Category Archives: Travel

Personally Privileged

A ball flies at over eighty miles an hour makes contact with hewn wood no more than 2.75 inches in diameter and promptly disappears into the distance. A crowd leaps to its feet and roars. I stand up too; a smile on my lips as I get a first hand impression of what from a distance seems to be a singularly simple action. Man throws ball, man hits ball. How hard can this all be really?

A football is booted over sixty yards across field and lands perfectly at the feet of an onrushing German gentleman of Turkish descent who recently relocated from Madrid to north London. He runs a little further before whipping the ball back across the pitch towards the feet of a six-foot-plus Frenchman who proceeds to, with his very first touch, volley the ball past the oncoming fifteen stone of goalkeeper heading his way and into the net. The crowd erupts, my jaw drops.

Technically my jaw dropped long before the ball reached the net. The exact time was when the ball made contact with said German’s left foot and the strip of Velcro he apparently keeps there.

I hand How to be an Alien by George Mikes, a guide to being a foreigner in Britain first published in 1946, at the page where the two lines on sex appear to my Japanese colleague. They read as follows:

Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles.

My colleague smiles, a little nonplussed by the sentence but well aware there’s a joke in there somewhere. I read it and chuckle a little bit still on the fifth reading.

A computer, given one hundred thousand examples can learn to read the number five when handwritten. A computer taught the characteristics of handwriting via the medium of Russian poetry is able read such manner of scrawls after exposure to a mere three hundred poems.

That last example came from the wonderful online magazine Nautilus. Specifically its issue entitled Secret Codes and the piece entitled Teaching Me Softly. The article centered around the notion of ‘privileged information’ or in other words, knowledge gleaned from experience.

This kind of knowledge is why I can appreciate the reaction of baseball fans to a home run without actually appreciating the act itself. I’ve attended about five baseball games in my entire life and I’ve never really, truly played baseball. However, I’ve been and continue to be a long suffering fan of Huddersfield Town so I know what it means to be a fan, to live and die with a score line. As such that moment of pure joy, I get it. I just don’t get the action that prompted it. I understand less of it. I don’t know how hard it is to hit a ball like that, to stand up to the challenge of a ball being thrown like that. I’ll never understand it the same way a kid steeped in baseball will feel that rush.

I do at least understand football. Perhaps I even feel a greater appreciation for it because I was so awful at it; I know that simply trapping a ball, killing it dead in its place takes incredible skill. First touch is a magic and often under appreciated gift. If you’ve never really watched or played football and you’re wondering why one guy on the pitch always seems to have a second longer to make a decision than everyone else, that is it.

That experience is probably the same reason I hardly ever get angry with goalkeepers’ mistakes. After all, I was one of that nut job ilk.  All four feet nothing of me stood shivering between metal poles eight feet high. An education for how unfair life is if ever there were one.

It’s also the same reason why I think foreign language teachers should always have a second language aside from their native tongue. Because, in some small way it puts you in the shoes of every student you’ll ever teach and hopefully in doing so will make you a better teacher; at the very least, a more understanding person in general.

Combine it with being a fan of English football however and it just makes you more impatient with monolingual (and I’m being generous there) fans that complain when a new player or manager has not learned our twisted, garbled and illogical tongue in less than six months.

But privileged information, for all its value, is something of a double-edged sword. Because, while I may know what kouyou (紅葉)and momijigari (紅葉狩り)mean (ok, so might you Japanese speaking reader) and smile when I think of them; anyone who has no clue about what they mean and has never set foot in Japan in the autumn when the leaves are changing and gone autumn leaf viewing, is lucky.

Because, you still get to see it in person for the first time. While I just hope that I never stop seeing it with fresh eyes.

But then again, I’m just privileged to have seen it at all.

            

How Not to Climb Mt. Fuji

Perhaps we had taken too great a heed of the warnings. People cautioning us about the weather, the possible dangers along every path and most importantly, the sheer number of bloody people who attempt to reach the summit during O-bon.

It’s possible it was something else I suppose.

Maybe it was pre-altitude sickness, a little known condition that makes you giddy, foolish and liable to endanger your health while still at the approximate altitude of your sofa. Or might it be that we simply did not put all that much thought into the idea beyond, hey, it is right there, it’d be dumb not to, right?

It’s probably the latter but I’d be happy enough to blame the former if I can get away with it. Because while I’m sure the Internet is full of guides of How to Climb Mt. Fuji!

this, really isn’t that sort of manual.  

We didn’t under plan as such. I mean we certainly weren’t in any danger at any point, but we did vastly under plan compared to how the average Japanese person appears to approach this national-cum-world heritage ascent.

The average Japanese person scales Fuji-san, as the famous peak is known in Japan (and no it doesn’t mean they call him Mr. Fuji), with the full range of equipment one would associate with bearing the full brunt of the elements. Almost every single climber has the obligatory expensive coat, thermal trousers, hiking boots and at the very least a promotional Mt. Fuji climber’s walking stick if not two shiny, what I assume to be carbon fibre, walking sticks.

Now, should the weather take an appalling turn for the worse you might find yourself in need of approximately 50,000 yen’s worth of kit (about 350 pounds) but these people really aren’t the brave the elements type. Nope. These are tour group hikers who take the bus up to the fifth station on the easier trails and are up in about five hours and down in a couple by running down the ash path known as osunabashiri which gets them down to the new fifth station at Gotenba in under three hours easy. It’s mountain climbing for those who want the photograph and the stamp more than the actual experience. Achievement with the minimum of effort. Which makes sense I suppose, I mean you wouldn’t want to sweat in that new gear of yours would you?

Were my climbing partner and I of this ilk?

Ummmmm… not quite.

Were we of the other, conquer the world, abseil down the face of adversity and challenge a crocodile to a wrestle variety?

Definitely not.

We were the average, comparatively unprepared couple of guys who took the longest, steepest route not because it was there but because there would be less queuing and fewer tourists.   

We weren’t total idiots though. We did pop down to the local outdoor store to pick up a headlamp, which is of course necessary when starting the ascent at nine o’clock at night as we were. Though I imagine the whole route would be floodlit were it not for the requirements of World Heritage qualification. For those unaware of Japan’s religious predilections it’s worth noting that Shinto and Buddhism are actually Japan’s second and third most popular religions, Convenience coming in at number one at a Usain Bolt kind of canter.

We actually avoided one such shrine, 7-11 to be precise, but did make time to stop by a HAC Drug, or Health and Communication to give it’s full title. Because when I need to buy energy supplements and cereals bars to provide the power for scaling Fuji I clearly also need to consider my current household supply of slippers and notepads. So where else would I go?

So as you may have ascertained by this point we did indeed survive. Well armed with jelly, value mineral water and cereal bars how could we have failed?

The ascent from the Gotenba New Fifth station took approximately ten hours and another five on the way down as we didn’t go the whole way down via the impressively steep ash and sand flats. We were utterly exhausted, aching all over. We caught the sunrise from the eighth station and then struggled on an hour or so more to the summit. I marched ahead of my friend on the ascent and then was made to look the old man as he made the descent with an effortless cool that my wincing from the pain in my knees couldn’t convey.

Was it worth all the hours of pain? The sweat, the aching limbs, the fine coating of dirt and dust that we were showered in upon our descent?

Definitely.

But the reason was down to good fortune rather than anything we did. The weather was fine. The night sky almost totally clear and sunrise was truly beautiful; all the more so after eight hours of climbing.

But, without that reward for all our efforts?

In that case, I might have been more typically British in regard to the experience.

I believe it always rains on Fujisan. The people who maintain that they saw anything on or from the top of it are people I should like to have witnesses against me, if I were tried for my life, rather than for me. The man who goes up once may be excused, if in other matters he is an average fool, so that you don’t expect much from him; the man who goes up twice should be put out of the world immediately he arrives at the bottom again; and the man who will induce his confiding friend to accompany him up, on any prospect or understanding, is own brother to Judas Iscariot.”  

Eight Years in Japan 1873-1881 by E.G. Holtman. p.231.

Poor chap, all he needed really was a spot of sunshine.

Sunrise from the eighth station.

Sunrise from the eighth station.

Thanks to my good friend over at MonkeyBrainSushi for sending me the link to the wonderful Mr. Holtman’s musings. Check out his blog for some stunning Japan photography. 

Tokaido Trailing

Every Sunday since the end of January I’ve been dragging my sleep deprived self out of bed at six a.m. to crawl into the shower, quickly shave, wrap up warm for the twenty-five minute walk down the street to the local train station to hop on the early morning bullet train bound for Tokyo.

It really isn’t that far away, in reality I probably spend almost as much time walking to the station and changing to the Tozai subway line in Tokyo as I do on the bullet train to Tokyo itself.

But for Tokyoites?

Well I might as well live on another planet. The shock and awe that I come from a different prefecture is entirely at odds with just how pleased Japan is, and rightly so, with their wonderful bullet trains and remarkable local train services.

It’s a wonder, a marvel I say!

You traveled for more than thirty minutes?! Good lord man, was it entirely necessary?

This is not an accurate translation or reflection of the people speaking by the way. This is how I translate it in my head for my own amusement. If I’m particularly bored I might translate it directly into the Yorkshire dialect…

Tha came from over yonder that there hill? Ecky thump!

Anyway, I’m drifting off here, back to the case in point.

I’m on a teaching course over in Tokyo every Sunday for the next few months and so I’m spending an awful lot of time heading up and down the Tokaido line.

My journey along it could not be more unremarkable despite the protestations and shock of those who call Tokyo their home. As far back as 1700 it has been endlessly traversed and is now the most traveled route in Japan as it links Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

Unlike the original travelers along the Tokaido though I’m heading by train, shaving a nice twenty-two hours off the journey by foot in the process. In that context my 230km weekly round-trip journey seems both remarkably speedy and yet utterly ordinary in regards to my own effort.

But therein lies its charm to me.

My morning commute by shinkansen (Bullet Train) seem to flash by in a haze of coffee and mini-croissants purchased on my amble down to the station.

I take the time to tweet or facebook my sleep deprived state, because if I’m suffering, then well, I want you dear followers to know about it. Comedic suffering that is; I’m far too English to reveal actual suffering… not that I do have any of that… sod it, you get the point.

Then provided I’ve hooked up my IV drip of black coffee, mainlined straight from coffee can to my veins, I will quite jauntily bound through Tokyo station to transfer to the Tozai subway line. At nine-ish on a Sunday morning it would be fair to say that I bound somewhat out of step with the rest of the early morning populace, hardly aware they exist beyond some imagined bonus level of Tokyo 3D Frogger: Dodge the Commuter!

In contrast, my journey home by local train, if I’m not too tired, is a fine opportunity. I’ve chatted to families returning home from a visit to the grandparents’ place (the daughter doing her English homework on the way), observed all manner of sleeping positions, been slept on/against by an innumerable number of strangers, almost fallen asleep and face planted into the carriage floor while leaning forward to read my kindle (a rookie mistake a Japanese would never make), snickered too loudly at The Bugle podcast (much like the Tube in London, one should remain an emotionless zombie whilst riding on public transport here) and drawn undue attention to myself as a result.

While the journey may at times be productive, more often than not it seems to take an age. After close to two hours heading south I change at Atami for the next step of the journey and fifteen minutes later exit my local station. I begin my walk home, buy a nikuman (Chinese style steamed bun) from the Konbini (Convenience store) along with a couple cans of beer in all likelihood and shuffle in the front door at around nine o’clock having left the classroom around six. I make dinner, box up the next day’s bento for the day job and hopefully crawl onto my futon before midnight.

On a good day, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the commute, moving from amateur commuter to professional in no time at all.

The next day I arrive at work around eight fifteen (ok more like eight twenty…five…ish) and immediately see the P.E. teachers who’ve been at school since seven, who’ll be there until nine that night.

They’re smiling.

I don’t know how they do it.

Compared to these teachers, I’m just a rookie. I do that long day once a week, they do it every day and they do it while working their socks off.

Think I best keep my amateur status.

I’m not ready for the big leagues yet.

tokaido shinkansen

The Ojigi’s Up

It was my third time home and I knew things would be different. The first time I came home Japan was still new and shiny, I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the country, the language remained utterly mystifying beyond the simplest of exchanges and I had little idea that some two years later I’d be visiting home for the third time still with no end in sight to my time in Japan.

Coming home this time was different for a quite simple reason; I’ve passed what Malcolm Gladwell coined The Tipping Point when all the little things begin to coalesce and emerge as the beginnings of a new whole… on the London Underground of all places.

I’d made it through Heathrow airport in one piece and was at this point on the tube winging my way through London. As I went to alight at Oxford Circus to change to the Victoria line an older gentleman attempted to get on the train at the same instant. There was a moment of sidestepping in unison, left then right, a lean back and a shimmy forward before I thought to myself, hold on passengers get off first, and slipped past him with my mid-sized duffle bug.

As I put the bag down on the platform it occurred to my jetlagged brain that perhaps the older man had not in fact been letting me off first and had been thinking age before youth, or more likely in London, screw you mate I’m going first.

So, nervous that I may have offended the man I turned around as the doors were closing to give the man a slight nod to show my appreciation or apologies.

Except I didn’t nod.

The head moved forward yes, but my neck didn’t so much as creak. The pivot had come from my waist.

I’d bloody well ojigi-ed (bowed) to the miserable old bugger.

Ok it was only a slight ojigi certainly but it was noticeably not a nod.

Two and a half years ago I’d barely scratched the surface here; I knew that. What I didn’t know was that Japan had not only scratched my surface it had damn well got under my skin, buried itself in my subconscious to the point where muscle memory if left unchecked would leave me bowing to poor defenseless Brits across the land.

However, uncontrolled and hopefully largely unobserved ojigi-ing is not the only symptom.

I’ll get to them in the next post.

In the meantime though, I may have found a cure while I was at home at least.

Simple yet effective.

I wonder if they serve it on British Airways?

The cure to what ales thee.

Haneda Waiting

At this moment I’m at the airport.

Here since 10:00pm yesterday waiting for my 6:25am flight today. Experiencing first hand the joys of Haneda airport scheduling that doesn’t allow them to run international flights at the same time as Narita.

Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the 6am departure time, what I’m not so fond of is the fact that it necessitates the use of a hotel room nearby or in my cheapskate case, the use of a bench to park myself on as I vainly try to ward off sleep until I’ve boarded my plane in some foolish attempt at avoiding jet-lag.

At least there’s free wifi.

Sparkly trees in Haneda Airport

Because it’s an airport Christmas… they’re probably lit up all year round.

It’s about 1:00am now and I’ve set up shop on the 5th floor of the airport.

It’s quiet up here; the rows of people sleeping across three seat benches are sleeping surprisingly quietly or watching DVDs on their laptops. Mercifully no loud, guttural snoring echoing on polished floors.

I’m across the hall by the windows. Typing quietly, slowly. Not my usual mad scientist, jazz pianist approach to typing.

There is however one noise that pierces the air at every moment.

The escalator with a split personality.

The escalator with two voices.

The English voice is calm, American, authoritative but dulcet. At least to my western, currently sleep deprived/soon to be jetlagged, ears. I assume the voice, despite being computerized in some fashion, to have at some point belonged to a beautiful woman. It sounds like someone I’d listen to instinctively. It exudes a certain sense of control, it gently reminds you of the danger you know to be part and parcel of motorized steps.

The Japanese voice sounds younger but that doesn’t mean much. Most Japanese women are in possession of the ability to shoot up a couple octaves when on the phone or if they happen to work in the service industry. It doesn’t sound authoritative, it sounds worried, somewhat cloying. Like a child reminding you that you promised to take them to Disneyland this weekend.

I wonder whether Japanese hear the same thing as I do. I wonder if I’d even hear it were I in possession of more sleep or something stronger than a bottle of green tea.

Is the cure to cloying, coffee?

I think it might just be… if only because the café is about 50ft from the closest escalator.

Edo Restaurant in an Airport

Either an Edo era restaurant inside an airport… or the dojo from Street Fighter.

But this is always a risk you run in Japan. The technology talks, it beeps, it whirs and it chimes. It attempts to lull you into a true sense of security through a casual barrage of unadulterated, undiluted Disney voices (excusing Donald’s voice, presumably they use that in prison though for a sense of commanding cuteness).

I typed too soon.

The snoring has begun, the lights have been turned up to a daybreak kind of glare and music is beginning to chime louder across the whole place.

Time to escape for that coffee I think, before Donald’s voice comes across the tannoy to inform me that the check-in desk is now open.

Travel by Tweet: How to Throw Away Your Guidebook in Japan

I was in Shizuoka City looking to find a nice little bar I’d read about for a celebratory pint (I’d just got a new job), when once again I was reminded how little people know their own cities and towns.

Everyone I asked had little idea about where I was talking about. In fact, at one point I was stood almost beneath the sign of the bar in question, as usual unable to spot anything that isn’t directly under my nose.

Eventually I asked two gentlemen where I could find the bar; not a clue, never heard of it. We were ten feet away.

On my second lap around the block I did eventually spot it and rather embarrassedly walked up the stairs to find ‘Beer No Yokota.’ Fortunately it was more than worth getting a little lost for.

It’s understandable I suppose that people don’t always know their own towns so well. When it’s the place you call home it’s easy to get into a routine, to only dine and drink at the usual familiar places, to discover new places through the recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. In Japan, with the tendency for restaurants to be tucked away on the fourth floor of a non-descript tower block it’s easy to never know a place even exists.

Now this can be a problem for those of us who live in Japan and speak a little/a lot of Japanese. So how much more difficult must it be if you’re in Japan on holiday, what do you do if you’re trying to escape Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or any other tourist friendly location for a slice of real Japan?

Go with your guidebook?

Hardly.

With the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook devoting around one hundred pages each to the big three of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it’s easy to understand why other areas get fewer pages assigned to them.

Even then it’s inevitable that otherwise great travel writers are going to miss some local gems when they haven’t got the time to search out every hidden corner of a town.

Indeed even if you’re local it can be pretty tough to get recommendations from Japanese people. Particularly if you’re a teacher out here, as many long-term foreign residents are, then your students will often be reticent to offer recommendations for fear that you won’t like the places they enjoy.

However, there’s another reason why it’s so hard to stray off the well-worn guidebook paths and in likelihood it’s the one you’re worrying about.

The language.

Leaving Tokyo and it’s English menus behind can be daunting for many travelers but even if you haven’t had time to master some few thousand Japanese kanji there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to enjoy a bit of real Japan. Armed with a couple simple phrases and a little local knowledge there’s no end of places to discover outside of the big three.

So how to go about finding them?

Go local. Get specific.

Not literally.

Digitally.

I discovered Beer no Yokota via the gastronomic musing of one Shizuoka Gourmet

If you’re a craft beer fan like me then you won’t go wrong with the Japan Beer Times a bilingual go-to-guide for all you Hop Heads out there.

Fancy catching some footy while you’re out here? Then take a look at the fan blogs for a quality English resource. My local team, Shimizu S-Pulse is followed by the UK Ultras who offer the complete lowdown on everything you need to know to get to the games and sing along with the fans.

For those of you who’d prefer to spend your holidays in a more healthy fashion taking in all Japan’s beautiful outdoors has to offer then head on to Outdoor Japan.

However, if you want to track down somewhere with a limited web presence, a pretty common thing in Japan, then look no further than Twitter. Once you’ve found one person or company who shares some of your interests then Twitter handily starts recommending more of them to you. On top of that it’s one of the few forms of publicly accessible social media that Japan has truly embraced.

It’s also an easy way to discover real life connections between places as most independent places know the other people running shops and restaurants in their town and follow them on Twitter.

So there it is. A little prep, a little wi-fi and possibly a lot of google translating later you can be sat in a little antique café, eating local ice-cream or supping the local brew.

And when you do, don’t forget to blog or tweet about it so the rest of us can enjoy it too.

 

 

The Japanese and English Cuisine

All this nonsense talk of micro-aggressions and flyjins that hovers about the Internet is nothing but a shallow distraction, a bit of rubbish that shifts attention from the truly awful, the god honest hatred for one thing that runs through Japanese society.

I encounter the disdain, the condescending smile, the knowing looks and pitying glances often in my working life. The respect I’m usually afforded as a teacher despite my few years is replaced by a little chuckle and my immediate relegation from senior or equal figure to foolish foreigner, ignorant visitor to these lands.

I try to laugh it off. I dismiss it as ignorance and not to be taken seriously. In my line of work you really ought to believe that you can educate individuals away from such unworldly views.

Yet, it’s no use. This is a nation reared on a televisual journey through the hinterlands of travel and haute cuisine. Every evening, nay every moment of the day that the TV illuminates the corner of the apartment it acts like some neon kami (Japanese for god), a tiny bacchanalian Buddha and pretentious prophet all rolled into one as it dispenses its unquestionable wisdom to the masses.

And what does it teach this culinary cult, these devotees of sofa-based exploration?

That not only is Japan the home of the world’s greatest cuisine but that it finds its perfect antithesis in where I call home; England.

Perhaps the humble fish and chips, or fishuandochipusu as it’s known here, is an exception to this rule such is its place on so many bar menus but the rest of my home nations culinary output might as well be poured down the drain the moment we’ve finished over cooking it.

My tongue now having thoroughly bore its way through my cheek I really ought to discuss where this seemingly globally accepted view actually comes from.

While the TV may be the purveyor of the accepted wisdom, it undoubtedly is entrenched enough now that very little could change Japanese minds.  It’s out there, as true to the Japanese as the strike happy, surrender quickly nature of the French is to the English. We don’t always believe it is true, but we certainly enjoy acting like it is.

However, in my opinion, away from Japanese TV there is a simpler geographical reason for this perspective.

Train stations.

Train stations in Japan are the epicenter. They are at the heart of the city. Everything emanates from that point and the better a thing is, the more likely it is to be on the doorstep of the station.

In Kyoto station there is an entire floor devoted to the art of Ramen. Beneath almost every major city station in Japan there seems to be a food court. Walk out of any train station in Japan (except for seriously countryside places) and you will almost certainly discover a decent number of rather good restaurants right in front of you.

Compare that to the train station in London I used to live nearby, Paddington and the contrasts are pretty stark. Directly opposite the main entrance at the crossroads by the Hilton Hotel sits the following; a Burger King, a KFC, a McDonalds, a Garfunkel’s and an Aberdeen Steak House.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fast food, it does exactly what it says on the tin, if you can’t hold back from the desire to stuff your face with it well that’s your issue, but fine dining it is not. Two minutes past this cavalcade of calorific confidence men sit yet another crappy steak restaurant and two ‘traditional’ English pubs. These pubs however are no fair reflection of British or English cuisine anymore than Kappa Sushi ought to be considered Kaiseki Ryori in Japan (as goodandbadjapan recently noted on his blog – always a wonderful read).

Yet, if you venture a further two minutes down that very same street you’ll come across The Victoria Pub. It’s a beautiful place, has genuinely good food and an ambiance that Hub Pub’s across Tokyo would kill to replicate. Around the corner from that is the Mitre, yet another fine example of a good English Pub. That both happened to be my locals for a short time in my life is something I will always be grateful for.

In reality if anything in England might find its antithesis in Japan it certainly isn’t food, it’s urban planning.

Unfortunately the simple hint, walk five minutes more, isn’t in any guidobuku I’ve ever seen. However, I’ve been correcting this one globetrotting student at a time and bit by bit I think it’s starting to work.

All this is really just my way of saying, if you work in either of the lovely pubs I just mentioned and have been very politely, if quite forcefully cajoled into posing for photographs with some very nice Japanese ladies thoroughly enjoying their holidays, then thank you. You have by plate and by pint managed what I never could; you got them to disagree with the TV.

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