January 16th, 2005


In the wind, on the island of Hokkaido

I flew into Hakodate, Hokkaido on Saturday evening. From the plane I got my first impressions of the place; it's snow-covered, a medium-sized city framed by two low mountains and two sweeping bays. Rather spectacular.

Lehan Ramsay, the Australian artist / academic who's invited me here, met me in a 4WD jeep. She drove me into town (slithering across snow) and got me organised, lending me a heater and a coat (my suitcase still hasn't arrived, though it's now following me around Japan quite closely, and should be delivered today or tomorrow) and showing me the Art Harbour, the complex I'll be living and working in for the next six weeks. It's a hippyesque homebuild strip containing a club space where kids play acid-trance music, an ethnic-style restaurant, and the house I'm in, a wooden place on two floors, normally occupied by a couple who are currently in Okinawa researching 'the way of the noodle' with a view to turning their place into a ramen bar.

I suspect another reason they're in Okinawa is that it's bloody cold in their house. The walls and windows are mere suggestions, token efforts at resistance against the snow drifts and icicles and gales outside. You move from whacky room to room (the steep stairs are cut into funny fungoid shapes, which is terribly artistic but practically somewhat treacherous) and your breath hangs in a cloud in front of you. There's a kerosene heater, but I'm rather terrified to use it with all the wood around. Luckily there's a fire station just across the street.

I've camped in a small glass-walled room under the ladder that leads to the attic. In my den I have an electric carpet (like an electric blanket, but on the floor), a TV, a wifi laptop, and a huge heap of blankets. The little room is the only place where heat can be retained for any length of time. Hakodate is above zero right now, and that's good for the time of year. It's going to get a lot colder than this, and I must admit I'm going through some kind of culture shock thinking about it. I'm used to living in perfectly temperature-controlled environments and ignoring winter, but it seems that here I won't be able to do that. Luckily I've been given an office on the Future University campus, whose sleek airport-like building offers the perfect contrast to the hippy vibe of the Art Harbour. I'm all for la vie de boheme, as long as it's summer.

Over dinner in the ethnic restaurant, I met some of the local characters, people connected to the university as well as local bohemians; a post-grad student who raved about the music in Terayama's films, a student who loves Gameboy music and dreams of visiting Belgium, the chef and his wife who showed me photos they'd taken of Ainu homes (they always have to have an enclosure for a bear in their houses, because bears are kamis or god-spirits here). The chef decided I was a 'maniac' when, after talking excitedly about Ainu bears and the ice festival I mentioned the Namahage oni, a monster from nearby Akita who visits houses carrying a giant knife looking for naughty children.

If I'm into local lore, I'm much less into 'music', and I can see this becoming a problem. The people I'm meeting are huge music fans, and my mission here is really to avoid music, or at least music as generic and stereotypical as the trance techno that's seeping through from the Art Harbour youth hang next door. When the chef tells me he plays percussion (there are bongos and ethnic jaw harps galore here) I try to explain the Lost Radio, Found Sound concept: everything is permitted... except music. If music is organised sound, sound is disorganised music. If a thing's worth loving, it's worth loving raw. Music over-eggs the sound pudding by putting everything into patterns. What I'm here to collect, celebrate and web-cast is pure, raw sound. The sound of cooking, the sound of traffic, the sound of trains, the sound of icicles dripping, the sound of the sea, the sound of teeth chattering. I'm here to listen to Hokkaido, and to listen to Hokkaido listening to Hokkaido. As long as there's no trance techno involved.