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.

Being in a mixed-race relationship

Psst. Let me tell you a secret. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my boyfriend is a little bit… asian!

Well, half Japanese, half white British to be exact. Thankfully, for the majority of our relationship race has been a massive non-issue. And why would it be? We are both born and raised in south England, both from middle class backgrounds, both attended university and are now in graduate jobs. Demographically, far more is the same than different.

But even though we couldn’t give less of a shit, sometimes outside influences get it into their heads to attempt to make race an issue. Moving to Japan together has complicated this, so I thought it was about time I shared our experiences.

In the UK, the worst things people have said to me are creeps in bars. Oh creeps in bars. What perplexes me is that they think being incredibly rude is a viable strategy to get me into bed. Yes, speculating on my boyfriend’s dick makes me so wet for you. You don’t look like an insecure, ignorant arsehole at all.

Anyway, I can handle these losers but what is harder to deal with when it’s your girlfriends saying wide-eyed, “But I don’t understand how you can find Asian men attractive.” “I’m happy for you but personally I don’t find ‘them’ sexy.”
“Don’t you ever think about… you know?” “Julia has yellow fever hahaha.”

I can be a coward and a poor ally because, although I can put creeps in bars in their place instantly, I find it incredibly difficult to call out people I like and respect. In fact, this is the first time I’m openly admitting to receiving some of these comments and how much they can hurt.

What is a surprising consistent is that these comments are in the vast majority of cases directed at me, not my boyfriend. I think I understand why. They are coming from people who wouldn’t like to think of themselves as prejudiced and if they direct the comments at the white girl instead of the person of colour it’s somehow not racist anymore.

Moving to Japan has brought new dimensions to the issues, though perhaps not as much has changed as you might think. It is a sad aspect of many mixed race people’s experience that the country you are in tends to identify you with the ‘other’ part of your identity. In the UK, my boyfriend is the ‘Asian one’ (though he says that, happily, he has faced minimal discrimination at home). In Japan he’s the hafu. Before you gasp in horror, yes hafu is derived from ‘half’ but it’s not as offensive as you might think. In fact, for many mixed race Japanese hafu is their preferred term to describe themselves. I’m not the best person to go deeply into this for obvious reasons, but if you are interested I would recommend the film Hafu: the mixed race experience in Japan, in which mixed race people tell their own stories.

From what I’ve seen though, hafu are treated like minor celebrities in Japan, in both a good and bad way. Indeed many mixed race people are on TV and we had a hilarious incident in which the man who came to fix the water was convinced that my boyfriend was an actor or something.  The point is, mixed race people are often treated as something cool and exciting to look at but are not fully accepted into Japanese society. Not all hafu are extroverted kakkoi types guys, some work in boring office jobs and just want to blend in and be left alone. An example of the fetishisation of mixed race people is this gross advert by Can Make. This billboard was in Ikebukuro station for ages and, to my knowledge, no one complained or said anything. The make up range is called ‘Half Face’ and the advert claims you can get ‘trendy foreign eyes’ if you use it. Urgh.

It is undeniable that, even if he is not fully Japanese, living with my boyfriend has given me privileges that many foreigners in Japan don’t enjoy. It was far easier for us to rent a flat (though still bloody difficult), for example. He can be my guarantor on immigration forms and other official documents and generally flashing his Japanese name and passport gets us taken more seriously. Less rational assumptions abound too though. Just the other day, I was chatting with a colleague who told me how good my Japanese was (it’s not). Later in the conversation I mentioned that my boyfriend was half Japanese and she responded, ‘Oh that’s why you speak so well.’ I shouldn’t need to explain how ridiculous this is – my boyfriend didn’t start learning Japanese until he was 18 and although he’s bloody good now, the idea that we wouldn’t speak in our first languages is bizarre (though he does help me with my homework occassionally).  It’s as if she thought by hanging around him I would soak up some Japanese-ness by osmosis and start spouting fluent sentences in the lingo. But family and kinship ties are important to the Japanese it seems and so a Japanese(ish) cohabitor has brought me a measure of social acceptance in many situations.

So it’s good with the bad. Thank you to everyone who treats our racial difference as the massive non-issue it should be, and a high five to everyone in white female/asian male relationships. Let’s continue to put the creepy guys in bars in their place and try to be better at challenging our friends and families when they say stuff that isn’t ok.

Because my boyfriend and I are champions.