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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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Lost in Interpretation
No doubt you have been feeling thoroughly abandoned as far as my Japan blog is concerned, and not without reason. My busyness has continued without let over the last week, and the present opportunity – as I travel north into deepest Touhoku on a shinkansen bound for Aomori – is the first I’ve had in about a week, when I’ve been both a) awake and b) alone (except for all the other passengers, but we try to give each other space) for a few hours together. In short, I’m an introvert who’s been living the life an extrovert, and my admiration for the latter has only increased. How do they keep it up?

Still, when I think that I came here four years ago for the first time knowing nobody at all, I'm certainly not going to complain.

As luck would have it, there are some experiences I can skip over quickly, either because they’re things I’ve written about before or because they don’t make for a spectator sport. One such is my second visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka last Monday. Two years ago, I went alone. This time, having ordered the tickets on the internet months in advance at 1am (effectively the only way to do it) I was with Mihoko, Satomi, and Mihoko’s honorary nephew, Mark, born in Tokyo to an Anglo-American couple, and – having lived in the States for a while – trying his luck at working in Japan. I think I would be thoroughly confused if fate played such a game of blind man’s buff with me, but he seemed anything but deracinated. We had a good time, and although Tokyo was still going through its seasonal 三寒四温 (three [days] cold, four hot) we were lucky enough to hit on a spring day that fully justified my flowery new espadrilles.

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This was followed by dinner at Miho’s, where her husband Hiroshi – having cooked rather delicious tendon (that’s tempura on rice, not, er, tendon) – made me go pink with pleasure by commenting on the improvement in my Japanese. He’s not the kind of man to pay such a compliment lightly. (That said, my Japanese too is 三寒四温: sometimes I think I’m really “getting” it, at others I can hardly resent the well-meaning “There-are-chopsticks-inside” that I just received from person who sold me an eki-bento. A lot depends on how tired I am.)

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here that I’ve been collaborating on/contributing to a book on Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series. It’s Miho’s project, really: she was the one who introduced me, not to the books but to the house and its chatelaine, as avid readers of this blog will know. Anyway, she asked me to check some of the Japanese contributors’ English while I was here, which is largely what has been taking so much of my time. On Tuesday, that time was spent very pleasantly at the house of her colleague (and old schoolfriend) Keiko, who is a designer specialising in soundscapes, and whose beautiful house in Suginami reflects her designer’s eye.

We met behind Tokyo Joshidai, my old stamping ground from 2017, whence we walked past a tiny farm owned by yet another of their high-school chums. Keiko bought some vegetables, paying using the honesty box – which was pretty impressive for what is, after all, relatively central Tokyo. This system is not at all uncommon in Japan, but in the UK I’ve seen it only in the countryside.

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Then we went through a park with a lake with an island, said to be the habitation of a kami, though if it’s a shrine it’s an unofficial one. The reason for the holiness (or its main manifestation, if you prefer to look at it that way round) is a spring, which kept the village watered in former times. As we passed, a family walked past the other way, and I heard a young boy say (slightly petulantly) “神様が見えない”, which might mean “I can’t see the god” or “The god is invisible,” but given the note of complaint I suspect the former.

We will pass over the editing work, but check out the lovely interiors!

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Wednesday morning I met with Philip Seaton, co-organiser of last year’s Contents Tourism symposium, in Musashi-Sakai, a bit further west than Mitaka. It was good to see him again, and talk about possible future collaborations. He told me quite a bit about life in Japan for a foreign academic, as well, and for the father of child with autism – which is not all plain sailing, you may be sure. On the plus side, his son’s autism partly takes the form of an obsession with the layouts of department stores, and thanks to this he was able to tell me that in Japan – and perhaps everywhere? – there are never any toilets on the ground floor. A deterrent, I suppose, to casual urination. This is a useful life hack.

I went on to have lunch with my friend Yuki, after which we wandered the shrines and cat-focused shopping streets of one of Tokyo’s more traditional districts, Yanaka. I was particularly happy to find a little shrine where sakura and wisteria (aka fuji) were in bloom together, like a little Spring miracle.

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As I returned, I was met by Junko, my landlady, who was suffering a heavy cold and was a bit flustered because a new guest (she thought from Indonesia) had no Japanese, and would I help interpret? I told her I’d be happy to try. In fact, the “Indonesian” turned out to be an English potter living in the Gower peninsula, who’d come to Japan on a kind of pottery pilgrimage. I managed to sort out the communication problem, which was rather empowering – my first interpreting gig! The price I exacted was to make Junko (plus dog) pose for a photograph, poor suffering woman…

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In experimental vein, I tried out the local Indian restaurant for dinner, choosing the “beer set” – which combined lamb and spinach (I’d been a-hankering for lamb, which is not generally on the Japanese menu outside of Hokkaido, where the famous “Genghis Khan” is a dish I long to try) with a nan bread. The curry itself was fine, though nothing special, but the nan was amazing. Huge, and light, and crisp, and fluffy, all at once – a like a kind of Garden of Adonis that gathers every season unto itself.

On Thursday I had lunch with Hirohisa Igarashi, a professor at Toyou University, again about possible collaborations. He’s a very charming man, and took me to a charming Italian place. Although we started off in Japanese, I found my capacity slowly ebbing away like an iPhone’s battery, and bit by bit we switched to English (in which he is, in any case, far more proficient). He gave me a little tour of the university, too, including the viewing gallery on its top floor, where a Chinese violinist was playing traditional music to set off the Sky Tree and the rest of the Tokyo skyline. Could I revive within me her symphony and song… but I didn’t have the record button on.

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Then I went on to Nakano Broadway to buy more Kin-iro Mosaic. As you can see, they are all about welcoming in the new era there:

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I am collecting, as I encounter them, ways in which the change of era is being acknowledged. I’m interested in whether it’s just seen as a commercial opportunity, as with the T-shirts an entry or two back, or indeed in this poster, which advertises its PREMIUM SALE on the grounds that it’s the last of the Heisei era. (Next month, the same sale will no doubt be advertised as the first of the Reiwa.)

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These are of course just the very visible ripples on a deep sea of culture, but not without value or curiosity.

After that, it was dinner at Miho’s with Mikako and Nobu (my interpreter at the National Diet Library two years ago, whose English I am also checking), and so to bed.

On Friday I was giving a lecture at Taisho University for Yoshiko, as I have done, now, twice before. The drill was much the same, so I won’t describe it in detail, but I gave them a potted version of my Cotswolds research, after which I had a nice chat with the students, and then an even nicer dinner (as is by now traditional) with Yoshiko and Hiroko, eating, drinking, and making scholarly. I first met them at a conference in Ohio three years ago, and have been knocking back sushi and sake ever since – albeit with long periods of abstinence, when the trifling matter of an intervening Eurasian continent adjourns our fun. I’m sure we’ll find a way to get back on track at IRSCL in Sweden this summer, though, albeit with surströmming (possibly) and vodka substituting for our accustomed fare.

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And thus closed my time in Tokyo. On Saturday I boarded the shinkansen for Kobe, where I had a different set of adventures, but perhaps that’s enough – or more than enough – for now.

I always like seeing your adventures. :)

Thank you! I love sharing them.

You seem so much more confident now in your Japanese adventures. Thank you for sharing them.

Re speaking a second language, the problems you describe are similar to my experiences with Welsh. Sometimes I can chat fluently for an hour, but I do get brain fade after that. I also often need to warm up and if startled by someone speaking Welsh to me unexpectedly, I sound like a total beginner, which is very frustrating.

I relate to that, totally. One of my collection of secret shames is that I often stumble over "Arigatou gozaimasu" when I'm receiving change in a shop. It's such a basic phrase and not hard to say at all, but for some reason I get nervous and my tongue turns to rubber. There it's not the unexpectedness that's the problem, of course, but rather the inevitability.