Launch of Whisper of the Land



About 40 people joined a great gathering at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Japan in the heart of central Tokyo … the organising by the writer Edward Levinson and Allan Murphy (Fine Line Press agent) was immaculate, the food was veggey-friendly, the speeches were short and informative, the wine was tasty, there was a good live musician and the people were diverse and interesting. A good time was had by all, and a group of a dozen or so went on to a 2nd “party” nearby in Yurakucho. Thank you to everyone for attending. Graham


4.30: Slideshow, background music and chatting.

5.00: Ed Levinson welcomed everyone, thanked them for attending and stated the order of events, including speakers, buffet, live music, short film and raffle prize draw.

5.10: Naomi Arimura toasted the event open, saying that her father had been a photographer, and she was pleased to toast Edward Levinson, photographer of Japan landscapes.

5.15: Drinks and Buffet

5.30: Live music by Kev Gray: British singer-songwriter based in London and Tokyo. Highly respected on both the London and Tokyo music scenes, he won the prestigious Gaijin Sounds 2008 award for his song, “How The Story Ends”. His band Kev Gray & The Gravy Train love to play live.

5.50:  Barry Lancet (“JapanTown” fame ( was introduced by Allan Murphy (Fine Line Press, Tokyo). Lancet said that he was surprised to learn that Ed came from Virginia, a place not likely to produce hippy-type vagabonds doing meditation and getting to Tokyo for a life of organic gardening and photography. Reading the first draft of Ed’s memoir he had advised him to rewrite it  shorter. He was glad to see that Ed had done that. “Whisper of the Land” shows that Ed has led a full and rich and varied life, his memoir full of intriguing anecdotes and lyrically written.

Beth Lindsay (Editor of “Whisper of the Land”) told the story of how on first hearing about the manuscript she became enthusiastic and wanted to read it. The fact that the writing had a spiritual dimension was alluring. The manuscript happily found its way to her eventually in New Zealand. The story of a photographer, someone who literally “writes with light”, indeed a lightness to the whole book, a lyrical and poetic quality. Finding the title was a challenge, but Kitaro felicitously provided it when he agreed to write the introduction. It was a pleasure and a privilege to help with Ed’s memoir.

Graham Bathgate (Fine Line Press): Ed, thanks for the memories! Memoir writing is a great thing to do, everyone has a story to tell, and Ed tells a good one in “Whisper of the Land”. There is so much memoir writing  now, especially in the celebrity auto-biography sphere; most of the books on sale everywhere tend to be pulp fiction and celebrity stuff. I’m reminded of what somebody said to Mary King about her book on walking the length of Japan: if she’d been famous this would have been all right. So you have to be famous to bother doing anything! It’s great that people like Mary and Ed Levinson still want to write about their achievements and life, creating a book of quality. We can’t all be novelists and writers like some of the people here this evening (Barry Lancet, Hugh Ashton – or Patricia Daly Oe – , and we may not have the experience of Allan Murphy in interviewing BB King, but we can recall good stories in our lives and make something of them. Ed’s book is also one of a popular genre now, the nature genre; so the memoir and nature genres are a double hit. Thank you one and all for coming, thank you Ed, thank you Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Ed Levinson film, “Tokyo Story”: Great shots of everyday people in Tokyo (12 mins, Pinhole camera).

Raffle Draw Prizes: First Prize: Framed colour photo of the scene on the front page of “Whisper”; 2. Whisper of the Land; 3. Glimpses of Old Tokyo

6.50: Ed Levinson readings from “Whisper of the Land”

7.00 – 7.30 Mixing, chatting.

Second party at nearby café/bar until 9.30.

Edward Levinson  Edward Levinson Edward Levinson
Barry Lancet introduces “Whisper of the Land”View from Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Tokyo;
Kitaro (picture), Beth Lindsay, Edward Levinson, May 17, 2015.

Contacts and references:

Edward Levinson

Fifty people at the Launch for Forty Stories of Japan    Wed. Nov. 3, 2010

Glimpses of Old TokyoBen’s Café in Takadanobaba, Tokyo – Writers came from overseas: Annette Green from Washington DC, Sue Turner-Cray from Santa Barbara, Mary King from Beijing and David Gilbey from Wagga Wagga, South Australia. It was a sunny autumn National Holiday (Bunka no Hi, Culture Day). Fifteen minutes before the start of the launch 10 copies of the eagerly anticipated student companion volume for “Glimpses of Old Tokyo”, the Workbook Exercises, were delivered by hand, hot off the presses, (thanks to Joe Zahedi, Printed Matter Press). Great timing! The author of “Glimpses”, Masuho Fujita arrived next.

At the door Beth collected the venue and drinks charge, and gave name tags to the writers. Allan Murphy manned the book sales table, while Ben’s Café owner, Yoshiko Toyama served food and poured celebration glasses of bubbly.

Glimpses of Old TokyoOn David Gilbey’s suggestion, writers read short passages from their stories. “Elvis” by Sue Turner-Cray was much enjoyed. Naomi Arimura, whose email correspondence describing life in Tokyo was the origin of “Forty Stories”, read a humorous piece about asking for plastic glasses at a Christmas function (“A Japanese Xmas”). The readings were followed by a rousing rendition of Waltzing Matilda by David Gilbey, Jim Smiley accompanying him with cascading notes on his recorder. He also produced an unmistakable imitation of bagpipes on the same woodwind instrument.

A great launch! Thank you everyone who came to celebrate. Domo Arigato Ben’s Café!

See photos

Ben’s Café

Ben's Cafe headingBen is no longer at the new style café he started back in the mid-1990s in Tokyo. He returned to New York leaving Yoshiko Toyama in charge. The last time I was there in 2008 it was still different, still humming, still a great place to visit. The café that Ben started was a solid monument to the coffee-house conversation and comradely atmosphere the he believed in. Yoshiko kept the café in Ben’s name.

Ben Watson created a New York-style café off the beaten track in Takadanobaba, a suburb of Tokyo and a thriving student area. That was in 1996 and Ben quickly established himself and his ideas as the features of the café. He knew how to welcome gaijin, firing off a friendly rejoinder, making a quick joke – with small talk and a ready welcome he was clearly keen on serving his many customers well. When we asked once for a spot more wine in our glass – Tokyo restaurants and bars measure hopelessly inadequate half-full glasses – he came up with the idea of a bigger glass!

For Ben this café was a far cry from his immediate past. Tall, fine looking and eagle-eyed, Ben had worked in New York selling coffee before travelling to Tibet. That inspired him to export goods to Japan – rugs, leather stuff, ornaments, prayer wheels and other spiritual accoutrements. He did well enough to set up the café in 1995. His enjoyed recounting those days and chatting about anything else that made pleasing conversation.

Ben’s Coffee (extract)

Going to his café was an adventure. At that time it was the only foreign-owned café in Japan. Now there are many more gaijin entrepreneurs. The thing that Ben hotly promoted was the quality of the coffee – he termed it “a coffee-drinking experience”, and enthusiastically explained in some detail how he got the best machine, the richest coffee and the surest way to generate the satisfaction of his customers. Ben’s did not serve “Futsu no kohee” (regular coffee), “hotto” (hot water with Instant), “blendo” (blend coffee), the usual simple watery coffee made by a drip method. That used to be all that was available in Tokyo, easy to order, quick to serve. So some reeducating was necessary to persuade customers that espresso-based coffees were worth the extra time and cash. The ‘90s saw a move towards a more Continental taste in coffee, the richer and tastier the better. Ben made the right decision to go espresso! He explained that his silver Italian coffee-machine’s nine atmospheres of pressure extract richer coffee oils. However, he liked to believe that people also visited for his “designer coffee”. He loved taking the care to put a pattern on the surface of the lattes, a leaf or a simple flower – at that time a novelty.

New York style (extract)

It wasn’t just the full-taste cappuccinos or mochas or espresso shots, it was the New York-style open design of the café. It was possible to stay all day – many people seemed to do just that on a Sunday – sipping, reading, chatting, playing board games or just taking in the atmosphere. It could have been a Paris Left Bank café Tokyo-style with its narrow pavement and street frontage buildings crowding in on top of you. In fact, right above Ben’s were six floors of tiny offices.

Ben certainly created something different to the usual kissaten, the old-style Japanese coffee shop with soft seats and round tables, and a mama-san in a kimono. It was also a far cry from the popular stand-up coffee bars with slick service and plastic-wrapped slices of cake. He created a meeting place, almost a home from home, and both Japanese and foreign clientele loved it. The news spread kuchikomi, by word of mouth.

When he was asked about the competition that had sprung up all around for good coffee and trendy cafés, such as Starbucks, he said confidently he was not worried. Starbucks was more of a fast-food concept, and it was operated in Japan by Sazeby’s, a Japanese company. Ben’s Café was wholly owned and operated by Ben! And it was a real café, very individualistic, no need to keep in line with the uniformity of a franchise operation.

Food (extract)

There was a menu, too! Ben’s food and coffee attracted several hundred customers a day. Not bad for a back-street café more than 7 minutes walk from a station. One of the many points that differentiated Ben’s from fast-food outlets was the real cups and glasses, rather than throw-away utensils. Still, it was a café, not a restaurant, so the menu was limited – fresh soups, salads and bagels. What else would it be since it was a New York café? Ben’s was quite an attraction for people wanting a coffee or a drink after eating at one of Takadanobaba’s many good restaurants. Ben’s regularly stayed open until after midnight.

People came not just for the excellent coffee, soft drinks, beers and wines. They came for the atmosphere and the chance to meet interesting people. The café was open-plan, no partitions or cubicles cutting customers off. It was easy to strike up conversation. Ben created a place to linger, a place for savouring.

Highly recommended at Ben’s now on weekdays are the set lunch menus from ¥1000. The homemade quiche is popular. At weekends there’s English breakfast, Caesar salad and various breads and pancakes…

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