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The Istanbul skyline, with the 15th c. Galata Tower in the center.

I decided to do just a little traveling before returning to the US from Japan. This was my first time in Turkey, and wrote a first draft of the following:

For these whole five or six days in Istanbul, I’ve been mulling over what my impressions of the city are. Is Istanbul a European city? Or an Asian/Middle Eastern city? A secular city, or a fairly orthodox/religious theocratic city where I need to be concerned about accidentally offending? A relatively free and safe city, or should I be worried about the recent coup, protests, and creeping authoritarianism? Further, thinking historically, should I be looking around and thinking about the medieval/early modern Ottoman city? the Byzantine Eastern Roman one? late 19th or early 20th century Ottoman modernity? There are certainly plenty of buildings and monuments from across history to remind us of each of these periods, each of these aesthetics.

Sadly, there was some sort of conservation work going on in the Hagia Sophia when we visited, and half of it was off-limits.

The Roman and Eastern Roman is seen everywhere, well, at least in the historical/tourist center of the city, the Sultanahmet area. The Hagia Sophia was of course originally built by the Romans, and is full of Eastern Roman mosaics and so forth. The area immediately outside the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, a Roman hippodrome, an area for racing horses, and it contains several Egyptian obelisks erected there by the Romans.

Then there is the Ottoman side of things, with tons of mosques, and all sorts of other elements and aspects. All over the city, we saw shops that date back to Ottoman times, and bits and pieces here and there of historical sites or markers or other things suggesting the history of the Ottomans as one of the world’s great empires, engaged in diplomatic interactions with the Great Powers of the rest of the world. A fountain associated with Kaiser Wilhelm, located in that former hippodrome, is just one of many such sites. I’m told there’s some Japanese building somewhere in the city as well, though I haven’t come across it.

The Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque, designed/built in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleiman Mosque and hundreds of other famous structures across Turkey and beyond.

The Ottoman aspect of the city also connects in to the maritime, Mediterranean, aspect. A major mosque we keep passing (as it’s right by one of the main tram stations) is named after Kilic Ali Pasha, a 16th century admiral of the Ottoman navy who was originally from Italy and converted to Islam. The Galata Tower, one of the most iconic sights in the city, was built by the Genoese and while I’m not truly expert at architectural history, it did indeed strike me as Italian from the very beginning. I don’t know all that much, actually, about the history of the Ottoman navy, and its involvement in Renaissance/Early Modern history, but I do know that it’s a very defining feature of the Ottoman faction in the board game Here I Stand, which takes place in the Reformation era.

We see, too, numerous restaurants and other elements and aspects here and there throughout the city relating to the immediate post-revolution period, in the 1920s. Again, I’m no expert at Turkish history, and I wish I knew better, but just on the surface, this very “modern,” European (yet distinctly Turkish) aesthetic, with the fezes, mustaches, fancy formal dress, and salon-like decor, has a real appeal. One night, we went to a “tavern,” or meyhane, where live music was playing, and while this place wasn’t explicitly marked or marketed as being 1920s style, there were some old photographs on the walls, and there was a certain something to the decor. Other restaurants we went to, or simply passed by, were explicitly labeled as Istanbul 1923, or Istanbul 1924, and one restaurant in Istiklal Street (one of the main shopping/tourist areas of the city) is explicitly marketed as being designed to recreate that 1924 atmosphere.

Baylan, a nearly 100-year-old café/bakery on the Asian side (near Kadıköy), long owned by Greeks, and located in a neighborhood where there had once been a strong Armenian community.

Finally, there is the contemporary situation. We didn’t see or sense any major political problems or tensions while we were here, thankfully. No protests, no riots, no crackdowns. Despite what you might hear about Turkey in the news – and believe me, I am sorely sad and worried about that country, and Ergodan’s ever-increasingly dictatorial and theocratic regime – we did have a fantastic time, and I never felt especially unsafe, nor even all that worried about the authorities. That said, we stayed fairly close to Taksim Square – where major protests took place just a few years ago – and both there and elsewhere we saw some fairly intimidating police or military presences.

I also enjoyed learning a little about – and meeting some members of – the lively Jewish community there. Jews have lived happily and peacefully in Turkey (for the most part, or, to some extent) since the 1490s or so, when Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan reportedly was happy to take them in. While many Turkish Jews have moved to Israel, the US, or elsewhere in recent years, those we spoke to say they are quite happy, and feel safe; they tried to disavow us of the notion that Turkey was a particularly dangerous or anti-Semitic place to be at all.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

I was glad to hear this. Still, there were notable protests outside of one of the city’s main synagogues just a couple months ago, which included the throwing of rocks, and violent threats against Jews trying to get into the building. This synagogue, Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), was attacked in 1986 by the founder of Fatah, who murdered 22 people who had gone there to pray. The synagogue was attacked again in 1992, by Hezbollah, and again in 2003, when simultaneous car bombs went off outside Neve Shalom and another synagogue in the city, killing some 23 people. I’ve seen pretty serious security precautions taken at synagogues in London and Tokyo as well. But, still, there is enough of a Jewish community that there remain quite a few active synagogues in the city, which in photos online look gorgeous (we didn’t get a chance to visit any, since they require prior reservation, and some sort of screening process – I’ve been told that even Ashkenazi Jews like myself are not so trusted, not let in as easily as Sephardim). The city is also home to several Jewish music groups, two Jewish newspapers, and so on and so forth. And, they’re not entirely unknown – regular people here seem to have some sense about Turkish Jewry: one, in terms of people saying we look Jewish, and either based solely on our looks or on that we said we speak a little Spanish, they then assume we’re Jewish. One small music group at a small “live house” café even burst into a Turkish fasil-style rendition of Hava Nagila for us! Plus, when we went to the Grand Bazaar, we found lots of tchotchkes, necklaces, etc. being sold with Stars of David, Hebrew writing, or other Jewish elements.


One of the fasil live music bars we went to: Abbas, on Nevizade Sk.

The Armenian history is of course another thing, too. Everywhere around there are Armenian churches, or other churches formerly used by the Armenians – and some of these have some serious security precautions like the synagogues. There are of course no historical plaques or anything put up by the city or the state talking about the Armenian Genocide (though we did see a plaque talking about it at an Armenian church in Jaffa), but if you know even the tiniest bit about it, you can imagine, fill in the gaps. My girlfriend also told me about certain events, massacres, in certain neighborhoods in the 1890s, as we walked through those neighborhoods. I don’t know anything about the current contemporary situation in terms of attitudes towards Armenians, or how well they get by in society, but, it’s definitely a history that’s hidden, yet very much present, if you have it in mind.

Some lovely fresh produce for sale in Nevizade Sk.

For all it’s problems – and we all know the US and Japan have their problems too – Istanbul is a very modern, cosmopolitan, urban, in some ways very European city – really feels cosmopolitan, feels like a “world city” (like New York, London, or Tokyo) with just so much going on – but then of course it’s also non-Western in many ways, first and foremost I suppose because of its Muslim and not Catholic or Protestant religious character – to a certain extent, Istanbul was the very city (or, the Ottoman Empire the very country) against which “the West” or “Westernness” was constructed and defined, even going all the way back to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which were considered “byzantine” and “Oriental”, and were not considered part of the “true” or “main” or “catholic” Roman or Christian heritage.

The music was wonderful, and the food as well. I never understood my girlfriend’s obsession with borek until I came here. I could eat borek every day. And I so wish that we had this more regularly in the States.

In the food and music, as well as in the architecture and history, we see too the many cultural influences that come together in Istanbul. Turkish, Arab, Jewish, Balkan, Circassian (Black Sea/Russian) cultures… all these different cultures, different cultural influences, that for all our talk about “diversity,” we just don’t see/hear/learn that much about in the US.

Omg, borek. So yum. Above: Su böregi (water börek) with cheese and spinach. Below: Chopping up börek in a shop. (Photos from Instanbul Free Walking Tour.com and Panning the Globe blogs.)

All photos (except the börek) my own.

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In my last post, I talked about visiting the Yonashiro History Museum, where they had on display some Roman coins uncovered in archaeological excavations at Katsuren castle.

After leaving the museum, I made my way to the castle itself, but first had to go find some lunch. This was my first time up to that part of the island, and walking around that section of Uruma City, I don’t know if I just was in the wrong part of town, or if I should have turned left when I instead turned right, but the stretch of road I ended up walking on was just amazingly devoid of any kind of café or restaurant that looked inviting at all. The local Uruma City tourist guide pamphlet I picked up at the castle listed all kinds of wonderful-looking vegetarian cafés and ice cream shops… looked very appealing. But these guides expected you to have a car. And while I certainly could have just taken another bus (still for free), I thought I’d just grab something quick, nearby. I found lots of “snack” bars – which might be just a sleazy townie dive bar, or might be a front for more illicit activities – and a few super-run-down-looking cafés or diners (shokudô), but nothing that looked at all welcoming or appealing. Finally, finally, after walking many blocks, I settled on eating at a Hotto Motto, a chain store selling premade bento boxes. *smh* One of the few days I’m off-campus, and out in a different town, really having the potential to be on vacation (kind of) for a day, to experience a nice local restaurant and maybe try some different foods, and instead I end up at a Hotto Motto.

Anyway, it was an interesting and valuable experience to see this one more corner, one more bit, of the kaleidoscope that is the “real” Okinawa. Really makes me wonder what the experience of everyday life is like there, and what it’s like to grow up there. And just how much of Okinawa prefecture (or even just of Uruma City) looks like this. Certainly, riding on the bus, looking out the window, things didn’t look so different from one city to the next. As we drove up into Okinawa City (formerly Koza), and then Uruma, I definitely had a feeling of excitement at visiting a different part of the island that I hadn’t been to before, and genuinely retained that excitement even despite the fact that everything looked pretty much the same…

The castle site itself was quite interesting, when considered in comparison to Nakagusuku, another major World-Heritage-Site-designated gusuku ruin from the same period, which I had just visited a couple weeks earlier. I was surprised at how small Katsuren was. I don’t know how big it is in terms of square hectares or whatever, or how tall; I have no doubt that it was a sizable and imposing compound in its time. But, while it may have simply been a result of entering via a side gate instead of a main gate, or something like that, Nakagusuku felt as though one had to double-back numerous times in order to make sure one had explored the entire compound. There were a lot of different areas, to put it quite simply. At Katsuren, by contrast, one simply entered at the fourth enclosure (or kuruwa), and walked up some stairs to a small area that constituted the third enclosure, then up a few more steps to the second enclosure, then up a few more steps to the first enclosure, and that was it. Done. You’ve seen the whole castle. And, each of the individual enclosures was also much larger at Nakagusuku.

That said, Katsuren provides I think a more direct, clearer understanding of the structure of a “standard” or “classic” gusuku, both in terms of the experience of the actual site, and because of the very nice model on display in the rest station across the street (right). I’m quite curious to visit Nakijin castle, as that’s the one that seems to get most often cited as emblematic of the standard form. But, this is seen at Katsuren as well.

A small first enclosure was the innermost part of the castle, the most well-protected by virtue of its location atop the hill, surrounded on all sides by either the second enclosure, or steep drop-offs. This would have contained the castle’s treasure houses, and at least one major sacred site. The second enclosure, a bit lower down the hill but still very well protected, was larger, and contained the main administrative buildings and lord’s residence. A narrow set of stairs connected the first and second enclosures, hindering invaders. The third enclosure, by contrast, is separated from the second by a series of very accessible, wide, steps, connecting the palace buildings in the second enclosure to plaza areas in the third, which would have been used for ceremonies and perhaps for other more “public” court events.

Stone foundations suggest the shape and scale of the structures that once stood in the second enclosure.

The third enclosure also included a number of water cisterns, and sacred sites. Following the fall of the castle in 1458, the third enclosure came to be frequented by noro and other local priestesses, who transformed the space into their own – a space for offerings, prayers, and rituals. The third enclosure is the last (or, I suppose the first, depending on how we’re counting) to be well above ground level and to have access protected by twisting and narrow stairways. The fourth is the “ground floor,” so to speak, of the castle compound, a wide extensive area, albeit still surrounded with stone walls, and guarded by heavy wooden gates which are no longer extant today. It was in this area, somewhere, that the Roman and Ottoman coins were found. Sections just outside the fourth enclosure would have included rice paddies and other farmland and swampland; as signs on-site explain, this not only helped supply the castle with food, but also served as a further defense against invaders, who would have had to plod through deep, wet, muddy ground.

Interestingly, unlike many Japanese castles we might visit, most of which took their well-known “Japanese castle” forms towards the very end, or even after, the period of warfare (Sengoku period, 1467-1600), and thus never actually saw serious siege or attack, Katsuren absolutely did. With all of these structural, geographical defenses, one can only imagine how the battle actually went, as the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom took the castle in 1458.

The main gate of Jingû-ji, as it appears from within the temple grounds, looking out.

After taking a second look around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I called my visit to Katsuren done and successful. I then took the bus down to Futenma, so I could quickly pay a visit to Jingû-ji, the temple immediately next door to Futenma Shrine, which I missed when I went to visit the shrine. Not too much to say about the temple, I suppose. But, I do love and am still not tired of seeing the distinctive Okinawan architectural style – lighter wood than in mainland Japan, and the distinctive red roof tiles. When we remind ourselves that Ryukyu was once an independent kingdom, and we start to think not simply about regional variation within Japan, but about the ways in which different schools of Buddhism took on different forms in different places all across Asia – when we start to think of Okinawan architecture not as a variation within Japanese styles but as something to be compared against Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese styles, there’s something very interesting and powerful there, I think.

Anyway, with that checked off my list, I then started to make my way home, and ended up walking quite some ways, maybe about half the length of the main center of Ginowan Town, along the outsides of the fences of the Futenma Air Base. An interesting contrast with that one neighborhood near Katsuren – for all its problems, and I’m not saying Ginowan is the most happening and exciting city either, Ginowan felt more lively, more welcoming/appealing, and more upscale (though it would hard to not be more upscale than what I saw in Katsuren). Despite the length of the walk, it was surprisingly enjoyable, easy, and refreshing. I passed by lots of shops that looked kind of appealing… many of them quite clearly aimed at military folks as their market. Second-hand shops for clothes and for furniture (specifically American-style furniture), some nice-looking bars, some nice restaurants… closer to campus, further from the base, I found a cute little bakery with scones in all sorts of flavors (banana, green tea, earl grey). I’m really tempted, though it’s maybe a little embarrassing to admit, to try out the California-style Diner. Though maybe try to figure out some time to go when there’s no military around? Actually, that particular moment as I passed by that night, the place was empty…

And once I got my bike back – oh yeah, I locked my bike to a barrier on the side of the sidewalk in Ginowan all day while I rode the bus up to Katsuren. Thankfully, the police or someone didn’t confiscate it, and it was still right where I’d left it :) – I got my bike back, and was thinking of going to BookOff, but was already most of the way back to campus and didn’t feel like backtracking… but I found a great little soba shop on the side of the road! Sometimes you really can’t tell from the outside how nice a place might be on the inside. And by nice, to be clear, I don’t mean fancy – I just mean, it had a pleasant atmosphere. Brightly lit, colorfully decorated, with very friendly staff…

So, yeah, all in all, a rather successful day, I would say.

All photos my own.

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This past weekend I decided to take my bike out for its first long-distance “spin.” I had seen signs for “Gosamaru Matsuri,” a festival being held at Nakagusuku castle (or, Nakagusuku gusuku), and I thought, yeah, sure, here’s as good an excuse/opportunity as any to go visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site super famous castle that’s relatively close by – only an hour and a half walk, according to Google Maps, and presumably at least somewhat quicker by bicycle. The southernmost end of Nakagusuku Village lies immediately outside of campus, so I’m basically in the right town already, and, the one time I went up to Futenma Shrine (by bus), there were signs suggesting that Nakagusuku castle wasn’t that much further…

A large part of the reason I was eager to get a bike was precisely so that I might take trips like this. The bus lines are rather hit-or-miss around here, with many of the north-south bus lines (for example) running a good ways east or west of the campus, such that I’d have to walk 30-45 minutes just to get to a bus stop that would allow me to get on the right bus, only to ride it for only another 5-15 minutes to my actual destination. In short, if I’m going to have to walk that far to begin with, I might as well just walk (or bike) the whole way, making the bus more or less useless. And, judging from Google Maps walking directions, I can get to quite a lot of places in only about an hour’s walk. Which is a long way to go, but not entirely unreasonable, if it’s a nice day and I’ve set aside that this is my main activity, my main goal, of the day; and it should be all that much faster by bike, right?

Banners for the Gosamaru Matsuri, along the road leading up to the castle.

Well, after this journey to Nakagusuku, I’m still rather on the fence about the whole thing. On the one hand, the bike was an absolute pain in the ass, at times – or, at least, I should say, it was no help – as I lugged it up lengthy inclines. And, there’s my chief concern, which is that if I should discover there is a convenient bus line, or if I should get lost or stuck or just too tired and decide to just take the bus home, I can’t, because I’m stuck lugging this bike. But, then, on the other hand, there were so many sections where having the bike was so much faster, and easier. Once I finally got to Nakagusuku castle, for example, it was such an easy, pleasant ride the next few blocks to the Nakamura residence. .. And I can’t even imagine doing that whole trek on foot; even if it was only an hour or so, it would have felt like it took forever… Still, there were definitely sections where even though it was easier to have the bike, it was also more frightening and dangerous. Unbelievably lengthy downhill sections, where it just keeps going further and further downhill, and I’m screaming along, probably ruining my brakes in the process as I try to keep some semblance of control over my speed. Had I been on foot, it would have been long, and annoying, and on the bike it most certainly did go faster, but, the number of times I could have lost control and crashed into something…

Anyway, let’s go back and take it from the beginning. Leaving the University of the Ryukyus campus, there’s a road to the east side of the campus, just past the San-A mini-mall, that goes down, down, down, into the Ôkuma and Asato neighborhoods of Nakagusuku Village. It seems to be one of the only ways across to those neighborhoods; otherwise, one has to go way the way around whatever the hell this giant grey area to the east of campus is – it’s not a military base; I don’t know what it is. This was the route Google Maps said was fastest, and I believe it. Still, next time I think I’m going to stick to the surface roads, so to speak. The sidewalk on the side of this crazy downhill road isn’t much to speak of – it’s a rather narrow space between a wall and a set of metal barriers that are separating you from the road. There are heavy poles every few meters, and the whole thing is pretty overgrown. If I were on foot, I don’t know that I’d walk along this at all, amidst the weeds like that. But on a bike, well, I don’t know. I certainly didn’t feel it was the best choice to be trying to navigate around each of these poles, amidst these weeds, while screaming down the hill. But, what was the alternative? To be in the road, amidst the traffic? I don’t think I’m taking that road ever again. There’s also a higher path, a “historic road” with some plaques and stuff that’s explicitly supposed to be a nice walking/biking tourist path along a section of the old Hanta Michi “highway.” But I explored that a bit a week or two ago, and as nice as it was at first, it soon ended, and I couldn’t figure out where the next section was supposed to pick up. Maybe I’ll have to give that one another try…

So, now I’m at the bottom of this crazy hill. Finally. And I’m in the Ôkuma neighborhood of Nakagusuku. From here, the next lengthy stretch was quite nice – just riding along on wide, well-maintained sidewalks, along a major street. I stopped in at a convenience store for a little food and something to drink, and all was good for a little while. But, of course, Nakagusuku gusuku being a castle, of course it’s up atop a hill, so of course there’s going to be some uphill.

I don’t have any good photos of the hill up to the castle, because I was too busy (figuratively) dying from heat exhaustion and whatever. So, here’s a picture of the final destination.

But, as I started to push the bike uphill, I was feeling pretty terrible. Like I might genuinely pass out, or throw up. This was totally my fault, not being more well-fed and better hydrated, and so forth. And maybe also for picking a relatively hot and humid day. But, yeah, I was just desperate for somewhere air-conditioned to sit down. I did not happen to find that, but I found a tiny garden, associated I think with a temple that was under construction; just the tiniest little “pavilion” sort of think, like you might find in a public park, or as a bus shelter. And so, I sat there for a few minutes, and felt the cool sea breeze, and laid my head down on the table and closed my eyes. And enjoyed the shade. And gulped down a bottle of Pocari Sweat. And then I headed the rest of the way up the mountain. I don’t know if there was some other entry point into the castle grounds, but I found myself walking and walking and walking, far past where Google Maps had said my destination was, looking for some way in. By the time I finally found the main entrance to the grounds, I’d gone roughly half the way around.

From there, I realized the Nakamura residence was only a tiny bit further, so I went and did that. More on the house in another post, I suppose, as I’ll just focus on the trip itself. But, let me add in two small things – one, if you should ever happen to go visit the Nakamura residence yourself, note that there’s a small monument quite nearby to Ôyama Seiho, the man who discovered Minatogawa Man, one of the oldest finds of human remains anywhere in Japan, dating back to something like 15,000 BCE. So, get a picture of that. Also, Gosamaru’s grave is somewhere quite close by, but I was told it’s a bit of a hike, up a ton of stairs. Maybe I’ll go try to check that out another day. Maybe I won’t. But, yes, I was very pleasantly surprised with the Nakamura residence’s gift shop / visitor center. It’s a beautiful shop, and surprisingly large for such a small, out of the way, historical site. Tons of great Okinawan souvenirs. And it’s air conditioned, and the staff was so kind. And they provided free tea and snacks (black sugar jello), and encouraged me and other visitors to enjoy as much tea as we wanted, both before and after visiting the house itself. Very kind. And, really, just what I needed after such a trip.

Recovered from my bike trip by the tea and air conditioning, I enjoyed taking it easy for the next few hours, visiting the Nakamura house and the Nakagusuku castle ruins. Of course, festival food is festival food – corn dogs and stuff like that – so I didn’t eat too well; didn’t really properly catch up to prepare myself for the return journey. Whether because of the food, or more likely because I guess I still hadn’t managed to hydrate myself sufficiently, despite drinking quite a few bottles of various drinks over the course of the day, I developed a pretty major headache by the time I got back.

But, yeah, the journey back. I decided to go a different way, because I knew that climbing back up that insane hill by the San-A near campus – with a bike – would be the end of me. Surely there must be an easier way, even if Google Maps says it’ll take 15 minutes longer. Plotting it out first on Google Maps, I followed the route it suggested, and took a left to run just past the Nakamura house, going west along a road that looked, on the map, like a major road connecting this area straight across over to the Okinawa Expressway, which lies a bit to the west. Yikes. Holy crap. I guess I’m glad for the experience – certainly helps make it an adventure. But this road, while it was properly paved, was in pretty much every other respect the equivalent of a dirt path through the wilderness. Though not nearly as steep as the road over by the San-A, still this one too had me barrelling downhill at a quick pace, along a two-way road only wide enough for one car, with very little shoulder, a good number of twists and turns, and the occasional sign telling you to watch out for wild boars that might suddenly leap out into the road. Let me remind you, dear reader, that I am very much a city boy. I guess when people told me to get out of Naha and to see and experience “real Okinawa,” I guess this is what they meant.

I finally reached the bottom, worried for a good moment as I looked at my phone trying to figure out how it wanted me to go, following along the expressway but not actually getting on the expressway? I had Google Maps set to walking directions, so in theory it shouldn’t take me onto the freeway itself. But, still. I found myself, for just a very short stretch, but still a worrying one, literally walking my bike uphill right in the middle of (bumper to bumper, moving extremely slowly) traffic, and wondering what the drivers thought of this idiot foreigner. But, honestly, I’m not sure what the alternative was. For that very brief stretch, there really was no sidewalk. There was nowhere else for me to be. Getting past that part, I finally found myself back in a relatively normal-looking suburban sort of neighborhood, along a regular, busy but not too busy street. I stopped in to an Okinawa soba shop to get some food. Probably the most standard soba shop I’ve seen yet this whole trip. Dark wood decor, with half the shop taken up by small tables, and the other half a raised seating platform with tatami (in other words, sit on a chair, or take your shoes off and step up to sit on the floor). I took a seat at the bar and took a stab at what turned out to be a surprisingly large bowl of noodles. And then I found a nice road leading parallel to the highway, but not in any way riding right in/on the highway. Thank god. For a nice stretch, things were great.

Then I turned away from the highway, as I entered the last final “home stretch,” turning towards campus. Still, though, I wasn’t quite as close to home as I thought I was, and it would be a good number of very slight (but still just obnoxious enough) uphill inclines, and other stretches, before I finally got back. And, along the way, even though things were starting to look and feel more fully suburban, suddenly, what, I look to my left, and there’s a cow. A whole cow – yes, we all have some sense that cows are big animals, we’ve seen pictures. But in person, you really get a sense of just how big they are. And there was a cow, just there, across the street, in someone’s front yard, tied up to a post. I of course stopped to take a picture. But, then, just a few blocks later, suddenly there was a guy brushing his cow, much like you might brush a dog, or hose down a car, right in the middle of the sidewalk. I guess this, too, is the “real” Okinawa. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I was just surprised. It’s just not quite what you expect to see.

Long story not so short, in the end, I did finally make it back. I suppose, in the end, I am glad to have had the bike. Walking all of that distance would have been horrendous. There were definitely stretches where it was really nice to have the bike, in terms of just easy, breezy, riding, e.g. from the entrance of the castle grounds, over to the Nakamura residence a few blocks away. And I suppose I was better off being on a bike on that weird wilderness road, too, because walking along that road, where there’s no sidewalk or shoulder of any kind, where you’re genuinely truly on the road… I don’t know. Would that have been weird? Would it have been more dangerous? Less? And, as difficult as it was lugging the bike up all those hills – the big ones, and the really subtle but longer inclines too – would it have actually been all that much easier, less taxing, walking that without a bike? And what would the balance be, between not having to lug the bike up the hill, but then also not having the bike to cruise down the next stretch, and having to walk it?

I’m thinking at some point in the next week or two to make my way over to Urasoe – to see Urasoe yodore, the remains of Urasoe gusuku, and maybe while I’m at it the art museum, and on a different day also back up to Futenma, to see the Jingû-ji temple I missed when I visited the shrine. Each of these trips is also supposedly just about an hour according to the walking directions on Google Maps. Ginowan/Futenma shouldn’t be a big deal; I’ve taken the bus up there, and I’ve walked the full length back. Urasoe, well, I’m curious to see how it goes. Will there be crazy unexpected rural roads? Will there be unavoidable stretches of riding right in traffic on a busy road? Will there be massive inclines, up, or down? Will I, in total, on balance, be happier for having brought the bike, or not? We shall see.

And if anyone has thoughts or suggestions on this – on biking around Japan, or Okinawa in particular, I’d love to hear them!

All photos my own.

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A typical scene in Nishihara. Just walking along the side of the highway, no shops at all in the immediate vicinity except for auto repair and the like…

As I wrote in my last post, Nishihara is… a new experience for me. Quite scattered and disparate in its layout. Just walking around the neighborhood immediately off-campus to the south, Uehara, I think I’ve counted at least five hair salons (for whatever reason), at least five car places (dealerships, garages, auto repair, motorbike shops, etc.), one fast food joint, plenty of real estate or apartment management places, a bunch of other random establishments, and zero bookstores. Zero cute cafés. Zero welcoming-looking restaurants. No supermarket that I’m aware of. Certainly no big box electronics store (or even a small one). I’m not even sure I’ve seen a cellphone store at all, in this particular neighborhood. On one day I popped off campus, thinking I would find, just something, whatever, to eat for lunch, and just make it quick and come back to my room to do more work. I wandered around for literally at least 30-40 minutes, getting further and further from campus, finding absolutely zero places that looked inviting – or even open – before I finally found myself at a supermarket (and still no appealing-looking restaurants), way off in another part of town entirely.

Now, granted, I do think that once I get a bit more settled in, and start to get more familiar with what’s available on each side of campus, in each part of the area, I’ll feel a bit better about all of this. After four years in Santa Barbara, I’m finally starting to feel that there’s really enough variety of dining, and enough to see and do otherwise – almost.

In the streets of Naha’s Tsuboya neighborhood. One shop after another, each inviting, each providing goods or services of real interest, like in a normal town.

But, still, I imagine you can understand why it was a major breath of fresh air to take the bus down to Naha, the prefectural capital, the other day. A city I’m familiar with, with lots of familiar sights, and just a real city, filled with things to see and do, all the resources you could possibly want. I was glad to discover that the bus runs relatively frequently, goes at least kind of late into the night (until 9:30 or so – thankfully not 6:30 or 7 as I’d feared), and takes only about half an hour. Looks like I’ll be able to get down into the city relatively easily and often. Thank god. Even so, I think next time around, the next time I find myself in Okinawa on a fellowship or a postdoc position or a sabbatical or whatever, I think next time it’d be super great to be based at the Okinawa University of the Arts – right below the castle, right in the city (more or less). I’m sure Ryûdai will be fantastic, in all sorts of ways, in terms of students and faculty and the library, and hopefully in terms of arts and events too. But, oh boy, how awesome would it be to live right there in Shuri? Next time.

This time, I took the bus to Omoromachi, and if I remember correctly went first straight to the big electronics store – Yamada Denki – and picked up a five-meter-long ethernet cable, so I can finally use my computer (with internet connection) in bed. Relax while I simultaneously get shit done – shit like blogging; or, maybe, actual reading/research work. With no stores around that I had yet found near campus, none at all really outside of basic convenience stores, even something as simple as this took a real adventure to get. Then I was pointed by the Yamada Denki folks across the street to San-e, the big department store / shopping mall, where I was able to get a prepaid data SIM card. Still no voice function (which means no phone number – hopefully I won’t need to have a number to put down on forms or anything), but, I’m all set on data for the next month – thank god. One more thing down.

As it turns out, we /do/ have such things here in Nishihara, too, just not immediately near campus (so far as I’ve seen thus far) – I would later discover a San-e way down near the town hall (about a 45 min walk from campus), which though still pretty basic compared to what’s available in the totality of Naha City, is just sizable enough to provide for much of what I’d feared was only available in the city. Namely, things like prepaid data SIM cards.

The main lobby of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Clean, sleek, bright. I wish I could share with you photos of the actual galleries, but they don’t allow photos…

In any case, errands accomplished, I poked over to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Thought I was going to buy up some museum catalogs, maybe some other stuff. As it turns out, (1) the one catalog I was really looking for, from an exhibit only two years ago on Kumemura, is all sold out and gone, and (2) there weren’t really any exhibits up right now that I wanted to bother paying to see. So, I bought myself a little coin purse, to hold all the change that keeps otherwise falling through the holes in my pants pockets, and I moved along.

Before leaving the museum, though, I decided to go check out the rental galleries – outside of the paid areas of the museum, where groups or individuals can come in and rent out the space for their own use. The last time I was here, two years ago, these spaces were being used for an exhibition of college students’ artworks, from the Okinawa University of the Arts. Maybe like a BFA thesis / graduation show. I’m not 100% clear. This time, I happened to catch a one-day-only exhibition of Western Australian artists, organized by Peter Davidson. I feel like the name is really familiar – like maybe I’d come across his Okinawa work before already – but if I have, I still haven’t quite figured out why the name rang a bell. Maybe it’s just a really common name.

“Okinawa Study” by Peter Davidson. Image from Wild Swan Arts Group blog.

Spoke with Mr Davidson for a little while, and got to take a look at his paintings. They’re small, but wonderfully vivid and colorful. They really capture the richness of Okinawa, I think – the lush greenery, the orange of the roof tiles… It’s a shame that the photographs can’t capture the texture and vibrancy of these paintings. Makes them look so flat…

Skipping seeing any of the regular exhibits I’d have to pay for (and which I’ve already seen, and which they won’t let visitors photograph because they’re obnoxious jerks), I then went back to the monorail station and headed over to the Naha City Museum of History. I imagine I must have posted about this museum before – it’s a funny sort of place, very small, tucked away on the 4th floor of a shopping center in downtown Naha. But, despite its small publicly visible footprint, and small municipal sort of name (City Museum), the Naha City Museum actually holds numerous National Treasures in its collection, and is a major center of Historical activity, including not only extensive documentary archives & library, but also publications (e.g. city histories), and playing some major role in organizing the historical markers & explanatory plaques all around the city.

They have just two small gallery spaces, one where they show decorative arts, mainly – textiles, lacquerwares, and the like, often from royal collections, often including some National Treasures. I’ve seen the royal sword Chiyoganemaru in that space, and this time, they had a replica of the last surviving royal investiture crown on display. I was disappointed it was only a replica, but, what are you gonna do. In the other gallery, they started off with a bunch of various different things relating to the city’s history – maps and paintings of early modern Naha from the 19th century or so, and also a model of a section of downtown Naha as it looked in the 1930s. One of the few things in the gallery they explicitly said we could take pictures of.

And then, the rest of the gallery is what really rotates, thematically. Right now, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Basil Hall to Okinawa – his accounts of his journey remain one of the more canonical accounts in English. So, they had a very nice display detailing his trip, day by day, with copies of his journal, including the beautiful color illustrations, and so on and so forth.

Shuri Castle, lit up in the twilight.

Finally, after finding some food and poking around the Heiwa-dôri shopping arcade for a bit, I headed down to Shuri castle. I had been planning to get back to campus already by that point, as I was nervous about getting back after dark, and because I was already pretty tired, already feeling I’d had a long day. But, I saw a poster for a special Mid-Autumn Festival celebration at the castle, complete with lots of classical Ryukyuan dance and music, and this just wasn’t to be missed. So I steeled myself up, and lasted out the day, and finally headed down to the castle around 6pm, only to find that because of strong winds and potential of rain, the event had been canceled. Boo.

On the plus side, though, I’d never been to Shuri castle before so late at night. It was beautifully illuminated, and I managed to catch a few good photos. Plus, there were very few tourists around, inside the castle, so I got to get some closer photos than usual of things inside – and to just enjoy it and have a quieter, nicer. time of it, without so many crowds.

And then, when that was done, just very easily caught a bus back to campus. Great to know I can do that whenever, from now on. All in all, a really great day in the city. Looking forward to more such adventures – the next time there’s a concert or performance or museum exhibit, or whatever…

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan, UC Press, 1996.

Alright. Japan books from my exam list. What we’ve all been waiting for. Here we go.

Much of the modern ideas about emperorship and nation in Japan today stems from ideological constructions of the Meiji period intentionally constructed at that time. Such ideological and ritual constructions claim to be a “restoration” or continuation of ancient precedents and unbroken tradition, but in fact were heavily reshaped, if not invented whole-cloth in many cases. This makes Meiji Japan a ripe ground for applying the general concepts of Hobsbawm & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, a project for which Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy serves as perhaps the greatest effort in English-language scholarship.

This basic concept, that modern traditions of government in Japan were largely (re)invented in the Meiji period, is evident from almost any basic survey of the history, and scholars such as Amino Yoshihiko and Ben-Ami Shillony have discussed in some detail the evolution of terminology applied to the Emperor. But, while some art historians may have also touched upon the use of architecture to construct and convey Japan’s modernity, few if any have written in English on the Imperial Palace, or described the construction of Meiji era pageantry as Fujitani does.

Beyond this, Fujitani also contributes valuably to the field by illuminating the degree to which the architects of Meiji nationalism and imperial ideology did not have a single plan all along, and by detailing the chronological progression as plans changed dramatically over time, especially in the first two decades or so of the Meiji Period. While most survey treatments of the Meiji period represent it as a steady-going, directed, and rapid period of progress, with each of a number of significant metaphorical “bricks” being placed one after another (e.g. the move to Tokyo, the adoption of military dress for the emperor, the Constitution, public education, the formation of the Diet, and so forth), Fujitani reveals that for much of the 1870s and into the 1880s, there was much disagreement about the form and direction of nearly every aspect of modernization, and furthermore that from 1873 to 1889, there wasn’t even a palace standing in the center of Tokyo. As he explains, there were a multitude of opinions in these early years as to whether Tokyo should become the Imperial capital, and whether it should be the only capital, and the Imperial Court was, at times, seriously described as being ambulatory, harkening back to ancient precedents which had not been the case in over one thousand years.

A model of the Daijôkyû, a ritual space within the Imperial Palace.

As Fujitani explains, it was only in the 1880s that it was decided that Tokyo would become the sole imperial capital, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be spun in a particular manner discursively, to emphasize the twin aspects of the Imperial institution and of the Japanese state: ancient and modern; with great traditions stretching back to the time of the gods, but also eminently modern; spiritual and mystical, but also with real economic and military power; feminine and masculine; and so forth. It was only at that time, and especially beginning with the completion of the Palace and promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, that Tokyo began to be reshaped in a more extensive and centrally-directed way, into a modern capital after the models of the Western powers; and it was only at that time that modern Imperial / political rituals began to be constructed in a more coordinated and rhetorically informed sense, with the architects of the modern Imperial institution carefully constructing the private image of the Emperor as spiritual, mystical leader, untainted by politics, descendant of the Sun Goddess and of a direct unbroken lineage, continuing supposedly ancient (in fact newly invented) rituals, as balanced with a construction of the emperor as modern, martial, and deeply engaged in the administration of the state. As explained by Fujitani, all of this was expressed through pageantry, architecture, and public monuments, designed both to impress the Japanese people, and foreign observers, conveying to both domestic and overseas audiences Japan’s power and modernity.

Right: A statue of Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa at Kitanomaru Park. The first member of the Imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, he died of illness in Taiwan in 1895.

Fujitani makes several bold and significant choices in structuring his book, which contribute to its strengths and weaknesses in various areas; no volume can do everything, and Fujitani has made his decisions. Firstly, he sacrifices deeper, more extensive discussion of particular topics in favor of a broader survey of the various different ways in which the Meiji state performed & expressed discourses of legitimacy and modernity. By touching upon the two Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo, the development of the urban space of Tokyo, the museumification of Kyoto, Imperial tours in the provinces, Imperial parades in the capital, Imperial funerals, bronze monuments, triumphal arches, and so forth, Fujitani articulates a network of powerfully interlinked phenomena, and makes that interlinking more evident. However, he advances this important thematic / conceptual argument at the cost of sacrificing more thorough description of any one of those subjects. A reader looking for an account of the history of bronze statues in Japan, of the urban development of Tokyo, of the museumification of Kyoto, or of the architecture and layout of the Imperial Palace, will find just enough material to get intrigued, but not enough to quite cover the subject satisfactorily. But, this is the balance we all must choose.

On the positive side, Fujitani grounds his work in Meiji period Japan, and states emphatically that his objective is not “to construct universally valid generalizations about political rituals” (95). While the work might, hopefully, inform others’ examinations of other times and places, Fujitani does not use Japan merely as a tool, merely as an excuse or a case study to discuss broader conceptual topics; rather, he makes a solid and meaningful contribution to our understanding of Japanese history in particular, and does not allow theoretical concerns to pull him off course from producing something deeply informative about Meiji era Japan, in particular. I suspect that similar works have been done, building off of or inspired by The Invention of Tradition, to describe similar developments in Britain and Europe at this time; I have already posted about a work which does the same for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy contributes valuably to this constellation of projects, providing the fruits for comparative work by presenting a treatment thoroughly grounded in the historical specifics of one nation, Japan.

All photos my own. (Book image from Amazon.)

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Right. So, Thursday, after finishing up at the Library, I was, strangely, still awake, having taken an overnight flight from Newark on which I didn’t get much sleep. In other words, I had a full night’s sleep in a proper bed Tuesday night, was up all day Wednesday as normal, barely slept on the flight (which was only about 6 1/2 hours anyway, not long enough for a proper full night’s sleep), and then stayed up all day Thursday. Yet, strangely, I wasn’t feeling it too badly. I visited the new shop at Platform 9 3/4, like you do, and otherwise just poked around the general King’s Cross / St. Pancras area. Didn’t go very far. Took tons of photos of the two stations, both of which have been seriously redone since last I was here. And then, finally, eventually, I came back to the dorm to crash, and attempt to sleep a normal night’s sleep, to reset my clock. Honestly, I don’t really remember if I succeeded. I think I slept a few hours, and then maybe got up from like 2-5am, and then went back to sleep… but, in any case, I made it through the full day the next day, Friday, without any trouble.

Over the course of these days, I’ve had so many thoughts about being back in London, how it’s weird but not weird, how I wish I were staying longer – a lot longer… I should have been taking these thoughts down as I had them. But, of course, I had these thoughts as I was walking around and experiencing the city, not as I was relaxing in front of my computer. So, that made it a little tough. Also, all of my nights here have ended up being either quite busy, or just that I’ve been too tired to sit down and write like I’m writing now.

Even though I’m only here for five days or so, and even though it’s been eight years and who knows when I’ll be back again, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to run around and see all the things; somehow, I couldn’t help but to feel like I will be back, relatively soon, hopefully maybe even for a rather longer time, and so I just saw whatever I saw, met up with friends, and took it relatively easy. (And, actually, not even that easy – these all turned out to be long and tiring days, even without running all over on the Tube or doing particularly touristy things.)

The Waterstone’s near Russell Square, where I waited in line at midnight to buy the last Harry Potter book as it was released.

I find myself really tempted to want to live here again, for a real length of time. I have no idea if that will ever come to pass – it all depends on what job prospects appear, and so forth – and I also have little idea as to the nitty gritty of apartment hunting, taxes, politics, who knows what. Certainly, when I was here the previous time, I was dealing with the very particular political environment of the SOAS campus; the horrendously inept SOAS administration; culture shock and relative inexperience on my own part as to travel, life on my own, and so forth; and a very limited budget. I had a lot of cultural clash sort of interactions, sometimes over very minor things, such as ordering a Pimm’s & lemonade without knowing that’s a summer drink, or never knowing whether to pay at the table or on the way out, or just how to properly plan for trying to get the cheapest train tickets (sometimes I paid eight quid going, and thirty for the return trip, for the same pair of destinations, the same distance). If I were to live here again, who knows what kind of things might come up, with the banks, or policies at work, or just little cultural things that despite being little can be really quite frustrating or embarrassing. I remember at one point being just so frustrated with London that I absolutely had to get away, and spent a wonderful weekend in Dublin with my flatmate Jess. … But, London is truly one of the great cities of the world, and I want so badly to just live it. Not the crap bodegas (or whatever they call them here), and the crap student dorms I’m staying in again this weekend, but a decent flat, and local friends to meet up with for drinks, to explore cute shops and neat restaurants, to maybe even get involved somehow in the local arts scene (e.g. if I meet an artist or musician or thespian who invites me along to shows), and, to have a base in London from which to explore more of the UK, Ireland, and Europe. Who knows if it’ll ever happen, or what dark sides might emerge. But, when it does come time for me to apply to postdocs and tenure-track jobs and so forth, most historians it seems end up in small liberal arts colleges somewhere in America for a year or two or three before they nab their tenure track position – I don’t know how reasonable I’m being, but am I crazy for thinking that I would absolutely take a year-long adjunct position in London, or Dublin, or Dusseldorf, or a postdoc in Norwich, over teaching at some middle-of-nowhere place in the US?

A typical central London street, filled with beautiful historical buildings and lined with cute shops, cafés, and restaurants.

It’s great to be back in a proper city again. Santa Barbara, and especially Goleta, just really doesn’t do it for me. London is the kind of city I feel I would love to live in – there’s so much going on. Museums, arts, theatre, and beyond that, just vibrant life. Always new restaurants to check out, events, whatever. And they’re not of petty local relevance – this is London. I can go back to New York, or Tokyo, or Santa Barbara, and years from now talk to others who’ve been to London about how I remember this or that neighborhood, or this or that restaurant, or event. London also has such amazing architecture, and history, which makes for a vibrant, vital, atmosphere. I just love the atmosphere here. You feel like you’re walking around in a seriously major city both of the present and of the past. You can just imagine its history, how it developed, how a given building might have seen such changes over time. And, the buildings just have such style, such character. Plus, the fashion! Yeah, a great many of the young people are wearing horrific fashions, and many of the older people are wearing the most mindnumbingly mainstream stuff. But, some others really look quite great in their unique hip fashions, or in their classically sleek tie & waistcoat. This is something I was thinking about in New York the last couple weeks, too. New York has a deep and classy history, too. Pass by a ritzy hotel, look at the staff in their fine ties and jackets and hats, and you can imagine a New York of yesteryear… this is something Santa Barbara, with its t-shirts and shorts, doesn’t have. Or, it does, it does have its own history of course, but of a very different flavor from the classic London / New England / New York sort of flavor I grew up with (in a sense), and love so much.

Right: The campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.

London is also very international, and in particular in a sort of cultured, globally-minded, and directly inter-connected sort of way. My friend Min was kind enough to invite me along to her friend Ian’s flat for a get-together, and I met people from Germany, South Africa, Iran, California, Australia, and a few different parts of the UK, and all of them had a certain well-traveled, cultured sort of way about them, and in particular about their viewpoints on interacting with one another, and on their place in this diverse, multi-national world. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s all about which circles you move in, and I’m sure you could find those circles in New York just as easily, and I certainly did feel I had such circles in Tokyo, and in Honolulu, though not really in Santa Barbara – and I am equally sure that there are plenty, plenty, of people in England who are not like this. But, still, even so.

I wonder if I’m being taken in by the British accent, which to an American ear makes everyone seem classier, and more cultured. I dunno.

But, anyway, Friday involved meeting up with Min for brunch at a wonderful café called The Riding House Café (I thought it was Riding Horse – she had to correct me), followed by meeting up with my old friend Ana, and Hugh, and walking around some of the central parts of London. It was really great to just walk and experience Oxford Circus, and Tottenham Court Road, and so forth, over again. I think all in all, the last few days, that’s been, strangely, one of the most enjoyable parts. I guess I take after my dad that way, as he also really enjoys just walking around and getting a feel of a city. Ana and Hugh introduced me to a Diner right near Forbidden Planet, where we had boozy milkshakes (yum!), and then we popped into Orc’s Nest briefly to ogle some strategy games that are expensive enough in the States, and all the more unaffordable when priced in pounds. On that note, while I have spent a lot more than I was expecting to in the last few days (officially authorized Ravenclaw neckties will set you back), a lot of things are quite a lot cheaper than I remembered, or expected. My memory of eight years ago is, admittedly, quite fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure I recall paying something like £4.50 for a latte at Starbucks, £7 for a sandwich, and so forth – typical prices, but in pounds instead of dollars, meaning they were effectively double the price. Now, by contrast, not only is the exchange rate much more reasonable ($1.62 instead of $2.00+ per pound), but I went to Pret, which I remember as being quite expensive, and found sandwiches for as little as £1.90 or £2.35 or something like that. Rather reasonable prices.

Anyway, my time with Ana and Hugh was all too short, as I had to get back to Min’s, to join up with her and her friends, as mentioned above, for Ian’s little house party. We basically just sat around and chatted, and had a very nice time. Reminded me of being back at East-West Center, talking to people from all different countries, all engaged in culture or politics or at the very least just well-traveled… And while I don’t know just how regularly they might have these kinds of get-togethers – it could have been a rather special thing – I definitely got the sense, the feeling, of joining in on real, regular, London life. A guy could get used to this. Thanks, really, so much to Min for inviting me, and to her friends for welcoming me, making this truly a very different experience from that of the tourist, who might only interact with his own friends (Min, and Ana) alone, or with other tourists, backpackers, whatever, or with no one at all.

Saturday, I spent on my own. I returned to the British Library early in the morning, and finished up things there, then spent the whole rest of the day at the British Museum, making my way through all of the East Asian and Pacific-related galleries, and taking tons of photos. I saw more or less nothing of any other part of the museum – it’s just far too large to do in a single day. I have another post in the works as to my thoughts on the museum, but in essence, I love that the British Museum is a museum of the world’s cultures, and not a museum of “art.” It doesn’t focus itself overmuch on aesthetic appreciation, on masterpieces and beauty, but instead on teaching people about the other cultures of the world. As the Museum says on its website:

It was also grounded in the Enlightenment idea that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement. The Museum was to be a place where this kind of humane cross-cultural investigation could happen. It still is. …

… This is engagement … [with] the cultures and territories that they represent, the stories that can be told through them, the diversity of truths that they can unlock and their meaning in the world today.

This is what is sorely missing, I think, from the core mission, the core attitude and approach, of too many of the greatest museums in the US. And it is this absence, I think, this difference in mission and attitude, which leads our museums all too often into dangerous territory, in terms of essentializing, romanticizing, and Orientalizing cultures, and ignoring political complexities and difficult subjects. But, I’ll talk about that in another post.

On my way to visit the Angel [of] Islington.

After the British Museum, I wandered over to the Angel area, just to the other side of the areas I used to most frequently frequent, and poked around there for a bit. I had been planning to just find some dinner and then head back and make it an early night, but as happens all too often with me, I get terribly indecisive about where to eat, and end up wandering further and further in search of a place that really appeals to me, that looks not too fancy and not too expensive, that looks like a place where someone could eat alone without it being too awkward, but which is also upscale enough to not be just a basic sandwich shop or pizzeria or whatever – I want to enjoy myself and experience what the city has to offer, but I need to do it in a place where I won’t feel awkward sitting by myself.

Inevitably, I ended up back at some of the places I remember, including a small Japanese art gallery where they assure me that all the woodblock prints are authentic and genuine, but they also sell them for amazingly reasonable prices. Tons of prints for only £20 or £30, and then even the expensive ones, the lavishly gorgeous full-color Hasui’s, are only £800 or so. I’m no expert on the market, but I’d imagine that something by Hasui, though it’s not so old (1920s-30s), is still by a hugely famous artist, and so it’s gotta go for upwards of a thousand at least, right? No? … Boy, if I felt I had the money to spend, and I really really don’t (in part because I bought that Ravenclaw tie), I would want to buy up so many of these prints… It really makes me wonder just how many other stores of just loads of old Japanese prints are still out there in the world, out on the market. To be honest, I’m glad they’re still accessible for a young, independent guy like me to be able to have some, and that they’re not all locked up in museums, but on the flipside that also means that scholarship as a whole, academia, is not aware of the full range of what’s out there. Who knows how many unknown pieces, or variations, might exist, that could impact the scholarship? Of course, museums also frequently re-discover things in their own collections, so just because it’s in a museum doesn’t mean the academe knows about it, either.

In the end, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I ended up at a burrito place, and then just made my way back, quite a bit later than planned. This happens to me in most cities.

Right: The interior of Daunt Books, on Marylebone High Street.

Sunday, I met up with Min again for lunch, this time on Marylebone High Street, which was quite close to her flat but which feels a little like entering a little world unto itself, like the High Street of a provincial city or something. Lots of quaint cute shops… we went to Daunt Books, a nice local independent bookstore where a large portion of the books are arranged by which country or region they’re about. I guess, in a sense, maybe this isn’t too radical an organizing scheme, but, still, it’s neat to see all the Japan travel books, novels, and non-fiction all in one place, an excellent source for someone looking to travel, and take a Murakami Haruki novel with them to help set the tone, as well as a great source for someone like me, who’s more culturally/geographically oriented, rather than topic or discipline oriented – I’d rather have all the Japan books in one place, rather than have to go look separately at History, Art, Theatre, Asian Studies, etc.

We had lunch at a Fromagerie, precisely the kind of thing that just feels so London to me. If it were in New York, it would be pretentious or hipstery, or something, an emulation of European modes and not really, truly, a New York thing, and if it were in Goleta or Isla Vista, ha, who am I kidding, such a thing would never exist out there. We had a choice of British & Irish, Italian, or French cheese samplers, all of them comparatively ‘local’, insofar as we’re in England, right near Europe – it may be “imported,” but it’s not nearly as distant a separation in terms of cultural spheres or whatever as importing it into the US. While Britain may not necessarily be “Europe” according to various particular notions or definitions, there’s still a certain genuineness, authenticity, to doing this in London, over having it in the States. And, it may just be my US-centric perspective, but even having a cheese shop like this in Tokyo, if it existed, would be a product of a particular Japanese Anglophilia, and perhaps with associations of Japan’s long history of connections with the UK, to my mind… more so than in New York, or LA, where it just feels like hipstery emulation or aspiration.

In most cities, when this happens it’s unusual. It happens only when the river’s particularly high, e.g. after a storm, and it’s considered at least an inconvenience, if not a true problem. Here in Putney, though, it’s apparently par for the course.

Next, went down to Putney, a very different part of the city, where Ana and Hugh had just completed their sailing adventures for the day, and I got to join them and their Sailing Club for a little informal barbeque. Again, the sort of thing you only get to do by having friends in the city, or by living there yourself, and not something you’d get to see/do as a tourist. As it worked out, I didn’t really get to talk to that many of the other folks – not nearly as intensively as at Ian’s get-together. But, still, trekking out to the South Bank, walking past all these different rowing and sailing clubs, along dirt paths and sidewalks sometimes just right open to the river to come splashing in, it was a very different side of London life.

Monday, I went back to the British Museum, where I had the privilege of getting a hands-on look at a pair of handscroll paintings of relevance to my research. Turns out they’re fully visible online. Oops. Who knew? But, it was still really great to see them in person, to get a sense of the size, to see the textures and the fine details up close, and to get to talk to one of the curators about them – I really learned a lot from his insights. Once that was done with, I headed over to King’s Cross Station, Platform Nine and Zero-Quarters, for the train to Cambridge.

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Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…

A Lakota or Yankton robe, produced by a group of men c. 1780-1825, detailing their victories in war. Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, bird feathers, plant fibers, and pigment.

Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.

I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”

And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.

Gifts for Trading Land with White People, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1992.

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.

Breakfast Series, by Sonny Assu Gwa’gwa’da’ka, 2006, on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1

Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,

a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”

There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?

After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.

Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.

…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.

And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:

“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).

“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.

The Dole Corporation, still flaunting it today. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.

While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.

I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.

The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.

There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,

the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.

I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:

Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.

On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.

I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.

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