Steak, sax and Scarlett

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PETER COSTER, journalist and fourth dan karateka, returns to the Japan Karate Association “headquarters” in Tokyo to train with some of the world’s top exponents of the martial art but gets a little lost in translation:

TAKE me to the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, I tell the Tokyo cab driver. “Ah, Rost in Transration,’’ he grins. “Scarlett Johansson.’’ Further conversation is lost in translation. The white-gloved driver in his spotlessly clean cab doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese.

But everyone in Tokyo remembers Rost in Transration. We speed on through Shinjuku, a neon world that inspired the set for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. “Brade Runner,’’ offers the cab driver as we dart out of the traffic to pull up in front of Tange Kenzo’s towering edifice.

I am bowed in and take a silent lift the 40th floor and then through a Dickensian maze of book-lined shelves to another lift to the 52nd floor.

Is this where Lost in Translation was made, I ask four deeply bowing and startlingly good-looking Japanese women, as I step out of the shushing lift. “Rost in Transration,’’ they agree. It’s all about the Ls.

I look out through the floor-to-ceiling glass in Kenzo’s great atrium. A white-gloved and smiling figure suspended outside the building is a reflection in the glass, not the window cleaner I found welcoming me as he swung suspended in space outside my room on the 23rd floor of the Tokyo Dome Hotel when I was last here.

The fleshy attractions of Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation are exceeded only by the prospect of a medium-rare Kobe steak.

The white-hatted chefs spin like martial artists in the grill room, silent and deadly with knives tempered and sharpened like the samurai sword created by Hattori Hanson in Kill Bill Vol 1, forged for the Black Mamba played by Uma Thurman.

I am right into all of this. The Japanese Karate Association spring camp has attracted more practitioners of the Japanese martial art than are sent to a warrior’s paradise by Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-drenched extravaganzas.

The maître d’ in the grill room at the Park Hyatt looks very like the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood, but he died 20 years ago.

The ravishing hostess who greeted me outside the lift glides past. Is it O-Ren Ishi, also known as Cottonmouth, the half-Japanese, half-Chinese-American woman in Kill Bill?

O-Ren Ishi became the sword-slicing boss of the Yakuza and head of the Crazy 88. Call me crazy, I think, as a bowing waiter advises me to graze on a half-Caesar salad while I’m waiting for the medium-rare Kobe steak, which will take 35 minutes to cook and has a price tag approaching the budget of Lost in Translation.

For those travelling to Tokyo and wishing to taste Wagyu beef from hand-massaged and beer-swilling herbivores, it weighed a mere 180 grams and cost 15,000 yen, which translates to about 150 Australian dollars if I haven’t lost something in calculation.

I must catch up with Scarlett in Avengers: Age of Ultron but Lost in Translation is still an instant conversation opener, usually terminating when the participants find they have nothing else to say that either party understands. I do manage to strike up a conversation with a French sous chef who explains that keeping steak medium rare after 35 minutes instead of presenting it as shoe leather involves a mysterious processing of heating it and resting it. This makes me think of lying broiling on a beach.

The Kobe steak, referring to the area where the cattle are genetically modified and bred, arrives, and is a sublime culinary experience. I leave the company of an ageing American in the grill room who has ordered a hamburger and I go into the bar where Bill Murray met Scarlett.

The jazz quartet, which was playing when bashful Bill met Scarlett, is producing a cool line in American jazz. Dave Brubeck’s Take Five suffers from heavy rearrangement and takes five minutes longer.

Paul Desmond, the Brubeck saxophonist, known as The Stork, played the alto sax solo, but no one cares for the sax anymore, except ageing guys like Bill Murray who sat on the stool on which I’m now sitting.

Outside, the pulsing neon of Shinjuku appealed to Ridley Scott. Harrison Ford, wandered the street stalls amid the falling rain, searching for “replicants’’ returning from other planets in the hope of avoiding “decommission.’’

Decommission comes to humans too, although this is something I hope to avoid at the karate camp where my movie flashbacks continue. Once again, I am confronted on the dojo floor by Oddjob, who was dispatched by James Bond in Goldfinger.

Mr Shinna is a feared instructor who announces himself with bellowed commands that need no translation. His intentions are unmistakable. Another instructor reminds me of Jaws in the Spy Who Ruvved Me (I must stop doing this) and Moonraker.

Another senior instructor looks like the aforementioned Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Yamamoto in the Battle of Midway. The code of the samurai is preserved in karate, which is recognised as Japan’s premier martial art and conducts regular tournaments at the Nippon Budokan, built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The Olympics are to return in 2020.

Judo, kendo akido and other forms of martial art hold their championships at the Budokan where Muhammad Ali fought Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in an ugly mismatch of styles that guaranteed they would always eat Kobe beef in their hamburgers.

The Japanese are as enthusiastic about martial arts as they are about movies. Karate began with Sensi Gichin Funakoshi who said karate is like boiling water: without heat it returns to its tepid state.

I train, but too often I am tepid as the week at the training camp ends and we catch a train to the Tokyo suburbs, as do millions it seems of Japanese citizens who somehow remain polite as they are crushed together, sometimes pushed through the doors by station assistants.

Peter Coster (left) back in Melbourne with 7th Dan Keith Geyer

Many wear masks, not only to avoid breathing in the viruses that must hang in the air like the rain, but so as not to pass on any infection.

Even the prostitutes standing in the rain are unfailingly polite, bobbing their heads as we walked through a red-light district. Was there ever a more polite society, I think as, like Simon and Garfunkel, I turn my collar to the rising damp.

I remember the words, “under the halo of a street lamp, stabbed by a flash of neon light that split the night and touched the sound of silence.”

Paul and Art played several concerts at the Tokyo Dome, next to the Tokyo Dome Hotel where I am staying near the Japanese Karate Association dojo.

When I arrived it was spring, but the temperature was below zero and it was snowing. Shivering, I decide on a restorative massage and look through the peephole in the hotel door when I hear a knock.

Presumably, it is the masseur. But there is no one there. I open the door. “Coster San?’’ asks a disembodied voice. I look down to find a tiny Japanese woman with forearms like Popeye. She dispels any thoughts of the Japanese greeters at the Park Hyatt.

Nervously, I endure greater pain than I have suffered in the dojo. The muscles on the masseuse’s arms are like coils of rope.

Life here is one of opposites. Western and Japanese culture exist in a bewildering fusion.

PETER COSTER is a former associate editor of the Herald Sun and this story is provided by the newspaper’s website.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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