Colonel Santa and the Red and White Song Battle, or My New Year’s in Japan


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Yoyogi Park

25 December 2011

On the Narita Express (N’Ex!) to Tokyo.  It’s a clear winter day.  Bare trees raise their feathery branches towards the sky.  Rice paddy fields, their harvest exhausted for the year, give way to neat little houses, then uniform apartment blocks that crowd either side of the tracks, so that when we cross a bridge we are surprised by the sudden horizon, the clouds, a river, and a wheat-coloured baseball field where kids are doing early morning sprints.

M asks if I thought it was ugly the first time I saw it.  I say I don’t remember.  It’s not ugly now.  I’m comfortably numb from the wear of the flight.  There aren’t many people in the streets and the traffic still eases along.

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Tokyo from Aoyama-I-Chome

26 December 2011

You’re never alone on the streets of Tokyo.  Even on the latest drunken stumble home, you always happen upon someone on their own night errands.  Now, I’m sitting in the sun on another clear winter day, at a cafe on a side-street t-junction, watching the steady stream of people.  They speak in quiet, regular tones, moving around each other and the slow intermittent cars.  They are impeccably dressed.  There are many beautiful looking people.  In groups, the women laugh and chat in high clear voices.  The men are mostly alone, but even in groups they barely talk.

Christmas in Japan is a commercial holiday.  Somehow, through clever marketing, I guess, Kentucky Fried Chicken has positioned itself as a traditional Christmas food.  Colonel Santa?

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Aoyama dori with Christmas lights

I put the green handpiece back on the hook of the public phone.  “Thank you.  Please be careful not to forget anything,” it says.

The next one steals my change.

29 December 2011

Spent the whole day walking around Harajuku looking for dress shoes, until I hated shoes and everything they stand for.

Met M’s former boss at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo Midtown.  Took the lift up to the restaurant and bar on the 45th floor, and felt like I was on the set of Lost in Translation.  The restaurant lounge had high ceilings, caramel wood block columns and views from the Imperial Palace to the new Sky Tree digital broadcasting tower, all the way out to Tokyo bay.  There was some nice modern art – colourful dynamic and uncontroversial – and a large water feature incorporating rose coloured stone and bamboo.  As we eat our tasteful portions, I thought, “I could get used to this.”

That night we met M’s friend, Eri*, at Shinagawa, a station I used to transfer through every day on my way to work.  It was just as I remembered it.  She lead us off the main street and through the back alleys, full of small bars and restaurants, packed with the after work crowd.  We settled on a busy little sea food place with buckets of mussels and oysters out the front.  We could only get a small table by door, me on a stool with a steady stream of people squeezing past behind me.  The waiter, a skinny guy in a bandanna, made a joke of saying that everything was Japanese – Japanese beeru, Japanese hotake, Japanese potato sarad.  The staff had a call and response routine going, and when I said that the sashimi was delicious, our waiter yelled it out to the whole bar.  Eri eat little but drank alot, and I had to drink quickly to keep up with her.  Pretty soon I had the Asian flush.

30 December 2011

Chain coffee stores are good for writing because everyone treats them like they’re disposable.

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Sunrise over Kamogawa

1 January 2012

In Japan, every year on New Year’s Eve there is a singing contest called Kohaku Uta Gassen, literally red and white song battle.  The red team, girls, and the white team, guys, compete for votes from the audience and a panel of random celebrity judges – this year there was a fashion designer, the guy from the Norwegian Wood movie, and a sumo wrestler, amongst others.  The winner gains nothing but streamers and tears of joy.  The contestants are a mix of enka singers, soft rock bands and manufactured pop groups.  They are expected by the conservative national broadcaster to be squeaky clean –  a not-so-minor national scandal occurred when a member of a popular boy band was found drunk and naked outside his own house.

We slept for an hour then piled into the old Mitsuaoka, the four of us, and drove down to the docks to see the squid fishing boats getting ready to go out. When we got there, it was dark and empty, except for some stray cats scrounging in the nets. The boats were moored and bare except for New Year’s decorations made from rope and bamboo, with giant flags planted in the middle.  So we went to a small sea-side bar run by a young escapee from the salary man life, and drank chilled red wine, and eat potato chips and sausages and edamame.

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