Authored by Steve Tyson
Besides family and music, my other great passion in life is travel. I have been blessed to have travelled the world, either with my family or touring with bands, and it has enriched my heart and soul and provided so much fuel for the fire when it comes to writing songs.
So many of my songs are based on stories and experiences borne out of globe-trotting – travel is a constant source of joy and inspiration.
Some of these tales I have shared in the liner notes of my albums, but believe me, that just scratches the surface. There is so much more to tell.
To get things started I am going to talk about a country that is a place of complete intrigue for me – the Land of the Rising Sun.
These are my stories and memories from Japan in the 1960’s, and how this fascinating country inspired my songs.
How Japan in the 1960’s Inspired a Songwriter
“I First Visited Japan”
I first visited Japan when I was just a kid, in 1960. My dad was one of Australia’s best known radio journalist/presenters, a stalwart on ABC Radio nationally for three decades.
He was invited to undertake a 4 month working holiday on a British cargo ship that had been partly converted to accommodate twenty or so passengers. The company was experimenting with the concept of having paying passengers aboard a working cargo vessel, and my Dad and Mum were offered the trip up through the Orient.
My folks refused to go without me and my older brother, so we were taken out of school for 4 months, prescribed school lessons, and went on an incredible adventure that took us to Japan, via Borneo, the Philippines, Hong Kong and China (the latter inadvertently – that’s a whole other story).
Traveling on a British Cargo Ship
It’s funny the things that stick in your mind when you are just a kid. The ship I remember so well, with its crew of British officers and Chinese sailors.
I forged a great friendship with the Chief Engineer, who gave me my own special rag to help polish the massive engines whenever I accompanied him into the bowels of the vessel, and an even stronger bond with the Second Engineer, who every morning after breakfast, taught me to really listen to Beethoven and Schubert and find stories in their music.
And I became inseparable with Chang, our Chinese house-boy, who gave me a number one buzz-cut with a cutthroat razor.
Borneo was a bit of a blur, I remember being overwhelmed with the strange smells from the markets in Sarawak. I remember being petrified as the ship docked in Manilla, seeing soldiers everywhere armed with serious weapons.
I remember the visual and aural onslaught of the streets of Hong Kong, so busy, so noisy, so much more joyous than Queen Street in hometown Brisbane. Extraordinary.
The Japanese Culture: Honor and Respect
After a couple of months, we reached Tokyo. To give you a real feeling of what it was like in 1960, I need to fast-forward to a few years ago, when I visited the country for the second time in my life, with my own family, to put things into perspective.
If you have ever been lucky enough to visit modern day Japan, you will know there exists an incredible culture based on honour and respect.
If you walk through the Ginza district of Tokyo, there is not a speck of rubbish in the streets, but there are no rubbish bins. Everyone takes their rubbish with them.
Outside of Tokyo train station, or Kyoto station, there are thousands of bicycles – not a single one with a lock or chain on it. If you lose your wallet in Tokyo with money, credit cards, passports etc, all you have to do is go to the huge lost property office near the main police station, and it will be there, totally intact.
I remember trying to find a particular street in the Ameyoko disctrict, and I tried to stop a young girl with an “excuse me” to ask directions. She just blushed, and turned quickly away.
My first thought was, that seemed a bit rude. Immediately a young man came up to me and in broken English, apologised on behalf of the girl, explaining that she didn’t mean to appear rude, she was just ashamed that she couldn’t speak English and couldn’t help me.
Ashamed – incredible. Honour and respect are just forged into the Japanese way of life.
Japan in the 1960’s
Back in 1960, Japan was quite different. You have to remember this was only fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, and Japan was a country still recovering from the devastation of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was not uncommon to have people spitting at our feet as we walked through Tokyo, and scowling “Americans”.
Back then, there were communal toilets in the street – no differentiation between male and female, just toilets that either sex could use. But at the other end of the scale, Japan had those incredible bullet trains, even then, in 1960!
Seems incredible to me we STILL don’t have them in Australia, in 2019! But a story sticks in my mind which sort of highlights both those aspects of Japanese life back then.
On Japanese Bullet Trains in the 60’s
One day we had just gotten on board a bullet train. It was a stinking hot day, and we were very happy to be seated and out of the heat, waiting for the train to depart.
Just as the train slowly started to move, I could see a Japanese businessman running across the platform trying to jump on board. He just made it as the train started to gather speed. Panting heavily, he looked around for a seat, and the only one available in the compartment was next to my Mum.
He took his coat off, sat down and out of his briefcase he produced a fan. He undid his tie and fanned his neck, rolled up his sleeves and fanned his face. Next thing, he undid his fly, pulled out JT, and began fanning it!
None of the other Japanese people on the train battered an eyelid, but I was looking google-eyed thinking, what the hell is going on! My poor mother tried to avert her gaze out the window as her face reddened.
I don’t think my Dad knew whether to laugh or cry, he just did his best to ignore it. Not so easy for a little kid, I thought it was the funniest thing I had seen in my life!
Heading Back for Mt Fuji
The next day we were once again on a train, headed out towards Mt Fuji, hoping to see the majestic snow-covered peak. We had a guide, Mr Yamamoto.
The day was a bit grey and overcast, and as we neared our destination, Mr Yamamoto addressed us. Smiling and bowing, he said “today, I had hoped to show you Mt Fuji, but ‘unfor-runatery’ it is crowded with mist..”.
On our trip a few years ago, I found myself on a bus with my family, once again heading towards Mt Fuji, hoping for a glimpse of the snow-capped peak. Our guide on this trip was Mr Nakamura, and he thought it would be fun to teach everyone on the bus how to do origami (the beautiful art of making things out of folding paper).
Because we were headed to Mt Fuji, the subject matter was to be a volcano. When folded the correct way, one could push the bottom of the piece and paper lava would flow out of the top – just like the real thing.
There were probably thirty people on that bus, ranging in age from about 5 to 80. Everyone seemed to understand Mr Nakamura’s instructions perfectly – except me. He walked down the aisle examining everyone’s finished handiwork, nodding happily as their paper lava popped out from the top of the paper volcano.
My daughters Rebecca and Hayley and my wife Karen produced impeccable masterpieces. Then Mr Nakamura stopped to examine my piece.
Try as I may, I just couldn’t get my head around how to fold the paper correctly. Mr Nakamura smiled politely, shook his head and said “Ahh, ‘unfor-runatery’ your ‘rava’ is ‘bloken’….”
The 6 year old little girl sitting across the aisle thought that was pretty funny as she showed him her perfect volcano. The rest of the passengers joined in the merriment at my expense.
Drifting Thoughts of the 1960’s
That night, sitting around a traditional sunken Japanese dining table, my thoughts drifted back to 1960, and Mr Yamamoto’s heartfelt description of the mist covering the top of Mt Fuji.
All those years later, I still had no idea whether he meant to say “crowded” or “clouded”. But I never forgot it. I decided to go with “crowded”, and it became the inspiration for a song off my first album, a song about falling in love in Japan, which I called “Crowded With Mist Again”.
I wrote it that night, at the table, thinking about my failed paper lava.
Crowded With Mist Again – Click to Play
An Inspirational Country
So there you have it. Japan is such a beautiful country. Somehow it is hard to reconcile the gentle, honourable, respectful people of today’s Japan, with their warrior and warlike forebears, but many western countries could learn a lot from that incredible transition.
There is so much to see in Tokyo – the dazzling Akihabara, the incredible markets of Ameyoko, the tea-shops of Asakusa. We fell in love with the beautiful Geisha precinct of Kyoto, the stunning mountain sake-making town of Takayama, and the incredible food and history of Osaka.
And of course the cherry blossoms are pretty special if you manage to get there at the right time of year.
When I think about it, all of that inspired “Crowded With Mist Again”. I bought a shamisen, a stringed instrument whilst I was there. I can’t play it properly but I’ve recorded a few things with it to “colour” particular songs.
Go to Japan if you get the chance. You’ve got nothing to lose – literally.