Journey in Japan Part 45: Head of a lion, tail of a dog


The sun is shining, so naturally, I feel productive. I head over to Roppongi to visit the Tokyo Midtown Award. The awards are in their 7th year. The ceremony is a design and art competition sponsored by Tokyo Midtown and aims to discover and support designers and artists of the future. Fourteen award-winning artworks and designs are on display, all fighting for the grand prize; a trophy designed and produced by famous Japanese sculptor, Kimio Tsuchiya.

The audience here is given the opportunity to vote by pushing a button on a digital display board. The display unfairly shows the number of votes each piece of art has received. Currently winning is a piece from Saki Maeda, called, “Konkan.”

Among the other pieces are, Waami, a Japanese patterned grill pan, Yoroikappa, an armoured raincoat, Origami Tale, a fairy-tale told using paper folding, Harmonaca, a box of harmonica shaped sweets filled with red-bean paste, and Omikuji, a selection of Japanese fortune picks. The winner of the competition will be announced on Friday, November 7th.

My favourite piece was Toru Otsuka’s, Empty Freezer.

The reason I voted for this piece was not just for the incredible design, but for the fitting message that came with it:

“Buddhism teaches of impermanence, that there is a beginning and end to all things. As long as this world is impermanent. Buddhist statues will some day fade just as disposable cups do, and may not be much different. However, Buddhist statues and disposable goods are considered separate. That is why I would like to use the same carving techniques for Buddhist statues on disposable goods, indicating my questioning of existing values.”

After browsing all of the pieces up for the prize, I head back into the sunshine, to the outdoor display area. Today an exhibition is taking place, “Seating Forest.” The forest is hardly that, more a collection of different chairs, each with a theme or artistic edge.

There are seats that take the concept of ‘musical chairs’ a little too literally; made from musical instruments, sitting down causes the seat to play music. There are also two chairs in the shape of ears, placed either side of the forest. The ears are somehow connected, and it is possible to speak to the person in the other ear. The best chair was a wooden structure with a seat on a pulley, apples hang from above. It was possible to hoist myself up into the sky, whilst remaining seated.

After Roppongi, I head over to Asakusa. Today, two of my friends are playing afternoon jazz music at a bar called Soultrane; named after the Coltrane album. The bar takes some finding, but eventually, I head inside, pay my ¥2000 ‘music charge’ and take a seat. The bar is tiny, features a drum kit in one corner, and a grand piano in the other. Other instruments here include a double bass, a trumpet, two guitars, and a flute.

There are about ten people here, all flicking through sheet music books; a music collective, and the closest thing to an open mic event I have found in Japan. A song finishes, people clap in appreciation, then the owner/barman shouts out names. If your name is called out, you get up and play, even if you have no knowledge of the song. If you play the trumpet and he wants trumpet, you play. After two hours of live spontaneous jazz, we all go our separate ways.

I wander through Asakusa for a while and head to where all the performing artists hang out. This afternoon, they are wrestling.

The four wrestlers are incredibly lively. They are all dressed as characters from popular television shows. Picachu gets beaten up by a guy that might not be Goku from Dragonball Z. A ninja sneaks around holding up Batman style ‘Kapow!’ signs at just the right moment. A guy dressed in pink beats everyone up with his tail. Props and costume changes occur at breakneck speeds.

Eventually, the wrestling finishes and is replaced by the spray paint space art performer whom I’ve seen many times before. I decide to continue walking around. As I wander, I pass five geishas in full makeup. After a while, I hear the sound of drums, so I follow the noise, before arriving at Kokusai Street.


In the middle of the road, music is happening. Today is a festival celebrating music and dance from the Okinawa Islands. Okinawa is the furthest southwest prefecture in Japan and sits directly south of Kyushu. With its tropical climate, and sitting on the path of almost every typhoon that comes to Japan, Okinawa sounds like both a good and bad place to live. Interestingly, Okinawans live longer than people from anywhere else in the world, thanks to what is said to be their incredibly healthy diet.

There are maybe ten different acts from the islands; the procession moves down the full length of the street and finishes up on an outdoor stage on the second floor of a hotel. Music is good. Dancing is also very good. Scary creatures are scary.

Shīsā is the official mascot of the island of Okinawa, a cross between a lion and a dog. The belief is that these creatures help to ward off evil spirits. There are three Shīsā here today, each one more frightening than the last. The only evil looking spirits here today are the lion dogs themselves.

I watch the well-choreographed dancing and music for a while. A sign says, “Best International Authentic Town,” another sign declares that the event is celebrating its tenth year. The only thing I don’t like about the event is the lack of stalls selling local cuisine; some of that healthy food for long life. I have been interested in for quite some time in trying the exotic ‘dragon fruit’ of Okinawa, but there are no dragons, there are no fruits.

I stay at the festival until it ends, before heading home to dream of lion dogs wrestling with giant Pokémon, set to the music of Polka Dots and Moonbeams.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I take a bicycle and try to explore a previously unknown part of the city, stumble upon parks, bells, and a rather oddly named bridge by clicking here.

Or alternatively, click here to begin the journey from part one.


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