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August 2004

party at the tomb

August 15, 2004

Last night I danced on a friend’s grave. It’s ok, though: he’s still alive. He was dancing too.

My friend Y is the manager of a small construction company, and his friend M is the manager of another construction company on the island. Although they’re probably technically rivals, they’re near neighbours and old friends (they’re in a band together), and they sometimes work together, too. Lately, M has been very busy – often working weekends – with the construction of a tomb. Okinawan tombs are pretty distinctive structures, and on my island (like elsewhere in Okinawa) they’re everywhere (Okinawan folk religion centers around ancestor worship, so tombs are pretty important). If you go for a wander into the trees by the beach, if you leave the road and walk along the edge of a sugar cane field, you’re likely to stumble on a tomb, and however old and cracked it is, there are usually signs that it’s still tended: the ground in front of it will be swept, or there will be a bowl of food or booze in front of it. Anyway, yesterday M finished work on the new tomb, and so in the evening there was a party in front of it to celebrate its completion. I went along with Y.

“Who’s this tomb M’s been building for, anyway?” I asked him on the way.

“For him,” said Y.

The party was for M and his family (and various friends) to celebrate the completion of the tomb that, presumably, they will all one day end up in. The tomb has a walled ‘yard’ area in front of it, which for the party was covered over with a marquee (from Y Construction), and the assembled parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, and friends sat out in front of the tomb eating lots of food, drinking lots of booze, playing lots of music, and dancing. Out with the sanshins and drums, and time for a good old Okinawan singalong. At first it seemed quite strange to be having such a jolly piss-up at a tomb, but after I’d drunk a bit of drink and danced a bit, I began feel that there’s a lot to be said for this attitude to death – “well, this is where we’re all going to end up, so let’s have a big old party here while we can.”

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Yesterday morning I went to the beach to help out with a kids’ party. ‘Helping’ consisted primarily of participating in a kayak race with a tiny child as my team-mate (though it was me that was shouting “Again! Again!” as we crossed the finishing line…). Afterwards, I was recovering in the shade with a plastic cupful of iced tea when one of the dads suddenly dangled a blue mesh bag containing the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen in front of my face.

“Do you know what this is?” he demanded.

“No”, I said, for some unknown reason, since I actually had a pretty fair idea what it was.

“Have you never seen one? Don’t you know what it is?”

“It’s a dangerous fish, isn’t it? Poisonous?” I recognised it from photos I’ve seen of animals to avoid in Okinawan waters. It was a stonefish, which is one of the most poisonous of all the sea’s many poisonous things.

“Yeah,” he said, and pointed at the array of horrible spines along its dorsal fin, “it’s really dangerous. Don’t touch these or you’ll be rushed to hospital with a drip in your arm.” He clutched at his throat and pulled a comic, goggle-eyed ‘I’m poisoned!’ face.

“It’s delicious, though,” he added.

This is something I’ve learned: in Okinawa, every living sea creature is apparently delicious, and best eaten on the spot, raw, within minutes of being plucked out of the water. It’s especially delicious if it’s revolting-looking (like a stonefish, a sea-urchin’s innards, or a shellfish the size of a tennis ball) or contains enough poison to fell a bull elephant.

I just saw an advert on tv for an insect spray called “Arse Jet”… Heh heh heh.

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goodbye to k

August 11, 2004


Well, so there goes K – the most splendidly gangster-talking, hard-drinking, sumo-wrestling, didgeree-doo-playing, wildly entertaining and excellent itinerant sometime bargirl from Osaka I’ve ever danced the rhumba on a moonlit racetrack with. Knowing her made me feel like a character in a Tom Waits song, and in my world that’s a good thing. It seems about equally likely that she’ll turn up some day in Edinburgh and stay several months as that I’ll never see her again…

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the goodbye blues

August 9, 2004

You know that thing where you meet a really outstandingly excellent individual, and you soon realise that they’re going to be great friends, but at the time you’re pretty busy so you keep meaning to meet up but never quite getting round to it, but you keep thinking “next week, next week…”, and then one day you run into them and they tell you that they’re leaving town in a couple of weeks, so you really make a mental note to make sure you get a chance to properly meet up before they go, but time sort of slips past, and you run into them again and they say “I’m leaving in three days’ time”, and so you arrange to definitely meet up the next day and do something, but then the next day even though you’re looking forward to meeting up with them you keep running into people who say “Hey! Long time no see!” and offer you a beer, and you don’t see any particular hurry so you say ok, and in the end when you meet up with the person who’s leaving soon it’s quite late and they seem a little disappointed that you took so long to get there and because it’s a festival lots of other people are coming up to say their goodbyes, so you have a rather fragmented conversation in moments here and there throughout the evening between other people’s goodbyes, and then suddenly it’s late and everyone is tired and drunk and the person in question gets in a car and waves and disappears off into the night, and you sit on the grass absent-mindedly weaving straw into a hoop and quietly kicking yourself repeatedly in the head…?

Well… that happened to me yesterday.


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August 6, 2004

I’ve been meaning for weeks to get round to writing about the 36 hours I spent in Hiroshima on the way from meeting Ryoko-sensei in Kyoto to meeting Tomoko in Kyushu. First I was busy, then I was in China, but I have been meaning to write something and then retrospectively slot it back into ‘June’ (one of the nice things about electronic diaries is that you don’t have to be such a slave to chronological order as paper ones tend to demand). Today, though – August 6th – is as appropriate a date as any to write about Hiroshima. Today is the 59th anniversary of the atomic bombing.

As a consequence of that event, Hiroshima is a city with a name that somehow seems too cold and weighty to be attached to a real place, let alone the buzzing, lively city that it is today. In fact, after Tokyo, Hiroshima is probably the most exciting city I’ve visited in Japan, and it’s certainly the prettiest – full of bridges and riverside parks, because it sits on a river delta (which also, for numerous reasons, is a large part of what made it an atomic bomb target 59 years ago). Standing on one of the bridges, you can look around, see the city reflected prettily in the river, and say to yourself ‘Hiroshima’, but the name just somehow doesn’t seem to attach to the thing it names in the way that names usually do. It sits in the mouth like a cold, flat stone. From time to time, walking round Hiroshima, you can’t help suddenly picturing the flash, and every time you immediately feel ghoulish for doing so, even though your brain is just trying to comprehend something incomprehensible.

Since about the time I read Slaughterhouse Five, I’ve been shocked by the ambivalent, “unfortunate-but-necessary” attitude that a lot of people in the UK still have towards certain of the Allies’ actions – Hiroshima, Dresden, Nagasaki – in the closing stages of the Second World War. Frightening what people are willing to accept if it’s done in the name of ‘fighting evil’. But though I can’t say that Hiroshima’s Peace Museum made me change my attitude towards the bombing – since I already firmly believed that there can never, under any circumstances whatsoever, be any moral justification for such an act – it did shake me by making it real. There’s something so incomprehensible about the event, that before I visited the Peace Museum – though I didn’t realise it – whenever I thought of ‘The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima’, I was always thinking mostly in abstractions: history, causes, effects, number of dead, and so on. The museum, though, forces you to see it as a real event, in all its surreal horror.

But while certain of the museum’s exhibits are, necessarily, horrific, the installation that had the biggest impact on me was simply a scale model of the city, as it stood before the blast. Suspended over this model is a smooth, red ball, about 30cm across, and when you see this, you realise that the model is not – like other plans of cities – a timeless ‘Before’ but rather a snapshot of a single frozen grain of time – the 10,000th of a second after the bomb detonated. Looking at all the intact buildings, at the end of their final second, The Bomb suddenly loses all its abstract and historical associations, and becomes something with size, position, altitude, velocity, temperature, and so on. This – this crazy thing – is a decision that sane people made, and now here come the consequences.

Elsewhere the subsequent instant is also frozen: in a glass case, a watch, stopped at 8:15am by the blast.

As I said, I already believed that the bombing of Hiroshima was a criminal act, but the many historical details provided by the museum combined to leave the strong impression that many factors other than ‘ending the Second World War’ were behind the bombing: the bombing as ‘necessary’ to justify the astronomic cost of developing the bomb to the American public. The bombing as a horrendous scientific experiment: the Enola Gay – which dropped the bomb – was accompanied by a number of other planes whose function was to measure, photograph, and observe the explosion; Hiroshima was chosen in part because its geographical location, on a flat river delta surrounded by hills, would maximise the immediate effects of the blast, and no warning was given prior to the bombing. The bombing was also as much the start of the Cold War as the end of the World War: the Soviet Union had yet to declare war on Japan (it declared war on August 8th, two days after Hiroshima), and the US—terrified that post-war Japan could become communist—was desperate to end the war before Russia could become involved.

Another thing that impressed me about Hiroshima is the way it has turned its history into a positive force. It has been designated a ‘City of Peace’, and the local government is committed to ensuring that Hiroshima should forever be a warning and a reminder of the unacceptable cost of war: one wall of the museum is covered with letters written by the Mayor of Hiroshima to various ambassadors – of the US, UK, USSR, France, and so on – on the occasion of every nuclear test; each letter individually written, and protesting in the strongest terms that the majority of the world’s people do not wish the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Outside the museum, in the Peace Park, a flame burns, which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is scrapped. As with the red ball, as with the stopped clocks, it makes its impression by the awareness of time it quietly forces on you. You look at it, and you can’t help but wonder… decades? Centuries? When?

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four hours of taiko

August 4, 2004

Saturday is the biggest festival of the year – this small island’s Glastonbury – and the taiko group are the headline act. Hence, four hours’ solid practice this afternoon. I think my metabolism must have adapted to the heat, because a year ago a mildly strenuous fifteen-minute bike ride in Okinawa’s August heat was enough to almost kill me (or at least to leave me flat on my back in a pool of sweat with swirling colours drifting across my vision for ten minutes or so). We’re learning a new piece, and this one is particularly tough, because the barrel-like taiko drum is on its side, so you have to virtually do the splits to get down to its level.

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festival time

August 3, 2004


I’ve been having far too much fun the last few days. On Friday night my friend Y-san and his band gave a concert of Okinawan music on the beach for a bunch of kids who were visiting the island. I went along to watch, but at the beginning of the concert Y introduced me and said I was going to play a song too, which was the first I’d heard of that. I decided to play Spencer the Rover, an old British folk song. Before playing it, I was a bit pleased with myself because I managed to explain the gist of in Japanese (“this song is about travelling, and about how when you come back home it feels good”). After the concert I camped out on the beach with Y. On Saturday night, one of the villages on the island had a festival whose highlight was a tug-of-war with a hundred-metre-long rope. Everything went a bit Wicker Man – flaming torches, drunken dancing, chanting. After the festival, I walked nearly halfway round the island back to the beach, to camp again.

On Sunday the low tide was especially low, because of the full moon, meaning that the sea was ankle-deep for the fifty or so metres out to the reef, so Y and I took our fins and snorkels and walked out there. Y was collecting shellfish, I was just swimming around looking at all the brightly-coloured fish. The edge of the reef is like a cliff: it drops off to the seabed, about twenty metres or so below. As soon as you go into the water it’s like being on another planet – flying along gullies and canyons, into wide-open spaces, with more gullies leading off in all directions, and everywhere fish of crazy colours and shapes. The best fish I saw were a big, psychedelic-patterned yellow one, and a very large poisonous Lion Fish (ミノカサゴ).

Yesterday there was another festival – this time in the village that I live in. More crazy-dancing, more tug-of-warring, and I made my ill-advised (and painfully brief) sumo debut, against a man of about twice my weight. Ouch. Still, at least I won two bags of rice.

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