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November 2004

osaka with k

November 29, 2004

On the way back from the UK, I visited k (who a while ago I was worried I might never see again), in Osaka. Although it has a reputation as an exciting city, the first time I went there, to meet Alex at New Year, we had trouble finding exactly what it was that’s so great about it. Compared to Tokyo, it just seemed like just another ugly, nondescript metropolis, and although we did some interesting things there, I was left a bit disappointed.

I now suspect that it’s Osakan culture, rather than any particular place, that is what Osaka has going for it, and that the way to see it is with a native of Osaka. There’s a sort of rude, loud, bustling friendliness to Osaka that’s quite different from anywhere else I’ve been in Japan (interestingly, it maybe has some things in common with Okinawa, where they don’t go in for the whole formality thing to the same extent, either).

So I stayed with the very Osakan k, and her mum and brother, both of whom would individually have qualified as two of the nicest, most interesting people I’ve met in Japan (her little brother has uncannily similar taste in music to me: from the obvious to more unusual things like Sparklehorse, Mogwai, and Boards of Canada, none of which are particularly big in Japan, I don’t think. He’s even into Múm, and the Olivia Tremor Control – an obscure band I saw more-or-less by accident in the ICA in London about seven years ago. He’s also an absolute wizard at pool, having spent the last few months working the night shift at an all-night pool hall).

Like Okinawa, Osaka also has a rich and strange dialect, but because lots of TV comedians come from Osaka the dialect has the advantage of being understandable (and amusing) to people all over Japan. Okinawan dialect, on the other hand, is incomprehensible outside Okinawa. Which is also fun, in a different way. So as I wandered round Osaka, k taught me quite a lot of Osakan dialect, and since I got back I’ve been enjoying suddenly dropping loud Osakan interjections (“Really? No way!” sort of thing) into my conversation and watching people’s reactions…

I also, in a public bath around the corner from k’s house, had my first (accidental) experience of the infamous denki furo or electric bath. It took me by surprise: I’d gone into the bath-house, showered as you’re meant to before getting in the baths, dipped a toe into the nearest bath to check the temperature, and —without reading the sign—climbed into it. Just as I was sitting down, all the muscles in my body suddenly violently contracted and the shock made me jump out again. I then experimented, lowering my hand towards the electrode, and watching the fingers involuntarily curl up. It’s an experience that feels so strange that while it’s definitely not pleasant, it’s hard to say for sure that it’s definitely unpleasant, either… (by the way, here is a great article about the denki furo…)

Kim has been conducting an informal poll among people she meets in Japan: “Do you like the denki furo?” No matter who she asks, she always seems to get the same answer: “No, but I think maybe old people do.” Which is exactly the answer k gave me, too. From which I suppose I can only conclude that old people (old Japanese people, anyway) enjoy being mildly electrocuted.

Hmm… a strange indication of the paths of least resistance through my brain: when I read the headline “Prince backs healthy school meals”, my first reaction is surprise that a funk grandmaster – even a notoriously eccentric one – would feel strongly enough about this topic to make his views public.

More importantly, look at this: like those ‘Parental Guidance – Explicit Lyrics‘ stickers—only for biology textbooks!

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November 24, 2004

my new sanshin

I’ve been away for a week in Naha city, and while there I finally managed to pick up the sanshin (三線) I ordered in July. (I was kept away from the city for most of the summer by typhoons). It’s beautiful, and hand-made by Mr. Matayoshi of Matayoshi Ryūkyū Instruments (又吉琉球楽器) in Naha. I found his shop by asking the person whose sanshin I like most where they got theirs.

Sanshins are traditionally bound with snakeskin, but since that’s neither vegetarian nor (perhaps more importantly) legal in the UK (and a lot of other countries), if you are intending to take your sanshin out of Japan you need to buy a fakeskin one instead.

The first time I went to Mr. Matayoshi’s shop, all his good sanshins were snakeskin ones, so he told me to call him a week or so before I next came to Naha, and he would make me two non-snakeskin sanshins to try, and that if I didn’t want either of them, that would also be ok. I took him up on his offer, and when I finally made it back to his shop, he had two waiting for me to try. Usually it takes me ages to make this sort of decision, but this sanshin was just exactly right, and I decided to buy it within minutes of picking it up.

My precious

There’s a picture of my old, borrowed, sanshin here, if you would like to compare and contrast

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November 15, 2004

Samhuinn in Edinburgh

On my last evening in Edinburgh, I met Jess in the new Forest Café, which is excitingly enormous compared to the old one (and is, incidentally, one of the best places I know of). After saying goodbye to Jess, I turned onto the Royal Mile to hear drumming and see huge burning Wicker-Man-esque sculptures, and then I realised that it was Halloween—or rather, Samhuinn (or Samhain). It was an especially impressive one this year, and the drumming rocked.

I realised when I heard the drumming that George the drummer (and other familiar faces) would likely be around, so after I’d taken some photos I had fun wandering through the crowd finding people I hadn’t seen for a long time to say hello to…

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what i did in the uk

November 8, 2004

Hello. I’m back now. And I’m sorely tempted to launch straight into some sort of tirade about the state of the world, but before I do anything like that, let me tell you what I did in my holidays.

I went back to the UK for my friend and former bandmate Liz’s wedding. The wedding was in Scotland (Liz is from Glasgow), which meant that I got to walk the mean and windswept streets of Edinburgh once more, if only for four days, and I got to see lots of people I haven’t seen for more than a year, and some people I haven’t seen for three or four. The strangest thing about being back was that it didn’t feel strange to be back. No reverse culture shock. Everything unnervingly familiar. The eeriest thing was going back to my old flat—as I went through the front door, it felt like literally only two or three days had passed since I left for Japan… as if the last year took place in some fold in the space-time continuum, or like I’d been to Where The Wild Things Are

So, apart from the obvious meeting of relatives, I drank my first (proper-tasting) Guinness in over a year with Andrew and Kirsty, went to see the play that is my sister’s first proper acting job (Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Greenwich Playhouse), and then went up to Edinburgh, where I went to a restaurant with Stuart, met Dave in a pub, cooked an unfortunately rather minimalist (there was nothing in my cupboards, ok?) meal for Jess, and was cooked a much more delicious and spicy meal by May. Then went up to the wedding with Liz’s old flatmates Mabel & Vivienne, and V’s boyfriend. After the wedding, stayed the night with two friends of Liz, got fed a fantastic Indian ommelette breakfast, and departed carrying a big jar of delicious home-made pineapple chutney to see Sheila the drummer, in Stirling. Finally, back in London, I managed to meet up with old, old friend Simon for the first time in a stupidly long time.

I’ve got used to the idea that Okinawa is a small place, and that wherever I go – even in the big city – I run into people I know, but weirdly that that now seems to be happening in the UK too (at least in Edinburgh)… As well as all the intentional meetings, I met almost the same number of people again just walking around in the street. Particularly well met were George the drummer, former flatmate Gary (for whom I had no contact details and so no way to get in touch with other than the crafty strategy of coming out of May’s flat at exactly the right moment to see him crossing the road ten metres away), and Rich from (Edinburgh band) the Peggy Vestas, who I saw jump onto a carriage further down the platform at Waverley, and who I located a little while later by text messaging, apparently at the exact moment that his iPod played a song that I gave him a copy of, and which had caused him to think “I wonder where Nick has got to these days…” (This was nicely symmetrical with a thing that had happened to me a couple of days before, where I said to myself “I’ll call Jess as soon as this song finishes”, and then, just as the song finished—right on cue—Jess called me…)

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