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.
When The Belated Birthday Girl and I first started batting around ideas for our 2010 Japanese visit, we half-jokingly wondered if any of our favourite J-Pop stars were touring. A quick bit of research into names you’re probably familiar with from my Pick Of The Year compilations – Yuki, Love Psychedelico, hell, we might even have considered Morning Musume – eventually paid off when we found out that Ringo Shiina’s hobby band, Tokyo Jihen, were doing the circuit in April and May. After weighing up their schedule for a bit, we plumped for their pair of mid-May Tokyo dates, and literally planned the rest of our itinerary around those days.
The internet’s made it really easy to find out about gigs in Japan: it’s much less easy, though, to buy tickets for the buggers. Bear in mind that despite being fans for years, we had no real idea just how popular Tokyo Jihen actually are in their home country. Plus, the only methods of buying gig tickets involved Japanese language websites or the phone. We threw ourselves on the mercy of The BBG’s Tokyo-based chums Miki and Taeko, and asked them to have a go at getting us in.
God love them, they tried their best. At 10am on the morning that the box office opened, they both started hammering the internet and the phone lines simultaneously… but within 15 minutes or so, both dates were coming up as sold out. So, yeah, that’s how popular Tokyo Jihen are. I kept an eye on Yahoo! Auctions, the Japanese equivalent of eBay, but that didn’t really help: at one point, a pair of tickets for the May 11th show was going for £485 and rising. No wonder people are reduced to begging outside stations in the rain.
So: we have a holiday that climaxes in Tokyo, but the main event it was constructed around is no longer open to us. Is that a problem? Not really. Tokyo’s a big city, and there are always plenty of other distractions around. So many, in fact, that this final four-day leg of the holiday is going to take two separate pages to do it justice. I thought that this would be the chill-out section at the end of the fortnight: guess I was wrong.
Our hotel for these final four days in Japan is the remm Hibiya, a stone’s throw away from the Tokyo Jihen gig venue (grrrrr). After starting our holiday in a residential area up in the north-east of Tokyo, we’re finishing up right in the centre of town, on the outskirts of the bright lights of Ginza. The remm is a hotel of cosy designer loveliness: the rooms are a tad compact, and the decision to have the toilet and the bed separated by a glass window is needlessly Germanic, but the staff are friendly and the facilities welcoming. Showers that can comfortably accommodate two people simultaneously will always get a thumbs up in these quarters.
The central location is a major bonus: not only are we perfectly placed for transport and all the entertainment Ginza can throw at us, we’ve also got the Tokyo branch of the all-female Takarazuka Theatre literally over the road. Sadly, we haven’t got the time to check out their current programme, but it’s good to see that their gender-bending agenda remains intact – the poster for their upcoming musical adaptation of the battle of Trafalgar looks astonishing. And as was the case when we visited the original theatre in Takarazuka itself back in 2002, the streets outside are thronged every day with women waiting to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars.
On our first night in Tokyo, we haven’t really got the time to join them. Because we're in the area anyway, we head over to the Tokyo International Forum on the vague chance that someone outside it might give us tickets for that night’s show. They don’t, but I’m delighted to discover from a couple of skulking figures by the door that the body language of the ticket tout is utterly universal. We console ourselves with a stroll round the shops of Ginza (pretty much all closed by this stage), and grab a gyoza dinner at Benitora. A quick word from The Belated Birthday Girl on the subject: "Benitora gyoza bo is a Chinese restaurant chain specializing, as you’d expect from the name, in gyoza dumplings. There was a large variety of gyoza on offer – which was what had attracted us to the place. Although the menu had a lot of other dishes on it, many of which looked very interesting, we decided to stick with a selection of different gyoza. Spank chose some meat-filled ones, and I chose the green prawn filled ones, and we shared some little one-bite beany ones and, best of the lot, some yellow pumpkin ones. Washed down with a couple of beers, it made for a tasty meal on a rainy evening."
As we leave the restaurant, the rain starts to get even worse: where can we go? Well, to the pictures, inevitably. But only because we happen to be standing outside the Toho Nichigeki just five minutes before the last show of the day starts. And it’s a film that we’re already aware of, and are slightly curious about: Trick 3. The latest instalment in a franchise that takes in a long-running TV show and a previous pair of feature films, it’s the ongoing story of the relationship between rubbish magician Naoko Yamada (Yukie Nakama) and skeptical academic Jiro Ueda (the incredibly ubiquitous Hiroshi Abe). In this film, Yamada is one of a series of mentalists invited to a small village for the Psychic Battle Royale promised in the movie’s subtitle: Ueda, meanwhile, has been invited to the same contest to help the judges spot the people who are faking it. When some of Yamada’s fellow contestants start getting bumped off, the pair have to put their differences aside and investigate.
So not only am I working with the handicap of not speaking Japanese, I’m also trying to watch a film that assumes your familiarity with around ten years worth of backstory. But even with all that, Trick 3 manages to be rather good fun. There’s a light, silly tone that runs all the way through the movie, reassuring you wordlessly that despite its horror trappings, nobody’s going to get hurt – well, nobody we care about, anyway. That tone extends through to the huge poster for the movie stuck on the side of the Hankyu department store, shot in 3D and intended to be viewed from the other side of the street, where a large bin full of red-green 3D glasses is available. (The poster mockingly apologises that the film itself is just in 2D.)
Even if you can’t understand a word, you can see how the description of the Trick series I found elsewhere on the web – ‘X-Files meets Scooby-Doo’ - fits perfectly. By the end, all the various plot strands have been outrageously knotted together, although lack of Japanese meant that one or two of those knots are still somewhat impenetrable to me. Not to mention several quirks that are presumably callbacks to earlier episodes. Why does Ueda carry a doll of himself around with him? What’s the deal with the insects with human faces? And are they really suggesting that Ueda has a massive cock? Wikipedia suggests yes for the last one, but to be honest I’m happy to embrace the mild confusion and stay ignorant of all the specific details. It was a fun 90 minutes while I watched it, and I’m scared that finding out what was really going on might somehow ruin that.
Wednesday, apart from some preliminary business at the hotel – breakfast at the Muji café inside, and the delightful discovery that The BBG’s favourite NHK sports reporter is back from his holidays – is spent in the close vicinity of Ryogoku station, which has a grand total of two major attractions close to it.
The first one is the Edo Tokyo Museum, a perfect place to spend a morning. This city has a long and complex history, and this museum has to split itself down the middle to do that history justice. Half of the building is dedicated to the Edo period, the golden age that spanned the 17th to 19th centuries and marked Japan’s pinnacle as a self-contained civilization, living in splendid isolation from the rest of the planet. The other half of the building takes as its starting point the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships in 1853, and the subsequent ups and downs that arose from Tokyo’s emergence as a centre for world trade. Both periods are lovingly depicted, though for my money the complete transformation of the city in the second half is the more fascinating of the two.
Next door to the museum is the other attraction, the Ryogoku Kokugikan, where sumo tournaments are held every January, May and September: we’re meeting Miki and Taeko there to catch day four of the latest one. Coincidentally, it’s been almost exactly a year since sumo was last mentioned on this site, when I wrote Armchair Sumo For Lazy Bastards to tie in with the May 2009 basho. At the time, Asashoryu was the undisputed top performer, but I was saying even then that “every so often injury or arrant stupidity causes him to come a cropper.” And when he twatted a bloke in a car park last January, that was the final straw for the governing bodies, who forced him out into early retirement.
It’s one more cause for concern in a sport that seems to be full of them right now, but it does mean that sumo tournaments aren’t quite as cut and dried as they used to be, which makes them that bit more interesting for the casual punter. The one man who’s managed to come through in Asashoryu’s absence is Baruto: a big, cheerful Estonian who’s become the new great white hope of the sport. He achieved promotion to ozeki level two months ago, only losing out to the top-rated Hakuho in a splendid 14-1 run of fights. There’s still no real sign of a major Japanese contender coming through the ranks, but in the absence of one the locals appear to have taken Baruto to their hearts. (If they’re anything like me, they probably like his humility: he seems charmingly surprised whenever he wins a fight. You never got that with Asashoryu.)
We get to the Ryogoku Kokugikan a little after 2pm: on my one previous visit to the sumo in 2004, we made a whole day of it, but this time we’re just here for the two major sessions with the second division juryo and the top flight makuuchi. We use the juryo as a backdrop for lunch – there are six different bento boxes on sale with pictures of the top rikishi on them, and I’ve gone for a Hakuho. As more and more people file in for the big action starting at 4pm, we reflect on just how badly behaved Westerners can be in these situations. Two American girls bring full-size suitcases with them, and leave them unattended in their seats for half an hour while they wander off: two Canadian guys completely fail to cop off with them, and spend the rest of the day not really following what’s going on despite having access to the English language FM radio commentary.
Meanwhile, The BBG and I are roaring with approval as the makuuchi parade into the ring, signifying the real start of the day’s proceedings. As we’re in the early days of the tournament, the top players are relatively fresh, so we get to see all our favourites win one way or another. Takamisakari still as wildly popular with the audiences for his pre- and post-match mucking about: Kotooshu still charming the ladies with his Bulgarian good looks (although Miki says he’s become less popular since he got married): Kaio still proving himself the one hope remaining for Japanese sumo with a three-second demolition of his opponent: and Baruto getting the warmest reception of all of them. By comparison, Hakuho’s climactic bout wasn’t terribly exciting: but he got the point, and that’s what matters, particularly if you’ve got a record as the current Number One to uphold. By the time you read this, you’ll be able to see how the results shook down after Day Four.
A fun afternoon out, all things considered, and wrapped up nicely with Miki and Taeko taking us to the Edosawa restaurant for a thematically appropriate chanko nabe, the chunky stew that sumo wrestlers eat to bulk themselves up. Here's a review from The BBG: "There are all sorts of different chanko nabes, but as a non-meat eater I am a little limited. Fortunately, Edosawa has a selection of 3 different seafood ones among their offerings. We went for the mid-priced san yaku (which refers to the 3 levels of top sumo below yokozuna – all the nabes had similarly sumo themed names), although even this theoretically contained some chicken, but it wasn’t obvious in the dish. Accompanying this we had a variety of other dishes, including cabbage served raw to dip in a miso-based sauce – surprisingly tasty – and agedashi tofu, as well as other fish and meat dishes. In fact, we’d only ordered half a nabe of the seafood, with the nabe being cleverly sub-divided so that the other half could contain a completely different, meaty, nabe. But a mix-up in the order meant we got a whole seafood one. This was later corrected by sending an additional whole meaty one, subdivided so that two different bases for the stew – one containing soy-milk, which was an interesting variation – could be used. And because of the mix up, this one came free. We were too full after everything to need any rice or noodles."
The combination of getting an entire nabe for free, plus the use of an internet voucher for free beers, means that we end up paying around ¥2000 (a little over £14) for a full meal with booze for four people. Result! It’s tempting to stay out and make a night of it to celebrate. However, we have other fish to, er, fry…
[next: May 13-15]