Tag Archives: 2006

SHORT STORIES // My Name Is Shoko (2006)

Where do stories come from?

Paul Simon, in response to being asked where he got the inspiration for his songs, once said something along the lines of songs being out there all over the place, floating by like invisible gases, and he just happened to act like a receiver that picks up on the signals going past him. His songs didn’t come from him but he just picked up on something that was drifting past. It was a nice analogy for the often mysterious creative process.

There are many other ways that songs and stories come into being though. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of fiction draws in some way, however small, from traces of personal experience. A writer looks around them, sees something of interest or intrigue and then uses their imagination to forge the observation or experience into something resembling a tale that they then have to tell.

In the spring of 2006, I was sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Kyoto enjoying the morning warmth and a pleasant hotel breakfast, when a woman came onto the terrace, sat down behind me and began talking to herself. She followed it up with ordering a beer and having a right old time – entirely alone.

I wondered what it was that made somebody do such a thing, especially a woman who looked like she was usually such a respectable character. It’s not really the done thing in Japan to sit and stare at that which seems out of place (unless you’re a child on a train gawping at a ‘foreigner’, for example), so I tried to be as subtle as possible in casually looking over my shoulder to try and figure out what the deal was with her.

One can never know what demons plague the strangers that surround us, but imagining why can go some way to filling in the gaps. What may be a thing of complete innocence, a stranger momentarily dropping their guard and losing it in public, can become an elaborate fusion of plot and counter-plot when twisted through a writer’s mind’s eye.

So it was with Shoko. The main character in this story was inspired by that woman on the Kyoto hotel terrace. The rest is filled in myself, attempting to sketch out some of the expat experience of living in Japan with fictional writing about Japanese characters too, and ways that their lives sometimes intertwine.

‘My Name Is Shoko’ has yet to be published elsewhere so this posting is a first appearance anywhere. Be forewarned though – it’s a pretty long tale!

My Name Is Shoko

Frank Grunwald sighed as he placed two espressos on the table and squeezed into the bamboo chair that faced his colleague. Ed Wade had joined the agency a few years before, Japan being his first overseas assignment. Having arrived a couple of years earlier and remembering some of the struggles he’d had settling in to Tokyo at first, Frank had taken Ed under his wing. On their first night on the town, they discovered a shared and deep-rooted passion for jazz that sealed their friendship.

When his memo had originally come through, an electronic missive from the comparative calm of the bygone Clinton era, Frank had squared up the changes that this would mean for his settled life. Even with Columbine, Mogadishu, Iraqi no-fly zones and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the government building in Oklahoma, when viewed through the fear-laden spectacles of these times of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, it seemed like such a peaceful period in American life. Then again, as the past is lived through and the present is lived in, it’s easier to focus the memory on what was good and obliterate the bad.

Despite the sackful of change that was about to rain down on the family, a part of him was delighted at the prospect. All the greats dropped by Tokyo. Yokohama had its own Blue Note. The secret joints squirreled away down some unknown side street in the middle of nowhere were legendary to him and his band of fellow true believers.

‘You’re sounding tired, Frank’, started Ed, kicking off their traditional Saturday morning get together with a sympathetic ear. Every week they followed the same pattern – they’d meet at 10, set the wives off shopping down Omotesando, then retire to their usual café, sitting in the same seats, ordering the same drinks and talking about the same things. The mundanity of routine provided comfort and relief from the pressures of their work and the quantum shift needed in human behaviour to make their work unnecessary.

They’d kick off by getting the working week out of the way – a new development in Japanese solar power research, the latest threat to their agency from the fossil fuel lobby or a pending paper being presented at a carbon trading conference in Delhi. Once the in tray was cleared, they could get down to what really mattered. A Bill Evans reissue, lovingly remastered and with extensive liner notes, picked up in Shibuya on Wednesday evening. A newly discovered Japanese bass player, plucking pure magic from his strings and chanced upon in some Kichijoji basement dive. Who’ll be on the bill with Herbie at Big Sight this year.

Outside, the street was already in full bustle as the shadows on the paving shortened in line with the ascension of the spring sun. A light breeze murmured along the boulevard, brushing the leaves, pregnant in their green brilliance, against each other with sighs of their own.

‘Another tough week, Ed. I’m really in need of a break.’

Convinced that the dark circles under Frank’s eyes had grown larger since last weekend and aware that his boss was unlikely to get a vacation this summer due to the G8 Advisory Panel he was chairing, Ed thought it better to get the shop talk out of the way faster.

‘So how was Kyoto?’ he enquired, keen for a few scraps of good news but also hoping that Frank had followed up on his suggestion of taking a little time for himself whilst there.

Across the table, Frank knocked back the rest of his espresso and his eyes glazed over for a moment. He’d had a gruelling week running a series of workshops on environmental responsibility for US corporations operating in Asia, and rewiring DNA is hardly falling off a log.

The caffeine kicked in and the tiniest of smiles began a slow crawl across his face.

‘Stumbled across this great little joint I’d never known about before. A hot little trio…nothing but Monk tunes. Broke my heart, man, broke my heart…’ he paused for a moment to recollect the sumptuous notes coaxed out of the keys a couple of days before ‘…and made up for that damned Exxon asshole I had to deal with in the morning.’ His brow furrowed again. ‘I don’t know Ed, some people just can’t seem to comprehend what we’re facing. They just don’t get it.’

‘Well my friend, if biology decides to continue this experiment with higher intelligence, natural selection will take those fossil fuel dinosaurs out eventually.’

‘And it’s precisely that long term view that helps me hold my tongue,’ Frank replied. ‘Still, the hotel was nice.’

Ed enjoyed comparing places to stay and he was generally impressed with Japanese hotels. They had a smooth consistency in their operations and tended to work like well-oiled machines. He’d stayed in some pretty rough joints trekking round Europe after graduation so the service he got in a Japanese hotel would always remind him of having come up in the world since his earlier youth. As far as Frank was concerned, they were purely functional boxes that kept him away from sleeping next to his wife. It was unusual for him to have actually remembered this one.

‘A funny thing happened at breakfast on my second day there,’ Frank leaned in, warming Ed up for a story.

As he was usually stuck in the office during the working week, he was always keen to hear Frank’s ‘on the road’ tales from the provinces outside of the metropolis.

‘I went down for breakfast at 6.30…’ Frank went on, ‘…can’t think so clearly on an empty stomach so I went down early. I loaded my tray from the buffet – miso soup, fish, eggs, coffee, the usual kind of Western-Japanese mix, and took a seat outside with it. You remember the weather in the week?’

‘Sure. It was really warm here. There too?’

‘A glorious spring morning. Anyway, I’m chowing down my food, no-one else around, sun on my back, when this woman came onto the terrace. The staff were all scurrying around in their uniforms, seating people on the inside and clearing away the trays from the early birds who’d finished their breakfasts and gone. She was pretty well dressed in a smart business suit, and fully made up for the time of day it was. Not overdone or anything, tastefully applied an’ all that, but enough of a mask on to face the day.’

‘How old was she?’

‘From her clothes, I’d guess at mid forties, but I can never tell these things. Might have been in her fifties for all I knew. She walked past and sat on the table behind me, so we’re back to back. Now, this place is self-service, right? There’s nobody else but me on the terrace. Soon as she’s sat down, she belts out a ‘Sumimasen!’ – trying to get the waiter’s attention.’

Ed expected this to be a good story and began to pepper Frank’s tale with comments of his own. ‘Not a great move in a self-service buffet. Must have caused a scene. Anyone answer her call?’

‘Not straight away, no. There’s no one else on the terrace bar her and me anyway. She tries again, this time booming out so the staff inside will definitely hear her and asking for a beer.’

‘That’s a bit early.’

‘Just what I thought. She’s sporting a navy blue business suit, offset with gold jewellery, and I can sense a sadness in her that is not written on her face. She’s smiling to herself as her long fingers raise a Pianissimo Slim to her red lips and her gold lighter clicks open. Beer and smokes at that time of the day, she’s tougher than I am.’

‘At college I sometimes started a day like that, but sure couldn’t keep it up for the rest of it,’ sympathised Ed.

‘Right. When nobody comes out to serve her, she stands up and purposefully walks inside, cigarette dangling off her bottom lip. I’ve got my fish and eggs down at this point and am working towards the coffee to get my brain in gear for the day ahead. Trouble is, I can’t think about work ‘cause I’m trying to figure out what’s the deal with her.’

A couple of minutes later, she’s back with a large glass of beer in her hand and a big smile on her face. She sits down and knocks it back, like she was Harry Dean Stanton just outta the Texas desert.’

Shoko fumbled around in her bag a second time, to find the card that served as a key for the door of his hotel room. Had she given it to him to keep safe after all? A foolish mistake she’d not make again, if so. Junya was always forgetting things – his wallet on top of a parking lot toll machine, an umbrella under the table at a restaurant, even his own suitcase on the shinkansen. He wheezed next to her, catching his breath and not bothering to check his pockets. The alcohol had gone to both of their heads and he was more concerned with straightening out his vision so that there was only one door handle, not two or three.

The same size and shape as the business cards that littered the bottom of her purse, she eventually located it amongst them, extracted it carefully and dropped it into the awaiting slot above the handle.

A satisfying click and they were inside.

The hotel room was dark and cool. When they had gone out earlier in the evening, they had closed the curtains, left the air conditioning on cool and switched on a small table lamp in the corner to provide some subtle illumination of the room. The bedclothes were still the same highway pile-up they’d been left as earlier.

First, shoes off and left by the door. Junya had kicked his off and stumbled into the darker recesses of their hideaway from the rest of the world and the reality of the lives they usually led. Shoko took her left heel in her hand and slipped the shoe smoothly off her foot, repeating the well-worn action with the right one. She subconsciously followed the same pattern every time she removed her footwear, with the same unthinking and lilting rhythm of a river passing over the stones on its bed. Placing her shoes carefully next to each other, she did the same for the ones he’d cast off so carelessly.

As he stumbled into the room, Junya’s hand automatically found the remote control and flicked the hotel TV on. The screen showed a parade of pretty young things – actors, actresses, singers, models – on another cooking show. Their hairstyles were meticulously tousled and their expensive designer threads looked casually thrown on. Each one was enjoying their 15 seconds of passing through the spotlight’s orbit – Warhol’s maxim reduced yet further for the blip era. The pretty young things were taking it in turn to sample the delights or horrors of each others attempts at cooking a range of seafood dishes, brandishing expressions of delighted joy or cutely constrained repulsion.

As he tried to focus on the glaring box that had taken over the room, Junya struggled to figure out whether he’d already seen this show once or twice today, or if it was a new one.

Although his drunkenness caused him to lose some of his sheen, he usually cut a fairly dashing figure. A sharply chiselled jaw, hair cut in an Elvis style plus the diamond-studded cufflinks he usually sported had made him stand out from the other gentlemen when they had first met. That was two years ago, and the bar in the Gion district where the encounter had taken place was no longer in business.

Junya lived with his wife and daughter, out west in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa, although he was rarely at home. A salesman for a major electronics company, he was often out of town on business. Even when he was in Tokyo, the combination of having to work hard and entertain his clients after hours, plus his weakness for the Russian dancers that kept many of Roppongi’s ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in a steady supply of bottle blondes meant that he spent very little time with his wife and barely even knew his daughter.

Shoko was a little younger than Junya, but not by a great deal. In the 1980’s, during the ‘Bubble Era’, she and her husband Hirotaka had run a highly successful advertising agency in Osaka. As they always do, the bubble burst, the Japanese economy slumped and their agency eventually hit the skids. Hiro was utterly ashamed of what he perceived to be his failure to be successful in business, but took a different route to many of his contemporaries. He didn’t jump in front of a rush hour commuter train. Instead, he picked off one of the young company secretaries and ran off to Hokkaido with her.

To Shoko’s astonishment, she never heard from him again. Accustomed to the good life as she was, the lean years following the collapse of her former life were a great struggle to adjust to and after a few years, she slipped into hostessing. It kept her in diamond smiles and having worked in advertising, she became very good at targeting her clients exact needs. In time, she worked her way upwards through the ranks and became one of the city’s best-known Mama-sans, Kyoto being her new start to Hiro’s Hokkaido.

Junya’s exact needs had been more difficult to identify. To her, he had a mystique to his character, a faraway look in his eye that, dangerous as it probably was, attracted her. He had a notorious weakness for women, but the restless spirit that marked him out as magnetic seemed to spring from somewhere else, somewhere distant.

One thing she could be sure of, although they were both finally in the same hotel room again after another month apart, he was drunk. He’d been drinking on the train on the way in that evening already, which she’d picked up right away despite his best attempts to hide it with breath mints. He’d carried on at the restaurant, clearly drinking with a purpose. When asked over dinner whether there was anything wrong or that was troubling him, he batted her concerns away and replied how glad he was to see her. Shoko couldn’t help but notice that his hand kept loitering near his chest, fluttering as if unable to make a decision yet trying to clutch at something.

Sprawled on his back, Junya took up most of the bed. After a brief glance in the mirror whilst passing, shoes neatly aligned near the door, she gingerly sat on the edge of the bed and turned to face him. His eyelids were drooping and sporadically jerked upwards as he struggled to stay awake. Shoko tucked her legs underneath her behind, so that she was sitting on her feet. Then she reached her long fingers out and placed them on his cheek. As he drifted off, the touch of her hand on his skin produced a ripple of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

Perhaps it was the disappointment of him being in this condition after the long absense. Perhaps it was the combination of the alcohol itself and the medication that she’d been taking for recent yet chronic cases of depression that had been happening. Perhaps it was the unavoidable breaking down of some neural pathway that was on its way out. Whatever the reason, something snapped in Shoko. She grabbed his necktie in one hand and slapped him hard across the face – back and forth, once, twice, three times. Sluggishly, his eyes began to open, slow as a lizard trying to move around in the winter sun. The speed of his reaction caused her anger to rise yet further. She clenched her fists and began pummelling his chest, screaming no words yet exhaling her growing rage.

As one domino knocks down another, whatever snapped in her caused something to snap in him. His eyes shot open and his chest jerked upwards. His face wore a shocked expression and his hands jumped to clutch at his heart. Shoko was still trapped in her rage, and continued unabated. For a brief moment, Junya found his voice and implored her to stop. The first utterance had the force of an angry man, the second was the sound of a balloon gradually letting out the rest of its air, the third – Junya’s last word – barely even managed to limp out of his throat before it died on his lips.

Slumping back down again, his arched back snapped straight and his eyelids flickered for one last time before clamping shut.

Shoko had no idea that he was suffering from a fragile heart condition, he’d hidden it so well. At first, the momentum of her anger carried her rage into his state of stillness. After a while however, she realised that her actions were having no effect and the life drained from her fury. She poked at his chest, shook his shoulders and implored him to give her some kind of response. Like the sun’s slow crawl into a new day, it dawned on her that Junya had stopped breathing altogether and was dead.

The moment this realisation struck, her mind flooded – thoughts, fears, likely consequences, gushed unstoppably across her conscience. She had killed a man. Would she go to jail? What would happen when his wife found out? Why had she been so angry? Why hadn’t he told her about his condition? Would she be able to find another partner at this stage in her life? How could she get out of the hotel without being found out? Who was going to sing to her, make love to her, buy her jewellery now?

Wildly contradictory emotions battled each other. Panic arose from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat. As her body began to shake, she sidled into the corner of the room and curled into a ball.

A few hours later, shafts of sunlight stubbornly broke through the gaps in the curtains and began staking footholds on the hotel carpet, waking Shoko up to the fact that tomorrow was already here. She snapped out of the trance that had held her captive behind the armchair in the corner of the room and carefully got on her feet. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of Junya’s prostate form lying exactly where she’d left him, not yet fully cold but statue still. The bedclothes were piled up around him. What a shock that would be for the chambermaid!

Stepping into the small bathroom, she let her clothes fall to the floor and left them unfolded, an early chink in the armour. She slipped into the shower and the hot water coursed all over her body, making her skin tingle. After the shower, she rubbed herself dry, then wrapped one towel around her body and her hair in another. The morning routine followed to the note – mirror light on, sit down facing mirror, open vanity case, apply foundation, catch glimpse of corpse in background, eye make-up and lipstick, off with the first towel, underwear on…

Shoko checked her reflection in the mirror one last time. Her hair was fine, make-up perfect, smile still in place, clothes looking good, earrings matching outfit – altogether quite beautiful! She was ready for breakfast. Leaving the room exactly as it was, she removed the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign from the outside, closed the door behind her and walked off in the direction of the elevator.

Frank continued with his story.

‘So she starts calling the waiter over again. There’s some really familiar song in the background, just casually tripping out of the restaurant pa. It’s kind of jolly and sorrowful at the same time, plenty of keyboards and a little harmonica. Sounds like it’s meant to be Dylan, but I know it’s not him.’

‘She get a better response from the waiter this time?’ enquired Ed.

‘Oh, for sure. They were watching her like hawks now, only from the background. One of them came onto the terrace and over to her table. She asked him for a bottle of wine!’

Traces of the song began coming back to him and tugging away at his memory…(’it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday’)…(‘making love to his tonic and gin’)…

‘It was perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen a Japanese waiter refuse to serve somebody at breakfast. And you know how reluctant they are to turn down a customer.’

‘For sure. Was she pissed at that?’

…(‘can you play me a memory?’)…(‘not really sure how it goes’)…(‘I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes’)…

‘She seemed to pretty much accept it after a while. I heard the click of her lighter and she just settled on smoking instead. I’m sitting there, with my back to her. There’s a few other guests scattered across the terrace now too, all quietly tucking into their food.

All of a sudden, I started hearing conversation…‘Why won’t they serve us?’…‘I know it’s early, but I’d like a drink’…‘we can do that later, you bad boy!’…‘Let them look, I don’t care’…

Something was wrong though. As casually as I could manage, I turned around, pretending to stretch and also happening to catch a glimpse of this lady.’

‘So what was the deal?’ Ed enquired, picturing himself on the terrace with the sun mottling his face and the fresh smell of morning and coffee in the air.

…(‘we’re all in the mood for a melody’)…(‘you’ve got us feelin’ alright’)…

Frank paused a moment, as if for dramatic effect, knowing he had Ed’s full attention. ‘What was that damned song?’ he thought to himself. He drummed his fingers on the table for a second, stretched out his arms and then leaned in, conspiratorially.

‘I’ll tell you what the deal was, Ed. There was nobody else there. Not a soul. No-one.’

‘So she’s just talking away to herself? Schizophrenia? Imaginary friend?’

‘I don’t know, man. I was wondering the same thing myself. The strangest part for me though (…‘they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness’…) was what happened next. She’s chatting away to this imaginary friend, real bubbly and like she’s having a great time. Of course, she’s getting pretty funny looks by now – people are really staring at her (…‘but it’s better than drinking alone’…) even though she seems to be completely oblivious. Then, all of a sudden, she’s up on her feet and really laying into whoever she thinks she’s with. ‘My name is Shoko!’ she shouts, ‘not Candy, or Star, or Rosie, or Moonlight AND I WILL NOT TAKE THIS ANY MORE!!’

‘My God,’ cut in Ed ‘What a scene!’

‘I didn’t know which way to look. Next thing I know, she slams her fist down on the table – it’s one of those lightweight, round aluminium ones – and her beer glass bounces off and smashes on the terrace paving. The waiters jump into action, more concerned by the fact of the broken glass on the floor than what’s probably the biggest scene they’ve ever seen over breakfast. And she storms out!’

And at exactly that moment, the song came back into his head.

‘Billy Joel! ‘Piano Man’! Got it!’

Ed’s expression veered from the astonishment that was spread across his face at the tale of the Kyoto hotel breakfast to puzzlement at why his colleague had suddenly switched to AOR balladeers (Ed had always much preferred Tom Waits’ bar-room tales).

Yes, they were sharing a drink they called loneliness.

But it was better than drinking alone.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2006, Fiction, Short Stories

REVIEWS // Lively Up Yourself (2006)

Sometimes you come across something that you just can’t resist. So it was when I learned about the inaugural Reggae Snow Splash event in one of Japan’s premier ski areas. I knew the organisers through other ventures and decided that it was an event that I couldn’t miss – an unusual combination (reggae and winter sports) but an irresistible one all the same. Pulling together a small crew of likely sorts, we set off by bus from the the heart of the city bound for the Japan Alps.

The event itself was undoubtedly the party of the year. Through all the fun and games, I managed to write up a review of the event and throw in a little ‘gonzo‘ background to the trip too.

The resulting review got published on a Canadian website named The Foreigner – Japan that I got a couple of other pieces published at too. It can be found here. Having sent the review around a couple of other options too, I also ended up getting commissioned by Outdoor Japan to write the cover story for their Summer Music Festivals issue, posted elsewhere in this blog.

I wasn’t able to attend the second Reggae Snow Splash, in 2007, but I know that the organisers expanded the programme for it. I wish them the very best with it in the future and hope to see this fantastic event becoming a permanent fixture on the Japanese event calendar.

Event photos by Racer; Alpine scenery by Dom Pates.

Lively Up Yourself

Chalk and cheese. Salt and cornflakes. Some things are just not meant to go together and can make for an awful mess. However, some opposites can compliment each other. I once tried chocolate chilli at a Mexican restaurant, with great trepidation. It was delicious. British entrants are rarely expected to qualify for the Winter Olympics, yet the UK even came back from Turin with a medal this time around.

Reggae. Snow. Perhaps the last place you’d expect a reggae festival would be at a ski resort. Jamaica might be known for its Blue Mountains but certainly not any white ones. These days, such a sun-kissed sound is no longer confined to the Caribbean, but heard the world over. And Reggae Snow Splash (RSS), in the heart of the Japan Alps, made perfect sense.

The first event of its kind, it provided skiing and snowboarding by day, and live reggae and DJs by night – all at the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. A bus was laid on to take merry revellers up to Nagano from Tokyo, and the event was put together guaranteeing a stress-free weekend away from the city. Faces from the Japanese reggae scene would be providing the entertainment and for partygoers not wishing to hit the slopes in the daytime, there was even a guided snowshoe hike through a beautiful mountainous setting, with winter forests and spiced wine to top it off.

My gang and I joined the Ski Babylon bus leaving on the Friday night. Once on the road, the passengers were all welcomed with a jerk chicken bento and a cup of ‘jungle juice’ to get us all in the mood – a fine attention to detail that showed the organisation that had gone into this event. Sat at the back and joined by one of the bands playing, we got into the swing pretty quickly.

The bus rolled into Hakuba and we joined the party at Tracks bar that had already kicked off. We partied until 3AM and then bowed out, for the slopes were drawing us later on.

On the main day itself, one and all were not quite up to tackling snowboarding straight away. After surfacing, we borrowed some bicycles from the lodge we were staying at and headed off for a ride through country with breathtaking alpine backdrops – a fine way to clear the foggy head. We stopped in Hakuba town at a restaurant called Uncle Stevens, and were served huge portions of delicious Mexican food at reasonable prices. On the way back, a visit to a nearby onsen was paid – a perfect way to relax and rejuvenate in preparation for the evening.

Back at Tracks, the main event was warmed up by local DJs and Caribbean Dandy, a unit from Tokyo on the leading edge of the reggae DJ scene in Japan. The first band on was Tex & the Sun Flower Seed, who describe their sound as ‘J-Po-ggae’ – a mix of reggae, ska, rocksteady and J-Pop. With eight people on stage and a tight yet loose sound, they made a commanding start to the live music. After a long day out on the slopes, the audience was a little slow to move at first, but Tex’s lively and inclusive set warmed them up quickly. Anchored in bass, horn laden and with a very lively frontman, the band’s sunny grooves won the audience over and had the whole room dancing away the remaining winter chills.

Cool Wise Men were the main act. Active messengers of the Jamaican roots music scene in Japan since forming in 1993, they were to bring the day to a climax and did so with great style. Some hot horn action was provided at the front by sax, trumpet and trombone, with rhythm, guitar and keys holding down the back. Soon enough, the place was jumping and grooving to the Wise Men’s traditional and rootsy sound. Sometimes, a well-known reggae refrain was thrown in. A good energy and solid stamina from them kept the crowd going throughout the night. Most of the material lacked vocals, but they weren’t missed. Cool Wise Men can be seen playing with Jamaican trombone legend Rico Rodriguez in Tokyo in May – a sure-fire hit show to be.

After their set, Caribbean Dandy played out the rest of the party and spun many fine, classic tunes, helping the happy Snow Splashers to keep on grooving till the small hours.

Up and about early the next day, we were on the slopes by mid-morning. As a former Winter Olympics site, Hakuba is well developed for a whole range of winter sports. There are many shops offering gear and wear rental, plus opportunities for beginners to learn from experienced instructors. Plenty of bars and restaurants provide much of the off-slope entertainment and the array of ubiquitous hot springs give the chance to rest those weary bones after all the excitement of plunging downhill fast. Other outdoor activities can also be enjoyed, such as trekking, hiking, and kayaking or rafting along the Himekawa River that flows through the resort. Many of the mountains in the range reach 3,000 metres high and it can be tough to beat the spectacular wintry alpine views from some of the peaks.

Mid afternoon, and all the partygoers gathered together for a final time to say goodbyes to new friends before the bus took everyone back to Tokyo. In terms of organisation, concept, attention to detail and vibe, I’d have to say that it was the best party I’ve been to in a long time. The tour guide on the bus even took the trouble to sing us a number with the on-board karaoke system as we rolled out of Hakuba!

On the return home, hanami season appeared to have kicked off in Kichijoji’s Inokashira Park, with many people partying under the blossoming cherry trees and welcoming in a new season.

So from Winter, must come Spring…


Reggae Snow Splash
Outdoor Japan
Hakuba Alps Backpackers Lodge

Leave a comment

Filed under 2006, Reviews

INTERVIEWS // City Transplants & Their Domino Hearts (2006)

Bruce Michell with Dom Pates

In 2006, I got a couple of articles published on a Canadian website (The Foreigner – Japan) covering Japanese issues. They were pleased enough to ask me to contribute more for them and I was commissioned to write a piece on a play being put on at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, which included interviews with the actors. The original article can be found here.

The majority of interviews that I’d done in the past had been in the early 90’s and with British musicians, so it was good to have a chance to get back into it and interview some different subjects, that came from a different background too.

The play was written by a relative of Thomas Edison and performed as a series of monologues. It was my first experience of writing about theatre and also the first time to work with a transcript that came from a digital source rather than an analogue one. Certainly an improvement on slowly rewinding a cassette! It was also interesting to share some experiences I could very much relate to of living as an expat in Tokyo.

The article that appeared on the site can be found below. The photographs of the actors were all taken by Tomomi Akagi.

City Transplants & Their Domino Hearts

A woman is telling the story of how her husband died. She is nurturing a glass of red wine and occasionally leans on a bottle of pills. She seems to be trying to purge herself of the guilt she feels about his death and thinks she might have been in some way responsible for it. 10 years previously, she’d had an affair with a young student at the university where she taught and her husband, an acclaimed writer, had never forgiven her for it. An argument about it arose when they were on a dark and wintry Canadian road and a sequence of events including a deer in headlights, a truck carrying metal poles and the driver losing concentration led to his death. She later tries to commit suicide, but fails and realises that life is a better option.

An older man, dressed in a bathrobe, gaunt and bent yet still putting in a powerful performance, is describing the style of his sermons. He’s a minister awaiting a heart transplant, not yet ready to meet his maker. He too is carrying his own burden of guilt. When a childhood friend killed herself in a bathtub, he felt to blame for it and in religion he found a kind of salvation or remedy for his guilt. Later, we learn that his body rejected the new organ, his struggle ends and the heart continues its journey into another body.

A younger man drops into the seat at his desk, glaring into his laptop and barking instructions in German into the headset he’s wearing. A high-flying advertising account executive director, his immigrant mother was raped and he grew up in fatherless poverty. Clearly, his profession is his revenge on a world that gave him such a cruel start. More than just playing a part in shifting trucks, he sells the dream of ‘Rugged Outdoor Man’, the pinnacle of masculinity who fights the elements and protects his beautiful family. Like a badge of honour worn by so many in his profession of hard work and hard living, he suffers a heart attack at 33.

The Canadian Embassy in Tokyo is a grand looking building; slickly modern, smoothly finished, tastefully lit and welcoming. Staged at the theatre belonging to the Embassy, ‘The Domino Heart’ was performed by three actors delivering monologues. It was written by Matthew Edison, a young Canadian actor and playwright who is also the great, great, great, grandnephew of Thomas Edison. Inventiveness clearly runs in the family, for the piece was most poetic, richly laden in metaphor and rose very well to the challenges posed by being entirely constructed from monologues.

On one level, it was a play about heart transplants, with the first donor’s organ going into another body and then a second when the first patient dies (thus the ‘domino heart’, an organ falling like dominoes into body after body). On other levels, the play was about the eternal themes visited by many of the arts; love, life, trust and communication between people.

‘The Domino Heart’ was directed by Robert Tsonos and Rachel Walzer. Robert, a Canadian actor and director, has lived in Tokyo for about 5 years and also played the part of Leo, the character in advertising. Rachel, originally from Jerusalem, has been in Tokyo on and off for the last 13 years and also teaches drama when not working as an actress or narrator. Mortimer Wright, the minister, is played by Bruce Michell, from Sydney and in Tokyo for 16 years. Lynne Hobday, a British-born actress, vocalist and lyricist who played the part of Cara, the grieving wife, as initially drawn to Japan at around the same time as Bruce.

Rachel Walzer

The cast and crew were able to spare a little time after the show to talk about the production and their lives here in Japan’s vast metropolitan capital city.

We began by talking about the play itself. Robert was attracted to the poetry and the metaphors of it, also complimenting the style of the piece. Intrigued by the challenges posed by making a series of fairly long monologues into engaging theatre, Rachel commented that ‘it was really interesting to find all the little ways, the little secrets, the little paths to make it alive and visual’. For both, it was an intense experience to produce. Robert added that the concentration, commitment and talent needed was high.

There were challenges too for the actors. Bruce had to tone down his Australian qualities to play a character that’d moved to Canada. Lynne mostly acts in Japanese language theatre and this was her first English production in many years. Naturally, it was also important to maintain focus and keep the monologues interesting too.

So, how about their experiences of theatre in Japan, and was it much different to that of in their home countries? What are some of the delights and drags of being an expatriate in one of the world’s biggest cities – being an outsider yet also being on the inside? What difficulties do they face and where are their favourite haunts?

Robert Tsonos

: ‘Well, there’s language restrictions obviously. In order to do major TV dramas or things like that, you have to be fluent in Japanese and I’m not.’

Rachel: ‘We have a large, foreign English-speaking community in Tokyo, but I think just a very small percentage of that community is interested in theatre. We’re always striving to get more audience members, but generally…I think the izakayas are more attractive. If you’re an actor in London or New York perhaps, then you’re OK, but outside of that, it’s difficult…’

Bruce: ‘We probably wouldn’t be doing this kind of play in Australia. We’d be more likely doing the classics or we’d be doing an Australian play.’

Robert: ‘To have the entire cast of 8 or 9 people sometimes, all from different countries, is fascinating to me. How do you communicate with each of them in a different way? Some of them are more…like the Venezuelan actress (I worked with) was very physically based, and the British are very intellectually based, right? So you’ve got to give almost different direction to each of them, which I find fascinating, so I that’s been really exciting.’

Rachel: ‘It’s also fascinating when people bring their own culture and mannerisms and yet when it comes to just human issues, it’s all the same stuff and if it’s expressed with honesty, it doesn’t really matter if you’re the kind of person who uses your hands more or if you’re the kind of person who uses your head more. It makes the play even more interesting. What does connect the Japanese who work within our group as well as everybody else is that everybody seems quite internationalised, meaning that they’ve been exposed to a lot of different cultures and they’ve brought a lot of the different flavours that they’ve been exposed to to their performances.’

Bruce: ‘People, I think, are less insular. You’re getting a more international feel. You’re getting people from different backgrounds…So I think you’re getting more variety of experience, variety of directors and the variety of plays.’

Naturally, living in a place like Tokyo has its advantages as well as its drawbacks.

Lynne Hobday

: ‘It can also be a bit precarious, because I’m pretty much freelance, but I’ve been in work for quite a long while. Tokyo’s always changing, there are always new opportunities, you never know what’s around the corner, so (there’s) that excitement.’

Bruce: ‘I think that in your home country, people are more set in their ways. They have routines and they tend to be more family-orientated to start off with, and it’s not so easy to meet people or to break into new social circles, but in Tokyo I think it is much easier. People come, they stay for 2 or 3 years and maybe then they leave, so they’re more inclined to go out, meet people, open up themselves.’

Rachel: ‘It might be a bit hard for me if I were Japanese…I think I would feel a little bit restricted, because the culture here is a restrictive type of culture. As a foreigner, I feel liberated, I feel that nothing’s expected of me, I can do whatever I want, so I feel freer here than what I would in my own home country.’

Bruce: ‘Foreigners, particularly Westerners, are cut a lot of slack. They’re treated pretty well. Sometimes you’re not treated well by everyone, but generally speaking, I think Westerners are treated quite well…People do say there may be discrimination, say in the rental market or something like that, but it’s nothing that I’ve experienced.’

It’s a very big and busy place. Any other downsides?

Lynne: ‘A little bit too busy. Actually doing things and not chilling out enough, probably. I can never stop here!’

Bruce: ‘Travelling at 8.30 in the morning on the Yamanote line is not great, obviously, and we do things to survive. We wear iPods, we have our mobile phones…and that’s a sad thing…but I think that’s kind of a survival mechanism. We do that because we have to do that, just to cope with the crowding, the pushing, and those kinds of things.’

Rachel: ‘I’d be happier if there was a little bit more nature.’

Bruce: ‘When you’re working hard, and people do work hard here, it’s nice to have access to a little bit of nature, to be able to relax. I think if you’re used to it, you have actually a hunger to see trees and greenery and sky and things like that, but, you live here for a certain period of time and you get used to it. That’s the body and the mind. It adapts to what environment we’re in. But you’re reminded of it sometimes. Sometimes you see Fuji in the distance, and you think, ‘Wow, yeah, that’s great, there is a sky, a horizon out there.’

Tokyo’s green spaces do find favour, as do some of the livelier and more cosmopolitan spots.

Rachel: ‘There are parks that are very beautiful, there’s Nezu Art Museum, that has its own little Japanese area with ponds and trees and stuff like that. If you know the little nooks and crannies of the city, you can find a little peace.’

Bruce Michell

Bruce: ‘I really like Shinjuku Gyoen. It’s a lovely park. I also sometimes go down to the area around Omotesando and the park near that area as well.’

Lynne: ‘Harajuku, Omotesando, probably. Lots of trees and wide roads, it just feels a bit European.’

Rachel: ‘I love the nightlife of Tokyo. I like the excitement and the buzz of places like Omotesando and this area, Aoyama, and I love the various flavours sometimes…when I’m in the mood for Shinjuku or Roppongi.’

No matter how long people have been resident in this city and whatever background they’ve previously come from, there still seem to a lot of commonality to their lives. Whilst Tokyo seems to be systematically busier than most places and may lack an abundance of wide open green spaces, these are similar reservations that many of the Japanese people drawn to the magnetism of the national capital have. What does mark the ‘foreigners’ out from the ‘locals’ is the experience of being an ‘outsider on the inside’. Other global hotspots such as London or New York might take a more integrationist approach, as cities built on the backs of their respective countries waves of immigration. Simply the act of living there makes one a Londoner or a New Yorker.

Here, one can never be a ‘true Tokyoite’, yet that is not without its advantages. While most incomers have to hurdle the language barrier, and Japanese is a notoriously difficult language to learn, there is often a greater freedom in being a foreigner in Japan. Rachel spoke of the liberation she felt here. Bruce mentioned the fact of many foreigners having an easier time than in their home countries and of being ‘cut a lot of slack’. Everybody also felt the buzz of the place.

It would appear that, for our actors and directors at the Canadian Embassy and undoubtedly many others like them, their city transplant operations were successful. Their bodies accepted their new Tokyo hearts.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2006, Features, Interviews

TRAVEL // Oceans & Islands (2006)

In the twists and turns of our life’s journey, we sometimes take different paths from those that we might expect to take.

As a result of a couple of trips down to the Japanese subtropical archipelago of Okinawa back in 2004, I had it in mind that my future led me to become a reporter down there, zipping about in the heat in a jeep and interviewing people about fishing yields and the incursions of US military bases. It was a dream prompted by an offer from the publisher of ‘Okinawa Index‘, a guide book I once wrote for.

Ultimately, it was not to be and in time I bedded down in Tokyo and got used to life in the big city, finding plenty of ways to keep myself amused and busy. I ended up producing what I believe to have been the first collection of modern Japanese protest music, which was not an easy task!

I lost touch with the publisher and assumed that I’d never hear from her again. To my surprise, I got a call out of the blue at around the time that the CD was due to be released. She was in town for a party and did I want to hook up again? ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘you never know where these things can end up.’

At the party and later over dinner, she told me that she was planning another guide book and would I like to contribute again? Although I hadn’t been back down there since the last trip, I agreed pretty much straight away.

Grabbing moments in lunch breaks (often how I write in Tokyo), I pieced together an overview of my previous two visits, spiced it up with some of the trips I’d managed after the taste for travel I’d developed since Okinawa, and wrapped it up with my desire to return there.

Once again, even after submitting the piece, I didn’t hear from the publisher again. To my knowledge, the guide book was never made, and so the article was never published.

Instead, it makes its debut here and is titled ‘Oceans & Islands’.

All photos by Dom Pates.

Oceans and Islands

The ocean has had me under its spell ever since I first laid eyes on it. I was born within five minutes walk from the sea, in the coastal resort of Brighton. It’s a little like an English San Francisco – a hilly and cosmopolitan seaside city, full of creative types and tech companies. There is always some sort of a buzz going on but perhaps most impressive is the ocean location. Gazing out to sea always makes your troubles feel much smaller.

A few years ago, tired of England and in need of a little more adventure in my life, I decided to pack up and go to the other side of the world. In a rather bold move and used to a more relaxed way of life, I threw myself into one of the biggest and busiest cities on Earth – Tokyo – to see if I sank or swam. Once I found the water was warm enough, I began to explore the group of islands that I’d landed in.

I’d never lived in such a big city before, so often found need to seek out a little peace, away from the bubbling torrents of the metropolis. A trip to Okinawa needed no passport and was only a couple of hours flight from Tokyo. A little slice of the subtropics to get the skyscrapers out of my hair for a while.

To my grandparents’ generation, it might as well have been the moon. They first heard about the place as some exotic location on the other side of the planet where the last land battle of WWII occurred. I, however, spotted it in my guidebook and thought it would be a nice place to visit.

Immediate first impressions were mixed. It was warmer than where I’d come from but seemed old and fading. Then I began to explore and got a little more under Naha’s skin; the vibrancy of Kokusai-dori, the traditional treats and gems in the maze of the old market, and the unexpected surprises you can only come across when wandering round a city and following your nose.

One such surprise was the Baobab Bar. Designed inside and out to look like the sacred African tree, I was drawn in. I made a new friend there with whom I set off on an adventure the next day. Our voyage of discovery took us to the tiny island of Kudaka that, unbeknownst to us, was celebrating their New Year that very day.

I experienced things to tell the grandchildren about – drinking, eating and dancing with the villagers, scenes of island life unchanged for many generations, playing sanshin at the house of a stranger who invited me in. I had become an adventurer, with tales to tell of it.

My second visit was at the request of Okinawa Index, after a chance meeting on Kudaka. This time, I got even deeper under the skin of the place and it got deeper under mine too.

The visit came with a packed itinerary too. I tried my hand at glass blowing at the Onna Glass Factory. At Ryukyu Mura, I watched a water buffalo pressing sugar cane and sat at a weaving loom. There was a scenic photo shoot to take in, along a rugged and beautiful coastline that took my breath away. I even squeezed in a visit to the Peace Park that commemorates the battle that caused my grandparents to hear of Okinawa over on the other side of the world.

Since my first forays into the former Ryukyu kingdom, I’ve become a travelling man. I’ve seen the Great Wall of China and the Olympic transformation of Beijing; been to the DMZ that straddles the Korean peninsula, one of the most heavily landmined places in the world; glimpsed at the Himalayas from the Kathmandu Valley, during the Festival of Light; taken in an Arabian sunset in a desert just outside Dubai; and lived a month in East Africa, with its safari wildernesses and the splendours of the Swahili Coast. Despite all this, Okinawa sticks in my mind like a limpet to a rock.

After my second visit, I picked up a new project. Following a request for help from a UK-based organisation, I set up Peace Not War Japan. The UK group raises consciousness and funding for the international peace movement by releasing CDs of contemporary pro-peace music, and I started a similar venture in Japan. We released our first CD of Japanese pro-peace music in the summer of 2006. The music comes from across the country and covers a range of genres. Okinawa’s influence is felt strongly too. Ryukyu Underground donated a track, a version of the island standard ‘Hana’. We also have songs from Soul Flower Union and Kotobuki, two groups very influenced by Okinawan songs and stories.

Proceeds from the sale of these CDs will be donated to Japanese peace groups, so it is a chance for me to give something back and contribute to the growth of peace in Japan.

For the sake of balance, when you take something, it is very important to also give in return. These beautiful islands have given me so, so much already – perhaps it’s my turn to give now.


Filed under 2006, Features, Travel

ARTICLES // My Life And Bushido Ghosts (2006)

Probably the most common question I get asked in Tokyo is ‘Why did you come to Japan?’, even after having been here for almost four years. I sense that were I here for 40 years, I’d still get asked on a fairly regular basis.

It’s a fair question to ask, I suppose. During the Edo era (1603-1868), when Japan was ruled by the shogunate and populated by samurai, the country was effectively closed off from any foreign contact. From 1635, the Japanese were prohibited from ever leaving the country and if they did, prohibited from returning. It’s not a place steeped in traditions of mixing with peoples from other races.

Nevertheless, here I am. I think that something like 1% of the people living in Japan today were foreign born, so it’s still a little bit more of a unique experience living here as a ‘foreigner’ that it would be in Europe or the US for example.

In 2005, I was asked to write an article for the Hiroshima-based (and presumably now defunct) bilingual magazine ‘PEACE‘. I titled it with just that same question I am always asked, and it covered not only some of my motivations for coming here but also a little family background (much of my extended family has tended to expatriate themselves or have travelled widely) and the similarities and differences between my life here in Japan and the one I led back in Britain.

The following year, I came across another writing opportunity based on the theme of ‘Home and Exile’, through my subscription to the Brighton Fringe Mailing List. This time, it was for a new publication being set up in the UK, called ‘Don’t Look Back’. I sent off the same piece that was published in the Hiroshima mag, and they were interested enough to ask me to rewrite it and submit a new piece. This I duly did, coming up with the piece found below – ‘My Life and Bushido Ghosts’.

After submission, I never heard from them again, so I actually have no idea whether it was published or not or even whether the magazine ever went to print. I hope that they did, although it would be nice to know whether my article ever went anywhere!

The title was a Japan-slanted pun on the Brian Eno/David Byrne 1981 album ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts‘. Bushido means ‘the way of the warrior’ and commonly refers to the samurai code of conduct. The reference to ghosts comes from my feelings of finding my own ‘ghosts’, people from my past that kept springing up at the most unexpected moments as I neared the end of my time living in the UK.

In a way, writing the piece itself was an exorcism of sorts. Here in Japan, I don’t have so many of my own ghosts and the old ones have lost their spook factor too.

Perhaps next time I’m asked why I came here, I can now just give the questioner this URL and suggest that they find out for themselves!

My Life and Bushido Ghosts

Exiles, immigrants, expats, foreigners, outsiders, refugees – whatever you want to call us, we’re all displaced peoples. The square pegs, the forced out, the seekers and the wandering drifters, each uprooted and elsewhere. It happens to the biggest of us – Napoleon removed and sent to die in Saint Helena, The Stones as tax exiles in fading French chateaus. It happens to the smallest of us too – ghost ships washed up in Barbados, filled with desiccated corpses of young African men, Iraqis fleeing their home tinderbox in any direction they can.

Here in Tokyo, I label myself an ‘expat’. To me, it says that I exercised choice over my displacement. However, to the rest of this still closed global hotspot, I’m just another foreigner and that is what I’ll stay. Always on the outside, looking in. Party perhaps, to the appetiser, but never the full meal.

This is as it has always been. Born in England to an English family, then raised and schooled in Wales, I began with one foot in each camp yet not quite fully fitting into either, ‘different’ from the start. Identity is always so interchangeable and muddled through in the UK that it’s a tough job to convincingly claim to be a nationalist.

About three years ago, I tied up all my loose ends, condensed my life into two suitcases and a laptop and jumped onto a plane at Heathrow – bound for the other side of the world with a blank slate in my head and an empty diary in my bag. Leaving a childhood home or home country, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

I’ve often been asked why I came to Japan, but rarely ever why I left the UK. Most people leave home at some point and all have their reasons, whether they walked out with head held high or were kicked out with tail between legs. I did so for two main reasons. Firstly, because the world is changing rapidly and becoming ever more interdependent, I wanted to experience and understand that transition. To taste and perhaps even help shape some of that emerging global identity. To become a citizen of the future, not a relic of the past. Secondly, my ghosts crowded me out.

Even my original and later readopted hometown of Brighton had begun to teem with them after a while. They laid in wait for me on street corners, in pubs and supermarkets, in the books that I read and the songs I listened to, in the successes of others rightfully mine, and the new bonds made that I was excluded from. Most of all, they laid deep down inside of me, weighing me down and forcing me to chase my tail instead of following my nose or my dreams. I ran away to the new world and I ran away from the old one.

Of course, Japan has its ghosts too. A Tokyoite once told a tale of awakening feeling pressured, only to see the disembodied head of a samurai resting on her chest, and his body slumped in the corner of the room. Then there’s Hiroshima’s living ghosts, the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) and the terrible tales they still tell about one fateful summer day in their childhood and its aftermath. But perhaps as Japan’s ghosts belong to others, I don’t see them in the same way as my own.

Exile, expatriation and exploration seem to run in the family. Both parents are well travelled and weave snapshots of recent human history into the family narrative. My mother, who actually recommended Tokyo to me, spent a little time in Soviet-era Moscow and Leningrad. It can be difficult to visit somewhere that my father’s not been before me. He was in Berlin a week before the fall of the Wall. My sisters, fellow siblings-in-exile, respectively live in Toulouse and Dar Es Salaam.

It goes back further and stretches out wider too. On Dad’s side, an uncle in North Carolina, a cousin born in Zambia. On Mum’s side, an uncle who sent himself to Cameroon, and another uncle in Germany, who’d rejected London at the end of the 1960’s and headed off with a camera round his neck. Hitching on some autobahn or other, he was picked up by a busload of hippies on their way to a Pink Floyd show and later married one of them.

Yet further still, the bloodlines intermingle with the bloodshed and fault lines of the last century or so. Another uncle, this time belonging to my grandmother, seemed to have lived the whole Empire boy dream. He found himself in Shanghai in the 1920’s, where he hooked up with a Russian girl he met. She turned out to be a minor royal that had fled the Revolution in 1917, and was now down at heel, selling matches on the street. Together, they fled China to escape from the invading Japanese and on to Batavia (now Jakarta). The Imperial Army had their sights on Indonesia too so they fled again, ending their days in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was).

Completing the circle, it was a visit to my sister in Tanzania, during the week that the Americans and the British began their assault on Baghdad, that I decided I was finally ready to up sticks, put Blighty behind me and head far East. At the turn of the millennium, the rock ‘n’ roll gang I fronted began getting our first taste of fame by bursting into the national media by accident. Amidst our meteoric rise, however, I was ousted in a coup and thus began my English decline. In time, my senses became dulled by my daily grind and I needed to reawaken them with new experiences. Tokyo lured me with dreams of a high-tech, glittering city of the future.

My life here is both similar and different to the old one in England. I eat more fish than I did before and am also more used to earthquakes, but as I did in the UK, I teach English for cash and occasionally still sing in a local bar band. The all-efficient technology is so pervasive, however, that it’s barely noticed after a while.

My social circle is drawn from a much wider pool than my British one was. A Californian pal tells me tales of living on otherwise uninhabited Hawaiian islands. A Nepalese friend invited me to join him and his family in celebrating the Hindu Festival of Light, at home in Kathmandu. I became the global citizen I was aiming to be.

One part of the story remains untold. As with any haunting, you can only run from your ghosts for so long. In time, if the exile is ever to come home, he must also become exorcist.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2006, Articles, Features