A CITY WHERE THE LIGHTS NEVER GO OUT

MANILA
, September 26, 2005
 (STAR) By Igan D’bayan - Tour Overture - It was my second time in Tokyo, Japan. Unlike the time first time I was there two years ago for the Summer Sonic rock festival, I didn’t feel like a doomed, clueless rat trying to find its way in the Tokyo railways made up of one sinuous, labyrinthine serpent. My companion then had poor eyesight, so she couldn’t read the signs. I was (still am) somebody diametrically opposed to Magellan. I still get lost in Megamall. So, there was much running (just like in Jurassic Park or Aliens) just to get to the press conferences. (This rat could scurry, especially when scheduled to interview Radiohead or Blur.)

I fell in love with the city. It is still one of the best places in the world to go to a bar, drink Asahi beer with tempura, listen to The Beatles or jazz records (Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young), and wait for all sorts of adventures to unfurl themselves, like something straight from a Haruki Murakami novel. Or just hang out in a city with shop lights that never go out.

Ninja Kids

What if ninjas had to pee in the dark? Do they have a safety valve of sorts? These thoughts bugged me while inside the Koga Ninja Fushigiyashiki (Koga Ninja Mystery House), riddled with trap doors and inclined floors, at the Nikko Edo Wonderland in Japan, three hours by bus from Tokyo. This was one of the stops in the recent Canon’s "Photo Perfection for Life" press tour.

Walking inside the ninja house was like strolling inside a Rene Magritte room: it was dark and disorienting. And damn those confusing mirrors and hallways, which reminded me of the maze in Takeshi’s Castle. In the "Disney-meets-Shogun" theme park, expect also to see wandering samurai warriors (with Prodigy-style haircuts referred to as chonmage or shaved heads), warlords, merchants, kimono-clad geishas that either looked like Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill or Boy George, as well as other usual suspects from 17th to 19th century Japan. At Nikko Edo, you’ll feel like Michael J. Fox overshooting the tear in the time/space continuum with his trusty time-traveling Toyota.

We watched an action-packed ninja show at the Ninja Kaikai-tei (Mysterious Ninja Residence). At the entrance, we were given strips that I thought at first were intended for cleaning oily faces. How thoughtful, someone from the group even commented. Then it was show time. Someone with a lamp made a long speech in Japanese, and then the ninjas appeared out of the dark and displayed their fighting skills. The storyline was inscrutable for obvious reasons, but the fight scenes were universal: the key to staying alive was ducking or making long speeches. Bore the assassins first before you get gored; emoting was also essential. There were sword fights and somersaults a la Streetboys. After the show, people started hurling coins wrapped inside those strips given at the entrance. Mine, unfortunately, already had enough facial oil to fry several pieces of galunggong.

Next stop was the World Heritage Site Toshogu Shrine, built in the early 1600s. This the mausoleum of the Shogun (Generalissimo) Tokugawa Ieyasu who "put an end to the Sengoku civil war period (1467 to 1568) and laid the foundation for the 250-year period of peace leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868." Here, Shinto and Buddhist temples punctuate the serene forest. The monkey mural above the Sacred Stable is a comment on the human condition, about the circus-like circle of life.

After the Toshogu tour, we delegates boarded the Shinkansen bullet train back to Tokyo, which goes as fast as 300 kilometers an hour. Not recommended for people wearing non-sticky toupees.

High Infidelity

If you’re an audiophile and you’re in Tokyo, it’s as if it were your last day in purgatory before you get sent down to hell. There never is enough time or money. There are just more and more and more CDs or records to buy, more stacks to rummage through, and more stores to salivate in.

The Ishimaru record bar in Akihabara has two buildings: one for rock, pop and J-pop, the other devoted mainly for – oh, the gates of heaven have swung open! – jazz, blues and classical music. The latter has about six or seven floors filled with recordings from Igor Stravinsky to Jaco Pastorius to Steely Dan. Problem was, the labels were in Japanese so it was purgatorial to go looking for a specific title. Rare ECM discs (Circle, Keith Jarret, Anthony Braxton) were there somewhere, although I may have needed half an eternity to locate them. Besides, there were HMVs, Tower, and RecoFan stores all over Shibuya to check out.

After the Canon press tour, I stayed with my older sister Jelly and she patiently took me to the second-hand CD stores near Shibuya station. What an ordeal it might have been for her: standing for hours while I pondered whether to buy a) the US version of King Crimson’s "Discipline"; b) the Japanese re-issue with sleeker packaging; or c) the re-mastered one with extra tracks. The same dilemma with "Starless and Bible Black" and "Larks’ Tongue in Aspic" (believe me, there are differences.) I ended up buying a Minutemen album, which cost twice the price of CDs here in the Philippines. No matter, all we seem to have here is Michael Bublé or Il Divo, anyway.

After crossing out everything on my CD list, my sister and I watched a gig at Tokyo’s Blue Note. Slated to play that night was saxophonist Maceo Parker. I nearly wet my pants. "Maceo, blow your horn!" was how Soul Brother Number One James Brown would tell his favorite sax player to take a blistering chorus. Maceo was responsible for the funky breaks in Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and Cold Sweat. Maceo also played with George Clinton’s Parliament, Funkadelic outfits, as well as with space bassist Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band in the ’70s. This guy has a doctorate in funkology.

The Tokyo Blue Note announcer introduced Maceo as "the funkiest saxophone player on the planet." Well, after hearing the cat play cuts from his latest album titled "Dial Parker," with his 10-piece band including singer Corey Parker. I couldn’t help but agree.

The band-members were as funky as the devil. Guitar player Bruno Speight sipped Evian before doing funky double-stops and syncopated licks with his instrument. Keyboard player Morris Hayes conjured high, piercing notes from a Hammond. Burly bass player Rodney "Skeet" Curtis made those thick bass strings snap like rubber band. And Maceo evoked squawks and sheets of sound from the sax, quoting everything from Paul McCartney’s My Love to James Brown’s I Feel Good. The cat and his trombonist Greg Boyer even walked to the audience and serenaded them with Clinton’s evocative Atomic Dog.

Jelly and I had a fine view of the gig at the Marcus Miller table. Tokyo Blue Note is Japan’s premiere jazz bar, which has featured Oscar Peterson, David Sanborn, Miller (who used to be Miles Davis’ bass player in the ’80s) and blues legends B.B. King and Taj Mahal. Dr. John and saxophonist Joshua Redman were also slated to play there. Watching a gig at the Tokyo Blue Note will set you back around 8,000 yen (P4,800, which is worth every peso).

The Japanese love jazz. I used to watch Wowow Jazz File on cable every month, which featured acts from Weather Report to Chick Corea to an all-star band made up of Eric Clapton, keyboardist Joe Sample, saxophonist David Sanborn, drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Marcus Miller.

That night, I stayed in Yokohama with my sister, her husband Masaki and their two kids. In a house up the hill, in a room with a window overlooking Mount Fuji, with a bed you wake up on in the morning beside a postcard panorama.

On Sunday morning, we boarded a plane to Hiroshima.

Never The Mushroom Cloud Forever

We took an early flight to Hiroshima. From the airport, we rode a bus to the city proper, a train to Miyajima-guchi station, and a 30-minute ferry ride to Miyajima (which means "shrine island"), one of Japan’s most scenic sites, to visit the Itsikushima Shrine.

From the ferry, the first thing tourists will spot is the large, orange, wooden gate or torii, protruding from the ocean. I read that the shrine was built like a network of piers because in the past commoners weren’t allowed to set foot on the island. These days, before entering the shrine itself, visitors should cleanse themselves at the washbasin. Also, there are no maternity wards or cemeteries in Miyajima because no one is permitted to be born or to die on the island.

Domesticated deer nonchalantly roam Miyajima, following tourists around like those pesky seagulls in Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. Give one deer a cookie (sold by old women near the pier) and you got Bambi’s persistent posse on your heels. Those cute creatures could be so pushy. I was told monkeys populate Misen, the island’s highest mountain. On sunny days, tourists could even take a cable car to the mountains. At the top of the mountain is a temple, which has a pot of water reportedly boiling for one thousand years.

A trip to Miyajima can clear one’s mind, what with the intricately designed Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples. But a trip to Hiroshima itself is another matter.

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima became the first-ever target of an atomic bomb explosion. As a result, 200,000 civilians lost their lives. The pessimist will see the city as evidence of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man (like Auschwitz during the Holocaust). The optimist will see the city as a symbol for the promotion of peace. Very significant considering how the modern-day leaders are blindly ushering us towards Armageddon.

We got back to Hiroshima from Miyajima in the afternoon. It was raining apocalyptically as a result of a strong typhoon coming in from the north. It was gray everywhere. This contributed to the gloomy mood evoked by the monuments and statues, as well as the building known as the A-Bomb Dome.

Created by architect Jan Letzel, the building with its magnificent green dome was then called the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall in 1944. When the atom bomb was dropped, the building was crushed and gutted by fire. Everyone inside died instantly. But segments of the walls and the iron structure at the top remained intact. The people of Hiroshima rebuilt the whole city, but spared the historical skeletal building. Some consider it as a catalyst for harrowing memories and should be torn down, while others regard it as an edifice to be preserved for future generations, an architectural cipher, a lesson set in stone.

The inscription at the A-Bomb Dome gate reads, "In December 1996, the A-Bomb Dome was formally registered on the World Heritage List as a historic witness to the tragedy of human history’s first use of a nuclear weapon and the realization of a lasting peace."

We passed various monuments erected as tribute to A-bomb victims – from elementary school and teachers to construction workers and artisans. There was the camphor tree planted to commemorate the first Peace Festival, the flower clock, the Peace Fountain, the Peace Clock Tower, and other monuments. Structures to help us human beings in our struggle against forgetting.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which first opened in 1955, houses belongings left by the victims, photos and other materials that detail the horror of that day. Its East Building presents "Hiroshima’s Journey," a record of Hiroshima’s history before and after the bombing. The West Building presents the A-bomb aftermath through photos and artifacts.

There were paper cranes folded by Sadako Sasaki who was exposed to the A-bomb radiation when she was two years old. Ten years later, she entered the Red Cross Hospital with radiation-related leukemia. In her hospital room, she would fold paper cranes in the hope of overcoming her illness. The Japanese believe that folding a thousand paper cranes will make one’s wish come true. Sadako died after an eight-month struggle.

There was a white panel with streaks of black rain, which began falling 30 minutes after the explosion. The rain was said to contain "large amounts of radioactive substances created by nuclear fission." It were as if the skies turned to soot.

There were also iron shutters bent by the blast, melted bottles and a human shadow set in stone. The intense heat rays whitened the stone steps of a Hiroshima bank, except for the spot where someone had been sitting. Like a shadow tattooed on stone.

Charred students’ uniforms, a charred lunch box, nails, skin, and a wooden sandal (with an imprint of a left foot) were all that’s left of students who died from the A-bomb.

Pictures will leave one with an ineffably heavy feeling – a kimono patterned burned on a woman’s skin, a face melted by the heat, a face pocked with the spots of death, twisted fingers. Images that should make a dent in the impenetrable skulls of, in the words of Bob Dylan, the "masters of war."

Whatever epiphany one gets from visiting Hiroshima should never be forgotten, should be kept like an amulet against world leaders who keep atom bombs in their attics, should not be switched on and then off.

Just like Tokyo shop lights that never go out.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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