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Authentic Japan - Keeping it Simple

Strictly speaking, this column reports from Europe. There’s an awful lot of this peninsula. In the east it’s attached to the vast land mass of Asia, it stretches up to the Arctic Ocean, reaches west to the Atlantic and is bound, in the south, by the benign waters of the Mediterranean. So there’s plenty to talk about. Even so, from time to time, I venture further afield. Which is why I’d like to share with you a few simple but lasting memories from recent trips to Japan. Work takes me there a couple of times each year and every time I get a little bit closer to that coveted feeling—familiarity.

‘We have melt-down’
I say that because I remember my first experience of the Tokyo Metro system. As clinically smooth-running and clean as it is, I confess to being overwhelmed. I simply needed to head south-west from the city’s central Otemachi station to Harajuku where I planned to check out the often weird cosu-pure-i (costume play) fashion on Takeshita-dori and see the ancient ukiyo-e wood block prints at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art. I remember standing in front of a subway map, amid the intense urgency of the crowds and half-hearing endless, elastically nasal announcements that seemed to bounce off anything shiny—which was everything, including my forehead.

I thought I’d just about cracked the route, so I headed over to several banks of ticket machines. That was the end, I guess. Drowning in incomprehensible data, I had to go back outside and sit down, shake the noise and the blurring colours and lines of that metro map out of my head before trying again. Being male, I didn’t ask for help even though I’d reached a state where I knew and understood nothing. Like I say, overwhelmed—but I got there in the end.

Love of the common people
A few trips later, it’s all much easier, and there’s one simple pleasure I always enjoy. I did it recently in Nagoya and it’s the ordinary business of going into a tiny side-street pub (as opposed to zero-ing in, autopilot, on a Starbucks). This time I found a place hidden away in the shadows of the soaring, organically twisting Mode-Gakuen Spiral Towers which house fashion, computer and medical schools in supremely advanced, eco-friendly, earthquake-proof style. The pub, in delightful contrast, bills itself on its English language menu as: ‘a traditional Japanese restaurant-bar for common people.’

I had a beer, pickled vegetables (on the house) and chicken in a spicy sauce cooked by the barman on a grill by the sink. I ate at a bar topped with wood a foot thick. To my left, a middle-aged couple, and to my right a wiry, effusive man around 60-70 years old (impossible to tell) chatting and laughing with a much younger guy about I’ll never know what. They were drinking beer while another chap, a businessman who looked far too sharp to fit the ‘salaryman’ definition, was quietly hoisting saki poured to the brim into an elegant square-topped glass, the overfill collecting in a small, solid wooden tray. I wanted to hang around but needed an early night. I also wasn’t aware of anyone really noticing me but, as I ducked out of the low door, the older man said, with a grin: “see you Charlie Sheen!” And pretty much everyone smiled at me.

I didn’t get the name of the pub. But that doesn’t really matter. They are everywhere, sometimes heaving, sometimes quiet and intimate like mine was on this particular Tuesday at around 6.30pm.

Dante’s pachinko
Another fun thing to do, just for the experience, is to go to a pachinko parlour. Step in off the street and you enter a new level of hell (or heaven) depending on how you feel about these things. These places, often on several floors, have row after row of tightly packed gambling machines each blasting out music, messages, flashing lights… and ball-bearings. And everyone, sat on low, fixed, plastic-topped stools, seems to be smoking. Japanese law prevents the pay-out of cash. Instead, gamblers are rewarded with small steel marbles which are swapped for ‘prizes’. I’m told that winners take their gains to a local business—read ‘criminal organisation’—which then exchanges them for cash.
Tap ‘pachinko’ into YouTube and you’ll get a flavour of what it’s all about. Nothing, however, beats the forceful reality of a pachinko parlour—when you open the door for the first time, it’s like walking into a psychedelic storm. My recent pachinko walk-thru (I’ve yet to stay and play) in Nagoya, incidentally, demonstrated yet again the exquisite manners—and manner—of so many people who work in the service industries in Japan. It was all smiles, bows and whispered welcomes from every member of staff who saw me.

If you’re not a regular visitor to Japan, there is another way to find your feet. You could hook up with a guy called Charlie Spreckley. A couple of years ago, Charlie ditched his job as the editor of a Tokyo listings magazine to start up a service called Bespoke Tokyo. He now offers ‘urban safaris for savvy city trekkers’ to individuals and companies, unlocking the hidden secrets of the capital and, for that matter, the rest of the country.

Here’s an extract from the website: ‘…tailor-made safaris within Tokyo and across Japan to create experiences that are unique and valuable… Our customers gain access to our intimate knowledge of this rapidly changing country, from the latest consumer trends and hot new restaurants to little known getaways and valuable personal contacts…’ Check out: www.bespoketokyo.jp. Sounds like a useful outfit.

See you next time.