Yes, that’s Tommy Lee Jones. On a drinks machine.
I recently wrote a piece about the differences and similarities between my former home town of Plymouth and greater Tokyo, where I live at the moment. You can read it here.
As is often the case, I’m not great at limiting my word count, so some things had to be cut, like references to Crusty the Clown – and for some reason coffee. The piece in the Herald is great, but, as is often the case for us hacks, I still prefer the original version below for all its un-redacted wordiness. Hope you enjoy it too :-)
You already know that you will end up in a place that’s a far cry from a cosy pub close to the moors when you take the first step onto the flight of worn linoleum stairs, where the vertical parts are covered in adverts for the ‘Saison Dare’ on the third floor. How far is indicated by the amount of silver stars and scantily clad smiling Japanese girls jotted around the letters, making you pretty certain it’s probably not a bingo hall. You are not going that far, but stopping on the second floor at the coffee bar that is the source of the muffled music seeping through the brown wooden door with square grey glass panels that meets you on the second floor, obscuring the room behind.
You enter, and find yourself in a long room with a low ceiling. The floor is stone panelled and worn smooth – and stained yellow in the areas away from the worn paths which wind their way around the massive brown concrete pillars jotted throughout. Scattered randomly among the pillars are big, low brown leather sofas and wooden coffee tables as well as small white lawn tables with matching plastic chairs.
All of this is something you register, as your head swivels past the small group of sombre, serious-looking elderly ladies who are sat, quietly smoking at one of the lawn tables and the few elderly gentlemen sat around, alone, on the various sofas, reading newspapers.
The reason for the swivel is that the sounds you heard from outside and thought of as just background music is anything but. It’s live.
Up on a tiny, low stage, positioned to the left of the low-lit bar that runs along the back of the room stands an elderly woman, flanked by two speakers on long legs, looking like the sonic incarnations of something out of Day of the Triffids. From where you’re standing she looks like someone with shaky hands has applied Krusty the Clown’s make-up to an Asian incarnation of Anne Widdecombe. A closer look reveals that it’s not actually that bad – there is a lot of makeup, and some show of wear and tear, but there is a light burning in her eyes.
And she’s singing opera. And not only is she singing karaoke opera – she’s doing it well. No, she’s doing it faultlessly. Beautifully. To a half-empty room full of sombre pensioners, who hardly acknowledge her, apart from one or two, who seem to be waving their cigarettes like they’re directing the music while staring down through newspapers or tables and off into infinity. Like the countless hours’ of practice that came before this performance and the, to you, jarring contrasts of opera, karaoke – not to mention the middle-aged waitress behind the bar, dressed in a sparkly, black cowboy outfit complete with spores and gun holsters where she keeps the dish towels – are the most natural things in the world.
Welcome to a Tuesday evening on the outskirts of what can be called greater Tokyo – a sprawling mass of inter-connected towns and cities that together make up the largest urban area found anywhere in the world.
This is indeed a far cry from what I had grown accustomed to on the fair south shores of Devon, frequenting newspaper haunts like the Plymouth Herald newsroom. Here, English is treated with a reckless, carefree abandon that would make Herald reporters – and perhaps even government spindoctors – go: ‘I’m not sure we can actually twist it like that without breaking it’.
It is a place where a wall socket is simply called ‘consent’, you are advised at hotels to ‘please make up room’ (I do have a pretty good imagination, but it wasn’t exactly the privilege that I thought I was paying said hotel for), a local French-inspired boulangerie has gone with the name ‘Custard’ – but doesn’t actually sell it and where ‘Pony Cleaning’ is either a very strange choice of company name, or offers a very unique service.
It is also a place where new and old, traditional and modern, rub shoulders at every turn. Where western ideas merge with eastern traditions and culture. The concept of yin and yang is originally Chinese, but it also applies to Japan.
To a westerner, the idea of karaoke and opera, combined with western style dressing is…odd. Here, it’s not that out of the ordinary.
In Plymouth, as in the UK in general, lary fights on Friday nights, often involving everyday objects turned into weapons, are as regular as rain in November. Here, it is not unusual to see people carrying eight foot traditional kyudo bows and satchels full of arrows around with them on one of the world’s most efficient public transportation systems. It is a place where PE still includes what is referred to as ‘Japanese Sports’. These include judo and kendo. While I’m all for the idea of whacking school mates around the heads with bamboo swords, I don’t think it’s something that could be transferred to even English grammar schools without creating something akin to Lord of the Flies. Especially if you tried to convert English students to the system here, where most high school students (A level equivalent) start their day around 7 in the morning and finish their homework around 11 pm.
It is indeed a far cry in any and every way. Well, perhaps not all.
When I spoke to the Herald about writing this article, I was not sure what the purpose of it might be. Of course, I can point a written finger at oddities and hopefully generate a few guffaws here and there, but might there be something to be gained from contrasting life in the South West with that in a metropolitan area that is home to around 37 million people?
For me, there has been
One thing I personally think that Plymouth might learn from the Japanese and Japanese culture I have encountered so far is the seamless integration of old and new. People here are good at celebrating their past and having a strong link to it.
As a semi-devonian, I have often felt a sense of wonder – or perhaps bewilderment – at how little connection with / celebration of the city’s past history I encountered.
For me, the most obvious example of this lack of strong connection with past and / or future is the Mayflower. Going to the Barbican does, of course, bring you face to face with that close contender with tea for the most Bristish thing in existence – a commemorative plaque – and some stairs and a flag, but for something that can be tied to the world founding an entire nation, one of the most powerful and affluent in the world, there seems very little focus on that in the city itself. And for a city that was the port of Francis Drake, there is very little to detail available anywhere in the line of sight from the Hoe of just what the man did and how he was connected to the region.
Personally, I see the city as one in a state of transit from a rich naval history toward something that…is hard to put your finger on. It definitely doesn’t strike me as heading for a future as a tourist magnet, or as a place that will excel in keeping hold of innovative and new-thinking university students when they finish their educations. Perhaps the future lies in connecting the old with the new. With creating a hotbed for naval culture, innovation and life in general. I’m not sure, and I think delving too deep into that would make this article twice as long as it is now.
So I will finish by simply saying that seen from halfway across the world and through the eyes of someone half Devonian and half Danish, Plymouth as a city might itself be said to be a little lost in translation from what it was to what it is today – and as a place that needs to stand up on that stage and sing its own praises somewhat better than it does today…faltering makeup in some areas of the city’s architecture and industrial prowess be damned.