The beauty of Brighton, burdock and bush warblers

I got back to Brighton on Thursday evening. After a 24 hour flight that took me first from Fukuoka to Tokyo, then an 11 hour flight to Doha (what was I thinking there?), and then 7 hours onto Gatwick, my crumpled body rolled off the plane like the last long-forgotten sock to come out of the laundry basket. Now 48 hours later, I feel much better, a much better standard of sock anyway, although I must admit I miss the warm comforts of the laundry basket..

My last week in Japan was spent in a small guest house on the Kunisaki Peninsula in the north east of Kyushu. In many ways, it was idyllic: cooking my own meals from fresh local vegetables during which I fell in love again with ごぼう(burdock root), being guided by locals at night to see the 蛍 (fireflies) hovering by the rice fields, and each evening falling asleep in a warm futon on a soft tatami mat while listening to the カエル (frog) chorus.

The day times were mostly spent reading about the robot-cat from the future Doraemon, researching burdock smuggling, and strolling around the valley to commune with the ウグイス(bush warbler).

Now if you don’t know what a bush warbler is, it is basically the burdock of the bird kingdom. In other words, it’s the almighty. All hail the uguisu.

At some point every spring when I visit Japan, the ウグイス will stop me in my tracks. I’ve never actually seen one – they are very small and shy, but each time I hear them I feel a gentle joy. Their long, piercing warble is so distinct and arresting they are considered one of the official song birds of Japan.

Their power and influence is infinite. Female announcers employed for their beautiful voices are called ウグイス嬢 (UGUISUーJOU Bush warbler girls). Their sacred white turds are smeared onto the faces of geisha and apparently even David Beckham. In the Edo era, powerful samurai had bush warblers kept in cages and took them on picnics just so they could enjoy hearing the warble while they sipped their sake.

Hearing the bush warbler, then trying to warble back to it is when I feel closest to Japan. And actually, warbling is much easier than Japanese, nowhere near as much vocabulary needed and not one kanji to learn. If you are off to Japan soon, I recommend you have a wander in the woods, listen for the call of the uguisu, and then have a warble back.

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