Karaoke Chaos in Kyoto


Those who stand out from the crowd in Japan are quite happy, even eager, to pose for the camera as the above readily illustrates. And while this observation has little to do with the intended subject, at least it gives me an opening photograph.

At the risk of sounding obtuse, maybe it does, in a weird, disjointed way, lead into one of my pet aversions – karaoke. For a culture that has given the world so many of my favourite things, including Astro Boy, Godzilla, Shintaro and Tombei The Mist, and the wonderful dripping world woodcuts of Hiroshi Yoshida, karaoke almost balances the scales.

Although it is said that karaoke translates into “empty orchestra”, a far more honest meaning would be “ritualised humiliation”.

As an Australian male, I may have something of a natural inclination towards self-delusion but not when it comes to singing in public. I know I can’t sing. Never have and never will. That, however, doesn’t stop millions of other people from ignoring their inner voices and inflicting their limited vocal skills on others.

My first experience with karaoke was in Kyoto, as part of a multinational group inspecting conference facilities. One night, as a brief respite from visiting ballrooms that after eight hours all looked the same, we were invited to a traditional Noh performance. These days, anything described as a cultural experience, especially in Asia, will have me feigning smallpox and requesting immediate quarantine. Back then, however, I was young, eager to please and far too brave for my own good.

The Noh performance was, according to others, culturally enriching although it did seem to go on for days. There had been no dinner beforehand which only made it all the more interminable.

Afterwards, we were led to a small nightclub in the basement of an even smaller office building where we gathered around barrel-shaped tables on which were large bottles of beer, delicate china carafes of sake and glasses of strong Scotch and dry. Emotionally drained by jet lag and the events of the evening, we rapidly drained the table of alcohol. It was almost immediately replenished.

Each of the nationalities was encouraged to sing a song of their own culture. The English chose God Save The Queen, having been unable to find anything on the music list by Val Doonican.

The Americans, without a hint of irony, looked no further than The Star Spangled Banner. There’s no harder a song for amateurs to sing (aside perhaps for My Way which they bravely but unsuccessfully attempted later in the evening) and the result sounded very much like feeding time in an animal shelter as produced by Phil Spector.

Only the French emerged from the cultural trainwreck with any dignity intact. In a masterstroke of lateral thinking, they chose Je t’aime. The men flawlessly channelled Serge Gainsbourg, the women Brigitte Bardot (though, not, it should be noted in any physical sense).

The Australian group was last. I’d been flicking through the song list with increasing panic. Mercifully, Click Go The Shears, Advance Australia Fair and Home Among The Gumtrees were not included. Harsh circumstances called for desperate measures.

By the time the Australian group had been called to the stage, most had mysteriously disappeared. I searched under discarded coats and inside the barrel tables but they were nowhere to be found.

With only one other Australian, we mounted the stage. I introduced our song, explaining its complex cultural significance and how it was indicative of the Australian way of life, a song that spoke of our country’s rich history and vibrant personality.

The audience listened politely, if a little confused. There was a smatter of applause.

We than launched into the Theme From Rawhide.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

Though the streams are swollin’

Keep those dogies movin’

Rawhide

The atmosphere could be described as quizzical, especially with my partner’s Norman Gunston-like acting out of the lyrics. There were cheers when I managed to improvise a kangaroo reference or two into the lyrics.

At the end of the song, some of the audience leapt to their feet but my gratitude lasted only until I realised it was the Italian group heading off to look for the cigarette machine.

As the evening progressed and fresh rounds of beer, sake and Scotch washed across the groups, the inhibitions, like the quality of the singing, dropped remarkably.

Even the Australians lay prone on the melodic altar of humiliation and begged for more. After a couple of particularly desperate yet endearingly enthusiastic interpretations of New York, New York, Feelings and The Pina Colada Song (welcome back to the blog, Rupert Holmes), my memory reached that point that occurs in all extreme trauma and blanked out.

It’s perhaps just as well.

Words and photos © David Latta

The Wright Stuff


History doesn’t usually get a second chance, especially in a city like Tokyo where heritage often has a timeline as stunted as a bonsai. Even the grandest names aren’t impervious to the wrecker’s ball and Frank Lloyd Wright, surely one of the world’s most celebrated architects, is no exception.

Wright, a passionate collector of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, had long sought out inspiration from Japan; the “floating world” of the ukiyo-e, with its philosophy of evanescence and fleeting beauty, struck an ethereal chord in the architect.

He spent seven years in Tokyo from 1917 designing and building his Imperial Hotel. Although Wright was also responsible for some 14 other Japanese projects, the Imperial was a legacy that would crown his career.

Opened on 1 September 1923, the Imperial survived a massive earthquake that struck on the very same day as well as Allied bombing during World War II. It was a magnificent building but time became its most potent enemy. In 1968, it was demolished to make way for a modern, high-rise building.

That would have been the end of the story but Wright’s Imperial Hotel, or at least the front section, is not lost to the world. It can be found in a rather unlikely setting, in a theme park of architectural history outside Nagoya.

Museum Meiji-Mura is not easy to get to from Tokyo. Two hours in a Shinkansen to Nagoya is followed by a half-hour journey to Inuyama. A 20-minute bus ride brings visitors to the park which holds almost 70 buildings of the Meiji era (1868-1912), gathered from across Japan and overseas and arranged in a jumbled harmony along the western shores of Lake Iruka.

There’s an other-worldly quality to Meiji-Mura; the pristine setting and the fastidious attention to maintaining detail and atmosphere is like a Japanese version of The Truman Show. Exploring the park can take all day so arrive as early as possible.

There’s the elegant wooden Uji-yamada Post Office, fashioned like an English seaside pavilion. St John’s Church, built in 1907 in Kyoto combines Romanesque and Gothic characteristics on the lower levels and an almost Orthodox Russian confection above. A westerner’s house from Kobe, built in 1887, is a mannered two-storey structure with enveloping colonnades, while the fragment of the head office of the Kawasaki Bank in Tokyo, built in 1927, shows an imposing yet finely-detailed European Renaissance style.

The highlight for Wright fans, however, is the main entrance hall and lobby of the Imperial Hotel. The expansive space, which harmonises on a characteristically human scale, is a delight for lovers of fine architecture. In a tea shop above the foyer, visitors sip a delicate tea infused with yuzu, a small tart citrus fruit, while marvelling at Wright’s visionary ideals.

Elsewhere in the park, there’s much to divert attention. The traditionally-styled 1870-era Nakai Sake Brewer from Kyoto invites sake tastings. The wooden Kureha-za Theatre, transported from Osaka and dating from 1868, has kabuki entertainment while the Shinagawa Glass Factory, constructed in 1877 and seemingly snatched from a British architectural pattern book, sells finely-crafted blown glass items.

While it may seem bizarre to find as important a work as the Imperial Hotel in such a setting, it’s worth reflecting that Frank Lloyd Wright in a theme park is infinitely preferable to no Frank Lloyd Wright at all.

And with all that has come and gone since that time, perhaps a haiku (stumbling and European though it may be) is appropriate:

Tiny glass horse gleams

Love dies in icy shadows

Impermanence all

Words and photos © David Latta