The obon festival happens in mid-August, when most people take two or three days off work to return to their hometown and – more importantly – to pay homage to their ancestors at the family grave. Practically speaking, this usually means many hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam, followed by a day or two of over-eating and allowing the grandparents to spoil the grandchildren rotten, followed by many more hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam (some of this year’s were up to 70km long). Fortunately, Mrs M’s parents live just 12km away along a quiet country road, and they don’t as yet have any grandchildren to spoil rotten, so our obon was a pretty relaxed affair.
On Saturday evening we went to the local obon festival, which included food, drink and amusement stalls (hoopla, catch the goldfish and so on), a music stage, a taiko
(太鼓 / Japanese drumming) contest and a procession of omikoshi
(お神輿), which are the sometimes large and sometimes heavy portable shrines that groups of people in traditional costume carry through the streets, chanting as they go.
‘Occasionally,’ otoh-san told me, ‘the omikoshi get dropped. A few years ago one of them landed on that shop over there.’
‘I suppose it must be difficult to keep it upright if you’ve been carrying it for a long time,’ I said.
‘Ah, but that wasn’t an accident. The guy who owned the shop wasn’t very popular. He was always complaining about his neighbours, so they got together before the festival and planned the whole thing!’
When I asked if otoh-san had ever done any omikoshi carrying himself, he said that no, he wasn’t really interested in that kind of thing – in fact, this was his first visit to the festival since Mrs M was in kindergarten, and once we had jostled our way through the crowds for half an hour, he was keen to get away. With no fireworks either – many local councils have been trying to save money after the earthquake – this meant that much to Mrs M’s disappointment, instead of sticking around for some festival food (the whale meat shish kebabs were sold out, I noticed), we had a sit-down meal in a nearby restaurant, before rounding off the evening with a spot of karaoké.
The local karaoké box is under new management, and otoh-san complained that on their newly installed machines, the enka
(演歌 / traditional ballad) recordings were all slightly flat, although you can of course adjust the key and speed of any song, and the volume and reverb of both the vocal and music tracks. There is also a new feature – or rather, a souped-up version of an old feature – that monitors your voice and gives a percentage score based on factors like timing, vibrato and whether or not you’ve managed to stay in tune: the aim while you’re singing is to keep the undulating line of your voice as close as possible to a scrolling graphic of the song, which looks like a cross between Wii Guitar Hero and proper musical notation. Okah-san was either too shy or too tired to join in, so I had the chance to murder several Beatles and Sinatra numbers, and when I attempted to sing my favourite stirring Japanese rock ballad
, to realise that my ability to read Japanese subtitles is still a little too slow to enable an error-free karaoké performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mrs M – who used to be the lead singer in her high school chorus club – got the highest score of the evening for her rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth.
The next morning we headed over to the local temple, whose earthquake-damaged ceramic tiles are in the process of being replaced with a less fragile – although probably even more expensive – copper-clad roof, which is still gleaming now, but which after a few years of oxidisation will apparently turn a dull dark green. A black granite tablet about two metres wide by one metre high, on which the names of everyone who contributed money to the building of the temple are carved (including otoh-san), had toppled over in the quake and smashed into pieces, and in the cemetery behind the temple, many of the gravestones have yet to be re-erected.
‘The one next door fell over and hit ours,’ said otoh-san, pointing to a large chip in the pedestal of the family grave.
‘The top part didn’t fall over, though,’ said onii-san. ‘It just rotated slightly until it was pointing north instead of east.’
This black granite obelisk, which is about a metre high and must weigh several hundred kilos, shifted even further during the aftershocks, although it has now been repaired to supposedly more earthquake-resistant standards.
The grave used to be a lot more basic, but when his barber shop was at its busiest in the early nineties, otoh-san shelled out a large sum of money to have it upgraded. There are now three or four steps leading up to the obelisk, which is flanked by two stone lanterns, and surrounded by a bed of gravel and a low stone wall. To the right is a black granite tablet that lists the names of those whose ashes have been interned there: in this case, otoh-san’s mother and father, the baby that okah-san lost to a miscarriage between giving birth to onii-san and Mrs M, and the beloved family pet Nana-chan, a fluffy-haired shitsu who died about four years ago. On the top step is an ornamental stone box in which to place incense sticks, although a small family of bees had recently taken up residence there, so we had to chase them off and prise their nest from the box before we could put our hands together in prayer.
On the way out, and before pausing to lay the remainder of our incense sticks in front of what is effectively a pauper’s grave – a corner of the cemetery for those people with no relatives to pay for a permanent memorial – otoh-san pointed out an inscription on one of the more ostentatious gravestones that read kuinashi
‘No regrets,’ I translated.
‘Me too! No regrets!’ said otoh-san, and chuckled to himself as we made our way back to the car.
As they do every obon and new year, the following evening a car-full of relatives stopped off for dinner, which for okah-san’s sake consisted of several large platters of takeaway sushi and agémono
(揚げ物 / deep fried chicken, prawns and the like). Noriko oba-san is otoh-san’s younger sister, Nobuaki oji-san is his younger brother, Nobuaki’s wife is Yoko oba-san, and Gen-chan is Noriko’s grandson, who is now eight years old, but was the only guest under the age of about eighteen at our wedding, where he sported a particularly endearing combination of jacket, shirt and tie, shorts and Mohican haircut.
The four of them had driven from Tokyo that morning, all the way to Iwaki in the north of Ibaraki, where another of otoh-san’s brothers owns a fish restaurant and sandwich shop on the coast road. The first floor of the restaurant was inundated in the tsunami, and while it has now re-opened, the road itself is still under repair.
‘The customers have to use a car park nearby and walk all the way round to the front of the shop,’ said Yoko as she passed round a box of sandwiches freshly made that morning.
While Genji watched TV and played his Nintendo DS, we worked our way through most of the food, several large cans of Asahi and a couple of bottles of saké, and once otoh-san and Noriko set about putting the world to rights, it was pretty hard to stop them. Noriko became particularly passionate about the merits of British English over American English, although this was, I suspect, mostly for my benefit, and while I tried to join in with the conversation as much as possible, Nobuaki played the role of diplomat, and Yoko chatted to okah-san about less controversial topics than the economy and race relations.
Gen-chan, who had been too shy to talk to anyone for most of the evening, suddenly came to life when they were about to leave, wolfing down some leftovers, shaking my hand and saying ‘Goodbye!’ before he ran outside to get in the car. As the only adult left sober, it was Yoko’s turn to take the wheel for the drive back to Tokyo, and the four of them headed off into the night with two large watermelons from okah-san’s allotment as a parting gift.
Mrs M and I listened to our (pirated) copy of Back To Black in the car the other day, and as always, I was reminded of how great an album it is. First and foremost, at barely thirty minutes long, Back To Black doesn’t outstay its welcome in the slightest: Winehouse’s desire to pay tribute to sixties girl groups extended not just to the retro-style production and instrumentation, but also to the number of songs and their duration, and makes a mockery of artists who cram seventy or more minutes of music onto a CD, of which a lot less than thirty are good enough to be released publicly.
Much has been said of Winehouse’s vocal style, which at times resembles that of a black American soul singer almost to the point of parody, but whatever you think about her voice, Winehouse’s songs are superlative. Janis Joplin, for example, was another white woman with a ‘black’ voice – and another tortured soul who died young – but she wrote very few of her own songs, and certainly none to match Back To Black, Love Is A Losing Game or Tears Dry On Their Own.
Part of the brilliance of Winehouse's lyrics lies in their use of everyday, North London lingo, much of which is bracingly foul-mouthed: the first few lines of Back To Black, for example, which I shan’t quote for fear of offending my more sensitive readers, or the verse in You Know I’m No Good where she describes spending the night with one man while thinking about another. On the face of it, this youthful, conversational style puts her in the same mould as Lily Allen or The Streets, but where those two artists have a kind of defiant cockiness about them, Winehouse’s lyrics are more likely to expose her vulnerability – you can’t get much more vulnerable, for example, than ‘I died a hundred times / You go back to her / And I go back to black’. Also, I doubt that anyone will pull off a better version of a Winehouse song than she managed with the originals, simply because they are sung from her own personal experience, much of it bitter.
In the musical sense, I think the key to such great songwriting lies in her debut album Frank, which is more parts jazz than it is soul or R&B. As a chin-stroking jazz muso myself, I listened to Frank over and over again, and not just because it’s awash with jazz guitar lines, many of them played by Winehouse herself (as far as I can tell she stopped playing guitar in her live shows quite early on, which is a shame).
The thing about jazz songwriting – of which other artists would do well to take note – is that it utilises more than just the standard three chords. In the wrong hands, this can lead to tuneless nonsense – the kind of thing The Fast Show used to parody so hilariously in Jazz Club
– but when harnessed to create a three-minute pop song, the results can be much more complex and rewarding than, say, Kylie singing ‘Na na na, na na na-na na / Na na na, na na na-na na’ or Queen singing ‘We will, we will rock you’.
Not that I’ve got anything against Kylie or Queen, and the simplest pop and rock songs are often the greatest ones, but if you listen to Love Is A Losing Game, which many consider to be Winehouse’s crowning achievement, the chord change that comes part way through the verse – between ‘self-professed, profound’ and ‘till the chips were down’ – is achingly beautiful, and it’s achingly beautiful because it isn’t just about majors and minors, but something much more subtle and transitive: a seventh, a ninth or a thirteenth, perhaps, or something diminished or augmented. Back To Black is another example of Winehouse’s expertise: on the face of it, it's a simple, Motown-style pop song, but the middle eight (or to be strictly accurate, the middle twenty) re-jigs the same four chords that make up the verse, a device that subtly changes the mood of the song, and introduces the spooky, mantra-like repetition of the word ‘black’. (This, I should point out, isn’t something that I worked out for myself, but was explained by a music boffin on a TV programme about songwriting.)
Apart from Help Yourself, which comes across as a kind of Duke-Ellington-with-break-beats, my favourite track from Frank is Take The Box, which I’m convinced was ripped off by Beyoncé for her song Irreplaceable: both are written from the point of view of a girlfriend telling her ex-boyfriend to put his stuff in boxes before he moves out, although apparently Back To Black bears an uncanny resemblance to an old Diana Ross / Supremes track, so I suppose plagiarism is a two-way street. Like Me & Mr Jones from Back To Black, Help Yourself contains some wonderful harmonies (dare I say it, Winehouse was almost better as a backing singer than she was as a front-woman) and like the album’s title, refers, I assume, not just to Winehouse’s lyrical honesty, but to Frank Sinatra – I have no idea what he’s really like, but I can imagine Winehouse’s dad singing her Sinatra songs when she was growing up and fancying himself as a bit of a crooner. Much of Sinatra’s best work was recorded when his relationships were on the rocks, and where Take The Box is a great break-up song, Back To Black is a whole album of great break-up songs, which brings me on, inevitably, to Winehouse’s personal life.
Jaques Perretti of The Guardian made a documentary for Channel 4 a couple of years ago called Amy Winehouse: What Really Happened? in which Blake Fielder-Civil – Winehouse’s on-off boyfriend / husband of several years’ standing – came across as a particularly poor excuse for a human being, and someone who had pushed her into using drugs seemingly as a way of controlling her. Having watched the documentary, I remember thinking that if Winehouse were to die young – something that, sad to say, already seemed likely – Fielder-Civil would be the person to blame, but while she clearly had an addictive personality, Winehouse was, I believe, as much a victim of fame and fortune as she was of booze, drugs or bad taste in boyfriends.
There was a time about three or four years ago when you literally couldn’t open a newspaper or a magazine without reading a ‘story’ about Winehouse, and when she literally couldn’t go to the shops for a pint of milk without having to barge her way through several dozen paparazzi. Paparazzi are in a very close race with tabloid journalists to see who can have the most morally corrupt profession on the planet, and in the sense that she was hounded by both, Winehouse is a kind of Diana for our times: someone for whom fame simultaneously made her and broke her. I can’t help thinking of an early television appearance – possibly on Later With Jools Holland, although I haven’t managed to track it down on YouTube – when she was a fresh-faced girl in a polka-dot dress, still with some puppy fat and as yet without tattoos. Reading the tributes to Winehouse after her death (if you could bear to wade through the appalling English, that is – apparently Kelly Osbourne ‘couldn’t breath’ when she heard the news, and Salaam Remi put More Capital Letters In One Tweet than you Will Normally Find in an Entire Week Of Sun Headlines), a lot of people spoke of how she was just an ordinary girl who didn’t really fit into the world of showbiz, and while this may be a cliché, there has to be some truth in it – after all, we are all born ordinary, and it is a strong personality indeed that can cope with what stardom thrusts upon them.
While Japan may not have as many lethal predators as, say, Australia, it still has a lot more creepy-crawlies and animal oddities than the UK, and while I'm not quite Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I have managed to capture a few for posterity.
First up is this snake I spotted while cycling along a country road. I'll be completely honest here and say that I have no idea what kind of snake it is, but despite having a camera waved around approximately a forked tongue's length from its beady eyes, I can hereby bear witness that it did not sink its fangs into my arm or inject me with poisonous venom in any way, shape or form. In fact, it didn't move a muscle the whole time I was ogling it, so perhaps it was asleep.
When I say 'camera', what I actually mean is 'mobile phone camera', and this being Japan, the camera part of my mobile phone has an impressive 8.1 mega pixels to play with, which means that despite not being able to see what's on the screen during daylight hours, you can take shots that wouldn't look out of place on the memory card of a digital SLR.
A very large moth - probably twelve or thirteen centimetres across - seen lurking above the wash basins in a public loo.
A kabuto-mushi, aka rhinocerous beetle.
Kabuto were the elaborately decorated helmets samurai used to wear in battle, and the Japanese keep the samurai tradition alive by pitting their kabuto-mushi against each other in insect sumo wrestling contests.
This little fellow was given to Mrs M as a present when one of her colleagues found it in the chemist's shop where they both work, although since it didn't seem to be enjoying life in a small cardboard box, rather than training it to be an insect sumo killing machine, we decided to let it go outside the apartment.
Female kabuto-mushi look more like ordinary beetles - albeit ordinary beetles that are approximately the size of a bar of soap - and don't have the crazy pincer-like horns / antlers their male counterparts are blessed with.
Particularly in Tokyo, the night-time call - a kind of high-pitched whirring noise like a speeded up football rattle - of the semi (cicada) can be quite deafening.
Mrs M tells me that semi live underground for several years, before emerging to sit in a tree and make a lot of noise for about a week, during which time they shed their skin (the Wikipedia entry for the cicada contains quite a neat little video of this
), mate, lay some eggs and then promptly pass away. So rather than being a photo of a semi, this is a photo of its discarded shell.(The reason semis spend such a large proportion of their lives underground is so they can avoid cerain predators, as explained in this item from the BBC News site about prime numbers.
Apart from mosquitos, which are practically impossible to photograph unless you have a very good camera, proper protective clothing and a full can of insect repellent close at hand, cockroaches - or in Japanese, gokiburi - are the peskiest pest in Japan.
The cockroaches I encountered in Tokyo were the biggest and baddest of the lot, so this one, which okah-san zapped with a lethal dose of cockroach killer - a spray that cuts off the roach's oxygen supply so that it dies a slow and agonising death - was only a few centimetres long.
A dragonfly, or tonbo as they're called in Japan.
Tonbo can be seen flitting back and forth above the rice fields for much of the summer, and are of course much bigger than weedy little British dragonflies.
A spider that is, I suspect, a lot less dangerous than it looks.
A grasshopper / cricket.
A very hair caterpillar (as opposed to a はらぺこあおむし
), which wriggled across the pavement surprisingly quickly.
A non-hairy but still rather colourful caterpillar.
A dog in a microwave.
Well, OK, so it's not really a dog in a microwave, but since we're on the subject of animals, I thought I'd include a couple of photos of the unique institution that is the Japanese pet shop.
Whereas in a typical British pet shop there won't be any dogs or cats on display at all, here there are banks of glass-fronted cubicles and perspex cages, each containing a tired-looking puppy or kitten.
When it comes to keeping pets, the Japanese are very much of the tie-it-up-outside-and-leave-it-be school of thought, so this kind of thing isn't considered cruel at all, and is of course extremely popular with children, who even if they didn't want a puppy when they came into the pet shop, are guaranteed to want one by the time they leave.
As well as a price, the notices to the right of this cage / microwave contain information about where the puppies were born, how large they will be when they grow up, and whether or not they have been vaccinated.
Apparently, one of these chihuahua puppies is around half the price of the other - 45,000 yen / 350 GBP as opposed to 88,000 yen / 700 GBP - because it has recently been treated for a hernia.
The other notices on the cage say things like, 'When the puppy is asleep, please do not wake it up / tap on the glass. Puppies and kittens need about twenty hours' sleep a day, so please be quiet,' and, 'The world's smallest dog. Spirited, inquisitive and full of vigour.'
Here's another pet-related oddity: the large, glass-fronted box in this shop is like a kind of dog car wash, in that you put your dog inside, close the door, push the start button, and the dog is then shampooed, rinsed and blow-dried automatically.
When we saw a dog in mid-cycle, it didn't seem to be unduly terrified, and as a lot of pet owners would testify, using a dog wash is probably a lot easier than using a bath.
Last but not least, here is the one that got away.
The small, grey, out-of-focus blob you can just about see in the middle of this photograph is in fact an inoshishi (猪 / wild boar).
While inoshishi are common in Japan, it's very unusual to see one first-hand, although okah-san tells us they often visit her allotment to try and nose their way into the compost bin.
Mrs M spotted this one standing in a field as we drove past, and when we returned to take a photogaph, it crossed the road directly in front of us. What my mobile phone camera then singularly failed to capture was a very large - at least a couple of times bigger than your average Alsatian - and slightly bedraggled creature with two little trademark tusks either side of its snout.
In the latest edition of our community newspaper, there was a two-page article telling farmers how to safeguard their crops from inoshishi, which as well as weighing in at between 50 and 100kg, can run at speeds of up to 40kmh and overturn objects of up to 60kg in their quest for food.
It was pouring with rain until about 10 o’clock last Thursday morning, so instead of doing three and a half hours of soccer club, I did an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, though, I sweated off at least a couple of kilos, pulled a muscle in my leg, felt like I was about to have a heart attack, did a spot of gardening and didn’t kick a single football.
We started off, as the soccer club does almost every day, with what I was assured were ten laps of the pitch, but which felt like several more, alternating between a sprint along the sidelines and a jog along the goal lines. I pulled my left quad within seconds of setting off because, oddly, we hadn’t done any stretching beforehand: the students had been stuck indoors studying since 8.30, so perhaps they were eager to get going, and just to make things that little bit more challenging, we all carried a half-litre bottle of water in each hand. By about the third or fourth lap, I was seriously considering giving up, as quite apart from the veritable waterfall of sweat cascading from my brow, I had begun to get a tight feeling in my chest. As the sun poked through the clouds for the first time that morning, I also wondered whether I might be in the early stages of heatstroke.
When I was going through a jogging phase a few years ago, I read that interval training – ie. alternating between jogging and sprinting – is one of the best ways to increase your stamina over long distances. Sadly I was far too lazy to try interval training for myself, and having finally experienced it first hand, my advice to any budding jogger would be to start off with a very small amount of sprinting and build up from there, rather than going straight in with a half-and-half mix of the two.
After a ten-minute drinks break I thought we might get to play some football, but no such luck. (‘When it’s raining heavily,’ explained H-kun, who is the team captain, ‘we do stuff like this. If you play soccer in the rain people end up catching cold.’) The next exercise involved jogging round the pitch in a line as before – still carrying water bottles in our hands – with the last person in the line sprinting to the front and shouting ‘Hai!’ (‘Yes!’), then the new last person doing the same, and so on and so forth. With about fifteen or twenty people in the line, this meant that I was only sprinting for about ten seconds every couple of minutes, but the accumulated physical exertion was beginning to take its toll, and when Y-sensei looked up at the clock on the side of the school building and said, ‘Another seven minutes!’ I couldn’t face any more and stopped for another drinks break – or rather, keeled over at the side of the pitch and wheezed like a forty-a-day smoker for a few minutes, before gulping down another litre of water and waiting for the dizziness to stop.
I managed to re-join the line for the last couple of laps, but by the time we had completed those, even if we had been given the chance to start practicing our dribbling skills or free kick technique, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to join in, so was quite relieved when Y-sensei told us to jog down to the other end of the pitch and round off the training session with some kusa-tori.
As we squatted down, kama
in hand, and began pulling up weeds near the goal line, Y-sensei asked each student in turn what they thought the purpose of kusa-tori was, and gave marks out of a hundred depending on their replies.
‘Three or four years ago,’ said Y-sensei, ‘this pitch was covered in weeds. They were all over the penalty area, which got in the way of us playing properly. Since then we’ve been paying more attention to doing the weeding, and the soccer team has started winning.’
‘The team with the tidiest pitch,’ he continued, ‘is the team that wins.’
Making your school football team do the weeding may seem like a slightly ridiculous thing to do, but it made me think of another point that Malcolm Gladwell makes in The Tipping Point. His theory – based in part on studies of a reduction in New York crime rates in the early nineties – is that a person’s environment has just as big an influence on the likelihood of them committing a crime as their background or their personality. The people running the New York subway system turned around crime levels at least in part by cleaning up graffiti. They also clamped down on fare dodging, which because it was so prevalent and so visible, was influencing normally law-abiding citizens to join in.
On a recent episode of Honma Dekka?! (ホンマでっか？！/ Is That Really True?!) – a TV show that has a panel of academics and experts reveal a variety of interesting new trends, discoveries and inventions to a panel of celebrities – one of the experts cited a study which showed that around the time of large firework displays, just as levels of discarded rubbish increase, so do levels of petty crime. In other words, people’s behaviour degenerates in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the environment in which they find themselves. Surely it is no coincidence that Japanese children, who grow up cleaning their schools and weeding their playing fields, and whose parents and grandparents place such importance on keeping their homes spic and span (and their toilets in particular
), turn into adults who are less likely to commit crimes.
A lot of westerners criticise the Japanese education system for being too regimented – militaristic, even – and more like national service than school. While I am not necessarily in favour of national service, I am beginning to see the benefits of a system that keeps its students fit, healthy and active, gives them regular and multiple goals to work towards (not to mention properly commemorating the reaching of those goals with ceremonies, prizegivings and so on), and teaches them the benefits of using every spare moment to practice what they do until they master it, all without having to fire a gun or drive a tank.
Perhaps things have changed, but when I was a child, unless you happened to go to private school or have parents who could afford to pay for private tuition, the scope for taking part in extra-curricular activities was woefully small. Admittedly there was a teachers’ strike when I was at middle school, but even allowing for that, with the exception of rehearsals for the annual school play, I hardly ever stayed later than 4 o’clock, and certainly never went to school during the holidays. More to the point, I can’t imagine that any member of the current England football team has ever got down on his hands and knees and tended to a football pitch (do they even clean the senior players’ boots any more, as apprentices did in the old days?). If they had, perhaps they might be able to display a little more humility, and devote themselves a little more selflessly to their team.