June 29th, 2008


Lying guides in London

"Welcome to Tokyo! Youkoso!!"

So begins the London-as-Tokyo tour, in front of the Royal Festival Hall, on one of the sunniest days of the summer. Hisae and I are dressed up as North Koreans, and tell our small but faithful audience (a couple of whom are with us, off and on, all afternoon) that we guide half the week "Here in Tokyo", the other half in Pyongyang. "That's an easy job, we just switch on the lights in the city's opulent subway station, full of statues, fountains and chandeliers, give the tourists a glimpse of people getting on and off the train, then usher them back up to street level, making sure to switch off the lights in the subway when the last actor leaves."

Our Tokyo narrative -- interrupted several times by private security spooks from the various South Bank facilities, who approach in shades to tell us "This is private property, mate!" -- is half-realistic, half-Munchausian. Mizutani-San, for instance, describes Chim^Pom's crow project. The artist collective captured crows early in the morning, strung them together in a black cloud, and tied them to a motorbike parked in front of La Foret Harajuku. They were hoping that the crows would be able to lift the motorbike into the sky. In reality it didn't work, but in our version it does, and all distances from that point on are measured "as the crow flies with the motorbike hanging below".

The famous -- well, not-so-famous -- episode of the Hiroshi Fujiwara yellow lapel button is described, too: spotting some Filippino tourists with yellow buttons concealed under their lapels, famous trend scout Fujiwara declared yellow buttons de rigeur, which they were for precisely one month: August 2004.

It was fairly easy to map Tokyo mayor Ishihara's Tokyo Town Hall to London mayor Johnson's bulbous building along the, um, Sumida River. Gesturing towards City Hall, I lie through my gigantic Cold War bullhorn that Ishihara's re-election campaign included the promise to kill post-menopausal women and foreigners. He won easily, I say, defeating rival Kurokawa's architectural plan to make Tokyo a Metabolist utopia, a huge tangle of concrete seaweed rising into the sky. Kurokawa died later under suspicious circumstances, flayed by giant squid. Later there's praise for the yakuza, Japan's racially-blindfolded equal opportunities employer, welcoming Chinese, Koreans and other ethnicities into its ranks without pride nor prejudice.

Waterloo Bridge becomes one of the walkways outside Shinjuku Station, and I produce a fake earthquake resistance certificate which claims the structure can withstand quakes up to 27 on the Richter scale. Mizutani-San and I then describe the tearful televised apology of the construction boss responsible, moving on to descriptions of tearful televised apologies from comedians who've taken underage girls into love hotels (in fact a statutory obligation for Tokyo citizens). Since ruddy-faced ex-Python Michael Palin is signing books nearby, I compare this situation to seeing Palin weeping on TV as he explains that since John Cleese has been caught enticing a teenager into a love hotel, they'll both be quitting as Pythons immediately. I don't think Palin hears.

The National Theatre becomes La Foret Harajuku and I explain that, since in Tokyo the revival cycle isn't our Western ten years but ten minutes, the fashions on display in the boutiques on the first four floors are subject to noisy sales if they don't sell after eight minutes or so and then, if unsold, sent upstairs to the La Foret Museum, where they're exhibited as history.

I describe meeting an old bald pervert in this museum, a man with little round glasses and cow-licked hair -- obviously a pervert, since he's the only male in there apart from me. But when I approach, trying to get some good tips about two-way changing rooms mirrors and upskirt camera angels, I'm pounced on by security: this is actually Japan's premier shibari photographer, Noboyushi Araki. He's passed through various phases of impotence, from bondage to floral photography to, finally, architectural shots of prisons. "If you find yourself getting interested in flowers then flying buttresses," I warn males in the crowd, "you're probably passing through what we call the Araki menopause".

The lunacy continues today: we're on the South Bank from 1 to 6pm.