Japan

Kingdom of Character

Kingdom of Character

Kelly Irving goes gaga for Tokyo, Japan.

What is your blood type?” asks Lady Gaga. It’s an odd question, especially one coming from a pop star I’ve only just met. “Um, I don’t know,” I say. She looks like I’ve just said her outfit sucks. “What? But everybody know blood type in Japan – like me. I am ‘A’, like real Gaga I think: patient, intelligent and, how you say? Conservative.” Conservative? She strikes me a pose á la Marilyn Monroe, gives me a wink and lights up her boobs like she’s a Christmas tree. Spiderman runs after her. Followed by two vampires, a pumpkin, a panda, some little green men and another Gaga dressed in lace.

I’m not sure what to expect upon my arrival for a few days in Tokyo, eight months after Japan’s devastating earthquake. But I’ve just discovered two things. 1) When someone asks what your blood group is, it’s like saying ‘what star sign are you?’ 2) I’ve unintentionally landed during Halloween, and everyone in Roppongi, the nightlife nerve centre, has gone a little Gaga.

In fact, since the pop diva urged fans to come back to the city during her visit in June 2011, she has become somewhat of a national hero – and an apt one at that. Out there yet enigmatic, gregarious yet shy, the ‘Poker Face’ singer with the big personality sums up this town to a tee.

After a heavy first night out on the sake, I spend the next couple of days finding out what makes Tokyo tick. It’s a sprawling city with quirks on every street corner. From Akihabara’s cutesy-poo maid cafes and AKB48 shops (a local J-pop group with 48 members) to Harajuku’s cosplay rockabillies and Shibuya’s statue of Hachiko: a dead dog that was so admired for his loyalty, they even made a movie about him. And while all of this is great and good, and blows my boxed-in Western mind, I decide that tomorrow it’s time to do something that’ll give me a different perspective of the city’s character – like get out of it.

About a 90-minute train ride north-west of Tokyo lies Okutama-machi: a vast wilderness of cool rivers, misty mountains, ancient shrines and blossoming pink ginkgo trees. Not that you’d ever think it was there. The fact that 35 million people cram into the greater Tokyo area alone makes it the world’s most populous metropolitan region. So how could there possibly be any room for anything else but chopsticks?

“A guy got mauled by a bear out here,” says Brad, an American who’s been an outdoor guide in Okutama for over 10 years. “It was really bad. But it did put us on the map,” he says, pointing to a little bear motif on a sign post as we exit Kori station. “I mean, the Japanese didn’t actually think there would be any wild animals around.”

I look over at the mint-green hills we’re about to climb. No neon-lit skyscrapers, air-conditioned malls or pimped-up plazas; just spectacular spots for picnicking, camping, bathing, fishing and walking.

Thankfully, Brad’s an expert in the area, so we start our hike a couple of hours down from Okutama town. This way, we can stroll up and finish the day at an onsen (hot spring).

There’s not a cloud around as we wind our way around the pebbly shoreline of the Tama River, up grassy paths and across little wooden bridges. Unfortunately, we’re a bit too early in the season for the brilliant autumn colours that epitomise the area, but the maple leaves are starting to turn from chameleon green into dusty yellow, with slight tinges of orange and cherry red.

Not far from our destination we stop beneath a small shrine that’s on a rock overlooking the almost alpine-clear water. There’s hardly another soul about, just a couple of out-of-towners snacking on sushi rolls and limbering up for what looks like calisthenics.

Hiking, it seems, like any other hobby in Japan, is serious business. Kitted out with Gore-Tex boots and gaiters for a walk that has barely broken a sweat, they bend, flex and squat, hiking poles in hand, as if they’ve been summitting Mt Fuji.

I happily watch the performance while Brad calls the people at the onsen to fix up lunch. I hear hurried whispers, some laughing and a lot of ‘sumimasen’ – a popular Japanese word that means ‘sorry’, but is used to relax tension in a conversation about anything from the weather to washing powder.

Twenty minutes go by and Brad is still on the phone. He smiles, rolls his eyes at me and I wonder if he is also an ‘A’ blood-type character. This guy’s got more patience than a pachinko player. My belly is gurgling and I’m keen to get on.

“Sometimes I think I’m way too Japanese,” he chuckles, hanging up the phone. “Last time I went to the onsen they didn’t have fish, so I called to say that I’ve got my friend from Australia here and I’d really like her to experience our amazing local fish. We discussed why the fish was so great, but I didn’t actually ask for the fish. I just suggested it would be nice.”

I’m confused. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to ask for the fish? This, I am told, is classic Japanese ‘honne’ – a way of expressing your true feelings without actually saying what it is that you want. It is the Western equivalent of ‘beating around the bush’. And it works.

At the onsen I’m treated to grilled river trout that makes my tongue sing. I follow it up outside, bathing in a big Japanese tub that’s positioned high on a cliff looking onto a patch of river. Campers dot one side of the bank, struggling to put up tents. My warm skin soaks up the chilly air, as I close my eyes and relax into the gentle sound of the water rushing below.

It is a very different noise to the one I’m listening to later that evening after a train ride back to the city.

“Ussah, ussah...hi gora, hi gora!” The chanting is set to the beat of mini plastic bats being banged together. It is loud. It is melodic. It is being conducted like an orchestra by a man standing on an upturned milk crate, blowing a whistle through a megaphone. This is the sound of Japan’s national sport, baseball.

I’m at Jingu Stadium, home of the Yakult Swallows, and I’ve been lucky to score tickets to a game that’s on par with a preliminary final. Better yet, it’s a local derby. It’s between age-old rivals the Yomiuri Giants, known as the New York Yankees of Japan, and the local underdogs, the Swallows.

The guy squeezed in next to me at the very back of the bleachers is Wayne, an expat who’s somewhat an authority on Japanese baseball – he’s barely missed a game in 42 years. “This is the best part,” he says, as he opens up a pastel-coloured umbrella. I check the air, but I don’t feel a drop. Then the sea of bodies below us becomes a tide of translucent brollies, swaying in the breeze. “A fan got so worked up once, he started waving his brolly,” says Wayne. “Now, we all do it – even when it’s not raining.”

As Suishu Tobita, Japan’s ‘god of baseball’, once said “Baseball is more than just a game. It has eternal value. Through it one learns the beautiful and noble spirit of Japan.”

Players get sussed out by their blood type, of course. It is, after all, a sport about mental grit as much as physical strength. Yet it’s played in a much more polite and fastidious fashion than its counterpart in America. You’ll never see a mid-game spat – on or off the field – despite the fact ‘beer girls’ come to your seat and serve you full-strength from vacuum-cleaner-like kegs strapped to their backs. Even the cheer squads, known as oendans, are a perfectly executed, orderly procession. The Giants’ fans stand, sing and then sit. Then the Swallows’ fans stand, sing and then sit. Never, ever do they go at the same time.

You Gotta Have Wa, a book by Japan-based American Robert Whiting, is an insightful look into all the nuances of ‘besuboro’ (baseball). According to Whiting, “60 per cent of the country is a Giants fan…their performance has been held responsible for everything from the economic recession to the national suicide rate.” In another bizarre twist, even the owner of the Swallows, Hisami Matsuzono, is a shameless Giants fanatic. Though, not without good reason. If the Swallows defeat the Giants, sales of his Yakult plummet.

I give up my seat in the safety of the bleachers to come and join the action in the Swallows’ onedan. I have no idea what’s happening on the field, I’m too caught up in what now resembles a U2 concert. The air crackles with tension, then the chanting begins. “Ussah, ussah…hi gora, hi gora!” The usually reserved Japanese spill forth their lungs, like volcanoes erupting. It is a resounding, deafening cry that goes on and on until the game finishes four hours later.

Soon after, I’m sinking a beer with ‘OJ de Villager’ – Nigeria’s answer to Bob Marley. He came to Tokyo to be with his Japanese wife, a lady who looks as much fun as a plank of wood in a party hat. We’re downstairs in his bar: a seedy joint inappropriately named ‘Paradise Island’ that’s in the heart of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red-light district. The room is bathed in a dingy blue glow, the air reeks of stale Asahi and the only other person in here is his mate propped up on a stool, slurping some ramen.

“I am a big star!” OJ announces, pointing to his chest like I may have mistaken him for someone else who isn’t in here. “Let me play something for you.”

He gets behind the DJ booth, starts the turntables rolling and some sort of J-pop/reggae tune, set to the rhythm of a doorbell, kicks in.

OJ picks up the mic: “I went to the airport, yo-o-o-oowah…and it was huge…I ran out of Africa thinking that Tokyo was the best…everybody, everybody, ohhh…”

After he’s finished serenading me, he points to the poster of a bare-chested African man with a glistening 10-pack. “This is me,” he says. I look at him and back at the poster. I look at him again, and once more at the poster. OJ might as well be wearing a gorilla suit. No amount of airbrushing could make that a picture of him.

I don’t want to be the one to put a lid on OJ’s bottle, so I ask him to sign his CD for me, before I make a quick exit.

Tokyo, I’ve discovered, is full of personality and personalities. Here, it doesn’t matter what pop star you’re trying to be, or what your blood type may be. As Lady Gaga once said: “You have to be unique, and different, and shine in your own way.”

Get there

Qantas flies from Sydney to Narita, Tokyo, from A$1,980 return qantas.com.au

Stay there

For something with a little character, try the Sadachiyo ryokan in Asakusa. You’ll be on a comfy tatami mat on the floor, but you’ll have your own room, bathroom and flat-screen TV sadachiyo.co.jp

Get Informed

If you’re interested in baseball, check out Wayne Graczyk’s Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide 
japanball.com/book.htm

The earthquake-proof Sky Tree – the tallest observation broadcast tower in the world – will be complete and open for tours in May 2012. For information on it, and other activities in Tokyo, visit the Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website. tcvb.or.jp

Tour There

Go camping, hiking or biking and more with Brad Bennett from the excellent Outdoor Japan outdoorjapan.com

A city cycle tour is a good way to get to grips with Tokyo on arrival tokyocycling.jp

Words Kelly Irving

Photos Kelly Irving / Teban S

April 2019 from issue 31

SOLD OUT

Tags: Akihabara, Harajuku, japan, japanese baseball, Okutama, onsen, tokyo

While you're here

HAKUBA, JAPAN

Salivating hordes of skiers and snowboarders descend on Japan each winter,...

Salivating hordes of skiers and snowboarders descend on Japan each winter, eager to knife...

UNAZUKI, JAPAN

Yuki, a middle-aged Japanese lady beautifully attired in a traditional...

Yuki, a middle-aged Japanese lady beautifully attired in a traditional kimono, shows me to...

KANAZAWA, JAPAN

His hands move quickly and expertly dipping into a large dark bowl of soft...

His hands move quickly and expertly dipping into a large dark bowl of soft white rice. A...

TAKAYAMA, JAPAN

While in Japan there is one experience that you must try: an overnight stay...

While in Japan there is one experience that you must try: an overnight stay in a ryokan (a...