Spirited Away

Thanks to my PhD presentation, in which I attempted to justify my being invited to Japan by the African Studies department in the first place, and about which I was duly quite nervous, I’ve neglecting posting for a week or two. It went fairly well, though. It almost feels like I know what I am talking about.

Japan, or Kyoto at least, definitely feels like home now. I seem to fit in quite well here, and not just for the obvious reasons that everything seems to, well, work. I decided to test this by making a short trip the week before last to Osaka, Japan’s second largest city and centre for (so I was told) even nicer food and even friendlier people than in Kyoto.

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The author attempting to make sense of giant walls of advertising.

Osaka is mental. In truth, it is how I imagined Japan to be before coming. In contrast to the height-restricted ancient capital of Kyoto, a relatively small and sleepy place in comparison, and in which you do not have to go far in order to find yourself down a quiet back street of wooden buildings and bicycles, downtown Osaka has crowds of hundreds of people making their way through tunnels of advertising in between the skyscrapers. Accompanied by a Scottish colleague, I was always reminded of the fictional cities inspired by the unique organised chaos of the large Japanese city, in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, for example. Thankfully, Osaka’s streets are for now merely two-dimensional. Street food vendors tried (and succeeded) in attracting our attention, so much so in fact that actually finding a place to sit down and eat come dinner time was almost out of the question. The readiness of the vendors to speak English was also a surprise, though a welcome one.

It’s hard to make sense of, but in contrast to the unmitigated wall of experience that I have seen in large Indian cities, it feels crowded but somehow ordered, gridlike and concrete. There is not as much green space in downtown Osaka as there seems to be in Kyoto. We had a few hours to wander round and soak up the experience, managing to immediately off the train wander into the seediest part of town for some reason. Perhaps it was the anthropological sixth sense for weirdness, but immediately from the subway we found ourselves among some strange-looking hotels my compatriot informed were in fact examples of the Japanese phenomenon of “Love Hotels”, rooms you rent by vending machine to, erm, enable interaction of a private nature with those you might not want to bring home to meet Mum and Dad.

#themoreyouknow

Everything is done by vending machine in Japan. I’ve ordered ramen at a machine, receiving a ticket redeemable in the kitchen. I suppose it saves on front-of-house staff, but my Hiragana-reading isn’t much better than it was before I came, so I eat a lot of surprises.

I was under no illusions, however, as to the freshness of fish at a Chinese restaurant we passed:

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Which one do you want?

We specifically came to Osaka to go to the theatre, however.

We had come to see the Japanese art form of Bunraku, or puppet theatre. This is not the comedic puppets-on-strings you are picturing. Three puppeteers, two masked, one bare-faced, control beautiful hand-made and hand-dressed puppets. One controls the legs, one the left hand, and the lead controls the head and right hand. It is an intricate process, and requires an almost symbiotic level of teamwork between the three who control each puppet. Three are assigned per puppet, and do not seem to change to others. So natural are the movements that the lifeless objects seem to become people themselves, and no longer can you even see the puppeteers as they go about their work. The characters seem to manifest on the stage.

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A puppet of Osome, one of the characters in the play we saw

All of the costumes are stunning, and the puppets changed costumes in the half-hour interval of the play.

There is no dialogue as I would normally see in a play. Instead, a narrator describes what goes on in the minds of the characters, and does all of the voices of the characters, which sounds much more natural than you would think. His voice would change in pitch and intensity in keeping with the mood onstage. He would be accompanied by Shamisen player, whose musical texture added even more emotion and urgency to the characters’ actions and motivations. Occasionally, a different narrator (or narrators) and player would be brought in for a certain part of the play, and always introduced onstage.

Thanks to a earpiece in which English translations were offered subtly enough that I could still hear the narrator’s artful voicings, I can say that the play we went to see was called, rather cheerily, The Love Suicide of Osome and Hisamatsu, a tale of star-cross’d lovers reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. You can find a summary of the story here. There is comic relief, mainly in the first act, culminating in a rather funny Bunraku-within-a-Bunraku Hamlet-style featuring a puppet playing air-Shamisen with a broom handle. The story, however, is painfully sad, and rooted in the shame culture associated with defying a betrothal and falling in love with the wrong person. A lot of suicide, and talk of suicide, normal for the sixteen-year-olds who were the protagonists I am sure, but rather shockingly not corrected or addressed by the adults. Perhaps in Meiji-era (19th Century) Japan suicide was an acceptable solution to a social problem.

It didn’t sound like a fun place to live.

Sadly, I have no pictures from the play, which we saw at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka as part of their New Years’ celebrations, as attendees were requested not to take pictures of the performance itself. Nonetheless, as a Shakespeare fan I would definitely recommend checking out the older Bunraku plays. It gives a bit of a flavour as to what living in Japan many years ago would have been like. The music and narration were particularly worth listening to, and I am searching out Youtube videos of Shamisen players to this day. My musical-instrument kleptomania also means I want a Shamisen, but that is fairly normal for me. If you are also interested, here is a more modern rocky take on the Shamisen featuring the The Yoshida Brothers.

 Osaka, then, is an absolutely fantastic place to visit, for the culture and the food, for the people and the experience of being in a huge Japanese city. I am, however, rather glad I live in Kyoto. I had a nice day last weekend, and I got to visit a place that I am very, very lucky to have on my doorstep.

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Kinkaku-ji. Yes that is gold. And yes I know it is another temple. I never get sick of these.

At the other side of Kyoto, merely a twenty-minute cycle ride away from my door, is this stunningly-beautiful Buddhist temple covered in gold. As it was a nice day, my intention to visit and see the sun reflected from it was shared by the entirety of the population of Japan, seemingly. Nevertheless, my freakishly-proportioned (for East Asia) body meant that I could take pictures over the heads of about 90% of the other visitors, even with their selfie sticks.

A Japanese garden completed the serene picture. Even with the crowds, it still represented a beautiful reprieve from the city. Thanks to some of my Japanese friends, in addition to my observations at some of Kyoto’s 1600 temples, I know worship etiquette confidently enough to have lit incense, made an offering and bowed to the altar of one of Japanese Buddhism’s many Bodhisattvas and deities. I felt a bit self-conscious the first time I did this, aware as I am of cultural appropriation, but the Japanese seem remarkably casual about this, and in fact I have been encouraged on multiple occasions to take part in the rather comforting rituals associated with visiting temples here. Nobody looks at me twice for doing so. The power of ritual activity in calming the mind is evident, and the notion of “believing in” a deity is merely incidental. The offering of ritual practice is what is important, and it is quite enjoyable. It goes without saying, of course, that my money made in offering is quite as good as anybody else’s, and along with UNESCO goes towards the upkeep of these outstanding places. Making offerings at Shinto shrines is similarly encouraged for foreigners, too. At one of the bigger shrines, the devotional practice of offering, bowing twice, clapping twice (or ringing the temple bell) then bowing once more, is clearly enscribed in Chinese, Korean and English in addition to Japanese.

Shrines, or jinja, are open-air and available for anyone to go to 24 hours a day, however I would probably caution against travelling through them on a moonless night, as I found myself doing with one of my friends as a shortcut back from the pub to our home district of Okazaki. It was Chinese New Years’ Eve, a day important for many in Japan, too. So, just after midnight in the first few hours of the year of the rooster, we were wandering through the dark and wooded areas around Yoshida jinja. I know enough about Shinto spirits to know that their influence is especially powerful in the shrines, and that not all of them were supposed to be the benevolent characters of Spirited Away. I am not culturally Shinto, however I will certainly admit to feeling a sense of unease as we ascended the lamp-lit steps through the orange gate to bow to the altar there. I put it like this: I might be an atheist, but I do not make a habit of camping in graveyards either. I managed to twist my ankle rather nastily earlier on, however I will not pin that particular mishap on the spirits. I am rather clumsy. I felt better after exiting, at which point we bowed once again upon leaving. It was a rather good shortcut, spitting us out right next to my street.

Aside from temples and theatres, another Japanese cultural event that I have taken part in was to visit a traditional bathhouse, which was something of an epiphany. I am afraid that for obvious reasons you will have to rely on my description rather than my photography to learn about it. I’d been intrigued by the Japanese custom of public bathing since I heard about it, and since my professor noted that if I was disappointed with my small bathroom I should go and visit the public baths instead, as they are much nicer. The idea of public bathing not as an event but as simply the way that you bathe, was very interesting. Very Roman, I thought.

I entered an ancient-looking wooden building, complete with plants and trees in the courtyard, upon its opening at 3pm, joining the queue outside. They were a mixed bunch. A family, clearly tourists, looking to experience the cultural aspect, as I was, were directly in front of me, along with several elders who were clearly regulars, and a bunch of lads about my age for whom going was a social event. Fortunately, I had googled Japanese bathing custom before my going there, so I knew most of the etiquette. After removing my shoes at the door (normal for Japan), I paid the paltry sum of 450 yen (about €4), and was directed to the men’s changing room. From this point on, the baths were completely gender-segregated. You remove your clothes and store them in a locker, taking the waterproof key with you along with your towel and your soap.

Swimsuits are forbidden, so I simply had to get used to public nudity. Fortunately, I have spent the last few years in Germany as a regular gym attendee, and so my British prudishness around the human body was very much on the back burner. Brits are a little backward in that respect. Nobody was phased, which helped. I simply imitated the others as I went into the steamy second room, in which a row of low showers were provided for me to wash myself before entering the water (an absolute must for everyone). This done, I had the pick of any number of pool-sized baths, some very hot indeed, one freezing cold, several with jacuzzi-style bubbles and one that was electrified, with a big sign saying not to enter if one had “problems of the heart”. I assume this was more to do with pacemakers than a rough breakup, but as neither were an issue I entered and was electrified for a few minutes.

Also attached is a sauna, which was terrifyingly hot but, as I am constantly told by Scandinavians, very good for me. I resolved to drink a lot of water when I left the baths. I had also heard of the Scandinavian tradition of sitting in a sauna and then rolling in the snow. I decided to see what all the fuss about this was by jumping from the sauna into the cold pool.

This was a mistake. I think my heart stopped. It was like swimming in Scotland.

By far my favourite place there was the wooden hot pool that was in the outside courtyard surrounded by a koi-filled pond and trees. If that is what bathing is like here then I shall never take a shower here again. What a pale imitation of cleanliness. Upon leaving I realised that I was about as relaxed as I had ever been without the aid of chemicals. Heartily, heartily recommend, and I am privately wondering why such public bathing places are not so common in the UK. I know better than to enter any place marked “sauna” in Edinburgh, though. The police raid them regularly.

Fans of Studio Ghibli will also be reassured to know that I did not let in any no-faced monsters to the bathhouse, and I did not meet a river spirit at all.

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Do not let him in. He hogs all the water tokens and eats people, and Haku will be really upset.

Apart from these events, a good deal of my socialising has revolved around food. There are a number of reasons for this. My lovely Japanese friends love food almost as much as I do, and the food here is utterly stellar. Drinking is almost always accompanied with food. It is odd to do one without the other, with the happy side effect that I never get that drunk, and I have tried so many interesting different types of food. My favourite is undoubtedly tako, or octopus. I cannot get enough. I hope it features on more menus in the UK in the future. We are missing out by not eating it much. There is odd stuff as well though. I pride myself on never turning down perfectly good food, and trying anything once. This is occasionally tested. I went for yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) recently, and they use every part of the chicken. Hearts I can get behind, as they taste really good, but liver I struggle with. I think it is the texture and flavour combination. Almost starchy, but it tastes like black pudding (blutwurst, for German readers). Odd, as I like liver pate.

And then, well… And then there is shirako.

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Pictured: Weird with a capital W.

What do you think it is? If you thought “brains”, then I can see why, but no. It isn’t brains. It’s fish sperm. Unfortunately, I knew what it was before eating it. As it was, the flavour was not at all bad, although someone had told me offhand what it was before I tried it, which was not ideal. I couldn’t get out of my head what it was while eating it, which sort of ruined the experience.

Jellyfish? Bring it on. Squid sashimi? Go for it. Chicken hearts? Yum. Pufferfish? Pass it along, but shirako? I like fish, don’t get me wrong, but no-one likes fish that much. Shame. If I didn’t know I might have quite liked it. It is, however, the only food I really would say that I do not like here. Everything else is amazing, and I hardly miss European food at all.

So it has been an eventful couple of weeks, and I feel very much like I fit in here in Japan. It would be easy, after learning the language, to live here I think. I like the way things are done, and almost everything that is strange is strange in ways that I like. I even recognise more Hiragana characters than I used to, and read a menu item for the first time last night without asking for a translation, which did feel like a milestone.

I like Japan, and Japan, so far, seems to like me. Sayounara!

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