Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mount Fuji and the US Bases in Japan

TOKYO. Today was the heart of the O-Bon summer holidays in Japan -- that time of the year when Japanese return to their hometowns, take a break from work, visit cemeteries and remember the end of the war. For most, it's just a chance to take a vacation and escape the oppressive heat of the cities and head somewhere cool.

But for a few nationalistic Japanese, such as the three big black buses full of burly-looking men in black shirts and crewcuts that sped down the highway as I drove back to Tokyo from Mount Fuji today, it's a day for remembering the war and the war dead. If you've been in Japan long enough, you'll have bumped into one of these oppressive-looking black trucks, jeeps or buses with images of the Japanese flag (and in fact war-time versions of the Japanese flag) and really scary kanji written on the sides. These are the paraphernalia of the ultra-rightist groups of Japan. You can't miss them because not only do they stand out in their all-black designs, but they're also incredibly loud. They have speakers attached that blare out militaristic music and angry messages as they drive from place to place. Well, today was one of those days this black army were in full action.

Black armies running around Japan notwithstanding, it was a fairly peaceful and interesting weekend that began with dinner at our favorite restaurant in the water village of Oshino at the foot of Mount Fuji, run by a talented young chef who relies solely on word of mouth to publicize his very good cooking. The restaurant is basically run out of his home, as he lives on the second floor, with a counter for regular guests and several private tatami rooms for groups. I like to eat here whenever I'm in Japan as the food is great, the prices are very reasonable, and the chef never runs out of interesting conversation topics -- or interesting customers, for that matter! Japanese prime ministers, top sumo wrestlers and even the famous wine critic Robert Parker have all had dinner here at some time or another. That night, it was a full house with so many Tokyo people vacationing in Mount Fuji for O-Bon holidays and this little place, with no signs or publicity, was teeming with famous personalities all there for a good dinner.

An opera singer and a glass of Margaux

We sat at our regular place at the counter for six, and next to us was one of Japan's most famous opera singers. "I studied in Waseda University, and then went on to musical studies in Vienna and in Rome," he told us. "Afterwards, I lived in Cologne for seven years. I've sung so many different opera parts but my favorite singing part is still the lead of (the Russian opera) Boris Godunov."

When we were halfway through our wonderful sukiyaki dinner, two glasses of 1983 Margaux were set before us -- sent over by an art dealer who opened Japan's only teddy bear museum as a hobby and who boasts of one of the most incredible wine cellars in this part of the world. We didn't know then what the wine he sent over was, but when we heard from the chef that he had sent it over, we could only guess that it was a very good wine. True to form, it was incredibly smooth, velvety and yet complex. It had none of the stumbles or waves of more excitable New World wines. Later on, the chef told us it was a 1983 Margaux.

"This is so smooth, it's almost like drinking water," I told the chef. He then teased me, "This is a Margaux we're talking about. If this is like drinking water to you, then you must be a very serious drinker."

Then, we were enjoying dessert and playing around with the chef's new iPad -- which was so cool I decided then and there to buy one -- when someone announced rather reverently that a "Mr. XXX was leaving." Being regulars in this restaurant, we knew of course who Mr XXX was -- one of Japan's richest and most hardworking men, who lives simply and frugally. He lives in Tokyo but he spends his weekends in Mount Fuji. In spite of his uncountable wealth and in spite of having many of the world's who's who on his mobile phone directory, he still enjoys nothing better than to interact with ordinary people as just another villager here.

Mr. XXX sometimes rings us up just to have cold soba at his favorite soba restaurant in these parts, which is run out of a rather messy and dilapidated home high up in the mountains by a surly old man -- that's another story in itself, by the way. And he and his wife have also often accompanied us to buy corn and tofu at his regular vendors' farms nearby.

Mr. XXX has two lovely weekend homes in Mount Fuji - one of them has a long viewing terrace running the entire length of the house and a sauna with a picture window overlooking Japan's favorite mountain - and he eats at this restaurant practically every weekend. A picture of firm frugality even after having bought out a global firm with his personal fortune, he and his wife almost always order the cheapest dinner set (3,800 yen) each time and share this between them so that they basically each have a dinner costing only 1,900 yen -- making it probably the cheapest top-quality kaiseki dinner in the world.

We got up from the counter to greet them at the doorway. When we reached the restaurant entrance, he was sitting on a bench putting on his shoes (they'd had dinner in one of the private tatami mat rooms, where one needs to take off shoes).

"We haven't seen you in a while," he said to us, by way of greeting. "Our vegetable garden is growing fast -- just walk over and pick any vegetable you want. The crops are especially good this year."

His wife then came up to us and pressed us to partake of her vegetables as well. "Sometimes our driver forgets to bring around some vegetables, so please just go and take some home," she said.

One of Mr XXX's houses is just behind ours, and he and his wife tend an organic vegetable garden here. In this little community in at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, everyone's a villager. Titles, fortunes and fame are left behind in Tokyo -- even just for the weekend.

Protesting the US Bases in Japan

Back in Tokyo, we proceeded to the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Yurakucho to watch a preview of an independent film made by Linda Hoaglund, an American woman who grew up in Kobe, entered Yale University on a full scholarship at 16, and who had until recently spent a lot of time translating all the Akira Kurosawa films into English. Apparently, the Kurosawa films were first subtitled into English by British translators so the English was a little different from the more widely-used American English.

After having worked quite closely with the film industry, she'd woken up one day and decided that she too wanted to become a film maker. We watched her second effort -- an 80-minute documentary called ANPO on the 1960s resistance in Japan to the US bases -- which was very well-made and interesting. It featured interviews with famous Japanese artists and performers recalling how they protested the opening of the US bases in Japan in the 1960s, and also showed the artworks they had done during this period. The Japanese have a love-hate relationship with the US and the subject of US bases in any country is complex and full of controversy -- so Linda firmly stayed away from this by saying, "This film doesn't attempt to answer any questions." Still, it was obvious from the way the movie had been made just where her sentiments lay. ANPO will show in moviehouses in Japan from September 18, and Linda's just been invited to show this film at the Toronto Film Festival this September.


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