And Finally…..

So that would be Twelve Good Reasons to go to Japan.

In no particular order of preference and no particular order of importance. I suppose they could all be summed up simply by saying: “We want to go – just to see it all.” All of it – the Art, the Clay, the Painting, the Zen, the Films, the Clothes, the Landscape, the Design, the Street Culture, the Food, the Tiny Things and the Gadgets amongst a whole heap of other things that we cannot even hope to name as we have not seen them, yet.

So what are we looking for out of this trip? To be able to have the rush of the new experiences, the excitement of seeing a wholly different culture, the knowledge that one is involved in a very special and privileged experience, the comprehension of understanding new things, the anxiety of realising that its actually happening and the richness of lasting memories. 

A lot of our reasons are visual – we continually say in our blog that we want to see things. With this act of viewing hopefully will come understanding and a raised awareness not only of differences but also of similarities and shared experiences. Its hardly surprising that two artists would fixate about the visual – perhaps even seemingly at the expense of other more participatory activities. Artists are voyeurs after all. But within the looking is a very sincere attempt to understand a complex thing like another culture – something that was not made overnight and certainly cannot be comprehended overnight. But through that attempt one builds greater awareness and comprehension of how others live and function and that filters slowly into the art that one produces. So, on one very obvious level, the trip would be research – a once in a lifetime (perhaps) attempt to do real hands-on research in the land that has affected one very deeply generally through the pages of a book or a magazine or latterly through the internet.

It would be amazing to be able to film the  countryside, the people, the sights and sounds and the places. Looking for those iconic moments that sum up the experience of being there. Being immersed for a small time in a different environment and being asked to consider that experience is a stimulating challenge.

The discipline of having to write about it each day would be a great way of being able to quantify those experiences and also to address important questions like – “Well, is it as good as you thought it would be?” or “What are you going to do now?” or the ever popular “What do I do now?”

So I hope that sums up our 12 Good Reasons to go to Japan. I hope you have enjoyed reading them and looking at the various artworks and images – ours and those of others we have chosen. We would like to leave you with possibly the most Japanese painting by Jean and the most Japanese inspired video by Ian – until we get to go to Japan, of course.

Fragile Memory from Ian Henderson on Vimeo.

Sayonara.

Reason No. 12 – The Gadgets

And so we come finally to our last reason to go to Japan. The reasons are not ranked in any kind of order – they have been written about in this order as we’ve thought about them. In fact, I think it would be impossible to rank them into any kind of order as they overlap and each new day brings a different preference out of what we have chosen. Also, as we have developed this blog some of the old reasons could be revised to include new thinking on the subjects. But this won’t happen since it would be very difficult to know when to stop.Every day I’d have to write something about what I’ve already written. That way madness lies…..

So today we look at gadgets. You know – all the electronic stuff we have that so dominates our lives, fills our living spaces with positive ions and attempts to satisfy that gadget driven acquisition desire. Loads of this covetable stuff is designed, built and distributed by the Japanese. They must surely be the world’s number one exporter of gadget stuff. I don’t know if I can think of anyone who does not have a Japanese made gadget of some kind in their house. In fact, is there anyone in the Western world who doesn’t have a Japanese gadget of some kind? Perhaps there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have Japanese gadgets – but I don’t know them.

I suppose we are serial owners of gadgets; buying, using and trading up endlessly in an attempt to satisfy our hunger to have and to hold.  Any inventory of one’s possessions would probably identify quite a number of items bought at a certain time, played with (sorry used) and then discarded as we have become aware of the newer, cooler, more covetable or desirable upgrade. My camera collection would satisfy this. One can never have the best one as the best one just got better. A marketing executive’s fantasy come true I should imagine; always new things to sell.

The key is constant innovation and improvement. As we looked at earlier – things get smaller, more efficient, more new features and more tailored to a specific use. Miniaturisation in itself would keep this endless cycle going for years as we all scramble to collect our pennies for the newest, smallest gizmo that will make our lives complete. 

Whilst we may assume that the Japanese have only just started to occupy the gadget field I think they have been innovative for centuries. A recent discussion in preparation for this blog focussed on the chopstick. Now it may well be the case that the Chinese are actually the real originators of the chopstick and perhaps a learned person who has delved into history could correct me about that particular point. Nonetheless as a gadget the chopstick is almost perfect it its purity of form meeting function. Minimal use of natural resources, highly useable at all times, simple, elegant, easy to keep clean and extremely efficient in its allotted role of conveying food to mouth. (Always an interesting and engaging subject – that food to mouth thing). Another really efficient and elegant gadget from days of yore that probably is Japanese is the suribachi. The suribachi is a pottery bowl with a lip that has an impressed series of ridges on its inside surface that assist in the mashing and blending of seeds, grains, liquids and many other culinary chores. It is extremely efficient, again easy to clean and store and extremely labour saving. It is used in conjunction with a surikogi which is almost identical to a western pestle from a pestle and mortar. A fabulous piece of design and a truly useable gadget.

However, our major interaction with Japanese gadgetry is through electronic items. Anything with a computer chip in it. Anything with a power cable coming out of it. You know the stuff – Hi-fi’s, radios, cameras, DVD players, video devices, Gameboys, MP3 players, televisions, digi boxes, hairdryers, kitchen appliances,  etc, etc, etc…. Which one of us hasn’t got some lurking desire to own and use one of these toys?

 The point of going to Japan is not to go on some vast shopping spree – although a little of that may take place(!) – but it is to see what’s new. Undoubtedly we in the West get the gadgets later than our Japanese cousins. They are already used to things we have not even thought of or seen. They probably have version number three of that item whilst we have not even considered a need for it yet. There are walking, talking robots that allegedly can help with simple household chores, 3D televisions that actually work all the time, innovations in plasma screens and video conferencing, etc. The list will go on and on. In fact, its difficult to write about because I do not know what might be available. It leads me to speculate that the inside of a modern Japanese electronics shop would be like some vast science fiction Alladin’s cave of distracting toys. A Santa’s grotto of toys – if that’s not mixing my cultural metaphors too much.

So we will leave me today wondering what might be coming to stores near me in the very near future. It’s almost like trying to see into the future.

Reason No. 11 – The Tiny Things

Our penultimate reason to go see the wonders of Japan is maybe a little quirky. The tiny things. The Japanese obsession for miniaturising things. Small seems to be a very Japanese obsession. One might almost say that small seems to be very big in Japan. Making things that are ordinary size very small seems to be a national pre-occupation that may say a lot about the Japanese character. Such an endeavour – to miniaturise- would obviously take a lot of focus, attention to detail and dedication. I suppose one could get quite psychological about this activity and say something about restricted land availability due to the fact that Japan is an island and therefore limited in its resources, or even that the individual’s sense of self  is sublimated within the collective but I prefer to see it as a manifestation of a  sense of humour. The UK also is an island and it does not seem to display the same pre-occupation with the tiny.

Small things – that have real size equivalents in the real world – are just funny.

It is said that each new generation of the Sony Walkman (remember them?) had to be half the physical size of the previous model in order to satisfy the design brief. This has lead to the creation of miniature music machines that fit in your pocket. Now the MP3 player (the logical conclusion of the miniaturising design brief) will fit in a very small pocket. So small you can frequently lose them – especially if you have big pockets!

There seems to be a particular inclination towards creating and working with the small. It is no surprise that the Japanese have been world leaders in the creation of micro cars for the urban environment, micro sleeping quarters for commuter hotels, tiny moshi toys and tiny circuit boards for ever faster and more powerful computers. The list of things the Japanese seem to have shrunk seems to be endless.

I don’t think it too much to suggest that there is a considerable amount of humour in making things small.

To end today I think we will show a few pictures by the artist Slinkachu who, although not Japanese, as far as I can tell, certainly seems to capture the humour and sometimes dark terror of the miniature world.

Reason No. 10 – The Food

I suppose we have been slightly reluctant to broach this subject. Not because there is a problem with it – quite the reverse. There is so much right with it. It has to be said we both love the food. Having said that I think, to be more accurate, I should say we both LOVE it! So much. Probably too much – if that is possible. The simple reason for this is it is fantastic. And that poses a problem as we both have a lot to say and we have to squabble about who gets to do it……

So we will resolve this issue by both doing bits of the writing. So Jean says….

The reasons for loving Japanese food are obvious – tasty, appealing, healthy and can be very portable!!

But I would like to add a slightly more serious note for a moment.  Many years ago I consulted a macrobiotic practitioner after feeling very ill for a long time. Macrobiotics is a system of eating developed by George Oshawa and Mishio Kushi, based on the principles of yin and yang, resulting in an understanding of the medicinal qualities of food.  Does it work? A resounding yes, and a bit more!  I am now permanently hooked on miso, tofu, sea vegetables, etc. 

 Don’t eat it every day now, but it helps to know how to feel better if things get a bit out of balance.

 

But back to the good bit – the cooking and eating!

And Ian says…

My god just look at it!!! It’s got to be the most aesthetically appealing fetishistic food ever produced on the planet. It is true that one eats with one’s eyes and Japanese food is a visual treat. It is also a culinary experience par excellence. I have eaten at both cheap and fairly posh and expensive restaurants and I have always found the experience to be very satisfying on many levels. The visual element is obvious but it is backed up by the taste sensations and the feeling of satisfaction that the food can engender. It is not uncommon to feel slightly unwell after some meals – especially if one overindulges – but I don’t recall ever feeling like that after a Japanese meal. I think the combination of rice, small amount of protein and lots of ingeniously cooked vegetable dishes promotes a sense of calm and happiness. There is a wholesome quality that is very satisfying.

I’m very keen on cooking. In fact I love cooking almost as much as I love eating. (For those who know me there is little surprise there.) The ingenuity, care and attention required to cook a Japanese meal well is a very compelling challenge for me. I really enjoy the practical hands-on elements like chopping the food in a particular way, carrying out the preparations and cooking according to some non-Western methods sometimes. This experience is then topped off with the challenge of how to present the food. This has been raised to quite a skill – some would say an art – by trained Japanese chefs who have absorbed their country’s assurance in design to make even the most humble of foodstuffs seem crafted for kings.

Interestingly – and I’m sure there is a book in this somewhere – I think that food, and how it is prepared, presented, combined and eaten, tells a massive amount about the culture, its history and the people from which it comes. It is a living manifestation of cultural trends, personalities, outlook and collective experience. One that is more telling, in many ways, than what people may say or do. I think this is to do with the fact that we all derive comfort, sustenance and confirmation from the food we prepare and eat. It is no surprise that we can create the most massive arguments at meal times or use the food, and the rituals associated with its preparation, to calm, console and modify our perspective on the world. Food is a very strong tool; capable of dramatically altering our mood, consoling us and comforting us in ways words alone rarely do. Jerome K Jerome said he was fractious and upset before he ate. Upset with everything and everyone – even the dog. And after he had eaten he smiled on everything and everyone – even the dog! Yeah, paraphrasing, I know. But you get the idea. 

So why go to Japan?  Well obviously to stuff my face with all the good food. To see it made. To see its variety, its colour and textures, its aroma and to see it made by lots of people who cook it everyday. Staring at the revolving conveyor belt of sushi as it provides multiple opportunities for temptation. Learning by seeing and by experiencing it. Expanding one’s palate. 

And that is a very important point. In fact it may be THE point of all of this. Expanding ones palate; both actually by trying new foods but also metaphorically. The whole point of any kind of journey would be to expand one’s ideas, outlook and one’s preconceptions. And in this case the food acts as a very strong catalyst. It is one of the undeniable ways in which one knows – for sure – that one is not at home. That one is on an adventure. It also makes the adventure really interesting and hopefully memorable. And you get to eat it. What could be better?

Jean again – one bit of information I forgot, which many people would want to know, is that NO NO NO, this food doesn’t make you fat !!!!!!!!!!!!!!    A generalisation I know, but the Japanese physique doesn’t shout overindulgence in the wrong things , does it?   So I would say everything that Ian has said, again……………

 

Reason No.9 – The Street Culture

Today’s reason to sample the delights of Japan is to sample the street culture. This reason naturally follows on from yesterday’s observations about design and the way in which design – of all kinds – permeates a fresh-eyed tourist’s consciousness as they soak up the visual culture of a new and alien place.

 

My understanding is that Japan has a very vibrant and continually changing street culture. I have heard of many fascinating aspects; from excellent food stalls and street vendors, mass gatherings of young kids dressed exotically to the neon and video illuminations of the urban downtown areas of Tokyo and other big cities.

This all seems to be a manifestation of a very specific creativity that merges individualism with an odd (at least to Western eyes) sense of the group or the collective. I get the impression that Japanese youth (if one can seriously talk in these terms) gain considerable  enjoyment from participating in a form of collective self expression that has few real direct comparisons in the West. It is not usual to meet a massed group of Elvis impersonators, teenage girls dressed as dolls or elaborately coiffed bikers as they congregate in the UK’s civic squares or thoroughfares. But it would appear to be the case that this is a usual and commonplace event in Japan. Undoubtedly UK teenagers express a communal sense of dress and identity but it rarely matches the apparent Japanese mania for dressing up, taking on a role or a character. From the outside it appears as if there is a very innocent and engaging theatricality at work here; almost an attempt to create a parallel or fantasy universe that happily co-exists in amongst the more mundane society.

Any quick glance at the search term “Japanese street fashion” on Google would lead one to think that pink is the number one favourite colour for all young Japanese girls. There seems to be an amazing amount of the sugary pinkness everywhere. Fashion is obviously the incredibly sticky glue that binds many different street trends together in Japan. The harajuku trend is incredibly interesting in the way in which young girls express or dramatically over-emphasise their femininity by dressing in pink baby-like clothes, with lots of layers , contrasting patterns, heavy face make-up and lots of ruffles and lace. Alongside the obvious punk references in the seemingly casual combination of styles and theatricality these creations owe so much to manga cartoon characters. These creations and the many other diverse fashion mixtures I’ve seen portrayed lead me to think that some parts of urban Japan must feel like one has landed in some alternative, futuristic universe where one instinctively recognises some things from the past but one is continually baffled and confused by the seemingly random and eclectic combinations that have been thought up. It is all a manifestation of the most rampant creativity and as far as I am aware there is no similar trend here in the UK.

Being able to see first -hand what this creativity is like would blow away a few cobwebs – and few preconceptions as well, I’m sure. So, whilst not wishing to repeat the same thing too many times, – it would be absolutely fabulous to go see it all. Especially for two artists who think this stuff is what makes our lives very much more interesting.    

Reason No.8 – The Design

Today’s meditation on all things Japanese looks at some aspects of Japanese design. Japanese design is absolutely unique in its outlook, application and its thorough integration into all aspects of the Japanese culture. Having never been to view this first-hand I know that the previous statements may be incorrect but they are certainly indicative of my current perception. Maybe Japanese design does not pervade Japanese society at every level – yeah, but we all know that’s not true. Amongst cultures known for their design – such as the Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark, the flamboyantly sophisticated Italians and the quirky traditionalism of the UK   – the Japanese are, arguably, pre-eminent.

From the most humble item to the most elaborate and stylish the Japanese have considered form, function and material and merged these with simplicity to create timeless classics. Good design is able to transcend all of its separate elements and produce an item that is not only ideally suited to its task but is also a thing of great intrinsic aesthetic beauty. From cars and motorcycles to cups and dishes, clothes to computers, buildings to temples, food to gardens – the pervasive sense of “Japanese -ness” seems to somehow emanate from all of these items. In part, it is to do with a very clever and unique paring down process – simplification and attention to detail, the use of sometimes subdued colour and a great awareness of ergonomics and shape. And in part it seems to be pure magic. As if the items grew like that without the interference of human hand.

Undoubtedly the choice and use of materials is very important. The Japanese seem to have an inherent comprehension of materials and their innate characteristics; how some materials are hard and implacable, some are soft and malleable and some are crisp and precise. There seems to be an awareness of nature in this sophisticated mix as well. It may seem a discordant note to bring into this discussion but an awareness of seasons, materials and environment is also a very Japanese quality in design terms. They seem attuned to recognise shapes and patterns in nature and to include these into their use of a material in a seemingly effortless way. This is particularly noticeable in their clothing and in may old items of kitchenware and tools. Only the Japanese would come up with the notion of square drinking or serving vessels that hold round food. Or round vessels holding square food. Such attention to aesthetics is verging on OCD! But it is rationalised as an attempt to balance many disparate elements into one harmonious whole. Much of Japanese design strives towards this end. And here again we see the strands of philosophical outlook influencing use of materials, shape and design.

As this blog is about why we would like to go to Japan I can truthfully say that one of the main reasons I would like to make this pilgrimage is to see the design.

I don’t mean to go to a design museum – although I have no complaint about that as a place to start –  but I really mean how design manifests itself on the streets. How it is included in the day to day of people’s lives; the shape of spoons in a coffee shop, the prevalent aesthetic of shopping centres, the racks of clothes in a street stall, the shape of vending machines, the look of cameras in shop windows, the seating in a trendy bar or nightclub. All the multitudinous ways in which a modern, hyperactive society expresses itself and its collective aspirations.

These subliminal impressions are harvested as one goes about a new country – they form the background through which one establishes an understanding or rapport with that new environment. In essence they are the many small triggers that continually accrue in your consciousness building impressions of a place and a culture. And it is all complicatedly mixed up. Not all simple and straightforward. Messy and impressionistic and dead good fun. Would love to be able to do it in Japan.

 

Reason No.7 – The Landscape

As we have stated elsewhere in this blog our intention is to illustrate and speculate about why we would like to go to Japan. That is the plan. Along the way we are undoubtedly going to say things or surmise about things that are not correct. This is inevitable since we have not yet been to Japan. Everything is always clearer if one has direct, practical, hands-on knowledge of something. I suppose the basic premise regarding everything we have said is that we would love to go and see it all in-stu. It would be such a blast to be able to turn the suppositions and speculations into real, first-hand knowledge.To test whether the ideas and notions developed over the years – in libraries, from books, television and films,actually add up to an approximation of the real thing.

That would so enriching for so many reasons – some of which I hope we have already communicated. It could also be quite challenging. What if its all very, very different from how I want it (or think it) to be? What do I do then? Am I ready to have my presumptions exploded by the rush of first-hand, undeniable, potentially shocking or disappointing reality. Ummm… yeah, I think I am. That, as they say, would be very good for me.

So today’s ramble is about the landscape. I suppose due to the power of the inter – webby thing we all can now conjure images of what a place looks like almost instantly. That’s what Google Maps is for, isn’t it. Choose a place, search for it and see what it looks like. What it really looks like – their little car with the cameras has no doubt been there and taken its pictures and posted them so we can all know. Wonderfully entertaining. And also slightly disappointing. Disappointing in the sense that it seems to take just a little bit of the magic away and replaces it with a rather cooler logic; “Want to know what it looks like? Okay – it looks like this. Not any other way – this way and only this way.” Slightly takes the edge off, I think.

For me, my speculation of  what Japan looks like hovers between two unreconcilable poles. There is the Google map reality where I can dial in a location selected from a map and see what the actual scene will be like and then there is another Japan – a far more mythical place that has never actually existed but which hovers in the back of my mind like some extravagant film set filled with wondrous, mountain landscapes, wreathed in mist and history. Where the iconic image of Fuji-san rises majestically above the clouds, groves of bamboo and hot springs clothe temples and timeless cherry blossom mixes with the ultra slick downtown neon illumination that looks like an adaptation of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Where it has always been raining and the neon adverts reflect in black puddles. Where oddly traditional video imagery of ladies in kimonos projected above street level turns upside down and shatters and reassembles as the puddles are disturbed  by homeward bound office workers. Where urban street markets pile exotic foods and plastic Hello Kitty dolls, raw fish heads gape and rice straw covered bottles stand in neat rows.

     

Ahh.. the power of the poorly researched imagination. It is small wonder that ancient travellers wrote “Here be monsters” on maps where they had not ventured;  But I think there is a very important point here. This is the allure of the exotic, fragrant, dynamic East. A thing that has always beguiled in the West. The changes in the landscape are reflected by changes in culture, language, food, thinking, philosophy and habit. All of which cast a beguiling attraction. It is an almost physical sensation trying to guess what the landscape feels like, what the food tastes like and what the streets sound like.

Undoubtedly a lot of this eulogising about the landscape comes from the art- the too much art I look at! But it does make a wonderful fantasy place to escape to. There is a lot that is attractive about the medieval pastoral landscape presented by Hiroshige. It looks so calm and inviting. Bet it wasn’t in reality – but that is another story.

Lastly  an intense appreciation of the changing moods and textures found within the landscape has affected a lot of the cultural and philosophical approach in Japan. Here there are many different factors at work; Buddhism, Zen and Shinto observance and veneration of nature and all of the aesthetic sensibilities developed over centuries. Today I will leave you all with a small video work I made about two years ago that attempts to present something of where I stay. Scotland – not Japan. It is a collage of images and sensations and it forms part of a suite of videos recording impressions of the changing seasons entitled “Annum.” Since it is summer here I have chosen Summer to share with you all. I would be very interested in making a similar video about the ultra modern Japan – Shinjoku, etc. Now there is damned good reason to go….!! Enjoy.

Summer from Ian Henderson on Vimeo.