Friday, 23 August 2013

Tonight, I ate my dinner with chopsticks. Those skewers of wood I brought from Tokyo for my mother. Something didn't quite feel right though. Like something wasn't there. That 'something' was me, and 'there' was somewhere in Japan.

I should really write about my last few days in Hirosaki and Tokyo, but I'm not. Granted, they were fun days, but I just didn't feel... well, like the other days. There were no new people to spend time with, no real work to be done, and I kind of missed that.

A few days ago, I posted this on Facebook.

It hit hard. I felt homesick.

I miss Japan. I really, really do. You forever hear phrases like 'post-holiday blues' or 'post-break comedown' or something along those lines. Those 'phrases' have never rung more true.

I miss the hostel room in Ishinomaki; the recording session that we did in there, the jokes about the squat toilets, being woken up to dirty dirty beats.

I miss the nights in the temple in Matsudo, being barefoot on the concrete, how the weather could change mood within a split-second, and just having everyone sat round that big table.

I miss that night where I stayed in a strangers house, and felt like I was leaving home the next morning.

It's the people I miss the most though. I can hardly say a bad word about a single person there. Isami, Momo, Angel, Izumi, Haruna, Emiry, Owli, Setsu, Satoru, Asuka, Aokin, Reimi, so many many more people. If you guys are reading this, thank you. I miss you all very much.

I feel obliged to offer the same to you as you gave me, and that's if you're ever in the UK, I will attempt, even if I suck, to be some form of tour guide if you so need it.

I'm supposed to evaluate this trip somehow, and I don't know where to begin. Yes, I did some work I'm proud of, and yes, I'll probably get an arts award out of it. But I'm sat here right now, with a lump in my throat and... well... a sense of sadness. It hurts to think of those people I met, and realistically, won't see for a very long time.

And that hurts.

And I'll always have things around me, that will bring up these feelings. The new Phoenix album just reminds me of the flight there, the excitement of getting there. Paper fans will never be the paper fans Izumi gave to me, those ones Scattered on top of my wardrobe. Those badges just point towards the floats coming down the river in Ishinomaki.

I suppose this sadness is tinged with happiness though. I have new friends. I love my new friends.

I'll see you guys soon.

This blog is done.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Let's Build The Most Interesting City In The World

When I started writing this, I was wearing this shirt on the bullet train back from Ishinomaki. I firstly apologise for not posting for a few days, but I have been so busy. For what I firstly thought was a ghost town, it gets pretty busy...

We woke on Monday morning in our hostel, knowing we had a workshop today and that we would be working with Japanese teenagers, some affected by the tsunami, and that was it. We all took the short walk up to the hall where we were to be productive.... which had the shutters down. Not quite productive as we'd hope. However, our Japanese comrades were there, and we began the formalities. We introduced ourselves, and everyone Japanese seemed very excitable. I got recognised as 'the one who wrote the blog', and it felt ace!

We finally got in the building, and I started to two young Japanese teenagers, Mari & Noritosi, and that's where we hit the language wall a bit. Not everyone speaks the perfect Queens English. Noritosi didn't really speak it. I was essentially speaking the Cockney Rhyming Slang equivalent of sign language. It was quite fun, actually

With all workshops, you have to start with introductory games (if you don't play games, you're running your workshop wrong). The first we played was a Japanese playground game, where you build houses and "crabs" move in. Lots of running, lots of sweating. We then played another game. This one was my favourite.

We had to draw each other without looking at the paper. If you know me in real life, you will know my artistic skills are.... shoddy at best, so not looking at the paper, and staring at the persons face, whilst pulling a part gurning part concentrating face isn't the best way to make a first impression. My drawing looked awful. We then had to ask each other questions, and then introduce our partner to the group by pretending to be them. Showing them my 'skills', then saying I love shopping for girly things and Hello Kitty really makes a great first impression. Everyone was lovely though.

We then were taken around the city by a guy from the Ishinomaki 2.0 base called Yoichi. He was a total dude. We left the base.

The tour hit hard.

So much emptiness. So much damage still there. I was told that people are still scared of helicopters, as when the tsunami hit, the rescue people came in cars, not helicopters. The helicopters were just the news crews reporting the news, not saving lives. It was just weird.

However, the sense of community is so much stronger because of it. Everyone seems to be together for making 'the most interesting town on earth'. There's just too much debate over what to do with it.

We then headed out to lunch, some of us English, some Japanese, and I had possibly the greatest noodles ever. It's a big shout, I know, but they were that good. I should also point out that I am well versed in the art of chopsticks now.

We headed back to the hall, and we showed the Japanese what we (Heads Together/ ELFM/ Two Valleys) are all about, which was quite cool, and then we told stories from 3 people about their experiences about the earthquake, and what has happened to their lives since then.

The first was told by a guy called Kohei. He was in school when the earthquake hit (as were he other two, but I'll get onto them later). His home was destroyed, and so had to move into temporary accommodation. However, since the monstrosity of the earthquake, his life has constantly been on the up. He started performing his home's traditional dance in the town he was staying. The people of the new town asked them to perform at the town's festival, and since then, the group have been invited to perform around the world, even in places as far as Austin, TX, literally the other side of the world.

The second was told by a girl called Suku. The beginnings are quite similar to Kohei's story, but told the story of what was essentially 'youth power'. A group of her colleagues put together a group, so they could have a voice in what direction the re-building the city would take. They decided that they wanted a community centre for all people could put forward ideas, and presented it to the mayor, and hey-ho, it got built. Teenagers are powerful people, y'know guys. We're not all bastards.

The final story was told by Asuka, who has done a ton of stuff since the earthquake. In her own words, the earthquake motivated her so much that she had to something. She started working at a youth radio station, founded an online television station, founded the Ishinomaki tour (where you get shown lots of shopping opportunities), and has even visited America. It's a lot, ain't it?

Pout skills levelling over 9000
When the workshop was done, me and Ruby were asked to go do an interview for the local radio station... and I was pretty knackered by this point. I think I almost dozed off as we were being introduced. But everything went swimmingly, and then I spent the rest of the evening writing blogs for you guys (these things take time man). Niall was absolutely spent.

We woke up the next morning in our hostel, quite eager to be productive. I walked over to the girls hostel, where the communal space was, and Alex was working on a song. When Asuka showed us her online videos, she showed us a guy playing a song he'd written, summing up th feelings of the earthquake, and more about what the station was about. Alex used these words as a translation for a song, and... it gave chills.

When the song was done, we then took what was the now semi-traditional walk to the convenience store for a traditional breakfast of... French pastries...

We started the workshop in what should be the official, traditional way of starting any workshop - which is with games. Somebody is 'it', and you have to stop them sitting on the empty chair. Lots of running, lots of sweating, lots of bonding. S'all good.

We then were put into our groups, with each group having one of the 'storytellers' in them, and my group had Asuka. We were told our work had to be in three sections, and based on Asuka's story, and then we were left on our own. Some people in the group had the idea of setting the first section immediately after the tsunami hit, the second section being based around people's feelings and emotions a few months after the tsunami, and the final section detailing Asuka's work. To differentiate these sections even more, we did the first section as a poem, the second as a song, and the third as a drama/script kinda thingy. I worked on the second part, the song, mostly...... and it was stressful to say the least.

There wasn't really that many instruments around, just a piano and a guitar, and they were both being used, so I nicked Adrian's iPad, and essentially just messed around with drum machines and retro synths for a good hour at least. There are not enough synths in the world. I blame folk and David Guetta.

After getting the basic bits going, and making it sound like you were in the man's room who sold you those 'dodgy' cigarettes, it got to the hard bit of writing the words. I'm a shocking lyricist by the way. I was proud of this though.

I wrote the shoddiest chorus on the planet. It was so cheesy, and corny. I was being really selfish as well; it was my work, nobody else got to see it until I finished it. And then I got a tap on the shoulder. Aokin, the woman who was working with us and also acting as a translator, asked me what the rest of the group should do. I panicked, and said the first thing that came to my head - 'sing that in Japanese'. So they translated it, and we rehearsed it over and over so we could record it later, and I got super stressed. So much stuff to record, I had probably over-complicated it, and I was doing an awful job at explaining what the hell was going on.

Eventually, we got called in. We had 20 minutes to record everything we'd done. This didn't help with the stress levels. We got the other two parts (the poem and the drama) just about done, but we were out of time to record the song. After panicking and a hell of a lot of confusion, we went to our/the boys hostel to record the song.

We got back to the room (make your 'taking girls back to the room' jokes now) and ran through it a few times. This was a good thing. We weren't rushed, no pressure, we just took our time to get it right.

We got chills. We got serious vibes. There was just something there. Alex recorded his song that he'd written that morning too, and we felt the same thing. We came out of that room absolutely beaming, on a massive high. It felt awesome. Alex said he'd like to record it properly some time, but I don't think we'll get as close to coming out of it feeling like this.

We then went out to get some food, and after spending ages looking for a restaurant... we just raided the convenience store, and chilled back at the office space/communal area/whatever you want to call it at the girls hostel. It was just nice to have some time off after what was essentially a big 11 hour day. I apologise for not writing this then, but I lacked electronic device nor energy.

Our last day in Ishinomaki started weirdly, because it was a relatively relaxed day. All we knew would be that we were performing, and then we just had time to go and chill out all by ourselves. No plans. What?

Team Photo!
However, of the few remaining Japanese people that had remained in Ishinomaki, they came to the girl's hostel, and we started rehearsing what we'd written. I felt a lot better about the song, and really good about the whole piece, but it just didn't feel as good as the night before. Everything went swimmingly, though, so it was all good.

We were supposed to be playing outside on the day, which I was really looking forward to, but then it did that typical English thing and rained. Even in Japan, we can't escape it. So as a last minute thing, we were moved into a kimono shop to perform.

Kimono shops make brilliant gig venues. Honestly, they do. There was a little elevated stage bit too, which was badass. We (Excess Baggage/$w4gg@ge/Cabbage/Marriage etc.) opened it all up! It went so well, we were asked to do an encore! Which I did without my guitar plugged in. Oh. It was a shit heap of fun though.

Some 10 year olds played after us, and I got jealous. They were ace. At ten. I'd never even touched a guitar at that age, let alone wrote a song. So many girls won over with the cute factor too, we didn't get that (or did we? ;) ). But yeah, I think we were out-played by children.

A girl from Asuka's online show then came and shoed everybody the song that Alex based his song on (am I confusing you yet?), and then it was time to show what we'd been working on. 

Grace's group came on first, and they had worked on Kohei's story. Part drumming, part poem, part song, all stitched together by acoustic guitar, t'was rather nice.

We played next, and everything was rather dandy. I played on electric guitar, with a load of effects and a really awkward tuning (Ed, I know you're cringing as you're reading this, but sometimes lots of reverb is needed, and I had Alex's blessing). The words that the rest of the group had written were rather beautiful too. The poem at the start uses words scarcely, like what was left after the tsunami had hit (thank you 3 months of AS English Literature), and the drama at the end really told how even at the very worst of times, there are still those amazing people that just take it on the chin and moved on.

The final performance was by Alex's group, who created a performance poetry piece, mixing Japanese and English words together, not just translations of sentences. It was very clever, and something I really enjoyed. We then performed the song that Alex had written the day before, we named it 'The Blue'. Balls-y, blues-y, breathtaking. It summed up the community spirit of Ishinomaki, and something Leeds should aspire to have.

We were then done. We had the rest of the day to ourselves. It turned out that there was a massive festival going on throughout the city, going on for the whole week, called 'Stand Up Week', so we spent the rest of the evening and afternoon exploring, eating and generally having a really fun time. 

You forget this place was almost wiped out by a tsunami two years ago.

Me, Alex, Frankie, Eugene and Lottie then stumbled into a jazz cafe by accident.... and it was bonkers. But a heap of fun. 4 saxophones and an old dude on ukelele. That shouldn't work, but my god it did.

We then headed over to the bridge, to see the lanterns be released onto the river. It was beautiful. We asked Isami, the man who had organised our trip, and had been our tour guide all the way through what each lantern was for, and he said it was for each life lost in the tsunami. We stayed quite for a minute or so. It was dark, and little orange and green orbs floated downstream, and we just looked. It was special.

About half an hour later, the fireworks started, probably nicked from China (poor joke, I'm sorry). Lots of flowers, glitter, gold and explosions in the sky, and lots of gasps and applause from the residents too. It's a weird, but nice change from having fireworks on just one day that promotes the execution of Catholics.

After the fireworks were done though, the party still went on, and the streets were still rammed, with the stalls still throwing out drinks and food. Next to a pizza van were a group of Japanese hippies (yes, you read that right) playing a load of African drums, and a load of us joined in. Mega party vibes, man.

You get bored after a while though, so I went back to the Ishinomaki 2.0 base, where there was Yoichi, Asuka, and a load of other totally awesome guys whose names I've forgotten (sidenote - Yoichi did a Jeremy Clarkson impression. Funniest thing ever.), where they were all pissed. They showed me some of the stuff that they'd personally done. I was thrown an architecture book, where the 2.0 team had a few pages dedicated to their project, and I think I finally got what they were all about at that moment.

I then bought a T-shirt from them, the one you see at the top of this post, as a little way of supporting them. They asked me to put it on, so they could Instagram it, which was weird, but cool. They then asked me if I knew what the Japanese said on it. I said no. They then told me what it said.

'Let's build the most interesting town on earth'.

They're doing it. I will be back in Ishinomaki in the future. You're pretty damn interesting already. Things can only get better.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Endless Gig.

FINALLY. SATURDAY'S BLOG. As you were Alex....


Yesterday our band, Excess Baggage (or on the poster "Excess BUGgage"—maybe they have seen our mosquito bites), rocked a kindergarten!

We built speaker stands with little children's stools. Niall and I had to set up the PA but the Japanese were extremely helpful. In a way the setup was the most carefree setup I have ever done; all the equipment worked (a very rare occurrence in England). The set we played was great with nearly every member playing their own solo material and playing as a big group. The set ended with "Woods" with all the audience clapping with us. Many members of the audience greeted us and said thank you. They were all excited to see us. Our Homestay parents filmed each of our songs and congratulated us afterwards. It feels like we are part of our very own Japanese family now!

Monks make excellent roadies

We were on the bill with 2 Japanese bands, Orange Bank Lead and Blue Bell. Both had impressive showmanship and lots of technical effects pedals. They didn't request a soundcheck, they plugged in and played and looked like they were having a riot. We have connected with them on twitter, a return gig in England maybe? An old man taught us to play the shamisen (a three string fretless guitar). It was difficult but I finally grasped a traditional folk song. They use the Myxolidian Mode a lot (sorry for the technical music reference).

The Japanese kept planning more and more acts even when the gig was still going on, everything seemed spontaneous while remaining very ordered with little stress. After the old man played the Shamisen we played happy birthday to Frankie. The buddhists from the temple we visited the previous day bought a birthday cake. When they were bringing the cake into the room the candles blew out but somehow the buddhist relit the birthday cake candles (maybe with the power of his mind!) It was very strange and spiritual. Maybe the good luck we were granted before was coming true. Frankie later remarked that the cake was "the best she had ever tasted". After this we gathered in a circle to play a birthday game with some Japanese teenagers from the North. We sang, danced and went a little crazy. It was a good way to connect with the Japanese of all ages. I boogied with my Homestay mother. This gig never stopped. We were treated to a seemingly eternal guitar solo with a cheesy karaoke-style backing track. Japanese audiences are very respectful and attentive; it's a really beautiful thing. Later the man responsible for supporting international exchanges thanked us for playing and said how impressed he was that we came to Japan with such good intentions. We posed for lots of big photos taken with style by our friend the Buddhist monk/photographer producing hundreds of cameras and phones from pockets, bags and and behind his ears!

But hey, what is a gig without a crazy after-party? We invited all the bands to party at our place so we could drink lukewarm tea into the early evening! We danced to the YMCA (a song they all knew),
Gangnam Style and the Macarena. They don't seem to have parties as we know them in Japan so it was nice to share some of our culture with them. Engel, a student of our guide - Isami, expressed that we were crazy; we took this as a compliment! Our biggest achievement was teaching the Japanese bands Get Lucky by Daft Punk and getting them to do the 'Dragon Ball Z' dance-move we created. Maybe it will catch on and be a Japanese sensation!

(Apologies Alex - we have no photos of this bit - it was good though)

Another brilliant day...

Alex (:

Monday, 29 July 2013

We Are In Ishinomaki

I'm about 6 foot tall with a long pair of arms. Remember that.

Sunday morning, we left Matsuda. I don't really have to go about my feelings for that place. We met Isami at about half 7 and wondered up to the train station, and after a series of changes, we ended up on a bullet train.

(Skip on if you don't like my child-related anecdotes) Leeds is about half an hours drive from York, so I used to go there a lot with my grandparents as a child, and one of my favourite things there was the National Railway Museum (my grandmother looked seriously saddened when there was the possibility of it being shut down), and in there, one of the focal points of the museums was that it was I believe the only, if not not, one of the few places in Britain that had a Bullet Train, and man, that thing was bad-ass. The photos are on Katie's camera. Bollocks.

When we got to the platform, I jumped around like a child a little bit and scared some Japanese people probably BUT I DON'T CARE MAN BULLET TRAINS RULE. I ate apple ice-cream (actually really tasty, I thought it would taste awful) and wrote the post about my home-stay with Jinkawas and then got sad and listened to Owen (his new album is killer) which didn't help whatsoever.

I should probably have brought a suit

We finally got to Sendai, and headed to Date FM, apparently a rather large radio company that broadcasts to about half a million Japanese people, which is alright I suppose. We went into a board room with lots of Japanese people interested in radio (a few of which are here with us in Ichinomaki <HI GUYS!>). Turns out we were getting an hour long special. Again, it was kinda alright I suppose (If you haven't worked it out yet, I'm one of the most sarcastic people you will ever meet). We went through what we'd be talking about on air, and me and Lottie would be talking about our experience with radio. So we started planning some little things, and then I had my first ever Bento Box. THOSE THINGS ARE THE COOLEST THINGS EVER (I'm looking at you Mum hint hint). 

Badass, righ?
I then started talking to Alex, and he was trying to find 5 tracks that best represented British music over the past 13 years or so (They only played one of his choices, and it was Dizzee Rascal's "Fix Up, Look Sharp" if you're that desperate to know). I then wondered into the studio to take a nosy, and I should really have expected what was there to be there, but I just guess I wasn't used to it. Back home at ELFM ( - you're welcome, guys) our studio is about the size of a standard kitchen, probably a bit smaller. We were in this.

Hi Alex
Pretty swish, righ? So we did our interview, everything went alright, and they’re now editing it for some date we don’t know about. And then we played a song on a radio station with a 6 digit audience which I’m totally bothered about and I’m totally used to and I’m not gonna change one bit (C’mon guys, seriously?)

We've totally got groupies, man
We played Woods. I think that’s my favourite song out of our set.

We packed up, and were asked to take all the biscuits (I love Japanese people), and got on to the bus towards Ishinomaki, which took the best part of an hour. I fell asleep, and I’m about 96% sure some pictures were taken of me and I did something embarrassing whilst I slept, but I don’t know what they were (Side note – I think we’re making a behind the scenes DVD and calling it “Access Baggage”)

I woke up as the stop pulled outside some shop front that was being used as an office for the ‘Stand Up’ festival.

I should also remind you, Ishinomaki was one of the worst hit areas by the tsunami 2 years ago.

After I spoke to some of the people inside the office, we stepped back on to the bus, and we were given a tour of Ishinomaki. Downtown Ishinomaki is having to be completely rebuilt, and there are floors of stones were homes used to be. We were then taken to a park for temporary housing.

They were modern slums for a developed country.

We then started talking some of the residents. It turns out that of the 50 people living there, 23 used to be cooks, now unemployed because there places of work were destroyed.

I refer you back to my quote from yesterday, however, ‘the idea of community will be something displayed in a museum’. These people had become incredibly close to each other, It’s literally a tale of two cities – one city has been wiped out, whereas the other has become a closer bunched group of people. It’s incredibly admirable, and makes me ashamed that there is really no such thing in Britain.bA lot of communities, little cohesion.

We then went to what seemed like a cross between a temple and village hall, where we met two old men. They talked about how the fishing business had been almost completely been demolished. But where they sad and do nothing about it? No. I remind you, these are pensioners, who visibly find it harder to be active compared to us.

A ‘company’ is a bad word to use, but they started one to help children cope with the after effects of the tsunami. They said that when they were children, their parents or grandparents didn’t teach them how to play, they taught themselves. So they started a group so that children would be played with, and would be cheered up, and would lighten the effects. Someone said today “When a child smiles, an adult does too”, and this is the product of a pensioner. Even through translation, you still felt the man’s passion when he said 

“I will do this till I die”.

That's the sense of community here, its totally selfless, its all for the greater good.

We bowed and said our arrigatos, and then we hunted for some food.... and accidentally stumbled into a karaoke bar. Alex likes karaoke. However, the machine was in Japanese and Eugene put Japanese music on. We sang Christmas carols. It was bizarre. I also had cow tongue and deep fried green bean. I can't begin to explain how bizarre this was.

But then on the walk home, the reality of where we were set in again. Ishinomaki is a ghost town. Emptied buildings, no street lights, car-less streets. When we got to the bottom of the stairs of the hostel where we are staying, there was a line, where everything below was painted blue. I tried reaching for the top. I couldn't reach.

I'm about 6 foot tall with a long pair of arms. Remember that.