Gem is officially licensed to tea!
It seems that all the great cities of the world have been nicknamed. Chicago is the Windy City, Paris is the City of Love and Venice is beautifully known as the Bride of the Sea. Once a city reaches a certain age and size, it seems natural for its people to give it another name, one based on the culture and the character that place has developed.
All except Tokyo.
Tokyo is undoubtedly a great city, boasting the largest metropolitan economy in the world. It is a populous city, with around thirteen million permanent residents and a huge population of commuters from the surrounding countryside. And it is an old city (once called Edo) which has been the de facto capital of Japan for more than four hundred years. Yet for some reason, Tokyo has thus far evaded nicknaming. Is the culture not strong enough? Does the city lack personality?
Quite, quite the opposite. Tokyo, in fact, has an excess of personality. Multiple personalities, if you will. Outside minds may have given the area one name, but to the residents, it’s never stopped being a collection of small (yet insanely densely populated) villages, each existing as its own mad little world and each certain that the next quake will be The Big One. What can you call a place like that? Bedlam? Godzilla’s Playground?
“Don’t EVER live in Tokyo for more than two years at a time,” insisted my Japanese teacher back in Oz. “You’ll go insane; and you won’t notice.”
This is a man whose racing bike has more than once whizzed by me doing forty km on a downhill run despite being declared LEGALLY BLIND more than a decade ago.
He lived in Tokyo for six years.
Japan, overall, can be mad. But even among Japanese people, it’s accepted that Tokyo is much, much madder.
For one thing, the city is constantly changing. In the warmer days of spring, Japanese birds construct nests and Japanese builders hurl down and fling up buildings all over the country. But in Tokyo, they’re busy all year round, making buildings appear and vanish like mushrooms. Stores and advertisements are also constructed or painted on large vehicles (like the flatbed truck bearing massive-breasted, topless, singing battle robots that rolled by during our last visit to Kabukicho) which then move around the city playing deafening music at passers-by. Even without Godzilla or the Next Big Quake, everything is huge, but nothing feels permanent.
Did I say everything was huge? That’s just the outside of the buildings. In their interiors and on the streets, Tokyo tries to pack as much of itself into the smallest spaces it can. That means low ceilings, narrow paths, tiny furniture and constantly touching at least three other people at once. The scale and density of Tokyo causes a low-grade mental pressure that takes genuine effort to resist.
The major issue, though, is not really how much genuinely bizarre stuff (like the topless robots) is actually floating around the city, but how quickly you get used to it. The human brain is resilient and will absorb and adapt to any amount of bizarre stimuli, so in a place where so much is abnormal, your sense of normality becomes extremely unreliable.
When you add the city’s multiple personalities to that mix and the bizarre ways in which they interact, more than anything, walking around in Tokyo is like a real-life version of those nights you find yourself in the weird part of Youtube. You see something, it looks interesting, you click on it, it leads to something else, you click on that, you keep clicking…. and before you know it, it’s three in the morning and you’re watching a man feed his underpants to a goat.
Fortunately, in Tokyo your service provider isn’t gathering any information on you.
What Happens in Tokyo….
Ours would have had plenty on us before we even left our Akihabara hotel.
Although the manager had rented us tiny rooms with tinier ensuites, most of the hotel’s business actually comes from capsule rentals to drunk and weary salary men. Two thousand yen (about twenty dollars) grants them access to a large shared bathroom with lockers and a small, coffin-like space in the wall with just enough room for one sleeper and a porn magazine.
Does this seem strange? What’s stranger is that it only took about ten minutes before we were totally accustomed to the idea of going to sleep each night and waking up each morning knowing that there were a hundred businessmen sealed into the walls like wasp larvae.
If we leaned out of the window, we could see the local Pachinko Parlour, where an animated (and adorable) adventurer tugged on a jungle princess’ leopard-skin bikini top. Below, the taxi-drivers, neon-lit trucks and scooter daredevils played their terrifying game of dodgems, while sirens screamed all around, yet never arrested anyone. We could also watch tired office workers step onto the balcony for a cigarette and a moment to think, without ever noticing any of the frenzied activity around them.
In Tokyo, the people are like islands.
Becoming an Island
Despite our inauspicious beginning, we fell into our Tokyo routine (and our island status) fairly quickly.
In the morning, I would wake up, give the wall (and its load of snoring businessmen) an affectionate pat and wander into the corridor to heat water for tea. When it was ready, the three of us would step out onto the tiny “balcony” to watch the dodgem game, the suited abseiler on the opposite building and, one morning, a procession of neon-decorated trucks blaring pop music to advertise the new Idolmaster Game (which will be released in May if you’re into that sort of thing. Please don’t tell me if you are.)
After that, it was time for us to decide what to do with our day.
We visited Akihabara, of course; our anime-nerd leanings and our hotel’s location by Dentown made this an obvious choice. While we initially had a wonderful time, cramming ourselves between overstacked shelves of figurines, clothing and art books, we gradually started to notice that Akihabara seems to be morphing into something a lot more seedy and a lot less fun. I don’t know if the art has changed, or the current generation of nerds are a creepier breed, but it had a particularly bad effect on the guys, both of whom declared themselves finished with the place and in desperate need of a bath. And, after accidently catching the tail-end of an AKB-48 show, I couldn’t blame them. It makes me cringe to think that our students could potentially attend concerts in the same building as those sweating, tracksuit-wearing otaku waving their glow sticks at fifteen year olds dancing in ruffle skirts.
(Akihabara still has plenty to offer the nerdy traveller, but you might be more likely these days to just get in, buy it and get the hell back out without enjoying your time as much as you used to.)
Ueno, mixing more of the old Japan with the new was much gentler on the guys’ bruised sensibilities and we spent quite a bit of time recuperating under the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park and in the Ueno markets. Asakasa, though crowded, is also a fairly relaxed place by Tokyo standards and is popular with backpackers and older Japanese tourists. Our objective was Sensou-ji, a holy site devoted to the bodhisattva Kannon, where people have been visiting and buying (actually quite reasonably priced) souvenirs for almost fifteen centuries. (I really love that about Japan; instead of trying to avoid the tourist traps and really connect with the ancient culture of an area, visiting the tourist traps is HOW you connect!)
We skipped Shinjuku and Roppongi this time and very quickly zipped through Ginza, but Kin and Shallow indulged me and allowed me a lot of time in Shibuya.
I adore Shibuya; I could spend all day there, just watching people and walking around. This area is a bit of an artistic and fashion centre, not just for designers and multinationals, but also for the kids who stitch, paint or hammer together their own looks and styles and, when they get a little older, even open little shops of their own, which are immediately graffitied by their younger colleagues. (They do it so nicely, though that no-one minds.)
Really, Shibuya is far too cool for me, but it’s generous enough to let me hang out there anyway.
Most of our trekking was done on foot, although we did hop onto the subway sometimes. As we were generally travelling outside rush hours, Kin and Shallow were permitted to travel in purdah with me, in the “Ladies Only” section of the train (set aside to protect women travellers from sexual assault). Only some of our stations had installed suicide-prevention barriers or calming blue lights, but all played a happy jingle as each train approached, which some claim is another preventative measure.
Personally, I found this ingenious creation much more cheery and engaging than yet another obnoxious noise on the Japanese subway.
Harajuku was so crowded, the tide of people almost washed us away. Shallow’s height became an advantage for the first time since he’d arrived in Tokyo (normally he just bumped his head on things) and he could keep an eye on Kin’s red hat bobbing away on the current. I just became flotsam and grabbed hold of whatever bits I could reach of either Shallow or Kin whenever the flow brought us close together. We saw a few examples of Harajuku fashion on people (and many more in the shops!) but if you really want to see Harajuku girls, visit Jingu Bashi, the Harajuku bridge, on Sunday afternoon. Right over the bridge is a peaceful Meiji Shrine and also Yoyogi Park, where we met with a friend and unexpectedly became part of a cherry-blossom viewing party with the staff of a Shinjuku publishing company.
The park was so covered in eskies and picnic blankets that parties combined like slime mould, forming one ultra-party whose participants cheerfully shared their food and sake and posed for group photographs with strangers.
Islands can join very quickly, if sake is involved.
Much later, and a little unsteady, our whole cherry-blossom party was carolling about being fireworks in the karaoke booth where we’d had dinner. Our merry trek from Harajuku had gone past decorated trucks (each with a pair of feet pressed on the windscreen), night markets, outdoor raves and a woman quietly walking her meerkats through Shibuya.
Just another night in Crazytown.
Please like us on Facebook to keep up with posts and view more complete photo albums!
Yes, that is exactly what it looks like. A 2.5 metre, 250 kg, giant, wooden wang.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, that when something’s on your mind, it just seems to keep cropping up? This week, from the new run of “Please do not expose yourself to other commuters,” signs on the train to an unexpected linguistic discussion (that resulted in three people chanting “dickbread dickbread, dickbread” in Portuguese for almost seven minutes), the universe just keeps coming up bellends.
Today’s post, believe it or not, has a religious theme. I give you:
Dongs of Praise
Komaki’s spring fertility festival is one of the internet’s favourite spiritual events. I’m guessing you can see why.
The festival is actually called Hounen-sai or Hounen Matsuri, but people usually just call it the Penis Festival. Again, I’m guessing you can understand.
Although a lot happens at this festival (like dancing, rice-cake throwing and traditional music) the main event is the rowdy procession bearing a giant carved phallus to its new home in Tagata Jinja, the old home of Tamahime who, along with her children, developed the area during the Yamato period. Tamahime, like many ladies of the time, did not live with her husband, but rather received him as a regular visitor in her home and… I think you’re beginning to perceive the oh-so-subtle symbolism of the festival.
In the old days, the giant penis was actually attached to the crotch of a straw samurai, borne along by the inebriated procession, which seems a lot more graphic to me. These days, it’s modestly snuggled into a portable shrine, but is much, much bigger, meaning the bearers have to struggle along with around four hundred kilos of weight on their shoulders. And not just calmly hauling the thing either, but actually bouncing, spinning and waving it around to the cheers of the intoxicated crowd. Needless to say, the bearers need to put away even more sake than the spectators to manage this feat.
At Tagata Jinja, the penis is installed in the place of honour, while last year’s model is auctioned off to local householders and businesses. (And can I just mention that this is the best tradition ever? Just think, in the living rooms and public spaces of literally hundreds of normal-seeming Aichi homes and shops lurk enormous, metres-long, polished, hardwood wangs. Hundreds. Whenever you feel sad, or start believing the world is empty of magic, just remember that.)
The long history of the shrine is why, I think you sometimes hear painfully sincere foreigners speaking earnestly about the real meaning of the festival, which is not waving genitals around on sticks, but is instead a solemn veneration of the divine generative and restorative properties of the earth and season.
I think that modern city dwellers need to understand that olden-day rurals enjoyed a good metaphor as much as anyone; and enjoyed a dirty joke even more! Ensuring the blessedness of the sacred earth is important to a community making its living from the soil, it’s true. But if you can manage your religious observations while drunk and waving a willy on a stick, so much the better. If the shrines wanted to encourage solemnity of worship, they wouldn’t hand out unlimited free sake and dick-whistles. The locals have been enjoying the joke for 1500 years. You can enjoy it too.
Kin and I were actually pretty sober for this year’s festival, despite the best efforts of the shrine volunteers to fix that state. After a quick wander around the food stalls (selling a variety of phallic snacks) we made our way with Dudebro and Granita to join the throng of spectators waiting for the giant wang to wind by. The three of them found an okay spot by the road (the best thing about this festival is that, unlike many others, the procession is so long that everyone who wants to see the event gets a chance to) while I wound up on the other side, near the most horrible old lady I’ve ever met.
Seriously, she was great; she made her way to the front of the crowd by leaving a trail of the most horrible carnage behind her. I only became aware of her after she inserted one ancient and extremely pointy elbow underneath my floating rib while doing the same to the gentleman on her other side. When both of us yelled and turned slightly away from the injury, the old buzzard had enough room to reach the sake cart, snatch two cups and scurry away. I was keeping an eye out for her after that, so I got to watch her repeat that action many, many more times.
The procession was the usual wonderful spectacle of graphic banners, men in silly hats, and penises, both large and…. well, still pretty large actually.
Not to mention people handing out still more cups of sake which, after a while, I just started handing directly to the awful old lady (who received them with the same natural gratitude as a duck accepts breadcrumbs).
We then raced the procession to Tagata Jinja itself, to revisit the food stalls and view the current collection of penis-shaped items accumulated by the shrine.
Tagata Jinja is worth a visit at any time of year. Anyone in the area who finds anything even remotely penis-shaped trots off with it to the shrine and donates it to the cock-collection. Which sounds like one of the easiest and most entertaining methods of fulfilling your religious obligations that exists in the world to date. There are also a lot of carefully carved or cast penises, (including a penis-shaped shrine bell) and, while the big fellas are auctioned off these days, there are still a good many Dicks of Christmas Past (as it were) arranged within the shrine.
The Tell-Tale Dick
In rod-related revelations closer to home, it seems that the build-up to exams has infused the Dick Phantom with a fresh burst of creative energy. Kin tells me that the Phantom’s artistic sensibilities have not greatly matured during this period, but it seems that his productive output has increased significantly… to the point where he’s becoming careless.
His first slip was discovered a few weeks ago, when Kin, stacking desks after a second-year exam overturned one to reveal a lovingly-rendered, extremely veiny illustration, sketched by the master himself.
Kin, himself an accomplished phallic artist, is unwilling to expose a brother to the long arm of the law, so he continued stacking desks without trying to determine who had been sitting at this one. (I wish I were joking, by the way. He once drew an enormous, horribly graphic one on our metre-long whiteboard and I got so used to looking at the damn thing that I forgot to erase it before my grandmother came to visit.)
But then, last week, while marking the papers themselves, Kin turned a page and revealed the final clue to the Phantom’s identity… in the form of a gigantic, hairy knob scratched into the student’s completed and SIGNED examination paper.
The moment was pivotal. “Is this…a cry for help? Is the Phantom weary of life in the shadows? Does he actively seek apprehension and redemption in the light?”
“Or did the dumb little bastard just get bored and draw a dick on his exam paper like he does everything else?”
Figuring it was the second, Kin marked the paper, carefully closed it and returned it to the stack, still determined not to lose a comrade in arms.
“Fight on, Brother. Fight on.”
They are legion.
P.S. We’ll be putting up a more complete album on our Facebook page on Sunday.
P.P.S. For those who are wondering what sort of linguistic discussion could result in three people gravely intoning “dickbread” at one another for an extended period, it was a phonetics conversation about minimal pairs and meaning contrast on nasal vowels in Portuguese. Pau pão was the only sound set Granita could come up with, and it was only after we’d spent several minutes attempting to accurately reproduce the words that one of us asked about their meaning.
Pau pão : Dick, bread.
What a busy day! But all in nice ways. It’s late now, and I’m sitting at my desk, sipping a cold glass of mugicha and savouring the warm glow of knowing that the English cupboard is clean…. while trying to ignore the cold chill of knowing that the English ROOM is not….
I need to find a happy distraction! Luckily this has been a week full of wonderful discoveries.
The Anglo-Saxon in the photo is Kelpie, our friend. She is now a level-one qualified teaologist, and is now permitted to fly solo (with the lower-level ceremonies).
Tea Ceremony has not been the stiff, difficult experience I was afraid of; it’s all turned out to be wonderfully gossipy and warm! These ladies are, of course, extremely beautiful in their movements (not to mention extremely kind about my maladroit efforts to imitate them) but they’re also super-cheery and happy to chat while we practice.
Discovery 2 – This little nest of gargoyles directly above the door of one of my favourite glass shops!
It’s summer in Nagahama and the swallows are raising their clutches in traffic lights, street signs and every other cranny they can manage to stuff mud into! I love watching the babies squeak and wheeze whenever anything comes near them (then collapse with exhaustion at the effort of holding up those enormous heads), but I love watching their parents even more. Swallows really seem to ENJOY flying, don’t they? The way they twist and swoop between the buildings to feed their asthmatic progeny is one of the more beautiful parts of summer.
Since the weather warmed up, my aphid problem has been getting ridiculous. I’ve been having to wash the lettuce four times before we can finally eat it, and the health of my plants has been badly affected. I prefer to be a lassaiz-faire gardener wherever possible, but I was actually getting to the point where I was about to mix up some soap spray and declare war on the little swine. Until my secret weapon appeared, in the form of that baby ladybeetle!
Like baby swallows, baby ladybeetles aren’t the most beautiful of young creatures, but no mother’s heart could have swelled with more joy than mine when I spotted that particular little one. Since then, more have started appearing and my aphid problem should be sorted in a matter of weeks.
Discovery 4 – I love Pilates!
I know, right? What’s next, Tai-Bo? Seriously, though, Pilates is the good stuff. I know I look fairly healthy (and, in general, am) but I have some long-term pain issues that sometimes put a fairly serious crimp in my efforts to be awesome. Basically, where your spine is supposed to curve in your upper back and neck, mine goes straight up and down; which makes my posture look SPECTACULAR at ceremonies, but which causes me a lot of everyday pain and is a big reason why I drink so much wine in the evenings.
In an effort to STOP drinking so much wine in the evenings, I’ve been working hard with a physio for some months now, and at his urging, finally took a Pilates class.
Pilates is about gently stretching and exercising your limbs, while ripping the HELL out of your core. This might not seem applicable to my neck and shoulder issues, but basically everything you can do to strengthen your core will help with your overall posture. I need to keep working my neck and shoulders with the Physio, but I think it’s safe to leave my lower back and core in the hands of Pilates for now.
Discovery 5 – Tadpoles in the paddy fields.
Just in general, Kin and I both tend to be fairly strong tadpole enthusiasts. But before you dismiss our joys as irrelevant, be aware that there are good reasons for everyone to be happy to hear croaking coming from the rice fields at night.
Basically, pretty much EVERY environmental toxin kills frogs. Pesticides kill frogs. Herbicides kill frogs. Heavy metals kill or deform frogs. ARTIFICIAL FERTILISERS can kill frogs! Frogs are like a food canary, dropping off their perches wherever agriculture gets too poisonous.
I’m Australian. Anyone who has ever had to go through Australian Customs understands that we tend to be somewhat cautious about disease. And when I say “cautious”, really I mean “obsessively paranoid”. I’m not even kidding. If we could irradiate all guests and their luggage at an only barely sublethal level, we probably would, but we can’t because we’re also paranoid about radiation. We even tend to be fairly cautious about pesticide and heavy metal pollution, not because we pollute less than other people (we’re really not very virtuous), but because we have a lot of space and these things just don’t get a chance to build up as much as in other countries. As a rural and an organic gardener, I’m probably even more paranoid that most.
But when you see FROGS sitting around in your food, you know it’s not as bad as all that. Sure, there’s probably a lot going on that I still don’t want to know about, but any lingering nasties are a lot less likely to be hanging around in water that has several generations of frogs sitting in it.
Discovery 6 – These lovelies in the hills around town!
Kin and I both adore berries and I always have an eye out for free food, so we were thrilled to spot these wild raspberries and alpine strawberries on one of our weekend bike rides. The flavour of the raspberries isn’t as sweet and full as that of our garden cultivars and there will never be any comparing these little wild strawberries to the real thing, but they were a light and refreshing reward for a very long, hot bike ride and a wonderful treat for a pair whose food budget won’t be able to stretch much further this week!
Discovery 7 – This beetle not only looks awesome, it SQUEAKS when you annoy it!
(Well, the kids are all going on holiday soon. We need SOMETHING to annoy!)
What surprises are in your world this week? How is winter treating the Australians out there?
Keep it happy,