Ode to Joilets (Part One)

I am meant to write Strungout once a week. It’s been about a month since I last wrote, which according to the “how to be the best/most read blogger” blogs I have been reading, is a cardinal blogging sin. I have a good excuse though, sort of. I went on a very intense tour of Japan, and then got back and worked like a dog. The last few weeks have also been occupied by my impending nuptials (6 days to go until I am officially off the shelf.) In short, I’ve been knackered, barely capable of conversation, let alone writing down sentences.

The intense tour in question was an 8 day trip to Japan with a reduced contingent of the London Metropolitan Orchestra. 11 string players flew out to Tokyo to play with Japanese multi-instrumentalist and all round cool dude Joji Hirota on the BEYOND THE REQUIEM TOUR. Joji lives in London and he sings, he raps, he’s an incredible Taiko drummer, composer and flautist. The tour was a charity one and the objective was to try and provide some form of musical comfort to the communities of Tohoku, one of the worst affected areas of Japan by the tsunami of March 2011. We took it on knowing that it would be emotional, intense and difficult in places. This sounds a bit dramatic but it felt even as I was there, like a life changing week. There is so much to tell you that this entry is a part one of a two parter.


ANDY BROWN: Conductor LMO. Also, tour camera man. He filmed footage of the entire tour. (soon after his arrival in Japan, he was known as Andy Brown-San, meaning “honorable, respected, Andy Brown.” Charmingly the Japanese attach a complimentary adjunct to everyone’s name, whether it’s san, or chan, meaning “friend”. Andy Brown-San stuck for the entire tour, much to his amusement.)

RAVEN: My quartet. All four of us. (If your memory needs refreshing read this.)
RITA: Irish leader of LMO. Tour dispenser of plasters, paracetamol and in extreme cases, Night Nurse.
MARTIN: Swedish, devilishly handsome violinist. Frighteningly good at speaking Japanese.
JAMIE: Welsh, sunny natured violinist. Despite her tiny frame, managed to eat 45 bowls of soba noodles in 1 sitting. (They were small bowls, but still.)
ANDY M: Double bassist. Can normally be found in the pit, not mining, but playing in Les Miserables in the West End. Strawberry blonde.
IAN: Violinist, seasoned traveller to Japan. Despite this, we lost him at Ikebukuro bullet train station. Luckily we retrieved him an hour or so later.
CHRIS: Viola player, remarkably tall, softly spoken. He too had an ill fated bullet train journey. Stood in the coffee queue at our destination, he suddenly went green and said quietly, “I left my phone and wallet on the train. I might be sick.” As we were in Japan, he got them back two days later, untouched. Clearly, this would never happen in England.

This a picture courtesy of aforementioned Jamie, of the whole band, and our new friends, who were traditional dancers with swords and crazy vertical ponytails.


1. Joilet-Gate

Picture if you can, 11 knackered musicians stumbling blindly through Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Some of us hadn’t slept for over 24 hours as our flight from Heathrow was so hideously early, alarm clock paranoia had ruined our night’s sleep at home. I’ll be honest, gin and tonics had featured largely during the flight, so some were more bleary eyed than others. I for one, being a) stone-cold sober b) an uncomfortable flier, did not manage a wink of sleep on the plane. I felt and no doubt looked like a character from Dawn of the Dead as I lugged Mr A Cello and my brand new purple suitcase through the concourse at Narita. It was 7am and balmy, the sun shone aggressively through the eerily quiet airport. Whilst waiting for our transfer, the female travellers visited the swanky, unfeasibly clean ladies loos. Using a Japanese toilet is often a high tech affair. Some boast sound effect buttons, automatic seat warmers, multi strength bidet jets and even a hot air dispenser. For your arse.

As I struggled to find the “flush” button and longed for a good old fashioned chamber pot, I heard Kirsty (fellow Raven, you remember) scream from the adjacent cubicle. “What the f……AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!” she shouted, uncharacteristically loudly. “Oh my GOD!!!” She clattered out of the cubicle, doubled over with hysteria. Disconcertingly, the front sections of her hair were sopping wet. Fuzzy with jetlag, she’d underestimated the power and angle of the bidet jet. She may have even turned to check it was working, before it unleashed hell, spraying her shiny blonde hair with Joilet water. I’m sorry to say that I was too busy crying with laughter to administer the appropriate sympathy. It was especially funny that this had happened to Kirsty, who is by her own admission, a clean freak. She rarely goes a day without washing her hair and smells permanently of freshly cut flowers. “My hair’s full of TOILET WATER!” she sobbed, hysterically.

This calamitous lavatory visit was only the beginning. In Japan, the toilets are either as technologically enhanced as a spaceship, or scarcely more than a hole in the ground.

No one could work out how to use the latter without soiling themselves or their clothes. At one point in a desperate bid for protection against their own excrement, an LMO member who shall remain nameless took off their trousers to do their business, but regrettably failed to monitor the whereabouts of their trouser leg during the awkward squatting process. The poor bastard spent the rest of the day with a urine soaked trouser cuff, only to stop at another toilet a few miles down the road that cockily played music and asked their undercarriage how its day was in Japanese.

2. Devastation in Sendai

A couple of days in, we were starting to feel less psychotic with jetlag, we were acclimatising despite the differences in time zones, climate and food. We travelled on the bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai, in a journey so spacious, efficient and comfortable that it made British commuter trains look like something from the Flintstones.

That morning had been a bit chaotic: we’d lost Ian at the station, we’d lost Chris’s belongings on the train, we’d spent the journey sniggering at the on-train magazine, which featured a catalogue of the oddest items you have ever seen. (Arm hair trimmers, anti wee drip pants, t shirts with under arm padding to prevent sweat stains, stacked platform shoes for men….each item helpfully illustrated with wacky cartoons.) We’d done two well received concerts in Tokyo the day before despite monumental jetlag. The management of our hotel were in the audience and were so moved by the performance that they threw an impromptu party for us afterwards. We sat at long tables outside eating mountains of sushi in the humid Tokyo night air. Much sake was taken, spirits were high. We stayed up far later than necessary, but the next morning we were chipper. It was a rowdy LMO that boarded the minibus at Sendai station. We were silenced about 20 minutes later, when the tour producer Aisuke, the tour took the microphone and explained that were about to enter the area of Sendai (pictured below) that had been devastated by the Tsunami of March 2011.

We passed under a railway bridge that had acted as a dam against the great wave, forming a defined border between normality and devastation. As we crossed it, a hush fell over the bus. As the sea twinkled benignly on the horizon, Aisuke described over the microphone how and where the wave had hit. All that was left of the residential community were the stone foundations of the houses. It was hard to imagine that any inhabitants had ever existed, such was the decimation. The clean up operation in Sendai had been heroic, there were only remnants of debris and it was a struggle to envisage the height and power of the wave that had destroyed the community. Until we reached our destination, Arahama Elementary School.

Arahama was formerly the closest school to the coast. During the flood, the local residents were evacuated there due to its height and relative safety.

It was still standing, just, but the pupils had been transferred to a nearby elementary school inland. We were the first to go inside it since the Tsunami, apart from the officials dealing with the cleanup. The headmaster met us from the bus, and took us inside.

It is difficult to describe what we saw in words, not least because we saw so much, I could write a book. I have never been in a natural disaster, or watched my community be swept away by a force of nature, so I won’t pretend I can relate to the pain of the affected communities. What those people must have seen is unimaginable to me, like something out of an apocalyptic movie. The grief we encountered from the people of the devastated towns we visited was unfathomable, etched on the faces of the older towns folk, behind the eyes of the children we met, in the voices of the teachers and translators that spoke to us. We only saw a glimmer of the sheer horror of the aftermath, and we were emotional wrecks. As we walked around the classrooms of the gutted Arahama, everything we saw had an unbearable poignancy. The tiny chairs and desks, with cut up tennis balls covering the ends of the chair legs to prevent scraping the floor, the little hooks on the walls with the childrens’ names on them, the artwork hanging from the noticeboards, broken musical instruments in piles of debris. On the chalkboards were not sums or spelling tests, but lists of names of people that had been found alive, evacuated to the school for safety.

Curtains lay on the classroom floor, next to sacks of rice, which served as warmth and sustenance for the scores of people waiting out the disaster. The headmaster took us around the school, telling us what had happened in each room, Aisuke translated for us. None of us spoke, a few of us cried. When the earthquake hit, most of the children had gone home, and incredibly, all but one survived. The headmaster then went on to say that later on we would meet his pupils, one of whom had lost his entire family as they had been swept away. At this point Aisuke stopped translating and walked away from us. I heard him sob from the other side of the courtyard. Chinami, his assistant and our long suffering tour manager took over.

We explored for about 40 minutes, walking through the carnage, navigating the debris. As we ducked our heads under detritus hanging from the ceiling, it occurred to me that if we’d been in England, we’d never have been allowed in a derelict building without hard hats and watching a 45 minute health and safety video. In Sendai our Japanese chaperones were keen that we experience as closely as possible the kind of horror that our audiences, particularly the children, had lived through. I felt oddly priviledged to see it all up close. In the school concert hall, now a shell of its former self, the stopped clock on the wall read 3.50pm, the dreadful moment when the wave hit. Beneath it was a perfect straight line where the white walls had been jaundiced by the height of the wave.

It was spookily quiet, apart from the sound of the sea a few metres down. The sun shone on the water, the long pine trees leaned back in the wind. There was a sense of calm. It seemed ludicrous to envisage that same sparkly postcard esque sea roaring over the pine trees and washing away an entire community, leaving nothing but stone foundations, rusting cars and dead bodies in its wake.

We were driven to Higashi Miyagino Elementary school ten minutes down the road, where we were due to give a children’s workshop. The last thing I felt like doing was playing the cello after what we’d just seen. To be frank, in the face of such apocalyptic horror, performing a musical workshop for these poor Japanese kids (renamed Jinfants, Joddlers or Jabies from the day we arrived) felt a bit like polishing the ashtrays on the Titanic.

We walked in, deposited our shoes (Japanese custom: shoes are unpopular on carpeted areas and in bathrooms) slipped on some green plastic grandad slippers (clammy, awful) and awkwardly flip-flopped into the main hall with our instruments. The whole school was already in there, waiting for us, singing in perfect unison, “Do-a-Dear” from the Sound of Music in Japanese.

They were so small, so perfectly angelic, and so pleased to see us, as we lumbered through carting our gear in our weird slippers, at least five of us cried. (I was one of them. Jinfants singing and smiling in the face of trauma is enough to melt even my cynical Northern heart. It was inspirational actually. On a more shallow note, Japanese kids are SO cool. They have trendy haircuts, fashionable outfits and a lovely nature. I was moments from smuggling one into my cello case.)

We performed for them, with Joji, who played his flutes and sang his heart out. He was in bits for much of the performance, especially when the children sang their school songs for us in return. Natalie (fellow Raven) had arranged Do-a-Dear for the LMO so we could play along with the little ones, which went down like a house on fire.

I had been wrong about the ashtray polishing. It clearly meant the world to the children and the teachers (Jedagogues) that we had flown across the world to play to them. The smallest child from Arahama school with a Beatles haircut and a furrowed brow shyly shuffled forward and presented Andy Brown San with a bouquet of flowers, amid speeches of thanks from the school headmaster. In turn Andy Brown San gave his baton to a little girl who was doing impressions of him….she was jumping around and waving her arms about, giggling, just as you’d imagine a well adjusted six year old girl would do. God only knows what she’d gone through already in her short life.

3. Tears in Morioka

Morioka was my personal tour highlight. It was easily my favourite place, I think we did our best gig there too. It was our first non-city gig, and the ethos of the place was more relaxed than Tokyo or Sendai. Also the Japanese contingent of our band of minstrels knew the people of Morioka, and they were the best hosts EVER. The 24 hours we spent in the town was so jam packed full of fascinating Japanese culture and tradition, none of us wanted to leave. Our guides made us feel like we had a backstage pass to the whole town. We drummed with Taiko drummers, we ate soba noodles in a traditional Japanese restaurant served by waitresses in kimonos, we performed barefoot in a Shinto shrine, (we had a spiritual induction first, naturally) we watched beautiful Japanese children perform in mini kimonos, we stroked huge rabbits and guinea pigs in the square, I even managed a siesta, which when dizzy with jetlag, is like nirvana. Late in the evening, we found ourselves in a Japanese jazz bar, spending our per diems on drinks. It was one of those days as a musician when you think “I cannot believe I am getting paid to do this. I am so lucky.” (These days are rarer than you may imagine.)

As I’ve previously mentioned, I am occasionally a neurotic scaredy cat, at my most challenged when performing (which given my profession can be a bit limiting.) However, there was something about the shrine in Morioka…..it may have been playing barefoot, it may have been all the talk of the 800 gods of nature that exist in Shinto religion, or the high Joddler contingent…who knows? I had the most relaxed concert I’ve had in a long time. The shrine is built from wood and painted red, and because Andy Brown-San had chosen this performance to film for the tour recording, there were warm lights and cameras everywhere. It was a bit like a performance in a uterus. Maybe that’s why I was so relaxed. Even the acoustics were womby….the wooden floors and walls meant that you could hear more than normal, which technically I’m sure isn’t ideal, but I liked it. I was sad when the concert ended, which is not a feeling I’m familiar with.

As we were packing up, Chinami, our tour manager informed us that there was some food for us in a back room of the shrine. We were starving, and excitedly envisaged a room with a tray of sushi that we’d wolf down before commencing the nightly search for a decent bar in the locality.

What we were met with was a veritable banquet. As we ambled in, barefoot (the day in the shrine was a largely shoeless day), the town mayor and many others stood up and clapped as we took our seats. There was a speech given and translated by Chinyaki (more about her later: she used to live in California and she was GORGEOUS) about what we’d brought to the community by travelling to Morioka and performing. The people there were genuinely so grateful to us and Joji for our concert, they had spent hours preparing an incredible meal for us. Then we were invited to eat. There were long tables laden down with sushi, rice and less traditionally, mashed potato. (Maybe in our English honour. There were also inexplicable croissants. It was an eclectic selection.) Beautiful bottles of sake were brought out and we ate and drank until we were full. And a bit pissed, in some cases. Just when we were starting to make our way back to the hotel, Chinyaki came over to the table and said that there was a young lady present who wanted to sing us a song. She was a folk singer who hadn’t sung a note since the tsunami, which tragically killed both her parents and many of her friends. A few moments later, the lady in question, who isn’t much older than me, took the microphone and stood at the top of the room. She was tiny, and had a really expressive face and cropped haircut. Chinyaki explained that she was about to sing a sad song traditionally sung by the wives of fishermen, yearning for their men to come back and fearing for their safety. When the lady in question started to sing, I heard someone gasp in astonishment, such was the intensity of her voice. It was the first time I’d heard Japanese folk singing and the style is technically really complicated, involving loads of vocal trills and ornamentation, which was impressive in itself, but it was the rawness and keening quality in her voice that had every single one of us in tears before she’d finished the first verse. She was incredible, and not just because of the horrors she’d experienced. At the risk of sounding like a Radio One disc jockey, she smashed it. I’ve seen loads of fantastic singing and am moved to tears by music all the time, but this was like a spiritual experience (I imagine). When she finally finished and we could all draw breath, she made a speech in broken English through her tears about moving on with her life and thanking us for our performance, because it had given her the courage to sing again. I think this is what she said; I didn’t really hear too well because I was trying to stop myself wailing like a banshee. It was funny, the LMO were sat around this round table and after she’d finished, I turned to look round and every single person at the table was in tears. I don’t mean that in the subtly misty eyed sense either. I’m talking red puffy faces, embarrassing snot, sobbing, the works. (Apart from strawberry blonde Andy Marshall-San, who looked relatively normal. I think I said something along the lines of “Have you a heart of STONE? Where are your tears?” He said “I’ve blinked them away. About 4000 times.” His weeping management was just superior to the rest of us.)

It was only day four of the tour but I was falling in love with Japan. The more people we met, the more I knew I was going to be sad to leave, even if the schedule was gruelling. (It was. I’m only just starting to normal out, relatively speaking.)

I’m going to leave it there, because a) I read recently that writing long blog entries alienates your audience (which means I am basically fucked, as my posts are rarely under 3000 words) and b) I have to at least attempt to beautify myself for my wedding, and let’s face it, that won’t be a quick process. Janecdotes 4 and 5 will be winging their way to you from NY.