The Telegraph
Sunday , November 18 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Disseminating the charms of Tokyo

Iím excited Iím finally going to visit Japan. I smile and return the bows of the cabin crew. I walk up the aisle sniffing the air as if the rows of seats are stands of Pacific pine on a Kyushu hillside. The aircraft fills up, mostly with returning Japanese tourists and we take off. Iím just beginning to enjoy the superior entertainment system when the plane turns back over Lucknow. As we land at Delhiís T-3 we are told the pilotís window has cracked. As we walk past them, each and every one of the cabin attendants constantly keeps apologizing, alternately in Japanese and English. One air-hostess is actually crying. I try to imagine an Indian air-hostess in her place and fail utterly. The chief manager of JAL is waiting for us in the luggage area ó to apologize. At the nice hotel in Vasant Kunj where they put us up, the man is still there the next morning, wearing the same suit, clearly not having slept much. Besides apologizing, the guy has been working on other stuff. Iím on the next eveningís flight to Tokyo.

Iíve been invited for two things by a Tokyo municipal government organization called the Tokyo Cultural Creation Project: first, a conference on how art can intervene in affected areas after a disaster, and then a week-long visitorsí programme during which a bunch of international invitees will meet and interact with local artists, curators and art administrators. M, the woman who has invited me, is waiting for me at the airport. She has come herself because of the problem with my flight. It has meant her waking up at 6 am to reach the airport by eight. Itís yet another apology. I try and imagine one of our top art bureaucrats or ICCR commandos doing this for a non-famous, artist-type visitor and, again, I canít.

The hotel is scary. There seem to be, literally, thousands of rooms in a narrow skyscraper. My room is tiny. It reminds me of a 1st AC coupe but with a view and an attached bathroom. I have to duck to get into the room and I have to duck yet again to get into the bathroom. Inside the loo is a seat a Japanese Yuri Gagarin might have had on his early spacecraft. There are buttons with various functions, some of them potentially quite dangerous, and it takes me a while to figure it out.

At the conference, all sorts of outlandish stuff are being discussed. How different artistsí groups got together to do work in Fukushima after the tsunami and reactor accident there. How the big Japanese private corporations have formed an association to support the arts during crises. What is the future of Japanese art in this context and how do young Japanese artists see it? How can we form a loose network of Asian nations to help each other out (arts-wise) during crises? What I have to contribute doesnít make for happy listening, especially to my own ears: in India we have a hard enough time getting basic aid to victims without worrying about how art can help; in India there is no question of trusting or involving the private corporations, many of whom are bent upon creating ecological disasters rather than providing an antidote to them.

After the sessions, Iím buried in visiting cards from local bureaucrats. The ceremony of card-giving is specific to the country and I feel like an idiot that Iíve never bothered to print a visiting card. Mr K, who runs one of Japanís biggest brewing companies, doesnít seem to mind ó he takes us to an unpretentious bar and restaurant (but one which only serves the brands of beer and whisky he makes) and I get my first experience of how the Japanese enjoy themselves. Food comes in small, delicious batches. Beer flows constantly. There are ashtrays (you mostly canít smoke outside in this inside-out country, but the smallest, narrowest cave of a joint will let you smoke indoors).

The next morning I check out of the hotel and into a larger, fancier one. Iím happy for the larger space but I miss the little brick-like pillow from the first hotel ó the moment Iíve laid my head down Iíve fallen dead asleep on something that feels very much like the mustard-seed pillows we have here for small babies. Dropping my bags off, I take off with M and another Swiss friend for Kamakura. The train has the atmosphere of the Sunday it is: people with babies, picnic baskets, young couples holding hands, everyone going beratey.

Kamakura is about an hour from Tokyo, on the Pacific Ocean. Our first stop is a temple in Nishi-Kamakura (north Kamakura). There, in the steeply terraced cemetery next to the temple we locate the grave of the great Japanese film-maker, Yasujiro Ozu (picture). I do my pranam. On the gravestone is inscribed the single character for ĎNothingí. Below, on the ledge of sparkling clean granite are a row of sake, plum wine and whisky bottles that people have left in respect to the hard-drinking maestroís memory. The old gent who tends the graveyard tells us they clear and throw away several bottles every month ó itís one of the rituals in the cemetery since Ozu died in the early 1960s. Another short train ride takes us into Kamakura proper and to the grave of an even better known film director. Akira Kurosawaís grave is in a busier cemetery with small bungalows nearby and audible traffic from the road. On his grave is a single ball of clear glass with a fake goldfish swimming inside. Again, pranams, and a brief moment of silence while remembering the great manís tracking shots.

On the beach, we wet our feet in the freezing Pacific breakers. A man in his late 50s or early 60s, clearly so drunk he can barely stand, approaches us. Around his neck he has an old-fashioned analogue camera and he wants to take a photograph. The three of us smile and agree. The man falls down as he focuses, then gets up again and snaps off a few shots. I canít tell whether thereís any film in the camera or if this is just his way of saying Ďhelloí.

Back in Tokyo I meet the others from my international visitors group, all of whom have just arrived. The German dramaturge and theorist CG and I are the oldest, with RZ, the percussionist from Singapore being the youngest at 27. In between is a motley crew of curators, festival organizer, art critic, dance critic and so on. As happens in these things, by the next evening we are like old friends, laughing, squabbling, forming and re-forming cliques, driving our hosts M and others slightly crazy.

That evening we do the two things the bureaucracy requires of us visitors. The first is to attend a slide lecture from a Tokyo government official, where she shows us how the city is still far behind other great metros in terms of its arts spending. While telling us this she also shows us how the spending will be going up as Tokyo makes a bid to host its second Olympic Games. Itís clear that there is a political agenda to the budget increase but itís equally clear that the politicians who run Japan and Tokyo will have little say in how the money is actually spent. The second event is a small function and party to welcome the visitors. This takes place on a high floor of the massive Metropolitan Government building. With the lights of this gargantuan city spreading below us, the officials stand up one by one and speak in glowing Japanese which is translated into English. One phrase keeps cropping up in all the (very brief) speeches. ďWe hope, we ask you, to please disseminate the charms of Tokyo!Ē As Mr Kís beer, sake and plum wine start to flow, we all lift our glasses and shout ďKampai!Ē At this point, I have no problems at all with disseminating the charms of this crazy, wonderful, slightly frightening megalopolis.