The sense of alienation that people tend to feel when visiting Japan is well-documented – Sofia Coppola’s film Lost In Translation provides a good illustration – but nothing really prepares you for that disoriented feeling, even if you have been there before
On tour with Scritti Politti: The surreal week I became big in Japan
There aren’t many cities in the world where you can walk out of an upmarket shopping mall to be confronted with signs directing you to a “Digital Vegetables Party”. If, however, you made a list of likely contenders, Tokyo would probably be somewhere near the top. When you follow those arrows outside Tokyo’s Midtown, you find yourself in a polytunnel structure staffed by 20-somethings in aprons who request that you feel your way up and down long rows of cabbage and carrot plants, each plant making a synthesised burst of noise as you touch it. “Only in Japan,” I think to myself, as radishes parp, aubergines tinkle and children giggle in delight.
The vegetables are there as part of Midtown’s annual Design Touch exhibition, but I am there as the keyboard player for the band Scritti Politti, who have been invited to fly over from the UK to play four “greatest hits” shows at a plush venue situated on Midtown’s top floor. Tokyo is an absurdly vertical city, with shops, restaurants and attractions all stacked on top of each other, but the bizarre act of playing a concert above several floors of leather goods and haute couture ranks as one of the least-unusual aspects of our visit. The sense of alienation that people tend to feel when visiting Japan is well-documented – Sofia Coppola’s film Lost In Translation provides a good illustration – but nothing really prepares you for that disoriented feeling, even if you have been there before.
We arrive in Japan on Culture Day, a national holiday celebrating the arts and academia. A wander through Yoyogi Park sees thousands of Tokyoites picnicking and promenading amid musicians, jugglers and martial-arts experts; many small children have been dressed up in traditional Japanese costume, while a few teenagers are clad in their own subverted takes on the same costume that probably involved several layers of Japanese irony, although it is hard to know for sure. About 10 per cent of people are wearing white surgical face masks, a habit that I assume is due to the bird-flu scare of a few years back, but it turns out that it is partly to do with health, partly warmth and partly privacy.
Farther south, Shibuya appears like a typical shopping district of a western city, but at the point you try to interact with it, it becomes strangely elusive. Public-transport ticket machines come with English instructions, but we still find ourselves beseeching people around us for help. A convenience-store fridge, where you would expect to find fizzy drinks, is instead crammed with dozens of different varieties of iced coffee. Department stores are resplendent with wonderfully baffling Christmas displays, with surreal versions of Santa Claus hewn from multi-coloured polystyrene bricks, while outlets with names such as Free Doggy and Prince Dog Friendly Spot cater for the Japanese obsession with cute canines. Everything feels just the other side of familiar; when you think you might have a tiny handle on what Japan might be about, something will happen to remind you that you don’t.
Our four concerts are characterised by a respectful, wide-eyed hush from the sold-out crowds, feverish applause after each song, then back to hush in anticipation of the next – a far cry from the rowdier clubs where we have played, from Bristol to Baltimore. “I’m afraid fans here might be pretty quiet during the shows,” explains our friend Mitsuo Tani in an email before our visit, “but that doesn’t mean in any way that we are bored or not satisfied – we are just different from westerners in expressing our feelings.”
The sea of smartphones that we are so used to seeing when we play, as people grab souvenirs to swipe through later at home, are noticeably absent; we later learn that the venue had given strict instructions to the audience to refrain from this. But for the last song of the last show, our singer, Green Gartside, suggests to the audience that they might like to take pictures and send them to us on social media – after all, we want souvenirs of our visit, too.
As shutters snap, the curtains behind us are drawn back to reveal a stunning backdrop of the Tokyo skyline, while down below, the lights of the Digital Vegetables twinkle. The resulting mementoes of a bewildering visit will be ones that we will cherish for a long time.