Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
The Tokyo Chronicles
The US is pondering the first hundred days of President Flathead the week I leave New York for three months in Tokyo. On the thirteen hour flight up through Canada and down past China, Flathead's policies follow my 747 like an irritating shadow. His hostile, shifty glare squints up from the stunning scenery of Alaska, vast snow peaks and palaeolithic lakes stretching out for hundreds of miles in the permanent afternoon sun. Flathead will drill this sensitive area for oil. Then, as you approach Chinese coastal waters, it's hard to forget Flathead's decision to designate China his new enemy and sell missiles to Taiwan. Tensions throughout Asia have risen uncomfortably. Congratulations, Flathead!
It's still afternoon when the 747 touches down at Narita, although it's the afternoon of the next day. Grey, anxious, neat and tidy, hyper-industrialised, Japan has a different atmosphere. There's an excited buzz on the Yamanote line as people prepare for the Golden Week holiday. This week there's also a new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, nicknamed Henjin, 'The Strange Guy'. His 59 years, unruly mane of black hair and love of rock music mark a radical departure from the flabby gerontocracy of Japanese politics. Elected with a landslide of support amongst LDP party activists, this former health minister promises to sweep the cobwebs out of Japan's shaky financial system and get the economy going again. He's advocating a year of austerity. Some say he'll be out by summer.
At Meguro station Shizu and I grab a taxi to the apartment where we'll be living. It's on one of the tiny crooked alleys that make Tokyo so confusing even for taxi drivers and postmen. The contrast between urban capitalist avenues and villagey residential side streets, so typical of Japanese cities, reminds me of the unlikely co-existence of Japan's two traditional religions; Buddhism and Shinto. The avenues, vacant and impersonal, shining in the rain with neon mantras -- Fuji, Sony, Pentax -- are the Buddha's eight paths to enlightenment, which, like traffic, celebrates detachment, circularity and nothingness. The winding side streets, human-scaled and friendly, punctuated by the pink and white glow of soft drinks machines and 'Peace on Earth' posts, are like Shinto; practical, haphazard, medieval, agglutinations of habit and custom which work because people know them. As long as they aren't foreigners.
I'm From Earth
Watashi wa gaijin desu. I am an outsider. Climbing to the fourth floor of the ziggurat-shaped apartment block, I realise that my scale is all wrong. The stairs are claustrophobically narrow and at the top the flat is like a doll's house. The bathroom is a single moulded piece of plastic, the bath a mere slot, the bedroom just a mat behind a sliding door.
I remove my shoes and greet C, Shizu's roommate. She's beautiful and, as we sip soup and eat gyoza from a sizzling electric hotplate which takes up the whole table, she shows me books written by her friend, Dr Waterbridge, a TV comedian who has a nightly show. His latest book is about masturbation: under chapter headings decorated with humorous, friendly little penises Waterbridge discusses early wanking rituals with big names from the world of Japanese showbiz like Takeshi Kitano. It's hard to imagine an American parallel: Conan's Guide to Onan, perhaps? C tells me that Waterbridge is a once-a-day man. How often do I do it, she enquires? Well, I'm not as young as I used to be, I tell her, but once a day sounds reasonable. In fact it's a perfectly practical question to ask of a guest. We'll all be sleeping on the same futon.
The girls have rented a two video set of the 1979 Ray Bradbury epic The Martian Chronicles. Before jet lag carries me off to the futon I watch a poignant episode. Some astronauts arrive on Mars to discover why colleagues from earlier missions have gone silent. They climb out of their spacecraft to discover, not red soil and craters, but an idyllic scene of green and white: picket fences, leafy trees and church spires. It's the Illinois town where the mission captain grew up.
He's quickly surrounded by reassuring figures from his childhood -- his dead brother, his ma and pa, his first prom date. They feed him chocolate cake and the prom date takes the astronaut outside for a kiss. He goes to sleep in an exact replica of the family house, his brother in the next bed. Only when he decides he should go back to the ship to radio a report back to Earth does his brother reveal that he and the whole cast of this little scene are Martians. It's all been an illusion, a seductive stage set built by telepathy in the mind of each astronaut. These mindgames were the only defence the Martians could mount against invaders from a planet with superior weapons.
Japanese people are Martian too. Like the long-robed inhabitants of the red planet in the Ray Bradbury movie, they're constantly struggling against invasion by barbarian gaijin, outsiders with inferior cultures but superior fire power. Like the Martians, Japanese resort to subtle mental seduction rather than outright combat. They get into your mind, charming it with familiar scenes made only slightly strange by the thin Martian air. The great capital city of their planet, Tokyo, in reality a grim sprawl of concrete boxes, becomes in your mind a succession of pleasant and reassuring images from youth.
That's a nice explanation for why a day walking round Ura-Harajuku and Shibuya, shopping for a new bicycle, can transport me to Athens, 1970.
Every time I manage to live a few fragile months someplace warm, exotic and creative, it always reminds me of Athens, 1970. Paris gives me a little rush of it when I run away there in 1994. When I tour California I scent it in the Hollywood Hills, in Silverlake, in Echo Park. In Tokyo I get big bloody wafts of it.
In 1970 I'm ten years old. I've spent all my life at a stiff boy's school in wintry Edinburgh. Suddenly I'm whisked away to Athens. Everything's different. The buildings are white. It's warm, sunny. The streets of Psychico overflow with orange trees -- you can pick and eat the fruit! -- and stubby shrubs with exotic pink and white flowers. Greek daredevils race each other up and down the palm tree boulevards in orange BMW coupes with fancy alloy wheels. Someone guns a lime green Lamborghini Miura over the hill and my heart skips because it's like the one in 'The Italian Job'. The outdoor cinemas are showing 'Zabrisky Point'. I glimpse the blow up scene through a chink in the hedge.
The British Embassy school is filled with kids from all over the world. There are even girls in my class! They look so groovy and cosmopolitan in their mini-skirts and pointed shiny boots. I like girls. They're sweeter and cooler than boys.
Crazes sweep the school -- for cute bendy rubber tigers, yoyos, rainbow combs. I grow my hair, bleach and tan in the sun. In my little boxroom (flavour of cicadas, eucalyptus, siesta) I pin up a poster I've nicked from an Italian fashion magazine at the Alpha Beta supermarket: drawings of models in purple maxis. Here I can be girly. There's no-one to chase me onto a rugby pitch. I develop an interest in graphic design, and doodle for hours, trying to copy the funky Wucius Wong style of the yellow and orange Penguin paperback edition of Homer's Odyssey. I paint my old fashioned bicycle mustard yellow.
Shopping For A Bike
And here I am, in early summer 2001, walking round Tokyo, shopping for a bike. I know there's a craze for folding models with little wheels, and find an orange one in Ura-Hara for $120.
I'm in paradise in streets choc-a-bloc with 'sky people', Japanese Martian teens dressed to the shy nines. Girls rule this place, whether in short swinging school skirts and super-loose socks or neo-hippy tie dye. Little shops on the crisscross mesh of streets. Plank patios around small trees. An art school with open studios -- mostly pleasant fluff -- has a charmed back garden. It's all Jamaican paintwork and crazy scaffold outside, inside tiny rooms you have to stoop to enter. The scale is human, the tone gentle, creative and curious. The kids who pass by in pairs are fey, shy, weird, friendly-looking, laidback. Martians, all right.
Dinner With Waterbridge
Hakase, C's friend the famous TV comedian, has invited us to dinner at his house in Ko En Ji, a studenty area famous for ramen shops and secondhand bookstores. We take the Yamanote line. The house is on a bustling side street. Hakase has built it himself. It's an elegant four-floored concrete box. In the basement there's a library, on the first a big kitchen, and above sleeping quarters and the roof. Hakase's manservant wears shades. He prepares our supper: take-away sushi and sashimi in plastic boxes, deliciously fresh and tender. Hakase arrives presently with his writer friend Ishimaru Gen-Sho. They're an ebullient pair of comedy musclemen. Tomorrow they're heading off for a holiday in Taipei 'because the girls there cost only $20!' They're joking, of course. Hakase does a live TV show every day, and Golden Week is one of his few chances of a holiday.
The conversation quickly turns to sex. Gen-sho, heavily-tattooed, thick-lipped and likeable, tells us he loves nothing more than drinking girls' pee. It's the best way to absorb the essence of a woman. Gen-sho has spent time in jail for drug possession, and his latest books, about drugs and North Korea, have been best-sellers. He's an important chapter in Hakase's masturbation book. Hakase has also spent time in the clink: on a tour of the US he presented a speed cop with a fake driving license. He shows us the absurd document: photos of Hakase wearing an afro, Hakase with kabuki eyebrows.
Hakase and Gen-sho present themselves as hentai wildmen, full of the unabashed enthusiasm of the otaku. The assembled company listens to their anecdotes without the slightest trace of alarm. At the end of the evening Hakase, like a sentimental samurai, promises to give me safe passage in the world of Japanese showbiz. 'You are a foreigner,' he tells me, 'but I like outsiders'.
The Canals Of Mars
There's a strong Amsterdam feel to Naka-Meguro. That's where, as evening falls, I meet Kahimi Karie and Emi Necozawa at the Organic Cafe. Giant Obey posters designate this a recognised site of international subcultural importance. A Groovisions mannequin guards the door like the demons at the entrance to a Buddhist temple. Inside there's already a crowd of creative-looking people. A middle aged British fashionista-ballerina type sits sipping an after work sake with her two Japanese assistants. She looks like an exiled Vivienne Westwood.
Nakame-kei style, on closer inspection, is really an extension of Shibuya-kei. This cafe is a shrine to Fantastic Plastic Machine, whose 'Luxury' album sleeve with its fat orange and purple design by Verner Panton -- so 1970, so late 90s Shibuya-retro! -- is on the wall. The shell of the building is cheerfully shabby but the cafe is full of kitsch art trinkets and expensive modern antique sofas. I lounge on white vinyl with Kahimi and Emi, who flatter me rotten all evening. We scrawl ideas on napkins, look at a frizzy-haired pre-raphaelite photoshoot KK has been doing today, plan records. Kahimi tells me Cornelius, recording his new album in the 3D studio nearby, is expecting me to drop by at some point. Maybe I'll go tomorrow.
Pedalling my new orange bike at breakneck speed home along the cherry blossom paths by the Meguro river, I feel as happy as Peewee Herman. I'm Gainsbourg in 'Anna' and 'Slogan', Kahimi and Emi are my Birkin and Bardot. It's 2001, it's 1970. I'm a middle aged man, I'm an eternal child approaching adolescence at the end of an eternal 1960s.
Meguro is Amsterdam, Meguro is Athens, Meguro is Mars -- you can tell by the canals. The Japanese are embracing you, the Japanese are resisting you. Their i-Modes are chiming with 'Lemon Incest'. They're fucking with your brain by telepathy. And you're loving every Martian minute.