The end of culture shock, robotic squirrels and Yuko the legend

Posted in Uncategorized on 09/09/2009 by littleowl87

On Wednesday we decided that we were no longer culture shock-ed. We sat there over iced coffees from a global coffee chain and stared out of the window at Japanese people walking past and felt nothing, not even a twinge, of the alien, the duck-out-of-water feel we had in our first days having flown roughly 6000 miles east. Now we look out and wonder about the shock of going home. In some ways we feel we’ve already gained such an amazing insight into Japan that we’ve seen it all, but of course we haven’t. We haven’t even finished sightseeing in Kyoto; we have yet to see the Golden Pavilion, the zen gardens, the Imperial Palace gardens, the craft market. But I suppose to me sightseeing is actually not partocularly helpful in discovering a culture or a a country’s people; you don’t often get an insight into the way they live or their attitudes. Often as you are ushered round a palace or temple with a crowd of other tourists you feel as if you’re staring at something beautiful but inanimate – a bit lifeless, and untouchable, in a glass box. Like a colourful butterfly pinned, encased and labelled. Whether you appreciate my rambling metaphors or not you probably agree? Although I like seeing beautiful or impressive things it reminds me of some articles I read last year at uni about culture as commodity – packaged and manufactured for the visiting masses, or for export onto a world stage: artificial, and forced, Japan as produced for the eyes of the Westerner, the fat American tourist with a bulging wallet to match his bulging gut. I like to think that Katie and I have seen a bit more of the real Japan, but who knows? Typical anthropological postmodern dilemma: can we ever see the “real” Japan? Will we ever truly understand it the way natives do? Probably not; I’ve neglected my Japanese phrasebook, for a start. But although we’ll never be truly Japanese, we can try hard to get to know the culture, and that’s what anth is all about.

So we were so un-shocked we went shopping. Go on, chide us. I’ll start serious work soon I promise. In fact I got a lead today (as if I was Sherlock Holmes..); as I was having dinner I chatted to the restaurant staff and the restaurant owner, who I told about my project. He said that one of his friends does traditional tattoos, tebori, and that I can meet him! He phoned him but the guy didn’t pick up, but they took my email address and my phone number though phones are fiddly here so don’t know if they’ll get through to me that way. But all very exciting!

When we went shopping yesterday I bought various things including a Totoro toy: a grinning creature from one of the famous Studio Ghibli Japanese films. I have yet to see the actual film he’s from but loved his grin too much. I also bought a battery powered squirrel that was around £6; we believed it would surely do something amazing, but as soon as we put the battery in after hours of painful agonising wait, all it did was sort of rotate its head around and around… Like the exorcist or body-popping… I think it’s meant to be chewing but quite frankly it’s rubbish. It’s hilariously rubbish though so I called it Alan the Disco Squirrel.

We went out for dinner with Yuko last night which was great. We went to a place where each table has at its centre a sort of flame grill- bit like a barbecue but more firey. The idea being that you cook your own food in the middle. I got some squid, and we had salad, and veg. We also enjoyed some sake (hot and then some cold, I like it). The restaurant had a great fishtank as well, as it happens. The fish probably felt lucky every day. How morbid. Anyway they were beautiful big fish. And they also had a tiny turtley thing in there. Yuko was great and cooked us everything, and paid for it all, including drinks! She said “don’t worry..I’m rich!” so we felt OK about it! She had SO much to drink including two huge pints of beer which was really funny because like most Japanese women she’s absolutely tiny! Ended the meal with some black sesame icecream- super love points if anyone can track that down for me in England..! The restaurant owner had been to England for Crufts dog show, and to see some stage shows, and kindly but rather bizarrely gave us show programmes that they had bought in London, to take home with us! I felt bad to take away something that was special to someone else but not particularly to me, but refusing the offer would have been impolite! So I have a programme in Japanese for a Japanese version of Twelfth Night.

Yuko was an amazing laugh and a little more chilled than Katie’s previous homestays, maybe because she’s in her late 50s and single so had quite an independent and daring outlook on life and enjoyment. We even had a bit of a dance in the street. She was so sweet when she said goodbye, saying that I had a good character (which is quite obviously utterly true..).. Jokes aside I will genuinely miss her! And her spectacular Japanese dinners!! Maybe we’ll meet again before the end of the trip.

Today we visited the kaleidoscope museum which was great but twee, with an over-long kaleidoscope projections presentation, and the Kyoto Manga museum, which was interesting because reading graphic novels is a massive thing here and was originally influenced by famous artists such as Hokusai’s sketches. I honestly find manga a bit strange though as the content is odd and mostly overtly sexy despite the fact that it often features seemingly innocent or childlike characters and I find it a bit perverse! I think I have yet to understand it though I do appreciate the artwork and skill. We also had lunch alone in a great traditional place that played really funny wailing cat/Enya plinky music. It was irritating as well as funny but once we left we missed it!

Amusing anti-drugs poster; inexplicable alpaca in otherwise serious program..; dinner with Yuko; grinning Totoro; amusing products; ladies urinal?! Which is funny considering the “flushing” sound option on every toilet to mask the sound of your wee..; amazing cappuccino art in “venice”; toys…; Domokun hand warmer/headrest; Uri Gellar’s downfall; freaky robots; strange advert; disturbingly sexual child’s jigsaws – see what I mean?!


Update on yesterday – crazy aggressive toilets

Posted in Uncategorized on 09/09/2009 by littleowl87

Forgot to mention that we finally dared to try the bizarre buttons on japanese toilets. It was terrifying: I chose the “spray” button and Katie tested “bidet”. Mine was such a bad choice: a strange rod slowly extended beneath me and shot a violent jet of water at me. Naturally, I screamed. I’m not sure why anyone would choose to soak themselves like that… When I showed Katie it managed to spray so violently that it almost got us in the face and I for one was soaked down my right side and had to dry off under the handdryer. We made quite a scene screaming and laughing hysterically, very embarrassing. The bidet was a more gentle, ladylike spray, according to Katie. We didn’t dare attempt to test it again…

Terrifying Micro Pet Advertisement Videos

Posted in Uncategorized on 08/09/2009 by littleowl87

Part 1:

(with katie’s voice!)

Part 2:

Chase mode… Duets?!! Ugh, terrifying! But I may still come home with one.

Nijo Castle’s nightingale floors, Lugol’s retro furniture and a feast at Yuko’s

Posted in Uncategorized on 08/09/2009 by littleowl87

So yesterday I went to meet Katie after she’d visited the hospital. She had to stay longer than expected so I decided to check out cafe Lugol which is where I wrote a recent blog from; the trendy place. Have a look at the amazing retro interior and my yummy iced coffee and tasty cake below. It seems I’m always showing you my food, but I guess it’s as big a part of this culture adventure as anything else!

After that Katie and I went to Nijojo Castle, which was amazing. Famously, the floors throughout the castle have been built to make a light squeaking noise (like a nightingale?!) when you walk across them; this was a safety feature so that intruders could be detected. How atmospheric – imagine the crickets outside, the faint squeak of the wooden boards, the shogun’s bodyguards poised, the shadows creeping across paper screens… The bodyguards also had positions in concealed posts from which they could spring out at a moments’ notice. The thin walls were painted by eminent artists of the time and were absolutely stunning; many had golden backgrounds (gold leaf no doubt) and featured intricate depictions of blossoming trees, eagles, cranes, snarling tigers, leopards, lions, morning glory flowers, etc. Beautiful. You aren’t allowed to photograph inside but I took one sly photo just to show you- this wasn’t even the best room. Outside the gardens were lovely but sweltering as usual so we briefly admired the “island of eternal happiness” (which looked pretty unreachable to me…) before retreating to a more accessible island of happiness in the form of the gift shop in the shade with icy drinking water.

We then went to Katie’s new homestay house to see Yuko, a lovely woman who had kindly prepared us an amazing Japanese feast with baked sea bream, corn on the cob, tomato&pepper salad, cold noodles, rice, tofu soup, more fried tofu, and all kinds of yum. It was fantastic and I ate loads before we finished with some large grapes that looked like plums and tasted appley/grapey. I was meant to join Yuko and Katie on a trip to the sento (public baths) but couldn’t (womany things- “ew yuck” you scream) so maybe I’ll go another time, apparently they were really nice although Katie did not appreciate the electric bath they had as an option there. I agree that the idea seems somewhat counterintuitive…

Today we finally sorted out banking/hospital bill issues which involved a lot of trudging around, but had wonderful chats about boys and Japan and family and even had a laugh on the underground with my new socks as sock puppets, to the delight/dismay of everyone else around us. We feel that because we’re anthropologists we’re entitled to act inappropriately sometimes because the rest of the time we respect and take an interest in local custom…as Katie said, we painstakingly learn the social codes.. then break them! We also feel we have a license to engage in a little tongue in cheek Lacism now and again, discussing the worst possible name for a Japanese person to pronounce; so far we’ve decided on good old David Hasselhoff (Dabid Hahsewwhohhhh)?! No offence if you’re reading this and don’t know that we’re genuinely charming non-racists. Eawton Jonn is also a
favourite name, we saw an old Japanese guy who looked just like

So apart from visiting banks and trying on silly reading glasses they make available for people whilst banking (“banking glasses” as I like to call them, we’ll see if I can get the photos from Katie), we chose a place called Doutor for coffee (a Japanese place) over Starbucks (wooo!), and had our first Bento box for lunch. Following the sound advice of the Lonely Planet guide (I live by it) we awkwardly shuffled into a traditional restaurant with no-one else in it and asked for Bento. We were given a curious and mostly unidentifiable selection in a plastic box with two layers and some small bowls of miso soup and a strange savoury tapioca type sloppy stuff. I admit I was scared of most of it but tried it and enjoyed the majority of things. We were pleased with ourselves but perplexed by an old woman who came out a few times and mumbled a lot in Japanese at us; I thought at first she hated us but I reckon she was just having a bit of a laugh at the timid foreign girls come in to try the bento! It was good if a bit nervewracking; she smiled as she waved us out the door though to the surprise of passers by (who probably expected us to live in starbucks.. don’t tell them that I usually do..)

Then after a spot of shopping and novelty Japanese sock buying (lacey socks for pumps, strange ones with hearts on and a pair with split big toe and small toes), we headed to Yukos again for dinner. Unfortunately we got there too late (damn transport) to MAKE sushi but we got to eat what Yuko had made as we talked about a well known tattooed character called Toyama no Kin-san, a character popular in the Edo period, a legend. Many films and tv programmes have been made about him: he was a highly ranked judge, but lived part of his life disguised as a commoner. Possibly as part of the disguise, he had a large cherry blossom tattoo on his back. He would infiltrate criminal gangs as a commoner. When criminals denied their guilt in front of him as a judge, not recognising him, he would reveal his secret knowledge of their criminal activities and true guilt by dramatically uncovering his spectacular tattoo to their horror. What a fantastic story; no surprise it’s still popular!

After the meal we headed over to meet Yuko’s lovely neighbours and their children. We met granny, grandad, mother, two kids, more kids, uncle and aunt, quite a group, who were all very intrigued and offered us Japanese sweets, chocolate cake, frothy bright green matcha (green tea powder mixed rapidly with hot water: nice but quite bitter), apple strudel and cookies, and cold green tea. I honestly shoved in as much as I possibly could on top of Yuko’s similarly generous offerings, it was TASTY.. But definitely feel like a ton of bricks as a result! We got to play on the kids’ Wii which was amazing; they have the new Wii Sports Resort game which I’ve been secretly lusting after (with 1:1 motion technology.. drool…snort…adjust thick rimmed glasses). Anyway we had loads of fun and they had a good chuckle watching us. The older man also explained his screen printing to us; he prints screens by hand and by machine. Interestingly, some linked up with my reading; ukiyo-e woodblock printing used limited colours, like his printing at the moment, because each colour use demands a separate application and so using many different colours is laborious. In the Edo period not many colours would have been available, and rarer ones would have been expensive, and in the current recession people are asking for more basic two-colour pattern screens to save money. This also reminded me of reports of the first contact between American and Japanese tattooists in one of my books; Japanese traditional tattoos, midellef on ukiyo-e woodblock prints, were also limited by lack of availability in ink colours- that’s why traditional tattoos were mostly red, black and a little green or blue and developed various subtle shading techniques for nice grey shading. Anyway when Americans like Sailor Jerry talked to traditional Japanese tattooists they gave over their range of colours- purple, for example, and in turn were taught how to shade, etc.

Before we left we were given beautiful fans from the Gion festival (which was in August) by the neighbours. I was really really amazed at how generous everyone is here, and flattered that they would be so kind to us.

Shosei-en garden pictures

Posted in Uncategorized on 08/09/2009 by littleowl87

I admit, it’s mostly green, but the garden was BEAUTIFUL. I’m sure that in maple or blossom seasons it’s absolutely gorgeous (Katie and I are annoyed that we’re missing those, but at least the things we’re visiting aren’t rammed with tourists. We feel snooty as British tourists; more worthy somehow than Americans or Australians 😛 oh my gaaaaaaawd, is that like a GENUINE old WALL?! Like, wowwww).

Meg goes DOWNTOWN…& gets lost..

Posted in Uncategorized on 07/09/2009 by littleowl87

Hello again my adoring fans. Hungry for more? No?! How dare you. I’m giving you all a quiz upon my return to check up on whether you’ve been reading this, it takes AGES to write, and as I said before, Jo&I are fully aware that time spent writing a blog can feel like time wasted. Although I do enjoy it.

So, I write to you from an amazing cafe featured in the Lonely Planet guide to Kyoto (despite having the book I just bought the iPhone app because it’s so useful). The cafe’s called Lugol, and the book was right in describing it as “a very nice choice”& although describing it as groovy appeared at first odd and outdated, I realise that the cafe is indeed furnished with retro 60s decor so the adjective is in fact very appropriate. See the photos in the next post. Yesterday whilst wandering around downtown I saw amazingly cool retro shops, I suppose I finally found a window into Japanese stylishness, a sense of fashion and image. There’s a word for a sense of style: iki, I think. Came across it when reading about tattoos in the Edo Floating World movement in Japanese history.. As far as I can remember, this was a time when people enjoyed being very fashionable (much like now) and tattoos became a part of that until European/Christian influence led to nudity being something shameful and so tattoos were no longer seen in public and became something more taboo; then they became heavily associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Don’t quote me on any of that though, that’s off the top of my head. Anyway so that’s the kind of parallel I’ll draw in my dissertation: fashionable-ness then and now.

Yesterday morning before downtown I visited Shosei-en, a beautiful garden associated with Higashi hongan-ji, one of the temples I went to the other day. I wandered around in the peaceful garden looking red and sweaty to the alarm of passers-by: “Atsui des ne?!” (hot isnt it? the jist being -you look awful). But I didn’t mind, I admired the landscaping and teased the carp inbetween being driven crazy by my mosquito bites. Check out some photos in the post after this one- there are quite a few.

Downtown, once I got there, was crazy. There are two main shopping arcardes, long covered streets packed with shops, some horrendously tacky and others delightfully so, along with loads of mouthwateringly chic expensive boutiques. Yum yum yum. Before exploring, I sat down for a coffee in a place called Precious Coffee Moments. Precious moments they were NOT. Note that my coffee and green tea cake were nice, but the only seat was in the smoking area which had no ventilation so was pretty unpleasant.

Shopping was better. I found a shop purporting to sell things from America that in fact seemed to mostly sell things made in China or Japan, which was funny. I did buy a few things. Check out the photos for (surprise surprise) Japanese tack, including fluff and blinding bling, along with a “Crunching Cat” that pointlessly plugs into your USB port and does relentless stomach crunches (I find this incredibly disturbing), a dangerous-looking “foot peel” pack containing plastic bootees of toxic gel to burn away layers of your feet, and my favourite masks of all time; was Michael Jackson black or white? Who knows.. buy both.

I also saw the CUTEST EVER puppies and kittens in a pet shop: have a look at the ridiculously cute puppy video HERE:

And photos below. Of course they were all horribly inbred, probably, and one was a bit thin, and most of them will live in handbags never feeling the ground beneath their feet, but when you’re staring at them through a pane of glass you’re trying not to think about that, you’re thinking about how sweet they are.

Damn I just finished this post and lost it. Will have to write it again. After the pet shop I wandered around in various boutiques before getting completely lost in a grid of confusing little streets which are unnamed on the map, and ended up in a pasta place, which I thought would be fine but they had no English menu or pictures so I had to usher over a waiter and attempt to communicate for a while by grunting and mumbling and being embarrassed, and finally after he kindly drew me some pictures of vegetables we accomplished an order, which was nice and tasty. Getting home after that was a trial though as I couldn’t use the nearby subway as planned so ended up getting a taxi.

My dorm mates ( I’ve moved into a dorm, which is more social) are fun. JT, who was only here for one night, was a chatty hillbilly at heart from southern USA; he had leant Japanese and come to visit after realising that “all the best videogames come from Japan!” His story was actually quite sad as he’d grown up on a farm, got a job which worked him too hard for too many hours and nearly drove him to exhaustion and mental illness. He’d saved a lot of money by then though and had decided to quit his job and treat himself to this trip. Xenon, the most interesting character, is from the Netherlands (despite the intergalactic sounding name) and hangs his pants and socks out to dry at the end of his bed. He LOVES to talk, albeit slowly and in stunted english, about anything and everything, and many a time I’ve been caught in some weird conversation and unable to escape as he gives his views on why there are few English translations in Hiroshima or the relentless business surrounding your every move in Japan. He is here for a conference, but likes to “how you say… what is it… Mix business with tourism?” All in all a sweet old guy who’ll be staying here for quite a long time like me. The last guy is no character at all, strangely quiet, he appears late at night, says nothing, gets into his bed in his clothes, and snores loudly. He seems to trust Xenon with a few words though!

Got to sleep, I’ll write about today tomorrow, sorry! x

The strange day

Posted in Uncategorized on 06/09/2009 by littleowl87

Oh yes, it was a strange day yesterday. So strange that I was too tired to write about it last night, so here we are with a catch up.

Katie had to go to the hospital to get some tests done after the monkey incident, and I slept til twelve in a mammoth unexpected sleep. Must be my body trying to get its timing right; it still hasn’t quite got it. So I ended up meeting her at the entrance to Nijojo castle after her trip to the hospital, where we were stopped in our tracks by a nervous looking young schoolboy with his friends giggling and gasping in a group behind him. He asked us a few rushed questions in English, obviously part of a school project to test out their (superior) language skills with native speakers. Afterwards his friends wanted a photograph of all of us as a group, so we got excited and asked them to take some on our cameras too! It’s a shame it was on my Canon, I suppose I’ll show you when I’m home.

Walking to a nearby cafe, we were shocked to see a tall, thin youngish man dressed as a schoolgirl, with long socks, a pleated skirt etc which was very very bizarre given the levels of conformity witnessed so far in Kyoto, and reminded me of the eccentric artist Grayson Perry (look him up, bit weird).

At the cafe I decided to have a black sesame icecream with my (standard!) aisu kohii (…iced coffee). Check out the photo below (it’s GREY ICECREAM!) – actually very yummy.. Oishiiiiii!

And then the nasty bit of the strange day. A crazy pervert at the street crossing who wiggled his eyebrows and said “sex?” No, we said. Go away. After much persistence on his part the lights FINALLY changed and we crossed: as we walked away he grabbed his crotch and shouted after us, so I turned around and put two fingers up at him (obviously because I felt so affronted.. but being careful that I was not offending anyone else) but then I realised that in Japan that just means peace anyway. Dammit. The whole thing was a bit shocking, because here you’re surrounded by Hello Kitty and happy cartoons and everything has a smiley face, and it’s easy to forget that Japan also has a weird sleazy underbelly, like anywhere in the world. What makes it so bizzare for me here is that cute and sleazy aren’t necessarily very far away from each other, take Manga for example, or some videogames, or the “love hotels”: one of which apparently has a Hello Kitty S&M room. Now whoever thought of that needs therapy.

The highlight of the day besides nearly being molested was Karaoke! Our first Japanese Karaoke trip. We went to a place called Jumbo karaoke and gradually overcame language difficulties to get ourselves a room and two peach drinks. According to Hiroko, the female half of Katie’s homestay family, karaoke can often be a dodgey affair for foreigners, as they can be shoved into booths with strangers, potentially creepy molesty boys. Seems to be a theme emerging today. Anyway, Jumbo Karaoke is known to be very safe. It must be said, though, that the premises we were visiting were far from plush; the room smelled stale, of smoke and drunken (good?) times. No quitters, we plonked ourselves down on the green plasticky seats and began our hour long extravaganza. And dammit we sang. No soundproofing, no shame, no song too low or too high: if we didn’t know the tune, we made it up. The selection of English songs was pretty extensive and up to date, we covered some classic hits I’d never like to hear again; “Poker face”, “Year 3000”, “I’ve had the time of my life”, “Can you feel the love tonight” (ehrwton jonnnnn!), “Skater boi”, “Boom boom pow”, and “Barbie girl”, the latter two being absolute winners for Karaoke. I enjoyed the way that the actual background music could not be used so each had been cleverly and beautifully adapted for MIDI keyboard…the original and surprising adaptations made us laugh so hard we could hardly sing. By the end of the hour when Hiroko came to collect us for dinner we were singing Elvis and falling about all over the place, and couldn’t wait until our next trip to Jumbo K. Yes, it has a nickname I liked it so much.

Takoyaki = octopus balls. Yum, yum, yum. If I keep eating these i’ll gain enough weight to become a sumo wrestler.
Typical Japanese needless but pleasing smiley inanimate objects.
Black sesame icecream
Iced Coffee with teeny weeny jugs of sugar syrup&milk type stuff (coffeemate?.. Shudder)
Mr Ben perhaps.. (remember him?) in the subway
Doggy in a pet shop 🙂
Mr KFC man looking welcoming (or just plain creepy?)
Stuffed polar bear in shop window
Jumbo Karaoke!!!