It was nightfall with drizzling rain as we wandered along a main road in central Tokyo looking for our hotel. As my husband, Michael, popped into a shop to ask directions, I waited rather forlornly under an overhang looking after the luggage. Suddenly a male cyclist appeared out of the gloom, cycled right over to me and, without a word, handed over his umbrella and disappeared into the night. What a wonderful way to begin our holiday in Japan.
But I jump ahead of myself ... my husband, Michael, and I had flown from Sydney, Australia to the vast, densely populated city of Tokyo for a week's holiday en route back to our hometown of Toronto. To give you an idea of the number of people who live and work in Tokyo, one of its underground stations has 48 exits and 2 million passengers pass through its gates every single day!! And there are numerous stations ... the subway system is as extensive as the London underground and there is an equally considerable above ground train system. Both can be very intimidating if you come from a small town or village. However, the saving grace is the warmth and friendliness of the Japanese people as you can see by the above example. We had only to stand a few minutes with a map in our hands looking confused and someone would be there trying to help us. Even if they didn't speak English they would attempt to direct us with sign language. And certainly help we needed!!
You could spend weeks in Tokyo and still not see all there is to see. The city is a collection of distinct areas from the ultra-modern crowded Shinjuku with its towering skyscrapers and endless department stores to the funky old Ueno with its market streets, interesting park and impressive museums. If you want to keep ahead of the high tech crowd, you shouldn't miss visiting Akihabara which is crammed full of high tech gadgets and gizmos of every kind. On the other hand if you would like to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, you can wander around the Imperial Palace in the heart of the city or visit a peaceful Buddhist Shrine in Asakusa. I haven't even scratched the surface of the sights available to you let alone the options for day trips just outside of Tokyo.
However, as much as we were enjoying the sights of the city, I was very much looking forward to meeting Hiro Suzuki. I had corresponded with Hiro after finding his website - www.country.com -- which had information in English about line dancing in Japan and his club Crazy Feet. Through Hiro we found a comfortable, conveniently located hotel, and despite the fact that his club's workshop was the following Saturday, Hiro organized an impromptu dance to which he invited me to teach and meet local dancers on the Saturday evening and a dance class to visit the following day. I was delighted to hear that some of the dancers were dancing "Beer Run". Could he be as nice as he sounded in his e-mails, I wondered, -- he was!!
An athletic looking man with an energetic, bouncy air about him, Hiro is a busy man!! However, although he runs his own business and travels a fair amount he still finds time to commit to his line dancing passion. Hiro told me that over eight years ago he learnt the Electric Slide from a Square Dance Caller and was hooked!! Whereas before when he travelled to the US for work he spent most of his time in his hotel room watching television, subsequently he started searching out places where he could line dance and now has dancing friends all over the world. He then started the Crazy Feet Dance Club and five years ago embarked on bringing international dance instructors to Japan to give the local dancers and instructors the chance to learn and grow. In April he will be travelling with Jo Thompson on a four city tour of Japan. Hiro has brought over John Robinson, Scott Blevins, Bill Bader, Terry Hogan, Pedro Machado, Charlotte Skeeters, Michael Barr and Michele Burton. Michele named her dance "American Pop" after Hiro took her to the monthly dance of the same name held in Tokyo. I shall definitely plan my next visit to Tokyo around this event!! It seems that the dance is held in an enormous Atrium on the first Friday of the month and more than 300 dancers attend to dance to live country bands as well as DJs.
Hiro is well known in the Japanese line dance world and told me he was approached by a TV Producer who wanted line dancers for the background in a programme. After several e-mails, to his amusement Hiro realized that what the TV producer really had in mind was French Can-Can dancers which is what the older Japanese think of as line dancers!
I learnt that many line dance classes are held in Culture Schools where classes on flower arranging, tea ceremonies, conversation and yoga are held and that's where Hiro's evening dance took place. I was quite apprehensive about teaching to non-English speaking dancers but I needn't have worried. The Japanese dancers were delightful -- patient, tolerant and full of smiles. They knew basic English dance terms such as "shuffle" and "grapevine" and Hiro did some translating but other than that they concentrated on my feet!! Chairs were placed in a circle and some time was set aside during the evening so we could chat and get to know one another and it is amazing how that can be achieved without a common language. Tasty snacks were set out so we had to dance twice as hard after eating! However, Hiro's generosity didn't finish there and he and his wife, Mariko, took us out to eat with a group of the dancers after the dance. They were most encouraging although somewhat amused by our feeble attempts at using chop sticks! We were determined though as the food we ate in Tokyo was delicious.
I should add that before I met Hiro, I had eaten two other unexpected meals earlier on during the day at the Country Drive 5th Anniversary Workshop. Shortly before I left Sydney I heard from line dance instructor Shin-ichiro Baba inviting me to the workshop. Most of my time was already committed in Tokyo so Baba invited me to lunch and sent Hiroshi Sudo over to pick both Michael and I up together with an interpreter, Eiji Tomiyama. Tommy's father had been an English teacher and had taught his son well. To my surprise we were taken to the workshop where tables were set up for us laden with food. There were well over 100 enthusiastic welcoming dancers filling the packed hall, among them the smiling faces of dancers I had met at the World's in Nashville. What a thrill it was to see them!
The Workshop Instructors told me that they had set up the JCWDIC (Japanese Country & Western Dance Instructors Council) to support one another and promote line dancing and they will be bringing Max Perry and Kathy Hunyadi to Tokyo in May. The group includes Baba, Setsuko Lizuka, Kazuhiro Iguchi and Martha Ogaswara. At the Workshop I thoroughly enjoyed their teaching as did their students. Setsuko, who teaches 3 lessons a day mainly in Cultural Centres, told me that to retain the interest of her beginners she uses different pieces of music so that the basic dances they learn always seem new and fun. I noted at the workshop that the dances were taught predominantly to modern, funky music and the dancers themselves were all ages and dressed mainly in modern, casual but smart outfits. I was sorry I could only spend such a short time there and to say "Goodbye" the instructors wrote out a little speech in Japanese for me to present! I'm not quite sure exactly what I said but from their applause it seemed quite acceptable to the dancers!! At this point I thought I would be taken back to the hotel to change and get ready to go out again but my hosts were horrified at the suggestion, after all I hadn't had a proper lunch!! What generous people the Japanese are but I must say I don't know how they stay so slim and trim! That said, I think it is all the walking and cycling they do ... plus dancing, of course!
But I still had one more line dancing session to go. The next day, Hiro picked me up to go to a class led by instructors Yukiko Ohashi and Toshimi Mori, both talented dancers, in a bright, airy studio in the heart of the city. Without any previous experience, these young dedicated instructors organized their beginners' class by themselves from the production and distribution of the flyers, the finding and renting of the studio, lesson planning and so on, although with some wise advice and input from Hiro whom they obviously respect and admire. Toshimi's four month old baby boy, Yusuke, kept half an eye on the proceedings under the watchful eye of his father, Masaaki. No doubt a future Japanese line dance champion in the early stages! Teaching this class was a delight; the enthusiastic response, energy and laughter were wonderful feedback Again, delicious snacks were laid out during the break and time was set aside to get to know one another. It was clear that the students were very fond of their lively instructors and wouldn't miss their classes for all the green tea in Japan!!
As before, after the class finished we went for another meal! It gave me a good opportunity to spend some time talking to Yuki who would very much like to compete in the World's 2004 in Nashville. Unfortunately there isn't a UCWDC event held in Japan so she would have to travel far afield, on top of which in order to be eligible for the World's a dancer has to compete in three UCWDC events. As you can imagine this makes competing extremely difficult for any Japanese dancer. Nevertheless, I do hope Yuki makes it, she is a wonderful dancer and delightful young woman and her passionate enthusiasm for line dancing sweeps all along who talk with her.
What a privilege it was to dance with the Japanese dancers I met. They are enthusiastic, welcoming, dedicated and patient. Line dancing is still in its infancy but obviously growing as instructors gain more experience and confidence and the word spreads that line dancing can be lots of fun, good exercise and a great way to make friends. It's a universal language that we can all share ... the language of dance that knows no barriers.
*Dances I taught: Beer Run, Country Rhythm (Catahoula), Step to the Rhythm and Wngs (I Will Love Again).
*TIP: ... if you go dancing in Japan wear outdoor shoes and carry your dance shoes separately. Quite often you will need to change out of your shoes at the entrance, put on slippers and then once in the room change into your dance shoes. It is a Japanese custom in the home and many other places to take off your shoes before entering.