Travel


Dhaka by night

I’m currently on an extended work trip to Bangladesh, teaching a couple of intensive seminars on epidemiology and related topics in Dhaka. This is the second time I have come here, and I plan to write a separate post soon on my impressions of this country – there is a lot to say about it. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of 170 million people neighbouring India, and is very poor. It is currently ranked 136th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index, putting it in about the bottom third of national wealth globally. Per capita GDP is about 1,800 USD, with huge inequality. Although the government of Bangladesh is angling to have the country ranked as a lower middle-income country it is still very poor, with no serious functioning health insurance system, limited skilled employment and a weak industrial sector outside of an extremely well-performing garment sector. Even the Tuk-tuks are imported from India. Bangladesh is something of a success story in health, outperforming expectations for its HDI and in particular making huge gains on maternal and child health. Nonetheless, life here is tough for all but its wealthiest residents. For example a basic garment worker job, which is a sought after thing here, pays about 80USD per month. I learnt this from my local colleagues, who are running a project on the health of these women, and I also helped interview a senior researcher position for a local organization, which was looking to pay a person with a master’s degree and several publications about $500 per month. It’s not a rich place! In particular there is a very large population of unskilled and/or illiterate young people, who are not able to engage in the garment sector or any higher-paid work, and for whom employment opportunities are limited. So it is that these people go to quite outrageous lengths to earn money, including some quite entertaining scams. Here I report on two, one of which I was told about and one of which I and my colleagues almost became entangled in.

Dhaka city centre, with metro works (I think)

The Elephant Man

I took a few hours after work this week to visit a tailor that my colleague Doughty S recommends. This tailor could make me a tailor-made suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers for a mere 170 USD, so is probably worth the two hour slog I had to endure to get there, and the 3 hour slog home. Did I mention that traffic in Dhaka is insane? Traffic in Dhaka is literally insane. It’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying, a problem of many cities in developing nations, and about this I will write more in my report on Bangladesh. At one point, driving relatively fast for the time of day, we passed an elephant standing by the side of the road, eating grass from a building site while its rider lounged about atop its broad back. It wasn’t huge as elephants go, but it was still big and more to the point I have never in my life seen an elephant just ambling along in public doing its thing. So I naturally declared “elephant!” and tried (and failed) to get a photo from the car that was suddenly and perversely actually moving for once.

My colleague Doughty S informed me that this elephant wasn’t a working elephant in the sense that it lifts and carries and drags things like an elephant should; rather, it was an essential participant in a money-making scam. Basically the dude on top of the elephant will manoeuvre it in front of your car, forcing you to stop, and then refuse to move the elephant until you pay him. Since it’s an elephant, you probably aren’t going to try and hit it; and if you’re in Dhaka traffic you probably won’t be able to outmanoeuvre it; and you can’t reach the dude to punch him since he’s on an elephant. It’s really a quite foolproof way of extorting a bit of money from passing motorists. So the scam unfolds, but on this occasion we were fortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the road, so no elephant extortion came our way.

Doughty S also told me that the same people who ride the elephant also sometimes have a box with a snake in that they threaten to curse you with unless you cough up some money. But I think we can all agree the elephant scam is way more elegant.

The Sand Gang in action

The Sand Gang

This is a devilishly cunning plan that seems worth far less than the effort and risk required to pull it off, but you have to admire the chutzpah of its architects. I spent two days at a resort town, Cox’s Bazar, during the break between seminars, to unwind a little and get some beach air. Cox’s Bazar is a kind of peninsula, with a single road heading south along the beach side, and over a line of hills the Rohingya refugee camps. The Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar to camps near Coxs Bazar, and there is now a huge industry of aid groups and Bangladesh army tending to their needs[1]. Most of the aid workers stay in Coxs Bazar, and every morning they drive along the road south to the camp. However, recently the government closed a 200m section of road near the hotels for repairs, and now there is no road south from the southern part of the town. Rather than head north and around, the aid workers drive onto the beach in their white SUVs and use the beach as a short cut, as do all the locals who live in the southern stretch of Coxs Bazar. It’s ridiculous that there is only one road and that it has been closed now, but this is Bangladesh so everyone just rolls with the punches.

So, when our time came to do a little beach tourism our driver took us onto the beach – me, Doughty S, his wife and child, in a rundown old van without seatbelts, along the beach and up to the part of the beach where we are to rejoin the road – where we found a couple of cars bogged down, and a queue of cars waiting to get up the hill. You can see the scene pictured above. We sat here for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes waiting our chance to drive up the hill but it seemed every time we tried to gun the engine and go up the hill someone let a tuk-tuk down in front of us, or someone cut in, or a group of people got in our way. Doughty S got out of the car and went up to direct traffic, and we watched as various cars floundered and then got pushed up the hill of sand by gangs of eager men. Eventually a gap appeared, our driver took a risk, and even though a woman in a sari and a tuk-tuk nearly cut us off we gunned up the sand hill, the driver throwing the car left and right with ferocious energy until we bounced up a huge lump and onto smoother, firmer sand, then onto the road where Doughty S rejoined us.

Doughty S reported to us the real story of the floundering cars: a kind of local syndicate of young men had set up a scheme where every time a car attempted to take the hill at speed someone would step in front of it, or they would direct a car coming in the opposite direction into its path. They made sure that children were the ones stepping in front of the car, so that it was guaranteed to slow down, though not so carelessly as to make it stop entirely. Its power gone the car would then hit the bank and flounder, and then the men would offer to push it out for a small fee. The fee was about 30 taka (30 cents or so) for a Tuk-tuk, up to perhaps 100 taka for a car like ours. Many of the drivers were not locals or were not used to driving on sand, and were easy marks; somehow the UN vehicles were never affected by this scam, and neither was the military truck that was just rolling away when we arrived. They obviously knew how to select their targets. Doughty S also told us some drivers suspected the sand gang had sabotaged the road to start with, undermining the sand bank.

Dhaka traffic comes to the bazar

By the time we returned from our tourism trip, the sand gang had also managed to expand to the other slope near our hotel, where I witnessed the traffic jam above. When you see a picture of Bangladesh traffic it is important to remember it’s not just a throng of cars; it’s also a cacophony of horns, because everyone uses their horn all the time for everything, and even the small jam pictured above was raising an enormous racket. Needless to say, we jumped out here and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

Libertarian dreams

There is a cyberpunk air to Dhaka, in the sense that there is no smooth and ordered government-run system and everything is a chaotic mesh of competing businesses and money makers. There are no traffic lights or traffic police, no road rules, most of the time not even any lanes, and in the chaos of the traffic it’s every man for himself. With a weak state and a populace with limited work opportunities and not much money there is a big atmosphere of scamming, grift and graft. Funnily enough despite this lack of oversight no enterprising soul has managed to set up a toll road, or offer some advanced business plan that can cut through the dust haze and klaxon roar to somehow make money distilling all this essence of chaos down to pure profit. It just remains barely controlled chaos, mostly held together not by profit motives so much as by the common decency people usually show each other despite their situation. It’s a bit of a cliche to tell libertarians that if they want a world without a government they should move to Somalia or something, but I think for your everyday Bangladeshi worker that’s pretty much what they face: undiluted libertarianism. Out of pocket payments for healthcare and rubbish disposal, a completely uncontrolled transport system with very little public investment, a government sector where everyone accepts that services are purchased not given, and some dude with an elephant making a living (of some dubious kind) by extorting motorists. This is the reality of unimpeded libertarianism: the elephant man and the sand gang. If you want to see where it takes you, come and enjoy the traffic in Dhaka… but look out for the elephants!


fn1: The Rohingya are a sad story but I don’t get the impression that anyone here resents them. The Bangladesh army set up camps early, and have done what they can given their resources, and the town is generally welcoming of the aid workers and happy to take their money. Bangladeshis I speak to are universally proud of the social harmony in their country, “unlike India,” and don’t consider for example Hindus or tribal people (who apparently live around here) to be lesser people. The government wants to send the Rohingya back but seems willing to not force them while they are still at risk, and although it’s not a pleasant situation everyone seems to be doing what they can. I wonder if the Rohingya have elephants …?

The Three Fairies

Recently after a week in London for work I took a trip back to the area of Britain where I grew up, in particular Wiltshire, where I spent a couple of years of my childhood. I think I lived there for about four years from the age of about 6 to about 11 (the details are hazy, as there were many moves in that time and also a period in New Zealand). In addition to some maudlin wandering along the rivers and fields of my youth, I also did a fairly intensive tour of some of Wiltshire’s prehistoric sites. I visited Avebury, Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and by accident a bunch of ancient stones called the Rollright stones. I also spent the better part of a day at Salisbury Cathedral, which is a beautiful building.

The Rollright Stones

I visited these on the way to Salisbury from the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford. At the time I visited unfortunately English Heritage were holding some kind of local event where local schoolkids could fill in some of the missing parts of this stone circle, which was unfortunate because their efforts were woeful. There was also a sculpture by David Gosling, The Three Fairies, which is the picture at the top of this post. These stones were typical of the kind of things you find in this part of Britain, just random ancient structures sitting at the edge of someone’s field, carrying five millenia of wear and largely unknown except to the locals. Set in the sweeping hillside of golden harvest corn under a flint sky the stones are both mundane and majestic, an unprepossessing memory of a time before any religion or ideas that we know.

Holy spaces

Salisbury Cathedral and the spire

I had the pleasure of visiting Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday morning, which meant I had the opportunity to hear the choir and the morning service. The inside of Salisbury Cathedral is a stunning and majestic monument to the hubris of the ancient christian church, and also to its sense of awe and holiness, and it is easy to spend a long time lost in here, fussing over its tiny details and occasionally stepping back to enjoy the grandeur and stillness of the huge hall. It is not thronging with visitors as are some great Cathedrals, so it still maintains a sense of being a working church rather than a relic. In the afternoon, wandering around the main hall again, I was able to listen to the choir practising for the evening service, which simply added to the feeling of being in a working place of worship rather than a tourist trap.

The original spire supports

Despite it not being a tourist trap, I paid for the tour of the spire, and took a precarious and occasionally disturbing climb up to the top of the original tower, to look at the archaic machinery of the spire. The spire is the tallest in England, and was built about 800 years ago, so it is something of an architectural miracle for its time. Although it was strengthened and repair work was done by Christopher Wren, much of the internal structure remains the same as when it was built, even using the same wooden supports and the same material in the arches, which is a little disturbing when you’re standing 70 m above the ground being told that the whole thing is being held together by the work of some engineers 800 years ago. It’s also very impressive to think about the risks they took and the effort they expended to venerate their god. A god, it should be remembered, that is quite new in the world, and which supplanted much older gods whose own holy sites are scattered around the town where Salisbury Cathedral was built.

Approaching Avebury

Avebury

After Salisbury Cathedral I visited the first of these old holy sites, Avebury. This is a massive circle of stones that forms part of a religious complex about an hour north of Salisbury. The stone circle runs around a whole small village, and within that larger circle is a smaller circle. Along the road to Avebury serried ranks of stones point the way to the circle itself, forming a kind of avenue leading up to the town. All around the town are old burial mounds, one of which is open for visitors to enter, and at a little remove from the town is Silbury Hill, a 32m tall artificial hill built out of chalk by the neolithic fanatics who lived around here. The whole area has the feeling of a religious complex, like a Mecca or Rome for ancient pagan ideas. In the museum at the centre of the stones we learn all about what we know about these religious beliefs in the Old Gods – which is nothing. No one knows anything about why they were built or even, to a great extent, how, and the entire enterprise of archaeology is one of speculation and wonder. It is certainly easy to wonder at these stones – by modern standards dumping a big stone in a paddock is hardly an effort, but standing silent and inscrutable in their crumbling glory, ordered according to some religious codex that defies comprehension, they hold a sense of splendour and awe. It’s easy to imagine that there is something about this land that we don’t know, something these stones could tell us if we only knew how to ask. But we don’t, so they stand there grimly defying both our science and our philosophy, warning us that our own human heritage is a mystery to us.

Stonehenge in the summer

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is the apotheosis of these religious wonderings, of course, but when I was a child it was a pretty naff place, just a bunch of hard-to-reach stones that were kind of disappointing when you got up close, and you weren’t even allowed to touch them. Later, when I lived in Britain in 2008 I visited again, but this time there was a car park and a weird stupid tunnel that led you “back in time” to the stones, and they didn’t really impress at all. But now they are much better presented, and I was able to approach them by walking parallel to the old neolithic way, seeing them first on the horizon and then closer and closer as I marched up the hill. I had a map of the layout of the neolithic monuments that surround the stones, including the Avenue, which may have been part of some ancient ceremonial arrangement. By the time I reached the stones themselves they had taken on their full height and splendour, and even the hordes of visitors could not detract from the sense of being in the presence of something mystical and special. They’re huge, they’re impressive, they are a complete mystery to us, and they stand there slowly crumbling on a time scale humans cannot comprehend, reminding us that once we were so incredibly wild and primitive that we held strange worship of strange constellations on windswept hilltops. Under perfect summer weather it was possible to imagine myself back in time, looking at these stones as a visitor to a religious ritual, and to imagine that in their own way they were as awe inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral would have been to its congregants 5000 years later. The people changed immeasurably over that time, but their passion for worshipful displays of piety obviously did not.

Imagining ancient worlds

Spending two days wandering through all these stones and ancient sites inevitably focused my mind on role-playing worlds, and I began imagining the neolithic world as an adventure setting, perhaps using the Mutant system or some free-flowing variant of WFRP3. This would be a great world for adventuring, a small and narrow world to explore intimately, rich with forests and stocked with natural hazards, where any stranger is a threat and people as far away as what is now the next county would be considered threatening strangers. A landscape dotted with strange and powerful monuments to dark and ancient gods, where magic is in the hands of priests and witches who serve the spirits of the earth and the stars, and perhaps have no allegiance to humankind at all. Or perhaps the worship of these spirits really was connected to the cycles of the earth, and the priests of that ancient time, had they wished to, could have enacted some foul rite at Stonehenge and turned the world on its axis. In that world the best weapons would be clubs and stone arrows, and with such paltry gear to enhance themselves all adventurers would be stripped down to just raw talent and their urge to survive.

When I returned to Japan I prepared and ran a one-shot set in this world, which I will report soon. I think it’s an excellent world for adventuring, as well as for tourism, and if you do visit these ancient sites I think you, too, may find yourself inspired to imagine yourself as an adventurer or a priest in an ancient, mysterious world where nobody knows anything, and nothing is what it seems.

A few tips on travel

If you are going to go through a couple of these sites, I recommend buying a visitor’s pass at the first one – I think mine was about 33 pounds, which will almost cover the cost of the museum at Avebury, entrance to Old Sarum and Stonehenge, but more importantly gives you priority access at Stonehenge so you don’t need to book a tour time. I visited Stonehenge by car, although I assume there are buses from Salisbury and other nearby towns, but it’s worth noting that you don’t go straight to the site – you park perhaps 3 km away and then either walk or catch a bus to the site. The bus will drop you off halfway if you ask, and then you can walk over the fields to the stones themselves, which is what I did and which I think is better.

If you go to Avebury, plan to make a decent day of it. You can walk from the stone circle to nearby Silbury Hill in about 30 minutes, and then from Silbury Hill to a burial mound (I forget the name) that you can enter – when I visited there were two drunk hippies in the entrance who had put candles in every room and were singing plaintive songs, which quite suited the mood, but YMMV. It’s a bit of a walk from Avebury to here and it is possible to get lost – the road goes through some pretty tangled and run down areas that may leave you thinking you’re going the wrong way – so if the weather is bad you may want to drive somewhere nearby (but I don’t know where the parking is). Also there’s no point in thinking an umbrella will be any use – the wind is intense. So just don’t bother bring one, get wet or wear sensible clothes. I would not recommend visiting in winter!

If you visit Salisbury Cathedral I strongly recommend timing your visit to start or end with a service, but be aware that you can’t tour the cathedral during the Sunday morning service, so you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a visit to the magna carta and a circuit of the cloisters. I strongly recommend the tower climb but you should be aware that there are parts where the climbing is a little bit disturbing and their strategy for getting you out if you have an agoraphobic freak out is really disturbing, so if you have a strong fear of heights it’s not a good idea to go. If you’re unsure, check some pictures online of what you might expect to see. I am not good with heights, and this climb had me a little bit shakey at times. But if you are confident you aren’t too bad with heights, do it – it’s great. A good strategy for a Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral would thus be: visit for the beginning of the service to hear the choir; then get a coffee; then visit the magna carta room; then tour the cathedral a bit; get lunch; climb the tower; finish touring the Cathedral; take a break; listen to the choir practicing; stay for the evening service or bail. The lunch at the refectory is surprisingly pleasant given the circumstances, and it’s a nice environment, and on Sunday they do a solid British Roast, so you can make a good day of it.

Also be aware that English Heritage and the National Trust are different, and most of the ancient sites are managed by English Heritage, so if you want a membership to enable you to get into all these sites for free then that’s who you should join – National Trust mostly just manage those boring old country houses.

With that advice I hope you are prepared for a couple of days enjoying the Old Gods and the New!

Red sky at night … nostalgia’s delight

I have long held a special fondness for China, for two reasons. The first is that it has overcome enormous obstacles to get where it is today. The last two hundred years of Chinese history are a catalogue of horrors sufficient to sink any nation: From the depradations of the Emperors in the 19th century, to the Taiping rebellion, then British meddling and the opium wars, then the civil war, the destruction of the Japanese invasion, then the cultural revolution and the great leap forward – China has had barely any time to come to terms with itself in the last 200 years, and it is only in the last 30 years that China has been free of major conflict, famine or disaster and able to focus on development and peace. Against that backdrop, China really is the Little Country that Could, and despite the various repressions and problems of the recent communist era, lifting half a billion people out of poverty in just 20 years is a huge achievement for any country, let alone a country emerging from the ravages of 150 years of war and chaos. As someone who works in public health, China’s achievements in this field are something that any country should be proud of, and for this reason I have a soft spot for the country.

The other reason I look fondly on China is that it was the first developing country I visited for an extended period of time, and my first real holiday destination as an adult. In 2002 I spent a month traveling in China with my friend Sergeant M, starting in Beijing and traipsing through Xi’An, Xiahe, Langmuir, Songpan, Chengdu, Yangshuo and Guangzhou before finishing in Hong Kong. I studied a little mandarin before I traveled and went on a small group trek with a company called Intrepid Travel, and it was an amazing trip. Back then China was definitely still a developing country, and I visited places that still had not achieved adequate sanitation or regular electricity supplies, and I met people whose life experience was a world away from mine. It was eye opening for many reasons, and I still carry many powerful memories of that trip. It also was my first real opportunity to see that the way the west reports on East Asia is extremely shallow and superficial, and that almost everything we think we know about “distant” countries (like China, Japan, Iran) from the outside is wrong or distorted. I don’t believe that traveling makes anyone a better person and I’m not a big fan of travel – I usually only travel for work and don’t make a big effort to go on holidays – but this was a really important and I guess life changing trip for me, so for that reason I view China very fondly indeed, and I am always supporting the efforts of the Chinese people (as opposed to their government) to make their situation better, against occasionally incredible odds.

So it was with some pleasure that I had the chance last week to visit Guangzhou for work, to spend five days in a city that 15 years ago I just passed through on my way to Hong Kong, and to see how much China has changed over the past 15 years. This blog post describes some of the ways in which China has changed in the past 15 years while I was away, and also some of the many ways in which it has not.

Everyone obeys the traffic rules: Driving in China 15 years ago was a terrifying prospect, involving bouncing along decrepit roads in a barely-functioning rattling vehicle with no seatbelts or suspension, driven by a barely sane man who had a reckless disregard for lanes, speed limits or common sense, in a world where everybody shared his signature traits. The car horn was used as a means of communication – most commonly, warning – and things like lanes, traffic lights and traffic police were treated primarily as loose guidelines rather than strict rules. I spent 8 hours hurtling down a two lane road in Sichuan on the edge of a cliff, first watching in horror as our driver overtook slower cars exclusively on blind curves or hill crests, and then finally not watching at all – but looking out of the side window was not an option either, since every couple of hundred yards we would pass a section of barrier that had been torn away, and stare down into the looming abyss as our driver took another screaming turn, horn blaring, playing chicken with a massively overloaded truck. This time I hopped into a taxi at Guangzhou airport to find the familiar lack of seatbelts, but was shocked to find that my driver strictly obeyed the speed limits, drove within lanes, followed rules, and did not use his horn even once. Indeed, even when we hit the traffic crush of the city itself almost no one was blaring their horn, and the main time I saw someone use their horn was to admonish someone else for not following the road rules. I even realized that if you sit in the front seat of the taxi you get to wear a seatbelt. This is a huge change, that made me feel safer on the roads and as a pedestrian even though the traffic in Guangzhou was much more aggressive now than 15 years ago.

No one needs pachinko here

Old men still play chess on the street: In the Hutongs of Beijing 15 years ago I saw groups of middle aged men everywhere, huddled over game boards on the side of the road, playing cards or Chinese chess while other men gathered to watch, yelling advice and opinion. If I spent time watching I would even see the players arguing with the spectators over the right move. I was taught Chinese chess by a cheerful man from Xinjiang on the sleeper train to Xi’An, and after that Sergeant M and I would break out our chess set on long journeys, only to have everyone else on the train gather round to move the pieces for us and advise us. This doesn’t seem to have changed at all, and you can still see groups of men doing this now, as in the group pictured above who were enjoying a Sunday afternoon in Shamian by the water front, arguing over cards.

The portable tea jar is still a thing: Only now the jar is a hipster design. Back in 2002 everyone was carrying a jar of tea, in which the leaves or flowers just floated loose at the bottom of the jar. Often this was literally just a jar, repurposed from some other use, or a battered glass bottle that might have once held alcohol or juice. Everyone still carries that jar, but now everyone’s jar is a well-made, fancy construction, with a design emblazoned on it and a specially-made carry strap or handle. Somethings never change, even though they stay the same.

Smoking is worse: Everyone (male) smokes, and I guess now no one is so poor that they can’t afford to. China needs tobacco control badly. But it does appear that China has introduced indoor smoking laws, or at least lots of restaurants and shops have decided that is the best thing to do, and so in that regard it’s doing at least as well as Japan. Also compared to Japan women still don’t smoke much at all, which means that the tobacco companies haven’t made progress on half the population, and now that tobacco control efforts are beginning to happen, they probably never will. It’s good to see that half the world’s population still remains relatively safe from Big Tobacco’s evil schemes.

China has digitized incredibly: 15 years ago when I entered a restaurant my only concern was “did I bring cash”? But now when I enter a restaurant I have to worry “did I only bring cash?” Not because the restaurant only accepts cards, but because the entire process – from viewing the menu to ordering to paying – happens on your phone. I went to a restaurant with my collaborator where this whole process happened by scanning a QR code with your phone. This brought up the menu, from which we placed our order, and then we paid using a bank account linked to my colleague’s WeChat account (which is like the Chinese social network equivalent of Facebook). This also happened with the cafe next to the university, with a food order from my hotel, and with paying for small things everywhere. Somehow China has become a country that hasn’t yet got clean drinking water, but has skipped credit cards straight to a cashless society. Imagine if every daily transaction was handled by a QR code and a bank account attached to Facebook – including the bottled water you had to buy because the tap water is not potable. Weird!

Everyone rides a bike but no one owns one: 15 years ago the roads in Beijing had separate multi-lane bike sections, and all of life happened on bicycles. This is still the case, but no one rides their own bike anymore. Instead there is a network of QR code-operated disposable bikes, such as Mobike, which are just dumped anywhere around the city and which you access with your phone. Scanning the QR code unlocks the bike, which you can ride anywhere you want. You dump it at the destination and scan again, and the money is deducted from your account. There is no pick-up or drop-off point, like in many European bike share schemes, and no rules at all about how to use it. The bikes are simply there, everywhere, waiting to be used. This means that if you go somewhere far from public transport you can just pick up a bike at the nearest station and ride to your destination – as everyone did at the university I was visiting, which is equidistant from three railway stations. (You can see an example of one of these bikes in the picture above). This is a brilliant scheme that is really useful in a big urban conglomerate like Guangzhou, and makes perfect sense. I doubt it will ever be properly implemented in Tokyo, because the digital payment system won’t be and Tokyo is (comparatively) really strict about bike parking. It’s great to see China finding a way to make such a simple and liberating invention as the bicycle even more useful and liberating, using another uniquely liberating device (the mobile phone).

The security state is more intrusive: 15 years ago my only encounter with the security state was the (super stern) guards at Tiananmen Square, and the almost comically inept security official in Tibet who tried to interfere with our guide. This time around they were much more visible, with guards standing around every railway station scanning your bag when you entered or left, and public security police even stationed near roadway toll booths and other basic public infrastructure. It’s my understanding that there has been a lot of spontaneous local uprising in the past 10 years, not directed at central government but at local corruption and poor local decisions, and I imagine that the security state is quite scared that these spontaneous local expressions of discontent might link up and become national, so I guess this might explain it – along perhaps with fear of (or cynical use of the fear of) terrorism from Xinjiang, where there is a bit of an insurrection going on. There is also a lot more internet interference than 15 years ago, though this is probably a function of the internet being more integral to ordinary life (15 years ago press censorship in China was omnipresent, and it would have been impossible for a foreigner in the country to get access to foreign news sources that had not been approved). Interestingly no newspapers were blocked to me – the Australian ABC, the Guardian, the Washington Post, even the Daily Mail were freely available without using a VPN. It’s telling that China’s Great Firewall is directed at social media networks, not news. What does that say about the relative importance of those two forms of media?

Collect the set!

Socialist values have diversified!: 15 years ago there were big signs on public buildings announcing socialist slogans like “Postal workers united to build a revolutionary China” and stuff like that. These were huge banners in red with the slogans written in Chinese and English, presumably intended to inculcate the proper spirit of socialist fervour in this (intensely free market oriented!) society. This hasn’t changed, but it appears that the set of core values has diversified to 12, which include democracy, freedom, justice and the rule of law (see the helpful guide above). Who knew! Strangely I couldn’t find anyone who had recently voted … I’m a little sketchy about the equality value, since it’s pretty obvious that inequality has grown over the past 15 years, but I can certainly believe prosperity and patriotism, and Chinese people remain as civil as they ever were. There are a lot of building sites in Guangzhou, and their outer walls are all covered in this propaganda. I have to say the font is pretty cool, and the propaganda is quite swish (further along the wall I photographed they have a detailed exposition of each value, with pictures – patriotism has a picture of a bunch of children doing kung fu, with (of course) a QR Code in case you need more information.

On this point it’s worth noting that British newspapers often talk about “British values”, the British government is planning to (or has?) included “British values” in its citizenship test (do potential citizens of Mao-Mao descent have to answer questions on the British value of “Colonialism”?) Australian politicians also ramble on about “Aussie values”, including the reprehensible focus of a past conservative government on “mateship”, so I guess it’s worth noting that identifying core values and blasting them into the minds of your citizens is not a uniquely Chinese trait. But I will contend that it comes in a better font.

Under stranger skies

The sky bleeds: And it is cool. I follow a woman called Marilyn Mugot on Instagram whose shtick is pictures of China’s vivid purple-red urban night skies, and in Guangzhou I really understood the fascination that led her to run that account. The sky really is red at night, I guess through the pollution and also the Chinese fondness for vivid red and yellow light. Guangzhou is constantly misty and rainy too, which I guess helps to give the evenings a real Bladerunner feeling. Fifteen years ago it didn’t feel like that all, partly because the cities I visited were not yet megalopolises, and partly because the air was cleaner. It’s a pretty striking phenomenon and I have never seen it in Tokyo. Bright lights and strange skies – that’s modern China.

Chinese service is still ditzy, chaotic and effective: In my experience of getting any service in China it happens, it happens reasonably quickly, but it doesn’t happen always in the way that you expected, and often during every stage of the process everyone is confused about what they’re doing, and happily expresses their confusion while they find a workaround or a new way to do what they should, one assumes, have been doing forever. It’s also very cheerful, if not always very friendly, which makes it an almost perfect contrast with Japanese service, which is often cold or not friendly but always formal, polite, efficient, and organized. This aspect of China doesn’t seem to have changed at all – and neither does the inordinately large number of people required to provide service anywhere. The cafe near the university had 10 seats and five staff, so at any time three staff were standing around doing nothing. In Europe that would be one person, in Japan two. In terms of social cohesion and engagement I can’t say I think the European or Japanese way is better, but I guess I should kick up a stink because my coffee cost 240 yen, and if they employed half as many people maybe it would only cost 200 yen? That’s surely worth sacking three humans, right? In any case, it seems like this is a social contract – companies hire extra people, and there’s no unemployment, and everyone’s happy. I guess … I’ll be interested to see whether the productivity gains implicit in reducing those staff loads happen in anything like the time frame in which China has digitized, since it seems like the excess staff thing hasn’t changed at all in 15 years, while in every other way China has changed radically. Interesting, that … but I hope in any case that the ditzy chaotic service style doesn’t change, because I like it.

So that is my China after 15 years. My work fate is now entangled with China’s, as I am involved in an ongoing project here and hope to become further involved in working on public health in this amazing, growing, booming and innovative country, and some of my best students have come from there and now returned there to pursue their own futures. So I’ll be continuing to cheer China as its people negotiate the complexities of development and growth under communism, in an increasingly uncertain world. I hope they can do as well in the next 15 years as they have in the last 15!

Little tiny worlds

Little tiny worlds

Last weekend I took a brief trip to Osaka to watch the 13th day of the Sumo. The following day I visited Saihoji, the Moss Temple, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Of course the Sumo was good, although there’s something wrong with Hakuho at the moment that is throwing an overpoweringly negative aura over the whole thing, but the standout experience of my weekend was moss viewing at the Moss Temple.

Moss viewing is exactly what it sounds like, the act of appreciating moss in its full furry glory. In Japanese the phrase for this is koke kansatsu, strictly speaking the “appreciation of moss”, and it is a little-known companion activity to the famous viewings of cherry blossoms (in late March/early April) and Autumn leaves (in November). Moss viewing has been developing a following recently, that can be witnessed quite well on instagram with the #苔 hashtag and is described in detail at this website. One very good place to do this is the Moss Temple, Saihoji (西芳寺), a Buddhist temple near Arashiyama in Kyoto that is within walking distance of Kamikatsura station (signs clearly mark the path to the temple), and which has extensive Japanese gardens devoted to the furry green stuff.

Precarious plantations

Precarious plantations

My friend in Osaka told me about the temple so we visited together. You can’t just turn up at this temple; you have to book in advance by sending a postcard to the temple requesting a time, and waiting for them to send you back a reply postcard that tells you when you can get in. It costs 3000 yen each to enter the temple, and once you get in you don’t get to go straight to the moss garden you’ve been waiting for. Instead, you have to attend a prayer, where you sit in front of a small desk along with about 50 other people in the temple’s inner sanctum. The monks provide you with a calligraphy brush, a wooden votive stick and an ink block. They then sing the haramita heart sutra, which they sing at high speed and great intensity. You can hear a slower rendition of this sutra here, though I stress it is slower than the version I heard. You then have to write a prayer on the votive stick and take it to the altar to make your wish. Apparently during weekdays you are expected to copy out the whole sutra on a piece of paper before you leave (from the video you can see this would be a pain). Unfortunately my hand-writing is terrible and I have no experience with the brush, so my prayer was a blurred monstrosity. However, I’m sure whoever or whatever I’m offering my prayer to can read my heart, right …?

There's unobtainium in them there hills!

There’s unobtainium in them there hills!

After the devotions are over you are free to wander the temple, which takes probably an hour if, like me, you stop to take a lot of pictures. The garden is a sprawling patch of moss around a couple of interconnected lakes, most of the garden roped off to protect the moss. From the edges of the path it’s easy to take a variety of close up pictures of different landscapes, and everything they say is true – the moss really is like its own tiny world, with a diverse range of landscapes and structures in the micro world of its curlicules and spores. If you get in close and zoom in it resembles forests, plains, hills, deserts – you can see all the structures of the earth recreated in miniature within its strange fractal shapes. It’s great! I went at probably the wrong season (the rainy season, in June, is apparently best), and on a bright day which is  not the best day for moss-viewing, but I still saw a wide range of colours, patterns and strange wildernesses on the verge of the path.

The Saihoji temple is a great place for viewing moss. It’s only an hour from Osaka and the complex booking system means that there aren’t many people there, so you aren’t always jostling to see things as is often the case when you visit anywhere near Tokyo. The heart sutra is a really interesting experience and is sung with heartfelt power by the monks, and provides a powerful backdrop to the full enjoyment of the peace and tranquility of a mossy Japanese garden. Then, there is moss. Which is great. I strongly recommend this travel experience in Kyoto, although I think it may be impossible for people without a connection in Japan who can send the postcard. If you can arrange it though, I strongly recommend trying to get to this temple – and I recommend moss viewing anywhere, if you have a magnifying glass or a good camera, and a willingness to look really, really nerdy … Which, if you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you do!

 

Date: 2nd November 2166

Weather: Sunny! I got laughed at for carrying an umbrella by all the old ladies in the square …

Outfit: Yoga pants and a jacket. I thought Venice was meant to be the centre of fashion so packed all my shortest skirts and my coolest tights, and I had such a selection of fake haut cauture blouses and one pieces, but then I discovered that not only is Venice entirely stairs and men looking up your miniskirt but every girl here is wearing just yoga pants and a jacket and I felt so out of place except for the old ladies going to church who are so stylish but who does that so I had to run out and buy a set of yoga pants and a jacket (because I couldn’t wear the jacket I took to Rome since it’s covered in blood and that was such a nice jacket but Dirty Rum says he’ll replace it, I get expenses for this mission!). So now I’m walking around Venice wearing these super thin yoga pants and I can see every other girls panties through the fading patches on her bum and I’m super paranoid everyone can see mine but if I wear anything better I feel like everyone’s looking at me which you don’t want just after you have killed a major religious figure and left him in the bath with his big old man’s stiff prong getting stiffer before the polizia find him. Better to be incognito but I don’t feel incognito running around this ancient, crumbling crowded city in what is basically underwear, but no one notices me now because that’s what everyone else is wearing. Maybe I should download a yoga chipset to match this dodgy culture chipset that keeps making me go into boring museums!

Mood: Betrayed! Not because of the job, which went perfectly although the old man begged at the end and I felt like I was killing my grandpa, but then I saw the videos on his phone and realized that his night of lechery wasn’t ever intended to end in a big fat payout which I probably should raise with Dirty Rum but I guess since I was only in the bathtub so I could kill the old man there’s no use getting overly anxious about the fact that he was only in the bathtub so he could kill me. How does a crusty old dude like that kill a young woman anyway? I guess I learnt the reason when I toured the art galleries which is also why I’m feeling so betrayed! Because Dirty Rum said to me “you’re going to Rome to kill a man, and after that you should take a couple of days’ holiday. Go to Venice, soak in some culture,” so I thought when he said “soak in some culture” he meant to download a chipset on the renaissance, which I did, but why would I go to Venice just to download a chipset? That’s what the husk is for, I could have walked all of Venice’s crowded, crumbling streets right here in my bedroom! But Dirty Rum and I really needed this job so I went, and I downloaded the chipset from a cheap roadside vendor by the Fondamente, and at first it was fine but then it kept making me want to go to museums I didn’t want to go to even after I’d been in one and realized how much I hate this “art” these Venetians are peddling but it kept pushing me to go to more which is when I realized someone had bugged my chipset to make me spend money on museums I don’t like, and squished it under my (not high!) heel. So now here I am sitting by the canal with a crodino, thinking it’s probably good that Italy fell apart, because this whole place is just living in the past, and feeling betrayed by that chip-seller at the Fondamente. I would go back and drown him, but it’s bad enough wearing dry yoga pants – wet yoga pants would be just the worst!!! There’s some old Italian prince-dude called Machiavelli who probably has something good to say on this now, but since I ripped out that chipset I can’t remember any of the details of this place. I don’t speak any Italian or English either, and the only New Mandarin speakers are leading tours by that god-awful church by the lake, so I guess I’ll be staying right here by the canal until I go home.

I went to Rome to kill a man. Some old dude who runs a cult, an old cult that’s been around since humans were riding around on horses and dying of smallpox and blaming it all on some old dude in the sky. Rome used to be in this place called Italy but the old dude lives in a kind of summer house to Rome that has these really big walls. Anyway after Italy got carved up by the corporations and broken up into different little bits, this old dude was raising hell about it and saying it should all be put back together, and his little cult have some kind of influence all around the world, kind of like Nestle but through preaching instead of baby powder, and nobody really cared but then this little sect of his cult, called Optical Day or something, decided to get all terrorist and start blowing corporate assets up (why would a contact lens company blow up another company? Contact lenses are like a contract to print money, you don’t need to start any corporate wars if you’re a contact lens company! But Italians seem to be a hot headed bunch, must be all the typhoons in the mediterranean that drive them crazy). So finally the corporations decided to kill this old dude but he drives around in like a bullet-proof, rocket-proof AV and has his own personal guard of bad-arsed swiss dudes, and he lives behind these big walls all the time, and they couldn’t afford to nuke him (cheap!) so they needed to find another way in. And it turns out – shock! – that this old dude has a thing for young girls, but he likes variety, and he’s never had an inuit, and so here is Dirty Rum trafficking me into those high walls to some special place in there with a big bath and a very fancy day room and wall-to-wall porn of like the scariest kind, and my job is simple: kill this old dude in the bath and then shoot my way out.

So I did that, and on my way out I happened to kick his phone where it was plugged into one of his porno screens – I slipped, there was a lot of blood – and it somehow flicked to a new channel and that’s when I spent half an hour watching videos of the previous girls he’d had in the bath, and it wasn’t pretty and I suddenly had this big urge to send Dirty Rum a message saying “this job’s on me” but then I remembered that I’m not stupid, so I used the old dude’s dead finger to bypass his security, and mailed the whole lot to a couple of TV stations. Then I left, and went to Venice.

I only went to Venice because Dirty Rum said I should soak up some culture. I’ve never really been on a holiday before unless you count an afternoon of girls talk in Mister Donut, and I don’t really get why people go all the way to another country to pry into its dirty past. I mean, every culture is built on a bunch of horrible things and bad old ideas, and it always seemed to me like a lot of unnecessary effort to go halfway across the world to go prying into someone else’s bad secrets, like a kind of cultural voyeurism. Not that that’s the reason I never went to Disneyland – I just can’t afford it. Also Disneyland got nuked, so probably isn’t the best place to visit and who wants to go to America anyway? I’ll never meet an American I trust, I’m sure! But Dirty Rum said this one was on him, and have you ever seen Venice in the Autumn? So I took a train from Rome to Venice, and Dirty Rum arranged a nice hotel for me that rises above these narrow cobbled streets like an angel of steel and glass, and I can look over the whole thing, its pools of pale light and deep canyons of shadow, and think – I killed your stupid cult leader. You owe me.

Of course the bells are ringing a lot now he’s dead, and the TV stations are kind of frantic with all this talk about his paedophilia and his necrophilia, but me, I’m taking in the airs. Strolling the canals in my yoga pants, listening to my chipset tell me about how such-and-such a rich dude from the same cult built this building, and so-and-so rich dude from the same cult built that building, and oh by the way did you know that this piece of crumbling mosaic was dedicated to some poor sappy guy who was killed by enemies of the cult? This whole town is built on this stuff.

So I was kind of interested to find out a bit more about this cult, so I went to the big church in the square by the lake, where they have this tour that you can see the old church that is still running, and it’s meant to be impressive but really it’s only impressive because a bunch of people from 500 years ago could make a small house and put some badly shaped gold crust on the ceiling. You walk around and think it’s kind of pokey and what would these people have thought if they’d been taken to a Fay Ling Moon concert 500 years ago, they’d probably have died. It was kind of nice when I stood near the edge of this group of people who were praying, they sang a little song of devotion in pure and beautiful voices, the candle light wavering on their yoga pants and jackets and the voice of the crusty old dude ringing clear and faithful through the church. But then I turned away to walk out and there was this series of three little weird curtained booths with names over them that my chipset told me were confessional booths, where you can go in and hide your face while you tell the old man whose name is over the booth about bad things you did or even thought and he collects your stories so that he can go home later and imagine you without your yoga pants on doing those bad things that really aren’t bad at all, and I thought that old man leading the prayer was actually a kind of sleazy old man wasn’t he, just like his boss. And I looked at those booths and the curtain hanging limp there waiting for a person to sit inside it feeling bad for being natural and I thought it’s kind of like the biohazard suits we had to wear in the Indo zone, only to keep the hazard in, not out. And suddenly I felt kind of tired and sad looking around at the weary old gold-crusted ceiling, thinking about all the thousands of women who’ve trooped through here, entering those little booths of biohazard shame feeling like what happened in their yoga pants was okay, and leaving ashamed of themselves because some slimy old man told them so. And then I walked out kind of fast because I was getting angry and I didn’t want to do anything stupid to blow my cover.

… and then I got this desire to go to the old art gallery, which is called the Academy or something but the locals have got surprisingly bad English so they mis-spelled it and it took me ages to find it in my dictionary (why did I download a culture chipset instead of a language one?! I think I should upgrade my neuralware next time I’m in Russia, it’s cheap there and reliable). It cost a small fortune for an Inuit girl to get into the Academy, but I kept a receipt because Dirty Rum is paying for all this, and so in I wandered to look at all the art, and the chipset was full of all this knowledge about how great it all was, but as the rooms passed me by I started to get this really bad feeling about it all, like … these people really have built their entire artistic heritage on a pretty rough foundation, haven’t they? And I trust Dirty Rum but I’m starting to give him a good bit of side-eye now because I’m wondering why he thinks it’s culture to be painting a bunch of poorly-rendered pictures about some chick who had a baby without having sex which is like impossible, and a dude whose dad killed him just so he could be famous, and everywhere these really nasty, scary-looking babies that sometimes have wings and sometimes look really skeezy. And every time that virgin mother is in the picture there’s a bunch of super old dudes staring at her in this really dirty way and it’s like for 400 years the artists of this entire country couldn’t work out how to paint a finger or an arm or let alone a baby but they were like pre-eminent masters at getting that sleazy look so perfectly captured that it beamed on down through the ages to where a young girl looking at it today is like “that is the universal embodiment of sleaze!” What a lucky virgin mother this Mary chick was … It’s really weird too how the only reason she’s special is that she had a baby whose dad killed it just to get onto some ancient talent show, but then everyone thinks that she couldn’t be special at all if she had actually done some sweaty tussling with a man to get that baby going – that’s some real dirty double standards shining through right there and you can see that double standard in every roughly drawn picture of her carrying her stupid baby that’s gonna die, looking so stupid and innocent while a bunch of old men are leering at her thinking they want her but they’re dirty for thinking they want her.

Which I think is why that old dude I killed had to kill the girls after he’d diddle them, because he hated himself for doing what everyone knows is really just natural, though kind of gross, and his stupid religion tells him he’s bad for doing all the things that his body needs to do, and somehow on this peninsula that bad way of thinking got to be a thing, until the guy who represented that thing was so special that he could fly a bullet-proof AV and get to strangle any Inuit girl he wants, because he feels bad about wanting to be inside her.

Of course all these crazy ideas came up before people invented guns and contraception and cyberware, and now the world is different and any girl with a dentata and a pair of rippers can do away with some sleazy old strangler who wants what he doesn’t deserve. And now the whole cult is in tumult, I guess, because girls can run around in yoga pants killing their idols or other people’s idols, or having sex with them if they want though why you’d want to has always been a mystery to me, and doing the things that girls naturally want to do like chatting with their friends freely in public and shooting people for money. And those old pictures now they’re just relics of a time when nobody knew any better and girls like me couldn’t be free to do what we wanted, but there’s still people in the world who think the bad things that we were are important to the good things we’ve become instead of something we should be ashamed of, and I was sitting there on one of the benches while all the pretentious arty fashion types were walking past me talking about colour and light (probably – they weren’t talking Mandarin or Inuit so who knows if they were but they seemed to be!) and thinking, no, this is just dross, it’s old paper with bad scrawlings on it, let’s take some photos sure so that the people who like history can study it but maybe we should just burn this stuff down now? Because this building would make a great shooting range, if we cleared a few walls away. Or a dance club!

What we could be

What we could be

And then I left. But that chipset still had me thinking I needed to go to another weird old museum of skeezy dudes, and it led me across this bridge and then there was this museum of modern design that I managed to get into even though the chipset was really making me feel uncomfortable about it. And the museum had a special display about glass sculptures which was mostly terrible but I found this little side door that led into a dark room that had these two pieces of glass hanging in air like shreds of angels, and they were pieces of glass moulded in the shape of the lower torso and legs of people. They glowed there in the air, suspended in silence and darkness and carrying their own luminous flesh so powerfully that I could feel my own cyberskin moved and moving to the same colour. And I just assumed they were male torsos because all the art I had seen was about men but then I saw the little secret slits and the smooth beauty of their parts and I realized that these were some kind of floating embodiment of femininity, and I stood there entranced and my thoughts briefly washed away from me except the chipset was nagging me to go, go, go and watch some real art about men and their needs so I ripped it out right then and crushed it on the floor and just stood there thinking yes, we are in a better place, this world we’re in now where girls can hang luminous in the darkness, their skin flawless and glowing and their power complete, just like mine was when I strangled that nasty little man in the bath, one hand around his neck as his eyes bulged and my rippers sliding in and out of his sagging, filthy belly, the blood mingling with the bubbles in the bath and the spilled champagne, his gasps like a kind of choir singing hosannas to the perfection of modern womanhood in gurgling, ragged sighs.

And I didn’t go to any more museums. I’m going to enjoy the sun by the canals and watch the tourists wander by, until my flight lifts me out of this crumbling kingdom of old ruins and ruined old men, and takes me back east, where the future is.

Welcome to Turkey, Land of the Imperial Cat

Welcome to Turkey, Land of the Imperial Cat

I’ve been in Istanbul for three days, and aside from getting tear-gassed on my first night in town it’s been a nice experience. The city is frustrating, however, and I’ve experienced a cavalcade of disasters (mostly of my own making), so as a balm for my frustrations here are three cute Turkish things I found while I was here.

  1. In the Grand Bazaar, a gallipoli-themed chess set. One side is the forces of the Ottoman empire, the other the invading allies – and the pawns are ANZAC diggers, unmistakable in their slouch hats. This is maybe just one of many examples in which Turks and Australians share a common political sense
  2. Nescafe! In a quite sophisticated restaurant today, two Germans came in and ordered coffee, and were asked “espresso or nescafe”? Many restaurants and cafes have nescafe on their menu, not necessarily for less than the espresso. I also noticed this in Greece, where it was even more pronounced – cafes would put up signs saying “We have NESCAFE!!” Why? What are these people thinking? Especially in Istanbul – the Starbucks below my hotel[1] tells me that Istanbul’s first coffee shop was established in the 17th century, and Wikipedia tells me that the Turkish word for breakfast means “before coffee”[3] – how can such a culture voluntarily serve Nescafe?!? This is like going to France and finding every bakery advertises croissants “made with pure margarine.” The only explanation I can think of that is not embarrassing for Turkish culture is that it represents the pernicious effect of British tourists on local cuisine.
  3. Mussels with lemon! All down the main street from Taksim square you can find men selling mussels from the shell, with lemon. These seem to be raw, though I can’t tell (the shell is closed so I guess they’re raw), and they’re on sale late at night. This means that when people come piling out of the local pubs and bars they suck down a few raw mussels with lemon. Which is particularly strange because Turkey is, obviously, the land of the kebab. While in the UK or Australia the kebab is the late-night drinker’s food of choice, here in Turkey kebabs are food and the late night drinker has a penchant for mussels with lemon. Truly, some cultural differences cannot be understood, and must simply be accepted.

Overall I’ve enjoyed my stay here and I can recommend Istanbul as a holiday destination. I also recommend coming for more than two days, get one of the museum passes (you can skip queues and save money if you push your museum visits within a 72 hour period), and don’t stay in Taksim – unless you want to get tear-gassed on your way out the door. Also, familiarize yourself with the transport network, it’s good, and if you like metal I recommend a visit to the metal bar in Taksim (can’t give the name or location, but it’s great and really friendly). I prefer Athens (Athens was great!) and the two seem to have a lot in common, generally, but others would no doubt disagree with me, but one thing is for certain: Turkey’s historic sites are more accessible and more impressive. And do visit the Blue Mosque, it’s awesome!

fn1: Starbucks in Istanbul is really good, incidentally. But it doesn’t serve baklava[2]

fn2: which is fine: I’m going to make myself unpopular here and state that Turkish baklava is no better than that you can find in London or Sydney; and furthermore, German beer is boring and over-rated.

fn3: what did they call breakfast before they invented coffee?

The Grounds and the Kaiji School

The Grounds and the Kaichi School

Yesterday I visited Matsumoto with my friend from London, Dr. M. We were unburdened by annoying Germans, and able to enjoy the full glories of this small town nestled in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto’s castle is a national treasure, as well as a deathtrap for elderly people, and like most castles in Japan more fun to view from the outside than from within. It gave some interesting insights into feudal life, including a wide selection of firearms and examples of the tribulations of daily life in Sengoku Japan. That was all fun, but Matsumoto’s real hidden gem is the Kaichi School, a museum about education in Japan that is located in the building of the old Kaichi Elementary school, next to the new Kaichi school. It seems strange to say that a museum about education and education policy can be fun (can you imagine anything more boring?) but it actually really was. I think for those of us who set our gaming worlds in the not-so-distant past, this kind of information is invaluable for creating a rich and believable fantasy setting, so I thought I’d describe a little of what I saw here. Plus, of course, we all went to school, so we can compare our own experiences with those of the children of two very different countries: the past, in Japan.

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Kaichi school is important in Japanese education policy because it was a leader in education policy at the time it was built, and it was one of the first schools built after the Meiji restoration. The Kaichi school was active in the Freedom and People’s Rights movement, and so important to that movement that the Emperor Meiji himself visited Matsumoto to try and calm the demands of that movement. He stayed in the school, which has a room dedicated to his memory. As a result of its role in education reform, the modern school museum is a repository of historical material on education reform in Japan. The school building is itself a very beautiful whitewashed building in a European style, with many Japanese touches – such as the dragons over the entrance and carved into doors in the interior. The old classrooms have been turned into exhibits, depicting education in Japan from the era of the samurai to the modern day.

A samurai child's schoolbook

A samurai child’s schoolbook

I was surprised to discover that education before the Meiji era was actually already quite universal, though not particularly good quality or equitable. Most education was carried out by temples, until the law in 1880 which made education mandatory for all children. Before then different children received different levels of education, with samurai receiving the most impressive while farmers simply learnt to count and write basic information. By 1880 about 90% of the population was in some kind of education and literacy rates were 45% for men and 15% for women. The museum had examples of the schoolbooks of the pre-Meiji era, and some woodcuts depicting children being educated; it also had photos from the late Meiji era, showing for example girls from poor families who were paid to work as baby-sitters, studying with their charges slung on their backs because their master was required to pay for their education. They learnt to write things like “Thank you master, it is due to your kindness that I am able to learn to read.” The museum had lots of photos of the school over time, and also woodcuts depicting education before that era. It also had a selection of documents from the opening of the school, showing what gifts were given. When the school was opened, they held a Shinto ceremony to sanctify it, and the local farmers and citizens donated rice, sake and fish (Bream) as gifts to the shrine and the school. The school opened in 1876 and universal education was mandated in 1880, so until then parents paid the teachers gifts of rice, fish and other farm products. Looking at these exhibits, one is reminded of how incredibly poor Japanese society was before 1873, and how incredibly rapidly it developed after the restoration.

Destroy!

Destroy!

Of course, Japan’s development in the modern era is bracketed by two extreme events, the Meiji restoration in 1873 and the Pacific War from 1931-1945. The museum spends a lot of time on the Meiji reforms but doesn’t shy away from the role of education in promoting and supporting war in the Pacific War. It has a room devoted to the Pacific war, in which it shows the activities of the school and its students during the war. The picture above is an example of what students learnt during that time. On the right of the lower picture are two caricatures of American and English soldiers (the American is smoking, and the Englishman looks suave); on the left of the (female?) soldier with the naginata the two kanji say gekimetsu, destruction. In the picture above this, a sad-looking man salutes under the caption “Young men going to the sky” (Japanese depictions of the war in the air often use this romantic language of the sky, rather than more technical language about “air war” or “aerial”, I don’t know why – maybe there’s a clue in the new Ghibli movie).
DCIM0087

The second to last room of the exhibition is a room full of different textbooks over time. This includes textboooks from the war and the immediate post-war period; the picture above shows a textbook from the war era, while the picture below shows a textbook from immediately after the war that has been censored to within an inch of its life. The textbook is open to a page that says the following:

Mr Soldier, please look at the words and pictures I draw

Please also show them to the children of Korea

When you capture new lands, please wave the flag of Japan and yell “banzai.”

Mr Soldier, please work hard and happily.

We visit the shrine to pray for you on the first day of every month

I guess the Japanese were too poor and there was too much policy chaos after the war to write new textbooks, but they couldn’t exactly deploy the war-era textbooks untouched, since they would have been full of the worst imperialist and racist tripe, and the kind of disturbing language used in the textbook above. But I can’t help thinking that this kind of heavy-handed censorship would merely encourage children of that era to investigate the “truth” about the war. (Which they would have to do – the Japanese explanation below indicates that in some cases 30% of the text book was censored!)

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

Of course life after the war changed a lot, and the next set of textbooks shows this: they are luminous, beautifully-written affairs. As far as I can tell the same age of children would be expected to read the textbook shown in the picture above and in the picture below. The text on the picture above is all about asking soldiers of Japan to struggle in war – it is supplicative and futile. The text in the rightmost book below simply states that “the sky glowed, the sea glowed, the roofs glowed” – it describes a pastoral idyll. Which is it better for children to learn?

A sudden change for the better ...

A sudden change for the better …

These installations really show how text books can vary rapidly across time, and how closely education policy supports and reflects national policy at any time. I guess if the education system had been allowed to continue in its chaotic private form after 1880, it would have been a lot harder for the government to exert a common propaganda line – though the counterfactual would likely have been little better, since by 1940 all arms of society had been sucked into the war economy and it is unlikely that the private educators would have been able to escape this trend to the glorification of war (not to mention that the state was basically seized by the army, who probably would not have tolerated freedom in educational curricula after 1931). I guess one of the downsides of a standardized curriculum that enables a country to go from post-feudal rural basket case to world power in 50 years is that it is vulnerable to misuse as a propaganda tool…

After its “textbooks through the ages” exhibition, the single biggest room in the school was devoted to a “desks through the ages” installation, shown in the picture below. The desk furthest at the right is from before the Meiji era and is called a 天神机, heavenly desk. It doesn’t look heavenly. Some of these desks were quite ornately made, though they looked rather uncomfortable. I think most nerdy types have spent a lot of our childhood crouched over a desk learning what makes the world tick – it’s interesting to see how people in a completely different time and place were doing it. Mostly worse, by the looks of things.

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

This picture also gives a sense of how beautiful the inside of this school is. I really recommend this little museum for a visit if you are in Matsumoto. The castle is also interesting, and the town as a whole is a pretty little place full of old buildings – it is apparently one of the few cities in Japan that has maintained its old buildings, and so riding around in it is a really pleasant experience. For foreigners visiting Japan it is an excellent side trip. It is 2.5 hours from Shinjuku, it is close to skiing, monkey onsens and highland walks, the town itself is pretty and it has an excellent website. There are many old warehouses in the town that have been converted into shops or restaurants, and it is very easy to get around. If you are looking for somewhere to stay I recommend the Dormy Inn – the staff are excellent, the breakfast delicious, and the onsen relaxing. If you go, try to spend at least two nights here so you can explore the surrounding countryside, the castle and at least one of the museums or galleries. And head to the 女鳥川 (a river whose English translation I don’t know) because there is a cute set of streets lining it that have really old buildings and interesting restaurants, overlooking the river. It’s a really nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city, nestled equidistant between Tokyo and Osaka, with a lot of cultural information to keep you interested. And if you go there, visit the school!

[Updated late at night on 26th September to correct the spelling of Kaichi school (how dumb am I?) and to include the translation of a textbook page, which I checked with a friend].

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