I am in two minds whether I can really call this a dorama, as it’s barely a drama at all. This TV series (a 2017 co-production of TV Tokyo and Netflix) is in essence a travel food show, with a thin veneer of comedic storyline to tie it together. It’s very entertaining, but also very weird. And it definitely made me want to go back to Tokyo.
The lead character, Kantaro Ametani (played by Onoe Matsuya) is not an endearing man. He is the prototypical salaryman – always serious, focused, hardworking, rejecting colleagues’ invitations to socialise. But he has a secret – he plans his working day around opportunities to “bunk off” for half an hour at select dessert restaurants and then blog about them under the pseudonym Amablo. In fact, he even switched jobs (a relatively big deal in Japan, where it’s common to stick with one company for life) so that he could live and work in Tokyo, closer to all those delicious sweets.
As part of his new job is sales visits to bookshops (cue lots of scenes in Tokyo’s many many bookstores), this is relatively easy. The bulk of each episode is devoted to one particular dessert or sweet at one particular real-life shop or restaurant. The dessert is described in loving detail with high-def slow-mo photography of it being made. And the restaurant also gets an introduction that has clearly been written by its owner or PR person.
So far, so entertaining and lots of note-taking about where to go when we save our pennies for another Japan holiday. But then it gets weird.
Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto translated from Japanese by Asa Yoneda
This is an odd book. I loved some things about it, but I didn’t love it. Which is a shame as it sounded so thoroughly up my alley.
Yoshie is in her early 20s when her semi-famous musician father dies in bizarre circumstances. Finding the family home overwhelming in her grief, she moves to the small, hip neighbourhood Shimokitazawa. She loves her quirky, arty new locale and her new job at a cafe there. But just as she is settling in, her mother shows up and insists on moving in with her.
Yoshie is having nightmares about her father, while her mother claims that their family home is haunted by him. The dead father is a constant presence through the book, necessarily so, as the whole arc of the story is the mother and daughter’s shared grief. (The significance of the title is that “Moshi moshi” is how you answer the phone in Japanese, and one of the plot threads is about the father’s mobile phone.)
The depiction of Shimokitazawa is wonderful – it really came alive for me and made me want to go there. There is an element of middle-class folk from a fancy neighbourhood playing at being poor and romanticising “the simple life”, but there is also something very enticing in Yoshimoto’s descriptions of the local shops and restaurants.
This Japanese drama series, also known as Underwear, is a 2015 Netflix and Fuji TV co-production set in an exclusive lingerie boutique in Tokyo. The trailer looked a little ridiculous, but I was pleasantly surprised once I started watching.
A bit like ER, Atelier opens with a new employee’s first day, but she doesn’t remain the lead character in every episode. The newbie is Takita Mayuko (Mao Daichi), a recent textiles graduate who is excited to be in the very fancy Ginza district for her first day. But she isn’t an obvious fit for the fashion world, being more interested in fabric development than haute couture.
Mayu’s comfortable shoes and ill-fitted suit, not to mention her tendency to speak her mind, particularly stand out against the elegance of Emotion, the boutique that hired her as a general assistant, and its renowned chief designer/owner Nanjo Mayumi (Mirei Kiritani). Nanjo-san initially seems cold and modelled on Anna Wintour (on day one she tells Mayu that she is not beautiful, which considering Daichi is a model is clearly ridiculous) but she and Mayu develop genuine respect for each other.
This Japanese TV show exists in many versions – largely with the same actors – but I am here referring to the Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (which is arguably season 4 of the show originally aired on MBS). Tim and I love this show so much.
It’s a simple concept: at a late-night diner (open from midnight until 7 a.m.) in Shinjuku, the chef-owner cooks whatever dish his guests request. The camera lingers on the cooking, but this is a drama about people. Each episode takes as its subject one of the regular customers. In this way, the episodes are largely separate stories.
Midnight Diner has a wonderful atmosphere – warm, cosy, but within the confines of reality. The acoustic background music adds to the sensation of being in a friendly backstreet bar where there is always gentle hubbub and subdued lighting.
I have come full circle from a year ago – from Japanese TV dramas to Korean shows and now back to Japanese ones. Aside from confusing myself language-wise (I had just started to pick up some words in Korean), I found it really interesting to watch a similar teen drama to many of the K-dramas I binged last year, but set in a city I have actually visited.
Good Morning Call originally aired in 2016 on Fuji TV and a second season Good Morning Call: Our Campus Days was made a year later by Netflix. It’s a light-hearted romance set in Tokyo, where teenagers Yoshikawa Nao (played by Fukuhara Haruka) and Uehara Hisashi (Shiraishi Shunya) are both looking for an apartment to live alone for their last two years of high school. They are scammed into leasing the same apartment and, realising that they could not possibly afford such a nice place individually, agree to secretly live together.
Nao is a sweet, scatty, popular girl who feels things deeply and is incapable of hiding her volcanic emotions. Hisashi is a distant, clever loner who is good-looking enough to be fawned over by all the girls at school but has no patience with most people. They are not an obvious pairing and initially they fight a lot. But of course they learn each other’s virtues as well as flaws, not to mention their secrets. Enmity becomes friendship becomes…romance?
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
This is a fascinating Japanese novella about an unusual person trying to understand the world. It’s funny and empathetic and the Tokyo setting really brought back moments from our Japan holiday.
Lead character and narrator Keiko is a convenience-store worker. She has worked there since her first year at university and is still there 18 years later because it’s the one place where she feels she belongs. But as the years pass she feels increasing social pressure to conform. And her attempts to conform are at once hilarious, heartbreaking and unsettling.
“I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexibility in response. My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire. Taking the utmost care not to cause the customer any discomfort by observing him or her too closely, I swiftly move my hands according to whatever signals I pick up.”
Keiko is not just socially awkward. We are never given a formal label but she struggles to empathise with any human emotions or actions. She is alienated by her inability to truly feel and experience what others do, but she has learned to fake it by copying others. She copies how others dress, speak and react, choosing new people to copy every so often who seem appropriate for her (in terms of age and station in life). This can lead to unintentionally comically or extreme moments.
Now we’re getting to the real holiday nitty gritty! Well, actually, this was a low-on-reading holiday, despite basically spending four days just travelling.
You see, as part of our almost-everything-going-wrong outward journey, my Kindle broke. At some point between the third flight and arriving at our hotel, the screen was damaged so that the bottom third or so was just a grey rectangle. Which made it unusable. And I had packed ZERO physical books. So that sucked.
I thought about buying a new Kindle there and then, but I decided to just download the Kindle app onto my phone and look out for a book shop. Which initially seemed really smart, as there were LOADS of book shops in Tokyo. They were everywhere! On our first proper day of holiday we walked a couple of miles from Roppongi to Shibuya and went into at least four book shops, while passing another half a dozen or so. But I quickly learned that even in foreigner-filled Roppongi, the only English-language books were those about learning Japanese. Handy, but not quite what I had in mind.
We’re back from Japan. Hello! I am slowly readjusting to the right timezone, and equally slowly picking out my favourites from the tens of thousands of photos we took. Tokyo is very photogenic. Or maybe I just like having time for photography. Probably both.
There are some specific details of our trip I want to come back to (books! food!), but I thought I would start with my highlights. I don’t think I can rank these in any order, but here are my top five non-food-related Japan experiences.
Our holiday has been full of all the things, but as here in Tokyo it has been 2018 for two whole hours, it’s about time I wish you all a very happy New Year. We were at Shibuya Crossing for the midnight countdown, which is like Tokyo’s equivalent of Times Square. Thousands of us crowded together to watch the giant Coca-Cola-sponsored countdown clock. It was fun, but crazy. Much like Tokyo.
There are already so many things I could tell you about our holiday, but as it’s Boxing Day, for now I’ll tell you all about our Christmas. We were expecting a fairly low-key Christmas, and in most of Japan, indeed much of Tokyo, that would indeed be possible. But there are some neighbourhoods that go all out. At Tokyo Midtown (a giant complex of shops, restaurants, museums, hotels and park) we saw the best Christmas light display I have ever seen – and apparently it’s not the most impressive one in Tokyo. But it is one of the few that is definitely Christmas-themed – others are more for New Year.