Friday, 27 January 2012

Bite-sized Japanter - N°21

BSJ No. 21 - the Japanese have a meat and potatoes dish with a very uninteresting name: lit: "meat potato". Except it's not that interesting because the Japanese name is "niku-jaga" or, as I have been hearing since I arrived "Mick Jagger".

I asked one of my employers about this when one of the kids mentioned she'd eaten Mick Jagger. The kids, of course, had never heard of him, but a glazed look came over my employer's eyes. The only explanation she offered was how handsome (kakoi!) he is. Delicious too!

PanJapanter - Episode IX: "Ooooooooooooooosaka and the End" (New Year's Day, 2012)

Henry-sama and I were sad to leave Tokyo behind, and having sobered up from the pre-trip excitement, the rumbling ten hour train trip to Osaka was much less riveting.

It was dark when we arrived in Japan’s second city and there wasn’t time to see much. We found another of these cheap, electronic ordering pubs and I choked on a hair of the dog hairball. With food for thought, Henry-sama and I chewed the fat and ate some bar snacks.
We had decided to stay in a capsule hotel. You can read Henry-sama’s account of the night here: . 
The staff were friendly, and one of them had even lived in Newcastle for a while, so he went right up in my estimation (I call that the Hansen effect, for obvious reasons). There was an excellent spa, and I had a shave and enjoyed a bit of self-mutilation in the electrified pool. There was a sauna, too, and an ice cold plunge pool.
We got into our respective pods around midnight I think. They’re very comfortable and there’s enough room to sit up. There’s also a TV, brimming with porn for the lonely businessman.

I was woken at around five thirty by someone’s bloody alarm, and then climbed out at around six. It was cold and rainy, and Henry-sama and I cocked-up by trying to be clever and getting on an earlier train to Kobe which, somehow, got us there later than the one we were supposed to take.
The journey was a bit arduous. At a train station in Yamaguchi, when Henry-sama had gone off to buy something, some old bloke told me to go back to my own country. It’s great that my Japanese is now good enough to understand the xenophobia that gets hurled at me!

We pulled into Tempaizan at around ten in the evening and slept soundly. After the travelling, it was good to be back in “my own” bed.

It was a bloody good trip, filled with excitement and rage and peace and mayhem. Truly, truly Japanterous. 

PanJapanter - Episode VII: "Shields in Japan" (2nd Jan 2012)

The title of this post has two significances. First, it refers to my many-hair-coloured friend Emily Shields who, after having spent two years in Chile, has come to the opposite end of the anthropological spectrum and set up shop in Saitama, the prefecture just north of Tokyo. She and I go way back, as we both used to play in the same orchestra (me fiddle, she bassoon) and we both used to work – and this is the second Shields – in South Shields Central Library. So there we were: Shields in Japan.
Emily writes an extremely Japanterous blog "Jap-Yah" which you should all read: As she can speak Japanese, her insights are perhaps a little bit more justes than mine.

In the morning, Henry-sama and I said goodbye to Jumpei-sama who was heading whom to see the family. Jumpei was, I’ll reiterate, an exemplary host and a great guy and someone I sincerely hope to be able to welcome to England one day.

We met up with Emily and took a turn in Ueno park. There was a statue of a famous samurai whose fame actually rides on the back of his dog’s famous loyalty. The statue depicts a handsome and strong warrior, but apparently he was lazy and fat.
The park is everything you’d expect from a Japanese park: busy, full of temples, full of vending machines. We had a walk around the lake and had a little bitch about Japanese culture and how exclusionary it is. On our way out we bumped into some of her stunningly attractive (wouldn’t you just know) Scandinavian friends: miaow.

And thence to a meeting with the divine[1]
We picked up Steph-chan (who hadn’t actually left Tokyo yet) and headed over to the Imperial Palace, a great big park at the core of Tokyo. On only one day of the year – yes, the 2nd of January – does the Emperor, formerly known as divine, and whose lineage has sat on the Chrysanthemum throne since before Christ, appear to his mini-flag fluttering subjects. And a few gaijin. We had a bit of a trek through the grounds of the palace to the frankly laughable security checks (the lady opened by chock-full bag, moved my water bottle to one side and waved me through) and then to the balcony within the palace walls. The water bottle was a mistake as there were no toilets around and I had a fifty minute wait until the next “viewing”. The Emperor came with his grandfatherly countenance, gave us a bit of a wave and a “douyagao[2].
The excitement all got a bit much for Steph and she headed back up to Fukushima where she teaches schoolchildren, many of whom were very severely affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Emily, Henry-sama and I had Chinese food near Tokyo station. I dumped my baggage in a giraffe-themed locker there, and we went over to Shinjuku to meet up with some of Emily’s friends for a night of imbibition. Tokyo has these cool izakaya (lit: drink alcohol shop) where everything on the menu is around 280 yennies, and you order on a little tablet PC style thing on your table.  

I stayed out until the morning. Many strong feelings surged through me - only partly alcohol induced - about the year to come. Excitement mostly. That’s the trouble with being charmed, once you’re inside eternal fortune, once you have him, you still have to make decisions you don’t want to have to make, and close doors that every bit of your thundering heart urges you to keep ajar. If you can’t, at least take the possibilities in your hands, throw them around and leave them with war wounds. Tick-tock tak-tak sounds the passing of time and the parting of ways, from Jumpei-sama, from the old year, from Tokyo, the life-piled-on-life wonderland, and endless, hopeless, exciting, stimulating possibilities.

[1] Actually, in 1945, the Americans made the current Emperor Akihito’s father Hirohito (known in Japan as the Showa Emperor, Akihito will be the Heisei Emperor) admit to the world that the Imperial family were not in fact divine.
[2] Retelling the story to a couple of teenage boys that I teach, they commented that His Imperial Majesty probably had a douyagao, a slang term for the facial expression that says “yeah, what do you think about that then, ey?”

PanJapanter - Episode VI: "Tremblement de terre, tremblements du coeur" (New Year's Day, 2012)

Henry-sama, Jumpei-sama and I slept until around noon, and I had some handheld sushi for lunch. Indeed, New Year’s Day would become a sushi kind of day.
The plan was to go to Odaiba, the reclaimed island in Tokyo bay (you might recall it from the little story I wrote to introduce my account of New Year’s Eve) which houses loads of interesting science and technology stuff, as well as a fake Statue of Liberty.

We got on a train down in Shinagawa. It was my understanding that this was the monorail, but in hindsight Robato-san informs me that, given the multiplicity of rails I must surely have seen, it was just a train that just happened to go quickly, quietly and along a track a hundred feet in the air. Still, it was very fun.
Fun, that is, until we stopped in a station and the train did not stop moving. You may have read that on New Year’s Day there was a large earthquake in out in the Pacific, near Tokyo. I felt it rock this hundred-foot high train for about ten or twelve seconds. Jumpei-sama and Henry-sama didn’t really seem to care but I, not being fond of heights, didn’t have such a good time. I didn’t believe it at first, thinking that somehow the suspension on the train was just having a virtuosic moment, like those suped-up pimp cars that can jump up and down on their front axels, but some of the Japanese people around us looked a bit concerned and you could see buildings and lampposts rocking below. As the shaking subsided, there was silence. Then the driver announced, with the same enthusiasm employed for “the next station is Akasaka, the next station is Akasaka” that there had indeed been an earthquake, but that all was fine and we’d be off in a second.
And off we were. This particular train, monorail or not, has a spectacular route across to the island. It climbs quite steeply in a big spiral suspended in the air, before making its way across the gay-friendly Rainbow Bridge at some speed. I was still tense from the earthquake, but the view afforded of the Tokyo shore certainly was something.
On Odaiba, we had a wander to the fake Statue of Liberty, fittingly smaller than the American one but bigger than the Paris one.
When Hervé-sama and I went to New York, we took with us the unrealised aim of having some pizza; New York City is, of course, “known for its pizza”. Tokyo, the concrete hive that it is, is chock full of ginormous buildings, so Henry-sama and I wanted to go up one. On Odaiba, we blagged our way into the lift of a posh and tall hotel, planning to have a drink in the sky terrace. Unfortunately, scum like us were not allowed in, but we stole a glimpse of the Tokyo panorama on the first day of the year.
All of the cool science stuff was shut (Toyota has a place where they show off their experimental technologies, and there’s a place where you can go and see robots (a Robottery? a Robotanical garden?)) as it was New Year’s Day, so we headed back to the mainland on the same train.

Henry-sama and I wanted to check the possibilities of taking a sleeper train to Osaka instead of the standard futsuu trains. Not keen on fannying around with our Kindle browsers, Jumpei-sama suggested a manga café in the central business district.
Manga, as we all know in the Occident, is a serious business. So serious that you need three forms of ID, a criminal background check and a human sacrifice to “become a member” of one of these places. Nerds and tourists flock there for the comics and a convenient place to watch porn. Businessmen who’ve missed the train and cheapskates flock there for an inexpensive place to get a shower and some shut eye. All of the non-alcoholic drinks are free so I did like a Linden Hall student and loaded up on refined sugar before heading back out into the Tokyo night.

Planning to meet the chans there later on (it was Steph-chan and Eliot-chan’s last night in Tokyo and we had drunkenly / somnolently promised to see them before they left), we went to Ueno, not too far from Jumpei-sama’s place.
Japanese people say that Ueno is a more “local” part of Tokyo, as if the place were teeming with foreigners. It’s certainly a little more down to earth than the rest of the neon-soaked fun. There’s a big park and a zoo and Ueno is home to Tokyo University, the most prestigious in the country. As is our wont, the lads and I went for a skulk around the train tracks and after much frustrating umming, arring and ‘aggling, found a reasonably priced all you can eat sushi restaurant. Breakfast and dinner on the first day of the year: I can’t be doing that much wrong. We had to wait a little, but the restaurant was a cubby hole to delight the hungry, the hearty and the hard-of-spending. Jumpei-sama dealt with the paper work: with a little betting pencil, you write how many thousands of maki or kimchi rolls or wonderful fatty tuna pieces you want, and the ladies of the establishment bring them too you on huge ceramic platters. The green tea, too, is all-you-can-sup.
(Interesting digression: while in England we do tallying as four vertical lines crossed through to make a batch of five, in Japan they use the kanji for “exact” () instead).

Suitably stuffed, we staggered out into the night to meet the chans, bid the travellers be well, and had a civilised few beers at Jumpei-sama’s place.
Two snogs and an earthquake and the year of the dragon was off to a roaring start. 

Saturday, 21 January 2012

PanJapanter - Episode V: "Waking the Dragon" (New Year's Eve, 2011)

Kenjo Wakazaki takes a long, deliberate draw on his cigarette, narrows his eyes and stares out across the bay towards the Rainbow Bridge. The sun has begun to show above the hotels on Odaiba, and he takes a lung-full of cold air to counteract the acrid heat inside him.

Nagayoshi’s body has now slipped under the skin of the water. ‘Old work is complete and new work must begin’ as the Oyabun(Yakuza boss) said frequently. It was an adage you had to live by. You had to, and you had to move with the cycling and the changing of things and progress each day and every time an act was done in the service of the ninkyo(The 'firm')-dantai you took a drag on your cigarette and you thought about it only briefly and then you exhaled and you got on with business. That was how you became a kyodai
(big brother) and failing was how shatei(little brother) ended up at the bottom of Tokyo bay on a freezing New Year’s Eve morning.

The shatei stand and smoke, and Kenjo throws his fag-end into the water. Ôtakutaku (“Big Takeru” his mother back in Kurume might call him) sat on the harbour edge. The largest and newest of the shatei, he had done his duty and thrown the boy into the water. Kenjo walks to him, pats his shaved head, congratulates him on his efforts, and calls the shatei to get into the van. They get in, Otakutaku up front.

The destination is Shinjuku, to one of the gang’s love hotels. Violent lusts are invigorated after the morning’s events, and violent justice has to be dished out to a punter who didn’t pay. Kenjo gets a call.

Moshi(He-) moshi(llo). Un(Yeah). Hai(Yes). Hai(Yes). Hai(Yes). Un(Yeah).Wakarimashita(I understand). Hai(Yes)”.
Dare(Who was that)?”

Ribaratsuki­-sama was the gang’s shingiin(lawyer). A gaijin(foreigner) who claimed to be both Polish and English, he had come to Japan in the eighties with a London law firm, become a consultant for the Tokyo police and then a consultant for the ninkyo-dantai. The deal is sorted, the decoy planted. All is in place.
The LH job goes without a hitch. A broken jaw and a bloodstain on a canvass shoe, but enough time for a fag and some nihon(Japanese) cha(sencha tea).

The afternoon meeting with the Kudo(Kyushu- based)-kai(Yakuza syndicate) takes places in an onsen(traditional spa) in Asakusa(district in North Tokyo).

(Old )(work)仕事終(finished)わって(new),(work)しい(work)めなければ(must)(begin)りません” says the boss, bowing to the Kudo-kai Oyabun. He bows an agreement. The pleasantries take place in the cool bath. There are six; three from each side.

本田様九州来(Lord Honda )てから(having come from Kyushu)(we)たち(・・・) 
“Jeeeeeeesus, it’s so cold. Ah, man, try that”.
“God! That is cold. Oh, sumimasen. Haha”.
“Hahaha, just get in, Henry. It’s fine”.

Two gaijin, one with glasses, one with red hair, squeeze into the cold pool. Long hair sits next to the boss. Silence.

“Wow. Where’s Jumpei?” says long-hair,
“No idea”, says redhead. “Probably embarrassed by our gaijin ways”.
Silence again. All in the pool look through each other. 

The Kudo-kai boss narrows his eyes, looks around him, inhales and begins again. “本田様九州来
(Lord Honda )てから(having come from Kyushu)(we)たち(・・・)
“…ah Jeez, it’s getting too cold for me. Shall we go to the hot one now? I think Jumpei-sama’s in there”, says long-hair,
“nah man, let’s give it a minute. I really like it”.

Kudo‑kai boss bows his head and the silence becomes more tense. An old man and his grandson open the door to the outside pool.  The Kudo-kai kyodai exchange glances. Tokyo boss nods his head. With a splash they rise and go to the hot pool.

“God, did you see the tattoos on those guys?” says long-hair,
“Hahaha, no”, says redhead.
“Jesus, they were huge”.
“You love blasphemy don’t you?”
“Offends all the right people, Grahame”.

That was how our celebration of the New Year began, embarrassing ourselves in a yakuza-filled onsen. I should add that the hot pool was really hot and that, like the place Hiro took me to in Chikushino, there was an electric pool to singe/massage your back muscles.

Going to the onsen was preceded by a walking tour of Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya. Afterwards, we tired ourselves out, bought tea and went home to Jumpei’s place.

At around six, we met up with one of my favourite students from Fukuoka, again in Asakusa. He’s a very successful lawyer who claims to be mid-forties but looks early twenties (oh, the Japanese!). We had coffee with him and his sisters and he revealed that he was and is a break-dancing champion. Wow!

Staying in Asakusa we had gyouza and ramen as our last meal of the year, and thence to Shibuya, thinking we would meet our Mexican friends from Kyoto and then go to Roppongi.

As things turned out, we met up with Ina-chan and her friends from home in a bar under a bridge near Hachiko in Shibuya. Drinks were had (mmmm, gin). As is traditional for New Year, disputes arose as to who wanted to do what. There was a group of around ten, with around ten different views. Happily, a consensus grew that Roppongi was a daft idea, and Henry-sama, Jumpei-sama and I decided that going to a nightclub and then coming back out at midnight was a stupid idea too, so we bought some cans of Yebisu (my favourite Japanese beer, not least because it uses a now defunct hiragana in its name) and waited in the big square for 2012 to roll around.

When you think of Tokyo you may think of a criss-cross of zebra crossings in a neon drenched pleasure district. That’s Shibuya and that’s where we saw in the year. The police, and there were hundreds of them, choreographed some farce of forming lines with rope to keep everyone of the road, but then running in synch to allow for people to cross at the crossings when that was permitted. Some poor young policeman must have been shattered by the end of all of this unnecessary running around.

Though there were several thousand people in the square, many drunk too, it all felt pretty safe. I worry that Japan is making me too soft. The only people causing any trouble were drunk, huge Americans who seemed to really enjoy shouting “USA! USA!” at any opportunity.

There was no central countdown (ka-u-n-to-da-u-n) in the square so no one really knew when 2012 had arrived. It was 12:02 by my watch when some shouted “Suree! Too! Wan!” and we all went mental.

I snogged two Japanese girls (one of whom is still calling Henry every day). A great start to the year of the Dragon. Roar!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

PanJapanter - Episode IV: "KYO2TO" (30th December 2011)

We fled Kyoto on New Year’s Eve Eve, and I met Henry-san and Robato-san down at the train station.
I’d had something of a scuffle with my host the night before and, as such, was tired and grumpy and my Kindle was not charged! Fortunately, the hundred thousand trains we rode to Kanto provided sufficient entertainment.
We had befriended two Mexicans the night before at the Couchsurfing party who lived down in Oita, south Kyushu, who were also using the seishun ju-hachi kippu to get to Tokyo. They had been interested to learn that we were taking a later train than them and still getting to Tokyo on time. As such, they’d mused on meeting us at the station. Unfortunately, their hangovers kept them from even making our train. Oh dear, oh dear.

The landscape was pretty epileptic: dramatic changes of flashing-by colours. After an hour or two, from rainy Kansai we hit the mountains and the snow which was piled up attractively on the platforms.
Some of the trains were so rural that we had to stand up for a few hours. This gave us the chance to see into the driver’s box. Weeks later, Robato-san would look into the background of the theatrical performance we witnessed in there. It seems that JR decided some time ago that if their train drivers were forced to make regular and grand hand signals, they would concentrate more closely. The Japanese did not bat a single eyelid, but we were entranced by it all.

By early evening, we’d passed through Nagoya and Yokohama and were having fun getting lost in Tokyo station. Once we’d made our way out, we found a gloriously grimy Thai restaurant under the train tracks where - and the foreshadowing was a lovely literary touch, Tokyo – every time a train went overhead you felt like you were experiencing an earthquake. The food was excellent and the beer cheap, though Robato-san had a little moan about the cleanliness of the place.
After dinner, we went for a little wander round Ginza and all its flashy lights and expensive shops then parted ways.

I headed on the Yamanote line (the circular train track that orbits central Tokyo) to Nishi-nippori to meet my lovely host, Jumpei. More on this charming young man later. He took me to his cosy little place. We drank beer and watched the Japanese version of University challenge. It had been a charming introduction to the world’s biggest metropolis. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

PanJapanter - Episode III: "The Birds" (29th December 2011)

My previous entry about my first day in Kyoto, though accurate, omitted one slightly strange detail. As Henry, my host and I were wandering around looking for a bar, there was a commotion going on around the river.
For some thitherto and hitherto unknown reason flocks and flocks of small birds had congregated noisily on the ubiquitous aerial cables that scar all of this country. They were flocking and screeching and it was very strange. Crowds gathered below but no explanations were offered.

When I woke up and left my host the next day, I made some noise about joining the other boys out in east Kyoto where the temple touring was continuing earnestly. I decided I would rather a walk: I scoffed some oden and shuffled my chilly way down to the station. That took around forty minutes, by which time my zeal for temple spotting had waned sufficiently for me to opt instead to sit and write, which I did. I wrote most of a short story in a café near the station.

I wandered a bit more, though the cold had really set in by then and the dark was coming too. The air was still crisp though, and I walked to a very big temple called the Higashi-Hongan-Ji (東本願寺). The main temple building, encroached upon by a yawning modern monster on its right shoulder, is the largest wooden construction in the world. I took off my shoes to go into the main chamber, which was carpeted in tatami and was peaceful. I knelt in my unpractised western way and looked at the gold and the glory at the far side. To my right an old woman was wailing and crying but for all her volume and tears was dignified and I found it moving. I stayed for a while.
As I went back down the stairs in front of the main building, I noticed, with the rest of the tourists, that the birds were going crazy again. Crowds of pigeons, the same pigeons you see at every open air tourist site in the world, were flying in unison, swooping at people. They made shapes in the air around the old buildings which may not have been as old as their shapes suggested.

Later I ate a pain aux raisins in a Délifrance nearby and thought of some of the people I know, and that crying woman.

In the evening, I met with Henry-san to have dinner in the area around the riverfront. We found a charm filled and small restaurant in a place we could never find again and sat next to a Japanese couple who lived in North Carolina and they told us what was good, and the man let me taste the sake he was having. It was bitter and I liked it so I ordered some.
I received a rude phone call from my host and we went, around an hour later, to meet him. He took us to a party where various couchsurfers had assembled. We drank some beer and paid a lot for it. Again, the host decided it was necessary for us to stay out very late. The night was farcical and not altogether pleasant, and Henry left after a short while.  Despite better judgement I stayed at the host’s place and left early in the morning.

Kyoto has its beauty, but temples and trekking to them can be tiring. I was excited for Tokyo.  

Sunday, 8 January 2012

PanJapanter - Episode II: "THIS IS BEAUTIFICATION ENFORCEMENT AREA" (28th December 2011)

The place where I was being hosted was near the huge and impressive « Nijo-jo » (Nijo Castle) which was unfortunately closed because it was a holiday. Leaving my host’s place in the morning, I had to walk past its probably artificial façade to get to the tube station to meet up with Henry and Rob. There I saw a wonderful sign with the following prescriptions: “THIS IS BEAUTIFICATION ENFORCEMENT AREA: NO PETS, NO PHOTOGRAPHS, NO SKETCHING”. I’m not sure memories are allowed either, so I apologise for implicating you in my delinquency here.

I took the Kyoto subway, which like all subways in Asia is clean and smooth and reliable, to meet the other guys at the Tô-ji (東寺) or “East Temple”. It was, and I’m already finding it difficult to find original ways to describe temples, beautiful, of course, charming and quaint. There was a very big pagoda which you only catch sight of once you’ve crossed the shinkansen tracks: quite the time warp. I liked the smell of the place – a lot of incense – as well as the liveliness and the huge coy carp in all of the ponds. I’ve no doubt you can see some very pretty piccies on

Our temple trek continued with a trip to the north of the city to the Daitoku-ji (大徳寺) where we saw lots more prettiness. The peace of the beautiful gardens is only spoiled by the violence of the beautification enforcement, but, heck, that’s the price we pay to live in an aesthetic society.
The walk to the “kinkakuji” (金閣寺), the « Golden Pavilion » - one of Japan’s prettiest and most famous sights, littered with French bakeries though, being philistines, Henry and I got some of the standard “taste-the-quality” choco-bread from a Lawson convenience store for something like half a yen.
The Golden Pavilion is worth a mention: the thing is smothered in gold leaf (though, like most of this “historic” stuff, it was rebuilt in the last century) and the gardens around it are very peaceful and manicured.
By that point, temple fatigue had well and truly set in so we took the bus back into town, though not before visiting “ryuuanji” (龍安寺) or “Peaceful Dragon Temple” which was, you’ve guessed it, nice and pretty. There was a very impressive zen garden there, constructed with white stones and larger boulders arranged in such a way that you can never see all of them from one vantage position (and it’s upon that point that the monks used to meditate). Henry loved it so much that his usual kanji name (変理) - which means « Strange Logic » or, as I prefer, the « Edge of Reason » (he did do a MMaths after all) – became “禅理” or "Zenry", the much more new-age “Zen logic”.

That night, we sat with Rob as he ate his regulation udon in soup (it’s hard being a veggie in Nippon), and then gorged ourselves on grilled octopus and other such kansai delights in a restaurant my host showed us to.
Rob went to bed and Henry, my host and I stayed out for some drinking. One perfectly nice bar was passed up because “it’s too full of gaijin freaks”, and we spent half an hour being turned away from a number of bars because they were too full.
Eventually we found a very nice, smoky place, that you would never ever find if you didn’t know where you were going (very Japan) in an unsuspecting building by the river. The place was owned by an ageing rocker with a Rolling Stones obsession. I can’t remember if he actually looked like a Japanese Ronnie Wood, or whether that was just the atmosphere of the place.
Henry, as is his wont, talked about leaving for a while and then left to get the underground. My host decided he “needed” another drink so we went to another “secret” bar for a while, and so had to take a taxi back to his place.

First day in Kyoto: a resounding pleasure. 


For anyone who cares (and can read it), here is my first extended piece of writing in Japanese, a somewhat simplified, much less Japanterous résumé of what I got up to in the festive period. Of course it's full of errors, but therein lies learning. Enjoy!




Saturday, 7 January 2012

PanJapanter - Episode I: "The Gambit" (27th December 2011)

Ever in search of Japanter, ever in search of the Japan-I-wanted-to-see, I, along with Henry-san – who’ll form a large part of the coming blog entries – took purchase of a “seishun ju-hachi kippu”: a national rail ticket which allows for five non-consecutive days’ worth of unlimited rail travel. The catch is that you can only travel on “futsu” trains (普通), that is, infuriatingly slow ones that stop at every single stop in every arse-end of every nowhere.

Still, the plan was this: on the 27th December, three of us (Henry-san, Robato-san and little ol’ me) would set out into the freezing morning from Cambridge House and be in Kyoto by nightfall. Then, on the 30th, we would head up to Tokyo and stay there till the 3rd January. Henry-san and I would then come back home, with a stop-off in Osaka. Robato-san was going to go to Nara, instead of Osaka. That, more or less, is exactly what we did.
The boys had arranged hostels/capsule hotels and the like, but I planned to couchsurf because I have experience of it being an excellent way of meeting interesting, sympathetic and, most importantly, local people.
I’m not sure whether it’s my advancing age or the fact that consuming nothing but rice and tea is ripping my once commendable belly blubber from me, but it must be said that this winter in Japan, though not numerically any colder than the UK, has been bloody freezing. Cambridge House is to blame first of all. The heating is diabolical if something that doesn’t exist can be diabolical, just like the insulation. I didn’t realise single glazing was still a thing. In any case, the day we set off was – I might be exaggerating, but it must have been – sub-zero, and so bloody cold. Japanese trains have a weird system of having heated seats but no atmospheric heating so that you end up with a very warm bum, but a freezing everything else. The commuters in Kokura, (a city in northern Kyushu) were too polite to stare at us as we danced around on the platform shouting “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” and “jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus”.

The journey to Kyoto, across Kyushu and then half way up Japan’s main island Honshu, took, in all, around 13 hours. That’s about the same time it took to fly from London to Fukuoka. At first sight, that seems very arduous. And yet, once you resign yourself to the inevitability of the never-ending series of nowhere stops, you begin to appreciate the slowness of the travel, the rhythmicity and the gentleness of it all. Having stocked up on snacks, and having loaded my kindle up with out-of-copyright classics, the endless shaking and beeping and buzzing became pleasant and tolerable. The slower pace of travel allows you, moreover, to appreciate sounding scenery and changes in weather: it was a spectacular moment when we realised that we were chugging along about five feet from the lapping waves of the Inland Sea and the cold and sun-kissed pale sands of the bay curving round to Hiroshima. You don’t get that on a Shinkansen. Wow, I sound like I should be on "Excess Baggage", Sandi, if you're reading...

The three of us arrived at Kyushu’s big and black and looming train station at around 6 in the evening. The place is utterly enormous and very sleek. Like all Japanese train stations, it’s full of places to eat, spend too much and by your seldom seen offspring expensive souvenirs: sweet or fishy are the only two types. The three of us climbed to the top of the station to see the view which was spoiled somewhat by the fact that the glass surrounding the viewing deck is tinted so that, at night, you can see very little. Still: awesome.
We had dinner in a shopping mall underneath the station, this being the only safe bet for Robato-san who is a vegetarian. We had tempura and udon (oishiiiiiii!) though my main memory is of something that is extremely annoying about older restaurants and cafés in Japan: they have this weird habit of having tables with an extra plank of protruding wood at about knee height, perfectly located for you to smash your shins sitting down, painful to say the least. I’m shuddering thinking about it. There’s a café near Hakata where I refuse to go because of a similar injury they inflicted upon me!

Suitably sated, Rob went to bed (a theme of this trip I should warn you), and Henry-san and I had a wander. We checked him in to his hostel and then went to meet my host for Kyoto. We had a drink with him and some yakitori (grilled skewers of meat), before heading home. As my mother perhaps should have said to me growing up, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t day anything at all and I shall endeavour, in the next few posts to avoid bitching about the guy who hosted me in Kyoto. Let’s leave it at: he wasn’t pleasant.
Tired and excited, I looked forward to seeing Kyoto.

(For more stories from this holiday and some photos (!), please visit the other guys’ blogs: Henry-san’s, on his beautiful new website, and Robato-san’s  

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

PanJapanter - これは見たかった日本ですよ!!!

I have just returned home from the most incredible week (or so) travelling around Japan. I owe you all a volley of Japanter posts and I shall, fear not, satisfy your thirst. Till then, though, suffice it to say: this is Japan I wanted to see.