Japan - Into the fire

I didn’t know how we would make it in Japan and was nervous. I was hardly even convinced they would let us in. This was not a holiday even though we were determined to enjoy ourselves but we needed to make a lot of money and fast, so it’s a lot of pressure. With such a high cost of living we had to be prepared and really get going straight away. If we start to fail or get stopped what the hell would we do? ‘Teach English’, Julia said, ‘bugger that!’ I said back. People had told us they would even check us on the way into the country to make sure we had enough money to cover the time of our intended ‘holidays’. Fortunately they didn’t do such a thing and we got a good feeling at immigration even with a nice smile back from the girl at customs searching our bags looking at our juggling fire torches and knives. It was a good first impression and they stamped our passports with 3 month visas no questions asked.

The philosophy of street shows

  The good thing about the street show plan of travelling is that you can always start right away anywhere in the world.  No looking for vacancies or interviews just find a good spot and go for it. It’s not easy though as you have to get a busy enough but safe place which can take time unless you have prior knowledge. Then you have to show that you are somehow special, unusually freaky or just very talented and good. You will get only what you are truly worth on any given day at any particular place, but that is your big strength and makes you try harder. People always love the thrill of watching something real. Maybe they have been in the office all day and will watch TV or be in a bar all night but for 15 minutes in between they might be surprised to be entertained by something actually happening in front of their eyes. Live entertainment! We were shouting, as we set up our props in this strange new country.

Confidence is the key. Even if you are not that good on a given day you still have to act like you are. An Isreali girl I knew from Goa just put her music on and danced in the street like she would normally at a party. She was so happy in herself and giving such positive energy that she made people feel good for a minute and they gave her some money then carried on. She was a fantastic dancer and very beautiful with a masses of blond curly hair which may have helped but it was still busking and as always an Instant reflection. Anybody who tries it will quickly learn that this type of performing is the most honest thing you can do as an entertainer. Unlike a gig which you get a pre arranged fixed amount so if you are not that good on the day it doesn’t matter. This way if you are not performing well or in a bad mood you won't get paid. It’s a very real and harsh lesson when it doesn’t work.

Psyche and burn

We ran around the city like headless chickens for a day or two and found a possible spot in Shinjuku, a lively red light area of Tokyo with lots of bars, night clubs, restaurants and love hotels. It was a slightly open area away from the traffic where we could gather a crowd so quite good and no one seemed to mind. We soon realized that every time we attempted to speak Japanese the crowd would start laughing. It was unlike performing in other countries and we also soon noticed that the people loved the dangerous bits more than anything! Just like England in modern Japan life had become just a bit too efficient, predictable and safe. This suited us perfectly and we became even more stupid and spontaneous than normal. So it would be comedy and danger packed in continuously for an intense 15 minutes. That’s what would work here, all action for the half drunk crowd and no dry moments. People should either be amused, scared or worried all the time so they can’t bare to walk away. They have to get to the next bar after all but we have to slow them down or better still, stop them completely for just 10 or 15 minutes.

We loved working at night especially for tipsy merry people. At one point in the show I would make a huge drama about putting a juggling fire torch down my trousers and slowly but surely bringing it out the bottom of the tight trousers still alight. What I said in Japanese translated as “there is a very hot stick in my pants!” It’s just not something a Japanese guy would say which is why it would always make people laugh. Making fools out of ourselves was key because Japanese can’t do that like we can! It’s a different style and a cultural thing. We were ‘exotic’ and different and I got the feeling like people actually even ‘liked us.’

Julia and I were good in different ways but we matched each other in ‘let’s just try it then’ experimentality. We were making between 200 and 400 US$ every night and when the weekend came we made more. Every time we counted the money I would gloatingly convert it into Indian rupees in my head then imagine how many veg thali’s we could get. They even closed the big main road in Shinjuku at weekends just for buskers it seemed so we could work during the day as well. There would be a dozen or more performing artists and groups (mostly Japanese) turning up on that day. It was great to see the local performers and so the show got better as we tweaked it for Japanese tastes. Both Julia and I agreed that Japanese people are surely the best in the world! Not just the nicest and most polite but also the most generous the like of which we had never experienced anywhere before. We went to get more kerosene from a garage and had a line of six smiling girls bowing at us saying arrigato thank you on the way out. In England or India that just couldn’t happen.

After a few drinks people usually like being brave in front of their friends so we would always make someone a hero by putting them in the middle of a passing pattern with 6 dangerous items. They have to stand totally still and usually get mesmerized as knives and fire sticks fly spinning past just 2 inches from their nose. As the volunteer if you instinctively move your head backwards the one going behind will hit you instead so it is fairly brave and trusting. Fortunately up till then we or the volunteer had never messed this trick up otherwise we would be in big trouble. We had to take care and really concentrate when we were ‘slightly tipsy’ that we’d pull it off. But no matter how many drinks we’d consumed we were never anything other than ‘slightly tipsy.’

To try and get extra laughs we sketched out a Laurel and Hardy type routine where I would balance an unlit fire stick on my nose then like a dragon she would breath a huge cloud of fire over my head lighting the stick and propelling it into my juggling pattern which would at the same time give me a light shower of kerosene. I would pretend to be serious and concentrating on the juggling pattern while completely oblivious to the fact she was sneaking up behind me. Then she would repeatedly roll one firestick over my head which would set my head on fire for a few seconds each time while I pretended to be annoyed. Sometimes, to everybody’s amusement my hair kept burning and she would have take measures to put it out. Even though I suffered the crowd always laughed and thought we were going bonkers. They were right of course. We would risk injuries and possibly permanent damage just to get people excited.

Julia was becoming more fearless about putting hot and flaming things near and in her mouth. Soon she would learn the double fire stick eating manoeuvre and I would master the double hot stick in the trousers trick. We were obviously trying to ‘out double’ each other.

It was always good to rehydrate between shows as it was hot so we would go to the vending machine for a can of our favourite Sapporo lager which I would gulp down before the next show. After all the kerosene Julia seemed to prefer gargling coca cola for a while then a jar of sake but I would always go for the lager. Little did we know about Sapporo but we would soon find out. We had to be make sure to be only tipsy not drunk but such was the effort and adrenaline of the show that we had simply ‘burned away’ any effect from the alcohol each time.

On the way back to our spot one time a guy who had been standing around watching some shows called us over. When he showed us his hand and made a gesture covering one finger we got scared and skulked away. He had one finger missing also. Somebody had told us if you make a mistake with the Yakuza people they might chop off one finger only. The Israeli’s who sell Indian nic nacs and jewellery on the streets told us they have to pay them so maybe everybody who works on the streets has to. If they ask we should pay, we both agreed. Otherwise our climbing grades would go down and the juggling would be harder also.

The guest house was a big place and full of people looking for money, scams and work. Unlike India or Thailand where travelling folk ask each other where they are going next here people would ask “what do you do?” or more like “what are you trying to do?” and “how much have you made doing that?.” Not many people are going ‘backpacking’ or travelling for fun at least not until they leave Japan. Teaching of course is the big one as the whole world wants to know English but for girls there may be better paid jobs in the night. Some friends we knew from India were hostesses and were making a lot of money. If you happen to be blond, smiley, outgoing and pretty it’s guaranteed to get a good job as a hostess, barmaid, escort or if they want extra money… well. Some girls will leave Japan $30,000 richer after just a couple of months. That’s enough to live pretty well for about 3 years in India or 12 years if you cook yourself.

We had been going mental every day since our arrival so decided to take a couple of rest days from shows and gave ourselves 2 choices. It was a toss between a trance party in the forest people were talking about or a climbing area just 3 hours south of Tokyo. I really wanted to see a Japanese trance party with all the happy and beautiful people jumping around but I also was desperate to climb and we knew If we went raving it would be a costly trip that’s for sure. We went for the climbing option as were then guaranteed a quiet relaxed time away from the city and would save money only camping in the forest near to the crag and cooking ourselves. The well known crags on the coast at Jogasaki were the obvious choice so we jumped on the train.

It was mid week and really quiet so we crawled into a dense area of forest to camp in a secret place as it’s not allowed to camp out in this national park. The climbs were quite good and yes, it was so refreshing to be away from the city for the first time. The cliffs were deserted being mid week and the coastline and forest was beautiful. We were loving it but one day we woke up to hear happy family type voices on the path 20 metres away and realized Saturday had come around already. 3 days had quickly flown by so we bustled together our things and tent to rush back to Tokyo for our best days of shows which is usually at the weekend.

Stinking and drinking

We always came back to the guest house exhausted at night after rushing around all day but we had lots of money to count and beer to drink. It was the middle of summer and we were getting really hot especially while playing with fire all the time. As Japanese people are the most unsmelly in the world we were really self conscious going around on the always packed Tokyo subway trains stinking of kerosene and sweat from the shows. Sometimes people would move away from us which made us cringe and a bit ashamed. It’s funny how traces of culture rub off on people but I could feel myself trying to become more Japanese in that respectful type of way.

One night we were sitting drinking and stinking as usual in the communal living room of the guest house counting our money from the night. We started talking to an American guy who thought we were mental beggars or petty criminals. When he found out we were performance artists he gave us a brilliant idea. Last year he had been on the island in the north of Japan called Hokkaido in the middle of summer and said it was much colder, packed with people escaping the heat and there is a huge beer festival which runs for some 3 weeks. For us it must be ideal we thought. Escape ‘up north’ from the heat and get an audience with all those crazy beer drinking groups of people high on summer. Even though we’d only been in Tokyo for a little over three weeks we immediately started to make our escape plan. The beer fest started in a few days.

Beer, beer and more beer

Japanese people love beer. We didn’t know quite how much until we saw the first day of this festival. Every company in Japan and some from other countries will set up a ‘drinking garden’ and compete with each other. Each garden can have 1000 or more seats and there are a lot of them! Of course with this being Sapporo and having a famous brand they would have the biggest tent and drinking garden. The whole city is taken over and dedicated to one thing; drinking beer. I didn’t think it could be possible without it degenerating into violence and chaos. It’s amazing that Japanese people will get absolutely inebriated but hardly ever misbehave. We’d see girl gangs so drunk they had to link arms together to manage walking with the whole group swaying left and right only stopping when one of them had to vomit. They were hilariously cute and so different to the dangerous fat slag girl gangs I remembered from the Biggmarket in Newcastle.

The festival was absolutely perfect for us. The Sapporo beer garden was so big that they set up in one whole square of the park leaving an empty square that everybody had to walk through to get back to the main area of town. We had tried it before but it wasn’t really busy enough. Now it was really buzzing and so would become our regular spot. There was no other performers or buskers except for an older American musician singing along to sixties numbers on his guitar a few hundred metres away. He was good and we would sit and listen sometimes just for a rest and a smoke. Almost every time we asked him how he was doing he would laugh and say in his strong American accent “too much brown man.” He sounded stoned but wasn’t talking about heroin but money as every coin less than 100 yen is brown. We didn’t like brown much either.

When 10 o clock came around we changed from the park to the closed off streets in town. We had loads of space and got huge crowds, bigger than the park. The bigger the crowd the better we’d perform so we were pulling everything out of the bag, even marginal tricks we could only just do. This gets really fun, trying to do back to back fire club passing and 5 club cascade while tipsy and pulling it off most of the time. The crowd knows when you are pushing your limits and they encourage you more also. They loved the finale which was scary and dangerous enough so nobody could walk away.


Joolz would have a lit firetorch in each hand and lie on the ground with her hands out to the sides with the torches giving more light for me to work with. Standing astride her torso I would scratch the knives together like a bloodthirsty butcher and tell everybody I was sharpening them. “Oki Knifu, shapu knifu!” When I started juggling the flashing blades looked great with the fire light and I would announce ‘choppu!’ I’m not sure if the audience thought I was going to chop her up because the girls always gasped and went deadly quiet. The trick looked great with the knives chopping rapidly into the centre of the pattern and her body above the flames. When everybody had calmed down I would start the finale. ’doburu’ and start to throw double spins. Julia would usually close her eyes at this point as she was ‘pretending to be scared.’ Then finally ‘toripuru’ and high triple spins would fly until I threw one too low on purpose and when I caught it 2 or 3 inches above her neck she would scream with fear and the crowd would cringe and squeal. In that moment of relief and euphoria she would jump to her feet and start collecting the money. Arigatto, arigatto, domo arigatto. She was so brave and trusting I’m not sure I could have done that trick the other way around.

We would usually get home to our new apartment at 1 am with piles of notes, loose change and some Sapporo beers. Julia loved putting all the different coins into their separate piles and getting eventually to the final total. On weekends it took hours as we were making between 80,000 and 140,000 yen but we were celebrating like crazy on our best day as we counted 180 thousand yen which we were so pleased with. Nearly 2000 U.S. dollars was great for a nights work which had started at 7 pm. If we didn’t feel like it then we didn’t have to go but we really wanted to milk every day of this festival.

One night while we were performing I noticed some police outside the circle of spectators and half knew what was coming but amazingly they waited till the show was finished before coming over. He spoke in English and told us sadly and politely that we just can’t do this here. We agreed and were so respectful just packing up and going to our favourite street corner bar to think about it.

They were the nicest police we’d ever seen so we didn’t want to annoy them but agreed to stop. Let’s give it a rest, have a drink then change the spot and see what happens we thought. It was fine and we got no more trouble in the rest of our time in Sapporo. Soon the beer festival was finished so after a few climbing days on some stunning coastal cliffs we got on the ferry boat back to Tokyo. Our time in the country was coming to an end but it had been better than either of us expected. Now we had jumped well ahead of ourselves and yes, we could go climbing for a while.

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