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November 2003

back again…

November 30, 2003

this is me
a nice cafe

Well, I’m back from the big city. The things I did there included:

  1. having my first really good cup of coffee since coming to Japan (picture of cafe, below);
  2. buying a jacket while mildly drunk (which I think might be the key to successful clothes shopping – I made the decision so quickly!);
  3. taking part in, and winning, a pub quiz. I was in a team with three other teachers from remote islands, and we were clearly destined to win (the clearest indication of this was when team-mate Alex said ‘Montreal’ – the correct answer – before the question had even been asked). When our victory was announced I was suddenly handed a microphone and managed to come out with something along the lines of “while it’s always nice to win, it wasn’t our really our knowledge that won this quiz for us so much as the extreme ignorance of our enemies.” Great: this to a roomful of people who might otherwise have been my friends…

Almost as soon as I got back something typically bizarre happened on the island. On Tuesday evening a local man went out fishing on his own, and didn’t come back. The sea was extremely rough, and so, fearing the worst, the fire-brigade and various islanders launched a search party. On Wednesday afternoon they found him, and the news came through a bit at a time: first – that they’d found him; second – that he was alright; third – that they found him at the top of a hill; and fourth – that he was running around up there without any clothes on.

While it seems unlikely that the story behind a man’s decision to tear off his clothes and run for the hills is a happy one, and I don’t want to laugh at mental illness, I still find it pretty funny just because of the huge discrepancy between anything you might expect to have happened to a man who disappears while fishing in rough seas, and what actually happened…

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i am going away for a while

November 18, 2003

an island

This is just to say I’m going away tomorrow (Wednesday), and I won’t be back until Saturday at the earliest. And I owe quite a few people emails, but I won’t be able to write until next week now. So please don’t think I’m ignoring you. I’m just not here, is all. I hope you’re all doing well, though. Here is a picture of an island.

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the savoury taste of lizard droppings

November 17, 2003

At last! I finally know what lizard shit tastes like!

This weekend I had an extremely bad cold, which necessitated: (a) spending almost the whole weekend in bed, and (b) drinking a lot of hot boiled-up ginger and honey to make my throat feel better. At some point on Saturday afternoon, I threw a spoon into an empty coffee cup that was sitting in the sink, and then, sipping my ginger drink, realised it needed a little more honey, and, therefore, that I needed the spoon again. I fished the spoon out of the cup I’d just thrown it into, and – because I was carrying a hot mug with my hands – put the spoon in my mouth. “That’s funny.” I thought, “This spoon has acquired a strangely savoury flavour* in the thirty seconds or so that it occupied that cup. I’m not sure I like this.” So I turned round and looked in the cup, and found the source of the flavour – a small lizard turd sitting at the bottom of the (otherwise dry and empty) cup. A turd on which my spoon had, briefly, rested. Obviously, I spent the next five or ten minutes spitting and rinsing, and brushing my teeth with nice, minty-fresh toothpaste.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this, to be quite frank.

I should say, though, that the presence of lizard shit in my sink is not, in itself, surprising – my house is full of lizards. They shriek like birds, which is annoying from time to time, but they also eat insects, and so, on the whole, they are a good thing.

Except when they shit on my utensils.

*in case you’re interested, it tastes a little like mushrooms, only somehow… earthier.

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killing an octopus

November 14, 2003

a puffer fish
a puffer fish

Last Friday was the full moon, and that brings with it an extremely low tide, along with extremely bright moonlight: the perfect conditions for an octopus hunt.

So, at ten o’clock several dozen of us gathered at the beach and equipped ourselves with torches and small three-pronged spears before wading out towards the reef. The tide was astonishingly low – not more than knee-deep for close to a kilometre – so we just walked and walked across the fields of broken coral, spears in hand, looking for octopi.

It was pretty exciting, at first – the other octopus hunters becoming just little bobbing lights as we fanned out across the water. From time to time a little round puffer fish would dart, unpuffed, around my legs and then disappear. Puffer fish are strange-looking and quite cute – to the extent that fish can be cute, anyway. The more I walked, though, the more I realised that although hunting them was fun, I didn’t very much want to actually kill an octopus. But at the same time, I was thinking about a conversation I once had with Alfy, his point being that if you are willing to eat animals, you should be prepared to kill them too – that there’s something wrong with being willing to eat something that you wouldn’t also be willing to kill. Which I think is a fair point, and since I would be willing (pseudo-vegetarian that I am) to eat an octopus, I knew I was going to have to be prepared to kill one, too. But I like octopuses, and by the time I came face to face with one, my heart wasn’t really in it any more. I let the social science teacher, who I was hunting with, take the first one, but I knew that if I didn’t want to be a hypocrite then I would have to catch the next one myself.

When I found it, I didn’t have the heart to spear it, so I decided to just pluck it out of the water and throw it, alive, into the bag we were carrying. That seemed more humane, somehow. (I found out the next day that octopuses can give you a pretty nasty bite, which allowed me to tell myself, with hindsight, that I was giving the octopus more of a chance, catching it the way I did…)

So, having caught my octopus, I lost interest in the hunt. I wasn’t in any hurry to find another octopus, and I was beginning to get cold (although the weather is still quite warm, the sea has cooled a lot since September). But there was still a lot of hunting time left before the tide came back in, and since I was sharing a torch with Matsumoto-sensei, I couldn’t go back to the shore. So the next hour or so was spent trudging around knee-deep in increasingly cold water, and treading on sea urchins. I was wearing special sea-shoes (no-one goes in the sea in bare feet here, because there are plenty of things in the sea that you really wouldn’t want to step on) but they were very cheap, and, I quickly discovered, weren’t thick enough to fully protect my feet if I stepped hard on an urchin. So I got spiked quite a few times, and a couple of times had to stop to lever the urchin off my shoe with my spear (luckily no spines actually got far enough in to get stuck in my foot, though). By the time I got back to shore, I was cold, tired, bored, and depressed.

When the evening’s catches were all tipped into a big trough at the beach for cleaning and counting, an absolute little fucker of a thirteen-year-old came along and picked up my octopus – which was still just about alive – and squeezed one of its eyes out. I was about as furious as complete exhaustion would allow me to be. While I’m not entirely sure that eating animals is always wrong, I am absolutely sure of the importance of treating them with respect – even molluscs, and especially if you are going to kill and eat them. (This is one area where I’m beginning to get the impression that Japan does rather badly compared to Britain. Not that people in Britain are particularly kind to animals, but at least in Britain saying you don’t eat meat (for example) is not generally met with bafflement – which is the usual reaction here).

So, octopus hunting, then… it sounds exciting and romantic, but in reality it is cold, tiring, and miserable. Next time I’ll take a camera instead of a spear, I think…

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to the volcano

November 4, 2003

an island
a parade

This weekend I went to visit Kim on the volcano she lives on. This was my first trip out of Okinawa, and in order to get the big plane to Kyushu, I first had to take the small plane from my island. It’s a very small plane – only room for eight passengers – and it flew very low across the sea, allowing some beautiful views of the Okinawan mainland and various surrounding islands.

The big plane then took me from Naha, the capital of Okinawa, to Kyushu, where Kim lives – across about 400 miles of ocean. Kim lives on the lower slopes of an extremely active volcano. I went expecting it to be picturesque, but when I saw it I discovered how malevolent a mountain can look. It’s definitely an angry mountain. It’s extremely large and wide, but the trees that cover the lower part of it come to a sudden stop half way up and from there on up it’s just black scree that the volcano has spat there. Nothing grows there, and no-one goes there – it’s too dangerous.

One of the perks of living on a volcano, though, is the abundance of onsens () – baths of hot spring water. These are extremely popular in Japan (and being a very volcanically active country, there are a lot of them), but I had never been to one before. It was fantastic – an outdoor pool full of large rocks, and the temperature of a hot bath. Usually a visit to an onsen involves nudity (generally less of an issue here than in Britain), but this one has a small shrine in it, and so nakedness is not appropriate, so everyone entering the onsen wears a plain white yukata robe. Walking into the blissfully hot water in a white gown, with other people slowly wading about in similar gowns, it felt like I was joining some sort of cult. We stayed in the onsen for nearly two hours, watching ships come and go, and listening to the sea crash against the rocks thirty feet from where we were bathing. The whole sea glittered under a bright moon. On Sunday evening we went back a second time, and this time it was drizzling and the onsen was fairly empty. We sat in the hot water with cold raindrops splashing around us and, once again, listened to the waves.

On the Monday, there was a huge festival in the city, and so we travelled across with Kim’s taiko drumming group. They were great, and I was pretty jealous that Kim’s already playing in public, and practicing twice a week. There don’t seem to be very regular practices here on my island – I’m hoping they’ll start up again sometime soon because it’s about a month since I last went to one. Anyway, it was great to see Kim play taiko, and her group were particularly impressive because they’ve got the second biggest drum in the prefecture, which must be about eight or nine feet across. She looked very cool in the blue and orange costume – look! there she is on the right! And that’s the big drum on the left. Sadly, I only had time to see their first set before I had to leave for the airport.

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