Tanteidan : Tokyo 2005

outside the JOAS shop/officeDave Brill and I set off at 9:30 on Wednesday but due to the time difference and a transfer in Paris we didn’t arrive in Tokyo until 8 o’clock the next day. The first thing that hit us as we left the plane was the amazing heat – it was just like entering a sauna bath. We took the train into the centre of Tokyo (an hours journey) then took a taxi to the JOAS gallery House where we met Yamaguchi and his staff. The room was full of beautiful Origami and made by folders from all around the world. We were both very tired and had a couple of hours’ sleep before going out for a meal and of course a couple of beers!

The convention was held in the University of Tokyo and started on the Friday afternoon with General introductions and joy of joys, a 45 minute speech from yours truly! This was based round a power point presentation translated by Hatori Koshiro in which I explained about my origami philosophy, folders that I admired and a little bit of personal history. My fellow guest Jason Ku, gave a short speech then we sat down to enjoy a presentation by Matt from Folding Australia. This was about an amazing exhibition they had organised where a life-size origami house was constructed using special modular bricks designed by Steven Casey.

The next presentation was by ?? who has developed special software for use in origami. He showed how this software had developed to become quite a sophisticated system capable of producing patterns which, when we cut out, could be assembled into almost any shape required. As an example he showed us some beautiful female forms, a dinosaur and comic duck.

Anne LaVin shoppingI sleep the sleep of the dead until around 9.30 when a phone call reminds me I should have a) had breakfast at 8 and b) should have been at the Origami Gallery House by 9.30. The splendid Sakamoto woman calls for me and we catch up with the others as the white paper shop. This is an extraordinary place, as far removed from a conventional shop as you can imagine. It is a plain white room, with all the walls formed from thin drawers containing paper. In the centre of the room are many display cases containing thousands of sheets of paper of every hue and texture. The idea is to choose the paper type, then hand them in at the counter and specify how large a sheet we require. 45 minutes slips happily by until the schedule obliges us to make our minds up and place orders. Since we are all asking for large sheets, we arrange a time later in the week to collect them. Back to the Origami Gallery House for a quick break from the sweltering humidity, then off to the convention, a 10 minute walk away.

Most of the JOAS board are present, each busy with several tasks at once. They include; Yamaguchi Makoto, Nishikawa Seiji, Maekawa Jun, Hatori Koshiro, Hojyo Takashi, Kamiya Satoshi, Kimura Yoshihisa and Komatsu Hideo, Tateishi Koichi & Miyuki Kawamura. The room is a large lecture theatre with three display screens showing videos and the weekends schedule. Many, many people are in attendance!.

Matt Gardiner (www.airstrip.com) gives a highly animated presentation about a project his Folding Australia group have completed, the construction of a life-size origami house. The talk is partially in Japanese and highly entertaining. Their group are still in their infancy, but seem to have a team capable of great things. They have managed to get some of the “veteran” folders on board, included the talented Steven Casey, who designed the “brick” from which the house was built. (www.papercrane.org)

origami floats on boiling meat stewIn the evening, we go to a Chinese restaurant where I encounter the first of many blank looks as I try to explain the concept of vegetarianism to the waiters. Veggies are an unknown quantity in Japan, especially “proper” ones who don’t eat fish. The difficulty seems to be that whilst I’m more than happy with rice, noodles, a few vegetables and some tofu, the restaurants don’t consider that a proper dish and feel they would be short-changing me. Yamaguchi works his wonders and everyone is happy. The Japanese are delighted to notice that my names sounds very like “niku”, the word for meat. The concept of a “vegetarian called meat” prompts them to come up with a variety of puns that are way above my head. It’s wonderful to see the Japanese on their home ground where they can relax and stretch out a little – I begin to understand why they seem so baffled/reserved when attending a British convention – it really is a different world here.

I rose early next morning and sampled my first Japanese breakfast which consisted of rice and soup, quite a change from my normal peanut butter and cheese on toast! We arrived early so I could fold examples of models I’m going to teach. The JOAS way is for people to see all the models on offer, then queue up to book the sessions they would like to attend. Once the tickets for that session are gone, that’s it for that class, so it’s a good idea to have “standby” classes chosen, just in case. Several people are available to keep law and order during booking, one of them looking suspiciously like a night-club bouncer! It seems like hard work to someone raised on the informality of BOS conventions, but with over 200 people in attendance, a system like this is essential, even if it does take most of the morning! I’m due to teach two sessions at 1 and 4pm, so select other classes in my free periods.

me, teachingMy first class is a couple of dishes. June Sakamoto has the privilege of translating and does her best to communicate my vague English humour. I like my classes to be part workshop where people can chip in with their thoughts or suggestions for improvements, alternative ways of folding etc. but the class is unfailingly polite to me and hang on my every word – quite unsettling! They all complete the designs with little difficulty and throughout the weekend, I’m very impressed with the high level of technical ability the attendees have. Clearly they are members of JOAS due to their serious interest in folding and they are a pleasure to teach.

I join Jun Maekawa’s “dolphin” class next and take pleasure in seeing the man, clearly capable of technical marvels, is equally happy with a relatively simple, stylised design. The class is conducted in Japanese, but I have no difficulty with the clear demonstration. I take the next session “off” and chat to some of the small group of English speakers who are gathered in the lower-left corner of the room. Those in attendance during the weekend included Martin Lui, Matt Gardiner and the delightful My Trinh Ha from Australia, June Sakamoto, Elsa Cheng, Anne LaVin and Jason Ku from America. Three folders from Singapore were also there, Chan Yew-Meng, Benjamin Tan Yeow-Yong and Tuck-Wai Choy. We are constantly approached by old and new friends from Japan, who shower us with gifts and compliments.

two kaijin My second class is based around wet-folding. Yamaguchi kindly organises a number of large buckets(!) and cloths. I pass around squares of canson paper that I brought, but we also use suitable home-grown paper. Hatori Koshiro translates for me and once again does a fine job with what is probably sub-standard and rambling English! We fold my “baby bird” and something else that escapes my mind. The trip is such an awesome experience, I’m hard pressed to talk about any of it even a week later in any kind of detail without my collection of digi-camera shots! There’s no time for jet-lag to kick in as we race back to the hotel for a shower (pretty pointless as we’re hot and bothered again with 5 minutes of leaving the air-conditioned hotel!) then head back to the top floor of the University for the evenings entertainments.

The room has a truly spectacular view of central Tokyo and we can even make out Mount Fuji in the far distance. We eat and drink our fill until it’s time for Jason and I to be presented with our Issei Yoshino awards. Without these considerable sums of money, neither of us would have been able to attend and we give humble thanks to JOAS and the Issei family for their generosity. Shinji Nishikawa (younger brother of Seiji) had kindly arranged for an amplifier and guitar to be available, so I could do a short set using my ambient looping technology. I’ve always felt my music would suit a Japanese audience and it appears to be so. Next comes a novelty competition where we are encouraged to make a 2 piece modular star using a knife and fork. Despite winning my heat, I somehow seem to miss out on the final, where fellow Brit Brill fails to uphold the honour of the BOS and is the last to complete. Shinji then gives a display of virtuoso harmonica playing before we duet on a rousing version of “Stand by me”.

More fun and games follow, including a fireworks display on the other side of Tokyo (perhaps not entirely for our benefit) and several rounds of Jan Ken Pon (known as scissors-paper-stone to me) where I delight in beating Yamaguchi-san to win two bottles of wine. Afterwards, a small group of us try out a genuine Karaoke bar, where we delight the locals (and vice versa) with our renditions of classic songs. There is a battered old acoustic guitar, so I get away without doing much vocalising). A wonderful experience and so far away in mood from the drunken excuses for karaoke that we have in England.

Satoshi with friendSunday came all too soon. It attended a class my Myuki Kawamura where six sheets of a deceptively simple crease pattern should have yielded a beautiful polyhedron, but my flagging brain and fingers couldn’t manage it. I also sat in on Martin Lu’s “Jackstone” class, where I was amazed to see just how quickly people figured out what was going on, including a highly gifted young girl who looked about 8 years old! My classes went well, with more dishes, a dissection puzzle and a pecking pteranodon on offer. I had yet another wonderful translator.I even did a bit of book signing, always a pleasure.

The exhibition tables were upstairs and each model had a choice of 3 possible stickers to be added to the display area – no touching, no photographs and no publishing on the internet. The latter two were new to me and slightly saddening – I can’t imagine wanting to prevent people taking photos of my models, indeed, I’m always delighted that they might want to, providing it is for their own personal use. The “no publishing” is clearly in response to the scant consideration for copyright and “good origami manners” that has seen places like e-bay offer a constant stream of e-books of stolen material. What a shame that the facility for sharing origami over the internet is abused so blatantly. However, the standard of the exhibits was very high, as you might expect with such talented folders. It is the first time I’ve had chance to study the works of Hojyo-san and they combine advanced technique with the highest artistic interpretation – in a word, stunning.

My last class was the final session, so we gathered back in the main hall for closing speeches, lost property announcements and to see the winners of the auction items. There was a wonderful episode where a very young boy took on all comers to bid for a rare book, clearly working the crowd and using every advantage his youth gave him to win. So, the end came to a tiring but fascinating weekend. For some of us, the fun was only just beginning as Yamaguchi-san took some of us for a 3 day tour of the country, where we got to see sights that typical Western tourists might miss out on. Highlights (there were many!) included a trip to the EXPO festival, a visit to a paper museum and an extraordinary evening where all the men wallowed naked in an open-air pool, on top of the hotel. I enjoyed it so much, I went back for more before going to bed – looking across the nearby lake under the stars was a moment I’ll never forget.

Finally, a word on cicadas. These extraordinary creatures were completely new to me and I was enthralled. They live underground as beetles for around 17 years, then emerge in huge numbers at a given time. No sooner have they emerged, they shin up a tree and the body splits to allow the adult flying form to emerge. Now the fun really starts, because each of them has their own (loud) sound and Tokyo was literally crawling with them, in every tree and many other places besides. The sound was extraordinary and it took me a long while to realise it was electrical hum or some other mechanical sound. A student presented me with a dead one as a gift (my wife was delighted) and I managed to find an empty shell still attached to a leaf. Kamiya-san proved adept at leaping up tree-trunks and catching them in his hand – I have a video to prove it! For more info, videos, sound etc, see www.cicadamania.com

I recently discovered a write-up of my goings-on after the convention, so I may as well share them, even though they are social rather than origami related

There are a number of ways in which the visitor to Japan can embarrass themselves and I thoroughly recommend you do a bit of background reading to identify the obvious ones. If you get the chance to wear a yakata (a traditional dressing gown) then for goodness sake make sure you put the left side over the right and not vice versa, which is how dead people are laid out. A similar faux-pas opportunity exists if you stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice. This too is linked with funerals. Other chopstick no-nos include passing food from one person to another, licking/biting them and spearing your food. On the up side, shovelling food into your mouth with them is fine, as is slurping noodles, a practise actually encouraged!

Pointing in not acceptable, neither is blowing your nose in public, farting, or using a cloth handkerchief. A nice feature is that other people should derive pleasure from filling your glass (and you should return the compliment). Remember also that the Japanese don’t like to say “no”. They may say “yes” but mean the opposite, so you should pay close attention to how the conversation is going! They also take every little request very seriously, so don’t say “I like that model of Godzilla” unless you’re prepared to accept it as a present. Think very carefully before making a request, since your host will be obliged to honour it, at whatever the cost. Any present should be wrapped carefully before giving and any gifts should be received with both hands, a bow and a look of great appreciation. Meeting strangers will often result in being given a business card. Accept it, admire it and return your own card.

The trip
We rose early on Monday, to gather at the Origami Gallery House for our trip. Two smallish vans were enough to take the party and our drivers were the indefatiguable Yamaguchi and his friend ????. Tokyo is a LARGE place, the largest mega-city in the world with 35 million inhabitants. These means that any trip out of the city requires something like an hours driving just to reach the outskirts. That’s assuming the traffic is flowing smoothly. Such journeys require frequent breaks, so the Japanese have a series of small shopping centres for this purpose, each with their own identity and specialisms. The first one saw many of us enter into “shopping” mode (not for the first time, it must be said!) and picked up beetle puzzles (Mushiking, King of Beetles!), Hello Kitty keyrings and a plastic sumo wrestler who, when pressed, shouts out “kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill arrrrrgggghhhh” – irresistible, you’ll surely agree. The next stop off was by the coast and we saw a number of huge butterflies and other creepy-crawlies, as well as a Japanese bakery, whose wares we sampled avidly. The sun was breaking through the mist and the general atmosphere was hot and humid.

Our van had Yamaguchi-san driving, June Sakamoto, Dave Brill, Martin Liu, Anne Lavin, Matt Gardiner and My Trinh Ha. We whiled away the hours regaling each other with jokes which ranged from the bad to the awful. I have to claim my fair share and utterly ruined the image Martin had of me (gleaned from my emails to ori-l) of bookish and respectable. (cough). We drove to ?? and visited the Mino Washi Paper Museum – this is the museum of paper at Mino, the paper making district, with a tradition dating to 1300. They were running a display of “action” toys made from paper and there were some intriguing exhibits on display. The upstairs level contained archives of many types of washi paper and examples of room dividers and wall-coverings. The lower section had a shop with lots of goodies on display. We spent a happy hour browsing and folding little models for the friendly staff there.

On leaving, the weather was rather overcast and we only stopped for two things, to take photos of a bridge in Mino which had cranes in the design, plus an unscheduled stop to admire a field with disembodied heads used as scarecrows. Oh yes, we nearly ran over two monkeys as well! The plan had been to eat our evening meal on a boat, watching traditional cormorant fishing, but the level and turbulence of the water ruled that out. So, we went to the hotel for that night, a place called ??? .This was a traditional Japanese venue and we were expected to observe various social codes whilst there. One was to remove our shoes and slip into the slippers provided. Mine covered approximately half of my size 11 feet. In order to prepare for our evening meal, we squeezed (literally) into the yakakata (dressing gowns) provided and went to the bathing area. The first task was to strip off and balance our backsides on a tiny wooden table (not easy!) and wash all our nooks and crannies. This done, we could move into the communal hot spring baths, one indoor, the other outdoor. This proved to be a superbly relaxing experience and believe me, there’s no better way to get to know people than to share a bath with no clothes on!

Suitably cleansed, we filed into the eating area and attempted (with varying degrees of success) to kneel down to eat. My yakata wasn’t quite doing the cover-up job it should and a tiny lady in a kimono came over with a small white towel which she placed over the offending area. The chef had been forewarned that there was a veggie gaijin to be dealt with and by & large the food I had was fish free. Brilly had warned me that it took him several trips to Japan to really appreciate the food and I have to say it was hard work identifying things. I probably managed half of what was on offer and passed several fishy objects on to fellow eaters.

After the meal, we had a demo of the cormorant fishing that we would have been watching. A rugged geezer in traditional dress showed us how his cormorant had a choker at the base of the neck which allowed it to breath, but not to swallow the fish. They could apparently catch fish at the rate of one every minute! They are allowed to eat one every now and again to keep them keen. We all had a photo-shoot with fisherman and bird. After this, I went back for another bath, this time almost alone in the dark at 10pm. A superb experience.

Up bright and early, we headed off to the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, (see www-1.expo2005.or.jp) where we left the van and queued for a coach that took us to the entrance. Following strict instructions a) not to get lost and b) to be back on time, we divided into smaller groups to wander around the amazing range of exhibits. Martin and Anne were with me as we entered the zones that had no queues (Turkey, Bulgaria, Indonesia etc). These in the main were thinly veiled tourist adverts, but some of them had themes that were of interest, one being art and geometry. The Irish zone had no Irish manning it and the English zone had one guy who claimed to be a Brit, but had a marked German accent. The queues for Italian and French cafes were huge, so we found a small pizza stall and sat in the gentle rain to enjoy a break.

The place was huge, with overhead cable cars, monuments, huge lakes and all kinds of other attractions. After lunch, we headed up into the wildlife area, where we slowly wandered through woodlands admiring the cicadas and other wildlife. We saw a “traditional” Tea house, a series of exhibits of paper artwork, then stopped to watch a puppet theatre with traditional Japanese music being played and sung live. Martin wanted to buy a pearl necklace for his wife (in the end, I think he bought an Ipod for himself!) so I went back to check out the “bio-lung” at 150 meters long and 12 meters high, a wall filled with 150,000 plants. Nearby there was some theatre/dance with a small orchestra, but time was a bit tight, so I headed back. On the way there was a display of kodo drumming, which I simply had to stop and watch. The power, grace and excitement of these musicians is a joy to behold.

After a final bought of shopping, we returned to the van and drove on to our venue for the night, a large building facing the ???lake. More goodies were on sale in the foyer (more Hello Kitty goods, some colourful food and rubbery balls that lit up when you moved them, all had to be purchased. The traditional baths here were even better, with a spectacular view of the lake as the sun set. During the evening meal, there was a firework display on the other side of the lake, by an impressive fun fair. We took a few cans of beer back to the room where 6 of us shared floorspace.

The final day of our trip was a slow saunter back to Tokyo, calling by stopping at a traditional fish market. After passing a couple of stalls, my veggie instincts obliged me to wait outside and admire the mountains nearby. Next, we called at a tiny country village called ?? where there was a “hands-on” craft centre. You could browse through dozens of craft projects, then choose one to have a go at yourself. Feeling lazy, I wandered about the village with My Trinh. We were amazed to find an antiques shop with, of all things, a soda siphon! (I collect these, or rather, used to!). Sadly a lady came down from upstairs and told us the place was closed. We explored more and found a field full of goats. All the while, the incessant hum of the cicadas. It was as close to the countryside as I’d been and the atmosphere was breathtaking.

As well as a collection of huge beetles (both living and dead) the centre had a large gift shop, where several million more yen were handed over. Little fish that opened their mouths when you pull the tail? A must have. Twirly flying wooden things? Unmissable. The restaurant Yamaguchi-san had chosen for lunch was closed, so we tried another nearby. This turned out to be something different – they served dishes all of which were based on some kind of potato – quite rare apparently. We all doffed shoes and adopted the kneeling position with varying degrees of success. The food, whilst filling, still didn’t quite set off firecrackers with my palate.

Next stop was Shizuoka??? Where we visited the shop belonging to Yamaguchi-san’s wife. Huge quantities of wonderful paper and related gifts. Again, we were simply obliged to spend more yen. A real treat was in store next, as the weather cleared enough for us to see Mount Fuji – an awesome sight. We pulled in a garage for a photo shoot. Next was an extraordinary place where one of the underwater streams from Mount Fuji emerged, some 20 miles away. Just down from the roadside we saw a few innocent looking pools of water, where the ground was bubbling like a small volcano. No more than 20 yards later, a river 30 foot wide was in full flood. Kamiya-san showed his talent for plucking live cicadas from the sides of tree-trunks – he really does have an affinity with insects. We all venture out for another Chinese meal (it’s the only place where we can find enough places at short notice) then it’s back to the hotel to crash out.

Back in town, we decide some more sightseeing is in order, so head off to a shopping centre where there is an impressive (if rebuilt) temple with large metal bowls full of joss sticks. The rain buckets down, but regular purchases (including an XXL yakata for myself) keep us happy. We call by to the ?? paper shop, perhaps the most impressive collection of specific origami paper I’ve ever seen. Plus, they offer Yamaguchi-san a discount for all his guests! We’re like kids in the sweetie shop. I have to dash back to the hotel, since I have an appointment with Katsuo Morita and Nobuko Okuno of Japan Publications, who wants to discuss a possible book with me. They collect me from the hotel and I spend a half-hour talking about possibilities. Their immediate schedule of origami books is full, but they are keen to start working with me in late 2006. I’m delighted and look forward to my first book in Japanese.

Morita-san kindly drives me to rejoin the others at a department store called Tokyu Hands, with 7 floors or virtually everything you could wish to buy. The highlight for me is a machine that mixes and automatically stacks tiles for Mah Johng, but I forgo this and buy a small paper-cutter in the shape of a crane. Martin and I check out camera shops (his request and mime for a “monopod with extending legs” has to be seen to be believed. Anne and Elsa warn us about travelling by tube during rush hour, but we strike lucky and find a train with empty seats! Throughout my visit, the quality of the tube service is extraordinary. Fast, frequent and reasonably priced.

Friday is designated as shopping day, Anne and Elsa guide us firstly to collect our mountain of paper from the ?? shop, which we drop off at Origami Gallery House. Next we visit yet another shop chock full of dirt-cheap goodies of all kinds. We stock up with more paper, stickers, Hello Kitty goodies and so forth. Next is a Chiyogami shop where there are examples of many different utility and decorative items that you buy in kit form, together with sheets of chiyo with which to cover them once you’ve built them. Upstairs is an extraordinary selection of different types of this attractive paper. We spend a happy half-hour looking for a restaurant that Anne recommends, only to find it has closed down. Instead, we go into an Italian and have fairly western-style food. In the afternoon we check out a wonderful toy shop where I invest heavily in some Godzilla models.

Saturday sees Elsa and I shopping alone, in an area called “Electric City”, mile after mile of electrical/audio/camera shops. I’m on the hunt for a couple of mini Ipods and a digi camera. It proves to be hard work, since they same items are on sale everywhere and it’s tricky to work out the best prices. Eventually I track them down and am embarrassed to find my card is accepted (I suspect I’ve worn it out!) but Elsa kindly covers the bill for me. Next we cacth the train to look around Yokohama, where Elsa will be attending a Sci-Fi Con next year. Like the rest of Tokyo, it’s a never-ending parade of buildings, shops and electrical pylons. We go for an evening meal in a restaurant called “The Thong”! We get back to the hotel late and head straight for our rooms.

Sunday morning and we have a few hours to pass the time until we go to collect Brilly from the station. Elsa and I walk around the back streets behind the hotel and find some serisously old buildings to photo. We also see lots of flowers and greenery carefully cultivated on people’s doorsteps. One plant has a hummingbird moth fluttering around, a rare sight. We revisit the 100 Yen shop to buy the rest of their origami paper and plenty of other low-price necessities. We check our suitcases out and Yamaguchi-san collects us in his brand new gleaming white BMW to drop the bags off at the Origami Gallery House. We then collect Brilly and drive on to collect June Sakamoto and Kamiya-san from an impressive skyscraper where they have been teaching origami to the good and the great of Tokyo. We stop for a quick noodle bar visit, then a final visit to the Gallery House to meet the slightly smaller crowd who are going out tonight with us. As it’s our last night, we treat ourselves to a slightly more upmarket meal, served in the traditional “shabu shabu” style. This involves boiling water in the centre of the table, then dropping meat and vegetables into it and cooking on the spot. I endure more good-natured ribbing about my name and eating habits (including vocal appreciation of the food in a style reserved for sumo wrestlers!).

Our time is rapidly running out and all too soon, Brilly and I catch the train to the airport, only to find we’re way over the weight limit and are asked to pay £546 surcharge! Sadly, we abandon a few heavy packs of paper (a gift to the checkout girl) and I persuade them to let me carry more as hand luggage. The surcharge halves and we bite the bullet and pay it. The trip back is slightly easier since we manage to get seats at the front of the aisle, where there’s a bit more leg-room. From time to time we go walkabouts to gaze out of the back window where we travel for hours over the frozen tundra and the Urals – an extraordinary wasteland. The journey through Paris Charles De Gaulle airport is mercifully quick (since we decide to walk and not take the chaotic bus) and despite a short delay, we’re home in Blighty more or less on time. My ever-lovely wife collects us and my extraordinary adventure is over.