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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Japan! Travelling, Arrival and Adventures in Guesswork.

Ohayoo gozaimasu! Good morning world from my first 24 hours in Japan after a very long trip and about 12 hours of sleep to get rid of the jetlag.

Much like when I first arrived in Germany, I feel like absolutely everything is worth writing about because it is all so different and strange to me.

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My bird in a freezing cold and snowy München flughafen.

I boarded in the mid afternoon in Munich for a direct, 11 and a half hour flight to Tokyo Haneda. Having a look around at the other passengers they were a mixed lot, from families going home, holidaymakers and businessmen. Trying not to be too self-conscious about being an excited 20-something white man on his first trip to Japan, I took my seat next to a German aquarium-owner who was on his way to the North Island to select the next batch of Koi carp for resale in Hamburg. I was full of aspiration to sleep the whole way only to wake up refreshed in Tokyo, however the timing of the flight meant that I felt sleepy just as they were waking everyone up, and proceeded to instead watch trashy movies the whole way instead. I would come to regret this later, however at the time my waking state meant that I got a rather stunning view of Moscow from 30 thousand feet or so.

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Moscow is flipping HUGE and rather beautiful a day or two after Orthodox Christmas

Ulaanbaatar is another pretty one, although sadly the pictures didn’t come out so well. What I learned by staring out the window in the slow bits of Jason Bourne movies and the 1960 version of the Magnificent Seven is that on the flight path between Moscow and Tokyo there is what is technically termed MMBA (miles and miles of not a lot) which gives me a sort of horizontal vertigo. We would fly for over an hour in clear skies and I’d see barely a light on the surface. Forget the old west: I think the Russians might have a monopoly on what you might cal “frontier territory”.  We took a bit of a wiggly line after exiting Russian and then Chinese airspace to avoid the somewhat problematic (and heavily armed) hole in time that the DPRK sits in to pass over the metropolis of Seoul just after dawn. I was greeted to my first sight of Japan not long after.

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On reflection, the active snowsports scene in Japan makes so much sense now.

My excitement began to manifest about then, along with the lack of sleep catching up to me as my body clock said “Hey it’s 2am go to bed you nutcase” while the environment outside the window said “Wake up and go to work”. The nice Lufthansa staff seemed to be content to compromise on the whole situation by simply handing out bad food and worse coffee and smiling a lot. Joking aside, I’d definitely fly Lufthansa again. Being asked if I want a top-up in three languages is lots of fun, and them settling on German as the best one for me as I reply in it automatically is even better.

Tokyo Haneda beckoned, and I start to experience the strange and disorienting feeling of losing the ability to readIt is truly humbling. At the airport, fortunately, English is the go-to subsitute, but when speaking to literally anyone who isn’t speaking English I have this urge to speak German at them as my brain goes “use the FOREIGN one, the one that isn’t English, ja genau, können Sie mich Helfen, bitte, das ist Japanesisch, oder?” 

I wisely decided to remove the Yubisashi point-and-say phrasebook from my bag and have remained glued to it ever since. I feel armed and ready for Japan with it in my hand. It is a godsend (or more correctly, an Amazon-send).

The helpfully-translated signs in the toilet upon landing, the toilet which SPOKE TO ME IN A ROBOT VOICE, reassured me that I was in safe hands.

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Alright, calm down Japan, I’m trying to flush the loo not decommission a nuclear submarine.

 

I had, upon my presence in Japan for no more than 2o minutes, managed to fill in or receive four discrete forms and certificates. One was my landing card, then my customs declaration, then my additional bag check-in customs certificate (for the domestic flight, to be kept with but not confused for my boarding card, which was seperate), and my security certificate. These were all paper and were required to be kept on me at all times and NOT LOST OR GOD HELP YOU, and the latter two had no English on at all.  I did not photograph them. They may have personal identity information on them, whether or not I understand it. I wouldn’t know which bits to blur.

Japan, as a nation, please allow me to present you with an award: You have managed to out-form Germany. Not an easy task when the judge has worked for the German government for the last three years.

Nonetheless, everything ran smoothly. The way to get to domestic departures from customs in Tokyo Haneda is to get a bus, and while everything is signposted fairly well, in sometimes confusing but utterly forgivable English, I was a little perplexed until I was automatically helped by a member of the pubic, a friendly Russian businessman (yes, definitely Russian, definitely friendly) and the airline staff. The Japanese people I met at the airport were very kind and understanding, as the situation must happen a lot.

I felt like a giant on the bus, a giant in a tiny world. Not, you must understand, for the reason I expected. People in Japan are much the same size as people anywhere else in the world, but all the spaces people are are smaller. I struggled to squeeze into my bus seat without taking up two, and while I’ve had what I would call a Very Good Christmas (Dear God I’ve eaten so much lately) I wouldn’t have thought I was a two-bus-seat sort of man. I noticed with even more confusion that a Japanese fellow considerably stouter than I apparently used quantum tunelling to sit in the seat opposite with no trouble. On the upside, tiny buses are adorable.

Domestic departures has much less English signage, and I had a gate change, but I didn’t even need to ask before an ANA representative came over and told me where to go to get my plane. I’d say I narrowly got the flight but to be honest all it meant was that I was waiting by the gate for about five minutes before boarding a massive (and very empty) 777 to take a hour-long flight to Osaka Itami, a flight which I spent in a drunk-feeling sleep-deprived haze.

I was picked up by the worlds nicest driver and boarded a Toyota taxi along with another couple to drive to Kyoto and the African Studies Center. I wish I could remember the drive. I remember hovering between sleep and waking, head nodding about like I was at an Opeth concert, and seeing beautiful Kyoto temples for the hour the drive took. Takada-san (my professor and contact at the University of Kyoto) was waiting for me outside the centre, and seeing a familiar face was a real joy. I bowed my thanks to the driver (arigatou gozaimasu) and the final journey, to the letting agent and the flat, was thankfully only a minute, although the taxi driver did alarm me slightly by having his dashboard television showing a gameshow for the entire distance.

It was very amusing. The contestant did not win.

It turns out that I have paid what is a thoroughly reasonable city centre rate in Europe for a one-room studio in the absolute dead-centre of Kyoto, next to the university, in an area I thought would be totally out of consideration in somewhere as purportedly-overpopulated as Japan. The first thing I did upon entry was to remove my shoes so as not to get any of the torrential rain on the lovely traditional tatami mat floor, and turn on the kotatsu under-table heater so that when I sat on the floor at the low table my feet would be cosy and warm.

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I apologise (mainly to my mother) for the unmade bed. Sorry Mum.

While there is an air-conditioner above the window, there is single-glazing and no central heating, which is not ideal for January. I am, in truth, cold at night although a cheap space heater (especially considering my bills are paid in advance by the University) should cover that. I will consult them before I buy it, as they eat power.

There is a gas ring and sink in the hall-cum kitchen, and the world’s tiniest (but still perfectly functional) bathroom which they have somehow managed to get a bath into, and I have both a back and front porch, as my kitchen door leads right to the first-floor outside landing, and I have a small balcony outside the above curtains. I am surrounded by buildings in a tetris-like way, as I expected, although my balcony faces a primary school, much like my first flat in Germany, actually, so I needn’t worry about being late for work.

What you see on the bed there is the results of my very first adventure: My supply mission.

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Mystery Snacks! I know what most of these things are.

Armed with my phrasebook and both an empty rucksack and an empty stomach, I followed the recently-left Takada-san’s advice and headed East towards one of Japan’s famous 7/11 convenience stores, which was like a supermarket in miniature. I spent at least five minutes marvelling, and enjoying the upbeat Japanese pop music, before attempting to shop.

Not being able to ask for help is one thing, but not being able to read is quite another. I mainly went by sight and picked up things that either I recognised or that I knew by sight. Hence for dinner was Ramen noodle soup (definitely) with soy (almost definitely) and pepper (definitely, English on the label)-fried beef (probably, actually definitely after opening) and eggs (hopefully chicken). I even got what I think are those delicious crackers always labelled as Japanese rice crackers in Europe, and those chocolate stick things because of course I did this is Japan come on jeez. The coffee, biscuits and satsumas (probably) are breakfast, being as I could not find any bread. I’m set there for at least two days provided I get lunch out, which I will when exploring. That lot cost me the equivalent of about €20, although the olive oil, nice-looking ground coffee (never instant, eugh) and the soy sauce was a big part of that, I think.

Ramen requires chopsticks (of which there are loads, and I mean loads of disposable ones under the sink) and a spoon, upon which I saw this face for the millionth time in less than 24 hours.

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There is no escape. Look at it’s kawaii little face. Look at it. Bow down before the Lord of All. BOW BEFORE YOUR MASTER.

Continuing in the theme of local Gods, there is a shrine just over the road, one of hundreds across Kyoto. I have a Lonely Planet guide, a paper map, and my phrasebook. Today is a national holiday in Japan, which means that everything is open as usual apparently, and so today is for exploring.

I’ve been instructed by Dave, my friend and a previous visitor to Japan, to find takoyaki (octopus balls) for lunch, because, and I quote, “they are nicer than they sound”.

I have a mission! Even better, it is food-related. So Japan, thanks for the warm welcome, let’s see what you’ve got. And to you readers, I will provide another update soon to The Anthropologist (Not In) Cologne.

Kyoto beckons. Sayounara!

An Anthropologist Not In Cologne

*Blows dust from the gears and levers of An Anthropologist in Cologne*

I’m still paying for this domain, aren’t I?

Well, that’s convenient. Eighteen months’ hiatus while I wrestle with the writing of my actual PhD, and find the German environment increasingly comfortable, even as the Western world seems to crumble around me, have put the kibosh somewhat on interesting cultural observations and immigrant tales.

No longer. We’re firing up the generators once again just in time for the Anthropologist in Cologne to, er, not be in Cologne. The cycle of the travelling academic, must, it seems, go on. I’m a little closer than I was to finishing the PhD, though nowhere near where I would like to be, but sadly the ever-benevolent Landesamt für Besoldung und Versorgung Nordrhein-Westfalen, my benefactors, have as promised ended my contract with the close of 2016.

This means many things. I have said goodbye to my faithful bicycle Gretel, now passed on to another recent immigrant, who has promised to keep calling her by her name. I am leaving my wonderful flat, and saying goodbye to flatmates who have become like family to me. I have cleared out my office, spent at least half an hour tearing my hair out about why books weigh so damn much, and my tickets are all lined up to fly home for the holidays.

Once again, I find myself saying goodbye.

Outrageously, the end of my contract also means that I must find gainful employment while I complete my magnum opus, almost as if I was a normal human being, rather than being employed as a civil servant here in das Vaterland in order to pursue my education.

Gainful employment for the months of January and February has made itself known in the form of time spent as a visiting academic at the Center for African Area Studies at the University of Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan, a placement I have taken the greatest pleasure of accepting.

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Artists’ impression of the author in Kyoto courtesy of Enid Guene.

It seems that immigrant tales and amusing anecdotes of my faux pas will be in vogue again, and it seems fitting to record my outrageous cultural transgressions in an entirely new context. The language, I was recently informed by one of my new colleagues at Kyoto, has around 30,000 characters, depending on how you count them. Most primary school children, he reassured me, only have to learn 1,000. I have, let us say, given up on the prospect of reading.

Nevertheless, my goal in two months is to be able to shop without a chaperone or a translator, as pathetic-sounding a goal as it will be difficult. It took me roughly two months to do that in Germany. German, incidentally, seems like an easy-to-learn and rule-free language by comparison.

I shall record here some of my preliminary expectations and thoughts about visiting a country I have wanted to visit for many years, but about which I know little. I think it will be interesting to see how wrong I am.

I shall begin my travels to Japan from Edinburgh on the 6th January, and barring any further industrial action from Lufthansa[1] I should arrive on the 8th to begin my new life as an ignorant gaijin. Rest assured that I have been watching anime with subtitles rather than dubbing, and provided that Japan features handy subtitling of any and all conversations, street signs, and swordfights in which I avenge my father, I should be absolutely fine. I am, however, somewhat concerned that my hair is neither blue, purple or red, and that I do not know any giant flying robots.

Almost the entirety of my knowledge about Japan, having never been there, comes from pop culture, the most fun but hardly the most reliable of lenses through which to view an incredibly rich and complex civilisation. Fortunately, I also have this:

Oh yes. Memes.

Japan seems to occupy an interesting place in the popular psyche. Aside from being told to “enjoy my holiday” (you know who you are) many of my friends and colleagues seem to think I shall be visiting a giant shopping mall filled with wonders. Do not worry, I shall return with gifts, and will admit to no small amount of stereotyping when I get excited to the point of mental breakdown at the possibility of visiting certain places.

I am also expecting tatami mats, taking my shoes off, and meditating a lot, though I find these quite a lot more likely given that my flat was advertised as having the first, so I shall want to do the second, and that Kyoto has a ridiculous number of temples in which I can continue the meditation I practice anyway. I am also expecting to eat a lot of fish, and given that I have been living a long way from the sea for a long time, I am also unreasonably excited about this.

On a more academic level, I shall be working in an African Studies centre, and I am sure that such a familiar environment will be something of a rock of certainty for me, as African Studies has been my common theme between all the places I have lived for the last three years. I can also take heart that most of my Japanese colleagues will be anthropologists, and so I should not worry too much about cultural misunderstandings. I suspect they are used to it.

Japanese ethnography has been consistently important and powerful as a tool for understanding life in Southern Africa at least since the 1970s and the work of Jiro Tanaka. It is through one of his former students[2] that I have received this kind invitation to work there. It is, without exaggeration, a great honour to be invited to work in the department at Kyoto. I hope that I justify my being invited there and am able to contribute to the department. I also hope that this will be the first of many trips to Japan.

I guess we will see how it goes.

Tschuß, Goodbye, and, I guess for now, Sayounara!

[1] Blame the bosses not the workers for strikes, folks. An injury to one is an injury to all.

[2]One of only two anthropologists to work long-term at Ekoka to my knowledge. The other is, well, writing this.

Here we go

So it turned out I could shave a good couple of hundred Euros off my flights if I booked ones for tomorrow (Saturday 13th) rather than today, so that is what I did. Thanks to the excellent German public transport network, I can fly from Munich. As the Germans are big on reducing folks’ carbon footprint, many airlines, South African Airways included, have signed up to the Rail-and-Fly program. This means the six-hour, normally €140 journey on the high-speed ICE train costs me nothing, and I get to sit in a special Lufthansa carriage all the way there, getting a nice view of the Bavarian scenery. One ticket, costing €750, will get me all the way from Köln Ehrenfeld station, about two hundred metres from my room where I now sit, to Hosea Kutako airport Windhoek. Incredible. My travel schedule, however, is a long one. Six hours on the train to Munich, a wait in the airport, a ten-hour flight to Johannesburg, another wait in the airport, then two hours flying to Windhoek. This is over about two days, and I will catch the train at about eleven tomorrow morning, arriving in Windhoek at twenty past three on Sunday afternoon. I’ve booked a guest house to check into at four.

It’s all sorted, everything is booked, and all I need to do now is check in to my flights this evening online, scrambling with everyone else on the flight to get myself a bulkhead seat for my unfeasibly long legs. I then need to find a printing shop on the way to the station to print off the boarding pass, which shouldn’t be too difficult.

Packing has been a bit of a chore, although thanks to the guy replacing me in my room being 1) a car owner and 2) absolutely brilliant, getting the stuff I’m not taking to Namibia to the office to live under my desk for a year was not too much trouble. Gretel is now safely stowed in another friend’s basement, and after what I think qualifies as an actual physical fight with my stuff, I’ve also packed my bags.

Here is the stuff I’m putting in the hold, which all fit into a 65L hiking rucksack (reluctantly) and weighs about nineteen kilos.

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Yes, that is an Irish tin whistle and accompanying book. As I’ve had to leave my guitar and mandolin in Cologne for the next year (although I plan to buy a cheap guitar there) I thought I might take the opportunity to learn some tunes on the whistle. I’ve always liked the idea of an instrument I can fit in my pocket, but the draw of the mandolin for fiddle tunes has, until now, proved too much. No choice now, so time to learn. The funny black thing in the bottom right corner is also an amazingly-compact giant solar panel, which I found in the office. Apparently there are perks to being on an anthropological project with a hefty budget. I’ve also had to pack a little strategically: Johannesburg airport has a bit of a theft problem, and I lost a mobile phone last time. I am preparing by topping off the side and lid pockets with my dirty socks from the days before. Heh heh heh.

Here is what I am taking with me on the plane:

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The Indy hat, I will admit, seems overkill, but it was invaluable last time against the terrifyingly powerful Namibian sun. The map of Namibia that has been on the wall for the last couple of months is also coming with me.

And here is the lot of it together:

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This is everything I will own in Namibia until I buy a car. I will then fill that car with camping equipment and live out of it for the next year. It should be good.

I’ve got a good couple of hours before I can check in online for my flight, and similar to my earlier blog post about Karneval, just before I left last time, I think that this one was probably a little frenetic. I certainly feel frenetic. Maybe I’ll wax my boots again. I sure as hell am not repacking the bloody rucksack.

See you in Africa, Tschuß!