Alan Booth

Alan Booth moved to Japan in his twenties and lived here for more than half his life, until his untimely demise from cancer at the age of 46. On the face of it he would appear to have written just two books, and one of them was published posthumously, so there must be scope for a further collection of his journalism and travel writing, of which there was sufficient for him to earn a living (he doesn’t appear to have worked in any other capacity in Japan, apart from a brief stint as an English teacher when he first arrived here).

The Roads To Sata is Booth’s most well known book, but while the task he undertook in order to write it – namely, walking the entire length of Japan from its northernmost to southernmost points – is impressive, in my humble opinion, Looking For The Lost is a finer literary achievement. Most importantly, when he went on his first, epic trek, Booth had only been in the country for seven years, and while his Japanese was already very good and his grasp of the country’s culture wide-ranging, by the time he went on the three shorter walks on which Looking For The Lost is based, he had at least another fifteen years of linguistic expertise and cultural knowledge to draw upon. So while The Roads To Sata is an account of his travels from A to B, and largely concerns itself with the people he meets and the places he visits along the way, in Looking For The Lost he follows in the footsteps of three historical figures.

The first is Osamu Dazai, who was born into a rich family, became a famous writer and ended up committing suicide. The second is Saigo Takamori, who was a military and political luminary in Meiji times, but made a few enemies along the way and ended up dying in heroic and / or tragic (depending on how you look at it) samurai-style circumstances. And the third are the Heike, not so much a figure as a group of figures: a military clan who wielded power the best part of a thousand years ago, and who having been defeated were hounded from their homes, never to be seen again.

Dazai is a particularly interesting figure in relation to Booth, as both were prodigious drinkers. Booth is very much aware of this, and refers to a review of The Roads To Sata in which his journey was described as ‘a 2000-mile pub crawl’. Indeed, he appears to spend almost the entire time drunk, to the extent that you wonder a) how he managed to remember what happened while he was on his travels and b) how he managed to stay sober for long enough to write an entire book about them. The summer of his north-to-south walk appears to have been particularly hot – even in Hokkaido and by Japanese standards – so one has to assume that quite apart from being sunburned, bug-bitten and with blisters on his blisters, he must have been completely dehydrated from dawn until dusk, and for the entire six months the walk took him to complete. For Booth, drinking is as matter-a-fact a part of everyday life as breathing and eating, and in Looking For The Lost is referred to entirely casually: a few bottles of beer for lunch here, several flasks of saké for dinner there. Goodness knows, if he had managed to survive the cancer, liver failure would surely have picked him off before too long.

But anyway, while Dazai’s pub crawl took him round the northern tip of Honshu, through a bleak and remote region called Tsugaru that Booth makes no attempt at all to glamourise, Takamori’s journey was around Kyushu, which is a particularly attractive part of Japan. Perhaps the most interesting point raised by Booth’s account is that while Kyushu is by no means bleak, due to the inexorable shift in the Japanese population from the rural to the urban, it too is becoming remote – on one day of walking in particular, he sees an average of approximately one other human being per hour, most of whom are old enough to be retired. This was something I came across when I travelled around Hokkaido, where the population demographic is getting older and older, and whatever children there are disappear to live in Sapporo or Tokyo as soon as they get the chance.

While Takamori was no alcoholic, he makes an excellent starting point for Booth’s reflections on the Japanese psyche. Takamori was one of the last of the old-style samurai, and his character encapsulates many ironies and contradictions, the most amusing of which is the fact that he almost certainly suffered from a medical condition that made his testicles swell to an enormous size, to the extent that he had to be carried around by his minions on a sedan chair. Again, Booth’s writing here is greatly enhanced by the insight he has into the subtleties of Japanese history and culture.

I was reading an internet forum the other day in which Booth was criticised for a Theroux-esque tendency to complain about things and make bitchy comments about Japan and its people, and while it’s true that he does succumb at times to what one assumes was the fashionable travel writing style of the time, he of all people – rather than an ignorant first-timer with nothing but a Rough Guide and a beginner’s phrasebook in their backpack – has earned the right to be critical. Before following in Takamori’s footsteps, for example, he has read – in the original Japanese – pretty much every piece of biographical writing there is on his subject, to the extent that he is confident enough to suggest his own theories about exactly where Takamori went, how he went there and why. (Again, this is something that cannot be said of The Roads To Sata, and Booth backs up numerous theories that contradict the accepted Japanese view with hard evidence: for example, his etymological take on the word ‘kokeshi’ – the wooden dolls of Japanese children with pudding-bowl haircuts – is particularly fascinating, not to mention rather spooky, and by the by, draws on an excellent Japanese book that has been translated into English, Memories Of Silk And Straw by Junichi Saga.)

The Heike, though, are more elusive than either Dazai or Takamori, as there is little documentation about them, and in any case, their story is so old that it has long since begun to blur at the edges and to move into the realms of myth and legend (after less than a century, Booth notes that Takamori is already well on his way to being perceived as a myth – even a deity – rather than a real historical figure). What Booth teases out of this is a meditation on the relative transience of Japanese culture and its artifacts. While it is true to say there are very few old buildings in the country as a whole, Booth manages to track some down that date back hundreds of years, and whose thatched roofs and snake-ridden rooms serve as vital proof of Japan’s history, and as a bridge to its mythical past, which may or may not have been peopled by clans such as the Heike. (His questioning of the modern Japanese assertion that as a race they are somehow purer than those of most other nations is also worthy of examination, particularly for an outsider. I for one was unaware that besides the Ainu of Hokkaido, several other indigenous tribes pre-existed the Japanese race as we know it today.)

Oddly, one of the only jarring moments in Looking For The Lost is its reference on the final page to Booth’s fatal illness. I would be intrigued to read an account of his battle with cancer (although perhaps the confessional style didn’t suit his writing – Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, for example, is much more personal than either of Booth’s books), but the way in which he suddenly shoe-horns it into his conclusion rather detracts from what has come before.

It is of course ironic that Booth should have lived in a country with the longest life expectancy in the world, and whose excellent medical system is renowned for picking up serious illness early enough to enable successful treatment, when his own illness went undetected until it was too late. What a shame that he did not live to produce more great travel writing about the country that became his home.

The roads to Sado – Day 6

After the morning commute, there is a period of about four hours during which most of the buses on Sado are idle, so sleeping late rather scuppered my plans for sightseeing. After studying the timetable in some detail, I decided to head for Futatsugamé at the far north-eastern tip of the island (seen from above, Sado is shaped like a kind of laterally elongated figure of eight, with four corresponding ‘corners’), and after catching the bus from Sawata to Ryotsu, had to wait two hours for the bus along the coast towards Iwayaguchi. Not only that, but the last bus back from Futatsugamé to Ryotsu departed at 2.30, which meant a ratio of five and a half hours’ travelling to just one hour of sightseeing.

It was well worth the trouble, though, as Futatsugamé – not to mention the scenery along the way – was enchanting. The further along the coast we travelled, the narrower and more circuitous Route 45 became, and at Futatsugamé itself, there was a hotel, a campsite and very little else. From the bus stop, a path led down through the trees, and arriving at a headland at the far end of the campsite, this was the view – and the sign – that greeted me.

Based on its double-hump-backed profile, the name Futatsugamé (二ッ亀) means ‘two turtles’, and particularly on such a fine, still day, the narrow sand bar leading out to an idyllic island looked positively heavenly: like those metaphorical depictions of the afterlife in which one crosses over from the real world to an ethereal paradise. A few fellow tourists were relaxing on the beach or swimming in the sea, but I just sat in the shade of a tree and took a few photos, before climbing back up to the hotel, buying a drink from a vending machine and getting back on the bus.

Sitting across the aisle from me was Johannes, who I recognised as the same person that saved me from heading the wrong way out of Aikawa the previous afternoon. Johannes was gangly and almost hippy-ish, with thick-framed spectacles, a bandana and a long, frizzy ponytail. Originally from the old East Germany, he now lived in Kyushu and earned his living as a freelance writer.

‘This may sound like a stupid question, but what language do write in?’ I asked him.
‘English,’ he said. ‘I went to university in America and I used to show experimental films in a kind of road show. We travelled all over the place and I ended up writing a book about it. I had a proper job before I came to Japan, but now I write full time – I’m about to have a book published about North Korean cinema.’
‘I didn’t even know there was such a thing.’
‘That’s partly why came to Sado, to interview Charles Jenkins. He starred in a few North Korean films after he defected.’
‘You mean propaganda films?’
‘They were proper feature films, although he was always cast as the evil western bad guy. North Korea was part of a group of what used to call themselves “non-aligned” nations – they all made really boring films and showed them at each other’s festivals. I went to a festival in North Korea myself recently, although even now the western films they show are very “safe”.’
Johannes often writes about Japan for (you can find a brief biography and a selection of his other articles here), and with the eye of a true travel writer, as the bus wended its way back along the coast, he spotted a village with the intriguing name of Kuro-himé (黒姫 / Black Princess – purely out of curiosity, I later Googled the name and found out that in 1651, Kuro-himé had an official population of just six people, and even now is reputedly home to various ghosts and goblins). Back at Ryotsu, Johannes wished me luck with my own writing and went to catch the ferry to the mainland, while I waited for yet another bus to Sawata.

In keeping with my remedial grasp of mathematics, I had only just realised that I had five rather than four more days in which to make it back to Ibaraki (I left on the 21st and had to return on the 31st, which means ten days, right? Wrong!). Reasoning that it would be nice to have a day off before going back to work on 1st September, I booked in for just one more night at the campsite, and while I didn’t realise it at the time, this would prove to be a very wise decision indeed.

I was at the izakaya by eight o’clock as planned, and by way of indicating that I was the guest of honour, O-san me at the end of the bar and to his left, which was flattering but at the same time less than ideal, as it placed me downwind from an almost continuous fog of cigarette smoke (O-san was one of those chain smokers who is so anxious to start their next cigarette that they stub the previous one out when it is only half-finished). Presently we were joined not just by S-san, who sat at the opposite end of the bar, but by another S-san – let’s call him S-san II – who as O-san’s junior and S-san I’s superior, sat between the two of them.

S-san II was in his late forties or early fifties and what you might call well-groomed: he had a suspiciously flawless tan, his hair was dyed black and permed into a kind of semi-bouffant, and when he was pouring a drink he had the ladylike habit of extending his little finger away from the bottle. When he talked, though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Finchy from The Office: the nightmare sales rep and unreconstructed MCP.

‘I was out drinking the night before last,’ said S-san II, ‘and we ended up at a karaoké place with these girls. I can’t remember much after the first couple of songs because we were so drunk, but on the way back to the hotel I fell into a bloody rice field! My suit was absolutely covered in mud – I had to wash it in the bath – and I had my laptop with me as well. Lucky I didn’t drop that too.’

When S-san II found out that I was from England, he told me about a homestay trip during his student days.
‘I stayed with a family in Bournemouth,’ he said. ‘The worst thing was the hot water – you had to wait for it to heat up!’
‘I should think it was good for your English, though.’
‘Sort of. I could understand the children I was staying with, but I had no idea what their parents were talking about at all. A group of us hired a car and drove up to London – we went to that place…what was it called? You know, the one with all the strip clubs.’
‘Yes, Soho! We drove to Edinburgh, too, and it wasn’t as far as I thought – only took us about five hours.’
Somehow I had the feeling S-san II didn’t go to Edinburgh for the architecture, and as the evening progressed, I was worried that the three of them might decide to introduce me to some of their hostess friends and keep me boozing until the early hours. As it turned out, though, they were tired after a long day at work, and at 10pm O-san paid the bill as promised, and left me with his business card and a promise that he would be in touch the next time he visited the Hitachi branch of his kimono company.

Men of the year (sort of)

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 the Omiai Daisakusen spin-off from 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 (or Kinsuma 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…

End of an era

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 and soccer, 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:


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.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘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?



One thing I never got round to doing before I confessed to Mrs Muzuhashi that I’d be OK with the idea of moving to Japan, was to make a For and Against list of, er, Pros and Cons. Given my penchant for lists of all kinds (apart, that is, from those Saturday night TV epics along the lines of ‘The Fifty Greatest Car Chase Film Bloopers Starring Chevy Chase and Chris Tucker of All Time’), I may still get around to compiling this at some point, but for the moment, and while the memory of recent experience is still fresh in my mind, I’d like to pontificate on one particular Con, namely the flight – either to Japan from the UK, or vice versa.

Remember when you were a kid and being bored was the most easily replicable mental state in your entire repertoire? Remember how boredom could be almost physically painful? Remember double maths? Rainy Sunday afternoons? School trips to museums? Homework assignments? Shopping with parents and / or other relatives? Remember how boring those things were? Well, those of you who are already familiar with the joys of long-haul flights can skip the next paragraph or so, but for those of you who are not, trust me, being stuck on a plane for anything between ten and approximately fourteen hours is the equivalent of that excruciating childhood boredom multiplied to the power of a very large digit indeed, one that would contain so many noughts as to not fit on the screen of a calculator.

On the face of it, long haul shouldn’t be so bad. After all, what is there to worry about? So long as you’re not afraid of flying (which on reflection certainly wouldn’t make the flight boring, just very frightening for a sustained period of time), all you’ve got to do is settle down with a good book or two, a good magazine or two, a good film or two, and the hours will just fly by (so to speak). Right? Wrong. OK, so aeroplane entertainment systems are a good deal more sophisticated than they used to be (I’ll never forget flying with Aeroflot a few years ago, when the in-flight film was at least thirty years old: a kind of children’s fantasy in the vein of The Wizard of Oz, projected onto a single screen at the far end of the cabin), and on our BA flight a couple of weeks ago, we could watch recent release films, recent release films dubbed into Japanese, and various TV programmes, not to mention the now ubiquitous flight map, which I have seen some people glued to from take off to landing. We could also listen to a whole library of old and new music (see an upcoming blog entry for my reflections on the Stones’ Exile On Main Street) and play computer games. Add to that the newspapers, regular mealtimes, trips to the toilet and so on, and you might think I’d be able to stave off boredom pretty easily, but oh no.

It’s like…it’s like…how can I put it? One of the films I watched on this occasion was called Buried, and was about a guy who’s stuck in a coffin somewhere beneath the ground in Iraq. He spends the whole film there, with only a mobile phone and a cigarette lighter for company – it’s a pretty good film, get it out on DVD if you have the chance – and it made me think while I was watching it just how much being on a long-haul flight is like being buried alive in a coffin with only one’s wife and a digital entertainment system for company (although not necessarily in Iraq).

The first hour of the flight passes quickly, because you’re a bit nervous about the possibility of the plane exploding into a ball of fire and twisted metal during take off. In our case, this tension was exacerbated by the fact that the wings were frozen, and we had to wait for a guy to come and spray them with anti-freeze before we could join the queue for the runway (as the plane took off, you could see a green liquid the colour of Swarfega speading across the wings in the on-rushing, sub-zero, foggy air), but anyway, it still passed quickly, and I had leafed my way through the Guardian by the time we were in the air (I saved the crossword for later, and had yet another crossword for even later than that, saved from a couple of days beforehand).

The second hour also passes quickly, because you are either anticipating drinks, drinking drinks, eating nibbles, anticipating your meal, eating your meal (full marks to BA here, as there were more veggie options to choose from than meat ones, and I hadn’t even put in a request beforehand), digesting your meal, or going for your post-meal trip to the toilet.

The third hour is a breeze. There are so many menus, sub-menus and general bits and bobs to tinker with on the entertainment system that by the end of it, you’ve successfully managed to delay the moment when you watch your first film by…well, by an hour.

So, hours four and five are mostly taken up with said film – interspersed with perhaps another toilet trip and another drink or two – and you haven’t even bothered to check the time yet. Checking the time for the first time (if you’ll pardon the rather inept phraseology) is the key moment in any flight, and the longer you can put this off, the better. When you’ve got twelve hours or so to endure, I find the clock watching begins before the halfway point, which is a very cruel self-inflicted blow. Only five and a half hours gone, you realize, as you check the flight map and see that you’re still Somewhere Over Siberia – a state that you will continue be in for about two thirds of your time in the air, Siberia being such an inordinately big place to fly over – pausing only to have your mind boggled by the thought that the plane (a 747 in this case) is traveling at over one thousand kilometres per hour, before doing a double-take when you see that the Flight Time Elapsed figure is still inexplicably lower than the Flight Time Remaining figure.

This is like hitting the wall for a marathon runner. Or rather, it’s like hitting a wall, as there will be several more during the coming six and a half hours, because taking a long-haul flight is far more demanding even than running a marathon. Like the funny / spooky zoom / track shot from Jaws, time and space seem to warp and stretch before your very eyes. The flight literally feels like it’s never going to end. The thought of spending another six and a half hours cooped up in this confined space with only the latest Julia Roberts romantic comedy to watch between trips to the toilet and mealtimes induces a boredom so profound it is – to get back to our bored child simile – almost physically painful.

The irony is, even by the time the plane lands, although it will be confusingly early the next morning Japanese time, and therefore already daylight, in UK terms it will not be long past midnight. ‘Hey,’ you try to convince yourself, ‘what’s the big deal? I’ve stayed up after midnight watching crap films before, so I ought to be able to handle that once in a while, right?’ Wrong again.

I began watching the new-ish Stephen Frears film based on a Posy Simmonds graphic novel after approximately my tenth hour on board, and like Buried, it was a perfectly good film – decent actors, funny lines, nicely shot – but I almost couldn’t look at the screen I was in such agony. Every sinew of my body was screaming at me. I wanted to get up and run around the cabin screaming my head off – better still, to get up and run around the cabin with no clothes on and screaming my head off. I was trapped, I was confined, I was frustrated, I was BORED. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored (as Eddie once so memorably opined in an episode of Bottom). Mentally, I was twelve again, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, there was a homework assignment waiting to be done, and I’d already been forced to go shopping with my mum.

Quite apart from the fact that you get jet lag at the other end, that flying is very bad for the environment, and that it costs a fair old whack to buy a return ticket to Japan these days, long-haul flights are just boring. Excruciatingly, agonizingly, tormentingly, indefatigably boring, and there is no way round this problem. For as long as I live in Japan and bother to come back to the UK, I will have to put up with this, and I sense that it may get to the point where I begin to feel anxious about my next flight as soon as the most recent one is over, and much of the intervening year will be spent mentally bracing myself for the epic, transcendental, mind-boggling boredom of it all.



When you tell Japanese people that a British wedding can go on all day, or that an Outer Mongolian wedding can go on for five days (I’m making that example up, but you get the idea), they will look shocked and wonder how much like hard work it must be to get married or go to a wedding in the UK / Outer Mongolia. But for sheer, concentrated, intensive hard work, even at an average of less than three hours’ duration, nothing can compete with a Japanese wedding.

Mrs M and I went to one the other day – my first as a guest – and somehow it managed to be just as tiring as when we were the happy couple two years ago. I suppose part of the problem is that a Japanese wedding planner will try and cram everything that happens at an overseas wedding into a much shorter space of time, meaning there’s no time to relax, eat, chat with the other guests or generally let one’s hair down, and the couple themselves – in this case, two childhood friends of Mrs M’s – are more like performers in a West End musical, who have to deal with at least one costume change (and sometimes two), several different performance spaces (the chapel, the sweeping staircase outside, the grand entrance into the reception, the speeches and so on) and the whole gamut of emotions, from light humour to uncontrollable sobbing.

It didn’t help that the wedding in question was taking place in a venue that would have taken more than three hours to reach by a very roundabout train route, so that what we ended up doing was getting a lift from the bride- and groom-to-be (in fact they were already married in the legal sense, having held a small, family-only ceremony a few months ago), and being obliged to hang around in a shopping mall near the wedding venue for about four hours.

When we did finally arrive, the venue itself was a typically post-modern example of Japanese architecture. It was situated beside a nondescript dual carriageway with a large-ish car park at the front, which meant no direct pedestrian access, so that quite apart from dodging each other – such a venue deals with several ceremonies a day – the guests have to dodge a procession of vehicular comings and goings before making it through the front door. Once inside, there was a reception area where we waited for everything to kick off, and which was done up like a kind of spaghetti western theme pub, with wagon wheel wooden tables, a bar at one end, and amateur Canalletto-style paintings on the wall. As we sipped on our coffee and / or orange juice, we were encouraged to peruse two specially prepared photo albums, and to take part in a sweepstake to see if we could guess what colour the bride’s second dress of the day would be (it was purple – I guessed orange).

Having been told that the ceremony was about to commence, we made our way through a large courtyard, replete with free-standing faux Greco-Roman columns around five metres high (I tested their faux-ness with a rap of the knuckles, to be greeted by the tell-tale hollow sound of moulded fibreglass), a pond (although no fountain), and a very grand looking staircase leading up to the chapel, which was topped off not with a church spire but three minarets, painted blue and resembling those you might find on a mosque or a Russian orthodox church.

I had assumed that I would be the only foreigner present, but waiting at the top of the steps was a tall Caucasian man with a big nose and kind face, all dressed up as a priest, even though he was almost certainly not officially qualified to be one (moonlighting as such is a fairly common activity for white men in Japan, and pays rather well when you consider that including a rehearsal, it only takes up a couple of hours of your weekend). This faux-priest, who spoke with an English accent and had that authentically soft-spoken and effeminate air of a real-life vicar, spoke equal amounts of English and Japanese, although for the latter he had to consult a script, and his pronunciation was hard to follow. I was the only other person in the room who would have understood his English, but perhaps because they have grown accustomed to Western filmic and televisual depictions of church weddings, many Japanese have embraced the idea that a sprinkling of ‘Do you take this man?’s and ‘You may kiss the bride’s will enhance their wedding experience (I suppose it is no more odd than Catholics listening to Latin).

When the bride entered the room and walked along what was described in phonetically transliterated terms as the ‘virgin road’, her father, bless him, was already in tears, and this was partly due, I suspect, to the fact that like almost everything else that was to happen during the course of the afternoon, his duties were accompanied by a heart-wrenching musical backdrop. In the chapel, there were four very skilled musicians – two singers, a violinist and an organist (the entire back wall of the chapel was taken up with what may or may not have been a working pipe organ), who performed a selection of western classics and Japanese film music, and once we had made it downstairs into the reception venue, hardly five minutes would go by without a J-pop ballad or a sentimental popular classical piece surging to its climax in the background, to induce floods of tears from everyone present.

The chapel’s stucco walls were adorned with several faux-gilt picture frames, and before the couple walked back down the aisle, they paused to stick a small brass plaque engraved with their names into the next available space in the most recent frame. Like several other rituals at the wedding, this was not something I had ever seen before, and seemed as if it had been made up in a particularly caffeine-fuelled brainstorming session, simply to give the couple something else to do: even more so than the guests, the two of them had not a single second of down time in which to collect their thoughts, and on reflection, the wedding as a whole was like the kind of game show challenge of which the Japanese are very fond, and contained almost nothing of traditional or religious significance (the only religious elements were Christian, and as Mrs M pointed out, neither the bride, the groom nor their families have the slightest interest in Christianity, and are in no danger of being converted any time soon).

After a photo call, during which we got to shower the couple with real flower petals and the bride threw not one but three bouquets into the crowd (why three? This seemed to entirely detract from the suspense of finding out who will do the catching), the reception proceeded to a strict timetable. There was the cutting of the cake, which involved not just the bride and groom feeding each other, but the bride and groom feeding their mothers too – a particularly undignified thing for such demure, kimono-clad and clearly emotional women to have to endure. There was the ‘candle service’, another Japanese concoction, which involves the bride and groom brandishing a metre-long, sword-shaped cigarette lighter, visiting each table-full of guests in turn and lighting the candle thereon. There were a grand total of three videos, shown when the couple were changing clothes or had left the room for some other reason, and when the guests were supposed to be eating, so that I ended up leaving half of my food untouched, as I was too busy trying to read the on-screen text. There was the point towards the end of the reception when the bride read out a letter to her parents, thanking them for bringing her up, always being there to help her and so on, directly after which, her and her new husband presented each of their respective mothers with a teddy bear of exactly the same weight as they were when they were born (did the bears come in different sizes, I wondered, or did they contain some kind of lead ballast depending on how many kilogrammes were required?), thus lending a surreal twist to what should have been the afternoon’s emotional climax. Most bizarre of all, there was a ritual where the bride and groom poured the contents of two large bottles of dry ice into what must have been a substitute for one of those champagne tower-type things, so that a Top of the Pops-style fog cascaded down towards the floor.

Aside from all of this oddness, however, and even allowing for the cinematically manipulative aspects of the wedding’s presentation, it was still a genuinely moving experience, and for some reason the first time in my life that I had been struck by the true symbolic power of the institution of marriage. True, at a British wedding there is all the usual talk of parents seeing their child fly the nest, but Japanese families somehow seem to be closer: many children still live at home until they get married, and even if they don’t, they seem to have a more authentically sentimental view of the magic of childhood, and what it means for this to have finished irrevocably. Perhaps it is because Mrs M and I are still comparative newlyweds, and haven’t been to anyone else’s wedding since our own, or perhaps it is because I have been particularly affected on this visit to Japan by how close and happy Mrs M’s family are, and become more aware than ever of how I have symbolically stolen her away from them. In any case, the speeches were the one aspect of the day that could not be manipulated or turned into some kind of endurance test, and although I didn’t understand all of what was said – in fact, because much of the language was repetitive, dealing as it often did with the polite affirmation that the happy couple should be wished well in their quest to build a happy family together, I found it difficult to pay attention the longer things went on – this didn’t seem to matter.

One aspect of the wedding that was very traditional was the fact that both the bride and groom’s work colleagues took pride of place at the front row of tables (the couple were at a table facing their guests, and their families were relegated to the back of the room), and the first two speeches came from their respective superiors. The groom’s boss – from what, as far as I could make out, was the software division of an electronics company – was nervous, hesitant and consequently easier to understand. He also stuck to a quite formal assessment of his colleague, whereas the bride’s boss – from a local bank – was more confident, spoke more quickly, and had a more anecdotal approach. Among other things, he praised the bride for her ability to remember her colleague’s birthdays, as well as providing the one bona fide awkward moment of the day, by confessing that he and several other male members of staff still had photos on their mobile phones of the time when the bride dressed up in a French maid costume for a promotional event at the bank.

The groom’s best friend from university had a torrid time, partly because he was nervous (approximately three seconds into his attempt to recite his speech from memory, he gave up and fished a cheat sheet from his suit pocket), and partly because he stood up to the microphone just as the starters were being served. I congratulated him at the end of the day as we stood next to each other in the queue for the cloakroom, but to be honest, I had barely been able to hear or understand any of his speech. Four of the bride’s best friends from junior high school, meanwhile, were clever enough to spread their first-night nerves around, and stood in a line, each saying a few words in turn, so that while they were all crying, they at least had some moral support to help them through the experience.

Even with moral support of my own in the form of Mrs M, by the end of the day – that is after four hours in a shopping mall and just three hours at the wedding venue – I was absolutely exhausted. The other guests at our table were a couple with a young son who burst into tears at the sight of his favourite auntie in her wedding garb, and had to be driven off by his mum to the aforementioned shopping mall to calm down, leaving us with only his dad to talk to. My one brief opportunity to relax was when one of the bride’s uncles came over to talk to me about cycling (a small description of everyone present was included in the seating plan), so that by the end of the afternoon, it felt as if I had not been the guest at a wedding but an extra for a particularly arduous day’s filming on a soap opera or drama series. Mrs M and I had planned to go back to the shopping mall and have puri-kura photographs taken of us in our formal wear, but in the end were glad to be driven straight back home by her elder brother, who had very kindly knocked off work early to save us the further endurance of a three-hour-plus train journey to round off the day.



Tatémaé (建前), also known as jotoshiki (上棟式) or munéagé (棟上), and not to be confused with the more familiar meaning of the same Japanese word (建前or sometimes 立前: one’s public face as opposed to one’s real feelings or opinions), is a traditional Shinto ritual to bless a newly built house and, presumably, the people who will live in it. It is not such a common practice these days, as evidenced by a somewhat cursory entry in Japanese Wikipedia, but a tetemae was held at Mrs M’s family home when it was built (ie. several years before she was born), and the tatémaé to which we were invited last weekend was to be the first she herself had attended for at least a decade.

Mrs M’s mother has about ten brothers and sisters, so there is no shortage of cousins to go round, and one of them has been through something of an upheaval of late. Apparently, the cousin’s husband moved out of the house they shared with their two children and her parents, although their differences now appear to have been patched up, because, like many other Japanese families, rather than buying a house second hand, as it were, they have bought the land instead and are building on it, with the help of one or two relatives who also happen to work in the building trade.


We drove to the parents’ house early on Sunday afternoon, and spent half an hour being plied with food and drink (unfortunately, we had just eaten a hearty home-cooked lunch with Mrs M’s parents, and left most of it untouched). In his broad Ibaraki accent, grandad regaled us with tales of his round-the-world trip on a tuna fishing boat (‘When I went to South Africa,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t even go for a beer! There was a sign on the door saying, “No one with yellow skin allowed”!’ – apparently, the children and grandchildren have heard the same story on numerous occasions), and teased Mrs M about the fact that she hasn’t been tough enough to stick it out in the UK, and is dragging me back to Japan with her. Then at around three o’clock, wrapped up against the cold in coats, gloves and hats, we drove the kilometre or so along the road to his daughter and son-in-law’s new home.

Tatémaé takes place not when the building is ready to be lived in, as I had supposed, but when its wooden frame has been completed, and it is still possible to stand on what will later become the first floor, with no walls as yet to obstruct the view. When we arrived, a rudimentary flagpole was being erected on the uppermost roof beam – the erection of which is the signal for tatémaé to begin – and approximately twenty-five cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes were being lifted one by one via a ladder to the first floor. By now a large crowd had gathered – getting on for a hundred people, by my reckoning – some of them relatives, some friends, some neighbours, and others simply curious passers by.


A friend of Mrs M’s told us later that the god being appeased on the occasion of a tatémaé is female, and would be offended by the presence in the house of other women, so only men and boys had been allowed to climb the ladder, at the top of which a large bottle of sake was being opened. Some of its contents were sprayed, champagne-like, over the the timber frame of the house (one or two of the men also had a quick tipple), but besides this there were no prayers or religious rites, just the flinging of the entire contents of all those boxes into the waiting crowd. Children had been allowed to stand at the front, with the rest of us slightly further back, everyone carried in their hands a bag of some sort, and what ensued was a complete free-for-all. No quarter was given by anyone, from the youngest elementary school child to the oldest grandparent, with everyone thrusting their hands in the air to catch whatever was flying through it, and then scrambling about on the bare earth to grab whatever had not been caught – everything from rice cakes hand made by the family the previous day, to instant noodles, sweets, crisps, biscuits, even coins. At one point, I looked around from taking a photo to see a boy of perhaps ten years old lying on the bare earth and groaning. He appeared to have been hit in the head – either by a flying projectile or a flailing limb – and it took several seconds before anyone could drag their attention away from the festivities for long enough to check that he wasn’t seriously injured (he was up and about again minutes later, bag in hand and hungry for more freebies).


Variations of tatémaé involve the erection of a small, temporary shrine on the unfinished building, but Mrs M’s relatives knew what their public wanted, and that it’s a lot more fun to get stuck in and grab a load of free food than it is to waste time saying prayers. The only thing I could compare it to was a festival that used to be held in my home town, whereby a select group of middle school children – I was invited to attend just once – was led to a spot on the main street where a local stream known as the leat gurgled up from the gutter like a lonely water feature. Here, after a few boring speeches, possibly by the mayor and a headmaster or two, a shower of coppers – half-pee, one-pence and two-pence pieces – was thrown into the crowd of children and fought over until they had all been claimed. In the aforementioned Wikipedia entry, something called ‘topping out’ is mentioned as a British tradition that serves the same purpose as tatémaé, but the wholesale gift giving of the latter seems to be peculiarly Japanese, and if nothing else, serves as a pretty good way of ingratiating yourself with your new neighbours.


Having taken a few photographs, I waded into the fray for the final few minutes, and managed to snatch a couple of bags of crisps, a few rice cakes and some satsumas (which were thrown with rather less ferocity by a group of women at ground level), and discovered that Mrs M had accumulated quite a haul. At one point, she said, a somewhat unyielding box of curry stock cubes had hit her on the head, and she in turn had lashed out unwittingly with a swipe of the hand at a nearby OAP, but both of them appeared to be happy and injury free, so it was a successful day all round. Once the last cardboard box had been emptied, the men and boys came down from the first floor of the building, the crowd began to disperse, and the next day, work would begin in earnest on applying some flesh to the bones of this half-finished but now fully blessed house.

Exile On Main Street

Because of the background noise, which necessitates turning the volume up in one’s headphones to potentially damaging levels, I tend to avoid listening to music – or indeed watching too many films – when flying, but as I was shuffling through the iTunes-style album list on my entertainment console thingy on the flight to Japan, I was tempted into the metaphorical dusting off of a timeless classic. Ever since I inherited a battered old copy from my father – on double-vinyl and in a gatefold sleeve held together with sellotape – Exile On Main Street has officially been in my Top Five Best Albums Of All Time (along with Something / Anything, Pink Moon, Blood On The Tracks and possibly Kid A, Blue or Coltrane’s Ballads, although I would need to do a bit of research to tell you for sure), and listening to it once more – for the first time ever on headphones, I think – merely served to confirm this.

From the moment the horn section comes in about halfway through Rocks Off (under no circumstances to be confused with the Primal Scream track of the same name – of which more later), you somehow know that you are in the presence of greatness, and while almost every subsequent track seems to sound roughly the same, there is barely a second over the course of around seventy minutes of music where the quality of the music drops below superlative.

It’s funny, because the Stones were often seen as a poor man’s Beatles, but despite producing probably hundreds of classic songs, I would argue that the Beatles never made an album as good as Exile. The Stones too have essentially always worked better as a singles band, but on this particular occasion, everything came together to produce – and this, I believe, is the acid test for anything that dares to call itself a ‘classic’ – something timeless, something that seemed to exist outside the era in which it was produced, and which continues to reside there, never sounding tired or dated.

Alan Yentob dedicated an episode in his Imagine series to Exile this year, to showcase some recently unearthed cine film and audio out-takes from the recording of Exile (there is now the inevitable reissue with ‘bonus’ tracks, which I shall not be paying money for, or possibly even listening to at all, for there is no better way to spoil something you love than to have to endure it unedited, before the artist in question applied their discretion, good taste and artistic ability to shaping it into the finished artifact), and although the documentary was rather dull, it did shed enough light onto the recording process to confirm the old adage that creative excellence often arises out of adversity.

After years of being ripped off by various managers and accountants, the Stones relocated to the south of France for the inevitable ‘tax purposes’ in the early seventies, and rigged up a mobile recording studio next to Keith Richards’ villa in Villefranche Sur Mer. Although Richards was living there with his wife and young child, this didn’t seem to prevent the place from turning into a full-time party venue, with all kinds of musicians, hangers-on, groupies and drug dealers wandering in and out at all times of the day and night. Not only that, but the recording itself took place in the damp, dingy, poorly lit and poorly wired basement, where it was difficult for the musicians to see and hear what each other was doing. The magic, though, was in the timing, and at this point, the Stones’ ability as songwriters and musicians, the recording quality and techniques on hand, and the general atmosphere and ambience – both around the world and in that particular out-of-the-way corner of Europe – combined and converged at just the right moment.

While most of the songs on Exile sound deceptively similar, oddly, they sound completely different from anything the Stones have done before or since, and Richards in particular managed to conjure up a uniquely dense and satisfyingly swampy sound. It is blues-ey (the version of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down – quite apart from being spectacularly good, and a showcase for some of the best slide guitar playing ever committed to vinyl by a white man – is one of only two cover versions on the album, and manages to fit seamlessly into the overall feel), and obviously it is rocky (the only thing that still jars when I listen to Exile is the chorus of Soul Survivor, which sounds uncannily similar to a number of Richards’ other signature rock riffs), but it is a million miles away from the southern-fried, Black Crowes-style sound that the aforementioned Primal Scream were copying so slavishly – and pointlessly – in their post-Screamadelica period.

Obviously there are the horns, which on countless occasions match Stevie Wonder, Al Green or James Brown for their infectious originality. Then there are the guitars, at least three of which appear to be being played at any one point in the record, but without ever sounding intrusive (there are also, mercifully, no cock-rock, gurning-face, five-minute guitar solos anywhere on the record – the longest goes on for probably four bars). There is Jagger’s singing, whose ‘Aah wuz baahwun in a crassfaah hurricayeen!’ cod-American-ness just this once doesn’t grate, possibly because it is further down in the mix than usual (on a level playing field with the morass of other competing musical elements, in fact), or possibly because his often misogynistic lyrics are largely incomprehensible, aside from the odd snatched phrase (‘got to scrape the shit right off your shoes’ springs to mind as a good example of something that stands out but doesn’t necessarily insult fifty per cent of the human race). There is his harmonica playing, too, which is superb, and which I almost hadn’t noticed before (isn’t it funny how, given the time to play music every day, professional musicians with a bit of talent seem to be able to turn their hand to almost any instrument?). There are the backing vocals, as good as any soul record, and containing complex enough three-part harmonies that you never get bored of trying to join in. There is Charlie Watts’ drumming, which is as deceptively simple – and therefore underrated – as Ringo Starr’s (another recent documentary, this time in the Classic Albums strand, made a brilliant argument for Ringo’s talent, as showcased on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band). And all of these elements combine to form an endlessly fascinating whole, something which, as I have already implied, is like the aural equivalent of wading through a swamp: hot, sweaty, dense, disorientating and colourful.

The basic formula for the eighteen songs goes like this: start off with a riff or a groove of some sort, usually a simple guitar line, but sometimes percussion or ensemble driven. Keep the first verse fairly low key, and probably the first chorus and second verse too. During the second chorus, herald in the horn section with a killer drum break and perhaps some extra backing vocals. Drive the song onwards and upwards, and then fade out early enough to leave the listener wanting more.

It sounds simple, but like I say, no one has ever done it this well, and nor were the Stones to do so again, as they plodded on to become little more than a lumbering, stadium rock parody of themselves. Again, it is a telling point that none of the songs from Exile – apart from Tumbling Dice, which was the only single, a minor hit by the Stones’ standards and little known among the general record-buying public – ever makes it onto Best Of compilations, and this, I believe, is because the album stands apart from the rest of their output. It functions as a work of art in itself, not as a disparate collection of unrelated songs, and while almost every one of those songs is superb, it really is the fact that they have been recorded together and collected on the same album that makes them great. Exile On Main Street is, to coin a cliché, even better than the sum of its parts, and something that I was more than happy to risk exacerbating my tinnitus with by listening to at dangerously high volume on BA flight 0005 to Tokyo Narita.

From the archives


From an unspecified newspaper on an unspecified date – probably more than a decade ago – and found while sifting through boxes of mementos in preparation for The Big Move:

Howling Mistake

A woman had to be taken to hospital after she saw a body slowly rising from a coffin on a rubbish tip on a dark October evening, Winsford magistrates court heard yesterday.

Mrs Doreen Power, aged 43, of Middlewich, Cheshire, twice had to be given oxygen by ambulancemen after seeing unemployed William Neville Davies, aged 18, of Nixon Drive, Winsford, rise zombie-like from the coffin, howling eerily, Mr Derek Freeman, prosecuting, told the court.

Mr Davies pleaded guilty to causing a breach of the peace and was bound over for 12 months to the sum of £50.

Mrs Power had gone to Winsford tip with her husband Frederick to dump some rubbish.

Mr Quentin Querelle, defending, said that Mr Davies had intended the prank for a friend and did not realise that Mr and Mrs Power were approaching.

‘He says he is very sorry and hopes never to see the inside of a coffin for many years to come.’

From the archives II


Hunt for video game loser who left home

Police last night stepped up a hunt for Mr John Chandler, aged 35, who stormed out of his home in Reading, Berkshire, after a Star Raiders video game beat him.

Mrs Linda Chandler said yesterday her husband had been playing the Atari video game last Tuesday. ‘He was getting soundly beaten and became very angry. He kicked over a tray of tea cups and was very ratty. Soon after, he got in the car and drove off. I have not heard from him since. I am very worried and want him to come home.’ She said at the guest house which the couple run in London Road.