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on my way

March 28, 2006

I am on my way: I left Okinawa at 7 on Saturday morning, and arrived on Sunday morning in Kagoshima, in the southwest of mainland Japan. I’d been warned that the boat between Kagoshima and Okinawa is hellish (involving spending over twenty-four hours in an enclosed space with a large number of people, half of whom are chain-smoking while the other half are vomiting), but I decided to risk it (I have no option anyway, if I am going to achieve my goal of making it back to the UK without flying), and it turned out to be fine – pretty cramped, a bit boring (no decent seating – it’s more or less a choice between lying down or standing up, with only limited scope for anything in between), but it wasn’t too rough, and I slept for more than half the twenty-seven hours it took to get to Kagoshima.

I stayed with Kim in Kagoshima, before catching an early morning shinkansen this morning up to Fukuoka, to sort out my visa for China. This evening I met up with Tomoko and we went to a very smart, very Japanese restaurant – all tatami and sliding paper screens, and about seven courses of delicious, immaculate fish-based things, and iced sake poured from bamboo. I’m planning to catch a boat to Shanghai from Osaka on Friday, and trying to figure out how to make the most of my remaining four days in Japan. I’m still not sure about tomorrow, but aiming to get to Kyoto on Wednesday. The cherry trees are just beginning to flower – if I’m lucky, my time in Japan might end with cherry blossom in Kyoto…

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good riddance time

March 14, 2006

Good Riddance Cake

I am nearly on my way: only five days until I set out with my backpack — first back to the island for some goodbyes, and then home, via China. Last Friday I went to an izakaya with a few friends for a goodbye party. Miss R and Mr. B brought this excellent chocolate cake, which obviously pleased me very much. Apparently the ladies in the cake shop were also quite excited because they’d never been asked to ice this message before.

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city vs. island

February 24, 2006

Lately, I haven’t had much to write here. Not that I haven’t been doing things — it’s just that life in the city is not only much more similar to life in the UK, but also that it follows much more predictable routines than life on a tiny island (which means I don’t have anything particular to say about any particular thing). Which isn’t to say it’s boring — Naha is, beneath its nondescript surface, an interesting city with a million tiny secret bars and venues that you could spend years exploring, but even so the city doesn’t provide anything like the same number of spontaneous, unexpected cultural experiences that a tiny Okinawan island does. When it does, it’s often because someone from the island is passing through town.

That said, I have taken a few photos of things lately that I will try to dig out when I get a moment. I took a couple of days off work at the beginning of this week and went to a waterfall in the wild north of the mainland with some elementary school kids who’d come across from my island. And I’ve been continuing to go to Okinawan metal events, to see my friend Teru’s band, and take more black and white pictures of people jumping around and screaming.

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ryukyu dancers

February 13, 2006

Traditional Ryukyu dancers

Traditional Ryukyu (Okinawan) dancers, at Shuri castle, Naha.

It always strikes me when I watch Okinawan dancers how much their movements look like slowed-down karate (which of course is also Okinawan). There seems to be a particularly Okinawan form of movement, distinct from its equivalent in mainland Japanese arts: very smooth, fluid movements, usually from point to point. Very graceful. Japanese arts like taiko drumming and kendo (sword-fighting), on the other hand, seem to involve sharper, jerkier, more aggressive movements, with more visible acceleration and deceleration.

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tea ceremony, again

January 31, 2006

Tea ceremony again today. Excruciating pain!

Funny, though, how pain fades out when you’re actually doing something (like, for example, making tea), only to come screeching back at you the moment you stop and are momentarily unoccupied again. I sat in seiza for an almost unprecedented ten minutes or so while the teacher talked me through all the movements required to make a cup of tea, and the pain, though still present, was just a dull background nagging. The moment I finished and put the cup of delicious green froth down in front of me, though, the pain came boomeranging back like a horseshoe thrown in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. Smack!

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tea ceremony

January 28, 2006

I seem to have fallen into practicing the Japanese tea ceremony. It’s something that I’ve wanted, at the back of my mind, to try at least once while I’m in Japan, but the opportunity hasn’t come up (it was never terribly likely to on a tiny Okinawan island), and the fact that for me, sitting in the proper seiza position for more than five minutes is as close to torture as makes no difference has scared me off any more active attempt to try it.

But there are a bunch of third-year girls who practice it every Monday at my current school, and last week I was invited along. I thought it was a one-off, but it turned out I was expected this week too, so I suspect I’m a tea-ceremony regular for the rest of term.

The tea ceremony is an extreme formalisation of a social situation – the making, presenting, and drinking of tea. I knew this. What I didn’t realise until I tried it was the extent to which it feels not so much like a formalisation of a general social situation, but an abstraction of a specific one, if that makes any sense… Not just the tea-related movements – picking up the cup, washing it, placing the green powdered tea in it – but all the movements involved – which foot goes forwards first when you step into the room or stand up – are specifed and equally important. So it feels like the point is not so much the perfection of a meaningful act as the perfect enacting or re-enacting of an ideal scene.

It made me think of Plato’s idea that all actual things are flawed variants of a perfect ‘form’. The ceremony feels like an attempt to capture the ‘form’ of making and drinking tea. The fact that this is impossible gives the ceremony a dizzying (and for me, unexpected) feeling of endlessness: the feeling that you really could spend your whole life practicing it and you’d still be an infinite distance from ‘getting it right’. I think I understand better now why it’s also used as a form of Zen meditation – I’d assumed it was primarily that it involves sitting still and focussing on the body’s movement. I hadn’t imagined this dizzying, almost depressing feeling of imperfectability and abstraction.

It also reminded me of one of Philip K. Dick’s madder novels (I can’t remember which one), in which (if I’ve remembered right) everyone living on Mars participates in a daily semi-religious ritual that involves playing with a particular type of doll while watching a particular television programme. And a Borges short story about a man rewriting Don Quixote word for word.

I should say that the first time made a much more profound impression on me than the second: the second time I was much more focussed on the excruciating physical pain in my legs.

On a completely different topic, these were just what I needed to rekindle my excitement about travelling in China at a time when boredom with organising visas and the mental resources devoted to thinking about preparations for leaving Japan, and plans for when I get back to the UK were beginning to eclipse or dilute (depending on whether excitement is a light or a liquid — I’m not entirely clear on this matter) my excitement about passing through China on the way back. [Via Antipixel]

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manta watching

January 11, 2006

Manta watching...

On New Year’s Eve, on the way back to the island, I met up with Teru and also Ivan — my pre-predecessor, and the first JET teacher on my island (I was the third). Since we had some time before the ferry, we went to the Okinawa Chura-umi Aquarium. I’ve been there quite a few times before, but this was the first time with my new SLR. I wish I’d had more time and it had been less crowded, but I still got a couple of nice shots. Here is a lady watching a manta from a table in the aquarium café.

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mūchī no hi

January 7, 2006

Leaf-wrapped Mochi

Today was mūchī-no-hi — a day when it’s traditional to eat mūchī (‘moochee’) — Okinawan sweets made from rice paste, and wrapped in a fragrant palm leaf, whose scent and flavour they absorb. So here’s a picture of one.

Mūchī are delicious, but the stickier ones are probably the messiest food on the planet to eat. The edible bit, inside the leaf, is a thick, sticky paste, and while sometimes (on really well-made ones) the leaf peels away cleanly, as often as not it comes away in strips, and the paste gets on your fingers and round your mouth. People eating mūchī look endearingly monkey-like as they try to separate the sticky paste from the leaf with their teeth while retaining cleanliness and dignity.

Here is a thing I learnt today: in Japan, the tune Chopsticks (the thing that just about everyone can play on the piano) is not in fact called Chopsticks, but instead has a title that translates as Oops, I stood on the cat. So there’s a thing.

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air guitar

December 31, 2005

Air Guitarists rock on!

Last night T’s band Tetsukabuto (‘Iron Helmet’) played a concert. Before they went on stage, they had an air guitar contest — the prize being a real electric guitar! A backing band made up of members of various Okinawan metal bands, fronted by my friend Teru, and dressed in biking leathers in a simultaneous tribute to “Birmingham, UK’s Judas Priest!” and the popular Japanese TV celebrity, Hard Gay (who specialises in performing stunts and interviews while dressed as a leather-clad, Village-People—style 1970s gay stereotype). Members of the audience had to jump around on stage and play their imaginary guitars as extravagantly as possible while Teru screamed out a Judas Priest cover and Masa — Tetsukabuto’s front man — watched with a clipboard, giving the participants marks for ‘moves’, ‘attitude’, ‘rockingness’ and so on. Here are some snapshots. The winner, if you’re interested, was the young man who may be seen second from the bottom on the left, and second from the top on the right.

On which note, I must now pack my bags because tomorrow morning I am going back to the island for New Year. My pre-predecessor, who I haven’t met yet, is coming too (it’s been nearly six years since he left now), so it should be interesting.

Have a good New Year, wherever you are. Let’s hope something good happens in 2006. 良いお年を!

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skittle man

December 28, 2005

skittle man

A couple of weeks ago I went to watch some bands in a Naha live house. I had a bad cold, and the first two (of three) bands were pretty dull guitar bands, so I was just about to leave when the final band started setting up a laptop, so I decided to stay and see what they were going to do. Good job I did, because the laptop turned out to be played by a dancing, scary-face-pulling man dressed as a skittle. He provided electronic beats and noises over what was otherwise a fairly straightforward (but nice enough) rock band. He moved like a madman. At one point he jumped off the stage, performed a mid-air backflip in front of the audience, and went running off somewhere before appearing on stage again, waving his arms in the air, a minute later.

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