Sunday, 27 November 2011

Tokyo Book Universe

When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was drawn like a charged magnet to Tokyo's book district, Jimbocho, before I even really knew where I was. It was very comforting to find it by accident even though I was looking for something else entirely - the best possible homesickness cure.

Book nerd that I am, Jimbocho might be the nearest I'm ever going to get to 'heaven'.  It has the largest concentration of bookshops - both new books and secondhand ones - in the whole of Japan...

It also has its very own weekend-long festival, dedicated to furui hon (old books). Lanterns light up the streets and there are book stalls everywhere, right outside the book shops. My snapshot from the festival doesn't do it justice at all -

Now, I don't have to go back there by accident: I actually work there!

But it isn't only Jimbocho that makes Tokyo's book universe so exciting, its the shops and the libraries, too. At one of the shrines in Kamakura last month, I found one of the most beautiful mini libraries I've ever seen.

On the outside, it was guarded by carved gremlin-dragons

and a succession of scary-looking metal statues of samurai stamping on goblins

but inside, amid some eye-bogglingly fantastic ceiling woodwork, was an ingenious book 'merry-go-round'.

When the windows were open, priceless sacred texts were on display
And when they were shut, it was all the easier to appreciate the fact that the plainer bookshelves around the outside were made of gleaming Japanese cedar (which smells almost as beautiful as it looks), every inch of them filled with MORE books. I had been taken to Kamakura by a non book-loving friend - politeness was only thing that stopped me from staying at this library all day.

At the Edo Tokyo Museum a couple of weeks later, I happened upon a reconstruction of a Tokyo bookshop from the 19th century.

At least the sign said it was a bookshop - there were so many drawings in the window, I would have mistaken it for an art shop.

Then I read the museum notes, which confirmed what it's not difficult to just 'get' from the amazing variety of word/picture creations I've seen in Japan...that, unlike so many other places, illustration simply never stopped being one of the most important parts of mainstream fiction. Childrens books (Akahon) and 'adult' books (19th century Japanese porn) even had colour coded covers - red or black for children's, yellow for something a little more 'colourful'...

Inside the covers of allmost every genre, almost all genres were - and often still are - heavily illustrated. The museum listed a cross-section: Sharebon (witty novelettes), Kokkeibon (humourous books), Dangibon (sermon-style satirical books), Ninjoobon (romances), Yomihon (history and morality books) - some obvious, some I would never have guessed!

So, armed with this new information, I went back to Jimbocho, to the oldest bookshop I could find, and spent a few hours poring over old (illustrated) scrolls and picture books

Then, I went into one of the offices there, and started working on new books, too.

I love Tokyo!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Ueno, Samurai, Cuddly Toys

I was delighted when I heard that this Thursday was Bunka no Hi, a national holiday especially dedicated to Japanese Culture. Samurai, rakugo storytelling, kimono: heaven! Meiji Jingu Shrine, where I saw my first fire-lit outdoor (Takigi) Noh play last month, is THE place to go to see traditional culture. So on Thursday afternoon, at the Meiji Jingu Autumn Festival, I saw some brilliant samurai swordplay

sometimes in full armour

Yabusame (samurai archery from the back of a galloping horse)

and, to top it all off, a daylight view of the marvellous Meiji Jingu Shrine itself. Here is one of the Torii gates on the way to the main entrance, surrounded by huge Japanese cedar trees planted in honour of Emperor Meiji

Barrells of French wine and Japanese sake are piled up in their hundreds along the main avenue to the Shrine, too, symbolising cultural and spiritual exchange between Japan and the West

Meiji Jingu, the perfect setting for sightseeing Old Japan. But my cultural day didn't end there: it's not just traditional culture that is celebrated on Bunka no Hi. Next stop - Ueno.

The station doesn't look like much - it's a far cry from pristine Shinjuku or Shibuya. But Ueno is a real cultural hotspot, too. Tokyo's biggest park and only zoo (!) are in Ueno, yes, but even more exciting is that Ueno is also home to Tokyo's biggest food and clothes market. Add London's Brick Lane, East Street, Dalston and Spitalfields and together, and you get something a little bit like... Ameyoko!

The place is usually HEAVING, full of working people picking up sushi-grade fish, awful plastic slippers, doner kebabs, and a lot more

This being Japan, there were also lots of other weird and wonderful things to see on the way, including these mechanical chopsticks, which spend all day lifting noodles in and out of a bowl by one of the market stalls

Being a bargain hunter as well as a traditional culture geek, my afternoon just kept on getting better!

But, it didn't even end there. No cultural week in Tokyo would be complete without seeing at least one extremely weird cuddly toy. This specimen, from the four-storey toy megastore Kiddiland in Harajuku, was one of the best I've seen so far

It is, of course, very cute - most things here are. But I know what I think this round, brown item marketing itself as a loo roll case looks like, despite the pretty little strawberry shaped hat...

What doesn't count as 'Culture' in a city like Tokyo, for a voyeur like me? Ahem.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Noh Way!

On Sunday, four days after my return to Tokyo (during which time I also had to move house, start a new language school, and also start two new jobs), I made my first public appearance as a Noh performer.

I still can't quite believe it. In a fit of enthusiasm earlier in October, seduced by the chance to appear on on one of the most beautiful stages ever, I'd agreed to prepare a shimai (a short dance) from the play Hagoromo (The Feather Mantle) for the Kita Noh School's annual noh variety performance. What didn't cross my mind at the time, and definitely should have, was my total lack of experience. Most of the people who call themselves 'students' of the Kita Noh School have in fact been performing for the better part of their lives. Extremely well. My first ever experience of Noh was at the end of August this year... 

When the time actually came though, I managed, thankfully, to escape any absolutely overt humiliation.

The day kicked off with Noh singing, but then (eek) it was on to the solo dance stage of the performance. Erk. The only thing that stopped me from being sick on my kimono was the even more illness-inducing thought of having to pay for the damage...

After a slightly hesitant start

I got into it, and remembered what I was supposed to do.

The story is simple enough: an angel loses her feather mantle on a trip to Earth. Without the mantle she can never return to heaven. A poor man finds it, and demands that she dance for him in exchange for the mantle's return. The dance is elegant, almost painfully slow and controlled, and if it's done properly, should have an entrancing, otherworldly quality to it. This time, I was simply delighted to have got to the stage of 'getting the movements in the right order'. Phew!

Wearing a kimono for the first time was pretty amazing, too. I've never seen a piece of clothing so complicated to assemble (it takes YEARS to learn how to put a kimono on yourself), but I've also never seen anything quite so astoundingly beautiful either. Lucky me. Roll on the next performance!

Here are the rest of the photos.