Mera, 34, is giving a recital in Tokyo Opera City's airy 1,600-seat auditorium, a shoebox-shaped space with a soaring pyramidal, cantilevered ceiling. The wood on the walls feels freshly cut, and the acoustics are lovely. I am surrounded by Mera's fan base of teenage girls and middle-aged women (and the boyfriends and husbands they've dragged along), and nothing makes sense.
I've come to Tokyo for its classical music. That is, for its Western classical music. There is more of it here than in any other city in the world. Not only is more going on here than in London or Berlin, but one of the great attractions of over-the-top Tokyo is that it makes everything feel different.
Although the typical Tokyo classical concert may be a lot more conventional than was Mera's recital, confusion is nevertheless as much a way of life as is order, and social conformity doesn't seem to interfere with unflappable Tokyoites' acceptance of ostentatious individuality. In the end, a gaudy gender- and genre-bending countertenor fits right in.
Tokyo is chock-full of concert halls and, better yet, concert halls full of listeners. I saw barely an empty seat in a week of concert-going during my trip here in November. Where other musical capitals consider themselves lucky to have two or three important large venues for concerts and opera, Tokyo and its outskirts boast 10, plus many more medium- and smaller-sized halls. The city is also home to about a dozen symphony orchestras.
Tokyo is a regular touring destination for Europe's and America's most celebrated orchestras, opera companies and soloists. The Berlin and Vienna philharmonics make annual visits. Next month, the Kirov brings its production of Wagner's four-opera "Ring" from St. Petersburg, Russia, with Valery Gergiev conducting. This same production will be in Orange County in the fall and at Lincoln Center after that. But what is a very big deal for Costa Mesa or even New York is business as usual in Tokyo.
My week in Tokyo was chosen to fit my schedule. I figured there would be plenty to hear whenever I visited, and there was. On consecutive days in Suntory Hall, one of the city's most prestigious venues, I caught the Czech Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the latter two bands being Germany's best.
Traveling to Tokyo for Western classical music is, of course, a peculiar enterprise, to the extent that it robs a visitor of opportunities to experience Japanese culture. On my way to suburban Kawasaki to hear a provincial concert performance of "Carmen" by the Tokyo Symphony that featured local singers, I walked longingly past the Kabuki-za Theater. But at least I had the comfort of knowing that classical music in Tokyo inspires its own Kabuki-like devotion that makes concert-going here unique.
Moreover, concert-hall-hopping is an excellent way to do the town. Tokyo is a collection of districts. Shinjuku is where you go for "Blade Runner" lights and action and a Manhattan's worth of skyscrapers. Shibuya-ku is where the young shop in delightfully spectacular hordes. The Ginza is for the well-off — designer clothes, fabulous sushi, geishas. Traditional Ueno drips culture and, in spring, cherry blossoms. Ikebukuro is for shopping without the glitz. And in Harajuku, outlandish fashion is on parade.
But because Tokyo developed chaotically, every district has something (actually, an overwhelming lot) of everything. There is great food around Shibuya-ku. You can purchase cheap CDs in the Ginza. Each part of town has its music, its concert halls.
And what a satisfying experience it is to hear music in Tokyo. Say what you will about the controlled Japanese, one thing they control with an impressive vengeance is coughing during performances. Theater seats tend to be very firm, with little padding and high wood backs, which encourage attentiveness. Audience appreciation is so exceptional that I find it a moving experience just to sit in a Tokyo theater.
But concert-going is also a huge challenge in this massive city, and it begins with finding out what's on. There is no way to do it save living in Tokyo, spending time at concerts and reading Japanese. Only about half the concert-hall websites offer an English-language version; of those, some don't list upcoming events more than a month or two ahead. The same is true of the Tokyo orchestra websites. For smaller venues, forget it.
That leaves three English-language dailies — the Daily Yomiuri, the Japan Times and the International Herald Tribune — which publish weekly or monthly arts listings on Wednesdays or Thursdays, and the free English-language weekly magazine Metropolis. Even then, the listings are highly selective, barely scraping the surface.
I know that because a monthly guide distributed at concerts and available in record stores is the size of a small telephone book. But because it's written in Japanese and it's for the following month, it is of little use to the tourist. More helpful — and also handed out at concerts — are the colorful fliers for events happening in the next several days and weeks. Many of them contain just enough English to make it possible to figure out what is going on, especially if you know your Opus and Köchel numbers and can recognize conductors and soloists by their photographs. You always leave a Tokyo concert hall with more than you came in with.
THE obvious place for a visiting concertgoer to start is Suntory Hall, which is considered Tokyo's Carnegie. It stages something in both its big and small halls nearly every day, the schedule for which can be found on its easily navigable English-language website (see box) with listings up to three months in advance. (Each year, Suntory also puts out a full year's schedule in English that you can pick up at the hall.)
Several Tokyo orchestras have regular series in Suntory (as they do in other halls), but the venue's reputation rests on the many stellar international ensembles and soloists it attracts, plus its acoustics. It was built 20 years ago with excellent acoustics designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, which inspired L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall, another Toyota masterpiece.
Like most concert halls in Tokyo, Suntory feels like a refuge. In his "Tokyo: A View of the City," author Donald Richie explains the strong Japanese sense of public and private. The Tokyo street, he writes, is "the ultimate in unrestrained display." The home, on the other hand, enjoys sacrosanct privacy, which begins with taking off one's shoes as a gesture that denotes leaving public space for the private.