Street Art at Nat Geo Travel

England, Iceland, Street Art, sweden

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. 

A Visit to Enoshima

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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”

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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

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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

Hawaii, japan

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

japan

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.

Hello Nasty.

RIP Adam Yauch.

——————-

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.

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The Fate of Lucie Blackman

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I had this piece on Richard Lloyd-Parry’s book about the murder of Lucie Blackman published at Matador recently.

I was a little concerned about the editing, in which my introduction was just lopped off leaving the reader with a book review that doesn’t introduce the topic of the book. Readers familiar with Lucie’s name will do fine without an introduction, but for anyone else: Lucie Blackman was an English woman who was murdered in Japan while working as a hostess in a Tokyo club. Her accused murdered, Joji Obara was found guilty of multiple rapes, a murder, and of the disposal of Lucie’s body, but not of actually killing her.

The name of Lucie Blackman frequently comes up whenever I talk about hostessing in Japan. We worked at the same club, not at the same time but the same era; we were the same age, and both British. The flurry of media attention when she disappeared inspired in me a selfish frustration that my secret wasn’t a secret anymore. My story about working in “a bar” in Tokyo became increasingly implausible with each breathless report about the “seedy Tokyo underworld” that foreign girls were “helplessly lured into” (according to the gutter press.)

Parry’s book was one of four I have read in the past year or two that take Tokyo’s shady nightlife business as its topic — the others are Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein, Roppongi Crossing by Roman Adrian Cybriwsky and Illicit Flirtations by Rhacel Salazar Parrenas. All are refreshingly free of the sensationalistic writing that had characterized almost everything I had read about Roppongi, hostess clubs and the women working in them — like this book Inside the Shocking World of Tokyo Nightclub Hostessing (serialized in the Daily Mail, natch) that genuinely and without irony asks if Lucie’s murder was “exquisitely Oriental.” Like Susana Jones in her rebuttal to Campbell’s book, I had grown tired of representations of Japan and the Japanese and sex in Japan as weird, sick, crazy, something to to poked at, examined — as if those things are so clear cut in any other country.

Again, something was lost in the editing of my piece, but I hope that the point made it across. Sorry, Clare Campbell et al, but after several years of Tokyo nightclub hostessing, I can genuinely say there was very little “shocking” about the job that Lucie and I performed. The truth of her death was, as Parry writes, “sad and mundane.” She was “very, very unlucky.”