Photos with captions for Relax Magazine
Click the photos to see full-sized versions.
I flew over Alaska on the way to Tokyo from New York. It was the most amazing, empty scene of snowy mountains, otherworldly in their loveliness. But I couldn't help seeing superimposed over this pure landscape the shifty, hostile eyes of George W. Bush, who wants to drill it for oil.
Here I am the day after arriving in Japan. I look like I'm trying a little too hard to be Japanese. But you have to remember that Japan has been my dream since I was a kid. The very first song I wrote, aged 7, was called 'I Can See Japan': 'I can see the mountaintops and I can see the villages and I can see your images and baby, best of all, I can see your love'.
This is the apartment I'm staying in. It's in Meguro. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I swallowed the contents of a bottle marked 'Drink Me' and now I'm much too big for the room.
The first thing I bought in Tokyo was this orange bike. I love how this is such a bike-friendly city, with everyone riding on the sidewalks, and a huge network of tiny streets to choose from if you want to avoid the cars. In New York I rode about on a scooter, so now a bike feels like a Rolls Royce to me. I feel as proud as Peewee Herman.
I met up with Kahimi Karie and Emi Necozawa in the Organic Cafe. We talked about the records we plan to make. The girls were so nice to me that I felt like Serge Gainsbourg with Birkin and Bardot. I'm so lucky!
I went to visit Cornelius in the studio, where he's recording his new album 'Point'. He told me he'd seen one of my live shows in London in 1991. 'I know,' I replied, 'I caught you on video!' We're both such gadgetheads!
Cornelius and Horie are playing with an old British synthesiser, a mint condition EMS. The man who designed this went on to make the operating software for the Akai range of sound samplers, which completely transformed pop music in my working lifetime. Sampling as we know it now is a joint Japanese and British invention, and I think Japanese and British pop also share a kind of 'sampling' attitude to American pop. Neither of us originated the basic form, but our manipulations and recontextualisations of the raw material are often a lot more interesting than the original itself, just as a filtered synth sound is more interesting than a raw sine wave.
This is the Maestro drum machine. It's a classic, famous for its soft, china-like clicky tones. I use samples of it on my records, but Cornelius has the real thing. It looks great too, like a colourful toy.
It's really heartwarming to see all these retro car designs like the Austins and Morrises I knew when I was a kid in 1960s Britain. One of the things I like about Japanese design is the fact that baroque fantasia is not forbidden here.
Coke sells green tea here, and Colonel Sanders is one of the seven ronin! Capitalism seems so much more interesting with a Japanese face.
It's interesting how even an international company like Adidas is buying into the idea of pride in Japaneseness. 'We are Japanese'. Maybe it's the same spirit which makes Tanaka-Chan criticize the American missile policy and Koizumi advise the US to rejoin UNESCO. I think it's great, I only wish British politicians would do the same.
Daikanyama. A village within Tokyo, but maybe the whole of Tokyo is just villages, separated by big avenues and big buildings. The incredible thing in this country is the co-existence: the big hasn't devoured the small, the male hasn't banished the female, and the future isn't destroying the past. You have the best of both worlds.
Tokyo is a city of noisy, cunning crows. I find them fascinating. They're the monkeys of the bird world, always fighting, joking and causing mischief. I hear the government wants to cull the population, which has soared in the last few years. They are suggesting every tourist to Tokyo goes home with a 'crow pie' as a souvenir! I don't think it would taste very good.
Clocks in Japan are strangely elaborate. You see grandfathers, chintz carriage clocks and cuckoos. I think it's something to do with the fetishisation of everything that goes on here. Time here is not just time, but something sacred, to be revered and presented in decorative packages. Even the city chimes: at five o'clock happy music booms out from huge speakers! It sounds cute and a little bit fascist at the same time. I always think it's announcing the end of the world or something.
The west is 'curated' by Japan. Threatening things are left out, and cute things are exaggerated. Etiquette is studied exhaustively, sometimes to the exclusion of content. So you get great attention to the form of subcultural styles without the extrapolation of actual subcultures from them. I call the result 'Cute Formalism'.
These three graphic designers, Bentley, Farrell and Burnett, made a lot of books, albums and advertisements I remember revering in 70s Britain. And yet I hadn't heard their names or seen their faces until I picked up a design magazine in a cafe in Ebisu. I had to come a long way from home to have the true genius of my homeland explained to me!
Before coming to Tokyo I'd been reading in Japanese style magazines about this new thing, Nakame-kei. I was excited, expecting some totally fresh style. In fact, when I got to Naka-Meguro and saw the Organic Cafe and Organic Depot, I saw the same '20th Century Chairs' I thought we'd blown up at the end of Shibuya-kei, and Fantastic Plastic Machine sleeves up on the walls! I realised that Nakame-kei was just Shibuya-kei bis. It was the same style living happily ever after down by the river.
I saw this trendy dreadlock family shopping at Per Gram in Naka-Meguro. They're so cutely cool! When I look at them I feel like I could be in Amsterdam in 1970, Berlin Kreuzberg in 1980, London Hoxton in 2000. The radical natty dread family is international!
I love everything medieval. The last record I made with Kahimi used medieval instruments. So I was pleased to find that there's a trend for medieval things in Japan too. Gohan is a restaurant in Shimokitazawa with birdsong instead of music, really good rice dishes, and medieval design and atmosphere. I ate there with Shizu and Chie, and asked them how, given unlimited power, they'd engineer Japan-like conditions in modern Britain. Shizu said 'Replace Christianity with Buddhism'. Chie said 'Turn the clock back to the Middle Ages, but allow 21st century technology'.
This is Hirono Nishiyama, a friend of mine who records for the Childisc label. I recently fell in love with this label, because it seems to represent the ideal of Cute Formalism. It's one of the few labels to sign girls who record their music entirely themselves, and who know how to use samplers. But such technical skills don't stop them being as pretty as any idol.
I love Kamakura. Here I am on the beach, pretending to be a samurai, wearing my 'Design Zen' t shirt. Oh, didn't I explain my concept of Design Zen? It's simple: design has become a sort of religion. And that's when we have to start worrying that good taste, so firmly established, may actually have become the enemy of real creativity. It hurts me to say this, but I must: 'Down with Charles and Ray Eames! Down with Buckminster Fuller! Down with Raymond Scott!'
This is such a gaijin tourist photo, isn't it? The girl in a kimono running to catch the subway train. Old Japan meets new, and all that. But I had to run after the girl and snap her because, in a dark tunnel full of Office Ladies, she represented something other-worldly, something luminously beautiful. Life is about more than 'metro, boulot, dodo'.
I went to an opening in Saga at the Koyama Gallery, and afterwards Shizu and I ate at a Korean barbecue with Misako of the gallery staff. It's true that one thing Tokyo really lacks is a New York-style gallery scene. There's an old Jewish proverb that says 'When the housewife is lazy, the cat is industrious', and in Tokyo department stores, bookshops and cafes step into the gallery-shaped space: Parco, Nadiff, Spiral, Organic Depot, Watarium. More generally, everyone employed here in commercial creative industries, from manga to hairdressing, is just a few degrees closer to being an artist than their western equivalents would be. I think that more than compensates for the lack of an art district.
Where do they come from, these girls who look like Little Bo Peep or Marie Antoinette? Have they read too many mangas, listened to too much visual kei? Anyway, I love the ultra-dandyism you see in Harajuku. I think 19th century European dandies like Wilde, Huysmans and Baudelaire would have loved it too.
I'm an information junky, so I totally appreciate the enthusiasm of these magazine browsers in Parco's bookstore. Japan has more good magazines than any country I know, and they seem to have healthy sales. Even daily papers like the Asahi Shimbun sell ten times more than their equivalents in the west. In the west the tabloid papers invent scandals to sell more papers. Here it seems to be the style press who make things up. If a new style like Ganguro doesn't come along, you have to invent one, like Nakame-kei!
This fairytale chateau on Omotesando is a good example of a certain kind of Disney architecture you see a lot in Tokyo. More often than not, developers choose to rebuild Tokyo as a kind of cartoon France. There's a french restaurant by the Ebisu Garden Tower which I swear has been copied line by line from Marlinspike, the country home of Captain Haddock in Tintin.
I explored a semi-derelict building on the Tokyo University campus and found, pinned to the corridor wall, an old photo of me and the Poison Girlfriend from 1993. It was like a scene from 'Beneath The Planet Of The Apes'. I felt like an architect who'd dug deeply enough into an old building to find relics from that lost civilisation, the Shibuya-kei bubble.
Just as subcultures in Japan have an etiquette but no actual alternative lifestyle attached, so I sometimes find grafitti and posters which resemble the ones I might see on the walls of New York, but, on closer inspection, look more like installation art projects. They're all the work of a single artist. They're like posters on a film set which try to capture the capture an atmosphere of 'raw city grit' but never quite get it right. Here in Tokyo, the street art is too perfect, too aesthetic to be quite real.
This ramen restaurant really astonished me. First you have to put some money in a slot machine. It gives you a ticket which you hand to a chef hidden by red curtains. Then you fill out a card specifying how you want your ramen cooked: what kind of noodles, how hard, how spicy, how many spring onions, how much oil, and so on. This is truly interactive cooking! It reminds me of Brian Eno's idea about Axis Thinking. He said he liked to situate cultural items in a 3D space depending on their position on scales like 'Cute / Scary', 'Rude / Polite' and 'Tidy / Messy'. A haircut, for example, or a bowl of noodles. Eno said the advantage of this almost-scientific approach to creativity was that you could suddenly see 'things that people never thought of not doing'. I wonder if they've thought of giving you the choice of 'shiny' or 'matt' noodles, for instance? Or 'bouncy' or 'taut'?
I was invited to dinner with TV comedian Hakase and his friend Ishmaru Gen-Sho. They were wildmen! Since they'd heard I was a hentai, they felt they had to compete. Gen-sho said he liked to drink women's pee. 'It's the only way to get to the essence of a woman,' he told me.
Japanese schoolgirls are adorable. All the world knows this. Especially the schoolgirls themselves, who often wear their uniform on days when there's no school and they don't have to. In this they're similar to uniform-wearing pop groups like Maywa Denki, or cosplay AV stars. Sometimes I think the whole of Japanese society is one big 'cosplay' adventure. I kind of worry, though, when I see the 'No chikkan' posters in the subway showing schoolgirls with the same anxious, doe-eyed expression as the porn magazines. Is that anxiety cosplay too?
The way Japanese girls walk drives me crazy. It looks kind of lame sometimes, toes pointing inwards in a burikko pose, knees knocking together, legs kind of bandy and shuffling. Some would say this is just bad posture, but to me it's sexual magic. I don't want to even start trying to analyse why. You don't analyse magic, you just enjoy it.
I'm not sure, but I think this animal (bear? weasel?) is some sort of shinto cult, put outside shops and bars for luck. Whatever it is, the animal has enormous testicles. I can't help thinking that it's rather healthy to have them on display in public places, low down where children can see them. It means girls will be less frightened when their turn comes to see the real thing. Of course, they won't see genitals in Japanese AV, because the government censors them with pixel mosaics. But that's not on grounds of taste or morality -- if it were, these animals would all have to have pixelated penises too. No, it's to stop the Japanese porn market being flooded with American imports. Because American AV tapes, genital-centred, are just one big blur after censorship. Who would buy them? It's a cunning form of protectionism. Thank you, Mr (Bear? Weasel?) for pointing out to me the cunning of the Japanese government.
For such a tidy culture, Japan sometimes seems surprisingly happy to get dirty. Here's Shizu with green paint all over her. She loves popping plastic bubblewrap too. When it rains she finds it 'kimochi-ii' to walk by the river showing her panties. That's enough of her secrets to tell for one day.
Japanese translations of these captions (by Shizu Yuasa) will be posted here later today, Sunday June 10th.