Japan in London

33 sushi pink    Three weeks back at home

                how, where can we hope to find

               Japan in London?

Part of my fortunate workload at present is to edit, catalogue and store all the photographs and videos we shot during our month-long tour. It’s wonderful to relive the moments and taste the food but oh the withdrawal symptoms! So this Saturday since we had to go into town, we decided to recapture some of those elements of Japan that are available in the city.

Several years ago we dined very well with friends at an extremely unpretentious restaurant in Brewer Street so I walked along there and while perusing the menu was approached by a young Japanese man who said “I really like this place.” That’s good news and he was soon followed by another (Japanese) customer who engaged me in conversation – just like in Japan – wanting to know my interest in Ten Ten Tei. I mentioned that I’d eaten there once a while ago, had just come back from Japan and was looking to replicate the delights of dining there in London. “You can’t do better than this,” he said, “it’s genuine, simple Japanese food, well prepared and served.” I thanked him and said I’d be back with my wife later – which we will. He then wanted to know where we’d been in Japan and was amazed at the itinerary, saying we’d been to parts of Japan he hadn’t. But then I guess that’s true of many visitors to the UK who have been to places I haven’t here. So a good start with reminders of Japanese friendliness and the confirmation of another good place to eat. It seems not to have its own website but has a Facebook page.

Dee rejoined me for a trip to Arrigato which again has no website but you can get a good picture from reviews on Yelp! We browsed the shelves, looked at taro root, burdock and other ingredients we had tasted, ogled the excellent bento boxes for lunch, saw sushi, noodles and soup being consumed by others and vowed to go back there to eat. In the meantime we stocked up on enoki mushrooms, konbu (seaweed), the super-addictive torpedo rice cracker and peanut snack and checked out the tea stocks for future reference. This included packs of Fuji matcha (green powdered tea) in fabulous retro style. Arrigato is smaller and has less variety than the Japan Centre on Regent Street but was less busy and probably an easier place to shop. And of course you can buy online from the Japan Centre website but you miss the fun of browsing.

On the roof of the Brunei Gallery at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University) is a Japanese inspired garden which we had intended to visit before our trip so today seemed like a good day to remedy that. It got better too as in the gallery was an exhibition called Treasures from the Tenri Central Library which covered 1000 years of art in Japanese books. A brilliant display of drawings, watercolours, woodblock prints and illustrations from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. There are some great representative images here. Exquisite work that recalled some of our museum and gallery visits in Japan and well worth a visit by anyone with an interest in the production and illustration of books.

Then it was up to the roof garden a small but beautiful area with significant elements of Japanese garden planning in this case strongly reminiscent of Tofukuji in Kyoto with raked gravel with boulders, squares of limestone alternating with beds of thyme and a scented wisteria as an arcade over a restful bench. The calm was slightly disturbed by shouts form the roof of nearby Senate House where someone was abseiling down the building.

Back in the gallery we could have taken part in calligraphy and origami demonstrations which are going on until the end of June and also include Gagaku music, the tea ceremony, sake tasting and lectures using the exhibition as a resource. However, welcome though this discovery had been we were also intent on visiting the Wellcome Collection only half a mile away where there is an exhibition Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan which closes at the end of June.

It’s an attitude-altering, mind-expanding exhibition that presents the work of untrained and self-taught artists all of whom live in the care of the state – as the exhibition brochure says “in social welfare facilities”. The clay and papier-mâché  models and sculptures, tapestries made from leftover scraps of thread, paintings and drawings on cardboard and paper factory offcuts, demonstrate the creativity of those who might be considered disadvantaged in modern society. They may be raw but the variety, impact and lasting impression left by this exhibition makes them very definitely works of art in that they communicate ideas and emotions to the viewer. The pieces exhibited ranged from bold life-sized depictions of the artist and friends to obsessively meticulous drawings of imaginary cities of the future. It served to give us a new interest in “outsider” or “raw art” which is increasingly recognized as a genre worthy of study. There’s a good discussion in RawVision magazine. If you can get to the exhibition before the end of June, do. It’s well worth it. And the Wellcome Collection itself is another superb relatively unsung museum of science and the mind. As its slogan says it’s “The free destination for the incurably curious”.

Sunday had a Murakami dimension too. We took the grandchildren to Chislehurst Caves which involved walking in semi-darkness through (part of) 20 mile labyrinth of chalk caverns under south east London. Dampness, darkness and lots of dead ends brought several passages from Haruki back to mind. Labyrinths in the mind or physical ones to be crawled through recur in 1Q84, Kafka on the shore and several other of his books and stories.

So we did discover several aspects of Japan in London last weekend and look forward to meeting a dear friend for dinner and reminiscence in the excellent Watatsumi restaurant on Friday.

A day of two halves and day

27 sushi pinkWhy do dismay and

       delight  so often mix in   

       one and the same day?

So I’m writing this after a Saturday that was not quite what we had hoped for. All things being equal however we should get to go to one more soccer match this season and see Watford promoted through the play-offs instead of automatically. What a horrific game to watch with Jonathan Bond seriously injured by a Watford player Ikechi Anya after a deliberate push by on him by a Leeds player. Sheer nerves gave away two unfortunate goals (sadly it was Jack Bonham’s first appearance as keeper for the first team after the injury to Bond) and we now have to do it all again with possibly only a rookie keeper. Ah well.

First disappointment was to discover that you can’t actually visit the Imperial Palace except on two days of the year. We had been hoping to have a touristy morning starting with a trip across town to Tokyo Station and then a stroll to the Palace gardens at least. Well Tokyo Station which we’d only ever seen from inside is a true delight of a building and an exhibition was being held to celebrate its twinning with Grand Central in New York and its centenary next year – a year after Grand Central. Outside – after the traffic control crash barriers and so on – there is a great open space with fountains and granite benches. Granite is cut and polished so beautifully throughout Japan as seating and ornamentation in public spaces, as indeed is wood.

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Tokyo Station                                                                       Us at the “Imperial Palace”

We made our photostop at the point where you can glimpse an outbuilding above the impressive high walls and wide moat and then crossed over to the first surprise and delight of the day – Hibiya Park – forty acres of endlessly changing green spaces right in the heart of the government and business district. It was Japan’s first European style park and opened as such in 1903, having previously been a military manoeuvre and parade space for the shoguns. From the first little hill we encountered with its replica of Philadephia’s Liberty Bell, past tennis courts, rose gardens, lawns, lakes, fountains and performance spaces the park revealed its clever landscape. It’s an obvious venue for glorious wedding photography as we saw and has a hint of Central park. From time to time you would see cars driving around the perimeter but noiselessly in that weird sound barrier parks can sometimes erect.

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We next caught the subway to Akasaka to look for a number of key locations in several Murakami books. However it was time for lunch first which after inspecting several back street establishments behind the station we elected for a stand-up bar where the only offer was tako yaki octopus balls – precision grilled by the chef and served by a smiling host. They needed careful consumption as the interior was volcano hot. They came with a choice of three toppings and were delicious – excellent serendipitous street food. Then off to the police station, the Nogi Shrine and Park – yet more ceremonial photography – and some streets on the Akasaka-Roppongi boundary. A brief stop was in order at a smart cafe near Suntory Hall called “Randy, Beverly Hills and Tokyo” which also had a display of tempting craft items on sale. The Ark Hills development here is stunning with apartments, offices, concert halls, open spaces and of course shops and cafés.

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Then finally we set off for the Hotel Okura where heroine (?) Aomame undertakes a seriously important mission in 1Q84. It also happened to be where I stayed in 1979 and 1981. Funny how when the Japanese Government is paying you get to stay in a top hotel at a current rate of £250+ a night and enjoy its facilities but when it’s on your own personal budget the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku seems perfectly adequate. My recollections of a really chic, smart hotel were dashed by the exterior which is unprepossessing to say the least. The vast lobby is unchanged and the pink clad elevator attendants are as I remembered them. There was a bonsai exhibition as part of a bigger gardening show. Now neither of us are great enthusiasts but these were truly works of art with their shaping – perfect cones, leaning layers or cascades. Back to the hotel to change and off to Roppongi to watch the sad game of football and eat chicken wings, ribs and fries which I’m afraid to say felt totally alien after only three weeks away. The staff kindly assisted in our efforts to raise the Orns but you know what happened.

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Sunday started with a lengthy browse around a flea market at the Hanazono Shrine which we had visited on our first day in Tokyo. Lots of kimonos, jewellery, fans, prints, household objects and the usual mix of real antiques and not-so-real “antiques”. A few small purchases were made before we took the subway north to explore Waseda University where Murakami studied. It had a real Oxbridge/Ivy League feel and wandering between buildings old and new in a mixture of expressive and utilitarian architecture which, as at so many universities, reflects the periods in which construction took place. Many people are also of the opinion that Waseda is the model for Toru Watanabe’s unnamed university in Norwegian Wood so it was interesting from that point of view as well.

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Next big question: where to get lunch in Waseda on a Sunday with few places open in this classy suburb. We got lucky by penetrating the blue curtains of a sushi bar where a venerable chef prepared a plate of superb authentic sushi – no extra wasabi was even hinted at. They also very kindly recharged my camera battery as we ate. Such service.

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A scampering afternoon of visits to Ikebukuro to find the Traditional Japanese Crafts Centre only to discover it’s relocated to Aoyama. So we enjoy briefly the mad atmosphere of Ikebukuro with stilt walker, performance artist, pavement painter and jazz combo – just like being in Covent Garden then off to Aoyama where the boulevard features in several of the novels and we do find the craft centre which holds a wonderful display of regional work from all over Japan. A great collection but a little on the expensive side for our pockets, if not our taste.

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Ikebukuro Square                                                                 

Another domestic early evening at the coin op laundry in the basement, map finding and precision timetabling for tomorrow’s planned trip to Chiba Art museums and Kamakura and then dinner in a restaurant Maimon not far from the hotel. As well as some delicious yakitori with leeks we had a dish new to us bagna cauda which was fresh raw vegetables which you dip into a fondue-like bowl of a sauce consisting of soy, garlic, milk, sesame and anchovies – oishigatta as we say repeatedly – and so good for us too.

How shall we find Murakami and his places?

6 sushi pink         We’ve read all the books,

                the music, the food, the who –

                can we find the where?

With the added excitement of a new Haruki Murakami novel being published while we’re in Japan we’ve set about rereading them all for clues as to their settings. Some are clearly specified, others are vague, composites or invented. However we plan to track down as many as we can. For his last book 1Q84 the publishers Shinchosa have mapped  the locations in considerable detail. Each pin opens up to show where certain actions in the novel take place but as they are all in Japanese  I have to make do with a Google translation which often leaves a rather vague and confused account of what I suspect – and sometimes recall – lies behind them.

Shinchosa 1Q84 mapThe locations range from Expressway Number 3 where the world of 1Q84 begins for Aomame to the Hotel Okura where a significant act occurs. Incidentally I stayed at the Hotel Okura in 1979 and 1981 when I first visited Japan. Sadly for this trip it’s way out of our budget range but we’ll visit for a cup of tea. I hope they still have the brilliant ikebana arrangements that used to grace the lobby each morning. I’ve just discovered that there’s a festival of gardening at the Okura while we’re in Tokyo so we’ll definitely be going there.

There were also some helpful location pointers in a New York Times article by Sam Anderson shortly after the publication in English of 1Q84. The very helpful staff at the London office of the Japan National Tourism Organization also sent me links to a series of walks in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan based on Murakami’s books and a detailed list of locations where Norwegian Wood was filmed which may prove an interesting comparison for our own thoughts about the locations in that book which was the first we read and still have in its red and green two volume form. The film was good but I wasn’t always sure that the locations selected matched how I’d imagined them. But hey not many films do do they?

N Wood box     N Wood open

It’s been a great opportunity to revisit all the novels and short stories – this time with the added advantage of having them all on Kindle as well so we can make notes, highlight passages and then investigate actual and likely locations and add them to our itinerary. And boy do these books repay rereading! So much nuance, detail and context that slip by in the first read make it a fresh, fabulous journey into Mondo Murakami.