December 5th, 2009


Hecuba, Singh, Osaka

I'm in Osaka, jet-lagged but happy, eating sashimi and about to go soak in a sento.

The sequence of views from my Airbus window this morning was fascinating. First Mongolia, snowy moonlit high plains in the grey of dawn, looking like the surface of the moon. Then China, flat and vast. The rivers and quays around Beijing are shaped by man, and the ground sparkles with new, silvery industrial buildings. Smoke stacks throw plumes.

Then there's the extraordinary promontory of Dalian, with crinkly red mountains and affluent cities; the last part of China before the Yellow Sea and North Korea. Our route, as the crow flies, should take us through North Korea, but we fly carefully around it. We don't want to be mistaken for spies.

South Korea is amazingly slender, and Seoul ( on the seatback route map) surprisingly close to the DPRK border, and not far from Pyong Yang. Through little fluffy white clouds I see Seoul's high, boxy apartment blocks. I've been watching a Korean TV show on the plane entertainment system; tidy mother and messy mother swap apartments. The Korean flats shown are in exactly these big boxes, much larger than Japanese living spaces, with gigantic sofas and hypertrophic plasma TVs with Dolby cine-surround speaker systems. The rooms are all lit with overhead fluorescent light. The tables are low, like Japanese ones, but the colours are completely different from Japanese colours.

There's a little turbulence over the Sea of Japan, but soon we're descending over Fukuoka. Japan looks like an enchanted land, so different from the lugubrious, hostile and vast landscapes the plane has traversed so far. Suddenly there are wooded mountains with little clouds nestled in nooks and temples poised on top. There are the sandy-beached islands of the Seto Inland Sea, which we'll be investigating in January. There are shiny new bridges linking the echanted Pacific isles to each other. There are sudden cities (that's Shikuoka, and here comes Osaka) poured into the plains between forested mountains. This whole thing shouldn't really be here: the archipelago has pushed a series of volcanic heads out of the sea, but they remain dreamlike and somehow enchanted.

Soon we land on the artificial island which is Kansai International airport, and I'm marveling at... Well, I'm grumbling at the fact that striking Finnish baggage handlers have ensured that our luggage wasn't on the flight. But apart from that I'm struck by the super-niceness of all the Japanese employees I deal with, and the deep sense of superlegitimacy with which they do their jobs. Complete conviction, religious (but secular) devotion.

The luggage claim girl smiles sweetly, the currency exchange man fans and flick-counts my yen like a magician, and on the train to Tennoji a trainee steward is being choreographed by a supervisor through her duties, and making white-gloved gestures as precise and attentive as those of the man who guided our airbus to its docking bay, then bowed deeply to the Finnish plane.

The speckless cleanliness of everything, the escalator animated by a Shinto kami in the form of a voice telling you to take care, the extra-schoolgirlness of the schoolgirls, the strange medieval aspect of peasants tending microscopic fields, everything confirms my feeling that Japan is a religious society posing as a secular one, and that it's poetry compared with the prose of all other societies I've known. And yet somehow this "poetry" is deeply effective; as I've been reading in my complimentary copy of the Financial Times, Japan is still vastly powerful: the four dominant blocks of our time, says the paper, are the US, Japan, Europe and China, with India and Brazil far behind. So this island that just pops out of the sea like a volcanic afterthought to continental Asia somehow continues to pack enormous civilisational clout.

Anyway, I didn't intend to string my first impressions out quite so far. I was going to say "here, jet-lagged, happy" then point you to two articles of mine which have just appeared: Discovering a new band in real time, a piece in Playground investigating a Californian band called Hecuba (photo above), and 800 Words with Alexandre Singh, my conversation with a young British lectures-based artist living in New York, published by Art in America.