Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fukuoka - eighth day

I'm trainblogging live on the Shinkansen, on the way to Fukuoka to have ramen noodle soup for lunch with a new friend from SL. How cool is that? [This was written on Sunday, but I was too tired to post it when I got home.]

I'm actually using my laptop on my lap, for perhaps the first time ever: there is a tray at each seat, but the spacing between rows is so remarkably wide that it's too far away to use as a base for typing. The Shinkansen is a strange beast to European eyes: it feels like a hybrid cross between a train and a widebody aircraft. It's nearly a metre broader than the ICE, with five seats across (3+2) and an aisle that is also significantly wider than ours. All seats face in the direction of travel (like Amtrak and VIA Rail in Canada, they swivel so they can be reversed at the end of the line. That means that there are no facing groups of seats, as in the ICE: I guess people travel alone or in triads at most, or they simply sit apart.

I had an unusual and rather charming dream early this morning: I was giving sex lessons in mime to a pair of shy but enthusiastic Japanese teenagers. The richness of my gestural imagination amused me, I was chuckling as I woke. The chuckles faded when I realized that it was 3:30 am, but that's another story. (It occurs to me to wonder whether this observant meta-self enjoying the entertainment was "lucid dreaming" or just me slowly waking up. I've heard the term often but never really arrived at a definite understanding of it.)

The Bishonen phenomenon is something typically and strangely Japanese. It's not cross-dressing and certainly not transgender, they dress male and don't appear to be gay (insofar as I would be able to detect the local clues and cues which are probably quite different to Europe or America). It seems to be almost a kind of cosplay, a joy in playing at a particular style of looking good. As far as I can see they are treated as normal guys by society and by their almost-always-female companions (who are usually equally well made up); I probably wouldn't detect sneers or rude comments if they were expressed without gesture and in a polite tone of voice, but the fact is that I've never noticed any kind of reaction to them at all.

Hiroshima. A brand-new city, obviously and unusually. I suddenly feel very obviously Western, though nobody seems to care.

I'm figuring out a few things about the language, both spoken and written. One oddity is that although Japanese is read right-to-left (ads, posters, most signage) or in top-to-bottom columns from right-margin to left-margin (books, newspapers, magazines, handwritten menus), single-line electric signs scroll from left to right! It must be very hard to read. There's no good reason for it, the text could just as well be set to scroll rightwards. (Yes, most such signs are bilingual, but English and Japanese are never on-screen at the same time; it could easily be made to switch direction when it switches language.)

I'm amused to note that there are exceptions to the linguistic rules here too, for all the claims of simplicity and straightforwardness of pronunciation. It is said that n is the only consonant that can exist on its own without a vowel (it has a conceptual silent vowel: Shinjuku is a four-syllable word); but the ts pairing is common and not intervowelled (e.g. Fujitsu). Actually, having written that I now wonder whether that is perhaps just an artefact of transliteration: whether there is in Japanese phonetic script a specific character for that pair. This is perhaps my long-awaited "Lost in translation" moment: not being unable to order food and drink, but being unable to satisfy my geeky curiosity.

Also, u is so clipped as to be almost silent unless it's a consonant-less syllable, e.g. Fukuoka is pronounced "F'k'oka." Ei and ai are barely distinguishable from plain "e" and "a:" the trailing "i" is just a grace-note, a barely-vocalized upward inflection. I confused everyone by making three syllables of the name "Eiko," when it's properly about two and an eighth. Another common mistake, from sheer linguistic habit, is to see ing as a single syllable, an English diphthong, whereas it is really the core of three syllables: Ji-n-gu.

Kokura, and we have reached the sea. Half an hour to go. The Shinkansen doesn't mess around, some of these station stops have been barely a minute long.

There is a conductor (who is evidently not a ticket examiner) who walks back and forth in search of something to do. When he walks from the front of the train to the rear (facing us) he enters the car without fuss; but when walking from rear to front (with his back to us) he pauses as he reaches the head of the car, turns around, and bows to us before proceeding.

(Later, homeward in the dark at 5:30 pm.)

Well, that was fun. The noodles lived up to their billing, and Fukuoka seems a nice enough place. Far fewer temples than in Kyoto, and fewer older buildings generally, probably because it was bombed and burned flat during the war. The city has something of an inferiority complex, apologising for not being as exciting as Tokyo or as historically-cultural as Kyoto, defensively proud of its (for Japan surprisingly high degree of) multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. Being at the far end of the train line in a highly centralized country is probably plays a role in that.

The Tojoji shrine/temple (have to check which is which) surprised me: It was clearly buddhist, with golden statues of the Buddha and lotus blossoms etc; yet it also had what I thought of as Shinto elements, like an orange-painted pagoda and little guardian-stones (have to find out their proper name) wearing red bibs. Perhaps it's multi-denominational? or perhaps the divisions are less hard and fast than I thought.

I didn't get to see the famous thousand-armed Buddha (aka Kwan Yin), nor the statue of the reclining Buddha (one of only two in Japan, it says here). Next time.

A word of warning about JapanRail passes as I change trains in Shin-Osaka. The pass seems to be a steal: a week of non-Nozomi, non-Green carriage travel cost me 250€ plus 35€ handling fee, which I'm told is not much more than the cost of a single return trip from Kyoto to Tokyo. So if you plan to go farther than that or more often than once, it seems like a real bargain.

There are several kinds of passes, which let you on different types of train and classes of carriage. In my humble opinion the Green (first class) carriage pass is in itself unnecessary, "ordinary" carriages are good enough; however it does let you take the Nozomi trains. Given that these make up the great majority of intercity trains, the convenience of travelling whenever you like may be worth the difference in price. In the current case it would have meant two fewer changes and being home nearly an hour earlier.

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Blogger JoeinVegas said...

Sounds like you are having an interesting time

November 29, 2010 at 11:38:00 PM GMT+1  

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