Welcome to the land of seafood, serenity, Shinto temples and smart toilets
Curtis Andrews in Tokyo. Submitted photos
The sleep I had was sporadic at best on the four-hour bus ride - but worth it. We left early to make the four-hour drive to Tokyo and arrive in time for Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, to witness the daily spectacle that is the buying and selling of seafood, especially tuna, in Japan.
It was surreal to arrive there before sunrise to a flurry of activity ranging from forklifts full of frozen fillets of mackerel, crab, mollusks, squid and other living creatures from the sea that Japanese people happily eat. Walking through the place was akin to witnessing life under the sea above-ground, with both living and dead sea creatures up for sale, from simple seaweed to gourmet caviar, live crab, fugu (puffer fish), prawns, sea snails, flatfish and a few things I never knew existed.
But the main event was the tuna auction. There were perhaps 100 or more frozen tuna, from God knows where, all laid out and being sampled by prospective buyers. With the heads, fins and tails cut off, it more resembled the food you'd find in a spider's web than what you'd pay top dollar for in a sushi restaurant. I shuddered at the thought that this event happens just about every day in Japan in several gigantic markets resembling this one. How sustainable can this be? Especially when you see the mountains of waste, Styrofoam and plastic that accompany this whole operation.
It was eye-opening, to say the least.
However, watching dead fish being sold for thousands of dollars was not my main reason for being here. I'm playing several shows with a funk/hip-hop/reggae band from Newfoundland called The Discounts. Graciously funded by MusicNL (the backbone of a lot of what is happening with Newfoundland's international music presence), we have been here for 12 days, performing and sightseeing in different parts of Japan.
I left Canada on Oct. 21 and arrived the same day, although it became Oct. 22 when I landed (I went into the future by crossing the international dateline). We made it to a little town called Awano, where some old friends, one Japanese and one from Newfoundland and Labrador, now live in an amazing old Japanese farmhouse that they have renovated. Cedar- and bamboo-forested hills surrounded the house, and the building itself had a stage to play on (we later had an awesome concert there), sliding paper-paned doors, nice woodstove in the kitchen and the warmth of friends and hospitality.
One of the oddest and coolest experiences was meeting a Japanese fiddle player who had been to St. John's several times, knew friends of mine and could play fiddle tunes from this province. It's not what I expected. Nor did I expect to see caplin for sale in the local grocery store. I always knew fish from Newfoundland and Labrador wound up in Japan, but now I was seeing it for real.
After this wonderful introduction to rural Japan we made it into Tokyo.
Yes, the mad urbanity you picture in your head when you think of Tokyo is every bit true - never-ending rivers of people in the train stations and on the streets. Neon lights illuminate the sky, and there's plenty of activity and kinetic energy, but it's so quiet. It was odd.
Once out of Tokyo, we went to a smaller town where I experienced my first of several onsen (geothermal outdoor hot spring baths). A godsend, these are pure heaven - soaking in 40 C volcanic heated water, naked, with the sky above and green hills around you, sometimes in the rain.
At first it was a bit peculiar, seeing as how I'm not sure most of the Japanese men have ever seen anyone as hairy as me, but you get over that soon enough. We also attended a traditional tea ceremony (chado), visited numerous Shinto and Buddhist temples, which were breathtaking, especially one with 1,001 wooden carved Buddhas (Sanjusangen-do) and another which supposedly contains the ashes of the Enlightened One himself (both in Kyoto).
We visited Mount Fuji (although partially hidden by clouds, it was still magnificent), passed through what seemed like a thousand tunnels (Japan is 70 per cent hills, maybe more), went to a sake factory, walked around traditional Kyoto where you can spot Geishas, buy $100 chopsticks or $200 hairsticks. There are $40 cantaloupes and watermelons in Tokyo.
And what can I say about "smart toilets"? First, the seat is heated; second, you push a button which makes a little robotic arm come from somewhere and squirt a little stream of water you-know-where, at varying degrees of pressure; and some of them play music!
Overall, my impression is that Japan is a wondrous, ancient and modern place that can confound you at every turn. The most striking thing is the amazing esthetic sense of simplicity, harmony and attention to detail and presentation that is found in many aspects of traditional Japanese culture - architecture, gardening, cuisine, the arts, traditional dress and social interaction.
Of course, this is in sharp contradiction to the modern side of Japan with J-Pop, the thousands of clone-like workers who swarm trains and subways, avant-garde art and music, the chameleon-like way that Japanese people can adopt a foreign cultural trait (music, dance, art) and mimic it to the fullest (or take only the best aspects of it and make it their own).
The almost hyper-politeness of the people was a bit unnerving at times. Alas, I was there for only 12 days and barely scratched the surface of this complex society.
It was a good 12 days, though. All things considered, the most amazing thing is that I left Tokyo at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2 and arrived back in Canada at 10:50 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 2.
Yes, I arrived earlier than I left.