Ivan Berry at the Grand Meiji Tori
Discovering The Surprising Soul Of Tokyoby Jeanette Valentine of SoulOfAmerica
I’m in the nosebleed seats of Ryogoku Kokugikan Auditorium in Tokyo, eagerly awaiting my first sumo wrestling match. The city hosts only three Grand Championship Tournaments annually, and my 10-day vacation coincides with the last one of the year. The audience is a sea of Japanese spectators engaged in noisy chatter that I can not comprehend. Thankfully, for the equivalent of $2, the tournament provides transistor radios with play-by-play English translation.
I slip on the headphones and marvel that the warm cadence of the commentator sounds familiar. I don’t know this particular voice, but the laid-back tone and mellow inflections remind me of folks I know back home. I whisper to Ivan, my friend and traveling companion, “This guy’s a brother.”
Sure enough, the voice in my ear describing this most revered of ancient Japanese sports is that of Marvin Dangerfield, an African-American native of Detroit. He talks me through the finer points of the event: how the center stage, dohyo, is a sacred space; how the oversized combatants toss salt in the air for good luck; how the first massive wrestler to push the other from the ring wins and how an average contest lasts fewer than 10 seconds.
Sumo wrestlers headed to Ryogoku Kokugikan
Sumo wrestling completely delights my senses; the action unfolds in an impossibly bright auditorium, the contestants stomp around the stage in bold, colorful loin-cloths, the announcers yell, the audience roars … It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
And that’s the intrigue of Tokyo, a metropolis of 13 million residents living within 800 square miles. Whether it’s eating an octopus egg pizza or watching balloons rain down during a baseball game or buying upscale picnic fare in a department store basement, this city offers you experiences that you can find nowhere else.
And I am pleasantly surprised that Black culture abounds in Tokyo. I spot teenagers wearing Jimmy Hendrix and Black Panther t-shirts, and I find Rastafarian dolls sitting next to Hello Kitty in gift shops. Three of the most popular night spots are clubs with African-American cultural roots: The Blue Note Tokyo, Blues Alley Japan and the Cotton Club Japan. And sumo wrestling commentator Marvin hosts a Sunday afternoon old-school R&B radio show called SoulBlends on InterFM.
“The show is done 90 percent in Japanese,” he says. “But if you can't understand the language, you can understand the music." A recent playlist includes Jeffrey Osbourne, Bobby Brown, Diana Ross and the Dazz Band.
While shopping one day, I even bump into Jeffrey Daniels, the lead singer of the R&B group Shalamar, who has lived in Tokyo on and off for years.
Jeffrey Daniels and Jeanette Valentine in Tokyo
Ivan and I are in Japan visiting Ivan’s childhood friend, Jim, and Jim’s wife, Soyoko. Their hospitality is endless, and we especially appreciate the care they took in crafting an itinerary that immerses us in Japanese culture. On our first day, we go to see the oldest temple in Tokyo, Senso-ji.
Located in Asakusa ward, the expansive temple grounds feature a main hall, gigantic Buddahs, a five-story pagoda and several wells and burning pots, the latter for cleansing. Jim and Soyoko showed us how to ladle well water on our fingers and wave smoke from the pots toward our bodies to purify ourselves before entering the temple. There, we learned to loudly clap three times to gain the dieties’ attention and bow deeply before praying.
Later, we visit Hama-Rikyu Gardens, which lies in the shadow of towering skyscrapers in the Shiodome district. Lush and expertly groomed, the gardens feature wide swaths of manicured lawns edged by meticulously maintained shrubbery, grasses and flowers. Pine trees are abundant, one of which is reported to be more than 300 years old. Foggy mist hangs in the cool air, and we seem to have the place to ourselves. The only sounds are the soft plops of tiny fish jumping in the mirrored water of several ponds.
Giant Buddha in Kamakura
During the week, we explore parts of Tokyo that remind me of distinctive personalities: Shibuya is the hip, too-cool-for-school young go-getter. It’s a fashion mecca for teens and young adults, brimming with a vibrant night life and anchored by a subway station hub that makes the far reaches of the city just a quick train ride away.
Roponggi is the all-things-Western district, home to many foreign embassies and ex-pats. Most of the blues and jazz clubs in Tokyo are here, and the nightlife attracts a slightly older crowd. You’ll hear English spoken more often than not, and billboards hawking every conceivable international brand – McDonald’s, Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café – assault the senses.
A crosswalk in the Ginza District
Ginza is the high-glam, glitzy district, full of luxury department stores and couture shopping boutiques. Ultra-modern and sleek, it’s the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo. But what impresses me most are the department store basements, where you’ll find spacious upscale delicatessen fare. They’re like food courts on steroids – row after row of booths selling sandwiches, salads, soups, sushi, pastries, fruits, vegetables, candies, cakes, coffee, tea…the list goes on and on.
The Kabukiza Theatre looks like a misfit in the ritzy Ginza district. Home to the dramatic art of Kabuki, the building resembles an ancient, ornately trimmed castle that happens to sit near glass-fronted modern art galleries and posh, high-rise department stores. I went solo to see Kabuki, and I was lucky enough to nab one of the last standing-room only tickets.
This theater form is centuries old and features all male casts, with men donning feminine clothing to play the roles of women. All actors are in white make-up, their mannerisms are very dramatic and the plotlines are complicated (from what I can determine given that I don’t speak the language). I’m told that the story is not as important as the brilliant colors of the costumes and intricate details of the sets. It’s an art form that I’m fortunate to have gotten a chance to see.
Kabukiza Theatre in the Ginza District
Several nights later, our venture into Japanese Karaoke surprises me. I expect a dark bar, a grand stage and a line-up of feeble-voiced souls throwing themselves at the mercy of twenty-somethings knocking back thimbles of sake. Instead, Ivan, Jim, Soyoko and I arrive at a Karaoke establishment in Shibuya that looks more like a corporate skyscraper. The building houses dozens of cozy, private lounges that patrons rent by the hour.
A night of Karaoke means gathering with your friends in a concealed space to wolf down burgers and belt out Top-40 hits without an outside audience. The lounges come with a jukebox, a thick songbook of lyrics and wait staff to keep the food and drinks flowing.
For an extravagant Karaoke experience, check out Lovenet in the Hotel Ibis in Roponggi. The venue’s 24 rooms include a two-person romantic Morocco Suite with archways and a padded floor for reclining and a white, mod Aqua Suite that accommodates 14 vocalists, six of whom can share the room’s enormous bathtub at any one time.
One evening, we take in a Tokyo Yakult Swallows baseball game at Meiji Jingu Stadium. As we expect, this “all-American” sport looks the same in Japan as it does in the United States. But the 7th-Inning Stretch takes us completely by surprise.
7th Inning Stretch at the baseball park
When we entered the stadium, staff members were handing out long, thin balloons that had yet to be blown up. At the beginning of the seventh inning, everyone in the audience of almost 40,000 takes out balloons, blows them up to near bursting and holds the end closed. At the exact same time, the announcer signals for everyone to let go of the ends. Massive streaks of yellow, blue, green and red zip across the sky over the stadium as the balloons deflate. It’s the best baseball game diversion ever.
All too soon, it’s my last day in Tokyo. Ivan had flown home a few days earlier, and so I’m on my own. I drag myself out of bed at 4 am, determined to cross the last must-see item from my vacation list. Never mind that I don’t eat fish, that the wind is howling, that the rain is falling, that the only shoes I’d brought were black sandals. I am determined to see Tsukiji (pronounced Skee-Jee), the largest fish market in the world.
More than 2,000 tons of fish and other marine life are bought and sold in Tsukiji every day. White tubs hold sleek, slithery, squirmy eels in burgundy water; blood red octopi with meaty, curling tentacles rest in tanks; piles of just-caught big-eyed fish in reds, oranges and purples lay across chopping blocks, some still flailing and gasping for air. Thwack! I jump a mile when one worker near me brings a huge cleaver down to lop off the head of a 50-pound marlin.
A large tuna head at Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukkiji is not for the faint-heated.
The air rings with long beeps from heavy trucks backing up and short horn blasts from workers whizzing left and right on motorized carts coming this close to, but never actually, plowing into the steady stream of tourists.
A daily pre-dawn tuna auction draws huge crowds. The heavy fish, covered in frost and marked with large red Japanese characters, are lined up in perfect rows like frozen white baby torpedoes. The auctioneer stands on a wooden crate and barks out prices in a rapid, seductive rhythm, each cadence ending with a loud, staccato “HEY!” for a few bars, then “HO!” for a few more. He stomps one foot to keep time as dozens of men surround him, nodding or gesturing to indicate a bid.
It’s a fitting way to end my stay in Tokyo. I am in the midst of a market that sells food I do not eat, surrounded by people speaking a language I do not understand. Yet, I feel as if I’m an integral part of the surroundings. As with each of my experiences in Tokyo, the culture holds me in its embrace. And I believe I will remain there, even after I travel 5,000 miles to return home.
A mini-shrine on parade