Sunday, May 9, 2010

#18: Of Houseboats Rammed up Your Nose and Other Things Japanese

My last weeks in Japan are upon me and I soon will be having a lot of obligations, family and otherwise, to attend to, so it looks like I'll have to shut up the old blog shop for a while, if not for good. I may return with comments on kabuki-related issues, even after I'm home in New York, but for now the travels with Samurai-ta in Japan postings will fade into the nothingness from which they came.

This final (if that's what it is) posting will play hopscotch with some of my recent doings in Tokyo. Facebook friends will see links to several videos already posted on my FB page, so I hope familiarity doesn't breed contempt. As those videos reveal, one of my local visits was to the electronics capital of Japan, if not the world, the neighborhood called Akihabara. The weirdo geeks (otaku), who are obsessed with manga, anime, and all the other--often sexually kinky--facets of Japanese pop culture, were--unfortunately--not out in force when I got there, and the only oddly dressed kids were those involved in the "maid" fad on display in cosplay restaurants. I managed to get a few clumsy photos of girls in maid costumes handing out leaflets for their establishments--young people handing out leaflets in crowded Tokyo areas are as common as mosquitoes in summer--but some of the girls I spotted were unexpectedly camera shy and, when they spotted my Cybershot, would scatter like mice back into their holes. Here are a few of them.

"Maid" costume for rent at a costume shop.

I assure you, this is a rather "conservative" maid. Some get-ups, including totally blonde hair, are really eye-catchingly unique (and often bizarre).

Of course, maid dolls are everywhere in Akihabara, which sells minutely detailed 3-D figures of action heroes, pre-and post-nubile women, manga characters, monsters, and so forth.

The shops near Akihabara station sell every kind of electronic device you can imagine, and some of these places of business are of megascale proportions, especially chains like Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera. They are simply mindnumbingly overwhelming. But Akihabara, as intimated above, also has become famous for its pop culture shops. One sizable bookstore I went into, K-Books, seen in this video, was filled with nothing but videos, books, and magazines on anime, manga, and related pornography. (Ah, suddenly the blog is getting lots of hits.)

Arriving in Akihabara.

Typical action figures.

 Gundam Cafe (named for a popular anime figure) opened recently in Akihabara, and there was a long line to get in when I was there.

On another day, I had some business at the Kobikido bookstore I mentioned in an earlier posting. This is the hole-in-the-wall store across from the soon-to-be demolished Kabuki-za. As I said before, it's piled high with books, posters, and other theatrical effluvia, and is almost impossible to navigate because of the lack of space. Here are a couple of pictures.

After I left the shop I decided to walk to the Imperial Palace gardens, which lie on the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds, about a mile or so from the Kabuki-za. The weather was mild, but getting cooler, so the walk was fairly comfortable, taking me down the first wide street to the north of the Kabuki-za through the Ginza and Yurakucho shopping districts, to the solemn, chilly office buildings of the Marunouchi district, which runs along the east side of the Palace. I was happy to see that a row of famous Victorian-style red brick buildings, near Tokyo Station, which had been threatened with destruction, was still standing, but the buildings, scrubbed clean, had been incorporated into a setting that dwarfed them by placing huge office towers in their backyards. A rather odd combination--"postmodern," is how my friend Kei Hibino describes it.

Do you agree?

Courtyard behind the red brick buildings, which now also contain a museum.

When, finally, I got to the Otemon Gate that lets you in to the Palace gardens, however, I discovered that the place was closed. Also closed, I soon learned, were all other attractions on the Palace grounds. Many other people were arriving to find that this is one of the many official places in Tokyo that are closed on Mondays. Happily, a subway that could take me home to Kichijoji (I hadn't moved yet) was nearby. Unhappilly, I was so tired that I slept through my stop and didn't get off until the end of the line. I knew where I was though, and was able to quickly backtrack and get to my real destination.

View toward Otemon Gate entrance along the moat outside the palace walls. The palace once occupied much more of central Tokyo (previously) Edo than now, and remains the single most valuable piece of real estate in the world.

Some features of traditional palace architecture can still be glimpsed from certain places on the fringe of the palace grounds.

The Otemon Gate into the Imperial grounds.

Directly in front of the entrance to Otemon Gate entry, whose name is on the signpost.

On May 2, I moved to an apartment in Meguro. My time at the Seikei University campus's I-House was up and I also needed a larger, more centrally located apartment. The one I moved to is a few minutes walk to Meguro Station, which is on the great loop line, the Yamanote, that circles central Tokyo; Meguro also has access to the Mita and Chiyoda subway lines. So it is extremely convenient. The neighborhood is a mixture of corporate and residential, with numerous apartment houses, and has countless restaurants of every type, big and small--Thai, Chinese, Indian, Western, soba, ramen, tenpura, sushi, tonkatsu, and on and on. Here is a tiny sampling of restaurant offerings, on display on signboards and plastic models in front of the shops.

A sumo-themed restaurant.

I'm convinced you could live here for several years and still not sample each local restaurant within ten minutes walking time of your stay. They are down alleys, down steps, up steps, up elevators, on office building floors entirely devoted to them. People stand outside them or near the station giving out flyers with discounts, or offers of a free course, or whatever, to lure you in.

The area is rather hilly, and my apartment house is on a particularly steep slope (a video of a truck going by is on an earlier post). I'm within walking distance of my good friends Reiko and Tsuyoshi, who live just off the Meguro River, which has lovely walking paths along either side, which took me there shortly after I moved in.

Looking down the path along the south side of the Shin Meguro Bridge toward my friends' residence.

Public pool along the way to my friends. Not yet ready for swimming, though. An adjoining building has an indoor pool.

More scenes along the riverwalk.

The shops lining the main drag near the apartment are standard issue, including convenience stores, a dry cleaner, ladies clothing, drug stores, used dry goods, and a barber, where I got my hair cut (the old-fashioned way). Here are a few for those who've never been to Japan.

Not far away is the very upscale Yebisu Gardens Place, a fashionable shopping center with a Mitsukoshi Department Store and the new Westin Hotel, among other charms, and I'm only two stops from the major shopping district of Shibuya. It took just 20 minutes from walking out my door to get to the Bic Camera store in Shibuya the other day.

Yebisu Gardens Place

Shibuya is a major hub for young fashionistas. I know my 18-year-old granddaughter, Briar, is interested in what the girls here are wearing, so I took a look for myself. The area near Shibuya Station is crammed with clothing and accessory shops for those seeking the faddiest Tokyo look, but one place in particular was a must-see, a 9-story department store called Shibuya 109, which is floor to ceiling, nook to cranny with local boutique names you never heard of. The sales clerks are themselves stunning examples of what's hot, and serve both as models and sales assistants to move the trendy goods along. I couldn't get over the buzz in the place, nor some of the extreme looks both customers and sales help were adorned with. Like so much else in this often nutty town, the impact was simply too much to absorb in one visit. I took some video but, because of the crowds and the way I was trying to film inconspicuously, the results came out half-baked. On the other hand, Google 109 and you'll be introduced to some videos with accompanying music that will either turn you on or turn you off to this youthful clothing frenzy.


This week, I went to the Shinbashi Enbujo to see two more kabuki programs, the only ones in town this month. As many of you know, a daily kabuki program in Tokyo follows the two shows a day (nibusei) system. But that's not two presentations of the same play(s). It's two separate programs, each with anywhere from three to five plays and dances. Sometimes, a single, long play occupies a program, and when The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (Kanadehon Chushingura) is produced in a full-scale production showing most of its 11 acts (something is usually cut, nonetheless), half may occupy one program and half the other. But ordinarily, since the original plays were usually all-day affairs, with episodic plots that allowed certain acts to practically stand on their own, only the most popular of such acts are revived. One such act can be anywhere from one to two hours (occasionally more when several scenes are involved), so going to a kabuki program is not unlike seeing the favorite scenes of The School for Scandal, Hamlet, Oedipus, and the Romeo and Juliet ballet. And the stars may appear in two, three, or more leading roles (in both dance and drama) during the day. A program runs from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The theatre is cleared, and the next program runs from 4:30 to 9:00 or later. The overworking of these brilliant actors has been discussed for decades, but the system still prevails.

This was Tokyo's first kabuki production since the bell tolled on the Kabuki-za's existence at the end of April (discussed in earlier blogs). Whereas the leading roles in the Kabuki-za's farewell programs were played by the major actors, this month's program was taken by the next generation of stars, the sons of those who were featured last month. These five actors are Nakamura Kantaro, Nakamura Shichinosuke, Onoe Shoroku, Ichikawa Ebizo, and Ichikawa Somegoro. A somewhat older actor who falls in between the two camps is the female impersonator (onnagata) Nakamura Fukusuke. The two programs, which totaled seven pieces, three of them dances, included three dramas shown last month at the Kabuki-za. Since I am here for only a couple of months, I would have preferred a completely different lineup of plays, but the point was to allow audiences to compare the acting of the younger generation, in their twenties and early thirties, with that of their seniors, whose names they will one day inherit.

There were some truly outstanding performances, but for me, the runaway talent of the event was Ebizo, son of Ichikawa Danjuro (one of kabuki's greatest names, if not its greatest). He played Matsuo in The Village School (Terakoya), the play I once directed Jimmy Smits in at Brooklyn College, which was played last month by Ebizo's uncle, Matsumoto Koshiro. The Danjuro line has a number of conventions for acting this role that differ from those of Koshiro, and Ebizo played them to the hilt, especially the moment when he examines the head of his own son, whom he has sent to the village school in hopes that the schoolmaster, ordered to execute another child, will subsitute Matsuo's son instead (all because of an obligation Matsuo has to the child's father). The feudal ethic displayed here is one reason the play was censored by the American military during the Occupation. But the truly most memorable performance was Ebizo's portrayal of the eponymous hero of Sukeroku, a role his father played last month, and one long associated with his grandfather, Danjuro XI, whom I saw do it in the early 1960s. Ebizo is a very handsome young man, especially in Sukeroku's white makeup with red lines around his eyes (see this link so I can avoid copyright issues); he has enormous charm and charisma, all of which are necessary to play this character, a dashing, heroic, romantic roustabout combining Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, and Gene Kelly in his swashbuckling, sometimes choreographic, and witty behavior. At one highlight moment of tongue twisting patter, he threatens to ram a houseboat up his enemy's nose. I love it! Ebizo has been criticized for not being as outstanding a dancer as he should be; he did no dancing during these programs, although his extended entrance on the hanamichi runway in Sukeroku, which involves a lot of complex choreography, could be considered dance. I was sitting up front and very near the hanamichi so I would have to have been Linda Blair to watch this sequence in total, but what I did see exposed no serious flaws that I could detect. Anyway, he's terrific and I hope I can see him again some day.

This has gone on too long, so maybe I'll be forced to add another posting describing my walk through the Yanaka neighborhood, near Nippori Station, which is one of the best places in Tokyo to escape the madness of the glass and steel skyscrapers and experience the feel of the prewar city. But it just may have to wait.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

#17: Take Me Out to the Yakyu no Shiai

A lot has happened since I last put fingertip to keyboard. The biggest event was my moving from lovely Kichijoji to the heart (or one of the hearts) of Tokyo, in Meguro Ward. But more of that in a later blog. Today the subject is baseball. I'm still immersed in my research, but the day before I left Kichijoji, I took a break and visited a professional baseball game at (Meiji) Jingu Stadium, set in a beautiful park area filled with sports facilities. It was a simple ride on the Sobu line local from Kichijoji. Jingu Stadium is the home of those popular, low payroll, perpetual underdogs, the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League. Most Japanese teams have names affiliated with major corporations, not cities; thus, the Swallows are sponsored by a company that produces a very successful health drink called Yakult. On the other hand, the team the Swallows were playing was the Yokohama Bay Stars, named, of course, for the nearby city of Yokohama.

Jingu Stadium is a bit on the cheesy side, being rather old (built in 1926) and, though upgraded through the years, still much more like a dated minor league stadium than one hosting major (Japanese) league games. But it has the intimacy of places like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, if nothing like their charm. This video, in which I find my seat, will give you a sense of the place.

The walk to the stadium takes about 10 minutes via an overpass from the station and past various sports facilities. Along the way you pass Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, an imposing building containing images commemorating the reign of the Meiji emperor (1868-1912), who reigned when Japan began its journey into the modern world after being more or less closed off from international concourse for two and a half centuries. It looked especially impressive on the way back to the train, when it was beautifully lit.

Before dark.

After dark.

Other sights along the way to the game.

View from the overpass leading from the station to the ballpark.

Signpost pointing to all the local facilities, none of it in English. The second line from the top says "yakyu jo" (baseball field).

A resting place jampacked with Japan's ubiquitous vending machines.

The path is lined with vertical banners (nobori) of the Swallows' players, just like the traditional banners that used to advertise actors in kabuki, and still do in Kotohira, as per my recent blog.

The first of the long lines I encountered outside the stadium.

When I arrived at the ballpark, lots of people were already waiting in long lines, but the lines at the box offices were rather small. I asked for a good infield (naiya) seat, and for 4,500 yen (around $47.00), the top price, I got one a bit to the right of home plate, and had an excellent view of the field. Such seats at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium would be several hundred bucks. The area around me was sparsely populated, but by the time the game was underway, the outfield was pretty full. When I bought my tickets, the clerk asked me which team I supported, the home team or the visitors. For want of a better answer, I said the home team, so my ticket presumably placed me among other like-minded fans. When I entered the stadium, I was handed a bag of goodies, including stuff to help me root for the good old Swallows. Fans also brought or purchased tiny, colored, plastic umbrellas, which they bobbed up and down in unison at certain specified moments, such as during the seventh inning stretch, called "Lucky Seven," seen in this clip.

The game was called for 6:00, so I got there early. While the sun was out, it was quite comfortable, but as the evening darkened, I was glad to have brought along my jacket as the temperature dipped a bit and it became somewhat chilly. Getting there early allowed me to watch batting practice and to get the lay of the land.

The off the field antics were sometimes more fun than the game itself. The Bay Stars fans were packed into the left field bleachers, the Swallows' followers (say that ten times quickly) were in right. Throughout the game, whenever a batter went to the plate, his fans chanted or sang a ditty seemingly composed just for him and incorporating his name. The singing and chanting went on all night. Also, many fans throughout the place were equipped with small plastic bats that they rhythmically banged against each other in time to the music. On the first base side, facing the Swallows' infield patrons, a group of cheerleaders appeared several times to do choreographed routines, an especially catchy one being called "We Are the Swallows." And all night, the Swallows' personal announcer, a good-looking guy of mixed Asian-Caucasian heritage (I was unable to determine this precisely), wearing a baseball uniform, served as the team's most enthusiastic booster, speaking both Japanese and occasional English in a tone that sounded like Marv Alpert in his prime. You can hear a bit of this at the end of the video. I thought he was very impressive.

The crowd also got a kick out of "Bazooka Time," which, just as in American games is when the team mascots or other staff members shoot t-shirts into the crowd. You can see it in this video. Patrick Yu can be seen and heard on this clip. One other thing about projectiles: whenever a foul ball lofted into the stands over the protective fencing running down both sides of the infield (you can't get hurt by line drive fouls in Japanese parks), a female announcer's voice cautioned spectators to watch out for the flying object. Of course, by the time you heard her you either had caught the ball, avoided it, or suffered brain damage.

The fast food on sale was nothing like what you'd find at an American ballpark. The closest thing was thick franks on sticks. The only buns around were those you sit on. And the food was on sale only at the concessions under the stands. The vendors in the park proper were selling mainly beer, and they were everywhere, all of them cheerful young girls and boys who looked barely old enough to drink themselves. You could get Kirin, Yebisu, Asahi, and other brands, not just whatever big brand the team had a contract with. The closest thing to food was the ice cream being sold by a small number of vendors. The local citizenry hereabouts prefers to watch a game while slurping away at noodles in broth, or other popular Japanese confections. When I got hungry, I bought a box lunch of--guess what--sukiyaki!!

Here are some shots of the souvenir and food concessions, the field, and the fans.

The misspelling may appear quaintly amusing, but people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  Look around you in the U.S. and you'll see even worse examples. A sign near my house in Queens warns people not to throw "liter" on the ground.

A box office.

Those famous hot dogs on a stick from the un-Nathan's.

For lunch, I focused on this group of box lunches (bento), and chose the following one.

What it looked like when opened. The meat was cold but quite tasty. The egg was raw, as usual with sukiyaki, since you dip your meat in it. But seeing nowhere to pour the egg's insides, other than directly on the meat, I chose to do without it.

Now let's venture up the steps and into the stands.

No escalators here. Anyway, except for an area directly behind home plate, the stands are on only one level.

The second deck of stands, behind home plate.

The scoreboard actually does a good job of showing digital videos during the game, but in only one inning during the game I attended did it show the scores for other games going on elsewhere.

Batting practice.

There was a small number of foreigners at the game, including this American couple some rows in front of me, who had been brought there by their son. The latter was clearly an ex-pat, and his attractive Japanese girlfriend joined them in mid-game. I was trying to put their story together and decided that the parents had come to Japan to see their son and that a baseball game provided the best way for them to spend a night together in the company of the son's beloved (who knows, maybe she was his wife).

An argument on the field. Having read that Japanese baseball is a game of "wa" or peaceful solutions to onfield issues, I was amazed when a runner came sliding into homeplate and, being called out in a close play, rose immediately to his feet and roughly shoved the umpire. He was ejected at once, but this led to an argument from his manager, and the game didn't resume for about 10 minutes.

I'm sure you never saw someone carrying a bowl of soup and noodles back to their seats at Citi Field.

The fans rhythmically bobbed their colorful little umbrellas as the music played on several occasions, especially during the "Lucky 7."

By the end of the seventh inning, with the Swallows ahead 5-2, and the temperature dropping, I bade farewell to Jingu Stadium and made my last trip home to Kichijoji, to which I would say sayonara in the morning.