Nov.3, 2009

Writing this now in the airport on very little sleep, and the sleep I had was sporadic at best on the 4 hour bus ride. But worth it. We left Mo-chan’s house at around 12:30am to make the 4 hour drive to Tokyo and arrive in time for Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, to witness the daily spectacle that is the buying and selling of seafood, especially tuna, in Japan. It was surreal to arrive there before sunrise to a flurry of activity ranging from forklifts full of frozen fillets of mackerel, crab, mollusks, squid and any other living creature from the sea that Japanese people will happily eat. You had to be careful not get hit by these quick little go-carts that whizzed in and around everything carrying different boxes of seafood to different hundreds of vendors. Walking through the place was akin to witnessing life under the sea above ground with both living and dead sea creatures up for sale. Simple seaweed to gourmet caviar, live crab, fugu (puffer fish), prawns, sea snails, flatfish and a few other things I never knew existed.

But the main event was the auction of tuna. Oh the poor tuna. In the particular place that visitors were allowed, there were perhaps 100 or more carcasses of frozen tuna, from God knows where, all laid out, being sampled by prospective buyers, heads, fins and tails cut off, resembling the food you find in a spider’s web more than what you pay top dollar for in a sushi restaurant. Like cocoons. I shuddered at the thought that this very event happens just about every day in Japan in several gigantic markets resembling this one. How sustainable can this be? Especially when you see the mountains of waste, styrofoam and plastic, that accompanies this whole operation. It was eye opening to say the least.

However, watching dead fish being sold for thousands of dollars is not my main reason for being here. As some of you may know I was playing several shows with a funk/hip-hop/reggae band from Newfoundland called The Discounts. Graciously funded by MusicNL (the backbone of a lot of what is happening with Newfoundland’s international music presence), we have been here for 12 days, performing and sightseeing around different parts of Japan on the “Wish Club” bus. The Wish Club is an amazing little venture started by the aforementioned Mo-chan, a local Japanese fellow, whose main goal in life seems to be bringing together nice people and helping them enjoy life in Japan and make connections to people worldwide. Through him, The Discounts and a dozen other people (including singer/songwriter Maggie Meyer from NL) visited some amazing places in this very interesting and surreal place called Japan. I won’t even begin to try to encapsulate the experience in full. It was not my usual form of travel…..a bit superficial and a blur, but interesting all the same. I’ll just let it rip stream of consciousness style.

I left on Oct.21 and arrived the same day though it became Oct.22 when I landed (I went into the future by crossing the international dateline). Met the other members of the band, by-passed the never ending urban sprawl of Tokyo and made it to a little town called Awano, where some old friends, one Japanese and one from NL who now live in an amazing old Japanese farm house that they have renovated. Cedar and bamboo forested hills surrounded the house and the building itself had a stage to play on (we later had an awesome concert there), sliding paper-paned doors, nice wood-stove in the kitchen and the warmth of friends and hospitality. Over those couple of days we played in a local in bar, at the opening of a new farmer’s market (where I befriend two very large, cute and odd cartoon characters), played at a house concert, were allowed to drink in cars, on the street and just about anywhere, and pushed the limits of the bass player’s sake (rice wine) intake limit. One of the oddest and coolest experiences was meeting a Japanese fiddle player who had been to St. John’s several times, knew friends of mine (and my brother) and he was playing fiddle tunes from NL at the show!!! Not what I expected to say the least. Nor did I expect to see capelin for sale in the local grocery store. I always knew that a portion of NL’s sea creatures went to Japan but now I was seeing it for real.

After this wonderful introduction to Japan (the rural side of things), we made it into Tokyo. What to say? The mad urbanity that you picture in your head is every bit true…..never ending rivers of people in the train stations and on the streets. Neon lights illuminate the sky, activity and kinetic energy but so quiet!!! If this was India you would be deaf by now from the car horns, music and people’s voices. Not in Tokyo. It was odd. At a festival I attended called “Earth Garden” there was fellow selling mbiras from Zimbabwe. Naturally I approached and played a tune with him and discovered that he knows some of the same people I knew in Zimbabwe. The world is more that small. Out of Tokyo we went to Mo-chan’s hometown and experienced my first of several onsen (geothermal outdoor hot spring baths). A godsend, these are pure heaven…soaking in 40 degreee volcanic heated water, naked, with the sky above and green hills around you, sometimes in the rain. At first a bit odd, seeing as how I’m not sure most of the Japanese men have ever seen anyone as hairy as me, but you get over that soon enough. With the “Wish Club” we attended a traditional tea ceremony (chado), visited numerous Shinto and Buddhist and Shinto/Buddhist temples which were breathtaking especially one with 1001 carved Buddhas (Sanjusangen-do) and another which supposedly contains the ashes of the Enlightened One himself (both in Kyoto). Visited Mt. Fuji (though covered in some clouds, it was still magnificent), passed through what seemed like a thousand tunnels (Japan is 70% hills…maybe more), went to a sake making factory, walked around traditional Kyoto where you can spot Geishas, buy $100 chopsticks or $200 hairsticks…not to mention $40 canteloupes and watermelons in Tokyo. Attended a Halloween party where the most popular costumes seemed to be Colonel Saunders and Ronald McDonald and in the same night indulged in karaoke (when in Japan one must). And what can I say about “smart toilets”? First, the seat is heated, second you push a button which makes a little robotic arm come from somewhere and squirt a little stream of water you-know-where at varying degrees of pressure!!! And some of them play music.

I don’t know where to stop. In all, Japan is a wondrous ancient and modern place that can confound you at every turn. But I do believe the most striking thing is the amazing aesthetic sense of simplicity, harmony and attention to detail and presentation that is found in many aspects of traditional Japanese culture, both inward and outward. In architecture, gardening, cuisine, the arts (J-Pop excluded), dress (traditional that is), social interaction. Of course this can all be contradicted when speaking the modern side of Japan with J-Pop, the thousands of clone like workers that swarm the trains and subways, avant-garde art and music, the chamleon-like way that Japanese people can adopt a foreign cultural trait (music, dance, art) and mimic it to the full (or use take the best aspect and make it their own). But the almost hyper-politeness of the people was a bit unnerving at times. Alas, I was only there for 12 days and barely scratched the surface of this complex society. But a good 12 days. If I ever have more time, and more importantly, more money, I’ll see how deep I can go.

All things considered, I think the most amazing thing is that I left Tokyo at 7pm on Monday, Nov.2 and arrived back in Vancouver at 10:50am, Monday, Nov.2.

Yes, I arrived earlier than I left.