Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

My Secret Diary, Aged Fourteen and Three Quarters - a Reconstruction
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steepholm
I've been invited to pogo to Sham 69 this evening, with friends. They will talk about motorcycles, look at pornography, and drink beer from cans. I enjoy the beer, but would rather listen to Genesis. (No one must ever know!)

My shoes are still wet and muddy from yesterday's solitary walk to Squabb Wood. The poem I wrote about the experience seems, in retrospect, as ill-advised as the route.

A surprise in this morning's post. It's a letter from my fifty-four-year-old self, advising me that it really does get better. "Go easy on yourself," it read. "You're special - the only you in the whole wide world. Think of that!"

So, there you have it. It seems I'm destined to become a pompous bore. But when? Has the process already begun? Just when I thought this day couldn't get any worse.

Perhaps I could grow to love Sham 69, in time.

The Strangeness of Kinder
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steepholm
Japan’s current birthrate crisis may not be a new thing, if we are to believe the evidence of its folktales.

Japanese folktales generally begin with an old couple living childlessly in the middle of the countryside. One day, the old man goes out and discovers a mysterious child, possibly in a peach or concealed within a bamboo stalk. Even if no child comes to light there he is bound to find one down a well, under a stone or floating on a leaf. It’s a rare day in the world of Japanese folktales when old men don’t return home from their labour with two or three miraculous infants in tow. What can this represent but a dream against childlessness – or at any rate against those children who go to Kyoto to work as salarymen at court, leaving their rustic parents to fend for themselves?

Ah, but who needs real children when you can have a peach boy or a moon girl?

There are of course European stories of children being found and brought up by woodcutters and the like, or even made out of sweetmeats, but they don’t seem quite so common. And my impression is that it’s usually an old man or an old woman living alone who do the finding, rather than the loving but impecunious couple of Japanese tradition. (By the way, married couple = “fuufu” - 夫婦 - in Japanese, a word I particularly like.)

Performance-Related Pay - a Socratic Dialogue
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steepholm
MP: Public sector pay rises are only justified where there is trouble recruiting – as with nurses, GPs, and so on.

Socrates: But there’s never any shortage of people wanting to be MPs. There are several candidates at every election, and most of those have been chosen from other shortlists within their own parties. So how can you justify the large pay rises you regularly vote through for yourselves?

MP: We need to make sure that our pay keeps pace with people doing comparable jobs in the private sector, or we will lose the best people. It’s not just numbers that are important, it’s quality.

Socrates: And yet you don’t apply that argument to, say, university academics, who’ve had real-terms pay cuts for over a decade now? Their pay has fallen far behind that of people in comparable private-sector posts.

MP: I have seen no evidence that the quality of academic work has fallen. They’re doing more for less, so of course they don’t deserve a pay rise.

Socrates: Whereas… MPs deserve a pay rise because they’re crap?

MP: That’s right. And that, my friend, is what we mean by “performance-related pay”.

Socrates: I feel a migraine coming on...

Boxing the Compass
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steepholm
I know, I know, I've been away from LJ/DW (at least in a posting capacity) for a while, and my reading public has grown wan and listless in consequence. But part of the reason is that I've been running around the country on various errands and trips. Take this last week, for example....

South

On Sunday I went to Exeter to see gillpolack, who was visiting the UK from Australia for a few days. A very pleasant time we had, and we amused ourselves with the Exeter Book sculpture, a modern stainless steel effusion in the pedestrian precinct that I have walked past many times on previous visits without realising that it had mirror-written Anglo-Saxon riddles carved into it, easily legible in the shiny steel of the adjacent surface. It was good to see gillpolack again, and she gave me a bag of interesting goodies, including citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate, which was delicious.

North

On Monday I got the same train in the opposite direction and rode it to Wolverhampton, scene of my childhood holidays. Stands Beatties where it did? (No.) There I met up with Gaby Steinke, whom I first met at the Diana Wynne Jones conference back in 2009 - but who is also the programme leader for an MA I'm externalling. (Yes, "external" is a transitive verb - deal with it.) The exam board meeting, in a room with an excellent view into the Molineux, was fairly pedestrian, so I'll just share a couple of side observations.

When I asked for a receipt from the taxi driver as I arrived at my hotel, he just handed me a blank card, evidently expecting me to sign his name and fill in the amount myself. When I demurred, he told me I was the first person who'd ever objected to this accounting method. (I had to lend him a pen.) I wonder how much fraud is perpetrated by this simple expedient?

The Black Country (which I sincerely wish were a musical genre and not just an area of the Midlands) is of course at the heart of the old Mercian kingdom, where Woden was at one time the primary object of devotion - as reflected in names such as Wednesfield and Wednesbury. I was pleased to notice on a street map that there is still a Woden Primary School, where I like to imagine that in assembly the children join in prayer to "Allfather, who art in Asgard".

West

And then to Cardiff, to Cardiff, to Cardiff, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. This week I had the pleasure of teaching Black Hearts in Battersea, but in the process realised that I'd made an error in Reading History in Children's Books, when I suggested that Lord Battersea's castle is "more or less on the site of Battersea Power Station". That's not wildly off, but in fact it's in Battersea Park, on the river next to Chelsea Bridge.

This is a poignant discovery, because the castle is known for that rousing piece of music, the Battersea Fanfare - which is a pun on the Battersea Funfair, built for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and very much up and running when Aiken's book was published 14 years later. I imagine many people would have caught the pun at that time. Sadly, the fair shut down in the wake of a fatal accident in the early '70s, and has slowly faded from public consciousness, so now the pun has been stranded on the shores of time, much like Robert's joking reference to Rosherville pleasure gardens in The Story of the Amulet.

East (well, south-east)

And today, I'm off to see my mum in Romsey. I've just had my copy of In this Corner of the World delivered, so I may make her sit through it with me this evening. Will this be cruel and unusual punishment for her? Have you seen it? (On Monday, by contrast, I will be going to Death of Stalin with Htay, which I'm told I can expect to enjoy.)

Cheltenham Guides
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steepholm
I meant to mention that last Monday I went to Cheltenham on the train - only half an hour (in theory) from Bristol Parkway, although I ended up on the stopping service that waited in a siding in Gloucester to be overtaken by the express. Apart from that, there were only two stops: one in Yate, where a large group of young people with backpacks got off (were they going to pay homage at J. K. Rowling's birthplace, I wondered idly?), and then again in Dursley (where no young people got off at all, thanks no doubt to the slanders of the same JKR).

I was going to meet the owner of a Cotswold company that specialises in private tours for Japanese visitors, as I was hoping to get an inkling of what brings Japanese people to the area. We met in a café and talked for an hour, and a very interesting conversation it was too, though I'm still digesting it so I won't go into it now - but in lieu of that let me share with you the title page of the book I gave him as a thank you (though only a print-on-demand reprint, alas), my great-great-great-great grandfather Weeden Butler's Cheltenham Guide (1781), which as far as I know is his earliest publication. It's a handy description of Cheltenham at the time, including an account of the origins of the famous spa a couple of generations earlier. Apparently a Mr Mason noticed the pigeons pecking at the soil around a pond fed by a spring - for the salts, it seems - and that inspired him to buy the land and set up a little hut from which he sold the water, after which his son-in-law built a dome, a colonnade, and all the amenities that polite society could demand. Thus was born, of a pigeon, the pump room, the literary festival, the Gold Cup and Agamemnon dead. (Actually that last one might have been a different bird.) The little blighters are still commemorated on the town's crest.

The water tastes pretty vile, though; worse, if possible, than those of Sulis.


Cheltenham guide weeden butler 1781
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All Things Begin & End in Albion's Ancient Druid Rocky Shore
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steepholm
You will no doubt remember that I've been interested for a while now in the image of Britain in Japanese anime, and increasingly that interest has focused on the Cotswolds. If all goes according to plan, next spring I will be back in Japan looking at all the Cotswoldy things there, such as Dreamton and Yufuin Floral Village. Before that I will be looking at all the Japanesey things in the Cotswolds, such as the railway signs at Moreton-in-Marsh, and of course Fosse Farmhouse, where Kiniro Mosaic was set and where, thanks to me (you can take that positively or negatively), my friend Haruka spent much of this summer living in a shepherd's hut and working as cleaner. All this will, with luck, culminate in taking part in a symposium on Contents Tourism in Tokyo in June.

I was reminded of Haruka's summer today, while watching the opening episodes of The Ancient Magus' Bride, something I've known about for a while as a manga but which is only now being aired in anime form. The story concerns a lonely and friendless Japanese girl, Chise, who allows herself to be put up for auction and is bought by an ancient magus, then brought to England to live in his house, which is "west of London, in the outskirts of England" - in other words the Cotswolds, as you may see from the architecture. The idea is that she will become his apprentice, and in time his bride too. (If you're thinking that all this sounds well dodgy I can only tell you the dodginess is is a plot point, but we have yet to see how it will be resolved.)

Mahoutsukai no yome ep1

The mage's address, 2-32 High Street, GC55, England (we glimpse it on his cheque book), is a little perplexing. First, because he clearly doesn't live in a high street -

Ainsworth house

- let alone 16 houses along one side of it. Nor does the GC postcode exist, at least for us beglamoured mortals (which probably includes Royal Mail). However, if we make a simple substitution for the Gloucester (GL) postcode, we divine that Mr Ainsworth is to be found near the Cotswold town of Chipping Campden. (I've no doubt, by the way, that Diana Wynne Jones had Chipping Campden partly in mind when she named Market Chipping in Howl's Moving Castle - talking of books in which mages take young girls into their magical households.)

The first food he offers her naturally includes sandwiches, black tea (no milk in sight) and the fish and chips that British people eat at every meal. And if you're wondering whether she also gets a full English breakfast in the morning, the answer is "Of course."

chise's first meal in England

But why doesn't the presence of a mage cause general alarm, wonders Chise? Why, replies Elias Ainsworth, because...

britain is a land of ancient magic

You know it to be true.

Two Paths Ran in Parallel in a Yellow Wood
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steepholm
For "yellow wood" read Romsey, the small market town where I was born and where my mother still lives.

There are two ways to walk from her house to the town centre. One involves going straight down Cherville Street, a distance of some 300 yards. There is also a path of the same distance that runs more or less parallel to Cherville Street, between the back of the Cherville Street gardens and the school fields where I "played" some forty years ago. There's nothing special about the path, but it does have some brambles growing along it, and in early autumn I've been known to raid them for blackberries. At the far end of the path (about fifty yards from the far end of Cherville Street) there is also a rather picturesque thatched cottage.

Now here's the strange thing. If I meet a stranger coming the other way along Cherville Street, we will pass each other wordlessly, as is customary with town dwellers. However, if I meet a stranger coming the other way down the path, we are apparently obliged - by what law I don't know - to say "Hello" or "Good morning!", rather as we might if passing each other in some isolated spot on Dartmoor. In other words, the path has somehow been designated as the countryside, despite being in the middle of the town.

Admittedly it's a small town, there's grass or garden either side of the path, and occasionally there are songbirds to eke out the crows and gulls that stalk the football fields. Beyond those fields the River Test flows somewhat bucolically, I suppose, but still.... With Cherville Street just fifty yards away, how did this custom get established?

Anyway, this is just a note for me to ponder, but I'd be interested to hear of any similarly inexplicable designations of community space as country, town, or something else, especially if they seem to have popped up without anyone apparently taking a decision about it.

Trails and Fails
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steepholm
Tomorrow is The Changeover day!



I can't tell you how important Mahy's book was to me when I first came across it in 1991 (seven years after it was published) - but suffice it to say that without what I learned from The Changeover I doubt I'd ever have managed to produce a publishable book of my own. It helped me triangulate my Garner and Cooper obsessions, and find an angle of approach that wasn't just a feeble echo of theirs. Where Garner wrote with fierce spareness, Mahy was linguistically munificent; where Cooper was writing about ancient places, Mahy wrote about shopping malls. And no children's writer before her had brought Wicca-style magic into a modern setting. (If you know of a counter-instance, I'd like to hear about it.) When this book was published, Buffy was only a twinkle in Joss Whedon's teenage eye...

So, I hope the movie does it justice. The trailer seems promising, and having watched some other clips on the same Youtube channel I feel confident that this is, at least, no The Seeker. I only hope it will be released in the UK, as I don't want to have to wait for the DVD.

On the other hand, for James Corden's Peter Rabbit I will happily wait until the second law of thermodynamics has rendered the universe a thin atom gruel.

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1963 was a Wild Year
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steepholm
The Daleks and I hatched, and JFK and CSL were dispatched, and just look what wildness matched!

Susan looked at him and was not afraid. Her mind could not accept him, but something deeper could. She knew what made the horses kneel. Here was the heart of all wild things.

Max said "BE STILL!" and tamed with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.
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Would You Rather be Buried or Curated?
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steepholm
Via my sister-in-law, here's a picture of my aunt, Ruth Siverns (formerly Bowman), part of a Philip Larkin exhibition currently showing at the University of Hull. It's a nice enough photo, but I'm less enamoured of seeing her next to a large sign reading "Wild Oats", even if that's the name of a poem she co-starred in. It's a pretty reductive way to characterise a seven-year relationship (including a two-year engagement). But then, the twenty-first century is an age of sans-serif soundbites. (Mind you, for future conference organisers I suspect this will be known as the "long twentieth century" - a period that ended when Trump dropped a nuke.)

2017-09-25 13.25.02

Where the Wide Aisles Are
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steepholm
My daughter has been working at Sainsbury's for a week now, but yesterday was the first day I'd actually seen her in her Sainsbury's jacket and name badge, when she popped home for some things before heading out again into the night.

It did make me wonder, though, whether she would ever be able to go into a supermarket while so attired. If she went into different store, say the Co-op, I imagine she would be driven out by staff enraged by her livery, much as crows will mob a sparrow-hawk. But if she went into a different Sainsbury's the following exchange would have a certain comic inevitability:

C [to the cashier]: Just this chewing gum, please.
Cashier: That'll be 45p.
Manager [interrupting]: You! Get to Till 13 right away! Don't you know we're understaffed today?
C: Me? But I'm only buying some chew--
Manager [hands already bunching into fists]: Don't answer back! Till 13 - hop to it!
C: But I don't even work here.... [Is bustled away to Till 13 and spends the next 7 hours weighing carrots.]


I don't know why I imagine all managers as ex-RSMs, but I do.

The glory that is Marmite ads (mainly for the benefit of those outside the UK)
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steepholm
When I was finishing my PhD I tried to get a job with the marketing department of Rowntree's chocolate factory in York, where I was then living. It's lucky I failed, because had I known it they were about to be bought up by the evil Nestlé corporation, and I'd have had to resign almost immediately.

In those days I was a great admirer of Rowntree's advertising (the Kit Kat panda ad is perhaps the most famous). But the Rowntree crown was soon to be stolen by Marmite, who took the old "love it or hate it" adage about their product and ran with it in a way that makes Pheidippides look like a sprinter. Here's an early effort on that theme, from some time in the early 2000s:



Simple, yes, but ground-breaking in that the entire advert is based around someone hating the product.

After that, they became far more sophisticated, and developed a brilliant line in spoofs on TV genres. Here they are riffing on the animal rescue programmes:



For a long time, I thought they wouldn't top that. But now, along comes the DNA test reveal advert. This, in my opinion, is simply genius. Here is modern Britain in a nutshell (not that Marmite contains nuts):

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Unsuitable Accommodation
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steepholm
The subheader in today's Mirror ("School Bans Skirts!" is the main headline) reads: "Anger as head brings in new uniform to cater for 'small number of transgender children.'"

The Piers Morgans of this world have been duly outraged. The rather more measured piece in the The Telegraph makes it clear that the issue of transgender pupils was only one of several factors (and not the first mentioned) that led to the more uniform uniform of trews only:

"Pupils have been saying why do boys have to where [sic] ties and girls don't, and girls have different uniform to boys," he said. "So we decided to have the same uniform for everybody from Year 7.

"Another issue was that we have a small but increasing number of transgender students and therefore having the same uniform is important for them."

There had also been complaints from the wider community about the length of school skirts, so this was another factor in the decision to ban them altogether.

Mr Smith said: "We know the current uniform is not necessarily worn as respectfully as it should be. "There were problems with decency and a number of issues raised by people in the community about how students were wearing uniform."


Actually there are several things in that justification that I find problematic, but then I'm not a fan of uniforms at the best of times, so I'll let that slide for now. Since this is being spun by the professionally outraged as a transgender issue, what I'd really like to know is: how does this change of policy accommodate trans children? I'm trying to see the scenario, and I can't.

I can imagine a scenario in which a trans boy wanted to wear trousers, or a trans girl wanted to wear a skirt, or a genderfluid child wanted to change from time to time. I can imagine a head so worried by the challenge to gender norms that rather than allow children to wear the clothes of the gender they identify with he forces everyone to wear the same thing. This is not called accommodating transgender children, it's called accommodating cis fragility. But of course it's the children who are being presented as the problem here.

I'm not saying that's what happened. But if not that, what?

Quick Catch-up
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steepholm
I've not posted recently, so here (as much for my own future benefit as anything) is a quick run-down of what's been happening in the last couple of weeks. Imagine that I've written entertainingly and at length about each of these, as they fully deserve. I shall try to do better.

a) I put my house on the market. I want a place with a spare room and a kitchen larger than a malfunctioning TARDIS - but hopefully pretty close to where I am at the moment.

b) I failed to win the BA Small Research Grant I'd applied for, to go to Japan next year and research the image of the UK in Japan. All alternative funding ideas welcome, no matter how outlandish! (I'll go anyway, mind.)

c) I finished the critical book I've been pottering around with for years. It's now being read by a colleague, who's making positive noises so far. I'd wanted to call it The LITMUS Papers (standing for "Lies I Tell My Undergraduate Students") but my publisher insists on something much duller.

d) I should be preparing for the new term - but how much more pleasant to go back and tinker with the book (see c)!

Rhodes and Lee
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steepholm
Last year I spent some time on Facebook arguing with people who thought that the "Rhodes must fall" campaign was wrongheaded because it was erasing history.

I suggested that putting a statue up to someone was generally (and in this case undoubtedly) not intended as a dispassionate recording of the fact that such-and-such had occurred, but rather a celebration of that person's life and deeds. In this case, the statue of Rhodes marks the approbation of the Oxford college he had endowed with some of his very ill-gotten African spoils.

True, came the reply, but that approbation is itself a historical artefact, and to take down the statue is to erase it. Well then, why not put it in a museum, along with the other historical artefacts, and stick a label on it detailing exactly how Rhodes came by the money to endow colleges and scholarships? Why keep it in a place of honour, thus perpetuating the honour done to Rhodes?

Of course, taking down a statue can never be more than a symbolic act, any more than raising it, or indeed keeping it. Symbolism is the currency of statues. To try and pretend that they naturally evolve into some kind of historical resource is profoundly disingenuous. (In the case of Rhodes, I don't think anyone tried to argue that the statue was a thing of beauty, but aesthetic arguments fall into much the same category.) Museums and art galleries are themselves far from politics-free zones, obviously, but at least they make some overt attempt to defuse and reframe such things as historical and/or aesthetic objects rather than direct political statements.

In the end, Rhodes stayed of course, because Rhodes's successors (the college's current donors) threatened to withdraw funding if it was removed. ("Now I see, I see, / In Fulvia's death, how mine received shall be," as they put it.) As ever, money shouts.

Anyway, I was just wondering to myself how the people I was arguing with on FB last year (nice liberal types, every one) feel about Trump making exactly the same arguments this week? Were they nodding along? If not, why not?

As a tangential postscript, I gave my friend Haruka a lift to Brighton yesterday (I was helping my daughter move some of her things back to Bristol), and we stopped in at my mother's for a cup of tea en route. Haruka took this picture of my mother. It was only after five minutes that I noticed that it also includes her care assistant, Haawa. Talk about hidden black history!

IMG_3680

Can you spot her, readers?

One Does Not Simply Walk into Otnorot
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steepholm
Did you call? Sorry if I wasn't in, I just popped out for a minute to go to Canada.

Specifically, I was in York University, Toronto, for the IRSCL - where I gave a paper comparing the UK and US dubs of [The Secret World of] Arrietty with Ghibli's Karigurashi no Arrietty, and indeed The Borrowers.

Anyway, that all went well, and the conference was good - I saw a lot of familiar faces, and quite a few new ones, and there were some excellent papers (I think my favourite was by Robin Bernstein, which dismantled Jacqueline Rose - not for the first time, God knows, but in a particularly interesting way, through the medium of Go the Fuck to Bed). I'm not going to go into details of the whole event because it could easily become a list of names that most people here won't know, but imagine me on a pleasant campus, and socialising as pleasurably as it's possible for an introvert to do in the company of other introverts, and you won't be far wrong. And although my prosopagnosia was a source of anxiety, a gratifying number of people lanced that boil in advance by introducing themselves with "You won't remember me, but you [edited my article/ examined my PhD/ met me in Ueno, etc.]" - and with that clew I was able to find my way.

The return journey was pretty dire, though. The flight from Toronto was delayed by 2.5 hours, due to a) a thunderstorm followed by b) a strike (industrial, not lightning), which meant that I missed my connection to Bristol in Brussels. The later flights to Bristol were full, so they rerouted me via Frankfurt. However, the flight from Brussels to Frankfurt was then itself delayed by 2 hours, which meant that I missed that connection as well. Eventually, I got another flight from Frankfurt to Bristol, but arrived here 12 hours later and much better travelled than planned. I know John Cabot would scoff at me complaining it took 24 hours to get from Canada to Bristol, but I'm made of weaker stuff. Gallingly, I flew directly over the city on the first flight, and had to suppress an impulse to say, "Driver, can you let me off here?"

The other adventure was the afternoon we spent in downtown Toronto. York University is an isolated campus out in the suburbs, so I was pleased to have a chance to see the city proper, especially as I had the company of University of Toronto alumna intertext. She rather tempted fate by pointing out that Ontario drivers were particularly considerate, and may also have said something about the low crime rate, although perhaps I'm adding that in with hindsight.

Anyway, we were waiting to cross at an intersection. The traffic was coming from our right, and I noticed that a car was trying to turn left, into the lane occupied by a motorbike. The car caught the bike, and the bike took the bumper off the front of the car. All this was forty yards away. However, had we but known it the car had taken out the bike's brake pedal, so while the car limped forward to rest more or less beside us, the bike shot across the intersection directly to where I and intertext were standing. By chance, we were right next to the pool surrounding a some civic fountains. I leapt to the ground to one side, but poor intertext, possibly getting entangled with my airborne legs, fell backwards into the pond.

She was unhurt, and everyone (bystanders, motorcyclist, car driver and driver's passenger) was very solicitous - and indeed the whole thing was sorted out with a politeness that can only enhance Canada's reputation (had the incident occurred south of the 49th parallel, several people would of course have been shot dead even before insurance information was exchanged).

intertext herself pointed out that on a hot day, a dip into a cool pond was actually very refreshing, and that this was almost the only way she could have come by it without attracting disapproval. However, she was concerned for the possessions in her now-soaked bag. We found a bench and laid them out. Her iPhone looked okay, but she didn't want to turn it on in case it fried. Having talked for a while, we went over to a snack bar - but unfortunately the iPhone was left on the bench, whence it was swiftly spirited by person or persons unknown.

Afterwards we met up with Mikako and had a nice meal in Chinatown, but it just goes to show that even Toronto has a Dark Side:

DSC00315

梅雨diary: Takayama or Bust
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steepholm
I'm now back in England for a few days. On Friday, like Odysseus with his oar, I will be setting out again, in a different direction, as westerly as my last trip was easterly, but I already feel quite disorientated.

That will keep, though. Let me bring my Japanese adventure to a brief conclusion.

By my third day in Kanazawa, I was a bit fed up at not feeling well enough to take advantage (or at least enjoyment) of all the interesting things on offer. As I mentioned in my last entry, Kanazawa has really thrown everything into being a tourist-friendly city, and one side effect is that, much more than in Tokyo itself, I often had shopkeepers waiters, etc. talk to me in English, despite my best efforts to talk to them in Japanese. Often I went with the flow, but on Monday something in me snapped. Seeking a small amount of food and a large amount of cool air, I went into a restaurant that had its menu in both English and Japanese, and having said "Hitori desu" (in context, "Table for one") was led to table by a waitress who insisted on repeating that back to me in English, as if (being a gaijin) I might not understand the Japanese I had myself spoken. I don't know why, but I felt a miffed by this, so when she came to take my order I made a point of reading it in Japanese, kanji and all - only to have it translated into English for my benefit again. A little later, I asked a different waiter for a water refill ("Sumimasen, omizu wo okawari oneigaishimasu!"), to which he replied, as if explaining a grown-up concept to a two-year-old, "Water."

I knew I was being a bit ridiculous, but it was beginning to feel like some kind of weird mind game. Eventually, not quite having been able to finish the food, I called yet a third waiter over, and said in Japanese that, although the food had been delicious, my appetite had recently been suppressed due to the heat and that I was therefore unable to eat it all. At last, this un-phrase-bookable little speech turned a key, and a suitable reply in Japanese was my reward, topped with the customary compliment on my linguistic skill (which, admittedly you get in many places if you manage to say "arigatou", but in this case felt like a crown of bays).

Vindicated, I set about paying my bill - but so dizzy was I with the twin draughts of heat and victory that I put down the wrong amount of money, and of course as soon as I got to the till all my good work was undone, as the woman kindly explained in English that "We need TEN more. TEN". In vain did I protest that my maths rather than my Japanese was at fault. In fact I was so flustered that didn't register the glass door at the entrance as I left, clattering into it and leaving an unsightly splodge of gaijin sweat at the level of my face - for which I apologised in good Japanese, I think, but by then that was no longer the point.

I hasten to add that this humiliating encounter was not typical. In fact, I had a recuperative episode an hour or so later in a small souvenir shop run by a very old, very small woman (she was 95, in fact, as she repeatedly informed me, deaf in one ear and blind in one eye). She told me all about her life - no nonsense about English here! And, to be fair, I've had a lot of interesting conversations in various places, usually with the owners of businesses where I was the only customer. I think of the bar in Nishiogikubo, learning (over a light tuna meal) why the owner threw it all up to become a whisky specialist; or the bar in Takayama where I drank iced coffee while the owner told me all about his motorbike obsession, which had taken him across Europe (Germany - land of beautiful cities and gentlemen - was his favourite, France - where people are "ijiwaru" - not so much, but for bike engines you can't beat Italy, apparently). On the whole, I think I've done okay, language-wise.

On Tuesday I caught a shinkansen from Kanazawa to Toyama, whence I rode a mountain train up, up into the mountains, past rivers, bridges, coniferous forests, dams, more bridges, etc. It was very beautiful, but I was happy to let the landscape slide by without photographing it. After all, most of Japan looks like this - trees and mountains, mountains and trees. The people live in the gaps in between.

My destination was the small town of Takayama, where I was booked in to a ryokan for a couple of nights. My appetite and energy still weren't back to normal (on returning to England I found that I had lost half a stone over the course of the month), and far from being treated to wafting mountain breezes, as had been my hope, the temperature in Takayama was still around 33 centigrade. Nevertheless, I really liked Takayama, not least because of its many rivers and streams, which criss-crossed the town in a way that made me feel quite at home (although probably no one else would have been reminded of Romsey). Anyway, here are a couple of boys looking at the carp in the river. I'm rather proud of this photograph!

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As well as rivers, Takayama was replete with many old (i.e. wooden) Japanese style streets, most of which sold either sake, hida beef, or sarubobo. What's a sarubobo? Why, it's the mascot of the town, as far as I could make out, which exists in the form of baby monkey with (generally) a blank red face - although Hello Kitty versions also exist - and is meant to be a good luck charm.

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The other big thing in the Takayama is the twice-yearly festival, which takes place in spring and autumn, and involves a number of ancient festival floats. Of course, I was there at the wrong time of year, but I did visit the shed where they are kept (I was almost the only visitor), where I listened to an English guide that was almost inaudible, though I forgave it for the honesty of the notice taped to its side:

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The floats were interesting, though:

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My last first in Takayama was entering a shared bath, something I'd not been in a position to do on my previous visits to Japan. There are many Youtube videos detailing the proper etiquette, and I was a bit nervous about committing some faux pas, but it seemed to pass off okay - at least, people were too polite to upbraid me if I did get it wrong...

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Don't know what they're doing
But they laugh a lot
Behind the pink door


I won't bore you with my uneventful trip back to Tokyo, or the pleasant last meal I had with Miho, Mikako and Hiroshii, or even my overnight stay at the Hotel Sunroute, Higashi Shinjuku. By that time I was in travel mode, and all my efforts were concentrated on making a month's worth of Stuff fit into my two cases. Instead, I will leave you with the following cheery message, which I saw in a Takayama toilet. In Japanese, it reminds people to take their rubbish away with them, but its message to foreigners is far more welcoming:

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Yes, Japan, I will keep bringing my trash! Hopefully I can bring some as soon as next year, but that depends on events still hidden in the mists of futurity...

梅雨diary: Yukata be Kidding Me
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Early in my stay at Tonjo's Foreign Faculty Building, I joked to Miho that I didn't want to end up as the main character of a Japanese tale, 「可哀相な外人の物語」, or "The Story of the Pitiable Foreigner". The thought had been prompted by my bedtime reading of a Japanese novel that had one of its main characters, sleeping alone in an old building, rather suddenly and unexpectedly introduced to a ghost to his room at night. At that point, as I looked out at the grove surrounding the large and otherwise deserted old building in which I was then sleeping alone, I had decided that light fiction was a better choice.

The yurei and obake of Tonjo ignored me, happily, but I felt that fever took me pretty close to "Pitable Foreigner" status, had I not been able to pull out of the dive for my last evening in Tokyo, merely scraping the tops of trees and getting bits of bird's nest in my cleavage.

I was particularly glad, because this was the day that Satomi, her mother and her friend Chiaki (who as luck would have it works in a kimono shop) were coming to do yukata-related things with me. Our original plan had been ambitious - to go to Kanda shrine and watch rakugo. Gradually, though, with the temperature being in the mid-30s, this was reduced to eating some nice desserts at my flat, then walking elegantly around the grounds of Tonjo drawing admiring glances from all who beheld us. Anyway, here are some of my favourite pics from the occasion. There are quite a few, but feel free to scroll past:

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Obi Wonky Maybe?

Of course, I only included that last photo so that I could use the caption.

Then it was on to Miho's place in Nakano, where my appetite returned on cue, and I had a wonderful meal cooked by her husband Hiroshi, a fine chef as I remember from last year. (Unfortunately, he wasn't feeling well himself, for much the same reasons as me before, and had to retire early.) Satoshi Kitamura, whom I'd met at the Mexican embassy, was another guest at supper, and we had a very good talk about the varying degrees of (in)directness one might expect in different cultures, which issued in the following Buzzfeedish joint declaration (apologies for the national stereotyping, but sake is no friend to fine distinctions):

If an American thinks it's a bad idea, they'll say, "That's a bad idea."
If an English person thinks it's a bad idea, they'll say, "That's a very brave suggestion."
If a Japanese person thinks it's a bad idea, they'll say, "The weather's been hot, recently, hasn't it?"

We had drunk quite a bit of sake by that time. Afterwards we walked fifty yards to the local festival, the other reason for being yukata-clad. It's a small affair but a popular and traditional one: Miho reminisced how the sound of the festival music used to excite her when she was at primary school (she's a little older than me), and she'd run home to change, ready to dance. As is typical in such affairs - not that I'd seen one before in real life - a temporary tower had been built in the centre of an open space, with a small stage surrounding it. At the top, a taiko drummer accompanied a set of maybe half a dozen tunes (each of which had a different dance associated with it), which were basically played in rotation throughout the evening, and from the tower strings of lanterns radiated like filaments from a web. There were various food and drink stalls (though not goldfish scooping, sadly!) around the edge of the area. Some people were watching, some were dancing - the dance involving (whatever the tune) a slow, anti-clockwise circuit of the tower, done in conjunction with various combinations of arm gestures, claps, turns, and forward and backward steps. Not too hard to learn, if you've had enough sake, and I followed Miho and gave it a go. I am no dancer in any idiom, but I remembered the lyrics of the Awa Bon Odori:

The dancers are fools
The watchers are fools
Both are fools alike so
Why not dance?


This has been my motto throughout the trip, and to be honest it's not such a bad one for life.

If you want a flavour of the sound and movement of the thing, please click through to the video below:

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That marked the end of my Tokyo stay, and the next morning I boarded the shinkansen to Kanazawa in the west of the country, a town famed for fresh seafood, for the garden of Kenrokuen, and for putting gold leaf on so many things that it would make a rapper blush.

The first thing that fascinated me, though (because I am a Big Kid) was the fountain at the station, which was also at times a digital clock. Cool! (I'm sure they have these kinds of things elsewhere too, but I've not seen one.) The station itself is pretty impressive. This huge structure at its entrance seems new, and I suspect may have been erected to celebrate the arrival of the shinkansen line from Tokyo a couple of years ago, after which Kanazawa put itself on a no-holds-barred tourist footing.

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I'd put myself up at an air BnB for three nights in Kanazawa, to justify two nights at a proper ryokan in Takayama afterwards. It was my first Air BnB experience, and while it was nothing special nor was the price I paid for it. The room was pretty bare, but everything promised was present, and at least I had this as the view from my window:

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I have to say that, throughout the next few days, my energy and appetite, briefly resurgent for the Nakano matsuri, went back into abeyance, so I don't think I was able to do Kanazawa justice. However, I did put the miles in! First stop was the impressive fish market (which looked delicious but prompted no appetite in me at all, alas), followed by the castle park. Of course, no one knows whether samurai armour was originally modelled on the appearance of Japanese castles, or the other way round. What is certain is that in the feudal period, once two castles spotted each other they were apt to convert (much like the Transformers of our own day) into mechanised fighting machines of ferocious violence and battle it out until one of them was a flaming heap (which was then officially blamed on earthquakes). The sight so disconcerted the shogun that he ordered that castles should never be built within 4 ri of each other, an ordinance still in place today.

Actually, that may have been the fever writing. Interesting as Kanazawa Castle may be, it's actually less famous than the adjoining garden, Kenrokuen - so called because it's a park (en) containing six (roku) features (ken) thought notable - although I'm not sure which six they had in mind. I saw a lot more, personally. Even for someone with low energy levels it was a very pleasant place to walk around, and oddly reminiscent (in its penchant for sudden prospects, islands with "fake" temples, sinuous walks, water features, and commitment to "nature methodised"), to the kind of thing that was being done in English landscape gardening over the same period. (I wish I had the knowledge and vocabulary to expatiate on this.)

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Naturally, after wandering in the heat for a while, you want something to help you cool down. As I mentioned earlier, putting gold leaf in, or on, pretty much everything is a Kanazawa speciality. Want yourself a gold-leaf face mask? We've got you covered. Sweets or soap or sake with bits of gold leaf inside? Of course. Actually, why not just buy yourself an ice cream cornet covered in a single sheet of gold leaf?

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Oh, okay then.

梅雨diary: Gentlemen in England now a-bed (are having a lie-in): 6-12th July
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On Thursday evening I found myself with Miho and Mikako at the Mexican Embassy, which was hosting an event about Mexican-Japanese literary relations. This is not, to put it mildly, my area of expertise, but it sounded like an interesting gig, so with my credo of cultural omniverousness I went along. Most of the talks were in Spanish with Japanese translation, or Japanese with Spanish translation, which was an interesting challenge (I don't speak Spanish at all). The one exception was Satoshi Kitamura, once a long-term resident of England - you may remember Angry Arthur? - who, perhaps because he knew I was in the audience, kindly translated himself into English as well.

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From what I could make out through the dark glass of linguistic ignorance it was a good event, with some interesting stats, such as this one showing the huge imbalance between languages that have been translated into Japanese for children's books. (The columns represent English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese.)

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At dinner afterwards I happened to find myself next to Diana Wynne Jones's Japanese publisher, which made for a very stimulating conversation, particularly about titles. (Not only that, the following day I talked with DWJ's Japanese translator about the same subject.)

The 7th July is, as any fule kno, the festival of Tanabata. (Long story short, there were once two stars - let us call them Will and Lyra - who fell in love but were separated, and destined to be able to be with each other only for one day each year, this being that day: it has thus become a festival for lovers particularly.) This was to be a) my first festival in Japan and b) my first opportunity to wear my yukata. My friends Yoshiko and Hiroko had agreed to come with me, and indeed Yoshiko pointed out that her university was holding a Tanabata event, which included a free yukata-dressing service (even Japanese people don't find these things so easy!). Of course, I gratefully took up the offer, and so it was that I found myself on the 8th floor of Taisho University, in a room full of people being yukata'd up, having their hair put right, and so on, under the expert tuition of a group of (it seemed) professionals, two of whom immediately set their sights on me.

I don't suppose there can be any of us who hasn't fantasised at one time or another about being taken in hand by a pair of no-nonsense, Japanese ladies of middle age, and tucked, trimmed and twirled like a kokeshi doll, but I never thought it likely to happen in real life. After emerging from this experience I was passed on to a student to have my hair plaited and my decorative flower attached. The whole thing took, maybe, twenty minutes, and this was the result:

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Silk purses and sow's ears, and all that - I think they did a very good job with the material available.

Before the festival, a few of us slipped out for a meal of sake, raw fish and yakitori (yes there were also vegetables - but no, they were not boiled sprouts). In amongst the rest were a first for me, whale sashimi - something I was a little leery of for a number of reasons; but in a "When in Rome, everything comes with garum" spirit I gave it a go. I've got to say, it was really good! And - well, of course this shouldn't be surprising - far closer to beef than to tuna. (My mother has often mentioned the "Whale Steaks" served during wartime austerity as among the worst foods she's ever tasted, but I rather suspect they didn't know the best way to cook them at the Lyons Corner House, let alone prepare them as sashimi.)

The Tanabata celebration we went to afterwards took place at a local shrine - as you can see, it's a colourful event. We each wrote our prayers (mine in Japanese probably illegible to any but divine beings), and hung them with the rest, and shuffled off to bed (as you do in geta).

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The following day was the day of my lecture at the International Children's Library in Ueno, which is the children's section of the National Diet Library, the equivalent of the British Library. They sent a taxi to take me all the way from Tonjo to Ueno, about an hour's drive through central Tokyo. I was once again amazed at the decor of Japanese taxis, with their white crocheted (or tatted?) antimacassars, seemingly the product of a cottage industry run by a secret society of international, time-travelling Victorians. (I didn't take a photograph, but try this one for size.) The white gloves worn by the driver didn't faze me, for white gloves are to be seen in so many places in Japan, most obviously since I've been here by the people inside the election vans that drove though Tokyo in the run-up to the recent elections. Apparently the message on the loudspeaker was simply saying, in effect, "Vote for me!", but inside half a dozen white-gloved people (from a distance I suppose only their hands were visible) were smiling and waving, to add a human touch to what could otherwise come across as a rather hectoring message. Once, I was walking up a small side street when one of these vans passed me and a young woman hung out of the side of it, smiling and waving, and I admit that I was struck by her sincerity and, by extension, the economic soundness of the policies advocated by her party's representative. Still, "投票できない" I sadly informed her.

The library is a rather splendid building, and I was given a tour of it, the most exciting bit naturally being those parts the public doesn't get to see, namely the basement vaults, where you have walk across a very large fly-paper to get the dust off your shoes before you can enter. "We keep this at a constant temperature of 22 degrees," Ms Nakajima, my guide, informed me, "to preserve the books." I actually felt it to be a little cool for comfort, and congratulated my body on its ability to acclimatise. But, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first persuade that 22 degrees is a bit nippy, as I would later have cause to remember...

Ms Nakajima went on to tell me that they didn't keep manga - including things like Shounen Jump - at this branch of the library, but at the main branch in Nagacho, because manga wasn't thought of as essentially children's literature. However, they did have magazines for children and teenagers. Wondering exactly what this distinction amounted to, I took a volume at random from the shelf - a pink affair with the words "My Boy" written in English on the front and a picture of a rather beautiful young man. In fact, there seemed to be rather a lot of beautiful young men in evidence, and the volume fell open at a page at which one was depicted (in some detail) giving another oral sex. I'm still trying to get my head around a cataloguing system that classes this under children's literature but excludes One Piece. (According to Wikipedia, in 2009 62.9% of Shounen Jump readers were under the age of fourteen, just as a data point.) But all cataloguing systems have inherent contradictions, because the world's a contradictory place, as I have argued elsewhere...

My Boy was of course a work for fujoshi - mostly straight females who enjoy reading about male-male sex. Has anyone ever done a comparison between that demographic and the slash fiction phenomenon in the West? Probably - but if not, they should.

The lecture went well - and afterwards they sent me some pictures, in most of which I'm grimacing like Theresa May, but here's one that I feel sums up the actual spirit of the event far better, although you wouldn't get that there was quite a large audience. To my left sits Professor Hishida, who was acting as my interpreter:

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I got the taxi back, feeling strangely tired, but I put that down to nerves (not that I'd felt nervous, but perhaps my body knew better?), and stopped off at the little restaurant next to Tonjo called Paper Ban - odd name, but there you are - and ate a curry and rice topped with grilled cheese, a surprisingly satisfying combination. Then I went to bed at 9pm, feeling very tired....

... and slept feverishly for the next 12 hours.

At first, of course, I blamed the mosquitoes. Could it be malaria? Did it call for a G&T? But Dr Google said no, Japanese mosquitoes are malaria-free - so I tried to cure myself of hypochondria by rereading the first chapter of Three Men on a Boat, a worthwhile experience at any time, and reconciled myself to the fact that it was probably the heat, and constant mixing of heat with air-conditioned cold - the same thing that triggered my previous fever, four years ago in Boston (in the UK I never seem to be ill).

Anyway, I've been living with that fever for the last few days. It tends to hit in the evening (it's due just around now, in fact), sends me shivery, coughing and sans appetite to an early bed, and then releases me in the small hours, a little spacey and weak, but able to do some basic things. On Sunday, for example I was able make it to Kagurazaka for a lunch date with my internet friend Yuki (she's the one in the middle), though my appetite wasn't great:

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And on Monday for a lunch date with my other internet friend Yuka in Shibuya (I also have friends called Yako and Yoko, in case you're wondering). She'd come from Kobe specially, so I could hardly cancel - besides, I was really pleased to see her.

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And on Tuesday Miho's class came to my flat for tea, after a Q&A session:

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Me and my Crew

But I was not at my best for any of these events. And I had to cancel Tomoko, and decline invitations from Akira, Yasuko and Chie...

Yesterday I spent more quietly still, venturing only a short air-conditioned bus-ride to the cinema to watch the first film from Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch's Flower. If you haven't heard of Studio Ponoc it's run by a lot of ex-Ghibli staffers, and the director of this film is the Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who also directled Arrietty and When Marnie was There.

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Since this film too was based on an English children's book, Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick (1971), I was curious to see what he'd done with the source material - especially since, compared with The Borrowers and When Marnie was There, the source is pretty slight. I was feeling quite good, though on the bus-ride I ran through the Crispin's day speech in my head and found my cheek wet with tears, which wasn't a good sign (though to be fair I'm easily moved to tears and that speech is a blinder).

I'd seen from the trailers that Mary and the Witch's Flower appeared to be set in England, which is what made it especially intriguing to me, the other two stories having been transposed to Japan. And it was indeed set there, although this is never mentioned. Even more specifically, the landscape looked just right for Shropshire, the book's setting. The house, the character's clothes, the street, all looked right - except, oddly for Peter, Mary's friend, who in the 1971 book is the vicar's son, but here appears (to my eye) to have wandered in from America:

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Genuine question: would you be surprised to see a rural Shropshire 12-year-old dressed this way?

Overall the film was in improvement on the book, I thought, though it did recycle an awful lot of Ghibli tropes. One interesting thing is that, while everyone spoke in Japanese (obviously), when they wrote, they wrote in English. I wonder what the reasoning is there? Is it somehow more implausible, or more illusion breaking, to be seen to write Japanese than to be heard to speak it?

I felt reasonably good after the film, to the extent of making a plan to visit Shakey's for a tentative pizza, and then the shop called "Snobbish Babies" on the fifth floor of the station. (What can they sell?) Alas, before I'd got very far into the pizza the shivers descended again and forced me homeward. So today I've been extra quiet, writing blog posts and doing other such harmless nonsenses, but this one has already gone on quite long enough, so I will leave you for now with a calming picture of some carefully packaged but hugely expensive, and no doubt very delicious, Japanese fruit.

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Yes, that mango really will cost you £9.50

梅雨diary: A Trip to the Country: 4-6th July
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My feet and my legs below the knee have become an izakaya for mosquitoes. Every evening I hear their tiny whiny voices cry "Kampai!" and remark on the superior taste of imported blood. Meanwhile, the rest of my body - including my luscious, lily-white inner arms, which look very tasty even to me - they pointedly ignore, adding insult to injury. I'm afraid I have no compunction about killing them when I get the chance, although to find one's hands sprayed with blood and to realise that it is one's own is a strange experience, like suicide at one remove. Of course, John Donne was way ahead of me on that last thought:

But now I find his words proved true in me,
Except with a mosquito, not a flea.

I don't have too much to report about the first of my "big" lectures, which I gave on 4th July - an important date, as I pointed out, because of course it was the anniversary of Charles Dodgson's river trip with Alice Liddell and her sisters, which ultimately gave rise to Alice in Wonderland. It was a good way to mark the 155th anniversary of that august event, anyway, and it seemed to go down well. There was a full house, too - which is an index of the popularity of the subject (the image of Britain in Japanese anime) more than of me, naturally. I'm not exactly a household name here, though of course that could change.... Anyway, photographs were taken and I've been promised some, but so far I don't have them so I can't pester this blog's readers with them as yet. Round two happens on Saturday, when I'll be travelling to Ueno to give (more or less) the same lecture, but this time with the aid of an interpreter.

Tuesday night brought a typhoon, which seems to have done a fair amount of havoc-wreaking in Kyushu but left Tokyo unscathed, aside from several bucketloads of rain. There wasn't even any wind to speak of, and I'll admit to some disappointment, considering I was a typhoon virgin until then. The words "Was that it?" may have escaped my lips. That said, I was happy enough that it had passed by Wednesday morning, because that was the day I climbed aboard the "Romance Car" train, a bottle of green tea and a "Summer Mikan Pie" romantically in hand, to go to Odawara.

I was off to meet Yuuko, the mother of my friend Haruka, who is currently living in England and who has appeared in these pages from time to time over the last few months. She lives near Odawara, and the plan was for me to stay overnight - but not before a little touristing. (I would have met her father too, but he's on business in Thailand at the moment, sadly.) Suspiciously obsessive readers of this journal may remember that I went to Odawara once before, two years ago, on my way to Hakone. How much one's perspective is changed by a little time and familiarity! Whereas in 2015 I was mutely rebuked with a laminated sign for showing the wrong travel pass, this time I was met at the gate with a smile both broad and warm, and shown by Yuuko to her (rather plush) car instead, in which we took off towards Kamakura, one of a surprisingly large number of cities able to boast of being Japan's former capital.

While we're on our way there, let me just remark that Yuuko's car has an integral television (with many channels) in the dashboard. I was impressed, but isn't it rather distracting for the driver? That said, it gave me a chance to watch a fair amount of children's television, and to notice one big difference between Japanese and UK children's TV for the under-fives - namely that in Japan they use lots of actual children, often dressed bizarrely, rather than just adults (whether or not dressed as creatures made of felt). Their sets are full of three and four year olds wandering about, singing along haphazardly to a song, or trying to move in time to a stridently "genki" 2/4 tune. If the dashboard TV would have fallen foul of UK health-and-safety laws, what was being broadcast would have done the same with child labour laws, I imagine. But in fact, no one crashed the car, and the kids appeared to be having a good time.

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Here I am with Yuuko in Komachi-doori the main tourist street in Kamakura. As you can see, I've taken to carrying a parasol (higasa), which are common in Japan, and something I rather like, not much caring either for tans or sun cream. (I also have my sturdy brolly for those days when the tsuyu lives up to its name.) When and why did parasols fall from favour in Europe, I wonder? Monet and Seurat's ladies seem to have them, and very nice they look too. But I fear I'll be too embarrassed to carry on the custom back in the UK (where, admittedly, there is very little occasion for a parasol, but still).

After Komachi-doori we when to a nearby Buddhist temple and garden, where having wandered through a very impressive bamboo grove we sat and drank matcha while gazing at some carefully landscaped nature, along with a good many other tourists, and attempted to achieve enlightenment. Once again, I didn't quite manage it (so near but so far!), but the matcha and okashi were good, and it really was a beautiful garden...

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Back in Odawara - or rather the suburb of Odawara called Tomizu ("many waters" - and it's true there are streams a-plenty) - Yuuko showed me to her house. I was impressed by this three-storey edifice -

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- and even more so when I realised that behind it there was another three-storey edifice of similar size (it was a bit like this moment), which was to be mine for the night. And a very luxurious night it was. I'm a sucker for Japanese toilets, as readers of this journal will know, so let's have the toilet stand as a metonym for the rest. Not only does their toilet have the usual heated seats, inbuilt bidet, etc. - features about which I've become almost blasé - but the lid rises in a friendly but respectful salute as you approach, like a faithful family servant who's known you since childhood. More, when you sit down, you are instantly surrounded by the sounds of a spring glade, with birdsong, bubbling rills, etc. I need hardly add the paper was of a softness and tasteful design quite unlike that to be found in the Foreign Teachers' Faculty Building, or that there was inbuilt mood lighting to complete the effect. It was the kind of toilet, in short, that made you want to have diarrhoea just so that you could spend more time there.

Before leaving the house, I should mention the two family pets, toy dogs of an impossible cuteness, so small that when they bark their front legs lift slightly off the ground, as if they were electronic, and with large anime-eyes - but definitely warm and furry to the touch. With difficulty I resisted the urge to slip one into my luggage.

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That evening we went into Odawara, where we had a very good meal, after which we took the air in a place with a good view of Odawara Castle, probably the town's most famous building. It was indeed impressive, but my eye was inexorably drawn to a huge illuminated sign nearby reading: "カラオケ". I'd never in my life done karaoke, and it did seem an ideal chance - if Yuuko was willing to indulge me, which (being very nice) she was.

So, I can add my first karaoke session to the list of new experiences on this trip. Here I am, fuelled by iced coffee and enthusiasm, giving it everything for "Heart of Glass":

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Aren't you glad I've never worked out how to put audio in my posts? On the other hand, I wish I could have brought you the sounds that the frogs made from this rice field as we walked back to the house afterwards (it was dark by then, of course). The voices of Japanese frogs are quite different from British ones - something between a magpie and a fox's bark is the best way I can put it. It's slightly unnerving when you first hear it - but probably less so than me trying to sound like Debbie Harry.

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