Dateline: Japan, 2002. The Three Wise Monkeys of Nikko are legendary for seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil. A good example for an australopithecine arts critic, so here's just the good stuff I saw (and ate) when The Belated Birthday Girl and I visited Japan.
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 25/05/2002
My love for Hong Kong has been documented elsewhere on this site. As I'm incredibly shallow, it's a love fuelled by a combination of yummy food, outlandish movies and tacky pop music. And the same applies to Japan, if I'm honest about it. But in HK, thanks to our shameful colonial past, an English speaker can still visit there and get around with no trouble whatsoever. With Japan, the language and cultural barriers have always put me off going there.
Until now, thanks to The Belated Birthday Girl. She's visited Japan a couple of times, once on a five-month tour of the whole country, and has spent the last couple of years taking evening classes in the language. Best of all, she fancies me something rotten. (And vice versa, naturally.) So in the Spring of 2002 - carefully timed to coincide with the cherry blossom season - I visited Tokyo and Kyoto for the very first time, with the BBG acting as guide, translator and tea-lady. Hey, when in Rome...
The holiday video is on the way, of course: both the BBG and myself were carrying DV cameras for the whole fortnight, and Spank's Pals can expect to have the finished movie - working title Tokyoto - inflicted on them some time later this year. But in between the holiday snaps and the tourist traps, there was the usual arts review agenda to pursue. Musically, there's a lot going on: so much so that I've decided to rip out all the music stuff into a separate article, J-Pop Jamboree. As for other media... well, here we go.
Inevitably, movies were a high priority for both of us. However, unlike Hong Kong, there aren't too many concessions made for the non-Japanese speaker who wants to watch Japanese movies. Apart from a couple of venues specifically aimed at Western tourists, you won't find any subtitled prints being shown. Unfortunately, there were two films we had to see - current releases by two of Japan's hottest directors - whether they had subtitles or not. Luckily, one of them was a children's cartoon and the other was a violent musical, so we got by without understanding any dialogue.
The Happiness Of The Katakuris is the latest by festival favourite Takashi Miike, or at least it was at the time of writing: for the last few years he's been churning out his bizarre genre variations at the rate of half a dozen or so a year, which means that any international film festival worth its salt will have a couple of his movies in there. (For example, Dead Or Alive 2 and Ichi The Killer at last year's London Film Festival.) Miike's grasp on reality can be thin at the best of times, but this may well be his strangest film yet. It's the story of the Katakuri family, who own a guest house in the middle of nowhere. It has next to no visitors, and whenever any show up they're normally dead within hours. In between burials, the Katakuris cheer themselves up with a sequence of fun song and dance numbers.
At a time when the musical is making a comeback in a variety of warped ways - Moulin Rouge, the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling - it's good to see another attempt at breathing life into the form. Unfortunately, it's a little let down by the songs, which aren't especially memorable - though that may be down to not understanding the words. But no matter: there are lots of great sight gags on offer, and visual gimmicks like the use of claymation (for the more outrageously violent scenes) keep it all fizzing along. Metro Tartan have picked Katakuris up for release in the UK along with half a dozen early Miike classics, so you should get to see it eventually. Meanwhile, Miike is still cranking them out: the screening we attended was accompanied by a trailer for his next film, a shot-on-video gangster thriller which appears to be called Thank You And Fuck You. Whereas Katakuris is probably the most tasteful and charming film of Miike's career, TY&FY's trailer is just a 90 second montage of exit wounds.
It's embarrassing to report that Katakuris - reliant as it was on violent action, broad comedy and musical production numbers, the Esperanto of international cinema - was easier to follow than Spirited Away, the latest children's cartoon from animation genius Hayao Miyazaki. Although as ever with Miyazaki, there's too much going on here to dismiss the film as mere kiddy fodder. So while I'll leap up and down praising it here, I should point out that I probably didn't get the full story from just the images. The BBG managed to understand more than me, given that she's got some experience of the language: I didn't even pick up half the character names, so I still have to refer to people like The Evil Thatcher-Faced Bird-Woman in conversations.
Spirited Away is the story of a little girl called Chihiro, whose parents are turned into pigs during their visit to a literal ghost town, and her adventures there while trying to work out how to turn them back. Putting the language barrier to one side, it looks a treat. It's a free-wheeling fantasy in the style of My Neighbour Totoro, but with a much darker edge to it - there's as much vomit and excremental imagery in this film as in your average Peter Greenaway movie. It's also the most Japanese of Miyazaki's features, unlike the pseudo-European settings of Porco Rosso or Kiki's Delivery Service: young Chihiro spends a large part of the movie working in The Evil Thatcher-Faced Bird-Woman's traditional Japanese bathhouse, a setting that wouldn't work anywhere else. In the end, the Roald Dahl-esque moral comes through loud and clear, whatever the language: Chihiro is nice to everyone and isn't greedy, and that's why she succeeds. The visual imagination in every frame is incredible, particularly in the detailed design of all the different monsters inhabiting the town. If you want to know any more than that, you'll have to wait till I see it again when it's released in the UK by Pathe, or when I pick up the DVD that's released in Japan this summer. And I will.
There was one major advantage of being accompanied by The Belated Birthday Girl on this trip: no, not that one - she always made sure that I ate properly. I generally treat food as a low priority on a holiday, skipping meals occasionally or eating total junk. But the BBG refuses to fall for that line about my long-term research project on Cultural Differences Between McDonalds In Foreign Parts. As a result, we got to visit a wide variety of restaurants in Tokyo, Kyoto and the outlying areas. Here she is in a different typeface to tell you all about them.
Japan is a really good place for eating out. In London you can eat very well these days, but you have to pay a lot for it. In Japan, you can eat very well cheaply or eat well very cheaply, at least if you stick mostly to Japanese food. And if you want to try different Japanese food, where better to do it? This is just a selection of the places where we ate. All the prices are in Yen, and there were around 180 Yen to the pound when we were there, to give you an idea of costs.
Madonna - B2 Hilton Plaza, 1-8-16 Umeda, Osaka
When people think of Japanese food, most people will probably think of sushi. One type of Japanese food which you don't often find outside Japan is okonomiyaki. Often described as the Japanese pizza, it's more like a cross between omelette and pancake. You sit either at a counter with a large hotplate in front of you or at a table with a hotplate in the middle, and you get some batter and filling ingredients ("okonomiyaki" means something along the lines of "whatever you want"), and they're mixed together and cooked in front of you. Sometimes you're left to cook it yourself. Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki, so it seemed like a good idea for a lunch option. Madonna was a pleasant place for this, in the lower basement of the Hilton Plaza, conveniently close to Osaka JR station, and with an English menu. At Madonna we had it cooked for us at the counter. It makes a perfect lunch - though it can be a little light for dinner - and at 4,100 Yen for two (with a soft drink each) it's a reasonable option too.
Kashinten - Kaburen-jyo sagaru, Pontocho san-jyo, Kyoto
Traditional Japanese cuisine can be a bit daunting, especially if you can't read a Japanese menu. And it can also be somewhat expensive. So Kashinten is somewhere I'd recommend very highly. Situated in the atmospheric Pontocho district of Kyoto, Kashinten gives a modern take on the traditional Kyoto version of kaiseki cuisine (Kyo-Ryori). Kaiseki is where you are served course after course - one may be boiled, another raw, another deep-fried, another grilled - and so on, all immaculately presented, often in a very rarefied atmosphere. At Kashinten the atmosphere is much more modern and relaxed, but the food is as immaculately presented. They have different priced set meals, from 3,000 yen to 7,000 yen (or you can order a-la carte). You can easily expect to pay twice that for proper Kyo-Ryori. And there are English speaking staff and an English menu. The motto on their business card is “We serve 'taste' with our heart”, which is kind of sweet, too. We spent 8,800 Yen for two (with beer). A good place for anyone who wants to try out this sort of food, but doesn't want to take the risk on a full scale kaiseki experience.
Tohokenbunroku - 3-6-7 Shinjuku, Tokyo
Another type of eaterie in Japan is the izakaya. Often described as the Japanese equivalent to a pub, I like to think of it more as a Japanese tapas bar - somewhere where you buy a variety of small dishes to accompany drinks. There are a vast range of types of izakaya, from small local ones, presided over by a mama-san, to large impersonal beer-hall chains. Tohokenbunroku was a very stylish member of a small chain, with subdued lighting and private tatami booths, overlooking a crushed green glass pond. The speciality, food-wise, was yakitori, skewers of grilled chicken, though they had lots of other things (mostly on skewers). The only drawback was there was no English menu. And none of the staff who served us spoke a noticeable amount of English. I can read enough Japanese to negotiate a menu in broad terms, and could tell that a whole section was grilled chicken, but as to what the difference between the dishes was, I was lost. Still, we did have the entertainment of our waitress miming the different parts of the body to let us know that one was skin, one was thigh… The food was excellent and the atmosphere lovely. The cost was a little higher than many places - we spent 6,000 Yen for two, including beers - but it was well worth it.
Vingt² -1-6-7 Shibuya, Tokyo
A lot of Japanese food seems to come in little bits. Sushi, obviously. But there's lots of food on sticks. Yakitori, as mentioned before, is very common, and there are places that serve deep-fried bits on sticks called kushiage, and yet others called kushikatsu, where the bits are coated in crumbs before the deep-frying. But Vingt² serves a variation called kushiyaki, where the sticks are grilled over a wood fire. The food was done as well as anything I've eaten in Japan, and the atmosphere - lots of polished wood - is very pleasant. We spent 4,300 Yen for two, with beers - to fill up we probably should have had a few more sticks, but this is somewhere I'd be keen to go back to. And it is very convenient for the little indie cinema where we watched The Happiness Of The Katakuris.
Tenmaru - 6-9-2 Ginza, Tokyo
After sushi, probably the best known type of Japanese food is tempura, where food (usually fish and vegetables) is coated in a light batter and deep-fried. You'll find cheap versions of this galore, but it's worth paying a bit more to get it done really well. Though there are really top-end places, we decided that Tenmaru would suit us. The tempura is cooked freshly and brought to you as each few items become ready. You can go for a set course, or order a-la carte - we decided on the set courses. You get a bowl of dipping sauce, and a pile of salt, and you dip your items in one or the other. There's an English menu, and the tempura there was perfectly done. Definitely worth the 6,700 Yen for two, with beers.
Kawamura - Higashioji Dori, Gion, Kyoto
I said before there were lots of different types of izakaya. Well, Kawamura is more the small, basic type: though it appears to be part of a small chain, according to the business card, and seems to specialise in chanko-nabe (the big stew dish eaten by sumo wrestlers). Though this didn't really stand out from the normal run of izakayas (apart from the large figure of a sumo wrestler above the door), that was part of the idea of going there, to get a much more typical experience. Surprisingly this place had an English menu, though the owner, who was very friendly and helpful, did explain that it was old and not all items on it were available, so I used the Japanese menu too, and between the two we got by. All in all we spent around 4,000 Yen, and it was a more than acceptable last evening's dining in Japan.
Of course, we were still just tourists at the end of the day. But any tourist with a half-decent supply of information can find things to do off the well-worn track. For example: when you arrive in Kyoto, there are adverts everywhere for Universal Studios Japan, which opened up there recently. But why would you want to go there, when Japan's own Kyoto Studio Park is open to the public nearby? It's run by Toei Studios, which used to be one of the major players in Japanese film production, but now appears to spend most of its time churning out period drama for TV. If you've ever visited a Hollywood studio tour, this is basically the same thing but with a uniquely Japanese spin. The backlot is laid out like a full-size Edo period town, with sets and costumes from old Toei productions. Sideshows abound where the kids can play with green screen special effects, or throw ninja stars at targets for prizes. Where Universal has a Wild West stunt show, Toei has the Super Ninja Show, in which all the old martial arts movie cliches are wheeled out on stage for your entertainment. There's only one attraction that's based on a specific film, but it's a doozy: a haunted house based on the characters and themes from the international hit horror movie Ring. To say much about what happens would spoil it, but here's a hint: when they say 'last seven days' on the poster, they don't mean the haunted house's last seven days. They mean yours.
The other thing tourists should do is keep their ears to the ground for any special events that are on during their visit. The best sources for that sort of information are the listings magazines: the freesheet Metropolis in Tokyo, and Kansai Time Out in Kyoto. This was how we got to hear about Robodex, a robotics exhibition held in Yokohama at the end of March. "The goal of ROBODEX is to provide people with 'love' and 'dream' through robots and to realize a society where humans and robots cohabit with each other," says the website. So, none of your killer mechas here: the emphasis was on fun and practicality (though try telling that to the freaked-out small children I saw dotted around the arena). Honda's Asimo was easily the star of the show, presumably because it was the most humanoid on display: there were always crowds around when it was showing off its walking and dancing skills. Sony's Ai-Bo dog came a close second, but that's only to be expected in a country that worships cuteness as much as this one. There were also saxophone-playing robots (triggered by keyboard), mine-detecting robots, and lots of small toy ones for the kids to play with. Given the general level of fascination and love in the room for these creations, you couldn't really get an experience more traditionally Japanese than this.
But one of the real highlights of the holiday was a day trip to the town of Takarazuka on the last day of our holiday. Takarazuka is famous for two things, really. First off, it's the home of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum. Tezuka's name may not be instantly recognisable in the West, but his work certainly is: creator of Astro Boy, writer of the Kimba The White Lion series that was subsequently ripped off by Disney for The Lion King, and artist on countless highly-regarded Japanese comic books. (His take on Metropolis was made into a quirky animated movie by Rintaro as recently as 2001.) Tezuka was born here, and his memory is well served by this museum, which features a large collection of his work in a confusingly laid-out building (it wasn't until after we'd left that we realised we'd missed a screening room which had several of his anime works on a continuously projected loop). There's a little too much Astro Boy stuff in here for my taste - mind you, his birth date in the series was April 7th 2003, so they're obviously gearing up for a major revival soon. But you also get biographical snippets, lots of original art (including some fascinating insect sketches from Tezuka's childhood), a library full of international translations and assorted interactive displays, including the inevitable workshop where kiddies can try doing animation for themselves.
But when you mention Takarazuka to a Japanese resident, there's really only one thing that comes to mind: the Takarazuka Flower Troupe. The story is legend: tycoon Kobayashi Ichizu was building a railway and needed something at the far end that would make people want to travel. He came up with the terrific idea of inverting the concept of kabuki theatre, an all-male form. So every year, thousands of people flock to Takarazuka to see women dressing up as men and performing in the most lavishly costumed musical shows on the planet. And I mean flock: three hours before the start of the show, women were queueing in the streets outside the stage door to catch a glimpse of their favourite performers. It's a predominantly female fanbase: in the West, this would be a Mecca for lovers of camp, but here the only guys I saw in the audience were miserable ones who'd obviously been dragged out there by their girlfriends and wives. I made eye contact with some of them occasionally and had to affect a 'yeah, I know, what does she see in them?' pose, in order to disguise the fact that I was having an insanely wonderful time.
The programme we saw consisted of two one-act pieces. The first half was a hugely melodramatic 'musical roman' entitled In The Amber Hue Rain, a post-WWI romantic tale featuring a duke and a gigolo battling over the same woman - all three played by women, of course. The second half was entitled Cocktails A La Carte, a crazed musical revue vaguely based around on the subject of booze. Without the constraint of a story to work to, this was obviously the point where the costume designer's drugs seriously kicked in: feathers, lame and sequins flooding the stage in ever increasing quantities. Possibly the thing that makes this work so wonderfully is that nobody ever acknowledges just how camp this all is: it's all played with incredible seriousness and professionalism. The result is a terrifically entertaining show. The Flower Troupe's next performance was scheduled to be an adaptation of Gone With The Wind in their associate Tokyo venue. Look at that poster up there. Look at it. Don't you wish you'd seen that show?
In the end, the language barrier wasn't as much of a problem as I thought it would be. That's not to deny the invaluable help I got from The Belated Birthday Girl's translation skills: but for the most part the Japanese are fantastically keen to help you out with bilingual signs, pictorial instructions and plastic replicas of food that you can point at when ordering in restaurants. And we both had a fantastic time thanks to the hospitality of everyone we met. I can't say I saw anything you could describe as evil out there, so I'll be damned if I'm going to speak any evil about it. Being a monkey, and all.
ebookers.com did all the flight arrangements for us, and it has to be said they did us proud. (But if you use them, don't fly with Austrian Airlines, because they're shit.) Before you leave, get in touch with Japan Railways and buy one of their terrific Japan Rail Passes, which allows you almost unlimited use of JR trains for a fixed price. (Tourists only, so you'll have to find out where you can buy them in your home country.)
Welcome Inns and Japanese Inn Group are both ideal starting points for booking your accommodation, particularly for the traditional Japanese inns they call ryokan. In Tokyo we stayed at the Kimi (cheap Fisher-Price style My First Ryokan, ideal for tourists) and the Ryumeikan Honten (very nicely located if you're looking to buy electrical goods out there). In Kyoto, we can recommend the Kohro (possibly for its website jingle as much as anything else), the Kinmata (fabulous hospitality in an authentic old-style inn), and possibly the Watazen if the staff don't do to you what they did to us (i.e. go into hiding when you want to pay your bill and your train leaves in 30 minutes).
Rough Guides, Lonely Planet and Time Out all produce fine guidebooks for Japan, which were a great help in choosing places to visit and venues for meals. For more up-to-date information, get hold of the local what's-on magazines, both of which put much of their content online: Metropolis in Tokyo, and Kansai Time Out (no relation) in Kyoto. And look out for the English language daily papers, The Japan Times and The Daily Yomiuri.
The Happiness Of The Katakuris [dead link] and Spirited Away [dead link] both have nice-looking official sites, but they're probably a bit too Japanese to be of use. So hooray for Midnight Eye webzine, which covers Japanese film in the English language: check out their interviews with Miyazaki and Miike.
Kyoto Studio Park has a Japanese site which tells you about the various attractions on display. Unfortunately, the English Page promised at the bottom appears to be knackered.
Robodex [dead link] has a site as high-tech as you'd expect: if you'd visited it during the exhibition, you could have watched live webcam broadcasts from there. Nowadays it's more of an archive (including video clips of the exhibits), but doubtless it'll wake up in time for future Robodexes.
Tezuka Osamu @ World is a beautifully designed Flash-heavy homage to the animator, including a bit about the Manga Museum in Takarazuka. But you'll need to go elsewhere to discover the sordid truth about Disney's theft of his ideas.
Takarazuka Flower Troupe have a nice looking official site. The English pages include handy English plot summaries of their current shows. If you can't make it to Japan, you could always make do with one of their ludicrously overpriced videos.
Here's a token World Cup link: well, it's Japan in 2002, I couldn't not mention it.