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World-renowned British economics magazine,
The Economist, which covers everything
from the political economy to the arts,
presents Tokyo as a city where modernity
and traditions coexist.
The magazine offers a unique perspective
that is sure to astound even Japanese readers.
ENTERTAINMENT - Modern / Buzz
Jazz holds a unique position in Japan. Unlike pop or even Japanese enka, you don’t tend to see much of it on TV—not even on the annual New Year’s Eve “Red and White” singing contest on NHK, which is the largest televised music event of the year. You rarely see advertisements on the train for jazz albums or concerts either. Yet jazz is there, just under the surface, fueled by an army of aficionadas as obsessed with their music as any young otaku is with his or her anime and manga.
“in the 1920s, with Japan openly accepting Western influences, jazz gained a foothold in the country, especially in Osaka, where the nation’s first jazz club opened in 1933.”
It may seem odd that a style of music born in New Orleans, which incorporates African rhythms and untethered self-expression with European melodies and instruments, found a home in Japan. That said, in the 1920s, with Japan openly accepting Western influences, jazz gained a foothold in the country, especially in Osaka, where the nation's first jazz club opened in 1933.
During the post-war occupation, the US military's presence and consumption of the music—coupled with the need to hire local musicians to perform jazz for and with the soldiers—helped to establish jazz even more deeply. And it's not just found in Osaka and Tokyo. If you have travelled around Japan, you'll know that jazz has made it everywhere. From Sapporo to Matsuyama, you'll find smoky jazz clubs and cafes packed with vinyl, cocktail bars with unrelenting Coltrane, Monk and Davis soundtracks and “live houses” that allow local jazz performers to express themselves on stage.
“Acclaimed author Haruki Murakami, who ran a jazz café in Tokyo long before he became a global literary giant, has written how the rhythm, melody and improvisation of jazz informed his approach to writing.”
Read up on why Japan loves jazz and you find all kinds of explanations. For performers and listeners, the freedom of the form—especially the improvisation—is possibly an escape from an otherwise rigid, heavily ordered society. Perhaps there's an intellectual attraction too, which could explain why jazz and literati so often seem to be bedfellows in Japan. Acclaimed author Haruki Murakami, who ran a jazz café in Tokyo long before he became a global literary giant, has written how the rhythm, melody and improvisation of jazz informed his approach to writing.
The how and why, however, isn't really all that important. Like listening to the music itself, you just need to relax and soak up the jazz scene. And, in Tokyo, you have as many varied options for that as a jazz guitar has unusual chord shapes.
At the larger end of the scale, the annual Tokyo Jazz Festival in September brings together almost 30 bands and artists from Japan and overseas, ranging from big band jazz to vocalists. At the high-end, there are clubs like the Tokyo branch of the Blue Note and the Cotton Club, both of which are regular stops for famous performers on world tours. Add to that the plush jazz nights frequently unfolding in the bars of the more exclusive hotels.
“the jazz scene is vibrant and diverse. And it has a wonderfully unexpected but very deep connection to Japan.”
Then there are the cooler, less polished surrounds of smoky clubs like the Pit Inn, where mainstream jazz is the focus, or less central hangouts such as Sometimes in Kichijoji—an area with long established jazz roots—which sees everything from the avant-garde to emerging traditionally focused talent. Like the clubs themselves, the jazz scene is vibrant and diverse. And it has a wonderfully unexpected but very deep connection to Japan.
ENTERTAINMENT - Tradition / Zen
Packed with vitamin C and anti-oxidants, green tea has rapidly grown in popularity in the West to become the caffeine of choice for the health conscious. Cynics may say it’s the 21st-century answer to detoxifying medieval leeches. But in Japan, things are a little different.
“The earliest styles of whisking powdered green tea (matcha) were introduced to Japan by monks in the 12th century. First employed in Buddhist rituals… then grew in popularity among the ruling elite”
A tradition with a long history, tea drinking was first documented in Japan in the 9th century, after Japanese Buddhist monks brought back leaves from their travels to China. Likewise, the earliest styles of whisking powdered green tea (matcha) were introduced to Japan by monks in the 12th century. First employed in Buddhist rituals, Japanese tea culture—the ceremony, the delicate utensils, the spaces—then grew in popularity among the ruling elite as an art form and a way of entertaining. The “way of tea”, as chado or chanoyu is sometimes translated, was born, and centuries on it’s still very much alive.
Tokyo may look modern on its surface, but as a city still firmly connected to tradition it offers no shortage of ways and places to learn about tea culture. In terms of a one-stop education on tea aesthetics though, it has to be the Nezu Museum in Aoyama, just a short stroll from the contemporary areas of Omotesando and Harajuku.
Founded in 1941 in the former residence of famous Japanese industrialist and chado practitioner, Nezu Kaichiro (1860-1940), the Nezu Museum houses a 7,400-piece private collection of pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art. Mostly curated during Kaichiro’s lifetime, the collection spans painting, calligraphy, sculpture, metalwork, ceramics, lacquerware, wooden and bamboo craft, textiles, and armor, but most notably focuses on tea ware. Away from the collection itself, the vast landscaped garden also holds four small teahouses where one may reminisce the world of Kaichiro's tea ceremonies while taking in the carefully sculpted views of nature that are designed to change with the seasons.
“In terms of a one-stop education on tea aesthetics though, it has to be the Nezu Museum in Aoyama, just a short stroll from the contemporary areas of Omotesando and Harajuku.”
The teahouses at the Nezu Museum are often rented to veteran tea practitioners to host their own tea gatherings. But there are other places in Tokyo where visitors can experience a Japanese tea ceremony, in English, with the minimum of effort.
Take the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo’s most venerable Western-style establishment, and home to the Toko-An teahouse. Consisting of three ceremonial chambers, all designed by architect Togo Murano in the classic sukiya tearoom style, the rooms have tatami mat flooring, a tokonoma alcove in one corner that holds a calligraphic scroll and a small, square nijiriguchi doorway, which requires one to bend low and bow respectfully to enter. It could be thought of as a traditional leveler, but the doorway also serves to protect. Historically, the nijiriguchi made it physically impossible for anybody wearing a sword to enter, so a traditional katana—the sword worn by the samurai—would have to be left outside.
In addition to a nijiriguchi, the Toko-An’s main tea chamber also has a larger door to make it accessible to all, but that is the sole compromise with tradition here. Four and a half tatami mats in size, it’s an intimate space, just big enough for tea master Setsuko Tanaka, her tea-making utensils, and up to four guests.
“The whisking of the matcha that follows echoes around the tiny room. Each movement, from the turn of a bowl to the bows, is carefully choreographed.”
As guests kneel on the tatami, there is no vidle chit-chat, just silence as they await the performance like an audience waiting for a virtuoso’s first note. And once the ceremony starts, the tranquility amplifies each sound. When Tanaka sensei ladles a little hot water into the tea pot, the trickle reverberates like a cascade. The whisking of the matcha that follows echoes around the tiny room. Each movement, from the turn of a bowl to the bows, is carefully choreographed. In the room the senses are heightened, immersing you in the experience.
There can be tension, too. When the tea bowl is placed in front of a guest, there’s a sense of the professional letting the amateur take a solo for a few bars. After receiving the bowl and gently turning it two quarters clockwise, the guest sips the tea and finishes with an exaggerated inhalation of the final bits of froth, before carefully examining the tea bowl itself. Yet, there is something calming, almost meditative about the performance — it’s not about the anti-oxidants or even the tea itself. Chado goes far deeper than that.