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Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Back to a manageable, pleasant level of crowds. This is more like what it was when I came to Tokyo the first time in 2003; in recent years, it’s gotten so packed-solid crowded with tourists that it’s become an area to avoid. But during Covid, ironically,
it can be enjoyed again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept up with this blog in any way. So, starting to catch up a little. Here’s a post I wrote way back in October, but it’s basically still true today.

I’ve been in Tokyo for more than a year now. Almost a year and a half. I can’t believe it. The longest stretch I’ve ever spent outside the US.

Of course, this is like my eighth time or something being in Tokyo, so it’s not the same as almost any other city…

But what does the city feel like after being here for so long? In some respects it feels too ordinary, like I’ve gotten used to it and it’s lost a sense of adventure to some (albeit only partial) extent. But at the same time, I do still very much feel like someone still finding their feet. Like someone who’s still visiting, or who hasn’t necessarily gained a deeper, stronger familiarity with the city than a year ago. Granted, I think a lot of this has to do with the Covid situation. Here in Tokyo, we’ve never had a real serious lockdown, and we still don’t now. Even during those weeks/months when I was more seriously trying to avoid public transportation and to avoid sit-down restaurants, etc., even at those times I still went for walks, experienced the city in a sense. I wonder how my familiarity with the city, my feeling of living here, might be different if this pandemic never happened, and if I might have spent more of this past year and a half more actively hanging out with friends, going out to restaurants and museums and so forth in a more lively fashion; then again, we’re researchers and full-time workers, and so forth, and even in non-Covid times it probably would have been a lot of just day-in day-out regular workdays.

In any case, with the pandemic or without, on some level I suppose I have gotten more familiar with, more used to the city, but that said, it feels more ordinary, not less. I might have expected that gaining the cultural capital of being so familiar with Tokyo would feel cool, amazing, empowering, but instead it just feels ordinary. 

The imperial palace moat at Ichigaya. An area deeply nostalgic for me from my very first time in Japan.
I never tire of seeing the trains running right along the water.

Sure, I can go visit anywhere in the city and find my way around no problem, but I could do that before. And I’m not too unfamiliar with various archives, etc., even having some sense, some image in my mind of what’s nearby in each neighborhood. I can walk around in certain neighborhoods – certainly not the whole city! but certain areas – and just sort of know what’s around the next corner, or where to find a bathroom nearby or whether there’s a good café I know nearby. 

And I don’t think my language skills have gotten all that much better in the one year I’ve been here. I’ll blame it on the pandemic, that I’ve been spending so much time isolated away. And I do plan on taking sanshin classes and/or Uchināguchi classes once we can, and I very much hope that that might be a good angle for improving my Japanese by meeting and interacting with Japanese classmates. But in the meantime, I dunno, it’s just a weird feeling to think about being here for a full year, and what my relationship with the city has become.

Akamon, the famous red gate of University of Tokyo’s main campus.

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The first time I saw Lost in Translation, it was for me 100% about the city of Tokyo, and about my own nostalgia and love and longing for that city. I had had a whirlwind 4 months there as a study abroad student, my first time so far from home on my own, my first time in Japan, exploring and experiencing Tokyo in the way that I imagine many 20-year-olds do, running around in groups of five to fifteen, experiencing and enjoying everything. Tokyo that city of such energy and excitement, and it was just such an incredible time, one of the absolutely best times of my life thus far. And when Lost in Translation came out later that year, I didn’t know at that time whether I would ever be in Japan again.

So, for me at that time, Lost in Translation was all about re-living that experience, in a sense, taking in the lights and sounds and fun and enjoyment, and about identifying in a sense with these two characters for whom Tokyo is also very new and very strange… For me the movie was all highs and lows, fun and engaging, but also sad because it reminded me of something very exciting and also very engaging that I might never experience in the same way again – or, might not experience at all.

After all, the first time I went to Japan I never expected that I would ever go back. It was a crazy one-time adventure, something far beyond the bounds of anything I’d ever done, and indeed beyond the bounds of where either of my parents had ever traveled, or thought to. I went to college a mere four hours away from home (insisted on going out-of-state, because I did want to get away a little, but still went to Boston, a much “safer” choice in terms of big culture shock or whatever; didn’t even consider California or anywhere nearly that far away) … and I just always assumed that with the exception of this one crazy time in Japan, I’d come back home to the East Coast, and get a job in New York, and be “home” in New York the whole rest of my life.

The lights of Akihabara, from my first time in Japan, way back in 2003.

But I’m getting off-track. I have seen Lost in Translation several times since then, and I don’t really remember how I felt about it the third or fourth time. But now it’s been a long time since the last time, and, well, it’s interesting how incredibly different the film feels this time around.

I’m glad I never did end up watching it with my (now ex-)girlfriend. I had wanted to watch it with her because I wanted to share my love for Tokyo, share with her what the film meant to me in that way. But she’s very much the type to engage deeply with the characters’ emotions and motivations, their dramatic arcs and the overall emotional or interpersonal themes of a film, and watching it now, again, I can see those things so much more starkly than I ever did the first or second time I saw the film.

What exactly is this relationship? I had completely forgotten that Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end – a seemingly romantic kiss, not like the kiss on the cheek in the elevator a few scenes earlier. And watching it this time around, I got a much clearer sense of these two people, their relationship developing. Both of them, and the viewer, wondering how far it will go, or where it is going, or whether the both of them are losing interest in their own relationships. The scene where Bob is in the bath and on the phone with his wife, and she says something like “well, if you like it so much there, maybe you should just stay” – I had previously read that through the lens of how much I loved Japan, and basically just that she was being difficult or obnoxious or whatever because she didn’t “get” it. And similarly, I guess, the scene where Charlotte is at a shrine in Kyoto and she sees a Shinto wedding – I had taken that to be just one more element of how she is experiencing and appreciating Japan, and how the filmmakers are sharing with us that beauty, that peace, that experience. Watching it again, now, I realize the connection, where just a scene or two earlier, Bob and Charlotte had been talking about how marriage is difficult. And both of them are in such difficult places at this point in the film (well, throughout the whole film) in terms of how they feel about their partners, their relationships. And so she sees this newly married couple, and I suppose there’s supposed to be something unspoken there, about wishing and hoping that they’ll do better, that they’ll actually be happy … or something about how we all have difficulties, but it’s worth it, and it will be the same for them.

There are also these moments where Bob and Charlotte realize they don’t actually know each other that well – they surprise one another at the choices they make. Like when Bob sleeps with the red-headed singer from the bar.

I see even more clearly and strongly now how it’s not necessarily really a movie about Japan, or about Tokyo, but rather about people, and relationships, and it’s really a story that could be set almost anywhere in the world. Though Tokyo does present a particularly good location in terms of being very foreign, very different, and yet at the same time very comfortable and navigable.

That said, though, whether Japan or not, it *is* also a movie about a particular style or mode of experience. Most of the movie takes place inside the same hotel – at the bar, at the pool, inside their guestrooms. Hotel life can be extremely comfortable, luxurious even. That’s kind of the point. And they’re definitely staying at a really nice hotel. But it can also be sort of sterile and isolating. It’s one way of experiencing a place, and it’s certainly a valid experience, but it’s a very different one from experiencing the city in other ways. Yes, Bob and Charlotte do get out and meet people and go to some clubs, and so forth, and I suppose we can maybe assume that they get out and see and do a lot more, in between the scenes, that we never see. But then again, maybe they don’t. We’re supposed to believe that the entire film takes place over the course of just one week or so, and I haven’t counted how many days and nights we actually see them experiencing, but… I dunno, I think we maybe do get the sense that they really have spent most of their time in the hotel, that both of them are in a sort of frame of mind that they wouldn’t even know where to go, what to see, if they did get out. I don’t know if either or both of them are “depressed,” per se, but they’re definitely lost, and they’re definitely spending a lot of time in their rooms (or in the pool, or the bath, or the bar) just thinking and being alone…. So, they’re experiencing a very particular experience of the city. When they do go out, it’s a lot like my first time in Japan, I suppose, in terms of going out to bars and cafes and karaoke and just having a good time… Very different from my experience on later trips, where I speak the language and know my way around, and …

Bob in the hospital, waiting for Charlotte to get her x-rays done, holding a giant fuzzy owl he bought for her. Image from IMDb.

But, anyway, getting back to the relationship, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of wonderful to see people having that kind of relationship, and it’s really kind of romantic in a way – I mean, in the sense of a fantasy, an ideal, that one is envious of, even if we put aside the ways in which it’s a romantic relationship in the sense of romance. Even putting aside the romance aspect, if we pretend it’s a slightly different movie from what it is, if we pretend that they stay (just) friends throughout the whole thing, keeping in mind after all the big age difference and that they’re both married and that the romantic relationship between them is therefore really kind of dangerous/cringey at times (I can’t count the times that I was thinking, yikes, Bob, be careful make sure you don’t accidentally cross a line. She’s 22, Bob! Not to mention the fact that Scarlett Johansson was under 18 when this was filmed…) … but pretending they were to stay just friends throughout the film, what a friendship that is. To take her to the hospital, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and to do it while playing around in that way (with the wheelchair and so forth); ribbing on one another and messing around, and somehow knowing (I guess not knowing, but just because it’s scripted that it works out) that the other one won’t be offended… What a beautiful wonderful friendship. I’m not sure that I feel like I have any friends like that anymore, who I’m that close to. Everyone I know, I still feel a certain distance, a certain anxiety and awkwardness about whether they really want to be my friend, about how much is too much to ask of them or to expect from them. And the older I get, the more of my friends are married – they have someone else to go home to, someone else to spend so much time with, and so no one is looking to spend that kind of intensive friendship time with me.

I think I had friendships like that when I was younger – certainly when I was in Japan for the first time, I think there are friends who I could call up and arrange with to just hang out, to just go out all the time. Thank god none of us ever had to go to the hospital, but I think we would have gone with one another – being in a foreign country, and needing that kind of help and solidarity makes a big difference: sure, I’ll go with you, and we’ll figure things out together. Whether it’s the hospital, or getting a bank account, or getting a cellphone, we did it together, so we could be there for one another, help one another figure it out, etc.

Bob touching Charlotte’s foot while they lie in bed together. Image from IMDb.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what I think of the film anymore in the end. The fact that they kiss at the very end actually gives me problems, I think. Because if they didn’t, then it would mean that this was a film about how other kinds of relationships are possible. That when staying in a foreign city for only a few weeks, and even when committed to other people, you can still form friendships of a particular type, that’s exciting and fun and at the same time really close and deep and meaningful, even if only in that place, even if only for that time. I know plenty of friends who I’ve had an amazing time with traveling, and either not really kept in touch with at all otherwise, or just had a different friendship, a different experience with otherwise. And whether Bob and Charlotte ever see one another again after parting ways in Tokyo is left completely open; I could of course imagine it going either way, either that they never see one another again but they just have this one incredible experience in their memories, or that Bob whispers in her ear something like “hey, if you’re ever in town, let me know, and let’s hang out, let’s get together again.” Which, I guess we’re supposed to think they both live in LA, but that would work better if they didn’t, and then we could imagine that maybe X years down the road, or once every few years from then on, they get together and just hang out again. But that really only kind of works if they’re friends – the kiss at the end means they basically have to either break it off with their spouses and try to get together, or break it off with one another and either never see one another again or really try to set some kind of boundaries to force this romantic relationship to be only a friendship…. It complicates things terribly.

Bob catches up to Charlotte on his way to the airport, after saying goodbye at the hotel. Image from IMDb.

I don’t know. I really kind of hate that they put that in there at the end. And it makes me think of Kimi no na wa also – where it’s not spelled out explicitly, it’s not shown on screen explicitly, that they get together in the end romantically, and I wanted to imagine that they might just form a friendship, a special friendship, where they get together once every few weeks or months and share that special bond they don’t have with anyone else, those memories, those experiences, but why should it have to happen romantically? Why can’t they each end up with different people, and be happy for one another, and still be friends? There are most certainly women in my life who I would like to thing I have a special, close, friendship with, even though they’re married to other people. But, regardless, even when they were dating (or even married) to other people, we still had lunches and coffees and drinks and had what I thought was a special time, a special close friendship.

It’s funny, now that I know the city so well, and really live in it, a film like Lost in Translation comes across as covering so little of the city. Such a foreigner’s, visitor’s, superficial experience of the city. And, actually, unless I missed it, I’m not sure we even saw Takeshita-dori in the film at all. They spend most of their time in the hotel, and when they do go out they take taxis, and yes they go to some clubs, and even to some friends’ apartments, but for the most part they’re not really getting out into the city, not nearly as much as my friends and I did in that first 4-month study abroad experience, and most certainly not anything like what I’ve experienced since. … Of course, they’re only there for a week, in a hotel, so what are you supposed to expect? It’s much more like… where have I been recently? Like my time in Jakarta, is probably a very comparable case, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t even know what’s to see, where to go, even once I do get out and go into the city… And so I ended up spending most of my time at the conference hotel, and at the shopping mall, and otherwise just walking up and down one main street….

In a Crash Course: Film Criticism video, Michael Aranda references a film scholar/critic as interpreting the entire film as a critique of capitalism. Both main characters seem overwhelmed and alienated by the excess of the city. An interesting interpretation, and well-argued, with some good evidence: both spouses (the wife back home in the US with her constant talk of carpet squares and remodeling, and the photographer husband – along with Anna Faris’ character – in their eager pursuit of the racing, exciting, but ultimately empty world of celebrity and so forth) represent excess, and petty, empty, capitalistic desires. The process or experience of filming the Suntory whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory times“) feels empty, nonsensical, meaningless. And when Bob & Charlotte do go out into the city, it’s loud and flashy, cacophonous. Their own relationship emerges more in absence, and in quiet.

Okay, sure. A compelling, well-argued argument. But I just never got that. I watch this film, and through these two protagonists I see myself, desperate to engage with all that the city has to offer, wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy what everyone else seems to be enjoying, but never knowing how to get there. How to find the right bars, how to find the right people and places to create those experiences. And so, when Bob & Charlotte go out with friends and end up listening to great music – great music that Bob says he’ll try to find and buy, and which his wife just doesn’t get – or when they go out to karaoke, or when Charlotte goes out to temples & shrines in Kyoto, they do find things to engage in and engage with and enjoy. It’s sitting in the hotel that’s alienating – gazing out at a city they don’t know how to engage with.

Aranda’s second key point, taken from a different film scholar, has to do with the way Japan is used for comedy, and in stereotypical ways. Yes, for sure, there are elements that are very stereotypical. But I think it represents honestly and genuinely an American’s, or a Westerner’s, first experiences of Tokyo. This is what you’re going to see, this is what is going to stand out at you. This is what you’re going to expect to see, and then see, because those are the stereotypes. Okay, sure, the “massage artist”/escort who someone sent to Bob’s room, who asks him to “lip her stockings,” was totally unnecessary and meaningless, and perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. But this idea presented in this video of focusing on the quiet, deep, meaningful things like temples, shrines, and ikebana, and then showing how most Japanese (e.g. in the pachinko parlor, or the game arcade) seem to have forsaken or forgotten those things, as if the film is trying to tell us that the Japanese people are hypocrites about their own culture – I think that’s maybe reading too much into it. I watched this and I thought, simply, this is an accurate representation of Tokyo, and especially it’s an accurate representation of one’s first experiences. Tokyo has both. It contains multitudes, to use a cliché. That doesn’t mean that one thing is more vapid than another; I watch this, and I see Charlotte enjoying herself, being amused and entertained by seeing in person the lights and sounds of a Tokyo game arcade, as well as also enjoying and appreciating the quiet beauty of a temple or shrine. Bob and Charlotte go to karaoke. They walk (or take taxis) through the lights and sounds of Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. They go out with friends and enjoy some classic Japanese rock. They’re enjoying and experiencing Tokyo. This is Tokyo. This is how it is. Some of it is playing into stereotypes; some of it is gratuitous. But most of it I think is just representing what many people’s first experience of Tokyo actually is like.

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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.

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Many years ago – presumably sometime around 2004-2006 – I attended a great talk & book-signing event with author Roger Atwood, at Back Pages Books, a fantastic little indy bookstore in Waltham MA, run by my friend Alex Green. Atwood’s book, Stealing History, opened my eyes to incredible stories of the international black market in illegally unearthed & smuggled antiquities.

One of the stories he tells in this book is of the illegal looting and subsequent trafficking in 1987 of a cache of solid gold artifacts and other objects from the Peruvian tomb of the Lord of Sipán, an elite of the Moche culture (c. 50-700 CE). One of the most significant objects in the cache was a large golden backflap, described in Archaeology Magazine as follows:

Made of gold, copper, and silver, the backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is 25.6 inches long and 19.6 inches wide. It consists of flat blade-shaped central piece surmounted by rattles made of matching front and back pieces. Known from tombs of Moche warrior-priests and depictions on vases, backflaps were suspended from a belt around the waist and covered the wearer’s backside. Warrior-priests wore them as armor in combat and as symbols of power during rituals including the sacrifice, perhaps to insure rainfall and agricultural fertility, of captured enemy warriors.

If I recall correctly from what I read in Atwood’s book, the traffickers eventually ended up trying to sell the backflap and other objects to a potential buyer known only as “El Hombre del Oro.” After a number of communications to arrange the exchange, they met him in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, only to be arrested by members of the FBI Art Crimes unit, learning to their dismay that “El Hombre del Oro” was Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman. The treasures of Sipán were turned over to the Peruvian authorities, and some (all?) made their way into the collections of the Museum of the Nation in Lima.

I love this story. And I hoped that someday I might eventually happen to make my way to Lima, where I might happen to see the golden backflap at the center of this story. What a pleasure it was to see it – not just any other Moche backflap, but what I’m hoping, assuming, is the very same one – at the Getty’s “Golden Kingdoms” exhibit of pre-Columbian art. It’s incredible getting to see, in person, objects you’ve read about, heard about, seen in illustrations or photographs. It’s incredible seeing objects and knowing this whole story behind them – whether it’s a story about the artist, or the composition, or in this case a story of international smuggling & an FBI sting operation.

For this alone, the exhibit was absolutely worth it. But “Golden Kingdoms” turned out to be a truly excellent exhibit otherwise, as well. As I return to thinking about designing World History courses that I might, hopefully, potentially, teach in the future, the artifacts and labels in this exhibit, seeing how they described and discussed various pre-Columbian cultures, was just really interesting and useful. And huge massive thanks to the Getty for allowing photos, even of all these objects from collections all across the Americas! I took photos of many gallery labels, to hold onto the content for future syllabus- & lecture-writing.

One thing that was especially great about this exhibit was its spotlights on many individual cultures and sites. From this, I can piece together just a bit more (more than from the textbook, and whatever other resources I may use) on the Maya, Aztecs, Olmecs, Inca, Moche, etc., not only in general, but with some small degree of specific focus on sites such as Sipán, Chichen Itza, Tenochtitlan, and Palenque.

For a Latin America specialist, all of this might be rather basic material. But for someone like myself, who specializes in East Asian and Pacific history, and who wants to incorporate more of the premodern, the non-West, and more discussion of visual & material culture in his World Survey courses, this was really great. Of course, I could eventually get my hands on the exhibit catalog, or various other materials, but, still, there’s nothing like seeing an exhibit in person and getting inspired right then and there, to talk about how different cultures associated gold, jade, shells, and other materials with being “emitted, inhabited, or consumed by gods,” and …

Having just returned from a trip to Hawaiʻi where I finally got to see the feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) gifted by Kalaniʻōpuʻu to Captain Cook, now on loan from Te Papa Tongarewa to the Bishop Museum, I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some Wari and Nasca feathered cloaks and wall panels. On top of the Māori feather cloaks we saw in the newly renovated Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum, this provides a great opportunity for comparison.

The Getty exhibit also included: an Inca checkerboard tunic, an example one can use to illustrate what’s described in Spanish records of the first meetings between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahualpa.; some stunning stelae from Tikal and related cultures; and just a few objects from the post-conquest period, concluding with a painting of Don Francisco de Arobe and his sons Pedro and Domingo, Native elites from what is today Ecuador, dressed in a combination of Native and Spanish clothing.

The Getty’s contributions to the citywide “LA/LA: Latin American and Latino Art in Los Angeles” event also include a show of contemporary Argentinian photography, a show of the “Concrete” art movement in Latin America (which compares interestingly with the Gutai movement in Japan), and a small but excellent exhibit in the Research Center on “The Metropolis in Latin America,” discussing the modern urban history of Havana, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City – how they developed themselves into modern cities, with national monuments, national architecture, public transportation, and so forth, later becoming centers of Modernist architecture as designers and thinkers turned to Latin America with ideas of building these cities into Modernist utopias. This exhibit not only provided me with comparative narratives and examples, adding to my knowledge/interest in how cities such as Honolulu, Tokyo, Kyoto, Naha, and Seoul were transformed into modern(ist) cities in the 19th-20th centuries, but the exhibit also included some very nice timelines of the major events of Latin American history.

Looking forward to eventually teaching World History, and incorporating some of this great content.

“Golden Kingdoms” runs until Jan 28, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. “The Metropolis in Latin America” closes on Jan 7.

All photos my own, taken at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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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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