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June 2004

taiko frenzy

June 30, 2004

blurred taiko

I had a taiko performance on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The biggest & best was the one on Saturday evening, at a plush hotel in Naha, for the annual meeting of an organisation that takes disabled people scuba-diving. The taiko group rocked, and performed a pretty mixed set. A lot of the members of the group play other instruments, and one member – Teru – plays guitar in an Okinawan metal band. So the taiko performance was interspersed with various cross-overs: an original (and pretty good!) pop song, with guitars and sanshin (Okinawan banjo), and a taiko-metal cross-over, which worked quite well because both taiko and metal rock hard.

The best bit was the final piece, which suddenly turned into a kachashi (very jolly Okinawan dance) half way through. The plan had been for us to all dance about with the crowd for a bit, then get back onto the stage and resume the piece, but the crowd went so beserk that there was no resuming: we just started banging the drums 1-2-3-4 and shouting along with the kachashi (people shout things like ‘iyasasa! Hai-i-ya! Hai-i-ya!‘ in Okinawan songs – sort of the Okinawan equivalent of olé, I think….). After a bit of that I just handed my sticks to a nearby man and started dancing while he & others took turns at beating the drum. When we stopped, everyone screamed ‘more! more!’, so we just started banging the drums and shouting again, while everyone danced about.

Bonus: I didn’t make as many mistakes as last time, either!

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is that all there is to a typhoon?

June 25, 2004

yellow skies

Once again, the typhoon was a bit of a let-down, although at least this time it lasted over twelve hours, rather than the previous one’s feeble three. Apparently it veered off to the east at the last minute, and we only caught the edge of it. Which is lucky, because it was about the same size as mainland Japan. On Sunday evening the wind died down and I, not having left my house house since the previous afternoon, decided to go out for a walk down to the sea, to see if it was still typhoon-rough. The dying typhoon made the sky go a strange deep yellow colour. The sea was disappointingly calm.

Have to go now – got to get the 12:30 plane to the city to get to the immigration office and get a re-entry permit, because next Friday I’m going to China for a week to visit Jess. It’s been a busy week, because I’ve got a taiko concert every day for the next three days – Naha tomorrow, on the beach on Sunday, and at school on Monday – so have been practicing every evening this week.

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typhoon 6

June 18, 2004

There’s another typhoon coming. The last one was fairly mediocre as typhoons go – two or three hours of howling, and then it just suddenly stopped. This one, though, is scheduled to hit tomorrow, and it’s so huge and slow moving it might last twenty-four hours. So far, the typhoons I’ve experienced, while noisy, have failed (sometimes laughably) to live up to people’s predictions. This time, though, a lot of people seem genuinely nervous. This is an especially big, powerful one, they say. Wind speeds of 50 metres per second, which (if my maths is right) translates to 180km/h (about 112mph). Might not be able to leave the house for most of the weekend. Might lose electricity. Hoping my windows hold out, because horizontal rain whipping through the house would be a real pain in the leg.

Incidentally (and nothing to do with typhoons), in Kobe I was using a pretty new Apple Macintosh in an internet cafe, and so I checked this website to make sure it looks ok – and I found that it’s a bit screwed-up in Mac Internet Explorer. Readable, but messy. However, since this is IE’s fault (this website rigorously complies with web standards, I’ll have you know!), and since I don’t have a Macintosh, there’s nothing I can do to fix that. To anyone reading this using IE on a Mac, sorry is all I can say. But since Microsoft is no longer developing IE for the Mac, and since IE is a pretty terrible browser on any computer, you’d probably do well to use a different browser anyway – Opera or Mozilla Firefox, for instance. If you want to know why I keep going on about what a bad thing IE is, then have a look at this article.

While I’m on the subject, several very serious bugs in Internet Explorer have been discovered this week. To quote the afore-linked article’s self-summary:

What this means in reality is that if you click on a malicious link in an email or on the Internet, a malicious user can very quickly have complete control of your PC. And there is no patch available.

Which would also make it a very good idea to get hold of a different browser as quickly as possible.

Incidentally, I found that story through today’spapers, which looks like a rather interesting news-amalgamation thingy (and which I found, in turn, through metafilter)

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shinto gates

The morning after the Kobe conference finished, I went across to Kyoto – only about an hour by local train – to meet Ryoko sensei, who was my first Japanese teacher in Edinburgh. Although we’ve stayed in touch by email and postcard in the meantime, the last time I saw her was just before she left Edinburgh, about four years ago. We managed to meet up in Kyoto station by means of mobile phones (“Where are you? What can you see?”, “I’m… standing by a pillar, and I can see… what can I see? Taxis. Kyoto Tower Hotel… erm…”, and so on…). Very 久しぶり (hisashiburi), which means “long time no see” in Japanese. It was strange to think that last time we met, Japan was still just a sort-of imaginary place that I’d heard about and sometimes seen on tv, and now here we are, walking round actual Kyoto.

In fact, to make the most of being in Kyoto, we went for a wander around the grounds of Fushimi-inari Shrine . “Inari” means that it’s a fox shrine – dedicated to Inari, the deity of foxes, harvest, and prosperity. Unlike a lot of Kyoto’s other temples and shrines, Fushimi-inari isn’t particularly impressive on first sight. The interesting thing is not the shrine itself, so much as the torii (shinto gate) lined paths that wind through its grounds (as in the photo). Since Inari is a god of prosperity, lots of businesses pay to have one of these large, bright red gates built on the grounds of the shrine as an offering, and consequently the paths through the woods around it are lined with thousands upon thousands of gates, of various ages. Fushimi-inari’s amazingness creeps up on you gradually as you walk through the woods, and you begin to realise that the rows of torii just keep going and going. The day that I went there with Ryoko sensei, the weather was perfect: cloudless blue sky, bright sunshine, and just this side of too hot. The woods around the shrine were cool, with patches of bright sunlight scattered about, and the bright orange-red gates stood out beautifully against the bright green of the trees. I suppose Fushimi-inari (like other places in Kyoto) would be quite a different experience with each season – the constant orange of the gates set against a changing background of green summer leaves, red autumn leaves, snow, and then blossom. Have to go back to find out. The other thing I liked about Fushimi-inari is the feeling that it’s still alive: so many tourist attractions feel almost hermetically-sealed for posterity, but torii continue to be built, and further into the woods, they become more widely spaced out. So Fushimi-inari will presumably just keep growing out into the woods for a long time to come.

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June 13, 2004

rocks in the sea

This evening I went cycling round the island, to make up for having spent most of the day indoors, and to drive off the caffeine shakes. Today was a particularly hazy day, and when it gets hazy, the Okinawan mainland – usually clearly visible on the horizon – disappears, and the island seems much more remote than usual. Often when the haze comes it’s uncomfortably humid, but today it was more like a mist, and the temperature was just right – cooler than the afternoon, but still warm. The kind of warmth that leaves you with a thin layer of sweat that’s pleasantly cooling but doesn’t soak into your clothes. The haze amplified the smell of damp vegetation, turned the setting sun into a warm red disc, and smudged all the hills smooth and pastel blue. I cycled down empty roads, past typhoon-battered sugar cane, and apart from a single car in the distance, all I heard were insects and birds. When I got to the sea, it was as pond-still as I’ve ever seen it, and there was no horizon – just haze and grey silhouetted rocks a few hundred metres out, at the edge of the reef.

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shopping tunnel, Kobe

The first and longest stop on my one-week tour of mainland Japan was Kobe, which is a largish city right in the center of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, close to both Osaka and Kyoto, and probably most famous outside Japan for the earthquake that devastated it in 1995. Nowadays, it’s a bustling, modern Japanese city, but with few tourist attractions or even distinguishing features apart from the large, man-made Port Island, on which my hotel was located, and the pretty hills that are its backdrop.

… Argh. I could have just torn that out of a tourist guide, couldn’t I? Let’s start again, because I wasn’t there as a tourist – I was there for a three-day recontracting conference, along with a thousand or so other JET teachers who, like me, are staying on for a second year. Three days of workshops, in which unqualified teachers try to teach other unqualified teachers to teach (actually, that’s unnecessarily cynical – some of them were actually quite useful, and there are a lot of JET teachers who, although they might not be any more qualified than me, are clearly better teachers who I can learn from), and three nights drinking in central Kobe, because it’s pretty rare nowadays that I get the chance to sit in a pub and chat in fluent, rambling English. And even rarer that I get the chance to drink a pint of decent Guiness or Hoegaarden (the price of a pint of which is so obscenely astronomical here that I don’t even want to think about how much bad karma I got from buying it anyway…)

A couple of memory fragments:

  • Getting into a taxi with a couple of other JETs, which contained a huge liquid crystal tv screen in the front. As we drove off, the taxi driver inserted a DVD, and turned the resulting orchestral music up to a crazy volume. While the sound quality was excellent, it did make it almost impossible to talk, so I asked him (the only way I could think of in Japanese) if he could make it a little quieter. He did, but was a little put out and told me that what I should have said was something like ‘although I don’t hate this music, it is a little loud…’

  • Learning a useful lesson about the dangers of theorising about Japan (which seems to be a popular pastime with foreigners here). I was sitting in a very nice, dark little bar with Graeme, another JET, and we were talking about something we’d both noticed in Kobe: people cross the road on a red light. This is very unusual in Japan – in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and everywhere else I’ve been, people generally wait patiently for the green man. I’ve got so used to stopping at the crossing like everyone else that I was shocked to see people everywhere walking straight out while the man’s still red. I wondered what’s special about Kobe, and Graeme wondered if it could be to do with the earthquake – a ‘life’s-too-short’ sort of attitude particular to Kobe. Wow, I thought. That could be right: 5000 people died in the Kobe earthquake, which means that probably most of the city’s residents lost someone they knew. So we asked the barmaid, tactfully: Is there something special about Kobe? Why does everyone cross on the red light here? Oh, I cross the road out there on the red the whole time, she says: the roads in central Kobe are almost all one-way, see, so they’re easy to cross. There we were, looking for historical, socio-psychological explanations for something that is actually explained by a difference in the city’s traffic system…

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typhoon brewing

June 10, 2004

I’ve visited seven cities in the last week, and stopped long enough to look round five of them. The first was Kobe, for work, followed by Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kumamoto, and Fukuoka. I had to pass through Naha (Okinawa) and Osaka for the purpose of catching or disembarking from planes. Of the five cities that I visited, all but Kyoto were new to me, all were different, and I would like to tell you about them, but… there’s a typhoon coming. Typhoon number 4. The previous three missed, but this one looks like it’s going to hit. I’m sitting in the elementary school writing this at 12:30pm, and the rain is lashing down outside and the wind is picking up. The teachers had to come to school today, but the kids got the day off. Usually elementary school is much harder work than junior high, but today I just sat about drinking coffee and playing badminton in the gym with some of the other teachers. So anyway, the typhoon isn’t due to hit for another couple of hours, but I’ve got to get home and put my picnic table and chairs somewhere where they won’t get hurled through someone’s window. If I can be bothered to go out in the rain, I should also go to the supermarket, too. To stock up, like. So, Kobe (etc) will have to wait.

Better go.

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