Gisli Snaer Erlingsson is an Icelandic film maker I met first at
the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy when I was there with THE BOY FROM
MERCURY and he was there with BENJAMIN DOVE. We liked each other, and
bonded in the chaotic fun of the festival.
A few years later we met again - in Berlin and Toronto - as we
travelled with new films. By then our life circumstances had changed. I
was living in Ireland after an absence of almost three years, and Gisli
was married to a Japanese woman and had moved to Tokyo.
We maintained an email friendship, and we explored possibilities
for working together.
During the summer of 2002 Gisli sent me the English translation
of his script CATHEDRAL asking if I would clear up any clumsiness. I
did this, and also made a few minor comments about the script. Wonder
of wonders; this led to Gisli's inviting me to spend a week with him,
all expenses paid, reworking the script.
That explains what brought me to Japan.
From here on in I just want to tell you about my week in Japan.
Scale is a subject all to itself. I flew Dublin to London but
then did the longest flight I've ever done; eleven and a half hours
from London to Tokyo. I left Dublin at about midday on Sunday and
arrived in Tokyo (because of time zones) at midday Monday. I was
greeted by Gisli, his wife, and their daughter. I can pronounce, not
spell, their names. So phonetically; his wife Mai-euuki, and his
daughter Sag-eh-lee. We drove from Narita Airport to the city it serves
and that's a three hour drive. I had slept little on the plane and
found out much later that I would think I was dozing for a few minutes
as we drove along but in fact I would pass out for an hour. The main
roads are all exorbitant toll roads and the cost of simply reaching the
city was about thirty euro/dollars.
The population of Tokyo is twenty six million. That means that
space is at a premium. Also, the city has split into levels for roads
and footpaths and train lines and... I will return to this vision of
METROPOLIS and BLADE RUNNER later. But everything moves and Tokyo is a
city teeming with life. Gisli had told me that we would spend our week
of work in the quiet of his wife's parents' home outside the city. What
I had not realised was that 'outside the city' was another three hours'
Beyond the city, we pulled in off the highway to get a snack and
take a rest. I went to the toilets and - as is my habit - I went to a
'water closet' rather than use a urinal. What I saw struck fear; the
toilet was a ceramic device on the floor. I had a pee in the urinal and
went out to ask Gisli about the device I had seen. He explained that
the way to have a shit is to pull down your pants and crouch over this
thing. Right there and then I felt my sphincter do a triple lock.
Gisli drove on and I had another few sleep blanks.
Tokato is a small town in a valley region north of Tokyo. Beside
the town is a river bridged at several points, and at the other side of
it is a road with a petrol station and a supermarket, a small store,
and some office buildings. A turn off this road to the left and less
than thirty metres up on the right is the entrance to the home of
Gisli's in-laws. A lovely and large home, but often with roof beams
little more than five foot high so I soon developed the habit of
walking as if I were in a mine shaft. My room was just off the main
living room - pull back the screen door to reveal the room and my bed,
a futon on the soft floor.
I was aware of the culture of gifts and had arrived well
supplied. Gisli's parents-in-law greeted us and we were soon settled at
the low tables in their living room eating a wonderful sushi meal of
many tastes. I presented my gifts from Ireland to Gisli and his wife
and daughter, to his parents-in-law, and to his brother-in-law
(phonetic) Her-o-shay and his wife. I, by the way, was Martin San.
I had my first taste of true Japanese food. It is a great
concept; you are not out-faced by a plateful of food but instead can
choose to select tastes from many dishes and so eat at your own pace
and to your own preferences. I am proud to say that the parents
complimented me on my skills with chopsticks. It was a lovely family
meal, and at the end of the meal Gisli's daughter modelled her kimono -
at ages three, five and seven there are special celebratory days for
children when they dress in traditional costume.
The home, I am happy to say, had not only a conventional toilet
but one with a heated toilet seat.
I was head-blurred by the travel, the food, the sake ('saki'
drink) and went asleep as soon as I lay in bed. But I was woken in the
middle of the night by noises in the dark. There were distinct sounds
of a creature scampering across my ceiling and then running -impossibly
- around the walls. I turned on the light and looked around. Nothing.
Every time I started to fall asleep I heard the noise again.
By six in the morning, life had begun in the household. Gisli's
father-in-law was up by then, and Gisli's daughter - 'Sagalee' I will
spell her name - was up about the same time. I got up about seven and
had breakfast. Breakfast, I would learn, consisted of left-overs from
the previous evening's meal plus other choices of food. That system was
always the same and I loved it; different foods set out on the table to
After breakfast I went out for a stroll. Up the road from the
house were rice fields and beyond them dense forest. I just strolled
past the rice fields - it was harvest time and most of the fields had
been cleared, with small stacks of the rice stalks set out to dry.
Tuesday was the first full working day. Gisli and I sat in his
room upstairs and made our way through the script - I had already done
and sent a lot of preparatory work. The room, at the front corner of
the house, looked out on other houses but also to the fields and forest
beyond. There was usually an eagle floating over the fields. The thing
about extravagant beauty is that it can become familiar unless you
force yourself to really appreciate it.
Over the following days, I fell into a routine. I would wake to
the sound of the creature or creatures running around the walls of my
room. I would read until seven. I would get my call from Claudia who
was going to bed as I was rising. I would have breakfast. I would go
for a walk. I would work with Gisli on the script - stopping for lunch
and for evening meal. Twice a day - at noon and at five o'clock in the
afternoon, music would play from loudspeakers nearby. I assumed this
was something to do with the nearby school. When I mentioned it to
Gisli, he told me that it is part of the public announcement system
that connects all of Japan. The system was set up mainly because of the
need for public warnings in the event of earthquakes. In the evenings I
would chat with Gisli or watch a video with him. By eleven at the
latest I would be in bed. After two nights I kept a dim light on in my
room and it helped me to sleep. The lights had three switches: on full
power (two florescent rings) on with one ring, or on with a dim light.
I was like a kid who couldn't sleep in the dark. After the third night,
however, I realised that the roof came down lower than the ceiling
outside and so I was hearing a cat or a squirrel - maybe even a rat -
that sounded like it was running around the walls when in fact it was
trotting around the roof gutter outside.
One evening, we had a special food treat. Gisli's father-in-law
has a small patch of land in the mountains and in that area grows a
very particular and special kind of mushroom. This mushroom grows only
in this part of Japan and in the Himilayas. They are extremely
expensive, but Gisli's father-in-law harvested them to give as gifts to
friends. We were treated to some of these mushrooms as part of a kind
of stew boiled in a pot in the middle of the table - different foods
were put in, and you took out what you fancied when it was sufficiently
cooked. One aspect of Japanese eating escaped me; it is considered
completely acceptable to make a lot of noise when eating and one can
slurp up noodles from the bowl via the chopstick. I was just too
reserved for this, and Gisli's father-in-law joked about my being 'a
secret eater' as I daintily tried to consume neat increments of food.
I fell in love with Japanese nature. The moths there are enormous
- about the size of my hand - and every morning as I took my stroll I
would see their lifeless bodies in the vicinity of street lights or
other light sources. They lay defenceless until the day generated
enough heat and light to reactivate them, and during that time the
birds feasted on them. It was strange to see a sparrow chewing on a
moth almost its size. One morning, as I was taking a photograph of a
moth on the ground, it mustered up the strength to put on its defence
display; it raised its upper wings to reveal the imitation owl eyes on
its lower wings. Gisli had warned me of hornets - which look like
yellow wasps but are as big as the moths and are very aggressive. These
hornets have already wiped out the honey bee population of several
parts of Japan. In a local store I saw a jar with five or six hornets
preserved in oil. The price was 5,000 yen (about 40 euro/dollars). The
jar was on a food rack.
I also discovered that there was an ancient Shinto shrine up from
the house on the way towards a forest walk and opposite a graveyard. I
would visit there every day to say a little prayer. There is a ritual
for praying. There is a well at the foot of the steps to the shrine.
There, you wash your hands and you drink a little water trickling from
the well source. Then you go to the door of the temple. You bow twice,
clap your hands twice, say your prayer, and bow twice again. There is a
donation box at the door of the temple and I would put a few coins in.
Gisli and I made a couple of car trips to a nearby town to get
things (computer ink, videos) and on these occasions he pointed out the
way we were a subject of fascination for the locals. Gisli and I are
both over six foot tall and - in such a remote area - we were the only
'geyjin' (as they call white people) around. I had become aware of this
when I took my morning walks also - the locals would stare at me and
smile. There was nothing rude about it - I just looked strange as I was
at least a foot taller than anyone else around.
By Friday, Gisli and I had done most of our work. As promised on
our first night, his brother-in-law, Hairoshe I'll spell his name,
collected us to take us on what he called 'a typical salary man night
out'. He took us first to a 'yakatori' establishment. We sat at the low
table and were served beers. Hairoshe ordered the food - about eight or
nine food samples, most of them on wooden skewers. One thing I learned
about Japanese food is that I had to trust it and go with the flow. So
when the first dish arrived - chunks of meat floating in a soup - I
took a portion and was eating it as Hairoshe said "I am sure you will
never guess what you are eating..." We were eating horse intestine.
This was followed by such other delicacies as chicken liver, heart, and
joints (the grizzle of joints). All the food agreed with me, and even
Japanese beer agreed with me - beer usually gives me a headache, but
Japanese beer is rice based.
We went on next to a Karaoke venue and I was very reluctant - I
reckoned it would be horrible. Hairoshe took us to what I could only
describe as a karaoke hotel. He was a member, and we booked a room. I
had suggested one hour would be plenty of time, but he and Gisli
insisted that two hours would be better. We were handed a box with
microphones and a remote control and led to a small room that had a
table and long chair on one side of the room, and the karaoke screen on
the other side. There were books of menus of songs (with, fortunately,
a section in English) and you punch in the code number on the remote to
summon up the song.
Gisli and Hairoshe said that the whole idea of karaoke is
release. The salary man - after a tough week - has his beers and food
and then comes here to shed all the tension. Both Gisli and Hairoshe
have fantastic voices, and while Gisli gave splendid performances of
Presley and Springsteen songs, Hairoshe performed many forties and
fifties classics but also treated us to two Japanese traditional
ballads. I did Dylan, the Beatles, and - my cultural contribution -
'Danny Boy'. The two hours - and two bottles of wine - disappeared.
Okay so I was drunk - but I swear it was wonderful fun and I think
there should be karaoke hotels everywhere.
Hairoshe explained that such a night would also function as a
significant step in a business relationship. If you are seeking to do
business with a company, you will meet them formally during the day. If
the company is considering doing business with you, you will be invited
out for such a night so you can be seen with your defences down.
On Saturday, Hairoshe kindly brought me to a nearby town to buy a
few gifts. His mother and Gisli's daughter came also, and after our
shopping we went to a 'lammen' (phonetic spelling) restaurant. This is
a traditional meal they wanted me to taste - noodles in a soup with
beef. It was, of course, delicious.
When we got back home, Hairoshe and his mother gave me gifts. I
was delighted to accept them, and then gave them two very tiny gifts -
a shell I had picked on the beach near my home in Ireland, and daffodil
bulbs bought in a local flower shop in Ireland. This, I realised, was a
very confusing thing to do. I had given them a gift, they had given me
a gift, and now suddenly I had started the cycle again. In an
untypically direct reaction, Hairoshe said "but you already gave us a
gift..." and I explained that this was just a small parting gesture.
Next morning, the mother gave me a small gift of chopsticks.
On Sunday morning I had my last walk, and decided to explore a
road that seemed to be private property - there were signs in Japanese
at either side of the road's entrance. But I noticed that there were
carved rocks - like those in the cemetery - along either side of the
tree-lined road. I wondered if it was a road to another temple. Then I
came to a sign that said, in English, "No.1" and an arrow pointing into
the woods. It looked like perhaps a path to a small shrine and I
wondered if this was some historical site of ancient religious
monuments. I followed the winding muddy path, feeling very reverential,
and reached the first hole of a pitch and putt course.
As I walked away - chuckling - I slipped and fell in the mud.
Driving back to Tokyo with Gisli I realised just how much of the
trip I had missed on the way to Tokato. We passed the beautiful rice
fields while Gisli played a Beatles Anthology CD. About an hour into
the journey, Mount Fuji came into view; in landscape of mountains it
stands close to triple the size of anything else on the horizon.
Visibility was poor, and so it appeared as a hazy image. It reminded me
of the 'deep thought' super computer from Douglas Adam's "Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy". We travelled on and passed through what is
certainly the longest tunnel I have ever been through; six kilometres
Gisli and his wife had very kindly done some research on the
internet and booked me a special deal to spend my one and only night in
Tokyo in the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel overlooking the Shibuya
district - the Times Square of Tokyo. My room was on the 34th floor,
looking down on a scene straight out of the film BLADE RUNNER; two
levels of streets, plus a level for trains. Skyscrapers with vast
television screens, and throngs of people in an ebb and flow at
Gisli, Sagalee, Maieukee and I wandered around the teeming
Shibuya district. And now I have to bring up the subject of fetishism.
Gisli once mentioned to me that the Japanese are the most perverse
people in the world. I had already noticed that, while people in
general dress fairly conservatively, the schoolgirls dress in uniforms
with knee socks and very short skirts. I was surprised to see that on
this Sunday night in the bustling centre of night life there were girls
going around in their school uniforms. We passed a club and I glanced
in to see girls in uniforms and holding school books.
After having a meal with Gisli and his family, they bade me
goodnight and I returned to my hotel room. I sat at the window and
looked down at the amazing sight, and decided that on what might be my
only night ever in Tokyo I should go for another walk. This I did, and
even though I enjoyed coming upon complete and very professional
busking groups with full PA systems - and one band with a horn section
- I still felt that to get the best out of the night I should go back
to my hotel room and just look down on it all. I sat at my window until
midnight, feasting on the amazing beauty of the city scape.
Gisli kindly came to collect me next morning at six o'clock to
help me find my way to the train for the airport. I had heard stories
of the horrors of crowding on commuter trains and was happy to be
leaving the city as commuters would be starting to flood in. As we
stood on the platform waiting for the subway train to the connecting
station for the airport, Gisli told me that at peak times the platform
would be totally filled with commuters waiting to board a train. He
said also that a popular method of suicide had been for a 'salary man'
to throw himself in front of a train. The train company sued the
families of such people, and so the activity had become less popular.
I said goodbye to Gisli and boarded my train to the airport - the
Narita Express. I sat back in the train and watched the show of Tokyo
starting a new day.
I passed the buildings - old, new, tall, gleaming. There was a
tall building called 'Ability Gardens' - I'm not sure if it was an
apartment building or an office block. Okay, so 'ability' and 'garden'
exist as English words. They just don't mean anything when placed
together. But seeing that sign on a huge building in the city just
stuck with me. Like the sign I saw later at a shopping mall; 'get
dream'. It doesn't make sense - and yet its otherness is fascinating
The track passed through train stations that were becoming more
crowded. On the platforms there are men - dressed like policemen and
wielding luminous batons - who guide people into orderly lines. There
are numbers on the ground along the platform showing where the doors of
the halted train will be, and the people queue in clusters at these
numbers. As my train sped past, I was glimpsing commuter trains that
were already full to capacity but with doors opened and more people
It took at least on hour - in a fairly fast train - to clear
Tokyo and reach the surrounding countryside. Within half an hour we
were going through another city - and here again the crowding on the
commuter trains was incredible. The platforms were full of salary men
in their business suits and schoolgirls in their very short skirts. I
saw very few women and very few people in casual dress.
The trip was over. I had spent only six full days in Japan. I had
come back laden down with all kinds of simple things; rice, mushrooms,
teas and other food treats like rice cakes. Plus two tea sets (one I'd
bought, and one a gift from Gisli's in-laws). The trip was so short it
doesn't seem fully real to me - which is why I feel the need to write
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