Street Art at Nat Geo Travel

My story on street art has just been published at National Geographic Travel: 7 Cities to See Powerful Street Art

Given a limit of seven places and the intent of geographical diversity, many deserving cities could not make the cut. So here are a few more favourites.  Continue reading “Street Art at Nat Geo Travel”

Where Are We Now?

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I have been walking through Tokyo to the rhythm of David Bowie’s Where Are We Now. My walks, like the song, are a steady rereading of place names remembered, retreaded; names that are memories and walking through them just to feel their familiarity.

Just walking the dead.

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When he sings, “had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz. You never knew .. that I could do that.” I recognise that odd sense of achievement in reaching the familiarity where you make a city your own. A city that you trust you have earned your right to wax nostalgic about. A city to whom you can say Tadaima! (I’m home), when you arrive at it’s airport for the first time in years. Or, a city that can be the focus of your comeback single when no-one has heard a peep out of you for nearly a decade and it makes sense. Nürnberger Strasse, Aoyama, Dschungel, Azabu Juban … the places are a part of you.

I can get a train anywhere in Tokyo. I can glance at the Metro map and compile a route, including transfers, in seconds. You could drop me on a street anywhere in this city and my feet would find the way home.

Ah, but home, It’s not really home anymore though, is it? I’m just walking the dead.

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A Visit to Enoshima

Despite all the time I have spent in Tokyo, I have not taken that many day trips out of the city. I have been to Kamakura a couple of times, for example, and Nikko and Fuji Five Lakes, but that’s about it. When I lived here I preferred to go far from the city — Kyoto, Thailand, Hong Kong … — when I needed to get away.

So this was my first visit to little Enoshima, with its beaches and surf, and what a time to visit: right in the middle of Golden Week. I was shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other daytrippers walking around the tiny island. So much for getting away from it all.

Enoshima Station
Enoshima Station

Part of the Enoshima experience is travelling on the vintage Enoden train from Fujisawa to Enoshima station.

Enoden
Enoden
From the bridge that leads onto Enoshima
From the bridge that leads onto Enoshima

The beauty of the sea and clean, fresh air comes as a relief from a long time spent in Tokyo.

Enoshima Boat

Food stands line the little streets and alleyways on Enoshima, selling delicious treats such as mochi …

Mochi Maker
Mochi Maker

… and octopus presented in all manner of different ways.

Grilled octopus served on a stick
Grilled octopus served on a stick

There are many shrines (Benzaiten, goddess of , among other things, water is enshrined here), offerings, and places to purchase offerings.

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There is a lighthouse observation tower from which you can look out across the area and, if you are lucky, see Mt. Fuji. A ticket for the tower gets you access to the botanical garden at the bottom.

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The back side of the island, at the bottom of a steep descent near the Iwaya Caves, is a popular spot for fishing shirasu.

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What Roppongi is Like Now, or “Death of a Red Light District”

The house I always stay at here in Tokyo is a five minute walk to Roppongi’s main drag and the favoured lodging for the women who come to Tokyo to make their money in Roppongi’s stripclubs, hostess clubs and bars.

Right now it is quiet. So quiet. Quiet enough that I can almost hear the whispering ghosts of 2005 – 7; the hustle and bustle of early evening when 20+ ruthless bitches battled for the use of two showers and the corners of too few mirrors to prepare for a night at the club — always with the rising optimism that this would be the night, the night you “make.” Make money.

The previous Australian manager’s — long gone now; settled in Sydney with a husband and three kids — friendly but firm notices are still tacked up around the house. Clean up after yourself. Ta! Keep the doors closed as cats are getting in. Ta!

But none of them are there anymore.

There are some nightlife workers carrying on the house’s tradition, but they are few: a Ukrainian on the third floor, a Japanese hostess working in Ginza, and a couple of Estonians who only leave the basement to tell us to be quiet.

The near-empty house is a reflection of Roppongi’s current nighttime state. It’s like this because — after the carnage of a financial crisis, puritanical governmental clean-up campaign, and masses of raids and deportations — who in their right mind would come here to work anymore?

Well, my friend C, desperate for money, returned in 2011 and, somehow she is still here. Lucky, she says. She overcame police, cheap customers and coworkers who unlevelled the playing field to not only survive, but to do OK as well. Not like before, but OK.

Up and down Gaien Higashi Dori there are signs warning both the flyers (touts: the mostly Nigerian men who bust their asses to bring customers into the clubs) that they are not allowed to approach potential customers, and potential customers that if they allow themselves to be guided into a club by a flyer, they will most likely have their credit card abused.

Warning Sign on Gaien Higashi Dori
New Roppongi: Warning Sign on Gaien Higashi Dori

How the flyers can make money now, I don’t know. C suggests drugs.

I walk up and down the street looking for faces of the flyers that I knew and cared for, but there’s none. I wonder about them and where they have gone. Snippets of information suggest that generally their fates have been an unholy trinity of arrest, deportation, or death, but I hope for something more gentle like retirement; a flight back home.

I look also for old clubs; places I worked, places I knew. Most are gone either replaced with a new name or with just a dimmed neon light that stands as a memorial to a place, and time, that used to be.

Yesterday I met with an anthropologist studying the Japanese sex industry. She bought me lunch at Cafe 8 near the Grand Hyatt.

The anthropologist told me that the era I worked was an infamous time in Roppongi’s history and something that even she didn’t know a lot about.

The word “era” suggests closure. That the time was and no longer is. Though I am physically here in Tokyo, and I fit back into Tokyo as if I had never left, that Tokyo, the Tokyo where life happened in the nighttime, is, for me, gone. I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

The High Touch Town sign has even been replaced
Old Roppongi: The High Touch Town sign has even been replaced

The Streets of Tokyo

I could lose myself just wandering through Tokyo’s streets: from the back alleys bursting with tiny bars and restaurants; below the noisy underpasses, and along the wide tree-lined boulevards.

When I lived in Tokyo I wandered for hours but I always had someplace to be at 8 p.m. Work. Now, I just wander, unanchored, and it makes me feel a little lost — but in the mental sense, never in the physical. I can wander through the streets that are imprinted on my muscle memory and never lose my way. I just follow my feet and they guide me through the city I know so deeply that their map seems to exist inside of me.

Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Crossing
Nishi Azabu: Alley behind my house
Nishi Azabu: Alley behind my house
Gaienmae
Gaienmae
Azabu Juban
Azabu Juban
Roppongi Hills
Roppongi Hills
Aoyama
Aoyama
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Shinjuku Underpass
Shinjuku
Shinjuku
Shinjuku Alley
Shinjuku Alley
Kabukicho
Kabukicho

Memories of O-bon Past

In Japan, and other places where Japanese culture is strong, this is the time of the O-bon festival — the honouring of the spirits of dead ancestors. At this time it is common for Japanese families travel to relatives’ graves, or to set up household altars so that their spirits may visit them instead.

O-bon is celebrated with a three-day festival and a dance, Bon Odori, to welcome the spirits of the dead. While the style of Bon Odori varies from region to region, it almost always involves a large group of people circling the yagura, a kind of elevated wooden platform where the musicians stand.

Both of my Japanese O-bon experiences were in Tokyo (in 2005 and 2007) where August 15th is the official first day. Hawaii has a whole “Bon Season” that runs from June through August.

Tokyo is generally miserably hot in July and August, but I would happily sweat through another summer there to dance around the yagura and eat festival food once more. Of course, in all the festivities I did tend to forget the sober heart of O-bon — the respect and remembrance of those we have lost. Read another way, however, O-bon reminds me of the joy of being happy, healthy and alive.

 

Photos by author.

 

Azabu-Juban Festival. August 2005.

 

Roppongi Bon, 2007.

 

Wahiawa Bon (O’ahu), 2010.

 

 

The Hairpin and Japan, maybe

Sharing exciting publication news: I had a piece — Treading the Water Trade — published the other day at one of my favourite websites, The Hairpin.

Encouraged by recommendations from a few people, I am trying to start work on a book about my time in the hostess clubs of Tokyo and, more so, about what came after. I kinda feel like I need to go back to Japan, which I have been saying I would do for the past three years. Sadly this requires money, which I don’t have enough of, and time, which, given my inability to acquire enough well-paying writing gigs recently, I may have to reluctantly sacrifice in order to submit to the life of an office drone. Disappointing.

Let’s see if I can figure out a way around this.

MCA

Hello Nasty.

RIP Adam Yauch.

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My Beastie Boys story is an indirect one. I never met them or even saw them live. They just happened to form a backdrop to one summer 14 years ago.

It was 1998 and Intergalactic had just been released. I was working as a nurse’s aide in the dementia unit of a nursing home; saving up for my move to Australia, which would begin with a few weeks in Tokyo.

I watched the Intergalactic video over and over again.

Intergalactic

The pristine streets, florescent glow of the subway stations, the bemused but politely quiet bystanders and the neat uniforms of construction workers: the Intergalactic video came into focus after I arrived in Tokyo and took to spending my days wandering, shellshocked, through the streets.

I listened to Intergalactic repeatedly, hitting rewind on my Walkman each time it finished, because it seemed like the right thing. With each step and each note, I imagined the video and it gave me a sense of being connected in that loose, lonely city. I would spend hours wondering through Shibuya and always end up at the big Tower Records where I would pull on a pair of headphones and listen to Hello Nasty on the free listening booths on the ground floor. Eventually I bought it but, because I hadn’t brought a CD player with me to save room in my backpack, I continued making the trip to Tower Records.

One Saturday night at the end of the summer and the beginning of typhoon season, long after I had changed my ticket and decided to stay in Tokyo for three months rather than three weeks; after an unshakeable feeling of tension, caused by my bar  hostess job, had begun to set in, I set out in the rain to wander. I walked from Azabu Juban to Roppongi, through Nishi Azabu and Aoyama, ending up in Shibuya. I was carrying one of those light, transparent umbrellas that everyone in Tokyo seems to use. I was walking down the hill from Aoyama to Shibuya station when a gust of wind whipped my umbrella inside out and snatched it out of my grasp. Immediately a car pulled up and a woman handed me her own umbrella.

I wandered through the back streets of Shibuya, past brightly lit love hotels, clanging pachinko parlours and indecipherable clubs, stores and bars. I ended up in HMV where, inside of a polite circle of people, Money Mark was bent over his keyboard playing songs from Push the Button, an album recently released on the Beasties’ Grand Royal label. I took my stumbling across his show as a turn of good luck. It was a show I would have planned to attend, if I had known about it. But in Tokyo, where I spoke little Japanese and read even less,  I couldn’t ever really know about anything.

A few songs later, he played Cry from Mark’s Keyboard Repair.

Cry; Money Mark

The rain, my loneliness, the tense, nervous feeling I couldn’t shake: Money Mark’s quiet voice and precise words articulated my feeling. My Tokyo wasn’t the  cartoonish, synthey city of Intergalactic at this point, it had become bluesier, more melancholy. Cry became my new song.