Still haven’t been up the thing. Must get onto that the next fine day we have.
You’ll just have to make do with this image of another right wing nut job, the current Tokyo governor, Naoki Inose, who may recently have lost Tokyo its Olympic bid. Until recently he also lived in my town and could often be seen walking around on his tiny little feet.
No-one knows his name. At least no-one I know does. Indeed no-one I know has even seen his face and that despite my good friend, Adrian Storey having makd what looks like an amazing documentary about the artist known as 281 Anti nuke.
This link is only to the documentary trailer but even those few minutes are exciting enough. Cannot wait to see the whole thing.
Will have to wait until it has been through the documentary film contests grinder and, fingers-crossed, won a few richly deserved awards and rewards along the way.
I love Japanese festivals and especially ones that involve carrying a mikoshi around. A few weeks after I arrived in Japan I was wondering the streets of my neighbourhood when I stumbled across the local Aki Matsuri or Autumn festival. Now I was new in Japan and that day I learnt a lot of new words for the mayhem of these events: Words like mikoshi (portable shrine), tabi (festival jackets), “washoi!” (which as far as I know means nothing and is just chanted when people are carrying mikoshi during the festival) and even the word matsuri (which means festival) itself. It was such a magical, unexpected pleasure in a country that was leaving me, at that time, quite lonely, bored and poor. I could join in the fun of the festival without spending money and it had all the colour and unfamiliarity of the travelling life I had just left behind when I moved here. In short it was best day in Japan up to then and I have had a soft spot for this part of Japanese culture ever since.
The Kanda matsuri is one of the three great Shinto festivals of Japan and takes place on odd numbered years in the streets around Kanda. I had never been to it before and it made the news this year as it was returning after a four year hiatus caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku on March 11th 2011. I just had to go.
Also friends of my sons had relatives involved in the matsuri so we could really join in. Indeed I could not avoid joining in.
I have carried a mikoshi before and know from that experience that firstly they are really heavy and secondly that I am apparently genetically unable to get into the rhythm of the carry due to the fact that I am just that bit taller and my legs that bit longer than most of the other people I’m having to share the burden with. If you can’t get the “washoi!” beat going as you carry the mikoshi you can guarantee some nasty shoulder bruises in a very short while. My first experience found me under the sharp-edged wooden beams, that support the mikoshi’s weight, performing some very ungainly, bandy legged waddle in an effort to lower my shoulders to the same level as everyone elses. This of course also made my thighs scream in pain and my hips twist uncomfortably.
Those memories were still fresh when I was pulled from the crowd by well-meaning but obviously sadistic new friends and thrust under those same, sharp beams yesterday. I tried to get the rhythm I really did: I held onto the man in front and even a mumbled “washoi!” left my lips. The person behind helpfully and perhaps angrily adjusted my posture every time my head dropped a little too far or my arse stuck out a little too much. But try as I might I just couldn’t get the same bounce in my step as they could. My legs had to bend that bit more to travel the same vertical distance as theirs; there was a delay: I couldn’t move up with the ups and down with the down as well as they could and the weight of the mikoshi smashed again and again and again and again into my shoulder.
My sons were smiling at me, proud and photographing madly. Yet I was in agony. I stuck it out as long as I could: I wanted to make them proud of course, but my clown legs meant clown feet spread wide and as we moved the mikoshi around a corner I couldn’t follow the shuffled steps; my feet seemed seven sizes bigger and caught on the heels of the man in front and the toes of person behind.
It hurt, I looked like an idiot and though they smiled and said “don’t worry” I am sure my accidental removal of most of my neighbours footwear, multiple times, was somewhat annoying.
But at the rest stop the food and rink was generous and friendly. My kids and their friends had a ball. And I was free now, having done my part to photograph, up close, with my mikoshi colleagues.
Exhausted and bruised but a great day out all the same.
As I wrote before; the ability of kids to make the best of these less than ideal living conditions still never fails to impress me: both the strength of the Tohoku people and the underestimated determination and sensitivity of the children themselves.
It is sometimes harder for the adults: the houses are small and noisy;privacy is minimal and they have the memories and the greater sense of loss. But the kids adapt quickly it seems and their happiness must be something that keeps the people who look after them going through bad times that were promised to have been over by now.
Busy on other Fukushima stories that I can’t show you until the client has used them.
Been a great couple of weeks of some quite amazing encounters.
Cars can no longer cross the bridge in Tomoioka Bay. The earthquake dropped it about 30 centimetres and on the other side the radiation climbs rapidly. We walked across on our last day in Fukushima. It was a windy day and the sound of the wind howling through the arches and railing of the bridge was unsettling. Indeed it would have been hard to find a scarier soundtrack for the foolish steps we took into this empty, overgrown place. We were about 7 kilometres from the Daichi nuclear power station and had we been stupid enough to leave the road and wander the paths through the highly radioactive undergrowth to a nearby hilltop, we could probably have seen.
Hillside, forest and craggy coastlines. A nice place to live before the events of March 11th 2011 which made the encounter I had above more poignant. I saw this couple dressed in makeshift radiation suits photographing the area as I crossed the bridge.
“is this your house?” I asked the man as I got closer and he had started to leave.
“Yes it is.” he said.
Then he turned and looked at the house and in the saddest tone I’ve ever heard said “Bye Bye”
He said no more, he didn’t need to.
He crossed back over the bridge, pausing one last time to look at his house, perhaps for the last time ever. Then he went down and we carried on into a place where there have been many similar, sad good-byes.
More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone at my archive here:
One of the things we have seen in Fukushima a lot, both inside and outside the exclusion zone, is the decontaminated earth and undergrowth piled up in vinyl bags. The government has decided to reduce the radioactivity of the soil around the Fukushima Daichi plant exclusion zone by removing the top two or three centimetres of soil. The aim is to reduce the contamination levels in affected areas to under one millisievert an hour.
Farmland and residential areas are all to be scraped clean and many of Fukushima’s mountain areas (which accounts for around 60-70% of the contaminated land) will have 20 metres either side of every road cleared. This is what is happening in the image above near the village of Katsurao.
Some estimates put the total clean up area at 13% of the Prefecture: over 100 million cubic metres of soil and brush that so far is being stored in growing mountains of blue and black vinyl bags dotted around the countryside. Many of these are slowly being transported to special depots but some of the strict safeguards necessary to clean the area are already being ignored at this report in the Asahi Shimbun exposes.
Indeed, though technological solutions were promised to both speed-up and improve the decontamination work and companies that have expertise in dealing with such situation were invited to demonstrate their techniques; the job is mostly still being done by hand and the tools the workers can use are routinely primitive to say the least.
The Japanese government initially set aside 650 billion Yen for the decontamination but the area and the costs have risen beyond expectations. Corners are almost certainly being cut to save costs. Not least of these is in protecting the people doing the hard, dirty work of raking through the undergrowth and picking up the soil and leaves are putting them into the bags themselves. We saw no radiation suits or proper masks being worn. Indeed the most common mask we saw worn inside the zone, be they returning residents, clean up workers or policemen, was the next to useless hayfever paper mask that cost pennies in every convenience store. Some on the cleanup crew wore no masks at all! When we asked a not too happy security guard if the radiation was high in the trees and safe he said they measured it everyday and it was less than 0.6 microsieviets an hour (the Government reading). Yet if this was true why bother cleaning the area at all, it was already under the level that was the target of the action? Our Geiger counter read 1.57 microsieverts an hour on the road near where they were working. I cannot imagine what the readings must have been in the mud and leaves of the forest.
Whether this clean-up is for real or not is something I am unclear about. There are people returning to the Fukushima countryside for sure and a lot of the land in parks and schools and areas where people have quickly returned to now has a dry, dusty brown colour where the topsoil has already been removed. But the decontamination of the Prefecture’s mountains just looks like so much window dressing to me. Perhaps it will go on just long enough to convince people that efforts are being made to clean-up the mess and than will be quietly forgotten. It would take hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, to complete remove the top layer of the soil in the affected area of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures. A school playground can effectively been cleaned perhaps but the bottom twenty metres of a slope will easily be contaminated again the next time it rains anywhere on the slopes above. The project seems pointless to me: designed more to suggest it is now safe to return to the area; that nuclear pollution is actually easy to remove and thus nuclear energy itself is no longer something Japanese people should fear. This will of course make it easy for the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to follow through on its stated aim of building more nuclear power-stations.
Anyway it’s late I have another photo job tomorrow in Soma, north of the zone. And need to get some sleep.
The emperor of Japan visited the Kawauchi Elementary School last Autumn. There is a commemorative stone near the entrance to mark the event. The school children run past it on the way into school in the morning and out again in the afternoon. If they notice it they seem not to react to the honour. It makes their school special for parents and newspapers. But for the kids, their is school is special anyway.
The building is spacious and airy; the windows large and the floors and ceilings all polished wood and beams. The building is very beautiful but that is not what makes the school special. At 3:30pm as the school day finishes, the teachers (all of who seem to be quite young and wearing tracksuits) walk the children out, past the Emperor’s stone, and line them up to wait for the buses to take them home. The yellow-hatted first graders giggle and squirm as they wait. Noisy and naughty like six-year olds everywhere they are feral at this time of day and after climbing onto the buses rattle around the insides looking for distractions. Indeed as the teachers wave them good-bye, two small hands flap against the back window of the second bus; wishing the teachers desperate farewells. The hands are small against the emptiness of the bus’s back seats, the boy and girl, unable to continue the amusements of the queue in their isolation, look sad to be leaving. They are the only two children on the bus and they have nothing to do but wave. They are heading home to a town in a landscape that does not have a lot of young children anymore. This time two years ago in fact no one lived here at all.
After the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011 the town of Kawauchi swelled as it took in over a thousand homeless people from Tomioka on the coast. The tsunami could not reach this hill town of course but the sound of the explosions at the nearby Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant could and by March 15th the town was empty due to fear of radiation.
Yet Kawauchi is slowly recovering now it seems. One of the first places affected by radiation to re-open, the contamination readings are quite low and people are starting to make their lives here again. A lot of the topsoil has been removed and people are planting crops and setting up homes among the fields once more. A vegetable factory recently opened. Though if the area can ever regain the trust of the food consumer remains to be seen but there is hope that Kawauchi’s famous mushrooms will be a favourite of Japanese dishes as before. Most importantly however is the fact that some children have returned.
Even before the Fukushima disaster rural Tohoku had a problem with shrinking and ageing populations. Fears of radioactive contamination, and pointedly its effect on children, has unfortunately kept many from returning after they evacuated. In 2011 the number of students at the school stood at 114. This year there are only 24 across the first 6 grades. The first grade has a mere seven students: five boys and one girl. Grades three and four however have just one student each.
The teachers, all of whom were sent to the town from other areas of Fukushima when the school opened in April 2012, seem genuinely to love their posting here. Living in a school apartment building with other teachers from the elementary school and nearby junior high school and away from family and friends who are often in distant parts of the prefecture, they take the care of these kids very seriously. That reopening year there were only 16 students yet they have been surprised at how easily the kids have coped with the trauma of evacuation and a somewhat lonely return. Only one child was unable to get over the sounds of the explosions at the plant: Every-time it would thunder she would get very scared. All the teachers and other staff had to help her; talk to her; tell her it was going to be okay. It took just two weeks for the girl to believe them.
There is a deep skill and love in their teaching here. They know that the children are missing out on the normality of many friends and classmates and it is difficult for them so they fill in the spaces with a generosity of spirit that is humbling. We watched children practising athletics in the dusty, de-contaminated sports field. Athletics is a sport that individuals can do against the clock or each other because there are not enough students for a football or baseball team. All the teachers I met in this school seemed very genuine and gentle. Most importantly though they seemed to recognise that the children themselves were special. Just dealing with unreality of their school days here on the edges of the Fukushima exclusion zone takes a degree of bravery and determination that many children could not easily match.
The sun may have been out and the ground drier but due to the fact that not many people have been in the two years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the scenes of destruction in Tomioka were very reminiscent of the time I was working in Iwate just after the disaster. Add in some radioactivity and you have a nightmarish landscape that was just a little too familiar to be comfortable.
Off out to the zone again today.
More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima exclusion zone at my archive site here:
A freaky, frightening kind of day in areas that are pretty unchanged since the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011.
Shooting up here for the week.
More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima exclusion zone at my archive site here.
Interesting piece by Nathalie Kyoko Stucky here on Koji Kitahara, a farmer from the Chiba District of Tokyo who has been fighting against the construction of Narita Airport for more than 40 years.
The airport is of course built and operating and many people might wonder why he doesn’t accept that, take the generous compensation offered for his land and give up the fight. After all Narita’s runways and terminal buildings are a fact of life in modern Japan and there is no likelihood of them disappearing and the fields of rice and potatoes returning any time soon.
But then again the historical malfeasance of the Japanese Government and airport authorities in the appropriation of the local farmers’ lands and the intimidation and casualties, even deaths, that resulted when some resisted the airport’s construction is something that should not be forgotten and something that Kitahara San still tries to inform people about.
I have photographed him at many left-wing demos and conferences, (photo above) and always thought the struggle he represents a little bit pointless given the existence of the airport. But reading this piece , though I was not surprised to find the Government and construction companies had acted so badly and abused the farmers, I became a little more understanding of the Kitahara San’s reasons to not give up. He may never get the fields back but the intimidation of those that mourn their loss, or those that are currently resisting the same bullying expansion of the airport, continues to this day and this is worth fighting. Far from being anachronistic his struggle is the the timeless one of little, ordinary people against the power of politicians and corporations that feel they can do what they want.
A struggle that is perhaps even more valid today than 40 years ago.
Yes it’s silly and a bit strange but it is also harmless fun and if it works and makes people happier and able to forget their bad situations for a time, I think it is wonderful.
More power to his moonwalk and primal screams I say.
Will be shooting more of his work I am sure. And the other Michael behind too.
When out shooting it is always a good idea to take a few snaps of any landmarks and interesting buildings and businesses you come across. My collection of images of Japanese left wing protests or old ladies in Tokyo’s Sugamo district, though very satisfying to shoot sometimes and part of longer projects, might not exactly get the editors to spend money regularly. Some of course do but it is rather a niche market and by that I mean an impoverished one.
But stock images of Tokyo’s famous buildings and unique fashions always sell. Like the one of the Tokyo central court above that has just been bought by a publication in China. A “little” extra money coming through is always nice. Especially at the moment:
Because I will be heading up to Fukushima in a week for a full week of shooting my own projects and a couple of other jobs also.
Getting excited by the research now.
Been doing a lot of reading up on robotics and haptic technologies over the last month or so for several stories I’m working on.
Interesting. The age of robots is really here.
Should we be afraid?
Look at the picture above and you tell me.
Then look at this article and think some more.
The occupy Kasumigasaki anti-nuclear camp outside the offices of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is facing a tough future. Just a few day after they returned to power in November 2012 the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), erected barriers around the camp and installed surveillance cameras to keep an eye on the activists. On March 29th they served Taichi Shosei and Taro Fuchigami with a court order that effectivley bankrupts the protest. As tent ‘owners’ these two protester have been charged with the illegal occupation of government land and have to pay rent for its use. The rent has been calculated at around 20,000 Yen a day and has also been backdated to the beginning of the protest in September 2011. After 581 days of protest (as of Sunday) this intimidating charge now stands at over 11 million Yen.
The first court hearing in this case, which is being fought in a civil court, will take place on May 23rd. Meanwhile the protester continue to fight for the existence of the camp understanding it significance as a focus for the wider, and now widely ignored, anti-nuclear power movement. Taro Fuchigami, (pictured in the baseball cap above) he has just returned from a meeting with METI officials in an effort to get the barriers around the camp removed in increase safer access.
Had a walk around the Japanese Ministry of Defence yesterday, seeing if I could get a picture of of the Patriot 3 interceptor missiles that have been deployed there to shoot down any Japan bound North Korean missiles (hopefully). Pretty difficult to get any sort of a view as a freelancer. Spoke to some Reuters guys who told me the process was laborious. So though the image above is not a great photo of the details of the launchers themselves think it nicely sums up the distant unreality of the situation we are living through now with North Korean brinkmanship.
Indeed this report in the Atlantic Wire says that Japan is Target number one if there is any launch. Calling Kim Jong Un‘s bluff on this is a difficult thing to do in a city as large and populous as Tokyo.
Anyway the Ministry is huge. I found it quite amazing that a country that doesn’t officially have an Army, Navy or Air Force needs quite so much space.
If we haven’t been attacked by North Korea anyway.
Rather lonely looking orangutang in Tama Zoo yesterday.
Reminded me of images of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
Sakura or cherry blossom season will soon be here.
To the Japanese this is something that often makes the lead story on the news.
This tree near my house is in a private garden, but is illuminated and the owners of the house even let visitors walk around their property to admire the, I admit, quite impressive tree. I am sure I will enjoy and shoot some of the Hanami parties that accompany the full blossoming in a few weeks time.
Off to work
Travelling on the Tokyo Toyoko Line tonight from Yokohama to Shibuya to go see a friend’s exhibition of photos from the tsunami; I couldn’t help noticing that lots of people were taking pictures of the train. As we neared Shibuya the number of photographers on street, fire-escapes and bridges just became ridiculous.
Getting off at Shibuya was manic: people with cameras were everywhere.
Turns out is was this.
Soon as I found out, took a few shots.
A lot of people came to say good-bye. By accident I was one of them.
The Tokyu security was gentle with the sentimentality of the throng of people busily recording every last detail of the station, but noisy as all security in Japan tends to be.
This good-bye is over due however. It is 1am and i am sleepy.
Was busy yesterday but wanted to remember something about the events of two years ago on this blog. Amazing how life goes on so normally; how we are busy; how we worry about different things now when just two years ago yesterday our minds were concentrated on one event only.
The power of the earthquake was shocking, even in Tokyo. In the photo above you can see old and young, men and women bedding down in the foyer of a bank, late at night. The bank had stayed open to let people trapped by transport stoppages, find a place to rest. It was an humbling day of collective stoicism that has forever changed my view on the Japanese.
A few days later while working in Iwate with the Daily Mirror journalist, Tom Parry I met people picking their lives and losses out of the mud of the tsunami. I had never met people who just had the ability to carry-on like that before. Memories were strewn across the flattened coast and for those that survived, harsher ones replaced them. It was as I said at the time, on my first day there, a day of boats in fields and houses in the sea, and also one of a recovering hope in human nature and respect for the raw power of nature itself.
What I didn’t do at the time of course was visit Fukushima. the earthquake and tsunami caused the now famous problems at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant. At the time fears of imminent nuclear catastrophe kept most sensible people away. Mis-information and out-right lies by the government and TEPCO worried and falsely reassured us in equal measure. Only a few months later as the borders of the 20 kilometre exclusions zone shut tight did I venture to its edges and record the struggle the people of that area are having as they adjust to the new reality. It is the elephant in the room: a massive, ugly thought that invades all references to the place. It is fear and loss. Perhaps not as clearly understood and obvious at the tsunami damaged towns along the coast. But even sadder in some ways. Among the poisoned fields are places that are still beautiful, still missing the people that could so easily return to them if the “beep! beep! beep!” of the Geiger counter didn’t advise them of the opposite.
Again here I have met people that though angrier (this was a man-made disaster after all and identifiable individuals and companies are culpable), are nevertheless just struggling through; just trying to make the best of what is left them, and are even succeeding in that it seems, like the Arigato Farm Project of Iwaki in the image above which is trying to make farming a local, reliable business again.
Their stories will be occupying me for the foreseeable future. Because as we move on from that time and the memories dim; the fears, empathy, anger and sense of awe at both the power of nature and our own human strengths we felt will fade also. It was a horrible time and I hope to never repeat it in my life. Yet it was a time I ma glad I lived through and got to experience first-hand for the very real understandings it gave me on the priorities of my life and the futures of the world we all inhabit. I hope never to forget those feelings
As I am lucky enough to call him a friend, I know most of the back story outlined here in this piece about photographer and film-maker Adrian Storey, also known as Uchujin
But just in case the name is new to you have a read and check out some of his amazing work at the uchujin website .
His ambitions clear in the globe he’s carrying.
Love who can run into in Shibuya.
Nice guy, wish him luck with World domination.
Busy at the moment but…
Been very busy of late, lots of stories to work on and leads to follow, looking like an exciting time over the next few weeks. But as today is a grey, cold day, thought I would spend some time indoors catching up on work and having a bit of a plan to make it all fit into my limited free time.
As I have nothing new to report at this moment (all the balls are in the air at this time) I thought I would share some older adventures with you again.
More images of Minang Kabau bullfights in Sumatra can been found at my archive here.
The opelet bounces hard sending a shock of metal through our bodies, a shock that seems hardly dampened by the thin foam covering on the seats and the aging, shiny vinyl that is gluing us in place, despite the shaking, with its history of sweat. There is something about travelling the roads of Asia that finds a thrill in un-comfortable exploration and as yet another blunting pot-hole throws us all together in the back, juggling our kidneys and shaving layers of enamel off our teeth, it would be true to say that I am having a really good time. Not that this is the perfect way to travel of course, in fact it is a terrible way to go anywhere: being cramped, crowded, painful, noisy, dangerous and polluting. It is, however, very friendly: public transport in Asia always surprises you with just how many paying customers can be squeezed into it and these tiny mini-buses are no exception.
Most of my fifteen or so fellow travellers this evening are local farmers for who this bruising commute has probably lost all its charm. If it ever had any in the first place. They do not complain though and seem hardly to notice the discomfort. They are all rough-faced old men with countryside grime worked permanently into the lines of their smiles and the creases of their necks. Their hands are similarly stained, large and very strong, with fingers like burnt sausages that grip their knees as they sit, with a straight-armed dignity, against the contours of the road. On their heads sit tall farmer’s hats, brushed clean for today, yet polished raw at the brim, and as old friends squeeze aboard at the next stop they nod them down, ever so slightly, in a quick greeting before shuffling up to make room. It is a tight fit and as we settle, inching out a degree of comfort and pulling jacket sides from under the legs of our neighbours, then the engine starts in a cloud of diesel and we are off again holding ourselves stiffly against each other until a final, noisy shudder signals our arrival at Kota Baru.
The rackety engine cuts off suddenly, like an amputation of hearing and fills the back of the opelet with the ticking sound of its cooling. The passengers stand suddenly, nod to each other again and shuffle towards the back door where an excited, seismic murmur is coming from the crowd outside; which the passengers, after paying their fare, jump down into. Pulling their hats hard over their eyes, to hide the school-boy excitement that has caught their faces, they disappear quickly into the throng that is queuing up to enter the field, adding their own voices to the shouted greetings, relieved stretches and noisy arguments that colour the air. I jump down after them, pay the driver his required Rupieh, and follow the farmers into the field.
Tuesday night and Saturday night are bullfighting nights in the countryside around Bukittinggi on the island of Sumatra. These competitions are well known and popular in the local Minang Kabau culture, as indeed are versions of them all over Asia and I had come to the small village of Kota Baru this Tuesday evening to see what all the fuss was about.
The crowd opens up as it entered the field, some of the men quickly finding their places on the low bank that runs along one-side and acts as a sort of grandstand. Many others though seem to be making their way to one or another of the four corners of the field and I walk with them to where they are gathered in circles around the sleek, black bulk of the bulls.
“This one very strong.” says Nasir when he finds me admiring one of the bulls. “Good gamble. Good win, it is not famous.” Apparently the bull I have been looking at is the under-dog though it looks unlike any second choice I’ve ever seen; being so massive and so swollen with muscles that it looks like a boulder. Brawn isn’t everything though he explains. “Good head this bull. Just watch it. I think this one will be the winner. He has a good head.”
“A good head?”
“Smart. Very good head. Look at the eyes.”
I look but see nothing but bull.
“Good head.” he searches for the word. “Clever.”
He is quite convincing.
“Is this the one you’ll bet on then?” I ask.
“Ah!” he says and motions for me to follow him as we walk across the field to the opposite corner. Many people are on this path and the route is like a river flowing fast in both directions. Where money is involved (this whole event is about gambling though technically that particular vice is illegal here) it is always best to have the bigger picture. So with no time to lose as the evening is drawing in, we walk quickly over to where the rival bull is waiting. If it is possible to be even more impressed, I am. Sleek and solid, low headed and extravagantly horned it is, perhaps, the quintessential bull and has a large ring of farmers and admiring gamblers surrounding it. Nasir points out the owners standing by the fence nearby who look just a little smug as they fend off the occasional compliment. This bull is the obvious favourite and is without a doubt the Mike Tyson of the bovine world. Already covered in mud as if it had been fighting in the dressing room, it is a real bruiser and, I think, the one most sensible people here are putting their money on.
“Big, “says Nasir, “But dumb. Look at its head.” I look but don’t see anything but bull there either, and a big, strong, superpower of a bull at that. Nature compensates and even if it is an idiot bull, that doesn’t mean it won’t win. The school bully was never smart but I was still scared of him. “But strong. Very strong. ”He says.
“So who do you think will win?” I ask again.
“Maybe this one.” Nasir nods. Thinks.
“What about the other one, you liked him too?”
“Yes maybe him too, very clever, but this one very strong.”
“Which is your choice?”
“Ah!…” says Nasir and changes the subject.
I have a lot to learn because bullfighting Indonesian style, it seems, is as different from the Spanish variety as it is possible to get. These animals are not the gloss, muscled monsters of afternoon corridas they are instead weighty buffalo, honed by hard work in the fields and highly valued as more than meat. These animals will not die in the fights tonight, they will merely rut, their battle as old as evolution itself.
Little escapes the expert eye of the gamblers and Nasir (who appears to be one) talks me through the finer points of buffalo anatomy in a way that would send Charles Darwin home to think again. He still hasn’t, however, implicitly told me which bull to back. He seems to favour the smaller, smarter bull, but it is hard to tell, his poker face shows nothing except a pleasure in the attention we draw. He introduces me to many friends in the crowd and I practice my Indonesian as I try to gain more tips as to which bull I should back but everyone here appears generously disposed to both bulls. Maybe they don’t know, but I have the feeling they do and are just not telling me. There is an Asian pleasure in misfortune that, as a westerner, it can be hard to fathom. It’s nothing personal of course, it’s just if I lose it will be hilarious and their day will be even better than if they win. This sense of humour was taking me some time to get used to and at times I had felt unpleasantly victimized on my travels. I was not the only source of amusement here though and as we walk around the field Nasir points out an extravagantly dressed woman sizing up one of the bulls. She stood out for a number of reasons, not least because she was a woman in this world of men. Most of the other women on the field were selling snacks and drinks. This woman was also dressed well, if a little loudly, and was haggling with the bookies as fiercely as the farmers. Nasir tells me she is well known here, a rich lady from Bukittinggi and an addicted gambler.
“…but a bad farmer, she cannot tell a good or bad bull.” He laughs. “Every week she loses a lot of money. Very good for this man.” He points to her bookie who is standing nearby grinning widely at his future.
Determined to be different from the rich lady, I want to win, I don’t want to be the butt of jokes, but I find it difficult to guess which of these two animals will triumph tonight. They both look as immovable as the three volcanoes that surround us, looming in the clouds above the field.
The fights start at sunset, which at the equator are rapid, often spectacular affairs. Tonight though the sky’s fall is rather muted and sickly; the washed out yellow of the cloudy sky hardly seeming suitable for the energy to come. You could expect blood red ribbons of cloud, drenching tones of orange and purple. The usual tropical fair. You could even demand them to signal the bout to follow; a kind of a natural `ding! `: a bell of fire for the fight’s arrival. Maybe sometimes they have that but tonight the start of the contest is sensed more in the actions of the bookies as they retreat quickly to the safer edges of the field and begin counting through the vast sums of money in the pockets of their grubby ski anoraks while a ring of minders keep the farmers away.
The bulls are also on the move and the children that have been darting through the legs of the crowd all afternoon, daring each other to get as close as possible to these animals, now find their slow approach mesmerizing and hang onto the skirts of passing women to stare. In motion the bulls are indeed majestic; their heads are thrown high and they walk with an arrogant, Sumo swagger as they are led to the centre of the field. Finally, face to face, the true measure of the competition is clear and last-minute champions are decided on, allegiances changed and the bookies sought out as new odds are argued over.
Nasir has gone to place his bet. I think I know which bull he has his money on, but though I trust his opinion there is something about the bigger bull that just shouts of victory. As the owners of the bulls come to take their leashes off and grease their horns in preparation for the fight I look hard at the man who takes my money so that I will recognize him again when it is time to collect my winnings.
The sky turns grey and there is a threat of rain in the breeze that is blowing out of the evening. Suddenly I just don’t feel lucky and wonder if I should have taken Nasir`s advice, whatever it actually was. But the time of the fight has at last arrived and whatever the outcome I am at least standing here among the farmers watching something different, unusual, and I feel far from home which is always a good thing. As the bulls are led closer, almost nose to nose the farmers are slowly inching backwards, making a growing circle around the coming fight. Getting out of the way but keeping a view, not wanting to miss anything.
Then with a shout the bulls are released. The less courageous spectators instantly run for the sides of the field. The last place you want to be at the end of one of these bouts is in the way of an escaping bull. The interested farmers and serious gamblers stay close though, stepping high footed in the mud behind their animals; urging them on to make that falling, connecting charge.
It should be a good battle. The bulls square-up and try to intimidate each other by snorting contempt, posturing and threatening to lunge forward at any moment. Both have large, incongruous-looking erections that seem pathetically pink and fragile stuck out under their craggy, black bulk. Almost like another animal hanging there, having nothing to do with the potential violence above. Or does it? No-one seems to notice though and the muddy-footed owners fiercely continue to push at the bulls` behinds or smack them sharply with bamboo canes as they scream at them to fight.
But they just stand, nose to nose, shaking with anger, jolting spasms down their necks that twitch their low heads lower; leaning further: expectant, dangerously teetering on that edge of momentum but neither making that fall across the inches that separate them; the skull cracking gravity of the rut missing tonight. Both animals it seems are unsure enough of victory to risk a charge and as they wait and wonder, we wait also.
Two minutes, three. Four and complaints and laughter begin to break out among the crowd. After about ten minutes even those closest to the bulls seem to relax and grow less wary, bored of this stale-mate. Already those that only think themselves brave are coming into the field, away from the safety of the fences and the `grandstand`, swaying their long arms confidently and making their way to the other two corners where the next bulls are waiting and the bookies are already gathering their ring of farmers.
My bull walks away in the end, giving up the fight before it even began. The smaller one watches him go, patiently enjoying the long minutes of its deluded victory before it begins to search the ground for food. The larger bull wanders over to his corner, still arrogantly swaggered, still huge and powerful looking. No longer worried by the other bull it is the owner alone that looks embarrassed as he leads him away.
Nasir finds me in the crowd, he is smiling of course and talking about the lack of fight. I daren` t tell him that I lost.
The second fight starts soon afterwards and almost as soon as the animals are facing each other. With a shout the leashes are removed and the ring of gamblers again escapes urgently to the edges of the field as the two massive heads collide with an audible ‘clunk! ‘as they send the mud splattering in a frenzy of bovine anger. This is the type of thing the farmers are used to and encouragements are shouted at the bulls from all around. Even if money is lost no one seems to mind because the energy expended in the mud in-front of them has made it all worth while.
Again you should always watch the under-dog. The bigger bull is strong that much is obvious in the ripple of muscles along its back and the push of its legs into the earth as it tries to ground the other bull into the muddy puddle that is their battleground. But the smaller one fights back with brains, turning the powerful weight of the larger bull into a pendulum of retreating balance. As the large bull crashes forward, the smaller one sinks, steadfastly into the mud, bending its legs and taking the weight of the attacking animal on it head. It then does a very clever thing; it turns its head, the horns locking, and the larger bull, whose balance is now all on slipping front legs and it own moveable head, is swung round until it finds itself falling sideways into the mud as the smaller animal shakes its horns free. This happens a number of times. The puddle deepening as a stumbling buffalo splashes its way into and out of the mud once again and turns for the fight. The smiling farmers that have stayed close are splattered with the fall-out, yet their teeth grin through it all as the larger bull crashes forward again and again.
Yet another scrambling recovery eventually tells the larger bull it has had enough and it turns to run, giving up the fight. But the smaller bull has one last indignity to offer. At the moment it turns the smaller one charges. It has waited for this moment and now, hooking its head under the back legs of the running bull, it pushes the larger animal around the field; tossing its head determined to topple it. The crowd laughs at the sight: the larger bull running on three legs with the smaller one hooked under it. It is a wary laugh though because of the possibly dangerous continuation of this struggle and the unpredictable nature of the scared bull. The owners meanwhile are running behind them trying to catch their animals and separate them by throwing blankets over the eyes of the victorious bull to disorientate it and stop any further pursuit. The fight has been won, and these expensive animals must not be allowed to injure themselves like this. It’s quite a funny sight though and the children in the crowd laugh as they too run after the bulls, imitating the flapping farmers chasing their tangled animals all over the field.
When the fights are over, the crowd gathers together in the middle of the field, for the winners to collect their bets from the bookies before they disappear into the visibly darkening night and the losers to talk over the fights and wish themselves better luck next time. Nasir finds me as I stand looking around the field, taking in the truncated volcanoes and the glimmer of lights that are beginning to pick out invisible villages in the horizons. He comes back smiling, as before, and though he doesn’t mention it I am sure he is laughing at my loss. He does tell me that the second fight was one of the best that he can remember though. In this, at least, I seem to have been very lucky.
We walk out to the village in a crowd of farmers and before I go to find an opelet to take me home Nasir shakes my hand to say goodbye.
“You have a good time?”
“Yes, very good thanks.”
He carries on shaking my hand and smiling.
“See you on Saturday then?” He asks.
You know, he just might.
The above image was in the Guardian on Friday in a travel piece about Japan’s fashion tribes.
The famed Harajuku Sundays are a thing of the past it seems these days. I haven’t been there for years but hear that the craziness has moved on somewhere else.
Images of the cos-play scene in Harajuku and the various different fashions tribes in Tokyo still sell regularly though which is nice. Realistic licensing rates with Alamy stock though have also, it appears, moved on elsewhere .
Nice start to the day however.