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Archive for February, 2007

Chapter 2 -From Despair to Delight

[This story is serialized so if you wish to read the chapters in order, please go to the categories: humour, nonsense, books, characters or Japan.]

It is hard to believe that until recently the merkin was entirely unknown in Japan. Its meteoric leap from the trashcans of history into the pants of millions of young Japanese women and onto the glossy pages of dozens of magazines is entirely due to the tireless efforts of one man: Tadashi Yasuda. Of course, luck was on his side.

On that steaming-hot August day, the kind of day that smells thrive on, Yasuda had endured a harrowing train journey into central Tokyo from his home in the suburbs. A middle-aged man on his right farted at regular intervals while a young lady on his left, who constantly fiddled with her mobile, had such rancid breath that he at first thought she had farted too. He would have gladly given up his seat and moved to where the air was a little fresher, but the train was so packed that he couldn’t move at all. Every now and then, as the train lurched and all those standing were thrown around, he had to press his head back against the window to avoid contact with the crotch of a man whose trousers had suspicious-looking stains around the flies.

Shortly before Yasuda walked in to the building at 10 AM, Shinji Ono had just experienced another loud, public rollicking from his boss The general manager of the design department hated Ono; and the feeling was mutual.

Ono had been told to meet the visitor in reception and tell him the meeting was cancelled. It was a task that Ono did not enjoy doing. His boss knew this, that’s why he had ordered him to do it.

As the elevator went down, Ono’s anger started rising. He just wished he had the guts to thump his boss on the nose and walk out of the company. The idea was appealing. The writing was on the wall; the company was going downhill fast and he would be out of a job soon anyway; so he decided to go out in style. It was just a question of getting the timing right. The next time that little bastard belittles me in public, he decided, I will drop him.

The elevator stopped and the door opened. Ono stopped fantasizing about beating up his boss and stepped into the lobby, where Yasuda, drenched in sweat, was waiting. There was an insolent, menacing air about Yasuda, and Ono took an instant dislike to him. Suddenly he began to feel glad that he had been delegated to turn him away.

“My name is Ono,” he said, smiling, as he approached Yasuda. “I’m afraid that Mr. Horie, the manager of the design section is unavailable, how can I help you?”

Yasuda’s smile, about as sincere as that of a circus clown, seemed to peel away in slow motion. His reaction was totally unpredictable. “Unavailable?” he practically screamed. “If he was going to be unavailable, why didn’t the bastard call me and cancel the frigging meeting.” Ono was momentarily stunned. He had never been spoken to like this before by anyone other than his boss.

“My car is off the road,” said Yasuda, “impounded, actually, so I had to travel here by bloody train. Do you know what it’s like on these damn trains?”

Ono shook his head, unable to get the words out, although he knew exactly what the trains were like. After all, he traveled in by train every day.

“It’s like sitting inside a pair of underpants,” said Yasuda, his voice starting to rise, “Dirty bloody underpants. There is every possible stench you can imagine in there, and some you don’t even want to think about.”

The reception area went totally silent. The three receptionists were standing to attention with their heads bowed. A group of visitors waiting for their appointments looked on in bemusement. And the security guards fussed around in the background, unsure of how to respond to a situation that, while not yet threatening, was highly unusual.

“Please accept my humble apologies,” said Ono. “You have every right to feel angry at being inconvenienced.” He bowed deeply.

“Of course I fucking have,” snarled Yasuda.

And that is when the idea hit Ono. He nearly leapt into the air with joy. He could have kissed Yasuda. The offensive man was becoming more and more appealing with every foul phrase he uttered. He quickly assessed the opportunities for revenge. This man, he thought, was perfect. He was just the kind of character his boss needed to meet. He would play a little trick on Mr. Horie to teach him a lesson.

“Now that you are here,” said Ono, “perhaps you could tell me the nature of your business. In the meantime Mr. Horie might become available and you could be able to meet him after all.”

“I’m here to make a presentation on a merkin,” said Yasuda.

“A merkin? What’s a merkin?” said Ono.

Yasuda’s brow furrowed, and his nostrils dilated as he inhaled deeply before replying: “A merkin’s a pubic wig!”

Ono coughed to stifle his laughter. He had never heard of anything so insane in all his life. “Does Mr. Horie know that your presentation is on a …… a merkin?”

“Not yet,” said Yasuda. “He only knows that I have a product that can revitalize this company and spread its name around the globe.”

The man is the perfect weapon for my revenge on Horie, thought Ono. He guided Yasuda to a reception room and asked him to wait while he spoke again to Mr. Horie. He called from the lobby and told his boss that the visitor had a sensational idea that would turn the company around. Horie did not ask what the idea was. He just told Ono to take Yasuda immediately to the directors meeting room, and that is just what Ono did.

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

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All the characters in this absurd story are fictitious and any resemblance to any person living, dead or not yet born is purely coincidental. Any person living, dead or not yet born who resembles any of the characters in the story is, was or will be in need of serious counseling.

Chapter 1 — Another day just like any other

 

It was eleven o’ clock on a sweltering mid-August morning in Tokyo. Despite the heat, life had to go on as usual. On this particular day, the Metropolitan Police Force was raiding the facilities of a pseudo religious group suspected of having manufactured condoms out of thin air. In the Diet, the Prime Minister, his face a raging red, was hurling obscenities at a female member of the opposition. The Minister of Justice, at eighty-seven the fifth eldest member of the Cabinet, had forgotten the reason for the press conference, and to the astonishment of over a hundred journalists, was rambling on about the number of women he had seduced. In a café in Akasaka, the Foreign Minister, his hand resting limply on the thigh of an excessively handsome young man, was smiling lasciviously at the young waiter who had just brought him his morning coffee. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. a buxom young lady blew a kiss towards the president as she left the Oval Office, and he pulled his trousers up. It was three o’clock in the morning in London, and the Palace security trained machine guns on an intruder who had just climbed over the fence. The were astonished to see that the intruder was the husband of the Queen, who explained that he had been to a reunion of his naval buddies and had forgotten his key. They were even more surprised when, just before he set off for the front door of the palace, he turned and asked them if they had ever played a party game called musical cocks. And, back in Tokyo, the senior managers of Suriku Garu, the world’s largest producer of hair products and cosmetics, were staring with bewilderment at the hairball Tadashi Yasuda had just thrown into the middle of the table around which they were sitting.


© 2007 Charles R. Pringle

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 “Not many people actually die eating fugu,” said one of my friends a few months ago, as we dined in a restaurant in Tsukiji, home to Tokyo’s giant fish market. He dipped a raw piece of the deadly fish into the sauce and popped it into his mouth. “The trouble is,” he went on, “that whenever anybody does die, the media jump on it and blow it out of all proportion.”

 

He was right, of course. Not many people do die eating one of the most obscene fishes you could imagine. But there is always the chance that it can happen—and that seems be the attraction.

 

Every year hundreds of thousands of Japanese put their lives on a plate, literally, in a gastronomic form of Russian roulette. They pay a fortune to sit down to a full course fugu meal. Most of them live to talk about the experience the next day, but each year about fifty of them do not. They die still thinking clearly but unable to speak or move and, finally, breathe. Nevertheless, fugu is now more popular than ever, with annual consumption way up to the tens of thousands of tons.

 

But what exactly is fugu? Well, fugu is the general name for the fish of the Tetraondontidae family, which in English are known as blowfish, puffer, globefish or swellfish. Although fugu can be deadly, they have been eaten for hundreds of years in Japan, except for during the feudal period (16031868), when the regime of the Tokugawa shogunate strictly prohibited the consumption of fugu. But as soon as the shogunate was overturned, eating fugu became popular again.

 

What is it that makes fugu so deadly? The simple answer is that the fugu poison, known as tetrodoxin, is so powerful that a mere one or two milligrams is the estimated lethal dose for an adult. It is, in fact, 1250 times deadlier than cyanide. The poison blocks sodium channels in nerve tissues, ultimately paralysing the muscles, leading to respiratory arrest as the cause of death. And there is no proven antidote. About 60% of puffer poisonings prove fatal. The poison is found in the ovaries, intestines and livers, and if even a touch of these internal organs is left in the fish, the diner can die within minutes; so preparation of the fish must be carefully supervised.

 

To ensure safety in the consumption of fugu, government regulations state that fugu must be prepared by a licensed fugu chef who has taken intensive courses, served an extensive apprenticeship and passed written exams. But in Japan it is common to break the rules to cement a personal relationship, and no chef would think twice about bending the rules to please a treasured customer, even if it means risking tragedy.

 

Tragedy struck Mitsugoro Bando VIII, Japan’s leading Kabuki actor, on January 16, 1975 after a meal of fugu in one of the country’s top fugu restaurants. Bando, who had been designated a “living national treasure” by the government, was also a gourmet with a passion for fugu. Dining with three friends who, afraid of being poisoned, declined the livers, Bando rashly ate all four servings of the poison-filled organs, three of which are considered strong enough to kill a man.

 

Before going to bed on the night of his death, Bando told his wife that he was feeling great, as if he were floating on air because he had eaten fugu for dinner. He died of paralysis and convulsions in the middle of the night.

 

It was, and still is, prohibited to serve the fugu liver in restaurants, so the restaurant was suspended for ten days. But Bando’s demise did not stop the customers arriving in droves. If anything, it increased the popularity of the restaurant.

 

Why the Japanese should make a ritual eating deadly poisonous fish is difficult for foreigners to comprehend. For many, the elegant, death-defying event is a status symbol, and some say that consumption of the meat produces a pleasant, warm tingling. Connoisseurs, take the idea a little bit further and try to ingest a little bit of the poison, just enough to cause a warm buzz. And, like Bando, they sometimes overstep the danger mark.

 

 

 

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

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Everybody in Japan has heard of Roppongi, the legendary entertainment quarter sandwiched, like a juicy filling, between Akasaka in the north and Azabu in the south. But not many people, apart from the regulars, really know much about the place.

To most Japanese, however, Roppongi is a dark and dangerous place, despite the glaring neon, inhabited and frequented by foreigners or denizens of the fringe underworld of sordid sex and crime. There are Nigerian touts that harass passers-by into following them into clubs where they will be ripped off; Chinese hookers offering a “massage”; furtive men from the middle east selling trips to heaven (or hell); transvestites and transsexuals preying on drunks whose powers of observation have been diminished by alcohol; gangsters openly exercising their rights to behave in any way they want to; and a doctor on a mission to help young girls in need of treatment or counseling for sexually transmitted diseases.

When Shogun Tokugawa Iesu made the village of Edo (present-day Tokyo) his capital, Roppongi was a rustic idyll of rolling hills covered with pine trees, which provided local farmers with all the firewood they needed. Although there is not much greenery left in the area, the hills are still there and some of their names bear testament to their rustic past. There are names such as Enoki-zaka (Chinese hackberry hill), Tanuki-zaka (racoon dog hill), Itachi-zaka (weasel hill), Nezumi-zaka (rat or mouse hill), Ueki-zaka (plant hill) and the fabulously-named Imoarai-zaka (potato washing hill).

Roppongi’s first claim to fame came about in 1626, when Shogun Hidetada chose it as the site for his wife’s cremation. After the cremation, the remains were carried to Zozoji Temple in Shiba (just below Tokyo Tower) in a spectacular procession consisting of all the nobles of Edo and their samurai retainers, all in ceremonial costume. Although the area appears to have prospered after the funeral, not much was recorded about it until around 1660, when name “Roppongi,” which means “six trees,” was first used.

There is much argument about how the name evolved. One legend is that Roppongi was after for six ancient ginko trees that used to dominate the landscape around the present Roppongi Crossing. Another says that Roppongi was named because six Daimyo whose estates were located in the hills of Roppongi had names that ended with the word for tree. Whatever the origin of the name, life must have been idyllic for the nobles in those days. From their villas they could look out across Tokyo Bay or enjoy splendid views of Mt. Fuji to the south. The whole area was lush green, and the air would have been pure, not the caustic, biting pollution that passes for fresh air nowadays.

Roppongi was still little more that a village when, in the 1790s, it was incorporated into the municipality of Edo. And it remained this way until after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The situation changed drastically after the Third Division of the Imperial Guard moved to new barracks in Roppongi. Soon after the soldiers arrived, new businesses opened up and Roppongi started growing. Naturally businesses that catered for the tastes of military men were particularly prominent in the area, and Roppongi soon acquired a reputation that has stood the test of time.

Like the rest of Tokyo, Roppongi has been plagued by fires over the centuries. The first major conflagration was recorded in 1668 and the last one in 1945, when the American B-29 bombers scorched Roppongi—as well as the rest of Tokyo—with their incendiary devices. Strangely enough, however, Roppongi was one of the few areas of Tokyo spared from the fires that accompanied the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

When the war ended, there was very little left of Roppongi, and it had to rebuild itself from scratch. Again, it was the military that contributed to the growth of the area—this time the Americans. Roppongi housed a large portion of the American soldiers stationed in Tokyo, which greatly contributed to the rapid growth of Roppongi nightlife. Western-style bars and restaurants as well as houses of ill-repute catering to foreigners sprang up.

Roppongi took another great leap forward in 1964, when the Hibiya-sen opened up to improve transportation for the Tokyo Olympics. A number of discos and clubs opened up, attracting crowds of young Japanese and foreigners, mainly Westerners, of all ages. It reached its zenith in the 1980s with the ever-expanding bubble economy that fooled everyone into thinking that the money would keep flowing forever. Reality struck in 1989, however, when the bubble burst. Practically overnight, many of the discos and clubs disappeared.

Things started to look up again in the mid-1990s, and many of the foreign-themed establishments—English and Irish pubs; sports, shot and cigar bars; and salsa clubs—opened up. The variety of foreign restaurants also increased dramatically. Now just about every cuisine on earth is represented somewhere in Roppongi—even on the streets. Late at night the mobile food vendors appear offering a selection of goodies that include, doner kebabs, grilled chicken and Thai or Indian curries.

Two huge complexes—one finished and operational, the other to open later this year—are changing the face of Roppongi. The first, Roppongi Hills, which covers an area of 109,000 m², is practically a city in itself. Right in the center of the complex stands the 54-storey Mori Tower that houses restaurants and high-class shops on the first six floors and the Mori Art Center and Art Museum as well as an observation deck on the top six floors. The other floors are occupied by offices.The Grand Hyatt Tokyo occupies one corner of Roppongi Hills and TV Asahi occupies another. In between there are gardens, an arena, more luxury brand shops, restaurants, cafes, and the Virgin Cinemas complex. The other huge complex, Tokyo Midtown Project, is situated on the former site of the Japanese Defense Agency, less than 1 kilometer away from Roppongi Hills. The Midtown Tower, which soars up to 248 meters, will be the tallest building in Tokyo, and it will house offices and residences as well as the Ritz Carlton on the top floors.

Forty percent of the total area of Tokyo Midtown Project will consist of greenery and parks, and it will be home to the Suntory Museum of Art. There will also be restaurants representing a wide variation of global cuisine, cafes, luxury brand shops, and a 24-hour upscale food market.

Where Roppongi goes from here is anybody’s guess. One thing is, however, certain. Now that the new and glamorous complexes are here, the rest of Roppongi will eventually follow, and the old, dirty and seedy buildings will disappear and be replaced by something else. It is just a question of when.

© 2007 Charles R. Pringle

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