New Year, and a new episode of Elsewhere going up today.
This month’s guest is Aaron Chapman, author of “The Last Gang in Town”. We talk 1970’s gang culture in East Van, how the city has changed since then, and how crime has changed with it.
Edit: Rally for the Wet’suwet’en is being held this coming Saturday, January 12th.
Raam is someone who walks between two worlds. An activist and musician, his time spent between North America and Iran has been coloured by rebellion and personal tragedy. We talk culture, music and the difficulties surrounding creative expression in one of the most oppressed countries on Earth.
You can find him @KingRaam on all your usual social media outlets.
Massive thanks to Chris Ryan of Tangentially Speaking for initially turning me on to this story. His podcast is incredible, and in many ways inspired the work I currently find myself doing.
Solidarity with the people of Paris, and around the World.
Alright folks, well as you can probably gather, East Van To Elsewhere is now a Podcast! This is a project born from our desire to build a platform for all the interesting people who live or pass through Vancouver. We’ll be talking with authors, activists, academics, poets, scientists, film-makers and just about anyone with a pulse who we think you’ll be interested in hearing.
The structure of the show is evolving, but right now we’re committed to delivering one new episode around the 1st of every month. Our guest for this pilot episode of Elsewhere is none other than my friend Elena.
Elena is an anthropologist who specializes in the study of far-right politics. Having just recently completed her dissertation project in Ukraine, we discussed the current Russo-Ukrainian war, the history leading up to it, and where it may go from here.
As promised in the intro, this is the infamous Dairy Queen commercial featuring our beloved sound engineer Cody. He’s the one in grey, doing all the actual tricks.
As previously mentioned, we would appreciate that you keep your marriage requests to a minimum, as Cody is currently involved in a loving and functional relationship (they even have a pet hedgehog!)
If you enjoyed the closing music, here’s another beautiful, less upbeat song by DakhaBrakha. Fair warning though, it’s absolutely haunting (made even more so once you’ve learned the regions history), and when I saw them live at Folk Fest there was scarcely a dry eye in the house. Also, the psychedelic fan-made music video is quite a trip.
Anyway, we hope you enjoyed our 1st episode! We’re currently in the process of getting it hosted on Apple Podcast and all your other RRS feed based services, so look for it there in the coming weeks. Until then, find it right here at EastVanToElsewhere.com
There’s nothing wrong with loving where you live. Canada is a beautiful place, with many things to be proud of. Our history is not one of them.
On the lands which we currently occupy, one of the greatest genocides in human history took place. That cannot be overstated.
In a series of calculated decisions, the people who founded this country employed biological warfare, mass imprisonment and the seizure of children. They did this in order to hypnotize a generation, and the effects are still being felt to this day.
Statistics Canada shows us that 30 per cent of prisoners enrolled in correctional services from 2016-17 were Indigenous, compared to only 5 per cent of the general population.
Indigenous youth make up 46 percent of the juvenile detention population.
There is nothing wrong with going out with your friends and enjoying the celebrations – but please remember that this can be a painful day for many people who live in your community. The happy futures afforded to us by this land came at an unthinkable cost.
Looking back on it now, I think of all the places in Japan I visited, Kyoto suited me best. Absent from the bleating crowds and sheer expanse of Tokyo, Kyoto is still large enough to keep your pulse beating while getting lost in a crowd. Flat and compact, the entire city is traversable by bicycle, yet this cities many distractions will always cause your trip to take longer than expected.
Picking up where I left off, we had just entered the first temple on our walking tour, Kiyomizu-dera. Dropping ¥300 into the expectant hand of a smiling attendant, I was beckoned down a set of stairs. They were worn from foot traffic, but immaculately clean, no doubt because everyone had been asked to their shoes off. I slipped on some ill-fitting sandals and headed down the stairs, a pitch black passage waited at the bottom.
This instantly made me nervous. I had bashed my head enough times in Japan to realize that the entire country (especially the older buildings) was generally oriented to those of a more reasonable height. Regardless, I pressed on, the muted echoes of those ahead of me guiding the way.
Grazing my hand along the left wall to keep a forward path, I suddenly stumbled into the backs of a few people ahead of me. They graciously remained silent, attempting to preserve the ambiance that everyone was expecting. I muttered a brief apology and slowed my pace. Leaning against the wall , I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but it was no use. It was too dense, and after a few moments I carried on.
Feeling my way around a short sharp turn, a white glow suddenly appeared in the distance. I slowed my pace even further, wanting to ration out the steady rise of light as it grew larger in my eyes. I suddenly felt like a creature of the deep, dark ocean.
As I drew closer, I could see that beneath the light lay a large white stone. It was pot-marked and glowing, reflecting light like the moon. My eyes watered from its brightness, as if somehow my five minutes spent in darkness had been six weeks.
My ears were ringing from the silence. The absence of sight had diminished all sense of time and distance, and each step became either millimeters or light years of distance traveled. My limbs were ghosts in the dark. It now felt like I had been called from the depths of a ocean to witness the birth of a star.
Without thinking, I reached over and placed my palm in the centre of the stone, feeling its roughness against my skin. I closed my eyes, wanting to focus on the sensation of touch, trying to read its ridges like a hieroglyphic form of braille. It felt like I was lacking the software. I found myself thinking about those around me, invisible in the darkness. I had completely forgotten that anyone else was there.
I thought about how lucky I was to be there, being able to visit this place. Japan is a country my ancestors could only have ever dreamed of, if they had even heard of it at all. I thought about my Great-Grandfather, mining coal in caves far beneath the earth. I wonder if he ever learned to see through the dark.
Kia’s mustached face suddenly emerged into the light above the stone, instantly breaking the spell.
“It’sa you.” I muttered to myself.
Kia frowned and walked away.
Following the temple was the typical mishmash of enticing street vendors. Matcha tea chocolate balls and deep fried cheese sticks… I didn’t know where to start (or stop). Kia found a bike, and stopped to stare at it for a few minutes, while Spencer (our house History Major) regaled me with local tales from Japanese history. Apparently, a local monk had once accidentally burnt down a temple with a prayer candle. Given how all the temples are made of wood, and filled with open flames, this hardly seemed surprising, and I hope the monk didn’t beat himself too much up over it. Sometimes it seems like we’re set up for failure.
Intently following our little map, we journey’d a little further down to find the entrance to a small alleyway, one which the Lonely Planet described as the “single most attractive street in Kyoto.”
At first, we were flatly underwhelmed.
It was only after the first few bends, escaping the noise and crowds of people along the regular walking path that I began to understand what the book was referring to. It was residential, adorned with high stone walls, with ivy running across them. Planters for flowers sat above them, but it being the dead of winter, only the green vines stood out against the flat grey walls.
I allowed my imagination to bloom into what the summers must look like here. I pictured the reality of a childhood spent running between these gates, among the tea-houses and the tourists. I thought about how different my life would be if I grew up here.
As we lazily made our way back out the alley, I turned and realized that the sun had begun to dip behind the mountains. The air was getting colder. Merchants began sweeping the entrances of their stalls as monks gently ushered slow-walking visitors out of the temple grounds. Our time in Higashiyama was reaching its end.
We walked to the furthest end of the trail to discover that it ended as it began, with a massive cemetery. Climbing up the stairs to its highest point, we turned and sat in silence, watching the sunset.
Kyoto is a city trapped between two worlds. One part cultural Vatican, steeped in two-thousand years of deeply religious, often violent history. Another part thriving cosmopolitan hub, polka-dotted with tightly organized subways, shopping arcades and tired-eyed businessmen.
We arrived in Kyoto on a bright Sunday afternoon, half-cut from drinks on the train. With legs eager for stretching, I was more than ready to be unleashed into this, my first experience in a Japanese city. One short taxi ride later, and we were dropped off at our new home for the next four days: The Millennials Hostel.
The name can give you a relatively good indication about the overall vibe of this place. Young professionals in cotton scarves calmly clattered away on keyboards in the communal area. Wide-eyed bearded web designers roared in friendly debate over optimal Bitcoin investment strategies, as British indie rock gently blared over the loudspeakers.
Kia was rather unimpressed at the whole affair. I think he’d fallen in love with the rustic, drunken charms of our previous accommodation. All I needed to win me over was the clean, private rooms, the adjustable beds and the solid WiFi connection. That coupled with the unlimited free beer served every day between 5:30pm and 6:30pm – I was more than sold.
Suffice to say, the free beer hour is where we made the majority of our new friends. One of the most notable segments in that crowd were taking part in a program called Remote Year. Essentially, this is an organization which takes groups of people, all with the skills and opportunity to work remotely, and organizes a 12 month, 12 country tour for them to take.
To clarify, the program itself does not train people to work remotely, nor does it help them find work directly. The program simply arranges the flights, accommodations and finds spaces where they can work. Essentially, Remote Year handles the logistics, and leaves the members to do as they please. The Millennials hostel was another one of these work spaces, and they weren’t actually staying there. As far as I could tell, they came to work on the comfortable couches, meet other travelers, and partake in the free beer hour (can’t fault them for that)
Naturally, I was curious about this program. Near the end of my visit to Kyoto, I asked a small sample of them for an interview.
On our first night we had showed up pretty late, so after drinking as much free beer as we could, we decided to lace up and explore the area around our hostel. Located right next to the Kamo river, we were essentially in the Western/Central area of the downtown core, an area zigzagged with shopping arcades and restaurants. With most of the proper tourist sites being closed for the day, we decided to hit the streets and see what the people of Kyoto do after dark.
After exploring the shopping areas, we decided to check out the streets closer to the river. There we encountered a tight maze of alleys and wooden tiled roofs. The compressed mishmash of merchants and izakayas (Japanese Pubs), was so densely packed it reminded me of some sort of Oriental Amsterdam
For more than one reason.
Bright pink signs of neon soon appeared out of the darkened woodwork, promising in broken English some of the most provocatively worded phrases to ever be hastily run through Google Translate (and clearly not double-checked, I might add). What we had stumbled upon was Kyoto’s discretely famous Red Light district, in all of its pink pastel glory.
A few blocks later still, and were passed through one of Kyoto’s 1600 Shinto/Buddhist temples. Young children smudged themselves with heavy incense while the elderly tossed coins into a wooden receptacle at the base of the shrine. They would then ring a bell and clap twice, muttering a brief prayer before shuffling off for the next worshiper to take their place.
The contrast was jarring, but such is the reality of Kyoto. An ancient religious capital, fraught with modern vices.
Gambling is technically illegal in Japan. You cannot bet on sporting events, nor play blackjack, poker, or roulette (although there are speculations that this will change for the 2020 Olympic Games). What they do have is Pachinko.
How does it work? No one knows!
Basically, you pour in your hard-earned yen coins, pull a lever, and then frantically hit buttons for the chance to win steel ball bearings. After collecting your fill, you then take your beloved bearings across the hall to a totally separate business which just happens to LOVE ball bearings. They’ll then pay you in cash for them. Nothing like gambling whatsoever.
The next day, we awoke to a winter storm. Due to this, we didn’t get much accomplished, aside from some much needed laundry and a brief visit to Nijō Castle. Due to the aquatic weather conditions, I found myself greatly preferring the indoor segments (unfortunately there were no photographs allowed). However, when we did have to go outside, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the beautiful gardens surrounding the Edo era fortress.
After the castle, we went back to the hostel to change our socks. After briefly consulting the Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to check out the closest (and thankfully driest) attraction in Kyoto: The legendary Nishiki Market. Packed with tourists and steaming food stands, I’m glad I brought my appetite. As we discovered, this is a great place to enjoy Japanese street food ranging from pedestrian to exotic. At one point I ate a full (albeit tiny) octopus on a stick. It a had a quail egg inside it’s head instead of a brain! Neat!
Later that night, perhaps to make up for being rained in, or perhaps to relive the Viking-like levels of alcohol fueled savagery we’d held in Hakuba, we decided to get drunk. Polishing off a premium bottle of Sake we’d bought in Nishiki Market in 20 minutes, we spilled out into the street, new friends in tow. Our destination: Gion, the traditional district known to be the favorite haunt of legendary icons in Japan: The Geisha.
Of course, it being 11:30pm, there were (in hindsight pretty obviously) none still hanging around, and while I hate to be anticlimactic, that’s sometimes the way travelling goes. Regardless, we rolled with the punches, paraded through few izakaya’s, and finished off the evening in one of Japan’s delightful photo booths.
After saying goodnight, for better or for worse, me and Kia decided to keep the party going. Memory at this point becomes hazy, but I do have a few photos to remind me of the general ebb and flow from that point on. The first and final stop for our private after party: tiny karaoke bar.
There is an extremely embarrassing video from that night of me and Kia totally butchering Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It is so cringy that I will not be posting it on the blog at this time. We were so tone deaf that afterward our performance, the bar staff reached over and took the karaoke computer away, stashing it safely behind the bar.
The time for singing had passed, but luckily, nothing really mattered … To meeee.
Much to the relief of the bar staff, we managed to stumble home at around 5am. This was probably the drunkest I’d been on the whole trip. The type of drunk where the world shook violently beneath out feet, and the only choice was to carry, (and to be carried) by the friend standing next to you, all the while singing Irish sea shanties.
What shall we do with the drunken sailor What shall we do with the drunken sailor Early in the morning
And indeed it was, early in the morning.
We were pretty rough the next day. Arising sometime around noon, we were still drunk from the night before, a condition we remedied by eating scrambled eggs with fried Kobe beef. Shortly after consulting the hallowed Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided the best use of our late start would be the Southern Higashiyama walking tour, which covers many of Kyoto’s top landmarks in one convenient path, with the starting point somewhat nearby to our hostel.
From that point on. we commuted most places via bicycle. Taking the subway only allows you two fixed points of experience: where you enter the train and where you get out. You inevitably lose half the enjoyment of traversing the city to the identical underground halls of train stations. Believe me, the language over the loudspeaker may differ, but if you’ve seen one underground train system, you’ve seen them all. If weather permits, Kyoto is definitely a city to be experienced by bicycle. We managed it in the dead of winter so, your excuses are limited.
The first stretch of the walk was made up by a massive cemetery. Thousands of stone obelisks stood stark against the grey sky like some sort of miniature city for the deceased. As we left, I turned around and saw a lone Japanese man trudging up the hill. He must have been in his late 70’s, and was carrying flowers. Later in the walk, Kia confided in me that he had lit a prayer candle back at the cemetery temple. The wind had immediately kicked up and blew it out, as if to say, like a blunt Tokyo bouncer “No. This is for Japanese only.”
I’ve checked in with several Japanese sources, and I can confirm that we were okay to take photographs, so long as they were respectful in nature. Not being entirely clear on what that meant, we took as few as possible, and kept our faces stony and serious in all of them. However, that doesn’t mean that people walking through the park previously had the same idea…
A short walk later, and we had made it to the first massive temple along our walking route: Kiyomizu-dera. A colourful mix of tourists and worshipers made their way up the worn stone steps, while young girls in bright Yukutas (see below) crowded around selfie sticks. Video-bloggers with excessive, shoulder mounted Go-Pro’s pushed their way through the crowds, and children begged their parents to stop for matcha ice cream.
Little did I know, the temple we were about to enter held beneath its floors a pitch-black tunnel. This is the place which would play host to my first (and utterly unexpected) religious experience in Japan.
Japan hides under it’s kawaii cloak some of the most fantastic and bizarre creatures to ever ascend from the pits of human imagination. In Japanese, they called “Yōkai”, and these are some of my favorites.
“Sokokuradani no Akaname” by Utagawa Yoshikazu
Bathing is an integral part of Japanese culture. Public bath-houses or “Onsens” are a indispensable component of any self respecting Japanese village, dating back for well over a thousand years, with the earliest on record being the Dogo Onsen in 712 AD, on the island of Shikoku.
Steam mysteriously floating through the air, coupled with a rigid expectation of silence. Social pressure, and the cryptic echo of drips allow the imagination to run wild, causing the condensation our most paranoid thoughts, no better personified than the creature which haunts the glistening walls of Japanese bathhouses: The Akaname.
“Akaneme” by Toriyama Sekien
First depicted in classical yōkai illustrations as monstrously deformed children laying in baths, extending hideously long tongues, these creatures were first drawn with no explanation given, leaving their true nature open to interpretation. Entered into the Edo-period book, Kokon Hyakumonogatari Hyōban, and they are first given the name “Akaneburi”, with the word “neburi” meaning “to lick”.
According to this, and later entries regarding them, Akaname reside in the sunken corners of dilapidated old bathhouses, surviving by slurping up the filth left behind by dirty bathers and lazy onsen staff. The moral hiding at the centre of this ghoulish tale is simple: Keep your bathhouse clean!
Modern imagining of the Akaname by Matthew Meyer
Historically speaking, during the time these tales were written, it was suspected that all living things survived by consuming the substance which spawned them. Lice eat dirt, and at the time they were believed to have come from dirt, so too was the Akaname thought come into existence: Manifested as congealed grime, born from and feasting on its environment, all the while disgusting those unfortunate enough to stumble upon it.
Duo of Kappa, seen here capturing an unfortunate swimmer
When it comes to mythological creatures from Japan, few are as quintessential and well recognized as The Kappa. Translated literally as “River Child”, they are said to dwell in the waters close-by to human settlements, and were often used to explain drowning victims who would be found dead with no outward signs of trauma.
Kappa by Katsushika Hokusai
Some believe the story of the Kappa is based on the Japanese giant salamander. Still others maintain it’s legend formed around sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter, which was known to stand upright, and could have easily confused a panicked person into thinking they’d seen a monster. It could have been a combination of the two, mixing separate reports from different areas to create one creature, but as such its true origins are unknown, and will likely remain so.
Regardless of their true source, the Kappa legend did serve one undeniable function: as a fable to teach young children of the dangers from playing in rivers. I’m sure it was an effective deterrent, because there is one behavior particular to the Kappa I have neglected to mention till now, and it is one that would be sure to frighten even the savviest of boatmen, let alone small children …
At the time, it was believed that (and please bear with me here) the human soul was located inside a small ball called a shirikodama. This precious little item was purportedly held deepinside the human body, specifically … inside the anus.
This rare delicacy was reported to be the Kappas favorite snack, and they would do anything to get it, tearing them out of anyone unfortunate enough to swim near their dens. This part of the legend would also be used to explain loose bowels sometimes found in drowning victims. It is possible that this aspect of the tale presented another point of moral guidance for its intended audience: Don’t shit in the river nearby to town.
Modern times have seen unexpected transformation of the Kappa from hated river rapist to lovable pop-culture icon. You can now see them plastered on businesses and products of all varieties. There is even a whole street in Tokyo named after them, Kappabashi-dori, where store-fronts have taken them on as their official mascots, emblazoning the Kappa’s image on everything from coffee mugs to pork buns.
For these reasons one could argue that the Kappa has become the most successful Yōkai of all time, still recognized and remembered by Japanese people today. But it has done so at great expense, foregoing its dignity as a horrifying monster, and transforming from kowai (scary) to kawaii (cute), in just a few short generations. Hallowed beasts of old, tremble in fear before your new master: Folk-culturally exploitative marketing managers.
As you may have already gathered, moral guidance and social control play a central role in the function of Yōkai stories. That being said, we now come to a creature which no better epitomizes that function. They have been used to horrify and discipline children in the Oga Peninsula in Northern Honshu for countless generations, and they are called the Namahage.
Unlike the Kappa, these monsters have a specific root legend, well known in the Oga area from which they come. The story goes that when Chinese Emperor Wu of Han (born 141 BC) came to Japan, he brought along with him five demonic ogres (or “Oni”). After the visit, these ogres decided to stay, establishing homes in the two nearby mountains of Honzan and Shinzan. Specific details regarding this story vary from that point on.
What I can tell you however, is that every year during koshōgatsu (the first full moon of the New Year), young men in grass leggings, wearing horrifying masks and brandishing torches, descend upon local villages, and (much to the surprisingly relaxed amusement of their parents) scream at and terrify little children. What these kids don’t know is that these actors are often working in accordance with local parents. Sometimes they will even request that the actors impart specific lessons on their children during these highly ritualized nighttime “raids”, everything from better grades in school to brushing their teeth more.
Despite their hideous appearance and ferocious behavior, some older Shinto legends suggest that the Namahage are actually benevolent spirits, acting in the employ of the sacred mountain God’s (The “Kami”). They are sent to punish those who are lazy or wicked, bringing dishonor to the region. The Namahage derive their name from “Namomi”, which is the regional term for heat blisters, which would most typically afflict those who have lazily spent the winter huddled around the fire. “Namomi ko hagetaka yo?” – meaning “Have your blisters peeled yet?!” would be one of the most iconic phrases used by the Namahage to ridicule layabouts.
It’s the Eastern Ying to the Yang of Western Santa Claus. “Do exactly as your parents say, otherwise ogres will come and eat you.” Simple enough. In a society where strict familial hierarchy is paramount, and people are zealously bound colour within the lines of socially acceptable behavior, such traditions are not all that surprising, but nonetheless shocking to see in action.
Below is a video (not my own) of what goes on during a Namahage festival.
Perfectly acceptable parenting style, or borderline child abuse? You decide! Cultural relativism is important to keep in mind here