Wednesday, 11 February 2015


A really beautiful February morning and three generations of a normal Japanese family decide to go on a day trip to Tokyo.

There are so many recommendations floating around that it’s difficult to decipher what one really wants from what’s on offer. First stop, Asakusa, where Obaachan can look in to shops that sell things like hand-made aprons and fake leather hand-bags, tourist-magnets and deep fried Japanese sweets.

Red is the predominant colour.

The lanterns are red, walls are red, all the stalls are red; catching the bright sunlight and glimmering off the nodding-pawing cats, and their counterpart key-rings; they adorn both sides of one long traditional street leading up to a great Temple. A marketplace and a left over article from pre-modern Japan. Obaachan remembers it as being the first and only district you could watch movies in Tokyo for a while, until other cinemas got built and stage plays went out of fashion. It used to be glitz (not quite sure about glamour) but now purely a tourist spot playing up to bygone ages of pre-electricity, and yet, its messy historical ardour is charming. Asakusa is finely in tune with our desires for a romantic believable Japan. The family have fun.

A young couple on a date in pink and blue, Him & Her, matching kimonos.

All the young go there to shop and have dates, as it seems mandatory for Japanese couples to have them only in a few orthodox places, and this week in the lead up to Valentine’s Day the embellishments are fervent. It’s a newly built skyscraper called SKYTREE, which is pronounced in Japanese tongue as ‘SkyTsulee’ so I didn’t know it had the connotations of a tree until I read the leaflet.

It’s bewildering that two such different truths can go hand in hand like it does in Japan, everywhere. The SKYTREE is the tallest skyscraper in the world flaunting five lower levels of fashion houses, restaurants and one super-aquarium at least 100m above sea-level (which I’m not sure benefits the fish), and yet the main image for the complex is a tree. Like, a natural tree. They call the shopping levels SoraMachi meaning SkyWalk but you don’t see sky anywhere – there’s a tonne of shops with sales on and random Valentine’s ephemera, like a Valentine’s cardigan or pot-plant. I mean it’s all very cute and nicely laid out but it’s really got nothing to do with forests.

Poor penguins up on the fifth floor above the Tokyo skyline, they’ll never fly and never make it to the Antarctic, but they’ll daily see the shining lights and goings on of this anachronistic city.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


That’s the thing that struck me first, the position of the stars are different here.

In the bullet-train called a shinkansen on my way to visit a friend from the good old days, I am sat upright in the window seat. I dare not recline for fear of upsetting the old couple behind me, out on a day trip with their formal pretty lunch boxes wrapped up and laid out neatly on the foldable table attached to the back of my chair. Mt. Fuji is supposed to roll past my fast-moving window pane - although thanks to my daydreaming - by the time I’ve looked out the window we’ve already run into a tunnel and almost there. I have no idea where I’m going.

We go to the sea. There’s a sea! I exclaim and she says, yes where do you think you are? And I say I don’t know, and she tells me we are by the sea and in the distance you’ll be able to see Mt. Fuji. I look impressed and she laughs at me.

There’s a famous pinewood here that leads on to a long swathe of beach. It’s famed for an old Japanese legend that took place here, called the Hagoromo Densetsu, where a beautiful maiden from the heavens was caught off guard bathing in the sea. A mortal man found her special robe called a hagoromo hanging on a pine tree and stole it away so that she couldn’t return to heaven. In one version he marries her and in another version she dances for him to get the robe back, and in both versions she flies back to the Sun People leaving him heartbroken. Deservedly.

It’s getting darker and with the few pebbles I’ve picked up from the beach in my pocket we drive in her car up the steep hills of the mountain. The curve and the inclines of the roads are something to be mastered and she rushes up them like a bull. It’s a full moon and because it’s low hanging in the sky it looks huge and flat and yellow like an old torch face. She tells me her family name in old Japanese means full moon, Mochizuki, the first kanji letter (mochi) spelling out ‘hopeful’ and the second (zuki) ‘moon’.

That’s Orion’s Belt. That’s the Dog Star.

We point out constellations looking up and spread out like unleavened bread, two tiny dots on a moonlit mountainside - because she’s a mountain-girl and I had no idea! A relic of a house, centuries old passing down through generations of one traditional tea-farming family inlaid in a valley on the blue-green foothills of Mt. Fuji. Shizuoka is renowned for it’s high quality tea-fields but I hadn’t made the connection before making the trip that she might be related to the trade, it's an idea rather dated for my Obaachan even to have conceived. The rumours go, that in the Ēdo Period when the ruling class of Japan were abolished all the families of warriors or samurai moved in to Shizuoka to harvest tea, as it was considered not a lowly yet peaceful living. That’s all historical conjecture though albeit romantic.

The next morning, half-asleep in the thick futons, lying down with my head tilted to the window I see droplets visibly draped across the forest canopy. It’s raining today, she says bleakly as she breaks in to a laugh when she sees me huddled up as a cocoon on her tatami floor. I am so happy to be here.

I watch the hunter-cat of the household named Bünta clean himself infront of the kerosene stove, where also an 89 year old obaachan (Japanese grandma) sits warming her knees. This cat catches everything from mice to wood pigeons to small rabbits, says the warm-hearted mother, one time she caught a swallow who was nesting in the beams above the front door and since then we’ve been on the blacklist and they haven’t returned. I look at the cat and at the mother bemused, what blacklist? I ask, and she tells me swallows won’t return to a place to nest for ten years afterwards if they think it’s unsafe, and so thanks to Bünta no swallows have nested in the house for at least four years. I tell the cat off, and the obaachan chuckles, at me or the cat or at something wholly else I still don’t know.

The house is completely wooden. Paper doors, wooden slats, tatami floors, paper walls, everything is light and breathing. In the winter it’s cold but the wood sucks up the moisture and in the summer it expends it back out again in the heat; and the paper if it gets wet dries, and the floors creak with human and natural movement. It’s stayed this way for over a century, it’s like living inside the shell of a nut, totally safe yet precarious.

Food is pulled out from the soil around her house, mushrooms and broccoli and rich pickings; the cat comes to watch us as we watch over the tea-fields, moist with rain. Now they are dark green but when they’re ready they turn a vivid lime-green, she tells me, I ask her if she ever wants to take over the family business, and she tells me it’s her last resort - the joker in the pack - I guess what she means is the last trick up her sleeve, but really I did think she was the joker now for keeping these beautiful traditional familial things a secret. I mean - I used to stay in her dingy flat in Paddington watching YouTube videos. Those were the days.

Those were the days,
As long as moons
Move over mountains
And tea-fields,
I’ll see that red rug
Carpet, on your
Ex-council flat floor.
With one sticking door.
Mercury rises,
Decides to go backwards.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015


What a treat. Today I get to not only hang out with my Obaachan (Japanese grandma) but there’s a festival called Sé-tsu-bün happening at the local shrine, which I’ve persuaded her to take me to.

‘Since I had a fall there one year I haven’t been back.’

‘What fall? How did you fall?’ I ask concerned tearing my eyes away from my DSLR viewfinder.

‘I was at the back and fell over trying to catch it. I haven’t been back.’

This time I was going to make sure Obaachan did no falling. She’s only 80 years old.


I asked her in the morning what Sé-tsu-bün is, or meant, or whatever.

It happens every year on 3rd February and the kanji (Japanese calligraphic letters) spell out something like “Spring is coming” or “the bringing in of Spring”; although from what I can surmise it sounds more like the goading in of Spring - as the main pursuit of the festivities involve throwing handfuls of hard little soya beans at a monster, or what they call oni here. I love this tradition. Obaachan remembers that when I was knee-high I’d follow my Ogiichan (J. grandfather) around the house like a lap dog, closely weaving my way around his legs as he threw beans out the windows and slammed them shut.

Let me explain.

On Sé-tsu-bün, lots of Japanese people will buy small bags of dried soya beans from supermarkets and then when home it’s tradition to take handfuls of these beans and throw some indoors and then throw some outdoors through windows and doorways, all the whilst shouting 

Oni wa- Sö tō! 
(English trans. Monsters outside!)

Füku wa- Üchi! 
(Goodness inside!)

Oni can mean monsters, evil spirit, badness, evil itself.  
Füku can mean joy, happiness, luck, fortune, goodness. 

And when you’ve thrown the handful of beans outside through the respective doorway or window, one slams it shut so that the evil spirits and monsters can’t get back in.

‘How many doors and windows do you have to throw beans out of?’

Obaachan replies wisely, ‘Any doors and any windows. Anywhere evil might get in.’

I imagine that’s quite a lot of cracks.

‘When your Ogiichan used to do it, I’d tell him, don’t throw handfuls of beans indoors because of the mess, throw in three or four beans max. The ones he threw indoors I’d pick up after him and eat.’

‘You’d eat them?’

‘A friend told me you have to eat your age so that mean 80 beans for me this year - ’ she breaks off for a chuckle ‘I don’t even like soya beans.’


So now at the supermarket I’m excited to get some beans but my Obaachan tells me we aren’t allowed to celebrate it in our house this year because we're still officially in the mourning period for my Ogiichan who passed away last year, about this time now actually. Instead we go to the food aisles where there are lots of old ladies and mothers with children going after some sort of sushi roll.

Another tradition that comes with Sé-tsu-bün is that you’re supposed to eat a long fat sushi roll whilst standing facing a cardinal direction that’s chosen as auspicious for that year. By whom? No idea. Why do you eat a big fat sushi roll standing up like your looking through a pair of binoculars, but with your mouth? Not sure. These sushi rolls are called é hō maki and the kanji in the name means the “good direction”. This year you’re meant to eat them standing facing West-South-West, so I’ll get a compass out tonight at dinner.


Did you know every day here, in the town of Kasukabé where I was born, a city-wide announcement is made at three o’clock on all weekdays that says, ‘BING-BONG: Thank you to all drivers for being so careful every day on our roads and not causing traffic accidents. It is almost rush-hour now so let us carry on being safe on the roads. We citizens are very grateful.’ In England that would be eerie, 1984-esque, here it’s earnest governing, which still strikes me as authoritarian but almost like a double bluff.


I get my camera out and ready for the Sé-tsu-bün ceremony at the shrine. This is the shrine where I had the Japanese equivalent of a christening; some 20 years ago, a Shintō priest would have waved some paper over my head and stamped my forehead with a stamp; I believe all babes cry astronomically loudly at this sensitive time post-birth.

The festivities start at four thirty but there’s lots of oldies and children milling around the shrine by four and the moment we step in to the shrine’s forecourt my Obaachan’s been accosted by other obaachans, so whilst she mingles I look about poking with my eyes anything that doesn’t make obvious sense. Everyone holds bags, plastic ones that you might get from the shops which are all currently hanging limply down by the side or stuffed in to anorak pockets. A lot of oldies are waiting with tiny yappy dogs that shiver tremendously in the wintry afternoon, the kind that gives off visible breath. Here and there appear small clusters of school uniforms, the older boys wear cheap-blue track-suits whilst the middle-school girls wear mini-skirts and the tots all wear yellow-rimmed caps holding hands. There are officials in gloves and blazers keeping guard on high posts, such as a makeshift stage that has been built on one side of the forecourt and also on top of the stone steps leading up to the shrine proper, a wooden-built hall with a copper-green roof slanting upwards like a samurai helmet. The whole space is shrouded by trees and the shrine backs on to woodland, most Japanese shrines will have a Tree of the shrine, which is often sacred and demarcated with white-paper and rope wrapped around its trunk. I like how trees are sacred in Shintō, they don’t get given much time these days.


Five colourful oni, looking like tipsy spin-offs of the Power Rangers climb down the steps of the shrine to a flurry of announcements and proceed to get pelted with soya beans handed-out by the shrine administrators moments before. The kids and their parents, young and old, all muck in and have a go – jubilant - hurling dried soya beans down at the monster-disguised guys whilst shouting that epithet about ‘Monsters outside! Goodness inside!’ The oni wave large black studded clubs around and target little kids to scare them off and the adults lead their kids to them so that they get scared off (it’s a joint effort, like an active violent funny perpetuation of Father Christmas). One oni painted in hulk-green spins round to ROAR at a little girl in pigtails and as she screams and cries herself silly, the mum shoots off after her beckoning for her to come back whilst laughing. I love this. After the pelting of the oni is over, sadly, the announcements go again and all these well-dressed men and women file out on to the shrine steps with large bags full of stuff. An esteemed member of their team with white hair and creases round the eyes makes a pithy speech about good fortune and then the madness begins.


Showers of things - crisp packets, sweet wrappers, bits and bobs - ramen packs, tissue papers, rice-crackers, rain down everywhere. Pulled out and thrown up from the white bags of the important people up there, down on the people who’ve got their plastic bags opened and held above their heads down here. It’s a joyous free for all. People scramble about other people’s feet, particularly the less fortunate ones who keep dropping the goods that keep falling on their heads. Boys run through the crowd shouting, their leader holding up a very large candy-stick that must have been obtained through some effort. Small children grab at dust and throw sweets into bags with a toothy smile, and the old obaachans and ogiichans scuttle around lightly at the edges of the throng, picking up the bits that people don’t go crazy for, like the tissue packets and dried noodles. No wonder Obaachan fell over I thought, the people are having too much frenzied fun with the fight and the tussle over getting these meaningless goods in their bag. I am loving how it’s a team mentality but an individual feat, picking up the things that rain down on you, that very fine balance between gratitude and sticking out your tongue at your neighbour when you get something you want. A friend of Obaachan says to me on the way home wheeling her bike, ‘It's like we become children again!’ and maybe the age-range is the most impressive thing, with people between 5 - 85 getting involved in the scrum.


The hustle has quietened and the important people have lined up neatly again at the top of the steps. The sun sets as the white-haired man speaks and it all ends with a unison clapping and the shouting of some “hip hip hooray” sort of sounds and then shuffling off. Everyone pleased with their dirt-ridden sweet bags.

And that’s Sé-tsu-bün.

The “chasing away of the monsters and picking up the tit-bits” festival of Japan to welcome in the Spring. Hello Spring. Goodbye Monsters.