St Patrick’s Festivities

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St Patrick’s Day was a few weeks ago now, but hopefully not too late to read about. The past two years in Japan I just stayed in Kanazawa for St Patrick’s Day and went out for an expensive glass of Guinness with my compatriots. This year, however, I was inspired by my students to mark the occasion properly. In February and March my students were learning about Ireland in their textbook and they had to do a presentation about the country and its culture. It was interesting to see what the students researched; Irish sports like hurling and gaelic football, famous places like the cliffs of Moher and the Giant’s Causeway, foods like Irish stew and soda bread. Because Ireland doesn’t have a traditional costume like the Japanese kimono, some students talked about Irish dancing costumes and Aran jumpers. They were interested to know that Jonathan Swift was Irish because Gulliver’s Travels is a popular children’s book in Japan. I’m glad that they could find out more about Ireland than just our reputation for drinking.

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I’ve never been to the parade in Dublin city because you have to get there early to stake out a spot, transport is difficult and there are a lot of drunk people around. Most years though, I went to my hometown’s parade. Sports teams and various clubs and groups would walk/perform, local businesses would advertise and give out sweets to the kids watching, and vintage car/motorcycle/tractor enthusiasts would drive.

In March there are St Patrick’s Day events held in cities all over Japan, from Okinawa to Tokyo. On Saturday 15th there was a parade in Yokohama and one in Tokyo on the 16th, so I went to the Kansai area to visit both of them. The Irish Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald and the Irish Ambassador John Neary were in attendance.

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The Yokohama parade was held at 1 o’clock in Motomachi, just beside Chinatown. It went down a narrow street so as it went by, it felt like the spectators were part of the parade too. It was only a small parade, but I was very impressed with the groups in it. After the Irish pub sponsors came groups of traditional musicians and dancers, who would pause regularly to play or dance for the crowd. It was how I imagine seeing foreigners in kimono must seem to the Japanese at first – a little uncanny, but great to see people interested in your culture (especially if you don’t appreciate it as much as you should). Some of the musicians were really good, and the little girls doing step dancing were so cute in their outfits.

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There were also non-Irish-related groups in the parade such as a Chinese restaurant, and several marching bands, which added some international flavour, which suited the Yokohama setting. As well as the Chinatown, there’s a US military base and some international schools in the city.

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The biggest St Patrick’s Day parade is in Harajuku, Tokyo, where it has been running since 1992. Unfortunately I missed that parade because I was too busy enjoying the first ever ‘I Love Ireland’ festival in Yoyogi park, just a few minutes away. There was a stage where performers sang, danced or played music, food and drink stands, and stalls selling Irish products or promoting Irish businesses. A lot of people there were wearing green and there was a great atmosphere.

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Colcannon, fish and chips, and … nachos.

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All That Jazz

What I love about Tokyo is the fact that you can just show up one day and in addition to the permanent attractions, there will always be several cool events on. After I had gotten off the night bus and was waiting for Jenny to arrive, I checked what was on that day and saw that there was a students’ jazz festival in Yoyogi Park, and a cocktail event on in the Park Hyatt New York bar! When I met Jenny, we dropped our bags off at the hotel and then went for a wander in Ueno Park, a favourite place of mine, before going to Yoyogi Park to check out the jazz.

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Jazz is quite big in Japan, and there are so many towns around the country that have their own jazz festivals, including my own city of Kanazawa. I don`t know why they like jazz so much, but I think most schools have music clubs and my own school has a brass band who I think are really impressive. Yoyogi Park is a popular hang-out for young people, being right beside Harajuku, and this jazz festival showcased the talents of university students. There were about three different performance spaces where different groups played, and there were the ubiquitous festival food stalls as well. With the cherry blossoms blooming, it was the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

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The bassist is a high-school student (hence the uniform), and hers was the most impressive solo of the group.

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Jenny was still running on adrenaline so we decided to spend the evening in style at the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel, Shinjuku, made famous by the film Lost in Translation. I wanted to go there because on my first night in Japan, one of my compatriots knew that we were staying close to this hotel and wanted to have a drink there. A few of us went along, being unprepared as how to find it and what it was going to be like, so we had a great misadventure getting lost wandering around the high-rises in the maze that is Shinjuku. When we got there we found out that there was a cover charge of ¥2200 (€18) which we were not willing to part with, as the yen we had brought with us had to last us til payday in a month`s time. Instead, we went down to the Peak Bar, just a few floors lower which had the same menu, great views and no cover charge. But when we went in, we thought that we were going to be turned away because of the dress code, as one of our group was wearing shorts. But Japanese hospitality triumphed as they provided him with a pair of black trousers! After changing in the bathrooms, though he was still showing a lot of ankle, we sat down to enjoy an expensive drink and great night views.

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This time though, I had done my research and was prepared. The New York Bar was hosting ‘mixologist’ Jim Meehan from New York speakeasy PDT (Please Don’t Tell), so I thought that it would be a good time to finally visit it. I had originally planned to go early for an aperatif and to be out of there before 8 o`clock to avoid the cover charge. However, with getting the train from Yoyogi back to Ueno, getting dressed up nice (because we wanted to get into the spirit of things) and getting the train to Shinjuku, it was 8 by the time we arrived there. I had debated just going for a look and then leaving, afraid of the potential cost, but we convinced ourselves to stay for the following reasons: 1) it would be nice to experience it once, and properly 2) it was the start of our trip and we still had loads of money and we would probably be slumming it once we got to Shikoku 3) it would be my early birthday celebration.

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I`m so glad we went and stayed to enjoy it. The staff were superb, we had a table by the window looking out at the Tokyo night skyline, amazing drinks and live jazz. I ordered a Lion’s Den, one of the New York specials, a kind of chilli margarita, while Jenny got a Cosmopolitan. We got another round, and because we hadn’t eaten dinner, got a fancy hot dog each too. The jazz singer on the night was a French-Canadian lady, fabulously dressed, and the music was great, really nice to listen to, but not too obtrusive for conversation. We hung out there for a few hours, enjoying the atmosphere. I think the film Lost in Translation is nice to look at and it does manage to convey the bewilderment that comes from visiting an unfamiliar place, but when I watched it again recently I was annoyed by the characters’ disinterest. I can be sympathetic to their dissatisfaction with their aimless lives, but why would they sit facing away from the window?! (I know, I know, it gives us the better view)