This was a biggie, one I’d been looking forward to with some excitement. Previous visits to Japan, four I think, had all been as part of more extensive far-East run-arounds, taking in places like Taiwan and South Korea before heading off down to Australia or round to the States.This trip was to be exclusively Japan, certainly a run-around, but all in one country; I was going to be able to really see the place and get the feel of somewhere that I’d always loved to be.To me, and for some reason this didn’t apply to anywhere else in that part of the world, Japan had always been a place so different from home, so totally removed as to be from another world, and for that reason was probably the most exotic place possible. The biggest contrast between east and west, with the refreshing feeling that east was better, or more dynamic, certainly.
And of course touring the place as a Second Trombone put me right in the shoes of Nanki Poo from ‘The Mikado’, ‘a wandring minstrel I’.
It took two flights to get to our first venue, Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu. An immediate example of the sweet, cherry-blossom side of the Japanese mentality came as we landed, and the stewardess announced ‘It’s very hot here today and I feel that spring is in the air’. As indeed it was when we stepped out into a warm but fresh March afternoon. But that flight had already had a darker side, as we flew down from Tokyo, and passed directly above Hiroshima. To be even in the same air space as the Enola Gay, 73 years after the event, I felt a twinge of guilt, or was it just sadness? Some kind of awe, I think, and not a comfortable kind.
From long experience, the best way to deal with jet lag is to ignore it completely. Just switch to the time of wherever you’ve landed, and carry on with that day as best you can, until it’s the right time to sleep. We’d left Heathrow in the early afternoon the previous day, and arrived in Fukuoka approximately a day later, except this day was 9 hours ahead of England. I used to simply knock myself out with alcohol on long-haul flights, but that tends not to happen anymore, and therefore neither does the unconsciousness; I didn’t sleep much on the two flights.But as a section, 3 trombones and tuba, we met as tradition demands, down in the foyer as soon as any unpacking was done, but sooner rather than later, and headed out into our first Japanese city.
Out and about.
Wonderful and slightly unreal to be here again. Huge department stores, smaller shops and restaurants with only the very occasional recognisable word in the signs outside. I think this has always been the foundation of my wonder at Japan, that the language is so utterly differently-shaped than ours. Of course that applies to many many languages, but the ornate and picture-like characters of Japanese I find very attractive. Just as appealing was the soundtrack, of lots of electric speakers on the pavements outside the shops, excitedly advertising wares and (I presume) encouraging pedestrians to come inside. Always female voices, with that high, lilting intonation, speaking quickly, like children telling of an adventure.
We all seemed to be doing OK as we headed up towards the main station, always a good bet the world over for places to eat, drink or be amused by. But beer was definitely called for, and after a short walk round the increasingly-thriving streets, we went upstairs to a small pool bar. Of course only a small percentage of Japanese businesses are on the ground floor, at street level as they are in the west; here always keep an eye on the signs above you, showing of restaurants, pachinko, bowling alleys and karaoke bars several floors up.
We spent several hours in our room on the fourth floor, drinking many revitalising beers (got to stay awake!) and shooting a lot of pool. An even smaller room just off ours filled up with young students. Almost like the classic clowns comedy car, the room seemed to be way too small to accommodate the long line of excitable kids who trooped in and closed the door behind them. I’d had a peep before they arrived, so I know how small it was, and I couldn’t decide what this room was for. I peeped again now and a crammed party was going on, talking, singing, a karaoke machine was playing, and dozens of smiling oriental faces beamed at me as I gawped in. The single waiter was now run off his feet supplying soft drinks to the room (always knocking first!) and beers to us.
After several hours we left and came down to the street in the lift, crossed the road and went into a restaurant that seemed to fit what we were looking for, i.e. an all Japanese menu, with only pictures for us to recognise. We sat upstairs and ate gyozas (to which I was to become almost addicted during this tour), tempura chicken, barely-grilled liver, a surprisingly delicious salad, miso soup, skewers of pork and cigarillos filled with meat, with either wasabi and sweet miso paste smeared gently across the top. A great introduction. This was early evening now, and a good time to head back towards our hotel. In the street next to it there was exactly what we wanted, it couldn’t have been more perfect: a small, red-lantern bar that we could sit at and finish the day, or days, with more nibbles, more beers, and a goodnight vase of sake.
My experience with jet lag had worked, and I woke fresh and ready the next morning. Unusually, breakfast throughout this tour was not provided by the hotels, and I’d formed the plan before setting off that noodles, heated by the water in the room kettle, would probably do fine for something to start my days off. But I had to find some first.
So off out, to a supermarket very close by. Is there a better way to discover any country than a market, indoors or out? I absolutely relished being surrounded by this environment, a version of our own but somehow filled with completely new, mysterious and macabre produce. First thing to catch my eye was a plastic tray of fish, small and tightly cellophane-wrapped. I say fish because it was simply a ghastly, squashed-in assortment of any parts of a fish; some flesh, some red vertebrae, black, spoked tail, and from two different parts of the tray, half a head with a large eye each looking at me defiantly. A big plastic container of sea urchins, which I’d never seen before, straight from the nearby dockside fish stalls (Fukuoka is a port), and large transparent plastic bubbles, like goldfish bags at a funfair, mostly empty but for about an inch of water in the bottom, in which swam a shoal of minute minnows, a hundred to a mouthful. I found and bought a few pots of Japanese noodles, only one with any English on it (on purpose, I wanted the mystery of just seeing the picture on the pot), lots of green water and lemony tea, some chopsticks of course – the smallest bag contained about 100 – some bags of bananas and tangerines, and a couple of small but heavy sticky cakes, covered in rice paper and filled with sweet paste. Back to the room to slurp down some noodles (the slurping is of course part of the procedure in Japan), and I was boosted to set off into town again. I had thought that the breakfast would slow me down but it fired me up, the noodles were delicious and spicy, and there was no way I was going to sit in my room and wait to meet the chaps at lunchtime.
Wandering and discovering on my own has always been my best fun on tour. Company can of course have different ideas, and lead you in directions you wouldn’t have thought of, but I find that going solo does that too, if you just follow where interest takes you.
Back up in the busy streets near the station, I briefly wandered through a mall of low-key shops, selling souvenirs, and clothes and kimonos. There were a few bars and restaurants, just starting up, and I admired the indecipherable menus and the plastic plates of food on display. Out in the open air there was a wailing. Across the road was a pet shop, with extremely lively kittens shooting around and playing in the windows. These were enticing to watch, yet they weren’t the ones wailing. Two girls under umbrellas in the rain now, stood outside the shop, calling for customers. They had a plaintive sort of chant, half singing, half shouting, were dressed identically in the shop uniform, and chirped their repeated phrases to the passers-by continuously.
I wandered into an arcade of flashing lights and pachinko machines, rattling and zipping away. At this time of day it wasn’t very busy, just a few early addicts feeding the machines with the tiny silver balls and watching like hawks. Pachinko, if you don’t know, is also a mystery to me. People sit and play, as if they were fruit machines, yet all that ever seems to happen is a constant running of ball bearings round a screen, rather like bagatelle or pinball. Now and again the tray at the bottom fills up with the balls, and the player shoves them back in the machine. I’ve never seen any money involved, and the screens, like an arcade at a funfair, are bright and noisy, and the machine-gun rattle of the zooming silver dots can be deafening in a big pachinko parlour, as they’re called.
This was a several-storey building so I went upstairs, actually looking for the advertised bowling alley; this had been mentioned as a possible activity yesterday. Easily found, there was an alley on each of the top three floors of the building, and they were busy already, this was around 11.30am I suppose. Having taken the lift up, I walked down the stairs in the middle of the tower to the second floor. To my amazement, room after room of karaoke stalls! And they were all being used, by teenagers and young students. A whole floor of corridors leading in different directions, full of study-size rooms, box rooms, each with a huge TV screen on one side and a comfortable leather bench on the other, a table in the middle for snacks. And many times I saw one young girl or boy singing with their microphone to the words on the screen while another sat with his or her books, studying for school, working. Then they would swap between studying and singing and occasionally snacking, and as I say, every room was taken. There were rarely more than three to a room, usually two, just friends spending the morning this way, in a mixture of studying and partying. Karaoke is still huge, 30 years on from when the craze first started, in fact it’s now undeniably a standard part of Japanese culture. It was lovely to watch, though of course I had to just pass along the corridors, glimpsing what was going on, I couldn’t be too inquisitive or intrusive.
Back out in the fresh but sunny street, I suddenly realised I was pressingly but delightfully hungry, the sort of appetite that it’s just fun to fill if you time it right. I heard it, and went straight into a local place opposite, was shown upstairs, and ordered a plate of 6 gyozas and a beer. This was a perfect moment really, and I realised this might be a highlight of the day for me. The hunger was dimmed but not satisfied as I walked out, and back into the mall area, and a place I’d spotted earlier. This was a steamy sushi bar, where locals sat on stools round a kitchen area, and ate various small chunks of fish and rice as and when they felt like it. Previously, I admit, I’d been intimidated enough by its obvious localness and familiarity not to go in, but I’d now had a beer, and I pushed through the door and sat down. It was very easy really, and no need for me to have been scared off earlier. Another beer, and I pointed to four small pictures on the menu, two that I was pretty sure were tuna, and two others. Need I say these were all absolutely delicious, and how wonderful to be eating such stuff in these surroundings. The chefs in the middle moulded the rice in their hands, expertly sliced the raw fish, and called hello and goodbye to everyone when the door opened. It was lively, steamy (a few of the sushi snacks available were hot, as opposed to raw), I finished my beer and morsels and strode out, a local already.
Now it was time to meet the chaps, who were by now wandering up from the hotel. They were all hungry, and though my appetite and mood were both calmed by my explorations, we all went for lunch. In an upstairs room of another wooden shack, the lads ate big bowls of noodles while I had two giant tempura prawns, covered in egg. The egg was actually a mistake, though I’d ordered it deliberately. But it took out all the crunch of the tempura. But I ate the soggy prawns anyway, and some of the rice beneath, soaked in soy. Miso soup was provided to drink, as it is everywhere, and also some green tea.
I then told the guys where I’d recently been, and they wanted to try the sushi bar, so back we went. It was emptier now, for some reason, and we filed in and took up most of the counter on one side. Lots more slabs of tuna, fatty tuna, herring, scallop etc were ordered, along with a few more beers. I realised this was my fourth lunch.
A brief wander past the station and up towards the river, but we ended up tramping some miserable streets and the drizzle was starting to come down. Almost imperceptibly it grew heavier, and we turned back to the warmer town, and back upstairs to the pool bar of yesterday. As we were now all pretty damp, the waiter rushed up with small heated face towels for us, a nice friendly Japanese touch. Already it was impossible not to be charmed by the politeness of the people, from hotel staff to shopkeepers, everyone acknowledged any contact with a gentle and smiling bow. Although lots of the Japanese cities are 100mph, as London is, this graceful touch seems to take away a lot of the rush; a serene speed at all times.
After a short time playing pool again, we decided to go back to the hotel, hoping the rain had stopped; it hadn’t. The hotel was a good 20 minutes or so away, and we did it in an absolute monsoon. At one point I stopped in a department store doorway to phone Helen, it must have been early morning in England but we’d hardly spoken since I left so we were just getting the best times to call organised in these early days. Soaked, in a brightly-lit shop front in south Japan, I yelled above the rain and was surprised she could hear me. Then back out into the torrent – I’m not exaggerating, it was as heavy as a jungle storm – to splash back towards the hotel. The lads had obviously gone on ahead, and I caught up with them at the red lantern bar. Saturated, we pushed through the plastic screens, the locals at the bar looked up, though to be fair, they didn’t look that surprised, and the landlord brought out hot towels.
Coming in from the rain to this warm wooden room, this was all rather comfortable, and we perched at the end of the bar and settled in for an hour or so. All these bars are small and cosy, and after our dash through the elements we could have been in an Arctic shack in a blizzard. We racked up a few more beers as we thawed out, and started to nose at the menus, only for nibbles. And so shortly arrived more gyozas (admittedly 24 of them, 6 each, they slip down so easily), belly pork skewers, and (my fault, this one, I pointed to the wrong item on the menu) pork gristle, which tasted porky enough but was obviously chewy cartilage, these looked like, and could have been, piglets ears. On the bar already were the bowls of edemame beans, which we since discovered everywhere, and which come with a saucer of soy sauce for dipping, as do the gyozas.
The Wonder of What’sApp.
After a while I’d had enough, and went to my room, the chaps to another bar round the corner. It was providence that I left at that exact time. Back in my room there was an extraordinary 3-way What’sApp conversation between me, Helen, and Adam and Cristy. Helen was on a train at Finsbury Park, on her way home at 12.18 because of the heavy snowstorms which were battering Britain at the time, I was in south Japan at 21.18, after my monsoon and snacks, and Adam and Cristy were in the middle, on their hotel room balcony at 18.18, just preparing to go out for a camp fire buffet in Munnar, Kerela, in the west of India. Each of us chiming in with our own instant responses, yet being thousands of miles apart. Amazing!
The next morning I followed what I hoped would be my plan for most of the tour, and had noodles and fruit in my room for breakfast. The hotel breakfasts throughout the trip would have cost JPY5000 each day, around £35; a pot of satisfying noodles in my room, an equally satisfying 90p.
We did our first rehearsal and show (rehearsals having mostly happened for several days in London about a week ago), the Britten Four Sea Interludes and their unwanted addition, Passacaglia, inserted between Moonlight and The Storm, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, then Brahms 1 in the second half.
After the show we went to the bar that the lads had carried on to the previous night, a Yakitori bar where we sat at the bar and kept the behind-the-counter chefs busy over their grills with orders of liver, chicken skin, shitake mushrooms, eggs in bacon, pork belly again, and so on. Lovely Japanese tapas. Then briefly onto another place near the hotel, where we sat in the back room, shoes off, our feet in a well under the table, and ordered a few more titbits, accompanied this time by rounds of sake. We observed the Japanese tradition of never pouring your own sake, though this didn’t suit me so well as I drink quite fast, and was constantly topping others cups up while mine was empty. But both places were ideal after the concert, and exactly what I’d had in mind as typical Japanese bars; nothing fancy, just order what you like when you like.
Words should stop here. August 6th, 1945.
So today was an early pre-orchestra trip to Hiroshima, only an hour away under the sea to the main Japanese island of Honshu. Seven of us had taken the initiative to leave Fukuoka hours before the rest of the band, and spend the extra time at the site of the most devastating single act of man of the twentieth century.
In my diary, before we left, I wrote ‘March 2nd. Expectations? Guilt, awe, shame, sadness… The thought that, of course, the city will be a city, not the flattened mess it is in the famous picture.’
We walked to the main station, found the platform and crossed over, or rather under to Honshu. I took a few photos of Japanese countryside and towns. The country was pretty, quite British but today in warm sunshine, with the promise of mountains in the distance. Some delicate arms of woodland here and there. ‘Manicured’ is such a cliché when applied to many things in Japan, but somehow the entire scene did seem lighter, less bulbous than from a train in rural England. The towns weren’t always easy to see, as, presumably for each town’s benefit, when the train line passes through, it’s shielded from view by high boards. Though which is better, a view of raised barriers cutting across town, or the sight of a rocket-like train zooming through at impressive speed, I don’t know. What I did notice from what I saw of towns, and villages, was that there often seemed to be a single raised residence, a building on a promontory, either in the middle of other streets, or overlooking the town, perhaps from a high wood glade on the outskirts. The dwelling of the Mayor of each town, perhaps, of its most prominent (literally) resident? I don’t know, but it did happen time and again. I’m almost putting off getting to Hiroshima here.
And it’s simply pronounced Hiroshima, with all syllables equal, not Hiroshima. I didn’t know that, anyway. We got to the main station, out to the forecourt and bus station, and worked out that a Number 2 tram would take us directly to the Dome, as the famous building left by the bomb is known. A couple of the group wanted to walk, but I hadn’t got up early to waste time wandering the streets when this lifetime sight was a few stops away. Ten short stops away (it stopped three times on a single bridge), then we got off, and innocuously, as if it was just a pretty garden to visit, there it was, yards from the tram stop. We could see it as the tram approached, not looming up dramatically, just an instantly-recognisable sight to get off and visit. An understatement in the middle of an otherwise bustling Japanese city; this building needs no emotional or commercial promotion.
The dome stands exactly as it did 73 years ago, when it somehow kept its shape and shell, though the bomb itself exploded a mere 600 metres above its roof. We know what the bomb did to the rest of the city. 70,000 people were killed, evaporated in the those first few seconds. I walked slowly round the dome, we all did. There was a plaque, placed there in 1967, to mark the site as the unchanged memorial that it is. 1967. A mere 22 years after the blast, and within my lifetime. At that moment the whole thing became much closer, and was a real shock.
Unsurprisingly, though in the middle of a thriving city, and with a busy road and tramway over a nearby bridge, the area seems quiet. I signed an anti-nuclear petition that an old lady had (how old? Had she been there..?), and took a few humble pictures of the structure. A wide, peaceful canal sat right next to this park area, ferries cruised down it as gently as gondolas, it was sunny day, welcoming in fact, the grassy land surrounding the edifice was pretty and calm, cars and trams crossed the bridge over the canal nearby. With the weight of the location, the grassy areas reminded me of the grassy knoll in Dallas, where you can also still feel the presence of dark history, in a sunlit setting. I made a little video for Helen, a quiet one, showing the building behind me and trying to convey this atmosphere, which can only and ironically be described as peaceful.
We walked towards the Peace Museum, a must-visit, I’d been told. Crossed the canal on a fenced bridge, and to our right was the Children’s Peace Memorial statue, a child perched on an obelisk, holding up a ‘paper’ crane. These cranes became a huge symbol of the peace process, as a girl who died from radiation years after the event (as so many did) had devoted her life to making them, simple origami cranes. Whenever you see them, as they’re now a worldwide presence, that’s why. At one moment, as I took a picture looking up at this statue, I could see a plane overhead…
Then across the small path to the Peace Flame. A small (everything is so humble here!) heatwave flicker in the middle of a large stone slab, on this sunny day you could hardly see the colour of the fire Another irony. This was lit in 1964, and will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon in the world has been destroyed.
It cost JPY200 to get into this memorial, £1.40. I was expecting a lot more, a LOT more, but this isn’t profiteering, how could it be? But I was still expecting it. The audio guides were the same price. I wanted to give more!
Up the stairs to the first floor you are greeted with a wall-long gallery of pictures of happy Hiroshima before the bomb. It’s not intended or pointedly happy, it’s just shots of a Japanese city going about its days, with rickshaws parked in thriving streets, people sitting on crates or standing on corners, lanterns in shop fronts and long market streets with lights hanging above them like Xmas decorations; a totally normal and joyous Japanese scene. When looking at these innocuous pictures I thought of the Americans, and those that made The Decision, and thought ‘How could you? How could you possibly?’ Strong feelings of anger and sadness and injustice. This is crazy.
There was a large circular exhibit, portraying the moment the Big Bang actually happened. From far above, from Enola Gay’s view in fact, you see Hiroshima as it was in the morning of 6/8/45, you can see the buildings, the streets and houses, parks, the boats trawling up the canal as they did today, and big old cars crossing the bridge. You can see the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was the enterprise now become the shell known as the Dome; it’s a bright morning. Then you hear the plane’s engines, and from the surrounding clouds emerges ‘Little Boy’, the bomb, an ugly, squat cylinder like a submarine, but fearsome as it drifts down towards the city. The picture closes in as you see the Prefectural Hall below, in its surrounding trees, then the incredible flash, and all goes white. Circular waves of dust and energy shoot out from the point of detonation, white, then green, then fire-red, this quickly becomes a city-wide cloud of smoke, the mushroom of an atomic explosion, a nuclear cloud gushing wildly from the epicentre. When this clears, the flattened city is laid bare, now just a crisscross of the shapes of roads, with no buildings, no height between them. Apart from that one indomitable dome, most of its walls blown away, but the structure holding its head above the debris. We all know the indescribable and horrific damage and pain this caused, and the terrifying and nightmarish images that the blast caused, pictures of people ‘melting’, and shadows on walls which, Pompeii-like, showed where a person had been standing when they were incinerated, leaving their image protected on the wall behind. And of course the blast was half the nightmare, a further 70,000 people died from the drawn-out effects of radiation by the end of that year, that’s only 3 months after the bomb. And then there are the casualties for years after that, and the people who carried deformities and burns for the rest of their lives. Apparently until fairly recently, it was possible to meet and talk to one of these hibakusha, or ‘explosion-affected people’ in the Dome area, but as, 73 years on, there are less and less of them left, this practice has stopped. But of course, each very old person I saw, especially if infirm in some way – one woman was bent double – I wondered about; were they there?
No need to go through everything I saw in the museum; like the parks outside, it wasn’t dramatically done, apart from that re-enactment film, and showed various artefacts: burnt, shredded clothing, tattered school uniforms, a shirt with ‘black rain’ running down the front, and a watch that stopped immediately at the moment the blast struck, seconds before 8.15 am. There were a few photos, the ones they could show, of a mouth with an ulcerous tongue protruding like a thick slug, faces turned to deaths-head masks, flesh turned to charcoal, and a face of pure glowing embers. There were videos, probably filmed in the 70s, of people telling stories of their experiences that day, but like everything else, there was no flailing or wailing, no vitriol, they were just recounting their times, things they’d seen, relatives they’d lost, to the camera. Maybe this is an inscrutable Japanese thing, perhaps if they allowed themselves to get emotional for a second they’d go mad.
In the shop I spent JPY600, less than a fiver on souvenir stuff, the best thing being a cartoon book called ‘I saw it’, drawn by a hibakusha called Keiji Nakasawa, who was 6 in the holocaust, and went on to become an artist and historian. But that measly amount still felt a tacky, guilty donation.
As well as my earlier revulsion at the American powers-that-be that ordered and delivered their mission on Hiroshima, I also came away from the museum with another clear thought: after the blistering strike, the devastation and scale of inconceivably horrific damage done, why did they need to do it again?! In Nagasaki, three days later. 80,000 died there. Why?
Going back on the tram, trees grew tall by the wayside and on the pavements, life had sprung from the ashes. And I saw a line of children, about 6-10-years old, walking along the pavement on some school trip, all uniformed, talking excitedly, half-running, jostling each other as kids do, and exactly as others would have been doing at The Moment, 73 years ago.
Did the gig – Britten, Tchaik, Sibelius 5 – in a hall by a wide river in an area a couple of miles away from all this. In the interval I walked outside. It was a peaceful scene, the slowly-moving water, and I could have been anywhere really, any peaceful city area. But in the far distance I could see the hills and mountains that surround Hiroshima in a bowl, and this took me straight back to the defining moment of this city. Those hills were there in 1945, and as far away as they were, were a point reached by the blasts of dust clouds that rolled up their sides, having engulfed the city. Even having been up close, to the Dome and Museum earlier in the day, it was still almost impossible to take in, acknowledge, accept that it happened, much less understand. And driving through the town after the show, it struck me that this is Hiroshima II. They rebuilt flattened San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906, Dresden after we inflicted our own pointless horror attacks (let’s not forget, 25,000+ killed there) in the same year as the atomic atrocity; Hiroshima is surely the greatest Second City, the most defiant phoenix. But it feels like it shouldn’t be there at all. It feels like a ghost city.
The straw hat.
Bit of a party on the train to Osaka after that show. It had already been a long day, starting early in Fukuoka on Kyushu, then a rehearsal and gig in Hiroshima and then onto overnight in Osaka, with that horrendous, emotional but lifetime experience in the middle. So some wine on the train, check in to the Osaka hotal, then off into the night with the section. We seemed to be in the Soho of Osaka, there was certainly plenty of nightlife nearby, and at the end of one of the vibrant streets we found a yakitori restaurant, without really knowing what that was. It’s grill-your-own meat, and turned into one of the best meals of the trip. We sat round our hot grid in the middle of the table, and turned over slices of beef, blade, liver and sirloin, and pork belly, and then repeated the whole lot. All accompanied with the ubiquitous saucers of dipping soy and chilli. After the wine on the train I was having some trouble controlling my chopsticks, and sent several of my carefully self-prepared meat morsels splashing onto the saucers, and after rather a long time realised I was holding them the wrong way round, you eat with the thin end and hold the thick. So grasping the food was OK, but then it would roll and flop around as I tried to guide it towards my face by using the knitting needles in my hands. We had several rounds of various orders, five rounds of beers, and paid £21 each for the lot. Fantastic. Then onto a sake bar near the hotel, a few rounds there, and to bed, in our 3rd city of the day.
Next day was a free one, and I woke a little lightheaded, and therefore in the perfect mood for a power lunch, or brunch as it was by then. Jon, the tuba player, felt the same way, and near our previous night’s meal we found a cafe, a small, school-canteeny place with a limited but ideal menu. We ordered huge bowls of noodle soup (‘There are a lot of pork’, said the menu) and as kimchi was also on the menu I had to order that as a side dish. The question ‘Would you like garlic in your noodle?’ on the menu was easily answered, and soon our bowls arrived, large, hot, brothy, very porky, loaded with chopped spring onion and a ladleful of chopped garlic heaped on the top. Accompanied by a large bottle of Kirin beer and shortly a second portion of delicious kimchi, I was off to a wonderful start to the day.
In this slightly and delightfully out-of-body state, intoxicated by the beer, the spicy cabbage, the shovelful of garlic and the previous evening, I trailed along with the lads as we all walked into the centre, and to the intense crowds round and under the main station. This was full-on Japan, very busy and noisy, crowded, fast and bright with colourful adverts on yelling screens round every corner, and we rather dithered around for a bit, me gently rocked by the bumping bodies as the world flashed by. Eventually we surfaced, and found a basement pool bar called Lin’s. But we only stayed an hour here, our appetite for pool rather sated back in Fukuoka. Then upstairs and next door to an English pub (shame!) and before long I’d had enough, it was early evening by now, and I took a cab back to the hotel and called it a night. Probably via yet another pot of noodles and some revitalising fruit in my room, then that was enough for me for the day.
After this free day, the real meat of the tour began, a straight run of 5 concerts in 5 separate cities in 5 days, proper touring. Three times during that patch we wouldn’t see our suitcases till the following day, they having been sent on to the next city, and we’d all be living out of our overnight bags, a bit of careful planning needed there. Concert halls in Sendai, Tokyo, Kanazawa, Osaka and Kawasaki comprised the patch between the 4th and 8th of March this year.
But this drab short haul would begin in spectacular fashion. As we got on the plane to fly up the middle of the country to Sendai, I’d heard whisperings that we might fly over Mount Fuji. I’d previously imagined that on one of our coach journeys we might get close to it, but hadn’t thought that we might fly over it. If there’s a single iconic image of Japan, Mount Fuji is of course it. I was sitting halfway down the plane, looking out just behind the right wing, and overheard someone behind me saying they could see it. I looked, and under the wing saw ahead a range of gnarly mountains. No. Surely Fuji was the straight-sided, limpet-shaped feature I’d seen so many pictures of. And surely it stood alone, not as part of a range? Then as the plane flew on, it appeared from under the wing. No doubt this time, and it was huge, an aspect of it I hadn’t appreciated before. It would sit proudly amongst the Alps. As the picture became clearer, and I was staring straight at it (it was a clear enough day, a few clouds dotted around lower down for atmosphere), it looked like The Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit, dwarfing the feeble range I’d first seen. That had been ragged, uneven, a series of ridges in a tangled row, Fuji was an even shell, smooth-sided, flattening out like Tom Sawyer’s straw hat, and with its iconic peak of snow, which made it even more striking and impressive, it was doing what it did in the pictures! I followed the mountain as it passed to our right, and finally out of range behind us. This had been such a lucky moment, and right up there with flying over the Great Barrier Reef 25 years ago.
Show in Sendai: Britten, Tchaik, and another good Sibelius 5. I looked up in the 2nd movement and Sakari suddenly seemed to start really enjoying himself, conducting with a big grin and wide arms. That last page is always such a blow though!
After the concert we were taken out by a friend of Byron’s, the local (American) tuba player, Pete. A bit of a hippy, but an interesting guy who joined in well with us, which is not easy to do with a section on tour, and took us to a bar which was a mix of Italian/Latino and craft beers, with occasional Japanese tapas. So we ate carbonara pizza (surprisingly good), fries with guacamole, and pigs gizzards with the biggest cloves of garlic I’ve ever seen, and we had a good evening.
The next day we got the train down to Tokyo. About these trains. They’re spectacular. Like smooth rockets with long, sleek and shiny noses, they pull into your platform menacingly, approaching with intent like sharks. This approach was so impressive that at every station we travelled from on this trip, several of us would be shouted at by the tannoys to get back behind the yellow line as we craned over the barriers to take pictures of the shark arriving. Most of them were great whites, but the one that took us to Tokyo that day was a gleaming lagoon green, which just added to its space-age attraction. Inside they’re comfortable, relaxing, and famously fast. And equally famously, at each end of the journey you have exactly 1 minute to get on or off, and for an entire symphony orchestra this took some organising. Getting off, for instance, involved us all getting up ten minutes before arrival, finding our bags and spreading out along three or four of the long carriages, so that there wouldn’t be too much of a queue at any particular door.
Arriving in the vast capital, it was raining. Not the tropical storm we had in Fukuoka, but British rain, dour and damp, and we walked a surprisingly long way in it to catch our coaches to the hall. This was the drag about this central section of the tour: it was simply travel, rehearsal, show, with no space to stop and spread out in a hotel room, it’s bottled touring. In the rehearsal today, in Suntory Hall, Sakari said that the last time he was here, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, half way through the concert the whole room started swaying in an earthquake. They finished the movement they were on and he waited for a steward or someone to come on to tell them the procedure. Nobody did, so they got on with the concert.
Way out West.
The following day was my birthday, and Helen had given me a package to open. As I was nine hours ahead, I reached my birthday at midnight in Tokyo at 3 in the afternoon GMT, and on the phone to Helen, I opened it. It was a pile of cards from all sorts of friends, which she had organised months before, telling them that I would be away. It was a lovely idea, I put the two from her on my hotel table, next to the cherry tree card she’d given me to open as soon as I got to Japan and looked out on the night lights of Tokyo, surely the weirdest start to any birthday of my life. But it was exciting, and seemed to me yet another occasion my fortunate career as a musician had provided.
The day itself was spent in Kanazawa, and I was delighted that I became 52 in a place that I’d never heard of, another first. We caught another train, zipping three hours across the country to the west coast now, where I could see the sea from my room. Not too far across this patch of water lay South Korea. And being able to see the seafront like that, in Japan it was impossible not to think of tsunamis, and a tidal wave smashing through the city towards my room. It was a fairly flat city, occasional high-rise blocks but nothing like any skyscrapers, and I wondered if proximity to the coast was the reason for this.
After the train journey we nipped straight out to eat, and found a nearby local place, more upmarket than the wooden bars we’d been finding, and had a good lunch of tempura prawns and vegetables with rice, some soft shell crab, and the tastiest soy sauce I’ve ever had. But what marked this meal was that during it, a crowd of men in suits gathered round the central counter. They said absolutely nothing, but were watching intently, with utter fascination and respect as the chef filleted fish. But he wasn’t filleting for the restaurant, this was a demonstration, a masterclass. In Japan, skill with a kitchen knife is of course a revered art, and the chef was quite obviously a real master, perhaps a famous one. It did seem as though his audience had travelled here specially for this, perhaps they were journalists, or very possibly other chefs, and they were absolutely rapt. There couldn’t have been more respect in the room if the Emperor had walked in.
Even though we’d been in Japan for a week or so now, I still myself found pausing to think before remembering the word for ‘thank you’ each time. For some reason ‘arigato’ wouldn’t go in, and I’d had to stop myself saying arrabiata or oregano several times. And in the concert in Kanazawa I tried for most of Brahms 1 to remember the name of the city; which interspacing of vowels and consonants was it?! Not Kawasaki, we were going there in a few days, and anyway I knew that word as a make of motorbike. Kurosawa? A film director, I think. Casanova, no, cannellini, no, and I was pretty sure Cannavaro was an Italian footballer a few years ago. I just couldn’t get it, and after the concert had to ask where the hell we were.
After lunch, Rob and I had done a recce of the nearby area and the station. We ended up in the empty back streets near the hotel, but there was promise of life later in the evening. We’d found another of the red lantern bars, and so we all headed there after the concert. It was made into something of a birthday meal, and actually turned into my favourite of the tour, and was a splendid evening. We ordered sake, and 4 totally different small sake cups were brought, so I was asked to choose. One was a delicate little eggcup, neat and pretty, and at the end of the meal I asked the waiter if I could buy it. He just gave it to me, and it sits at home now. It was another yakitori bar, grilled cuts of meat, except the grilling was done by the two busy chefs over large slabs and amongst huge bursts of flame, like Wizards of Oz. Incredibly, during the meal there was an 80s sound track playing, which was perfect for me of course; I couldn’t believe it when ‘Waiting for a girl like you’ was on as we walked in. And later on, some Whitesnake! And not just one of their few hits, this was the first track of an album I knew. I made some gesture of delight when this came on and the chef acknowledged it was his tape, and we shook hands delightedly.
After the first dish we ordered, which could have boded badly because it was charcoal, but none of us cared much, a long list of barbecued body parts followed, sweet chicken wings, more belly pork, liver, thighs, skins, and pretty much whatever was on the menu. Also whole garlic bulbs to squeeze out, peppers and shitake mushrooms with brown bonito flakes on the side, lots more sake and plenty of beers to wash it down, and a splendid time was had. At the end, as a birthday cake, we stuck a match in a last slice of liver, and lit it. Wonderful evening.
The next day was a troop down to the station – an exuberantly-designed building with a cage on the front like the Beehive at Kew, where there was a busy indoor market, mostly souvenirs – and another train journey, zooming almost silently through the Japanese countryside in another of those rocket sharks. I think we went through the old capital of Kyoto, and through sleepy eyes I saw traditional Japanese houses, bamboo and lanterns. We got to Osaka again, and back into the routine: straight to the concert hall, rehearsal then show. I just couldn’t remember the stage door area at all, backstage or on stage, none of it rang any bells, yet we here only a few days ago. Then I realised that we’d been in Osaka but only stayed there, we hadn’t done a show there yet. Tonight was the first Mahler 5 of the tour, another marking point of the journey. The Brahms and Sibelius symphonies were not lightweight by any means, though Jon the tuba player was in neither, but Mahler 5 is a bit of a monolith of the repertoire. We were glad to see it arrive, as it meant we were coming towards the final set of concerts, and as it brought with it the extra players from London. But it is a biggie, and a formidable piece to face each night.
We were in the same hotel as a few nights ago, virtually the same rooms, in fact, so we knew where to go after the show. We headed into the nearby Soho district, and instead of turning right, down to our first wonderful yakitori place, turned left. There was a crab restaurant, with a giant plastic example above the front doors, moving its enormous pincers sluggishly and feebly. We went into another of our favourite traditional Japanese places, except tonight the big thrill was tuna. This was just beautiful, and about time we had the food Japan is most famous for, fish. Big square chunks arrived on thick wooden boards, seared black but somehow not burnt on the outside, the rest somehow sumptuously soft and moreish. So moreish that we had 4 trays of it, 6 chunks on each. It all came with raw sliced garlic, chopped spring onion, a dab of wasabi and a pile of bonito flakes to enhance each mouthful. And of course the ever-present saucer of soy. The fish was so fresh that if you prodded a chunk with a chopstick, it gave as if it was still on the slab; you could feel the whole fish in just a portion of it. We’d been drinking beers, but I swapped to sake for the last tray, it felt like the proper accompaniment to the fish, and I preferred it.
Another three-city day next, (a tour which featured exhaustive threecity? Threcity?) we travelled from Osaka to give a concert in Kawasaki, then on to Tokyo, where we would stay for the rest of the trip. Today’s rocket ride/shark glide apparently took us once again within visible distance of Mount Fuji, but it was not to be. It was a murky sort of day, appropriate at this point of the tour: the end of the 5-day slog yet not quite the end of the tour. There were hills and mountains in the distance, and clouds of steam rose from fissures in the ground to guard them, the scene looked prehistoric, or occasionally like the slopes of Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. But no Fuji. I was probably looking out of the wrong side of the train.
The lights and delights of Tokyo.
Kawasaki is one of the many towns that is virtually a suburb of Tokyo, as is Yokohama, and it seems acknowledged that the spread of the capital will engulf all of them. I’ve mostly described only evening meals and forays, during the days, and especially between rehearsals and the show, I’d been continuing with my breakfast plan of noodles, tangerines, bananas and water or cold green tea. Since Fukuoka, in my companionable orange overnight case, there had always been at least one pot of noodles, often more in case we played an out of town date, in a concert hall surrounded only by concrete and car parks. But mostly there were convenience shops everywhere, 7/11s or another chain called Family Mart. I never did run out of noodles, and would often slurp away backstage while others foraged nearby. After the show, coaches into Tokyo and a late bite in one of the few places left open in the nearby streets. Unwilling to call it a night, still a bit hungry, and definitely a couple of beers short of a good sleep, we wandered up the deserted road. After some time, there seemed to be a place open, and as we approached, to our delight the chefs eagerly summoned us in. It was a find. A small place, barely a restaurant at all, just a row of chairs at the bar and a single table at the far end, they had a menu, and we ordered some gyozas. These were the best of the whole trip, and cooked by the two extremely enthusiastic and friendly chefs in their kitchen behind the bar. A common set-up, all the cooking, steaming, and even prepping (one of the chefs spent some time salting a glorious-looking joint of beef before carving it into portions for tomorrow) being open for all to see, a public kitchen, while we customers sat hungrily in a line on low chairs, looking up across the bar as the experts worked and called to each other, and to us; a warm and cosy late-night atmosphere.
And now, at last, we had a free day, in Tokyo. I woke late, and took a cab to Moti, an Indian place that had been mentioned. I wasn’t convinced of the others’ interest in it, especially for lunch, and as I’ve said before, groups can really slow you down, so I just did it. Another triumph: a simple but very good lunch menu, with a beer and a lassi, and I was set up nicely once more. While the audience were clapping the previous night, and again first thing this morning, something happened to me which had happened on tours before, most memorably in Japan on my very first visit about 25 years ago. After a prolonged run of purely classical music, the rock thing kicks in; like an addict, I have to hear some loud and heavy guitarring, and quickly. 25 years ago, I’d had enough of Brahms 4 and had been driven to buy a tape (!) of Guns and Roses to listen to to save me. This time, last night and this morning, a Jo Satriani track wouldn’t leave my head, and I remembered my favourite bar in Roppongi from our last visit. Roppongi is a crossroads, and down each of the four streets are solid bars and restaurants and amusements, this is the Soho of Tokyo. And down one of those roads, several years ago anyway, I’d found a single tiny bar, little more than a corridor really, where there was a counter on the left serving beers, punters standing at it on the right (no chairs, no room) and a loud heavy metal soundtrack. That’s all I want, and today I set off to find it again. The Indian was on one of the four streets and I explored them all for an hour or so, but without success this time.Possibly a good thing, as I might just have stayed in the bar all day, until the lack of chairs proved too much for my increasingly heavy legs.
I came across a bookshop whilst looking for my HM bar. This was tiny and very un-Roppongi, a small, dusty place owned by an old couple, a shop somehow quiet and distant from the cacophonous traffic and rush of life outside the door. The old couple were, of course, devastatingly polite – so many Japanese have the effect of making a bulbous and bumbling westerner feel clumsy and overbearing – and I bought a small notepad for Helen which said Have A Good Idea, Write It Down. Looking back, the place couldn’t have been more different from the noisy boozer I was looking for; it was charming.
But I did find a pool hall. Another discovery from a previous visit, this could be the most impressive pool hall I’ve ever been in, and that’s saying something. There must be 50 tables there, along with the plastic dartboards they have in Japan, and a mini golf range room at the back! And the place was entirely my own, with one guy to sign me in and another to bring me drinks from the rather lavish and floral bar set on a slightly higher level. Nirvana for me really, yet I was feeling more sociable, and was glad when Jon tracked me down and we went to meet the other chaps nearby. Inevitably this led to one bar which led to another, a craft beer saloon with the many choices, with their various colours, alcohol percentages and exotic names listed on TV screens behind the bar. The names of craft beers nowadays are extremely random, like racehorses, and we could have been standing in a bookmaker’s.
After a couple of hours sampling, we walked round to another Indian place, a cafe where we ate well, a Keema curry, dahl and a huge nan for me, and headed back to the hotel in the dusk. Having caught a cab earlier, I followed the chaps as we walked back, firstly down the back alleys of Roppongi (which seems to be on a hill), past darker places to eat and drink – one particular place looked sinister, a fugu restaurant with a giant plastic puffer fish lit up on its roof – then through dark but residential streets with small, low houses, past school playgrounds and even through a Japanese garden in the dark, winding round the paths and over tiny bridges past lily ponds; it was a bit spooky, not surreal but definitely otherworldly. We came out in the set of three streets where all the activity near our hotel took place. Three parallel streets, with alleys connecting them like ladders, that we jinked between for the next few evenings, hopping from bar to restaurant to bar as we wanted them. A couple of stop-offs here tonight as we descended from 3rd to 1st street towards the hotel, and I’d had enough for the day.
In Tokyo is the famous Asahi Tower, Asahi being a Japanese brand of beer. On this trip, to be ‘on top of the Asahi Tower’ meant a satisfying state of intoxication had been achieved. I was definitely on the Tower after that long free day in Tokyo, and I went to my room and made some soothing camomile tea, a new concoction for me that I’d brought on the trip, to see the day out. But as I waited for Helen to ring before bed, I felt my own hotel tower sway a little. I put it down to the camomile tea. But then it did it again, a perceptible movement of the whole room from side to side. With the concern of the blithely inebriated, I realised it must be an earthquake, and simply carried on waiting for the phone. And I forgot to tell her.
The next day was a long one, we had a concert in Nagoya in the afternoon. I thought Nagoya was just another of those suburbs about to be absorbed into Tokyo, but it’s a city 200 miles south, a substantial journey even on the train rockets. The early start meant a midday-ish rehearsal, a lazy wander in the Nagoyan sun (where I remembered that here they play music in the streets, from padded speakers strapped to the lampposts) then a Mahler 5 matinee. It became apparent after the rehearsal that it was going to be tight to catch our train home, and both the Tchaikovsky violin soloist and Sakari agreed not to do any encores. Even so it was a bit of a dash. With about 12 minutes till the train departure (which you know is going to be absolutely accurate) the entire orchestra was still walking to Nagoya station. We stood and grouped for a moment, to make sure we were all there. I looked up at the station, where you could see the trains slinking into the platforms from left and right with thin, evil eyes. And one white train that went on forever didn’t stop, it just sailed through, a total vision of the future present, it seemed as if it had landed at one end and was about to take off at the other. You could almost see the astronauts floating around inside.
A nice little section party on the journey back, and we discovered that entire rows of seats can swivel round, so if you want to sit in a four with the people behind you, you just turn your double-chair row around to face them. Quite a surprise. This train journey had been the purpose of the walkabout between rehearsal and show, and we enjoyed our various supplies, in the knowledge that we’d finished work for the day, and the evening was still ahead, back in the capital.
This was an evening long planned, in fact. The timing was perfect. We got back to Tokyo about an hour before the 12.30 kick off in England between Man United and Liverpool. This meant a 9.30 start for us, and we arrived at our chosen venue a few minutes after the game had begun. This has been a luxury in the far east for me in the past, to watch a live Premier League football game at night thousands of miles away and in a much more party atmosphere than the afternoon drizzle of England.
Sunday, 11th March, penultimate show. As we drove to the Suntory Hall again, whole sides of the road, several lanes, were closed off in many places, with the sign ‘Emergency Road closed in case of Severe Earthquake’. I didn’t know if this was routine or a genuine warning of an imminent disaster, but the word ‘severe’ was unsettling. Especially here in Japan where minor tremors happen all the time. Today’s concert was another afternoon show, another Mahler 5, a particularly spectacular one today, and after the concert suddenly it seemed that everyone was shattered. Maybe it was the long day yesterday. I think more likely it was the sight of the finishing flag, the final gig tomorrow, after which we’d be on our way home.
So after this concert was our last whole evening in Tokyo, in Japan; tomorrow’s show was at the normal time of 7.30. We decided to head out into our local streets again, but with a plan in mind this time: we’d have a 3 course meal (at least), but with each course in a different place. A sort of course-crawl between places in these bright Piccadilly streets that we’d been to before, or spotted and fancied trying. Starters was an easy choice. Back to the gyoza bar on 3rd Street that we’d found open late on our first evening a few nights ago. Apart from being the most satisfying, moreish gyozas, here they had a selection of 4 different sauces to accompany them. They came in bowls, or topped with peanut sauce, black vinegar sauce, black ma-la sauce, which was pretty hot and slightly curryish, and scallion and ponzu sauce. A couple of frosted beers and our meal was underway.
We fancied a fish course, and hadn’t really had the basic, raw sashimi on this trip yet, so there was a place a couple of streets down that we tried. I think it was quite authentic, a large, brightly-lit place with the chefs carving and slicing behind the wide counter, and we ate morsels of tuna, scallop, salmon and fatty tuna, which is a popular option, and we’d tried way back in our little steamy sushi bar in Fukuoka. The fish came with rather a lot of rice, and miso soup. This miso was pure fish stock, and was beyond me. Normally I’ll pick up the bowl and drink it warm, but this time I dipped my spoon in, and a hideous undertow of stripped bones, tattered skin and eyes rose to the surface. I tried a sip, but it tasted as it looked, and I left it alone, its eyes bobbing, to look at itself sorrowfully. I found this place a bit of a let-down, and a proper, prolonged sashimi meal remains on my list. During our stay, we’d learnt that the Japanese absolutely won’t accept tips, it’s actually embarrassing to them, and there’d been a couple of genuinely awkward moments when we’d tried to show our appreciation but staff had declined. That meant we’d often been left with a pile of coins and notes as change. Over a fortnight, these had been collected by Jon, and formed our kitty, which ran to an extraordinary amount. Jon paid for our sashimi from the kitty, as he had done in the gyoza place too. This had been a long process of building coin towers and peering closely at the various denominations until a sort of urban landscape made of yen was presented carefully-balanced on a tray to the chef at the till. He took it in very good part and laughed, and took the tray. Not only did the kitty pay for our entire first two courses, so it seemed like they were free, but it had also paid for the curry 2 nights ago; the kitty a really good idea.
Now we wanted filling, meat. Nearby was a Korean Barbecue place, and we settled happily into a booth at the back. The traditional long tube was yanked down from the ceiling to help cook the food on the grill, which was placed over smoking hay and parilla leaves. Another feast of roasted pork and various spicy cuts, with all their attendant side-sauces, and we were done. We wandered back across the streets to a Spanish bar that we’d been turned away from a few nights ago. The place had been very busy, and the owner was polite enough, but nobody had ever told him the word for ‘full’. He waved his hands and called ‘Not empty! Not empty!’ to us across the crowded room. So tonight we, rather disappointingly in a way, had our pudding course (beer) settled outside a normal, English-looking pub on 1st Street, sitting at heavy beer garden tables watching the street as it wound down at the end of the day.
And now it was the end of the mighty tour. One more day, and one more show. It had been 16 days since the ‘spring is in the air’ landing in Fukuoka, a week since my birthday on the west coast. For some reason on this tour I hadn’t felt my usual need to distance myself from colleagues at any stage. Normally I spend quite a bit of time on my own on tour, sometimes only seeing the section at the concerts, but this time we hung out a lot, and I never felt the longing for my own space.
Though today we did all go separate ways, in our own missions to find particular sights or shops on our last day in Japan. I headed for the cookware district. I always find taking a foreign tube initially intimidating, but satisfying as it feels like you’ve really mixed in, done a totally local thing. Negotiating your way across a city, where the language is entirely incomprehensible is the restraining part, but with coloured maps and signs everywhere, it’s hard to go far wrong, and here in Tokyo it was a doddle, it couldn’t have been clearer. An ever-present on this trip was the fact that at least half the population, from south to north, wears face masks all the time. I think it’s a germ thing but everywhere you go you’re followed by an army of plain-clothes surgeons, and I guess in the tube’s ultra-clean atmosphere it was especially noticeable.
In fact my trip today was particularly simple, as the stop I wanted, Tawaramachi, was on the same line as our nearest station, about 13 stops away. I suppose a rough equivalent, directionally and distance-wise, would be going from Piccadilly to Turnpike Lane, from the centre north east. Typically, I emerged from the tube without the slightest idea which way to go now. I suppose I imagined all the cooking shops would be crowded round the entrance to the tube. So I came up into a bright early afternoon, on a crossroads where wide streets led in different directions. No sign of any specialist shops at all. My eye was caught by one of those sweet Japanese signs, a shop across the road which advertised ‘Freshness Burger’. I wanted a picture of this, so I fumbled with my phone and waited for it to turn on, frustrating as I wanted to get on and explore. As I stood there, Rob came up out of the tube exit. In a city of 9 million people, there was the chap I sat next to on stage. He could have chosen a different exit from the tube, he could have chosen to come here at any other time of day. I knew he was coming here – it was him that had given me the idea – but we hadn’t liaised over it, and the chances of meeting like this seemed just extraordinary. And once again lucky for me, as of course he knew exactly where he was going, and we set off.
What we were both after was a knife. A proper, real, authentic Japanese cooking-knife, the basis of that kitchen skill for which they are famous. A knife you could drop on an onion and it wouldn’t break its fall. We found the street with the solid line of cookshops on each side, and parted company soon after that, going at different speeds, and with different ideas of exactly what we were looking for. I wanted a general-purpose knife for Helen, one she could use in many different ways, slicing, filleting, paring, everything; not too short, not too long. A good balance to it would be a factor, a knife has to feel right in your hand. I had an idea what I wanted to spend. Rob was much more selective, and knew more about it; he wanted a particular make of Japanese knife that he’d used once before, and I think he mentioned a figure of £200. I looked in quite a few shops, buying some cat chopsticks for Adam and Cristy and a food bowl for Ellie along the way, and before long saw one that I wanted to have a closer look at. The good knives are all in sealed glass cabinets, and I got an assistant to open one for me. It was the right sort of length, with an attractive metal handle with gentle ridges in for your fingers. It felt good, but something stopped me, I felt there was more to see. So I thanked her, promised I would be back (not in the Arnie voice), and moved along the street. But soon I found another, and what a joy it is when you find what you want and you just know it’s the right one. I could have spent hours dithering if I’d found two I liked equally, but this was the one. A similar length to the other, this was clearly a Japanese brand (the other wasn’t) but what sold it was the handle, simple and wooden, almost rustic yet, as I say, with that perfect balance and hand-feel. I happily paid twice what I’d set out to do, and drifted back towards the tube in the afternoon sun. It was a lazy sort of day, not busy, and the wide streets reminded of a sort of deserted New York. There weren’t dogs whining or police sirens in the distance, but there could have been.
And leaving this street I looked up, and saw, on top of the first building on the corner, the giant plastic top half of a chef, an unmistakable signal that this was the place to come for all cookware items, this was the right area. Unmistakeable if you look up, that is. I should have learnt to do that in Japan by now.
Just before the tube I bought a nice little plate I’d noticed earlier, then went into a dusty old shop of mostly mugs, and cookware of the non-specialist variety. I picked out a wedgewood-blue handleless mug, a chalice with Japanese characters written all over it. I was actually pleased that the old man who helped me could speak no English, or barely enough for us to make much progress. But I pointed at the characters and asked what they meant, and that was fairly clear. The large inscription on the mug, he said meant ‘drink’, which didn’t help a great deal. But then he thought, and turned the mug round in his hands a few times. He found the symbol he was looking for, pointed it out and said ‘happy’. This was great, and though I was going to buy it anyway, put the seal on it. As I stood at the counter, amongst tall rows of woks and bamboo steamers, while he wrapped the mug, I saw a whole long shelf of packets of chopsticks, bags of hundreds at least. I’d seen so many of these throughout the trip, and they give out free ones whenever you buy a pot of noodles. I realised after I got home that I hadn’t used a single piece of western cutlery while I was here. The rain forest isn’t just being taken up to provide the west with paper.
A last Mahler 5 in Suntory Hall, even more exuberant than the day before, and that was that, our work here was done. I’ve said very little about the music, as that could have happened anywhere. This story is about where it did happen. After the concert, in what was becoming a routine, almost an addiction now, we went back to our gyoza bar, and ordered 42 of the slippery things. They’re a good size, at least one wide mouthful each, and we could hardly get enough of them. We must have eaten a hundred each in the last 17 days. A couple of us also shared a small plate of braised beef rib, which came like carpaccio, with finely-chopped garlic and sweet white onion. The meat was probably from the joint we’d seen one of the chefs patting salt on a couple of nights before. Back down to 1st Street and The Mermaid pub again, and we saw out the trip with just a couple of late ones, we had an early start the next day, and a hell of a long day to follow.
Though hopefully most of this would be spent asleep on the plane. But this time of course, we flew with the sun, not away from it, and outside stayed light for the whole trip. I remember it taking a long, long time for the route map to clear a region of which a town called Jakutsk was prominent, in east Siberia. I remember being pleased when the same screen told me we were down to 5000 miles to go. Apparently we looped right up over the Arctic Circle, the top of the world, and back down again. I opened my shutter a few thousand miles later, as we flew along the north Norwegian coast, the only time I’ve ever seen icebergs, and from the air they were magnificent. So dramatic, huge white craggy hills, polyhedrons, jutting up like towers, sitting on a sea so blue and clear you could see the iceberg beneath the surface, they felt very close. And finally out between Gothenburg and Stavanger into the North Sea. I was wide awake by now, and this patch of blue lasted a long time before the shore of Norfolk edged onto the screen.
Definitely one of the trips of my life. I’d always loved what I’d seen of Japan on other trips, fleeting though those visits had been, so to spend over two weeks there was a lifetime luxury. I love its garish Piccadilly Circusness, the huge stretches of cities which are neon for miles around. The food is always an adventure, and on this trip we’d been pretty conservative really, there’s a lot more to try. Next time. I love the other-worldness, the magic of being so adrift from British life, in language, in custom, in culture, and in grace and respect. I’d seen that world-famous sight, Mount Fuji. And I was glad I’d grasped the moment to visit humbling Hiroshima, with its incredible stories and frightening peace.
If I never have the chance to visit Japan again, I’m very happy with this trip. If the chance does come up, if there is a next time, I’ll be even happier.