Alan Booth moved to Japan in his twenties and lived there for more than half his life, until his untimely demise from cancer at the age of 43. On the face of it, he would appear to have written just two books, and one of them was published posthumously, so there must be scope for a further collection of his journalism and travel writing, of which there was sufficient for him to earn a living, as he doesn’t appear to have worked in any other capacity in Japan, apart from a brief stint as an English teacher when he first arrived there (he also, I believe, wrote one or two children’s books, although I have no idea how one might go about tracking them down).
The Roads To Sata is Booth’s most well known book, but while the task he undertook in order to write it – namely, walking the entire length of Japan from its northernmost to southernmost points – is very impressive, in my humble opinion, Looking For The Lost is a finer literary achievement. Most importantly, when he went on his first, epic trek, Booth had only been in the country for seven years, and while his Japanese was already very good, and his grasp of the country’s culture impressive, by the time he went on the three shorter walks on which Looking For The Lost is based, he had at least another fifteen years of linguistic expertise and cultural knowledge to draw upon. So while The Roads To Sata is an account of his travels from A to B, and largely concerns itself with the people he meets and the places he visits along the way, in Looking For The Lost he is following in the footsteps of three historical figures.
The first is a writer called Osamu Dazai, who was born into a rich family, became a famous writer, and ended up committing suicide. The second is Saigo Takamori, who was a military and political luminary in Meiji times, but made a few enemies along the way, and ended up dying in heroic and / or tragic (depending on how you look at it) samurai-style circumstances. And the third are the Heike, not so much a figure as a group of figures: a military clan who wielded power the best part of a thousand years ago, and who having been defeated were hounded from their homes, never to be seen again.
Dazai is a particularly interesting figure in relation to Booth, as both were prodigious drinkers. Booth is very much aware of this, and refers to a review of The Roads To Sata in which his journey was described as ‘a 2000-mile pub crawl’, and indeed, he appears to spend almost the entire time drunk, to the extent that you wonder a) how he managed to remember what happened while he was on his travels and b) how he managed to stay sober for long enough to write an entire book about them. The summer of his north-to-south walk appears to have been particularly hot, even in Hokkaido and by Japanese standards, so one has to assume that quite apart from being sunburned, bug-bitten and with blisters on his blisters, he must have been completely dehydrated from dawn until dusk, and for the entire six months the walk took him to complete. For Booth, drinking is as matter-a-fact a part of everyday life as breathing and eating, and in Looking For The Lost it is referred to entirely casually: a few bottles of beer for lunch here, several flasks of sake for dinner there. God knows, if he had managed to survive the cancer, liver failure would surely have picked him off before too long.
But anyway, while Dazai’s pub crawl took him round the northern tip of Honshu, through a bleak and remote region called Tsugaru that Booth makes no attempt at all to glamourise, Takamori’s journey was around Kyushu, which I happen to know from personal experience is a very beautiful part of Japan. Perhaps the most interesting point raised by Booth’s account here is that while Kyushu is by no means bleak, due to the inexorable shift in the Japanese population from the countryside to the cities, it too is becoming remote – on one day of walking in particular, he sees an average of approximately one other human being per hour, most of whom are old enough to be retired. This was something I came across when I went to Hokkaido, where the population demographic was getting older and older, and whatever children there were disappeared to live in Sapporo or Tokyo as soon as they had the chance.
While Takamori was no alcoholic, he makes an excellent starting point for Booth’s reflections on the Japanese psyche. Takamori was one of the last of the old-style samurai, and his character encapsulates many ironies and contradictions, the most amusing of which is the fact that he almost certainly suffered from a medical condition that made his testicles swell to an enormous size, to the extent that he had to be carried around by his minions on a sedan chair: again, Booth’s writing here is greatly enhanced by the insight he had into the subtleties of Japanese history and culture. I was reading an internet forum the other day in which Booth was criticised for a Theroux-esque tendency to complain about things and make bitchy comments about Japan and its people, and while it’s true that he does succumb at times to what one assumes was the fashionable travel writing style of the time, he of all people – rather than an ignorant first-timer with nothing but a Rough Guide and a beginner’s phrasebook in their backpack – has earned the right to be critical: before following in Takamori’s footsteps, for example, he has read – in the original Japanese – pretty much every piece of biographical writing there was on his subject, to the extent that he is confident enough to suggest his own theories about exactly how, why and where Takamori went (again, this is something that cannot be said of The Roads To Sata, and Booth backs up numerous theories that contradict the accepted Japanese view with hard evidence: his etymological take on the word ‘kokeshi’ – the wooden dolls of Japanese children with pudding-bowl haircuts – is particularly fascinating, not to mention rather spooky, and by the by, draws on an excellent Japanese book that has been translated into English, Memories Of Silk And Straw by Junichi Saga).
The Heike, though, are more elusive than either Dazai or Takamori, as there is little documentation about them, and in any case, their story is so old that it has long since begun to blur at the edges and to move into the realms of myth and legend (after less than a century, Booth notes that Takamori is already well on his way to being perceived as a myth – even a deity – rather than a real historical figure). What Booth teases out of this is a meditation on the relative transience of Japanese culture and its artifacts. While it is true to say there are hardly any old buildings in the country as a whole, Booth manages to track some down that date back hundreds of years, and whose thatched roofs and snake-ridden rooms serve as vital proof of Japan’s history, and as a bridge to its mythical past, which may or may not have been peopled by clans such as the heike. (His questioning of the modern Japanese assertion that as a race they are somehow purer than those of most other nations is also worthy of examination, particularly for an outsider: I for one was unaware that besides the Ainu of Hokkaido, several other indigenous tribes pre-existed the Japanese race as we know it today.)
Oddly, one of the only jarring moments in Looking For The Lost is its reference on the final page to Booth’s fatal illness. I would be intrigued to read an account of his battle with cancer (although perhaps the confessional style didn’t suit his writing – Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, for example, is much more personal than either of Booth’s books), but the way in which he suddenly shoe-horns it into his conclusion rather detracts from what has come before. It is of course ironic that Booth should have lived in a country with the longest life expectancy in the world, and whose excellent medical system is renowned for picking up serious illness early enough to enable successful treatment, and yet his own illness went undetected until it was too late. What a shame that he did not live to produce more great travel writing about the country that became his home.
Because of the background noise, which necessitates turning the volume up in one’s headphones to potentially damaging levels, I tend to avoid listening to music – or indeed watching too many films – when flying, but as I was shuffling through the iTunes-style album list on my entertainment console thingy on the flight to Japan, I was tempted into the metaphorical dusting off of a timeless classic. Ever since I inherited a battered old copy from my father – on double-vinyl in a gatefold sleeve held together with sellotape – Exile On Main Street has officially been in my Top Five Best Albums Of All Time (along with Something / Anything, Pink Moon, Blood On The Tracks and possibly Kid A, Blue or Coltrane’s Ballads, although I would need to do a bit of research to tell you for sure), and listening to it once more – for the first time ever on headphones, I think – merely served to confirm this.
From the moment the horn section comes in about half way through Rocks Off (under no circumstances to be confused with the Primal Scream track of the same name – of which more later), you somehow know that you are in the presence of greatness, and while almost every subsequent track seems to sound roughly the same, there is barely a second over the course of around seventy minutes of music where the quality of the music drops below superlative.
It’s funny, because the Stones were often seen as a poor man’s Beatles, but despite producing probably hundreds of classic songs, I would argue that the Beatles never made an album as good as Exile. The Stones too have essentially always worked better as a singles band, but on this particular occasion, everything came together to produce – and this, I believe, is the acid test for anything that dares to call itself a ‘classic’ – something timeless, something that seemed to exist outside the era in which it was produced, and which continues to reside there, never sounding tired or dated.
Alan Yentob dedicated an episode in his Imagine series to Exile this year, to showcase some recently unearthed cine film and audio out-takes from the recording of Exile (there is now the inevitable reissue with ‘bonus’ tracks, which I shall not be paying money for, or possibly even listening to at all, for there is no better way to spoil something you love than to have to endure it unedited, before the artist in question applied their discretion, good taste and artistic ability to shaping it into the finished artifact), and although the documentary was rather dull, it did shed enough light onto the recording process to confirm the old adage that creative excellence often arises out of adversity.
After years of being ripped off by various managers and accountants, the Stones relocated to the south of France for the inevitable ‘tax purposes’ in the early seventies, and rigged up a mobile recording studio next to Keith Richards’ villa in Villefranche Sur Mer. Although Richards was living there with his wife and young child, this didn’t seem to prevent the place from turning into a full-time party venue, with all kinds of musicians, hangers-on, groupies and drug dealers wandering in and out at all times of the day and night. Not only that, but the recording itself took place in the damp, dingy, poorly lit and poorly wired basement, where it was difficult for the musicians to see and hear what each other was doing. The magic, though, was in the timing, and at this point, the Stones’ ability as songwriters and musicians, the recording quality and techniques on hand, and the general atmosphere and ambience – both around the world and in that particular out-of-the-way corner of Europe – combined and converged at just the right moment.
While most of the songs on Exile sound deceptively similar, oddly, they sound completely different from anything the Stones have done before or since, and Richards in particular managed to conjure up a uniquely dense and satisfyingly swampy sound. It is blues-ey (the version of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down – quite apart from being spectacularly good and a showcase for some of the best slide guitar playing ever committed to vinyl by a white man – is one of only two cover versions on the album, and manages to fit seamlessly into the overall feel), and obviously it is rocky (the only thing that still jars when I listen to Exile is the chorus of Soul Survivor, which sounds uncannily similar to a number of Richards’ other signature rock riffs), but it is a million miles away from the southern-fried, Black Crowes-style sound that the aforementioned Primal Scream were copying so slavishly – and pointlessly – in their post-Screamadelica period.
Obviously there are the horns, which on countless occasions match Stevie Wonder, Al Green or James Brown for their infectious originality. Then there are the guitars, at least three of which appear to be being played at any one point in the record, but without ever sounding intrusive (there are also, mercifully, no cock-rock, gurning-face, five-minute guitar solos anywhere on the record – the longest goes on for probably four bars). There is Jagger’s singing, whose ‘Aah wuz baahwun in a crassfaah hurricayeen!’ cod-American-ness just this once doesn’t grate, possibly because it is further down in the mix than usual (on a level playing field with the morass of other competing musical elements, in fact), or possibly because his often misogynistic lyrics are largely incomprehensible, aside from the odd snatched phrase (‘got to scrape the shit right off your shoes’ springs to mind as a good example of something that stands out but doesn’t necessarily insult fifty per cent of the human race).There is his harmonica playing, too, which is superb, and which I almost hadn’t noticed before (isn’t it funny how, given the time to play music every day, professional musicians with a bit of talent seem to be able to turn their hand to almost any instrument?). There are the backing vocals, as good as any soul record, and containing complex enough three-part harmonies that you never get bored of trying to join in. There is Charlie Watts’ drumming, which is as deceptively simple – and therefore underrated – as Ringo Starr’s (another recent documentary, this time in the Classic Albums strand, made a brilliant argument for Ringo’s talent, as showcased on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band). And all of these elements combine to form an endlessly fascinating whole, something which, as I have already implied, is like the aural equivalent of wading through a swamp: hot, sweaty, dense, disorientating and colourful.
The basic formula for the eighteen songs goes like this: start off with a riff or a groove of some sort, usually a simple guitar line, but sometimes percussion or ensemble driven. Keep the first verse fairly low key, and probably the first chorus and second verse too. During the second chorus, herald in the horn section with a killer drum break and perhaps some extra backing vocals. Drive the song onwards and upwards, and then fade out early enough to leave the listener wanting more.
It sounds simple, but like I say, no one has ever done it this well, and nor were the Stones to do so again, as they plodded on to become little more than a lumbering, stadium rock parody of themselves. Again, it is a telling point that none of the songs from Exile – apart from Tumbling Dice, which was the only single, a minor hit by the Stones’ standards and little known among the general record-buying public – ever makes it onto Best Of compilations, and this, I believe, is because the album stands apart from the rest of their output. It functions as a work of art in itself, not as a disparate collection of unrelated songs, and while almost every one of those songs is superb, it really is the fact that they have been recorded together and collected on the same album that makes them great. Exile On Main Street is, to coin a cliché, even better than the sum of its parts, and something that I was more than happy to risk exacerbating my tinnitus with by listening to at dangerously high volume on BA flight 0005 to Tokyo Narita.
Tatémaé (建前), also known as jotoshiki (上棟式) or munéagé (棟上), and not to be confused with the more familiar meaning of the same Japanese word (建前or sometimes 立前: one’s public face as opposed to one’s real feelings or opinions), is a traditional Shinto ritual to bless a newly built house and, presumably, the people who will live in it. It is not such a common practice these days, as evidenced by a somewhat cursory entry in Japanese Wikipedia, but a tetemae was held at Mrs M’s family home when it was built (ie. several years before she was born), and the tatémaé to which we were invited last weekend was to be the first she herself had attended for at least a decade.
Mrs M’s mother has about ten brothers and sisters, so there is no shortage of cousins to go round, and one of them has been through something of an upheaval of late. Apparently, the cousin’s husband moved out of the house they shared with their two children and her parents, although their differences now appear to have been patched up, because, like many other Japanese families, rather than buying a house second hand, as it were, they have bought the land instead and are building on it, with the help of one or two relatives who also happen to work in the building trade.
We drove to the parents’ house early on Sunday afternoon, and spent half an hour being plied with food and drink (unfortunately, we had just eaten a hearty home-cooked lunch with Mrs M’s parents, and left most of it untouched). In his broad Ibaraki accent, grandad regaled us with tales of his round-the-world trip on a tuna fishing boat (‘When I went to South Africa,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t even go for a beer! There was a sign on the door saying, “No one with yellow skin allowed”!’ – apparently, the children and grandchildren have heard the same story on numerous occasions), and teased Mrs M about the fact that she hasn’t been tough enough to stick it out in the UK, and is dragging me back to Japan with her. Then at around three o’clock, wrapped up against the cold in coats, gloves and hats, we drove the kilometre or so along the road to his daughter and son-in-law’s new home.
Tatémaé takes place not when the building is ready to be lived in, as I had supposed, but when its wooden frame has been completed, and it is still possible to stand on what will later become the first floor, with no walls as yet to obstruct the view. When we arrived, a rudimentary flagpole was being erected on the uppermost roof beam – the erection of which is the signal for tatémaé to begin – and approximately twenty-five cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes were being lifted one by one via a ladder to the first floor. By now a large crowd had gathered – getting on for a hundred people, by my reckoning – some of them relatives, some friends, some neighbours, and others simply curious passers by.
A friend of Mrs M’s told us later that the god being appeased on the occasion of a tatémaé is female, and would be offended by the presence in the house of other women, so only men and boys had been allowed to climb the ladder, at the top of which a large bottle of sake was being opened. Some of its contents were sprayed, champagne-like, over the the timber frame of the house (one or two of the men also had a quick tipple), but besides this there were no prayers or religious rites, just the flinging of the entire contents of all those boxes into the waiting crowd. Children had been allowed to stand at the front, with the rest of us slightly further back, everyone carried in their hands a bag of some sort, and what ensued was a complete free-for-all. No quarter was given by anyone, from the youngest elementary school child to the oldest grandparent, with everyone thrusting their hands in the air to catch whatever was flying through it, and then scrambling about on the bare earth to grab whatever had not been caught – everything from rice cakes hand made by the family the previous day, to instant noodles, sweets, crisps, biscuits, even coins. At one point, I looked around from taking a photo to see a boy of perhaps ten years old lying on the bare earth and groaning. He appeared to have been hit in the head - either by a flying projectile or a flailing limb - and it took several seconds before anyone could drag their attention away from the festivities for long enough to check that he wasn’t seriously injured (he was up and about again minutes later, bag in hand and hungry for more freebies).
Variations of tatémaé involve the erection of a small, temporary shrine on the unfinished building, but Mrs M’s relatives knew what their public wanted, and that it’s a lot more fun to get stuck in and grab a load of free food than it is to waste time saying prayers. The only thing I could compare it to was a festival that used to be held in my home town, whereby a select group of middle school children – I was invited to attend just once – was led to a spot on the main street where a local stream known as the leat gurgled up from the gutter like a lonely water feature. Here, after a few boring speeches, possibly by the mayor and a headmaster or two, a shower of coppers – half-pee, one-pence and two-pence pieces – was thrown into the crowd of children and fought over until they had all been claimed. In the aforementioned Wikipedia entry, something called ‘topping out’ is mentioned as a British tradition that serves the same purpose as tatémaé, but the wholesale gift giving of the latter seems to be peculiarly Japanese, and if nothing else, serves as a pretty good way of ingratiating yourself with your new neighbours.
Having taken a few photographs, I waded into the fray for the final few minutes, and managed to snatch a couple of bags of crisps, a few rice cakes and some satsumas (which were thrown with rather less ferocity by a group of women at ground level), and discovered that Mrs M had accumulated quite a haul. At one point, she said, a somewhat unyielding box of curry stock cubes had hit her on the head, and she in turn had lashed out unwittingly with a swipe of the hand at a nearby OAP, but both of them appeared to be happy and injury free, so it was a successful day all round. Once the last cardboard box had been emptied, the men and boys came down from the first floor of the building, the crowd began to disperse, and the next day, work would begin in earnest on applying some flesh to the bones of this half-finished but now fully blessed house.
When you tell Japanese people that a British wedding can go on all day, or that an Outer Mongolian wedding can go on for five days (I’m making that example up, but you get the idea), they will look shocked and wonder how much like hard work it must be to get married or go to a wedding in the UK / Outer Mongolia. But for sheer, concentrated, intensive hard work, even at an average of less than three hours’ duration, nothing can compete with a Japanese wedding.
Mrs M and I went to one the other day – my first as a guest – and somehow it managed to be just as tiring as when we were the happy couple two years ago. I suppose part of the problem is that a Japanese wedding planner will try and cram everything that happens at an overseas wedding into a much shorter space of time, meaning there’s no time to relax, eat, chat with the other guests or generally let one’s hair down, and the couple themselves – in this case, two childhood friends of Mrs M’s – are more like performers in a West End musical, who have to deal with at least one costume change (and sometimes two), several different performance spaces (the chapel, the sweeping staircase outside, the grand entrance into the reception, the speeches and so on) and the whole gamut of emotions, from light humour to uncontrollable sobbing.
It didn’t help that the wedding in question was taking place in a venue that would have taken more than three hours to reach by a very roundabout train route, so that what we ended up doing was getting a lift from the bride- and groom-to-be (in fact they were already married in the legal sense, having held a small, family-only ceremony a few months ago), and being obliged to hang around in a shopping mall near the wedding venue for about four hours.
When we did finally arrive, the venue itself was a typically post-modern example of Japanese architecture. It was situated beside a nondescript dual carriageway with a large-ish car park at the front, which meant no direct pedestrian access, so that quite apart from dodging each other – such a venue deals with several ceremonies a day – the guests have to dodge a procession of vehicular comings and goings before making it through the front door. Once inside, there was a reception area where we waited for everything to kick off, and which was done up like a kind of spaghetti western theme pub, with wagon wheel wooden tables, a bar at one end, and amateur Canalletto-style paintings on the wall. As we sipped on our coffee and / or orange juice, we were encouraged to peruse two specially prepared photo albums, and to take part in a sweepstake to see if we could guess what colour the bride’s second dress of the day would be (it was purple – I guessed orange).
Having been told that the ceremony was about to commence, we made our way through a large courtyard, replete with free-standing faux Greco-Roman columns around five metres high (I tested their faux-ness with a rap of the knuckles, to be greeted by the tell-tale hollow sound of moulded fibreglass), a pond (although no fountain), and a very grand looking staircase leading up to the chapel, which was topped off not with a church spire but three minarets, painted blue and resembling those you might find on a mosque or a Russian orthodox church.
I had assumed that I would be the only foreigner present, but waiting at the top of the steps was a tall Caucasian man with a big nose and kind face, all dressed up as a priest, even though he was almost certainly not officially qualified to be one (moonlighting as such is a fairly common activity for white men in Japan, and pays rather well when you consider that including a rehearsal, it only takes up a couple of hours of your weekend). This faux-priest, who spoke with an English accent and had that authentically soft-spoken and effeminate air of a real-life vicar, spoke equal amounts of English and Japanese, although for the latter he had to consult a script, and his pronunciation was hard to follow. I was the only other person in the room who would have understood his English, but perhaps because they have grown accustomed to Western filmic and televisual depictions of church weddings, many Japanese have embraced the idea that a sprinkling of ‘Do you take this man?’s and ‘You may kiss the bride’s will enhance their wedding experience (I suppose it is no more odd than Catholics listening to Latin).
When the bride entered the room and walked along what was described in phonetically transliterated terms as the ‘virgin road’, her father, bless him, was already in tears, and this was partly due, I suspect, to the fact that like almost everything else that was to happen during the course of the afternoon, his duties were accompanied by a heart-wrenching musical backdrop. In the chapel, there were four very skilled musicians – two singers, a violinist and an organist (the entire back wall of the chapel was taken up with what may or may not have been a working pipe organ), who performed a selection of western classics and Japanese film music, and once we had made it downstairs into the reception venue, hardly five minutes would go by without a J-pop ballad or a sentimental popular classical piece surging to its climax in the background, to induce floods of tears from everyone present.
The chapel’s stucco walls were adorned with several faux-gilt picture frames, and before the couple walked back down the aisle, they paused to stick a small brass plaque engraved with their names into the next available space in the most recent frame. Like several other rituals at the wedding, this was not something I had ever seen before, and seemed as if it had been made up in a particularly caffeine-fuelled brainstorming session, simply to give the couple something else to do: even more so than the guests, the two of them had not a single second of down time in which to collect their thoughts, and on reflection, the wedding as a whole was like the kind of game show challenge of which the Japanese are very fond, and contained almost nothing of traditional or religious significance (the only religious elements were Christian, and as Mrs M pointed out, neither the bride, the groom nor their families have the slightest interest in Christianity, and are in no danger of being converted any time soon).
After a photo call, during which we got to shower the couple with real flower petals and the bride threw not one but three bouquets into the crowd (why three? This seemed to entirely detract from the suspense of finding out who will do the catching), the reception proceeded to a strict timetable. There was the cutting of the cake, which involved not just the bride and groom feeding each other, but the bride and groom feeding their mothers too – a particularly undignified thing for such demure, kimono-clad and clearly emotional women to have to endure. There was the ‘candle service’, another Japanese concoction, which involves the bride and groom brandishing a metre-long, sword-shaped cigarette lighter, visiting each table-full of guests in turn and lighting the candle thereon. There were a grand total of three videos, shown when the couple were changing clothes or had left the room for some other reason, and when the guests were supposed to be eating, so that I ended up leaving half of my food untouched, as I was too busy trying to read the on-screen text. There was the point towards the end of the reception when the bride read out a letter to her parents, thanking them for bringing her up, always being there to help her and so on, directly after which, her and her new husband presented each of their respective mothers with a teddy bear of exactly the same weight as they were when they were born (did the bears come in different sizes, I wondered, or did they contain some kind of lead ballast depending on how many kilogrammes were required?), thus lending a surreal twist to what should have been the afternoon’s emotional climax. Most bizarre of all, there was a ritual where the bride and groom poured the contents of two large bottles of dry ice into what must have been a substitute for one of those champagne tower-type things, so that a Top of the Pops-style fog cascaded down towards the floor.
Aside from all of this oddness, however, and even allowing for the cinematically manipulative aspects of the wedding’s presentation, it was still a genuinely moving experience, and for some reason the first time in my life that I had been struck by the true symbolic power of the institution of marriage. True, at a British wedding there is all the usual talk of parents seeing their child fly the nest, but Japanese families somehow seem to be closer: many children still live at home until they get married, and even if they don’t, they seem to have a more authentically sentimental view of the magic of childhood, and what it means for this to have finished irrevocably. Perhaps it is because Mrs M and I are still comparative newlyweds, and haven't been to anyone else's wedding since our own, or perhaps it is because I have been particularly affected on this visit to Japan by how close and happy Mrs M’s family are, and become more aware than ever of how I have symbolically stolen her away from them. In any case, the speeches were the one aspect of the day that could not be manipulated or turned into some kind of endurance test, and although I didn’t understand all of what was said – in fact, because much of the language was repetitive, dealing as it often did with the polite affirmation that the happy couple should be wished well in their quest to build a happy family together, I found it difficult to pay attention the longer things went on – this didn’t seem to matter.
One aspect of the wedding that was very traditional was the fact that both the bride and groom’s work colleagues took pride of place at the front row of tables (the couple were at a table facing their guests, and their families were relegated to the back of the room), and the first two speeches came from their respective superiors. The groom’s boss – from what, as far as I could make out, was the software division of an electronics company – was nervous, hesitant and consequently easier to understand. He also stuck to a quite formal assessment of his colleague, whereas the bride’s boss – from a local bank – was more confident, spoke more quickly, and had a more anecdotal approach. Among other things, he praised the bride for her ability to remember her colleague’s birthdays, as well as providing the one bona fide awkward moment of the day, by confessing that he and several other male members of staff still had photos on their mobile phones of the time when the bride dressed up in a French maid costume for a promotional event at the bank.
The groom’s best friend from university had a torrid time, partly because he was nervous (approximately three seconds into his attempt to recite his speech from memory, he gave up and fished a cheat sheet from his suit pocket), and partly because he stood up to the microphone just as the starters were being served. I congratulated him at the end of the day as we stood next to each other in the queue for the cloakroom, but to be honest, I had barely been able to hear or understand any of his speech. Four of the bride’s best friends from junior high school, meanwhile, were clever enough to spread their first-night nerves around, and stood in a line, each saying a few words in turn, so that while they were all crying, they at least had some moral support to help them through the experience.
Even with moral support of my own in the form of Mrs M, by the end of the day – that is after four hours in a shopping mall and just three hours at the wedding venue – I was absolutely exhausted. The other guests at our table were a couple with a young son who burst into tears at the sight of his favourite auntie in her wedding garb, and had to be driven off by his mum to the aforementioned shopping mall to calm down, leaving us with only his dad to talk to. My one brief opportunity to relax was when one of the bride’s uncles came over to talk to me about cycling (a small description of everyone present was included in the seating plan), so that by the end of the afternoon, it felt as if I had not been the guest at a wedding but an extra for a particularly arduous day’s filming on a soap opera or drama series. Mrs M and I had planned to go back to the shopping mall and have puri-kura photographs taken of us in our formal wear, but in the end were glad to be driven straight back home by her elder brother, who had very kindly knocked off work early to save us the further endurance of a three-hour-plus train journey to round off the day.
One thing I never got round to doing before I confessed to Mrs Muzuhashi that I’d be OK with the idea of moving to Japan, was to make a For and Against list of, er, Pros and Cons. Given my penchant for lists of all kinds (apart, that is, from those Saturday night TV epics along the lines of ‘The Fifty Greatest Car Chase Film Bloopers Starring Chevy Chase and Chris Tucker of All Time’), I may still get around to compiling this at some point, but for the moment, and while the memory of recent experience is still fresh in my mind, I’d like to pontificate on one particular Con, namely the flight – either to Japan from the UK, or vice versa.
Remember when you were a kid and being bored was the most easily replicable mental state in your entire repertoire? Remember how boredom could be almost physically painful? Remember double maths? Rainy Sunday afternoons? School trips to museums? Homework assignments? Shopping with parents and / or other relatives? Remember how boring those things were? Well, those of you who are already familiar with the joys of long-haul flights can skip the next paragraph or so, but for those of you who are not, trust me, being stuck on a plane for anything between ten and approximately fourteen hours is the equivalent of that excruciating childhood boredom multiplied to the power of a very large digit indeed, one that would contain so many noughts as to not fit on the screen of a calculator.
On the face of it, long haul shouldn’t be so bad. After all, what is there to worry about? So long as you’re not afraid of flying (which on reflection certainly wouldn’t make the flight boring, just very frightening for a sustained period of time), all you’ve got to do is settle down with a good book or two, a good magazine or two, a good film or two, and the hours will just fly by (so to speak). Right? Wrong. OK, so aeroplane entertainment systems are a good deal more sophisticated than they used to be (I’ll never forget flying with Aeroflot a few years ago, when the in-flight film was at least thirty years old: a kind of children’s fantasy in the vein of The Wizard of Oz, projected onto a single screen at the far end of the cabin), and on our BA flight a couple of weeks ago, we could watch recent release films, recent release films dubbed into Japanese, and various TV programmes, not to mention the now ubiquitous flight map, which I have seen some people glued to from take off to landing. We could also listen to a whole library of old and new music (see an upcoming blog entry for my reflections on the Stones’ Exile On Main Street) and play computer games. Add to that the newspapers, regular mealtimes, trips to the toilet and so on, and you might think I’d be able to stave off boredom pretty easily, but oh no.
It’s like…it’s like…how can I put it? One of the films I watched on this occasion was called Buried, and was about a guy who’s stuck in a coffin somewhere beneath the ground in Iraq. He spends the whole film there, with only a mobile phone and a cigarette lighter for company – it’s a pretty good film, get it out on DVD if you have the chance – and it made me think while I was watching it just how much being on a long-haul flight is like being buried alive in a coffin with only one’s wife and a digital entertainment system for company (although not necessarily in Iraq).
The first hour of the flight passes quickly, because you’re a bit nervous about the possibility of the plane exploding into a ball of fire and twisted metal during take off. In our case, this tension was exacerbated by the fact that the wings were frozen, and we had to wait for a guy to come and spray them with anti-freeze before we could join the queue for the runway (as the plane took off, you could see a green liquid the colour of Swarfega speading across the wings in the on-rushing, sub-zero, foggy air), but anyway, it still passed quickly, and I had leafed my way through the Guardian by the time we were in the air (I saved the crossword for later, and had yet another crossword for even later than that, saved from a couple of days beforehand).
The second hour also passes quickly, because you are either anticipating drinks, drinking drinks, eating nibbles, anticipating your meal, eating your meal (full marks to BA here, as there were more veggie options to choose from than meat ones, and I hadn’t even put in a request beforehand), digesting your meal, or going for your post-meal trip to the toilet.
The third hour is a breeze. There are so many menus, sub-menus and general bits and bobs to tinker with on the entertainment system that by the end of it, you’ve successfully managed to delay the moment when you watch your first film by…well, by an hour.
So, hours four and five are mostly taken up with said film – interspersed with perhaps another toilet trip and another drink or two – and you haven’t even bothered to check the time yet. Checking the time for the first time (if you’ll pardon the rather inept phraseology) is the key moment in any flight, and the longer you can put this off, the better. When you’ve got twelve hours or so to endure, I find the clock watching begins before the halfway point, which is a very cruel self-inflicted blow. Only five and a half hours gone, you realize, as you check the flight map and see that you’re still Somewhere Over Siberia – a state that you will continue be in for about two thirds of your time in the air, Siberia being such an inordinately big place to fly over – pausing only to have your mind boggled by the thought that the plane (a 747 in this case) is traveling at over one thousand kilometres per hour, before doing a double-take when you see that the Flight Time Elapsed figure is still inexplicably lower than the Flight Time Remaining figure.
This is like hitting the wall for a marathon runner. Or rather, it’s like hitting a wall, as there will be several more during the coming six and a half hours, because taking a long-haul flight is far more demanding even than running a marathon. Like the funny / spooky zoom / track shot from Jaws, time and space seem to warp and stretch before your very eyes. The flight literally feels like it’s never going to end. The thought of spending another six and a half hours cooped up in this confined space with only the latest Julia Roberts romantic comedy to watch between trips to the toilet and mealtimes induces a boredom so profound it is – to get back to our bored child simile – almost physically painful.
The irony is, even by the time the plane lands, although it will be confusingly early the next morning Japanese time, and therefore already daylight, in UK terms it will not be long past midnight. ‘Hey,’ you try to convince yourself, ‘what’s the big deal? I’ve stayed up after midnight watching crap films before, so I ought to be able to handle that once in a while, right?’ Wrong again.
I began watching the new-ish Stephen Frears film based on a Posy Simmonds graphic novel after approximately my tenth hour on board, and like Buried, it was a perfectly good film - decent actors, funny lines, nicely shot – but I almost couldn’t look at the screen I was in such agony. Every sinew of my body was screaming at me. I wanted to get up and run around the cabin screaming my head off - better still, to get up and run around the cabin with no clothes on and screaming my head off. I was trapped, I was confined, I was frustrated, I was BORED. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored (as Eddie once so memorably opined in an episode of Bottom). Mentally, I was twelve again, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, there was a homework assignment waiting to be done, and I’d already been forced to go shopping with my mum.
Quite apart from the fact that you get jet lag at the other end, that flying is very bad for the environment, and that it costs a fair old whack to buy a return ticket to Japan these days, long-haul flights are just boring. Excruciatingly, agonizingly, tormentingly, indefatigably boring, and there is no way round this problem. For as long as I live in Japan and bother to come back to the UK, I will have to put up with this, and I sense that it may get to the point where I begin to feel anxious about my next flight as soon as the most recent one is over, and much of the intervening year will be spent mentally bracing myself for the epic, transcendental, mind-boggling boredom of it all.
Hunt for video game loser who left home
Police last night stepped up a hunt for Mr John Chandler, aged 35, who stormed out of his home in Reading, Berkshire, after a Star Raiders video game beat him.
Mrs Linda Chandler said yesterday her husband had been playing the Atari video game last Tuesday. 'He was getting soundly beaten and became very angry. He kicked over a tray of tea cups and was very ratty. Soon after, he got in the car and drove off. I have not heard from him since. I am very worried and want him to come home.' She said at the guest house which the couple run in London Road.
From an unspecified newspaper on an unspecified date - probably more than a decade ago - and found while sifting through boxes of mementos in preparation for The Big Move:
A woman had to be taken to hospital after she saw a body slowly rising from a coffin on a rubbish tip on a dark October evening, Winsford magistrates court heard yesterday.
Mrs Doreen Power, aged 43, of Middlewich, Cheshire, twice had to be given oxygen by ambulancemen after seeing unemployed William Neville Davies, aged 18, of Nixon Drive, Winsford, rise zombie-like from the coffin, howling eerily, Mr Derek Freeman, prosecuting, told the court.
Mr Davies pleaded guilty to causing a breach of the peace and was bound over for 12 months to the sum of £50.
Mrs Power had gone to Winsford tip with her husband Frederick to dump some rubbish.
Mr Quentin Querelle, defending, said that Mr Davies had intended the prank for a friend and did not realise that Mr and Mrs Power were approaching.
'He says he is very sorry and hopes never to see the inside of a coffin for many years to come.'
A great deal is made of first lines, first pages, first chapters – first novels and first albums, even – but it struck me the other day that this same importance cannot be applied to the blog. The opening scene of any Bond film; Jane Austen’s famous line about it being a truth universally acknowledged that a woman of a certain age and background is bound to be in need of a husband (or however it goes – I’m paraphrasing); the first song on any album being the Big Hit Single; Shakespeare comparing his boyfr…er, I mean wife to a summer’s day. These are renowned because the media in question are linear (or at least were linear – albums in particular are in the process of being mutated into something distinctly non-linear by the digital age), and in the event of an old fashioned paper-based diary being published, its first entry may also become either famous, important or both.
But the first entry in a blog may be the least read of all, because the longer lived the blog becomes, the further away from its first page or most recent entry that first entry will inevitably move. Even if said blog goes on to become the Most Read Blog In The World (I wonder who that accolade currently belongs to? Britney Spears? Barack Obama? Timmy Mallet?), or buzzy, as I believe the current web parlance has it, or extensively Tweeted, Facebooked, Digged (Dugg?), very few of its readers will ever take the time to trawl all the way back through the archives to the very first time the blogger in question decided to make use of his or her free Wordpress account.
Moreover, because blogs – by and large, at least – do not get re-written, the first entry is likely to be tentative, and particularly if the blogger is not already an experienced writer, poorly written. Not that I’ve done much research into the matter, but I suspect that a lot of blogs begin with something like the following: ‘Now that my boyfriend has left me / I’ve been diagnosed as terminally ill / my stamp collection has become so vast that the attic floor has collapsed, I’ve decided to start a blog. I don’t really know what I’m going to write about, and I don’t really know how often I’m going to write it, but I’m hoping that it will be therapeutic, and act as an outlet for my innermost thoughts / mentally unstable ramblings / painfully geeky obsessions.’ Well, you get the idea.
So, now that I too have decided to write a blog (my second attempt – the first having petered out after life and laziness got in the way), here is my own rambling, inconsequential but hopeful first entry, and here are my reasons for rejoining the blogosphere:
1) I’m moving to Japan with Mrs Muzuhashi this spring.
2) I managed to earn a living as a writer for a while before the recession hit, but haven’t done much since, and need to get back into practice if I’m ever going to…
3) …make some kind of impact in Japan as a journalist / travel writer / foreign correspondent / translator / cultural commentator / ninja assassin.
The aim is to try and avoid too much navel gazing, and – given my ongoing efforts to become at least semi-fluent in Japanese – to get out, meet people, hear their stories, experience cultural, er, stuff, and generally use my linguistic ability to get beyond the usual ‘I like sushi! / Isn’t Hello Kitty cute! / Japanese people do the craziest stuff!’ clichés. Whether I manage to achieve this is very much open to question, and finding the time to write entries – even more so than not being good enough at Japanese – is likely to be this blog’s worst enemy, as it is with every other blog that’s ever been written in the history of the internet.
Which is all a rather roundabout way of saying, who cares what I’ve just written, because no one’s ever going to read it anyway. Give me six months or so and I’ll have readers coming out of my ears (if that’s the right phrase), and if you happen to be one of them, congratulations for trawling your way this far back through the archives. For now, it’s time to get on with the hard work and stop navel gazing.