The first of my five weeks in Tokyo

I've completed the first of my five weeks in Tokyo and established a pattern for my days.

I wake up, have breakfast and then research the part of Tokyo that I will go to for the larger part of the day.

My room is at the top of the stairs

I usually decide this at random. A friend sent me a link to an article in the Qantas Travel Insider magazine that mentioned the names of a few destinations within Tokyo. I wouldn't normally rely on an airline magazine, and I didn't exactly pour over the article. But it put the place names into my head.

I properly settled into my room in Kichijoji on Tuesday. That was after spending Sunday and Monday in the home of a friend in a residential area in the outer suburbs.

Kichijoji is conveniently located about half an hour by train west from Tokyo Station. But I did not venture beyond the immediate neighbourhood on Tuesday and Wednesday. There was plenty to do here.

Inokashira Park

On Tuesday I wandered around the shops and walked in one direction. Unusually for me, I liked the shops and found the walk a bit boring. The buildings were all concrete blocks. Something you get a lot of in Japan. It made me feel very satisfied that my room is in a more traditional style wooden building of the type Australians would call a bungalow (my room is at the top of the stairs in the photo above).

The shop that most captivated me was Mont Bell, which is Japan's largest chain of stores selling outdoor clothing and equipment. A bit like Ray's Outdoors in Australia, with more style and lower prices. They now have one store in the Sydney CBD but with a limited range and higher prices.

Selfie-takers in Harajuki

On Wednesday I walked a different direction, into the vast Inokashira Park, about three minutes from south side of the train station. It's a bit like Sydney's Centennial Park, a green oasis in the middle of the city. I think I spent about three hours there.

On Thursday I went to Harajuki, which is known internationally as a centre of Japanese youth culture and fashion. I was interested to pick up on the kawaii 'cuteness' culture that I'd sampled on Tuesday evening at the restaurant in my building.

Harajuku fast food shop

Harajuki is actually divided in its appeal - to that teenage demographic and also an older young adult international fashion conscious crowd. I'd had enough kawaii before I arrived but I did like the fashion show a few streets away where most people walking the street were dressed in eye-catching attire that seemed more expressive of their personality rather than that of the mob (with the kawaii, it was the opposite).

On Friday it was a trip to 'old Tokyo' in the form of the pedestrian shopping street in the quiet Yanaka neighbourhood. An article in the Japan Times says that 'in Yanaka, you have the history, the tradition, the temples... without any of the self-consciousness you have in Kyoto... a city known for cultural preservation'.

Yanaka pedestrian shopping street

And finally, on Saturday I went to Rappongi, which, according to Travel Insider, had 'bars, clubs and other nightspots mak[ing] it a lively address when the sun goes down [although] many of its charms are – mercifully – of the quieter variety'.

I chose to go there during the daytime, and its charms were the large green open spaces and the sense that Tokyo is really a city of contrasts.

Kichijoji's late afternoon rainbow

After a cool start to my five weeks days in Tokyo, today's temperature is predicted to reach 39 degrees. That is closer to what I was expecting than the low 30s we've had in my first three days.

We have Typhoon Noru to thank for the largely pleasant cool breezes. It caused some destruction in other parts of the country but mostly missed Tokyo.

Kichojoji rainbow

I stayed with a friend in an outer suburban residential area for two nights. It's not true to say there was no damage, as he had his standing umbrella whisked from his balcony by the strong winds.

Yesterday he was preparing to suspend the operations of his business if the typhoon made it to Tokyo. But the weakening typhoon did not even produce much rain, let alone the promised deluge.

Back in my inner west base of Kichijoji, the big event was the appearance of a rainbow after a weak shower in the late afternoon. It managed to stop people in their tracks as they smiled and pointed and took photos with their smartphones.

Palazzo amusement centre Kichijoji

The magic and mystery of the rainbow is right at home in Kichijoji, which Wikipedia describes as 'youthful, artistic and slightly countercultural'. Kichijoji is a place where the imagination seems to dominate. It has topped the poll asking Japanese people where they would most like to live, every year since it began in 2004.

It is the home of the Ghibli Museum that showcases the work of one of the world's most famous animation studios. The museum is one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions, and the advice is to buy your tickets in your home country before you arrive. I tried that but missed out as it is fully booked until November.

Hattifnatt Restaurant

There's a reason that the animations capture the imagination of so many young people and adults in Japan and elsewhere. This week the ABC radio film program The Final Cut discussed it ahead of a set of Ghibli screenings later this month at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image in Melbourne (ACMI).

The ACMI curator Kirsty Matheson referred to the moments of sadness in the fantasy that make both young people and adults reflect on their own lives. 'Many of these films are tinged with these environments that are full of magic, gods and spirits, hidden places.'

Hattifnatt Restaurant interior

That helps me understand the kawaii cafe Hattifnatt that is located on the street level of the small wooden building that houses my airbnb room (green building above). Kawaii refers to the quality of cuteness in Japanese culture.

The architecture, decor and the food all draw from childhood storybooks. The front door is only 1.3 metres tall, so most adults need to stoop to gain entry. I dined there last night and enjoyed the experience, though the very sweet octopus dish that was dominated by ketchup and mayonnaise was not to my taste.


Links: ABC Hattifnatt

Digital disruption fails to diminish Camino pilgrimage

This morning I read two articles. One was about the prospect that software and artificial intelligence will disrupt most traditional industries and professions within the next few years. The other was about the eighty fold increase over the past three decades in the number of pilgrims travelling the various routes of the Camino to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Camino article from La Croix

The first is one of those presentations on disruption that itself sets out to disrupt the way people feel, think and act, and relate to each other. It has a deliberately scary title: 'Must read article on how our lives will change dramatically in 20 years'. It suggests that some people will have their way of life destroyed while others will benefit from access to new opportunities to improve their lives, especially in health and education.

What uber and airbnb have done to the taxi and hotel industries is just the beginning. Many lawyers and health professionals will lose their jobs as tools such as the IBM Watson natural language question answering computer system take told.

Must Read article on digital disruption

We'll have legal advice 'within seconds, with 90% accuracy compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans'. Meanwhile solar power will give us cheap electricity, and that will give us abundant water with desalination. Everybody on the planet will eventually have as much clean water as they want for nearly no cost.

The shift to reliance on software and artificial intelligence is largely a transition from the analogue to the digital world, probably the most dramatic change in the history of human civilisation.

But we're faced with a condundrum. Our problems are solved in a flash but our lives have become less satisfying because we are less tactile and grounded in the way we live.

Perhaps this has something to do with the statistic about the eighty fold increase in the number of Camino pilgrims. that I read in the article in La Croix International. In the digital age, spiritual quest and our continuing need to put 'boots on the ground' are still important for most people.

Camino pilgrims graph

What is most interesting to me is that only a third of the Camino pilgrims are doing it 'strictly for religious reasons'. That refers to observance of the Catholic rituals associated with the Way of St James that dates back to the Middle Ages.

I infer from this statistic that the two thirds majority have either a non-sectarian spiritual purpose, or they're using it as a digital detox, literally putting their boots on the ground.

This month the French and Spanish bishops issued a pastoral letter that expressed both their alarm at the Camino statistics' evidence pointing to dechristianisation, and excitement at the opportunity this represents to evangelise the non-believing pilgrims.

They want to 're-spiritualise' the journey by promoting a 'Christian' hospitality that is distinct from ordinary non-sectarian hospitality. I hope it leads to much conversation between believers and non-believers. Also market research on the part of the bishops, as they seek to find out why the Camino is relevant to the majority of the pilgrims but the Church is not.


Links: Camino disruption Wikipedia

Escape from the time famine of modern life

This morning I was interested to read an article in The New Daily about time poverty. The headline was 'Money really can buy happiness, if spent on the right thing - time'.

It's based on a global study that found working adults reported greater happiness after spending money on time-saving rather than material purchases. It said this helped them escape the 'time famine of modern life'.

hourglass

I don't particularly like the idea that busy rich people can buy their way out of time poverty by employing servants. But it is good to hear it said that those who are chronically unemployed have the upper hand in time wealth, and that time wealth is a more likely path to happiness and well-being than material wealth.

The article quoted local experts, including Dr Melissa Weinberg of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University, who said the study is not about saving time, but the freedom to choose how we use our time.

'Time is a precious resource and the busier we are, the more valuable our time becomes, so it's important we feel that we are in control of how we spend the time we have.'

The implication is that those who are materially poor but time rich could develop a greater sense of self worth and empowerment, and make good use of the freedom they have to choose.

IMG_20170719_054540

They might say that they can't do anything without money, and that is true in relative terms. I would not like to see these ideas about time poverty used to excuse government policies that are increasing material inequality.

But there are many life-affirming activities that do not require us to be cashed up. Such as spending time with family and friends, reading books from the local library, and bushwalking. Even study. Most people with primary degrees are not aware that Australian universities don't charge fees for post-graduate research degrees.

People who are time poor simply don't have time to read and study, and there is a huge opportunity cost in that in terms of their total well being.

Kichijoji airbnb in Tokyo

Two years ago I retired at the age of 55 because I valued my time more than the wage and diminishing satisfaction that I was getting out of remaining in a job I'd been in for ten years.

I've chosen to use the time to get fit and to travel. I've found simple ways to do these things, so that I enjoy doing them for longer periods of time at less cost. That's why I'm leaving next week to spend five weeks living in Tokyo renting very basic airbnb accommodation that most people would look down on (pictured).

The material values of our society have conditioned us to think that we can't do anything without money, but the truth is that we can't do anything without time.


Links: New Daily study

Feeling comfortable in the clothes I wear

I'm always fascinated by comparisons between Sydney and Melbourne. On the weekend I came across an observation about men's street fashion, from blogger Giuseppe Santamaria.

'Melbourne is a lot more experimental, more artsy - its arts culture is reflected in the people who live there, and how they express themselves. They take more risks. Whereas in Sydney, you see more of the trends.'

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

Wherever we live, the clothes we choose to wear are a form of self expression. They say a lot about our values and who we are.

I don't wear suits. I bought an Aldi suit about ten years ago for a particular occasion. I wore it just once or twice before discarding it when I was culling my wardrobe. My previous suit had been bought for me by my mother in the 1980s. I discarded it only a couple of years ago, and surprisingly it still fitted me.

Nor do I wear ties. I bought one from an op shop for an event in 2012, and I have only one or two others in my wardrobe that date from the 1980s.

Occasionally I receive invitations to functions that my old school holds in Sydney. I always rule out attending because it is compulsory to wear a lounge suit.

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

I don't own a lounge suit and feel strongly that I would not want to buy one for a function like this. Moreover I think the particular dress requirement is a sign that I don't belong there.

That is something I used to resent. But now I think it's just a sign of who I am, or who I have become. I have moved on from the cultural norms of my old school, even though I respect those who still feel at home with them.

Dress is perhaps our clearest and most socially apt form of self-expression. If I wear clothes that I feel I do not feel comfortable in, it is self-censorship rather than self-expression.

In the past I've paid little attention to what I've worn. Fundamentally I've been risk averse and timid (that in itself has made a powerful if unintentional statement). But as I've moved towards a greater degree of self-possession, I've begun to make more deliberate and striking choices. I'm less reliant on comments and advice from friends.

My choices are in the interest of uninhibited personal definition more than style or fashion. I'm proud of having lost weight, so I tend to wear skimpy clothes to show that off. I also wear Icebreaker merino clothes that rarely need washing, for environmental reasons and also practicality when I travel.

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

I like bright colours, but I'm only beginning to pay attention to aesthetic and ornament in the way that I dress. I've never ever worn jewellery, and haven't even considered how such details as belt buckles and the style of my watch can influence how I feel about myself.

But I was interested to browse through the photos of Giuseppe Santamaria in his blog Men In This Town, which I've copied here. Inspired by the New York Times' unassuming longtime street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who died last year, he is a street photographer who steals photos of male passers by whose dress attracts his attention.


Links: comparison blog Cunningham

A mid-winter visit to Brisbane

I'm most of the way through my week's stay in Brisbane. My purpose is to catch up with friends and cousins, to enjoy the 24 and 25 degree mid-winter temperatures and to become more familiar with a part of Australia that is thriving culturally and economically.

Mt Coot-tha Forest

I've slowed down much more than I normally do when I travel. In this respect, last Wednesday's relaxing 16 hour train journey from Sydney set the tone. Then there's the digital detox effect of staying in a house with no internet access.

I've been able to go online only briefly by using mobile phone data, which is not a bad thing. I've walked in the nearby bushland at Mt Coot-tha, listened to the radio and read books. Most of all, I've appreciated the cluster of cultural institutions at South Bank and the nearby inner city ambience at West End, which is Brisbane's answer to my own home ground of Newtown in Sydney.

Queenslander homes

Being a frequent traveller, I naturally gravitated towards the Travellers temporary exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. The words at the entrance described well the experience and purpose of travel as I see it:

'Travel can capture the imagination, liberating us from the confines of the familiar... By exploring and learning more of others, near and far, a traveller might come to know themselves better'.

A theme of my travel at present is varying the speed. In other circumstances I might 'do' Brisbane in two or three days. This time I'm spending a full week here. In my two previous visits to Tokyo, I've given it just a few days. Next month I'm going there for five weeks, choosing to stay in the one location.

Jeffrey Smart The Reservoir Centennial Park 1988

At the entrance to the Travellers exhibition there's a Jeffrey Smart painting that contrasts the swift strides of two runners with the laboured steps of a woman carrying a bag. It's presented as a reflection 'on the different speeds at which we navigate modern life'.

The others whose lives I've learned more of during this trip to Brisbane include my cousins and their children, and my host. He's a friend whom I hadn't seen since I we lived in the same house 30 years ago. We've both faced various challenges and grown older and wiser and more seasoned professionally.

Trusting Iran

I'm being asked to name my favourite of the 34 feature films I've just seen at the Sydney Film Festival. Normally it's hard to choose, but there is one that comes to mind.

It stands out not only because it is very different to any of the other films, but for the urgency of its simple message at this time and its invitation to me to act on a particular desire.

Rosie

The film is a beautiful Canadian feature length animation titled Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming. Its theme is the power of imagination to overcome the distrust and political intransigence that is bringing us closer to major military conflict.

The story is about a naïve mixed-race aspiring poet named Rosie. She travels from her home city of Vancouver to Shiraz, the Iranian cultural mecca where she has been invited to read her poem at a poetry festival.

She feels very awkward because of the cultural differences, but is overwhelmed by the graciousness of her Iranian hosts, for whom nothing is a problem. This contrasts with the attitude she receives from a fellow western guest named Dietmar, for whom everything is a problem.

Rosie becomes reacquainted with her Iranian father, who disappeared from her life when she was a young child. Her judgment of him dissolves and they embrace each other when she learns of the circumstances of his return to Iran. Ignorance and prejudice is defeated.

Rosie under the blossom tree

Perhaps part of its appeal to me is that for some time I've wanted to travel to Iran for an experience of breaking down barriers like Rosie's.

But the US Government won't have anything of it. About two years ago it introduced a new regulation denying those who've travelled to Iran since 2011 easy entry to the US under its visa waiver program.

Do I care about this? Not really. The US has its reasons for wanting to have the rest of the 'free' world join it in not trusting Iran. But I won't be bullied. I'd rather feel free to reach out to Iranians, learn from them, and enjoy their hospitality, just as Rosie did.


Link: Window Horses

A place where I'm at home spiritually

Yesterday I received an email from a New Zealand friend who mentioned that he was in his 'spiritual home of Spain'. He didn't need to elaborate because I knew exactly what he meant.

Less than two weeks ago, I experienced something of this when I arrived in Bilbao on a late night flight from England. Spain is not my one and only spiritual home, as my friend had implied was the case for him. But I had the strong sense that my spirit had come to a congenial place from one that was less congenial.

Bilbao-Abando Railway Station

I breezed through immigration just in time to make it to the bus stop at midnight to catch the last bus into Plaza Moyúa for the 20 minute walk along Gran Vía to my small pension on the other side of the Nervión River.

Locals were still out enjoying the evening and they helped me with directions. My genial host had cheerfully stayed up to welcome me. Everything was right with the world.

It was not just that I had reached my destination without encountering obstacles. I felt that I was at one with this place and its people, even though it was a big city I'd never been to before. I knew no one but I knew everyone. I was at home spiritually.

Anselmo Guinea Vuelta de la romera 1899

I was reminded of my strangely euphoric arrival ten years ago in the southern port city of Algeciras, after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry from Tangier in Morocco. Morocco is one of the most photogenic countries I've visited. But I did not feel that I belonged, even as a tourist.

The people were not friendly and it seemed they were only interested in my tourist dollar. At restaurants they only wanted to serve you their tourist menu, which was different to what they ate themselves.

Marrakech street scene

But most of all I found it alienating that everybody - men and women - was dressed in loose fitting gowns that prevented me from seeing their skin and the contours of their bodies. It should be obvious, but I'd never before considered that the way people cover their bodies plays a major part in the degree of our connection with them.

I told myself that this was a Muslim country and that's the way Muslims dress. But I found it very uplifting when I arrived in Algeciras and was able to enjoy the sight of skin and body countours, along with the warmth of people who were welcoming and spirited and knew how to smile and look me in the eye.

My favourite tourist attraction anywhere

I'm in Barcelona at the tail end of my five week trip. I spent most of it staying in the one location, with my sister in Kent, England. But I've been on the move for the past six days in the north of Spain, visiting Bilbao, Logroño, Vitoria and Barcelona.

When I'm moving, I tend not to have the time and presence of mind to write these reflections, so I'm pleased that I woke up at 4:00 this morning unable to sleep with time to fill in.

Being in Barcelona briefly reminds me of my first trip to Europe in 1993 when I visited five countries in five days (Frankfurt in Germany, Turin in Italy, Strasbourg in France, and then Barcelona and London). I was trying to visit as many countries as possible in the short time I had off work.

Torre Glries

In 1993 I visited Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which is possibly my favourite tourist attraction anywhere. I think it is a rare triumph of human art and endeavour and religious faith that both believers and non-believers alike find totally arresting.

I visited it again in 1997 and 2015 and I plan to go there today, especially as it's nearby. Interestingly the view of La Sagrada Familia from the window of my airbnb apartment is obscured by another beautiful building, the Torre Glòries (above). Unlike La Sagrada Familia, it is arguably not intended to give glory to God. In fact its French architect Jean Nouvel spoke of what he called its 'phallic character'.

Guggenheim Bilbao

The other cities I visited in Spain were all new to me. There was Bilbao, which I bypassed on my tour through northern Spain in 1996 because my guide book discounted it as a dull and declining industrial city. The city's transition to a major centre of art and culture did not begin until the renowned Guggenheim Bilbao building opened a year later. Indeed it also jump started the city economically, adding over three billion euros to Bilbao's economy since it opened. It was labelled the 'Bilbao effect'.

For me, the building upstaged the art. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a spectacle but I found Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts a much more satisfying experience of individual art works. A few days later, I was surprised to see another Gehry creation in a hotel building at the Marqués de Riscal winery I visited near Logroño. No doubt hoping for the 'Bilbao effect'.

Marqus de Riscal winery hotel

I'd never heard of Logroño before and my purpose was to see a friend who lives in a village outside the city. It's the provincial capital of the wine growing province of La Rioja and is located just outside the Basque country. In some ways it was reminiscent of Nîmes in the Languedoc wine region in the south of France, near to the village I stayed in a couple of weeks ago.

My other destination in Spain was Vitoria (Gastiez in Basque). It is the capital of the Basque region where my niece is spending much of this year working as an au pair and learning Spanish. I was warned not to expect much in the way of spectacle, but I appreciated its fine gardens and public spaces and buildings. In the way that I always enjoy a visit to Canberra.

Town Square Vitoria

It seems a long time since I left England six days ago. My departure from there was memorable in that I took the opportunity to visit the Sidney Nolan exhibition in Chichester, as a detour on my way to Gatwick Airport.

The exhibition - and another that I saw in Australia House London at the beginning of May - were staged to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the artist the London Telegraph describes as both 'the Aussie modernist par excellence' and 'a central figure in British art' especially during the 1950s and 1960s.

Sidney Nolan Central Australia 1949 Ripolin on glass

He settled in the UK in 1953 and died there in 1992 as part of the Australia's cultural brain drain that saw some of the country's best and brightest move to the UK but retain their Australian identity as part of their personal brand.


Links: Glòries Fine Arts Marqués Nolan

Queer Art at Tate Britain

The exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 has recently opened at Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery in London that was renamed to distinguish it from the separate Tate Modern.

I went there on Friday with mixed feelings, sensing that it could be more of an ordeal than a pleasure to see a show designed to highlight acting on same sex attraction when it was a criminal and social taboo.

Sure enough, I was pleased to get out of there when I'd given it the once over.

I saw too much that was either troubling or confusing. There was photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden's turn of the 19th century portraits of naked Sicilian 10-20 year old boys posing as classical athletes. I wasn't sure how this was different from the kind of child pornography that exploits and damages minors and is now a serious offence to possess.

Wilhelm von Gloeden 1856-1931 Head of a Sicilian Boy

The exhibit's descriptive label refers to a writer who had a packet of van Gloeden's images and 'peeped at it again and again', but then provides context.

'To our eyes, there is a troubling power dynamic between the wealthy von Gloeden and the impoverished Sicilian community, and the uncertain age of some of his models gives an uncomfortable undercurrent to his work'.

If that was a bit edgy for me, the exhibition did include quite a few insights into aspects of social history that were new to me.

There was a painting of social reformer Henry Havelock Ellis, who spent his early adult years in Australia before returning to England to study to become a physician. He was also a writer and his most famous book Sexual Inversion (1897) was an objective study of homosexuality that did not present it as a disease, immoral, or a crime.

Henry Bishop 1868-1939 Henry Havelock Ellis

Currently Tate Britain also has a major David Hockney exhibition. I chose Queer Art because I'd seen the National Gallery of Victoria's Hockney show in Melbourne last November. But it occurred to me that a visit to the Tate's Hockney instead would have given me a much more grounded and celebratory experience of queer British art that was at the same time not lacking in edge.

Van Gogh Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear

A suprise later in the day was The Courtauld Gallery near Australia House in the Strand. I'd never heard of it before, but my sister had recommended it.

The Courtauld has a large collection on four levels, ranging from Medieval and Renaissance to 20th Century Modernist. These included many classics such as Van Gogh's 1889 Self Portrait with a Damaged Ear. A painting with huge appeal to the mainstream that would have once been regarded as quite challenging.


Links: Queer von Gloeden Ellis Courtauld