Monday, 30 August 2004

Apologies

for the lack of posting last week. Work was in one of those 'no, you do not have any free time' kind of moods which meant I wasn't getting home till late blah blah break out the violins etc. Anyway there you go, but back this week, so here we go.

It's the taking part that counts...

Readers outside of Japan probably haven't realised this, but the quadrennial All-Japan sports meeting has been held recently, this year in the sleepy Greek town of Athens.

This sports meeting is really something. What happens is that Japan gets all its best athletes together and sends them to a country and then invites other countries to send some of their not-quite-so-good athletes for the Japanese to beat. Then Japanese TV shows all these competitions repeatedly, especially if the Japanese athlete does what is expected and wins the gold.

This meeting usually takes place at the same time as the Olympics, but I don't think Japan sends any athletes there as there are lots of sports the Japanese aren't much kop at, which therefore aren't of much interest to the average Japanese couch potato. Who on earth wants to watch sports without Japanese people winning? Not the Japanese, that's for sure, so they have this other competition where they know they are going to win all the medals. Neat huh?

OK, being just a little bit critical there, but the coverge over really is piss poor. It would appear that sports such as sailing and rowing, which just happen to be sports the Brits aren't too shabby at, don't exist in the minds of the tv producers here - and this with about 6 channels covering the games at various times. However if you want to see Ryoko Tani winning her next Judo gold, you can watch it on six channels at the same time (if you had 6 tv's, naturally). This is so even on the olympic digest shows on nhk (equivalent of the beeb) which, in theory, are meant to show coverage of all the medals being won. Fat chance. And I know that every country is a bit skewed as to what coverage gets the hype, but at least in Blighty they at least show other countries winning events, in Japan you would never know.

But the Japanese did very well, getting something like 16 golds, which is pretty good if you ask me. Half of them were for Judo, which seems appropriate seeing as Japan invented it, but then again England invented most sports and we're crap at most of those so it doesn't always follow. Unexpected Japanese winners included a lady swimmer by the name of Shibata, who won the 800m something-or-other, to which the collective watching public was most happy. I say 'included' for her, but she was really it on the unexpected winners front. Unexpected not winners included one of the women wrestlers Hamaguchi, who was meant to steamroller all before her but became derailed at the semi-final stage, Inoue in the men's Judo, who, well, didn't get a gold and both the men's and women's footy teams, who basically bombed out without troubling the scorers (actually that's not fair to the men's team, thet troubled the scorers by knocking in a hatful of goals. Great, except for conceding even more at the other end).

But it is all over now, as Mick once sang, which left time for...

Azabu-Juban Matsuri

Yes, the other weekend the guru and I strolled off to Azabu-Juban in the beating heart of the metropolis for their annual August festival, meeting up with Steve and Yasuko on the way. Azabu-Juban, as the name suggests, is the 10th Azabu in Tokyo. There is precious little mention of what happed to the other nine or, indeed from 11 onwards. There is a Nishi Azabu, which isn't really that close but must be related in some way, who knows. Anyway number 10 is a bit of an old Shitamachi or downtown area, long term residents, little dingy old shops, that sort of thing, to make the place interesting. It's losing a bit of that now as it becomes posh, being close to boring but expensive Roppongi Hills can do that to a place.

Anyway because it still possesses a bit of its shitamachi-ness, it is one of the few places in central Tokyo that still has a proper Obon matsuri (Obon, I think I've mentioned before, is the summer festival when one returns to the parental bosom to pray for deceased ancestors - and woe betide you if you don't). Now for a 'proper' obon matsuri you need three things: food stalls: bon odori dancing and; beer - all of which Azabu-Juban had plenty of.

First up the food stalls. As the area is a bit downtown, as the Japanese call it, that means narrow streets with bends in, rather than wide straight roads you normally get. Into these streets the organisers squashed as many stalls as they could, which is great as wandering around we found a plethora of yakisoba (fried noodles), yakitori, steak on a stick, big boiled buttered potatoes, corn on the cob, a donner kebab stall (Steve had to try it, not bad was the verdict), and much more besides. It was great as the streets were absolutely packed so you kind of got swept along wherever everyone else was going. The smells were all great and the people really friendly and the food not fantastically overpriced, only reasonably so.

But the even better thing about it was this. Azabu-Juban is home to a fair number of foreign embassies and they, in the spirit of joining in and having a good time, set up food stalls of their own in a special, well, foreign embassies food stall park place...thing. So along with all the Japanese food there were curries from Asia and Africa (the Bangladeshi lentil curry was good, says the guru), smoking meat on the barby from Argentina, meatballs from Sweden, tapas from Spain, tacos and burritos from Mexico etc etc and shepherd's pie from Blighty. And this area was also packed with hundreds, if not thousands of people, all drinking the requisite beers, but everyone was jolly and happy and having a splendid time. It was a bit like the Notting Hill carnival but without the worry of being knifed (but also without the possibility of securing a decent bit of skunk, more's the pity).

There was also Bon odori dancing and the young ladies with their Taiko drums. For those who have never seen it, bon odori dancing is quite something. The general format is this.
  1. Erect a tower made of scaffolding
  2. Attach big loud speakers and a drum on top (and lights, decorations etc to make it look nice
  3. Gather lots of old ladies in yukata in a circle around aforementioned tower
  4. Play the bon odori tape and get everyone dancing around the tower
  5. Repeat until drunk and/or shagged out

All sounds nice except for two things. First the music is shite - one plucked shamisen, some wooden blocks clapped together and wailing. It might be only one track, there might be hundreds, to the untrained foreign ear it is hard to tell. Second the dancing itself. It sort of goes something like this: (remember everyone is moving in a big circle with the tower on their left) take a step forward, and another, then a step back, dip, up, turn to the left, clap, turn right, clap twice, sway, dip, up and start again, continue to music stops. That's about it really, though the order of the moves can be changed for different tunes - except only you, as a foreigner, won't know that the tune has changed and therefore the moves are different, cue much Japanese old lady hilarity as you sway in the wrong place and clap twice instead of dipping.

But, and this is a big but, after a few cans of beer you don't care, and that is why beer is so important for a bon festival. So we did all the bits, though not the dancing this time, and we ate and we drank and generally enjoyed ourselves, as one is meant to do at a festival. Also at this festival, much to the delight of the organisers, they had some snow from Gifu prefecture... Your guess is a good as mine.


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