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March 2004

two pictures from my telephone’s mind

March 26, 2004

a sparkler
stars

Lately the weather here has been pretty grey, and I’ve been too busy with end of term stuff to take any photos. The other night, though, I was rummaging through the contents of my mobile phone’s tiny electronic mind, and I found I’ve got a few quite nice pictures that I’ve taken with it. So here, for starters, are a couple of the artiest.

The top picture is of a sparkler, held by a small child.

The bottom picture… I don’t know what it’s a picture of, actually. I’ve forgotten. I know I took it quite recently – I remember taking it. I just don’t remember what I was looking at or why. Let’s say it’s the night sky. The beautiful night sky. And it’s one of those really long exposures so you can actually see the movement of the stars along their ancient paths. It’s not, of course. It’s probably oncoming traffic or something. But that’s not so evocative, is it?

Right. So. Tomorrow I’m off to Osaka again – this time to meet my mum and dad who are coming over for the spring break. So I’ll be out of range for a little while. Please don’t take this as an invitation to burgle my house, but please do take it as an excuse if I owe you an email and you’re wondering where I’ve got to – things have been hectic lately, is all…

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the great jenga tower

March 22, 2004

tower of jenga

Today I helped T sensei, the maths teacher, construct a Jenga set. The tower in the photo is not yet complete – when finished it will be half as high again, towering a foot and a half above whatever table-top it is placed on, and visible from many meters away. My arms ache from all the sanding, but construction must be completed by tomorrow evening, because the opening ceremony will be at the goodbye meal for five of the junior high school teachers.

Wednesday is the last day of term (Japan’s school year goes from April to April), and teachers here are always on short contracts, changing schools every few years. On the small islands the contracts are even shorter – no teacher stays longer than three years. This means that every year, about a third of the teachers in the school change. This is a fact that has sometimes creeped me out in the past: none of the teachers (or students, since there are only three years) have been here more than three years, but the school itself has stood here for forty years or so. So what is the school? In the right frame of mind, the transience of the people and continuity of the school can make you feel like the school is some kind of weird, looming presence. A huge cowlike thing, on whose back we are merely flies. Which makes no sense when I take a step back from my thoughts, but why should I do that?

Ooh. I just realised that thinking of the school as a ‘presence’ comes from the mistaken assumption that the meaningfulness of a word necessitates the existence of a corresponding thing! Doh! Fancy making that old mistake…! Anyway, I’m not creeped out by the school’s existence any more. Thank goodness I spent four years of my life studying philosophy… to think that at the time it all seemed like a lot of old nonsense and a waste of time which would have been better spent reading detective novels and learning the harmonica…

Also: I am now a licensed scuba-diver. Splendid! Don’t be too impressed, though – to get the basic license you need to be just about capable of avoiding death and/or bursting your eardrums. Which I think I am. Anyway, I’m looking forward to finding out.

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a musical interlude

March 12, 2004

Suzuki Melodion

On Friday evening, after the conference was over, I played my first proper public gig since coming to Japan. Actually, it was my second, but the first – a few months ago – was to a roomful of businessmen who were having a business-card swapping party on my island, which was a weird experience, and came about only because I was playing in my neighbour’s cafe a few days before and he – possibly slightly happy on booze – invited me to come and play at the card-swapping party, for which he was organising the entertainments.

Anyway, the occasion was a ball for the foreign English teachers of Okinawa. A few weeks ago I was staying with Leigh (see the previous entry) and his wife Anna in the big city, and she was trying to organise this ball. I’d been thinking about the possibility of putting on some sort of open-stage event, so I suggested that as the entertainment for the ball. Someone else organised the whole thing, though, so all I had to do was agree to come and be one of the performers. I just assumed that virtually everyone else who played would also be turning up with acoustic guitars, but I was pleasantly wrong. There were six performances, and they were about as varied as six performances could have been: a piece by Chopin, played on the grand piano, a Chinese pop song, accompanied by piano, a karate demonstration, a Hawaiian dance, and a Hawaiian song performed on the ukelele and accompanied by another Hawaiian dance (a surprising number of the other JET teachers in Okinawa are from Hawaii, because there was a lot of emigration from Okinawa to Hawaii following the second World War, and so now lots of young Hawaiians have relatives in Okinawa that they want to re-establish relations with). And me with an acoustic guitar.

As well as giving me a taste for performing again (darling), playing a couple of my songs made me realise how useful playing an instrument is when you live on a remote island, and so don’t know many people in the big city. If you turn up somewhere, and play a bit of music, it gives everybody in the room an excuse to come up and chat to you. Consequently, I finished the evening feeling I knew about seven times more people on mainland Okinawa than I had the day before.

Rather than rush back to the island, I spent Saturday wandering round the city, taking the opportunity to do things like sit in cafés, and buy a melodion (pictured, also known as a melodica), which is a kids’ keyboard instrument that sounds like an accordion, which you play by blowing into via a length of flexible tubing. Nice. I’ve wanted one for ages. In the evening, I headed up the mainland to a small town where a bloke I met the previous day was having a birthday party. It was in a little bar with bongos and djembes and various instruments lying around, and it turned into a big musical session, with everyone taking it in turns to hit things. I played guitar for a bit, and then I got out my melodion and played along on that for a while, too. Good god! It might be meant for children, but it’s loud enough to compete with an electric guitar!

Anyway, the bloke who owns the bar seemed very nice, spoke good English (having lived in London for two years), was clearly into live music, and was one of the best harmonica players I’ve ever met. So now I’m hoping that I might be able to get some sort of occasional open-stage night going there. I’m going back next month, so we’ll see what happens then…

I also found a nice bar in the city that has Guiness on tap. Slightly wrong-tasting Guiness, admittedly, but still probably the closest thing I’m going to get in this region of the planet.

Here‘s an interesting article in today’s Guardian by a man travelling round Kyoto, where I’m going in two weeks’ time. It’s particularly interesting because he’s the first person I’ve ever come across who enjoys the notorious Japanese denki furo (電気風呂), or electric bath.

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through the tiny door

March 9, 2004

a sanshin

Well, I don’t know about you, but I just had a really good weekend.

In fact the portion of time I am considering ‘weekend’ starts last Thursday, because I went to a language and culture conference in the big city, which meant two days of learning Japanese and sanshin (Okinawan banjo) instead of being at school. Nice.

On Wednesday, though, it looked like I wouldn’t be able to leave the island. The boat stopped running on Tuesday afternoon, due to high winds and five meter waves, and when I called the island’s airport, both Wednesday and Thursday’s planes were full. Luckily, someone cancelled on Wednesday night, and the bloke from the airport called me back to let me know. (There’s a great thing about living on a small island – people know who and where you are. That can be a disadvantage, too, but when it comes to ‘I need to get off the island’ emergencies, it’s pretty handy. The bloke who runs the airport, by the way, also runs the island’s rent-a-car business. The airport is so small that running it single-handedly isn’t a full-time job).

So, half-noon on Thursday saw me climbing into the Okinawan skies on board a twin-engined eight-seater propellor plane which I shared with seven men in the pale blue overalls that all manual workers in Japan seem to wear, en route for the big city. Thursday afternoon was spent learning to read sanshin score – much easier than reading Western notation, since I’ve tried and failed to learn that several times but was beginning to get the hang of reading for the sanshin by half-past-four. (It helps that there are only twelve notes, and you only play one at a time).

In the evening, rather than be sociable and go out with all the teachers, I just went out to get something to eat and drink with Leigh, a friend who lives in the big city. After a few drinks in a German beer place, Leigh offered to give me a walking tour of the dingy area where all the interesting bars are. Leigh is a semi-professional photographer, and so has an eye for strange, tucked-out-of-the-way places, and as we walked, he described to me the building he wanted to show me – a place that had been a pachinko (Japanese pinball) parlour in the 1950s, and was covered in so many neon tubes that, though it’s tucked down a side street in Naha, Okinawa, must once have rivalled with its equivalents in Shinjuku, central Tokyo. And he’s right – it must have done, but now it’s a dirty concrete building covered in cracked, dead neon tubes and peeling fly-posters, and surrounded by tiny, unwelcoming bars. I was looking up and down the front of it, at the huge faded letters painted on the concrete frontage, and the posters covering the now shuttered-up ground floor, when Leigh said, “Well – what do you think? Do you want to go in?” “Go in? – what? In here?” I asked. “Yeah,” said Leigh, “that’s the door.” He was pointing to the grubby shutters right in front of me. And there – though I hadn’t even noticed it – was a tiny door, less than five feet high, and half-hidden by gummed-on, cheaply-photocopied adverts for club nights.

So we pushed open the tiny door, and ducked through it, into a small, dark space in which I could see nothing, but could hear voices and soft reggae music playing somewhere nearby. Up a very small flight of stairs, and we found ourselves in a dark, warmly-lit bar, with lots of windy metal shapes and a few hip Japanese people in beany hats. We ducked through a four-foot hole that seemed to have been punched through a wall, and sat down in an unlikely-shaped, low-ceilinged alcove, lit by a single yellow light bulb. A strange but beautiful secret pub, hidden in an apparently abandoned amusement arcade – the kind of place I visit in my dreams.

After we left the pub, we wandered through a maze of twisty little alleyways, peering through half-closed doors into bars about the size of a not-particularly-large bathroom. Bars in Japan seem to work on very different commercial principles to those in the UK: whereas UK bars and pubs for the most part try to be visible, and to draw in new customers with things like special offers and looking welcoming, bars in Japan often seem to follow almost the reverse principles – they are tiny, exclusive, and often expensive. I suppose they must rely on building up a bunch of reliable regulars, and don’t care much about attracting new customers. That this is the case is suggested by the fact that some Japanese bars allow you to buy a whole bottle, write your name on the label, and then they keep it for you under the counter for whenever you drop in (this is something I’ve heard about rather than seen, so I don’t know how widespread it is, but as far as I know, this practice doesn’t even exist in the UK…)

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