned from Tokyo to help in the rebuilding. Later in the day I met another local man who commuted that spring every weekend from Yokohama driving up the expressway for 4 hours in a vintage Mini Austin. They must have had strong feelings towards their hometown.

Katsuyasu also said there was an understandable exodus of younger people in the other direction, away from Fukushima. The saturation media coverage of the disaster, with frightening radiation warnings would have been impossible to completely ignore.

The disaster changed Katsuyasu. He became an avid news watcher. After watching a press conference, he read how it was reported in 10 different newspapers.  He noticed all of the articles had distinct takes on the stories.  That struck him as really strange.  I asked him who he trusted now.  He said people he knew, “faces I can see”.  I suppose it is hard to lie to someone who you will see the the next day.

In Fukushima Minpo, the local paper, Nishida Toshiyuki, the Fukushima-born star of the film Gakko (School), was quoted as saying that the disaster has forced Fukushima residents to think about the meaning of life.  What Fukushima citizens have learnt about the meaning of life should be shared with the rest of the world.

Fukushima is slipping off the front page. The NHK homepage has stories on a distant typhoon, a slight increase in summer bonuses and the American mid-term elections.  No mention of the ongoing crisis two hours north of Tokyo where thousands of people are preparing to spend another winter in emergency living shelters.

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Flowers in Fukushima

Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, has never really interested me. I suppose I had always subconsciously considered flowers as something women do. Men, I supposed, did rocks and weeds.  But not for the first time, I was mistaken.

Manmade ikebana was on display in a photo exhibition in Iwaki this weekend. The theme of the exhibition was Fukushima’s post-tsunami landscape. The atmospheric location was a half-abandoned department store. The photos, printed on Japanese paper, were hung up on grey concrete walls in dark, oddly-shaped rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floor. One room was dedicated to the work of ikebana photographer Atsunobu Katagiri.  Some of the photos were startling, a red rose placed in front of a stack of crushed cars, a bunch of flowers in the middle of an abandoned, weed-covered railroad.

I remembered a line I read recently in the manga version of the Book of Tea about finding beauty in the everyday. With some things, it seems impossible to find anything beautiful. Perhaps finding beauty in the destruction of the tsunami is impossible. It can only be placed there, like with the arranged flowers.

I told my Japanese friend about the exhibition. He then introduced me to rebel flower arranger, Nakagawa Yukio. Judging from this video, he appears to be more flower-butcherer than flower-arranger, but at least he is trying.

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