Sunday, 3 August 2014

Big in Japan: old posts from my round the world Oddessy

All of the below is from my round the world 2006/7 travel blog. Google won't let me back into the original one and it seemed a shame just to leave all the writing that I enjoyed doing at the time floating lost in the Internet. So here it is in its original order. Some of it is a bit corny but that's how I wrote at the time so I've resisted the urge to edit.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Goodbye To All That
All good things must come to an end. So a journey that has taken me from the manicured zen gardens of Koyoto to the wilderness of Patagonia, from the neon billboards (and courtesy flushing toilets) of Shibuya to the favelas of Rio, the dessication of the Outback to the spectacular waterfalls of Iguazu (more water per second than Severn Trent wastes in a summer and a roar almost loud enough to drown out the chattering chavales) is over. Having survived Tokyo commuting, volcanoes, crocs, gap year backpackers and a diet dangerously high in cheese, after 9 months, 8 countries, 66 beds, 41 buses and 36 species of wildlife, I'm coming home. Shortly to be seen sweating and shouting in a Barcelona classroom near you. I can honestly say it's been a blast. There are some things I won't miss of course. Living at such close proximity to others that you can hear your neighbours scratching their behinds, being looked at as if you have three heads when ordering dinner, shouting as a national sport......hmm, hang on a minute....

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nice To Pichu, To Pichu....Nice
Ever been to one of those places so famous, whose pictures you've seen so often that the reality is a tiny bit of a letdown? Well, Machu Picchu isn't one of them. Finally witnessing this archeologist's wet dream sitting prettily and precipitously among steaming Andean peaks can only be described (to borrow a nice expression from the Spanish) as 'the whore mother'. An experience that even the hordes of camera toting yanks cant spoil (although the day tripping families have a good go). 

After some deliberation (and the recent memory of the feeling that every nocturnal trip to the bathroom should be preceded by Scott's last words) I elected to give The Stinka Trail a miss and got the bus. Seeing the state of those exiting the trail, it proved to be wise choice, allowing me to spend a full sweet-smelling twelve hours roaming the ruins before being reluctantly ejected at closing time. Despite the precipitous nature of it's situation, the Peruvian state fortunately feels no need to clutter up the view with protective barriers, leaving you free to wander up and down slippery, vertical cliff edges with only the meagerest of handrails to cling to. No nannying here. Interestingly the only recent fatality featured, wait for it.... a German!! struck by lightning after ignoring warnings and scaling the mountain in a thunderstorm. Nuff said.

Swamp Thing
A dream fulfilled, I began to think (with dread) about the (long and poorly maintained) road home, so from Cusco (one of the prettier, more developed cities in South America while still managing to retain that all important, defining smell of wee) it was back across Bolivia and into Brazil for the joys of returning to the linguistic level of a two year old ("me understand no. English you speaking?") and a spot of wildlife bothering. The Pantanal is the worlds largest inland swamp, half the size of France but with much pleasanter residents. Armadillo (crunchy on the outside), alligators, capibara, the worlds biggest rodents and so obviously designed as prey that they might as well have 'eat me' tatooed on their oversized asses, as well as anacondas and diverse winged showoffs.

The Girl From Ipanema
'Tall and tanned and young and lovely'

After 31 hours on the bus it definitely isn't me that Frank was referring to but even the palest of big-panted (thong=wrong!) gringas are touched by the glamour of caiparinhias on Copacbana in the world's most beautiful city under the gaze of the Big J.C himself. In Rio you can experience it all, nightlife, white sand, colonial architecture, rain forest, and gunpoint robbery whilst admiring it all. Ironically the least likely place to meet with trouble is (properly escorted) inside the favelas themselves. These days no trip to Rio is complete without proving you kept it real on holiday by getting deep in the rat warrens of Rio's slums and showing how street you are by not soiling your pants the sight of A.K toting pre-teens. It seems a little weird that splashing through an open sewer for the chance of witnessing abject poverty should now be a box to tick alongside a visit to Sugar Loaf but there you have the state of modern tourism. If nothing else it allows you to go away thankful you are not the aforementioned young dealer and have a little more than an average life expectancy of 23 years in which to earn enough cash to impress your girlfriend.

Next and finally; tango and wine in Buenos Aires. Guess which I'll not be doing.

High Plains Drifter
When your imagination packed it's bags and left for South America, Bolivia is where it sent you the postcards from. Rasin-faced old peasant women wrapped multi-layered skirts, sporting a natty bowler and bridging the fashion divide between a Russian doll and a transvestite Mr Ben as they trudge the (dust, anyone? dust) streets and fields, bent double under a hundred weight of cargo (or snot-nosed offspring) wrapped in acid-striped blankets. A country where Nature dropped a couple of microdots and came down to find She'd created the Altiplano where flamingos feed in high-altitude frozen desert oasis, cactus sprout from former coral reefs in a blinding white lake of salt and canyon walls defy gravity in the wild west style badlands that served as a second home to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A country witness to the rise and fall of fabulous pre-Hispanic, virgin sacrificing, mother Earth worshipping civilisations etc yawn.

And the home of the world's highest capital and biggest misnomer. La Paz is anything but peaceful. Stepping from my hostel I found myself verbally accosted by a woman half falling out of a minibus and babbling in tongues. After this had occurred twelve times in as many seconds I realised I was witness not to the local window-lickers outing but the public transport system. Nose to tail micros clog the steep streets, manned by rent-a-crones sporting enough gold dentistry to put Flava Flav to shame and spitting destinations fast enough to make the wickidest gangsta rapper look like a tired old cruise ship crooner. The only thing that stops the traffic is the daily demonstration ("What do we want?", "Better roads/health/pensions/rights for llamas/delete as appropriate", "When do we want it?", "NOW").

Take My Breath Away
In a country where it's possible to go from snow covered peaks to the steaming jungle of the Amazon Basin in a day (I'm telling you now) trekking at 5000 meters offers a unique opportunity to get in touch with your inner child. Not the one that wonders wide-eyed at the joys of nature but the one that shits itself, projectile vomits and wakes up wanting it's mummy five times a night. Altitude sickness does not, as I had romantically imagined, involve lying wanly sipping brandy on a bed of llama skins but rather an unwelcome flash forward to wheezing old age while a techno rave pulses in your head and your stomach helpfully decides you'll travel lighter without this morning's breakfast. When I got my head from between my knees however, the view was incredible.

Next: A long held dream made real. The Lost City Of Thousand Tourists calls.

I made up the bit about shitting myself by the way. Or did I...?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Don't Cry For Me
"Las Malvinas are Argentinian" proclaims a sign at the border crossing. They certainly should be, but it does prove you can't always beat the English by pulling a fast one, doesn't it. I prepared for hostilities as I opened my passport but the officials were far more preoccupied (they always are) with giving the large group (it always is) of Israelis a hard time. In fact, despite the recent anniversary of the start of the war, the only people to take the matter up with me have been a couple of Uruguayan pensioners wishing to pass the time whilst waiting for the bus. More pertinent for many Argentinians is the ongoing struggle for acknowledgement of atrocities committed by their own government during seven years of dictatorship. Posters calling for the re-appearance of long-vanished individuals and demands to know the fate of 30,000 (certainly dead) desaparacidos are not uncommon. Maggie would have done it too if she could've got away with it.

Ice Cubed
With the social commentary out of the way, back to all the fun of the fair in a land where folk scoff steaks bigger that their own heads and insist on addressing you in the plural form (sadly, replying with the royal 'we' is not done). If New Zealand is a continent shrunk in the wash, Patagonia is a bicycle tyre that has ignored the warnings and blown itself up using the high pressure line at the car wash. Everything, including the empty space between, is enormous! Arriving at the Perito Moreno glacier you are hit by a wall of cold air as if God had left the freezer open. On sighting it, you realise that the old fool has let the ice box get out of control again too. 250 sq km out of control. The sound of gawping silence is broken only by the lickety split of gigantic pillars crashing off the 60m high face as glacier is forced to finally concede that gravity's dad is harder.

I Don't Get My Kicks
Want to appear ten years younger? Take gale force winds, allow to pick up speed unimpeded over 787,000 sq km of nothingess, mix well with unsealed gravel roads and apply liberally to exposed skin. The Patagonia Peeling, all the stars swear by it. NB; no claims for loss of sight will be accepted.
Patagonia tests the soul. The emptiness in yours yawns in direct proportion to the vacant landscape. Tourists cling to the mountains and coast like awkward teenagers skirting the edges of an empty dance floor, afraid to be the first to venture out. I'm ashamed to say I ran away from its' bleakness, the very thing that makes it what it is. Having worn myself two inches shorter from walking, and before the 45ยบ bend in my back became permanent, the only way was up, via the spine-spindling Route 40 which spans the entire nation from north to south. Covering approx half an inch on the map, we jolted for two days through a varied landscape of pampas desert, pampas desert and pampas desert where the vista (interrupted only by the odd seething metropolis of three shacks and a sheep) mirrors the lumpy sky above and you become intimately acquainted with the odours of your fellow travellers. Ah but she is "a hard mistress" indeed. She torments you and drives you away but no sooner are you comfortably ensconced with your fine wines and your fluffy pillows then you're already thinking of begging her to take you back...

Next time; some mountains. For a change.
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chile-ing Out
After haring round NZ like a rabbit out of a trap it was time for a bit of R&R. Rest and Re-tox that is. After a week getting Pisco Soured in Santiago (a much nicer city than it ever gets credit for and brown is the new black after all), re-acquainting myself with the extensive vegetarian options of the Iberian diet ("I can't eat that do you have anything else?" "This?" "Sorry not that either. No, nor that. Or that" "This then?" "Isn´t that what you offered me the first time?") I was once again ready to take on the beautiful nature.

Another day another volcano, this time a relaxing, full day stroll up the vertical, snowy slopes of Mt Villarica. If the altitude gain of over a thousand meters and the stunning views don't take your breath away, the acrid fumes belching from the summit like B&H from a betting shop window will. During our all too brief break I inhaled the equivalent of my duty free allowance and pondered life's eternal questions (why is there always some bint who's hire gear fits and looks great while I get the oven mitts and pants from Help The Aged Clown?). Then we were initiated into the sport of Esliding (that's 'sliding' to those of you unfamiliar with the niceties of Spanish pronunciation) for the fast track home. This is basically tobogganing with your arse and a plastic bag at 1000 feet. We've all done it, none of us were sharp enough to think of convincing tourists to pay for it.

The End Of The World Is Nigh
Or it will be after another 18 hours of straight-to-video and scurvy. By which time your arse will have passed peacefully into the next life with it's family around it. Patagonia, where men are men and so are a fair percentage of the women. Where brutal winds whip through the Plaza De Armas (one in every tinpot town, like the horse), waiting round corners like a gang of tooled-up teenagers to relieve you of your reason, cash and any important documents not stapled to your person. Where the street dogs wear a permanent grin more often seen on their car-borne cousins. Where the magnificent, corkscrew columns and vertical granite pillars of Torres Del Paine national park reflect in duck-egg blue glacial lakes. Where even the most annoying been-there-done-that's have had their jaws wired open. A land of brooding, untamed beauty (and that's just the chaps who staff the refuges) where you can watch condors floating over glaciers and lamas lunching on a peaceful Patagonian plain then sleep so soundly that even the brick lobbed through the next window by disaffected yout' will fail to wake you. Patagonia where Nature

Right, I'm popping next door now to have a word about some islands and a certain football match. The hand of God beckons...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fiord Fiesta
Well it rocked my little world and I should know Lord, I've followed a few. The only way to describe the beauty of the Milford track and Sound would be to employ various hackneyed adjectives an a good few expletives. So I won't try. A mixture of temperate rain forest, glacial alpine slopes and turquoise waters, the walk terminates after three days at the Sound itself. It could be the combination of slog and blood loss to winged irritants (sand flies) but the experience of viewing the improbably angled walls of the Sound for the first time is enough to have you down the nearest gospel church. "Praise the Laaaahd. Ah believe!!". After drinking in so much beauty you're ready to take the floor at an A.A meeting. The walk is obviously not without it's dangers. Mainly to your lunch from the keen-eyed keas (alpine parrots not black dogs). There is definitely no sight more incongruous than a large green bird trying to have your sarnies away against a backdrop of snowfields. Pining for the fiords no doubt.

Ice Ice Baby
After that I headed back up north to see the glaciers. One nobly named after some Austrian emperor, the other after a sweet popular among O.A.Ps. The Fox Glacier is an impressively sized if rather unexpectedly dirty river of ice, peopled by chains of shivering human ants yomping cautiously up and down the face. I suppose your face might look a bit grubby too if two hundred plus people a day wiped their boots on it.

Twitching The Night Away
Spare a thought for NZ's native bird life. Milena of peaceful, mammalian predator-free existence allowing evolution to get really carried away, all suddenly shattered. They're pretty good these days at conserving what's left here (if only because, like the Aussies, they've fucked it right up in the first place) but for once it's not all the white man's fault. The Maori got the ball rolling with the introduction of rats, dogs and overeating (picture giant moa morphing into a roast dinner before their hungry eyes). Then we took over and showed them how it's really done. It has to be said that the birds aren't doing themselves any favours either though. After laying an egg a third her own weight, endangered ma kiwi turns it over to dad who sits on it for a ridiculous length of time. By the time hatching occurs both parents are understandably naffed off with their offspring and turf straight it out at which point the stoats (chavs of the animal world who will happily impregnate their own young for the chance of a free council house) eat it.
Shooting yourself in the foot wasn't just for the birds either. The Maori were so warlike that all the colonists had to do was introduce them to guns, light fuse and retire to a safe distance as they started on each other. One chief, returning laden with gifts after a visit to the King of England, stopped off en route to exchange bling for bullets, arriving home in the mood to strut and wasted no time in popping some caps in some asses.

Well now it's time to bid farewell to our linguistically challenged cousins. A delightful land where bus drivers sport white knee socks and have failed to realise they're not compering the Saga charity gala dinner. Tomorrow I fly forward into my own past, arriving in Chile two hours before I leave NZ and experiencing Friday afternoon twice. It's enough to make your head expl
Thursday, February 08, 2007

One Ring To Rule Them....
The outdoors truly are great in New Zealand. This is a good thing for the towns boast all the sophistication of a row of Bournemouth beach huts circa 1976, notable exceptions so far being the Ben Sherman-shirted hell that is Christchurch and the stately Scottish grandeur of Dunedin. That certain hamlets in the north are famous for their welly boots and carrots should tell you we ain't in Kansas anymore Dorothy.
But stuff that, that's not why any of us came. My quest began with a visit to the aptly named Hell's Gate in the pastures of The Shire. Hell's Arsehole might be a better name for this delightful collection of foully flatulent flats, home to the world's only mud volcano (I go to all the top spots so you don't have to). After hanging out with some dodgy geysers I saddled up my hobbit and made for Weather Top pausing only to haul my fiery ring up the slopes of Mt Doom (aka Tongariro). Anyone for a stroll amongst active volcanoes, emerald coloured lakes and gently farting lunar landscape? Oh yes.

P, P, P, Pick Up A Large Flightless Seabird
For such a small country NZ is a great place to add to the list of 'cool creatures I have seen'. Several types of dolphin, for instance. No-one ever tells you this, but swimming with them is one of the most terrifying experiences ever. Think floundering in murky water wearing an extra strength (like those ones Mike has to have to stop him... you know)full-body condom and waiting for a huge fish to hurl itself at you out of the indistinct darkness. Sadly Flipper and friends were more interested in showing off at the back of the boat and declined to communicate spiritually with us. I bought a few cans of dolphin unfriendly tuna after. That'll teach the capricious little fuckers. The world's largest carnivore, the Sperm Whale can also be seen daily off the east coast. They are truly awesome (in the biblical not the annoying surfer boy sense of the word). An even better sight, however, is the controlled riot that occurs when one is sighted and sixty passengers attempt to politely elbow each other into the sea in the rush to photograph 15% of the bobbing blubber before it dives down to scoff its own body weight in ancient mariners and oil drums.

Dry land offers penguins and the world's largest bird, the albatross. These humvees of the sky weigh in with a massive three meter wingspan .In the words of David Attenborough; 'Albatross rock!'. Ok he didn't say that but he could have made a much shorter film if he had. I've picked up so much new knowledge that I feel must share it. I'll start with the best for your edification; Sea lions are gay. Not gay as in a bit effeminate but gay as in the big 'bears' like to surround themselves with a posse of young 'rent boys' and get jiggy with it while there are no laydeez around. They also sport tight leather shorts and migrate to Sydney every February.

Right that's enough pink power for one day. The 'world's best walk' awaits tomorrow. The Kiwis call hiking 'tramping' so I'm of to get kitted out with a couple of Scottish punks, A crate of Stella and a park bench. Roads? Where we're going we don't need...roads.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

You'll Never Leave
Australia is a land of choices. Take your pick from the following; Land Death, Sea Death or Sky Death. Living here is somewhat like owning an exotic and very dangerous pet. It looks pretty but at any given moment it could have your hand off. Like mothers overprotecting their A.D.D. angel the Aussies get all huffy when you start what they consider to be scaremongering by asking questions like; 'so how many people have actually died here this year?', but there's no getting away from it. Even in the safe (and shabby) environs of Bondi you could end up looking like a walking sultana, ankles under constant threat of crushing by legions of yummy mummies and rad dads learner driving 4WD strollers. So here is the What-A-Way-To-Go Top Eight Chart Rundown;

1. The world's ten (not ten of the) deadliest snakes including the Tiapan, Death Adder (prefix says it all) and the helpfully coloured Brown Snake.
2. The Salty Croc- named for it's endearing habit of popping to the beach for a quick bite. Something which is on the increase due to destruction of their river habitat.
3. The Cassowary- the Begbie of the bush. The world's only helmeted bird nuts it's way through the bush and eats... plums.
4. Several nasty tempered arachnids including the Sydney lawn dwelling Funnelweb.
5. The Great White and friends- needs no introduction, we've all seen Jaws. Capable of sensing a drop of human blood or sweat from miles away.
6. The Box Jellyfish- a virtually transparent, floating, fiery cat o nine tails. Eats...plankton.
7. The Gimpy- doesn't actually kill you but this innocent green leaved plant will gift you pain equivalent to a cigarette burn a thousand fold every time you get a bit adrenaline going for up to nine months.
8. A shell-dwelling chav of a crab which has you as soon as you threaten to relocate it's abode.

Nobody knows why so many of Australia's creatures have evolved to be so unnecessarily deadly. Perhaps growing up in a climate as hostile as this has left the natives in a permanent teenage moody. On the other side of the coin it boasts by far the cutest and most ridiculous creatures including living spacehoppers and an animal mistakenly thought of a bears but which are, in fact, grumpy old men asleep in trees. Only seen awake on pension day in the bookies.

Had the early settlers had a choice, I wonder whether they would have persevered. But the opportunity to royally fuck up this playground was too great so persevere they did. Hence their overwhelming confidence. If you can survive this lot you have nothing to fear from a bunch of butter-fingered poms.

Right, now I'm off to get fitted up with a black steed and cloak. It's Hobbit season!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Jungle Boogie
Never been much of a beach girl (too white, too impatient). But a beach where dipping a pinky in the water can result in hospitalisation if not loss of the entire pinky and a fair bit more besides, Now That's What I Call Music. 

So I headed up to the Daintree in tropical North Queensland 'where the rainforest meets the reef' creating an uninterrupted Zone Of Potential Death. The world's oldest rainforest dates from when there was one super continent (called, apparently, 'Gonwandaland' proving that all scientists share a common ancestor with Dungeons and Dragons gamers. Peopled by Orcs too no doubt). The forest is home to some unique and endangered species including the Cassowary (an endangered relative of the emu sporting the novel feature of a razor sharp claw for chibbing unwary tourists) and is, of course, under threat. The state government is currently engaged in a scheme to persuade local landowners who have begun clear cutting and development to resell to the park. One can only hope the persuasion is of the variety that involves heads and toilets and an edgy cassowary sitting in the corner.

Foxy Lady
I passed a relaxing few days looking out for crocs, bobbing my pants at the sound of fist sized jungle fowl, charging about in the dark looking for snakes with Botany's answer to Indiana Jones (fact; by weight there are more termites in the world than people. Thank God only we know this!) and hanging about (ooh, my wife, my wife) with Sunshine the fruit bat (likes; apples, flapping, pooing seeds. Dislikes; barbed wire, farmers) at the rehab centre. I was hoping she'd score me some crack. She was holding out for a council house. I also got talking to the resident ecologist, who is (seemingly singlehandedly) replanting the forest, about mankind's impending doom. Key factors being population growth and air travel. I told him not to worry. We've got all the bases covered between us.

The Underwater World Of Inspector Clouseau
Then it was off back to fantastically tacky Cairns (the only seaside town to opt for a mudflat instead of a beach ensuring that the only birds you can watch preening are the pelicans bedding in for the night) and a spot of diving on the reef. My submarine grace left a little to be desired but it was all worth it to see the oceanographic equivalent of kittens in a basket; clownfish nestling in coral polyps. Bless their little orange and white fins.

I'll leave you with this heartwarming fact; every year crocs eat more Germans here than any other nationality. Answers on a postcard. New slogan for the tourist board; 'North Queensland, menacing tourists since 48000 BC'.

Love, Flipper.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Town Like Alice
A little knowledge is often a dangerous thing, George Bush, Sun readers for example, and if your most recognisable cultural icons include Steve Irwin and Crocodile Dundee then the unwary traveller is bound to be occasionally disappointed. Having soaked up Sydney sophistication (more later) I felt it was high time I got into a bit of bush (insert joke here) so I added my contribution to Australias' other well known feature, the ozone hole, and jetted up to Alice Springs. Being neither 'young' nor 'enthusiastic' I eschewed the delights of dining amongst the similarly described residents of my hostel and headed into town. Frankly I was disappointed. Where are the one horses, the dirt roads, the casual violence and rednecks crashing through windows onto (pedestrianised!) streets? Perhaps the outback would deliver....

Journey To The Center Of The Earth
The Aussies. You've gotta love 'em they call a spade a spade. No trades descriptions infringements in the Red Centre. It's both those things. Miles and miles and miles of it. As far as the eye can squint. Unchanging for hours. And hours. And hours. Just the occasional etch-a-sketch road connecting nowhere to nowhere. Dry as a camels mudflaps but harbouring a surprising amount of tough, scrubby life. After many years of struggle the world's hardest people (show me a yakuza running around naked spearing 'roos), the Aborigines have finally begun to recognise the white man's right to practise his ancient art of bagging the modern day equivalent of the trophy head (photos) and no longer practise their pesky centuries old rituals at Uluru (the rock) and other sacred sights. Sadly the Aborigonies are rapidly losing their traditions in the face of growing indifference from the yout dem ('oh dad not ritual scaring again'). After all what would you do? Hike for three weeks in the buff to dig up some whichety grubs or pop down to Maccy D's in the yute? So the world's oldest and only continuous oral culture will soon have to be written down or lost forever. Notch up another success for western cultural imperialism.

A Rock And A Hard Place
It's red and it's pretty geologically unique and impressive and I'm not going to say it's overrated (it is very big and, as we all know, size matters) but.... The Olgas! Five minutes down the road, just as impressive, a quarter the people, more of them for your money (quantity counts too) and you can walk round them without recreating the egg-on-a-hot-pavement effect with your head. Into this lush prehistoric landscape we descended, feeling like Indiana Jones and keeping an eye out for any stray Pterodactyls. Two hours later, feeling more like Paula Radcliffe, we were spat out and went in search of the travellers other favourite sight. A cold tinny.

A new slogan for the Northern Territories Tourist Board I think. "The Outback, it's a good place to remind yourself how insignificant you are".

Next; Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Here I Go Again On My Own
Take a hundredweight of rigid social conventions stewed in a thick broth of honour and isolation over several thousand years. Add two litres of U.S culture and a heaped tablespoon of rapid industrialisation. Stir well and simmer for half a century. Result; Japan. Aisa Lite. High in fun, reliability and work ethics. Low in danger, poverty and personal space.

So the sun sets for the last time on the land of the rising sun leaving so many questions unanswered. Such as;
Why is it polite to slurp your noodles but not to blow your nose?
Since when has velvet hot pants and silver knee socks been acceptable attire for the 8.30am bus to the office?
Who thought it would be a good idea not to bother with street names?
Why do all manga characters have such big eyes?
And unfeasible tits?
Why can't you just say 'no' if that's what you mean?
Would one ever cease to be 'Outside People' (gaijin)?
Will more strangers come?
Why is every sentence backward giving the constant impression that you are talking to Yoda?

Kiki~o this is goodbye saying time being for. Blog checking please be doing as down under a few shrimp on barbie to throw go I. xx

Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Mind The Gap 
Japan is frequently (and clichedly) described as 'a land of contrasts'. And some. Edo era kimonos jostle with hot pants on the Yamanote line, the serenity and beauty of a zen garden is overlooked by deafening video billboards and a nation obsessed with consideration for others eats up game shows whose central premise appears to be the utter humiliation of the hapless contestants.

Burger Flipping As A Spectator Sport
During the short period in which it is possible to sustain interest in t.v you can't understand I managed to discern one fact central, I believe, to understanding the national psyche; the Japanese are mad as hatters. My first televisual treat featured a businessman being pursued at speed down a long corridor by a large polystyrene boulder. 'Indiana Jones and the Last Train Home' perhaps? The next foray was no less rewarding and involved what appeared to be a cooking competition for children in which everything hinged on the young contestants ability to flip various food stuffs. Charmingly, the host and camera would home in not on the winners but the distraught faces of the less than successful and their ruined offerings. Perhaps less a game show than preparation for the harsh realities of life in a culture in which coming second best used to mean a hot date with a sharp
 blade. I didn't watch long enough to find out if this was the consolation prize.

Descending the seven levels of hell the soul passes through various torments (Groundhog Day at 6.45am in Shinjuku station, an orientation session for all eternity) the utterly wretched (kiddie fiddlers, dog kickers and bag snatchers) coming to rest in the Pachinko hall. Condemmed to spend all eternity stuffing handfuls of ball bearings into a vertical pinball game requiring no discernible skill to the accompaniment of manga visuals and a noise comparable to the bombing of Dresden until at last they win a giant teddy bear and exchange it with Satan for money in an attempt to get round Japanese gambling laws. To describe the Pachinko hall as an assault on the senses would be like describing a yakuza heavy as 'a weedy little nance'. I stood three minutes before I was forced back onto the zen like tranquility of the rush hour streets.

The Maid Cafe
Ah Akihabara. Home to cut price electicals, pornographic clip~together manga dolls (for the discerning hobbyist) 'A Boys' and the place they all go when drooling over a scantily clad, wide eyed cartoon just ain't enough; the Maid Cafe. In this haven for the socially skilless young girls with poker faces dressed in frilly skirts and cats ears ineptly serve overpriced fare while another of their underage number writhes on video (in a disturbingly childish fashion) on a bed or coyly takes bites out of a potato.

Little Pigs, little pigs
Japan is a hotbed (sorry) of volcanic activity. Dig deep enough and scalding, stinky water comes bubbling up and into the giant bathtubs of it's many spas. The Onsen experience is a nightmare of potential social gaffes for the uninitiated. DO check first which doorway hieroglyphic indicates your single sex hot tub. DO shower before getting in. DON'T be embarrassed about having to do this on a pygmy sized stool in front of total strangers or your mates. DO add some cold to avoid striping your skin off and, whatever you do, DON'T sip too much Suntory (for relaxing times) in the bath and give yourself a funny turn.

That's it for the culture rundown. Sadly, having had no 'love', I am unqualified to comment on the delights of the ubiquitous Love Hotels (varying prices for 'stay' or 'rest') and capsule hotels (though the Leopalace might count at a push). I have failed you in my quest for enlightenment and must now horizontally extend my navel with a sushi knife for SHAAAAAAAAME!

Tune in for next week's instalment from beyond the grave.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Those Boots Weren`t Made For Walkin`
Image is everything in Japan so style matters. A unkempt Japanese is like an honest U.S president. A rare sight indeed. A recent straw poll in the classroom revealed that your average young Japanese would no more be seen as unfashionable or scruffy that they would a Kim Jong Ill sympathiser. Our survey said `It`s important to be fashionable` only one out of forty students said `yes but having a personality is more important`.

And what fashion it is. The `fashionistas` (does that word make you want to murder people too?) of downtown Tokyo gobble up yer Pradas, Guccis and Ralphs like hot sake. The most romantic present a boy can give is a Louis Vuiton bag apparently. There`s also plenty of room for the `completely out there` though, such as the kids that hang out by Harajuku station on weekends dressed as robots, French maids, goths and all manner of vaguely disturbing outfits that defy explanation.

For a nation so conservative by nature your average Japanese young lady about Shibuya displays none of the usual coyness dresswise. Those too old to compete for the 'Indecent Shortness of Underage Skirt' award (schoolgirls really do go about like Gogo Yubari by the way) do a passable impression of naive upmarket hookers. To get an picture of the `look` imagine a head on collision between your granny's wardrobe and that of a gangsta rappers moll. Missy Elliot meets Maggie Thatcher. And offs her scrawny ass. There follows a transcript of from the Shinjuku Finishing School For Young Ladies;

"0600 hours kit inspection. All present and correct?"
"Sir yes sir"
"Is your hair bleached an unnatural ginger shade?"
"Sir yes sir"
"Do you have a bizarrely patterned jersey/blouse that would not look out of place in a nursing home or on an old rerun of Dynasty?"
"Sir yes sir"
"Have you teamed said jersey/blouse with a cropped fluffy or other jacket and over sized costume jewelry achieving a surprisingly stylish effect from items that should really never be seen together?"
"Sir yes sir"
"Are your boots knee high, spike heeled and worn over sparkly stockings for a disturbingly cute whilst sexual effect?"
Sir yes sir"
"Are the velvet hotpants/denim miniskirt so short as to threaten a display of wares?"
"Sir yes sir"
"Very good maggots. Now go....Wait a minute what's this? Private do I see a pair of jeans before me?"
"Sir I was cold sir. Sir it's the middle of December sir"
"Sir no sir"
"Private get changed immediately and report for toilet cleaning duty"
"Sir yes sir"
"I can't hear you private"

Next time; French Maids, gambling and 'four in a bath' shocker. No word of a lie.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Invisible Woman
Along with your visa, something you are provided with as a foreign female arriving at Narita airport is a cloak of invisibility (I did ask if I could swap for a bullet proof one but they were out). It is regulation to wear this cloak at all times in order to guard oneself against the possibility of foreign intervention. After years of ''Hi wha's your name where you from whasa matter why you don' wanna talk to me?'' anonymity is a breath of fresh air (I'm told it remains so for about six months after which you start to wonder if what your mother told you about not making faces in a changing wind was true).

Obviously, as with anything gender related, double standards exist. A mutation occurs on the journey over, the plane acting as chrysalis to it`s male cargo so that on arrival former mutants with questionable ethics emerge to find themselves Charles Atlas in a land where living with your mum in Rotherham at the age of 32 does not prejudice your changes of coping off. Blinking in the new dawn of their existence they proceed to exercise their new found appeal in the time honoured manner of all rock stars. By turning into arseholes. Haven't worked out what the attraction is yet. Perhaps the Japanese girls think those nice G.Is have come back with that Green Card. The boys are back in town ladies and they have some candy for you.

On our first foray into the wilds of Shibuya (which engendered some interesting 'pub or knocking shop' dilemmas) we met an some elderly Japanese businessmen who were courteous to a fault and not at all overbearing in the way that many can be to unaccompanied females. The only slightly suspect enquiry was 'are you Russian'. This being slang it seems for 'are you a prostitute'. Those Russian girls, they'll do owt for a couple of potatoes and some vodka.

Tokyo is a very safe place to be both in general and as a lady. Leave your wallet on the cafe table and you will most likely return to find it still there with contents intact. The streets are safe to walk at night. In fact there is only one type of theft prevalent enough for our captors, sorry employers to warn us about. It seems unattended laundry of the female persuasion walks the `G` (yes I mean you Gareth) string of risk. Well, those vending machines have got to be refilled from somewhere.

Until next time. Get your mits off my pants Mr Kobiashi.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ain't Getting On No train Fool
The Tokyo underground and overground (wombling free though any womble round here'd swiftly find itself gutted and its nostrils served to the gaigin) is legendary and I'm here to tell you it's all true. There really is a little grey suited man sporting white gloves whose job it is to greet you with a hearty 'Ohayo gozaimas' and gently 'aid' those alighting particularly crowded trains. Another dapper fellow has the job of leaning out of the window to make sure the doors line up exactly with the lines painted on the platform behind which commuters wait obediently in lines. It gets pretty damn crowded too. People spilling out when the doors open. I swear I once saw a lady doing the 'wide mouthed frog' against the window. Consider that Tokyo not only has both an underground system larger than the Tube but also an equally sizable overground network both with trains running three minutes apart ata all but the quietest times. Now consider that both are rammed for several hours of the day and you start to get some idea of the scale of it's dedicated workforce. Despite the logistics of transporting so many people to their destination the system functions perfectly. Proving once and for all that Richard Branson and Railtrack are a bunch of shiteing cunts. The only thing to disturb the harmony is when some poor 'salaryman', faced with a lifetime of this daily soul sapping, opts for a swift exit in front of the incoming 7.35. This appears to happen on a daily basis judging from the on-train information screens broadcasting delays due to 'accidents'.

What makes this crush bearable is the knowledge that some greasy cunt isn't going to have your bag as soon as your back's turned. The Japanese are incredibly law abiding (one of Cath's students thought that westerners think an abandoned bag in the street is a gift to them from God) and it makes a very welcome change, if being taken to the point of bloody mindedness at times. This is how we do it, this is how we've always done it and no it can't be changed even if it makes no sense and no-one can remember why we started doing it this way in the first place and what are you doing asking questions about it anyway? They are also unfailingly polite (even through gritted teeth at rush hour). The theory is that Japanese society has a lot of social codes because so much of the land is uninhabitable and everyone has to rub a along together in a very small space and it's better not to kick up a fuss by questioning things. A well known motto is 'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down'. Indeed.

Gotta go. The office won't run itself you know.
Sunday, November 05, 2006

20 Seconds To Arrive
A timely break this week from the daily bump n grind saw us in Kyoto, one-time capital of Japan, home to over 2000 temples and the last of the Geisha. Unable to face catching the overnight leg cramper I splashed the cash for the Shinkansen bullet train and was there before I'd got out of bed (not for the first time did I wish I'd invested in some respectable P.J's). An eight hour journey condensed into three. No excuses about no maple leaves on no line neither. En route I managed to spot the famous Mt Fuji coyly peeking its head out from behind some rather picturesque cloud cover.

Zen'd Out
Kyoto made a nice change from the asylum that is Tokyo. We let the meaning (and the cash) unfold in a series of zen gardens (my that's a nice rock) and temples which preened like glamour models for the barrage of paparazzi. Against the background of tinny tannoys and clicking shutters we attempted to achieve nirvana but the overall effect was more like listening to Courtney Love. Very pretty though. You can't fail to appreciate the simple organisation of a Japanese garden though I am left with the nagging feeling that there may be something wrong with your soul if the your overriding impulse on contemplating raked sand is to jump in and make snow angels in it.

Girls With Film
It only takes a short while in Japan to realise why the Japanese go camera mad when they hit Europe. Everything must seem so different. And slow, like how a fly sees us moving into slow motion (geedaaaaa spooooon). At the plaza near my station I count four giant t.v screens with the volume turned right up. It's fortunate that the Japanese themselves are so well mannered and quiet or the extreme noise terror would be unbearable. It's like a living fun fair every day (scream if you want to go faster). Unlike a fun fair however the low pikey count means you can enjoy it without fear of flashing too much bling. You can see why they feel it's permissible to walk around with a Nikkon that cost half a South American country's GDP and not have it taken off you.

Livin' Doll
I was also lucky enough to see a few real live Geisha in Kyoto. Glimpsed through teahouse windows laughing politely at the jokes of suited businessmen, moving as fast as their restricted little legs could carry them to their next appointment. The effect of painted faces and glittering robes suddenly appearing out of the darkness in front of you is quite ghostly. There are apparently less than 1000 Geisha in the country inhabiting a closed world somewhere between Japan's present and its past.

That's all folks. Next week; What Not To Wear.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Don't Get Sake With Me Sunshine
In a tightly regimented society it's necessary to have a few pressure gauges. Reading porn on the metro, getting in the bath butt naked with your work colleagues, making an arse of yourself with a microphone, and of course my favourite, getting utterly mortalled. The Japanese love their booze and can often be seen collapsed over a handy wall of a Friday night. 'Biru' (beer) is the nation's favourite and comes in big Deutchland style tankards (none of your wooftie continental canyas for us) with the more traditional sake close behind. Sake is so beloved of the Japanese that it is given in great quantities as offerings at temples. Never mind your cash-for-questions get the barrels in for the baldy lads. There is much debate as to which is better, hot or cold. The key seems to be, as with all alcohol, the more expensive the better. And don't overdo it. Take it from me.

Something fishy this way comes
Call me naive but I hadn't realised Japanese cuisine was based quite so heavily on 'sea chicken'. Veggies in Spain will recognise the frustration of managing to successfully convey your preference for not snacking on something that once had a face only to later receive something suspect floating in a whiffy sauce. Or perfectly kosher and 'dericious' looking but with bits of shaved gill curling up on top. It should be pointed out that the Japanese are unfailingly polite and helpful (never will they be heard to moan that slicing a few tomatoes is 'mucho trabajo') and take a great deal of care over the preparation of any food (which always looks beautiful) and sushi chefs are total artists.
There are, of course, times when salad eaters can find themselves grateful. Such as when the bar snacks contain what can only have been somethings' nostril. Yum. Limited eating out opportunity is improving my cooking skills. I made some killer veg sushi which many wasted years rolling spliff have stood me in good stead for. Fastest fingers in the east me. I have to say I'm not too down with seaweed. Can't seems to shake the mental image of brown foam bobbing in Scarborough rock pools.
Something that makes being a faddy eater easier in Japan is the displays of each restaurant's fare lovingly modelled in plastic and displayed in the outside window. Just look past the overly shiny exterior and drag the waiter outside to point at what you want then sit back and enjoy.

Until next time; I'll have the Styrofoam one in the corner please.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

And now a word from our sponsor...
Ha ha come back Steve Norman all is forgiven. We were expecting things to be a little more rigorous in the workplace but my lordy. 'Eastfence' (see I'm even scared to badmouth them on a private email) has some strict rules to say the least. No leaning on the desk whilst teaching. No public eating or smoking, formal dress at all times. No leaving the campus. And instant dismissal for bringing the company into disrepute through drunkenmasterness (actually that clause wasn't in anyone else's contract...) . A far cry from the Head of Kids Dept falling down the metro stairs onto....some kids after last years Xmas bash. Initial training was the weirdest thing I've ever sat through (and that includes that GM where some of the news items was pooey stains on the bathroom towels and the existence of the new tissue holder in the kitchen.

In a brief Sliding Doors style moment I saw my life as it could have gone. A bit like the end of Flash Gordon where the two worlds nearly collide, the other me squinted back from the front seat of her Ford Probe in the car park of the Wellin Garden City conference centre, looked unfooled by my poor imitation of somebody professional in my cheap Zara suit, and then was gone.

Management style seems to comprise the most jarring of U.S and Japanese management style. There we sat feeling like a bunch of badly suited insurance salesmen as our compere (we'll call him 'Tard') kicked things off gently by informing us we were being 'watched'. Nice people skills 'Tard. Perhaps you meant to say 'observed' or 'evaluated' but what the hell, now we're all feeling relaxed, lets get acquainted.

Big Brother is watching us and I don't mean a load of chavs in a prefab. Lacking Internet at my campus I have to sign in and out every day with, get this, GPS SATALITE PHONE. They know where I am!!!! Think on all you Cambridge whingers trying to sneak in half an hour late to seminars. Wait till Steve hears about this. Not to mention when I send him the algebra style student assessment forms. Oh no, hang on I could get sacked for that.

Next time; electronically tagging your workers. And keeping their families hostage.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Quake Me Up Before You Go Go
The earth moved for me last Saturday morning. At approx 6.30am we were woken up to our very first earthquake. Fortunately it wasn't 'The Big One', in fact for a while I wasn't sure if it wasn't just Cath squeezing one out on the floor above. 5.3 on the Richter scale I'm told. The city wreckers are 7s or 8s. The tremors were just on the right side of exciting though I did wonder at what point it might become strong enough for it to stop feeling amusing and start panicking. The experience raised the interesting point that none of us had a clue what to do in the event of a major one. Our keepers having neglected to provide us with any guidance in the face of this (lets face it pretty high) probability. Shoes by the bed seems to be the key. Oh and dried food. I'll be reet, I've got loads of seaweed in.
If that wasn't exciting enough we experienced the tail end of a typhoon too. I could tell this by the old ladies in rocking chairs and small dogs (''Toto'') flying past me as I was on my way to work. Also by the large number of umbrella carcases cast aside on the road. It rained for forty hours and forty minutes the like of which I've never seen even in Manchester. We went to the pub with plastic bags in our shoes a la Glastonbury 1998. The next day it was too hot to wear a t-shirt. Kerazy.

We Don't Need No Education
Had my first every go on Karaoke last weekend (cut to scene with the mad professor in his castle rearing back in horror as lightning splits the sky. ''It lives''). Oh yes. Everyone's reticent at first but a few beers in, there we were blasting out 'Eye of the Tiger' like pro's. I was careful not to solo and to stick to mainly rap tunes or backing 'vocals' (tip; never do anything by The Sugar Hill Gang, they don't take a breath). There surely is no finer sight than a group of English instructors squeaking "hey teacher, leave those kids alone". High point of the night was a splendid Walk Like An Egyptian and an innovative call-and-response style version of Kung Fu Fighting and yes, everybody was kung fu fighting (in front of a room full of Japanese dinners). Those cats were certainly fast as lightning to tell us they were closing not long after. The bill was a little bit frightening too.

Next up: Shrine-ing and Dining.

Livin' in a box (I'm a livin' in a cardboard box)
I suppose a word about where I'm residing would be appropriate now. My totally ridiculous address is: LEOPALACE, PRA TERRIER 207, 1-546-2, Maebaranishi, Funabashi City, Chiba (somebody say cheeeeba, everybody say....), 274-0825, Tokyo. Great eh? Japanese addresses have no street names, only numbers. Ever the Japanese find it confusing. Fly on the wall at that city planning meeting would have been interesting, 'I've got a great idea. Let's only use numbers, no, really, it'll be easy....'.
The 'Palace' as it is referred to by the 22 teachers (it's a bit like living in a hall of residence) is indeed that. A palace. For terriers. A family of small foxhounds could live quite nicely in the compact and bijou single room with bathroomkitchenwardrobestoragespace crammed into one end. The bed is located up some step ladders on a shelf above all that lot. Bag End eat your heart out. I wonder now if my avocation of the dog as the most noble of God's creatures has now come back to haunt me. Perhaps I have in fact died and now live in a kennel.
Seriously though, I am loving living on my own. Walking around not fully clothed. Opening the curtains to behold....the next set of Leopalaces under construction next door. Closing the curtains again. By the way, even Japanese builders work at the speed of snails who can't be arsed. Perhaps I have hit early middle age and this is preparation for the time when I can truly no longer stomach the company of other beings and retire to a life of spinsterhood. With my terriers.

It has to be said there isn't a lot 'fun' about Funabashi. The local town centre does a nice line in old lady clothing, some top sushi and a 100 yen store (the chav in all of has taken the 'pound shop' to our hearts and filled our spartan homes with poorly manufactured products laden with toxic chemicals and designed to fall apart in three months) but not much else. It's a grim 90 minute train ride into central Tokyo and the nearest 'cool' fun although we did find some top quality fun on our own doorstep of which more later. However since I have landed with the Caths every night is a fun night and we want not for good company.

Next time; Working for the man. Mr Oodigowa to be precise.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Big in Japan
Apocalypse right here, right now. The word 'hectic' was invented for Tokyo. Imagine Piccadilly Circus, Times Square or the centre of any major city complete with traffic jams and nine storey neon. Cut to the same city at peak rush hour full of swarming worker bees. Then imagine that this is the NOT in fact the centre but a fairly standard suburb. Where I live. The end of the world is NOT nigh, it's happening NOW! This is what happens when too many people decide it's a good idea to live in the same place. And they're knackered. Get on the metro at any time of day and you'll see 4 to 5 nodding commuters catching up on the 7 and a half hours they deny themselves in order to flay themselves on the altar of the 'asian tiger economy' (and you can't offer your seat to any little old ladies either. If it's not done in exactly the right way they have to get off at the next stop and commit ritual suicide so great is the shame. And then their Yakuza grandsons come for ya ass). On the return leg of my 90 min commute (I don't want to talk about it ok) I decided to follow suit receiving many 'big ups' for my head bobbing style from my fellow commuters.

Gonna Rock Down To Electric Avenue
So devoted to consumer culture is Tokyo that there is an entire zone dedicated solely to the sale of electrical goods. You name it, it's here. And in miniature. Advertised, as always, by giant neon. If Tokyo is every forced to cut its energy consumption the bottom's going to drop out of the neon tube industry. Think Bladerunner meets Blackpool Pier. Meanwhile, we laugh in the middle class face of your low energy bulbs. And incinerate the wrapping from our individually packaged kiwi fruit along with the rest of our 'burnable waste'. Your puny efforts to save the planet cannot stop us. No small irony that a global emissions agreement was signed here. Anyway that's enough for now. Next time: The glory that is Japanese game shows. Simon Cowell, come and have a go...

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