Tag Archives: Kyoto

Manga, Manga everywhere but not a jot of Cricket

My first experience of manga in Japan was not the best of introductions. I used to teach three boys, aged about eleven or twelve, at that annoying age where suddenly everything they liked two weeks ago is no longer cool. But one thing spans the gap from childhood to teen hood to adulthood like no other in Japan and every week, before their lesson started they would go looking for it.

Looking for it, just so you know, is my polite way of describing a deafening cacophony of tweenage screams and yelps that oscillated wildly between glass shattering and the noise an old man makes when getting out of an overly plumped sofa. Punches would be thrown, they’d scratch like a cat fighting for a fishbone and all this would be before they’d even collapsed through my office door. Every bit of chaotic energy they possessed was directed in a desperate attempt to be the first to one particular drawer at the base of the office bookshelf. For you see, that’s where they kept their treasure, their manga.

And when all the fighting was done, all the scraping, scratching, yelping, poking, picking and pinching, they’d lay on the office floor, all in a row with feet bobbing in the air reading the damn thing together. Turning pages at a frantic pace and utterly silent, a peculiar calm would descend over them, almost as if someone had just slipped them a sly sedative (note: I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted to do this, but frankly I find making language games very active e.g. endless racing for flashcards, has a similar effect without the high costs and danger of prison time associated with drugging your students).

Soon after though I saw the side of manga and Japanese Anime that often draws raised eyebrows in the rest of the world. Having taken the magazine off the boys as they tried to read it during the lesson I had quick flick through the enormous tome and stumbled across a picture of a young school girl, with Barbie like impossible curves, half bursting out of her uniform and staring down in shock at her now quite see through underwear having somehow spilled a large bowl of spaghetti on herself.

Creepy…

However, to take Japanese comic book culture on such a small sample would be to ignore an enormous amount of history and tradition in an art from so popular, that to dismiss it based on this small sample would be foolish… or baka gaijin/stupid foreigner.

So the last time I was down in Kyoto I took a trip to the Kyoto Manga Museum.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Granted it was as quiet as most museums as the people within focused with great care on their respective subjects. Yet, this was no ordinary museum. Rather it blended the best elements of a library, a museum and a truly public space. One that was as much for tourists as it was for locals, children and adults or pretty much anyone with a passion for Japan’s favourite art form.

And it is considered a serious art form now because as of 2002 it has been included in the MEXT Junior High School Curriculum. Though I can’t imagine Spider-Man making an appearance in the high school curriculum in the US generally, or Dennis the Menace in England really. ‘

The Kyoto Manga Museum was formerly Tatsuike Primary School and much of the feel of a school still pervades the place. Granted the Astroturf out front problem helps to a large extent, but the museum’s long creaking corridors, lined completely with an astonishing amount of manga gives the place a peculiarly appropriate feel, as if a konbini magazine rack (Japanese convenience store) fell into an old school house. It’s an odd mix, yet seems somehow to me to be matched perfectly. It captures both the childlike quality of comics themselves, in that they offer an escape into an imaginary world populated by creatures from our school day imaginations and just occasionally our more… shall we say wayward, teenage imaginations. It also places the comics in the locale where the frenzy my very own students illustrated was in all likelihood fostered.

Now while the museum was a truly impressive place, having a long list of special lectures on its calendar, some beautiful displays and a good introduction to manga for novices like me, what amazed me most was how well it functioned as a library.

I should probably note at this time that I once worked in a library, so I’ve seen it at its best when it acted as community hub offering homework help clubs to kids and great resources for the local community to add to their CV while continuing to fulfill its basic remit with ease. However, I have never, ever seen a library like the Kyoto Manga Museum. Every bench was full and not just with kids, but an almost perfect cross section of Japanese society. The reason for this is that the Museum offers a year long membership, so you can wander in almost any day of the week, find (if you feel so inclined) the best manga from 1972 and drop yourself onto a bench for as long as you wish. As public private partnerships go, the museum is an outstanding example of how it should be done. In as much the way as British rail service and any construction undertaken by Jarvis in the UK is a prime example of how not to do it.

Now when I say perfect cross section, I really do mean it. Manga covers pretty much every part of society. In their pursuit of profit manga magazines have tried to cater for all ages and both sexes. Although, in the end they discovered that manga aimed at kids was being read by adults, ones aimed at women are read by men, while pretty much every combination imaginable is read by someone completely unexpected as well as their aimed for demographic.

One variety of manga, I have however found deeply disappointing.

Sporting manga is huge and supposedly encapsulates the Japanese spirit in a way that samurai and warrior tales used to before the end of World War II. Every moment of any sport depicted is a heroic struggle; emotion pitched at either end of the spectrum, highlighting just how much sport is more than any mere game. Thanks to its popularity almost every sport has received such a treatment; baseball, volleyball, football (soccer for those who don’t know better), rugby and any other sport you can think of.

Except cricket.

Kyoto in the Company of Teenagers

Beneath Kiyomizu Temple there is a corridor where only a single speck of light exists. The rest is bathed in utter darkness, as if a thick black curtain has descended and left you blind to the world. To navigate through this impenetrable night one must keep a hand running along a length of rope, beaded with wooden balls, skimming your fingers as you wade through step by step. This is Tenai-meguri and one’s journey into it is figuratively the journey into the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, the mother of Buddha who is said to be able to grant wishes. One might imagine such an experience to be vaguely spiritual. The immersion in utter darkness, the total loss of a sense one relies upon so greatly. This might be so. In the darkness I might have found tranquility, an inner peace or perhaps a touch of revelation…

“Aye! Where you gone? Oh you’re behind me… wait so who’s in front of me… what’s that? Wait is that my foot or your foot? … argh a wall!”

A blood curdling scream.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah… turned out to be the curtain at the exit.”

You see I had foolishly attempted a Zen like experience in the company of ten Yorkshire teenagers.

Perhaps I should explain. A good friend of mine is a Girl Guide Leader back in gloriously green Yorkshire. Which roughly means that she attempts to control a horde of teenage Yorkshire lasses on a weekly basis. How she manages to do this and retain a semblance of sanity I do not know, as teenagers of any ilk, never mind northern lasses, are a hard bunch to look after. If it isn’t self evident, when I say ‘look after’ I actually mean, ‘protect the general public from.’ It was in this role that my friend had brought her young charges to Japan and invited me to catch up with them for a day of sightseeing.

Now despite what the above may say, I don’t want you to think unkindly of this bunch. I was actually thoroughly impressed with their efforts in Japan. Thinking of how I might have reacted to Japanese culture as a teenager brings a wince to my face, in contrast each of these girls threw themselves into the experience with gusto. Noodles were devoured at pace, okonomiyaki as if consumed through a straw (so I was informed) and the bitter, thick tea of a tea ceremony was drunk with a smile and a respect for the effort and tradition involved in its creation. They even managed to ask some very insightful questions about Japanese culture… once they had got over the initial shock of their guide leader running to hug me upon my arrival.

By the end of the afternoon, after a long day spent under the hot summer sun it was however, rather obvious that the poor girls were beginning to wane. I couldn’t blame them, jetlag, culture shock and endless sightseeing are exhausting individually and they had at one point or another in their journey gone through all of them. So, arriving at a food festival on the banks of the river they looked rather less interested than before. I on the other hand had turned into a demented toddler, bouncing and grinning like an idiot at the thought of an endless variety of Japanese food. One variety in particular had been on my mind all day as I was slowly steam cooked in the unabating humidity; kakigori (I admit to being a simple creature). Quickly I found a source for my fix of strawberry flavour and shaved ice. Smiling, with a cup of delicious kakigori in hand I turned to find myself surrounded. Funny how teenagers get a second wind when dessert is available.

Kyoto Kindness: William Faulkner, Soba and Magic Words

Despite essentially being a long-term tourist in Japan I hate feeling like one of the shutterbug crowd, endlessly holding up people on the pavement taking photos of anything vaguely unfamiliar, which in Japan could mean pretty much anything.

It’s this desire to feel less foreign in a country where I am quite patently so, that often leads me to look for the quieter and the more local in cities teeming with tourists. Despite my rather limited Japanese these smaller places with significantly less English are often all the more friendly than their tourist centric counterparts.

In Kyoto especially, a beautiful city but always bursting with tourists both domestic and foreign, I found joy in escaping the bustle in such places. Not far from Kyoto train station, an enormous and impressive piece of architecture that climbs fifteen stories high (the tenth story being a floor of Ramen restaurants) and as much of a sight to see as the rest of the city, I found refuge and dinner in a small family place. A real hole in the wall in a part of town more populated with Starbucks and McDonald’s than mom and pop places. Finding only one customer but an entire family of chefs inside I perched myself at the bar. My seat was essentially the viewing area of the kitchen. Having worked in a kitchen in my teens as a lowly pot washer, I know that any kitchen willing to be open to the customer’s scrutiny is infinitely more professional as the usual temper tantrums and wannabe rock star egos tend to be reined in. However, whether such a culinary temperament exists in Japan I could not say, I only know that they put many of my former colleagues to shame on every level.

I ordered a bowl of steaming hot soba (buckwheat noodles) and a plate of tempura (deep fried vegetables and sea food). However, I had not counted on the immense generosity of their portions and I soon found myself attempting to eat equal amounts of each so as not to display favouritism to the creation of either chef, who were eyeing my greedy effort from inside the kitchen.

The matriarch of this clan of chefs pottered over towards me almost immediately upon my arrival, intent on a little natter. The usual questions were asked and as usual I answered as best I could. When asked where my hometown is I gave them the name and then so that they were not completely baffled I explained that it was near Manchester. The fate of most northerners abroad is to be from a village or town called NearLeeds or NearManchester.

This leads inevitably towards the question of Soccer (a word that makes my heart break a little every time I hear it) and Manchester Utd. So I explain that Man Utd are in the Premier League., to which they give strong nods to display their appreciation and avid devotion to, ‘English Premier League’, a slightly confused look at mentions of the Championship, and then complete shock that the third tier that is League One even exists; worse still that my team should reside within it. All is redeemed though when I reveal that my team’s mascot is a Yorkshire Terrier. Cuteness and little dogs, this is firm, sure ground in Japanese conversation.

I once revealed that little fact to a class and elicited a sharp gasp of surprise and perhaps terror as one student looked at me and asked, ‘My dog is English?!’

So having dispensed with all the usual questions and complimented their cooking as often as possible I was beginning to run out of Japanese and asked the question I hate to have to ask, ‘do you understand a little English?’ I feel dirty when I ask it because it is essentially an admission that you must rely on their greater understanding of a foreign language, in their own country no less. It feels rude on every level to me, but alas after half an hour of small talk I’m pretty much stuffed and so if they want to ask anything beyond the simple and polite I must rely on their high school English along with my little ipod Japanese dictionary going back and forth each time one of us forgets or doesn’t know a word. So having asked the question but not expecting an affirmative answer I was surprised when she gestured towards her son, the chef who had prepared my delicious tempura. He walked over and in flawless English said, ‘I speak a little English as I used to study English and American Literature in America, I’m particularly fond of William Faulkner.’ At that point, had I not already finished my bowl of soba my jaw would have dropped straight into it.

As much as it surprised me at the time (not that he understood a lot of English, that is quite common) that he spoke with such incredible fluency I can understand why he kept it to himself. In Kyoto I rarely heard a foreign tourist make any attempt at using even a little Japanese, not even something from a phrase book at the very least. No Konnichiwa (hello), no arigatou(thanks), no onegaishimas or o kudasai (please/may I have). I even met a perfectly nice American man who was intent on moving to Japan permanently, who had resided in Kyoto for three months already and had not learned a single word of Japanese. So when a tourist makes even a small attempt to speak Japanese they’ll engage more, talk more and generally be even friendlier than they already are. Yet, should a Japanese person reveal immediately that they understand every tourist perfectly, well that’s just an invitation for tourists to be more demanding and lazy. Not something I’d be keen to encourage either.

Aside from the fact it is simple politeness to do so, there are of course major benefits to speaking at least a little bit of the language, even if you only visit for a little while. Perched at the end of the bar at my hostel in Kyoto I noticed two Australian guys frantically gesturing for ten minutes trying to get one of the bar staff to notice them so they could order a beer. I took my time to finish my beer and then shouted, ‘sumimasen’ the bartender over in a flash, my drink immediately replaced and two stunned Aussies left asking, ‘what was that magic word you used?’

‘Excuse me.’