Tag Archives: Japan

REVIEWS // Noughties, But Nice (2010)

This review was initially slated to appear online at the beginning of the year. Other commitments got in the way and it got pushed back. I later started writing it for my general blog ‘Postings From An Edge’, but ended up being such a lengthy piece that I felt it would go better here. As it covers ten years from a global and personal point of view, it didn’t seem to matter about missing the zeitgeist moment of early January.


'Noughties, but Nice': What can you find hidden in the streets of Shibuya?

NAMING OUR TIMES

At the end of the 1990s, I was one of the many that struggled with the thorny issue of what to call the then-pending decade. The previous ten-year blocks I’d lived through had been easy to label – the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties – but this one didn’t fit into such comfortable naming as the others did. Now on the other side of it, it seems that there is still no definitive and satisfactory answer to that question – what to call the decade that lasted from 2000 to 2009. The Noughties sounds a bit odd, and only really works in a British English context. The Two Thousands would cover the whole millennium rather than just the decade. The Twenty Hundreds doesn’t feel anywhere near as right as the Nineteen or Eighteen Hundreds seems to feel, and still caters more for a century than a decade. None of the other suggestions proposed, such as the Ohs or the Oh-Ohs feel right either.

It seems like the lexical debate is one likely to remain unsettled. If so, then so be it – some things don’t fit easy compartmentalisation and it could be argued that such pursuits are really only media obsessions anyway, having no actual bearing on peoples lives. Of course, until we reach the Twenty Twenties when decade-naming can easily revert to type and the same labels used in the Twentieth Century can be recycled, it seems like the same issue is faced all over again with the decade we’ve just entered. Might have to stick with the numbers and call it the 2010s (Twenty Tens), just to make things easier.

Still, naming a decade can be very helpful from a historical context, as delivering the past in comprehensible chunks is a necessary feature of understanding or interpreting it. The first decade of a millennium is often a fascinating time to look back on too, given that societies look so much more different over a span of a hundred years than over ten of them, and turning points hold greater intrigue.

The Nineteen Hundreds (or however else we name that particular decade) was as tumultuous a time as the 2000s appears to have been. A period of global upheaval, it included the rise of Imperial Japan, the first Russian Revolution, and a high water mark in the imperial expansion of the European powers. In science and technology, the first manned flights happened, Einstein proposed his theory of special relativity, and Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Culturally, the decade spawned the birth of modern art, cinema and the early stirrings of radio. A century prior to that, the Eighteen Hundreds (1800 – 1809) saw the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK), plus the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Romanticism, while the Industrial Revolution raged on with the introduction of the first steam-powered ships and trains.

It seems that the first decade of a century can be a time for revolutionary change. We citizens of the world in the early 21st Century have been having ours too, with the Digital Revolution still in full swing and possibly even in its infancy. Having been living through such heady days myself and been an eager participant, this article will serve to review the previous decade on both a global and a personal level, with a clear digital string running throughout it.

BOOKENDS

Titles from the Art section

Titles in the Art section

I started the Noughties (a term I’ll use for want of a better one and to have something to hold the concept of the decade onto) in one way very similar but mostly very different to how I ended it. In 2000, I had just been laid off from a retail job I was keen on getting out of anyway. I’d spent the preceding four years as a bookseller and although being surrounded by books on a daily basis was enjoyable in many ways, it didn’t hold a particularly lucrative future. In the final years of my twenties, I was a single man living a pretty analogue life in Brighton. I was due to spend a week living in Paris, with a rock band back home that was starting to go somewhere and a career path heading into the voluntary sector. Even less lucrative than retail.

The decade ended for me back in Brighton again, only this time a married man coming up to 40, and having digitised most aspects of my life. I’m currently working as a teacher for a global education company, and studying a postgraduate Cambridge University Diploma in English Language Teaching (DELTA). I don’t really have a band on the go for once in my life, although I do have several other projects happening simultaneously, as usual. Perhaps the one thing that might be most surprising for the young man that began the decade with a trip to France intended as a breather before the rigours of rejoining the dole queue is that I spent half of the past ten years living in Tokyo, Japan.

THE WORLD’S A STAGE

9/11 attacks on New York

The decade began with the hopefulness of the Millennium celebrations, a global moment of optimism that I spent with friends on Brighton beach – as good a place as any to spend it. However, a decade doesn’t really seem to get fully underway without a defining event and it wasn’t until over a year and a half in that the Twenty First Century really seemed to kick in. Sat in my Brighton flat on a sunny afternoon in September of 2001, after a morning’s teaching and awaiting a speech by Tony Blair on TV about public service reform, I wondered what was keeping him from his platform. Flipping the channels, I found some news coming in from New York about an aeroplane hitting the World Trade Center. The defining moment had arrived, a shocking one at that and one that effectively opened the page on the Bush era more than his disputed election. Needless to say, the first lesson I taught on the morning of September 12th – full of young people from around the world away from home and including a young Japanese woman whose brother was actually in New York at the time – was one of the most challenging classes I’ve ever had to teach.

For those of us that lived through it, the Bush era is one that either should never have happened or was an appropriate expression of American might, depending on which side of the fence you fall (and there’s little sitting on the fence about it). I would wager that, overall and worldwide, a majority of people would fall into the former camp, but history is history and what’s done can’t be undone. One of the undeniable consequences of the era was a window of global dominance by the US, a unipolar moment unique in world history for better or worse. That seems to have gone now, with the rise of China and other nations over the same decade and the economic crash that bookended the era started with 9/11.

It could also be argued that the excesses of the Bush era led to the election of the first African-American president – something I’d never have expected from America in calmer times. And while Barack Obama may have one of the toughest jobs in the world – cleaning up after Bush – and is struggling to get much of what he wants to get done done, his election was an exhilarating moment in a narrative that the world seemed to get wrapped up in back in 2008.

Video for ‘Change’ by Control K, about the 2008 US Presidential Elections

Back in March 2003, I was sitting on the East African coast in a bar fashioned from an old boat, when I got the news that I’d been hoping I’d never hear – the invasion of Iraq was going ahead. That whole sorry episode and my government’s part in it contributed to my decision to leave the West behind and throw myself into a totally new place for a fresh start, thus beginning my almost five year stint living in Tokyo (a remarkable experience in so many ways that transformed my life completely, and which I’ve documented extensively elsewhere).

Apart from the massive loss of life that that particular conflict and all the others that have arisen over the same period, one of the really saddening features of the decade for me has been the remilitarisation of Western culture – something largely missing from the Nineties. On the upside, the decade just passed witnessed the global mainstreaming of environmentalism and green thinking. This was admittedly building up a pretty strong head of steam throughout the decade prior to it and was taken highly seriously with events like the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but it became a much more noticeable feature of general discourse over the past ten years.

One of the interesting things about being away from Britain and coming back intermittently was seeing these changes becoming more embedded with every visit. Yes, there has also been an equivalent rise of denial of the science or state-level refusal to take serious actions against those continuing to pollute the atmosphere. Yes, the Copenhagen Summit of 2009 failed to come up with a satisfactory and binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions (and perhaps was never going to). Yes, there is still a long way to go. But overall I would still claim consciousness of the problem to be moving in the right direction, which is half of the battle.

GETTING AROUND

The Andes from the air

Shot of The Andes, taken during flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires

This leads almost paradoxically on to another feature of the 2000s for me – travel. Paradoxical because I am fully aware that many consider flying a reckless act for a committed green thinker to perform and flying is something I did an awful lot of over the last ten years.

Back in the early Nineties, I’d decided that Britain was too small a place to limit my personal horizons to and set out to become more European in my outlook – Mainland Europe having the range of destinations closest to my backyard. I got myself around the continent as much as I could (though more by train and other means than by air). This carried on in the early years of the new decade, which kicked off with the trip to Paris, and also took in the Netherlands, Greece and other sundry Euro-spots. Once I’d achieved that wider mindset (having also lived in Florida a while during 1994, thus taking on the US too, in a small way), the need for further horizons and other ways of thinking to explore came around. I made my first visit to Africa, with a week in Tanzania in 2003 (while Iraq was being invaded) and a revisit two years later.

The big one was Asia, the larger part of the vast land mass I lived off one edge of. From a new base in Japan, I further explored what Asia had to offer. A trip to Korea included a visit to the DMZ, the notorious border between North and South. My 33rd birthday was spent in Beijing, as China was on its meteoric ascent and sweeping away the old to make way for the glittering new of a modern Olympian nation. At the invitation of a friend from Tokyo, I went to visit him at home in Kathmandu, thus witnessing a Nepal under the martial crackdown of a king on his way out.

Coming in near decade close, I managed to add a fifth continent to tuck under my belt by spending some time in Argentina. Standing in front of the mighty Iguazu Falls on the country’s border with Brazil, I realised that it was time to come back to the UK for a period of rebuilding. Brief memories of other moments included Bangkok, Dubai, Toronto, Uruguay

CUTTING A PATH

Official Peace Not War Japan promo video

That which most needed rebuilding was my career. In 2000, I was ending a short period in bookselling and my tenure in retail. Here now in 2010, I am a teacher – something I spent a long time avoiding for one reason or another but which seemed to have kept on calling me. I’ve spent the majority of the 2000s doing just that, and am able to look back now with some satisfaction. However, I have also had several other roles in that time, some of which were attempts at carving out a professional path for myself and others of which were simply a means of putting the proverbial bread on the table.

For a while, I managed an Internet cafe in Brighton, in the days before the ubiquity of portable devices and wi-fi. It was a role that must have helped to mesh my destiny with the Web a little more deeply. I also had a period of temping and taking whatever came along. There were a number of cleaning roles here. I ran a minibus shuttle service for a while. I worked as a conference steward, serving up coffees and lunches to visiting executives from an international credit card company. Curiously, I even worked for a few days processing customs documents for a shipping company that sent stuff by boat a few times a year from the UK to the Falkland Islands. Little did I know that one day a few years on from that peculiar post, I’d end up in the back of an Argentinean taxi driver’s cab, trying to make up some Spanish on the spot to answer his probing questions over my opinion on correct ownership of ‘Las Malvinas’ (as the same islands are known by those living closer to them) whilst rattling through the back streets of Buenos Aires.

As I was also trying to hold down various jobs along the way, another common strand running through most of the era was the range of freelance or volunteer roles I carved out for myself. It started on my return from Paris when I offered my services to a local community organisation (Sounds Phenomenal) to help them out with a Music Conference they’d been running, I ended up taking on the running of the organisation and my first foray into ‘working for myself’.

Taking the non-profit sector experience I’d built up in the UK for them and wedding it to the reignited activism that the Iraq War had awakened in me, I founded an overseas branch of a British anti-war group whilst living in Tokyo – Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ). Having such a major venture on my hands with no local language skills to speak of and no contacts on the ground was undeniably a significant challenge. Ultimately, it brought out a side of the country that I would never have seen otherwise and gave me an opportunity to leave my own mark before I left – the first (as far as I could tell) compilation album of modern Japanese protest music, which was issued nationally and sold…moderately. I’m proud to say that PNWJ continues to this day, despite my having handed over the tiller to other hands.

Being a ‘foreigner’ in Tokyo opened doors to many other opportunities that would never have come my way otherwise. I had a run at journalism, with several pieces published in Japanese and international publications. I advised the company that handled the Japanese release of the BBC series ‘The Office‘. I also ended up as a consultant to the Embassy of Tanzania, where I helped them to put a Japanese-language tourism website together. Despite the fits, starts, and random professional turns taken over the past decade, it all made for quite a group of experiences and landed me with a most unusual skillset. The path ahead seems to lead in the direction of education – which is no bad thing.

DIGITAL NATIVES AND EXPATS

'Social-ist', a montage of personal websites, by D1 Designs

Today’s young people are often defined as ‘digital natives’, meaning that they are utterly at ease with using computers or the Internet, sometimes to the bemusement of their elders. Older people who made the choice to turn their backs on their analogue pasts and join in with this digital world are invariably referred to as ‘digital immigrants’. The implication of this is that they are less fluent in the ways of the modern world, yet have fled to it in search of something better.

Being a cautious steward of such terms as ‘foreigner’ or ‘immigrant’ in my classrooms, I consider such a label appropriate for some but something of a misnomer for myself. The immigrant is one that is viewed by those in the destination of choice as the outsider that has come in. Conversely, the emigrant is viewed by those in the place of departure as the one that has left their roots behind for pastures new. The expatriate (or expat for short) is the migrant who is not perceived in any particular way by the departed or receiving community, but who makes a personal choice to move bases from one place to another. I’ve tended to place myself in this category.

Sensing the prevailing winds back in the late Nineties, I knew that change was afoot, and made a conscious decision to relocate and become a digital expat. Despite sending my first email in 1995 and gaining my first email address a few years later, it wasn’t until the Millennium had passed that I really joined in with the new world. I got my first computer in the early Noughties, and quickly got to grips with the vagaries of Windows 2000. Moving from a creative world of paints and pencils, tape recordings, and notebooks, I upgraded to image and sound editors, sequencers, and word processing. I stopped writing letters by hand and began sending emails instead. Still uncertain what the Internet was actually for and blissfully unaware of the difference between the ‘Net and the Web, I started dialing up and going online, tentatively peeping at what was out there.

Once I moved to Japan in 2003 and digital communications were the best means of staying in touch with those closest to me, I got my first broadband connection and my life went online. A new world opened up just as it was starting to get richer and broader anyway. Whereas it had previously taken me an hour to upload a song to sites like mp3.com for the aim of establishing some sort of online presence for my creative works, now it took minutes. Prior to Tokyo, my biggest footprint on the Web was the collection of pages cobbled together in FrontPage to archive the Sounds Phenomenal work. Now, I started to spread my wings and socialise.

A first MySpace page went up for some music. Photos of my travels followed, initially at an image hosting site run by Sony and later transferred to the daddy of image hosting – Flickr. I began my first blog in 2006, to join in with what was going on and as an evolution of the diary that I’d been writing since I was 14 years old (only this time taking the jump of actually showing people some of my writings). Multiple volumes on, that diary seems to have now stalled, or at least hit some form of hiatus, as life online doesn’t provide enough time in the day to keep up such commitments. With YouTube having finally brought video online as no other had been quite able to do before, I began my own channel in 2007, now becoming a broadcaster in addition to being a publisher and record label.

As with millions of other people around the world, I now spend probably several hours a day online, with an infinite amount of information at my fingertips yet equally unable to keep up with this data deluge. This is definitely a very different person from the Brighton guy that saw in the Millennium on New Year’s Eve 1999. A good friend that I first met about six months after that date influenced much of the way I perceived and embraced the Web. A pioneer in his chosen field of streaming media who seems to have played a notable part in the building of that industry, I learned about people like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee from him, or ideas such as TCP/IP or IP Multicasting.

He’s the person I turn to in order to gain a peek at the future of the Internet, rather than simply learn about its past or present. He’s previously described the Internet to me as ‘open prairie’, a nice concept for realising that we are still in the very early days of what this global network has to offer humanity. One thing is for sure, and that’s that the pending decade will see the Web and the Internet playing an increasingly greater role in our lives than it does even now – for better or worse.

A MUSICAL DECADE

Video for Shelf Life‘s ‘Endgame’

I took my initial English Teacher training back in 1996, aware that at some point I might feel the need or urge to leave the country for more than just a holiday, and that if I was to do this it was better to work elsewhere than waste a few years bumming around in the backyard of someone else’s poverty. Teaching English allows just that opportunity as the language is a tool that is in demand the world over, and there is always a shortage when it comes to supply meeting demand.

Bizarre as it might now seem to my far more widely travelled mind, I once held off for several years from the idea of leaving Britain on musical grounds. That is, I was determined that my future lay as a working musician (along with romantic notions of ‘changing the world through song’ or something like that) and I thought that Britain was the only place to be when it came down to getting somewhere in music. I’ve been pretty obsessive about music from my mid-teens onwards and bought the NME religiously between 1986 and 2002, even to the extent of carting all the back issues I owned around all the different houses I lived in during the Nineties.

Living in 90s Brighton vastly broadened my musical horizons in terms of what I listened to, but I still held on to the notion of fronting a rock ‘n’ roll outfit and taking the world by storm. After numerous attempts at creating that world-shattering unit, I put my final UK group together in 1999, expanding from a four piece to a five piece in 2000. Starting life as Jaded, the band built a small local following from a bunch of live shows and recorded a handful of songs before deciding on a name change. We switched to The Zamora, named after Brighton’s then-star striker Bobby Zamora.

Jacket for The Zamora's 'Pigeon Souvenirs' anthology

After one press release announcing the name change to promote a gig went out, I got a phone call from The Sun, who wanted to do a story and photoshoot with the footballer himself. This kicked off a bizarre snowball of media activity that saw the group gaining extensive TV, radio and newspaper coverage, even including a slot on BBC1’s ‘Football Focus’ show on a Saturday afternoon – prime viewing for millions of British football fans. Such attention pulled the individual members in different directions and to my surprise led to my dismissal from the outfit I’d started.

This became both an end and a beginning. It was the end of my dreams of becoming a rock star, which I viewed negatively at the time. However, as it ended up leading me to Japan, it was ultimately a very good thing. I wouldn’t wish to have traded what I have seen and done for traipsing around more student union bars and getting into debt with a record label just as the industry got hit by Napster and the digital tsunami that was to transform it.

Jacket for Control K's 'The Front Line (Redux)'

Having reached the end of a line, it also meant that in order to continue to be involved in making music, I would need to finally start working on my own rather than having to rely on other people to get a sound up and running. I did this with the creation of a new electronic alter-ego, which would act as a conduit for the far wider range of musical output that was flowing into me than the simple rock ‘n’ roll format. The first Control K album went on sale in the middle of the last decade, and I’ve managed to find time to put a few more tracks together and out over the ‘Net since then too.

Jacket for Shelf Life's 'Best Before End'

Rock ‘n’ roll’s a hard thing to get completely out of one’s system though, and in Japan I succumbed to getting into yet another band. This one, with Japanese musicians and called Shelf Life, actually went further again than I’d been before. We played together for almost four years, mainly at a small bar in my suburban neighbourhood in Western Tokyo. I found a great song-writing partner in the guitarist (who also owned the bar) and we crafted a collection of our own material that was released as an album shortly before I left town. We made a semi-professional pop video to accompany one of the tracks, so got a further flavour of the fun and games of taking a band to another level. After my return to the UK, the boys even came over for a short tour and we played dates in Brighton and London.

By the end of the decade just passed, however, I was an entirely different musical beast from the one that had started it. From a fanboy wedded to a musical bible who tended to buy a handful of new CDs every month just to get my hands on new tunes or to plug in the gaps in my meticulously assembled collection to a plugged in consumer of streaming waves of zeroes and ones with no particular tribal affiliations – from NME to mp3.

Having opened up in the Nineties to dub, jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul and electronic music, I took that sense of exploration further in the Noughties and kept my ears working on the sounds I found around me. I grew an interest in African music, explored Japanese music extensively, and also turned my tastes towards Latin or Arabic rhythms. Having once anchored myself so solidly to Anglospheric music, I opened up to listening to words in other languages. Radio Nova from Paris took over from BBC’s Radio One. Manu Chao, who sings in French, Spanish and English, became a new favourite. I particularly enjoyed when differing musical cultures fused or collided, as they did with the Okinawan folk and beats style of Ryukyu Underground or the tango for a different dancefloor of Gotan Project.

Despite all that and as I’ve previously said, it’s hard to get traditional rock ‘n’ roll completely out of your system once it’s got in there. My final live performance of the decade was at a Christmas show at work amidst the widely ranging performances of the assorted international students also taking to the stage. Cobbling a brief line-up of interested teachers together and with a rehearsal or two beforehand, we ran through a rugged version of ‘Life On Mars’ for the assembled crowd. Funnily enough, I think it might have been my biggest live audience yet. And The Beatles remain evergreen to my ears.

AS ONE CHAPTER ENDS…LOOKING AHEAD

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

So, the ill-named Noughties have been more militarised yet consciously greener, have seen a more easterly tilting of the poles of world power, and have been revolutionary in the digitisation of global citizenry. I got myself into further corners of the planet than I’d previously thought possible, settled on a career path and got myself married, plus created a not insubstantial body of work to show for my time on the Earth, along with becoming a fully paid up digital expat.

I set myself and met several goals. They included professional ones (putting together a six-day programme of events including a conference, founding a non-profit organisation overseas), artistic (15 minutes of fame with a band, the production and issuing of six CD albums, creating and releasing my first book) and personal (relocating to Japan and settling there, becoming well travelled, developing a global mindset, and getting married).

How can I follow my thirties, as I move into my forties? What does the new equally unnameable decade hold in store? One thing’s for certain, I lived most of the previous decades as a defiantly single young man, following my nose wherever it took me. I am now thinking for two, which is really a quantum shift in one’s approach to life. Hopefully, at some point the two of us will even grow to three or more. My 40s will therefore be more family focused. This means that having settled on that career path, it’s time to build on it and make it grow, time to try and make a difference within my own profession rather than constantly being on the outside and knocking at the window of somewhere or other trying to get in. If at all possible, I’d also like to squeeze in some kind of Masters degree before I get to the end of my next decade.

There are several parts of the world that are still crying out to be visited, including Australasia, great American cities like New York and San Francisco, plus much of the rest of Africa and the Middle East. Being married to a Japanese woman, I can expect that I’ll also be finding myself back in Japan on more than one or two occasions. And never being one to shy away from ridiculous ambitions, I would dearly love to find some way to make it to Antarctica before I turn 50. At this point, who knows where I’ll end up. Probably likely to visit fewer places than in my 30s though, given the family man agenda.

Creatively, I’ll be getting a bit too old to keep on rocking (at least with some sense of dignity) but the urge to make music remains strong. I hope to see the growth of Control K, at least one or two more albums and perhaps a move into licensing or soundtracks of some sort. One thing that I am finding though, is that writing is taking more and more of an important place in my life. There are several novels in my head waiting to come out, some mere sketches, some almost fully formed.

Predicting the future is, of course, a fools game. There’s no failsafe way of saying or seeing what will happen on the road ahead. I do however think that it’s helpful for travellers through life to have destinations in mind, even if the means they have of getting there are completely different to what was expected or they end up in a place utterly unlike where they expected to find themselves. So, whatever the highs, lows, challenges, pleasures, surprises and treats of the…2010s, I say bring them on.

For further coverage of the last ten years, visit The Guardian page for extensive reviews and round-ups of the decade in arts, global politics, technology, sports, and much more.

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Filed under 2010, Articles, Brighton, Control K, Features, Japan, Peace, Reviews, Shelf Life, The Zamora, Travel

TRAVEL // ‘Japan From The Inside’ preface (2008)


Back in my twenties, once I realised that I wasn’t going to make a living as a pop star, I scaled back my ambitions to making sure that I created my first album before I reached thirty. I finished work on ‘Pigeon Souvenirs’, the anthology of tracks recorded by The Zamora, about a week shy of my thirtieth birthday. My computer then crashed and it would be a few more years before I was actually able to put it out, but the ambition was realised.

Six albums down the line, I’ve expanded my creative output and found myself having to set new goals. Another major milestone to reach was my first book before I was forty. Although I put in an appearance in Printed Matter Press’s ‘Jungle Crows‘ anthology whilst in Tokyo, I wanted to get a full work out. The internet’s come on considerably since I worked on that first album and it’s now a matter of just having the know-how and time to be able to create an artistic work and have it accessible to the world. Of course, actually selling it is another matter, which is where the culture industries still have a role to play in these times.

Last year, while stuck in a loft on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, I waded through my photos and a selection of mostly published writings from my time in Japan and assembled them into a substantial volume of my experiences. ‘Japan From The Inside‘ thus became my first book, and three years ahead of that next big birthday.

Of course, life has a habit of getting in the way of things when you least want it to, and I was also in the midst of a substantial job hunt (trying to reintegrate myself back into the UK after so long away), so wasn’t able to give it much of a push at the time. However, once I’d sorted myself out (and realised that a couple of changes were needed to the edition I put out in 2008), I’ve finally found the time to start promoting it.

‘Japan From The Inside’ is a pictorial record of such places as Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Okinawa and the Japan Alps. It also looks into aspects of Japanese culture and nature, and profiles some of the 127 million people who call Japan home. Including short stories, travel writings, event reviews, and other items such as song lyrics and poetry, it is my first substantial piece of work about the country that has given me so much inspiration. It’s unlikely to be the last.

The book is available for preview and purchase at blurb.com, and is currently entered in the Best Blurb Books Contest. At the time of writing, there are two weeks of voting before shortlisted books make it through to a final round of judging by an expert panel. It might be a dream, a long shot, or both, but I’m hoping to get as many votes as I can to make it through to the next round. Readers of this can help things along by clicking on the Blurb Contest link and adding their votes.

If you like the book enough, you’re also welcome to add a comment on the page – the more comments I get, the more it’ll get noticed. The contest ends on November 9th.

At the top of this post is a promo video I put together for the book. Below, is the preface to the book itself. Enjoy.

‘Japan From The Inside’ preface

Drastic decisions can either turn into great success stories or tales of disaster. In early 2003, the narrative flow of my life was going defiantly in the opposite direction to that I had intended for it, so I decided on a bold move – to leave England and make a new life for myself on the other side of the world.

I used an English teaching job to get to Japan. Once the shock of the new had worn off and I’d settled into my new home in Tokyo, I began to explore the place I’d landed in.

With my first digital camera in tow, I documented the areas that I visited as I spread my wings to the four corners of the country. The first trip was to Hiroshima, the city where arguably the world of the post-war era began. Shortly after, I went wandering around the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa. An immersion in the thrills of snowboarding on the frozen island of Hokkaido followed.

These visits opened up new worlds of experiences, encouraging me to start writing and travelling more seriously. Alongside my teaching, I became a freelance journalist. I also formed a rock band, started a peace charity, met my wife-to-be and travelled yet further afield from my Tokyo base.

At a suburban house in Buenos Aires near the end of 2007, I learnt of the collapse of the company that had been bankrolling my adventures. With a wedding pending and a whole new set of tasks to deal with, it became time to return to England.

This book serves as a record of my time spent living, working and travelling in Japan. It covers the classic iconography – skyscrapers, cherry blossom, technology and temples – so should act as a good introduction for the uninitiated. It also shows more hidden moments – village celebrations on tiny islands, festivals in mountain forests – to uncover some unseen sides for experienced Japanophiles.

I have titled it ‘Japan From The Inside’ as I hope for it to provide some insights into a country so often considered mysterious and impenetrable to outsiders. It is also a means of sharing my journeys through the land of superlatives.

My drastic decision turned out to be the best I’d made. Please find a seat on the bullet train and join me on a trip around this island on the edge of a continent.

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Filed under 2008, Features, Travel

LYRICS // Endgame (2007)

Back in 2004 and with the London march against the invasion of Iraq still fresh in my mind, I made an approach to UK music organisation Peace Not War (PNW), to offer them a track for their then pending ‘Volume Two’ of pro-peace/anti-war music. Upon informing one of the founders of the project that I was living in Japan, he asked me if I could help them to get their CDs some exposure over there.

Although I was based in Tokyo at the time, I’d spent most of my free time travelling around the country and had no contacts in either the Japanese music industry or peace movement. Reluctant to even consider the idea at first, so daunting a task did it seem, I shelved the idea for some time. 

The Control K tune that I offered never did end up on one of their CDs, but I did get rather more deeply involved with them instead. His request ultimately seemed too good an opportunity for combining two of my interests (music and peace) and building a new network in my adopted country to turn down. A few months later, I got started on what was to become Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ), an organisation that has continued following my departure from the country.

By the time that the first PNWJ CD was released, I already had my own band (Shelf Life), who performed covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards in a local bar. When rumour filtered through the PNW network that London was thinking of producing a Volume Three, I went to the band and suggested that we should write a song for it – one that we could really pour our efforts into and make too good for them to turn down. My songwriting partner Cheryo and I set ourselves the task of writing a new ‘peace anthem’.

In many of my previous sets of lyrics, I’d tended to take the Dylanesque route of using obscure imagery to conjure up word pictures. If this new song was going to have a chance of sticking in peoples’ minds, I was going to have to keep things simpler this time around. I kept my eyes open for scraps of lines that could fit in, or be adapted, to a simple and effective anthemic song for peace. We were aiming along the lines of ‘Hey Jude‘ or ‘We Are The World‘ (very popular in Japan) in terms of hooks and build.

The opening line was borrowed from Atticus Finch (or Harper Lee, to be more precise) in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird‘, one of fiction’s great lawyers. The next line, added myself, was on the same theme and encourages looking at a situation from another person’s perspective. One of the benefits to an independent, unaffiliated third party attempting to resolve a conflict between two sides (as, for example, Norway has tried to do with different factions in the Sri Lankan civil war) is that they can bring an approach that takes both points of view into account. War and conflict is almost never one-sided. The song asks listeners to think about things from the other side too.

As I became more involved with the Japanese peace movement, I met many interesting and sometimes extremely brave people that in my line as an English Teacher in suburban Tokyo I would never have had an opportunity to do. One such person, whom this song was mostly inspired by, was a young Iraqi engineer that I went to see speak and later shared a meal with. I’d never met somebody from that devastated and desperate country before and was eager to hear his story, particularly when the Western media so dehumanises the inhabitants of Iraq.

His was a tale that was tough to swallow, yet also deeply inspiring and gave me a little more faith in the human spirit to overcome the worst possible things that can be thrown at it. According to him, life under Saddam wasn’t great but it did have its positive aspects too. Criticism of Hussein was a strict no-go, but if you came from a poor background (as he did), you were entitled to a free University education and Iraq’s universities were considered to be amongst the best in the Middle East. He got himself an engineering degree. Then, the invasion of 2003 came and like all young Iraqi men, he got the call-up to fight (not an option he could refuse).

During the early days of the occupation/insurgency (delete according to perspective), he went through all manner of horrors – the deaths of many of his friends and family, kidnap and capture by jihadists, imprisonment by US forces, and the destruction of most of his town. It would seem natural for someone who went through such things to be filled with hatred for the causes of such things and initially he was. However, something happened that put him on a different path.

When some Japanese journalists were captured in Iraq by ‘al-Qaeda’, he was held captive with them. The female journalist he was with encouraged him to look the situation from other perspectives and to think more about peace than revenge, an approach he took on board. Such can be the power of words and talking things through. This story inspired the second verse of the song.

In the chorus, the line ‘I am what I am…’ was borrowed from the Ubuntu free operating system, whose name comes from the Zulu aphorism which articulates a basic respect and compassion for others. The operating system aims to ‘underpin the concept of an open society’, which seemed like a suitable sentiment for the song and also sat quite comfortably with Gandhi‘s famous line about ‘an eye for an eye’ in this song.

The other chorus lines of ‘we are the ones…’ was picked up from New Internationalist magazine, in a special issue on positive stories from the Majority World. It’s a line I’ve seen used much more widely in recent times too. The verse about the ‘silence of our friends’ was adapted from a quote by that other famous peacemaker, Martin Luther King.


To seek ‘peace of mind’ is, I believe, inherent in most people. However, it is our fears and suspicions that lead us to build walls around us rather than bridges between us. These only serve to enforce differences between people rather than encouraging a search for similarities.

‘Peace Not War: Volume Three’ didn’t happen in the end, and PNW themselves seem to be largely inactive these days. Never mind, the potential of being on that album prompted me to write the song that I am probably most proud of. 

In the spirit of the song, when the band perform it live we usually invite members of the audience or other bands that we play with to come on stage and join in with the chorus. We also made a promo video to go with it too, my first one, where an audience does the same thing. The video was certainly a lot of fun to make, although it did give me a bit of an idea of the amount of time that people who do this kind of thing for a living have to spend waiting around! The video can be seen at the top of this posting.


The song, titled ‘Endgame’ in reference to the games that world powers play with peoples lives in their war-making, ended up as the final track on our first CD release ‘Best Before End’. It is available for download through Shelf Life - Best Before End - Endgame, as a single track or as part of the album. 

Peace out.

 

Endgame

You’ll never know a man,
Until you step into his shoes.
Won’t see what’s goin’ on,
Unless you look through another’s eyes.

A friend of mine,
Told me of soldiers on his streets.
Home and family gone,
Yet he learned not to hate.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
An eye for an eye,
Will make the whole world blind – so blind.

We all seek,
Yet rarely find our peace of mind.
We’re still building walls,
We should be building bridges instead.

In the end,
It’s not the words of our enemies,
We remember,
But the silence of our friends.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
We are the ones,
That we’ve been waiting for – so long.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
We are the ones,
That we’ve been waiting for – so long.

(You’ll never know)
(Without standing in his shoes)
(You’ll never see)
(Better look through another’s eyes)

(Yes, he told me)
(‘Bout the soldiers on his streets)
(His family was gone)
(He turned his hate around)

(All looking for)
(That little peace of mind)
(Newer, higher walls)
(But a bridge brings us together)

(It’s not the words)
(Of our enemies that last)
(But the silence)
(Of our friends, so shout it loud)

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Filed under 2007, Lyrics, Shelf Life

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.

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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…

Links

Reggae Snow Splash
Outdoor Japan
Hakuba Alps Backpackers Lodge

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Filed under 2006, Reviews