Friday, 26 October 2012

Best Haircut of My Life?

So, Jo and her family arrive from Nagoya this morning and my hair has gotten, well...'big'. I have been putting off a haircut for weeks now; not because I didn't want one, but because it's relatively expensive here.  We're talking 3000Yen (£24 quid) at least at most places! In England, I pay about £10-£13, because I am too tight to be trendy!  Anyway, I spotted a place in the car last night, 1800Yen.  That'll do me I thought.  I set off on my bike this morning, to get there for nine, (opening time).  It's quite a new building, all white, with banners and barber shop poles indicating its place next to the main street in Mino.  I was greeted by a auburn-haired Japanese woman, really sweet faced, with an exceptionally calm demeanor, she motioned me towards  the ticket machine almost blocking the doorway.  Upon the machine were, what I guessed were, different menu choices, rather like a car wash menu system, 'wash and cut', 'cut and shave' or the 'whole works'. Anyway, she asked me "Wash hair?", I said "no" and she motioned me pointed at the correct lighted button.  1650Yen.  Okay, so you put in your money and get a ticket with number on it.  She directed me to sit down, I did and began glancing at a Japanese Biker Magazine, the local equivalent of "Back Street Heroes", chopper motorcycles, leather clad models etc etc.  Amazing photos of American and Japanese road trips, images of U.S. Biker Gangs in various states of drunkenness, attending barbecues and rallies, all very sweet really!  Anyway, it's not long before I am called to the chair.  There were already three or four customers in the shop, I am looking for one haircut as a reference point for my own desired 'style'.  It's not long before the greeting lady came along and tucked an impressively clean towel down my neck and applied the, hair catching, apron to my front.  I felt very calm.  It was then that the first barber approached.  In Japanese, he asked me how I would like my hair; of course I could only answer in English, but I motioned toward the man sitting in the next chair, "I would like it short on the sides like his", I patted the sides of my head.  "And I would like a half an inch off the top", I mimicked the action of scissors cutting hair off the top of my head.  He seemed happy and appeared to understand. He gathered some electric hair clippers, said "okay?" and I replied "Hai".  We're were all set.  He began cutting around the base of my 'barnett'. He clippered away the hair and left it at that.  He bowed, said thank you in Japanese and the next guy moved on in.   He was younger, maybe late twenties, early thirties; tall and thin, with a very impressive leather pouch hanging from his belt.  The wallet contained four pairs of scissors, and various hair clips are attached to the rim.  There was a also and American 60's Harley Davidson, 'Number 1" key ring dangling from a thick lanyard chain, (this probably explains the bikers mags').  He carried on where the other guy left off, deftly using his, very sharp, scissors like a machine, (like the clippers) his whole upper body guided the tips, quickly round and round my skull.  I still felt calm, safe in the hands of a highly skilled crafts person, a well rehearsed and previously programmed robot.  But he smiled, he says "okay" I say "yes" and he said "perfect", I was a little shocked at his perfect pronunciation and echoed his exclamation.  We both laughed a little and he carried on.  It wasn't long before he was bowing, saying thank you and moving onto someone else.  Now, I was sitting there thinking, that's it, hair looks good and I just need someone to free me from the confines of the barber bib, I was rather stuck!   

Just when I think I was ready to be released, the next guy introduced himself.  A man in his late sixties/early seventies, he was here to shave the nape of my neck...okay I thought, this will be interesting.  He placed a VERY hot towel upon my neck, he prepared soap in a dish, mixing with a brush...okay, I was still calm.  So he began, (but only after putting on a paper face mask upon his own clean shaven face).  He lathered my neck and deftly sliced away the stubborn stubble neck hair, then before you know it, it's over, he'd finished; or so I thought! He requested that I move forward, I did, and the chair was lowered away from my back...Oh god, no.  I had shaved this morning in readiness for seeing the family, I had used my new, complimentary 'Feather' four blade safety razor, (the kind you need to be a 'real man' to use!).  I was impressed with the result.  So imagine my surprise when the next hot towel arrived, this time over my face.  I had to breathe deeply at this point, I wasn't so relaxed by now. I was left for a minute or so, he then returned, thankfully. He uncoverd my nose and eyes, the towel was still over my mouth...He pointed towards my eyebrows, said "okay" and I say "hai", why? I don't know.  He began.  He used a single, tiny, blade and trimmed my upper face, he neatened my eyebrows and shaved between my eyes.  It happened so fast, he was so quick, decisive in his actions and once again, like the previous barber, his hand work was mechanistic, repetitive and firm.

I didn't open my eyes, I kept them closed as he applied foam to the rest of my face. I thought he used a single blade to remove the foam.  His fingers pulled and stretched my skin, he contorted the surface of my face, the blade noisily scraped away the tiniest of hairs.  It was an amazing feeling, I felt massaged, pressed and pushed, gently pummeled and my calmness soon returned.  My chair was restored to its upright position, the towel was removed and I dared to look in the mirror.  Brilliant.  A good job, I can't imagine what they thought of my hair, or the texture of my skin, how did it compare to the Japanese? Had any of them ever cut western hair before or shaved an Englishman's face and neck?  Who knows, all I know is , I was treated with kindness and unquestioning respect, I could have been turned away, (I half expected that outcome), but each of the employees, carried out their part with such efficient dignity.   They kept their cool, the least I could do was keep mine.  

It's another thing I've learned from my time, here in Japan. I continually think, I am in a difficult situation, I am having to 'dig deep' etc etc.  But it's the people I encounter that have to be brave, they have to face up to me! They have to 'dig deep' because they have no choice, because I am standing there before them, and I ask them a question in English and they do their best to respond.  I am very fortunate to be tolerated here, to be accommodated by people; this is a gift I will take home with me and will never forget. Thanks to all the staff in the Rabbit Barber shop Mino City.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Mino City Akari Lantern Festival 2012

The biggest weekend of the year in Mino City is, undoubtedly, the Akari Lantern Festival, (illuminated paper lanterns). As you may already know, (if you follow my Twitter feed), I entered the Festival, along with other artists in residence.  It was a hoot with nearly five hundred people entering, (there is also a special category for children) and thousands of people in attendance.  Normally, the streets around the studio are quiet, occasionally tourist peak through the front window and are surprised to see westerners looking out at them. So it was a real surprise for us to see the town so busy with so many visitors. It was also nice for me to disappear in the crowd a little and take some photos.   So much goes into setting up the festival, the volunteers ,who normally help run the residency, were running around for the entire weekend. They even manges to arrange a garden party for the artists on Sunday, (photos to follow). Their efforts paid off, the festival had a wonderful and unique atmosphere, one that I will never forget.
Student Volunteers, (Mino Junior High) and Stewards

Very popular with families & some people still have to go to 
school on Saturday, Festival or no Festival!

Day and Night

Even shop keepers get involved!

Paper installation , (about 5 feet tall!)

Lantern made by children to honour the victims 
and survivors of the Tsunami/Nuclear disaster 

Friday, 19 October 2012

My Days in Mino

A typical day for me in Mino. Thought you might like to know what I get up to every day.

I usually wake up around 6. Sometimes my alarm wakes me.  I get up, open the curtains and go down to the bathroom to wash my face and pat down my hair. 

Jo and I usually Face Time at around 6:15, (hence the reason for patting down my hair) we chat until 6:55. Face Time and Skype have really helped me feel less isolated, it's remarkable really, just how connected it makes me/us feel. 

Breakfast is served at 7:00. Before eating, we say something that sounds like "eatatakimas", its a sort of "I am thankful" kind of a phrase. I haven't missed breakfast yet, it's been close on one or two occasions, but I feel the least I can do is turn up on time! Akemi will often bake bread, sometimes lovely white bread that contains seeds and has a lovely, crunchy crust.  There is always yoghurt, fruit, cereal and occasionally we get English muffins with pizza topping and cheese; we sometimes get an egg too. The grandfather, interestingly, doesn't eat this kind of breakfast; what he will have is rice, miso soup and a selection of foods leftover from the night before,(served cold). The TV is always on, we watch NHK local news - broadcast from Nagoya I think. Yosuke, the nephew, will attempt to interpret the occasional story, his command of English is really good, he seems to understand the emotional content of my first ,(and shamefully my only) language, better than some native speakers. Yosuke and me share an appreciation of Raymond Carver and Haruki Murakami. Anyway, I get the most of the news and weather and have been interested in how the family reacts to stories such as the Tsunami catastrophe and items about disabled people - quietly, and it appears, with much contemplation and genuine empathy. The Watanabe's are a lovely family, they really are, Mr Watanabe and I gently tease each other, it seems he and Yosuke do too. I do love how each of them relaxes when they are alone with me, they seem more willing and able to speak English, it's remarkable, in fact, just how much English people can speak. Upon leaving the table, one says "Gochasausamadeshsta" a phrase to thank for the meal; everyone says it, or at least part of it.  I carry my plates to the sink, I haven't washed up yet; I honestly miss this, but it seems, it's not my place as house guest to enter into household chores. My place is to eat what I am given, be discreet at all times, leave the shower and toilet clean and do my own washing. 

I get time after breakfast to rest, read and browse the internet. Its not long then, before I collect my things and say goodbye for the day "Matanay", (later - casual). I cycle out towards the rice fields, passing people tending their crops and allotments, little white flatbed vans are whizzing up and down the narrow and flat pathways. The vans won't stop for you, you have to yield whenever you encounter cars, lorries and motorcycles; bicycles are very low on the vehicular pecking order in Japan. the smell of cut rice is strong, it's a bit like hay or straw, having been freshly cut and reminds me, once again, of England. I see eagles, wag tails and the occasional heron perched on the edge of the river.  The light is so good at this early hour, I've seen a kingfisher shooting along the surface of a man-made water channel, its feathers flashing vividly against the stony river bed.  The 'Okua' hypermarket isn't open yet, it opens at nine and there are usually people waiting to get in. Interestingly, there are also long queues of people waiting to get into the huge Pachinko parlor across the road.  Pachinko is a not seen as harmless gameplay here, it's seen as gambling, gambling, like alcohol is discussed cautiously by some people, even in hushed tones, as if it's their collective shame, something they need to apologize for.  Still, people choose to drink here,  people to choose to gamble, all things in moderation I say, but that seems impossible for some people to consider. 

I make my way along to the studio, the roads gently rising to the centre of Mino, towards the old 'Udetsu' district. Udetsu is a term used to describe the style of houses that have been preserved, (and in some cases re-constructed) in two or three streets.  The houses are peculiar because they have dividing brick walls that act as firebreaks between each of the properties. In between these walls, small waterways can found, these drains fill quickly when it rains. 
I reach the studio, slide the wood and glass door to one side and let myself in.  Kata, from Hungary is usually first to arrive, as she lives around the corner from the studio.  The house is separate from the working studio, to get to it, I have to walk through the downstairs area and kitchen, out into the courtyard, past the outside toilet, (which is more luxurious than it sounds) and into the Studio.  The studio has the feeling of a barn about it, it's an asbestos shell, with concrete floors and fluorescent strip lightning.  It serves the purpose, for me it leaves me no room, but to focus upon my work, its a space that allows me to concentrate, (i think I need a space like this in the UK).   

Lunch is at twelve, it’s universally taken at twelve in Mino, and is announced over the towns loudspeakers, it's announced by an electronic jingling tune, one that reminds me of a holiday camp or something.  The end of lunch is announced at one and we all, slowly return to our work areas, sleepy and, only partially, recuperated. 

So here I am now, at my work bench, and will be here till around 4:30 or 5:00, I'll then head home via the rice fields and be home, early enough to shower and do a few tweets before dinner at 7, prompt. After dinner, the family takes turns to shower and bath, I hear Mrs W using a hair dryer every evening in the room next to mine.  We are all in bed by ten, I guess, I get at least eight hours sleep every night and happily wake up knowing that it all starts again with a chat to Jo on Face Time:-)

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Master Paper Maker Visit

Mr W, kindly took me to visit a master paper maker yesterday morning.  It's one thing to make paper in the comparatively clinical setting of a museum or paper research facility, but just look at this man's workshop and accompanying environment, I feel like I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of how important Washi Making is to the area of Mino.  He had piles of handmade paper, representing hours of labor, hours of movement, laying down fibres onto a bamboo screen.  I'm in awe of some artisans, artisans like this. I wish sometimes, I could have settled on the life of repetition, the rhythm of making craft for a living...the continuation of a tradition, which for me anyway, comes at the cost of true creative freedom.....Anyway, please enjoy the photos, I felt privileged to have seen such sights with un-'internetted' eyes...

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Cycle Race Photographs


Mino City Cycle Race

When Jo and I went on our first long adventure, I tried to write a few things down.  They ended up being endless lists of we did this, we did that, yada yada yada.  A friend whose writing skills I really respect, advised me to write about one event at a time, no matter how ordinary, use it as a means of describing your entire experience at that time.  It's been a while since I've written anything, so please be kind in your analysis, just try and imagine the scene I've tried to give you.

So this morning, after a night of heavy rain, it was lovely and sunny, just right for a cycle race around the town of Mino.  As always, I have my breakfast at 7am, (today, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, fruit, yoghurt, cereal and coffee).  I worked for a short time on my paper lantern and then attached all the lamp components onto the pannier rack of my silver, generic, step through bicycle.  I said goodbye to Akemi and set off for the studio. The road is normally quiet, (particularly on a Sunday), but today, the Mino footbridge was bustling with people wanting to see, at least one lap, of the five lap cycle race.  There were tents, already pitched upon the shore of the Nagara River, people had lit small fires and one guy was strumming an, expensive looking, acoustic guitar.  The roads around Mino had been completely closed off, red and white cones lined parts of the route and tall thin advertising flags bellowed quickly in the cool morning breeze.  A solitary eagle flew overhead, he must have only been about twenty feet above us, but he seemed intrigued as to what was going on, the school kids, matching yellow hats must have caught his eye, particularly as they cheerily walked in pairs, singing a tune I didn't recognize.  Some 'serious' looking cyclists arrived to spectate -  lycra clad and faces wrapped in iridescent lensed eye shields. Their bikes were all Italian. All light-weight carbon racing machines, sprayed in conservative white, black or maybe red.  I nodded toward them with appreciation, noting the British flag adorning one rider's chest; it seems the Union Jack is loved here, a fashion statement, a sign of Flamboyance? Street smartness, synonymous with confidence and communication? Or just a colourful pattern, an attractive moniker?

Officials, dressed in white, monogrammed, shell suits and matching long peaked caps, ushered the school teacher and her tiny students through a barrier, it was safe to cross. The eagle looked on.  The lady who owned the octopus stand was out of her usual seat, she was stood I front of her dwelling, waving a flag, without any sight of the cyclists- she seemed to just want to wave a flag! One official seemed to be watching the race on his mobile phone, the female commentators shrill voice, evermore so, through the phones tiny, tinny speaker. Still no sign of the Pelaton. I parked up my bike, leaned it upon its stand, removed my camera from the handlebar basket and readied myself for the oncoming delights.  As always, I avoided the gaze of the people around me; kids with their parents, knew I was there alright, parents with their kids also knew, but everyone pretended to ignore the elephant in the room, particularly as he kept his head lowered, trying hard to become invisible.

Acitivity amongst the officials increased, voices were being raised more often, urgency, tangible in their tone.  Walkie Talkies crunched and a car suddenly came around the corner, official papers were taped to the bonnet and doors, the light on its roof, flashed red, even in the bright sunlight.  Mobile phones were being lifted, lenses focused upon the bend in the road, focused toward the Octopus Lady and her waving arm. Digital cameras beeped, mine included, as the imaginary mechanical bustle headed our way.  I focused on nothing but the road now, a solitary motorcyclist drove through the narrowing, closely followed by a, wasp yellow, 'neutral service' vehicle, an army jeep and the front two cyclist of the event.  The cyclists seemed to be coasting, smiling at the spectacle of us smiling at them. The vehicles seemed to be hindering their efforts, but they flew by, all the same.  Then the pack arrived, the Pelaton, the blurring coloured mesh of machine and men, gears crisply clicking and tyres smoothly sliding on by.  My camera couldn't catch them, my eyes would have been quicker to note down the brands, the makes of helmets, bikes and sportswear. 
Then they were gone, the pack bracketed by another army jeep and yellow support vehicle.  The first of five laps, a hard hill climb lay ahead, as did hours of jostling and barging, elbows and knees brown and shiny in the morning light. 

I returned to my bike, stepped through the frame and pushed away the kick stand.  I deftly negotiated the bollards, thanking the female police woman as I moved on through.  I heaved up the hill, standing, bearing heavily down upon the pedals.  The imaginary Pelaton was in pursuit, it's energy was fueling my flight. I quickly passed through the clammy concrete tunnel, the motivation to avoid an on-coming car giving me a further boost. It wasn't long before I reached my goal...the pedestrian crossing; a red light - halt. I was forbidden from progress, wind was sucked from my sails, I was forced to wait for the blue man to appear. The Pelaton had long gone, I was left behind, patiently waiting for permission to cross; seems I'm always waiting for permission to go in front, maybe this trip is the beginning of me leading a race and not being afraid or apologizing for leaving people in my slipstream....