Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Quite Big in Japan


It is difficult to recall memories of Japan. As I labour to chronolise the events of my eight (or was it nine) visits between 2004 and 2007 my conscious only throws me abstract images and feelings of confused excitement. I would wander from interview to sold-out gig in a jet-lagged Valium haze struggling to accept that all this good fortune could be smiling in the direction of me and my funny little band. Nothing had happened for us in England. We were still (very much enjoying) touring the conveyor-belt of shit-hole venues with sweaty walls with the house lights up but, somehow, our album had managed to sneak its way to the top of the Japanese charts. A cliché of Spinal Tap proportions! Of course the cliché is that it only happens to the very worst bands but that is not for me to comment on and when the call came through I really didn’t care.

After a twelve-hour Ambien coma at 40,000 feet, we boarded a mini-van for the hotel. The roads seemed to weave like rollercoaster tracks amongst the skyscrapers and the horizon was twisted with industrial tubes and towers. The whole city was stamped with neon advertisements and posters of western celebrities secretly endorsing mysterious products. I can remember feeling tearful with excitement as we parked up outside the Shibuya Excel Hotel. All four of us were winded by what greeted us in the hotel lobby. Fans. Real, live, fans. Trying hard to appear as though this sort of thing happened all the time I revelled in signing everything they presented. They gave us gifts and sweets and adorable letters and asked about my lyrics and our clothes. I began to understand why Britney Spears would place such emphasis on letting her fans knew she loved them at every opportunity. For me it was love at first sight. Our Japanese guides, having checked us into our rooms, came over to us and proceeded to shoo our fans away, swatting them like flies with the hotel documents. Somewhat taken aback we retired to our rooms on the fortieth floor and independently spent that night staring at flocks of pedestrians washing like waves across the Shibuya crossing.

There is a radio station in Japan that exclusively plays the Beatles. This is a twenty-four hour service and sound-tracked every trip I took. Most of the hotel rooms would only have one speaker which meant most of the early stereo Beatles records would be limited to Paul singing and playing bass, maybe a little tambourine. Whoever had the room next door would get John and George. It was such an intimate way to rediscover those records in a land where Beatlemania seemed as maniacal as ever. After that first sleepless night and a delicious, if unexpected, breakfast of rice and grilled fish I was presented with my itinerary. Every minute of the day was accounted for from eight a.m. until midnight. The interviews were amongst the most gruelling therapy sessions I have ever undertaken. I remember on one occasion being asked to describe my soul in a word. But the questions were generally so cleverly researched and a joy to answer. The gigs were heaving and the venues were slick and shiny. The food was heavenly. The sake flowed like wine. A week later we came home.

I can’t remember landing in England. I imagine it was probably raining. I can remember unpacking the ornate fans and decorations from my bag and instantly transforming my room into an oriental zen paradise. I started reading solely Japanese literature (Mishima Yukio being a firm favourite), listening to Plus-tech Squeezebox and Capsule as well as Japanese classics like Sakamoto Kyu. I bought Yoshitomo Nara and Murakami Takashi prints for my bedroom and grew a tiny Japanese garden at the foot of my bed. I started learning how to read and speak Japanese and when I had a day off I would spend it walking around my flat in my kimono. I am under-exaggerating so as not to appear obsessive. I cried when I found out that the next Japan trip was imminent.

I arranged to travel a few days early on my own so that I could see the Studio Ghibli museum and the most fucked up aquarium imaginable (they have see-through fish). I had made a good friend at the record label on my previous visit and she let me stay at her suburban Tokyo (possibly an oxymoron) apartment where I could put my Japanese obsession in practise as she grilled me my breakfast fish. It was Sakura season and the streets were swimming in a sea of pale pink. As a touring band it is near impossible to get fully acquainted with a city: to take the subway and buy dinner in a supermarket. I greeted the band, ‘Konichiwa’ when they finally arrived, fantasising about moving to Japan for good. There is something fantastical and hypnotising about Japan and I am quite predictable in being so wholly seduced by it. The art and music has an irresistible mix of stern seriousness and child-like playfulness and as a country it is visually as otherworldly as anywhere I could imagine.

It is this otherworldliness that blends and smudges the memories. I remember New York because I ate pizza and saw a movie. Did I really listen to Tokyo Storm Warning during a Tokyo storm warning? Did I play a baseball stadium to 40,000 before returning home to play to 400? Could I have possibly walked through the neon mazes of Shibuya with the neon fashionistas as my life in Brighton carried on without me? Are the Pachinko machines ringing their bells for someone else? Whenever I suffer a sudden attack of terrifying nostalgia as I sometimes do, it is always a regret for having lost that link to Japan. For now I can preen my zen garden.