Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lost In Translation

At the weekend I went to see Lost in Translation, the new film by Sophia Coppola, which was recently nominated for a number of acadamy awards. I saw it in Shibuya, the only cinema in Tokyo currently showing it, where some of the scenes were filmed.

The film begins with Bob Harris(Bill Murray), a washed up actor from the 1970s, who has arrived in Tokyo to film a whisky commercial, for two million dollars. He's a man who seems tired with life, a man who feels drained. He's been married twenty five years, which obviously no longer fulfils him. When he receives trivial faxes and parcels containing samples of carpet for his new study from his wife, his reaction is one of apathy. The conversations he has with his wife are stilted and he no longer connects with her. He's obviously in the throes of having a mid life crisis.

The filming of the commercials doesn't go very smoothly. Problems in translation mean that the shoots are somewhat difficult and not without problems because of the confusion. He even gets shouted at by the Japanese director because he doesn't know what the director wants.

On top of this he can't sleep because of his jet-lag, so he spends his time in the bar of the Tokyo Park Hyatt. It's here that he first meets Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Charlotte is in Tokyo with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). He spends his time on shoots leaving Charlotte on her own. She too feels unhappy and at one point on the phone to a friend blurts out that she doen't know the man she's married. She's twenty five and doesn't yet know what she wants to be. She's a Yale graduate and she's tried her hand at photography and writing, but without success.

Abandoned she tries finding comfort in more spiritual things like going to a Buddhist temple and self help tapes, but unfortunately she doesn't find it.

It's only when they meet that both they and Tokyo suddenly become alive. It's then that the two lost souls embark on their adventure of Tokyo and they visit lots of places including bars, a strip joint and karaoke. Their relationship is not one about one about sex, but one about finding something in common within each other that they don't have in their everyday lives.

The underlying theme of the film is about loneliness. Coppola has used the disorientation and culture shock you can feel when arriving in Tokyo as a backdrop to help emphasise this to brilliant effect. A lot of the humour comes from the problems that the lead characters encounter from being in an alien culture and how they deal with it.

The quality of the acting from the leads is flawless and I think Bill Murray should definitely have recieved an Oscar for what is a career best performance. Although he plays a flawed and cynical character, he keeps us emotionally involved at all times with a very touching performance and he brings a lot of sympathy to the character, something that a lesser comedic actor would not have been able to accomplish.

Scarlett Johansson also gives a wonderfully mature performance playing a character older than her actual years. It is testament to both actors that even though there is a vast age gap between them and that their characters are married, that not once do we feel uncomfortable with their relationship.

The film definitely captures the distinct flavour and atmosphere of Japan for a new arrival from a western country. I was definitely able to relate to many aspects of the film. Coppola was a frequent visitor to Japan in her early twenties and her love and knowledge of Japan has definitely helped to create in my eyes what is a near perfect film.

here for the official movie website.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Japanese people love viewing flowers and having festivals to celebrate. I've already had the pleasure this year of seeing plum and cherry blossom and now it's the turn of the wisteria. On Monday I went to the Kameido Tenjin Shrine for the Wisteria Festival, which is held every year from the end of April to the beginning of May.

The wisteria are grown on a total of twenty eight trellises and are very beautiful. This beauty has influenced artists and poets alike throughout history.

Drum Bridge At The Kameido Tenjin Shrine

For example, poems about wisteria appear in the 'Manyoshu', an anthology of over 400 poems ,which was completed in the 8th century.

The wisteria blossoms at the shrine were also used in an ukiyo-e print in 'Meisho Edo Hyakkei' (100 Views of Edo), by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). You can see the picture

You can see all of the photos

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Shibuya is a shopping and entertainment district that is one of the busiest places in Tokyo. It's a shopper's paradise and is best appreciated at night. You can't help but be blown away by it.

On exiting the station the Hachiko crossing is in front of you, with its huge zebra crossings. When the walk sign is green thousands of people walk across in every direction. Surrounding the Hachiko crossing are huge TV screens and at night there's a mass of neon as well. It's this part of Shibuya which was recently made famous by the film 'Lost in Translation'.

Shibuya is also a very popular destination for teenagers and people in their twenties. It's one of the centres of youth culture in Tokyo and is a Mecca for young people with all its shops and the various entertainments that are on offer.

You might remember how I wrote about the popularity of hip hop fashion amongst Japan's youth a few months ago. Well this subculture is here as well as another interesting fashion, which appears to be looking as orange as possible.


Many young people, known as 'ganguro', bleach there hair (which results in making it look ginger) and spend hours getting a tan from a solarium or wear fake tan. The result of this is that they all look like huge walking
space hoppers.

It's something I find a little strange as Japanese people have traditionally tried to look as pale as possible. In fact you can even buy skin whitening cream from the chemist.

Something I find particularly sad and worrying is that Shibuya is also notorious for men accosting young women and teenagers, in order to recruit them into the sex industry. A fact I find even more distressing than this is that it's perfectly legal for them to do this.

Despite this Shibuya is a definite must see when you're in Tokyo.

Here's a short film.

You can see all of the pictures

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Race Queens

Monday, April 21, 2008


The final day of the Kamakura festival was last Sunday and I got to see the yabusame(horseback archery), at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine.

Before the yabusame starts, the horses and archers parade before the crowd in traditional samurai dress. Then when it begins the archers ride along a three hundred metre long pathway, galloping at full pace, shooting at three targets which are about three to four metres away from the track. This requires a tremendous amount of skill and I have to admit that it was especially thrilling to watch.

In the era of Minamoto Yoritomo, cavalry battle was the most common method of warfare and his warriors were amongst the most skillful.

To help his cavalry improve their archery skills Yoritomo introduced this competition in 1187 and to win the contest was a great honour. On the downside however, missing the target could result in the archer having to commit seppuka(ritual suicide).

Here's a short film.

You can see all the photos here.

here for the Takeda School Kyuubadou(a yabusame school in Japan who put on many of the events).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kamakura Festival

On Sunday, I went along to the Kamakura Festival, which is held every year in April from the second to third Sunday. The festival starts around ten thirty in the morning with a procession through the streets of Kamakura and this is then followed by various other forms of entertainment like dancing and music.

The procession lasted about two hours and went along the road next to the raised walkway called Dankazura, ending up in the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine. In the procession there were bands playing music, which included traditional drum playing. Lots of people carried
mikoshi(portable shrines) and there were also many people in various costumes, for example, this man wearing a lion mask.

One of the most interesting things at the Kamakura festival is the ritual dance performed on the Ma-iden stage, to commemorate Lady Shizuka, who was the lover of Yoshitsune Minamoto, Yoritomo Minamoto's half brother. In 1186 she had to perform a dance in order to entertain Yoritomo Minamoto and his family.

According to the story, Yoritomo had ordered the death of Yoshitsune for angering him. As a result Yoshitsune and Lady Shizuku went on the run, but unfortunately she was captured and taken back to Kamakura.

Lady Shizuku was known for her beautiful dancing and Yoritome repeatedly tried to make her dance, but she refused. Eventually she was persuaded to dance, but instead of singing of Yoritome's heroism, she sang of her love for Yoshitune. This angered Yoritome and he ordered the death of Yoshitsune's baby that Lady Shizuka was carrying, but only if it was a boy.

Unfortunately she gave birth to a boy and he was immediately killed and thrown onto the beach of Kamakura. The dance that is performed today commemorates these sad events and I found it extremely beautiful and interesting. You can see a picture of the dance

I also got to see an
outside tea ceremony. The tea ceremony(Sado) was originally introduced to Japan in the ninth century from China and it is the ritual way of preparing and drinking tea. It can last anything from three to five hours.

It has been influenced by Zen Buddhism and is usually held in a traditional Japanese room. There are many rituals that must be learnt for the ceremony and traditional utensils made of bamboo, iron and pottery are used. Nowadays many Japanese people interested in their culture take tea ceremony lessons.

The tea(called matcha) is very thick and green with a bitter taste and you are given a sweet(wagashi) to counter this. When receiving the cup of tea(known as a chawan) you must bow. Then when you drink the tea, you must take the bowl with your right hand and place it in the palm of your left hand. After this turn the chawan clockwise three times and then drink it in three sips, making a slurping sound at the end to tell the host that you enjoyed it. The chawan should then be wiped with your right hand where your lips touched the bowl. Finally it should be turned anticlockwise and returned to the host.

I was also very fortunate to be allowed in to see an archery competition. Kyudo, which means 'The Way of the Bow' is one of the oldest traditional martial arts in Japan and is closely associated with Zen Buddhism.

The Japanese bow is different to normal bows as it is gripped about two thirds of the way up. The bow is 2.25 metres long and is made from bamboo and mulberry wood. When practicing kyudo a hakama is worn, which is a split skirt. Kyudo is still very popular today with many clubs in high schools and universities.

There was also a Miss Kamakura competition and you can see all the lovely finalists
here. Not once did they stop smiling throughout the whole day.

Click here for all the

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine

The Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine was founded in 1063 by Minamoto Yoriyoshi and was moved to its present site in 1180, by Yorimoto Minamoto(the founder and first ruling Shogun of the Kamakura government). In 1191 it was destroyed by fire and then immediately rebuilt. Since moving it there it has been the Minamoto clan's guardian shrine, dedicated to Hachiman, the patron god of the Minamoto family. Most of the buildings there today date from the early 19th century.

Walking towards the shrine from the station you come to a huge torii(gate). From this torii to the front of the shrine is a raised walkway called Dankazura. This was originally constructed when Yoromito's wife, Hojo Masako, aged 36, was pregnant. As they had two daughters and therefore no heir, they prayed to their deity Hachiman for a boy and dedicated the path to the shrine in 1182.

Drum Bridge

As you walk into the shrine you pass through another huge red torii. At the entrance there are three arched bridges, the one in the middle being a drum bridge, which you're not allowed to walk over. These bridges are between two very beautiful ponds called Genpei-ike, which are home to much wildlife. These ponds were designed by Yorimoto Minamoto's wife Masako and symbolize the victory of Minamoto over the Taira clan.

You then come the Mai-den stage. Just beyond this are steps which lead up to the main building itself, where Emperor Ojin, Empress Jingu and Emperor Chuai are enshrined. There is also a small museum here.

Just beside the steps leading up to the main shrine there is a huge ginkgo tree. It is here that the third Shogun, Sanetomo Minamoto(1192-1219) was stabbed to death in 1219, by his nephew Kugyo Minamoto(1200-1219).

The shrine is one of the most important in Kamakura and is also one of the most visited, with around 10 million people each year. There are also many festivals throughout the year, the most important being held in April and September.

Here's a short film:

You can see all the photos here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Kanamara Matsuri

On the first Sunday of April each year, a very interesting festival is held at the Kanamara Shrine in the Kanagawa Prefecture in Tokyo. It's known as the Kanamara Matsuri, or Festival of the Steel Phallus.

The festival dates back to the Edo period(1603-1867), when prostitutes would visit the shrine to pray for good business and protection from syphillis. At this time of year they would carry an image of the shrine's phallus around the streets.

Today the Kanamara Festival is a fertility festival (and after visiting I have to admit I'm feeling especially fertile) and it also used to help raise money for HIV research.

The festival started with maiko(trainee geisha) dancing on a stage. This was then followed by the mikoshi(portable shrine) with phalluses on the top being blessed. After this they were then carried through the streets of Tokyo. In fact one of the shrines(the big pink one) was carried by a group of transvestites. If you want to you can even join in carrying the shrines if you like (a dress is optional).

If your easily embarassed it's probably not your thing, but from what I could tell everybody had a great time. I think the great thing about the festival is that it shows what a wonderful sense of humour Japanese people have.

If you want to you can also buy
penis shaped sweets.
People also carve out penises from various vegetables such as carrots or radishes. These are later auctioned off to the highest bidder.

One of the funniest things to happen was when I was having my photo taken on one of the huge wooden phalluses that you can sit on. Just as my picture was about to be taken, an old lady walked up and put her arm on me.

You can see it

Definitely a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.

I also managed to make some new friends.

You can see all the photos

Here's a short film of the festival.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

If you like bunnies click here.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The cherry blossom is still out, so today I went to the Emperor's Palace.

Kitanomaru Park is a very beautiful park situated in the grounds. It's just the place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and have a quiet stroll. You can also go boating in the moat if it takes your fancy.

You can see the photos

Thursday, April 03, 2008

On Sunday I went to the 28th martial arts festival held by the Kokusai Budoin(International Martial Arts Federation) at Ota-kumin Plaza. I had a very enjoyable time and it was very interesting to see demonstrations of various martial arts including karate, judo, kendo and aikido.

In fact when I was young I used to do judo which I enjoyed greatly, so this brought a lot memories flooding back. I've also always had a love of martial arts films too with 'Enter the Dragon' starring
Bruce Lee being one of my all time favourites.

A Brief History of Martial Arts in Japan

Karate as we know it developed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. 500 years ago, the Japanese government made weapons on Okinawa illegal. This resulted in the people refining hand fighting skills and using farming implements in order to protect themselves from bandits or samurai. Examples of weapons include nunchukas which were originally used as a flail to beat rice and the bo, a staff used which was originally used to herd cattle.

The first public demonstration of karate in Japan was in 1917, by Gichin Funakoshi, at the Butoku-den in Kyoto. This led to the growth of karate clubs throughout Japan. In 1948, the Japan Karate Association (JKA) was established which lead the way to the spread of karate throughout the world. Today there are four main styles of karate-do in Japan which are Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, Shotokan and Wado-ryu.

The beginning of jujitsu is believed to be in 1532 when the takenouchi-ryu martial art system was founded. Over the next few hundred years the art of self defence without weapons was refined by the samurai. In total there were over seven hundred forms of jujitsu.

The restoration of imperial rule(the Meiji Restoration) during 1868 led to the decline of the samurai class and martial arts in general. The state was considered more important than the individual and martial arts were therefore not encouraged.

A man called Dr. Jigoro Kano is credited with the survival of jujitsu. In 1882 he took various techniques used in jujitsu, leaving the more dangerous ones and created a new discipline which he called judo or 'the gentle way'. Judo focussed on improving the individual so that they were of benefit to society through sportsmanship, respect and moral development.

The principal techniques of judo are throwing and grappling. Points are awarded for good technique and if an opponent is held for thirty seconds or submits the fight also ends.

Kendo means 'the way of the sword'. In kendo, two people fight against each other using a shinai, which is a pliable bamboo sword. In practice a wooden sword called a bokken is used.

During the 14th century the sword replaced the bow as the primary weapon of the samurai. This led to the formation of many schools practicing the art of swordsmanship. The shinai was developed in the 18th century along with armour, which meant injury during practice was far less likely and this allowed the swordsman to concentrate on technique.

In 1871 kendo was made compulsory in Japanese schools because of its mental, moral and physical values and it is still part of the curriculum today. Points are scored by calling out and striking a target area which includes the head, the side of the body, the throat or the wrists.

Aikido was founded by Morihei Ueshiba(1883-1969), who is now referred to as called O-Sensei (Great Teacher). He developed aikido as an alternative to other martial arts which he had spent many years studying. O-Sensei was a deeply spiritual man and aikido allowed him to combine his religious beliefs with martial arts.

Aikido translates as 'the way of harmonising body and mind'. The foundation of aikido which sets it apart from other martial art styles is its philosophy of non-violence and conflict resolution, combined with jujutsu techniques. In total there are over 150 basic techniques and over 2000 combinations of tosses, blocks and punches. It is a method that focuses not on punching or kicking opponents, but on using their energy to neutralize them.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On Saturday night, I got to catch up with Kaoru, one of my old Japanese friends who I met whilst teaching in England.

First of all we went to an isakaya in Shinjuku for a really nice meal. After this we went out to karaoke. It's been a couple of months since I last did karaoke so I was a bit worried about being a little bit rusty.

However I had nothing to worry about. After my rendition of 'Mony, Mony' by Billy Idol the karaoke computer told me I had scored 86/100. In fact I consistently scored in the 80s so this must in fact mean I am a great singer. Who am I to argue with technology?

You can see the picture of us in the isakaya