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Rising Monkey 2010g: remm Hibiya, Tokyo, again

This *could* just be a library photo of the tuna auction at Tsukiji, of course... May 13-15 [previously: 1-4, 4-6, 6-7, 7-9, 9-11, 11-12]

At 4am on Thursday morning, the alarm clock goes off. And The Belated Birthday Girl and I spend the next 90 minutes utterly terrified that we didn’t get out of bed early enough.

Because today’s the day we’re visiting the tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market, one of the hottest tourist attractions in the whole of Tokyo. It’s not really intended as such, of course: Tsukiji is a proper working market, the largest one of its kind in the world, and the daily sale of several tons of imported frozen tuna is a serious business. But over the years, any tourists who can drag themselves to Tsukiji in time for a 5am kick-off have been allowed to watch the proceedings.

You’ve seen sitcoms: you know the risk of having people on an auction floor who don’t really understand what’s going on. And over the years, the market traders have become more and more irritated with the pesky gaijin getting in the way of their livelihood. On several occasions, tourists have been completely banned from attending the auction. By coincidence, the week we’re in Tokyo, they’re only just starting to let visitors back in again after a month-long lockout. The new procedures aren’t particularly well documented, but we understand that a maximum of 140 people will be allowed entry to the auction on a first-come first-served basis after the 5am opening.

At 5am on Thursday morning, we’re still on the approach road leading up to the market. Will we be able to get there in time? (Okay, I realize the picture of a tuna auction up there kills the suspense a little, but work with me here.)

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Rising Monkey 2010f: remm Hibiya, Tokyo

The lobby of the Tokyo International Forum, on the night of the Tokyo Jihen gig. I was hoping this would have a photogenic SOLD OUT banner pasted across it, but no such luck. May 11-12 [previously: 1-4, 4-6, 6-7, 7-9, 9-11]

On the one hand, I wish I’d taken a photo to show you: on the other hand, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Picture the scene - we’ve just arrived at Tokyo station, and we’re following the Yamanote line by foot to get to our hotel. It’s raining, so we’re in a bit of a hurry. But I can’t help noticing as we pass Yurakucho station that there’s a girl standing outside it holding up a handwritten sign.

My written Japanese skills are somewhat nil, but I can recognize the four characters 東京事変 at the centre of the sign, and the dates 5/11 and 5/12 next to them. And I know instantly what she wants. She wants someone to sell her tickets for this week’s sold out gigs at the nearby Tokyo International Forum, featuring the band Tokyo Jihen.

You and me both, love.

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Rising Monkey 2010e: b, Nagoya

Spiral Towers, Nagoya: the building that answers the question 'what would the London Gherkin look like if Picasso had circumcised it?' May 9-11 [previously: 1-4, 4-6, 6-7, 7-9]

It's a painless two-and-a-bit hour high speed train journey from Takayama to Nagoya. Is it wrong to admit that I get all the three-syllable Japanese cities starting with N mixed up - Nagoya, Narita, Nagano, Niigata? Hopefully I'll get through the next two days without some sort of appalling faux pas.

Anyway: Nagoya. As soon as we pull into the station, it's obvious we've left cosy smalltown life behind and are in the big city - the fourth biggest in Japan, no less. The station is alone is gigantic, a mall that stretches over a couple of blocks if you count the underground and overground portions. For The Belated Birthday Girl, the biggest sign that we're not in Takayama anymore comes when she discovers that Peck - owners of The Best Restaurant In Milan - have opened a branch inside the station. You don't get that sort of thing at Euston, I can tell you.

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Rising Monkey 2010d: Minshuku Kuwataniya, Takayama

Message attached to the audio guide at Takayama Yatai KaikanMay 7-9 [previously: 1-4, 4-6, 6-7]

It's always a bit worrying when they make an announcement while you're on a train, and everyone gets off except for the sleeping Japanese and the gaijin.

Most of our rail journeys so far have been on whizzy express trains and shinkansen: the same could have applied to today's journey from Toyama to Takayama, but the train times didn't quite work out for us, as the fast services were either too early or too late. Which is why today's journey is taking place on a local single-carriage puffer train between the two cities. For a large part we're accompanied by just the aforementioned sleepers, and a couple of white guys dressed like Mormons. Aside from the big exodus from the train part way through, we also have to transfer onto a two-carriage service for the last hour of our 150 minute run to Takayama, to make room for the schoolkids on their journey home for the weekend.

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Rising Monkey 2010c: Toyoko Inn Jr. Toyama Ekimae, Toyama

The BBG's stamp collection May 6-7 [previously: 1-4, 4-6]

It always helps to have an event at the centre of a holiday: especially if it's a holiday like ours tend to be, where you're never in the same place for more than a couple of days. A big music festival, or a total eclipse, that sort of thing.

When The Belated Birthday Girl and I originally planned our Japan 2010 trip, we had a specific event in mind, and at some point in the future we can talk about why that isn't happening. But our replacement big event turns out to be a fine substitute: a trip across the Japanese Alps by train, bus, trolleybus, cablecar, ropeway and on foot. It certainly beats sitting around worrying about the UK elections taking place today (which, interestingly, are all over the NHK news at the moment, and a prime topic of conversation whenever Japanese people discover we're English).

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Rising Monkey 2010b: Marumo Ryokan, Matsumoto

May 4-6 [previously: 1-4]

After breakfast, it's off by train from Ueno to Matsumoto (via Nagano). What's to be said about Japanese train travel, really? It's reliable to the extent that a one-minute delay on the line results in an instant apology from the driver. There's rarely anything out of the ordinary to report.

Well, maybe one thing this time, and as soon as it happened I realised I'd read about it in one of my guide books. When you arrive at Matsumoto, the first thing you hear is one of the nicest station announcements on the whole network, as a recorded female voice virtually sings the name, drawing out the final vowel to a ludicrous degree. "Matsumotoooo! Matsumotooooo!" Is it wrong to admit that I spent the first hour in the town trying to work out how to incorporate that into a dance mix? Probably, but it's true.

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Rising Monkey 2010a: Andon Ryokan, Tokyo

Sunset over Tokyo. It'd make more sense thematically if it was a sunrise, so let's all pretend that it is, okay? May 1-4

It starts, as these things regrettably tend to nowadays, with bankruptcy. Specifically, that of JAL, Japan's national airline. They announced it a few months ago - currently, the airline still seems to be struggling through, but they're in the process of scrapping several of their routes.

London to Tokyo isn't one of the routes under threat, but that wasn't immediately obvious back when we were planning our 2010 visit to Japan - for which, in case you haven't realised by now, nearliveblogging commenced about one and a half paragraphs ago. Aside from 2002, when we flew Austrian Airlines by mistake, The Belated Birthday Girl and I have used JAL as our airline of choice whenever travelling to Japan. But with the whole company being, as it were, up in the air back when we booked all this, we realised that travelling with JAL would be a risky bet. Someone else would have to fly us to Tokyo.

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Simian Substitute Site for May 2010: Spicymonkey


Comedy: Collings & Herrin (aka Andrew Collins and Richard Herring) have been recording free weekly podcasts for over two years now. Although their pro bono work has ultimately led to a regular paying gig at the BBC, they feel it's about time we paid them some proper money for the nonsense they talk. Hence The Best Of Earth, Wind And Fire (and water), a series of four specially recorded podcasts available on CD for a tenner from Go Faster Stripe. The result is a little bit like a big-screen movie spin-off of your favourite TV show: it has to tread a balance between keeping in favourite tropes from the original (nyum nyum nyum) while not being utterly impenetrable to anyone coming to them for the first time. The decision to theme the podcasts around the titular elements brings some useful structure to the chats (Collins, it turns out, has childhood fears based around all four of them): but Herring is always around to pull the conversation off track into a discussion of all the movies that feature actresses he's slept with (including Bridget Jones' Diary and Chicken Run).

Movies: Chris Morris' long-awaited suicide bomber comedy Four Lions hits UK cinemas on May 7th, but I caught it at a preview screening at BFI Southbank. Aside from the odd peculiar directorial tic, such as his habit of starting off scenes with an enormous zoom shot, it's a terrific piece of work. As you'd expect from Morris and his co-writers (Peep Show's Armstrong and Bain), there are lots of wonderful gags, but there's also much more going on than just jokes. A terrorist cell full of idiots is a great source of broad comedy, but I wasn't expecting that their stupidity would actually make you empathise with them more as the film progresses. The cast are wonderful throughout, with just the odd surprise appearance by a Morris regular pulling you briefly out of the world of the film.

Music: It looked for one terrifying minute that everyone involved would be stranded in Coachella due to the wrong kind of ash, but Damon Albarn managed to get Gorillaz out of America in time for their London shows at the Roundhouse. One hell of a guestlist, too: Bobby Womack, Mos Def, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder and many others popped up for a song or two, while Mick Jones and Paul Simonon did their usual fine job in the main band. Plus, lots of giant screen projection work courtesy of Jamie Hewlett and collaborators, to keep the short people in the audience happy. In other music news, the earworm currently plaguing me is a year-old J-Pop single by Vanilla Beans called Nicola, and I suspect drastic measures may be required to rid me of it.

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