Friday, March 04, 2016

Forty Thousand Years Wide

To the Manchester Jewish Museum again, for the latest in their series of innovative concerts. In the last couple of years, the museum has showcased the work of Manchester University lecturer Richard Fay, who runs a klezmer module in the music department. The students play as a group, or kapelye, and also with Richard's ensemble. We have been to a couple of these concerts, and most enjoyable they were: the students are very proficient, and they play with skill and zip. This year, a more ambitious programme was presented. The Jewish presence in Manchester is mirrored by the Irish: both originally poor communities of immigrants who arrived in the booming Cottonopolis of the nineteenth century seeking a better life. The areas of Manchester where they lived were close to each other, so Richard imagined how it might be if the sounds of one community floated across the Irk to intrigue the ears of the other. For this, he needed an Irish group, and, in what is definitely a bit of a coup, he recruited none other than Manchester Irish music legend Mike McGoldrick, last seen by me on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in Mark Knopfler's band.
Richard's programme was called "Amid the Mirk over the Irk," and while the pedant in me would want that third word to be "Murk", it described the context very well. A little scene-setting spoken word introduction quoted contemporary accounts of the filthy slums crowded around the "pestilential effluvia" of the River Irk around Red Bank (where the Jews had gathered) and the ironically named Angel Meadow, where the Irish had set up home. Then we were treated to a series of tunes where one or the other side would take the lead, with their counterparts joining in, and collectively they produced some glorious music. It actually seems relatively unlikely that there was much crossover at the time, but it's a nice conceit, and allowed for some vibrant fusion.
McGoldrick brought along Dezi Donnelly, with whom he played all those years ago in Toss the Feathers, and the very accomplished banjo and guitar player Angela  Durcan. Mike called the shots when the two units played together, a nod of the head or a raised eyebrow being enough to convey his instructions. The former student group, L'chaim Kapelye, acquitted themselves brilliantly. We had seen some of them before in previous concerts, and once again were impressed by their virtuosity. They have a potential star in bass player Lucie Phillips, who again pleased the crowd with her renditions of  the jaunty "Der Rebbe Elimelech" and the old favourite "Yiddishe Momme," both of which she sang last time. I would love to hear her sing the Kurt Weill repertoire - she would give Ute Lemper a run for her money.
The gig was covered by local writer Mark Davoren, and his very detailed account is already available. I won't add more except to say I was intrigued by the final spoken word passage, entitled "Our Ancestors Forty Thousand Years Wide" which seemed very mysterious. I thought it might be an oblique reference to the idea that art is generally agreed to have become a human activity about forty thousand years ago. It turns out that it's the name of a traditional klezmer tune which features on this album by Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars. Frank London, I discover, is a member of the fabulous Klezmatics. The tune has no lyric, other than a "ya-da-da" which we all sang along to as the final piece in the concert. A quick encore led by Mike McGoldrick, and we were off into the rainy Manchester night. Another excellent night at this venue, which is really working hard to make itself a destination in this most multicultural of areas. 

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Big in Japan 10

We loved our trip to Japan, and had a wonderful time exploring its culture, history and geography. But like Prof. Macfarlane (remember him?) we felt that we had merely managed to skim the surface of the country, and that that we could spend a lifetime trying to truly understand it. We discussed this in Hiroshima, with someone who had lived there for twenty years, and he confirmed that feeling at home in Japan is a very elusive thing for a foreigner.

That shouldn't put anyone off, however, so I thought I would offer some of our insights, in no particular order, aimed at the potential traveller to Japan.

1. Travel at least once on the Shinkansen. It is a wonderfully relaxing way to get from A to B. The Japan Rail Pass is a bargain, and if you intend to move around on your holiday, it's essential.

2. Be prepared for some surprising experiences when you go to the loo. In hotels and restaurants, you will often find an all-singing and all-dancing loo with switches for various types of warming or cooling bidet-style water jets, and music or birdsong to accompany your actions. Like this:

3. Don't worry if you are vegetarian. We imagined that we would struggle, but certainly in the cities there are loads of ethnic restaurants that are fine for veggies, especially Italian. And of course, in Hiroshima, there's the possibility of a vegetarian okonomiyaki. One possibility we had considered before travelling was to eat at the temples, where you can sometimes get vegan food from the kitchen. Once in Japan, we found that the temples are now quite chic destinations for foodies, and that the kitchens are not open to the public that often, and the prices are sky-high.

4. Try to use some Japanese, even if it's only "Hello" and "Thank you." The people will really appreciate that you made some kind of effort. English isn't spoken that widely, but we found that in the cities at least, most people had some basic English vocabulary.

5. Bow. On greeting people, and leaving them, or when some sort of transaction is going on, like a shop purchase or a hotel check-in, bow. It becomes a habit, and it's a little acknowledgement of the more formal way of doing things in Japan.

6. Be prepared to be ordered about, very gently, by people you come across. Japan's economic culture encourages long-term employment security above short-term economic gain, so people are employed in functions which would not be seen as necessary in England. For example, we often saw a smartly uniformed man or woman at the entrance to multi-storey car parks. Their job was to usher in the cars as they approached, and to hold up pedestrians who were crossing in front. Another instance was in hotels, where, rather than allowing the customer to approach the reception desk on their own, a group of employees would intercept you, and direct you to the right counter. A similar process obtained at the Japan Rail office at the airport, as I mentioned. This is related to their love of paperwork and bureaucracy. You will get receipts for everything.

7. Use the Metro to travel around Tokyo. Tickets are cheap, the network is extensive, and if you avoid the obvious rush hours, the trains don't get too crowded. We never saw anything like this:
8. It's not as expensive as you might think. Because the Japanese economy has been stagnating for so long, prices are actually pretty reasonable from an English perspective. We paid no more for food and services than we would pay at home - maybe London prices in Tokyo, but nothing ridiculously expensive.

9. It's safe. People can walk around late at night without fear. Street crime is very rare. Obviously, it's sensible to take precautions, but we never felt the edginess that you get in British cities at night.

10. It's clean. Litter and rubbish are not tolerated. I've never come across city streets so free of detritus anywhere I've travelled.

These Japan posts have, I hope, been of interest to my reader, but they've also helped me to process the experience, and to relive some great moments. We have very fond memories of our trip.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Big in Japan 9

Our last day in Japan was a drizzly, overcast one in Tokyo. We had pretty much avoided rain the whole time we were there, so we couldn't complain. We set out to see some more of the capital, thinking that indoors might be best. When we were planning the trip, we had thought about visiting the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but discovered that to gain access, you needed to visit on particular days, having booked tickets in person for timed entrance, and we just couldn't manage it. Nevertheless, we could visit the grounds, which are huge, but first we looked at the rather splendid Tokyo railway station, with its redbrick façade, apparently modelled on Amsterdam's. Each corner had a spacious entrance hall, with an art nouveau look:
Tourist in the rain

Across the way from the station was the shopping mall called Kitte (Japanese for postage stamp) which is housed in the old central post office building, a striking 1930s edifice, to which has now been added a huge tower to house all those trendy boutiques and restaurants. We went in to find some shelter and sustenance.
We decided that we had to at least experience the Imperial Palace compound, so, bravely ignoring the rain, we headed for the gardens. It was really wet, but still impressive to see this bit of old imperial Japan, fortified by massive walls and a huge moat, in the middle of this exclusive part of the city.

We resolved to go in search of culture to get us out of the rain, and went out of the north-west corner of the imperial grounds (having collected a token on entrance, and given it up on exit) to find the National Museum of Modern Art. We found that one of the major exhibitions was of an artist I'd never heard of, shamefully, despite the fact that he was a modernist operating in Paris in the twenties. He was Tsuguharu (Leonard) Foujita, and what a fascinating man he turned out to be. He knew many of the big names of the avant-garde, such as Modigliani and Picasso, had a chaotic personal life, and was more commercially successful than many of his contemporaries, mainly because he painted lots of cats.
Foujita, Self Portrait with cat. Image: irinaraquel on Flickr
Unexpectedly, he was also a war artist, and the exhibition contained some enormous canvases of battle scenes, some gruesomely realistic - the Japanese government required what they termed "war campaign documentary painting" from its artists, and Foujita supplied it. You can see some of his war work here. After that sobering experience, we walked around the corner to the Crafts annex of the museum, where we saw some brilliant examples of contemporary pottery. This small gallery was built around the same time as the station, and is again a very European-looking red brick building, originally the home of the imperial guards. The gallery's website gave another reminder of the war:

The Headquarters of the Imperial Guards was also the setting of an event of great historical importance. In the late night and early morning of August 14 and 15, 1945, a group of Army officers plotted to prevent the broadcast of the Emperor’s statement to the nation announcing Japan’s surrender, ending World War II, scheduled for noon on August 15. They murdered Lieutenant General Mori of the Imperial Guards Division and issued an order in his name to seize the recording of the Emperor’s statement and thus prevent the war from coming to an end. That attempted coup d’etat occurred in the Imperial Guards’ headquarters, making the building the site of one of the most critical incidents in the modern history of Japan.

We enjoyed the work of Kuriki Tatsusuke, whose pots were decorative rather than functional, often featuring bands of clay woven around a central form. It was a pleasant and peaceful way to end our soggy trudge around this part of Tokyo.  We had an early start for the journey home, so we went back to our hotel, and began to try to understand what we had experienced.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Big in Japan 8

We returned to Tokyo for the last few days of our holiday, and determined to see as much as possible. On our first afternoon, we walked up to the Rappongi Hills complex, a huge high-end shopping mall with restaurants, cinemas and a convention centre. It wasn't much different from those you will see anywhere, though we were very impressed by the bookshop, which had quite a lot of English language material, and some intriguing Japanese items too, including a specialist book brush, which we bought for the home collection.  Who'd have thought that the Japanese equivalent of GQ would be called after a German romantic poet and philosopher? It is, though:

As a sharp-eyed former colleague pointed out, the cover star here is none other than footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, who once improbably spent a season playing for Bolton Wanderers.  The complex has, of course, an extensive garden area, and we went there to escape the hustle and bustle of some sort of product launch that was going on in the main building. The contrast of the greenery of the gardens and the glass and steel of the complex was startling.

As we walked around town, other odd conjunctions could be seen. Even in the most fashionable part of Tokyo, you might still see very modest, traditional places cheek-by-jowl with huge statement buildings designed to show off corporate power.

Our hotel, in the south western part of downtown Tokyo, was a few minutes' walk from the Hiro-O subway station, which gave us access to the quick and efficient transport system. The following day,  we wanted to see the some more of the capital, so we bought a cheap day ticket and headed out early, making our first stop at the Hama-Rikyu gardens in Shiodome, a peaceful green enclave in the midst of the corporate towers. The garden dates from the seventeenth century, when it was built as a retreat for the shogun and his family. There's an island teahouse, and lots of flora and fauna. It's a very pleasant way to start the day, but our main purpose in visiting was because it's the starting point for the Sumida River trip.

Hama-Rikyu teahouse


The river trip takes you north to Asakusa, passing under many bridges, and giving a flavour of the city from an unusual standpoint. The landmark building at Asakusa is the Asahi brewery building, designed by Philippe Starck, which dominates the view when you arrive at the jetty. It's meant, apparently to look like a beer glass, to complement the beer mug-shaped building to the left, and the peculiar golden top is supposed to be the froth. For reasons that will be obvious, the locals refer to it as the "poo building" and the topping as "the golden turd."
Asahi building
One of the attractions for us in this part of the world was the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo's oldest, founded in 645, and dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Unlike other temples we had visited, this was not a peaceful backwater, but a bustling and very crowded area, approached through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and then via a long bazaar-like market, the Nakamise, packed with stalls selling souvenirs, traditional crafts, and food. We didn't fancy Octopus Ball, so hurried on to the temple itself.
Local delicacy...

Some smoke rising from the incense burner
It wasn't a very spiritual experience, but it was quite a sight to see so many people crowding the temple precincts. One unusual sight was the crowd around the big incense burner in front of the temple. People waft the smoke over them to protect against illness. We sampled the atmosphere for a while and then moved on, taking some time to look at the hundreds of stalls in the covered arcades of the Nakamise.

Our next stop was Ueno Park, originally yet another temple complex, but now home to several of the city's galleries and museums. Perhaps the most notable for us was the Le Corbusier-designed National Museum of Western Art, outside which stand a series of sculptures by Rodin, including a version of The Thinker, and his massive, and massively impressive, Gate of Hell.

Rodin's Gate of Hell
We fancied somewhere quiet after this, so we hopped on a local train to visit the Yanaka district. This area survived the earthquake of 1923, and was not bombed during the war, so retains an old-fashioned feel. The Japanese call this area shitamachi, meaning literally "low city." There's a big cemetery there, complete with a lovely temple containing a large bronze seventeenth-century Buddha. We strolled around the cemetery, made friends with a cat, and encountered the Buddha.

Tenno-ji temple

Yanaka's shopping streets diverted us for a while, and we finally gave in to the temptation to buy a souvenir in one of the many shops selling pottery.
In Yanaka

We felt that we had seen a lot this day, so we headed off to the subway for the trip back to our hotel, where some delicious tempura vegetables were in the offing.