Work and Play

“What do you do?”

Ever since I’ve started doing this Japan freelance thing, this question has become a minefield.

There are two answers I give. 1) “I’m a harpist, who does some other stuff on too.” This answer gets some searching looks and questions to determine whether I’m a ‘legitimate musician’ by that person’s standards. Sometimes I pass the legit test (I have a music degree, I earn money with the harp), sometimes I fail (I don’t play in an orchestra, I have other jobs).

So I don’t like giving that answer because I don’t like facing this scrutiny in the first five minutes I meet a new person. But the other answer is… sort of insufferable.
“There are several things I do to make money and the proportion of my income they makes varies from month to month. These include playing the harp, music teaching, English teaching, modelling, English checking, writing and leading ‘English through Musical Theatre’ workshops. (Ok, the last one happened a grand total of twice but it was really fun, I want to do it more!)”
You see the problem? I’m not arrogant enough to think that a stranger wants to hear that much detail about my life.

People like to pigeon hole, I get it. Pigeon holing saves a lot of time. And there are people for whom things are very simple; they have a ‘profession’ such as doctor, lawyer, vet, teacher, and they go to work and then they go home. Good for them. But haven’t you noticed that, in our late capitalist dystopia, the boundaries are becoming blurred? Certain jobs are ceasing to exist, new ways of making money pop up, what was once secure and now predictable has become uncertain and random. What even is ‘work’ anyway?

Sometimes it seems there is almost an inverse correlation in how difficult a job is and how much I earn. One of the times I worked the hardest in my life was a year doing an internship in classical music PR and the pay was below minimum wage. Sometimes I feel guilty calling that position a ‘job’ because the pay was so low. But of course it was! I had responsibilities, I achieved things, I performed a service. I was a damn sight more productive than in many of the ‘real jobs’ I’ve had. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve played harp at wedding receptions for £50+ an hour and I feel like a sack of potatoes could do the job as long as we put it in a nice dress and sat it behind the harp. No one is listening, everyone is drunk and talking super loud. Sometimes I’m sure that I could just play scales and no one would care. I don’t of course, because I try to be professional, but chances are I would get away with it.

And it’s not just me. I have friends with well paid, respectable jobs who have admitted to me that on a normal 8.5 hour day they do about 3 hours of actual work. I’ve done temping in offices too and I’ve got so bored on occasion that I learned basic coding and a lot about the autonomous constituent country of Greenland. A friend started a translation job in Japan and spent a month being paid for absolutely nothing because his managers didn’t know what to do with him. The office had some manga hanging around of franchises they had translated for so he ended up being paid decent money for spending 3 weeks reading manga, which was encouraged by his employers because they felt bad for not giving him any work.

My point is that we all know that the links between productivity, skill and how much you earn is kind of bullshit. And yet, and yet if we can’t put our finger on someone’s ‘profession’ it makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes, if we can’t name a defined profession for ourselves, we get uncomfortable too. But I’m done with that.

I’m not much of a leftist but I studied some leftist thinkers at university and their thought is really useful to me in how I conduct my life. Why should the thing that earns us the most income be defined as our ‘profession?’ Ok, I’ll admit, I’m not earning the majority of my money from performing harp at the moment, but practicing, performing and networking still take up more of my time and passion than anything else so why not call myself a harpist? Capitalism tells me that I should want to make all of my money from my playing, and if I don’t I’m not a ‘real’ musician. Maybe that would be nice, and I haven’t turned down a paid gig yet but to be honest I’m not completely sure I would even want to be a 100% full time harpist. I’m a curious person with a broad skill set who enjoys variety in their life and my various income revenues allow me to life flexibly and comfortably. But still, sometimes I feel like society wants to make me feel like if I can’t pigeon hole myself as a 100% professional harpist, I’m a failure.

As much as the gig economy probably isn’t the best thing, I think while it’s here I might as well make it my bitch. At least for now. I’m not pretending that there may come a time when I want simplicity, security and simple tax returns. But for now, I’m loving life.

If you’re say, an oil painter, who’s never earned a quid for your art in your life, but you think lots about oil painting, you spend lots of time oil painting, and oil painting is what you love to do, then feel free do answer the “What do you do?” question with, “Oil painting” instead of your so-called “day job.” Whatever you want. And if you’re a lawyer and lawyering is your jam, and that is how you make your money, great! Call yourself a lawyer. Call yourself anything. Do what you want, I don’t care.

I actually think the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’ can be very harmful, especially for the creatives amongst us. I know so many people who loved playing their instruments when they were in secondary school when it was ‘just play.’ Usually high quality play, but still ‘just for fun.’ Then they go to music college to become ‘professionals’ and suddenly it’s serious business.  It’s now work not play so they’re feeling the heaviness and they lose all the joy they used to get from their art. And ironically enough, often their playing gets worse because performance anxiety, muscle tension, exhaustion and conservatoire bitching isn’t the best recipe for a great stage presence.

I’ve done some of my best playing and songwriting when I’ve been light and playful about it. Same goes for a my other work actually, especially my teaching. Children are playful by nature so when I get it into my head that ‘I am going to be THE BEST music teacher and deliver a HIGH QUALITY LESSON because these parents are PAYING A LOT for it,’ it usually doesn’t go down that well. But if I take the pressure of myself, stop worrying if I deserve what I’m getting paid and just get really enthused about my lesson plan and the kids then I can deliver like no one’s business.

The work and play distinction is also harmful because it gets the idea into our heads that work = something we should try hard at, and play = anything outside of work; we don’t need to put in any effort because it’s ‘free time.’ No! Have you seen children playing? Have you seen how seriously they take it? Take play seriously! If you enjoy something give it your time, your attention and your passion even if you’re not getting paid. Show up on time for your band rehearsal. Learn a language, even if that means you need to get up early to practice kanji for 15 minutes every morning. Go to football practice even if you’re tired. Throw fantastic themed parties even if it’s ‘effort’ to clean up your house and make a costume. Do whatever is your jam.  And you will make things of value, form friendships and create an identity outside of your ‘work.’

People who don’t take play seriously are often in danger of becoming the most boring, passive consumers. Of course, sometimes you’re working long ass hours and you really don’t have any time. And if your job is fulfilling you, all of you, great! But to be honest, most of my most successful friends (and this time, I mean ‘conventionally successful,’ not a ‘are you fulfilled’ definition by a dirty hippy like me), are the ones who take play most seriously. The doctor who who plays the oboe. The boy-wonder academic who still has time to paint. The executive who cooks amazing food from scratch every night. Maybe life’s winners aren’t the ones who are martyring themselves, working so hard, but those who are curious and take life lightly.

In the words of Mother Teresa,
“Life is a game. Play it.”

julia mascetti freelance harp

Hydrangeas at Odawara Castle

I really love hydrangeas, or あじさい (ajisai) in Japanese. June is the start of tsuyu, rainy season, where the beautiful weather of May turns to a rainy humid mess. It is probably the only month where Tokyo is wetter than London, as my British friends’ instagram posts are constantly reminding me. Ajisai are a wonderful consolation prize for the bad weather, and they’re certainly a symbol of June in Japan.

So I’m spending my weekends these days dragging my boyfriend on ajisai viewing trips because I’m that cool. There’s lots of spots you can see them in Tokyo itself but we fancied getting out of Tokyo last weekend so we looked up good hydrangea spots farther afield and decided to kill two birds with one stone and get some culture in by visiting Odawara castle.

Odawara Castle
Don’t be fooled this is not a cute pose, I’m just trying to stop my dress from blowing up and my hat from blowing away…

Odawara castle was originally built in the 1400s by the Omori clan, but like every old thing in Japan it’s been destroyed and rebuilt more than once so what we actually visited on Saturday was a reproduction built in 1960. Still cool though, as they’ve incorporated many stylistic features from the Edo period. ¥500 gets you into the castle itself but for a couple 100 extra you can go into the surrounding exhibitions too.

In the castle building there are exhibitions on the castle’s history over 3 floors, before you reach the tower with a view of Sagami Bay and Odawara town. The day we went was really windy so I had to be careful not to lose my hat at the top!

After exploring the castle we went to one of the side exhibitions which is about samurai and has lots of cool swords and armour. For a price you can be dressed up as a samurai but it was a bit hot for that on Saturday so we gave that a miss. There are some monkeys kept in a cage outside this exhibition and they are really cute but I have to say I thought their cage was a bit small and lacking in stimulation for them.

Then onto the flower gardens. As well as ajisai there were some beautiful wisteria. As this was a sunny Saturday in June (a rarity) a lot of people were out and we had to wait a bit to take flower pictures sometimes. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the recipe for serenity but it’s nice to see everyone out and about enjoying the flowers.

hydrangea ajisai odawara castle

 

wisteria flower odawara castle park

 

 

Working out in Tokyo

Exercise is important for everyone but especially so for musicians. Like any occupation, playing the harp carries with it certain health risks such as RSI and other muscoskeletal problems, irregular sleep schedules, performance anxiety and many more barrels of fun. For me, exercise is a wonderful way to stay healthy and keep these issues at bay.

If you move to a new city, let alone a new country, it will take a while to find great new places to work out. I’m actually really happy with my exercise routine at the moment; it’s probably the best I’ve had apart from when I was at uni and I had access to an olympic standard fitness centre for next to nothing *sigh.* So I thought I’d share what I’m doing at the moment, if anyone else has any suggestions feel free to comment!

Gym
From what I hear private gyms in Tokyo seem very expensive and swanky. Personally, I’m not up for paying an arm and a leg for a sparkling equipment, mood lighting and a spa. If I want to relax I’ll go to the onsen.

Luckily there is another option. All across Tokyo there are public gym facilities or ‘sports centres’ where you can work out on the cheap. These centres usually have a gym (トレーニング室),  a pool and a room for classes, though depending on where you are you might get some other facilities too. Typically it’s pay as you go with no sign up fee and you may get a discount if you’re a resident of the ward. Granted some of the machines are a little old and the building of my local centre is on the shabby side, but for 440 yen (about £3) a day it ain’t half bad. It has everything I need plus some machines I’d never seen before moving to Japan. Use the search function on Sports Camp Japan to search for your local municipal gym. You’re welcome.

Climbing

Tokyo climbing
I think I’m confused on how to get down

Climbing, or bouldering, is having a bit of a hey day in Tokyo. Apparently, there are more climbing gyms in Tokyo alone than in the whole of Australia. I’m still kind of bad but I’ve definitely caught the bug over the past 6 months. Bouldering, which I believe is climbing without ropes or harnesses, is great for upper body strength but it’s a workout for you mind too. I get a real sense of satisfaction from working out how to do a new route. My local wall has routes coloured by difficulty and it’s kind of feels like a video game except you’re getting fit while having fun. Timeout has a great list of Tokyo’s top climbing spots.

Plus there are… ‘talented male climbers’ who sometimes take their shirts off, if that’s your thing.

Yoga
This is going to sound gushing (and I’m honestly not sponsored by them) but I can’t recommend Yoga Jaya enough. The founders have adapted various yoga styles to create their own system, Baseworks, and it really works for me. Baseworks focuses on foundational strength as well as flexibility and I have noticed a big improvement in my body awareness and alignment in the year since I joined. Positions aren’t held for too long which is good because that can be dangerous for musicians and those prone to RSI. Generally, I feel really safe and that the teachers are understanding of my needs and supporting me on the way to achieving my goals. There are a mixture of Japanese, English and bilingual classes and actually I’ve found that I’ve learnt a lot of new words through practicing in Japanese.

Yoga Jaya is in Daikanyama, which is where I teach Kindermusik, so that’s perfect for me. Every Monday I start of the week with a 7am yoga class and feel refreshed and ready. I always go from Yoga Jaya to a cafe where I have a coffee and some toast and plan the week ahead before walking to work. Honestly, it’s one of my greatest pleasures and I always feel so at peace in the morning light.

Have you tried any of these options in Tokyo? Where do you like to work out? Please feel free to share in the comments 😊

 

Bar Dio – JoJo themed bar review!

Unpopular opinion: I don’t like Akihabara that much these days. When I first went aged 14 it was exciting but now I’m old and it’s too big, too loud, and too full of sweaty pervs who don’t shower enough.

Luckily there is anotdoor Bar Dioher, slightly less well known, nerd hub for me to frequent. Nakano is a couple of stops from Shinjuku and it’s a great mix of anime otaku culture in the Nakano Broadway shopping complex and traditional style izakaya in the surrounding side streets.

If you go down one of these side streets you will find some stairs and a massive coffin for a door. As a fan of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, of course you don’t ignore this ominous sign and go right in all guns blazing.

Bar Dio is a Jojo風Bar (themed) bar and the level of detail is astounding. I’ve been to some themed bars where the appeal is getting drunk on regular stuff surrounded by some figures which is fine, but Bar Dio goes all out. Every corner of the decor is JoJotastic and every item on the menu has some cleverly appropriate JoJo title. I recommend the chan chan cocktail, it’s creamy and delicious and  its matcha component makes it green for a certain character. We also enjoyed a nigerun dayou and a Rohan Kishibe during our visit, I’ll leave you to imagine what they have in them.

One of the things I liked best about Bar Dio is the clientele. When were there everyone literally talking about Jojo the entire time. It was a mixed crowd in terms of gender and age and everyone was talking about their favourite seasons and characters as well as having lively debates on theories. Once they realised we could speak Japanese and loved Jojo they were happy to include us in their conversations and I felt more out of place for having only watched the anime than for being a foreigner! Music from the anime was playing in the background most of the time and at one point the owner put on an entire episode. Actually the one he chose was pretty pivotal (part 2 episode 20) so be careful if you come here having not watched it all and want to avoid spoilers.

Bar Dio JoJo bar
シーザー!!!!!

The owner doesn’t say that much and I thought he had this sort of enigmatic quality about him. Who is this guy?? How did he come to love JoJo SO MUCH?! He seemed to be pleased to have some foreigners who could speak Japanese and asked us questions about Jojo fans in the UK as well as our favourite characters. He let us try on some of the really high quality costume stuff he had around which I don’t think he does for everyone so that was nice of him.

 

Bar Dio is good just as a bar. The atmosphere is friendly, the food is good and the drinks are excellent. But if you love Jojo this may well feel more like a pilgrimage than a night out, in the best sort of way.

2017-02-03 21.35.56

JoJo Bar Dio
It could be ambiguously interpreted which toilet to go into…

 

Freelance Harpist In Tokyo

I’ve officially started working as a freelance harpist in Tokyo!

After a month back home in the UK I arrived back in Tokyo mid-May and have been spending my time setting everything up as a freelance musician. My visa is sorted, I have shiny new business cards and I have spent the last week contacting agencies, wedding planners, high end restaurants and corporations to secure my profession. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have these opportunities!

For those who don’t know my story, I went to Tokyo after graduating with a BA in Music. I taught English for 6 months before I changed job and became a music teacher. During this time I was certainly not idle with my harp playing – I played a lot of live shows, I released a solo EP and recorded another EP with my band that will be out very soon. I received many offers to play at weddings and paid events but with my previous visa I was not permitted to take paid freelance engagements. This was such a shame as one of the ways I paid my way through university was playing at weddings and the like and I always really enjoyed the work. I also saw a gap in the market amongst expats who are organising events and may feel more comfortable with musicians who speak their language. Especially Brits who are missing the wonderful celtic folk music from our country!

So because I’m always looking for ways to move forward in life/masochistically enjoy making things difficult for myself, I started to think about changing my visa yet again so that I could be a freelance harpist in Japan. I’m happy to say that I was approved! Setting up as a freelance musician is scary but also hugely exciting. I’m also still teaching early years music at a lesson studio and Tokyo American Club which was always a lot of fun but actually I’m enjoying all the more now that it’s not my main job. I brought my harpsicle lap harp with me from the UK and I’ve got a lot of ideas how to incorporate it in my lessons with the little ones.

I’m definitely going to be in Japan and available for freelance work at least until May 2018 so if you are getting married in Tokyo or the surrounding area, you have an event that could be brightened up with a harpist or you would like a session harpist for a recording, feel free to contact me! It’s juliamascetti at gmail.com

Freelance British Harpist in Tokyo

 

 

Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
harpsicle harp bubble wrap plane

Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

harpsicle harp cardboard plane tokyo

Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

harpsicle harp tokyo fragile
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.

 

China: Asia on Hard Mode

I was back home in April and it was all Tokyo and no harp but that was needed to happen.

In theory, one of the great things about living in Japan is that you are so much closer to other great Asian countries that would be too expensive and too much of a time commitment to go from the UK. As well as Japan, I’m interested in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong but in reality I was always too busy travelling in Japan or just enjoying Tokyo to make it out of the country.

So, what better to end this chapter than going home via China? A good friend lives there and kindly offered to let me stay with her.

China is Asia on hard mode. Yes, Japanese culture is difficult to adapt to, and living in a country whose writing system has 80,000 characters instead of 26 can be extremely challenging but, fundamentally, Japan is a 住みやすい (liveable) place. It’s clean, it’s (mostly) safe, people are polite, it’s rich, it’s free and the infrastructure works. In China you have none of that. Beijing reminds me a little of the post apocalyptic society in Akira or something. The city has risen from the ashes but the infrastructure isn’t quite there and you can see the scars of it’s troubled past if you look closely. Beijing is huge, sprawling and feels lawless. You have massive, futuristic screens on the side of buildings and hugely rich people throwing disgusting amounts of money around but the toilets don’t work properly and there are beggars on the street. The pollution is awful, the waiters are rude and people spit in the street.

But to be honest I found a lot of this liberating. I am scruffy, loud and politeness does not come easily to me so sometimes I feel like a perpetual smudge on Japan. After stressing out for 18 months over excessive politeness it’s kind of refreshing when service people just throw your ticket to the temple at you. Where Japan has its famous train etiquette, in China you see people talking loudly on their phones and laughing with their friends. I felt looked at in China – yes strangers do ask to take pictures of you – but I never felt judged for not living up to a high standard of behaviour. Which I do in Japan sometimes, to be honest.

My friend is studying abroad and she was the perfect host. She has ace local knowledge but China is still exciting enough for her to be able to put up with doing the tourist stuff with me. There’s a phrase in Japanese, 雨女, which means woman who brings the rain, which is literally my life. It’s the Welsh blood in me, don’t invite me to your picnic if you want to stay dry. Beijing is supposed to be sunny this time of year but I managed to bring the rain EVEN THERE and the weather was awful for the first few days. That didn’t stop us hitting the beautiful Summer Palace (the irony isn’t lost on me), before hiding from the rain by catching some Beijing Opera. We watched a play about Liang Hongyu, a woman soldier who fights side by side with her husband, obviously right up my street. It was a bit of a marathon – 3 hours long with no interval. I still enjoyed it though, despite being very stylised it managed to be incredibly human. The costumes and the fight scenes were stunning too.

opera cropped

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Great Wall which was a big one on the bucket list for me. We got together with a group of my friend’s course mates and rented a driver for the 2 hour drive, which is something students can afford to do in China because labour is cheap. Luckily my 雨女 powers had worn off by then and the weather was lovely – we even had some blossom!

2017-03-26 12.09.30-1

2017-03-27 17.43.15Other things I enjoyed were the Forbidden City, which I spent hours wandering around by myself. The Lama Temple as well was a beautiful and calming experience. We took a day to do something completely different and go the 798 Art District. The area is the site of state owned factories, including the eponymous Factory 798, that began to be taken over by artists in the early 2000s. The result these days is an area filled with galleries, street art, trendy cafes and boutiques; essentially stamping ground for Beijing’s hipsters. There’s also THE BEST GELATO IN THE WORLD, which is what I’m eating, ever so elegantly, here.
For the first few days my friend took me around the Beijing subway but by day 3 she thought she had skipped enough class and I was on my own. I actually really like the experience of navigating around a strange country by yourself, deciphering things when you don’t really know what’s going on feels like an adventure and figuring it out can give you a real sense of satisfaction. I enjoyed Chinese food although, yeah, maybe be careful about what you get from the street vendors. Gelato aside, Peking duck was my favourite!

Beijing is fascinating, exciting and I had a fab six days. At points I was enjoying it so much I began to regret choosing Japanese instead of Chinese. But knowing myself, I like fresh air and things functioning so Japan is probably a better Asian country for me to live. China seems a fantastic place to travel though and I hope to experience more of it soon.