Haikei, Chichiue-sama starrs Ninomiya Kazunari (of Arashi and Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima) and is a gentle drama about a traditional ryotei (Japanese restaurant serving kaiseki or traditional Japanese cuisine) in Kagurazaka, a part of Tokyo that retains its old-world roots, traditional restaurants and geisha houses. It is often called hana no machi or flower town (pleasure quarter) where there is an abundance of bars and drinking spots run by retired geishas.

Ninomiya’s character Ippei is a young itamae (traditional Japanese chef) who has been apprenticed to Ryu-san, a legendary itamae at the ryotei Sakashita, for seven years. Sakashita is run by Ritsuko who has taken over the reins from her mother Yumeko, a forma geisha.

The drama begins when Yumeko’s danna (common-law husband and Ritsuko’s father), the main figure behind Sakashita and a powerful minister, collapses and is taken to hospital. With his demise, the real estate developers who have had their eyes on the old and venerated property move to buy the restaurant’s land, and Sakashita’s world is turned upside down as it is forced into the 21st century. Ritsuko who has been trying hard to keep Sakashita afloat is torn between staying true to her mother’s dreams of keeping the restaurant as it is and fighting to save the restaurant in whatever necessary form.

I was particularly touched by the scenes in which Yumeko has to deal with her danna’s death. As a mistress, she and her family are unable to officially attend his wake and can only watch the proceedings from a respectable distance. Yet after the funeral, she receives a visit from his wife to thank and acknowledge her role in the life of the man they both loved. In a society where everyone’s role is specific, respected and acknowledged, it was a very poignant moment, although it is a situation which I would find difficult to accept or understand. Yet I somehow felt deeply touched by it.

While this is happening, Ippei’s new assistant Tokio arrives straight out of juvie but willing to learn. He also has to deal with his mother Yukino, a former geisha who runs a nearby bar.

Haikei, Chichiue-sama (loosely translated as Dear Father) is how Ippei always ends the narration of each episode, as imaginary letters to a father he has never met. It’s a wonderful drama series and harks back to a bygone era where a man’s worth was measured by his dedication to his chosen path, the integrity of his intentions and his loyalty to the people around him. We follow Ippei as he stumbles through the uncertain future of Sakashita, falls in love with a girl who will only converse in French (Kagurazaka is a Francophone town) and his search for his father whom his mother refuses to name. It’s a glimpse into the watery world of Japanese entertainment and pleasure, and the silent and sometimes harsh rules binding the people who live in that society.

I really enjoyed this series and there were several episodes which made me cry. It’s a heart-warming story of a Japan that is slowly slipping away.

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Recently , I’ve been listening to quite a bit of J-pop thanks to youtube and all the other free internet sites. Japanese pop music always reminds me of the summer holidays when I used to visit Japan. Most of the music I liked were tied in with the J-dramas I was obsessively watching, and when I listen to the songs now, they bring back vivid memories of the lazy summer days, all hot and languid watching tv and eating shaved ice or kakigori with strawberry syrup.

The January mini-challenge for Hello Japan! is Music to My Ears and it’s great because I can talk about all of my favourite J-pop!

I lived in Japan in the mid-80s, and I hear now that 80s J-pop is all the rage again among the Ara-4 (around 40) crowd – there seems to be a nostalgic boom going on in Japan.

I remember the first Japanese tape (!) I bought was that of Kawai Naoko in which I fell in love with one particularly melancholic song. I think ever since I’ve always loved songs in the minor key. But I’ve since lost the tape, never remembered the name of the song and only recently stumbled across it on youtube after endlessly searching for it. The song is called Gimonfu and is beautiful.

Of course like everyone in the 80s I used to watch the weekly music show The Best Ten hosted by Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (who wrote Totto-chan) and was a big fan of the legendary Yamaguchi Momoe (who famously retired at 21) Matsuda Seiko, Nakamori Akina, Oginome Yoko and The Chequers amongst other mainstream idols.

I also used to watch a lot of anime such as Touch by Adachi Mitsuru whose theme songs by Iwasaki Yoshimi were also my favourites.

Utada Hikaru, Misia and Ayaka are three artists I love listening to and who are all million sellers in Japan. And more recently I’ve been listening to Arashi’s Ashita no Kioku – yup, I’m still obsessed with them – not so much for their singing but because their variety programmes are just hiliarious. They really work well together as a team and the banter between all five of them are just spot on and hysterical.

Kind of like SMAP who were the first idols/boy band who became famous not just for their singing skills (which, let’s admit, aren’t really that great) but for their tv shows, comedic flair, J-dramas and their cooking skills (check out Bistro Smap in their variety show SmapxSmap which has been on air since 1996). They are good at everything and have taken over the Japanese entertainment industry!