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Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

I’ve actually grown quite used to this staying-at-home life these past, well, let’s call it two months. I don’t know what it is exactly about this apartment, but I feel I’ve sort of lucked out, somehow it’s been a very comfortable place to be spending so much time in these last X weeks. Not too small or too dark or too anything… and not too far from the supermarket, convenience store, etc. either. I’m glad I didn’t have to do stay-at-home in my previous apartment (dorm room). It would have been fine, no doubt. Of course. But somehow I do think I’ve been much happier here.

And I’m of course not the only one.

I do feel weird saying so, of course, since it was just today that the New York Times published a list of one thousand names of those killed in the US by the coronavirus – it fills the entire front page of the newspaper, and it’s still only 1% of the dead. Looking through visualizations of it, one name at a time, each with a short one-sentence obituary, is numbing. Among 100,000 people you’ll find those of every age, every race and ethnicity, every walk of life. People who made great discoveries and accomplishments, people who did incredible things for their friends and family. People who relished in their hobbies and interests. People who were taken from us far far too soon, and people who might have had a good few more years if not for this. And so many of them, of course, forced to suffer their last X days or weeks without direct contact with their loved ones. … The crisis in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is far from over. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. For now. For now, thus far, thankfully, I have not fallen ill and neither have any of my family members, nor, incredibly, have I lost any friends. Astonishingly lucky, if “luck” is even the right word.

So, what can I say? It’s a weird place to be in, and I don’t mean to sound too privileged or out of touch… I’m just being honest about my situation. Thankfully, I’m far from the only one who has survived through this whole crisis unscathed (thus far), and whose experience (thus far) has been simply one of adjusting to a new normal, working from home rather than going to the office, and so forth. I’ve been cooking real meals a lot more; nothing too fancy, but even so, a little bit, here and there. Made some pasta sauce from scratch; I think it was too much bother, actually, in the end.

The Kandagawa, near Edogawabashi.

And now, Japan has just lifted the State of Emergency. We’ll see what happens in the coming days, but as of right now at least I haven’t heard anything at all about any museums, libraries, archives, or campuses reopening. To be honest, as much as I have been looking forward to visiting museums, archives, and libraries again, and to doing some traveling, I am not really looking forward to having to start commuting again, 9-to-5, to the office. In a sense, I feel like I’m only just now really starting to hit my stride – or, let’s call it a second wind, or third – in terms of getting used to the routine of being home. I wonder how long I’ve got before the office opens up again. I guess we’ll find out.

In the meantime, I’ve been avoiding public transportation entirely for I don’t know how long; at least six weeks or so, maybe closer to eight. And I’ve been walking places. Thought about getting a bicycle; this would have been the time for it, while there are fewer people on the road, but there’s nowhere at my apartment building to park a bike. So, anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of walking.

It’s been an interesting experience. 

Some random street corner somewhere in Bunkyô-ku.

Tokyo is, certainly, a city full of exciting things to see and do and experience, when they’re open. Hop on the subway and venture out to museums, bars, art galleries, theater, all sorts of different sites and institutions. But walking, Tokyo is nothing like, for example, Kyoto. Kyoto you can walk around and just enjoy the experience of the architectural environment of Kyoto. The architecture, the machinami as they say in Japanese – I wish we had a good word for it in English, but it means something like the “street scene.” Like a skyline, but from down on the ground – the visual experience of the street as a whole, from one block to the next or across whatever distance, longer or shorter. Here in Shinjuku/Bunkyo/Chiyoda-ku, the machinami is very much the same as you walk. Sure, it depends on what neighborhoods you’re in exactly, but for the most part, branching out from where I am living now, I found just more and more of the same busy main streets, and quiet but architecturally disunited, aesthetically chaotic, residential neighborhoods, all of it very modern, with bits of more traditional architecture here and there… Chaotic and all mixed up, but largely a mix of the same things, or mixed up in the same way. Lots and lots of grey concrete. And where there is a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, it’s usually set back a ways from the road, so it doesn’t really enter much into the feel of the neighborhood – doesn’t break up the endless rows of concrete & glass storefronts.

Back in the pre-corona days, there were a number of times when I walked from Omotesando or Harajuku through whatever in-between neighborhoods, to Shibuya, and from Shibuya through Shinsen to Komaba, and then maybe even on past there to Shimo-Kita, and it was interesting and kind of fun to see how the neighborhoods changed as you walked, from some of the busiest areas in the city to quiet residential neighborhoods, from the quirky youth energy of Harajuku to the upscale vibe of Omotesando, but I haven’t found that sort of experience walking around these neighborhoods…

Backstreets in a residential neighborhood in Setagaya-ku.

Another thing I noticed initially on these walks is that with my mask on I couldn’t smell the incidental smells so easily, or at all. One of the pleasant parts of going for a walk, one of the things that made me want to, is just all the incidental springtime smells you smell – flowers, food, incense. So, that felt like a terrible loss – missing out on the entire Spring, even more so than we already are. Fortunately, now that I’ve been wearing a different mask, I can smell it better.

You can capture sights and sounds to a certain extent on photo and video, but smells are one of those things you absolutely can’t. And there are so many smells here in Japan that I can’t even identify, can’t even necessarily say I miss when I’m back in the States, but when I’m here and I smell them, all sorts of memories come flooding back of previous times spent in Japan. The faintest of scents carried on the breeze alongside the warmth of the spring sun. That steamy smell in the air as you walk past a ramen place. Food smells, of course. But also, and I feel weird to say it, but clean smells, too; not that I’m yearning for the smell of industrial chemicals, but rather that whatever they use to clean places here makes me think of shops and restaurants and campus buildings over the course of my many trips in Japan. Temple incense, of course. But also countless smells I couldn’t name at all, but just which remind me of spring, and of fun and enjoyment and adventure of past times.

At Iidabashi Station. Feels weird watching trains go by. I haven’t ridden a train in weeks.

This is my fourth time living in Japan for any serious length of time. It’s interesting, and weird, and kind of disappointing, to realize how ordinary it feels in a certain sense. My first trip to Japan, I lived here in Tokyo for four months as a study abroad student. As I’ve probably talked about too many times before on this blog, it was my first time overseas on my own, my first time living anywhere on my own that was more than 4 hours drive from home (let alone overseas); it was a brand new city, a brand new country, and I was young and just so excited by everything. And, especially in light of the fact that I didn’t think I would necessarily ever come back. I thought this was like my one big adventure, and that after that I would just go back home to New York and be a New Yorker the rest of my life (something which a part of me is still very attached to, but that’s a matter for a whole other post).

The second time, it was a whole five years later; after five long years of thinking I might never go back to Japan again, boom, I was living the dream, living in Yokohama for nearly a full year. Again, definitely felt like an adventure. While I was spending the vast majority of my time in class or at home doing homework (or I suppose in various cafes? I don’t really recall), and even when I wasn’t, I was largely in Yokohama and not right in the heart of things in Tokyo (or Kyoto or Osaka or Naha), even so, I learned and gained so much during that year and had an incredible good time. It was my first time living in Japan for more than just four months, my first time on my own as a college graduate, as someone a bit more mature and independent, as someone with far better Japanese language ability than when I was in college. I was *living* in Japan, not just having some crazy study abroad adventure. … And then, I came back for three or four or six weeks at a time for quite a few summers. Six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (I can’t believe it was so long ago!) definitely gave me a feel for the city, felt like I was “living” there and not just visiting. I feel like I know that city better than most I’ve visited for less time (makes sense). I would *love* to live there again. But I’m not quite counting it.

Third time, was in 2016-2017 (I want to say “recently” but I guess it’s not quite that recent anymore…), when I was here on fellowship for dissertation research. Spent six months in Okinawa and five in Tokyo, blogged about it a lot. In part because Okinawa was so new – my first time spending more than a week there, my first time getting to really live there and experience it more deeply/broadly – this third time, too, was quite the adventure. In all of these trips, I felt like I was gradually becoming more and more a Japan Scholar, or Japan Hand, or Okinawa hand, or whatever the hell term you want to use. I’m not actually a big fan of the “China hand” “Japan hand” term, but in any case, it’s direct experience of having lived here, and traveled around Japan, experience of meeting people and making connections and experiencing all different sides of life here, that is so crucial to being … well, I hesitate to use the word “expert,” but, it’s crucial to feeling valid and justified in saying you’ve had those experiences. You know your way around.

This fourth time, I was excited to open a new chapter, to live and *work* in Japan for the first time. To be here on something other than a student or cultural activities or tourist visa; to actually live and work here. I’m not sure that I have any intentions of staying for the truly long-term, but at least it doesn’t feel temporary the way a 10- or 11-month program does. I don’t have any institution to go back to in the States right now. I’m for the first time in years and years not currently affiliated with or enrolled in any school in the US. I am University of Tokyo staff. A weird thing to consider. For the first week or so of this stay, it was really exciting. Look at me, I’m University of Tokyo staff. I’m one of those people now, who lives and works in Japan. Look at me, I’m going to go to conferences and it’s going to say University of Tokyo on my name badge and on my business cards.

Some beautiful but small and so far as I know historically non-significant random temple somewhere in the area.

But, being here, I really don’t feel like I’ve necessarily become all that much more … what’s the word? Local knowledge? Cultural capital? I don’t feel like I necessarily know Tokyo any better than I did before, like I’m becoming more expert. Maybe it’s still too early to say. I think the work environment has a lot to do with it – I spend far far far more time just going to the office and going home and going back to the office than I do networking; I haven’t gone to all that many conferences or lectures or workshops or anything, nor have I gone to very many meet-ups, stand-up comedy nights, or anything like that where I might meet people and get to know a scene outside of academia. I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself still very attached to the expat community; and I actually really like it that way. I love meeting other visiting scholars, expats, whatever word you want to use. And while I absolutely don’t want to live in some segregated expat bubble – I’m certainly not going to only English-speaking restaurants or Western-style cuisine places or something like that; I’m not trying to live an American or European life in Tokyo – I’m trying to live a Tokyo life and to enjoy and appreciate Tokyo alongside other people who appreciate it similarly to how I do, and with whom I can speak comfortably and stress-free in English. It’d be nice to have Japanese friends. It’d be wonderful. Especially if they might be true friends, to really meet up with and hang out with, and not have that awkwardness of being professional colleagues/coworkers rather than friends; it would certainly do wonders for my conversational Japanese. I feel like in Okinawa it’d be a lot easier. In part because there are fewer expats around, haha. But, when I was at Ryûdai, there was a small close community of ten or so Okinawan History grad students, and I sat in on their seminars and so forth, and every now and then they invited me along to welcome parties and going away parties, to end of year parties and karaoke nights and so forth. I wasn’t fully, truly, a member of their grad student cohort – I was only a visitor – but even so, living on a campus in a small town, if and when people are going to go out, well, they certainly didn’t have to invite me along but it was very kind of them to include me in the party as it were. And I think if I were to live there longer, one way or another, on campus or off, I would get to know people. Naha is just that small of a city, and that friendly and open of a place, I think; I mean, it’s complicated, because on the one hand, maybe as a tourist they’re just being friendly because they’re friendly to all tourists, but then again on the other hand maybe because there are so many tourists some people might appreciate me a bit more because I’m more serious, not in Okinawa for just a fleeting funtimes vacation. … Anyway, once this whole coronavirus thing is over with, maybe hopefully I can find a sanshin teacher here in Tokyo, and then maybe (fingers crossed) I might be able to actually make friends with people through that. I think having something in common, having a cultural group through which you meet people, is probably a good way to do it.

Meanwhile, I’m also not sure my conversational Japanese is getting any better. At all. … I didn’t mean for this post to be one about complaining, or being down on myself. Rather, I was thinking more along the lines of just isn’t it interesting how ordinary my life in Tokyo feels right now, rather than it being the kind of adventure that my previous times were. Isn’t it interesting how it feels so ordinary compared to what my excitement was in the first week or two. I think that not really being all that integrated into any kind of life on campus, but just keeping my head down and doing my work has contributed to this a lot. I also think that once things open back up again, and we’re able to travel again, and to have workshops and conferences and all the rest, that will help a lot. Being able to use this time while I’m here to meet people, to make connections and become situated as a member of a local network, and also being able to use this time to travel and get to see more of Japan, will help a lot. I think. We’ll see. We’ll get there.

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A shop along Naha’s Yachimun-dôri (“Pottery Street”) in the Tsuboya neighborhood, the center of Okinawan pottery production for hundreds of years. Today, heavily trafficked by tourists.

I visited Okinawa for just a very few days in late October last year (2019), mainly to spend time with my friend Vicky, who is a world traveler like no one else I have ever met, but who had never been to Okinawa, wanted to go, and wanted me to show her around. Since she has trouble with stairs and inclines and so forth – and with crowds – we skipped Shuri castle during that trip. I wrote the following thoughts immediately upon my return to Tokyo, but then before I finished writing more, polishing and preparing the post for “publication,” the unimaginable happened. I cannot believe it was only a very few days later that there was this tragic accident, this fire, which destroyed the most central buildings in the complex – indeed, I still can’t believe that it happened at all.

In late January (2020), I made another very brief visit to Okinawa, before going to Amami, and aside from the many things I could say about the palace and the fire, what I would write now upon this latest trip is largely the same as how I felt during/after that previous trip.

One of the things I’m loving about Okinawa right now – and I guess I should say, specifically, the capital city of Naha in particular – is that I feel like I know Naha in a way I know no other city.

It’s dumb and untrue, but I feel like it’s “my” city in a way… This is patently dumb and untrue because, first of all, by all means, everyone who’s Okinawan, whether they grew up there or in the diaspora, they have a special connection to the place that I could only hope to ever sense or experience the slightest taste of. And I do know plenty of people – Okinawan, Japanese, (white) American – who have indeed spent more time in Okinawa than I have, and who by all means do know and in a certain sense have “claim” so to speak upon the city more than I do. But I don’t mean to compare myself to those people, so much as I mean to say that (1) within my own experience, of cities that *I* know, I feel I perhaps in a certain sense know Naha the best and (2) out of all my Japanese friends, Japanese Studies colleagues, etc, it’s easy to feel I know Naha better than any of them. It’s my place in a certain sense, if that makes sense. You sit around and talk to people about how long they’ve lived in Nagasaki or Kôchi or Sendai, how well they know Fukuoka or Sapporo or Kobe – all places I have only the most minimal experience with – and talk about how all us all know Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama to varying extents. But, Naha, I go back to Naha, and I can show you around. If you’re going, let me know, I can give you advice.

The Naha city skyline, as seen from within the grounds of Shuri castle.

New York, of course, is home in a certain sense. In a certain sense, that will always be my city. But at the same time, in another sense, New York or LA or Tokyo can never be my city, because they’re just too vast and there are too many millions of people who know all different sides of it that I’ve never seen; different lives, different experiences, different neighborhoods. Naha is small, and while there are undoubtedly many sides to it that I don’t know, haven’t seen, at the same time, I feel like I know my way around like the back of my hand as they say. All the most major landmarks, at least, from the monorail stations to the shrines, temples, museums, shopping centers, etc. “Oh, that’s in Asato? No problem, I can walk there from Makishi, no problem.” “Oh, that’s in Wakasa? Oh, I see. Well, that’ll be a bit of a walk. But maybe I can stop at Chihaya Books on the way there.” “Oh, we’re meeting up at Ryûtan-dôri? What do you think about eating at Beans? I love Beans. Or, there’s that one place right on the corner that I’ve never been to.” People suggest restaurants to go to, and very occasionally, I’ve actually been to that exact restaurant before; or, if I haven’t, I know the area, I know the neighborhood.

And while anywhere else, even in Honolulu, I don’t really have my favorite places that aren’t exactly the same places anyone else might say are also their favorites, here I really do have my go-to places, my favorite bars, restaurants, bookshops…

And I have a certain relationship with the city that I can come back here and recognize what’s changed, every store that comes up or gets shuttered…. And many memories over many individual different visits. Walking around Heiwa Dori and thinking about Sakae-san and his Daiei Shokudo. Thinking about times spent with Simone, probably some of our happiest times, getting ice cream at the same little shop several days in a row, etc…. I feel privileged to get to have this kind of relationship with the city. I remember shops that aren’t there anymore; I got to see them before they were gone. I got to visit certain places when they were brand-new. Of course, Shuri castle is perhaps the biggest of these – I had the privilege of visiting it several times before the fire. But I also remember the Okinawa Monorail before they extended it into Urasoe, and the Makishi Market before it got closed down earlier this year, though I am a bit sad I couldn’t be there to witness the actual closing. And it’s those kinds of memories or experiences, that kind of historical/cultural local knowledge, that I think is just so precious, such a privilege, even if it is, in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily something that will ever actively come out onto the page (of my professional scholarship) or necessarily play out in any way at all.

Heiwa-dôri, a maze of covered shopping arcade streets in central Naha.

Heiwa-dôri is a special place for me. I feel like it’s the kind of place that if you lived in central Naha, if you spent enough time in Heiwa-dôri, you could really get to know the people there. Really get to develop a real feel of the place. During the day it’s packed with tourists, but in the evenings, it’s all small, individual bars, very local feeling. But tons of them – like the possibilities are almost endless. Feeling like if I did live there, I might be able to develop a relationship fairly quickly, having my regular bars, maybe even get the bartenders/owners to know me.

On my very first trip to Okinawa, the very first shop I ate at was a little shokudô deep in Heiwa-dôri, way back from the main touristy street, called Daiei Shokudô. As I’ve probably related on this blog before, Sakae-san, the owner, very kindly sat with me and talked with me, invited me to come back that night to play/sing folk songs with him and his friends. Somewhere I think I still have a shirt he or his wife gave me when I arrived soaking wet from the rain. That shop is now gone; it’s been more than ten years since then. But last I asked, I asked around random shopowners in the neighborhood, and they knew who he was and they said he was still in good health, very genki. Happy to hear it. But it’s that kind of neighborhood – getting to know the individual shops, getting to know the shopowners. Living in Nishihara for six months, and staying in Tsuboya (just a couple blocks from Heiwa-dôri) on multiple occasions – with my girlfriend, with another friend, with my Dad, and since then on several occasions on my own – I went up and down those alleyways, in early morning, in late evening. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know any of the shopowners, certainly not to the extent that they’d know me. But I do feel like I’ve gotten just a taste of feeling like I “know” Heiwa-dôri, like I feel just the tiniest bit at home there, far more so than in any shopping mall / shopping arcade anywhere in Tokyo. And if I were to ever write an ethnography of a neighborhood, an ethnography of a shôtengai, boy would it be Heiwa-dôri. Absolutely. Maybe sometime down the road, years from now…

Naha Main Place, the main shopping mall (I’d say) in Naha.

And Naha Main Place, the shopping mall. Now, that’s a funny one, too. Who has special feelings about a shopping mall? But the time I spent there, unlike any tourist would, the late evenings in Naha, not yet ready to want to take the bus back to Nishihara (the University of the Ryukyus is located in a fairly out-of-the-way area; only about 20 mins from Naha by bus, but even so, “rural”, or inaka as they say in Japanese; a whole other world from the “big city” of Naha). I don’t think there is any shopping mall or department store anywhere in the world that I feel like I know my way around like I do in Naha Main Place. That’s a weird sentence. Now, this is in part because it’s so small. But, I don’t how to say it, I just… being there makes me feel like I live in Okinawa, like I am, however temporarily, a local, and not a visitor. 在沖。It’s funny, it’s crazy ironic and weird, because it is such an utterly ordinary shopping mall – none of the textured feeling of history, of local community, that Heiwa-dôri has – but even so, when I think about the experience so many grad students and others have had of making their way through daily life in Tokyo or Kyoto, and here I am, X hundreds of miles away, in some other place, buying my cellphone plan at Naha Main Place, buying my groceries there before catching a bus back to Nishihara. Watching Kimi no Na ha there. Going back time and again to ogle the kariyushi shirts and to shake my fist at how expensive they are (I don’t care if it’s handmade by local artisans and costs X number of manhours to make from special local materials and so forth, what am I supposed to do with a $300 shirt? Or even a $100 shirt for that matter? It’s just too much to spend.) Spending time at Naha Main Place makes me feel like someone who is living everyday life in Naha, and not like someone who’s there for only a few days on a trip. Someone familiar with the city, yes, admittedly in the way that a tourist would be, but also in the way a local might be. Shopping there as my normal shopping, eating at whatever, Starbucks or whatever, the mall pizzeria or whatever, and being okay with that because I’m not on vacation, I don’t need to have that special “Okinawan” Kokusai-dôri experience.

This last time that I visited Okinawa, and an Okinawan friend said “why don’t we meet up at such-and-such restaurant in Sakae-machi?” I felt like she was asking me with a sort of unspoken assumption that I would know where that was. Which I did. She made no hint of that she felt she had to take me out touristy, or take me somewhere else to show me another side of Okinawa that I wouldn’t have seen… Even though she’s from Naha, born and raised, and has infinite more experience with and connection to the city, she treated me like someone who also knows his way around; she knows this isn’t my first time in Naha, and that I don’t need help finding my way, or need to be shown “a good time,” to make me want to come back, or anything like that, any of those various ways you might treat a tourist, a visitor; no, she treated me like someone who was already there, and within a context of just “let’s meet up for dinner. where should we go?”

I feel like Sakurazaka Theatre is another touchpoint for me, like Heiwa-dôri and Naha Main Place are. It is, I think, the chief indy movie theatre in the city. If it’s not, I’d be surprised; it would mean there’s some other theater I have just completely never heard of. Sakurazaka has regular films, indy films, international art films, documentaries, film festivals… But they also have a café, and they also sell tons of local music, all sorts of books and magazines and goods, and locally-made ceramics and glasswares. It’s not just a movie theatre, but it’s also in a certain sense a center of local arts. Not that there aren’t a zillion other “arts centers” in Naha. But, if it’s an art film, documentary, film festival, it’s probably happening at Sakurazaka. If you’re looking for CDs from a certain vein of local musical artists – not the super traditional ones (though they have those too) and not the big-name pop bands, but the ones who play local gigs at the venue owned by (or in some kind of partnership with?) Sakurazaka just across the way – the artists involved in Sakurazaka’s annual “Trans Asia Music Meeting” or the annual Shimauta mix album, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ve only seen a film there once or twice. Have never eaten at their cafe. I have bought things from their shop, or at least perused the wares, on quite a few occasions. But I have been to Trans Asia Music Meeting once; they get a whole bunch of different artists and bands from – well, ostensibly it’s all over Asia but the one time I went it was one band from Taiwan, one from S Korea, and like eight or nine from Okinawa, and that was it. But still, very cool – and these artists all mingle and exchange with one another in closed workshops for a day or three or something, and then they have a big multi-venue concert, for free. Spend a whole evening going back and forth between the two halls, hearing different music, from rock to Okinawan folk to synth-remixed-Okinawan-folk. Going to this event was probably my only time showing, or acting upon, any interest in the local music scene, haha; certainly I’ve never been involved in such things in Honolulu or Tokyo, let alone in NY or LA. But at Sakurazaka, I felt like I was engaging in something special, getting to know bands I would never have heard of otherwise. Bands that 99% of my friends will never have heard of. I was obtaining a certain special kind of cultural capital. A kind of Okinawa ‘cred.’ Or something. And that’s what Sakurazaka represents to me, I think: a touchpoint where, if I lived in Naha, if I had the opportunity to really keep up with what was going on at the theatre, that would be my portal into learning about bands, films, documentaries. That would be my portal to learning about “what’s going on” in Naha – within one particular avenue, at least. And seeing tons of Okinawan, Japanese, and other films that I might not see otherwise.

Kokusai-dôri in Evening Glow. A calm, quiet, beautiful evening along Naha’s main tourist street.

All of that said, though, on this latest trip I had a bit of a realization about the character of my relationship to Naha, which I actually found rather troubling and frightening. And I’m sort of wrestling with it. Because I actually really enjoy staying near Kokusai-dôri and Heiwa-dôri and spending time there. I enjoy being in the heart of what a lot of people would consider the very touristy part of the city – the Times Square or Waikiki of Naha. … To me, this is Naha. This is my Okinawa. Quick and easy access to the museums, to the castle, to the big bookstores. I understand that for a lot of people, places like Koza or Chatan are more the “real” Okinawa. At a distance from the tourists and from the cultural displays and performances crafted specifically to appeal to the tourists, these neighborhoods put you in much more direct proximity to the military bases, to the specific kind of urban life that’s grown up around the bases – grey concrete; heavily car-oriented; A&W fast food and shopping malls and taco rice and vintage stores and bars and clubs and so on – and, I presume, in more direct proximity to poverty and unemployment and struggles otherwise of modern Okinawan life today. Or, you could go out to a place like Ôgimi, or a dozen other small villages, far removed from the city life entirely. What exactly life is like there, I don’t know. I assume it’s not as idyllic, not as filled with music and relaxation and some romanticized imagined idea of “traditional” island village life as is portrayed in movies.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying I dislike Koza or Chatan, that I wouldn’t want to spend time there, or anything like that. Frankly, I haven’t really experienced other parts of Okinawa enough to say I dislike those areas, or like them less. If anything, it’s somewhat the contrary: I feel like because I’ve never lived in Koza or Chatan, never been on-base, that maybe I haven’t experienced “the real Okinawa,” or at least haven’t experienced as much of Okinawa, as others. I feel inadequate at best, phony at worst, when I think about these other parts of the island. And that’s not even to get into talking about the other islands in the prefecture, which I very very much hope to visit someday but have yet to go to.

One of the gates of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), and the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts – Okinawa Geidai – just beyond.

But I do enjoy staying in Tsuboya or on Kokusai-dori, right in the heart of things. And I begin to worry that maybe that’s a problem. I certainly have moved away from the most explicitly touristy shops and activities – after my second or third visit, I’m far less interested in the sort of live bars where all the patrons are tourists, and I want to find somewhat more local places; I think I may be done with visiting the yatai-mura and noren-gai, these highly commercialized, brand-new restaurant streets pretending to recreate the authentic feel of alleyways filled with decades-old food stalls; I want to try to do better to figure out which shops are actually run by Okinawans. I still have my favorite shops, even if some of them are very popular with the tourists, e.g. C&C Breakfast, but I don’t think I really care about that being in some way a weakness or a problem. And I still love walking around Heiwa-dôri. But I’m beginning to appreciate more deeply, more genuinely, how locals might see Kokusai-dôri much the same way as we New Yorkers see Times Square; much the same way many who live on O‘ahu see Waikiki – as an over-commercialized tourist mecca that’s too crowded, too loud and too bright, too expensive, too plastic, and best to just be avoided. Not a place real Okinawans go. Or so I’m guessing – I haven’t had anyone say so to me explicitly, actually. But building upon what I do know about locals’ attitudes about Times Square and Waikiki and extrapolating from that, I’m embarrassed to have never really thought about that before quite as deeply, quite as seriously, in the Okinawan case.

Now that I’m no longer on such a shoestring grad student budget, I think I’m going to try to stay at Tsuboya Garden House from now on – a place I know is run by a local Okinawan owner, and not by a mainland Japanese conglomerate; even if it’s more expensive than a place like Abest Cube, and even though I absolutely can be fine with the tiny (“cabin”) guestroom and shared bathrooms at Abest and don’t need the full apartment you’re renting at Garden House, it feels like a place I’ve already developed a relationship. A place that’s decidedly less corporate, more local, a bit off the beaten path. But even there, I wonder if I’m still in a sense playing the tourist, or the expat; I will of course always be an expat, I’ll never be a local. And there’s something appealing, to be sure, about feeling like I’m the scholar, journalist, or whathaveyou, who’s been there X number of times, who always stays at the same hotel. There’s something romantic and appealing about that. But it’s also something rather elite/elitist in its way, and I don’t think I could ever really be friends with the staff so long as they’re, you know, staff, who are being paid to serve the guests and make us happy and so on and so forth.

A wonderful little thing I got in a gatchapon machine. Trying to catch them all, but at 500 yen a pop, I have absolutely no need to get the same ones twice :/ And the only ones I really want are the BEGIN guys.

Every time I go back to Okinawa I think about how much I want to live there. Of course, I do think I could be very happy living almost anywhere in Japan, and by all means could be more or less happy in various other places all around the globe. But especially now that I’m living in Tokyo, and am certainly content, and am certainly aware in an intellectual fashion of how exceptionally lucky I am to be where I am, to have the job/position that I do, and yet emotionally, I come back to Okinawa and I just immediately think about how much I would *love* to live there again. Not just contentment, but active enjoyment. I want to develop or maintain “regular” places – my regular cafés, my regular “haunts.” I want shopkeepers and the like to get to know me; I want to make friends. I want to develop stronger and deeper networks with people at the Ryûdai library and the Naha City Museum of History and numerous other institutions. I want to feel free to just do whatever – study at the Starbucks, see a movie at the Naha Q Cinemas, pop into the Junkudo – things I can’t or don’t or won’t do when I feel I’m on a tighter “I’m only here for three days” sort of schedule. And I want to gradually, eventually, get around to visiting all the different places that I might finally get to visit if I lived there more long-term, from historical sites, statues, markers, little things in this and that corner of the island, to in fact visiting other islands such as Kumejima, Iheyajima, even as far away as Taketomi or Yonaguni, something I might very well do just on a lark one weekend if I lived on Okinawa, and something I see as somewhat less likely living in Tokyo. And I want to be able to attend all the exhibitions, special talks and events, symposia and conferences, concerts, film screenings, all the things that go on throughout the year… And I also want to be there to witness big changes. Like the opening or closing of a new public market, prefectural library, or whathaveyou.

A good kitty named Donnie ドニー. Lives at the guesthouse. It was so good to see them again after so many years. And when no one was looking, Donnie even jumped up on my lap and let me pet them, for a really nice long few minutes.

And I think it’s okay to live in Okinawa, or want to live in Okinawa, as whoever you are. I will never be Okinawan. I will always be an outsider who’s there because of my interest and enthusiasm for history and culture. And I certainly try to do my best to be as respectful as possible of the historical, cultural, spiritual significance of sites, and to just generally try as much as possible to avoid being an obnoxious or bad tourist in whatever various ways. But, at the same time, am I not inevitably in some way a perpetual tourist? Am I not consuming Okinawa in a sense, and is that not unavoidably, irreparably, at the core of what appeals to me about visiting or living there?

I guess on this latest trip I came to realize more seriously, or more strongly, than I had before just how much my own experience is just so different from that of locals, the extent of the gap not only between how they and I do experience Okinawa, but also the gap between how they and I want to see, understand, know, experience Okinawa. Their Okinawa will never be my Okinawa, and while my feelings and attitudes and preferences and perspectives are constantly changing and evolving, I begin to have a worry deep in my gut… what if it’s not okay to be this different person, to experience and engage with Okinawa in this different way? What if on some fundamental level my entire approach to Okinawa, what I love about being there, is at its core orientalist or the like? What if on some level, to some extent, in some way, the really best thing to do is to either adopt the perspective of the “indigenous rights” activists, or certain other segments of the population, or else just leave, sever my ties to Okinawan Studies, admit that I was being Orientalist or colonialist or racist or something about it and go find something else to do with my life?

Just another view of Naha rooftops, from a hill right near Sakurazaka.

I would love to live in Okinawa again, and to be able to live a more everyday life there. I think being there for a longer time would in and of itself make it less of a “trip,” less of a “vacation”; it would allow me the opportunity to engage with Okinawa in a more normal, everyday way, in terms of using the shopping malls and department stores more in the way that locals do – to buy anything and everything, mundane things, things for the apartment; in terms of popping into museums, bookstores, and all the rest as a (temporary) local and not as a one-time (or, eighth- or ninth- or tenth-time) “tourist” visitor. Dropping by to see what’s going on that day, coming back another time, and so forth, rather than the energy of the visitor who is trying to squeeze in as much as possible into only a short few days, buying all the books they can now because they won’t have a chance next week, and like that. But regardless, even if I did live in Okinawa again more long-term, still I would live a certain life: the life of a scholar, the life of someone who spends a lot of time at museums and bookstores and academic events; the life of someone who’s deeply excited to be as active as possible in experiencing cultural events (concerts, plays, etc), and who is not here for family, for community activism of the same flavor as most local community activists – if I really were to be here more long-term I just might get involved with some cultural organization, like the Shuri machizukuri kai (roughly, “Shuri community-building association”) or some Shurijô-fukugen-nantoka-kai (“Shuri castle restoration something-something association”), but it’s just not who I am to get involved with the more “local community activism” kind of stuff like really grassroots community organizing, teaching kids indigenous knowledge, and so forth. For those who are doing those things, more power to them. I think you do amazing work, and it’s so important, and I wish you the best. But it’s not my place; it’s not for me, and I don’t think they’d necessarily want me there anyway, in spaces where it’s all about Okinawans claiming space for themselves and building their own future and so forth.

I have some friends in Okinawa – Okinawan, Japanese, and from other backgrounds – who I do easily imagine I could become even more regular friends with. Meet up from time to time for a beer. Ask how they’re doing, how their partner is doing, how things went with X thing that had been going on in their lives. Say hello to their cat. Connect and reconnect, say “let’s get together again sometime.” Not just academics, but a guesthouse owner, a magazine editor, a member of staff at the consulate. And who knows, I’d like to think that if I lived in Okinawa again, maybe I just might end up becoming friends with someone who works at the movie theatre or the t-shirt shop or the café or the pottery shop, though I know that’s a whole other complex can of worms – the retail/service industry people who are obligated by their job position to be friendly to you but are they actually feeling or wanting to be friendly? … But to actually become friends and not just collegial colleagues with people at the museums and so forth…

But I think that living in Okinawa I would also have to carefully navigate, and adapt to a constant state of perpetually navigating, my position between certain groups – including the core Ryukyu Studies scholars who are native Japanese language speakers/readers/writers trained at Ryûdai or elsewhere who will forever be the ones I am interacting with at conferences, symposia, etc etc and who, if I should ever get on the wrong side of any one of them or of the group as a whole I’m sunk; certain categories of indigenous and community activists who have particular politics which, again, I can’t necessarily jump on-board with a hundred hundred percent but who I also cannot afford to have them mark me as the wrong kind of person (racist, imperialist, orientalist, whatever) and get ostracized or defamed or whatever… Within the world of Japanese Studies in the West, or among English-speakers, or however one wishes to put it, I’m relatively free to be as I wish. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to navigate there to be sure and I’m by no means alone in the field of Ryukyuan Studies, or Early Modern Japanese foreign relations, or anything like that. It’s not like I’m entirely unanswerable to anyone. And I certainly certainly don’t consider myself an expert, let alone the expert, on anything. I see my expertise as very beginner-level still, deeply incomplete, flawed, with massive gaps. But even so, on a more casual level, just in terms of chatting with whomever I may happen to meet in Tokyo, or at a conference in the States, or whatever, among those people I’m generally the only Okinawa specialist in the room, and if I’m not, I’m the only premodern / early modern Ryukyu person in the room, and so while I certainly would like to think that I’m a rather humble person and I very much hope that I am, there isn’t that context of a pressure, to have to be deferential to others who, whether because of their academic expertise (in the case of Ryûdai people) or their life experience and cultural/ethnic identity (in the case of Okinawan community activists etc.) I have to be very careful who I am around them, how I behave, what I say that I think or know or believe… Who would I be if I lived in Okinawa long-term, relative to those communities? For myself, I would enjoy myself and continue experiencing and engaging and learning and growing, I would continue reading and researching, and I would produce whatever I produced and shoot it off into the English-speaking world (e.g. journal submissions, conference presentations), but within certain circles in Okinawa I would be perpetually out of my depth, perpetually the one who is far behind and can’t keep up… and how would that feel? What relationship or role or lifestyle would that develop into?

Lots to think about. I guess I’ll just have to keep carrying this with me. See how I feel upon my next visit to Okinawa again. I’ve found Okinawan colleagues, friends, others, to almost always be so much more welcoming, accepting, easy-going about these sorts of things than I sometimes fear and worry about. They relieve my anxieties. I wonder if living there again, rather than this popping-in popping-out brief visits pattern, would make me feel more settled about a lot of this. But even so, if this last visit is any indication, I fear that ironically, conversely, I may be finding my relationship to Naha, and to Okinawa, growing incrementally less comfortable, and not more so, the longer I keep at it.

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Driving on Amami

While on Amami Ôshima, I rented a car and drove for the first time in Japan. Driving on the left takes a little bit of getting used to. You have to constantly remind yourself to be on the correct side of the road, and especially when making turns, which side of the road you’re supposed to end up on. Plus all the signs are in Japanese (and English) and are different colors, shapes, styles from in the US. Different symbols. So if you’re moving along, you only have a few seconds to figure out what a given sign means – have to interpret very quickly. But, actually, all of this ended up being far easier than I’d expected. The two things that gave me trouble: the fact that the driver’s seat is on the opposite side of the car, which means my general feeling of how far to the left or right I was, how centered I was on the road, was all messed up. I was constantly drifting off (just the tiniest bit) across the left side of the road, because I wasn’t used to having that much car to the left of me. And I was probably leaving more space than I needed to on the right, because I’m used to having half of the car be to the right of me, if that makes sense. Secondly, really, the thing that gave me the most trouble was having the turn signals and wiper controls switched. So my instincts, to just flip that switch every time I was about to make a turn, inevitably ended up turning the wipers on and off and not actually signalling… it was a mess.

National Route 58 is the main national highway which runs the length of Amami Ôshima from north to south, and also the length of Okinawa Island from north to south.

But I am so glad to have rented a car. Number one, because I’d been nervous about doing so, and Amami was the perfect place to get over that. There are very few other cars on the road (especially outside of Naze city center), and everyone’s pretty slow and kind and just not in a hurry or anything; that is to say, the other drivers are patient and kind with one another, and with me. At one point, when I even parked myself somewhere that I couldn’t figure out how to get out of (there was a drainage ditch behind my car, and I didn’t have a good sense of how far I could back up out of the parking spot before I’d fall in the ditch), I was even able to ask a local person to pull out for me, and he very kindly took the time to do it.

But also, number two, I was so glad to have rented a car because it gave me such freedom to make it out to all kinds of sites – and in relatively good time – that would have been a pain in the ass to get to by public bus. The downside, of course, is that you can’t take photos while you’re driving (or read, or do anything else) the way you can while you’re on a bus. But, not only hitting “major” historical sites and stuff, but also just being free and on my own to stop at the one FamilyMart with the fun map/pictures of Amami, and just otherwise stop wherever, was wonderful.

At one of the very few FamilyMarts on the island.

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Reading Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu again and thinking about some of the issues I touched upon in the last post – is Amami “Ryukyu” or “Japan”? – I come upon a frustration with Maritime Ryukyu that I have had with nearly every work I’ve read in English about Ryukyu, one which I thought I might endeavor to remedy in my own work. Namely: just about every book or article I’ve read about Okinawa uses some standard Japanese readings and some Okinawan terms, jumbled up, interspersed right next to one another, without explicitly labeling them.

Left: A storefront in central Naze marked as both a “sanshin” サンシン・三線 shop, using the Ryukyuan term, and an “Amami shamisen” 奄美三味線 shop, using the Japanese term for the instrument. Which is more truly, or commonly, or standardly, the “Amami” term, I don’t know.

When I thought I would do better in my own work, I ran into all kinds of difficulties (what is the Okinawan reading for this term? what’s the best way to label which reading a given word is?). And I guess it’s something I’m still thinking about and struggling with. To my surprise, despite the entire book, Maritime Ryukyu, being about trying to disentangle our understanding of Ryukyuan history from the myths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods put forward in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s official histories, Smits seems to not be so careful with his choice of readings/spellings for a lot of things. Or, if there’s a strict logic to it, I don’t see it. He labels a location within Okinawa as Kyan (喜屋武), using the Okinawan reading for the place, and not calling it Kiyabu, which someone with zero background in Okinawan language and only in Japanese language might assume, based on the kanji characters. But then on the very same page he talks about Sonohiyabu utaki 園比屋武, a reading I have never seen elsewhere; the more common reading, “Sonohyan utaki” does not appear anywhere in the book. He acknowledges the complexity by identifying one place on the map as “Gushichan (Gushikami),” giving both readings, but then calls a nearby location Yomitanzan, never writing Yuntanzan anywhere in the book. He goes out of his way to inform the reader that the Japanese equivalent of Tamaudun is Tamaodon even though I don’t believe I have ever, in any context whatsoever, ever seen the site referred to as Tamaodon (or that character, , read as ”odon”; it’s typically either ”misasagi” or ”ryô”). But then for some terms he goes the other way, talking about ”utaki” (an Okinawan term) without ever bothering to note that it would be the equivalent of ”otake” in standard Japanese.

Some of these choices I still think are quite strange, at the very least. But, thinking about the broader issue – properly distinguishing what’s Okinawan/Ryukyuan and what’s Japanese – and thinking about how one traveling to Amami (or for that matter anywhere in Okinawa prefecture) might find themselves unconsciously noticing what strikes them as “Ryukyuan” and what as “Japanese,” I think I am gradually coming around to maybe taking a more laid-back and postmodernist position on the whole thing – why do we need to categorize it so strictly anyway, what’s Okinawan or Amami and what’s Japanese?

Arimori Shrine 有森神社 on Amami Ôshima. A shrine dedicated to a Japanese warrior, and constructed in definitely a Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style (a Ryukyuan utaki would involve some stone walls, but otherwise minimal manmade structure), but if I’m not mistaken in a lighter wood, a different aesthetic somewhat to most archetypal/stereotypical “mainland” Shinto shrines.

As I said in my previous post, when I lived in Okinawa – and I think being there for an extended period of time, without much exposure to visits to “mainland” Japan, contributed to this – I did keep noticing what stood out as (seemingly, perhaps) distinctively Okinawan, and what strikingly Japanese. But my experience on Amami last month struck me quite differently, and got me seeing things differently. Now, instead of saying that some cultural elements are A and some are B, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable seeing it all as just one big giant mush of simply being what it is. After all, culture is complex, it’s diverse, it takes in different influences, it evolves and changes. It’s organic. What’s not organic is the imposition, by politics, by scholars, or otherwise, of declaring what is A and what is not A, and what is B. Which individual pieces of the culture are “local” or “native” Ryukyuan Amami culture and which are Japanese. But Amami is not a box of red and blue marbles that have been thrown together. Amami is like a box of marbles in all different shades of purple. A spectrum, each element not pure or emblematically “Japanese” or “Ryukyuan,” but rather all marbles reflective of the reality of Amami, and all of them one form or another of mixed or in-between, in and of themselves. Something like that.

If there’s one theme that I think has always underlied and driven my interest in history, it’s an appreciation of the incredible, vibrant, cultural diversity of our world. Neither “Japan” nor “Ryukyu” should be essentialized, as if there is any singular, definitive, true form of each. Each contains within it incredible diversity, a range of complex and different cultural traditions, expressions, and elements.

An adan アダン or pandanus fruit. Though the leaves are traditionally woven into hats, baskets, mats, even sails in many cultures all across the Pacific, within Japan the image of the adan is particularly associated with Amami, perhaps thanks in part to painter Tanaka Isson.

Relatedly, visiting Amami has really gotten me thinking about the unending diversity and range to be explored within Japanese Studies, and how that kind of range or depth or diversity is so often not appreciated or rewarded or encouraged in US-based academia. Yes, it’s true, that a large part of what makes Amami fascinating for me, especially on this initial trip, first impressions and all that (i.e. perhaps more so than if I were far more deeply engaged into & committed to Amami Studies), is how Amami (and/or Yoron, Kikai, etc.) expands, challenges, informs, alters our understandings of “Japan” and “Ryukyu.” There’s oodles to be said about how the inclusion of these islands expands and alters our perception of the scope of what counts as “Japanese” history, how the historical narrative changes if we devote just a bit more focus to the significance of trade or migration or influence or engagement otherwise with/from the islands, and so on. And the same for how Amami makes us reconsider various aspects of “Okinawan” or “Ryukyuan” history.

But, whether we’re talking about Japanese history, Okinawan history, or Amami history, the question always comes back around to, why should the study of this place’s history and culture only be of interest when it applies to some larger, broader, more abstract concept? What can Amami teach us about colonialism? About “frontiers”? About islands or Island Studies? Don’t get me wrong, with the right approach, the right argument, it could be fascinating. I have read some work in this vein and it is fascinating, and I enjoy it very much, and I am eager to read more of it. And, on a sort of flip side, I would absolutely love to see people who are discussing these topics in a global or non-Asian-focused context include more consideration of more different places. And, yes, admittedly, I do understand that it goes just the same in the opposite direction – as a specialist in French, Mexican, or US history, you may feel quite passionately that your own topic is just so interesting, in and of itself, as an exploration of that particular time and place in and of itself, and you might not understand why a Japan specialist like me doesn’t get it, isn’t revved up by it. Fair enough. I see that. If I were that interested in US or French or Mexican history I wouldn’t be a Japan specialist to begin with. But even so.

I love visiting new places, especially within Japan, and seeing how each different part of Japan is similar yet different; how the puzzle pieces fit together, with each region having so many points of similarity or interconnection with other regions or with the national narrative and yet also so many aspects to their history that are distinctive to that place. In Amami, we find sacred sites associated with or dedicated to Ryukyuan deities that are scarcely if at all worshipped in mainland Japan, but they’re worshipped at sites that resemble more than anything Shinto shrines. But those shrines, with their torii gates and haiden worship halls, are even so painted in colors I’ve never seen elsewhere, or have a particular light-wooden aesthetic that feels distinct from the standard mainstream aesthetic. We find Shinto shrines dedicated to members of the Taira (Heike) clan who according to local legend survived the battle of Dan-no-ura and made it to Amami. The Taira and the battle of Dan-no-ura are about as central as one could possibly get to mainstream Japanese national history. The Tale of the Heike is one of the most famous and standard items of medieval Japanese literature; it’s read not only in (I would imagine) middle school or high school classrooms all across Japan, but in Japanese Studies classrooms all around the world. It appears prominently in various traditional music genres, Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre, all over premodern and early modern literature and painting, and so on and so forth. But, naturally, different parts of the (hi)story take place in different places, and no matter how much time you spend in Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll only ever see parts of it. The final defeat of the Heike was at Dan-no-ura, at Shimonoseki. Those that survived, if they did indeed survive and it’s not just legend, fled to parts of Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyus. Visit Shimonoseki, certain sites in Shikoku and Kyushu, and Amami, and you’ll see, read, learn, experience, different parts of their story.

Reconstruction of the home Saigo Takamori and his Amami wife Aikana lived in during his exile.

Saigo Takamori is another example. Saigo is so lionized and celebrated in Japanese history, especially among samurai history enthusiasts, that as a result I have never had much interest in his history at all. He’s way overblown, over-canonized, some great national hero who’s become a total cartoon of his actual historical self. But, here again, if you hang out in Tokyo, you’ll learn one aspect of his story; if you visit museums in Kagoshima, you’ll get another. But in both versions of the story, the fact that he lived in exile in Amami for three years is (I would presume; I haven’t actually read very much about Saigo and I don’t plan to) a footnote, quickly passed over to focus more on his activities on the national stage. And yet, you come to Amami, and if you’re like me and knew nothing about him except for some generalities about his role in pushing for, and then rebelling against, the new Meiji Imperial Government; if half of what you think you know about Saigo comes from The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise as the wholly unnecessary white man in a movie that could have and arguably should have been entirely about Japanese characters, then you may be surprised and intrigued, as I was, to learn that Saigo married a woman from Amami, whose surname was simply Ryû 龍 (not a surname I’ve ever seen in Japan before; and one-character surnames are fairly rare in Japan), whose Ryû lineage (if I have the story right) was descended from Ryukyu Kingdom officials who came from Okinawa Island and settled in this particular neighborhood of what’s now Tatsugô Town 龍郷町, and whose relations – that is, the broader Ryû branch families, etc etc, taken as a whole – still control roughly half the land in that village today. A completely different side to the story than I might ever have known otherwise. And to see the Ryû family cemetery, and to think about not just Saigo Takamori himself and his brother Saigo Tsugumichi who were so prominent and significant in various ways in the national-level narrative of “Japanese history,” but to think about his wife’s family, these various other Ryû family individuals, who they were, what exactly their connections were to exactly what places or historical events or developments in Okinawan history; and to the local history right there on Amami; and so forth.

The Ryû family cemetery in Tatsugô Town, on Amami Ôshima, near Saigo’s home in exile.

Everywhere you go in Japan, you see, learn, experience things which challenge, expand, deepen your understandings of “Japan,” of “Japanese history,” of “Japanese culture.” History is an infinitely rich tapestry; the history of Japan no less so.

And on that note, I think I’ve run out of steam. But this is most certainly something I am going to keep thinking about, and keep coming back to. If there’s one theme that runs through my approach to teaching (that is, courses I’m planning, if and when I should ever actually get the chance to teach them), it’s diversity; learning about and gaining an appreciation for, and simply enjoying and thinking about the incredible, vibrant, infinite diversity of our world.

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Amami: Yamato or Ryukyu?

I count myself just so incredibly fortunate that I get to travel the way I do. After a brief trip back to Okinawa yet again, which I may write about in a separate soon forthcoming post, I managed to take a few days and visit the island of Amami Ôshima, a beautiful and fascinating place which despite being the 7th largest island in Japan (i.e. still pretty sizable) is I would venture to say far off the radar of most tourists and travelers, Japanese or otherwise.

First of all, before I say anything else, I guess I should simply say that it’s beautiful. The greenery, the sea, the sky, it’s beautiful. I’m not sure what I expected – I guess that since I was leaving Okinawa prefecture, that I’d be going back into winter. And, in a certain sense, that’s true. The entire region, from southern Kyushu down through Okinawa, saw a bizarre few days of genuinely summery weather for pretty much the whole time I was in Okinawa (75F / 24C in Naha on Sat Jan 25!), and then several days of very strong and cold winds, and on & off rain, while I was in Amami. So, not necessarily indicative of a difference between the two places so much as changing weather patterns across the week. But, in any case, who am I kidding? It was beautiful when I visited Hiroshima back in 2018 too. Regardless of whether you’re in “the islands” or the “mainland,” there’s still plenty opportunity for beauty.

Tiny lanes with stone walls, in a section of Tatsugô Town near where Saigô Takamori’s old house has been reconstructed. One of many little village communities on the island; reminds me of Ôgimi, way-out-there inaka village in the northern part of Okinawa Island.

So, I guess before I delve into the history or the culture, I should say something about just the general feel of the island, in terms of how rural or urban it is. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But now that I’ve visited, looking back over the last few years I’m realizing that my sense from X years ago that actually I’d only ever seen the big urban centers, the major touristy cities, in Japan and had never actually really seen other parts, let alone truly “countryside” parts – that is no longer true. Amami is definitely inaka – the countryside, or however you might want to translate that. I mean, it’s a big island, over 700 sq km (roughly 275 sq mi?), but with only about 73,000 people, and while I sorely regret not visiting any of the shimanchu marts, which is just adorable, there are only five or six big chain convenience store locations (all FamilyMarts, no 7-11 or Lawson) on the entire island, for whatever sense that may give.

In terms of the general feel of how it looks and feels driving around here, what the roads and the view along the sides of the road look like, and so forth, I’m not sure I thought about it in this way at the time, but sitting in the hotel room and looking back upon today, I think it was very much like driving around the more rural parts of Okinawa. Long stretches of little more than lush greenery and wide open sky and the occasional (or much more than just occasional) view of the ocean; and in town, not sure how to describe it, but a level of urban/rural that reminds me very much of, for example, Ginowan. Much more of a working, industrial city than a touristy one. Even with the beautiful view of the water from my hotel room, it felt like grey, concrete, industrial. Not the sort of semi-tropical “island vacation” feel you get in many parts of Okinawa or Hawaiʻi. And as soon as you leave the most central urban part of urban Naze, you get into long drags with intermittent large box stores with large parking lots, though I suppose it reminds me of many mainland Japanese cities as well – driving around Hiroshima or Kure, for example, but not Tokyo.

Above: a warehouse in central Naze. Below: Tecchan, a great little keihan restaurant on the side of the highway.

Amami is located roughly halfway between Okinawa (to the south) and Kyushu – i.e. “mainland” Japan – to the north. A part of the broader Ryukyuan/south Kyushu cultural zone in ancient times, and in fact a major center of trade and activity in the 10th-11th centuries or so before Okinawa Island ever was, Amami was forcibly incorporated into the orbit of the Okinawa-centered Ryukyu Kingdom in the mid-16th century, and then conquered and annexed just a few decades later by the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Kagoshima. Unlike Okinawa and the other islands to the south which remained under the control of the largely independent Ryukyu Kingdom (though the king was counted as a vassal of the Shimazu, and owed various obligations to them), Amami and the surrounding islands came under more direct Satsuma control, and thus for several hundred years longer than Okinawa and the southern Ryukyus had at least somewhat more direct and extensive Japanese influence. Jumping ahead to the end of the post-WWII Occupation in 1952, the US military thought for a fancy moment that they just might get to keep all of the Ryukyus indefinitely, as one giant military colony, a whole series of “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” But while they managed to continue the Occupation in Okinawa for another 20 years, Amami was “reverted” to Japanese authority in 1953. So, building upon a fundamental base of indigenous/ancient Ryukyuan culture – which can still be seen in the language, the local deities, folk music and folk festivals, etc. – Amami has a far longer history of being (in one way or another) under the control of, or incorporated into, some form of “Japanese” polity, nation, cultural sphere.

As a result of this geography and history, the one main thing I’d think anyone should expect when coming to a place like Amami is a preconception or expectation of curiosity of just how “Ryukyuan” vs. “Japanese” it’s going to be. And I found my experience of this to be, well, interesting. When I visited Japanese restaurants in Okinawa, I was struck, really struck, by how “Japanese” they felt. Like it really was a foreign culture; the Japanese restaurant at Naha Main Place felt to me no less foreign to Okinawa than being in a Chinese or Indian restaurant, and I consciously felt, or imagined, an added layer of colonial imposition. Being in that restaurant it was just so easy to imagine up some image of Japan having come in and inserted Japaneseness, including Japanese restaurants, into everyday Okinawan life. … And of course I’m in a different position myself right now, having been in Okinawa for only the last few days, and Tokyo for months before that, as compared to the time I went to that Japanese restaurant in the mall in Naha after having lived in Okinawa for months, eating a lot of Okinawan food and having not been to a soba/udon/washoku place for a long time. ….

But still all of that said, getting to the point, I was surprised to find I didn’t feel that shock value on Amami. I did feel there were clearly many things around that were decidedly Ryukyuan, intermixed with many features that make me feel like it’s just another region of Japan – like it’s not a different culture entirely, but just one possible variation, just like I might expect to find in traveling around various parts of “mainland” Kyushu or Shikoku and seeing what the local culture might happen to be like there. From certain local food specialities like keihan, to individual local products like the “shima ramune” (ramune soda made with juice from local citrus), to t-shirts and tote bags labeled with Amami themed images, I feel like it’s just the Amami equivalent of exactly the same kind of “local” stuff I’ve seen in the Inland Sea, for example. But it’s interesting, that at least in this very few interactions or experiences so far, it hasn’t struck me as decidedly Ryukyuan or decidedly Japanese, or as intriguingly mixed. It just is what it is. To be sure, if you wrote out a list of cultural features, you could say which things can be put in a Ryukyuan column, and which in a Japanese column, and you could craft out an imagined understanding of Amami that is, indeed, a matter of multiple different cultural layers placed upon one another. The Ryukyuan deity Amamikyo, for example, being worshipped on Amami but in sites featuring Shinto shrine architecture rather than more closely resembling the kinds of spaces you’d find at Okinawan utaki.

Above: A shrine on Amami Ôshima dedicated to the Ryukyuan creation deity Amamikyo/Amamiku 奄美姑(阿麻弥姑), with torii gate and haiden worship hall showing a combination of Japanese and distinctive architectural features.
Below: An utaki sacred space at Ameku Shrine 天久宮 in Naha, Okinawa, which admittedly also has a torii and haiden (not shown), but which really centers on this sacred tree or sacred grove, marked by simpler stone markers.

Traveling from mainland Japan to Okinawa or vice versa I think there’s a certain degree of culture shock. But in Amami, I think what I sensed was less a striking mix of two disparate things (Ryukyu and Japan) and much more so a place that lies along a spectrum. I wonder if perhaps it’s fair – accurate – to draw a contrast between Okinawa, which of course, received considerable influence from China, Japan, and elsewhere over the course of its history but which was at the same time very much its own place, receiving a sudden, powerful influx of imposed Japanese culture beginning in the Meiji period, versus Amami, which has since ancient times possessed a culture that exists in the space where the two (Ryukyu and Japan) fade into one another. Okinawan songs might have two sets of lyrics – a more traditional set of lyrics, in the Okinawan language, passed down through the generations by oral tradition and custom, and another in the Japanese language, invented by a record company or radio company in the 20th century and deliberately introduced for commercial purposes which has since gained widespread familiarity; by contrast, I don’t know much about Amami music, but from what little I do know, it’s played on an Okinawan sanshin, but in a scale shared with certain mainland Japanese traditions, and sung in a language which lies in-between Okinawan and Japanese. Traveling from Japan to Okinawa, you go from a place where “today” is kyô to a place where (if people are speaking in Okinawan, rather than in Japanese) “today” is chû. Two distant points along a spectrum. But on Amami, if people are speaking “shimaguchi” (island language), it’s kyû. Just a little different from standard Japanese, and I can easily imagine certain parts of Kyushu or Shikoku having similar vowel shifts… but you can also see how it’s in a sense halfway towards the Okinawan pronunciation. Kyô–>Kyû–>Chû.

Three different varieties of Miki. Thanks to the owner of the Amami-an bookstore for introducing me to this interesting and, frankly, delicious, drink.

Food, of course, is another thing to consider. And I honestly wasn’t sure what to think. Amami food is certainly different from Okinawan food, albeit with some similarities. And there are some things that are definitely distinctive, if not entirely unique, to Amami, starting with Miki ミキ, a drink made from rice, sugar, sweet potato, and water, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Okinawa, and which I could imagine discovering as some regional specialty somewhere in “mainland” Japan but which is certainly not mainstream standard. I’ve never seen anything like it in Tokyo or Kyoto, except for maybe amazake which is I guess a bit similar but is not sold in bottles or cartons right alongside the juices and sodas.

And there’s keihan – what Okinawa soba is to Okinawa, the one most iconic, most standard, if it’s an Okinawan restaurant they’re sure to have this, dish, keihan is to Amami, it would seem. Chicken soup with rice. And some other, more distinctly Japanese toppings (picked ginger, shredded nori, thin slices of omelette, etc.). Very tasty. … Another thing I was told about and saw on menus but never got around to trying was the goya (bitter melon), which on Okinawa is often cooked in a style of stir-fry called chanpuru, but which on Amami is apparently served cooked in miso; and, I don’t know if this is typical or indicative, but on Amami I saw it described on menus as nigauri 苦瓜 – literally, bitter melon, a melon that is bitter – rather than using the Ryukyuan(?) term gôya ゴーヤー. … But what I didn’t realize until just now, a couple of days after getting back, is that I don’t think I ever saw any soba or udon or sushi on the island. I’m not even sure if I saw ramen. There was that one shop I sat down in that had omuraisu (omelette rice), a standard mainland Japanese dish invented/introduced in the late 19th or early 20th century… but when I was experiencing that culture shock at the shopping mall in Naha, it was in large part because I had walked into a restaurant where nearly every aspect of the decor and menu was identical to what you might find in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Nagoya. Udon, soba, sushi, wholly entirely standard stuff. Whereas on Amami, the entire feel was of it being a variation on Japanese culture – something that you could absolutely imagine exists within the regional variation within Japan, not needing to be seen as outside of it – and yet with hints or touches that, if you can recognize them, are decidedly Ryukyuan.

I guess that’s it for now. I’ve kind of run out of steam…

Below: video I took at a concert of Amami folk music performed here in Tokyo a few months ago. Amami folk music has a ton in common with mainland Japanese folk music, and uses a Japanese musical scale – not the Okinawan one – so the overall sound is quite distinct from that of traditional music anywhere in Okinawa prefecture, even though the instrument they play is little different from the Okinawan sanshin. Visiting a live-music shimauta (lit. “island songs”) bar was one of the primary things I was excited to do on Amami, but in the end, the only shimauta bar I knew of (Kazumi – recommended by multiple people, probably one of the top ones on the island) was totally packed one night, and unexpectedly closed the next. Oh well, maybe next time.

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Wakayama

The main tower keep of Wakayama castle, reconstructed since the war.

Wakayama wasn’t exactly top of my list. Sure, if I were to go, I figured, they’d probably have some really good exhibits about each of the Kishû lords (close relatives of the main shogunal lineage, incl. some particularly historically significant figures), and some nice historically significant sites or plaques I wouldn’t have known about or expected…

In the end I actually didn’t see very much of that. But I am still very glad that I went.

Copies of the Gunsho Chiyô, printed in Wakayama. In a different context, maybe I’d think this was super cool to get to see. But they provide no context for it, no inspiring exhibit design, just objects in cases with minimal explanation …

Wakayama castle, to begin with, is gorgeous. From the outside, at least. Very photogenic. Sadly, the inside is much like a number of other castles I have visited (Hiroshima and Fukuyama come to mind); displays of weapons, armor, calligraphy, paintings, and other items representative of the both civil (cultured) and martial history of the castle and of its lords, but without much context and without much exhibit design to it. There were some cool objects, to be sure, including matchlock firearms, calligraphy and paintings by the lords themselves, but if you don’t know much about the history of the castle, history of the town, history of the Kishû Tokugawa house, you won’t get it here.

After seeing the Wakayama Prefectural Museum a few days later, the contrast was even more stark. Though surprisingly small – consisting of basically just two rooms – the permanent exhibition at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum was extremely well-done, I thought. Upon walking in, it immediately reminded me of the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum (Reimeikan) and Fukuoka City Museum. Lots of gallery text and displays, reproductions of images, maps, and diagrams, and of course an excellent selection of interesting and historically significant objects. But the Wakayama Museum takes it further: they also have wonderful little models, at least one for each era I think, showing what a village, a Buddhist temple, or some other architectural assemblage would have looked like in each period. Each is beautifully done, and is set with a large reproduction image behind it that provides a very photogenic background. In the section of the exhibit on religion, they have models of how certain rituals were performed. And the museum also displays quite a few hands-on objects, so you can touch and feel plastic reproductions of things from Jômon/Yayoi pottery to how a multi-piece Buddha sculpture is assembled, to roof tiles, to Noh masks. To be frank, I didn’t get much out of handling these plastic objects – you don’t get a real sense of the weight or texture of the actual wood, clay, or metal objects – but even so it was very cool to see them there, an extra feature beyond what most museums have.

Model of an Edo period local official’s residence (for an Ôshôya 大庄屋, appointed by the domain to oversee several, or several tens, of villages.

It was a little disappointing, or maybe I should just say surprising, to see the early modern section be so short. Where other prefectural and city history museums might highlight each and every successive Edo period lord of the domain, the Wakayama Museum just sort of blew through the Edo period in just as short a time as it did each other period of history – again, remember, the entire exhibit is only two rooms. I was disappointed to not have that chance to photograph displays about each lord and thus learn a little bit more about each lord, but at the same time, I think I was actually impressed and saw this as a positive thing, that perhaps (intentionally or otherwise) the Wakayama Museum is in a way rebelling against the undue lionization, valorization, of these figures.

The main gate at Kishû Tôshôgû.

It was only a very short trip, and we didn’t bother to see very much of Wakayama City itself, but from what we did see, and what I gather from Google Maps, travel pamphlets, and so forth, Wakayama sadly seems to be a rather sad city (from a tourist / traveler point of view). Similar to what little I saw of Himeji, and starkly unlike what I’ve experienced of Kagoshima, Kanazawa, and Kamakura (for example), not to mention Naha and Kyoto, Wakayama doesn’t really seem to have much energy to it, as an interesting or exciting urban environment. I’m sorry to be this blunt about it, but softer words aren’t coming to mind at the moment. I can walk around Kagoshima or Kamakura and get the feeling of being in a particular, unique city, and feel I’m experiencing a particular cultural, historical, aura unique to that place. Wakayama, from what little we saw of its department stores, hotels, chain restaurants, and just block after block of concrete, steel, and glass, just doesn’t seem to have that energy. And it makes me sad for what so many other Japanese cities might be like. Is this what Takamatsu or Nagano or Hirosaki or Ichinomiya are like?

But, putting that aside, one thing that has little to do with modern development (or more recent contemporary phenomena of rural depopulation, etc.) is that simply because of how they were established in the premodern or early modern periods, a great many of the key sites of historical/cultural interest in Wakayama are well outside of the city. In Kagoshima, Fukuoka/Hakata, Kamakura, and quite a few other cities I have visited, of course there are plenty more sites of interest out in the suburbs and countryside, but the cities themselves are packed with notable sites. In Wakayama, by contrast, the Kishû Tokugawa clan established their Tôshôgû Shrine (a shrine dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa house, Ieyasu, and to his son Yorinobu, founder of the Kishû branch) some distance outside of the city. And they buried their lords at a temple even further from the city. This is a choice, and it’s interesting. I wonder if there’s something to be uncovered or examined here – which daimyo houses were more city-oriented, building more of these sorts of sites within their chief castle-town, and which were not, and why? What does this have to do with the lords themselves (personal preference, politics, or other reasons), and what does it have to do with geography?

At Kishû Kôzan-ji.

We rented a car, basically just to get out and see the area a little bit, without any real destinations in mind… In the end, we saw the Kishû Tôshôgû, and also by sheer chance chose to stop at Kôzan-ji (not the big famous Kyoto Kôzan-ji, but another temple by the same name), which turned out to be very much well-worth it. The Wakayama Tanabe Kôzan-ji, though not necessarily of any great historical significance itself, is a beautiful space, with multiple buildings in different styles (and colors!) offering a beautiful peaceful energy and aesthetic, and some great views and shots. Plus, the grounds of the temple were also (much more recently) the site of significant archaeological discoveries, of both a Jômon era community (5000-8000 years ago) and of Kofun era tombs (roughly 300-650 CE). One of the Jômon era pots discovered there, we later saw at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum.

Additional Wakayama sites of interest, such as the Dôjô-ji temple famous in Noh, the tiny out-of-the-way train station where Tama the cat is stationmaster, and the shores at Kushimoto where an Ottoman vessel was (famously?) shipwrecked in 1890, all happen to be further out as well. Perhaps I’ll return to Wakayama some day and get to see these.

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Having finally finished with my posts on last summer’s stay in Turkey, I can move on to some of the other travels I was privileged to engage in this past year. In late November, I traveled to London to present at a conference, and jotted down the following notes/thoughts.

11/29/18

These last few days in London have been just wonderful. I guess maybe I don’t quite remember my last few trips to London too clearly (though I could just look them up in the blog), but somehow I think that maybe this time I’ve really felt that feeling of being able to come back, and wanting to come back.

Scones and tea at Gail’s Bakery in Exmouth Market. Sometimes the simplest things are the greatest highlights of a trip.

I think getting my SOAS Alumni card made a big difference. I don’t know why I never tried to look into that possibility earlier. Having a card and being able to go in and out of the campus as I wished, and to use the library, as well as meeting up with one of my SOAS professors from many years ago not in an intimidating student-teacher sort of way but in a laidback, friendly, collegial sort of way, really helped I think. It made me feel welcome and to feel like I have a place here (that is, on previous trips perhaps I felt like SOAS was no longer a place for me, no longer a place where I belonged). Meeting up with (just a very few) friends and professors, even though I didn’t really get out into the city all that much, and certainly didn’t really do any super extensive touristy exploring or anything, I dunno, somehow I just really felt like I was on top of things, knew what I was doing for a change. By which I mean to say, yes, I did have a ton of false starts, wasted a lot of time going to the British Library only to find I couldn’t get anything done there, walking around looking for a cafe or restaurant that suited what I was in the mood for at that time, only to end up at a Cafe Nero, but, still, overall, I feel like I settled in, however briefly, to a routine, to a life, as if I were to be staying here longer. I visited a few museums, went out to a few restaurants, but also spent some considerable time just walking around or sitting in UofL student spaces, having a drink or a sandwich and getting a little work done, not feeling too out of place.

The Junior Common Room (JCR) at SOAS.

SOAS is an interesting place. Many of the students – or, at least the ones who most make themselves heard – are super activist liberal, to an extent that often rubs me the wrong way. Crazy ideological, without the nuance and complexity that comes with further age and experience.

But at the same time, it is so inspiring and interesting to be in a place where everyone around you is a non-Western specialist. Where people are actively and passionately engaged in studying everything from Kurdish language to Senegalese music to Burmese politics to Tongan economics. Where the entire library and not just some corner of it, is organized into Africa, Asia, Pacific, etc. And where most of the signs and flyers on the walls, and the books in the bookstore, are non-western, decolonial, culturally oriented, with true serious diversity unlike you ever see in a US institution’s library. Incidentally, SOAS Library is currently being threatened by terrible budget cuts. See here for information on the latest developments, and on what you can do to help.

Opening slide for a wonderful presentation by Gaylen Vankan, on a 1526 series of depictions of Turkish (Ottoman) warriors on horseback.

The Perceiving Processions symposium I was in London to attend was wonderful. I suppose that in the end I am afraid I must admit that, as almost always is the case, I sadly did not actually come away with any new insights, new methodologies, that might truly inform my research/writing going forward. I had hoped for some new insights into how we talk about processions as performative acts, as acts that actually function in some fashion to make meaning through the unique qualities of processions as a particular form of display and action. But, nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, and got some surprisingly interested excited reactions. I half expected that as the only East Asianist on the docket, people would largely just ignore me, taking my work as a curiosity but as something outside of the much deeper, more involved and engaged conversations they would want to have with one another, with their fellow Europeanists. But during the first coffee break after my talk, and to a certain extent throughout the entire rest of the day, multiple people kept wanting to talk to me, which was really something. Many of the other presentations were also really interesting, working on really interesting topics, with beautiful or otherwise really engaging sources.

One on a series of tapestries depicting Congolese royalty as Brazilian kings, in a sort of pastiche of Dutch Brazilian tropical Empire – I had no idea that there was a Dutch Brazil, or that Congolese courts or polities sent any kind of formal embassies. Not to mention the fact that the only place where this set of tapestries is still displayed in full, in order, is at the Knights of Malta Council Chamber, on Malta. The incredible degree of internationality of these topics is stunning.

Matthew Gin presented on rituals in which a Spanish princess was sent over to France to marry a French prince – a tiny island in a river between Spain and France still remains today shared between the two countries. And at that time, temporary ceremonial buildings were erected, to receive the Spanish princess and to convey her into her new life in France in a manner which ceremonially treated both countries as equals. Neither the Spanish nor the French side of the building was larger than the other, or raised up higher, or anything like that – in order to help ensure ritual equality between the two sides. As an architectural historian, he found records of these temporary buildings and reconstructed some notion of the effects or implications of that design, as well as considering the ceremony itself, though he has no pictorial representations at all of those ceremonies or their associated processions. Interesting too, that he noted that even as these Spanish princesses went and took on roles/positions within the French court, they were always considered foreigners, “of Spain,” and thus took on an identity much like the island itself – ambiguous and in-between, not fully belonging to either country.

Visit of Albrecht Dürer in Antwerp in 1520, Jan August Hendrik Leys, 1855, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, 2198. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Another presenter, Gaylen Vankan of the University of Liege, spoke of Dutch depictions of Ottoman riders, specifically Suleiman the Magnificent and several other figures on horseback accompanying him. Though often grouped together as a procession, these can also be taken to be five separate images of separate classes of Ottoman riders. The key point he made, which I thought was interesting, is that even as one would expect in the late 15th and 16th centuries that Europeans would see the Ottomans as a horrible, barbaric, non-Christian horde, a serious threat to Christendom (and that’s putting it mildly, even, considering the fall of Constantinople and the fall of so much of the Balkans to the Ottomans, all the way to the gates of Vienna) – and they are indeed depicted in that fashion in a great many works. And yet, in these works as well as in many others, the Ottomans are depicted with some considerable nobility – the artist obviously admires or respects them or at the very least finds something appealing about the aesthetics and style of their clothing and accoutrements.

Nicholas Crummey (Central European University) talked about a wonderful diary he had found in the British Library, by a member of a late 17th century British embassy to Ottoman lands. Though re-published several times and oft-cited, it would seem the original copy of this diary – complete with wonderful illustrations – is very rarely consulted. He showed us some great maps and illustrations that this figure, John Covel, drew, relating various aspects of his journey.

Inside at Gail’s in Exmouth Market.

But what I think I’ve really enjoyed the most these last few days has just been the nice little shops I’ve visited, and just the free sort of lifestyle. Even if it was super chain sort of shops like Cafe Nero, or eating out of a supermarket, it has that extra cultural cachet for me because it’s “foreign,” because it’s British or European. For the first two nights, the symposium put me up at a nice hotel just a very short walk from Russell Square station, pretty close to SOAS and to the areas I was familiar with but just different enough that I could feel I was exploring/experiencing something new. I missed breakfast in the hotel both mornings, which was a shame, because I was so jetlagged and basically just overslept both times. Well, on the day of the conference I didn’t oversleep, I just took too long to prepare and didn’t have time for a proper breakfast. So I just grabbed something at the Simit Sarayi across the street. This is (one piece of) what I’m talking about. Here’s a Turkish chain store, selling Turkish pastries and stuff – I’m not sure we have any Simit Sarayi in New York or LA, and if we have anywhere at all selling this stuff you really have to sort of search it out, whereas here in London, because Britain and Turkey are both in or on the peripheries of Europe, you can see this sort of intermingling of the stores. Anyway, sadly the food was not nearly as good as at even the Simit Sarayi in Istanbul, let alone the proper local places. But even so, it existed. The second morning, after the conference was over and I was free to be on my own time, I did sleep in, until like 10:30 or so – never got over jet lag the entire trip, so I’ve been sleeping from like 11pm or 12am until 2 or 3, and then being up until 5 or 5:30, and then sleeping until 10:30 or so…. But, on my way to SOAS or the British Museum or wherever it was, I found a wonderful little bakery called Gail’s. Which I’ve now learned also has multiple locations, but it doesn’t feel like a chain at all, feels like a nice cozy cafe like I might also expect to find in the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo, or in all sorts of other places (except, this one is more authentically British). I had a wonderful little breakfast, a real highlight of trip, haha, as I could imagine going back there or places quite like it regularly, if I were to be living here. I got a scone with jam and clotted cream, and a pot of English Breakfast, and honestly I could have just relaxed and stayed there all day, enjoying tea and pastries, the bright, airy, and relaxed background-conversations sort of atmosphere, putting me in a good relaxed mood to be productive on my computer.

I’m sure these kinds of places must exist somewhere in LA, but I would have to really seek them out, and drive to them. Unless you live in Santa Monica or certain other neighborhoods, in my very limited experience, I feel like there’s really nothing properly walkable in LA. No sense of a local neighborhood. If I were to live in Islington/Bloomsbury area, I could definitely imagine myself having breakfast at Gail’s and just settling in to work there on many days. Or even at Café Nero. Or at one of the UofL cafes. Any/all of these feel different than just going to a local Starbucks or whatever here in LA…

The Rocket. A pub near the British Library. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside, but certainly a familiar sight.

I once again made a trip to London during which I barely got out of the Islington/Bloomsbury sort of area, but, this time I’m not feeling down about it at all. When I first relocated from the hotel to the AirBnB, I was feeling a little bummed out, kicking myself for booking a place here in this same neighborhood rather than getting out to explore the rest of the city at all. And, sure, who knows what kind of experience I might have had if I did stay in an entirely different, new, neighborhood. But, it really worked out just fine. I did not allow myself to get stuck going up and down the same streets or areas that I already know have been a bust in the past, and actually by walking just a little bit off my own personal well-beaten track, walking south to Exmouth Market and then west towards the British Museum rather than going straight back to King’s Cross and Euston and Gray’s Inn Road and whatever else I’m already too familiar with, I made it a new experience.

I just love these little market streets, lined with cute little shops. I loved Gail’s, and I can easily imagine if I were living here to either go back there regularly or to explore other shops up and down and in neighboring streets and so forth. I also happened upon Judd Books again, a small but really good little used book store right near SOAS and UCL; the SOAS on-campus bookstore also, though extremely small, has a good selection of things, obviously, since it’s all the books that SOAS professors are assigning for their classes. And some “random” stuff that I wouldn’t expect to be able to find anywhere else, like CDs of the London Uyghur Ensemble for one quid.

And though I pretty much only got out of this neighborhood to meet up with a friend for pizza near All Soul’s Church (near Oxford Circus), to go to the Royal Academy of Arts (near Picadilly Circus), and to have dinner and drinks with a professor out near Borough Station (near London Bridge), and didn’t really see or explore the city at all, somehow that just really felt like enough. I think having a SOAS alumni card and being able to get into the campus, not feeling like I had nowhere to be allowed to belong, made all the difference. I didn’t need the card at all to get into the Institute of Education pub, or for that matter the Brunei Building, or half the times I tried the Senate House, but, still, I dunno, for whatever reason, sitting around on or near campus and pretending like I was actually based at SOAS for the week, it just really worked. Go to the campus bar, sit and pull out your computer and get some work done. Go to the library. Use the old shortcuts you remember to go through Senate House to the side entrance of the British Museum rather than going all the way around. Visit Judd Books.

SOAS Main Building, with its statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.

I think meeting up with one of my SOAS profs, and with another scholar who he had put in touch with me, really helped too. Maybe my experiences in Japan these last few years, and at UCLA too, have helped me too, to develop a much greater familiarity with the identity of being an outsider who’s come to use the library, or to have a meeting, or whatever. Even though most Japanese universities do have security gates for their libraries – turnstiles or gates that won’t even let you into the building at all without a library card or whatever – number one, if you just ask and explain that you’re a visitor and fill out a tiny bit of paperwork, they’ll typically let you in, and two, I think every other campus I’ve ever been to has let me walk in and walk around campus without anyone checking or asking. Okinawa University of the Arts in particular comes to mind – I’ve been there quite a few times now, either to use the library or to visit with a professor there. And no one asks me questions, no one looks at me funny. The first time I went, I asked at the desk before trying to get through the gate, explained that I’m a visitor, and they just said sure, go right ahead, without any need for any paperwork or guest visitor badge or anything. And so I used the library database on my own computer, found the books I wanted on the shelves, asked when I needed help, did my own photocopying… and left, and came back another day. Anyway, the point being that I’ve grown used to feeling like that person. I’m no longer the awkward alumnus or total outsider who is worried what am I even doing here, what am I trying to get out of this, what kind of nostalgia am I trying to claim; I no longer feel like an invader in other students’ space. Maybe that just comes with age as well. Because instead of feeling like some kind of intruder or impostor compared to these real (current) SOAS students, who have some kind of more real claim to the space than me, I feel like an alumnus, who has already been affiliated and associated with the place, however loosely, to be honest since most of the current students were still in primary or middle school, and I feel like a scholar – I wouldn’t call myself “experienced” or “established,” but still, a stage or two beyond these undergrads and study abroad and Master’s students. I don’t feel threatened by them.

At the SOAS Student Union Bar.

Much of campus is much how it always has been, I suppose. To be honest, I don’t remember it all that clearly, to know whether or not the hallways or the library has changed at all. Though I can imagine that at the very least the technology of the library probably has changed. And I know the pub was redone since I’ve left. Though, SOAS has also expanded into Senate House, so they have this whole new “Paul Webley Wing,” which I imagine has a lot of classrooms, offices, etc. Super high-tech-looking meeting rooms or study rooms which I suppose you can reserve, and the touch-screens outside each room show a clock in green or red which I guess means it’s either available or not, or that your time has come up or not? From what little I was able to access, I mostly just saw a big very new-looking, very clean and bright and nice-looking atrium. Beautiful gathering / studying spaces. And, of course, having a SOAS Alumni card now was a crazy breath of fresh air, as I said, since I was able to get into these spaces, and to not feel like I was unwelcome or denied or un-belonging. Though, frankly, I’m really not sure what I think about limiting these spaces to SOAS students. I mean, I suppose I understand that with so many other colleges in the area, if it were left totally free and open it would be too easy for the place to become overrun with students from UCL and elsewhere, and it would be much harder for any of the spaces to develop or maintain a distinctly SOAS character – and thus, for the School as a whole to build or maintain quite as much of a strong sense of community. So, that’s all important and valid; I can very much see the strengths of that. But, at the same time, I really appreciated when I was at SOAS getting to go to the Institute of Education cafeteria next door, the Senate House cafe, and the pub down the street (is that part of Birkbeck? I was never sure). Even if not to actually mix with students from other Schools, to have more additional different spaces to choose from, and perhaps most importantly just to not feel shut-out. I’m not saying that any of these schools have such great, amazing, fancy cafeterias or pubs or whatever, that we are (or would be) being denied access to the “nice” pub or whatever. But, just for the sake of variety. Of course I don’t want to see the SOAS pub overrun with anyone and everyone, but I also hate the idea that I wouldn’t be able to go and experience that, intermingle even a little bit, if I were a student at one of the neighboring colleges. I wonder, I don’t actually remember if it came up while I was there, if SOAS students wanted to bring their UCL or LSE friends in to have a drink together, if the guards would block them. Because that would really suck. Anyway, maybe it’s me personally, I don’t know, but I really do have a thing about access and about belonging. I hate being treated like I’m not allowed in somewhere. Even in visiting the SOAS library’s Special Collections earlier today, I tried to ask about how the process worked, whether I could just request items or whether there was a long and complicated approval process, and the librarian said “can you identify yourself? I mean, who are you, where are you coming from?” I sense that maybe English isn’t her first language, and more to the point maybe she just wasn’t choosing her words very carefully in that moment – I certainly don’t always say exactly what I mean, in exactly the best way, and so I give her the benefit of the doubt. But, still, I’m a SOAS alumnus, and even if I wasn’t, I’m a University of California graduate student, and even if I wasn’t, I’m someone coming in to try to use your Special Collections. I suppose I can understand that if I truly were just some person from off the street, some random person, then, *maybe* there’s some call to say who is this person. But I should like to think that many (if not most) librarians at many (if not most) other institutions would simply assume that the person asking is probably some kind of legit academic. I just really hate gatekeeping. Don’t ask me to “identify myself” as if I’m already an intruder until I prove otherwise. Don’t treat me like I’m not welcome, like I don’t belong. Give me the benefit of the doubt, assume that I am a legitimate researcher, assume that your own job is to help provide access for researchers rather than to block it. Rather than the first step being to challenge a person coming in, under the assumption that they can’t be granted access, assume they can, and make your very first step starting to help them with the right paperwork or whatever. “May I see your SOAS ID, or your ID from your institution?” “Oh, I see you’re a SOAS alum. Okay, you have X and Y privileges but I’m afraid if you want to do Z, that’s restricted (or, then you’ll have to fill out this additional form).” or “Oh, I see you’re from the States. Okay, well for visiting researchers from outside of the U of L, we have these forms that you have to fill out.” Something like that. And then you welcome them. Just like being granted a Reader Card at the British Library. Just like when UCLA granted me a library card so I could borrow books (but not have certain other privileges) even though I’m a UCSB student. Just like when prefectural and national and local archives and libraries as well as university libraries all across Japan let me in as a guest, and allowed me X but not Y level of access, or whatever it may be.

Anyway, sorry for that rant.

Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), one of the many iconic objects in the British Museum. A moai ancestor figure from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The British Museum

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the British Museum that I haven’t said before. I love how they use objects to tell a fuller story about culture and history, and not just artistic style or aesthetic form, and that they do include things that are historically significant (and often quite beautiful), and not only things that fall into a more mainstream “art” sort of category. I don’t even mean historical artifacts without much artistic value (whatever that even means); I mean genuinely beautiful, skillfully-made, art objects that happen to also allow one to speak of their content, of what they depict or how they were used… And, I love that the museum is so extensive!! I mean, I was a little surprised to learn that they don’t actually have a gallery for Musical Instruments, or for Arms & Armor, as the Met does. There are certainly categories for which they don’t have much on display, I suppose. (And, actually, Chinese painting in particular, is oddly sparse, given that they have a huge permanent exhibit of Chinese history from ancient through modern, featuring mostly ceramics, sculptures, I’m not sure exactly what else off the top of my head, but then only a very few paintings?) But, they do have a whole gallery of clocks, and a whole gallery of the history of coinage from around the world, not to mention the Enlightenment Gallery which is just really wonderful.

I was a little bit hoping I might happen upon a protest by Rapa Nui people demanding their ancestor moai back. One of the most iconic, famous objects in the Museum’s collection – its fame aided by the fact that it’s right there in front of you when you walk into the Wellcome Gallery right off the main atrium – the statue is a sacred object for the people of Rapa Nui, an embodiment of a specific individual ancestor, and as some articles I read put it, how would you like it if people busted into your home and took your grandfather and put him on display in a museum?

Well, in any case, I had heard that there were supposed to be some kind of in-person protests. Whether that would (or could) take place right there in the gallery, or when they would take place, the articles I read didn’t say. But if it did happen, it would have been good timing, a nice opportunity to catch the experience – and photos – of something I would otherwise only read about.
That didn’t happen. But, whatever.

I think one highlight of the BM during this visit was the new Islamic galleries. I really appreciated and enjoyed the way they incorporated all different parts of the Islamic world, with individual displays on the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, Islamic North Africa, etc., covering the history of each different period and region. One thing I was a bit disappointed about, though, was the absence of discussion or representation of other peoples – yes, these are the “Islamic” galleries, but if you’re not going to include Sephardic, Mizrahi, Kurdish, Armenian, Coptic, etc cultures in these “Middle East” galleries, then where will you? Nowhere, it would seem. Maybe mixed in with Europe or Africa, but certainly not where you’d expect to find them, i.e. right here in the Middle East (“Islamic World”) galleries.

What’s really kind of funny also is that I even had moments this weekend when I thought I was kind of over London, or that London feels a bit too familiar already, now that I’ve lived in Istanbul. I certainly won’t say that I remember or ever really properly learned or adopted British ways of doing things. I’m still probably pretty blatantly visibly American in terms of the way I walk, the way I order at cafes and restaurants, all kinds of things. I’m still awkward at asking for “some tea” or “a tea,” not knowing whether I should be asking for “a pot of tea” or how people ask for it. Still fumbling with coins. Still sometimes not looking the correct direction or not knowing properly when I can and can’t cross. Nearly got hit by a car the other day, as he turned onto the small side street that I was crossing just not thinking not realizing that anyone might be turning into it. While it’s pretty cool that they have those yellow-lighted crosswalks where cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians even without any change of red/green, when it comes to crossing anywhere else, they really don’t stop for you. American drivers will get annoyed at you, often, or they just won’t even expect you or won’t see you, but generally speaking they know that once a pedestrian is in the road, whether they’re jaywalking or whatever, you have to stop for them. They have the right of way, actually, especially if they’re in a crosswalk. Doesn’t seem to be the same here.

But, all of that said, even so, even despite all the little cultural quirks that so frustrated and depressed me my first time in London, and even despite difficulties with language, the fact that my accent is noticeably decidedly different, and terminology is often different, and I don’t always actually know what others are saying (or they, me), even so, the fact that people speak English here as the truly primary language, as compared to negotiating with my minimal Turkish and other people’s varying range of English, or just regardless of other people, navigating myself with signs and posters in a foreign language, … I dunno, I just really enjoyed Istanbul. I don’t know how well I would have managed on my own; having Simone was extremely helpful. And I’m not saying I’m looking to just run off to anywhere, but, having now gained a certain degree of familiarity with Istanbul, having learned some very minimal level of Turkish, I dunno, London doesn’t feel adventurous enough anymore. Which is a terrible shame. Because I don’t want it to lose its appeal, or its magic. I don’t want to grow bored or uninspired by London. Even worse, I wouldn’t want to grow to dislike it, to have all the utterly mundane practical things start to ruin my feeling of the city.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, at the Royal Academy of the Arts.

For now, London still feels like an adventure. And I want it to still feel like that. Even the most basic things like Tesco sandwiches are for me cultural capital, they’re a feeling of knowing something, experiencing something, becoming familiar with something that I never had before. It’s being able to go back home and talk to people about … whatever it may be about London that reveals some (shared) familiarity, … Or, I don’t know, just to feel like I’m being or becoming my best self, like I’m living my best life. I’m not saying I necessarily want to live in the UK or Japan or anywhere else permanently, that’s too big a decision to make, just far too much too deep a matter in terms of both practical and other sort of considerations. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that just can’t help but feel like traveling less is somehow a failure, a failure to launch, as it were. When I did study abroad in Japan for the first time and felt like it might prove to be my one and only big trip in my life, and at that time I couldn’t have imagined that I’d end up living in Hawaii or California, or that I’d ever do half (or, any) of the traveling that I have since, … that feeling of coming back from Japan and not knowing if I ever would go back, and indeed I didn’t go back for a good four years, which felt like a pretty long time at the time … there’s a part of me that just really feels that even if I did settle in an exciting big world city like New York, that’s still going home, that’s still seeing an end – a failure – to all the traveling that I had done.

Anyway, London has its faults, to be sure, and I am sure that if I ever were to get a job in the UK and really spend a real amount of time here, I would come to feel all those flaws, and perhaps all the more so in a smaller city like Durham or Leeds or wherever. But, at least for now, it’s still an adventure. It’s market streets and Gail’s Bakery. It’s the Flat Iron Square / Food Arch area, with all these great little food stalls, some of them serving things like Turkish mantı which I’ve just never seen (or never known to look out for) in the States.

(4 May 2019)
I did, in fact, apply to quite a few jobs / fellowships in England this year. Didn’t get selected for any of them in the end, unfortunately. Strangely didn’t see a single job posting/advertisement for anywhere in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, though I would have jumped at that chance just as much. I don’t know why, maybe it had something to do with this London trip, but even all these weeks later I’m still really feeling that I would have so loved to live in Britain for a time. Who knows what’s going to happen with Brexit, of course, but that aside, as much as I **love** Japan, and much as I would have been up for whatever adventure the job market may have brought me – staying in LA, moving back to the East Coast, getting a teaching job at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest – I would have been up for that. But somehow, for whatever reason, I just find myself in a place right now where I just so wished I might have gotten a chance to move to England. Maybe sometime in the future…

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Seen in the neighborhood. Somewhere in Cihangir or Beyoğlu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerchu, a cute little kitten with a sneezing problem.

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

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

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

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

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At the airport.

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

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


The former synagogue Mezakat Arabim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Izmir Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi).

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

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


The Karataş synagogue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Algaze Synagogue.

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

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

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

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

Bikur Cholim synagogue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Topkapı Palace

One of the major gates within the Topkapı complex.

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

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

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

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

The Inner Palace Library of Ahmed III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sultan’s breakfast pavilion.

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

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

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

A few final notes, small things I found interesting.

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

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

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

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