On Japanuary

After almost three years spent at home, drinking beers solo by the BBQ in the back park and thinking wistfully of busier times, this last month made up for the years of inaction.

It kicked off on Boxing Day with a two week, twelve date Gusto tour, followed by a blessed two days at home (mainly spent invoicing venues, tracking spreadsheets, attempting to scramble together lesson plans and wash off two weeks of grime). Then we flew to Japan.

Japan’s been on the cards for a while. Facebook memories informs I went there exactly ten years ago with my friend Steve, but time and I have done a pretty good job of wiping most of those experiences away. There were a couple of key Japanese phrases lodged in the old memory bank, arigato  – ‘thank you’, konichiwa – ‘hello’ and watashi wa baka na gaikokujin – ‘I’m a stupid foreigner’, as well as memories of Fuji-Q – an amusement park at the base of Mt Fuji that sports horrifying rollercoasters (enter my fear of heights) and a terrifying haunted house (enter my fear of everything else). There was a vague recollection that the ticket inspector on the shinkansen – bullet train would bow everytime he entered and exited a carriage (still true), and a lot of memories of sitting stark naked in an outdoor onsen – hot spring as snow powdered down around us, toasty bodies holding up frosty heads.

This trip was an all-encompassing romp around the country, planned to a T with no input from myself and it was delightful. We have friends living in Tokyo, so we spent most of the two weeks being ferried around by them and their Shiba Inu. Truly an ideal way to travel, there’s something about driving up a snowy mountain range with a twelve kilo dog clambering across your lap to see whats happening outside.

There were some big highlights and many many little highlights, from the solo runs I did around Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to the endless vending machine coffees (served hot in a can) to my experience in a voice activated toilet cubicle which would only respond when you spoke in a strong American accent. I managed to get the door open with a ‘Hi Toilet – Open Door’ and got the toilet itself open with a little coaxing, then I managed to turn the bidet on, but couldn’t convice it to turn itself off. Halfway through the experience some jaunty music came on and I wasn’t sure if the doors were self-locking, so with a ‘Hi Toilet – Open Door’ I exited, leaving the toilet happily spraying water and playing music.

My main activity was finding interesting things to eat, and I worry that returning to Weetbix for breakfast might ruin me. We stayed in a resort at the top of a mountain in Nikko National Park, where both breakfast and dinner were an elaborate kaiseki – you’d arrive at the table to find seven or eight little plates laid out – a collection of sashimi – raw fish, a plate of pickled veggies, generally some sort of salad with seaweed, and a little burner with a bowl of broth on it. When you sit down they light the burner and then immediately bring out some more plates of food. Each plate is one or two bites, but when you’ve eaten fifteen plates worth, breakfast starts to feel a little indulgent. There was a rice cooker on crack –  select the serving size you want and slide your bowl inside and it would plop a handful of rice in. My favourite part of the meal was shabu shabu, a self-cooked hotpot where you drop mushrooms and veggies and very thin slices of beef into your own bowl of steaming broth, and wiggle them about for a bit with your cooking chopsticks. Then you remove the food and drop into into your mouth using your eating chopsticks, for every meal requires at least two sets. Shabu shabu supposedly gets its name from the shaking motion you do as you stir the meat into the broth.

My other meal highlight of the trip was yakiniku, a Japanese BBQ. Each table has its own burner and you put whatever you want on it and eat while you cook. The friends we were staying with had a local yakiniku place, and the owner was an absolute gem. He plied us with chorizo sausages – amazing kick and slight smokiness, ginger highballs and the thinnest tastiest strips of beef. At the end of the meal he turned up with ‘something special’, a bowl of raw egg for each of us and a plate of meat. He showed us how to cook it, slapped on the grill a mere two seconds per side, then dunked into the egg, then straight into your mouth. It was the richest, sweetest thing I’ve ever eaten, a dessert course for a BBQ restaurant. Delicious.

We managed to cram in two days in Hiroshima with a solo run along the river, past the site of the atom bomb and through the Peace Memorial Park, followed by momiji manju – autumn cake shared with an eighty year bomb survivor. His life story was translated through the help of Social Book Café Hachidori-Sha who run sessions on days with a six in them – the sixth, sixteenth and twenty-sixth of each month. We ate okonomiyaki – savoury pancakes and visited the stunning Miyajima, an island a ten minute ferry from the shore complete with domesticated deer, a cable car (cue again fear of heights) and a half hour hike to the top of Mt Misen where a shrine with a thousand year old flame gives way to an incredible 360 view of the Seto Inland Sea.

Then we travelled on to Osaka for an evening where we somehow stumbled into a jazz gig, an unnamed quartet playing a collection of jazz standards. The highlight of the gig was an uptempo version of Duke Ellington’s Caravan reinterpeted in five, the drummer a sardonic middle-aged man who looked like he’d been having a quiet smoke on the street until someone had tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he’d like to play some drums. He held back for the first couple of bars and then absolutely demolished the drums, playing with an intent and an energy that made me want to jump on a flight home and practice practice practice. I was reminded of how much ‘joy’ is a part of the musical experience for me, and seeing someone so in command of their playing and so excited to just be in the moment was so delightful.

Japan’s live music scene is notoriously hard to crack in to – many venues don’t have websites, and the ones who do are all in Japanese which makes it tricky to understand what you’re going to see. We spent a lot of time trying to stalk social media accounts of Japanese bands to determine what style of music they played, but if you can’t read Japanese kanji and you’re googling ‘Japan band The Giraffes’ at nine pm on a Tuesday night out the front of a venue at minus three degrees, sometimes giving up feels like the easiest option.

The weather was lovely for the first week and a half – ten degrees but dry and sunny and no wind, so the days were pleasant and the nights were cold, but there was a cool change when we hit the snow that brought temperatures across the country below freezing, so the final couple of days in Tokyo had me wearing a t-shirt + long sleeve shirt + jumper + jacket + rain jacket and still complaining bitterly to the world.

The real way to beat the cold is to sit inside with a flight of warm sake ­­– fermented rice alcohol. We spent several delightful evenings catching up with old friends over sake. Traditionally you aren’t allowed to pour your own sake, you have to wait for someone else to notice your glass is empty and top you up. This leads to a situation where the fastest drinker continually downs their own glass and tops yours up so that you’ll top theirs up. It makes it a little hard to count how many drinks you’ve had, but pairs ever so nicely with yakitori – BBQ skewers. After a couple of glasses you feel warm and toasty and ready to brave the cold again.

This summer was such a disconnect from the last couple of years. I’ve dwelt a lot on how time contracted and dilated through COVID. With no big singular events to tie each year to, 2020 – 2022 was simultaneously the longest block of time and the blink of an instant. Without my diary and camera roll I’d struggle to even remember what I’ve done in the last three years, so the fertile ground of touring again with long drives to festivals and dancing crowds followed by international travel feels like a beautiful bookend to these years.

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