August 31, 2007

Books: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

After visiting Vietnam earlier in the month, I decided to pick up a copy of Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American', set in Saigon in the early fifties at the time of the Indochina war, when the Vietminh were fighting the French colonial powers.

The novel focuses around the relationship between the three main protagonists, Fowler, a middle-aged British ex-pat journalist who refuses to get involved, Pyle, a young idealistic American who wants to help bring democracy to Vietnam, and the woman they both love, Phuong.

Greene does a fantastic job of painting a picture of the Vietnam of that era, as well as creating the mood of ex-pat life. In addition, the characters are very real and believable, Fowler, the cynic, Pyle the seemingly innocent idealist and Phuong, the quiet pragmatist.

As well as the fact that Greene is a superb story-teller, the different themes of a love triangle, intervention vs. non-intervention, idealism vs. realism and old world colonialism vs. new world US foreign policy all contribute to make this a book that you will want to come back to again and again.

Tokyo Blue

Lucien - DJ Day
The War Song - Jon Lucien (RIP)
The Gigolo - Lee Morgan
Tokyo Blue - Ray Harris & The Fusion Experience
1974 - Jukka Eskola
Bed of Roses - 4Hero featuring Jody Watley
Plenty action - Soft Touch
Lam Tooro - Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck
Expensive Shit - Fela Kuti
Untitled (How Does It Feel) - D'Angelo

August 30, 2007

Street Art In Nakano

The latest image on the wall near the station ~ it seems that there is a new picture very two or three months.

August 27, 2007

Koenji Awa-Odori Festival

Sunday it was off to Koenji to join the crowds for the annual Awa-Odori festival. The Awa-Odori (or Awa Dance) originally comes from Tokushima prefecture and dates back over 400 years, but there has been a festival in Koenji for the past 50 years or so. It's said that the weekend long festival attracts crowds of roughly one million people lining the avenues south of the station eating food from the myriad of street stalls, drinking beer or cold tea and cheering on the dance troupes. There were well over a hundred different groups of dancers of varying sizes and ages all backed by there own band of drummers and shamisen players, with some groups performing a more sedate version of the traditional dance, and others giving a very energetic and acrobatic performance ~ with all groups chanting 'Ya-to-sa! Ya-to-sa!' in a kind of call-and response fashion. The dancing started at six in the evening and the groups set off on their procession past the cheering crowds, and as the evening wore on the atmosphere became more electric. In the final ten minutes, the pace of the drumming and dancing quickened and the noise from the crowd increased until finally, on the stroke of nine o'clock, the groups all stopped in unison to a thunderous round of applause.

This was my second time at the festival, and I personally feel it's one of the most enjoyable festivals I've been to in Japan.

Kuchi and Coppe' at the British Council

Whilst the venue was maybe a place that people associate with education, Saturday night was a live music night at the British Council, with two acts providing an evening of electronica. First up was Coppe' (pronounced Cop-pay), with her multi-colored hair. Apparently, she is something of a veteran of the underground electronica scene having released several albums over the years both in Japan and the US. Her vocal style has the quirkiness of Bjork and the thirty minute set embraced a variety of styles, including a cover of 'Fly Me To The Moon' and the popular 'Alien Mermaid', co-produced with Mickey The Cat.

After a break, it was the turn of Kuchi, a band featuring Mickey The Cat (aka Mike T.), who were making their debut live appearance. Sound-wise, the music was dark and brooding with vocalist Mari belting out vocals over the electronic beats, swirling synths and guitar.

Not a bad evening's entertainment, especially since it was free.

August 23, 2007

Colourful sunset

As I was about to set off for my early evening jog today, I saw these rather impressive colours from the setting sun, so I popped back inside to get the camera and took a quick snap before heading for the park. I should have taken the camera with me though, as the scene at the park was even more spectacular.

August 21, 2007

Books: A Crack In The Edge Of The World by Simon Winchester

A Crack In The Edge Of The World by Simon Winchester tells the story of the great 1906 earthquake that devastated the city of San Francisco. Seismology and geology are not really areas that I have looked into at all, and they would hardly rank neat the top of my interests, but, as with his earlier book Krakatoa, Winchester's account makes compelling reading.

The reader is taken on a fascinating journey looking at various different aspects of the 1906 event. Plate tectonics, the geological make-up of the North American continent, the settlement and development of the US west coast, and, in particular the village of Yerba Buena that would become San Francisco are all covered. Winchester also gives an outline of the San Francisco of the turn of the twentieth century and the kind of people living there, as well as providing us with references to numerous accounts of the events of April 18th.

The prose is both witty and informative, peppered with interesting trivia and wonderful language ~ how often do you come across delightful words such as 'gallimaufry' and 'bloviate'? A great study in geology and social history, I strongly recommend this book.

August 18, 2007

Gotta Move, Gotta Groove

Gotta Move, Gotta Groove - Leroy Hutson
Bliss - Rosie Brown
Undecided - Shack
Disposition - Nils Krogh
Hype of Gold - Soil & "Pimp" Sessions
Wind - Sleep Walker featuring Yukimi Nagano
Keep You Kimi - Hird
Beaten Metal - Antibalas
Roforofo Fight - Fela Kuti
Bukom Mashie - Oscar Sulley & the Uhuru Dance Band

Sleep Walker with Little Dragon at Shibuya Quattro

On a boiling hot Friday evening (it had topped 40 degrees earlier in the day), I was off down to Shibuya for some live music.
First on stage were Little Dragon from Sweden featuring Swedish-Japanese vocalist Yukimi Nagano. Yukimi has featured as guest vocalist for a number of other artists, such as Koop, Hird and Sleep Walker over the last few years, but this is her own project and they were in town to promote their newly released eponymous debut album.

Accompanying Yukimi there were bass, drums and cool retro-sounding synths. The band delivered a tight and interesting set of quirky electronic pop that went down well with the packed house. Personal favourites for me were 'Forever', 'Test' and 'Wink', and I'll be on the look out for the album online I think.

After a short break while the stage crew made all their preparations, it was time for the main act, the some classy dance jazz act Sleep Walker. There was a huge roar as they took to the stage and launched into 'Quiet Dawn' from the new album. This was then followed by 'Into The Sun' and the hugely popular 'Ai-No-Tabi'. The band were really on form as they delivered storming renditions of their tracks, which the dancing crowd lapped up. There were lengthy solos and improvisations from all members at different points and pianist Hajime Yoshizawa looked as though he was truly lost in music as he hammered away at the keys, but then with the slightest of glances towards the drummer, they whole band would kick back into the main riff just like that. During 'Eclipse', sax player Masa Nakamura had technical problems with the mic, and so after the intro riff, he simply signalled to the bass player and the rhythm section delivered an amazing improvised passage that really worked the crowd, while the crew fixed the glitch. Masa and Hajime are the so-called leaders of the band, but the rhythm section truly hold the whole thing together.

Later in the set the band were joined by Yukimi Nagano, who sang 'Wind' and 'Afloat', which both went down really well, and then it was time to wrap up the set with the epic 'The Voyage', though they came back on for an encore, one of their best-known tracks 'Ai-No-Kawa'. Superb stuff.

August 14, 2007

Vietnam: August 7th-8th Hanoi - various snaps

Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) in Hoan Kiem Lake
Many buildings have these long passages between them going back some distance. In the past, people built so-called 'tunnel houses' that were narrow but went back a long way, since taxes were levied according to how much street space the building occupied.

Propaganda posters around the city
This is a sight seen all over Hanoi, and I can only guess it's some form of advertising with a phone number.
Sign inside Cafe Moca near St Joseph Cathedral
Some very narrow buildings in the Old Quarter
Early evening at Hoan Kiem Lake

Vietnam: August 7th-8th Hanoi

On arriving back in Hanoi in the early evening, it was time for a different hotel, this time the Gold Spring, a nice newly refurbished place, well-situated in the Old Quarter, though a bit too close to a busy main road, but it was streaks ahead of the previous place. For dinner it was off to Old Hanoi again where I had spicy beef and papaya salad and steamed red fin fish with vegetables, both really good as I had now got used to.

The next day was the last day of the holiday, with a night flight back to Tokyo, so I spent the last few hours doing some souvenir shopping, soaking in the atmosphere of the Old Quarter and dipping into cafes to cool down from time to time.

Before dinner in the vegetarian Tamarind Cafe, I had a look at an old restored Vietnamese house on Ma May, which was free to look around.

August 13, 2007

Vietnam: August 6th-7th Halong Bay

Can't say I was unhappy to check out of the Thien Thuy hotel this morning, especially since the next stage of the holiday was a trip to Halong Bay, a place of amazing beauty. The minibus arrived almost on time and we set off on the three hour trip to Halong from Hanoi. The others in the group for the tour were from Spain, Germany, New Zealand and the UK. We had a chatty good-humoured guide for the tour named Tho.

To leave Hanoi we had to cross the Red River, which really was a deep brick red colour, due to the silt in the water. After that we were to pass through the countryside, where the main road was lined with rice paddies and banana plantations, and later passing through Hai Duong and Haiphong. We reached Halong port at just before one, and then we were taken on board our boat and everyone checked into their room before (a voluminous) lunch was served.

One of the many boats in the bay (not the one I was on though)

The bay contains over 1500 small limestone islands rising sharply out of the sea, covered in trees and ringing with cacophony of cicadas and birdsong. In 1994, it was designated a World Heritage site.

A fishing village on the sea.

In the middle of the afternoon, the boat bumped and jostled for almost half an hour among the other tour boats as we pulled in to an island to see the Huang Dao Go (the Cave of Marvels), a huge cave complex of three chamber quite tastefully illuminated.

Near the exit of the caves, a local from the fishing village rows past in a boat laden with Pringles and chocolate!

After the caves we sailed on a bit and moored at the fishing village. As well as fishing and selling junk food to tourists, the village's other source of income is renting out sea kayaks. Our group were paired off and we paddled around the bay and through a kind of tunnel-like cave into a grotto in an island, which was fairly peaceful. The kayaking was a lot of fun though also quite strenuous, so the hour or hour and a half we had was probably just about the right amount of time. We got back on our boat at about six, and had barely got changed before the heavens opened. The storm from Hue had worked its way up the coast, and we had a couple of hours of heavy rain and thunder to accompany dinner.

The next morning we spent more time cruising around the bay some more before returning to port for lunch and then the three hour trip back to Hanoi.

Vietnam: August 5th Hanoi - various snaps

A more traditional way of getting around in Vietnam is the cyclo, though few Vietnamese people use them nowadays and they are there mainly for holiday makers, much like rickshaws elsewhere in Asia.
Propaganda poster urging people to vote (by the looks of things).
Market stalls early evening.

Vietnam: August 5th Hanoi

Got the late morning flight from a damp Hue back to a hot and sunny Hanoi, took a taxi into town to the Hotel Thuy Thien in teh Old Quarter. This was taken as a cheap option just a one night stay, but to be honest it wasn't a great choice. At first glance the room was fine, but gradually, the smell of drains began to permeate the room from the bathroom, and by the evening it was pretty strong. However, there were no other rooms available, so it was a matter of grin and bear it for one night.

Of course, for most of the daytime and evening time I was out exploring the city some more. I enjoyed mooching around the Old Poster shop with the colourful propaganda messages urging greater productivity on farms and other such socialist messages as well as some older posters of the war era. After shopping it was back to the hotel to freshen up a bit, though I ended up getting stuck in the lift for 15 minutes or so, which wasn't fun.

In the evening, it was off to a restauarant-bar called '69', which is in restored old Vietnamese house on Ma May in the Old Quarter. The decor was great and the food was delicious. I had seafood spring rolls followed by a dish called Hanoi Cha Ca, which was fish boiled in a soup over a charcoal burner with spring onions and dill, served with rice noodles and peanuts. Really nice. The only problem with '69', though, was that the service was painfully slow, mainly due to the fact that they were understaffed, and it was clearly too much for one waitress, who after forgetting a few orders, decided to have a sit down on the floor in the centre of the restaurant while the other two ran around frantically.