The weather after a typhoon is usually very clear, and the sky is blue this morning. I realize I have left my electric toothbrush charger in the UK. At work I immediately head up to the ninth floor to see Fuji-san. He is, of course, splendid, and his peak rises above the distant clouds. Work is empty as most people got a day off for helping at the open day. I leave early: the sky is so clear that it would be madness of near-Spartan proportions not to go to Landmark tower, the tallest building in Yokohama. It’s soon clear that even with Japan’s public transport I won’t make it in time for sunset, but I comfort myself with the thought of the city lights by night. It has the fastest lift in Japan up to the top floor, with a top speed of 750m/minute. The guide recites a perfectly timed talk about the tower as my ears pop uncomfortably, and in 40 seconds we reach the observation deck. As we emerge I gasp.
There’s something profound about seeing a landscape completely subverted by man. The Tokyo conurbation is the largest metropolis on earth. Cities stretch out towards the horizon in every direction. Even the ocean is fractured by huge suspension bridges spanning the bay. It is difficult to accept that this huge, impossibly complex, mesmerically complex, concrete land was built by man. Angles and lines and planes and polyhedra weave in and out of each other, frozen in frenzy, refracting and colliding and collapsing while stilled. Buildings are softly lit pale green and deep amber by fluorescent lights in that diffuse way that makes air look empty. Think the LA sky shots in Collateral. The ember of the city light makes the sea appear black by contrast, except where the full moon throws a silver-orange streak towards us. The landscape coruscates incessantly. Cars blinking into view, beacons throbbing on skyscapers, the tail lights of planes, all pulsing endlessly. A million beating hearts. It is achingly beautiful and mind-boggling and depressing all at once.
The observation deck is lit, which is frustrating for photos. The music perfectly complements the view: relaxed, melancholic trip-hop, reminiscent of Portishead, fills the air with whines and empty echoes. My portable tripod (courtesy of Lune) comes in handy, but I have to zoom in on the landscape to avoid reflections. I’m wondering what gear you’d need for really great photos from here, whereupon three locals produce heavy tripods and large canvas lens guards to block the reflections. At least I know for next time. There is an expensive bar up here, and I’m almost tempted by a coffee looking out on the glow. Back on the ground I take a photo of a ferris wheel and an old boat in a drydock, together with the moon. It’s a wonderful place for pictures; (almost) all you have to do is turn up.
Cueball is Polish, very cheerful, and moved to our floor yesterday. He is a bioinformatician working at RIKEN like me, so I offer to show him the way to work (feeling like quite an old hand). He calls bioinformatics black biology, lab work white biology, and the rest green. One of his friends dyed his labcoat black as a graduation present. We get the train and chat about Japan, Denmark, and New York, where he graduated and worked respectively. Like me, he finds the banking system in Japan is remarkably backwards considering how advanced the rest of the country is. Of course, this may just be because they’ve decided not to let banks run amok.
This week I received a letter written entirely in kanji. New scripts are daunting, even when phonetic – like the hiragana or katakana, but symbolic scripts are whole different kettle of undiscovered fish. I feel like a young boy looking up at a huge unconquerable mountain, still trying to figure out how to go about climbing. It’s actually quite illogical to be so disquieted (in my case at least) by not being able to read something. With my Japanese at a very low level, it’s certain I would be able to understand almost none of it. But somehow it’s comforting to be able to read a text, even if it’s as sensical to you as Finnegan’s Wake. I think maybe it’s something to do with how we view reading. Reading is a very human skill, and the keystone of humanity’s collective knowledge, which is what makes us so powerful. I feel embarrassed, neutered, and less human without it. Though learning symbols is good fun. All I can make out on the letter is 49, 000¥. All in all (probably) not good news.
In the hyaku yen shoppu I found my new snack, Miruku Kuremus (milk creams). They are discs of a substance that tastes of cinnamon grahams, flecked with a white icing which is presumably meant to resemble cream. It doesn’t. The next morning I have run out of bananas, so try a traditional Japanese breakfast, called tamago kake gohan (egg sauce over rice), or tamago bukkake gohan (egg sauce splashed over rice). I prefer the first name. To make it you will need 1 steaming hot portion of rice, a teaspoon of soy sauce, and 2 raw eggs. Take your ingredients, mix them all together vigourously with chopsticks, and dig in. My first impression was mainly of disgust at the slick sliminess of the raw egg, but after a few mouthfuls it began to taste OK. Possibly not worth a bout of salmonella. However, talking about my tamago kake gohan (or TKG, to young people ) over lunch, I find out that salmonella is essentially absent in Japan, and consequently have TKG much more for breakfast. I tried onigiri (rice balls) for the first time, but found that the nori it was wrapped in tasted a little fishy for my liking. Soon I will make some myself, perhaps without the seaweed (don’t tell anyone or I may get deported).
After last week’s scheduling debacle (I turned up for a festival a week late), I made sure that I was hyperpunctual on Saturday. Sakura House were holding a free tour of Asakusa, followed by a sushi party. A quick jog and some quicker trains got me to the meeting point early. Regrettably, it was a week early, and I wandered away dazed, scratching my head, and wondering if a 21 year old can suffer from Alzheimers. The tour was meant to be of Senso-Ji, one of Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temples, so I head there anyway. A daylight zombie stumbles past, jabbering frantically, with black lines of dried blood or noodle juice around his contorting mouth. The road leading to the temple is long, thin, and sticky with sugar and sweat. More like tourist flypaper than trap. Fake autumnal Acer leaves glint in the bright sunlight, and I watch a man making temple-shaped cakes by piping two different dough mixes into a mould, then places the mould into a coal fire. It seems very rustic, and the next stall responds with a steam-powered cake making machine, churning out similar treats in plastic packaging, which looks stolen from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A huge blood red gate, the Kaminarimon, guards the entrance to the temple plaza, and a huge paper lantern painted black and red, hangs from the transom. The lantern represents Fujin and Raijin, the Shinto gods of thunder and lightning. Two straw sandals weighing 2.5 tons each hang either side of the arch. The temple grounds are a sort of religious amusement park, just as busy, and filled with small Buddhist and Shinto shrines and relics that are dotted around petite gardens. The Japanese typically follow a syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto, illustrating a tolerance most Western religions lack. The whole area is soundtracked with the clinking of coins. Every shrine has a collection box, and people pay before bowing their heads. The main temple, Senso Ji, was built to the Edo style, with the archetypical red paint and curving roofs that make them look like capsized boats to me. Inside there are goddesses and dragons on the ceiling, a huge golden structure which holds an image too sacred to be seen, and ranks of bowing people. Coins arc over their heads to fall loudly into a 3 metre square collecting table. A jogger comes up the steps and bows whilst bouncing. Some twanging Americans walk past a no entry sign. In front of the temple there is a fountain with dragon heads spouting water topped with a bronze samurai. People use tin cups on sticks to take water, wash their hand, then use this hand to transfer water to their mouth. The drinkers just outnumber the photographers.
A large cauldron filled with ash holds incense bundles and consequently belches out fragrant blue smoke into the bright midday sun. The ash is from thousands of previous sticks. Foundations of past fires. Worshippers come near to waft and rub the smoke over their bodies. Little kids get excited, peek over the cauldron edge, and are sent spluttering and blinking by a wave of smoke. Asakusa seems to be a well-preserved little corner of Tokyo, with traditional wood fronted low buildings which house people, dusty grocery stores, and smokey izakaya with all manner of charred fish on show. The strange thing is that almost nothing in this district is more than 50 years old. The main shrines all date from the 50s and 60s, reconstructed above the ashes. This entire section of the city burned in what was probably the largest civilian slaughter in human history, Operation Meetinghouse. A general trying to get results and retain control of a long range B29 bomber squadron switched from precision strikes on manufacturing centres to the incineration of the residential areas surrounding them. The traditional paper and wood homes caught well, and the shrieking firestorm burnt through 16 square miles of city with a population density of 103,000 people per square mile. The Tokyo police official casualty report of 125,000 was probably far too low. I didn’t know about this until three days ago, and felt guilty. The other huge bombings (Dresden, Hiroshima, Coventry, Hamburg, etc. etc. etc.) are infamous, but I had never heard about Tokyo. Destroyed not by cutting edge technology and relativity, but fire. Mindless primeval fire. The incense seems more poignant now.
My first attempt to join a Judo club was thwarted because they didn’t accept foreigners, but a Brazilian workmate, Pele, told me that he trains at a Budokan (martial arts centre) in northern Yokohama. On the way I finish The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is well written and warming, with some social commentary to boot. Reassuringly, it seems kids haven’t changed much in the past 150 years. The Budokan is evocative. It has a pebble garden outside: small stones raked into concentric circles and multi-layered waves, passing and surrounding large rocks. After bowing on entry, you change your shoes for sandals, and walk pass multiple large halls filled with mats and often small armies practising in unison. I take a wrong turn and stumble across Kyudo (Japanese archery), where about 15 people in traditional dress with enormous bows are firing across a dark garden courtyard into illuminated targets on the far side. The Judo dojo is a shade smaller than a football pitch, and peopled by about 50 black belts. It’s going to be a long night. Thankfully, the senseis are very friendly, and most speak a little English. To cut a long story short, over the next two hours I gained a lot of knowledge, lost a lot of skin, and hit the deck repeatedly. They are invariably impressively skilful, and twice I have the surreal experience of hitting the floor before realizing that my opponent has made an attack. Character-forming stuff.
Eureka texts to invite me to Octoberfest in Yokohama on Sunday afternoon, and after assessing my depressing financial situation I decide to go. She is with a group of other Oxford students on the Japanese course (they live in Japan for a year), and a couple of Japanese students who were learning English in Oxford last year. Most seem to have jobs to do with translation (or international communications, to use the proper title), and are a friendly bunch. Yokohama Octoberfest takes place on a pier between two European style redbrick buildings, which are now used as exhibition spaces, in a large marque filled with drunks, novelty hats, and currywurst.
A squatting man in a fishing hat munches on a whole chicken, and a baby cries from its father’s arm, who is more concerned about downing his pint. Japanese girls are dressed as whatever the politically correct term for German wenches is, and some of the men have Lederhosen. Long tables are stuffed, and singing breaks out regularly. A bandstand in the middle hosts dancers and bands periodically. The beer is imported from Germany, and the MOST EXPENSIVE BEER OF MY LIFE (a steal at £13). It’s remarkably easy to limit myself to one. We sit on the pavement by the sea, and comment on the refreshing space and air. There is a harp-albatross statue and bollards to vault nearby.
Import of the Week: hedo raito (headlight) Similarity of the Week: KFC and McDonalds are still everywhere Difference of the Week: EVERYONE GETS CHRISTMAS DINNER FROM KFC!! In literally one of the greatest things ever to happen (in the pantheon alongside the making of The Core and Foreigner) KFC ran an ad campaign in the 70s to promote KFC for christmas. Now 24th of December is by far KFC’s busiest day in Japan, with people queuing outside and making reservations!
Product of the Week: When a boy at church, I used to try and make my communion grape last as long as possible, by skinning it then eating the flesh. I didn’t dare to dream someone would sell these ready-made. Bird of the Week: Eurasian Bittern, not a bad spot in central Tokyo