land of the RISING SUN
Sorta like the Olympics, the World Cup, or a Presidential Election (unless you live under the rule of a brutal dictator) The Metropolitan Opera visits the island nation of Japan every four or five years. I always look forward to visiting the Land of the Rising Sun, and even though the country had just faced incredible loss and destruction, this most recent tour was no exception. When our charter 747 (aka the party plane) touched down in Nagoya, I don’t think many of us realized how important it was that we actually showed up. Witnessing the strength and resilience of the Japanese people was inspiring, but the appreciation and hospitality displayed for us being there was incredible. Hey man, if Justin Bieber is man enough to go there, what’s your excuse?
Our first week was spent in Japan’s fourth largest city, Nagoya. Upon arrival at the Tokyu Hotel, we were greeted by a large section of their staff (or possibly some hired actors who put on chef hats because really, who was cooking?) And speaking of cooking, while the main purpose of our visit was of course to perform for the Japanese public, one of my favorite things about visiting Japan is the food. The quality of the ingredients, the unique preparation, and the pride that is taken in serving each meal is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Even if you’re just having a little ramen on the corner, it’s pretty hard to find a bad meal anywhere. Though I had many fantastic dinners in Nagoya, the most memorable of them was a Taiwanese place called Din Tai Fung. When it comes to soup dumplings, the standard for me has generally been Joe Shanghai in New York. As good as Joe’s is, I found Din Tai Fung to be in another stratosphere of yummy. I was happy to learn that there were two other Din Tai’s to look forward to in Tokyo, as well as two others on American soil. One in LA (where I’m going next week to have more dumplings!) and apparently now in Seattle as well. If you live near one, I highly recommend that you go.
Among many other wonderful things in Japan are its infrastructure and its citizens. Thing just work there. Period. Whether it’s a sharp and efficient subway system that’s quiet, or a public restroom that is so clean it appears brand new, things work impressively well (plus they have the most advanced toilets on the planet and taxi cabs with doors that open and shut, hands free). The people are so respectful of visitors that it’s almost impossible to get them to say no. You might get a nervous uhhhhh (which means no) but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever encounter the classic can you tell me where Broadway is or should I just go fuck myself? There are extremes of course, like waiting at a don’t walk sign to cross a small street when there isn’t a car to be seen for miles, but after the earthquake and tsunami if you watched any news of people waiting in line for relief supplies (single file, patient, calm), you would’ve seen a respect for the fellow man that is rarely seen these days.
Tokyo. The final two weeks of the tour were spent in a city that I love. The analogy I’ve often used for people who’ve never had the opportunity to visit Tokyo is that it’s sort of like going to the set of Blade Runner. Walking around Shinjuku or Shibuya, I basically expect a droid to pass by or a flying car to soar overhead (if I had a jet pack I would totally fly back and forth from one Din Tai Fung to the other). Making our visit even more grand was that for the second tour in a row, we were lucky enough to stay at one of my favorite hotels in the world. Hotel Okura. It’s where James Bond wishes he could have stayed in You Only Live Twice. A place so swinging 60’s, from the restaurants to the spas to the shopping, that if you were old enough, it just might feel like being awakened from a cryogenic freeze.
Back to food! Among the many all star meals I had in Tokyo, from a Met Opera loving “Italian” place in Harajuku, to the flames of teppanyaki at the Okura, to a birthday dinner at Nobu, it was somewhat surprising to me that, yup you guessed it, the soup dumplings took the top prize again. I think it’s highly conceivable that they put crack in them. Ok, enough, you get the point…..
Lastly, and quite possibly the most shocking to me, was that I spent 3 days of the tour playing golf. Or at least attempted to. After experiencing a less than stellar course with my friends David Chan and Anthony McGill, David decided to get serious. He found a Jack Nicklaus course up in the mountains that looked beautiful, but the problem was that it seemed a little too far to travel for a day trip. OH WAIT. I FORGOT JAPAN HAS THE MOST ADVANCED, KICK ASS RAILWAY SYSTEM IN THE WORLD! The bullet train got us there in an hour. Haruna no Mori (as in I have no mori golf balls because I shanked them all into the woods) is a paradise. Picture the most beautiful parts of the Pacific Northwest of the United States; evergreen and pine forests, misty blue mountains with distinctly jagged peaks, and a river flowing through a hilly course that is perfectly maintained. It was so fairytale-esque that we even encountered a creature we’d never seen before, a Japanese Raccoon Dog. WTF you say? Look it up.
Golf in Japan is done differently, both in pace and in style. Where as most of the world tries to squeeze in a quick round or plays half of a course before zipping off to an appointment, the Japanese make it an all day affair. There is an hour long break for lunch and upon completing the round, you enjoy a traditional Japanese bath, hot tub and all. This is decadence at it’s peak. We loved it so much that we went back a few days later for an encore! Courtesy of my friend Owen, is a picture below of how the course apparently looked to me. My score was poor!
PS: We did actually play some music on tour! Verdi’s Don Carlo, Puccini’s La Boheme, Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor, and a symphony concert at the great Suntory Hall. If the performances brought even the slightest distraction or hint of joy to the people of Japan, then the tour was a great success. For me, I will simply remember the gracious people, the top shelf food, and the incredible country that is Japan. I ended my stay the way I always do: bar hopping all night in Roppongi, followed by a 5am sushi breakfast at the famous fish market. What better way to finish the tour and prepare for a long flight home?