And so the intrepid hero of our story sits down to write his last blog post from the Land of the Rising Sun. Beside him, a soft-pack of Lucky Strike, a bottle of milk tea (how I’ll miss milk tea, he thinks), and a stack of postcards waiting to be posted to family and friends, full of poetry and all the wonders to be found in this most unique of places.
Switch perspectives back to the first person.
When I posted (very recently, I know – too recently to justify another post? never) ‘Seven Insights Into Japan’, I did my best to summarise all that I loved about this country. Where, then, was I to go with my last post before leaving for South America? Returning to Tokyo from Nagano, I could only hope that something amazing and unforgettable might occur, to give me reason to write. I forgot, of course, that in Tokyo one need not hope that such instances should occur. Indeed, they are guaranteed to.
Whilst in the ancient, alpine city of Matsumoto, I met Paula the Chilean. In passing conversation she mentioned a festival in Tokyo she was hoping to attend: one of the biggest and most popular local festivals in all of Japan – Sanja Matsuri. Happily, it was to take place in the famous Tokyonian district of Asakusa, where she and I both intended to be based. I had little idea, at this point, just when I’d be making it back to Tokyo, and as enticing as a Japanese festival sounded, there was still more in the rural north which I was hoping to see. But then she says there’ll be tattoos on show.
Tattoos. On show. In Japan.
Then she says, ‘Yeah, apparently it’s the one weekend a year that the Yakuza display their ink’.
Two totsie seconds, mi amiga. You mean the internationally infamous crime syndicate, Yakuza? You mean the lads what cut their ain pinkies aff for breaking code? You mean the ninja mufuckas what are busy manipulating mortality and slaying kids left, right and center in the latest series of Daredevil!? (Okay, so maybe not the latter – but you can see where I’m coming from).
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Yes’. And with that, my mind is made up.
Some days later then, I find myself hurriedly not-showering, throwing together an outfit, and running from my Nagano hostel down to the station to catch a reservation-only, packed out commuter train, with no reservation, at 7am. Arriving in Tokyo a little after 8 that Saturday morning, it’s clear that the atmosphere had changed somewhat from the post-Golden Week (relative) quiet in which I left the city. Walking through the grounds of Asakusa’s major temple, Sensō-ji, there is a buzz particular only to festivals, universally recognisable somewhere deep down in your gut. The city has awoken earlier than usual. The street-food vendors are busy setting up their stalls, smoking and drinking beer as they go. Down every alley and around every corner, shrines of varying sizes, colours, and grandeur are undergoing a final touch-up. Men, women, and children have donned their festival gear – happis (waist length kimono-esque jackets bearing family and district kanji characters – gilded in purple, blue, white, black). From somewhere never too far off come the sounds of drum and pipe. The temple – the epicenter of the day’s festivities – is holding back a tide of drunken elation by its fingernails.
Asakusa is ready to go. And I am a sweaty, hot, bone-tired and bleary-eyed onlooker. Still, I think, perhaps that’s the best state to be in for a festival. T in the Park only gets better the filthier you are. And that’s a fact.
Dumping my bags at the hostel, I turn 180 degrees on my heels and bolt back out into the steadily increasing heat, tumultuous noise and energy of Tokyo.
We’re in a hole-in-the-wall cafe somewhere in Asakusa – Paula, her hostel-buddies Bruno and Mariano, and I – drinking coffee, grabbing breakfast and smoking cigarettes (because in Japan you can’t smoke on the street, but cafes, bars, restaurants, clubs? ‘course; why wouldn’t ya?). Across the room we spot our first tattoos, the tail-ends of horimono sleeves peaking out from beneath happi jackets. These particular jackets are decorated on back with the kanji character for ‘gold’, which looks something like a house, though more specifically like this: 金. We soon come to learn that these happis are worn solely by Yakuza.
It’s strange, to be so aware (for once – given tattoos are almost never on show in Japan, and always frowned upon) that you are in the presence of mafia men. Regardless of whether the Yakuza could be considered more ‘white collar’ than most (debatable). It’s exciting. It’s exciting in the way that watching graphic Tarantino-esque violence at the pictures is exciting. It’s exciting in the way day-dreaming about telling that one person you really wanna punch how you feel about them is exciting. It’s exciting in the way watching a tiger stalk its prey, whilst your hidden in the bushes, must be exciting. Is that problematic? Probably. No; definitely. These men are part of an organisation known for human-trafficking. They are, by all means, not good men. But I’m striving to be honest in this blog, and so I won’t try to hide the fact that I was enchanted by the secrecy surrounding these guys, and by the aura they carried. More so I was fucking stoked to catch a glimpse of their tattoos, hoping to see full horimono on display later in the day.
But enough about tattoos for now. The day was not defined entirely on the point of needle and gun. More important to the festival were the shrines, and the tight-knit communities (do you remember what those are Britain? It’s when people like and interact with each other; outlandish concept, I know), who make and carry them.
Leaving the cafe we began to wander aimlessly in search of some semblance to the beginning of the parade and processions of the festival. All about the streets are sat men and women in their happi and traditional dress, tucking gleefully into their beers and cans of Strong Zero (super-strength Japanese wkds). Following the sounds of drums and the cackle of children’s laughter we stumble into a courtyard packed with families all gathered round their district’s shrines. An english-speaking festival goer explains to us the district symbols on the back of some of the happi, and the principle behind the procession of the shrines towards the temple: how on arrival at the temple the shrines and their bearers are judged, and then directed either through the main gate, under the giant lantern, or off to the side and out of eyesight. Not that to me any of these shrines could ever be deemed eyesores, but evidently there’s a greater complexity to their appearance and symbolism than I can comprehend. The older gent who explains all this says the groups gathered there will begin their march towards the temple at midday, but caught up in the fever of the morning sun, we’re too impatient to wait, and so make our own way there, through the bustling streets and smells of fried food.
On the way, as is tradition, despite its being only 11.30am, we buy a couple street beers from someone with stubbies in a cooler, and crack that golden nectar open. First swig sets the precedent for the day, and comforts me with a sense of familiarity that comes with a cold beer in the sun on the morning of a festival. I could be up the mair sitting in the boot of my family’s car, or in the Hawick circle of tents at TITP, or on Gibson St., Glasgow for a day-long street party.
The four of us join the crowd by the main temple, as the gaggle of onlookers seethe and subside with the shrine-bearers, visibly straining, sweating, fading in-and-out as they lug these ton weights down the street between us. There’s shouting and clapping and whistling, and our beers keep running out.
After a while of being squished in amongst the madness, Paula suggests moving to get a clearer view (and restock on alcohol), and so the two of us leave the other lads behind to go scope out more of the festival. Since several of the streets and pathways are roped off, we end up behind the temple, and find ourselves in a sort of big makeshift parking lot for the shrines; where ten or more of these big community groups have gathered, awaiting their chance to be judged by the men of the temple.
Every few minutes, one of the leaders of each group clambers atop the legs of their shrine and bangs his wooden clappers together, echoed in a chorus of hands and feet and shouts. The energy is palpable. Then, from through a throng of bodies, criss-crossing about the maze of golden decal, I spot the 金 happi as it’s dropped from the shoulders of a man covered neck to toes in a full-body horimono.
(Horimono: full-body unified compositions that originated from woodblock prints)
I grab Paula’s arm like its a lifebuoy, stopping her mid-conversation, and her eyes grow as wide as mine. Balanced atop a torii-gate-shaped shrine rest are two or three Yakuza, plastered in the most gorgeous, intricate, vibrant ink. Before we know it, we’re surrounded by men and women in 金 happis, as their shrine dances in to the waiting area. We’re pushed back up against the bushes, the shrine gigantic and top-heavy, and its bearers almost unable to curb its desire to flatten us all. At this point we bump into Sally, Paula’s Aussie friend from Kanazawa who actually told Paula about Sanja Matsuri in the first place. She’s been parading with the Yakuza since they left their hotel an hour or so before. We’re all flustered and caught up in the madness.
Moving round to get a better view, happis are dropping to the floor all about us, the sun glinting off a mass of painted skin like its glinting off the golden peacocks standing proud on the roofs of the shrines. We manage to get close to the front of the circle, where Yakuza men are taking it in turns to show off their identifying artwork, posing for pictures with each other (I guess in a sense this is a sort of big clan-meet), and more than happy for awestruck foreign schmucks like us to take as many photo’s as they’d like. Good guys, eh?
Note: there are also a few non-Japanese faces in the group – an Argentinian couple who have been attending Sanja Matsuri for years, and a Dutch tattoo artist who specialises in the Japanese style.
Having transported their gigantic, ostentatious shrine to the waiting area, the Yakuza disperse. It was like a half-time orange break, except oranges meant cigarettes and cigarettes meant beer and cigarettes and beer and cigarettes meant beer and cigarettes and being followed by tourists keen to get a closer look.
And yes, I did ask for a photo with a few of them.
I can’t really explain why I wanted a photograph with the Yakuza. In part of course was the fascination I hold for Japanese art and body art. In part I got carried away in the moment of all that energy. In large part because I’m in freaking Tokyo the one freaking day a year that this shit happens. The pictures I got of and with them still excite me, for sure. I’d be interested really to know y’all’s impressions, given that the excitement of that day is not a memory you can attach to the photos.
Grabbing another round of beers, and squeezing myself round the crowded public ashtrays for a quick nerve-killer, we meet fellow solo-traveller Ron, fae Bristol (I accidentally mistake him for a Londoner, which doesn’t please him). It’s just his first or second day in Japan. I think how crazy it must be to arrive in Tokyo during Sanja Matsuri, and then I think: it’s no crazier than arriving in Japan any day of the week; this place is always mental.
Back to the parking lot and we think we’ve lost them, but then I spot the shrine is in fact only being moved further up the line, and so I sneakily position myself right in front of the shrine-rest already put in place. Before I know it, in my excitement I’ve lost sight of Paula, Sally and Ron. I am now on my own, surrounded by white and blue, and blue and white jacketed mafiosa. The Yakuza present are now so numerous you could look all about you (at least at my lower-than-average-eye-level) and see no-one but them. Also present now, though absent before, are women of the Yakuza, so too with full horimono. In such a conservative culture as Japan (particularly conservative in its treatment of women – have you noticed this is a universally recurring theme? maybe we should do something about it, huh?), to see these women sticking two tattooed fingers up in Japan’s general direction was amazing, regardless of whatever’s going on in their organisation outside of this particular moment.
Once a few of the younger members of the syndicate have posed for photo’s with, presumably, the higher ranked mafiosa, these latter gentlemen turn their attention to me. Standing on the very inside of the ring surrounding their shrine, my tattoos exposed in the heat, my beard the longest its ever been after four months on the road, I guess I’m not so much of an inconspicuous character in Japan. One of the Yakuza gestures for me to come forward, and my heart’s going like the clappers. He takes me by the shoulders and indicates that Paula and I should have our photo taken with he and his cronies.
This mothertrucker is maybe 65-70, covered entirely – bar his actual face – in tattoos. He wears trackies, adidas kicks, tracksuit jacket, and wide-brimmed hat. Occasionally one of the Yakuza muster the courage to approach him, or to ask him for a picture. From the depth and length of the bows he’s receiving, it’s evident this guy’s kind of a big deal. The four of us (having by this point relocated Paula, Ron & Sally), are dumbstruck. Jaws well and truly dislocated. Eyes well and truly clockwork oranged.
El Mejor Hefe has a right-hand man, doing some explaining, many introductions, relaying requests, and so on. At one point he catches a glimpse of my Princess Mononoke tattoo and exclaims, pointing it out to the boss man. I give my bows and arigatou’s to his compliments, and in return I’m suddenly being dragged into yet another big group photo. Am sweatin’ ma bollocks aff wi excitement and terror, by this point.
After the group photo, the big fat dude with shades on who you see on my right there (the organiser of this whole gig, he tells us) beckons me over to see something. When I get closer I see he’s grabbed his pal’s wrist, and is thrusting its pinky-less hand towards me, laughing like he’s just told the funniest joke he knows. In response, for some fucking reason, I bring my hands out in front of me to indicate: oh no! well I still have all mine!
What the hell Cal. What the hell.
Still, they didn’t take heed one bit, assuming I was just taking part in the joke. You know, the ‘omg crazy story cut my own pinky off LOL’ joke. An instant classic.
At this point, we (or at least I) really do need to get out of there. I’m feeling a little faint, super hungry (I haven’t eaten at all yet, and by this point it’s maybe 3 or 4pm), and in need of a breather. I introduce Ron to street-style okonomiyaki, Paula gives me a try of her takoyaki (fried octopus balls – oishiiiii), and I guzzle water like I’m Noah trying to stave off the flood by holding his tongue to the rain.
Saturday’s Sanja Matsuri comes towards it close shortly after, though not before we are once more crushed in the swell of a crowd cheering the last of the shrines (金) through the main temple gate, and back, and through, and back, and through one final time, before disappearing into the distance. Where to now? What could we possibly do in such a frazzled state? What could possibly top this?
I’d pretty much written off onsens (hot-spring public bath and saunas, particular to Japan) as an impossibility, given my tattoos. As far as I was aware, as far as everyone told me, as far as every guidebook ever advised, onsens strictly forbid entree to customers with tattoos. However, do a little digging, as Paula did, and you’ll find one or two tucked down Asakusa’s back streets that’ll let you in. Having heard of such a place, Ron, Paula and I headed along. It did not disappoint.
From stripping bollock naked in the all-male changing area (onsens are segregated) – instantly recognising one or two familiar bodies (because of the tattoos you perverts) – to sit-down showering in front of a mirror; shocking your body with dips into the scorching hot baths then into the freezing cold ones, and back again, to ‘soothing’ your muscles in the electric bath (don’t try it, holy shit); from guys and their kids moving quickly away from you because of your ink, to exchanging sporadic english compliments with the Yakuza onsen-goers, it was a fantastic and entirely unique experience I’ll not soon forget.
An unforgettable day with some unforgettable people: travel buddies and… other.
Sunday. A new day. Equally as sunny, festivally, energetic. Though today I’m getting out of Asakusa and off the metro at Sendagaya, far from the chaos of Sanja Matsuri, and into the cicada calm of a warm day in a quiet suburb. I’m bound for La Perra Negra, a small home-based tattoo studio run by Aya Dolce, the lady who’ll be decorating my body with a new, permanent picture. After some trouble with my travel money card, I finally manage to take out the cash to pay her, and find myself in a living room, petting her wee black scotty dog/terrier thing as she finishes stenciling my tattoo design – which we’d/I’d decided upon maybe as long as two months previous.
As she makes her first line, I am reminded with little subtlety of the pain of getting tattooed, and of how much I’ve missed it (it is, as they say, an addiction). Enduring the discomfort and constant sunburn scratch of the needle, we speak little – language barrier and all that. My only solace found in watching her dog get comfortable in the warmth of my now unoccupied seat on the sofa. The tattoo takes only around two and a half hours, and, as I had known I would, I find myself instantly in love with it.
This is for the lions living in the wiry broke-down frames of my friends’ bodies. When the flood water comes it ain’t gonna be clear, it’s gonna look like mud. But I will help you swim, I will help you swim, I’m gonna help you swim.
– The Front Bottoms, Twin Sized Mattress on ‘Talon of the Hawk’
As it says on the skin, this new tattoo of mine is for all those it reminds me of. My friends back home, my baby (not so baby now) brother, and all the incredible people I’ve met along my travels. The best addition to my ‘music arm’ I could hope for, and a token of friendship, a reminder to myself that whenever I get down, there’ll always be people there for me. (To read more about my sentiments on travelling and friendship, see here).
The rest of the day is quiet. I’ve found a fitting end to a weekend filled with body art, and I’m worn out. But content. Very content.
And thus (switching seamlessly back to the third person) we find our hero at the end of his Asian experience, just a day away from entering an entirely different world, different culture, filled with a whole new kind of people.
I’ll miss this place, more so than I ever could have imagined, he thinks. But I’ll be back. You can bet your sorry ass on it.
Sayonara, Japan, and farewell. Look after yourself for me, and never forget your history; I’m sure I won’t. Keep respecting people and life and nature as much as you do, and above all, remember that as much as progress is important, keeping the old stuff preserved as a reminder of where you came from, is equally so.
Next stop Argentina, the land of horses, wine, meat and dance. And for me, another land ready to yield new friendships, refresh older ones (see you soon Luke and Siobhan), and flood my eyes, ears, tastebuds and brain with a host of new experiences I can’t possibly begin to imagine.
With all my love, and with special dedication to the newly wed Mr and Mrs Hamish and Vicky Bannerman – I love yous both dearly, and hope you can forgive my absence on the day; it looks like it was everything you and the whole family could ever have wished for.
Yours, C x