The Japan Notebook

In April this year, Wales Arts Review Senior Editor Gary Raymond followed National Theatre Wales to Japan to cover their collaborative production with New National Theatre, Tokyo of Alan Harris’ The Opportunity of Efficiency. He interviewed cast and crew, and wrote extensively about the project for both Wales Arts Review and The Guardian. But, drawing heavily from the influences of his favourite travel writers, he also filled a few notebooks with his thoughts on the country he visited. Here Wales Arts Review publishes some extracts from those notebooks.


Decisions of Gravest Importance

Preparation for Tokyo hit a brick wall today as I realised I would have to choose carefully my reading material for the short time I am away. I am a believer in matching the fiction to the environment. I have been ever since I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whilst on the run from an unspecified murderous republican army, with only my cassock for clothing and sacramental wine for sustenance. That reading experience really stayed with me.

But what to take to Tokyo? Murakami has been the most recommended, but I am going there to work, and 1Q84 may restrict the number of other things I can take with me, like clothes. It’s a big book. Plus, I have always had a fear that Murakami is addictive, especially to someone like myself, who has addictive reading habits. I don’t have the time at present to give up everything and read his back catalogue. So I need something a little more physically and demandingly flimsy. I remember reading a book by James Clavell when I was young, named Tai Pan. But I remember that being big, too. And quite irrelevant. Clavell wrote a number of books set in feudal Japan, centred around a square-jawed European (who often became Richard Chamberlain by the time of their silver screen adaptations) who would spend most of the book, as far as I remember, westernising the shit out of the Japanese girls. There must have been sword fights, too. I can’t imagine I would have read them at that age otherwise. So Clavell’s work seems quite inappropriate and unappealing, really. It’s a shame that those are the counterpoints of my spectrum when it comes to the literature about the country I am to visit.


I am reading at the moment James Wood’s collected essays, The Fun Stuff. As a critic I believe it’s important to know your trade, and Wood is one of the best critics around. He opens with a dubious testament to the genius of Keith Moon, however, and I’m struggling to get to the fabulous essays I know that come after, such as his appraisal of Sebald, of Hardy, and his demolition of Paul Auster. I disagree with him on Auster, whom he says has done himself no favours by writing as much as he has, but it’s a fine essay despite this; rich and tumultuous and subtle and dashing, like all of the best criticism. So maybe I’ll take that. He always has something to teach me about my work.

It’s not all about content, of course, when choosing books for travelling.

The journey itself means a delicate choice. I read Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible on a National Express coach last week and felt extremely out of place. Perhaps if I had read it from an iPad, and out loud, I would have fitted in better.

You have to be careful what you read in public. Many people are fascinated by readers more than they are by books. The last thing you want is for somebody to start up a conversation with you. I remember once, when I was about 18 or 19, I was on a train, and a chillingly beautiful young girl of about the same age sitting opposite me struck up a conversation. She soon asked what I had been reading, what was the book I had only half closed in my hand as we spoke? Conversation had been going well, I thought, up until then. When I showed her the cover of The History of the Jews from Alexander the Great to Anthiochus Epiphanes her bottom lip went hard and conversation dried up quite quickly. I still, to this day, believe she alighted that train several stops before her destination, just out of base fear of how weird I was.

And I wouldn’t want to force any casual enquirer into making that same decision whilst we’re 35,000 feet above Siberia.

So, tomorrow, before I have ironed a single shirt or even opened the phrase book loaned me by a friend, I will sort out my reading material for Tokyo. Very carefully.


Advice from the Proselytes

I’ve never known a destination evoke so much advice from people as Tokyo. Advice and barely-contained fuming jealousy. A girl from St John’s Ambulance came to my door yesterday and, when Tokyo was mentioned, she asked, with a psychotic glint to her eye, if she could ‘fit in my suitcase’. Her diminutive size was less an obstacle than the psychotic glint. But I am now giving St John’s Ambulance five pound per month.

Other manifestations have been of the more predictable kind: ‘I’m so jealous,’ has been popular; ‘I hate you,’ I’ve heard often; and ‘You fucker!’ has been not infrequent. I realised early on that trying to explain to people that I am going there to work means very little. And quite right, really.

Advice: it has all been welcome. But I don’t ever remember getting this much when, say, I went travelling around America as an 18 year old. I was on my own then too and maybe, ‘Watch out for Rednecks,’ may have come in handy.

But Tokyo is not a place about which people talk, it is a place about which they proselytise. I do have to wonder if I am going to a city or into the warm embrace of a cult. At this stage in my life I am casting no judgement either way.

As for Tokyo advice, so far I have particularly liked, ‘don’t blow your nose in public while you’re over there.’ It’s not something I tend to do anywhere if I can avoid it, but now I am intrigued as to what happens specific to Tokyo. Is it cultural? Is it topographic – can the paper walls not stand it? Is it technological – do the neons flicker?

I have also liked, ‘If you have a hangover in Hatagaya, don’t drink the coke.’ ‘No?’ ‘No. It’s not coke.’ ‘It’s not?’ ‘No. It’s like some kind of fizzy cold black coffee.’ (I spent the rest of the day imagining what a wonderful Christopher Isherwood novella Hungover in Hatagaya would have been).

Other advice has been sound: experience the Kabuki, have breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market, don’t keep on about your love of Blade Runner.

So, all good advice, heartfelt and welcomed. Tokyo is a city that seems to have inspired ferocious devotion from everyone who has experienced it. I will follow all of the advice, if I can; but if I see one origami unicorn I can’t promise the Blade Runner thing.


First Impressions Last

So, here are some initial thoughts on my first eight hours in Tokyo.

As I sat observing city life early this morning it occurred to me the strangeness of the place; how it is so familiar and yet also not quite familiar. It is almost like a counter-factual universe, an alternative dimension in which enough is the same as my own to fool me some of the time. The buildings are the same, but the cleaners dress like Ghostbusters, for example. It’s the little things.

And it’s easy to forget when observing that so far almost nobody has been able to understand a word I say. That may sound obvious – even ignorant – of me, but I’m not making a point about the language barrier (I’ll do that in a moment). Tokyo seems like home, only fuller, the contrast turned up, and it’s invigorating, and then something happens and you realise you’re not at home, but in an enhanced reality. It took me about 6 minutes to see the appeal of this sleek, sprawling city. Tokyo is almost like a re-invention of our own world. I’ve seen no litter, no queues, no snarls, no grunts, no fat people, no drunk people (okay so most of this has been early on a Monday morning). I also didn’t see anybody having a conversation until I popped in a bar for lunch. But if I had a slight concern at the prominence of ‘Look Out’ on the list of ‘Things You Might Hear’ in my Japanese phrasebook, it was gone after an hour of walking around, and realising that cyclists can avoid pedestrians with ease.

The famous smog-fighting face masks are not so prominent as you may have thought. They’re here, but I’d say only about twenty per cent of the population are wearing them. But I’ve seen more masks than iPhones, which makes it more than a fashion statement. The Japanese, although like the rest of the world are doing next to nothing to combat air pollution, are at least acknowledging the problem by protecting themselves against the very real threat, rather than just, literally, sucking it up.

But my first concern of the place is rooted in my own shame at not knowing the language. So far, my Japanese is not going well. I’m a long way from causing a diplomatic incident, but that is largely down to the level at which I mumble my requests, appreciation and attempts at charm. I am immediately every dickhead I have ever looked at abroad and thought, ‘You could have had the common decency to learn how to say, Thank You!’ I just can’t get my mind around the shapes of the words. I need a tutor, not a phrase book.

I’m having a hard enough time bowing. I thought I was doing okay with the bowing. Trying not to exaggerate it. But then I saw two Japanese people in a coffee house this morning bowing to each other and then laughing ironically. Is it old-fashioned to bow? Is it too formal? Is it ironic? Do I look ironic when I do it? I’d imagine not. Not in Japanese, anyway. I look, at best, a tourist ripe for the fleecing.

I suppose there are a few reasons why this is proving tricky. Firstly, I have never taken naturally to languages – and I’ve studied enough of them: Latin, Greek, French, Maths. Secondly, I’d like to think there’s a defensive fear of becoming too involved and giving up my writers’ privilege of being stolid observer. But the third reason may render the second one pretension too far.

I can’t deny that it has a little to do with the ever widening stain of a previous life of intellectual laziness on my part. It’s about spending over a decade not trying hard enough at things I’m not very good at, and the ground lost is difficult to claw back. The field of languages may be lost forever. It irks me that I know this to be the case. If Beckett can write Godot in French then how hard can it be for me to commit to memory the Japanese for “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE WORDS YOU’RE SAYING MEAN!?!”

I will make a pledge: I will not eat unless I learn some Japanese, and learn it properly, with pride and aplomb. Something I could have been doing this morning instead of watching the city drift by, I suppose.


The First Forays

It is Tuesday, my second day in Japan, and tonight will be the opening night of The Opportunity of Efficiency. With that in mind, and the last puffs of the haze of jet lag about me, I decided to see a bit of the city this morning, taking the metro to the other side of the map to have a walk around the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. I was warned it’s tourist-heavy, but I figured if the jet lag were playing tricks on me, where better to collapse of exhaustion than amongst tourists.

Yesterday had been a long day to say the least, beginning at 5am on Sunday in a hovel a short walk from Paddington. One of the saving graces, one of the highlights of the longest day, was finding just how warm and smiley and welcoming the Japanese are, and how patient they have all been with my mumbling and bowing and occasional unconfident ‘arigato’. So any initial childhood fears I may have had that connected all Japanese women with harbingers of tortuous doom (I’m thinking Sadako from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, the world’s worst date from Takeshi Miike’s Audition, and even maybe the man-munching anti-heroin from the same director’s Gozu) were quickly laid to rest. Which may have set me a little too at ease.

Half-way through the hour it takes to get from Hatagaya, where I‘m staying, to Asakusa, I had a not-very-mild yawning fit on the train. When I caught the eye of a young girl opposite me, who smiled at my teary, twisting predicament, in an attempt to explain that my yawning was down to the final remnants of jet lag, I used what I thought was the safe bet of amateur sign language. For some reason, connected to both limited arm space on the busy train, and not really wanting to draw attention to myself by running up and down the aisle with my arms held out mimicking the noise of a jet engine with my mouth, I coolly motioned to the girl the age-old symbol of a bird in flight with my hands as wings and thumbs interlocked. I immediately realised that I was giving civil aviation an attribute it had not had since the earliest, and quickly abandoned, designs of the Wright brothers: that of flapping wings. Her demeanour – relaxed, pleasant – began to shift a little, and I realised that what I had actually signalled to her was more along the lines that my fatigue was brought on by the symptoms of some kind of avian flu. She did not make eye contact with me again during that journey, and we sat in silence and awkwardness for the next twenty minutes; just like a normal tube journey.

That brief escapade seemed to have kicked out the vestiges of the fatigue, however, and I spent the next three hours or so walking around the magnificent (and tourist-heavy) temples and gardens of Sensoji.

This is the Japan that a westerner like myself wants to see, if only to set a tone, a level of respect and awe. I am told that very little of Tokyo looks like this anymore, and it doesn’t take walking too far from the beaten track to see this tradition-based atmosphere has been condensed into a visitor-friendly avenue. That is not to say it’s at all untrue, but rather it is an echo amidst the cascading powerlines and glimmering high-rises that are the mountains either side of this valley-floor of yesteryear’s Japan.

Even in the bustle of tourist curiosity and festival-like ostentation there are the faith-full, who touch fingertips and bow at every Buddha and modest wooden shrine they pass. It is a mixture of devotion, curiosity and awe for everyone who walks down the avenue from the main gate to the Hondo. The five-floored pagoda sits to the left of the main Hondo like a man-at-arms, the trusted consigliere of the grand old man.

All around, scattered like satellites to the gravity of the Hondo, are other smaller temples and even smaller shrines, each of them carrying their own images, symbols, myths and histories. It is a reverently busy scene, and it is impressive how the overall feel remains far from that of a theme park, because it would be easy to equate the parts that make up the sum that way.

I then went out of the range of the obvious tourist sirens, and had lunch in a local restaurant, where I did a bit more pointing and bowing and ate something that I think was a turnip in a chilli and ginger sauce that was possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. I abandoned all ambitions to elicit the recipe from (yet again) the utterly delightful waitress, who spoke no English.

During lunch I caught my first glimpse of Japanese television, which seemed to be a programme not dissimilar to The Price is Right, only hosted by a chemist, and intercut with long segments dedicated to archive footage of Margaret Thatcher screwing over working class people. I think understanding the television here, when I barely understand the one I see in the UK, may be a bridge too far.


Work, Rest and Play

Wednesday afternoon I made a quick dash for the metro and went to the other side of the city to visit Ueno Park, a vast space that contains many museums, art galleries (I seem to have timed it well and visited in between Da Vinci and Rembrandt exhibitions), temples, a shopping mall, and the commemorative hill of Ueno-Koen where the last stand of the Tokugawa shogunate took place in 1868. (That may or may not have been the same battle in which Tom Cruise almost single-handedly rescued a Japanese theme park from closure through the sheer force of his over-acting in The Last Samurai. Frankly, I felt it rude to ask.)

The park is not particularly spectacular; the many large grey museum and gallery buildings are too dominant on the eye, and the war memorial is eerie with the weight of its past rather than chillingly visually symbolic. Anybody who has visited the aesthetically unremarkable battlefields of England’s Civil War, such as that of Edge Hill, will know what I mean when I say that standing there is quite different to just looking at it.

On the outskirts of Ueno-keono, I was lured into a traditional restaurant by the warm sound of Sarah Vaughan and Wes Montgomery tripping across the air. The Tokyo attachment to Jazz is a very interesting symbol of the people’s position between the Orient and America, its two big lumbering neighbours.

In the restaurant I ordered (pointed at) a plate of salted fish and some soup of some sort. The soup was delicious when it arrived and mainly made up of spring onions and seaweed. The salted fish however was not all that similar to the picture on the menu. What I had pointed at was a crisp selection of fillets glistening with a generous sprinkling of sea salt and a gorgeous trim of vegetables. What I got were two tragic-looking deep fried fossilised flying fish, the first of which looked up at me as I picked at it, with a resigned look that said, ‘This is edifying for neither for us.’ But at least he was just losing bits of his body, where I felt I was giving up something of my soul during the process. It did taste good, though.

In the evening, after getting the wrong train to the wrong part of town for an event at the British Council, I cut my losses and went to the neon dazzle of Shinjuku for a bite to eat and a few lonesome beers.

I found a basement bar on the main drag that was empty but for an American couple. I drank whisky while we chatted about the usual topics of path-crossing bullet-points, before I was left in the ‘very capable hands’ of the three barmen who had me, and me alone, to look after. As the emptiness of the place was slightly discomforting, I decided to drink more than I had intended in order to lighten the mood. The excellent Japanese whisky, Habiki, was served to me in a heavy-bottomed glass (important) with a single ice globe, a tad smaller than a cricket ball, in the centre of the glass. Sitting alone at the bar listening to Frank Sinatra and Julie London, I spent the next hour convincing myself that the Japanese tradition of whisky-drinking meant that I could not go until the cricket ball had melted. So I decided to obey the parameters of this tradition I had just invented and then bestowed upon an ancient culture. I remember leaving, and rallying the three barmen, who spoke no English, to cheer the unofficial Wales Arts Review in-house motto, ‘Onward and Upward!’ with me – an idea brought on by the ominous thought of climbing the steep staircase onto the street and returning to the metro.


My experience of the food here so far has been extremely good, as you’d probably expect. I almost tried horsemeat last night, just to alienate vegetarians when I get back to the UK, but it was raw, and I’m a believer in taking one step at a time in matters of exoticism.

This evening I had my life changed yet again by having chunks of cucumber in sesame oil and salt crunch between my teeth. I have always been dismissive, if not downright suspicious of cucumber. It tastes of nothing, and yet seems to make everything that accompanies it taste of cucumber. How can this be? Well, I am now a cucumber convert. Which sounds a more strident declaration than I intended it to be.

Musically, the restaurant I ate in tonight played awful Japanese pop, which was a new encounter (it is almost always jazz – Miles Davis and Coltrane in last night’s restaurant). I don’t know what the songs were about, but I heard the word ‘arigato’ over and over again in song after song. The only equivalent in English of songs offering such fevered thanks that I can think of is Christian Rock. And this Japanese music shared the same ironic soullessness of Christian Rock’s shiny, rimshot-infused blandscape; so perhaps I was introduced to Japanese faith music this evening. I’ll stick to the flavoursome cucumber, thank you.


The Lost in Translation Thing

I spent a few evenings in Shinjuku, where Sofia Coppola’s beautiful old-school Hollywood romance Lost in Translation was shot. If you have ever spent a week in Tokyo, ostensibly on your own, and you are an admirer of that movie, you cannot help but bring it to mind. But, lonesomeness and neon signs aside, the other thing was seeing two advertising campaigns, a few times run within yards of each other. Tommy Lee Jones for Hugo Boss and Takeshi Kitano for Japanese Rail. That two of cinemas hardest old bastards can feel comfortable on massive billboards strewn across a megacity brings Sofia Coppola’s film within tapping distance of the screen, (maybe about to climb out Sadako-style). It’s discomforting to think of Tommy Lee Jones solemnly sipping whisky in a piano bar as Scarlett Johansen lazily strikes up a conversation. A very different film. (Kitano, however, seems the right man to advertise massive things made out of steel that go really really fast).

The Lost in Translation thing, although clearly a cliché, is a resonant one. There is a cute code in Tokyo, I have noticed, that is particularly prevalent in the often frantic – and, frankly, not-very-well signposted – train stations, and that is the moment of eye-contact with another westerner. It is subtle, but it is often pleading, as well as relieving; a mixture of sigh and shriek. It is akin to people passing each other in a dream world, or on the banks of the Styx, as when the poet sees his Beatrice in the underworld of Dante’s Inferno, and she glides past, offering him a glance, but it is glassy and unknowable.

There is a quick moment of ‘What are you doing in my dream?’ that crosses the eyes, and then we move on, simultaneously reluctant to leave the cultural air hole that we have fleetingly provided for each other and keen to keep moving through the surges and peaks of this glorious place. Of course, the chances are that most people you see in this scenario would also be removed from you by language, but for the moment we are simply ‘Those in the East’, the fishes out of water.

And then there are times when the place just gets you, and you find yourself apart from the person you thought you were. Last night I went for a walk around Shibuya, a thumping neon carnival of a place. I found a cocktail bar and drank J&B highballs for a few hours to a soundtrack of Glenn Medeiros and other famed beach enthusiasts (in a scene I believe that was cut from the final edit of Lost in Translation). And not only was it not spine-crackingly hideous, I was actually enjoying myself. Although when Phil Collins came on I left, and I’m now at the airport, about to leave the country, just several hours later. That is the all-destructive power of Phil the Don. He even drove me out of my own dream.

Stepping Outside of Tokyo

A play doesn’t get hung in a gallery, or pressed onto vinyl, or printed onto a page – the script might be, but the play is not. Every performance is unique, and a uniqueness planted on the bedrock of an immense collaborative effort of minds and ideas. As a critic, a writer, I might be able to give you an impression of a performance, but omit the lighting, and so on. I can give you an impression of the play on that night, (just as the play itself is only an impression of the story it wants to tell). But I cannot relate the true experience of a play, just like I cannot truly explain what Japan is like to visit. You have to see the play for yourself.


I was in Kamakura today, in an attempt at seeing the Japan outside of Tokyo. It’s only an hour by train from the heaving beast of the city, but it is a very different experience; a small town, and from 1185 to 1333 the capital of Japan. It is the ‘Home of the Samurai’, as the sign tells you at the train station, and is dotted with temples and shrines. But it is a working town, an urban area that falls open in spots to make way for the glorious sprawling grounds of its illustrious past. It has quiet streets and busy market areas, and a grubby, bustling public transport hub. It is aproned by lush forest that bristles up the hillsides on either flank.

As I have tried to explain when writing about other temples, they are awe-inspiring edifices, but here in Kamakura they have the countryside as the perfect backdrop. The weather was warm and a light breeze carried the tune of wooden wind chimes. Kencho-Ji is a working Zen training monastery and, taking your time to walk around it, is one of the places that makes you wonder what you’ve been wasting your life on all these years.

Although a life of contemplation can go one of two ways, I suppose: that of Sartre, who comes out of his study and changes the way we perceive the world; or that more likely to be me, where I spend the years in the Ryuo-den wondering why my back only itches at the exact spot my hand cannot get to, whether reaching over my shoulder or under arm. Why that spot? What is so special to that spot that two inches higher or lower are so immune to? Would it continue to itch if my arms were longer? Or if I grew my nails? You see how contemplation can go either way. I’m doing it right now.

But the point is that The Opportunity of Efficiency is not just the play, or the painting, achieved, hanging in the gallery. It is a symbol of the coming together of two distant, very different nations. It has something to do with a Welshman wondering about these temples, in a tiny way, because it is about the world getting smaller, and the need, if the shrinking is to be healthy, for us to understand each other. And God knows we’re in trouble if that means learning each other’s spoken language.


The Moment in the Park

Memories of a city are more often than not made up of the details; rather than being punctuated by the landmarks one visits, it is those moments in between which really make that place and that time remain potent. Very much like a good novel, the power of it lays fundamentally in the images it leaves with you, and that impression is almost always human, not brick or mortar or even vista. From Tokyo I will remember the people I have met, whose warmth and energy have been enlivening in itself. I will remember the dedication and passion of the NTW team to make the most of this opportunity. And I will remember a moment when my tired old feet sent me to a bench in a small park after a morning walking around Omote-Sando.

As I crunched into the seat, allowing the cool breeze to push through the humidity and over me, a young couple took the bench just opposite. They were beautifully relaxed; casually stylish, handsome, contented-looking, and she was pregnant, the bump a perfect roundedness beneath her sun-yellow dress. They said very little; they glanced about the park, hemmed by skyscrapers and chrome, and glanced at each other, the girl following the curve of her belly with the palm of her hand, he gently tickling the edges of her hair with his fingertips. It was the picture of the perfect morning stroll. And as I noticed them – as I took notice of them – a song by Cat Power came over my headphones, ‘Where Is My Love?’

It may sound like a moment of some sadness, but it was rather a moment that displays the powerful beauty of melancholy, and how some experiences are impossible to describe because they should be private to our own minds. It is why poetry exists, to give a sense of the indescribable and this moment on this morning was the perfect symbol, as Yeats would have had it, for my Tokyo trip. It has been a melancholy beauty: the most impressive of beauties.

I’m writing these notes sitting in the coffee shop of Haneda airport, overlooking the grey morning seep upward from the horizon line. Of course, I don’t want to leave. Tokyo has given me so much to think about, not least the nature of the ambitions of Wales and its artists. But it’s also given me much to think about myself, too. But that’s not for notebooks. That’s what writing fiction is for.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis