Turning Japanese


Surviving winter

Hot tea is needful, I think

Also many books

Four summers ago, I wrote about Taking Tea with Tornadoes describing my experience with the art of Japanese tea ceremonies during severe low pressure fronts; it has been quite a while since I’ve explored the Land of the Rising Sun. Please allow me to apologize in advance for my take on this venerable, ancient culture. “Sumimasen” すみません

I have the heart of a wanderer…and the expense account for ramen noodles on a good day. So, I have to adventure vicariously–taking a trip on the Orient Express for me means getting on board with digital media.

Allow me to recommend a few curiosities I’ve discovered along the way.

I recently ventured onto Amazon Prime and binge-watched James May’s Our Man in Japan travelogue. And while the titular host is a bit of a prat–writing deliberately offensive Haiku and presenting the results to a panel of bemused artists too polite to give him their opinion–there is a charm about watching this giant man navigate the island nation. He’s like a British Godzilla stomping his way through cultural traditions–old and new.

As an opening act, James is dragged along on a dog-sled adventure in the icy northern island of Hokkaido. Dragged is the operative word. It turns out to be a very comedic, if painful, episode to watch. Don’t worry, no dogs were injured in the making of the film. I can’t say the same for the host.

There are classic adventures and scenic tours, but there are also everyday experiences–driving in traffic. Being pulled over for crossing a line. Navigating the complex ordering process at a noodle shop where you must pay a vending machine to get a ticket, hopefully for something you want to eat, then presenting the ticket to the cook standing two feet away.

There are snowball fights in which James loses face–and lets down his mates–by being repeatedly pelted by the opponent’s team.

You can follow his meditative walk up the sacred Mount Haguro‘s icy steps alongside an ancient representative of the Yamabushi monks–wandering ascetics who, as May describes, “…have populated these forests since the 7th century–and they practice a doctrine of Shugendo. What that says is you leave your earthly cares and wares behind…..and then commune with nature, with the mountain in particular, to develop a sixth sense for the truth.”

Along this path, James May writes impromptu Haiku:

Snow on the mountain

Priest ascends the icy steps

Englishman on ass!

At the top of the mountain, James is permitted to blow the monk’s conch and then climbs into a hot tub with him. (There are no innuendos in the preceding sentence, though I’m sure someone will try to find one.)

James May’s take on Japan is an odd mixture of profane and pure. He shows earnest interest in all the endeavors and shows self deprecating awareness of his faux pas by repeatedly uttering a self-effacing apology “Sumi Masen” whenever he crosses a cultural line.

Japan’s polite face requires no deliberate offense, and this is absorbed by the host as he travels. Perhaps it is this expectation of saving honor that brings out the Samurai in James May. Literally. May is getting kitted up in full Samurai armor is an art and an ordeal. As all the gear is strapped on, James worries aloud “What if I can’t stand up at the end of all this?”

The response from his host (in translation) is a triumph in double-edged Japanese civility:

“It’s fine. You’re a man. You can stand up if you are a true Samurai!”

He did manage to stand, but he looks very regal seated too!

A member of staff teases him about wearing an outfit appropriate to a ‘torture dungeon’ and James May gives a very good impression of an offended British Samurai with his riposte. He draws the sword and holds it out toward the camera crew and makes a pointed observation:

“This is a 300-year-old Kitana if anybody has anything fatuous to say!”

I watched an episode a day, and spent a week traveling with James May. The most haunting trip visited the village of Nagoro–empty of people, but filled with human-sized dolls to represent the generations lost to modern life and exodus to city living. Even I can understand the creep-factor of dolls on this scale.

While I will never likely meet James May, after a week spent watching him navigate the Land of Cherry Blossoms I do feel I got to know him a bit by the end. But did I truly get to know Japan? I can’t say. I only know, it thrills me to adventure outside my own little world for a while. Which might explain my subsequent, serendipitous discovery of a very heady nature.

I was just leaving the library, when a title grabbed me and dragged me to a halt. There, on the table of books for sale, I spotted Plum Wine.

Battered by my tears of grief at the torturous romance, the book survives to be read another day.

I wrote a long-winded review on Goodreads tolling the virtues and alternately lamenting the direction of one aspect of the novel. I highly recommend you read the book instead. My review is likely to put you off reading altogether. (You’ll note, this doesn’t stop me from writing.)

After soaking in literary Plum Wine, today I stumbled across a funny/indescribable/possibly insane show recommended to me by Amazon Prime. What this recommendation says about me, I dare not ask.

Honestly, I don’t know how to explain Samurai Cat. Perhaps the creators were drunk on Plum Wine as they wrote it?

Just watch this clip:

I…I love this show. I have no idea why. If you figure it out, could you let me know?

Warning, Samurai Cat has the weirdest blank spaces–an actual black screen appears for several minutes–where I think commercials would ordinarily go. They just didn’t bother to cut them out. Still, it’s the best damned Samurai Cat show I’ve ever seen. I challenge you to find one better.

There. I’ve shared the weirdness I’ve explored in the past month. Monday, I have to get something sucked out of my kid’s ear and buy a door and a new knob to replace the one that was destroyed. And Tuesday I will age by one year all at once.

Some days, all I want is to stuff my demon cat into a clay urn and wrap it with a “monster seal” and stick it in a safe place to deal with later.

Is that too much to ask?

Go ahead, try to put me in a basket. I dare you!


Afterword: The title of my blog has this footnote for clarification. I thought I was quoting a song by Graham Parker about ‘Turning Japanese’ but I had confused it with another band. My husband loved Graham Parker, so instead, I’m putting a link to his take on the subject:

Not as catchy as The Vapors’ Turning Japanese, but also less likely to be called racist/cultural appropriating too.

20 thoughts on “Turning Japanese

    1. He definitely has a man-about-town/beer buddy vibe to him. If you liked his take on Motorcycles, you should see the episode in which he visits the Kawasaki factory and they practically have to invite him to leave at the end of it. He also does some motorcycle ‘gang’ tourism. This is not the Hell’s Angels, by any stretch of the imagination. Pretty tame stuff, but scenic.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I always thought James May was the least offensive of the original Top Gear trio — but that’s not saying much!!
    I will have to find Plum Wine now; I’m intrigued!!
    Thanks for the Graham Parker song. I still think the Vapours’ Turning Japanese is a work of sheer musical genius.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Vapours’ song is definitely stuck in my head. I only shared Graham Parker out of memory of my husband’s love of the man. A catchy tune is hard to beat!

      I’ve never seen the Top Gear show. I assume it relates to automotives and would not likely be my cup of tea. Also, anything with three guys is probably going to offend women at some point. The exception to this rule is the Try Guys. I think they are hysterical!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Top Gear was originally a sort of magazine show about new cars, then morphed into something that was deliberately laddish and provocative. It became more and more offensive u til finally the BBC sacked the three presenters including James May. It’s been rebooted with new presenters, but even in its watered-down reincarnation it is an unashamed celebration of toxic masculinity and the sort of deluded English imperialism that has allowed Brexit to happen.
        Rant over!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. By the way, it you want Plum Wine, I can send you my copy…of the post offices don’t close on account of the Coronavirus, that is.


  2. I have tried a bit to understand Japanese… but I must say that my preference has been anime… there are some pretty good films by Hayao Miyazaki… like Spirited Away…

    Also, the books by Murakami are pretty amazing (but I have understood that Japanese don’t consider him Japanese in his writing)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen Spirited Away and I found it both fascinating and incomprehensible. (Even with translates footbotes, there are just aspects of Spirited Away that just don’t translate into meaning. It’s what makes reading or watching other cultures’ art so interesting!

      And how odd that Japan would not embrace a “son” for not being Japanese enough in his writing.


  3. I went through a Japanese fiction spell and ended up liking Yukio Mishima very much, also Yasunari Kawabata. But my favorite (and, in my personal opinion the second greatest novel ever written) is The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Between those covers is a WORLD.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll have to follow up on those, but particularly The Tale of Genji. High praise indeed.

      There tends to be sadness laced through every Japanese book I’ve experienced. I wonder what they might think of American preferences for happy endings and super heroes saving the day?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hard to say. Mishima really had a huge effect on my personal philosophy of life. I was captivated by the idea that a person could fall from grace in the way he defined it. Beautiful. Of course, he was an emperor worshipping homosexual samurai who committed sepuku, but really who cares? The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was made into a movie in the 70s. It was beautiful.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s definitely niche reading. I’ll have to hope the movie has subtitles. I’ve only managed to learn the words Sumi Mason and Neko. Sorry and Cat won’t get me very far. Not even with cats.


  4. I think media consumption is like everything other art in life — we consume what pleases our mood and allow it to change our moods. Sometimes, I want to be absorbed in documentaries, learning, thinking – while less often, but equally important, !!! I just want to be mind-numbingly blissed-out.
    I love to watch nature documentaries, because I’m not interested in traveling to most hot places, and I’m sure not going to Antarctica. I’m a bit tied down for another couple years — If I didn’t travel though books, film, or blogs, I would be SAD.
    I feel like I read Plum Wine. Imma go check.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the preceding week I watched the BBC films about the South Pacific. I finally got to see the episode in which Benedict Cumberbatch mangles the pronunciation of the word “penguin” not once or twice but repeatedly throughout the episode. It was a hysterically funny but on the Graham Norton Show where the host was told by the audience to “Ask Benedict to pronounce ‘Penguin!’ so it felt like closure as well as entertainment.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s