Tokyo Interactions: a pre-collaboration

A key part of my research trip to Japan is to check out the feasibility of collaborating with artist Megumi Ishibashi. We’ve know each other for several years – having first met when I did an exchange visit with the university she was working at – and I really like her style of re-imagining urban landscapes when we’ve walked around Tokyo together. I’m not very familiar with her working processes and her aims for her sculptural work, however, so we arranged to spend some time together doing some experiments and generally figuring out how a working relationship might shape up.

Unfortunately our time working together was reduced by illness and a few work commitments that came up however, over the course of five days we were able to explore combining interactive and sculptural elements of both our practices.

We based ourselves at Tokyo Gakugei university, where Megumi has been working part time for a few years. After getting a bit tangled up in trying to get started we decided to go for a walk around campus to look for sites where we might locate artworks.

I liked the look of this islanded set of steps surrounded by long grass:

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We also explored down little paths (this one involved ducking under lots of big spider’s webs and swatting at lots of hungry mosquitos) and had a wander around a little allotment where there seemed to be some experiemts going on with growing different varieties of rice.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The campus has quite a lot of trees and green space, so we were constantly surrounded by the sound of the insects in the trees. I finally got to see a semi/cicada up close. Boy are these things loud!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The pivot point came when Megumi suggested we visited the exhibition room of a building next to campus; she had walked past it, but didn’t really understand what they did there and was curious to find out more.

We weren’t disappointed!

The place turned out to be the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), a National Research and Development Agency, and the exhibition hall was full of things that made us go “wow!”.

The first thing we learned was that NICT is responsible for time in Japan: they do lots of work with caesium atomic clocks and calibrating the length of a second. They also determine Japan Standard Time and broadcast it across the country.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The two ladies on duty did a really good job of explaining everything to me in English and we essentially had a personal guided tour of most of the exhibition. This included microwave imagery from planes; a haptic stylus; a funky smell squirting thing that involved activated carbon, an app and me having to guess some aromas; and live visualisations of internet attacks.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We left a few hours later, a little overwhelmed but very excited by what we had learned. The tower and the big clock made a lot more sense now, too!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

I felt there were some interesting resonances between the semi and the caesium clock – vibrations, being dormant for long periods then all of the action happening in a short space of time (read more about the semi here), those amazing cooling fins…

This kind of stuck and combined with Megumi’s preference for mechanised animation (rather than electronic) in the style of Pythagoras Switch.

Pythagora Switch from cereal griego on Vimeo.

So we sketched and dripped and carved and then spent hours days trying to refine a way of popping water balloons filled with paint over a model of a semi.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Alongside this, we were also trying to find ways of triggering sounds at intervals. We’d bought a radio controlled car, hoping that that would introduce a kind of clock function and visual interest as it circled around the semi. We got this working quite well as a trigger for audio via a Bare Conductive touch board, but alas it stopped working so well once we’d ‘waterproofed’ the sensor mat with some tape.

I also made a few noisemakers that used an arduino to count the number of times a microswitch got hit by the passing car. This gave us better control over the intervals between sounds, but we didn’t quite have the set up to be able to get it mounted securely.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We also had concerns about the splashiness of the paint, so Megumi learned how to make DIY slime, which we then added colour to.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Getting the slime into the water balloons also took a certain amount of experimentation!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We’d done some really long days, so on our last day we set ourselves the deadline of 4pm and said we’d run with whatever we had working by then.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

After a few test runs with water, we were ready to add some colour to semi-san.
It (mostly) worked!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We decided to go for broke and try the slime…

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

A lot of cleaning up to do afterwards, but quite a pleasing result!

Megumi usually works intuitively from her imagination, but I think we both struggled with the lack of a context for our experiments – the sorts of information that would shape size, construction and portability decisions. We didn’t have time or the resources to make a refined, finished piece of work, but at times it felt like that’s what we were trying to achieve. We made something interesting at the end of i but, as ever with me, it was the process that I was most interested in. Megumi and I are still friends (as far as I can tell!), so that’s a positive sign given the sorts of hours we were doing in the heat and mosquitos trying to get mechanical and electrical systems to work! I’ve learned more about the way she works and that will help shape any future proposals.

We’ll be meeting up again next week to think more about art that happens outside.
Photos and videos of splatty paint are gradually going up on Flickr as internet connectivity allows…

Tokyo Interactions: Akihabara and reclaimed spaces

As part of my research into how I might go about making art in Japan, I needed to find out where to source the various microcontrollers and sensors that sometimes go into my interactive contraptions. That’ll be Akihabara then, but where to start – I remember going there a decade ago, getting a bit bewildered and leaving fairly rapidly.

Fortunately, Kaho Abe had been on a similar quest a week or so ahead of me and was able to make some recommendations, pointing me in the direction of this useful blog post, including a handy map.

Found them!

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

I expect I’d probably end up mostly ordering online, but it’s super useful to know I can buy things in the real world too, should I need to and, as Kaho pointed out, sometimes you need to be able to hear/feel how a switch thunks before you decide if it’s right for your project.

I made a purchase, just to show willing…

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

After that I wove my way back through the crowds to the station and then followed the train tracks looking for traces of artisan makers: next on the to-do list was a visit to 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan (machine translated link, more information here).

In a way that reminded me of Koganecho, small units have been constructed underneath elevated train tracks and made available to be used as shops by artists and craftspeople.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

It’s amazing what a coat of white paint will do. I just wish I had the means to take a load of lovely handmade ceramics and woodwork back home with me in my rucksack…

Next up: 3331 Arts Chiyoda.

Housed in what used to be a junior high school, 3331 is now an arts centre that hosts a variety of creative businesses, galleries, shop, cafe and events space. They also run an artists in residence programme, so I was keen to get a sense of their personality, as it were.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

It was gone 6pm by the time I got there, so some of the units had already closed, but even so the echoes of the old school made for an interesting time wandering along the corridors.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions: putting the work in

My first full day in Tokyo.

Making my way to my digs the afternoon before, I’d surfaced out of the train station to find myself at Tokyo Opera City: a place I recognised because I’ve been to the Intercommunication Center (ICC) a couple of times. The ICC is run by the telecommunications company NTT East and exhibits media art and interactive multimedia and I quite like their programming although I haven’t yet quite got to the stage where I remember this and go there by default! Anyway, making the most of being local and it being the last day of a multi-sensory sound-based exhibition I went for a look.

OTO NO BA: Sound-digging with the senses took its theme as “sound that is not only perceived with the ears, but with various other senses, or even with the whole of the body”. Being part of the kids programme, I was anticipating it being quite hands-on, and arrived prepared to prance around a bit to interact with things!

I don’t usually have to gird my loins for interactive art in this manner: I think there may be something interesting going on there where I feel more self conscious here and aware that there’s loads more potential for doing The Wrong Thing.

Grabbing the bull by the horns I jumped straight in with a bit of tambourine action and some sort of motion-tracking projection set up (ratatap, Junichi Kanebako) that responded with visuals when you made a noise with your tambourine (or bongo, or shaker…). As an interesting side observation in hindsight, I think most of the noise was being made by the gallery staff – perhaps a reminder that interactive work either needs a facilitator or to be intuitive to use?

Next I donned a stripy tabbard and approached the Border Shirtsizer (Ei Wada) to make some noise in a pleasingly loud, lo-fi, CRT, B&W, tone generator stylee.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

There was some nice experimenting to be done with jiggling/twisting/wafting to see how the changing camera view of the stripes changed the tone that was output.

After all that noise I made a beeline for touch the sound picnic (Junichi Kanebako). Ear defenders to block out a lot of the ambient noise and a sort of microphone set-up that transformed the sound signal into a buzz from a vibration motor.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It would be interesting to take this outside and through a variety of spaces, as it was quite uniformly loud in the gallery. There was a nice percussive moment when a small child ran past me, though!

For me, the star of the show was Perfumery Organ (Perfumery Organ Project) and not just because of its massive sweeping curve and assortment of small storage.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

I really like this literal take on the idea that perfumes have high and low notes. It was also very engaging trying to figure out the different mechanisms at work and general detail spotting. The organ played at 15 minute intervals and, between performances, you could pick up the little canisters on the front row and sniff the different scents. (During the performance you got buffetted by heady wafts coming from the brown bottles.)

I went to Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House in London a few months ago, but this was very different in feel.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It’s only now as I look back at the video footage that I’m starting to realise that there were a range of different mechanisms for moving the jars/blowy things into position to make the noise.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It was close to closing time by now so I removed my ear defenders and had a quick look at the main exhibition.

It made me happy to see a piece referencing Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, having only recently discovered the writing and used it in a workshop. Also this dead bug soldered windchime triggered by a Geiger counter was nice:

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It happened that I was able to book the last slot of the day for Akio Suzuki’s acoustic installation, so I settled down to listen to Kugiuchi & Water Bottle on my own, in the dark, sealed into an anechoic chamber.

I asked the assistant if the artist provided the room or if it was in their tech specs for the gallery to sort one out. It turns out that the chamber is a permanent feature of the gallery and it gets used to house different artworks as part of different exhibitions. hmmmmmmmm……

***bingle bongle ***
Incoming message from Megumi

There’s an opening event and after party at a new shared studio space, would I like to go?
It’s in Kabata *googles “Kabata”* Yikes that’s half way to Yokohama! And it’s already gone 6 o’clock. What is this place anyway?

We talked ourselves in an out of it a few times, mostly just pitching our tiredness against knowing that it would be a really relevant thing for me to go and see and that tonight would be our best chance to meet a range of people.

We got ourselves there in the end though, and the studio was pretty impressive! Some interesting work, too, slightly different to the sorts of things I usually see at artist run exhibitions.

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

I’ll direct you to the Hunch website to find out more about the artists, but mostly so you can mouse over their profile pictures, too:

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

The after party involved a few chats with people to the backdrop of steel and regular drum solos by fairy light whilst a cross between Sesame Street’s Big Bird and a mirror ball rotated above us. I met a glass artist, a lecturer in English History, and an artist who also has what sounds like quite a participatory practice – another unusual find for me in Japan, we’ve arranged to meet up and chat next week without the drum soloist…

More photos from the day here:

Tokyo Interactions: in transit

My Sapporo jaunt makes traveling around Japan by shinkansen impractical (never thought I’d say that!), so I’m doing some of my bigger journeys via domestic flights instead. I’m not entirely happy with this, but …photos!

Always interesting to get a new viewpoint on cities:

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Once we got above the cloud line I continued to snap away as the clouds were on very good form:

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Remembering the stepping stones I reproduced for the By Duddon’s Side project in the Spring, I wondered if it might be possible to do photogrammetry from a series of photos of the same clouds. Only one way to find out…

Tokyo Interactions, transit

[x lots]

Here is the result after fumbling my way through software installation and guessing the workflow:
[noodle around with dragging/clicking in the window to move the model]

I think a 3D model was always going to be limited because of not circling around to get the cloud from all angles (can’t decide if that would be fun to do or not…). I also took many more photos of these clouds shown below, but for some reason got a really flat array of points from my first attempt at rendering them.

Tokyo Interactions, transit

The 3D model above was generated from a much smaller set of photos – I was interrupted by a member of the cabin crew asking me if I wanted something to drink!

Approaching Tokyo we flew over a few islands and promontories, where I found it fascinating to see how the clouds gathered above the land masses.

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Tokyo Interactions, transit

Flickr album here:

Tokyo Interactions: the Osaka chapter

As previously noted, the title for this research project is no longer accurate but, in the absence of having had any better ideas, I’m just going to run with it. So, here’s a bit of a write up of the first few days of Tokyo Interactions, er, in Osaka.

[Actually there was a bit of a prelude in Kyoto with artist/game designer Kaho Abe and a selection of local independent game dev types, but that was mostly social and somewhat jetlagged!]

My luggage failed to make it onto the same flight as I did over to Japan from Amsterdam, so my first full day in Osaka was spent at the nearby castle, ready to hotfoot it back to our room in time for the delivery of one large rucksack and miscellaneous contents.

I love Japanese castles for their craftmanship and cunning [aka 101 beautiful ways to kill people = less nice], and they’re made all the more fascinating when an English speaker can give you a glimpse of their secrets. My collaborator Megumi Ishibashi did a great job of translating signage for me and we also chanced across ‘The Miracle Man’ at one of the outer gates talking about this puzzle-joint repair to one of the gate posts of Otemon:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

It’s really quite tricky to visualise how the bottom section was added in to replace the rotten timber (there’s a massive, appropriately castle-sized gate on top of it too, don’t forget!). Even with the model he produced from his tote bag, we couldn’t see how it worked, but he managed to deftly separate the two pieces. The solution is quite cunning and involves some sliding, but what I’m also liking is that he took the time to hand make his own model (look! You can too with this paper template!), or at least use some serious powers of persuasion so that someone else did…

Across from the gateway was this ginormous stone that had been split in two using hammer and wedges:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

Not a bad lump of stuff to use to build your wall out of. The other half from the other side of the split was there next to it too, mirroring the gentle curve on the surface.

I think Japanese wedges are of a slightly different style to Western ones (wider and shorter, perhaps), but I’m including this demo video here because it gives a sense of the process. And also because I like the role listening and waiting have to play.


Elsewhere, in one of the turrets, we admired a section of original flooring (other parts of the castle had burned after a lightning strike). As far as I could make out, this floor is usually carpeted because the skills to repair it just don’t exist amongst today’s craftspeople, but it was out and on display on the day we were there. The sort of golfball divots you can see are a trace of what I think was an adze-like tool used to prepare the surface of the planks. Something to do with the samurai needing a particular sort of non-slip surface that worked with the footwear they trained in.
Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

We went into the main castle building too and admired the suits of armour …as we wilted in the heat and humidity in our lightweight summer clothes.

Back outside again there was a chance to admire the rooflines before heading back to our digs. (Note the offset as an earthquake resisting tactic.)

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

The next day I went to the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living and had a good mooch around their reconstruction of an Edo Period Osaka street, complete with fireworks interval light show!

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

In the early evening I headed over to the Takashimaya department store and Gallery Next where my collaborator Megumi Ishibashi was exhibiting her work.

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Takashimaya of course take their cut on the sales made, but we feel we recouped some of this via some recommendations from one of the staff members (the ‘Knows Everything Man’) on how we should spend our evening.

Megumi had already introduced me to the concept of “kuidaore”, defined by WWWJDIC as “financially ruining oneself by overindulging in food and drink (as a fabled tendency of the people of Osaka)”. Counterparts in Kyoto prefer their undoing to be by fine clothes, whilst the folks over in Kobe have a thing for shoes.

It would be rude to shun the local culture, so we set out on a trail of eateries just slightly off the beaten path of the main touristy bits of the Doutonburi district.

We did pop in on the brightly lit bits too:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka kuidaore

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka kuidaore

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka kuidaore

Setting a more sombre tone the following day, I went to the Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum where the special exhibition about childhood mostly involved treachery, betrayal, sacrifice and rather a lot of death.

Nice engraving skills, though:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

That evening, before Megumi caught the night bus back to Tokyo, we popped over to Osaka Makers’ Space to check out how it was taking shape in its early stages and to try and get an initial sense of the maker scene in Japan.

We admired the arduino-controlled sign, admired the arduino-named resident cat, and also rushed outside a lot each time young T went to launch his matchstick and foil rocket! Some promising ingredients for the future, then!

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

I was also impressed by the balance between rapid prototyping tools and the facilities for wood and metal work using regular power and hand tools. It’ll be interesting to see how this space evolves over the next year or so.

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

We just had time to squeeze in some more culinary offerings at this side-street tempura restaurant.

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

I was really taken by this space for reasons I haven’t yet fully understood. The photo is taken from the street – where we waited on benches for space to be freed up at the then full counter. The hefty wooden tabletop was appreciated, but I also quite enjoyed the narrowness of it all and how we were sat right up against the sliding doors that formed the front of the restaurant.

Hope it wasn’t our fault that they were no other customers by the time we had eaten…

Tokyo Interactions

A while back I was awarded a grant from the Arts Council’s Artists’ International Development Fund to support a trip to Japan, largely to nurture seeds sown when I was out there last year with Watershed’s Playable City programme and doing my own things.

As with all good projects, since then the title of my proposal – Tokyo Interactions – has become hopelessly inaccurate as ambitions creep and good things get linked together.

I’ve just booked the final piece of my accommodation jigsaw puzzle, so hopefully all the major details are now stabilised and my trip will range from Kurashiki-shi in the West, up to Sapporo in the North. About 720 miles as the crow flies …which of course I won’t be doing.

The woman at the travel agents laughed when I enquired about the feasibility of doing Sapporo to Kurashiki-shi in one day by train. She reckoned that, even with the magnificent shinkansen, I’d be regretting my decision by about half way through. So, out with the rail pass and in with the domestic flights and night busses.

The main purpose of my trip is to work with artist Megumi Ishibashi. In December we were musing on what would happen if we combined some of the interactivity of my practice with the sculpture of her practice. Well, the plan is to find out.

Detail of 'dream U reality U phantom' installation at Gallery SEIHO, Megumi Ishibashi

Detail of ‘dream U reality U phantom’ installation at Gallery SEIHO, Megumi Ishibashi

I also have research questions around what sort of an ecosystem is out there that could support my practice in general. Most of the art I’ve encountered so far has been very much based in the system of commercial galleries, although I’m aware of a few friends – Megumi included – who have taken part in outdoor sculpture festivals. To this end I’ll also be visiting a lot of different fabrication spaces, figuring out where to buy kit, and also scoping the streets looking for opportunities to do interesting things where people aren’t necessarily expecting it. I’m looking forward to meeting up with the Playable City Tokyo crew too, as it’ll be really interesting to find out how/if last year’s workshop has infiltrated the way they do things.

I’ll also be visiting a few festivals. Sapporo International Festival is this year asking questions around critical mass with its themes of “How do we define ‘Art Festival’?” and “When Bits and Pieces Become Asterisms”. Yokohama Triennale’s theme of “Islands, Constellations and Galapagos” is similarly a way in for conversations about isolation and connectivity, whilst Koganecho Bazaar starts with “Double Façade: Multiple Ways to Encounter the Other” to express an encounter between art and local community. I’ll also spend a few days in Setouchi Triennale territory, curious about what art lingers out of season and whether places like this might be more predisposed towards unusual encounters in the streets.

It’s going to be a busy 38 days…



…further adventures in Japan


Fuji from the plane

Having got as far as Tōkyō to take part in the Playable City lab, it would have been a shame to have turned around and gone back home again after only a week. So I didn’t.

What I hadn’t really planned for was my explorations to start with a trip to hospital, but there you go; it’s all good learning.


I learned that there isn’t really a GP equivalent in Japan and so if you’ve caught a lurgy you join all the hundreds of other people being herded around the hospital in an efficient manner. Somewhat bewildering without enough of the language, but with some supplementary pointing, and after being politely relieved of some money, I got some meds and was eventually on my way.

First stop was Hakone, where I’d decided to treat myself to two nights in a ryokan.


ryokan meal


The wikipedia article starts by describing ryokan as “a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner”. Having gazed longingly at the clear blue skies from my hotel room window when I was too ill to go out and play in Tōkyō, in my chats with the ryokan staff we joked that I was a rain god. Yup, you’ve guessed it: I’d planned to do some walking around Hakone and, for the two days I was there, it was pretty miserable weather.

Armed with my kagoul, a sense of humour and slightly inadequate maps, I set off to walk along a well-preserved section of the old Tōkaidō highway that used to be the main route between Kyōto and what is now Tōkyō. My ryokan was close to the Hakone Sekisho (security checkpoint) so I had a look around there first before setting off up the steep wooded slopes along the ancient cobbles.

Hakone Sekisho

old Tōkaidō highway

Pretty mind-boggling to try and imagine what this road was like 400 years ago with volcanoes and earthquakes adding to all the usual human-powered perils.

Apparently, around here is the re-routed section that was built to make the going less steep. No wonder it was travelled by foot and not by wheeled transport…

I only walked a few miles, but was grateful when I reached the amazake chaya serving its cups of warm, sweet, fermented rice drink. The room was dim and full of slightly biting wood smoke from the fire, but check out the size of that brass kettle between the table and the counter in the background for a sense of how this place has traditionally provided a welcome haven for the travellers that stop off here!

amazake chaya

From the tea house I opted to make use of my Hakone Free Pass and take the white-knuckle roller coaster bus ride over to Hanone Yumoto and then the Tozan Railway and Cable Car (funicular railway) up into the mountains. Unfortunately the Hakone Ropeway (cable car) wasn’t operating by the time I got to Sounzan station, so I retraced my steps back to Yumoto through the drizzle and failing light and then braved the bus once again to return to the ryokan.

The next day was even wetter, but I still had the Free Pass and I was determined to use it so I attacked the mountains from the other direction: taking a ferry boat mocked up as a replica HMS Victory across the lake and then the Ropeway up to Ōwakudani.


Ashinoko Victory ferry


Wikipedia informs me the name Ōwakudani (大涌谷) literally means “Great Boiling Valley”, which makes perfect sense: steam rises from countless fumaroles as you reach the upper slopes.

Ōwakudani (Great Boiling Valley)

The combined effect of the vents, the strongly sulphurous smell, the scree slopes and the Geomuseum finally brought home to me how volatile the landscape around here is.

I returned to the ryokan, collected my bags and headed off to a friend’s house and significantly more snuggly surroundings …even if I did have to contend with bears and interlopers in my bed.

Bear Hunt oyasumi

A few days later my JR Pass kicked in, so it was time to hit the road shinkansen.

I arrived in Kyōto around lunchtime along with a light snowfall and a reminder that it was indeed December. I’d originally planned to hire a bike, but opted for a walking instead. I popped in on the garden at Konchi-in as the shadows were lengthening and climbed the sanmon gate of Nanzen-ji as golden hour illuminated a pretty good view of the city.



That afternoon I was mostly fixated by the many amazing rooflines I encountered, so the taking of photos happily continued as dusk fell and I started to make my way down Tetsugaku-no-michi (The Philosopher’s Path), arriving at Ginkaku-ji well after dark when everything was shut.



Ginkaku-ji Ginkaku-ji

The next day was mostly about trains; travelling the 460-or-so miles between Kyōto and Kumamoto, almost – but not entirely – successfully managing a series of very tight transfer windows at 4 or 5 busy shinkansen stations.

shinkansen view


I stopped off en route to meet up with a producer at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media who gave me a very interesting tour of the building and the various activities going on there, followed by a slap-up sushi lunch and then a bike to go off exploring with for an hour or so. I was so ready for that bike ride after having been sat on trains since early morning!

My somewhat circuitous route took me over to Ruriko-ji where I had a super quick look at the pagoda and then sprinted back in order to be in time to catch a few more trains.


Ruriko-ji Ruriko-ji

After a minor embarkation error and a bit of on-the-fly emergency plan B-ing, I eventually made it to Kumamoto, in position and ready to make the most of the following few days staying with a friend and her family on the outskirts of the city.

Daylight hours included being taught how to play shogi, making splatty sweets and establishing the level of mime required to communicate (we don’t have much language overlap, but it seems to mostly work out okay). After the youngest young ‘un had curled up and been hit several times with a horizontal rolled up newspaper, we set off into the sunset to the village temple…

inaka sunset


…where we were to watch the 6 p.m. ringing of the bell.

…except it turned out that my friend had been at school with the obõsan so we ended up not watching his wife ring the bell but climbing up and giving it some welly [religious technical term] ourselves. I particularly liked the stone system for keeping count of how many times the bell had been rung. The bell was impressively loud and reverberant from that close, so I can well imagine it would be easy to lose count.

We also learned that the 6 a.m. bell ringing had been ceased after complaints from the locals…

kane counting stones

It then turned out that, whilst we’d been ringing the bell, the obõsan had been inside getting changed into more formal attire and we were then allowed to accompany him into the inner part of the main hall where we got to peer at all the ornate carvings and he explained the significance of various things. Again we didn’t have much language overlap, but I probably learned more about Buddhism that evening than I had done in several visits to Kyōto and all the massive temples there.

local temple

The young ‘uns were back at school the next day, so my friend and I joined a class of 5 year olds (almost as loud as a temple bell!) for a miso making session. It involved some very large bowls, some satisfyingly hands-on mixing of squelchy stuff and then punching the resulting mixture into those bags you can see the background, hopefully with no air trapped inside.

making miso

making miso

I couldn’t take much of our miso back on the plane with me, but a lunchbox full is currently quietly fermenting away in the cupboard underneath my kitchen sink. It’s got to do this for the next 3 months or so and then I suppose it’ll either be green and furry or I’ll need to find someone who actually knows what miso’s supposed to taste like to declare whether it’s ready or not!

What with the miso and the amazake, I’m becoming more and more curious about all the different Japanese foodstuffs made from variants of fermented rice. I’m pretty sure there’s a project in there somewhere, but failing that I bet there’s loads of interesting traditional processes to learn about and wonder at.

blue sheets

After the miso punching we had time for a quick look at Kumamoto Castle. Kumamoto was hit by a large earthquake in April and driving through the city had already been a sobering experience seeing all the signs of the damage done: blue tarpaulins on many of the rooftops (as shown in the Google maps screenshot above); gravestones all akimbo; and occasionally an apartment block with a ground floor missing. Well, not missing, just very compressed.

I’d been around Kumamoto-jō on a previous visit, so I had reference points for before and after. Even without these, the large rocks strewn about the place, the collapsed walls and the dishevelled tiles all brought home the power of the quake. They’re still getting aftershocks, so there’s not yet much that can be done in the way of tidying up, though I dread to think how long it will take to try and reassemble everything once they do get started.



On the return of the young ‘uns from school that evening we went for a stroll around the local area.

Kumamoto inaka view

My friend was worried that I would be bored in such a small, quiet place (let’s face it: everywhere’s going to be small and quiet after Tōkyō), but I really enjoyed hearing about the personal stories related to the area, including short-cuts back from school along the bamboo road (don’t tell her mum!).

take no michi

Also more shenanigans on a bike that was way too small for me, but much fun nonetheless!



bike fun

Back on the shinkansen again…

Fascinating watching how the population puddles in the flat areas, right up to the foothills of the mountains, and then how the cloud sneaks down and gathers on the upper slopes almost as if it’s poised ready to take the place of the buildings if given half a chance.

Shinkansen view

Next was a couple of nights staying at the Wasyugama pottery near Okayama.

tunnel kiln

As soon as I’d learned about this place I’d wanted to make sure I got a chance to visit. Next time I’m going to have to make sure I stay for longer.

On arrival I got a quick tour of the workshop and I grilled K on the firing process (there are a couple of videos on YouTube if you’re interested) and how the different decorative effects were achieved. Then we made a dash across the city to the Fukiage Art Museum to look for a power drill.

I very much like the act of shedding your outdoor shoes, stepping up onto a wooden platform and then padding around on immaculately polished floorboards in a pair of slippers. [I’d love to try to recreate a similar process of crossing a threshold and entering into a different frame of mind/body for engaging with art/ideas back here in the UK. I wonder how it would be received…]

Here the light switches were located in distant corners, so we did a lot of our slipper-shuffling in the dark using our phones for light. That and having the place all to ourselves was really rather magical.

Fukiage Art Museum

I didn’t have a plan for Okayama other than to relax and soak up as much knowledge as possible. With my host’s comment that most people came to stay there because it was within day-tripping distance to the island of Naoshima I hit some sort of threshold for people suggesting I should go there, so that’s what I did.

Naoshima is a small island (I walked across it in about 30 minutes) in the Seto Inland Sea that somehow manages to be home to a massive mining operation …and several contemporary art museums and installations.

A late start and a series of extenuated transfer times for trains, ferries and buses meant I had limited time to actually look at the art, so I opted to forgo the big museums and instead hunt out the Art House installations dotted around the port of Honmura. Here empty buildings have been transformed into artworks, containers for artworks, and things that blur the boundaries between the two.

art house bath

Above: the 200 year old Kadoya house

Below: a former dentist’s office

art house dentist

There are 7 locations in all, and entrance for 6 of them is charged at about £7, with staff at each location stamping your ticket/leaflet. I’m incredibly curious about how the project came about (it seems the first installation was in 1998, and the latest three in 2006) and where the different sorts of value are perceived to be.

I often find myself working in contexts that have a regeneration agenda attached, so to see an empty buildings project that appears to involve a string of established (presumably well-remunurated) artists, and that can support admission charges and associated costs of staffing and marketing, raises lots of chewy questions. Is it purely seen as a commercial undertaking? Was it a grass-roots project that just evolved, or was it masterminded and commissioned by someone? How do the locals feel about having their small town overrun by tourists? How has the art-ification of Naoshima improved the quality of life for the residents (if at all)?

What I was hoping to see was signs of art happening in the margins – of a critical mass of activity that helped to attract and support emerging artists with more experimental practices – but I didn’t really see any. That’s not to say it isn’t there, of course, I only saw a tiny amount of one area before the sun started to sink and closing times were reached.

Instead of walking back over the island to the ferry terminal I opted to walk along the coast and admire the sunset before taking the bus back.

Naoshima view

I’d mostly been inside my head all day, existing in the space behind my eyes as I waited for transport or passively viewed art, so the stand-out experience of the whole day for me was a series of interactions with a young girl who was playing with a football in the car park outside this ramen restaurant and who found the courage to come up to me at the bus stop to say hello. (Something she couldn’t convince her little sister to try!)


It got me thinking about the Playable City lab and how, on an island of flagship museums and many invested art dollars, someone venturing a few steps and offering the exchange of a few sentences was the most profound thing. ありがとうございました、竹下さん。

Back at the pottery I had just enough time to make use of the fruit I had carefully carried from Kumamoto and take my winter solstice yuzu bath.

The following day I upped the ante on my rucksack-slugging journeying and once more set off for multiple train journeys, except this time with rather a lot of fragile handmade ceramics with me.

That evening, in a university art department somewhere towards the west of Tōkyō, I dined on traditional Japanese cuisine such as oden, onigiri, sushi and honey and ginger flavoured KitKats.


I was the guest of an artist/lecturer there and, having met various members of the department and given a presentation about my practice, in the morning we then set off on a mission to explore Tōkyō.

Nakano Broadway

First was our induction into ‘Deep Tōkyō’: Nakano Broadway. This building has evolved into a centre for anime and manga otaku; something neither her nor I are, so we nervously explored different floors and a few of the tiny, crammed shops before escaping back outside into the relative fresh air and serenity of the city.

Seeking an antidote to Deep Tōkyō we headed up, up, up to the 45th storey observatories in the Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku where the weather was on good form, giving us a reasonable view of Fuji-san and strikingly dramatic shafts of sunlight lighting up swathes of the metropolis stretching out endlessly all around us.



We finished up by spending about 3 hours poking around in the wonderful Intermediatheque museum. Photography wasn’t allowed and the website doesn’t give much of an impression of the place, so you’ll have to imagine somewhere that’s a cross between the Pitt Rivers museum and the Lapworth geology museum at the University of Birmingham, with something of the curatorial feel of the V&A.

The highlight for me was the man at the desk at the back of the 2nd floor trying to piece together a jaguar skeleton whilst happily chatting to visitors and challenging people to correctly match the articulating surfaces of a deer’s leg. He said it takes him about 2 weeks to prepare a skeleton and armature – you can see why!

The next day we went to see a group exhibition of some artists who work in metal and then I managed to convince my companion to join me at the Bicycle Culture Center [English language article] by telling her a bit about Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers research project and showing her my photos of the Bloomer Ride.

Bicycle Culture Center

Bicycle Culture Center

By this stage it was Christmas Eve and I relocated back to Yokosuka for more bears and also a second yuzuburo, although this time with more juggling and plastic turtles.

Yuzuyu two

For our Christmas party we took the Japanese’s adopted fried chicken, and added raw octopus, sushi cake and a kind of summer fruits pudding.


sushi cake

Christmas cake

Our special guest of honour seemed to approve, and I have to say I also really enjoyed the blend of familiar and completely alien ingredients to the afternoon! We did however keep to the universal truth of the empty cardboard box being played with as much, if not more, than the present itself.

merii kurisumasu

I flew home a day and a half later.


I’m not really sure how to conclude this blog post – writing it has been a good way to remind myself of everything that happened, but I feel its only just the start of the process of digesting and reflecting upon it all. Maybe check back in with me in a few months’ time to see what is still in technicolour and what has faded?

In the meantime, many, many thanks to everyone who hosted me, taught me, laughed with me, or just took a chance on saying hello.

The photos here are all released under a CC by-nc-sa license, with larger sizes of the originals (and many more) to be found over on Flickr in this album. If you want to skip the Playable City workshop photos, then start about halfway down this page.


Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:


In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of  a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.

…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.

Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.

It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.

Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…

Looking up

A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.

Looking up

We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!

chopstick drawing

As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.

group sharing

We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:


(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)

Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.

With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!

magic moment

Other experiments took place outside.

We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…


As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.

Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?

To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.

pick one

Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.

janken escalator

We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.

Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.

Playing with a real person is just loads better!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here:

It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.

Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.

I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.

I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.


29 Not-Quite-Random Walks Around Tokyo

I’ve been a bit slow in posting this one, but the audio and slides of the talk I did for Pecha Kucha Night Coventry in October has been put on the main PK website:

The explosion during slide 13 is courtesy of the party poppers left behind by an earlier speaker, Laura Elliot!

Follow @PKN_Coventry on Twitter to keep up-to-date with what’s happening with future events.

Coming up: Yamanote Stories at Pecha Kucha Coventry

Tomorrow I’m one of the presenters at Pecha Kucha Night Coventry, this time in turn part of the Japanese Cultural Festival being run by The Tin Music and Arts.

This means entry is free and there’s karaoke afterwards should you so fancy it!

Using an edited map to navigate around Tokyo

I thought the Japanese theme would be a good excuse to look again at a project I did back in 2006: Sites of Potentiality Guidebooks: Yamanote Line. 29 not-quite-random walks in Tokyo looking for Interesting Things.

PKNCov regulars may remember the Invite Boredom presentation Paul Conneally talked about a year or so ago:

Pecha Kucha Coventry | Vol 8 | Paul Coneally from MINDRIOT PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

This is very much a precursor to the Invigilator project and probably sets the scene for most of my practice since then!

See you at the Coal Vaults at 7pm.

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