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Posts Tagged ‘cities’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shuri Castle, lit up in the twilight.

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

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

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

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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I’m not saying that citibike is necessarily the thing. But, it’s something…

I’m no urban planning expert, and there may well be logistical, economic, or sociological aspects I’m failing to consider, but on the surface, some elements of this recent Guardian piece sound awfully compelling, as it argues that reorganizing our cities around people, not cars, could produce much “happier” urban spaces.

Like most cities, Bogotá had been left deeply wounded by the 20th century’s dual urban legacy: first, the city had been gradually reoriented around cars. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatised. This reorganisation was both unfair – only one in five families even owned a car – and cruel: urban residents had been denied the opportunity to enjoy the city’s simplest daily pleasures: walking on convivial streets, sitting around in public. And playing: children had largely disappeared from Bogotá’s streets, not because of the fear of gunfire or abduction, but because the streets had been rendered dangerous by sheer speed. Peñalosa’s first and most defining act as mayor was to declare war: not on crime or drugs or poverty, but on cars.

In the third year of his term, Peñalosa challenged Bogotáns to participate in an experiment. As of dawn on 24 February 2000, cars were banned from streets for the day. It was the first day in four years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions fell by almost a third. The toxic haze over the city thinned. People told pollsters that they were more optimistic about city life than they had been in years.

The most dynamic economies of the 20th century produced the most miserable cities of all, … I’m talking about the US Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by cars.

– from “The secrets of the world’s happiest cities,” by Charles Montgomery. The Guardian, Nov 1 2013.

The article then goes on to talk about the sociological, psychological, and physiological effects of driving, and especially of commuting. “For a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love,” Montgomery writes, adding that while driving one’s own vehicle rather than being reliant on an unreliable public transport system creates a very real sense of power and freedom, this positive feeling is utterly neutralized by the urban driving experience. “We all know old mobility,” he quotes an economist saying all the way back in 1969. “It’s you sitting in your car, stuck in traffic. It’s you driving around for hours, searching for a parking spot.” Certainly doesn’t sound like freedom and power and happiness to me. And, I love that he identifies this as “old.” One of the recurring themes in my study of Modern Japan has been the understanding that many of our ideas about what is “modern” are actually decades old. “Modern architecture,” centered around stark, minimalist, functionalism, around steel-reinforced concrete with a minimum of ornamentation, is old. And so, too, is the ideal of “a car in every garage” which birthed the national highway system, the road trip, and the modern commute as we know it. Think about it. What world, what era, are those ideas from? What images do they conjure? Those are ideas of the 1950s-60s. And it’s time we put them, and our obsession with the automobile, behind us, and moved forward, towards a happier, more enjoyable way of life.

“City” by Zhang Kangiun, seen at Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF), 2008.

I certainly don’t presume to have all the answers – or even some of the most basic, first-step, answers – as to how to move forward. But, I know from my experiences living in New York, Honolulu, Kyoto, and now in Goleta CA that a community organized around highways, strip malls, and office parks is not a happy place to live. Sure, you can just hop in your car and drive to Downtown Santa Barbara, but, personally, I’d rather ride my bike through the streets of Kyoto, walk the streets of Manhattan, or take the subway/train across Tokyo or London, rather than deal with sitting in traffic, paying for gas, looking for a parking space… I know full well that all of this is quite complicated, and there are counterarguments. There are reasons that people like cars, and there are reasons that people like suburbs, where they can have their own beautiful house, a whole house, far away from the bothers of the city (or, indeed, away from anyone else at all, your own little bubble world), and I appreciate that. But… as Montgomery’s article concludes, “By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone’s experience, we can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active and more free. We just have to decide who our cities are for.” Are our cities going to be organized around people? Or around cars? Around having friendly streets to walk along, filled with quaint shops and cafés, which together form a community to which we belong? Or around unfriendly streets, flanked by dead zones, to drive through, to drive past, on our way somewhere else?

“Pause: Reconnect” by Honolulu-based artist Sarah Adams. Is this what we like our everyday world to look like, to feel like?

When I first got to Honolulu, well, I cannot say that I properly remember exactly what I thought, or how I felt, but I very quickly grew to hate cars, strongly and profoundly. My 15 minute walk to school involved crossing several multi-lane avenues, and passing over a freeway. The walk signals took forever, as the lights cycled through the reds and greens and turn signals and no-turn signals for each lane of traffic, with safe times for pedestrians to cross added in seemingly only as an afterthought. And this was in the middle of the city. I tried riding a bike to & from school once, but it was frankly terrifying, having to navigate being amidst such heavy traffic, and I never did so again. Over the course of the three years I lived there, I knew, or knew of, numerous people who were hit by cars, buses, or trucks, nearly every one of them a hit-and-run. Some were lucky they weren’t killed. Some were not so lucky.

And then I came to Santa Barbara. There are a lot more bike lanes here, and so far as I am aware, I have not yet heard of anyone getting in any serious car accidents. Thank god. But, beyond the few square blocks of walkable streets of Isla Vista, packed with cafés and restaurants catering to the undergrad crowd, there is positively nothing around here but strip malls, office parks, large empty spaces of scrubby brown grasses (I actually saw a pair of condors once, it’s so dry and desolate around here), the freeway, and the airport. Is this what most of the rest of the country is like? Is this what it means to live in America?

I’ve never been to the Netherlands, or Scandinavia; I’ve never seen for myself what it’s like there, and I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of advocating explicitly that we need to look specifically towards a European model. But, we can make our cities, and our quality of life within them, better. We just have to believe that it’s possible, and we have to want it.

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I’m staying with friends in Tokyo for a few weeks – it’s amazing to be back in Japan, and I’ve certainly gone through numerous emotions and trains of thought about being here again, but rather than ramble through all of that, I’ll try to put that aside and talk about just one or two things, for the moment. My friends live in a pretty quiet, out of the way neighborhood, so even though I’ve been here a few days already, today was my first real trip into the city, in a sense. I was thinking of checking out Shimokita or Jiyûgaoka or something, and maybe another day soon I will. But today, I’m glad I decided to go to Harajuku and Shibuya – in a sense, it really doesn’t feel like you’re in Tokyo, or like you’ve come to Tokyo, done Tokyo, had the Tokyo experience, until you’ve gone to one of these major areas (e.g. Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Akihabara) and felt the energy.

Harajuku certainly doesn’t feel the subculture hotspot it once was, and I don’t think that’s an accident of the time or day that I went, or the weather. Compared to ten years ago (when I first came to Japan as a study abroad student), there are markedly fewer people in goth-loli, punk, or other fashions that stand out dramatically, and fewer shops specializing in such things. And that’s certainly unfortunate in various ways. But, on the plus side, the area is still very vibrant, very active, and which one short strip along Meiji-dôri is now dominated by utterly mainstream Western chains such as GAP, Forever 21, and H&M, the smaller, Japanese, shops along Takeshita-dôri and in the adjoining backstreets are still selling Japanese street fashion sort of things – meaning, the sorts of things that the average hip, stylish, young Japanese guy or girl would wear; not ordinary blah t-shirts and jeans, but something with style. And, while we’ve certainly lost (or are losing) something in terms of the spectacle and the experience of Harajuku in that sense of the decline of the area as a punk/goth-loli hotspot (I wonder where they’ve all gone), it’s actually become an excellent spot for me to do clothes shopping, as much of what’s on sale is now a lot tamer, more wearable (for me, in that sense of it not being so out there, so boldly punk or goth or whatever), and more affordable, while still being distinctly fashionable – these are things that not only fit me well and look good on me (I hope), but which I can feel special about owning and wearing, that when people back home ask, and even if they don’t, I’ll know that I bought them in Tokyo, and that I am in whatever little way connected to the Tokyo fashion scene, or whatever. Plus, things just fit me better here; the average target customer is shorter/smaller, and the style is slimmer.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was glad that I decided to go to Harajuku & Shibuya today, because you can really feel the energy of the city. Not just that it’s busy, or crowded, but there’s a cultural energy, a feeling of the experience of this place, this very central, happening, place, a place you’ve heard of or thought of or imagined, and now you’re experiencing it – and, a place that is very much a center of activity, of the latest trends, of events, etc. Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most happening cities in the world. It’s a city of neon lights, crazy crowds, fashion, art, electronics, incredible design, excellent food… and especially in contrast to the experience of other parts of Japan, it’s in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, moreso than in a quiet, out of the way residential neighborhood, that one really feels that.

Today, in the course of just one day, I saw the grave of a famous major Japanese historical figure, visited several Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple, poked around a whole bunch of Japanese fashion stores, enjoyed a genuine authentic Harajuku crepe (with matcha ice cream. yum.), discovered an entire two-story store devoted just to Evangelion goods (and I’m assuming this is here for just a limited time, making the experience of the shop itself, as well as all the goods, though I didn’t buy any, an even more special experience), saw a couple of young guys playing music outside Shibuya Station, heard/saw a couple of giant soundtrucks pass by advertising the Les Mis movie and blasting “Do You Hear the People Sing?“, heard and saw a political soundtruck, with candidates shaking hands and shouting slogans, rode the Yamanote, and poked around the giant Tsutaya at Shibuya Crossing, getting a brief glimpse at what music & movies are cutting-edge new and popular in Japan.

Yappari, it doesn’t feel like Tokyo, it doesn’t feel that one has truly returned, until one goes to these big-name, vibrant, active, and, yes, obnoxiously crowded, areas. But, therein lies the energy, the beat of the city, that I have missed so.

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