By some freak of genetics that I don't pretend to understand, I have been blessed with everyman-like features, and over the years a disproportionately large number of people have told me that I look like someone they know, or someone famous. For example, a friend of mine once went up to someone on the tube and, convinced that it was me, said, 'Hi, Muzuhashi!' only to be treated with a blank look and a 'Who's Muzuhashi?' in reply, and in my days as a sound recordist, there was supposedly a doppelganger doing the same job, even though, like Superman and Clark Kent, we were never seen in the same room together.
In the interests of national security and for the safety of my family and friends, I have yet to post a photograph of myself on this blog. But while my true identity shall remain a closely guarded secret, I thought that now might be a good time to give you at least an inkling of the face behind the enigma.
For example, when I was much younger and still had hair, Ronan Keating was a prime suspect.
As I got older and my hair got thinner, it was Keifer Sutherland.
And then Kevin Costner.
Of course, the irony is that now I'm in Japan, rather than being an everyman, I stick out like a left-winger in the Labour Party, and the only Japanese name ever to have been mentioned in the same breath is that of TV presenter Tokoro George.
Closer to the mark is Arjen Robben, a Dutch international who plays his club football for Bayern Munich, and whom countless junior high school students have 'mistaken' me for.
Facial features, it has to be said, don't necessarily come into the comparison, so what these students are really thinking as they pass me in the corridor and shout 'Robben!' is 'You're a balding white man!'
In much the same way, balding white men - myself included - are often likened to Bruce Willis.
Despite the shining pate, however, Willis is facially even less reminiscent of me than Robben, so for a more likely lookalike, we need to consult some non-Japanese.
A good friend of mine insists that I'm a dead spit for Gary Barlow, which is very nice of him, so long as I choose to overlook the fact that what he's basically saying is 'You look like the ugly one out of Take That'.
Someone once came up to me in a pub and said that I looked like Tim Roth, which is fairly credible.
While a different person once came up to me in a different pub and told me that I looked like Ben Stiller, which is frankly tenuous.
Both witnesses may well have been drunk at the time, and where Roth looks a bit too mean and moody, Stiller looks a bit too sarky and smirky. Ben Miller, on the other hand, is in the right ballpark.
Another friend suggested Rob Brydon, who I like to think is a little on the craggy side for comparisons, although I have to admit that I'm veering into craggy territory myself these days (and by that I don't mean Snowdonia).
You can imagine my confusion, then, when Miller and Brydon appeared together on QI, and even went so far as to kiss each other on screen, a moment that for me was reminiscent of the bit in Being John Malcovich where John Malcovich enters the portal into his own brain.
The same friend who compared me to Miller saw a Surf Crew billboard at a London bus stop, and claimed that he had to take a closer look just to make sure that I wasn't doing swimwear modelling on the side.
While the face may be similar, though, the body is a dead giveaway: I do of course look much better than this with my shirt off.
The best suggestion so far - so good, in fact, that it's genuinely spooky - is Christopher Timothy, who apart from a slightly different nose could quite easily be my long-lost identical twin brother.
Although rather like the Superman / Clark Kent combination, I have yet to be filmed sticking my hand up a cow's backside - not that I'm aware of, anyway.
A final disclaimer: while I do in some aspects resemble many of the gentlemen depicted here, I should of course emphasise the fact that I'm not even remotely as handsome or debonair as any of them. The closest I've ever come to that is by having my voice likened - by Japanese as well as Brits - to Hugh Grant's.
But let's face it, if I looked like Hugh Grant as well as sounding like him, I wouldn't be an English teaching assistant, I'd be...well, I'd be at least a deputy headmaster.
As a follow-up to my post about gorgeous gals I'd like to go out with if only Mrs M would let me, and as promised, it's time for a counter-list of studly Japanese fellas.
Except it's not. I asked Mrs M to tell me which of her countrymen she'd most like to be wined and dined by, and she said that, to be honest, there were barely enough to count on the fingers of, er, one finger. So instead, I have decided to disregard looks (almost) altogether, and give you a list of chaps who while they aren't necessarily handsome, may be attractive to the opposite sex for other reasons - for example, they're good at sport, or they're funny, or they have managed to become famous despite the rather obvious handicap of coming from Ibaraki.
So without further ado:
1) Takashi Okamura
Okamura is one of the four or five most famous comedians - in fact, possibly one of the four or five most famous people - in Japan, and turned his diminutive stature (he is just 156cm / 5'1" tall) to his advantage by playing the boké
(fall guy) to his sidekick Hiroyuki Yabé's tsukkomi
(straight man). As Ninety-Nine (it is an unwritten rule for Japanese comedy duos to have an English name, other examples being Downtown, Black Mayonnaise, Peace and Un-Girls), the two began fronting a phenomenally successful show called Mecha x 2 Iketeru
in the the mid-90s, which specialises in crazy stunts and Candid Camera-style pranks.
As well as a physical toll - at one point Okamura broke his shoulder during filming - the pressures of fame took a mental one, too, and in 2010 Okamura was admitted to hospital suffering from nervous exhaustion. In the cut-throat world of Japanese TV, if a celebrity disappears from view there is a very good chance they will never reappear, but Okamura is so well loved that after five months off he was welcomed back into the TV fold with open arms.
My current favourite show of his is Moté Moté 99
, which isn't really comedy at all, and involves a group of single women travelling to some far-flung corner of the Japanese archipelago to meet a group of single men and hopefully find their soulmates (rather like Blind Date back in the day, Moté Moté recently witnessed its first marriage). The ironic thing is that despite presiding over so much matchmaking, Okamura himself is, famously, still single, and recently backed out of a relationship with a woman he had been fixed up with in a different segment of the same show.
2) Yuki Ohtsu
Like most footballers, Yuki Ohtsu appears to spend more time perfecting his hairstyle than he does perfecting his ball skills (although having said that, he uses nowhere near as much peroxide as his more renowned countryman Keisuké Honda, pictured here).
Ohtsu's nickname is charao, which means 'flash guy', but gets an inclusion on this list because a) he comes from Mito, and b) while representing his country at the London Olympics, he scored three goals, including a spectacular long-range effort against Mexico, and a less spectacular but more important short-range effort against Spain.
3) Watanabé 'Helmut' Naomichi
Watanabé was working as a director for TBS Television when he was chosen to take part in a reality-style segment of the otherwise unremarkable show Nakai Masahiro No Kinyohbi No Suma-Tachi
for short). After four summers trying to turn a profit in a beach-front café (a feat that he eventually managed in 2006), Watanabé - possibly voluntarily, possibly against his will - moved to the wilds of Ibaraki to try his hand at being a farmer. He was so well suited to the task that five and a half years later he is still there, and currently putting the finishing touches to a new house, into which his parents will soon be moving from their present home in Amami Ohshima, an island off the south-west coast of Kyushu.
Obviously Watanabé is being paid by TBS for his Hitori-Noh-gyo
(ひとり農業 / One-man Farming) spot on Kinsuma, and lives with a small production team on the farm, but his softly spoken, undemonstrative manner is quite unlike that of the celebrity types who occasionally drop by to help out with rice planting, crop picking and so on.
(He's the one on the right in this photo, by the way.)
Particularly in an era when the pervading trend is to move away from the countryside (for the first time in human history, over half of the world's population now lives in cities), Watanabé is setting an admirable example of how to live a life of comparative self-sufficiency. While he is always trying his hand at new tasks - beekeeping, solar power, making charcoal etc - at forty years old, and particularly now that he is settled in Ibaraki, what the viewing public really wants is for Watanabé to find romance...
4) Kohei Uchimura
Forget personality, muscles are where it's at, and no one in Japan has better defined pecs than Kohei Uchimura, who won the combined gymnastics gold medal at London 2012.
Uchimura's parents run a gymnastics school, and while they did of course encourage their son to become a gymnast pretty much from the moment he could stand up, he turned out to have a unique and instinctive talent for the sport.
For an NHK documentary broadcast just before the Olympics, Uchimura's abilities were tested in various different ways and compared to other top gymnasts: for example, when blindfolded, he can tell to within a degree or two how far his body is from vertical, and even as he is performing multiple, spinning somersaults above the floor or the wooden horse, his eyes are open and he is aware of exactly where he is in relation to his surroundings - the spectators, the lights on the ceiling of the hall, and the apparatus itself.
Don't get your hopes up, though, because as I was writing this blog post, Uchimura announced in quick succession that he a) had got married and b) is to become a father, a coincidence that is known in Japanese as dekichatta kekkon (出来ちゃった結婚 / a shotgun wedding).
5) Sanma Akashiya
Sanma - real name Takafumi Sugimoto - is one of those people born with two or three times the energy and enthusiasm of an ordinary mortal. If he ever sleeps, I can't imagine it is for that long, and his waking hours are a whirl of presenting, socialising, joking and laughing (particularly the latter).
When I first started watching Sanma, I thought that maybe he was just playing up for the camera, but his enthusiasm is infectious, and more importantly, it is underpinned with genuine comic talent.
As the host of numerous TV shows, he invariably manages to be the funniest person in the studio, and many is the time his co-stars will applaud a well-placed one-liner. More importantly, he manages to avoid being self-righteous or sentimental, a trap into which many of his contemporaries fall all too easily, and the main reason I like his show Honma Dekka is that if there is even the slightest hint of someone taking themselves seriously, Sanma will immediately step in with a put-down or comic aside.
6) Yuki Saito
I am still largely ignorant of baseball, but one player who is worth mentioning for his clean-cut good looks and gentlemanly behaviour is Yuki Saito, who broke numerous records as a star pitcher for Waséda High School and Waséda University.
Even while pitching his way through a sweltering summer's afternoon, rather than using his sleeve, Saito would mop his brow with a blue handkerchief, a habit that earned him the nickname hankachi ohshi - the handkerchief prince - and which caused sales of blue handkerchiefs to sky-rocket.
Another incident that has entered baseball folklore occurred at the end of a press conference, when Saito not only tidied his own chair beneath the table, but that of his coach as well. Not something you will see John Terry or Ashley Cole do, for example, and while Saito's record since turning professional has thus far failed to live up to expectations, his status as a housewives' favourite comes with a lifetime guarantee.
7) Kenta Nishimura
If you're after honesty in a man, look no further than writer Kenta Nishimura, winner of the 2010 Akutagawa Prize for his novel Kuéki Ressha (苦役列車 / literally, Hard Toil, Ordinary Train).
At a press conference after the announcement, Nishimura turned up in a check shirt and shorts, and proceeded to charm the assembled journalists with his unpretentious manner. When asked what he was doing when he heard about the prize, he said that he was at home and had been thinking of going to a brothel.
'Lucky I didn't, isn't it?' he said, and went on to describe his utterly unglamorous lifestyle, confessing that he doesn't have any friends and doesn't even talk to anyone on a regular basis. Nishimura never went to high school, managed to acquire a criminal record between various dead-end jobs, and while he certainly doesn't have Saito's looks or Okamura's earning power, anyone this self-effacing deserves a fighting chance with the opposite sex (conversely, I wonder whether he hasn't been flooded with offers of marriage since finding fame).
8) Akihiro Yamaguchi
I was going to include four-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Kohsuké Kitajima on this list, in particular for his post-race interview after the 100m breaststroke final at Athens 2004, during which he said words to the effect of 'That was really wicked. I've properly got goosebumps.' (ちょう気持ちいい。鳥肌ものです。). In terms of Japanese swimming, though, the future lies with Akihiro Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi failed to make the Japanese team for London 2012, but not long after it was over he set a new world record in Kitajima's other specialist event, the 200m breaststroke. Not only was the record set at a minor swimming meeting in an outdoor pool, but Yamaguchi is still a high school student, and at the time had just celebrated his eighteenth birthday.
Look out for Yamaguchi at Rio 2016, and in the meantime, here is a picture of him in his swimming trunks.
9) Takeshi Kitano
Kitano is one of the most famous comedian-stroke-presenters in Japan, and like Sanma, can be seen on prime-time TV several times a week. The really unique thing about him, though, is his ability as a film director.
Not many people in Japan have even seen them, but films like Sonatine (ソナチネ in Japanese), Zatoichi, Hana-bi, Brother and Kikujiro are almost in a genre of their own. You might describe them as philosophical gangster comedies, in that they combine dead-pan humour with extreme violence and occasional meditations on the meaning of life, and you can clearly see their influence in the early work of Quentin Tarantino - ie. two parts gangsters-in-suits-hanging-out-and-telling-jokes to one part graphically bloody violence.
In fact, Kitano was once involved in a life-imitating-art gangster-style kerfuffle, which became known as 'The Friday Incident'. When a journalist tried to buttonhole Kitano's university student girlfriend (he was already married at the time, and has allegedly fathered at least one secret love child), he got a gang of buddies together and drove over to the offices of the newspaper where the journalist worked. As well as trashing the place with umbrellas and fire extinguishers, the group beat up several members of staff, and at one point, Kitano was quoted as uttering the immortal words Bucchi-korosu kono yaro! (ぶち殺すぞこのやろう！/ I'll fucking kill you, you arsehole!).
10) Takahiro Tasaki
It is not unreasonable to suggest that high school girls are the most culturally influential minority in Japan, and when questioned in a recent TV programme - presented, predictably enough, by Sanma - about who is the fittest bloke in Japan, the most popular choice by some distance was Takahiro Tasaki of the R&B vocal / dance group Exile. In fact, one of the girls interviewed for the programme found Takahiro so attractive that the mere thought of him caused her to burst into tears.
It may not surprise you to learn that before winning a 'vocal battle audition' to become a member of Exile, Takahiro trained and worked as a hairdresser, and for those of you who are interested in that kind of thing, his vital statistics are as follows:
Birthday: 8th December
Star sign: Sagittarius
Height: 180cm (5'10")
Blood group: O
Hobbies: karaté, calligraphy
Be warned, however, as Takahiro was born in 1984, which by the Chinese calendar makes him a rat. Hmm...
So that's it. As always, any suggestions for additions to this top ten of totty will be most welcome, and in the interests of balance, next time round I suppose I should compile a gay and transgender one...
The other day Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music was playing in the background during a TV programme about Switzerland, and Mrs M started singing along.
'Do is the do of doughnut,' she sang. 'Re is the re of...'
'Hang on, hang on,' I interrupted. 'Did you just say "doughnut"?'
'Yes. "Do is the do of doughnut". Why?'
'Do isn't the do of doughnut! Do is a deer, a female deer!'
'What, you mean the English lyrics are different?'
Over the years, several people have translated The Sound Of Music into Japanese, but the version that stuck is by a woman called Peggy Hayama. Having seen the original stage musical in the early sixties, Hayama realised that particularly in the case of Do-Re-Mi, a literal translation wouldn't work, so not only are her mnemonics different, but because the Japanese alphabet has no 'la' or 'ti' sounds, so are her syllables for the musical notes:
'Do' is the 'do' of 'doughnut'
'Re' is the 're' of 'remon' (er, lemon)
'Mi' is the 'mi' of 'min-na' (everyone)
'Fa' is the 'fa' of 'faito' (fight)
'So' is the 'so' of 'aoi sora' (blue sky)
'Ra' is the 'ra' of 'rappa' (trumpet)
'Shi' is the 'shi' of 'shiawasé' (happy)
Right, let's sing!
Another sound you don't get in Japanese is 'lé', hence a lemon becoming a remon, and just in case you think Hayama is advocating the use of violence, in Japan, using the English word 'fight' is a way of exhorting someone to do their best.
Hayama also added a second verse, which mixes in a couple more mnemonics for good measure:
DOnna toki demo (whatever)
REtsu wo kundé (queue)
MInna tanoshiku (everyone)
FAito wo motté (fight)
SOra wo aoidé (sky)
RAn rararararara (er, la la la)
SHIawasé no uta (happy)
Translated back into English, it goes like this:
Whenever you want
Link your arms
Everybody having fun
Prepare to do your best
Look up at the sky
A happy song
Right, let's sing!
Doughnuts? Fighting? Olanges and Remons? Rodgers and Hammerstein must be turning in their graves. But anyway, just for the sake of completeness, here is Hayama's Japanese version in full:
If you know of anyone male who has moved or is thinking of moving to Japan – ie. working here rather than just taking a holiday – it is 99% certain they are not just coming for the culture, the comic books, the Zen meditation or the nuclear meltdowns. No, what they are secretly – or not-so-secretly, as the case may be – here for is the women, and it has to be said that despite taking a genuine interest in the woodcuts of Katsushika Hokusai, the films of Takeshi Kitano, learning a martial art and eating raw fish, I was no different.
My dream came true in the form of Mrs M, and while we are of course now blissfully happily married, I thought it might be interesting to tell you who are the top ten Japanese women that just supposing I wasn’t blissfully happily married to Mrs M, I wouldn’t be entirely displeased to find sitting across the table from me in a posh restaurant, for example, or next to me at an office party.
The most visible ladies in Japan, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are the forty-eight members of AKB48, whose management team hit upon the ingenious idea of an annual election to decide who is the most popular – and by implication, the cutest – member of the group. In a stroke of marketing genius, the rules of the election dictate that you are only entitled to vote if you have purchased an AKB48 CD or download, and the winner of the election is promoted to ‘lead singer’ (I put the words ‘lead singer’ in quotation marks because whether what AKB48 do can be described as singing – and indeed whether any of them actually sing on their records – is a moot point) for the proceeding year. In both 2009 and 2011 this was Atsuko Maéda, who while she does have a certain charm is also rather annoying. Whenever you see Maéda on TV, she is almost guaranteed to burst into tears from the sheer emotional strain of being in a girl group (as in this commercial for ochazuké
), and frankly, she should just pull herself together.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that anyone who thinks AKB48 are a prime example of Japanese womanhood is sorely mistaken, and would be better advised to do a Google image search for this lot instead:
1) Mari Yaguchi used to be in Morning Musumé, who were the AKB48 of their day, and the reason I have a soft spot for her is that she reminds me of Mrs M. While both Yaguchi and Mrs M are petite, however, Yaguchi’s husband is a foot taller than me, so I almost certainly wouldn’t stand a chance with her if – purely hypothetically, you understand – we happened to attend the same suburban swingers' key-swapping party.
2) Perfume are also a girl group, and to be brutally frank, every bit as talentless as both AKB48 and Morning Musumé. They are, however, less annoying (I have yet to see a member of Perfume cry on national television, for example), less ubiquitous, less numerous and better looking, in an impressively leggy kind of a way.
3) Speaking of legginess, I would argue that the most statuesque of Japanese models is Yu Yamada, whose face was absolutely everywhere when she first came to prominence in the mid-noughties. In the context of the fashion world, Yamada is already past her prime, but has a distinctly un-Japanese exoticism about her, possibly because she hails from the southern islands of Okinawa.
4) Attractive older women are known as jukujo (熟 女), and the queen of the jukujo is Sawa Suzuki, actress, variety show regular and a kind of Japanese version of Rula Lenska. Don’t get your hopes up, though, as she is currently engaged to be married to a man ten years her junior.
5) Possibly because I watch her every week on Honma Dekka, another jukujo eminently deserving of a mention is Wakako Shimazaki, who is, incredibly, still single.
6) Ayako Katoh is also a regular on Honma Dekka, and as well as keeping a level head when all about her are taking the piss, she either has very good taste in clothes or a very good stylist.
7) As Swiss Tony may once have said, a beautiful woman is worth nothing without a beautiful personality, which is why the next lady on my list is Ayano Fukuda, who is kinda quirky, kinda cute and, most important of all, kinda funny. Fukuda is an impressionist currently doing the variety show rounds, and while she may well have disappeared from view a year from now (worryingly, she only ever seems to trot out the same two impersonations), she will always have at least one fan club member in Ibaraki.
8) My next choice will be seen by many as wildly eccentric, but again, partly because she is on TV every week (Sekai Banzuké, Itté Q) and partly because she is the antithesis of AKB48 girly cuteness, Ayako Imoto is, as the saying has it, quite fit. She strikes me as the kind of woman who could hold her own in a fight, an argument or a piss up, and who because she has travelled the world several times over, would almost certainly have something interesting to say for herself should one, for example, find oneself sitting across the table from her in a pie and mash shop.
Oh, hang on, that wasn't the right photo…
9) To continue the theme of strong women, I couldn’t possibly finish this post without mentioning at least one member of the Nadéshiko Japan women’s football team, who while they aren’t exactly Girls Aloud, are the height of glamour compared to Nadéshiko GB, for example, or even Nadéshiko Sweden. While many men would ask Nahomi Kawasumi
to accompany them on a romantic night out at Old Trafford, the Bernabéu Stadium or, er, Ladysmead
, I would offer my spare ticket to Saki Kumagai, who is a) rather attractive, and b) scored the winning goal in a World Cup final penalty shoot-out
10) Last but not least, when it comes to having crushes on famous people, I have always believed that it’s important to seek out someone a little more obscure and a little more accessible – so obscure and accessible, in fact, that there really is the slimmest of chances one might find oneself sitting next to her on the bus, for example, or in the launderette. The reason being, in this case, that the thoroughly charming Shizuka Haségawa is a presenter-stroke-reporter for NHK Ibaraki, whose studios are just down the road from where I now live. When Haségawa was on TV the other week, onii-san described her in no uncertain terms as being busu
(ugly), but that only endeared her to me more, not to mention increasing my confidence that should the opportunity arise, our destinies may still be intertwined (Haségawa is so obscure that I couldn't find a decent picture of her, so the curious amongst you will have to make do with her NHK Ibaraki profile page
So that’s that. I'd like to reassure you that I ran this blog post past Mrs M just in case she took offence (she didn’t, mainly because she knows that not a single one of the aforementioned women would give me a second glance if I was quite literally the last man on earth), and I suppose the obvious follow-up would be a post about the Japanese men she thinks are deserving of a wider – or rather, worldwide – audience. In the meantime, suggestions for additions to the list would be much appreciated: who is your ideal J-lady, and why?
Ever fancied a change of career? I thought that I was being fairly radical by packing in my job as a sound recordist and moving to Japan to teach English, but a recent edition of the TV show Waratté Coraété (笑ってコラえて / Try Not To Laugh) featured the story of a sound recordist whose life underwent an entirely different - and frankly much more impressive - transformation.
Hiroshi Kikuda usd to work for NHK, and as well as the usual TV fare, specialised in recording classical music. During time off from a job in Vienna in 1996, Kikuda bought a second-hand violin from an antiques market, and having taken it back to Tokyo, decided to try his hand at making one himself. He joined an evening class, and over the next four years made ten violins, eventually plucking up the courage to show one of them to an expert.
'This is very nice,' said the expert. 'But it's not a violin.'
'Rather than being halfway to my destination,' explained Kikuda, 'I realised that I had only just set out on the journey.'
Not long after, Kikuda came across a violin made by Nicola Lazzari.
'This was what I had been aiming for all along,' he said. 'And if I was ever going to make a real violin, I realised there was no choice but to learn from the man himself.'
Lazzari's workshop is one of over 130 in Cremona, Italy, the city where Stradivari - the most famous violin maker of all - plied his trade in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and home to Lazzari's alma mater, the Cremona International Violin Making School.
Kikuda talked to his wife Hisako about going to study at the school, and far from telling him to pull himself together and stop being so stupid, she said that if he really wanted to become a violin maker then he had better do it properly.
'If someone finds what they really want to do,' said Hisako, 'that's an amazing thing.'
'She didn't so much push me into going to Italy,' continued Kikuda, 'as physically throw me.'
Kikuda spent the following year studying Italian, although by the time his interview came around he was far from fluent, and ended up repeating the same phrase over and over again: 'I want to study at this school!'
His application was successful, and Kikuda and Hisako moved to Italy, where as well as twelve hours a week of violin making, Kikuda had to study the standard high school curriculum of maths, history, English and so on, in a class where most of the other students were aound half his age. Three years later, in 2004, Kikuda didn't just graduate, he scored 100% in both the practical and academic facets of the course.
While he was still studying, Kikuda had begun to visit Lazzari's workshop, and once the course was over, asked Lazzari to assess his latest effort.
'It's nice,' said Lazzari. 'But it's not a violin.'
Still, Lazzari was sufficiently impressed with Kikuda's ability to take him on as an apprentice, and Kikuda spent the next two years watching Lazzari intently, making copious notes and continuing to hone his craft.
At the end of the apprenticeship, Kikuda showed Lazzari yet another violin.
'It looks beautiful,' said Lazzari. 'But it sounds awful.'
'I had become too focussed on the appearance of the violin and lost sight of how it was supposed to sound,' said Kikuda, and perhaps spurred on by the thought that failing to make a go of it in Cremona would mean a return to sound recording (which you can take it from me is a terrifying prospect), Kikuda persevered.
In 2005 he entered one of his voilins in an international competition in the Czech Republic, where among other things, it was assessed based on how it fared when accompanied in performance by a full orchestra. Out of a total of forty entries, Kikuda's violin finished in fourth place, and like Lazzari, the judges at the competition praised it for its appearance rather than its sound. But at both the 2006 Wieniawski competition in Poland and the 2007 Tchaikovsky competition in Russia - two of the three most prestigious competitions in the field - his violins won the grand prize, and this year he aims to complete what would be an unprecedented grand slam by winning the third, which just happens to take place in Cremona.
When Kikuda - who as you might expect is a modest and softly spoken kind of fellow - was interviewed with Hisako for Waratté Koraété, they reflected on how coming across that second-hand violin in Vienna had been a life-changing moment, and how Kikuda had named his first gold-medal-winning violin 'Elfo' (that's Italian for elf, in case you weren't sure): at the time, his wife was obsessed with the Orlando Bloom character from The Lord Of The Rings, and the couple now have a poster of Bloom on the wall of their apartment. 'The first poster I've ever bought!' confessed Hisako.
To round off his appearance on the show, Kikuda was interviewed via a satellite link-up to Italy, and listened as the vioinist Mariko Senju played the same piece of music by Bach, firstly on an original Stradivarius, and then on one of Kikuda's violins. As it happened, Kikuda had worked with Senju back in 1999 when he was still a sound man, and confessed that at the time he hadn't had the confidence to ask her to play one of his violins. He said that if he could be granted one wish, it would be to hear what his voilins will sound like in two hundred years' time, when they will have grown up, so to speak (several times in the programme he referred to the violins as being like his children), and indeed, the Strad really did sound richer and deeper than Kikuda's violin, which was described by the show's presenters as sounding younger and fresher.
Among other things, the programme included a brief sequence about the violin making process itself (the thin black lines around its edge, for example - known as purfling - are not painted on but inserted as incredibly fine pieces of marquetry, and help prevent the main body from cracking if the instrument is dropped) and a sequence in a Tokyo music shop where Kikuda's violins are on sale (not that most people would be able to afford one: while a factory made violin can be purchased for as little as £100, a Kikuda will set you back the best part of £10,000). The one thing that wasn't mentioned was whether or not Kikuda himself has learned to play the violin, but then again, I assume he's too busy making them for that.
Kikuda's blog can be found here
, and the homepage for his workshop in Cremona can be found here
(both in Japanese).
I had intended to work at the friendly, rural junior high school and friendly, rural elementary school for another couple of years, but just before Christmas a friend of mine made me a job offer I couldn't refuse, and as of this month I shall be working at not one but five friendly, rural junior high schools in the next town (and to Mrs M's delight, earning an extra few thousand yen into the bargain). So before I forget what it was all like - and if it's OK with you - I'm just going to pop on my rose-tinted spectacles and go for a quick jaunt down memory lane.
As you may remember from my posts about baseball
, I spent the first fortnight of the summer holidays having a go at the various club activities on offer at the school. Possibly because most such sports were originally imported (while some schools have kendo or judo clubs, that wasn't the case here), the chants and calls employed by the students as they played were almost exclusively in English - or rather, a brand of English specially adapted for use by Japanese teenagers.
When I was with the tennis club we shouted 'Naishoh!' ('Nice shot!') when a point was won, 'Naisu catchee!' (a sarcastic 'Nice catch!') when the ball went out of play, and 'Faitoh!' ('Fight!') for any exhortation to try harder. With the basketball club
it was 'Naishuu!' ('Nice shooting!') when a point was won and 'Domai!' ('Don't mind!') when the ball went out of play. And with the volleyball club it was 'Chaa!' when there was a 'Chance!' to win a point and, er, 'Spaiku!' for a spike (ie. what you or I would call a smash).
Aside from stretching, squat jumps, press-ups and so on, we would start the day with at least ten laps of the school grounds, to be completed within a certain time limit and accompanied by a chant of the club members' own devising. The volleyball girls would maintain a continuous call-and-response of '[name of junior high school], hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hoooh!' and the tennis girls would chant '[name of junior high school], faitoh, ho, ho, hoooh!'
Before the basketball girls started jogging, we stood one at a time on a kind of podium next to the playing field for koédasu
(声出す), which entailed each of us in turn shouting the name of the club, our own name and our aim for the day - eg. 'I WILL PRACTICE HARD AND SUPPORT MY FELLOW CLUB MEMBERS!' - at the tops of our voices.M-sensei was in charge of the table tennis club, and on the day that I joined in fully lived up to his reputation as the angriest teacher at the school. Each member of the club keeps a
notebook in which they write about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and reflect on how their practice and tournament matches went, and M-sensei berated the students for their lack of application in fulfilling this task for the best part of three quarters of an hour. In fact, he spent most of the morning in a barely concealed state of frustration and anger, and the entire time we were in the sports hall, I only saw him smile once.Then again, the table tennis club is the most successful at the school, and its members regularly progress from regional to prefectural tournaments
(despite having the tidiest pitch, the soccer team hasn't made it beyond the first stage of a tournament in more than five years), so this climate of fear seems to do the trick.More significantly, such a regime really does appear to instill confidence in the students. My playing partner for the morning was T-kun, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and hardly utters a word during the normal course of school life, but who patiently took me through the basics of the game in simple Japanese
, and who appeared to be taking it very easy indeed as we knocked the ball back and forth - once or twice I even noticed him suppress a smile after I had played a particularly poor shot.
Club activities were a lot less formal at the elementary school, although H-sensei, the 5th year homeroom teacher, did a very good job of knocking the brass band into shape. At the beginning of last April, most of its members had never even picked up an instrument, but for sports day in September they performed a selection of pop songs, film theme tunes and the school song, all while marching in formation.
As it turned out, H-sensei was classically trained, and explained to me that she only became a teacher after much soul-searching over whether or not to try her hand at being a professional musician instead. She also re-wrote a Japanese folk tale in easy English for her homeroom class to perform at the end-of-year culture festival, where along with demonstrations of their acting, writing, arithmetic, skipping and unicycling skills, almost all of the students did some kind of musical performance.
While only one student fainted from the heat and only one was injured seriously enough to be taken to hospital during the junior high sports festival, its culture festival only went ahead with the aid of large numbers of surgical masks and large amounts of prescription cold medicine. But where the elementary students tend to be slightly off key in an endearing kind of way when they're singing or playing, the junior high students sounded like full-blown professionals for the inter-class chorus contest. Formation dance routines copied from the latest pop videos received the biggest applause, but the highlight of the day for me was a swinging, jazzy waltz performed by five members of the brass band - I'm a sucker for underdogs, and the quintet's tuba player was the fat kid with chronic eczema..
The students I most enjoyed teaching English to were the tokubetsushién (特別支援 / special needs, which after studiously consulting his dictionary at the beginning of the year, my fellow teacher K-sensei insisted on calling 'the handicapped class'). Because there were only four of them, there was more time to get to know their personalities than in the usual classes of twenty or thirty-plus, and in any case, they were an inherently memorable - if rather motley - group.
Like the aforementioned tuba player, A-san was overweight and suffered from eczema, not to mention permanently greasy hair and a uniform that only saw the inside of a washing machine about once a month. But despite such obvious drawbacks, she had a pretty good grasp of English and the kind of sunny personality that could brighten up the greyest of days, and while a certain amount of what she said was impenetrable - she would sometimes rock back and forth in her chair and talk to herself - we would often share a joke with each other as she waited for the other members of the class to finish writing. K-san was the quietest of the four, and another A-san the most awkward (sometimes she would sit through an entire lesson grumpily staring out of the window and refusing to answer any questions, even from K-sensei), but the star of the show was I-kun.
For roughly fifty per cent of the time, I-kun had a cold, a stomach ache or some other indefinable illness, and when he wasn't excusing himself to go to the loo, he would be blowing his nose on the roll of toilet paper that was always close at hand, and throwing the remnants into a tatty old cardboard box he used as a wastepaper basket. For the remaining fifty per cent of the time, though, I-kun was unstoppable, and instead of studying English in the conventional manner, treated our lessons as a kind of free-form word association game. Whenever he managed to come up with a correct answer - which was mostly, it has to be said, by pure chance - he would exclaim, Ah! Yappari, oré wa tensai da! (あっ！やっぱり、俺は天才だ！/ 'Ah! Just as I thought, I'm a genius!'), and while most of his gags will be meaningless to a non-Japanese speaker - in fact, most of his gags will be meaningless even to a native Japanese speaker - I made a note of some of the ones that made me laugh:
For the days of the week: 'Monday, Tuesday, Queuesday...'
Or: 'Saturday, Sunday, nandé?' (nandé means 'why?')
When counting: 'thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-Doraémon...' (Doraémon is a famous cartoon character)
Or: 'thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-san...' (san is Japanese for the number three)
And in the same vein: 'ten, twenty, santy, forty...'
Instead of 'I leave home at seven forty', 'I leave home at seven horse'
Instead of 'Her husband Koji teaches Japanese', 'Her brass band Koji teaches Japanese'
Instead of 'Miss Green', 'Miss Glico' (Glico is a famous confectionery company)
K-sensei - 'What's the past tense of "have"?' I-kun – 'Ham and egg!'
And instead of 'I like tea', 'I like unchi' (unchi means 'poo')
Rather than sharing a single table, the special needs students preferred to spread their desks around the classroom, and I-kun was always furthest from the blackboard. Even when copying word-for-word, his spelling was atrocious, and at first I put this down to his learning disabilities. Eventually, however, I came to the realisation that he was merely short sighted.
'Do you wear contact lenses?' I asked him.
'Yes, yes. I wear contact lenses,' he replied.
'Does I-kun wear contact lenses?' I asked M-sensei later that day (as well as the table tennis club, M-sensei oversaw the special needs students).
'No, he doesn't,' said M-sensei. 'His mother won't let him.'
The following lesson, I-kun was sitting in his usual position at the back of the classroom, and instead of a dialogue from the textbook about school timetables, he wrote this:
I have FOR GENERAL WRITING
They are ADHESIVE STICK
How PLASTIC ERASER MADE IN JAPAN
In other words, he gave up trying to write what was on the board and instead copied whatever English he could find on the items in his pencil case.
Despite his hard-man image, M-sensei was the most visibly emotional of the teachers during the graduation ceremony at the end of March (he had taught I-kun at elementary as well as junior high school), for which the kocho-sensei made a typically rambling speech about a spacecraft that was lost for several years on its way back from collecting samples in a far-flung corner of the solar system, and a musician who became successful despite going blind after a childhood illness.
Apart from the graduation ceremony, beginning of term ceremonies, end of term ceremonies, clubs, lessons and exams, there were plenty of other events to keep the students occupied. These included sankenkai (散見会 / open day), ohsohji (大掃除 / spring cleaning) and sohkohkai (壮行会 / a rousing send-off to the summer sports tournament, for which a group of students in bandanas and white gloves chanted and gesticulated along to the rhythm of a big bass drum, and which looked and sounded like something from a Kurosawa samurai film). There was work experience week, school council elections, a drill for evacuating in the event of a disaster, and a drill for evacuating in the event of a suspicious intruder. A visiting high school headmaster made a speech about 'What it means to become an adult' (which despite the title had nothing to do with sex education), and one day we were all shown a video about bullying, which coincidentally was one of the most post-modern experiences of my entire life (I was in a school sports hall with some junior high school students, watching a video in which some junior high school students are in a school sports hall watching a performance of a play by some junior high school students that depicts the true story of how one of their classmates was bullied, and is performed on a stage set that recreates one of the classrooms at the school. As well as flashbacks to the bullying and to how the bullying was then turned into a play, at the climax of both the play and the video, the girl who has been bullied, who is playing the role of herself in the play, breaks out of character and delivers an emotional speech to the audience - or rather the audiences, if you include those of us watching the video - as herself. Confused? Unless you happen to be Noam Chomsky, I should hope so).
When writing about the junior high school in particular, I have tried to emphasise how friendly and relaxed it was, but despite his apparently laid-back attitude, the kocho-sensei ran a very tight ship, where even the slightest transgression from school rules was deemed unacceptable - normally the student in question would be surrounded by a posse of teachers, given a very stern talking to and leave the staff room in tears. The school was such a nice place to work precisely because the students hardly ever caused trouble, behaved badly during lessons or vandalised school property, and precisely because they always said hello when they passed you in the corridor, and always addressed those students in the years above them as 'so-and-so senpai' (先輩 / senior) rather than just by their names.
At a rehearsal for the graduation ceremony, the students' conduct was monitored down to the minutest detail, including how to stand up and sit down, how to bow while both standing up and sitting down, and even how to walk out of the hall at the end of the ceremony - a reminder of which was displayed behind the scenes on the day, and reads as follows:
- Sitting bow
- Hands when bowing - don't let them hang
- Girls' hands - don't open them, don't curl them up into a ball (cat hands)
- How to walk when you leave - don't let your mind wander
- How to replace your graduation certificate (when you are sitting down)
On one of my last days at the school, a former student dropped by to let us know the results of his university entrance exams, and while he was chatting with the other teachers, I went outside to load some things into my car. His girlfriend - who told me that she too was a former student - was loitering at the front door.
'You can go into the staff room and say hello if you want,' I said.
'I'm not allowed.'
'Having your hair dyed is against the rules.'
Her hair had reddish-brown highlights, and even though she had long since graduated from the school, its regime still applied. I wonder if I'll still be under the same spell in three years' time?
Most schools in Japan have a small radio studio, the main purpose of which is to facilitate the lunchtime broadcast. For this, two or three students talk about the day's menu - for example, at one point last week we were treated to an explanation of both the history and nutritional value of the cocoa bean - and pass on information about school activities. At my elementary school, the results of a daily competition are announced, based on the number of students from each class who have forgotten to bring their water flask, their handkerchief or their toothbrush, or whose toothbrush bristles are overly worn. Just like a proper radio station, the students are sometimes given the opportunity to make music requests, although at junior high school, we are treated to the same selection of rather mournful chamber pieces - chosen, I suspect, by the soon-to-retire music teacher - every day.Normally everyone stops chatting and at least pretends to pay attention to the lunchtime broadcast, but as I was sitting down to eat with 2:1 class
the other day, one of the students turned down the volume on the PA system and put on a CD instead. Th
e song - Ikimonogakari's Arigato (ありがとう / Thank You) is probably my favourite J-pop tune, and I was soon humming away to myself, much to the amusement of the students at my table.'Who chose this?' I asked one of them.'Er, I don't know,' he said.'Was there a class vote?''
I can't remember. Hey,' he said to the girl sitting opposite, '
why are we playing this CD?''Dunno,' she replied.So much for the change of routine, but anyway
, what better (and more flimsy) excuse to pull a few pop facts from Ikimonogakari's Wikipedia page, and to share the video with you:http://vimeo.com/14257739
(When I say 'the video', what I really mean is 'the video uploaded to Vimeo without permission and augmented with Spanish subtitles', and there is a very real possibility that by the time you read this it will have been taken down for legal reasons, thus defeating the object of this blog post altogether. If so, you should be able to find a similarly illicit version with a quick Google search).Ikimonogakari
means 'person in charge of living things', and was coined because rather than presenting the lunchtime broadcast, the two original band members - Yoshiki Mizuno and Hotaka Yamashita - were responsible for feeding the goldfish at their elementary school. Along the way, Mizuno and Yamashita acquired a lead singer - Kiyoé Yoshioka - and began to hone their skills at small scale live venues and as buskers in the western suburbs of Tokyo. Their independently released debut CD had the charmingly self-effacing title of While It's Sincerely Presumptuous Of Us To Say So, We Have Made Our First Album (Makoto Ni Sen-etsu Nagara Faasuto Arubamu Wo Koshiraemashita... / 誠に僭越ながらファーストアルバムを拵えました…
), and they soon gained a reputation as specialists in the art of commercial, TV and movie tie-ins. Since the early noughties, their songs have been used by Coca Cola, Nintendo, Asahi, several mobile phone companies, and in a score of TV dramas, animé and feature films (their latest release - Itsudatte Bokura Wa / いつだって僕らは - is in this TV ad
for correspondence courses).
While Ikimonogakari were respectably successful by 2010, Arigato was the song that turned them into one of the most popular bands in the country - so popular, in fact, that their songs Sakura
and Yell are now used as jingles to announce approaching trains at Ebina and Hon-Atsugi Stations (outside which they often used to busk) on the Odawara Line. Arigato was the opening theme for a soap opera called Gé-Gé-Gé No Nyoboh / ゲゲゲの女房 (part of an ongoing NHK series I have mentioned here before - Renzoku Terebi Shosetsu / 連続テレビ小説 - whose location and story changes twice a year), but while the commercial exploits of the band have no doubt made all three of its members very wealthy indeed, don't let that put you off their music, as they have a knack for coming up with emotionally stirring chord changes, and some of their best songs are structurally original too - for example, like The Beatles' She Loves You, Arigato starts with the chorus instead of the verse.
In case you don't understand Spanish, there follows my somewhat inexpert translation of the lyrics, which was hampered by the fact that in Japanese, it is the exception rather than the norm for a sentence to have a subject, and exactly who is doing or saying what with or to whom is very much open to interpretation.
I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But you held my hand more kindly than anyone else
Listen, listen to this voice
On a bright morning I give a wry smile as you open the window
And tell me that the future has just begun
Let's go out on the town again, like we always do
As always, the ups and downs of life accumulate
The two of us, our days together are fleeting
Carefully gather the escaping light, it's precious
And it's shining now
When did your dream
Become the dream of both of us
But today, one day, a cherished memory
Will clear the skies, whether they are blue or whether they are crying
I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But the hand that you held prompted a clear thought
That I am clumsily telling you
Forever, only forever
Because I want to laugh with you
To make sure of this road that I believed in
Now let's walk on, slowly
Days when we argued, days when we embraced
Let me search for every colour
A pure heart on which the future is written
Is still being added to
Who you live for
Whose love you receive
More than sharing happiness or sadness
Little by little, gather up the moments
If I find happiness with you
The thoughts we share
Even the little things
Let's embrace the light
Listen, nestle close to that voice
I want to tell you that I love you
I want to tell you because
That irreplaceable hand
Being together with you from now on
I believe in these things
I'm saying the words 'thank you' now
Holding my hand, more kindly than anyone else
So listen, listen to this voice
Incidentally, when Ikimonogakari were on TV over the Christmas holidays, onii-san described the lead singer as looking kibishii / 厳しい. The literal translation of kibishii is 'strict', although he was basically implying that she would be lucky to find a boyfriend. Onii-san is notoriously fussy when it comes to women, and I'm not sure that he was being entirely fair, but what do you think? Kiyoé Yoshioka: hottie or nottie?
Just as I was putting the finishing touches to this post, the Guardian published this article
by the one and only Charlie Brooker, which among other things includes a typically succinct and hilarious description of the majority of content on Japanese TV. So, about a week late and at the risk of being accused of jumping on the bandwagon, here is my own take on the subject (or rather, take two - you can find take one here
).The biggest TV gossip of 2011 had to be the sudden resignation of Shinsuké Hamada, who as well as looking a bit like Jimmy Carr, was found to have links with the yakuza. ('Jimmy Carr Mafia Link Shock!' - now that would be an interesting story. But anyway, I digress.).
Once evidence of his friendship with a minor hoodlum became public, Shinsuké did the honourable thing by jumping before he was pushed, but is unlikely to be welcomed back anytime soon, and as onii-san pointed out, the punters are now a lot less likely to patronise his chain of restaurants for fear of guilt by association.In the manner of post-Angus Deayton Have I Got News For You,
some of Shinsuké's shows have drafted in guest presenters, among them Koji Higashino, who despite my prediction that his career would be cut short after an on-screen character assassination, has become an even more regular fixture on the panel show circuit.Higashino's most notable appearance of 2011 was as a participant in the Sado Island Triathlon, posters for which were all over the place when I was there for my summer holidays. R
ather than the usual 1.5km swim / 40km cycle / 10km run, however, the Sado Triathlon involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km cycle and a full, 42km marathon, and while the swim was reduced to 3km because of an approaching typhoon, there can be no shame in the fact that three of the four participating celebs failed to complete the course. (Incredibly, all three - including Higashino - fell short of their goal not because they collapsed from exhaustion, but because they couldn't keep within the fifteen-and-a-half-hour time limit.)Both Shinsuk
é and Higashino cried in public
last year - Shinsuké at his resignation press conference and Higashino in the lead-up to the triathlon - and the more Japanese TV I watch, the more I find myself blubbing into my remote control. For example, here's the scenario for a recent documentary about guide dogs:Scene 1
- Partially sighted woman in Hokkaido has owned the same guide dog for almost a decade. Dog is due to retire next year. Woman cries.Scene 2 - Ageing
guide dogs limp around special retirement home, older ones lose ability to walk, eventually pass away. Sight of dying dogs enough to reduce grown man to snivelling wreck.Scene 3 - Too young to be trained, new-born puppies are adopted by ordinary families for first year of their lives.
No footage of life in temporary homes. Instead, documentary cuts straight to farewell at end of year and collective crying session.It was at this point, about fifteen minutes in, that I decided to
change channels for fear of being plunged into state of irreversible depression.Speaking of dogs, I had planned to share some footage of another Shinsuk
é, who is quite possibly the cutest animal of all time
, but unfortunately the clip has been withdrawn from YouTube, so you'll have to make do with this slide show from Twitter
instead. (Believe it or not, Shinsuké isn't a puppy - pomeranians apparently retain their cuteness into adulthood.)
The prize for 2011's cutest human being goes to seven-year-old Mana Ashida - aka Mana-chan - who got her big break in a drama series called Marumo No Okité, and has since featured in no less than fifteen different TV commercials, not to mention countless variety shows, chat shows and music shows. The theme tune to Marumo No Okité - sung by Mana-chan with her co-star Fuku Suzuki - is the unfeasibly catchy Maru Maru Mori Mori (I did have a go at translating the lyrics, but gave up when I realised they were almost completely meaningless):
Just as Ahsida and Suzuki do a silly dance in their music video, so Japanese companies are in the habit of including similar dances in their commercials, the most notable example being this combination of five portly blokes, a Beyoncé tune and a new variety of cup ramen:
Despite the ubiquitousness of commercial-length public information films in the weeks and months following the earthquake (when advertisers were reluctant to purchase airtime), the most broadcast commercial of 2011 has to be this one for Choya alcohol-free plum wine, which as well as a silly dance, features a jingle that wouldn't necessarily be annoying if it wasn't for the fact the ad has been shown approximately fifty times a day for the past six months:
Probably the creepiest TV moment of the year was an appearance by Masahiko Kondoh, a veteran of the Johnny's music agency, which is Japan's most successful pop production line. After a brief interview, Kondoh looked on as members of present-day boy bands attempted to sing his hits - many of which were released before they were born - from memory. Most of these fresh-faced young lads had clearly been signed to the Johnny's agency on the basis of their looks rather than their voices, but Kondoh wasn't fussed about whether or not they could hold a tune. Instead, he cut short a performance only if they forgot the lyrics, which resulted in some very awkward moments where the singer apologised and promised not to make the same mistake ever again, and Kondoh tutted and shook his head disapprovingly. The youngsters spent the entire show heaping praise on Kondoh, and looked genuinely terrified as they were waiting for their turn to sing (there was no time to prepare as the songs were chosen at random), and the whole thing played out like a scene from a gangster film in which the godfather summons people to his office for a dressing down. Kondoh's presence was so menacing that it really did feel as if someone was going to end up in Tokyo Bay wearing concrete boots, although as far as I know, everyone involved lived to sing another day.
Last but not least, I was glad to see that Honma Dekka?!
- my favourite TV programme, and one that I've mentioned on this blog before - won a prize for excellence in the TV entertainment category at the Japan Commercial Broadcasting Federation awards.
There's not much point in posting a clip, as Honma Dekka?! is a lot more verbal than it is visual, but just to give you an example of the kind of fascinating facts and figures they come up with, Homaré Sawa - women's World Cup MVP and scorer of the late equaliser that took the Japan vs USA final to a penalty shoot-out - recently appeared as a star guest. In the section of the show known as Jinsei-sohdan
(人生相談 / counselling service), she confessed to having very poor co-ordination, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, the panel of experts came to the intriguing conclusion that this is a good thing for an attacking player - ie. if defenders are in tune with how an opposition player moves, they will more easily be able to intercept her, but if the attacker is less predictable and her movements less regulated, she will more easily be able to find her way through the defence and to a goal-scoring opportunity.
here were two possible routes west from Aizu-wakamatsu towards Niigata, and the decision as to which one to take was based on my Touring Mapple
. Mapple is a map company whose logo is an apple (map + apple = Mapple. Geddit?), and while their 'touring' series is aimed primarily at motorcyclists, it's just as handy for those of us using pedal power, because even if you can't read Japanese, most of the roads have numbers, and there are easy-to-understand symbols for campsites, convenience stores, onsen and restaurants - in other words, everywhere you're going to go to on the way to wherever it is you're going to go to. Another feature of the Touring Mapple is that particularly scenic or fun-to-ride routes are highlighted in purple, and while Route 49 was a run-of-the-mill red A-road, Route 459 was purple almost all the way to Niigata, so I spent the morning admiring some rather lovely mountain scenery.T
his shop was in one of the few villages I passed through along the way, and I asked the nice lady who worked there about the history of the building, whose interior resembled something distinctly olde worlde, its great wooden beams turned smooth and a rich dark brown with age.
'I didn't move here until I got married,' she said, 'so I can't tell you much, but they call this stuff kura.' Kura (蔵) means 'warehouse', and is shorthand for any building that uses wattle and daub - ie. wooden latticework covered in dried mud or clay. 'If you go outside you can see where it cracked in the earthquake, but we can repair that, and it's warm in winter.'
The closer to the Japan Sea coast you get, the more extreme the winter weather becomes, and as well as kura, since Lake Inawashiro I had seen more and more totan-yané (トタン屋根 / tin roofs), which are lighter than the tiled variety, and less likely to collapse under the weight of large amounts of snow. This one was even fitted with heating elements, presumably to melt the snow before it has a chance to build up.
Ignoring the above sign ('How about eating some wild boar meat?'), I stopped for lunch in the village of Miyako, which declared itself as soba-no-sato
(そばの里 / the hometown of soba noodles), and where thirteen of the thirty households are in business as soba restaurants. As the first customer of the day at Kawamaé
, I naturally ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, although when my set meal arrived, there was enough of it to feed a whole family, including a limitless supply of noodles, mushrooms with grated daikon (大根 / daikon is a big, white radish that English-speaking vegetable lovers will know as mouli), tsukemono (漬け物 / pickled vegetables), konnyaku (こんにゃく / devil's tongue - a weird kind of calorie-free vegetable jelly), nimono (煮 物 / boiled vegetables and fishcakes), soba-flavoured green tea, and a cup of what is essentially diluted soy sauce, into which you dip your noodles before eating them. There was also grated wasabi and diced spring onions to be mixed into the sauce, and a separate pot of soba-yu, the still-warm and starch-y water in which the soba has been cooked, which the waitress told me to add to the sauce and drink at the end of the meal.
By mid-afternoon I had reached the Agano River, whose water was light brown and completely opaque: the same colour as a proper cup of tea, now I come to think of it. On first sight it looked as if there was a drought, as the river was lined on both sides with a wide band of bare earth, but as I cycled along, it became clear that rather than subsiding from its normal level over the course of several months, the river had risen suddenly, washing away almost everything in its path.
Just over three weeks before, parts of Niigata and Fukushima had suffered their heaviest rainfall in thirty years: in Aga Town just downstream, 50mm fell in the space of just ten minutes, which is a national record, and elsewhere there was anything up to 700mm over the course of three days. In the resulting floods, four people lost their lives, seven were seriously injured, and 173 people had to be airlifted to safety after they were stranded at a local school. In places the water level rose by an incredible 24 metres, and both of the dams along the Agano overflowed - this one was thankfully back to normal, although you can still see some of the mud that was left behind.
The aftermath of the flood looked eerily similar to images of the 11th March tsunami: countless trees had been felled or washed away, dunes of sandy mud - now hardened and cracked - had been deposited on the forest floor, clumps of foliage and rubbish were lodged in the roadside crash barriers, and bulldozers were at work clearing away the wreckage.
'You'll be lucky to find a campsite,' said a shopkeeper in the town of Tsugawa, who had stopped me to ask where I was going. 'Most of them have been washed away.'
He was wiry and tanned with grey stubble on his chin, and wore a baggy white vest with a pen clipped inside the collar, and we were joined by one of his customers, who had an almost full set of silver caps on his teeth, and eyebrows so black and bushy they looked two Groucho Marx moustaches.
'There's a campsite in Kanosé which is quite high up,' said the shopkeeper.
'Actually I've just come from there. I was thinking of carrying on to Mikawa instead.'
'That's next to the river, isn't it?'
'You could be right,' said the customer.
'Plus it'll be getting dark soon, and if it's going to rain' - a few spots had begun to fall as we were chatting - 'you'd be better off finding somewhere near here.'
'I can't really see anywhere on the map.'
'How about near the station? There's an onsen behind it that only costs 300 yen, and you could stay in a bus shelter. They're not very big but at least you'd be dry, and the buses finish early so no one will bother you. Better than getting stranded halfway between here and Mikawa.'
The shopkeeper gave me a bag of chocolates to send me on my way, and as the heavens opened an hour later, I realised that I should have heeded his advice. Conditions like this called for four walls and a roof, although perhaps not the four walls and a roof of a bus shelter, so I ducked into the nearest shop and asked the couple who worked there if they knew of a cheap place to stay.
'They've got vacancies tonight,' said the husband, after calling a hotel called Yuu-ando-yu (You&湯, which is a rather corny pun on the English 'you' and the Japanese yu, meaning 'hot water'), 'and it'll be cheaper than the other places around there. Shin-mikawa is an onsen resort, you see, but Yuu-no-yu is run by the local council.'
'How much is it, though?' I asked.
Evading my question, he proceeded to give me directions to Yuu-ando-yu, and on the way I spotted what appeared to be the campsite I was originally aiming for. The sign at the entrance was hard to decipher, and as I was reading my way through the list of facilities - which included a ski slope, among other things - a car pulled over next to me and the driver wound down her window.
'Are you on your way to Yuu-ando-yu?' she said.
'Er, yes. How did you know?'
'I work there. I was just going home and I heard there was someone on a bicycle coming to stay. Do you want me to guide you in?'
A few minutes later I was standing at the Yuu-ando-yu reception desk, filling out my details on a check-in form. When I'd finished, the receptionist handed me a key and said, 'I'll show you to your room now.'
'Er, just one more thing,' I said. 'Um, would you mind telling me, er, how much it's going to cost. For one night, that is. I'm on a bit of tight budget, you see.'
'5000 yen,' he said.
'Oh,' I said, looking out of the lobby doors at the still pouring rain. 'I see.'
'If you'll just follow me.'
Setsu-den (節電 / saving electricity) has been the watchword in Japan over the past six months, although the management at Yuu-ando-yu didn't appear to be too fussed about such trifling matters as a national power shortage. The tea urn in my room was bubbling away at 95°c, the cooler was pumping out air at 23°c (bizarrely, it was several degrees cooler outside), a fridge full of beer and soft drinks was set to the highest notch on the dial, the heated toilet seat was on full, and all four bulbs in both ceiling lights were lit up. Half-board at Yuu-no-yu would have set me back another 3000 yen, so once I had turned everything off or down and collected what I needed from the bicycle, I took the receptionist up on his offer of a lift to the nearest convenience store to buy some dinner.
'Was the hotel flooded?' I asked as we headed back towards Mikawa.
'The water came all the way up the valley and stopped at the car park. Some people weren't so lucky, though. You see these houses on the left? The first floors were completely underwater - some of them will have to be knocked down and rebuilt.'
In the onsen a little later I got talking to Kanezuka-san, who made his living as a piano tuner.
'My wife teaches the taishoh-goto in the building next door,' he said, 'and if the weather's bad I give her a lift from Niigata City.'
'What's a taishoh-goto?'
'You're not busy, are you?'
'Not at all. I was going to go back to my room and eat a Cup Noodle in front of the TV.'
'Well, I'll take you along and you can have a listen.'
As soon as we got to the classroom I was sat down in front of a taishoh-goto (大正琴), which is a modern version of the koto, a stringed instrument played horizontally like a lap steel (as opposed the shamisen / 三味線, which looks and plays more like a banjo). Mrs Kanezuka unearthed an English language song - The Sound Of Silence - and I was relieved to discover that I didn't have to be able read music to join in. Rather than frets, the taishoh-goto has numbered keys, so all you have to do is strum its closely bunched strings with a plectrum, and press 2 2 3 3 5 5 4 / 1 1 1 2 2 4 4 3 (or numbers to that effect) for 'Hello darkness my old friend / I've come to talk with you again'.
After performing a couple of songs they had been working on, the students plied me with snacks and drinks, and by about 8 o'clock, Kanazuka-san noticed that I was looking sleepy, and wished me luck before I made my excuses and went upstairs for that Cup Noodle.
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.