Tokyo Diary–Ameyoko Market

They don’t want to be salarymen.  The 4 or 5 young men I am standing with are tattooed, nattily-dressed punker types with gangster hats and highlighted hair.  We are standing at the entrance of the Ameyoko market where you can by everything from big-eyed, cartoony redfish, to primrose-colored Ramones T-shirts, to epicurean green tea.  It is a bit of the new economy’s Wild West, with guys hawking everything out loud , specially the fish guys, who pick up their catch every morning from Tsukiji market.

These young men want none of the  stoic and sober countenance of the quiet, brief-case carrying commuters they eye walking briskly toward the trains.  They walked up and started asking me about my tattoos and we, as best we could, talked about what they were up to.  One young man with a DMX T-Shirt told me he was an aspiring rapper, and his first love was American hip-hop and rap acts like 50- Cent and Snoop Dogg.  He even did a bit of Snoop for me; “Snoop upside, Snoop upside,  Snoop upside  yo head. . .”  Seeing this from an earnest Japanese teenager is screamingly funny, and even he thinks so.  The other guys weren’t sure about what they wanted.  As much as they understood what I was getting at.

I showed them a book of some of my work and via the miracle of pantomime, we were able to communicate.  These guys all love Scarface.  I know this because when I told them my name was “Tony,” they started saying “Tony Montana. . .Say hello to my lil friend. . .bang, bang, bang.”  When I told them I was from Chicago, they said “Al Capone,” to which I nodded and replied “Fuckin’ A. . .except now we call him Mayor Daley.”

I got a lot out of talking with these kids.  In some ways they want to be like us.  In other ways, they’re rightly appalled by us.  One of them went to great pains to show his dismay at the reports of people showing up to our President’s speeches with guns.  This idea  gives him the idea that we are crazy.  And they are aware  of the racism cloaked in much of the anti-Obama sentiment.  Outside of our borders, I thought, maybe people are able to see this better than we, ourselves do and perhaps able to take a longer view of us.

These guys are also bat-shit for comics and were trying to ask me why I didn’t do comics.  I tried to explain that this was what I’d wanted to do as a kid.  In this culture it is not unusual for grown men to read and buy comics and Manga.  In fact,  it is a bumper industry over here and sometimes the fans dress like the Manga characters and get together in the parks.  Get on any train and you see men reading comics.  The comic stores in Chiyoda are always full of mostly men and boys and they  wait with baited breath for each new installment.

The market here is almost impossible to describe as it sells everything.  A young man with a shaved head and a Drop-Kick Murphy’s T-shirt is hawking styrofoam cooler after cooler of eel’s, remora,and baby octopus.  Two stalls down there is an older women offering seaweed and kelp; next to her is a guy with knock-off Dolce & Gabana products.  There is no rhyme or reason to how this thing works, but it is wonderful and I realize that for about a week, I’ve not been chained to my cell phone or e-mail, and I have the luxury of watching like a fly on the wall; granted a 6’3″, 250 pound fly (it’s not like I go un-noticed), but nobody knows me here and beyond my freakish large size, nobody pays me much attention and I am able to use my eyes and ears and decode what is going on around me in my own way and on my own time.  I don’t know that I completely get Japan, but I like it.  There is a dreaminess about it that I respond to and a lot of this population often seeks its own world to disappear into.   Nobody understands this desire like I do.

There is a term used to describe certain elements of Japanese art called “the Floating World.”  It was often used to describe narrative art in this country over the last few centuries and it is thought that a great much of Japanese comics and manga come out of this  tradition.  It is not unlike how European whites describe some Latin-American writing as “magical realism.”  The two are not unlike each other.   There is a real world feeling of that in this country; that amid the salarymen and a culture that seems to adhere to almost arcanely comformist behavior; there is a wild imagination woven into the human experience.

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – The Flea-Market at Togo-Jinja

Taxi drivers in Tokyo are a dignified sort.  Most wear ties and coats, or vests. Their cabs are immaculate and they know exactly where they are going.  I was warned that cabs were prohibitively expensive in Tokyo, but that isn’t really true.  They are not as costly as those in London and they’re maybe a little higher than New York, but they know where the fuck they are going, which saves you time and money.

Our guy took us to Harajuku, which is dominated by a youth-culture shopping strip full of the fashionable kids from this city.  Their fashion does not seem any odder, or frankly, all that different from American teenagers, which is to say, they look as earnestly stupid as any other teenager.  Among the young women, there is a tendency toward the babydoll sex object look, which is more than a little disturbing, but for the most part, the tights-with-shorts-and-a-shit-load-of-mascara-look seems to be the thing for young women of this district, which is heavily consumerist.  There is lots of hip-hop influenced stuff and bad Don Ed Hardy knock-off shirts, there are snack-shops selling combinations of food I wouldn’t  chance.  A sausage and egg pastry seems like a culinary trend collision to me, and not the kind of thing that should also include….frosting.  Harajuku is charming just for its blinding energy and color, and for all of the youth culture present, you don’t really notice any gang or drug activity.  Tokyo is well-policed.  They aren’t in your face.  They are very present and polite, but they are everywhere.

At the end of this strip is a stairway that takes you into a bucolic and lovely park called Togo-Jinja.  Today was the weekly flea market there and it was lovely and full of color and hard-bargaining.  Men and women who are old pros at this flea market business. . .you can only dicker so much with them.  I never try to “bargain“; I just pay what is asked, if I want the thing they have. But I witnessed some real theater between some of the Japanese bargain hunters.  Nobody ever raises their voice, but there is plenty of back and forth and it can go on for a long time until a deal or acceptable compromise is reached.  You know this when one, or both, of the parties exhorts a curt “Hi” and a brief bow is made.  I watched two very attractive women go at it over a tea set for about 5 minutes in a quiet but very heated parley until they reached some agreement, only to break into a musical kind of laughter when the deal was done.  If you’d been there, you’d know how magical, and funny, and full of humanness it was.  Sometimes words are merely inadequate.

I found a treasure trove of scraps; things loaded and charged with another history, not my own, things loaded with the poetry of. . .chance.  I cannot wait to start working with these treasures.  These things made with paper convey so much.  It is as if each thing is a message of fortunate circumstance, a thing  waiting for a new definition.  For me, they are scraps loaded with hope; the pieces too short to save and too beautiful to throw away.

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – Ginza District

I’ve taken tons and tons of digital shots and I have no earthly fucking idea how to load them onto my computer, because I am a moron.  I walked at least 5 miles today all over Sinjuku and Shimboyu and tonight in the Ginza district.  I also spent a little time in one of the parks which are gorgeous in Tokyo, and oddly quiet.  Public space is revered in this city because there is so little of it and parks offer respite from the crowds.  People are very quiet in the parks and these immaculately manicured places are sanctuary and lend themselves to reading and meditation.  The trees are carefully pruned and sculpted and every park is tended to like a giant garden.  They are beautiful.

I walked a great deal today and saw a lot of Tokyo in a shopping district right by Shiboyu.  There is a youth culture that is hard to discern the look of; part punk, part slacker, part skate-kid.  It is an amalgam of all of these things.  I have stumbled onto something  my host country really likes though–buttons. They are bat-shit for buttons.

My friend, Beth Keegan had a button made from a detail of one of my Drawing-Collages for the publication of Polyphony, an anthology of writing by high school kids that I provide the cover for every year.  After the opening party of the new issue, Beth gave me a baggie full of these buttons and said I ought to hand them out to friends.  On a whim, I brought them with me.  They were in my bag anyway and just for the hell of it, and I started handing them out in Tokyo.  Tipping is not accepted here, so mostly I’ve been giving out the buttons and, Jesus Christ. . .you’d think I was handing out the Hope Diamond.  They LOVE them.  And I began to notice lots of people have buttons with manga characters, Hello Kitty, monsters, anime, comics; these are some seriously button-happy motherfuckers.  From sushi chefs, to doormen, to hotel maids, to art-kids, the buttons are a huge hit.  Every time I hand one out I make a friend.  I speak no Japanese at all and I’ve managed  some marvelous conversations with people about these buttons and Tokyo and art and what they like.  I am so grateful to Beth for giving these to me and I think I’m going to have some more made.  We’ve been treated with such kindness here and such amazing goodwill.  I think to our hosts, maybe the buttons represent a talisman of goodwill.  I certainly mean it this way and it is understood.

Tonight, I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.  Back home I am a middling fan of sushi. I can kind of take it or leave it.  My daughter loves the stuff, so I go out for it fairly frequently and the experience varies from pretty good, to just okay, to dog-shit.  I never got what the big whoop about sushi was.

Once I got it here, I understood.  This place is the mecca of sushi and a sushi chef here is a combination of things; an artist, a dinner companion, a griot, and, the good ones, educators.  You learn a lot about the Japanese in a really good sushi restaurant.  One learns of the high premium placed on the idea of civility and kindness; that over the sushi bar, one does not merely have a meal, but also forges a communal conversation and fosters goodwill.  At Kyubey in the Ginza district, I ate with my friends and had another of those marvelous conversations  in which neither participant spoke a word of the other’s language.  Oh,I know,  “Ka ni chi wa” and “Arivato,” but the conversation I had with the sushi chefs was more nuanced than many I’ve had with people I’ve know for 10 years.  It was a conversation held almost in pantomime and smiles and gestures and nods.  And it was warm and fine and good.  Watching these guys prepare food was like watching Yo Yo Ma play a cello, or Oscar Peterson, the piano.  It is the difference between watching an artist and a hobbyist.  There are no wasted movements in the preparation; every element is prepared with an economy of motion and speed  and temperature.  Every bite was different.

Tipping is not allowed, so we bought the chefs beers (and so did everyone else) and these guys toast their benefactors and then hammer the whole glass down in one sip.  Though I’ve not had a drink in 25 years, I still admire guys who drink like they absolutely mean to, and they mean to enjoy it, as well. After their toast, they go right back to work preparing delicately realized, and perfect sushi.  My friend, the chef, John Hogan, once told me that every great meal teaches you a new lesson. I’m beginning to know what he means.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – Tsujiki Fish Market

Bird Of The Falling PlanetsTsukiji Market is the biggest fish market in Tokyo.  It is aisle after aisle of all things writhing and aquatic and edible.  It is massive with a business that is blinding; Japanese men zipping around on forklifts and 3-wheelers full of every kind of fish one can imagine.  It is marketplace, slaughterhouse, and auction block all under one tin roof.  It also hosts the freshest and best sushi to be found anywhere in the world.  You think you’ve eaten tuna until you’ve eaten it here.  We sat  at a 10-seat counter at 5:30 in the morning and ate the most buttery tuna I’ve ever eaten and then walked across the perilously slick and massive warehouse to the tuna auction and watched the Japanese version of laissez-faire capitalism at work.  Chefs and seafood buyers are given an hour or so to inspect the tuna for purchase and promptly at 5:30 a.m. the auctioneers start furiously ringing handbells and taking bids.  When a lot is sold, a man with a bucket of red dye goes around to each massive frozen bluefin tuna and designates an owner and a price.  The price of tuna is variable, like any other commodity, depending on that day’s catch.

It smells remarkably like the sea and not rank at all, but briny, in a way.  There are huge scallops, wolf-fish, monk-fish, buckets of live eels, cartoon-like, big-eyed redfish and octopus, all manner of oysters, clams, and mussels and seafood butchering going on all around you .  This is a real Tokyo experience.  Almost everyone I know who has been in this city has told me to come to the fish market.

What is striking to me is not how different Japanese and American culture are, but how alike.  The Fish Market, for me, is not different than watching traders on Wall Street yelling and screaming and trying to get theirs while the sun is out.  Our cultures do not differ at all when it comes to profit-motive initiatives.  Like America, Japan has an arduos  work-ethic  in that it is thought that work dignifies one’s life and provides one with identity.

I will say that the fish market seems infinitely more civilized than the trading pit.  As we walked around this morning smiling at the melange of activity and colors and scents, people smiled back at us.  They were well-aware that we’d never seen anything like this before and were as polite as their schedule would allow.  It is a remarkable place and has been part of Japan for centuries.  When we think of the South Street Seaport and the Fulton Markets back home, they probably have their genesis in this place of brine and grime and work.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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