Visiting Kamikochi

29 Sep

During a brief stopover in Kyushu in the early 1990s, British broadcaster and former Monty Python, Michael Palin, stopped in at Huis Ten Bosch, a faithful recreation of a Dutch town, replete with gouda, tulips, windmills and a clock tower built out of bricks shipped from Holland. Not sure what to make of it all, he dubbed it ’cultural karaoke’ and quickly moved on. It’s a phrase that I’ve had reason to recall many times during the decade I spent in Japan, albeit never before when discussing a mountain range.

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Tokyo hunger strike

15 Sep

Naoya Okamoto and comrades hunger strike in Tokyo

Protesting is no longer an unusual sight in Tokyo, which might be why the small sit-in outside exit 12 of Kasumigaseki Station attracts scant enquiry. It’s a common enough scene: a small gaggle of local university students, an array of brightly coloured, homemade placards, a guitar and… pouches of salt. It’s the constant dabbing at salt that seems to draw attention, in fact. One protestor is dipping into it so frequently, he looks like a kid on a sherbet trip. What to make of this, I wonder? How to reconcile this image with the fact that what I’m witnessing is a hunger strike?

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Booker T Jones interview

13 Sep

Everyone knows Booker T. Jones, though not everyone realises it. Despite being one of the most influential musicians of the last half century, he is best known as a session man and songwriter, plying his trade in the background, producing tunes that have been in the foreground more times than you could ever recall.

Booker T. was there when you began raiding your parents’ vinyl collection in your teens, blazing loud behind Wilson Pickett on ‘In the Midnight Hour‘. He was there when you fumbled around on the dance floor, wracking up the emotion as Otis hammered home ‘Try a Little Tenderness‘ (yes, that’s him on keyboards in the video). Heck, he was even there when you learnt what soul music meant, defining a genre on the seminal Sam & Dave track, ‘Soul Man‘ (although not at his usual Hammond B3, as we shall see). As a member of the MG’s, the house band at hit-producing Stax Records, Booker T. pumped out classic upon classic throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and in their downtime the band recorded eternal slices of soulful funk – you probably know and adore ‘Green Onions‘, ‘Hip Hug Her‘ and ‘Soul Limbo’ (the latter better known to Brits as ‘Test Match Special‘).

The man himself is taller than expected (early footage makes him look so boyish, you’d almost think he was five foot nothing), and has the manners of a southern gent well into his sixties. He’s almost apologetic when I wonder aloud how I might go about asking questions that he hasn’t been asked before, and he’s unfailingly polite in discussing the music that made him famous 50 years ago, a subject he must have to deal with on a daily basis. In more recent years, Booker T. Jones has been in the studio with the likes of Drive By Truckers and The Roots, laying down two of the most acclaimed albums of his long career, Potato Hole (2009) and The Road to Memphis(2011), and it’s with these recordings fresh in his mind that we sit down in a quiet room beneath Blue Note Tokyo to discuss a career that has, even in some small way, affected most of us.

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Aamir Khan interview

2 Sep

It’s a peculiarity of this job that I’ll occasionally interview someone who means zip to me, yet everything to a crowd of other people. In Aamir Khan’s case, we’re talking several hundred million people. He’s the star of Bollywood’s latest blockbuster – heck, he’s the star of the two top-grossing Bollywood films of all time – but the truth is he only popped up on my personal radar a month ago, around the time I dropped into an Indian cinema, handed over my 30 dirhams, and sat down to watch 3 Idiots.

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QR crazy

1 Sep

My personalized QR code

QR codes have been around for yonks. I remember putting them into the artwork for our Cut Flowers posters (a band I played with years back), and thinking they were the very height of modernity. They’ve never had quite the same level of success abroad that they’ve had in Japan; the reason for their appeal here apparently has a lot to do with spelling (the average Japanese net user might be able to remember the phonetics of a URL, but can they still spell it once they get home?), so it’s not much of a surprise to see that QR codes are still around and slowly continuing to evolve.

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Yokohama mums fight to have radiation removed from the school menu

30 Aug

Late last week, the Japanese government lifted a ban on shipments of beef from Fukushima, Iwate and Tochigi Prefectures, bringing minor relief to farmers whose livelihoods had been threatened by the discovery in late July that over 4,000 kilograms of cesium-contaminated beef had hit the shelves at Aeon, one of Japan’s biggest supermarkets. Not that the pressure has been entirely lifted, of course. Amongst everyday folk as much as the farmers themselves, confusion is rife.

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Japan: What happened next?

29 Aug

The answer to this question isn’t easily come by, of course, but I’ve given it a decent bash in the latest edition of Delayed Gratification, a very new and very handsome quarterly that proudly boasts being “last to the news”. As you’d expect from a project with such a future-minded manifesto, they don’t have much by way of an online presence, and there’s certainly no OS app in the offing. However, I’d urge anyone in the UK to pick up a copy. DG, as it’s known to its friends and admirers, is a gorgeous and lovingly-put-together journal. And besides, delayed gratification is often the very best kind.