Jadventures in Iwate


For any late comers, I’m in the latter half of a two parter about my recent tour of the Tohoku region with a much downsized London Metropolitan Orchestra. To learn about the reasons for it and the players that went, feel free to catch up by reading THIS.

4. Catatonic in Kitakami

It was about day 5. I won’t sugar coat it. As the days went on, serious fatigue set in. I am not talking about the odd yawn and stretch, “Lorks is that the time? Off to Bedfordshire I go,” kind of tiredness. I’m talking about the variety that makes you feel concussed, like you’ve been hit over the head with a sledge-hammer, or inhaled carbon monoxide. The problem is, when you’re on a tour like that, travelling, rehearsing and performing every day, whilst experiencing the entire spectrum of human emotion, one does tend to get a bit wrung out. Also the jetlag was wreaking havoc with every member of the orchestra. One of my favourite aspects of the tour was how concerned we all became about each other’s sleep patterns. Every morning at breakfast (which quite often consisted of noodle soup and fish, which I never got used to) the first question we asked each other, bleary eyed, was “How did you sleep?” Oftentimes the answer came, “Well I woke up at 2, 4 and 6. Then I missed three alarms. You?”
“1, 3 and 5. Fucking jetlag…”
It was quite sweet actually, how codependent we all became. We monitored each other throughout the day, as we individually hit seemingly insurmountable walls of extreme tiredness. We’d be rehearsing, eating, walking around, travelling, and one member at a time would glaze over and go quiet, clearly with us in body only. Sometimes it would take food, coffee and a nap in order for normal service to be resumed, other times the member in question would get a second wind an hour later, only to witness someone else hit an identical wall. Luckily we made it through the gigs without falling asleep. (Sadly I can’t say the same for the Junderground journeys. See below [pic courtesy of Natalie Holt]

It is important to remind you, loyal StrungOut readers, that I am hopelessly over sensitive and intolerant of all negative feelings. The playing and lack of sleep was actually child’s play compared to energy spent attempting to control my emotional reactions to our experiences, in front of those we met. I’m not the only one on tour that was exhausted by the sheer intensity of what we saw each day. Joji Hirota (our charismatic multi instrumentalist, composer and singer) had arranged a traditional wedding song for his voice, the orchestra and his traditional flutes. Each time he spoke to the audience about this song, he burst into tears, remembering a young engaged woman who worked for the council somewhere in Tohoku, who tragically died in the tsunami whilst telling her local town to evacuate over a tannoy. In my cello seat I could see easily into the audience, and the kind Japanese faces looking at us would crumple and weep at the sound of his voice singing the opening notes. Spontaneous bursting into tears became the norm, which was actually sort of liberating. I can be obsessed with “holding it together”, whatever that means, in front of my colleagues, but by the end of the tour, we were all wrecks quite openly. You’d think once you’d seen one devastated town, and met one grief stricken, humbled community you’d become hardened to the experience, but that was not the case. The further we travelled, the more the realisation hit home that pretty much everyone in Japan knew and loved someone who lost their lives, home, family, or all of the above in the events of March 2011. Everywhere we went, we were confronted by this strange mix of intense grief and quiet stoicism, as people everywhere were getting on with things. Schools were still educating, brass bands were still practising, families were still sitting down to dinner together, in portacabins and temporary accommodation. The sheer coping skills of the people in the worst affected areas are an inspiration.

Kitakami is a strange wee place. In some places it is lush and green and looks a bit like the English west country, in others long stretches of freeway flanked by industrial estates with diners and Toys-R-Us resemble a town in the American mid west. We stayed in a business hotel next to the train station a 10 minute taxi ride from the main concert hall. Our day in Kitakami was spent eating sushi and being driven around by a mad cap friend of our entourage, Shin-ji, who was hilarious, and delighted to show us around town in his car. He took us to Michinoku Folklore Village, an open air museum which depicts the lives of the people living along the Kitakami river via reconstructions of their houses through the ages.
If I’m completely honest, when I heard the word “museum” being floated about, my heart sank. I was tired and was looking forward to sitting in a scenic spot with a diet coke (I know. I am CRAZY on tour) but it turned out to be my favourite afternoon of the week.

We meandered through this park that called itself a museum, sheltered from the sunshine by a canopy of trees, and crouched under the door frames to explore tiny houses in a model village. One of them had a goat in it. (Actually, that goat didn’t look too good, but that’s another story.)

We were proper tourists, snapping away and doing stupid poses (see Martin and Andy M above) in the samurai house, skipping about, and huge butterflies were flying about, just minding their own business. Shin-ji thought we were nuts, rushing to take photographs of posing butterflies flapping their wings whilst taking nectar from flowers…he couldn’t stop laughing, “They’re only butterflies!” he said, clearly accustomed to their presence. To me though, the show off butterflies just added to the feeling that we were a dream world. Or a Peter Jackson movie. Below are my fellow Ravens, relaxed and hyeppy.

We may still have been in a dream world when the concert time rolled around. As we changed venue, we changed drummers and dancers, as to involve the local community. In Kitakami, we performed with new drummers (who looked like a boy band, all bleach blond hair and baby faces, but played graffitied drums and rapped when they played. They were INCREDIBLE. Most of us watched them and made plans forthwith to jack in our own instruments and go on the road as a Taiko troupe. “Cello shmello!” I thought, as I planned my new life, just me and my drum) and new dancers, traditional ones with complicated armour, masks, swords, and inexplicable ponytails. Below are Jamie and Natalie formally introducing themselves to one of the dancers in question. As you can see, they’re not sticklers about etiquette. [photograph stolen from Jamie Hutchin-San]

The concert hall in Kitakami, for a relatively quiet town, was about the size of The Barbican, which was a bit of a change from our temple performance (remember? The one that was like playing in a uterus?) the previous evening.

In our relatively short rehearsal, we had lots to cover due to the new personnel. There was also a new piece to perform with the dancers, which was full of changes, cuts and repeats and all sorts. The rehearsal started late as we’d done the unthinkable and accidentally left lovely Rita, our esteemed leader at the hotel in the rush for taxis. It was a classic case of, “Was Rita in your cab?” “No…we thought she was in your cab. Maybe she was in Andy’s cab….?” “Andy was Rita in your cab? No? Oh fuck.” Time was a bit tight, particularly as everything Andy Brown San said or did had to be translated into Japanese and relayed to three different groups of people.

We managed to cover everything, but things felt fraught. Adding to the pressure was the unusual concert time of 6:30pm, which meant we hadn’t long between the rehearsal and the gig. As we got changed, crammed sushi into our mouths (supplied by generous Shin-ji) and put make up on, I hit the afore mentioned wall. I could tell it was bad. At several points I’d come to and find myself putting on a tenth layer of red lipstick, with no recollection of when or how I’d started. I was exhausted. I panicked about how I’d get through the concert, and I wasn’t the only one. Kirsty, (joilet water victim, fellow Raven and friend since I was 10) was in a bad way as well, I could tell. Our eyes met in the dressing room mirror. “I’ve hit a wall”, I slurred desperately. There was no reply. Her gaze slowly lowered and fell on my lipstick. “Do I look like a clown?” I gasped.
“What?” She was confused. “Oh Christ, I fell asleep with my eyes open again.”

This did not bode well. In the wings, I prayed for some adrenaline to keep me awake. Usually I pray for all my adrenaline to be removed, lest I hyperventilate like a crazy person on stage. On this occasion, I genuinely feared dropping off, which was an entirely new sensation.

Amazingly, the concert went well. At one point during the last piece, I looked up from my music and into centre stage. There were drummers chanting and singing down both sides of the stage, which when flanked by the handsome boy banders, was LOUD. Deafening actually. To my right were 30 sword dancers, with the inexplicable pony tails, to my left four men dressed as tigers, dancing and fighting. The audience clapped along, thoroughly enjoying themselves. I was nearly impaled by the eye tooth of a massive, dancing tiger head when the surrealism of the situation hit home. I was so tired, I honestly wondered if I was in fact hallucinating. My music may as well have been written in sanskrit. If I closed my eyes, the ground moved, which for someone who hasn’t had a drink in years, is a disconcerting sensation. It was not entirely unpleasant. That night, after the concert, when everyone else was at dinner, I slept and slept, like I was in a coma.

5. Overwrought in Otsuchi

The next morning, we rose early, ate another strange Japanese breakfast and boarded a bus to Otsuchi, which we’d be told was worse than Sendai, tsunami damage wise. We’d been spoilt by the bullet trains on the previous mornings. They were so fast, clean and spacious, the idea of getting a bus and driving under 300 mph seemed positively medieval in comparison. Faced with the prospect of a five hour long bus journey, I asked Chinami out tour manager what the deal was. “Well,” she explained kindly, “the train station in Otsuchi was destroyed in the flood, along with most of the town.” That shut me up. I CRINGED at myself. Even in the face of such a massive catastrophe, the Japanese people we met never moaned or spoke with any self pity, even those who had lost literally everything. I however, when challenged, could turn complaining into an olympic sport. I vowed then and there to try never to moan again. I think I lasted about eighteen minutes.

In actual fact, that drive took us through the most ludicrously beautiful scenery I’d ever experienced. Lush green mountains, deep valleys with waterfalls and epic bridges, rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see, houses with curved roofs, and mystical forestry and woodland dotting the landscape….I’d never seen the likes. It was pissing with rain and grey skies too, but it was still breathtaking. Every so often someone said “Look!” and we’d all look out the window and gasp at mountain passes with 80 ft drops. Then we’d idiotically try and take pictures, and our cameras would focus on the rain-sodden window betwixt us and the scenery we were trying to capture. We were so high up, we drove through clouds at some points. I felt a long way from where I was reared (Stockport).

Amongst our band of merry men was a flautist by the name of Masato Okubo. Unbeknownst to us, he lived in Otsuchi with his wife and baby. He had watched his entire community be washed away and worse still, he’d lost his father. We’d been performing next to him every night and we hadn’t known until we arrived in Otsuchi. On our arrival (following a brilliant bowl of salmon and rice in a makeshift tent that doubled as a cafe) he showed us around his ravaged home town. Even in the rain, with the houses washed away, destroyed buildings, mountains of rubble and portacabins housing the population, the natural beauty of Otsuchi was still prevalent. There was an unsettling quietness to the place though, the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town. A member of our team had visited Otsuchi in June ‘11, when the clean up operation was in its infancy. He said the only thing he can remember about the visit is the horrific smell of death and decay. He said it was so unbearable, the stench alone sent people crazy. When I heard this, it was the first time the I’d considered the practical horror of the tsunami, as if the grief hadn’t been bad enough.

If you have a minute or two, take a look at these amazing photographs of the clean up operation after the tsunami, many of the most horrifying were taken in Otsuchi. Since our visit I’ve obsessively looked at photographs of the affected areas where we performed and these ones are the only ones that made me really aware of just how bad things were. (Unfortunately the site in question is called “Totally Cool Pix!” which seems a little glib considering the subject matter, but don’t let that put you off.)

Pictured below is Otsuchi’s former concert hall, inside and out.

We spent the next half an hour or so exploring Masato’s destroyed community. Eventually, following behind Masato under the cover of our clear plastic umbrellas, we ground to halt. He stepped up onto the concrete foundations of a house. Weeds grew through the cracks, bits of old crockery littered the floor. “Welcome to my home!” he said, smiling ironically. We were standing on the foundations of his house. He pointed out where his wife was sitting at the time, where the kitchen used to be, and where the hallways were. We were quiet. It seemed disrespectful to speak as we stood in the ruins of our colleague’s home. Nothing had survived in his town. Every house had been swept away, leaving only the foundations. The tall trees had blackened trunks from the fires that roared through the debris following the earthquake. There were memorials outside the now derelict town hall, which had been hosting an important meeting at the time of the first shudder, grimly depicted by a huge stopped clock on the crumbling facade. We walked a little bit down the road to a small hill within a residential area. On it sat an enormous bell that was rung by a local man in order to alert the community of the coming of the tsunami. He rung it and rung it, refusing to move, even when his fate became clear. He died at that spot. Only his boots and fire safety helmet remained. Joji said sadly, “No one knows why he did this. He just stayed.”

It was another day full of tears. We went to another school, which luckily was higher up in the hills and undamaged by the events of March 2011. Many of the students there were living in temporary accommodation, but they were still so pleased to see us. They were a bit older than the children we met in Sendai and had been looking forward to our visit for some time. The girls at the school performed for us and their parents, who smiled proudly throughout. First up was the wind band, who flawlessly played “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, Life Goes On” by the Beatles, note perfect, in tune, in time, as if they were gigging session players. When they started, our jaws dropped open. It was actually funny how perfect it sounded, considering the girls were 13 years old and wearing school uniforms. The jaunty nature of that song just added to the pathos… to these children the idea of “life going on” was unbearably moving. I was a gibbering, lip quivering wreck. Just when I thought I couldn’t hold it together, the brass band began to play a theme tune from a well known Japanese cartoon, complete with singers and dancers at the front, who had painstakingly learnt their moves and lines so they were perfect. In part one I mentioned Chiaki, who’d lived in California and claimed to have a 21 year old son, despite looking 21 herself. We all developed a crush on her. She met us in Otsuchi, having travelled from Kitakami for the express purpose of translating for us. She is an active fundraiser in the community and thought nothing of the five hour drive to come and help us converse properly with our hosts. She spoke for the students who thanked us for coming so far from home to see them. They said “it’s been very difficult here in Otsuchi, but we want to practise and practise so we can play the best we can.” Their determination and ridiculously high standard was utterly inspiring. By the time the twenty minute workshop was over, I looked like Alice Cooper. We gave the girls a standing ovation when they’d finished. Andy Brown-San was on the verge of telling them to join the diary service so he could book them on our return.

After the workshop the girls, who had each been assigned a member of our touring band and crew, presented us with collages they’d made for us. My name was written in the programme as Rachael Lnader, so that’s what my card said, but that just added to its charm. My little girl had written “Do your best from now on. It is aiding” which may have been a mistake in translation, but it felt like it was meant for me.

Below is a picture taken by Jamie of Andy Brown San and Chiaki addressing the students from the stage.

That night we stayed in Namiita Koryu Centre, which was used as an evacuation centre during the floods and fires. We’d bought supplies (namely booze, in my case crisps- pickled seaweed flavour) as we knew we were going straight there after the concert. It was pouring rain outside, which added to the whole mountain lodge feel of the place. We trundled up the hill in a minibus, expecting the worst. We’d been warned that it was “very basic” and I was imagining some steel and granite sports hall with holes in the ground for Joilets. (see part 1.) I’d forgotten that we were in Japan, even the most basic things there are designed better. (To prove this point, in Japanese Starbucks - yes, I drank Starbucks, I think green tea is HORRIBLE. There. I’ve said it - have tiny stoppers that double as stirrers that slots in the lip of the takeaway cup, to prevent leakage. A tiny detail, that means you can carry a coffee, a wheely suitcase, a cello and a handbag at the same time without spilling it. Don’t get me started on the showers.) We arrived at a wooden community hall that was really cosy. Bamboo matting on the floor cushioned our slippered feet. Smart shelving units on the walls contained hundreds of soft and fluffy sheets and blankets, stacked up in inviting piles. All the girls were in one room, boys were in the other. We slept next to each other on rows of small mattresses, covered in the fluffy blankets, but not before eating trays of locally supplied sushi.

[A quick aside here: one of the most touching moments of the tour for me occurred at the evacuation centre. At one point there was an idea that Raven would play something in the main hall of the evacuation centre as a kind of goodwill gesture to our hosts. They had been such fantastic hosts, it was the only thing we could think of that might show our gratitude. My cello was on the van, travelling to Fukushima, so I asked my lovely Japanese desk partner, Ryoka, if she’d mind me playing hers. Ryoka and I bonded over the course of the week, she had great English and translated for me often. She was always smiling, never complained, and I relied on her totally in the concerts as there were only two cellos. Also she had a cheeky sense of humour that had just started to come out towards the end of the tour. In the evacuation centre I said “Ryoka? Would you mind if I played your cello? I’m really sorry to ask, but mine’s on the van.”
“Of course not!” she said, handing it straight over. As I thanked her, she shrugged and said, “It’s not a problem,” she said. “I love you.” At that very moment I thought, I hope Mr C likes noodles for breakfast, because we’re moving to Japan.]

That night we stayed up far later than we should. We had to get up at 5 am for an 8 hour bus journey to Fukushima the following morning, but the high emotion of the day meant everyone felt like letting their hair down. The girls sat illegally in the boys room, drinking and eating crisps. It felt like band camp. Martin, the handsome Swede was in particularly fine form. He’d hit “the wall” on the bus up to the centre but had been rejuvenated with sushi and red wine. He announced to the room at large that as I was getting married, this night in the evacuation centre was to be my hen do, and demanded we have a toast in my honour. He made everyone laugh so much that we kept getting told off by the proprietor for making too much noise, which of course just fuelled the fire. We regressed a few years that evening, sneaking cigarettes and wearing mismatched Japanese slippers. It was fun. Ill advised fun. It dawned on everyone that we’d have to be up in 2 and half hours so we crawled between the more sensible already sleeping bodies and got forty winks. The boys had it tough though. They were tortured all night with the sound of the crickets, and several drunk men who shall remain nameless who snored raucously all night. Chris, (tall viola player) was compelled to employ a recording device to document the sheer volume of snoring. When he played it us the next day, I thought it was a buzz saw. The next morning Kirsty rose early to take advantage of the massive bath, and found Martin asleep in the corridor. He’d fled the boys’ room in the middle of the night to try to desperately get some shut-eye, away from the cacophony.

After an epic journey to Fukushima, another schools concert and a bus trip back to Tokyo for midnight sushi in Ropponghi (I bailed on this. I had to go to bed, I was seeing stars) it was time to fly back home to England.

When we got back, we found ourselves working together again immediately in various capacities, jetlagged and disorientated. We greeted each other by comparing sleepless nights and odd bodily symptoms, as if we’d never left.

It felt like we experienced a years worth of stuff in a week, if that makes sense. Writing this post and remembering all the people we met, the decimation, the sadness, but the humble generosity and the quiet determination of the people there to rebuild their country has made me feel really lucky to have seen it with my own eyes. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.