Japan - December 2022
I first visited Japan in, I think, 1999, when my father was singing some concerts and we flew out as a family to join him for our Easter holiday. Only fragmented, cloudy memories of that trip remain, but one thing I noticed was the general absence of the English language anywhere, written or spoken. This led to hilarious misunderstandings, of the sort captured so brilliantly in the film ‘Lost in Translation’. One particularly unfortunate episode took place on the first night, when my mother had taken me and my sister out to find some food. She, being allergic to fish, was struggling to find anything edible, until we hit upon a place that served ‘spaghetti bolognaise’. Unfortunately, as she discovered later that night, it came served with a garnish of sprinkled fish-egg powder, barely visible to the untrained eye.
I’d been back to Japan a couple of times in the interim, but I returned there the week before Christmas to perform Handel’s Messiah, in fact with the same conductor that my dad had worked with all those years ago. A lot has changed: it is a much more international city, pretty much everything is in English, and so if a lot of what we might call the ‘mysticism’ of Japan to a Western visitor has dissipated, it is an easier place for someone with no Japanese to get by. The problem I had was not with communication: it was that as soon as I touched down in Tokyo’s Haneda airport, after a 14-hour flight, I could tell I had absolutely no singing voice. I’d been recovering from a week-long bout of laryngitis, but the dryness of the flight must have set me back. The acutely terrifying upshot of this was that I had been flown halfway round the world to perform some Christmas concerts, and as I lay jetlagged in my hotel room in the small hours of my first morning there, I had no idea whether I’d be able to sing them. Luckily I recovered in time for the second day of rehearsals, and no harm was done; but it is a unique sort of fear and helplessness that grips a singer in such a situation.
Tokyo is such an excellent city that I was able to take my mind off my vocal anxiety, and my lack of sleep, by walking around Shinjuku, the smart and vibrant ward where I was staying. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was the perfect place to clear my head, and soothe my throat with fresh air. I sampled food markets, and a delightful dive bar serving cheap, sloppy and delicious Udon. The culinary highlight, however, was a Teppan-yaki restaurant in my hotel, which required a reservation. Teppan-yaki (Teppan meaning a type of metal plate, and yaki–‘grilled’ or ‘pan-fried’) is a style of cooking that, at least latterly, and especially in the social media age, emphasises the showmanship of the chef, who cooks on an iron surface in front of his customers. The process, which delights millions of youtube viewers, involved, in my case, preparing the surface with thin slices of garlic fried in oil (the garlic then being removed, its juices having been released into the oil), then frying the vegetables in the oil, then delicately cooking fine cuts of lovingly prepared beef (I chose hida and kobe). The marbled fat of this type of beef seals in the flavour and the juices, and the result is a flavour so condensed, and a texture so buttery, that even two 50g cuts feel like a full meal. This same refinement, interestingly, was present in the popcorn of the Shinjuku cinema where I spent more than three hours watching Avatar: The Way of Water (the only English-language film on show, and as a good a way as any I could think of to spend a weary, jetlagged afternoon that required no speaking). The film represented an acid test of an audience’s concentration, but not once in 200 minutes did anyone take their phone out, speak, or eat noisily. It was heartening (even if the film was very silly), and not something you’d ever experience in a full British cinema screening.
A clear picture was emerging, after only two days here: nothing was half-done, or slapdash, and rarely was it even sub-optimal–from the food of Shinjuku, to the clothes stores of Harajuku, to the punctuality, comfort and speed of the trains, to the cleanliness of every surface, however public and however many thousands of feet walked over it daily. I thought back to the stories of the Japanese football team, and its fans, clearing up after themselves in the stadia of Qatar during the World Cup: these weren’t myths or exaggerations, they were just part of a culture that takes extreme pride in, well, everything. This extends to the quality of the acoustic in their concert halls (or at least the three that I was lucky enough to sing in, with my voice happily returned): modelled on the traditional European ‘shoebox’ shaped hall, not so boomy as a church or a cathedral, but with just the right amount of reverb to give one confidence and security.
I’m returning here in July, and I can’t wait for it. However, I don’t think I’d ever spend Christmas here again. Though the Japanese do pay lip-service to the tradition, with decorations filling the city streets and carols (normally on the kitsch side) piped through the speakers of restaurants and hotel lobbies, it is not taken particularly seriously (and why should it be, with only 1.5% of the Japanese population being Christian) other than in its Capitalist elements. Though we had snow in Nagoya and in the mountain city of Matsumoto to soften the blow, I did miss Christmas at home with my family, and all its familiar trappings. I will, however, never forget eating jellyfish on Christmas Eve.