Wednesday, 21 December 2011

CA 911

The plane is crossing the Sayan mountains, near Achinsk, approaching Novosibirsk, not too far from Barnaul, Kansk and Ust Kamenogorsk. Geographical names as empty signifiers. I know that the names refer to real places, with real houses, where real people are born and work and love and suffer and die, but I find it hard to imagine what the places look like. Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia: vast terra incognita, whose exotic names have long ago come to represent the liminal space between my beloved Japan, and whatever European country I call home. But the physical realities behind the names remain a mystery.

The sky is turning bright orange. It will be dark before I have finished writing the next paragraph. As my reading light is not working, I anxiously anticipate a long and dark evening, without the solace of a novel. I do not expect my laptop’s battery to last until our destination, and the amenities that make long-distance air travel bearable these days – so-called ‘in-flight entertainment systems’ – are sadly absent from this plane. So I enjoy the view as long as I can. The sky changes every minute: shades of lilac and violet are now absorbing the orange, but behind it is a long line of yellowish green, giving way to dark grey and, higher up, intense blue.

For some reason, I ended up on an Air China flight. Unfortunately, the airline company turns out to be inferior to most other companies I have flown with – as bad as Air France and Aeroflot, or even worse. I can survive without an entertainment system, but I would be grateful if the flight attendants were so kind as to smile, and use the simple phrases ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘here you are’. I would also appreciate edible food, in stead of the old, tasteless ‘chicken’ and non-descript jelly we were served for lunch. And I would appreciate a bathroom with a garbage bin that closes properly, so I could use the toilet without having to look at used sanitary napkins. Or, for that matter, a bathroom with a tap that could be turned off. I would have also appreciated a kind word of thanks from the flight attendants, when I notified them of the fact that the toilet was about to get flooded.

That said, it is a sad but undeniable fact that toilets are not among China’s greatest contributions to human civilisation, as previous experiences have taught me – so perhaps I should have been prepared, and not expected so much. But Japan has spoiled me. Its toilets are arguably the most comfortable in the world, not only because many of them are equipped with heated toilet seats, but also because they often have a great variety of options for rinsing, cleaning and drying those parts of the body that tend to get dirty during toilet activities. A proper, well-aimed, warm ‘shower’ is more efficient and pleasant than dry toilet paper, trust me. You can even adjust the water strength.

It is perhaps not very surprising that such fancy toilets have been developed in Japan, and not in China. While Japanese culture is strongly influenced by Chinese civilisation in many ways – ranging from language to religion, from architecture to political ideology – there are also some significant differences between the two countries. One of those is the importance attached to cleanliness and purity in Japanese culture. This interesting Japanese cultural preoccupation applies to physical cleanliness as much as ritual purity, which are two sides of the same coin.

For instance, bathing is a favourite Japanese pastime, and most people do it every day. Despite the fact that nearly everybody has a bath at home, public baths and hot springs are everywhere, for bathing can also be a social activity. As they spend a lot of time and money on grooming and washing, Japanese people are usually clean, and few smell, even on hot summer days – a nice cultural trait for such a densely populated country, one has to admit. As the outside world is considered dirty, it is important to regularly clean (we might use the word ‘purify’) oneself. Likewise, the prohibition on wearing shoes indoors is enforced universally. Wearing shoes at home is considered a mortal sin, and one of the few faux pas that even ignorant foreigners cannot get away with.

The same principles of cleanliness apply to practices of a more symbolic nature. For instance, before one enters a sacred place such as a Shinto shrine, one is supposed to wash one’s hands and rinse one’s mouth with water. In addition, in order to enter the worship wall (which is only allowed for certain rituals and on special occasions), one has to be ritually purified by a priest. He (or she) does so by chanting prayers and waving a special ritual purification wand over the participants’ heads. Approaching the deities in an impure state may insult them, make them angry and, ultimately, cause misfortune. While today taboos and prescriptions regarding pollution and purity are not taken as seriously by most ordinary people as they used to be in the past, these notions and practices remain an integral aspect of Japanese society and culture.

Sunset takes much longer than usual. The sky has turned a beautiful deep orange and indigo, but it still is not dark yet. I assume this is because we are flying westwards. But I also assume that we cannot escape the darkness forever. By the time we have reached our destination, it will be completely dark. But, fortunately, there will be little lights burning everywhere, telling me that Christmas is on its way. I will also see my first snow of the year. Most importantly, I will be reunited with my dear wife, after three long months of living and studying on opposite sides of the planet. The plane goes way too slowly.

The three months have been successful, though. I have managed to collect a great amount of relevant books and other useful materials. I have met a number of interesting people, and conducted interviews with priests, scholars, activists and leading ideologues. I have visited several shrines, temples and sacred forests. I have learned new things – not only about Shinto history and ideology, but also about forestry practices and spatial design. And I have experienced life in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, especially beautiful when wearing her colourful autumn dress. It was, in sum, a great period.

Although I greatly enjoyed spending the past three months in Japan, I am not very sad about leaving. Three months is not a very long period for fieldwork research, but it has worked out well, for it has forced me to focus and plan as well as I could. Hence, it was an intense period, and I have had little time to read, write or reflect. I was particularly busy in November and early December, during which I visited shrines, academic events and people not only in Kyoto, but also in Kumano, Awajishima, Nagoya, Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Ise and Nara. In between trips, I managed to present a paper on Shinto environmentalism at a research seminar. While I have undeniably missed some opportunities – people and projects I did not get in touch with, because I simply did not have time for more appointments – I do believe that I have made the most of the limited time I had.

As you have noticed, during this period, I only updated my weblog once. I apologise for this negligence, for which I blame my busy schedule. There is a great number of stories in my mind that have not been written down; a great number of experiences and conversations that have not yet been reflected upon properly. I hope to be able to write down some of those stories in the next couple of months. The ones that will not be published elsewhere will appear at this place. In addition, I have taken a great number of pictures, some of which I will upload here soon.

The colours have almost disappeared from the sky. Apart from the occasional laptop screen and the ‘no smoking’ signs, the inside of the plane is now pitch black. I am hungry, and I fail the understand the rationale of airline companies trying to create an artificial nighttime experience during the afternoon. I also fail to understand why the Swedish hooligans behind me are so noisy, and keep on moving the back of my chair. Perhaps they forgot to take their ritalin this morning. But then, I remember from previous stays in Japan that the culture shock usually did not occur until after I had left the country and returned home – so perhaps I should not really be surprised about the fact that, as soon as one leaves Japan, suddenly a great number of people seem rude and insensitive, at least in public.

As we approach the Ural mountains, we also approach the symbolic boundary between Asia and Europe; between those two mythical entities, ‘East’ and ‘West’. In the south, not very high above the horizon, a single star is shining brightly. It reminds me of the fact that it is almost Christmas.

No white Christmas for us, this year – except for the white sand of the Vietnamese beach where we will be spending our holidays. That is, in just a couple of days, I will board another plane, and return to Asia in order to visit my family-in-law and enjoy a nice vacation. Fortunately, I will not have to travel alone then. And fortunately, we will not be using Air China. In stead of the Ural mountains, we will cross that other East-West boundary: the Bosporus. I am looking forward.

More stories are on their way. Please stay tuned.


  1. The bathroom on your flight indeed sounds terrible!

    Looking forward to your stories about your time in Japan already! :)

  2. That was good, Aike. It nicely captured reflective thoughts on a gentle trajectory being punctuated by little events in the here-and-now which then get incorporated back into the main stream. Merry Christmas to you and Nhung.