Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Seen in the neighborhood. Somewhere in Cihangir or Beyoğlu.

I feel like after six weeks in Istanbul I have so much more to say. I want to write separate posts about the Pera Museum and the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, but I seem to have lost my copies of notes that I took at the time, so it would have to be recreations just from memory and photos :/
Maybe I’ll still write something in future. But in the meantime, I’m kind of desperate to finally be done with Turkey for now and to write about my trips elsewhere, as I’m still way way behind. So, to finally wrap up, here’s some of the stuff from the notes that I do have – further thoughts and reactions written during my time still living in Istanbul with my girlfriend last summer.

I guess one place to start is to say a little bit about the language. I never took any classes or anything, never learned much beyond some very basic phrases. But, after six weeks of being immersed in it, just from signs and storefronts and menus and book covers, from overhearing conversations, and from the very few words and phrases that I did learn, I guess I feel like I have some sense. I can’t say much about sentence structure, verb conjugation, anything, because I don’t know them. Except to say that it’s nice that it’s basically similar to Japanese, in just a few very basic ways. The word order is similar – while I’m sure most learners of Turkish have trouble wrapping their minds around the Subject-Object-Verb word order, as I did when I was first taking Japanese, I’m now pretty comfortable with it. So whatever few phrases I did learn in Turkish, it felt pretty smooth to me to think about ordering my words in that way.

Right: Just a few examples of Turkish loanwords: Tost for “toast” (a grilled panini-style sandwich); Salata for salad, presumably from the French salade, Arabic sulta or the like. Not the greatest example, I know, but the best I could find, apparently, out of my photos from the summer.

The idea of using just small roots for your verbs and conjugating out of that is common in a lot of languages outside of English. In English we use the whole word “drink,” for example, when we say drink, drinks, drinking… Okay, drank and drunk are sort of exceptions but hopefully you take my point. In Turkish, like in Japanese, it’s just short stems. in Turkish becomes içmiyorum, içemiyorum, etc. Nomu in Japanese becomes nomimasu, nomimasen, nomemasen…

Anyway, I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Turkish just from the very basic exposure I’ve had visiting here, and helping my girlfriend study for her vocab quizzes, and not actually studying the language myself is the way they use so many loan words, and spell them phonetically in their own way. Of course Japanese and pretty much every other language do this too, but even so, Turkish being what it is, not a romance language, not a Semitic or Sinitic/Japonic language, but something else, and doing this in a different way , but still in Roman letters – everything looks so foreign and yet so familiar.

Kek for cake. Müsik for music, vagon for train cars, istasyon for station.

A display at the Alaçam Population Exchange Museum (Alaçam Mübadele Müzesi), a small house museum in Istanbul dedicated to the story of Greeks forced to return to Greece from Turkey, and Turks forced to return to Turkey from Greece, at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the difficulties of the journey and re-settlement, etc.

Another thing I just loved about being in Turkey (Istanbul in particular, I suppose) is that it’s right at the center of so many different cultures and ethnicities that you normally would never hear about, learn about. Here in the US, we might learn about French, Italian, and German history, or about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. And walking around our neighborhood, we might meet Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Arab, Indian, East Asian, Irish, and Italian people. But in Istanbul, you’re encountering either people or cultural elements from Armenia, Georgia, the Black Sea region, the Prince’s Islands (Adalar), Turkic peoples from all the way across Asia… Just talking to people in Istanbul, we met Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Azeri.. all kinds of people. And just a couple minutes walk from the very center of tourism in the city (i.e. Sultanahmet; the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque), there is a whole row of houses and a restaurant housing some kind of pro-Uyghur activist organization that isn’t trying very hard to keep their heads down, stay off the radar, at all.

“Pray for Muslim citizens of East Turkestan that have been oppressed and assimilated by Communist Chinese regime!”

Speaking of ethnic minorities, many parts of Turkey have in recent years become home to significant numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. I don’t know the details, but I believe I remember hearing/reading that the Turkish government made some kind of agreement with the European Union, that so long as Turkey takes X amount of refugees and doesn’t allow them to enter EU territory, in exchange for, according to Wikipedia, a “re-energized” consideration of Turkey’s bid to become an EU member country, eased visa requirements for Turkish citizens, andsome 6 billion euros in aid. From talking to shopkeepers, musicians, barbers, fellow visitors, etc., we got the impression that a lot of people in Turkey are worried that the Syrian refugees, simply by their presence, their social/societal/cultural influence, are pushing the society & politics further to the Right (and towards Islamist fundamentalism). But others we spoke to said the Syrians they knows are very modern and tolerant people. And that most refugees are not so fundamentalist – they’re just poor people. They suggested that it’s the Erdoğan government or other institutions that pressure people to be more religious or more observant in order to receive benefits.

I don’t think I have any pictures of Syrian refugees, so I’m going to go with this photo of a café and alleyway in Izmir, with a large Turkish flag. I imagine this flag must carry very mixed and complex meanings for many people.

Trying to find something to say to wrap up my whole Turkey experience this past summer, I find I barely even know what to say. I suppose this is in part because it was my second time, so it’s not so unusual anymore, and because we were more in “living in Turkey” mode than tourist mode, really. Spent a lot more time in shopping streets and malls, and doing other simple sorts of things than we did visiting museums or historical sites, or actively trying to try / experience new things. So I guess that makes a big difference.

Mostly, I guess I would say my main impression coming away from it is that Istanbul is a pretty nice city to hang out in for a few months (or maybe even up to a year, or longer…?). I would definitely be interested in seeing more historical sites, more museums, more art galleries + shows, more music performances. I’d definitely be interested in seeing more of the country, too. But at the same time, it’s just a good city to live in. So long as the purchasing power parity remains as it is – and most especially how it was this summer, much more so than last – we Americans, even on a paltry grad student stipend / summer funding, can afford to live pretty damn well in Turkey. We had a beautiful apartment (for $1300 / month, not exactly pennies, but even so, a place that would easily cost twice that in any major US city) with a gorgeous view. We ate out nice breakfasts about half the days, and went out to nice (not super ultra fancy, but nice) restaurants for lunch or dinner quite frequently. I don’t think we were living some incredibly lavish lifestyle, either, but just the sort of standard big-city sort of life that we all wish we could afford in New York, LA, or San Francisco. A meal that would have cost let’s say $60 or so, or likely even more, for two people back home, including a salad or appetizer, two entrees, and basic drinks (e.g. lemonade), was 100 lira – at the current exchange rate, about US $16. It’s just such a wonderful privilege to be able to go out for dinner, and not worry about going out to dinner to begin with, as an expensive option to begin with, but also (2) to not have to feel like ordering a drink, or an appetizer, or a dessert, is too extravagant. That alone, regardless of the particular cultural feel of the city, or anything else, makes Istanbul just a fantastic place to be. I so wish that one could live like that in New York or LA, in Honolulu or Tokyo or Kyoto, in London or anywhere else in Europe.

Just some cats, chillin’, at the top of the stairs near our apartment in Cihangir.

It’s weird. I don’t know. Last year, when I went to Turkey for the first time, it was my first time going to a Muslim country. And I was nervous. Istanbul is not just like any (other) European city. The mosques and the several-times-a-day call to prayer, the dominance of certain foods and not certain others, not to mention the largely invisible but nevertheless ever-present looming danger of the authoritarian state, make it a very different place from what we typically picture when we talk about visiting Europe.

And I do definitely still feel much happier, more comfortable, more excited to be in, say, Tokyo or Kyoto or Naha than in Istanbul. It’s just not my first choice of cultural appeal. Ask me which cities (or cultures) of the world have the best food, or which country’s historical sites or music scene or art museums I most want to see more of, and Turkey is admittedly not at the top of my list. I still have never been to China or Taiwan, or most of Europe.

But, while I never would have expected it a year ago, I think I really have grown pretty comfortable with Istanbul. The people are nice, the language of course is difficult but thankfully it’s written in Roman letters and uses a ton of loanwords, and just, overall, even the things that are decidedly “foreign,” such as the mosque-dominated skyline and the sound of the muezzin every day, are things I’ve grown used to and just don’t see as so unusual anymore.

And there’s just a lot of basic everyday things to enjoy about Istanbul. So many nice cafes – if you want to call them hipstery, or if you just want to call them nice. A good public transportation system, with tapcards (New York is still behind on this one), and streetcars (trams), subway, and ferries that all run more smoothly and nicely, through nice clean stations. Not to mention, the deepest subway tunnels in the world, connecting Europe and Asia. I mean, few public transportation systems in the world compare to Tokyo, but Istanbul is certainly levels above New York or Los Angeles, and I would say compares well to most other cities I’ve been to. I love taking the ferries, and getting to see those wonderful water views of the city. And I love that you can get most places on public transportation. Strangely, it seemed super often that we had to take a bus, rather than the tram or subway, to get where we were going, but… oh well, I guess.

A historical streeetcar running down İstiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Street, or lit. “Independence Avenue”), one of the chief shopping/tourist streets in the city. Not really so indicative of the real everyday Metro experience, but, makes for a nice photo perhaps.

And the shopping malls and clothing stores and so forth are super modern, super sleek. Cleaner, nicer, brighter, more modern feeling than even in Japanese shopping malls probably. Of course, the exchange rate / PPP really helps with this. We could afford to go to the fanciest malls, the nicest shops. A shirt that might be $50 or $60 back home, or even $100 might be 50 or 60 lira – less than ten bucks. And a dress from a fancy high-end store or little boutique that might be hundreds of dollars back home, even if it was 300 lira, that’s still less than $50 at the moment.

I’m not sure Turkey is my number one top favorite place for food (sorry!). I’m much more excited by even the most basic everyday food scene in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Naha – or by Italian pasta and pizza – but, even so, I loved getting to know the distinctive Turkish specialties. Totally fresh juice, fresh squeezed directly from the fruit as you watch, for just 5-10 lira.

A fresh fruit juice vendor in Istanbul. Somehow out of my hundreds of photos, I never took one of one of these stands. So this is a photo from Turkish blog http://berfendber.blogspot.com/.

We got lucky, or I guess maybe we knew about it as part of the selection process, but we ended up just a couple of blocks away from a ton of different cafes + breakfast places, including some of the most widely best-rated, best-reviewed breakfast places in the city. But it was such a nice combination of these kinds of totally modern, clean, sleek, good cafes, and also right in the same neighborhood good mom+pop sort of stores. When we ate breakfast in, I would go up to the local bakery and get fresh bread every day. Simit – often badly translated as “bagels,” they’re rings of bread covered in sesame seeds. More like a circular pretzel than anything. So fresh, so good, and so cheap!

Let’s see… other foods. I loved the rice pudding (fırın sütlaç). And of course there’s döner kebab, falafel, köfte (meatballs). I found these all to be pretty meh compared to what I’ve had elsewhere. The shawarma joint in LA, for example, which pretends to be a shawarma joint in New York at the end of the first Avengers movie, is surprisingly excellent. Not just a funny fandom / movie history sort of take a photo and check it off the list sort of spot, but really genuinely tasty food. Much better than the meat I had in Turkey. Sorry. But, still, so many other foods! It was nice from time to time to have what they call “tost”: just basic panini-pressed sandwiches, with cheese + tomatoes, or cheese + pesto sauce, or whatever. And kumpir – baked potatoes loaded with whatever toppings you choose. Oh, and börek, of course, though I think maybe having that every day for the one week we were in Turkey last year maybe got me a little bored, a little “over” the borek. Oh, and manti was a good experience. I’ve been bad and have been slipping ever farther from any semblance of observing kashrut (oh well); though I still get nervous that my body isn’t used to certain foods and might get angry with me and make me sick, even so I did enjoy several times a dish called manti, which is tiny little meat raviolis served in a mix of tomato sauce + thin yogurt.

Rumelihisarı, the first Ottoman fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorous. Built in 1452, it played a key role in allowing for the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium/Constantinople the following year, as it was used along with the corresponding Anadoluhisarı on the opposite shore to block Byzantine reinforcements or re-supply via the waterway.

But the non-Turkish food was good too. It varied a lot, as it does for example in Japan. You’re not going to just step out your door and find good Italian or Chinese/Japanese or Indian food, let alone Mexican. But if you research around online a bit, or just get lucky, there’s some amazing food. Simone said that at most restaurants, the pasta is not served al dente, but rather overcooked, soft, by Western standards. But we ended up going several times to a chain restaurant called Midpoint, which I still find a little funny since it’s basically like an upscale mall restaurant, a corporate chain. But, still, damn it was good. I’m blanking on which restaurants to compare it to in the States, but it’s like when you find that that one place just has such amazing mushroom tortellini, or whichever one particular dish it may be… I want to go back and have that mushroom tortellini again.

Oh, and the çay – Turkish tea. How could I forget? I still haven’t tried Turkish coffee, haha. We kept putting it off with the plan of finding somewhere where they might read your fortune with the coffee remains at the bottom of the cup. We never did. But, oh, how I love their tea. I love all tea, really, if it’s made right. Somehow brewing my own tea never really did it, but just a basic 4 lira çay (black tea with or without sugar, no milk) at just about any shop, much like the free green tea they give you at most places in Japan, is just *the best*. I love it so much. I wish I could just drink tea endlessly. But enough about food, I guess.

A guy who lived right outside our apartment, usually to be found atop this car. He was rather anti-social, but my girlfriend was determined to befriend him, and so named him ‘My Best Friend.’

One thing I’m definitely going to miss is the kitties. The street cats. If you’re familiar with the documentary Kedi, then you’re already familiar with this, but there are street cats everywhere in Istanbul, and the people are really kind to them. They get food and water, they get petted and loved, and they get left alone. Sometimes people shoo them out of restaurants, to be sure, but for the most part, they’re just around, and they’re friendly, and good. I very much miss living with a cat, and I very much look forward to doing so again, but even that is just not the same as having a wide variety of cats at your disposal every day. Sure, the street cats won’t come and sit on your lap (or on your laptop) while you’re working at home, or curl up with you in bed, but you can go just about anywhere and meet new cats, or check in with the same cats day after day, and you can enjoy the variety. We definitely got to know some of the cats in our immediate neighborhood. Right outside our apartment was a fussy guy we called “My Best Friend.” He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in being anyone’s friend, and pushed Simone’s hand away whenever she went in to pet him. He had this look on his face like “ugh, I don’t want to have to deal with this woman. Leave me alone.” It was super cute. We also met cats who followed us for blocks.

I had always sort of felt bad for indoor pet cats, because they’re stuck in the same small space all the time. I always imagined that free street cats would wander and explore the whole city. But as I learned, to my surprise, they don’t. They just stay in one spot, one street corner or whatever it may be, of their own volition.

And at the top of the stairs (a set of stairs linking our street to the next parallel street up the hill from us), a kind man was just there constantly tending to this whole bunch of cats. He set up a whole little camp for them, with a tarp providing shelter over a whole little area of pillows and boxes and food dishes and so on. And these cats, some fifteen or so of them, just hung out there at the top of the stairs, all the time. There was a super friendly one Simone dubbed “Longcat.” A calico one we called “Anne,” the Turkish word for mother, since she constantly had tiny kittens (mostly or entirely not hers) suckling at her. A tiny one the man had named Kerchu, possibly because she was sick for a long time and was always sneezing. Kerchu loved to nuzzle and cuddle, and would just curl up on Simone’s lap for ages and ages. Another tiny one was called the Bumbler, since when we met her she just seemed so lost, and bumbled around, not really interacting with the other cats, looking quite disheveled with her fur all over the place. We then didn’t see her for a long time, and got worried, but we then saw her again, and she’s doing so well now! Not disheveled anymore, not looking lost, just living a nice happy kitty life.

Either Kerchu or the Bumbler; I forget which. :/ Either way, super cute.

What else can I say about Turkey? I don’t even know. On my first visit, it was all so new to me, and so I was so struck by the overlapping layers of history, just trying to wrap my mind around how aspects or elements of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern Republican histories overlapped and intersected and poked through, their influence still visible. And not just these periods of history, but also the many cultures that were once part of the Ottoman Empire and are still very much a part of Turkey today, even if ethno-nationalists and religious fundamentalists wish otherwise. We met tons of people – shopkeepers, booksellers, musicians – who had nothing negative at all to say about Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Jews, and talked about how they wish their society was more multi-cultural, or more accepting or acknowledging of the multi-cultural, than it is. Of course, I mean, what are they going to say, to us, other than to be polite and positive in that kind of way? But, still.

And of course, that’s politically sensitive, and complicated. But on a related note, I guess, let me just conclude by saying something about how interesting it is to travel to different parts of the world and see which cultures have any kind of prominence there. In Japan, of course, there’s plenty of Chinese and Korean music, Taiwanese TV dramas, I dunno, whatever. And plenty of American and European stuff too, for sure. But I can imagine that if I went into a record store in Tokyo and was looking for Turkish, Armenian, Greek, or Jewish music, they likely would have next to nothing. Hell, they often have only the slimmest of an Okinawan section, and that’s for a region within their own country.

Of course, I would expect record stores in Turkey to have a ton more Black Sea music, Greek music, Armenian and Kurdish music, music from tiny ethnic groups I had never heard of such as the Laz and the Hakkari. But what I’m getting to, and what I found quite interesting, is that because of Turkey’s historical and cultural connections to the various Turkic peoples of the world, there’s actually (in certain ways, just here and there) a lot more presence / prominence of Uzbek, Uyghur, Azeri, and other Central Asian Turkic cultures than I would expect you’ll find most other places. Just looking around at the other people in the restaurant, or on the street, it’s of course quite difficult to tell sometimes who’s Turkish vs. European, who’s Turkish vs. Arab, and of course there are a lot of white/Western, Arab, and East Asian tourists. But, every now and then, somehow or another, you realize (or gather, or suspect) that someone who passes you on the street, or someone standing near you on the subway, is Uyghur, Kazakh, or Uzbek. And it makes sense – the languages have similarities, the cultures have some similarities; they probably visit Turkey for much the same reasons as Arabs do, seeing it as a country that’s not too foreign, a country they can visit and have some familiarity with the language, culture, food. It would be interesting to know some kind of tourist statistics, maybe. With most Uyghurs (and various kinds of Mongols and Tatars too) being Chinese citizens, that of course would complicate matters, but even so I’d be curious just how many of the tourists who might otherwise pass for East Asian (or white) are actually Central Asian.

It just goes to show how much your worldview and experiences can expand when traveling – to visit Turkey is not only to encounter Turkish culture, but to encounter so much else, of Balkan, Central Asian, and Sephardic culture as well. The world is so rich and complex and diverse. Get out there and explore, with an open mind, and broaden your horizons.

A Jewish Tour of Izmir

At the airport.

Just before we left Turkey for the summer, we traveled to Izmir (Smyrna), an ancient city on the west coast of Turkey, facing the Aegean Sea. There, we were fortunate to receive a proper tour from a local tour guide.

From what we saw, it seems the city for the most part extends across the northern and eastern/southern sides of a bay. While we were staying not far from the Konak area (home to city hall, a major bazaar, and some of the city’s museums) and the Alsancak neighborhood (perhaps the chief center of live music bars), both of which sit on the eastern end of the bay facing west out over the water, these are connected by ferry boat (vapur) to other major neighborhoods on the northern side of the bay. We began on that northern side, at a former synagogue known as Mezakat Arabim in a neighborhood known as Karşıyaka. Built in the late 19th c. and out of use since the 1930s or so, it fell completely into disrepair, but was recently turned into a music school by the municipality of Karşıyaka. Free music classes are provided there by the municipality. But some parts of the former synagogue, such as the stained glass and aron hakodesh (the “ark” or special cabinet where Torah scrolls were kept) have been maintained or restored. The ark is now used as a regular cabinet, but the original Hebrew letters have been repainted and maintained, and the stained glass is partially original and partially restored.


The former synagogue Mezakat Arabim.

We learned that Ataturk’s mother spent her last years in Izmir and is buried in Karşıyaka. His wife was also from Izmir. Also, the Greek invasion of Izmir in 1919 is said to have been the final straw on the camel’s back which really sparked Ataturk to go to the Karadeniz (Black Sea) provinces and start his nationalist movement. So Izmir claims a certain pride or responsibility in connection to the Republic.

Looking at a map, I learned that a number of islands just off the coast of Turkey, just a very short distance from Izmir, are governed/administered as part of Greece. These islands serve as a rather striking example of how arbitrary and ahistorical national borders can be. All of Greece was, of course, part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, and before that, the entire region was under the Eastern Roman (or “Byzantine”) Empire, which many called or considered “Greek.” It was only at the end of several wars and a massive population exchange that the borders ended up where they are today. Who’s to say whether Izmir (Smyrna), Edirne (Adrianople), Rhodes (today part of Greece but far closer geographically to Turkey), these islands near Izmir, or even Istanbul (Constantinople) itself should rightfully be considered “Greek” vs. “Turkish” territory? What do we even really mean by that when there was no country of “Greece” or “Turkey” for all those hundreds of years? A pretty interesting and potentially eye-opening example for world history courses.

As we rode the vapur to Karşıyaka, Tilda told us that the first settlements here came around 6500 BCE. Over at the other end of Turkey, near the Syrian border, is Göbekli Tepe, quite possibly the oldest known, excavated, religious site in the world, dating back as far as 11,000 BCE. As so much of our basic education on the ancient world centers on Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Levant (Lebanon/Syria/Israel) and Mesopotamia, it can be really easy to forget, or to not realize to begin with, just how far back the ancient history of Anatolia / Asia Minor (i.e. Turkey) can go.

The next later major settlement was around 3000 BCE. The third was founded by Alexander the Great, who conquered over from the Greek mainland, and through the islands. Later, Alexander’s generals decided to establish a major treasury at Pergamon (about an hour north). Some time later, while the general was away, the guards of the treasury decided to keep it for themselves and used it to start their own Kingdom of Pergamon. That kingdom lasted only about 150 years, but was apparently quite rich both economically and in arts, philosophy, etc. The last King of Pergamon gave his kingdom to Rome, rather than risk being conquered or destroyed or anything.

Rome then controlled the area until around the 4th century CE, when Rome fell and Byzantium (i.e. Constantinople, i.e. Istanbul) became the capital of a new Eastern Roman Empire, which ruled until the Ottoman conquests. Over the course of the 12-15th centuries, Turks, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, and others repeatedly gained and lost control over parts or the whole of the area around Izmir/Smyrna. The Ottomans then took Izmir definitively in 1424, nearly thirty years before famously taking Constantinople in 1453.

The Ottomans were not the first Turks to come to Turkey, though. There were also the Seljuk Turks who, if I’ve got this right, expanded out across Persia and over to the west, conquering much of Anatolia (i.e. Turkey) by the end of the 11th century. They were led at that time by Alp Arslan, who won an important battle against the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. Manzikert is one of those battles that I definitely knew the name of, knew it must be of some real major significance in European history, but never knew/remembered what the significance was. Like the Battle of Lepanto.

But now, excavations in Beşiktas (a neighborhood of Istanbul) have apparently recently shown evidence that Central Asian (Turkic) peoples may have arrived in Anatolia much earlier than the 11th c (Seljuks). So, that’s something. Sadly, I was only told about this verbally, and don’t have an article to link to or to read to learn more about it myself.

The Izmir Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi).

Jumping to the modern period, at this point in our tour we had come to the Izmir Clock Tower, at the center of a major plaza in the Konak neighborhood, which includes Izmir’s chief bazaar and several of its major museums. The clock tower was apparently built in 1901 in celebration of 25th year of the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, with the central clock mechanism being a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

Konak means “mansion.” At one side of the plaza, the former residence/office of the Ottoman governor of the area is now the official government office for the governor of Izmir Province.


The Karataş synagogue.

We would come back to Konak later, but first went to a neighboring area called Karataş. Though I would assume it has a far far older history, in terms of modern urban development this area first began being settled and built up in the 1800s. It quickly became the second (modern) Jewish neighborhood of Izmir, and by the 1880s-1890s, a significant portion of the Jewish community of the city had moved to Karataş, and received permission from the Sultan to build a new synagogue. That synagogue, built over a roughly ten-year period from 1907 until about 1917, is today the largest synagogue in Izmir, with seats for about 400 people. It is a gorgeous space on the inside, built according to a basilica plan, with the Aron Hakodesh (holy ark where the Torah scrolls are kept) and bimah (stage) at the front. Most of the other synagogues in the city, and indeed most I’ve seen outside of the US were built in a central plan, with the bimah in the center, though many were later rearranged to put the bimah at the front.

Today, the building is pretty much only used on Shabbat, holidays, and for events such as wedding or bar mitzvah. Due to its size, beauty, and history, it is one of the chief locations in the city that people choose to host their Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs today, but outside of those occasions, even on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), we are told that sadly they may get only a few tens of people.

Because of basic geographical considerations the building is not oriented to the east (towards Jerusalem). The Aron Hakodesh is to the South, and even though they read Torah there (facing south, with the readers facing north), various other parts of the service are performed facing east. Even though they haven’t built a second bimah or anything at all to that direction.

Above: A view out over Izmir from the top of the Asansör.

Walking a short distance from the synagogue, we came to an Izmir landmark known as the Asansör, or “elevator.” Nissim Levi and another Jewish businessman built the Asansör in 1919. I am not sure when the first elevators were invented, or what a steam-powered elevator might have looked like in 1919 Izmir, but it’s kind of hard to imagine. I mean, as a historian 1919 feels pretty modern; but, at the same time, it was literally one hundred years ago. I don’t think I realized that elevator technology in any form went back quite that far. Now run by the municipality, and redone with totally modern elevator technology, use of the elevator, which provides quick and easy access between the areas of town high up on the cliffs and those down below, is now free. Originally, Nissim Levi had donated his house to become a hospital, charged fees to use the elevator, and used that revenue to help run the hospital.

Sephardic Jews – descendants of those who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s and settled in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere – seem to have long been a prominent presence in Izmir. And even long long before that. There was already a significant community of Jews in the area, we were told, by at least the 1st century CE. Smyrna was, after all, a significant site in earliest Christianity, who were of course Jews. Others also came with Alexander the Great, or that is with his empire. This was the Romaniote community – Jews who trace their lineage and traditions back to ancient Greece. We can be very self-oriented and narrow in our perspectives as Ashkenazi Jews, and as the broader gentile communities in New York and elsewhere, thinking that Ashenazim (Eastern European Jews, like myself) are the default Jews, the primary type or category of Jews, the only Jews, or (particularly problematically) the only true Jews following the only true correct or proper version of halakha (Jewish practices). I had always had some sense about Sephardic Jews, coming from a tradition stretching back through centuries in Ottoman lands, Italy, or elsewhere, back to medieval Spain, and about Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors had lived in Arab or Persian lands for centuries and centuries, in some cases of course stretching back to long before there was ever even such a thing as Islam or Christianity, and long before the Arab conquests of Palestine and so many other lands outside of the Arabian peninsula. I had also heard about Ethiopian Jews, Indian (Mumbai) Jews, even Jews from Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Peru. But somehow it had never occurred to me, and I certainly had never been taught, about the Jews who lived in Greece and elsewhere before even the Sephardim came. Of course they existed; of course they would have had a separate identity and traditions. And now, as bad as it is that the Sephardim and other groups are getting Ashkenazified in the US and around the world, and that the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and indeed everyone is getting Israelified over in Israel – some new, specifically Israeli, form of Jewish culture developing and taking over as the “real” or “true” or most correct form of being Jewish – as bad as all of that is (and many Muslim communities in the Balkans and elsewhere are simultaneously being Arabized), how much worse for the Romaniotes! Side note, we also visited at some point in the last year or two a Greek synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. And yet, rather than being able to strongly maintain and practice and pass on Romaniote traditions and identity, they have to struggle with/against the many Sephardic members of the congregation, whose traditions inevitably influence and alter their own.

The Algaze Synagogue.

A section from a Turkish siddur (prayer book). Of course, Jewish prayer books come in all languages, but it’s always interesting nevertheless to see them.

In Izmir, many Sephardim came in the 1490s-1500s, greatly boosting the size & strength of the Jewish community in the city but of course dramatically impacting the community’s cultural character as well. Ets Hayim (“Tree of Life”) is considered the earliest synagogue in the city that still exists. It is believed to have been built in the early 15th century, even before Sephardic arrival.

We later returned to the winding streets of the bazaar area to visit another set of historic synagogues. The main streets of the bazaar form a semi-circle through the area, with everything else branching off from that. One of those branches is Havra Sokak – literally “synagogue street” or “synagogue alley.” It is full of grocers, fishmongers, all sorts of shops and stalls, and only a few synagogues. But four synagogues sit back to back with one another, perhaps the only place in the entire world where this happens.

Today, all of these synagogues are in varying states of closure. Some take turns, being closed most of the time and being opened up for weekday services for a month or two, and then closed again while a different one is opened for use for a month or two. As someone who grew up in a synagogue that at that time had a very lively and actively community – minyan morning and evening every day, Hebrew school for the kids on weekday afternoons and Sundays, a good 50-100 people every Saturday morning – and in a region where almost every town had at least one synagogue that was at least that well-attended and many towns had multiple, I cannot help but feel this is a sad state of affairs. That so many synagogues should be in such disrepair and disuse. But, then there is the flip-side. These synagogues are still here; they haven’t been demolished or turned over to other uses. They haven’t been abandoned by the community, and quite to the contrary, with the help of the city, they are actively working to maintain, operate, and restore them, and to convert some of them into a sort of museum area, opening them up to Jewish and Muslim Izmir locals, tourists, whomever, to come and learn something about Judaism and about Izmir. A professor and his students from Helsinki (I didn’t catch the name) come ever year to work on restoration of old textiles, such as parochet (ark curtains). Şalom synagogue has been able to establish a climate controlled storage room for these precious textiles. And while I have no doubt that every Jewish community – every community of any kind – has its rifts and feuds, it seems like the core people at least work together to operate and maintain and use all of the synagogues; unlike how I imagine it would be in my home community, to be honest, where each synagogue is struggling on its own and no one really thinks of themselves as having any connection or belonging or association with any of the others.

Bikur Cholim synagogue.

The first small synagogue we visited is called Bikur Cholim (“Visiting Patients”). The origin of the name is unclear, but the congregation may have been involved in organizing visits to hospitals or something like that. The building was donated by a Chavez family in the late 17th or early 18th century. It burned down several times and was rebuilt, and much of what survives today is from the 19th century.

The Algaze Synagogue dates to 1724. It has a central bimah. The basement used to house a council of elders, providing them housing in exchange for them regularly praying for the well-being of the community, providing minyan, etc. This basement also houses a genizah, a place where papers and documents that cannot be thrown away or otherwise destroyed – anything with the name of God written on it, such as torn pages from old prayer books, for example – are stored until they can be ritually buried.

We were told of a major historical episode in the history of Turkish Jewry, in which a rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi, in the 17th century, claimed to be (or was claimed by his followers to be) the Jewish Messiah. This created all sorts of trouble, especially from the perspective of the Islamic government (the Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph of all Sunni Islam), and in 1666 Sabbatai Zevi was forced to convert to Islam or be executed. He and several hundred of his followers converted, or at least claimed to, but he was later found to be singing Jewish psalms with a group of Jews, and was executed. (according to Wikipedia). I had never heard of this story before getting involved with Sephardic communities, but then I had scarcely ever learned anything about Sephardim before. This seems to have been a pretty major incident, though, because I remember it being described not only in the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, but also in the Jewish Museum in Athens (and/or the one in Salonika, I forget). In any case, after this incident, rabbis forced the community to become much more conservative. The community turned inwards in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, with much focus on religious study, and little on secular education. Secular education only advanced again, bringing greater openness and economic well-being with the Alliance Schools being founded in the mid-to-late 19th century. Or, perhaps that’s just one way to see it. I don’t know if this is a controversial subject among Sephardic Jews or among scholars, but – kneejerk reaction – as someone who has studied non-Western histories, theories of colonialism & imperialism, studies relating to indigenous heritage, and so forth, a system of schools established by Western European Jews to teach Ottoman Jews French language and provide them a “modern” “Western” education seems a bit more complicated and potentially problematic than simply “they brought us secular education and openness and economic well-being.”

Left: The entrance courtyard to Şalom Synagogue, behind a relatively non-descript metal gate from the street.

In any case, we were told of another nearby synagogue, La Sinyora, which is no longer in use for religious events but is still used for community events. Another area called Foresteros (sp?) was at one time turned to use for kosher butchering, kapparot, etc.

A synagogue known as the Portuguese Synagogue (no 8), fell out of use in the mid-20th c. It was loaned to the Aegean Young People’s Association for 25 years to use for social & cultural activities, with the condition that they restore it and also make it available to the Jewish community. Today it is in disrepair but is still controlled by the community and there are plans to clean it up and make it into part of the museum.

Our guide pointed out a small area with ruined and graffitied walls, which used to contain within them the house and office of the chief rabbi. The building still belongs to the community but the land does not so it’s an ongoing problem.

Right: Beit Hillel is a small space, so it’s hard to get a good shot of it.

Another building in the immediate Havra Sokak area, known as Beit Hillel, wasn’t really a “synagogue” but a small house where people gathered to prayer. At one time, an earthquake and the ensuing fire destroyed much of the city, including 10,000 shops or homes belonging to Jews. The synagogues thankfully were mostly spared. But even so, with the community having such difficulties, some wealthy families gave over a room or a secondary house to the use of the community for prayer etc. Beit Hillel was one such place. It was given by the Palaci family. Hayim Palaci (b. 1788) was a great scholar, who wrote some 70+ books on religion, including many respuestas – answers to questions people might have as to correct practice, etc. Some of these books are still in very active use. He and his son Abraham Palaci (pictured) are buried in an old cemetery called Gülçesme, no longer actively in use today. A small sect of Hasidic followers follow his teachings in particular, and some 30-50 people come from Israel every year on the anniversary of Palaci’s death, and do whatever it is they do. Palaci was named a Minister of Justice (kadi) , one of the highest members of the Sultan’s Court in Izmir Province, able to hand down decisions on judicial conflicts or petitions pertaining not only to Jews but to Muslims or anyone else as well.

Beit Hillel is today a “memory house.” Not quite a museum, but housing some displays and objects. Since all the synagogues are normally closed except when actively being used, this house, open regularly, provides a little bit of an opportunity for any Muslim or anyone else who’s interested to learn just a little something, some sense of what goes on in a synagogue. And to learn something about the Palaci family and that particular story.

Meanwhile, the Ashkenazi community in Izmir grew over the 19th century, and built its own separate shuls, schools, butcher shop, etc. But then after 1919, many left. The Ashkenazi synagogue was forgotten, and rediscovered only more recently. Today, the entrance is blocked off, but is labeled.

One of the many han (caravanserai plazas) in Kemeraltı.

Returning to the bazaar, we were introduced to several “han” – like caravanserai, but small ones located within a city. Historically, these were enclosed plazas where merchants could leave their horses, camels, etc., and then on the second story, all around the plaza, were inns where the merchants could stay. Today, we walk down the bazaar streets and from time to time find an opening, an entrance into one such plaza, today used as open-air restaurants or bars, sometimes with live music. I would not be surprised if the second and third story rooms are still today used as hotels or the like.

Finally, we went to the ruins of the ancient agora (main marketplace) of ancient Greek Smyrna. Today, large sections of it are excavated, and are maintained as a public park. Professors and their students continue to actively work on the site, gradually excavating more and more. There were plans at one time to build something in the site, some sort of cultural displays or cultural center, but for the time being that seems to be on hold.

The agora was destroyed in an earthquake sometime in the 2nd century CE. Marcus Aurelius had it rebuilt in honor/memory of his wife, who loved Smyrna and who had recently died, and her picture can be seen on the archway.

In western Anatolia, esp. southwestern Anatolia, we were told, the ancient Greek influence or identity was so strong that Latin never really replaced Greek language entirely. Even well into the Roman period, inscriptions continued to be in Greek.

As someone who never really studied Greek/Roman history, I learned a number of interesting little things about their architecture. Terracotta water pipes were made with holes covered over with lids. They could then unseal a lid to clear blockages in the pipes, without having to replace entire lengths of pipes. Ancient Smyrna featured main shopping avenues of tiny showcase shop spaces. And sections of columns and sculptures were often held together with metal joins, which were poured in through small channels carved in the side. I had always wondered about that – you can’t make such statues, with outstretched arms and so forth, without some kind of supports, right?

So, let’s see. How to sum up? Izmir was an interesting time. The only Turkish city outside of Istanbul I’ve yet visited; definitely had a different vibe, but not too different. Really cool to get to see more music shops, indeed a whole (small) Museum of Musical Instruments which contains a working luthier workshop; we actually ended up meeting up with some of the instrument-makers based there and got to visit their master’s workshop as well. I love how these workshops are so often hidden on the second story of nondescript buildings – just like in Kyoto and in so many other places it’s just such a wonderful feeling to think about how much more is going on all around you, behind the scenes, that you wouldn’t know about. We did miss out on going to any meyhane (live bars). But on the other hand, we got to have some boyoz, a distinctively Sephardic food which has become widespread and mainstream (only) in Izmir.

I still kind of can’t believe that I’ve been to Turkey, period. But now that I’m with someone who’s so involved with Turkish music and culture, I’m definitely looking forward to going back to Turkey with her, and maybe visiting some other parts, such as Edirne, and maybe even Cappadoccia, the Black Sea region, or even Kurdistan. We’ll see.

Topkapı Palace

One of the major gates within the Topkapı complex.

(Returning to my long-overdue posts on last summer’s travels…)

Topkapı Palace is an interesting place. Having missed it on my earlier trip to Istanbul, I was going to make sure to see it this time. I was especially interested because one piece of my research had been considering the physical layout and arrangement of the Shogun’s Grand Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Edo castle, in Japan, and I thought that Topkapı, as the palace of another great non-Western empire, could make for an interesting comparison. Or could provide insights that I just couldn’t get from the scholarship on Japan. Topkapı is also of interest for its extensive collection of Ottoman artifacts.

As it turned out, I am sorry to say I found the palace a bit of a disappointment. I think that if/when I go back, I’ll try to get a tour guide, hopefully someone who can give a fuller explanation of how the rooms were used, why they were arranged the way they were. It’s an incredible, very impressive set of spaces, no doubt, and many of the rooms are lavishly, very impressively decorated with tile and so forth. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Very palatial, and in a distinctly Ottoman way; this was an earlier palace, quite unlike what I imagine Dolmabahçe Palace – inspired by Versailles, and by the modern/Western trends and pressures of the 19th century – looks like.

But, sadly, I really didn’t get a sense from the map pamphlets, or from the plaques on the walls, how this palace was used in an administrative, governmental, or ritual way, so much as just a focus on its artistic beauty, craftsmanship, and the lavish lifestyle of the sultan.

The Inner Palace Library of Ahmed III.

The collection was interesting, though frustratingly they didn’t allow photos in most of the exhibition rooms. It was neat to see weapons and other historical artifacts directly associated with some of the most historically famous or significant sultans – objects not only beautiful in their craftsmanship and artistry, but of historical note as well, such as the sword of Mehmet II, or the sword and bow of Bayezid II. The palace collection also included a number of items from other cultures, many of which I imagine were formal gifts from foreign rulers or governments. This included a sword belonging to Stephan the Great of Moldavia, several *huge* Hungarian greatswords, and several Japanese swords. While one of the Japanese swords bears the imperial chrysanthemum on its lavishly decorated gilded scabbard with purple velvet ropes, the rest had ivory scabbards which looked to me, if anything, like export art, not imperial gifts. But, then, I could be wrong.

The “Inner Treasury” exhibit was… well, it was something. If I hadn’t been told about this ahead of time, I would not have expected Topkapı to house such a room of such absurdities. They claim to have the sword of King David himself, the turban of the biblical Joseph (Yusuf), the staff of Moses, and of course numerous relics of the Prophet Mohammed. King David, of course, having ruled sometime around the 10th century BCE, not only is it fully unbelievable that his sword – even assuming it survived at all – should be in such good condition, but further, whatever a 10th century BCE sword should look like, this one seemed far too similar to a medieval sword in style; clearly an absolute anachronism. The turban and the staff, similarly; I can’t judge style, but both lived many many many many generations before even King David. Wikipedia suggests that Joseph, if he did live, lived sometime around the 1500s-1440s BCE. Did people wear turbans back then? Of what style?

What’s the story behind these treasures, I wonder. When we’re they made, or obtained, and for what purpose? They’re so obviously fakes, what’s the point? Or, is it so obvious? I really wondered what so many of the tourists around me, Christians and Muslims most of them, what they thought about all of this. How many see them as real religious relics, as something they’ve been so honored to get to see?

Since I don’t have any photos of the Inner Treasury, something completely different. A gate known as the Sublime Porte, a metonym for the Ottoman government as a whole.

Another set of very interesting and much more plausible artifacts pertained to the Kaaba, the most sacred site in all of Islam. Located at the center of the most sacred mosque in Mecca, it is strikingly iconic for its relatively unadorned black square form, and for the masses of pilgrims regularly (constantly?) forming circles around it. It’s easy to think of Turkey as an outlier on the margins of the Muslim world – Turks aren’t Arabs, after all. And, to be sure, Turkish history and Turkish culture are distinct from that of the Arab Middle East in all sorts of ways. But, what I hadn’t known is that for centuries the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was regarded as the chief (or sole?) Caliph of Sunni Islam.

After the Ottoman conquests of much of the Middle East, the keys to the Kaaba (to open and close it at certain ceremonial hours of the day) were sent to Istanbul as symbols of the sultan’s authority over the administration of Mecca. When the Kaaba was in need of repair at one point in the 17th c., doors of the Kaaba were apparently sent to Istanbul. And a number of other treasures associated with the Kaaba are still held at Topkapı today. (Or at least, that’s what is claimed. After that last set of rooms, who knows what to believe.)

We learn that a stone supposedly placed by the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) marks the location of the circumambulations, even if the Kaaba itself is damaged or under repair. This stone was damaged by catapult stones during the Umayyad siege of Mecca in 756, but was repaired with silver. It broke again in the 17th c, but the Ottoman sultan had it gilded and repaired with lead and silver.

We are also shown items claimed to be the swords and bows of the Prophet Mohammed himself. Hard to know what to think, but I suppose I could actually believe this, since they’re hidden underneath later scabbards and cases and so forth, and since Mohammed lived far more recently than, for example, King David or Moses. So, it could be. Of course, even so, it seems just a bit too unlikely for these things – and his beard hairs, teeth, etc – to have actually been passed down and passed down and never lost. Then again, it was the 7th c CE, not super ancient times. If Japan can retain things from such a time, then I suppose Islamic civilization could too… Even despite all the wars and conflicts, from one sultanate or caliphate to another. maybe? I wonder if any of my readers might happen to have insights on this?

In the very last room, we finally get to 16th c. objects – letters and documents from Sultan Selim, and a large royal banner. Much more believable.

The sultan’s breakfast pavilion.

I’m honestly not sure what I expected from visiting the palace. I guess I was hoping for something which might more explicitly compare to, for example, Edo castle or Shuri castle, so that I might find something interesting in similarities or differences in how foreign delegations were received, how court ceremonies were conducted, etc. But you get very little of that at most historical sites, actually, right? Shuri has models in the gift shop of New Year’s celebrations and investiture ceremonies, both of which (alongside live reenactment events and scholarship) have been very informative and inspirational for me, but the castle itself, in its explanatory plaques and such, doesn’t really give visitors all that much of a sense of it. And Edo castle, of course, has nothing at all, since the entire Honmaru – the main section of the castle, where the shogun’s audience halls, meeting rooms, administrative offices, etc. were located – burned down in 1863 and was never rebuilt. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it is now just an open public park area, just grass, while most of the rest of the castle grounds is now the Imperial Palace and is off-limits to tourists. Thankfully, though, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, among other places, has models and other sorts of recreations of what had been. Nijô castle in Kyoto has been perhaps the best of the places I have visited, really talking about who would be received in which rooms etc., and even going so far as to display mannequins arranged in the main audience hall to show how lords would have been seated, and what the room really looked like when it was in use. But here at Topkapı most of the palace rooms have been converted into museum galleries, displaying paintings or arms & armor or religious relics of questionable veracity, so we don’t get as much discussion as we might of how ceremonies or court business was conducted.

Then again, it might be simply a matter of reading about it ahead of time. Had I read Gülru Necipoğlu’s book about Topkapı more extensively before going there, maybe I would have known what to look for better. Certainly it was because of my knowledge of Edo, Beijing , and Shuri, from a combination of experience and study, that I understood the Korean palaces (which I visited in June 2017 and realize now I still have never blogged about) better.

The exterior of the Imperial Council Hall. A plaque explains how the space would have been used, but that’s about it.

A few final notes, small things I found interesting.

One label in the Palace Kitchens section mentions a Polish page, Ali Ufki Bey (Albertus Bobovius). Apparently, according to Wikipedia, he wasn’t merely a page, but actually became one of the most prominent or influential musicians and dragomans (interpreters/guides) in the 17th century court. One wonders how common this was, and how diverse the court.

Some 4,000-5,000 people lived/worked at Topkapı in the 16th century, and the number rose to 10,000 in the early 17th. The palace chose the finest fruits, vegetables, meat, grains, etc from all incoming ships or caravans, before the remainder was allowed to go to the people of the city.

Tons of Chinese porcelains, celadons, etc. were used in the Ottoman court, alongside Persian ceramics, Turkish metalware, etc. I suppose I should not be surprised at this, but nevertheless it is interesting to see, firsthand, in person, the incredible extent to which Chinese goods (not ugly “export art” goods like we see in so many Western museums, but nice, good, blue and white porcelains) were integrated into the everyday courtly material culture. The newly reorganized Islamic Art galleries at the British Museum (which I would visit in November) reflected the same.

Maritime Ryukyu


Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are my own.

Six Weeks in Istanbul

A view of the Istanbul skyline from the top of Galata Tower.

Having finally finished my posts about my Japan travels in summer 2018, I can now move on to talking about what I did with the rest of the summer. I know all of this makes it seem like I’m doing so much traveling, and I guess I have been; but since the summer it really has been mostly just buckling down and working. And a few conferences here and there.

Istanbul is a fantastic city, much like a dozen other places I would love to visit or try living in, from Dublin to Copenhagen to Brussels to Amsterdam to Berlin to half a dozen places scattered across the Balkans. It’s no Kyoto. I find myself much more comfortable, much more in my element in a certain sense in a place like Kyoto than Istanbul – not just because of logistical conveniences like the fact that I know the language and the culture better, but also because this is a culture which for the better part of the last 20 years has spoken to me. Walking along the Kamogawa, hearing shamisen music, seeing wooden machiya, makes me smile makes me happy in a way that the Istanbul equivalent does not. It’s just not my thing, in the same way as Japan doesn’t spark that similar excitement in my girlfriend, who studies Turkish music and who loves Istanbul.

But, all of that said, I loved living in Istanbul, and I miss in particular the experience of constantly learning new things. Living in a city I never expected to even visit, I learned a handful of words in Turkish, learned about foods and places and all kinds of things I never would have been exposed to otherwise. And now I can come back here to my life in the US, and bring back a certain bit of knowledge, experience, which I never had before.

I also love the feeling, or the idea, of having favorite restaurants in faraway cities. Living in the Cihangir neighborhood, we had several of the best breakfast places in the city right at our fingertips. Van Kahvalti Evi is probably the best, but we went a number of times to places like Kahve 6* and Cuppa Cafe as well, all within super close walking distance. Though I never really took full advantage of it, it would have been an excellent neighborhood, too, for just picking cafes to sit and do dissertation work in; I did that a couple of times at a cafe called Journey, one called Kronotrop, and also at a chain place called Espresso Lab once on Istiklal (one of the most main shopping boulevards in the city).

Breakfast at Cuppa Cafe, including menemen (eggs w/ tomato & pepper), fried eggs, vişne reçeli (sour cherry jam), nutella, acuka (a spicy pepper paste), bal kaymak (honey and clotted cream), several kinds of cheeses, cucumber, tomato, bread, pişi (fried dough), and of course çay (tea). Not pictured: tahin pekmez (tahini + grape molasses).

I guess before I go on I should talk about Turkish breakfast. I happened upon an article recently, long after coming back to the States from Turkey, which said something like “Turkey has the best breakfast in the world, hands down.” And I think it’s true. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed a nice tea and crumpets on my last trip to London (to be discussed in an upcoming blog post); somehow despite living in London for a whole year (way back in my very early grad school days), I somehow never discovered the wonders of jam and clotted cream and a good cuppa. … And I’m plenty happy with the kind of breakfasts I scrounge together for myself when I’m in Japan – most often, steamed buns or egg salad sandwiches or something like that from the convenience store; really, more like lunch food I guess than “breakfast,” but so it goes. But in Turkey we were enjoying a real proper breakfast – basically, the experience of a nice Sunday brunch in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but affordable, and every day. Kahvaltı (lit. “before coffee”) just means “breakfast,” but kahvaltı tabağı (“breakfast platter”) means eggs, several kinds of cheeses, some nice cut-up tomatoes and cucumbers, at least one kind of jam (I think the vişne / sour cherry is my favorite), clotted cream + honey (bal kaymak), and a mixture of tahini and grape molasses (tahin pekmez), along with plenty of bread to eat it all with, and at many places, free refills of Turkish tea (çay). We also often ordered menemen, a dish made chiefly of eggs, tomatoes, and bell peppers. So damn good.

We also discovered a chain called Midpoint which had surprisingly excellent pasta – like, seriously, amazingly amazingly good, not to mention nice atmosphere and a cool menu. Midpoint is like one of those fancy restaurants you might want to go to at the shopping mall but never do because it’s too expensive.

Galata Tower. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, roughly a century before the Ottomans (Turks) took the city. And it’s still standing and looking beautiful.

I have to admit, I do think that a lot of the appeal of Istanbul for me came from the fact that it was so affordable. Because of basic purchasing power parity (it’s a poorer country, and so things are cheaper there overall; the US dollar, or Euro, or British pound, goes a long way) and all the more so because the Turkish lira tanked while we were there, going from roughly 4.5 lira to the dollar to closer to 7 more or less overnight, we could live so much more comfortably than we ever could here in the States. Living in a nice apartment, going out to nice cafes and restaurants all the time, and not having to worry too much about how much we were spending… It wasn’t pennies a day by any means, and it’s not like we were absolutely living like kings, but to be honest, just sort of living the nice sort of “young people in the city” sort of life that so many TV shows and movies have taught us should be within reach (look at, for example, the kind of apartments people live in on Friends or New Girl, or in movies like Julie & Julia). Clothes were suddenly what I would consider a normal reasonable price – closer to $15-20 per shirt or pair of pants, for example, instead of $60-100. And it just means getting to spend time in the nicer parts of town, like Beşiktas and Nişantaşı, and, again, trying out nice cafes like Yeşil no 11, and buying new (knock-off) Birkenstocks without having to spend hundreds of dollars on them. It also means that little nice features of life, like getting your clothes tailored or your shoes or luggage repaired, suddenly becomes affordable enough (more than affordable! actually, really quite inexpensive indeed) that you can do those things. And order a drink, appetizer, salad, and/or dessert with dinner without constantly constantly feeling like you need to hold back and watch your spending like I do at home.

But, I feel bad for thinking that that alone should be the reason I should love Istanbul. I mean, it’s a great thing for living a decent cosmopolitan life to be affordable. But I don’t want to think that I didn’t or don’t love the city for its own distinctive culture and history as well… But, while I sort of waver and worry on that point, I think overall I’m safe. I’ve been to Morocco and Jakarta (Indonesia) as well in the last couple of years, and while things may be more affordable there, I really can’t imagine enjoying living there for any real length of time, unlike in Istanbul.

The view from our apartment in Cihangir. Photo courtesy of my partner.

I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I am not really sure what kind of experience I might have had if I had gone to Istanbul by myself. I’m not sure what kind of experience I would have if I went back there again by myself. So much of what I enjoyed about the city was because I was with my girlfriend, who had been in the city for about two months already by the time I got there, was studying Turkish, and is super into and knowledgeable about Turkish music and a whole lot else; I don’t think I would have ventured into nearly as many bookstores, CD stores, music venues, without her. More to the point, I just don’t think I would have had any idea where to look to go, where to try to go. If I had for some reason found myself in Istanbul without ever having gone with her – like, if I had never met her but then ended up going to a conference in Istanbul, for example, I don’t know that I would have ventured much past the most standard tourist sites. I certainly never would have experienced the city as fully as I have now, after living there for six weeks. I wonder what it would be like if I were to go back again on my own – certainly I have a stronger sense for myself now of a lot more of the neighborhoods and such, beyond just the touristy parts, and I have some sense of which shops and which brands to look for, which foods I like, and so forth; how to get around by subway, bus, and ferry boat; and a very few key words of Turkish (which, who knows how long I’ll still remember…). But even so, traveling alone is so different than having someone to go shopping with, to go to breakfast and dinner with, and so forth. To go on errands, as it were, seeking out a tailor, or the best cheapest produce, or other things… A certain way of exploring and experiencing a city that’s quite different from being there as a tourist. And so much of the book, CD, and clothes shopping was for her – though some was definitely for me. I wonder, if I were to go back, would I be able to feel I was getting anything out of going into some of these shops, or would it just feel empty?



*Kahve 6, or Coffee Six, kahve altı in Turkish, being something of a wordplay, since it sounds so close to kahvaltı, meaning “breakfast.”

A folding screen in the home of art collector Alex Kerr. I’m not sure exactly how it’s lit, but notice how the gold shines; it’s easy to imagine how this might have helped brighten a room when only natural light or candles were available.

In a recent article in the Nikkei Asia Review, Michael Dunn proposes that the lighting in Japanese museums is inexplicably arranged poorly, deadening the textures and reflectiveness of works and casting aspects of their shapes into shadow.

As he writes, Japanese art and design can be fascinating and enchanting in its myriad forms, from handscrolls and hanging scrolls to the most modern and postmodern designs. But that, according to him,

visitors to the country’s many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces.

At the core of his argument would seem to be simply that works are regularly lit from above and not from the side, despite the fact that traditional works were nearly always designed to be lit by incidental sunlight or fire-light from the side and not from overhead, and despite the fact that they would look better that way (in terms of the way the gold-foil would catch the light, etc.). I’ll be honest, I never paid attention really to how works were lit; definitely something to start thinking about. But I did notice when visiting the Getty Museum recently here in LA how much the gold accents in their illuminated manuscripts shone, so much more brightly and more noticeably than in most other exhibits I’ve seen. Lighting or other factors were used very successfully to highlight the presence of such features. I also remember photographing Japanese woodblock-printed books as an intern at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, and how we used various camera angles and other techniques to capture the reflectiveness of mica, silver, and other materials on the pages, which would not otherwise show up in photographs, making the attractiveness of these works more directly visible to (digital) viewers.

I’m kind of amazed that a publication like Nikkei Asia Review would publish such a one-argument article on such a technical, niche, sort of issue.But I’m certainly interested to read such things, as I have long been interested in these sorts of museum-world considerations. Dunn goes on to complain that whenever he has brought up this issue with Japanese curators, they have simply insisted that their lighting system was state of the art – the implication being that they either don’t understand why there should be any problem with lighting things in this way, or that they’re dodging the question.

Screen painting of Nagasaki harbor, at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). I have no idea if this is the best example, or how exactly this was lit, but notice how the gold seems flat, not shining at all. Perhaps this is what Dunn is talking about.

I think there’s a deeper and potentially quite interesting history to be uncovered here, which is going unspoken in this article. To what extent do display practices today in Japanese museums stem from the development over the last 120+ years or so of a particular modern tradition of museum practices, which is then adhered to? Regardless of how they were made, displayed, and viewed in the past, in the modern era it has come to be its own “tradition” that museum professionals always display folding screens /this/ way, and ceramics /that/ way, because that’s the right way, the professional way, the proper way, that museums do it. Something like that? And to what extent, I wonder, does this stem from the infiltration of Western ideas (or Japanese notions of/about Western ideas) of how art is to be displayed or appreciated?

One of the tokonoma at LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion, using natural light filtered through shoji screens to light the paintings. Not the most attractive photo, but…

In any case, with the example of gold-accented or gold-foil-backed paintings, “intended to gleam in the recesses of palaces and mansions, picking up available daylight — a magical property of gold — through white paper shoji screens, or lit by candles and paper lanterns at night,” there’s a give-and-take to be had, always. On the one hand, yes, lighting them more minimally so that the gold really shines, giving an impression of how they might have looked historically, is one way to go about it. Joe Price played some major role in having the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) designed to do just that. At LACMA, Japanese paintings are hung in (a modern stylized version of) the traditional tokonoma, and they are lit at least in part by sunlight filtered through white paper shôji screens. And it really is incredible to see such paintings in situ, at temples and palaces, to get a sense of how the artworks actually interacted with the space and with the people in it. This is part of what I love about certain works by Tim Screech, William Coaldrake, and others, who talk not just about the paintings themselves, their style, their composition, but about how works interacted with the environment around them. How they were used. To give one example, how fusuma and byôbu arranged behind or around a shogun or other lord within his audience halls augmented the sense of his prestige. But, this is an art museum, and as aesthetically impactful and intellectually meaningful as it would be to portray such things in limited lighting or even in an architecturally loyal manner, there will also be a great many visitors – from the most casual tourists to professional art historians – who will want to see the works as well-lit as possible, in as much detail as possible, so that they can appreciate the style, composition, and aesthetics otherwise of the object itself, in as fully visible a manner as possible.

I think that in museum display in general – whether in Japan or anywhere in the world – there is a balance to be struck between aesthetic impact (displaying things with a focus on their striking beauty) and other modes of display which might highlight the historical or cultural context, or which allow visitors to see the work more fully. There will always be multiple ways in which an object can be shown – as an aesthetic object vs. a practical one; emphasizing its original historical context vs. its provenance (the history of which/whose collections it’s been in); as a practical object vs. a religious/sacred one; as an object unto itself vs. as a part of a whole or of a grouping; and so on and so forth. There will always be visitors, scholars, trustees, and other “stakeholders” as they say, who will always want it to be some other way, but decisions have to be made, and you can’t please everyone. But, you can certainly give it consideration; and while most museum visitors might not think about it, lighting is most certainly one of those considerations.

Running Around Japan: Kyoto

For the final week of my crazy jaunt around Japan this past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a “graduate summer school” run by Kyoto University. It was a great program, introducing us to the university’s great collections, and presenting just a tiny glimpse into how archaeological research is done, how medieval documents are read, and so forth. I was certainly blown away by the items in the collection, the opportunity to see such things up close is always such a pleasure.

Still, I feel bad to say so, but while I think it would have been a fantastic program for students earlier in their programs, I’m at a stage right now where anything not directly related to helping me improve and finish the dissertation just doesn’t grab me right now. I must admit, I spent much of the week thinking about how “I could/should be working on my dissertation right now.” Especially after two weeks of just travel, even though that travel included archives and libraries, I was feeling guilty for not just buckling down and getting back to work. But, still, I’m very glad for this program as it (1) gave me an opportunity and excuse to spend a whole week in Kyoto, easily one of my most favorite cities in the world, and (2) allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people, make new friends/acquaintances/colleagues.

Yasaka no tô (Yasaka Pagoda), as seen from a small street near Ninenzaka.

At the end of it, I am sad to leave Kyoto. I had a really fantastic time. Even after all the rest of the traveling, I can tell that Kyoto, more so than Fukuoka or Kagoshima or Tokyo, is a place I could really enjoy being for a real length of time. I wish I had another week, or a year, to sit in cafes and just write, interspersed with going out to dinner with friends, going to theatre, visiting historical sites… I suppose that having friends around makes a whole lot of the difference, that that’s a part of what made this week in Kyoto so great. Without friends it wouldn’t be the same. But even so, it would still be such a wonderful city. I love exploring Kyoto, the shrines and temples and historical sites and cafes and restaurants and everything. I love the particular aesthetic and charm of so many Kyoto cafes. And I love how just historical and cultural everything is.. You can feel it, it’s in the air.

On my first trip to Kyoto, I remember writing in my LiveJournal (haha) that it was a small city with just enough of the modern city amenities. I remember that I was thinking in particular of Harajuku, and how you can in fact get cool fashion and other “modern” city experiences in Kyoto, but that it’s much smaller. That if you want the ultra-modern X, Y, and Z of Tokyo, you have to be in Tokyo. (Or Osaka, I suppose, but I still have never spent any time in Osaka). But, I’m not sure I feel the same way about Kyoto anymore. I know it’s because my interests have changed – I don’t need the anime stores of Ikebukuro anymore. And because Harajuku itself has changed, too. What once was, is no longer, even in Tokyo. Now, I’m more interested in history and culture and theatre and cute cafes and so on than I ever was before.

A view along the Kamo River.

I think I would really love to live in Kyoto for a year or so. Or even just for a few months. It’s not a city with too much direct relation to my research, unfortunately. So much talk all week about the Heian court and such… very far from my studies. But who cares, right? … And there are plenty of universities in Kyoto, hopefully one of them might be looking for a postdoc or something.

After this trip, I really do feel I could stay in Japan long-term. Maybe not indefinitely, make my whole life and career here. But certainly for a few years. It’s just such a good place to be, and with so much great stuff to see and do. Life is clean and good. It’s not dirty and falling apart like NY. It’s not a society pulling itself apart at the seams over politics like our own. Japan has its problems, to be sure, and in certain respects all the moreso as a foreigner. But sometimes I just really want, need, an escape from the insular, local, problems and politics of home. I feel like Kyoto is such a city of possibility. Not that one can’t say the same thing of any other big city, but there’s somehow something that just grabs me about Kyoto, that makes me feel like there is such a wealth of experiences to be had. That if you met the right people, made the right contacts, heard about the right opportunities, you could get into just so many incredible spaces and experiences. From Noh to Butoh, from tea to Zen, from shamisen to Nihon buyô. From dozens of cool or cute cafes to amazing temples, archives, seminars. I would love to live such a life.

Apologies for the disjointedness; for the rest of this post, I’m just going to share my thoughts-at-the-time on a couple of sites I visited in Kyoto.

The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.

NIJÔ CASTLE

Nijô castle was built in 1603 to serve as the base of Tokugawa presence in the imperial city. Though as it turned out no shogun visited Kyoto for over 200 years from 1634 to 1863, representatives and officials continuously occupied the castle, overseeing goings-on in the city, handling various administrative matters, and so forth. Today, Nijô is of particular interest (at least to people like myself) because it’s the chief surviving site that might offer some sense of what the shogun’s main castle in Edo was once like. (The main residence and administrative buildings of Edo castle having never been rebuilt after an 1863 fire) Here are some thoughts I had at the time while visiting there for the first time in 15 years:

When you really think about it, it’s so weird, to walk around these rooms, these very rooms where these events really took place, and not be able to enter them to experience the space more directly. On one level, sure, it makes perfect sense, and I don’t need to enter the rooms at Independence Hall, for example, and to sit at those desks, to get a sense of what happened there and its gravity. But, somehow here it’s different. Walking through the honjin at Futagawa, and actually sitting in the room, you really get a sense of the space that you don’t by walking around only in the corridors. There’s just this incredible disconnect I feel here. The whole building becomes such a completely different space when the chief areas become unused, and the corridors become the main areas in which any human activity takes place.

The Ôhiroma, or Grand Audience Hall, of Nijô castle, arranged with mannequins to show how lords would have sat or bowed before the shogun. Sadly, obnoxiously, no photos allowed inside the building. This photo from Hananomichi blog.

I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels weird to me that a building of such great importance should become so empty, so dead, just put on display like this. I know that’s the very essence of the historical house as museum and I’m glad it’s preserved and open to visitors – neither destroyed nor kept limited to official business. I’m glad I get to see it. But somehow, more so than all the other castles and historic homes I’ve seen, this one struck me somehow. I somehow really wish we could engage with it more directly, or more extensively somehow.

Of course, there are simple practical reasons why you can’t let people walk on the tatami – it would get ruined so quickly. But, I wonder if some replica experience could be produced somehow. So people could experience these rooms not only from the outside, but from within the space, surrounded and immersed in the effect intended by the designers, and experienced by the people of the time.

TÔJI

Somehow, in my previous visits to Kyoto, I had never actually been to Tô-ji, one of the oldest temples in the city, and home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. I guess part of the reason I’d never gone was because Buddhist sculpture has never really done much for me. But somehow this time was different. To see them all arranged together, in 3D space, in context, and especially the grand size of these works, I think one really can sense the impact, the feeling of peace and spirituality that’s being evinced.

You can really feel / sense the deities looking down upon you. You can really imagine them being not sculptures buy actual deities manifesting before you. And the smell of the statues, of the wood, and of the incense also makes a big difference.

I think, at least in my own personal experience, that for a lot of Japanese arts, one just needs to be in the right mood, or catch it from the right frame of mind. I’ve been so moved by Buddhist sculpture two or three times, even when dozens and dozens of other times it didn’t really do much for me, and there have been a handful of times that I became truly taken in, entranced, moved, by Noh, though so many previous viewings I never managed to cross that mental or emotional divide. And the same for paintings – seeing paintings in person, with no glass or anything, is almost always a breathtaking experience, but seeing them on display, it’s really not so often that a piece takes me in. So, maybe it is just the timing, or just catching me in the right frame of mind.

Photo of the interior of Sanjûsangendô from the Nikkei newspaper, because god forbid they should allow regular people to take photos of some of the most famous examples of beautiful, masterful, Kamakura period artworks in all of Japan.

We also visited Sanjûsangendô, a very long hall containing 1001 medieval (c. 12th c.) sculptures of the bodhisattva Kannon. I had been there before, but this time we happened to arrive on a (slightly) historic day. These sculptures were long designated “Important Cultural Properties,” but were very recently upgraded to “National Treasures.” In connection with this (I think?), they moved many of the sculptures back to an earlier Edo period configuration just today (August 1), rearranging the exact arrangement of the auxiliary figures surrounding the central larger Kannon, as well as switching the Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind) sculptures at the very ends of the arrangement.

Today’s Keihan [train line], feels good.

Finally, I guess I’ll end this post with just a few thoughts on Kyoto as a tourist city.

Are some parts of Kyoto getting Disneyfied? Absolutely. And it’s a shame to see. But I would be curious to know the numbers, the statistics, regarding tourism – is this gentrification, this “touristification,” this Disneyfication, primarily in connection with appealing to great numbers of domestic (Japanese) tourists, or foreign tourists? But, then again, does it matter? Does it make a difference in how we think about it, does it make a difference in whether we are critical of it or not?

I’m frankly not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I can absolutely sense, feel, that Disneyfication, and it’s worrying. It’s problematic. No one should have to feel like their own home is no longer their own – that their own neighborhood is designed around tourists and not around residents. It’s something I’ve seen in Hawaii and Okinawa as well, and it’s no good. But, if there’s a silver lining at all it’s that a great deal of the city doesn’t look/feel like Ninenzaka or Hanamikoji, and it’s still vibrantly authentic, for lack of a better word. I know some people who say Kyoto’s too far gone already – they won’t come here, they won’t bother anymore, because it’s already gone to the dogs, so to speak. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long for me since my time in Kyoto, and since my time this time around was so constrained; maybe it’s just because I still entertain fantasies of what it’s like rather than knowing how it truly is, but for me, it’s still very much worth visiting. I had a marvelous time this time, and an all the more astounding time the previous time around, and I think I would again, if I ever got the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period again. I don’t think it’s time yet to write the city off.

Kyoto is still full of wonderful cafes, temples, universities, museums, theatre, and all sorts of other arts and cultural goings-on. And all of these, I am sure, sway with the winds that are blowing, feeling the impacts of increasing tourism and increasing touristification. But for now at least I think we can still honestly say that a great deal does continue to go on in this city in a relatively authentic fashion, disconnected from catering to what the tourists want.

I wonder if there is anything meaningful or worthwhile to say about the touristification of Kyoto regarding that it may date all the way back to the Edo or Meiji periods. That this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. After all, tourism in Japan really boomed towards the middle and late Edo period (18th-19th centuries), and during our workshop we saw some tourist maps of the city, pointing out Buddhist temples and other sites of interest. In the Meiji period, after some considerable debate and waffling and so forth, the government decided to keep Kyoto as a traditional, historical, imperial city, in contrast to the very modern city they were going to turn Tokyo into. Not that any of this is necessarily perfectly pertinent to the current phenomenon of what’s happening to Kyoto, but even so, context.

I wish I had anything more to say, more insightfully, regarding this interesting and important issue. But I guess I have to just leave that to those who are actually in tourism studies, unlike myself. I’ll just end this already very lengthy blog post by saying that “Let’s Make a Bus Route” (バスルートをつくろう) is a wonderful little board game in which you compete with other players to build the best bus route around Kyoto. No Japanese language ability required. (h/t to my friend Evan for introducing me to the game!)

All photos my own, except where indicated otherwise.