Monday, 25 June 2012

Sights, Smells and Gateways to Hell, Hokkaido

I saw a lot while I was in Hokkaido (the Northernmost island of Japan) last week. Some places, like the Ryusei and Ginga waterfalls in Daisetsuzan National Park's Sounkyo Gorge...

...were so dazzling I couldn't contain my excitement. This was taken just before I danced (yes, danced) down about 30 flights of stairs:

Other highlights of the natural world included ann extremely large pine cone

and the view from the top (well, as close to the top as the chairlift would take me) of Mount Kurodake

At a park in the middle of nowhere, I found architecture that turned me into a giant...

...and then, I vowed never to eat eggs again after being blasted by the acrid smoke rising from a place everyone calls 'Hell Valley'

Far more hellish than this, though, was the place the train dropped us off on the way. Just outside the station, in the middle of the busiest season of the year, was a completely, utterly deserted fairground:

I was a little unnerved - especially when the next place we arrived looked equally like a lot of people's (including my) version of purgatory

Tomakomai Ferry Port

A night and several beers later, though, we finally made it to the famous Matsushima Bay

...which, of course, called for a Japanese-style celebration!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Sound of the Week: Tokyo's Mutant Rain

My abiding memory of Tokyo in June will be the sound of performance-enhanced raindrops. They sound far more solid than liquid water has any right to - on my roof, anyway. Listen here!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Wish! Fulfilment: Return to Yokohama

In Japan, the school year starts in April, so the kids I told stories with last September are now officially one year older. And so am I! But neither party was any less excited, I'm pleased to say.

At Tamaplaza Nozomi, I managed to stop the kids from climbing into my story bag for just long enough to give a whistle-stop Japanglish rendition of the marvellous Momotaro. Lots of people's favourite part of the story is the bit where Momotaro bursts out of the peach and shocks his new 'parents':

...but not this lot. I had thirty budding foodies on my hands. Like me, their favourite part is the bit where Momotaro gets his packed lunch:

Kibidango - a malty, chewy, utterly delicious Japanese sweet with which Momotaro bribes a bird

a dog

and a monkey join him in his quest

to fight the demons of Onigashima

Soon, though, it was time to leave Kibidango behind, and go on to the next stop on what was becoming more of a food than a story tour of Tokyo nurseries, was the Umeboshi Plum Festival at Shouka Hoikuen.

I received an important piece of advice from some very wise thee-year-olds...

...about how you should NOT eat raw umeboshi plums. Three hours of indigestion later, I wish I'd followed it.

I was coerced into doing my first outdoor performance (in the rain)...

and into giving more piggybacks than my own back could really stand without complaining...

But it was only my back that complained. I had far too much fun to have anything to complain about. Although. I have to say, I'm pretty glad I escaped School Dinners:

Another marvellous outing. Roll on the next!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Gorillas, Cake, Ueno

In Ueno zoo, for lunch, you can eat the same food as the gorillas.

As delicious as everything looks, I had one big problem: where is pudding??!

It became apparent that 'gorillas don't eat cake' or even, in this zoo, bananas (the staff clearly don't care whether their primates are super monkeys or not). I rushed home and made sure I used both:

Then, inspired but underwhelmed by the mixture of unsweetened, unsalted popcorn and cereals the gorillas get, I made a series of improvements which I hoped would make the lot end up tasting like toffee:

It didn't look promising at first

 But, after twenty minutes in the oven (and another twenty minutes hacking the crunchy gooey sticky result out of the tin - the most exercise I've had in weeks) I can safely say that gorilla's lunches contain most of the raw ingredients for proper food. All it needed was a bit of salt and sugar.

Another problem solved, then. Onward!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Noh Notebook: May 2012

Trying to cram as much Japanese performance into my life before I go back to the UK is no easy task. Sometimes I approach it with dread

sometimes with out-and-out terror

 But deal with it, I must. So, in May I saw about 15 hours of noh. Here's what happened:

At Umewaka nohgakudo, I saw my first noh completely performed by women. This almost NEVER happens in professional noh even though most of the main characters are women, or ghosts of them. In Semimaru, where a blind prince and his sister are reunited after years apart (in real life rather than in death or dream, for once), it was rather strange that the brother was actually smaller than the sister. But it didn't make any difference to the intensely moving moment when he recognises her voice, and she his face. They kneel before each other, and touch their fans together. It is so rare for characters to touch each other in noh plays (in most of the famous ones, every character is in his own world, within the waki character's mannered and symbolic dream) that when it does happen, it's like being struck by lightning or something. The power of the story didn't make the characters any easier- or indeed any less fun - to draw. 

Then, a special performance at the National Noh Theatre, of Ama (The Diver) one of the oldest plays in the repertory and one of my favourites. I don't know enough about noh to tell the differences between the different noh performance guilds' practices, but I did like the special costumes enough to attempt to recreate them in pastel rather than biro for a change...

...and the sea dragon headdress wasn't bad either

Perhaps the best thing of all about the National Noh Theatre, though, is the seat-back surtitles (which you can set to English and/or modern Japanese). Despite the slightly odd Japanglish word order, being able to follow the spoken story reminded me, with a rush of delight how much the poetic language adds to noh's already utterly mesmerising feast of storytelling for eyes, ears and heart.

I was glad there were two plays I already knew in the marathon program at the Hosho school on 19th May because there was no English explanations for anything, at all! Compared to the performance of Rodaiko I saw at Kita nohgakudo a few months ago, Hosho's version felt generally quieter, sadder, less angry. y mind and my pencil wandered, to the Kyogen costumes

 and, since I'm about to start learning noh drumming, the musicians:

I'd only seen the 'jumping lion dance' (shishimai) section from the end of  Shakkyo before (it finished off the Takigi Noh performance at Meiji Jingu shrine last October. But at Hosho, I finally saw the whole play. Honestly, though, the red lion hair (which I rather anti-intuitively drew in black on the day, oops) is still the highlight for me

Finally, back 'home' to Kita's monthly performance. It wasn't only because I'd forgotten to bring anything but a yellow highlighter that I hardly drew at all. The warrior ghost play Michimori which began the programme, was so surprisingly moving that I couldn't take my eyes off it (which is why there is a proper print and not a scribble below)

The storyline wasn't unusual - a husband and a wife, both dead, lament the life and love they lost. But they do it standing beside each other in a boat, mirroring each others' slow, measured movements but never once being able to look at each other, while the music sounds a frenzy of grief, running wild in a way I imagined they might do themselves, if they could.

Asukagawa was another 'mother and child'/madwoman play like Hyakuman which I saw in April, with a beautiful scene where three rice planters sing about the perils of the Asuka River... but the demon play Nue (about a griffin-like creature who gives the Emperor terrible nightmares and is punished for it later) was the flashiest. Just like Shakkyo, the monster's dance at the end is dynamic and fast and exhilarating.

Phew! One month to go, lots more noh to see. Here goes!