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Japan Recap – Week 2

Date : December 21, 2018

So after a week of shaking hands, handing cards, bowing, smiling and wearing shirts and jackets, it was time for part of the delegation to go home. Thomas-Louis and Francis went back to QuĂ©bec City, while the rest of us kinda did our own things for most of the rest of the week. Now that the “work” part was done, it was time to see EVERYTHING (in Tokyo at least).

Over the next few days, I went back to a couple of places like Shibuya, Asakusa and Akihabara. The morning was usually spent having breakfast at a near-by coffee shop, while making a rough plan for the day. This meant browsing through a tourist guide from the hotel and cross-checking to see if it matched any of the numerous suggestions I’d gotten from friends, and then plotting a train and subway itinerary. And I was off!

Without going into the details of each and single day, there is one thing that struck me about Tokyo; neighbourhoods have themes. I didn’t know Setagaya was ALL thrift shops (well, not really, but there were a lot) so there I was, browsing through perfectly curated, pristine 90’s sweaters, retro sports vests and knock-off band tshirts. Then, there was book alley, which had a mix of tiny claustrophobic shops and big, beautiful stores that displayed the Japanese’s wonderful sense of graphic design. I bought stationary, needless to say. Akihabara had loud rows of anime video billboards, arcades and a dying breed of electronic shops, tucked inside long, seedy corridors. It was a cyberpunk paradise. And as we would find out on the last night, during a walking tour, Kabukicho had… the “sex” stuff. I’m talking hostess clubs, love hotels, gaudy advertisements, the whole deal.

And then there was Ameyoko street in Ueno, an insane row of tightly packed shops, adjacent an elevated railroad. It was too crowded (and I’m too short) to take any good pictures but I knew that I had found a piece of Tekkonkinkreet’s Treasure Town right there.

Speaking of which, I managed to get my hand on the movie’s white art book, which currently retails at $68, for well under half the price, at Mandarake. I think I spent at least an hour in that manga shop, just… lost in a sort of fog, not able to read any of the books’ spines, angry at their fascination for wrapping EVERYTHING, including books, in plastic sleeves. I had to make some tough budget choices but buying that book in Japan felt really symbolic for me. At that point, I had bought only a few souvenirs for friends, a pair of shoes for me (out of necessity), a bit of art supplies and not much else. In a city where buying stuff seems to be a religion, I can safely say that I at least showed some restraint.

Another highlight of the second week was an impromptu visit at the 21-21 Design Museum in Roppongi. I had no idea what the museum was about and the poster for their ongoing exhibition showed only a clay pot and some writing I obviously couldn’t read. So with a few hours to kill, I went in. The exhibition was about the Mingei movement, a folk art and craft philosophy that values the beauty of simple, well-made everyday objects. While I’m in no way a pottery artist or a wood worker, the objects on display, the beautifully translated accompanying text, and the quotes used throughout the exhibition, touched me in a way I still can’t explain. Maybe being surrounded by noise and people and a LOT of city made me especially receptive, but watching a 20-minute video of a guy weaving a basket and a girl painting on fabric, in a dark museum room, made me teary and provided a much needed break. I got out of the museum, feeling oddly serene, and met up with Gautier–who had been to the Mori museum all day– in a smoky, vaguely european-themed cafĂ©. It was all very artsy.

Two days later, we both decided to go see what I thought would be a Kaneoya Sachiko exhibition at the Vanilla Gallery, but I was a week too late! We went in anyway; the walls were covered from top to bottom by meticulously aligned original manga pages by artist Atsushi Kaneko. And after wandering in awe for a few minutes, I walked into the next room only to find the artist himself, hunched over a Cintiq, drawing. Insane.

At this point, the trip was coming to an end. I was getting a bit homesick, I dreaded the event of (another) earthquake and I longed to be in my own bed. The last event we did was an evening walking tour of Kabukicho, the red light district, and its drinking and social culture. The walk ended at the Golden Gai, an odd, densely-packed shanty-town of micro bars, all with a different theme and a varying level of aversion for foreigners. It was the last night in Tokyo, we had met up with Thierry and Stephanie, it was time for one last beer. We were just getting “comfortable” in the closet-sized drinking hole wistfully named “Not Suspicious”, when two other english speakers (a guy and a girl) came to claim the last two sitting places. After about five minutes of chatting, I discovered they were cartoonists (!), the girl followed me on Twitter (!!) and she was in fact, Natasha Allegri, the creator of Bee and Puppycat. For which series, I did an alternate cover years ago. The world is VERY SMALL.

And the next day, we left.

It’s getting harder and harder to summarize the trip as the weeks pass. There are a few things that stayed deeply engraved in my memory: the weird, informal architecture, the trains, the wires. The smell of cigarettes and cooking oil, the taste of miso. The faces of people we met, the feeling of complete, total humility in front of the work of manga masters like Kim Jung Gi and Mr. Kaneko. The sheer scale of the city that even an avid sci-fi and anime lover such as myself, can’t comprehend. And most of all… knowing that chances like this come around once or twice in a lifetime for an artist. I’m incredibly grateful of having had the chance to visit Japan because of my art, and I hope this experience and the networking we did, will open the door for more artists in the future.

I made a bit of a selfish wish at a shinto shrine but in hindsight, I should’ve added “I can’t wait to come back” before clapping my hands and bowing.