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happy new year

January 8, 2010

Ten days later and I’ve realised that keeping this site updated while travelling is a much trickier prospect than it was when I was staying in one place. Still…

I made it back to the island on New Year’s Eve. It was excellent to be back and see everyone again, and there was much music, dancing, and being merry. In the morning of the 1st I climbed the tallest hill on the island to watch the sun rise over the Okinawan mainland, and later in the day I played with the taiko drumming group at the seijinshiki (big coming of age party for those who turned 20 in the previous year) of one of my favourite classes.

Alas, today I have run out of time to write more, so here is a photo instead:

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back once again

December 29, 2009

Well, I’m back in Okinawa, and making use of the kind of jet lag that tells you at 3am that it’s still the middle of the day to catch up on emails.

I arrived in Naha, Okinawa this afternoon, and after checking into my hotel went out to have dinner with T-sensei, who was my favourite of all the teachers I taught with. It was lovely to see her again, but since arriving I’ve been haunted by the slightly uncanny feeling that almost no time has elapsed since the last time I was here. I had exactly the same sensation – something a little like deja vu – the first time I went back to Edinburgh after coming back from Japan.

After saying goodbye to T, I went for a walk around the city – it seemed a shame to waste any time here, and I knew my body clock wouldn’t allow me to sleep if I went back to my hotel anyway – to see which of my old haunts are still the same, and which have changed. Walking around Naha now, like Edinburgh then, the city felt slightly unreal, probably because it now consists of about two parts memory to one of stone.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to get my old phone reactivated. Then I will be unstoppable.

Ps. Writing this from my room in a great newish hostel called Burney’s Breakfast, which I would totally recommend to anyone going to Naha: for ¥2,800 (£19 at the current exchange rate…) I’ve got a room with a double bed, a PC with unlimited free internet, and as much free coffee – proper filter coffee – as I can drink.

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December 27, 2009

Hello. After two years of silence it is time to remove the dust sheets, sweep away the cobwebs, splice the mainbrace and reactivate the central core, for a few weeks at least.

I stopped writing here because this was really only ever meant to be a travel journal, and when my travels ended it didn’t feel like there was much left to do. However, since I’m about to go back to Japan for the first time since I left three and a half years ago, to see in the beginning of the new decade on the small Okinawan island where I spent two of the most interesting years of the previous one, it would seem a waste not to reactivate and continue this journal, if only temporarily.

Whether in practice I’ll get much time to update it is hard to say, but the intention is there. I’ll try to put up some photos at the very least. I’ve missed writing – missed having something specific to write about – and it’s nice to have an excuse to start again.

Now I really must go and pack.

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stranger than paradise

October 21, 2007

Ukelele lady

A few months ago, in an all-night café near Liverpool St. station, I ended up talking to a small group of people in interesting hats who were sitting at the next table. When they left, they gave me a flyer for their monthly cabaret, Stranger Than Paradise.

I’ve been a couple of times now and it’s among the best things I know of. Thank goodness for chance meetings in 24 hour cafés. The couple I’ve been to have featured fire-eating, harmonica beat-boxing, puppetry, burlesquery, contortionism, and a beautiful lady from the 1940s playing startling and brilliant covers of 90s rock songs, including “Creep” by Radiohead and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, on the ukelele. Next Sunday it happens again, and I am already much looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, my memories of the last one were seriously marred by the fact that as we walked to get a bus in the wee small hours of Sunday morning, in the vicinity of London Bridge station, a young well-dressed, hair-gelled city type ran up to us, punched the friend I was with full-on in the face, breaking his nose, and then jogged off casually, without looking back or once uttering a single word. It was the most creepily inhuman thing I’ve ever seen a human being do, and I’m still completely at a loss when I think about it. Beware of People, is the only lesson I can draw from it.

Fire Eater

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cross process

June 25, 2007

tower and bird
house reflection

The other week I had a roll of film from my old Russian box camera cross-processed, which essentially means ‘deliberately processed in the wrong chemicals’ (in this case, I asked the shop to process my normal negative film in slide film chemicals). Consequently, the colours are all wrong in a strangely pleasing way. A couple of my favourites are above.

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some violent crime

June 15, 2007

Hello. I haven’t been writing anything here lately. Mainly because of the old problem that the more one is actually doing, the less time is left for diary-writing, but partly because what time I have for the internet I have been squandering on these social networks, like and facebook. Anyway, if you were to ask me to re-cap, I would tell you that the last couple of months have included:

At the beginning of May, two men came up to me in the street late at night and relieved me of the burden of my bag, wallet, and phone. I had little choice in the matter: I did start running at first, but then I almost immediately realised that my mobile phone was not something I cared enough about to risk getting knifed in the back for, so I turned around and handed it over.

Interestingly, getting mugged has been a lesson in how easily replaceable almost everything but data is: I was very glad that a couple of months ago I’d found a little piece of software to back up the phone numbers from my phone’s memory. Consequently, the mugging led to a couple of weeks of inconvenience until I managed to replace my stolen devices and pour all the numbers and music back into them, after which all was more-or-less as it was before. With a bit of luck the day will soon be here where even getting killed will just result in a couple of weeks of disembodied inconvenience until the insurance company coughs up for a new body into which your mind can be restored from a backup copy. Until then, though, I will continue to operate at a heightened level of alertness.

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through the pinhole

April 15, 2007

water tower
A couple of weeks ago I came across a guide to making a pinhole camera out of a small tin. It seemed like a nice idea, and reminded me of walking round Kyoto with Graeme and his brother and their pinhole cameras a couple of summers ago, so I was toying with the idea of trying to make one when it occurred to me that I probably already had the materials to hand to try some pinhole photography there and then. Some digital pinhole photography, in fact. A few minutes later I was ready to go, having set aside my Canon lenses in favour of a pin-pricked piece of black card attached to the camera body with masking tape. And look! It worked!

The pictures I took indoors came out quite dull and misty but they proved the general principle, so a couple of days later I took my hi-tech pinhole camera for a sunny late afternoon wander around the neighbourhood. The results are (obviously) pretty lo-fi, and I had to turn the contrast and saturation up a bit on my computer, but I quite like their grainy, dreamy feel. The speckles, incidentally, are almost certainly an indication that I need to clean the inside of my camera.

Anyway, if anyone else feels like having a go, let me know — I’d love to see the results. I think you could probably place the pinhole over another lens, but you’d have to use longer exposure times (the above were all about a couple of seconds at ISO 100 and propped on a wall and the ground respectively). Experiment is the only way really. The smaller the pinhole the sharper the image should be, but the less light you’ll get (so you’ll need a longer exposure). There’s lots of info on Wikipedia. Good luck.

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electric sanshin

April 6, 2007

Electric sanshinLast week I finally got around to installing the electric pickup that I bought when I bought my sanshin a couple of years ago. Which means I can now plug my sanshin into a guitar amplifier and play Okinawan folk songs at unprecedented, cutting-edge volumes, should I so wish. I can also, more importantly, do things like record it more easily, put it through guitar effects pedals, and play with other, louder musicians.

It was a musical weekend, too. Having hardly played guitar in public at all in the last few years, I played twice in one weekend. On Saturday my sister’s theatre company put on a cabaret to raise money for a play they’re planning to put on in the summer. My friend and band-mate Jess lent her harmonies to an old song of mine. It was a very nice evening. I love a cabaret.

On Sunday, Jess put on an acoustic gig at her actual house to raise money for the mental health charity she works for. A bunch of people came to listen to songs, eat battenburgs, and drop money into cans. For the sake of variety, I brought along my sanshin and played the old Okinawan song “Asatoya yunta” (安里屋ユンタ) — somewhat incompetently, it has to be said, but heck, I think even an incompentently-performed Okinawan folk song is still usually better than no Okinawan folk song.

…I just found an Eisa group playing a nice version of Asatoya yunta on YouTube. (The music doesn’t actually start until about 40 seconds in but it is well worth the wait).

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welcome to the uk!

March 30, 2007

Earlier this month a friend from Japan came to the UK to visit. It was particularly exciting because not only was she the first friend from my island to visit since I got back, but she was actually coming to spend three months here to find a language school, sort out a child-minder for her toddler, and generally get a feel for life in the UK, with a view to coming for a year to study – probably later in the year.

That was the plan, anyway. What happened in practice was quite different: she was refused entry by UK immigration on the basis that they didn’t believe she was a genuine tourist. Why? Because she didn’t have a detailed itinerary for her three month stay. This, we were told, is ‘not a prerequisite’, but still enough grounds to refuse her entry. So, to summarise: she was refused entry to the UK for not having something that isn’t required. I’m sure Kafka would have clapped with delight. Welcome to the UK!

I did say to the immigration officer who called me with the news that surely detailed itineraries are the kind of thing you make when you’re visiting somewhere for ten days, but not when you are going to have plenty of time and be staying with locals. When in fact one of the purposes of your trip was to avoid having to sort things like childcare out from the other side of the world. By that time, though, the decision had been made and it was obvious that arguing would amount to nothing other than conducting an investigation into the sound my head makes as it smacks repeatedly against the glassy, impenetrable surface of a vast bureaucracy.

So instead of three months, she was kindly allowed to stay at my house rather than a detention centre for two days until the next flight back via Seoul, the way she came. For what it’s worth, we did have a very nice two days – we tried to fit in as much as possible, in the hope that she might feel that she’d at least got something out of her trip.

I could rage about the idiocy of it; I could speculate about the extent to which this sort of thing is likely to be a fairly direct consequence of increased pressure on Immigration from our thuggish Home Secretary. But I won’t, if only because what galls me even more than all that is just this: that after three years in Japan during which I was treated so well, my first Japanese friend to visit the UK should be treated like this. Put simply, it made me feel ashamed of the UK and of what it increasingly seems to be becoming.

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the radiophonic workshop

February 24, 2007

Last week I watched an absolutely inspiring documentary on the unlikely topic of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Set up as an experimental unit back in the days when the BBC had enough spare money to set up experimental units, the Radiophonic Workshop were providing BBC programmes with avant-garde electronic soundtracks years before the invention of the synthesiser.

I’d always imagined the Workshop to be staffed with comic-book stereotypical electronics boffins in white lab coats, but in actual fact most of the staff were experimental composers, with backgrounds in musique concrète and jazz, and the patience to piece together elaborate compositions produced entirely by manipulating and cutting up tape-recordings.

For someone with an interest in electronic music, it was inexpressibly exciting. These people, with only tape machines and basic oscillators, were making music that still — 40 or 50 years on — sounds futuristic, and far less dated than a lot of music from 10 years ago sounds nowadays.

It was also an interesting study in the ways that constraint often enhances creativity: at one point two former radiophonists complain that the day the workshop got its first synthesiser was the day the quality of their output began to decline — that up until that point they’d had only tape to play with, so they’d had to think about exactly what they were doing, whereas from that point on making electronic music began to be about faffing with a machine trying to find a sound you like.

Anyway, if you have any interest in electronic music, it is well worth a watch, and — luckily enough — it seems the programme can be downloaded here. (Thanks to Andrew for finding the link).

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