“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
Harmonica Yokocho in Kichijōji, located in the west of Tokyo, is a warren of narrow, roof- covered alleyways, hosting a melange of compact shops, bars and restaurants. The Yokocho gives the impression of being halfway between a bazaar and the remnants of an historic ‘Oriental’ arcade. For those travelling from the West and who are in search of that coveted experience of the Japan recorded in the ethnocentric writings of nineteenth century exoticism, this is the sort of place where you might find a version of that. The tapering side streets are densely packed with fortune tellers, bars, restaurants, boutiques, zakka stores, a florist and a fishmongers, though this list is nowhere near exhaustive. The Harmonica Yokocho (or side streets) are so-called due to their arrangement resembling the comb of a mouth organ. Originally built as flea market, legend has it that the alleyways were home to a series of black-market vendors during the early days of the post-war period. Walking the dimly lit streets today, it is easy to see how such a rumour came to be spoken, and there is likely some truth in the tales of clandestine transactions having taken place amongst the shadows here.
There are, of course, a number of obvious entry points available to those wanting to describe Harmonica Yokocho: the proximity of the old, slightly ‘shabby’ looking area appears in contrast to the sleek, ultra modern construction of Kichijōji Station and its attached shopping mall, positioned directly opposite the alley entrances; the idea that this is a genuine taste of ‘old Japan’ or ‘real Japan’, whereby one both becomes and observes ‘the other’; the myth of the black-market providing traces of a less ordered past, complicating the Western view that modern Japan is a tidy, systematic and well-ordered space; and so on and so forth. Such analyses are trite and riddled with the typical prejudices that are set up in all too many explorative writings of Japan. This is not to say that such critiques have no value, rather that as a white, male, westerner, it is difficult to get beyond representations of such encounters with the Japanese, and in many ways it is what has come to be expected: representations of the strange, the exotic, the ‘other’. And whilst there have been significant attempts to reconcile descriptions of the foreign with a sense of the familiar and recognisable quotidian in writings on other parts of the world, it remains that Japan still engenders a state of confusion amongst visitors, one whereby we might point and stare: “How strange they are!”
It is troubling.
Suffice is to say, my approach to the alleyways is, then, something I’m more comfortable with. I walk through Harmonica Yokocho every day, not some days, not the odd day, but every single day. I’ve done this since I arrived in Kichijōji last March. “Why?” you might ask, because it feels like home. Not in the way that I’m reminded of the years l lived in London – these streets do not resemble those around Covent Garden, Spitalifields or Greenwich Market – nor are the alleys reminiscent of those found in Guildford, Northampton or Norwich, of which I became well acquainted in my teens and early twenties. Rather, the feeling I get from negotiating this linear circuit of lanes is one of simultaneous belonging and distance, such that I might be able to just be in this place, becoming lost in the oscillation between familiarity and reservation.
The cries of the elderly fishmongers, a cacophony of crashing pots and hissing pans, call outs from bars, tobacco smoke, the heavy scent of baking bread, neon glare, a warm glow of faux-candlelight emitted from paper lanterns, stale liquor, disinfectant, floral perfume, creeping shadows: each instils a further sense of belonging, one that I can only assume emanates from the sensory multiplicity that is spatial awareness. memory + experience = place. It feels like the alleyways carry with them tiny pieces of all those former sites and situations I’ve once thought of as homely, familiar. The Yokocho are enchanted. Here memories of previous sounds, sights and smells forgo cognitive distillation and work to inflect my present encounter. The shimmering corpses of recently expired fish lay stretched over their ice-filled, polystyrene caskets in a a scene both grotesque and uniquely exciting to observe. The lifeless sea creatures providing a tableau of existence beneath the waves, a static glimpse into their otherwise inaccessible kingdom.
My favourite days as a child started with my mother walking me down to our town’s Friday market. She would pick me up and show me the morning’s ‘catch’, displayed on a narrow slope of ice in the open hatch of the fishmonger’s trailer. I was fascinated by the chart of fish found in British waters (including sharks) that was pinned to the back wall of the mobile store, directly behind the fishmonger – a large, beaming woman with a thick Norfolk accent. If I was especially lucky my mother would buy me a tail of smoked haddock. The substantial woman in white behind the counter patiently waited for me to select my choice of luminous, ocre stained fish. The haddock would be held before me whilst the vendor keenly awaited confirmation. Once I’d given the all clear, the fish would be wrapped in paper and handed over to me in a plastic bag, whereupon I would waste no time at all in removing the paper package and sniffing its contents.
The alley streets are dark, not gloomy but neither are they particularly inviting. They speak to me of ghosts, of those things which manifest (as real or imagined) and that work to manipulate our perception – fleeting moments of familiarity, acquaintance, confusion, disturbance. As a sort of liminal zone on the threshold of present, historic and imagined Tōkyō, the streets could be stripped right from the pages of a novel. They are at once alive and dead, seemingly frenetic, yet turn a corner and you’re all alone. There is a strange air of perseverance here- a feeling that the space and its inhabitants strive to retain and preserve a part of the local community that has existed for generations – like that presented by Natsuhiko Kyogoku in his haunting description of 1950’s Itabashi. Unlike the majority of the city, this unassuming area of Kichijōji has remained untouched by developers since the war, though many of the bars and shops are relatively new arrivals to the market. Wider, more accessible streets demarcate the alley purlieus, giving way to upmarket department stores and illuminated walkways. In this sense, then, we might consider Harmonica Yokocho to be an in-between space, annexed by the less enchanting, envelopment of gentrification that consumes much of Kichijōji and the wider Tōkyō area.
I pass through Harmonica Yokocho not because I want to but rather because I need to. The necessity is not one of material need (although I must confess the bakery is rather good), I can walk around the alleys which would perhaps be less time consuming on many occasions. The need is far more spiritual. I gain a certain satisfaction from moving in and between the alleys, finding new routes in and out of the covered streets, bowing to those shopkeepers familiar with my daily visitation to the market. Moreover, I have an opportunity to submit to nostalgia, to reminisce of a home that is, in reality, a million miles away but one I can feel seeping through these dark narrow streets without any desire to understand why. Home is in these shadows, amongst the ghosts, the shopkeepers and the fortune tellers.
For those of you who are local and/or interested in attending, I will be presenting at University of Tokyo’s international, cross-disciplinary GSP conference early next year. The conference has been organised by UT’s Global Studies Program and will bring together an eclectic mix of research on the theme(s) of ‘Power and Identity’. I will be presenting some thoughts on (geo)politics, landscape and marginalised spiritualities in Britain. Please see the abstract below. The conference will take place on Monday January 9th 2017 at University of Tokyo’s Komaba I campus.
Further information on the GSP conference can be found here.
Sacred Places/Contested Spaces: examining marginalised spirituality and the struggle for religious identity in the United Kingdom 1985 to present.
Whilst it has often been claimed by mainstream religious groups in the West that rights and religious freedoms are ‘under attack’ from evermore secularised and politically liberal governments, far less attention has been paid to how ground-level power struggles have affected the ability to worship of those individuals belonging to more marginal religious communities. In particular, claims to sacred spaces that are located in privately owned, conserved or managed landscapes have seen rights of access and worship challenged. This has led to power relations between landowners, ground managers and religious communities becoming strained, resulting in staged protest and accusations of suppression of religious identity.
Spiritual groups belonging to Britain’s New Age movement have, in particular, been at the forefront of protests against restriction of access to historically sacred sites, with 1985’s ‘Battle for Stonehenge’ being a landmark case in the policing and controlling of religious spaces. As such, marginal religious communities defined as ‘New Age’ have seen both a common and official de-legitimisation of their claims to sacred sites that has at best seen restriction of access, and in worst cases, the prohibition of entrance to sites of specific spiritual importance.
This paper aims to present an overview of recent historical and contemporary events in the United Kingdom that have led to a questioning of how religious identity might be defined and legitimised, as well as assessing the role of the spatial in the practices of alternative spiritualities. Through an examination of specific case studies, I will highlight examples of contested sacred places from the UK over the last 30 years, demonstrating where religious identity has been challenged and problematised through the privatisation and restriction of certain landscapes. Reflecting on wider issues of control and surveillance, this paper will argue that the protection of the right to practice religious freedom must also include a protection of rights to land access, and in doing so, ensure the preservation of religious and cultural identity.
And… back again! It seemed like an appropriate time to break the silence of the last few months, which as always, really was quite unintended. Having relocated from London to Tokyo in March, the first few months of the year were spent planning and packing for the move and the weeks since arriving in Japan have been, well, hectic to say the least. Now that I’m somewhere slightly closer to having adjusted to the change of life (and climate), I thought I’d reignite In:Sites. This blog started as a way of keeping me writing whist I was making little headway with my thesis. Having an outlet so to spew words onto page, without the anxiety that precluded working on the doctoral research, allowed me to explore ideas and moreover places, that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. Furthermore, having a space away from both research and paid employment engendered a sense of freedom, a way of mapping out thoughts away from the demands of an impoverished, semi-academic existence in a city I’d come to despise (sorry London!). Flash forward six months and I’m reminiscing from the window seat of one of Kichijoji’s myriad Starbucks. I’ve spent the last few weeks switching between the four or five immediate writing tasks I have to complete, unable to make progress with any of them. I’m keen to write and each of the projects excites me…nevertheless, they ain’t moving forward. So, I’m back to blogging.
I’ve been invited to give a talk at the China Academy of Art’s Place, Space, Art International seminar later in June (18-19th). The geographic leaning reflects a wider interest in the spatial which has gathered momentum across the arts and humanities and I’m very much looking forward to hearing how each of the speakers has interpreted the organiser’s abstract. The abstract for my own paper is copied below. As you will see, the primary focus of my talk will be on ‘deep mapping’ in the creation of a biography of place. I’ve referred to this subject elsewhere and am excited about developing it further for the event in Hangzhou. Further details on the various talks and speakers later in the month.
Geo-interventions: walking art, ‘deep-mapping’ and the biography of place
Dr. James Thurgill, University of Tokyo
As interest in spatial intervention continues to spread among scholars of geography and cognate disciplines, creative encounters with topography and attempts to ‘record and represent the grain and patina of place’ become of growing importance. Creative methods and visual practices appear ever more prevalent amongst studies of the landscape as new methods of producing representations in and of place continue to evolve. Whether reflecting, depicting or politicising place, Art represents a set of intrinsically spatial practices. One such practice is the method of walking, of roaming through place(s). Walking allows for an inherently physical connection with the landscape through the placing of the body in the environment and the necessary contact between body and earth. Walking affords the practitioner an opportunity to narrate place from the inside, to challenge boundaries, to reimagine margins, and to intervene in place(s). This paper looks at the role of the artist as cartographer, as mapper of places and their particularities. Looking specifically at the practices of walking artists and the process of ‘deep mapping’, I will discuss the role of the practitioner in the creation and narration of a biography of place.
 Mike Pearson, and Michael Shanks. Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge, 2001.
I’m going to be screening a couple of my favourite televised adaptions from the works of M.R. James in Leytonstone (London) next month. All You Read Is Love have very kindly allowed me to take over their cafe/bookstore/arts space for the evening to show, what I believe to be, the finest two filmic interpretations of James’ ghostly tales. I will also be giving a short introductory talk on the roles of hauntology and landscape in these works, as well as offering a few thoughts on the Jamesian geographies of East Anglia.
Free entry. Doors at 7pm.
I’m very pleased to have been included in Les Roberts’ special issue of Humanities on the theme of ‘Deep Mapping’. Humanities is an open access journal so you can find the complete article free and available to all.
In 1921 the photographer, antiquarian and amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, delivered his newly formed thesis on the origins of ancient alignments in the west of England to the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club of Hereford. Watkins posited a correlation between ancient forts, moats, mounds, churches, trees and place names, which he had shown to produce straight lines running across the landscape. In 1922 Watkins published his first book on the subject, Early British Trackways, mixing amateur archaeology, social history and supposition to introduce what Watkins named “leylines” and setting out the guidelines for other would-be ley hunters. This paper explores Watkins’ ley hunting as a practice of “deep mapping”, examining its use as an applied spatial engagement with the hidden trajectories of the landscape. In addition to providing a concise cultural history of the leyline, with particular reference to the works of Alfred Watkins, this paper develops a critical engagement with ley-walking through an auto-ethnographic response to a leyline that has been mapped and walked in Norfolk, England.
The full article is available for download from the MDPI Humanities page.
the spaces in-between
My World in Sound - Exploring "that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed": Robert Doisneau
Public Engagement with Archaeological Themes & Practices
Goldsmiths, University of London
For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.
Exploring Time Travel of Place
Publishing Discoveries by Maria Vassilopoulos
Mind The Books
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Science And The 'Miraculous' (But Were Afraid To Ask).
Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me
Plumbing the depths on the south coast of England
Swimming Roger Deakin's Waterlog, one dip at a time
Essays, poems and reviews by Longbarrow Press poets