Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Arrival In 北海道函館市 (Hakodate, Hokkaido)

Goodbye to 本州

At 2010/09/08 07:06 this morning, I had just boarded my fourth ferry of the voyage, and was accompanying this seagull across the water:

Hello to 北海道

Upon stepping onto the soil of this vast northern island, the first thing I saw was this sign:

... which reads "Thank you for your custom. Please take care to your destination."

This made me laugh, because I have, as of the present moment, no destination: I am already here! My aim (amongst many) was to come to Hokkaido, and, well... here I am! So now what do I do? I need to invent for myself a new destination.

Feeling the need for orientation, I took the first bus available to the railway station, where I felt somewhat stuck, due to the exorbitant-seeming fares. Only when I had bought a map did I realize that that these are due to the vast distances involved.

Hokkaido really does seem like a foreign country when arriving here from Japan. It's as if it' Japan's colony - and historically, this is not far from the truth. So here are a few first impressions

The people here seem slightly less highly strung than a lot of those across the water, and perhaps a bit more outside-the-box thinking. Physically, they are somewhat larger and stockier in general. Good gracious - I'm starting to sound like Isabella Bird... these are merely highly generalized first impressions, and may yet be proven wrong (actually 4th impressions, but this time they're in context of a gradual non-airborne voyage).

Geographically and historically, there is bound to be some Russian and Ainu blood in the veins of many of the people around these parts. And compared with the 田舎 I have come from, 函館 seems infinitely more built-up and cosmopolitan.

Weather-wise, I immediately feel more at home: although there is still bright sunshine, there is a definite cool breeze blowing across the sea from Siberia.

To celebrate the ever-so-slightly Russian flavour to the people, the signs and the weather, I have uploaded a "missing link" blog post, giving more detail on life aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, which you can get to by clicking here. This now seems like centuries ago (118 days, to be precise!), but is fun to remember, and remains one of many highlights of the journey so far.

This evening, I went down to a beach, and skimmed stones across the water towards where I spent last night. Were I able to walk across water, or sail / canoe like my brother, I could have done it in a day. There are talks of building a bridge across this strait, but I think it's pretty pretty without.

For years, I have been promising myself that one day I would live in Hokkaido.
And here I am!

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Japanese Art(s) Scene - in Hachinohe

At the start of September, I hitchiked north, and arrived in 八戸 (Hachinohe), where I had been put in touch with an artist whose residency here was just coming to an end.
こういちろう 山本 (Koichiro Yamamoto) has spent the last month or so based in an empty shop filling Hachinohe with yellow speech bubbles printed with a variety of phrases which seem to constitute gossip, rumours, and hearsay, or うわさ (Uwasa) in Japanese.

These mostly take the form of pin badges given out to anyone who wants one, and the shop walls are filled with photos of people wearing these badges, which proclaim such statements as "I've heard there's something amazing going on", "They say Hachinohe has many beautiful people". The effect is somewhat similar to that of Gillian Wearing's 1992-3 work Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say. In Yamamoto's work, however, the phrases are mostly not the wearer's own thoughts, but the phrase the wearer selected from a pool of about 400 different Uwasa on display in the shop.

Yamamoto has done a very good job of going out and engaging with the locals, and the presence of the shop with the yellow speech bubbles has generated quite a stir throughout the city. The display of photos gives a picture of a fun community art project that has brought people together and integrated with local culture such as the summer matsuri. However, in translation, this whole project loses a quirky edge that gives it a sense of fun in the context. The majority of the speech bubble comments end in the word 「らっしい」 -rashii, which is difficult to translate accurately. -rashii is most often rendered in English as "it seems...", or "maybe". The dictionary gives an explanation that ~らっしい "expresses judgment based on evidence, reason or trustworthy hearsay" but that's a bit of a mouthful, and still doesn't quite capture the subtle nuances that these speech bubbles contain.

The residency is part of the Hacchi project (a play on the city's name, the number 8 and the English word "Hatch"), an initiative organized by the City Council to foster the arts in the city, and at the same time make use of some of the empty properties left in the wake of hard times. This is going on in many parts of the world (Art360 and MECA are my homeland's local versions) but Hachinohe City Office seems to be setting a particularly good example of being proactive in instigating and facilitating such a program.
The Hacchi project is in the process of preparing a whole building as a permanent base, or "Portal Museum" and it seems that it is due to open in February 2011, when Yamamoto will be back in town, this time decorating buildings with large-scale versions of the pin-badge Uwasa.

On Friday evening, a couple of hours after arriving in Hachinohe, I went with Ko Yamamoto to another Hacchi organized event, part of an arts festival sponsored by Asahi Beer.

I was initially somewhat put off by the title of the evening, 酔っ払いた愛を (Yopparaita Ai wo): a suggestion of a combination of drunkenness and love, or a love of drunkenness. The location was the maze of snack bars and tiny 居酒屋 izakaya (drinking establishments) that are so plentiful everywhere in Japan, and especially here up north. Many of these establishments have also closed down, so there was a good variety of venues for the organizers to choose from.The evening consisted of three separate performances, each in a different izakaya, each lasting about 15 minutes. Performances were repeated 4 or 5 times throughout the evening, and the audience, armed with a 3-part ticket and a map, was free to move around the 3 venues in any order. In each case, the intimate size of the venue brought the audience of about 7-10 people right into the action, and feeling somewhat intrusive into the small world being depicted. We started with a play depicting a couple of businessmen getting slowly drunk and finding it gradually more and more difficult to make decisions on what to sing, whether to order food, and ultimately when to leave. A clever play on the nuances of Japanese social behaviour was offset by an undercurrent of the effects of stress and alcohol poisoning: one of the characters periodically clutched his abdoimen in pain and took a swig or two of sake to dull the pain.

The second show we saw was announced as 落語Rakugo, a Japanese tradition of comic storytelling, but the orator admitted to us from the start that 15 minutes was not quite enough time to engage in a proper rakugo session. He resorted to a few short funny stories and a card trick.

The highlight of the evening was a couple of dancers from Tokyo who skilfully portrayed the whole of Japanese nightlife in 15 minutes of interpretive dance. The audience entered to witness two apparently drunken girls dancing freely to a groovy big band dance music riff. The dancers' movements gradually became more controlled and synchronized into a well-choreographed interpretation of the physicalities of drunkenness. As the music went on, the dancers moved around the room, causing the audience, who had lined up along the bar, to move over to where the dancers had started. The dancers eventually moved behind the bar, and took on the role of the typical Japanese bar girl, whose role is not just to serve drinks, but to listen to the problems of the salaryman and make him feel good about life. The dancer's actions were mostly simple mimes of activities such as pouring drinks, listening with feigned interest, and trying desperately not to yawn; repeated and contrived to fit the music, these actions became a strange dance that somehow really captured the atmosphere of the past nature of the venue.

Later in the evening, Ko and I went to the after-party for the residency and for the performance event, where we spent a while meeting the dancers from the show, the mayor of Hachinohe, and various artists and curators from around Japan.

I am now about to head north to 恐山 (Osorezan, or Mount Fear) and then find a ferry to 北海道 (Hokkaido) to search for autumn and winter employment.