Big in Japan

Jugglers in Tokyo

About three weeks ago a few fellow jugglers and I embarked on a journey to Japan. Thomas Dietz, Markus Furtner, and Peter Gerber had been invited as guests to the Japan Juggling Festival (JJF), and Thomas Furtner and I decided to join them. During the 10 days I spent in Japan I probably violated every single one of their cultural taboos, embarassed a lot of people, and got beaten up by a little girl. But let’s focus on the more interesting parts of the adventure!

The first three days of our trip we stayed in a nice hotel in Tokyo, together with Tempei Arakawa, a kick-ass Japanese juggler from outside of Tokyo who was also invited to the festival. Peter, Thomas Furtner and I spent the most part of those three days sightseeing, while Markus, Thomas Dietz, and Tempei went practicing every day. This was slightly complicated by the fact that the festival organizers, in their Japanese care-taking and concerned hospitality, wanted somebody to accompany us always – to make sure we didn’t get lost or get in trouble, I assume. But since we split up and there was only Tempei to take care of us, they were in trouble. Our assurances that we were quite capable of taking care of ourselved went unheard. After some consultation they decided that the main organizer of the festival would come to our hotel to bring us a cell phone so that we could cry for help if we couldn’t find back home. With this out of the way we started exploring the city.

Let me say this about Tokyo: It ROCKS! If you enjoy cities, Tokyo is the place to be. I could have spent weeks just strolling around the streets, checking out people, places, and shops. A few things I’ve learned, in no particular order: people sleep on the trains a lot. Japanese girls really like to wear high heels but they can’t stand nor walk in them. Japanese food is really, really good and not expensive at all. Eating with chopsticks isn’t that hard. The Tokyo public transportation system is much more complicated than it needs to be (and completely confusing if you’re new). It’s hard to communicate with Japanese people if you don’t speak Japanese.

The communication problem has two reasons: Most Japanese don’t speak English, and even if they do, they don’t say what they mean.

Regarding the first: From what I’ve gathered English is a compulsory subject in Japanese schools, but it’s taught very badly, and the fact that English is a very different language than Japanese exacerbates the problem. One of the many way in which the languages differ is phonetics. In Japanese, there is no “L”-sound, and apparently the Japanese have unanimously decided to use “R” instead, giving rise to “Engrish“. When you’re in Japan, Engrish is all around you! A typical misunderstanding happened to us on the first day when a Japanese juggler introduced his nickname by saying, “Puh-rease coh me Taka!”, to which an apparently shocked Peter Gerber responded: “The police call you Taka???”

The second “problem” has its roots in Japanese culture, which seems to put politeness in front of everything else. One consequence is that one cannot simply ask somebody to do something. Instead, one asks if the other might not maybe want to do said something. Of course, an insensitive westerner like me thinks nothing of answering “No, thanks!” and gets a bit annoyed when asked the same question again two minutes later.

Jugglers in a Circle in Tokyo

But let’s get on with the story: The JJF was held at what once was the Olympic Village of the 1964 Olympic Games and is now called the “National Olympics Memorial Youth Center”, a very cool place for a juggling conventions. Two gyms were available, and jugglers had their own personal rooms for sleeping, which is quite unusual for a juggling festival, at least from a European perspective. Considering the severe communication problems, the JJF was a very cool convention. The three shows, which started not a minute late, were quite memorable. My personal favorite of the two Japanese shows was Kazuhiro Shindo, who performed the most impressive 4 ball routine I have ever seen, presenting a grin second to none – I was forced to alternate between screaming and laughing my ass off. And then there’s Tomohiro Morita, the master of pirouettes! He does triple pirouettes with an amazing ease. A 5 ball 3 up triple pirouette doesn’t seem to strain him at all. It’s a pleasure to watch him juggle! And diabolo’s big in Japan! The 3 diabolo endurance lasted 1 hour, 11 minutes and 11 seconds, when the last two competitors let go of their hand-sticks simultaneously. If they hadn’t, they’d probably still be running the diabolos in their strings.

After the convention Peter and I stayed in Japan for three more days. The first day led us outside of Tokyo to Kamakura where we didn’t see the Big Buddha, and then to Hakone, where we stayed at a Youth Hostel. The day after that saw us climbing Mount Kintoki, at the top of which we met an elderly couple who immediately invited us to their home for the night. We gladly accepted and were treated according to every rule of Japanese hospitality. In the evening we watched a surprisingly thrilling TV show called “Sasuke“, which is like American Gladiators on crack, except without the gladiators. The second and third stages are ridiculously hard, even more so the final stage. A US olympic decathlete competed, but failed in the third stage, which was mastered only by two guys, one of them a Japanese trampoline champion, who ran out of time in the final stage. The other guy, a fisherman named Nagano, won. Crazy stuff!

For our last full day we rode back into Tokyo where Yoshiki, a fellow juggler, let us stay in his flat. This time we checked out Ginza, where we came across a Leica shop. They had a pre-production M8, which I was allowed to handle. It feels extremely solid, very responsive and has a great viewfinder. Too bad it’s a bit out of my price range! They also had a Digilux 3, which is Leica’s version of the Panasonic L-1. It looks nice, but the viewfinder is ridiculously tiny – and I’m used to the already small viewfinder of Canon’s reduced-frame DLSRs! Upstairs we were treated to a mini-exhibition of some of Sebastiao Salgado‘s photographs – I love his work! Running around some more I found this legendary lens in a used camera store.

Back at Yoshiki’s apartment we spent the night drinking beer, vodka-orange, and sake, trying to grab wet ice-balls with chop-sticks (I was quite successful!), and doing other useless stuff. After two hour’s sleep we embarked on our final excursion: the Tsukiji fish market. Well worth seeing if you manage to avoid getting run over by one or more of the crazy little vehicles which are all over the place there!

In concluding I have to say that I enjoyed my stay in Japan immensely. I’d like to thank the organizers of the JJF, especially Masaki and Tetsuya, who did all they could to accomodate us, which, I’m sure, wasn’t always easy. I hope we didn’t cause too much trouble. Thanks also to Tempei and Yoshiki who took good care of us, and of course to all the jugglers who we had lots of fun with. I’m sure I’ll be back some day!