Friday 27th January

January 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

So I am back now in the UK, after a month away exploring Japan. Coming home after being in foreign climes always brings with it a fresh outlook to your own culture; objective perspective on the qualities of your home country. First observations back in the UK? There are a lot more fat people.

Approaching Manchester from our Frankfurt connection there was a brilliant sunset. I’ve seen sunsets and sunrises in Brasil, Morocco, Crete and Italy, among others, but this one beat them all: even the Sahara, as a golden orb slowly rose over sand dunes endless to the eyes. As our plane lowered, beneath us a grey Peak District caught in approaching twilight, the orange sun, following us down, was soft enough to look at directly through tired eyes. Layers of clouds at different distances passed at varying speeds, each catching the dying light differently: some orange like the sun itself, others peach, salmon, a sore pink. We broke through purple rain clouds trimmed with silver, and more variations of colour revealed themselves, through sheets of dusty golden light. As we approached the city, the sun appeared and disappeared behind dark clouds as the rain of early evening pattered the glass. We had seemingly passed through the sunset, and seen it from various depths from within.


Some final memories from Japan:

Rakugo: a form of storytelling, whose name means “fallen words”. I was taken to an evening of Rakugo by my friend Sam (http://samillingworth.wordpress.com); neither of us knowing what was to come. The event took place in a Saké shop somewhere in Tokyo, where admission of ¥1500 (around £13) bought us entry, and a vacuum pack of pickled greens. It was a bargain for the price, not only for the Rakugo itself, but for the free Saké and all-round experience.

The centre of the shop had been cleared, with plastic crates turned on to their sides and spread around the room as impromptu seating. At the front of the space was a small platform with a cushion on it. Performers took their turn to kneel on the cushion and hold the audience’s attention through comical (apparently) tales, which in someway shed light on an aspect of human nature, using a fan and small cloth as props; not always to their designed purpose. Each storyteller was preceded by a Shamisen (three-stringed instrument) player, who sang, to which there was audience hand-clapping and the occasional sing-along. Of course I, with no Japanese, understood absolutely nothing of the performance, and even Sam, with more than a year’s language study within the country, could only understand small amounts. My initial ignorant impression was that it was a bit like an open-mic session at a mental institution: the gestures and speech patterns were so alien, that at times I could only appreciate it as a kind of abstract torture. But in truth, I have quite a high threshold for that kind of thing, and actually enjoyed it, despite my absolute lack of comprehension.

Just as the evening looked to be coming to an end, the Matron of the shop, who had been boisterously comparing the evening’s show, called Sam up before the audience, to explain himself. Undoubtedly having had to do the same thing several times during his past year, he could speak about what he did, where he was from, and so on. The matron, and indeed the audience, seemed to want more, though. He managed to escape by indicating he needed the toilet. But as he left, I was pulled up. I introduced myself politely to the crowd, then was lost for all other Japanese, apart from how to say “I am Jewish”, which I am not. After a bit of physical theatre and shouting loudly but slowly, I was able to describe where I was from: Nottingham- city of Robin Hood. Thank God for Robin Hood. If it wasn’t for him I would have to have done a drive-by-shooting. If I was from Milton Keynes I’m not sure how I would have mimed the colour grey.

Japan is the first country I have visited where I am ethnically unlike most people. That made me very aware of me, as I passed through shops, stations, streets. I felt the odd one out, which indeed I was. And though I wasn’t stared at (there are of course plenty of non-Japanese people in Japan), I was an exception, and though not an oddity (exactly), I felt different. I felt like I would be recorded in their minds as “the white guy”, “the western guy”. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant, but it was different. It just added to the alienness of the environment, which was mostly familiar in form, but with differences that made it slightly inaccessible to my experience, and curious in even its mundane details. Knowing a few words, but not how to read their language, along with this feeling of being physically, culturally adrift was very much like being a young child again: able to move through the world, but with a mix of naive awe and lack of understanding.

Japan is a nice place. They are sophisticated people, whose live and appreciate their own culture.

Wednesday 18th January

January 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

During my time in Japan I have been lucky to see some truly stunning landscapes through the window of the Shinkansen (bullet train), whilst travelling to interesting cities on short trips. I have seen Fuji-San (Mount Fuji) from many different angles, and many other mountains besides. Indeed, in spending time in Nagano and, most recently Kyoto, we have at times been surrounded by the Japanese Alps: a breathtaking expanse of rocky land, which, in interacting with slow-moving clouds, is revealed and concealed to dramatic effect, especially as winter light breaks through, illuminating the stage.

Kyoto is famous for its historical architecture, spared from U.S. air strikes during WWII for its cultural value. This has always seemed to me a somewhat problematic idea- considering buildings before people- but I am glad it has survived. Many of the temples and shrines of interest originate from the 17th and 18th centuries, themselves reconstructions of previous temples and shrines which burnt down. (Some of them several times)

I thought I would get tired of seeing shrine after shrine, temple after temple. They do share and repeat certain aspects, but each is exquisite in its own way, and contains unique surprises and artistry in its details. These are buildings that stun on all scales: as architectural spectacles; in detail as sensitive studies of the material potential of different woods, metals, tiles; as sites of belief, trade and politics from another era, as well as real opulence; as works of art, from the decorative ironwork and wood latticing, to the divine painted panels displaying scenes from rural Japan, painted by masters from another time; and above all else (for me), for their gardens, which exude a real reverence for nature and an understanding, again, of material potential. Japanese gardens are, of course, world famous: loved by many, but copied badly and misconstrued by many. But to see one… a real one.

Historical buildings are great, giving as they do a glimpse into other times, ways of life. But is through the gardens that a sense of surviving tradition prevails, of culture worth keeping. The technique of “Shakkei” (Borrowed Scenery) characterises the rock gardens of such sites, in which larger landscapes are represented within small ones. In these spaces, raked sand or gravel symbolises rivers, whilst groupings of stones and rock can represent islands or mountains. It is stunning to see.

In encountering places of renowned worth -sites of architectural importance, cultural value or natural spectacle- whether they live up to expectation or disappoint, I always, invariably feel a kind of guilty incompleteness. How can seeing be enough? I have seen the Eiffel Tower. I took some rubbish photos, and I could have bought a postcard with a better photo on it, but I didn’t. I’ve seen the Tower of Pisa. Ditto. The Sagrada Familia. The same. What really hurts is a sense, I think, of an expectation dying, of a piece of future melting away. You see so many tourists at these sites, and at many more I am yet to visit around the world, taking family snapshots, capturing their moment at that place. “I was there!” is what they are saying. If we are to be harsh, you could say it is a commodifying gesture, a taking of territory, a definitively modern act. But perhaps more agreeably, this “world tick-box” mentality could be seen as a pronouncement of existence, something innately human, romantic even. As St. Augustine put it, it is a lust of the eyes (Thanks Jo – http://web.mac.com/generalistjo).

But for me, there is still this pang. In his novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino talks about how all unencountered cities take a form of pure potential, drawn from our imagination and based on a ‘master plan’ we have in our minds of what cities are, do and can be. But so often ‘important’ cities like New York, Paris, Kyoto set the agenda for your visit, or as Calvino puts it, cities can make say “everything you must think”, and while you think you are exploring a city, in fact, “you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts”. It is when cities present surprises that great journeys become truly memorable. In Kyoto it wasn’t the temples, as amazing as they truly were.

On our last day in Kyoto we borrowed bikes from our youth hostel, and pottered around the city, up winding lanes running beside rice paddies, across bridges and away from the main tourist areas. Following a track beside a lake we came to a sudden steepening. We considered turning back, but instead dismounted and walked up the ridge. With just a few footsteps my trip to Kyoto became a fall: meandering across the narrow road with a steady, rhythmic hobble was a red faced Japanese Monkey. My heart jumped with utter disbelief. I approached with a mixture of uncontainable excitement and an awareness of needing to temper my enthusiasm: I must have looked like an arch villain from a silent movie, tiptoeing with manic, stylised determination.

Upon closer observation, the Monkey was clearly very old, and had a stump for one of its back legs. It was undeterred by our presence, and just passed us by nonchalantly, before disregarding the whole notion of disabilities by climbing to the uppermost boughs of the trees which hung above the lake. More monkeys appeared on the wooded hill beside us, perhaps 20 all together: young babies, children, adult monkeys, running, playing, climbing.

On our cycle back down the path towards the city I now couldn’t help but notice all the Monkeys -which before I somehow couldn’t- sat on branches many feet above me, along the same stretch of road as before, but now transformed. Instead of looking forwards, I cycled with my head at angle, with my eyes pointed to the sky above me, counting the bodies in the trees, distant, laughing.

Wednesday 11th January

January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of Japan’s greatest contemporary exports has been anime (cartoons which some Westerners call “Manga”- a term which actually refers to Japanese comic books). Perhaps the most consistently excellent studio, certainly the most popular in recent times, have been Studio Ghibli, creators of Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away), Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle), among many others.

I am not an anime-geek by any means, but I am a massive Ghibli-geek, for sure. My favourite film by them is perhaps my favourite film of all time (and kinds): Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies). SEEK IT OUT AND WATCH IT.

So it was with genuine excitement the other week that I got to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, a western suburb of Tokyo.

Straight away what stuck me was the sheer vision of the museum. It has been constructed with love (and building materials), consistent to the “Ghibli aesthetic”; a whimsical, fantastical building, it is very much of the Ghibli vernacular, but not of the cartoon world, in the way that perhaps Disney World is, with genuine care taken to reconstruct the feeling of the animations for its fans, not just a grotesque simulacra of an image. Many of Ghibli’s films present an overwhelming affinity for nature, and quite appositely, the museum is enclosed by trees, backs on to a park, and indeed is overwhelmed by ivy- much like any number of buildings from within Hayao Miyazaki’s oeuvre.

Entering the museum itself, and it instantly delivers what many fans crave, the unmistakable figure of the studio mascot, Totoro. Star of perhaps the studio’s most broadly popular film within Japan, his presence in the lobby of the museum is a kind of reassurance to devout Ghibli fanatics (the dressing up kind- I’m not so bothered about Totoro): We are not here to tease you. We want to treat you.

The museum on the ground floor largely explores the history of animation, using Ghibli characters in inventive displays and diorama to entertain and inform, rather than strictly teach. Upstairs, and the focus is more a feeding the fans than anything else, with reconstructions of “sets” from their anime, to recreations of the animators studios to give us a peek behind the magic.

The museum has its own miniature cinema, showing short films of their own making, of course, which can’t be seen elsewhere. When we were there, the film shown was Chuzumo (A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail), which followed a clan of mice training for a rodent sumo contest. The film, like all Ghibli creations, tapped into the spiritual core of Japanese culture and the central values of the nation: hard work, humility, and above all else, a love of food. I don’t know of any other film makers who have given food preparation more movie time than Ghibli’s directors.

The film was a lot of fun, and has put me in the mood for the real thing: I will be in the audience for a live Sumo tournament on Thursday.

Something that stuck me as odd upon my arrival in Japan, but which has since become a picture of normality, are the lengths gone for customer service in this country. Arriving by bus from the airport, we passed through a department store to meet my mother-in-law for a homeward lift. Armed with an irrepressible desire to help, made-up ladies -perfumed and identically clothed, starched to perfection, tilted heads and smiling eyes- popped up at various corners, entrances and exits, with offers, vouchers, and so on. The suggestion of unrestrained servitude was somewhat tempered by their face masks, a common accessory in Japan: they will die to make you happy, but not from the common cold.

Indeed, outside of the commercial world, the Japanese are still extremely attentive to newcomers, guests. Whilst at any of the family homes, If I so much as clear my throat, I instantly have layers of cardigans and scarves thrust upon me. Their exaggerated effort shows the earnestness with which they treat everyday life, the respect they hold, and their desire for making people feel welcome and comfortable.

Outside the home, and this can take on grotesque proportions. Leaving the car park we were treated to an elaborate arm show by the parking attendant, which resembled a kind of contemporary freeform take on classic body popping, via ballroom dancing. This was not as unique as I thought, though. Another day we were witness to a display by service station staff, who operated as a kind of deranged clan of hyper-attentive marionettes, with bobbing heads and loose, inhuman mannerisms.

But the crowning glory of all “frontline” staff in any Japanese profession, is the uniform vocal register. Perhaps this is an acute case of Chinese (sic) whispers in Customer Relations school, during the early years of such things. I imagine the teacher, on the day given over to how to politely address customers, had a severe cold. I cannot in any other way explain why else all staff would choose to welcome us as if through their noses, in a piercing and almost nonsensical blur. Irasshaimase! Each staff member continues to welcome you every time they see you, even for a second or third time, throughout your time in the shop, but without looking at you directly, as if they are operating an alternative plane of reality, welcoming spirits in another dimension. Their overall demeanour can perhaps best be described as being that of a haunted child.

Anyway. Onwards and upwards! More fun awaits!

Sunday 1st January

January 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Greetings from the future… Happy New Year! As I write this it is still 2011 where most people who know me live, but I am miles away, in Saitama, Japan.

New Year’s eve mainly consisted of eating Sashimi (raw fish), and home-made Soba (buckwheat) noodles and plum wine, brewed by a relative. The Japanese seem to be much more connected to where their food comes from than most of us do in the UK. I’m sure this varies from family to family, but they certainly all make a point of thanking the food before eating it.

Over the last couple of days we have visited both sides my wife’s grandparents, both of whom grow and prepare elements of their diets.

The Uenos, her maternal grandparents own a stunning home -evidence of the family’s place as figureheads of their village in times gone by- with a stunning ornamental gate leading to a central courtyard around which are various buildings, ranging from very Japanese in style, to modern and functional barns and storerooms. They oversee a number of polytunnels (small when compared to corporate commercial farming, but large nonetheless) housing hundreds of home-grown strawberries: delicious, juicy strawberries.

The Hosakas, her paternal grandparents, own a rather traditional Japanese home, with life operating on a ground floor network of rooms, tatami (matted) floors and sliding doors. They maintain a large allotment in their garden which in winter alone reaps leaks, onions, cabbage and green leaves of various kinds, daikon (large moulie), uzu (a kind of citrus fruit), and broccoli. In warmer seasons, they grow their own rice too, among many other things. But the land around their plots is turning into apartment blocks. What once was fertile ground surrounding their rice paddy, is now a circle of purpose-built concrete dwellings. Seemingly the Japanese way of life is changing, and with it the landscape, piece by piece.

But Japan has, and always has had, a dysfunctional relationship to progress. Their culture has throughout time drawn select influences from other cultures at chosen moments to develop their own -Chinese predominantly (and formatively)- and has had to withstand the imposition of foreign culture -through US occupation after World War Two. But despite numerous changes throughout time, their is a core which remains; altered, perhaps, but still resolutely Japanese.

A case in point are the Hosakas, one side of my wife’s grandparents. It is a Japanese tradition at New Years to eat various O-Mochi dishes. O-Mochi is a sticky rice blob (for lack of a more refined word), which can be eaten savoury or sweet. With the rice they harvest, the Hosaka family -from the grandparents to the grandchildren- make their own, a process which involves washing vast quantities of rice, steaming it over an old wood stove, and traditionally moistening and then pounding loads of rice with a large hammer; the women turning the blob in a wooden bowl for no more than two seconds, before a strong male would smash the mallett down on the rice, many times over on loop. The process used to start early in the morning and end late at night. The modern “smash lite” process, uses a machine which shakes the rice together at high speed, which still takes many hours, but not as many. There are still elements of O-Mochi making which are “traditional” -the washing of rice by hand, the cooking of the rice with an old wood stove- but it is a much more streamlined process now, compared to how it was.

Japanese homes are bloody freezing: designed more for the long, heady summers than their bitter winters. Even in houses of more Western-design, like that of my in-laws, it is rare to encounter Central Heating. They prefer instead to have a portable heater in a central family room, piles of blankets and furs, a near-constant flow of green tea, and a Kotatsu: a low table (at the the height of a Western coffee table) which houses a down-facing radiator on its underside, and a skirt of layered blankets to trap the heat. The result of this “centralising” of heat, is that it is a social activity to be warm. You can’t hide in your room and do your own thing if you want your toes to maintain a human colour.

But alongside this somewhat traditional approach to how a house works are added boons of the technological age, like heated toilet seats and thermostatically controlled baths. But what these added pieces of future-wizardry do is just enhance the Japanese-ness of a family’s daily life, or, if they do impose, they only do so on the periphery of daily life. For sure there are Japanese who live identically to those in the UK, with packaged food from the supermarket forming the base of their diet, among other details, but from what I gather this is a rare approach, and perhaps more apparent in single city living. In family homes, the Japanese are resolutely traditional by default, and proud of it.

Last night’s New Year’s was a humble evening. After dinner, we all had a nap until just after twelve, then all rose and left the house to visit the local Shinto shrines, to pay tribute to spirits for the New Year. Most families honour both Shintoism and Buddhism, but practice neither wholeheartedly, taking on aspects of both into their daily lives, whilst committing to neither completely. This very much encapsulates the key aspect of the Japanese character: pragmatism.

With the exception of the ancient capital of Kyoto, which had been spared on cultural grounds, every major Japanese city was bombed by the US during World War Two. This, along with the constant risk of earthquake, has led the Japanese to the practice of demolishing and reconstructing pretty much every building recurrently; including sacred temples and shrines (some of which are rebuilt observing traditional techniques). Therefore what is revered here, is not so much material antiquity itself, but rather age-old values.

Now off to my Japanese New Year’s breakfast. Replete with O-Sake… rice liquor. Happy New Year one and all!

 

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