Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
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Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

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Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

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The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.

 

China: Asia on Hard Mode

I was back home in April and it was all Tokyo and no harp but that was needed to happen.

In theory, one of the great things about living in Japan is that you are so much closer to other great Asian countries that would be too expensive and too much of a time commitment to go from the UK. As well as Japan, I’m interested in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong but in reality I was always too busy travelling in Japan or just enjoying Tokyo to make it out of the country.

So, what better to end this chapter than going home via China? A good friend lives there and kindly offered to let me stay with her.

China is Asia on hard mode. Yes, Japanese culture is difficult to adapt to, and living in a country whose writing system has 80,000 characters instead of 26 can be extremely challenging but, fundamentally, Japan is a 住みやすい (liveable) place. It’s clean, it’s (mostly) safe, people are polite, it’s rich, it’s free and the infrastructure works. In China you have none of that. Beijing reminds me a little of the post apocalyptic society in Akira or something. The city has risen from the ashes but the infrastructure isn’t quite there and you can see the scars of it’s troubled past if you look closely. Beijing is huge, sprawling and feels lawless. You have massive, futuristic screens on the side of buildings and hugely rich people throwing disgusting amounts of money around but the toilets don’t work properly and there are beggars on the street. The pollution is awful, the waiters are rude and people spit in the street.

But to be honest I found a lot of this liberating. I am scruffy, loud and politeness does not come easily to me so sometimes I feel like a perpetual smudge on Japan. After stressing out for 18 months over excessive politeness it’s kind of refreshing when service people just throw your ticket to the temple at you. Where Japan has its famous train etiquette, in China you see people talking loudly on their phones and laughing with their friends. I felt looked at in China – yes strangers do ask to take pictures of you – but I never felt judged for not living up to a high standard of behaviour. Which I do in Japan sometimes, to be honest.

My friend is studying abroad and she was the perfect host. She has ace local knowledge but China is still exciting enough for her to be able to put up with doing the tourist stuff with me. There’s a phrase in Japanese, 雨女, which means woman who brings the rain, which is literally my life. It’s the Welsh blood in me, don’t invite me to your picnic if you want to stay dry. Beijing is supposed to be sunny this time of year but I managed to bring the rain EVEN THERE and the weather was awful for the first few days. That didn’t stop us hitting the beautiful Summer Palace (the irony isn’t lost on me), before hiding from the rain by catching some Beijing Opera. We watched a play about Liang Hongyu, a woman soldier who fights side by side with her husband, obviously right up my street. It was a bit of a marathon – 3 hours long with no interval. I still enjoyed it though, despite being very stylised it managed to be incredibly human. The costumes and the fight scenes were stunning too.

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The highlight of the trip was definitely the Great Wall which was a big one on the bucket list for me. We got together with a group of my friend’s course mates and rented a driver for the 2 hour drive, which is something students can afford to do in China because labour is cheap. Luckily my 雨女 powers had worn off by then and the weather was lovely – we even had some blossom!

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2017-03-27 17.43.15Other things I enjoyed were the Forbidden City, which I spent hours wandering around by myself. The Lama Temple as well was a beautiful and calming experience. We took a day to do something completely different and go the 798 Art District. The area is the site of state owned factories, including the eponymous Factory 798, that began to be taken over by artists in the early 2000s. The result these days is an area filled with galleries, street art, trendy cafes and boutiques; essentially stamping ground for Beijing’s hipsters. There’s also THE BEST GELATO IN THE WORLD, which is what I’m eating, ever so elegantly, here.
For the first few days my friend took me around the Beijing subway but by day 3 she thought she had skipped enough class and I was on my own. I actually really like the experience of navigating around a strange country by yourself, deciphering things when you don’t really know what’s going on feels like an adventure and figuring it out can give you a real sense of satisfaction. I enjoyed Chinese food although, yeah, maybe be careful about what you get from the street vendors. Gelato aside, Peking duck was my favourite!

Beijing is fascinating, exciting and I had a fab six days. At points I was enjoying it so much I began to regret choosing Japanese instead of Chinese. But knowing myself, I like fresh air and things functioning so Japan is probably a better Asian country for me to live. China seems a fantastic place to travel though and I hope to experience more of it soon.

Being in a mixed-race relationship

Psst. Let me tell you a secret. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my boyfriend is a little bit… asian!

Well, half Japanese, half white British to be exact. Thankfully, for the majority of our relationship race has been a massive non-issue. And why would it be? We are both born and raised in south England, both from middle class backgrounds, both attended university and are now in graduate jobs. Demographically, far more is the same than different.

But even though we couldn’t give less of a shit, sometimes outside influences get it into their heads to attempt to make race an issue. Moving to Japan together has complicated this, so I thought it was about time I shared our experiences.

In the UK, the worst things people have said to me are creeps in bars. Oh creeps in bars. What perplexes me is that they think being incredibly rude is a viable strategy to get me into bed. Yes, speculating on my boyfriend’s dick makes me so wet for you. You don’t look like an insecure, ignorant arsehole at all.

Anyway, I can handle these losers but what is harder to deal with when it’s your girlfriends saying wide-eyed, “But I don’t understand how you can find Asian men attractive.” “I’m happy for you but personally I don’t find ‘them’ sexy.”
“Don’t you ever think about… you know?” “Julia has yellow fever hahaha.”

I can be a coward and a poor ally because, although I can put creeps in bars in their place instantly, I find it incredibly difficult to call out people I like and respect. In fact, this is the first time I’m openly admitting to receiving some of these comments and how much they can hurt.

What is a surprising consistent is that these comments are in the vast majority of cases directed at me, not my boyfriend. I think I understand why. They are coming from people who wouldn’t like to think of themselves as prejudiced and if they direct the comments at the white girl instead of the person of colour it’s somehow not racist anymore.

Moving to Japan has brought new dimensions to the issues, though perhaps not as much has changed as you might think. It is a sad aspect of many mixed race people’s experience that the country you are in tends to identify you with the ‘other’ part of your identity. In the UK, my boyfriend is the ‘Asian one’ (though he says that, happily, he has faced minimal discrimination at home). In Japan he’s the hafu. Before you gasp in horror, yes hafu is derived from ‘half’ but it’s not as offensive as you might think. In fact, for many mixed race Japanese hafu is their preferred term to describe themselves. I’m not the best person to go deeply into this for obvious reasons, but if you are interested I would recommend the film Hafu: the mixed race experience in Japan, in which mixed race people tell their own stories.

From what I’ve seen though, hafu are treated like minor celebrities in Japan, in both a good and bad way. Indeed many mixed race people are on TV and we had a hilarious incident in which the man who came to fix the water was convinced that my boyfriend was an actor or something.  The point is, mixed race people are often treated as something cool and exciting to look at but are not fully accepted into Japanese society. Not all hafu are extroverted kakkoi types guys, some work in boring office jobs and just want to blend in and be left alone. An example of the fetishisation of mixed race people is this gross advert by Can Make. This billboard was in Ikebukuro station for ages and, to my knowledge, no one complained or said anything. The make up range is called ‘Half Face’ and the advert claims you can get ‘trendy foreign eyes’ if you use it. Urgh.

It is undeniable that, even if he is not fully Japanese, living with my boyfriend has given me privileges that many foreigners in Japan don’t enjoy. It was far easier for us to rent a flat (though still bloody difficult), for example. He can be my guarantor on immigration forms and other official documents and generally flashing his Japanese name and passport gets us taken more seriously. Less rational assumptions abound too though. Just the other day, I was chatting with a colleague who told me how good my Japanese was (it’s not). Later in the conversation I mentioned that my boyfriend was half Japanese and she responded, ‘Oh that’s why you speak so well.’ I shouldn’t need to explain how ridiculous this is – my boyfriend didn’t start learning Japanese until he was 18 and although he’s bloody good now, the idea that we wouldn’t speak in our first languages is bizarre (though he does help me with my homework occassionally).  It’s as if she thought by hanging around him I would soak up some Japanese-ness by osmosis and start spouting fluent sentences in the lingo. But family and kinship ties are important to the Japanese it seems and so a Japanese(ish) cohabitor has brought me a measure of social acceptance in many situations.

So it’s good with the bad. Thank you to everyone who treats our racial difference as the massive non-issue it should be, and a high five to everyone in white female/asian male relationships. Let’s continue to put the creepy guys in bars in their place and try to be better at challenging our friends and families when they say stuff that isn’t ok.

Because my boyfriend and I are champions.

Sweets by Naked – exhibition review

When your friend invites you to something called ‘Sweets by Naked’ you pretty much have to go, even if just to find out what on earth it is with a name like that.

As it turns out, the name makes a disappointing amount of sense. ‘Naked’ is the name of a production company founded by film director turned artist Ryotaro Muramatsu. These so-called Naked people apparently ran Flowers by Naked in a similar vein earlier this year.

Sweets by Naked is about… sweets. In a way, there’s nothing more to say. In the basement of super swanky Omotesando Hills, you hand over a hefty 1400/3400 yen (depending on who much you want to eat) to be transported into a cotton candy world of chocolate dresses, honey lampposts and mildly disturbing talking ice cream.

Apparently inspired by the streets of Paris and New York, they still managed to get a British telephone box in there. I really enjoy this kind of Japanese aesthetic I call ‘theme park Europe,’ probably the mirror image of the idea of Japan in the mind of the Ghibli fan who’s never been here. It’s so much cuter than how Europe actually is.

I love going to this kind of thing (though it was overpriced) because you don’t see things like it in the UK very much. It’s pure aesthetics, yummy, shiny, post-modern superficiality.  If it ran back home people would complain, ‘What is the point of it?’ ‘What does it mean?’ But Sweets by Naked claims no intellectual component whatsoever and this isn’t a bad thing.

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On entering you are greeted by what appears to be an upside down Eiffel Tower with some suspended doughnuts for measure.

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These are holograms of us, we were dancing! Every two minutes it ‘rains sweets’ and everything is flooded with a hologram of maple syrup.

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In the ‘Ice Cream Florist,’ the ice cream would start talking if you watered it with those watering cans.

…and at the counter, the faces on the ice cream puts you slightly off the Ben & Jerry’s you are about to eat.

Still, you can’t really say no, when the flavour of the Ice Cream is ‘satisfy my balls,’ (second one).

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My balls were pretty satisfied.

Adventures Skyewalking

Today’s post is a throwback. Living abroad and writing about it allows you to look at everything with curiosity and excitement. When I went home after over a year in Japan, I thought, ‘Why not look at the UK with this lens? Wouldn’t life be more fun if we recognised what’s interesting about our own countries, not just when abroad?’

To this end, I thought I would harken back to an adventure I had in Summer 2015 before I touched down in Japan, on the Scottish island of Skye.

Skye is like the surface of the moon. If the surface of the moon was very, very rainy.

We drove to Skye from near Loch Lomond, having spent a lovely couple of days ambling around the countryside and rowing in the loch with my godparents who live in the area and were kind enough to have myself and three of my friends to stay. My godparents, as true rural Scots should, savoured the opportunity to mock us for our weak Essex ways before we left (“What do you mean you’re going to Skye without waterproof trousers?!”) and give us sage advice on how to survive up north (Avon So Soft is the boss for midges. What also works is encouraging your friend who is trying to stop smoking to wait until after you get back, but if you find that morally questionable, the So Soft stuff really is excellent).

The hardcore Guide to the Scottish Islands shown to us by my Godparents has shunted Skye to the appendix because, since 1995, Skye is not technically an island thanks to erection of the Skye bridge. Island or nay, Skye is around 5 hours drive from Glasgow, across some spectacularly beautiful countryside. Fortwilliam makes a good stopping point as the last frontier of Starbucks levels of ‘civilization,’ and from there you can either go to the Skye bridge or get the ferry from the small town of Mallaig. Having done both on either end of the journey, there’s not much in it time wise so make your decision based on where your final destination is on the island and how tired your long suffering driver (in our case, me) is. Be warned though – most sat navs will take you to the ferry leaving you three hours from the bridge, and you will get laughed at by the locals at the Mallaig docks for blindly following your sat nav and confusingly asking where the bridge is. Not that this happened to us, you understand, it’s just what I heard…

From the ferry, where else could we be heading but the Skyewalker hostel? My inability to resist bad puns aside, this really is a great place to stay. Clean, cheap, friendly staff and better yet it’s a STAR WARS themed hostel and there’s a giant dome you can hang out and drink in while looking up at the stars. We stayed for 3 nights.

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I was too chicken to swim in the Fairy Pools but I did dip my toe in, it was freezing. The Fairy Pools were the first thing we drove to in Skye and remained one of my favourite parts of the trip.

We braved walking across to get to the stunning black sand on Talisker Bay… and promptly graffitied it because we’re from Essex and awful like that.

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Not gonna lie, after our escapades we were damp and hungry, so we treated ourselves to scones and hot chocolate at The Wee Tea Room. The proprietor displays some gorgeous photography he has taken over Skye and recommended us our next destination, which was a little off the beaten track.

We walked across a beach in the howling wind to reach this very creepy and awesome ruined church. I don’t know it’s name but it was a seriously spooky experience as the weather had turned terrible. We were writing a horror story about our inevitable demise to demon sheep.

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And of course it’s pretty much compulsory to visit Talisker distillery to find out how some of the best whiskey in the world is made, and drink some yourself.

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On the way back from Skye we stopped in the charming town of Plockton, one of the best places to see seals in the UK. We went on a boat ride and spotted these babies lolloping around – so cute!

Kyoto in the Spring

I took my parents to Kyoto because they came to Japan in the spring and where else would you rather be?

The first thing I will admit about the gateway to old Japan is that, yes, it is crowded during cherry blossom season. But if you are willing to step off the beaten track you can still find those hushed moments of zen like calm that the ancient capital promises.

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Dinner served to our room in the ryokan

I wanted my parents to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan (hostel) and booking was a  nightmare even though I started the process early. Many ryokans aren’t on the internet yet so I searched for a place and booked through Japanese Guest Houses. To be honest their system isn’t super convenient but it may well be your best bet, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. We ended up staying in the Ischicho Shogikuen which wasn’t my first choice but was still lovely. I really recommend going for the full ryokan experience if you can – futons, tatami mats, sliding doors and Japanese cuisine served to your room. My parents had a couple of reservations about the food and my Dad sleeping on a futon with a bad back but they loved every minute.

I recommend walking between your destinations as much as you can because Kyoto is the kind of place where interesting things happen in between. There’s a small art gallery or a charming independent coffee shop on every corner.

The Famous Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple.

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Ginkakuji (which I prefer to its more famous brother, Kinkakuji)
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Definitely walk along the Philosopher’s Path to get from Ginkakuji to Nazenji

 

It’s lovely walking around town as it starts to get dark. Oh and we did see a geisha- she was actually locked out of the building she was trying to get into, desperately ringing the bell and trying to remain graceful as the tourists crowded around her. I didn’t take a photo as it was actually quite alarming to watch the cameras swarm like flies and I felt sorry for her, so you’ll have to take my word for it that she was really, incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately I think hoardes of tourists goes with the Kyoto territory at this point but Kyoto was still able to capture my imagination.

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Contraception in Japan

When I began to experience health problems in Japan, I went to a specialist who did a run down on my medical history. After answering all the usual questions, I mentioned offhand that I used a mirena IUD for contraception.

He didn’t know what it was.

I googled it and showed him on my phone, in disbelief that I was educating a medical professional about a widely used form of contraception (which, yes, is available in Japan) in 2016. He immediately freaked out and told me that the hormones were what was causing my symptoms. Logic and advice from a gynecologist told me this was unlikely but I was still trying to trust in the treatment I was receiving back then, so I got it removed. Surprise, surprise nothing improved.

This was my first insight into attitudes towards contraception in Japan which are a teensy bit different from back home. The pill was only legalised in 1999 in Japan (38 years after the UK) and even then was marketed more as medicine for ‘hysterical women’ than as a method of birth control. This is one reason the pill carries some stigma and is not as widely used as in other industrialised countries even today. Another reason for the stigma is that historically abortion has been far more accepted as a method of birth control in Japan than elsewhere. Indeed, it was legalised in 1949, a decade before other industrialised countries, and Japan drew criticism for being so accepting that people would come from abroad to have abortions.

Moreover Japanese national health insurance does usually cover contraception. The pill will cost you ¥3,000 a sheet, the coil up to a whopping ¥50,000. As far as I know the implant and the injection aren’t even available. Even removing my coil cost me ¥18,000. Seeing as childbirth isn’t covered by national insurance either, basically it sucks to be a woman.

So if they’re not into other forms of birth control the Japanese must be using condoms right? Well you would think so. But the stories I hear from my friends paint a different picture; people who refuse to carry condoms because they don’t want to appear slutty or they think it will make their dalliance seem over planned and less romantic. Couples who think the ‘withdraw method’ is safe and, surprise surprise, end up with an unwanted pregnancy. Japanese women who think it’s insulting if a man decides to use condoms with them. A friend once told me that when she asked the Japanese guy she was hooking up with about condoms he actually mimed putting one on hoping that she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

On a more serious note, Japan has a rising HIV rate. Misinformation about HIV and other STIs is rife, with some Japanese ludicrously believing that AIDS is a ‘foreign’ disease and can only be contracted by having sex with a foreigner. To be fair to the health ministry, they recently decided to try and combat unsafe sex by and enlisting the help of Sailor Moon.  Yes that’s right right, the anime character Sailor Moon. To combat an alarming high rate of syphilis, 60,000 Sailor Moon themed condoms will be distributed, along with 156,000 information leaflets. ‘In the name of the moon I will punish you if you don’t get tested!’

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The Sailor Moon condom in a heart shaped package.

Well, it’s 2016 and traditional institutions are collapsing all around us but, at least we can still count on pop culture.

If you are looking for advice on contraception and you are in Tokyo and don’t speak Japanese, or if you want to speak to a doctor with a more international outlook, I would recommend Primary Care Tokyo in Shimokitazawa or Tomoko’s Ladies Clinic in Omotesando.