Visit to Altea

Far to the Spanish east lies the small costal town of Altea that beyond narrow dwindling streets host the beautiful church of La Mare de Déu del Consol ("Our Lady of Solace”), but also a school with fantastic facilites. In the end of November I had the privilege to visit said institution, the School of Fine Arts Altea, belonging to Miguel Hernández University.

I was warmly welcomed by the Dean José Vicente Martín and the Assistant Professor Miguel Lorente Boyer, who completely spoiled me for a week with delicious food, a comfortable hotel, driving me around and assisting me with both the students and arranging an exhibition. And giving me a fantastic tour of their school.

I had the opportunity to both have a workshop with Bachelor students and having a lecture about my work for the Masters. My choice for the Bachelor was something I tried out with the students from the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts: The Post-Apocalyptic Workshop.

The post apocalyptic workshop is a workshop about the end of civilisation and the future beyond the fall of contemporary humanity. As a thought experiment the students were encouraged to imagine how the present civilisation can protect, send and manifest knowledge into a far future (circa 10000-50000 years forward). Students were also encouraged to discuss and speculate on what kind of knowledge, if any, is relevant for such an endeavour.

I also have the opportunity to have an exhibition in a space close to the school: Plan Z. Plan Z is an exhibition project driven by the School of Fine Arts Altea that aims to show the work of artists, professors, and students of the European and international institutions with which the faculty has partnerships and exchange programmes. For more information go to http://campusaltea.edu.umh.es/es/carl-erik-engqvist/

I was really impressed by everything and it gave me such a sense of joy to see the energy and enthusiasm of students and staff alike. It inspired me, revitalised my approach to my own work and my sense of purpose. As an artist and member of Humlab.

View from my hotel room.

Students testing one of my applications.

Students working with concepts for the post-apocalyptic workshop.

One of the concepts from the students.

A small part of the school.

From the opening of my exhibition.

Epic dessert...

Inside of La Mare de Déu del Consol.

Japan: A small conclusion

The thing with Japan is that I felt quite at home there. I believe that I intuitively made a connection and accepted certain things that would be completely alien to other foreigners, because of me being a Swede. Swedes has in some extent been described as the Japanese of Europe and the Japanese as the Swedes of Asia. Similarities are for example shyness, conflict avoidance, concreteness and an austereness regarding expressing emotions and much more. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman refereed for example to the disinterest for abstract thinking as a typical Swedish trait (aspiring instead for concrete craftsmanship) which is very similar to this quote by Nobel Prize winner in physics Hidei Yakuawa: "The Japanese mentality is, in most cases, unfit for abstract thinking, and takes interest merely in tangible things". A general presumption of course, but worth taking in consideration. For more information about this I recommend to read professor Åke Daun’s text on similarities between Swedes and Japanese, ”The Japanese of the North - The Swedes of Asia”.

So exemplify a typical situation/context which connects the two cultures: The subway trains are dominated by an almost complete silence and the Japanese are preoccupied with reading, using their smartphones, playing video-games on handheld systems (yes, these still exist in Japan) or sleeping. Bags are neatly placed in the laps, so not to occupy another seat, and if a conversation is going on it’s in a very quiet discreet way (but usually that’s not the case). All kind of interactions with strangers, including eye contact, is strongly avoided. Also, phone conversations are forbidden on all trains. As a Swede I understood directly what was going on, and I felt completely relaxed and definitely at home.

Why? Because what I understood is that the subway is considered AND respected as a place of personal rest and respite from the social structures of family or work. A space dedicated to a certain personal freedom and disconnection from the pressures of society. I understood this as mutual agreement between all passengers and something I strongly associate with how public transport works in Sweden, but with less anxiety. This could be connected with the fact that Japan is much more homogeneous in it’s population, so confrontations between different social codes is less frequent.

Bear in mind though, that the Japanese are much more polite than the general Swede and very thankful, even happy, if you meet them in their own language and code of politeness. With that I would like to add that it’s definitely the safest land ever for introverts. I’m already planning my next trip in about a year where I would probably revisit Tokyo, but also go to Kyoto, Nagasaki and Osaka.

Asakusa

The last day in Tokyo we went to Asakusa (Ginza line from Shibuya) for the Senso-ji shrine. It’s nice and all, but I’m not sure I recommend it, if not visiting really really early, as around 10:00 pm it was crowded by tourists…

It is Tokyo's oldest temple, and one of its most significant. Formerly associated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism, it became independent after World War II. Adjacent to the temple is a Shinto shrine, the Asakusa Shrine.

They had a lot of street food there though; everything from Japanese style pancakes, octopus balls to fried chicken. Really oishii! The Tokyo Skytree is close by, but honestly I think it’s a waste of money paying 3000 Yen for a nice view…

Interesting though is the amount of Chinese tourists everywhere. The subway/trains even has an automated Mandarin voice, besides the English one, which is also common for most of the important signs/information boards in Tokyo.

The afternoon we went back to Shibyua. Mostly because we both became addicted to the UFO machines (claw machines). Unfortunately we didn’t win anything this time, even though my son in his hormone pumped teenage state was very eager to win the realistic looking anime schoolgirl figurines. I'm honestly disappointed that we don’t have the culture of arcades in Sweden anymore. The Japanese ones are brilliant; UFO machines on the first-second floor and then just hardcore video game arcades in another 2-3 floors. In the bigger Swedish cities I think it would work…

We wrapped it up with another bowl of chili chicken stew and a quiet evening of packing. Going to digest everything for a couple of days; then a conclusion.

Octopus balls...or fried milky buns with an octopus arm inside...

Mitika (Ghibli Museum)

On Thursday we visited the Ghibli Museum in Mitika. To go there take the JR Chou local line towards Mitaka, which is also the end station. The museum is just a 15 minute walk from the JR train station. We walked through a large park filled with Japanese people enjoying the fine weather with their families on the green grass or playing tennis.

We always wondered: Being a people defined as hardworking, why are there always people enjoying leisure time all hours of the day? Not only wives and children but complete families. And young people, including men that I expected would be busy in a office.

I was a bit sceptical at first towards the museum. It’s one of the things you are supposed to see as a tourist and honestly I have to admit; I’m a tourist in Japan and was not looking forward sharing the same venue with a bunch of culturally analphobetic non-Japanese. I was expecting something similar to Disney’s megolomanical constructions in the shape of a Japanese version of Disneyland. Which exist, that’s true, but instead based around Studio Ghibli’s imaginative world.

Instead I was greeted by a thoughtful small museum that truly invoked the spirit of imagination and eager curiosity. In itself it was built like an open environment, welcoming individual exploration. Besides the rooftop with the robot from Laputa you are not allowed to take photos.

Of course like most things in Tokyo it’s still a hardcore business, which the crowded museum shop testified to. But it’s still worth a visit. Just be sure to buy the tickets beforehand through a travel agency or something similar.

We spent the afternoon in Harajuku, mostly to enjoy the famous crepes, which can basically can be filled with everything. Especially sweet stuff!

One of the reason we went back to Harajuku was that I was looking for Galley Kawano and its vintage kimonos. Inside of the Ometasando hills we finally found it. A small non-touristy shop run by two older ladies, that really knew their business (and a little english). I happily purchased a burgundy coloured kimono with a jacket, underjacket, sash (obi) and button for 17500 Yen!

Akihabara

Spent the entire day in Akihabara. This is a place that only can be experienced with sound and images. No text can describe the madness. Made a video:

If you are into games; visit these places in Akihabara and finish off with some tempura fast food and a Shinto shrine.

Tsukiji & Ryaogoku (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

Third day. Started around 09:30 with visiting the Tjukiji outer fishmarket. To get there take the JR Yamanoto line to Ebisu and change for the Oedo metro line to Tjukiji. We skipped the inner market though, as its in the process of being moved in November to another destination. Among other changes it’s supposed to turn more tourist friendly. Next time then. But aiming for the outer market; you will not get fresher sushi than here, not kidding….

It surprised me that the Japanese are really generally very loud in a business situation. They scream at you to attract you to their store, when you enter and when you leave. Came a bit as a shock but considering the amount of people there, it’s really no surprise. You also have to scream "Sumimasen" (Excuse me) at them to attract their attention in a restaurant. But shouting ”Gochisosama deshita” when you leave (Thanks, it was a feast) can be a bit rude. It’s just something you say quietly to the waiter, I guess.

After sushi lunch we went with the JR Sobu line (local) from Shinjuku to Ryogoku and the Edo-Tokyo museum. It was like most museums, which means that you need at least a day to really appreciate all the exhibitions and the awesome gift shop. The permanent exhibition has a giant bridge in the middle of it!

Called it in early today. Need to be well rested for tomorrow, when we go for Akihabara (or Akiba among friends); otaku town, electric town, nerd nexus. Or shop to you drop!

Tonkotsu Ramen

Harajuku & Shibya

An intense day. We started with a visit to the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku and from there we went over to Takeshita dori and Omote-sando. After going back to the hotel we decided to head over to Shibya and its famous crossing and the street: Shibya Center-gai. We took the extremly convenient JR Yamanoto line for both. Just two-three stops from Shinjuku. Get a Suica cashcard. It's extremely good to have and also works in certain stores and vending machines.

The Meiji Shrine was definitely worth a visit. It’s a Shinto shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. The Meiji Shrine is located in a forest that covers an area of 70 hectares. It’s something like 120,000 trees of 365 different species, which were donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established. Before entering the shrine please show respect by performing the cleansing ritual and bow before the last Tori gate to the main shrine.

First grab the wooden ladle with your right hand and pour some water on your left. Then take the ladle with your left hand and wash your right. Then take it back to the right hand and pour some water in the cupped left hand, which you then rinse and clean your mouth with. Spit it out in the gutter and arrange the ladle into a vertical angle so that the water pours over the entire handle. Then you can put it back in it's original position.

As it happened we were lucky this day, as we stumbled upon a Shinto wedding. Pictures below of the happy couple. You can also buy charms and give offerings to the Shinto gods. Bought a couple of them for friends and family.

We then went to Takeshita dori, which is a gleeful neoncolored heaven for Japanese teenagers filled with shops for their specific tastes in clothes and different venues of the all to sweet crépes, filled with cream, berries and chocolate. It was crowded, more than Shinjuku yesterday, of kids showing their love for Halloween, most of them already in costumes. Clerks were shouting, teenagers giggling and I never felt as old as there and then. We escaped the packed streets into a cat/owl café (not on the same floor). The cats were happily running around in relative freedom, but seeing the owls was really sad. Chained to branches they were constantly harassed by sugar addicted teenagers.

Omote-sando is a larger shopping street and I recommend visit either Kiddyland for toys and souvenirs or Condomania for some really…eh unique gifts. Don’t forget Gallery Kawano further down the street, which has a good selection of second-hand kimonos for 10000-15000 yen. The staff will help you try it on and also help you choose a nice matching sash (obi), but they aren’t that excited if you decide not to buy.

After a nap at the hotel we decided to go to Shibya. The crossing was beyond crowded. All the teenagers of Tokyo had decided to gather there for an ”innocent” Halloween celebration, so to get away we headed down the Shibya Center-gai, which was a complete mistake. There were even more kids...

Finally we found refuge in Tokyo Hands, a shopping mall, and after that Adores, which was basically the highlight of the evening, for me at least. Adores is a chain of arcade halls filled to the brim with all kinds of games from claw machines and traditional Tekken arcades. We got stuck in the claw section and spent like millions of yens to get some cheap crap…But it was worth it!

Breakfast at the hotel.

Entrance to the main shrine.

Wishes written by people from all over the world.

Shinjuku

In the morning of 2016.10.30 me and my son Egil landed in Narita around 9:30, local Tokyo time. We then took the comfortable Narita Express (bought the ticket with return journey on the lowest floor of Narita Airport, where the train also is) directly to Shinjuku where we conviently started with getting totally lost in first Shinjuku station and then Shinjuku itself. But we managed to finally find the hotell, visit Shinjuku gyoen (famous big park), shopped some crap on a Japanese 7 Eleven, shopped even more crap through a couple of vending machines, forgot my travel documents at the hotels reception desk not once but twice, sleept for two hours and then visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices (very touristy but still recommended…a lot) and saw the Tokyo cityscape in the evening from the 45th floor. We wrapped up the evening with a spicy bowl of some local delicious food.

Shinjuku is dynamic, futuristic, young, crowded and functions in 3 dimensions. A store or a restaurant doesn’t always exist on the ground floor, especially if you visit the department store Isetan. There is also a really good cat café in Shinjuku and a really small but cool Samurai museum, which I haven’t yet visited, among tons of other things.

I can’t say that traveling to Japan has been a long dream of mine but the idea has always been there, lurking in the dark corners of my consciousness. That a visit to the land of ninjas, samurai, manga, excellent foods, robot cults and a seriously different language, would be awesome.

But I’m honestly being overwhelmed here…it's so similar but completely different. It makes me want to come back...to see more of this uncanny relativism. Like a interacting with a distorted mirror or a reflection of yourself in a lake when the wind disrupts the surface. It's hypnotizing me and when I slowly move through an endless crowd, experiencing a feeling of freedom in being totally anonymous, I just love it.

Funny, traveling still scares that shit out of me, but it's something I just have to deal with it in order to continue challenge myself. Japan is a safe bet for that.

Generally I can summarise my first experience of Japan with, at the moment, six points:

1. The Japanese prefer to speak to me in poor English even if I adress them in a likewise poor Japanese. But their English is decent enough for simple communication like the logistics of ordering food, arranging accommodations and so on.

2. Without internet or/and a functioning GPS or google earth you'll be fucked. Shinjuku station is a maze and even if the Japanese are friendly enough to show you the right way, you can’t always trust them. It’s comparatively easier for them to invent a direction than to lose face. They don't mean anything personal with this, it's just the way of their current social system. But getting lost is quite fun though, in a land like Japan. There is always some weird new phenomena like Gothic Lolitas and vending machines selling hot coffee. In metal cans.

3. It’s clean but at the same time it can be shabby and worn out. Sometimes it feels like Blade Runner and sometimes like a clean Hong Kong. Without the smell of garbage.

4. Old people are not afraid of technology, but use it much more frequently than retirees in the Scandinavian countries.

5. Even simple street food is really good and the idea of paying for the meal beforehand, through a ticket machine is great. Had some chili chicken stew with rice, sallad and miso soup with the help of such a machine. It's relatively cheap also. Payed 1400 yen for two big meals, which is ca 13 dollars or 120 kr.

6. Everything is automated from checking in to hotels, ordering food and interacting with humans. As said before it could be just a cultural thing, a system that helps you avoid the risk of losing face.

With that I wish you all good night from a city that obviously never sleeps.

The hotel room. APA Hotel in Shinjuku, close to the Shinjuku Gyoen park.

Notice that the bed is a "large" double bed...

Dinner.

Shinjuku Gyoen park

Shinjuku station

Update

Added "From Hand to Mouth to Laser" in the projects section but also the paper "Power to the Gamer" which can be read through the "From Hand to Mouth to Laser" article. Long overdue but finally up. Enjoy!