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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Englishwomen Abroad
I've been in Valencia for a few days attending a conference, most of which was in Spanish and thus incomprehensible to me, but everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming, and somehow that didn't matter too much. Why was I there at all, you ask, since I couldn't understand the proceedings? Why, because I had been invited. My keynote went well, thank you very much.

While in Valencia I read Isabella Bird's book about travelling in Japan in the 1870s, and found it very interesting, as an outsider's account of a country in transition from Edo culture to Westernisation. It's full of quotable titbits, but I shall refrain, at least for now. One interesting factoid, though: did you know that the only currency accepted in Japan apart from the yen at that time was the Mexican dollar?

Bird - who already had experience of adventuring in Hawaii and the Rockies before this - was in her mid-forties when she decided to travel the length of Japan (well, from Tokyo to Hokkaido), and she certainly knew her own mind. She isn't afraid of criticising the country: the flea-infested tatami, the food, the abominable roads, etc. On the other hand, this lends her compliments more force, so that when she praises the kindness and courtesy of the Japanese, their immaculate roads and fields, the beauty of the landscape, and so on, we can be confident she means it. Her relationship with her young interpreter, Ito, is also fascinating, if glimpsed only briefly in odd exchanges.

Of course, it turns out that the book has been made into a manga - [不思議の国のバード] (Bird in Wonderland). The Japanese like to look at people looking at them, and of course I like looking at the Japanese doing that, too, especially when refracted through a British children's classic. The allusion to Alice (recalling to me D. C. Angus's The Eastern Wonderland: or Pictures of Japanese Life, which was published at almost the same time as Bird's book, in the early 1880s), only adds to the allure.

Bird in the manga is much younger looking than the real woman, but otherwise it's a fairly faithful adaptation, from what I've seen, but that's only on the basis of a few pages.

How did they handle the fact that Bird, who did not speak Japanese, must speak Japanese in the manga to be understood by its readers? Why, like this:

bird japanese

This is actually quite an accurate representation of my arrival in Valencia.


Your conferences differ from mine, they begin and one does not see daylight for a long time.

I'd be interested in how their roads are both immaculate and abominable.

Immaculate in towns, where there is no litter to be seen; abominable in the country, where they are often quagmires, bridges are down, etc.

Oh, that's interesting. Why is that, do you know?

The lack of litter appears to pretty deep-seated in Japanese culture: there's still a horror of litter there (though it coexists paradoxically with a near-total absence of bins). I think it boils down to consideration for others, which is drummed into children as part of a wider, communal ethos from a very early age (even tiny schoolchildren clean their own schools, etc.) She also mentions, which I should have put in the main entry, that Japan was the safest and most crime-free country she had been to (and she was already a seasoned traveller at this date).

As for the bad roads, it was simply a matter of lack of modernisation plus a difficult landscape of mountains, rivers and forests, not to mention frequent landslides, earthquakes and so on that made maintenance difficult and expensive. At the time Bird was travelling you could get a train between Yokohama and Tokyo (which had only just stopped being Edo) but north of Nikko and it was packhorses, with the occasional rickshaw if you were lucky.

That makes so much sense. And evokes such vivid images.

Have you read Philip Pullman's Galatea. It so made me want to go to Valencia, where I still haven't been.

I remember your praising it in the past, but I'm afraid I still haven't - it's not the easiest book to get hold of!

How do you find Valencia? Do you like it as a city?

Very much. I didn't say much about it this time because I was basically in the conference the whole time, but here's my take from last autumn.

was it ICIAM? :O

With 'O' Level maths? I wish! No, it was this.

Ahhh ok, your conference sounds more interesting overall. I was wondering because a lot of people I know were there. (BTW LJ just sent me an email saying "entries you might have missed" and your journal was there. I don't think we connected, but I added you now.)