To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: September 2005

Friday, September 30, 2005

Ode to Burgers

Last night I got my Mos Burger and brought the phone order menu back to the office. It's created quite a stir; the thought of something other than bento boxes and butadon every day. One of the girls
Google-translated the Mos Burger website which made this poetic translation:

Fall of the moth, the direct fire burning of prejudice. It soused in the spice of over 10 types, also also chicken with the direct fire made the meat softly the net burning. Because the flame is applied from above, flavor of the spice is not let escape, The excessive fat is dropped. Spy sea of tongue dolly chicken tasting and, The white asparagus it is bitter, of vegetable dipping Affinity of sweetness is preeminent one item.

It's started; so it's over...

The rally starts proper today, which means I can rejoin normal life a little; these things tend to run themselves (so long as they're incident free) and it's the lead up that's a killer. So expect replies to emails and abuse of the work phone system soon.

I've just bought (more) Hello Kitty merchandise. I mean I don't even like the cat, but she's out here decked in rally overalls and looking all speedy and I couldn't resist. Personally my favourite is still Hello Kitty with Axe!

I think I might even get my social skills back in a few hours. Assuming of course I had some to begin with.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Halfway through the day

10pm, halfway through the day and in high spirits. Accreditation is closed, one press conference is over, the transcript was hell, the ceremonial start was apparently ceremonious and I managed to write about the fanfare without even seeing it. The staff are trained, they even know when they don't want to get up in the morning.

Highlight of the night, learning that there is a Mos burger in Obihiro and it is open till 3am so I will be able to feed my face, which has survived since 7am on mini-donuts the size of 500 yen coins.

Morning moments

At some point over breakfast (essential today with press conferences scheduled over lunch) I grabbed myself by the shoulders and said "you know David won't be coming". And I couldn't stop the tears that fell over my viking breakfast (a buffet, dare you ask). The salt didn't stop when I arrived at HQ and saw the flags, limp at half-mast.

But the circus goes on. In his memory, crumpled tissues and a moment of reverance in front of his condolence book, the team trained (Japanese school style seating) donned tabards, baseball caps, a quick Kodak moment with strained smiles and left to try catch the words he would have never let fall.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The difference a burrito makes

Peace at work, goodwill to all press officers.

The burrito (microwaved from a convenience store, fetched by a nice Bulgarian boy) gave me energy to run on the home straight, clear up the 32 pages of commercial contracts with my boss, explain how I mimed the words "on-board" camera and complain about being left alone sans translators.

So all is good and I can't get through on Skype to anyone I am calling (why don't people have voicemails...?) so I am off to bed. It is only hours till I start all over again.

I think there was so much more to say, some of it mildly entertaining but I can't think of it, and I should sleep while the painkillers are having effect. All that comes into my head is how pleasant it is to walk in the night air, see the sporting banners fluttering in the light breeze and see "good luck" traced in the dirt on the back of someone's recce car. Ah.. thats why's I do it...

Tomorrow's adventures start with a Viking breakfast. At least that's what I thought the man on reception was trying to say. Any ideas?

rant rant rant rant rant rant

Look, I know my job is not supposed to be glamour and sipping champagne and nibbling canapes, even if PR functions are all around me. And I know that for my superiors it often will be. But, being left alone at this time of night (after nine PM) with no bilingual staff, in fact no staff at all aside from a well meaning part English speaker (at this time of night, ability to speak in other languages fails, as does my skills at charades), to call my boss and hear them at a function, glasses clinking happily, to need something more substantial than rice cakes for dinner, to want to know where my team are and where they have gone and what do you mean they all got sent to the party... ?!!! Yes you guessed it. I lost my bottle a little. A sarcastic, "Call me when the party's over" did not have the desired effect.

So if anyone would like, from wherever you are in the world, to offer to find me some food, or to cover my accreditation desk while I try and find a western toilet, or can offer remote translating skills or or or would just like to send some sympathy and tell me that one day the world will be a more effecient place for journalists because of my endless toils, and that deep down everyone loves me and the job I do... then I'd be really happy.

But if anyone around the world wants to tell me they are at a party, or getting good dinner, or sleeping, then go away. Really far away.

Rant over and out.

Update in down time

Someone has kindly got me a bowl of butadon so I can sit down and as I digest confirm that I am still here, exhausted, worked till 1am trying to get my head round tiny bits of paper credentials. My knees need new shock absorbers, my friends feel like I am letting them down. I've still got two events to go for the end of this year. Hang in there. Me and them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Lost, possibly not in translation

If I don't get access stickers for media cars by six pm this evening, there will be hell breaking loose. It's always nice to fall asleep and wake up with those thoughts. That's event work for you.

But I didn't. Actually I went to sleep lying back and thinking of Fireland (no it's not a typo!). I had spent an hour last night talking to the Irishman (yes it was that long). I say a lot of stuff I needed to say; crap about jealousy and things that happened. (Yeah I know, like anyone wants to hear their ex ramble but he puts up with it!) It's good for me because I get my head round it. It's good for him because he learns how to have a D and M without saying "I have to go now"! He invited me to join them travelling. Aside from the fact that I would murder his travelling companion on sight, this is an interesting offer. Interesting because initially I wanted to at least meet them on some of the journey. Interesting because with their new itinerary, I can't. But it almost sounded like he meant it. Wow. My company. His other travelling companion must really suck!

The other day there was a party in my house in Finland. It was weird looking at the photos and some of the people, not knowing them, but knowing others. This doesn't mean you always recognise them. It was weird because I felt that it wasn't my home and also that I couldn't relate to what's inside it.

It's a surprising observation I made that the two people closest to me right now are not the people I thought they would be. For starters they are both men! Friendship just happens I guess; you can't say who is going to be close to you when you're away.

Work is fine. About three days behind in some areas and already one volunteer in tears but it wasn't my doing (not this time, maybe the next). One happy German tv crew, one annoyed English tv crew. Seeing 15 year olds change into their loin cloths is just another day in the office. Some beautiful emails of support have arrived. And France TV will also soon arrive, the two are enough to bring joy to the heart of any accreditation officer!

I must go as I am running late. In the quiet of the Obihiro streets I can hear the piped music and street announcments beckon. "Ohio gozimasssssss".

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I can't think of a title

I've just come back from dinner; my knees are aching from sitting in a million different positions at a traditional Japanese low table. The boys have kept going, drinking rice wine, but I escorted Alba home. We both spent a long time at reception insisting the hotel had our keys, which were in our bags the whole time. Stupid gaijins.

I feel quite mixed right now. Here's why:

Work is going well. It's the calm before the storm but it's soo soo calm. Last year we had not slept at this stage, sure we were going out a bit more, but we were also not leaving the office on the good side of one am. I guess the first year of an event is hard and now people know what they are doing... We know tomorrow will be tough and are bracing ourselves. There has been some mention of diplomacy, play acting and bizarre operating lines to accommodate the Japanese working with a strong minded female gaijin and for a while I thought nothing at all was going to happen. Now I have just learned to bow and nod and then do it the way I want to...

I did my first mini team briefing today. I told people to be aware of people's emotions with Beef's death. I also told the team that David would not be working with us. I struggled to find words, I struggled to say he was dead, as if I was making it true by saying it out loud. My eyes stung as one girl started commenting, oblivious to emotion, and Alba saved me by moving things along.

Later at dinner, there was talk of how we are going to honour Beef but also move forward. I have to write a release for that but we all agreed the plans sounded nice. There was talk of how it was 12 years and one day from Possum, and of how to cope when things like this happen. And then it was said to me quietly, you know there will be a third. I looked blankly at the speaker, I am sure I saw tears but I couldn't see who. They said the name, and a hand reached around my heart and squeezed it. I am not ready for that death. But the speaker was right; I need to prepare. All I could say was "I'm not ready to think about that right now." But it's going to come. And only a very few people reading this will know who I mean. There is so much I want to say to him, and I need to write a letter and say it before it's too late. How do you even prepare to write a letter like that so it doesn't sound like "I am writing this because I know you are dying". How?

Later we talked of Paul's death and the lessons learned from it. It's small consolation but something to know that the sport is safer at local level from what was learned in Paul's accident. A motorsport death is tragic, but even more so if we don't learn from it.

I got some good news the other day. I have been asked to be involved in a new sporting event. I can't say any details at all but I am honoured to be asked and excited at new opportunities. I might be able to say in 10 days..

I was also asked to come back to Crisis over Christmas the other day. This made my day; it really did. There is a new Learning and Skills co-ordinator and they would like me to come and help some weeks before Christmas - look out Londoners! I am thrilled to be asked to come back and really make a difference. It will give meaning to a year which hasn't seen me do a lot of innovative work in my social care business.

It's weird this sport. Today I had a moment - and I can't pin down when it was - but I thought "I love this sport, I miss it, I want back". But later at dinner, I was feeling like an observer in the conversations. I felt like I didn't fit in. And I felt like I was very obviously a young woman. Don't call us dolls or babes. Socialising tonight left me feeling really empty...

I'm still getting bitten. One just got me now, whatever it is. Bastards. I'm off to drown in calomine lotion.

Sorry for the flat post.

Moved into HQ

Today we moved into Headquarters, across the road from the train station, which hosts a post office that I am dearly waiting to open tomorrow morning so I can get some much needed money in this infernal cash-based country!

Last night went out with Welsh John and managed to avoid lots of foreigners, until the foreigners found us, and we all perplexed and harrassed the poor lady running the only Brazilian food stall in noodle alley as we tried to order out of a Japanese phrase book.

Time short but all's well despite being still bitten (by bugs) and needing acting lessons so I can feign all the appropriate responses for achieving Japanese diplomacy.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

I've been tagged

There seems to be a spate of tagging people via blogs to expose more about themselves (like I could possibly!) so in the spirit of the thing (i.e. I nagged Sami to do his) I'll return the tag he sent me...

3 things that scare me
  • Fear itself
  • Spiders
  • The dark

3 things I like the most
  • Cats
  • Travel
  • Words

3 important things in my room / home
  • My photos
  • My laptop
  • My 25 year old soft smurf.

3 random facts about me
  • I've never held a driving license depsite 10 years working in motorsport.
  • I dance in empty elevators.
  • My parents sent me to dancing, pro-swimming, gymnastics, tennis, drama, speech, and grooming and deportment schools. None made a difference.

3 things I plan to do before I die
Just one: Be satisfied

3 celeb crushes
  • George Clooney
  • Harrison Ford
  • um um... some other adventurous looking guy with salt and pepper hair and a sweet smile...

3 bloggers whom I want to tag
  • Arabella-Daravida-Deojuvame
  • Sojourning
  • Travelling Cabbage

A quick time out.

The office has gone quiet for a second; there's just me and a crazy cool Japanese girl here. She's uber busy and I have just finished revising the publicity schedule and drawing maps and writing descriptions of things I know nothing about and will never see. Such is PR.

I feel really grotty already, possibly because the day is unusually warm, after yesterday's eerie midnight mist, probably because a lot of people smoke in the office and definintely because I was drinking in the classy-named Lovers Shot Bar atop the old favourite Paco Hotel until 2am. We went there for the view but the mist ruined that, and the bartender ruined our cocktails by forgetting to put anything non-alcoholic in them. Ouch that hurt. A really nice night though, having good conversation (well I thought it was good, maybe the person I was talking to thought I was nuts!) with the Welsh bloke from the wanko soba episode who is also in town. Welsh and called John. Does there always have to be a connection?!

Last night I quickly drafted a release about the new entry list, avoided the word death, briefed my colleague on the mood to expect and watched one of our hardest working colleagues bear the strain of not just an event, but of managing and working with, around and inspite of people's grief as each situation demanded.

Dinner was at a Korean BBQ - good fun except the stomach lining (not the meat cut of choice) and the ox tongue was a bit chewy.

The city has come alive, obviously with rally mechanics but also street stalls with yakitori and strange kids games like catch the cockroach. Hmmm.

A new bug has discovered me in Obihiro and has done good work on eating my arms. Suggestions for a replacement name for the new "Nagasaki Nipper?"

Anyway I have to do more prep so sayonara...

Friday, September 23, 2005

Back to the office

So here I am back in the office and while people find things for me to do or more to the point, time to tell me what's going on, here's an insight into the working transitition. I arrive, have 10 minutes to shower, pack the following Media Survival Kit, beg favours from my Italian colleague to go buy me some toiletries, get driven to the office, put on funky slippers to pad around the office in, get given scary strong coffee, find somewhere to plug in and out (it's like technical Twister) and off I go.

Here's the media survival kit: things I can't live without any day for the next ten days:
  • English, European and other power adaptors - because no one else will remember theirs
  • Laptop with connections - my bible of information is on here.
  • LAN / Cat 5 Cables and phone cables
  • CD’s - blank and music for sanity.
  • Headphones and mike set
  • Passport
  • Dictaphone, tapes and batteries.
  • Postcards and anything needing posting,
  • Phrase book and guide book
  • Electricity tape - for holding anything together.
  • Laptop lock
  • Australian souvenirs - for nice Japanese official
  • Memory cards, film - to lend out and use
  • Memory sticks - as above
  • Mobile phones and chargers - for my data and for lending.
  • Camera battery charger - to lend out and use
  • Dongle - as above
  • Travel wipes - for spilt bento box contents
  • Deoderant and perfume - they’re long working days
  • Make up - someone will inevitable invite you out at he end of the day when you look like crap.
  • Lipbalm and moisturiser - you will always be in airconditioning
  • Face wash or body wash. Some days are so long you need that mid day freshen up.
  • Business cards - it’s the Japanese way!
  • Hairties - I’ll go to work every morning with wet unbrushed hair. Anyone needing me before 5am deserves little grooming.
  • Swiss army knife - to deal with troublesome Belgian press
  • Cable ties - for holding the press centre together
  • Handbag - sometimes I don’t want to carry it all!
  • Herbal tea - stolen from a hotel with western facilities. Essential for calming nerves. My bloody coloured tea bags will be found at the back of the press centre for days to come. I will also find unused tea bags in the pockets of all my clothing and bags.
  • Pens - many, for they will all go walkabout. Notebooks. Small, hardy and can fit in your pants.

Cravings while travelling

  • Two pieces of soft white buttered bread, with half a sliced avocado and cracked lemon pepper on top.
  • Being able to unpack
  • Tomato soup with cheese and crusty bread.
  • Mashed potatoes.
  • Green things. Probaby broccoli and peas and beans.
  • Buffalo mozzarella drizzled with extra virgin Spanish olive oil.
  • Sleep ins.
  • A variety of clean laundry.
  • The smell of thyme.
  • Someone to wake up with.
  • Cats.
  • Hot sex. Well it’s not all food and sweet stuff you know… ha ha… Okay. Flirting. Men that are taller than me and use less hair products. Or have all their own teeth.

Things I did in Finland

I had a lot of spare time on trains today (five hours) so made this nostalgic list of things I did in Finland, either very memorable or firsts.

  • Walked on a frozen lake and sea
  • Seen the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises
  • Built a tiny ice house and lit a fire in it
  • Had a bbq at -23
  • Watched red squirrels play
  • Swum in lakes
  • Eaten reindeer, moose and bear.
  • Played in deep, deep snow
  • Drunk salmiakki kossu and eaten salty liquorice
  • Not known what I was eating!
  • Rode a bike as a means of transport
  • Gone for hikes in suburbia
  • Crossed the artic circle - three times!
  • Free camped
  • Washed in a lake - with oil in it…
  • Sunbathed topless in only 20C
  • Visited new Baltic countries
  • Got chatted up by 19 year old boys
  • Made girl friends
  • Considered playing sports
  • Gone out on the town dressed up
  • Bought a rug
  • Had a local pub and been a regular in it.
  • Picked berries in the wild.
  • Learnt a new language
  • Regularly listened to Russian radio
  • Learnt more Turkish words, cuisine and culture.
  • Learnt what a wolverine is
  • Seen long-haired kangaroos
  • Explored tiny islands
  • Used a dirt toilet and toilets with windows.
  • Stayed in a mokki during winter.
  • Eaten Finnish pancakes, hernekeitto and other local foods.
  • Seen so many mosquitoes.
  • Seen huskies and reindeer.
  • Learnt something about Sami culture, and Finnish history.
  • Cooked reindeer microwave meals
  • Used Dubbel Dusch.
  • Made new friends
  • Talked to drunk people normally.
  • Seen people pee in suburban streets
  • Cooked for people working in a fast food shop
  • Realised experience is more important than age.
  • Be scared but do things anyway.
  • Be glad of long finishing my degree.
  • No longer have to explain what rallying is to people
  • Recycled more.
  • Been dumped - twice.
  • Really turned down men.
  • Felt good about myself, in every aspect.
  • Got a hotel room in the town where I live.
  • Appreciated the smaller things about nature for the first time since being a child.
  • Realised that it’s not just England that gives lousy customer service.
  • Learned the importance of using different potatoes.
  • Eaten from dodgy late night burger stands while sober.
  • Not visited the major monuments where I live.
  • Be happy to be talked to by strangers in the supermarket.
  • Been thrilled to live somewhere when the tourists come.
  • Really appreciated the sun.
  • Took summer off work.
  • Eaten rice pastries for breakfast willingly
  • Swum in a frozen ocean - in a dry suit
  • Rode on an ice breaker
  • Drank in an ice bar, walked through an ice castle.

Going solo - pas de deux?

I left Hakodate by walking down one street, the street of my hotel, the fish markets and the train station are all one. The first man to wave a crab goodbye was the first to say hello. I dodged the men holding crabs behind their back deep in conversation. A man signalled to me as if to say, “you can fit a crab in that pack too”. It was a nice moment to part on but it left me feeling nostalgic.

Why do I feel the urge to write about these moments as soon as they happen? True I am a journalist and writer by breed and by trade, but why the urge to capture everything in immediately? Because I have realised that an experience is not half as valuable if you can’t share it with someone, if you can’t express it with people. I guess that’s why I try through blog, calls and letters to let some of you know what it’s like here. How it looks, how it feels, how it smells, how I feel, and maybe to a lesser extent how I smell!

But it made me wonder something. For someone who likes to share the moment so much, why am I so averse to travelling with someone? Would I enjoy these moments more if someone close to me was by my side? Would I still have poignant moments if someone was there? Would I miss some of the detail because I have a constant companion by my side.

There are obviously pluses and minuses to travelling alone and to travelling with someone. It’s impossible to travel the same place twice, once alone and once with someone and get a feel for whether one experience is better than the other and even if you could do that, is it possible to compare such things.

Lets just say that I am finally getting to the stage where I might be open to the idea of travelling with someone and seeing what that experience has to offer. It will be a new challenge if nothing else.

I'd like to be, under the sea...

Well at least for a couple of hours I wanted to be, so yesterday, after a very long conversation with some people from Japan Rail, I got me a ticket that stops at the undersea station of Yoshioka Kaitei and went for a bit of an explore.

We were about 145 m below on average, in a 53 km tunnel that links Honshu and Hokkaido islands. It's the longest in the world. Christian, you would have loved it.

It wasn't the most photogenic thing in the world (hey it's dark and it's concrete) but I made up for it with photos of the stupid cartoon character installed at the end to brighten everyone up.

See me under the sea...

I'll put more technical details up when I have unpacked the leaflet they gave me, for all those fellow engineering nerds.

St Elmos.

I didn't realise I hadn't introduced my new travelling companion. This should have been posted about the 14th September...

Sometimes it gets lonely travelling alone. But now I have a friend. Elmo. I won him. Almost legitimately. In one of those ubiquitous game parlours.

The attendant opened the machine, put Elmo really close to the edge and showed me how it should be done.

It took five goes but I got him. Now there will be photos of Elmo tackling some of the smaller yet equally important aspects of travel in Japan.

Actually I really wanted Cookie Monster, I feel Elmo is getting a little full of himself with all the recent fame, but beggars with poor coordination can't be choosers. If you don't tell Elmo he'll never know...

Elmo in action.

Rice or crab?

Rice for breakfast. Can't be doing it before ten am when I know there is a choice. Next week I will be living off bento boxes morning, noon and night so it's standard fare while I can get it. With that in mind, I skipped breakfast, rice cakes, miso soup etc and headed straight to the markets.

There is a very different feel to Hokkaido. For starters the people are very friendly. It's like they are genuinely pleased that a geijin made it all the way up here to see their crabs. Every stall holder wished me some form of good morning. Some offered me crab, politely declined.

It's also very rural here. On the JR Hokkaido in train magazine, I counted the story subjects - corn, cows, vets, sheep, potatoes. This is farming territory. Of course when it's not fishing. I am beginning to wonder if there are any crabs left around this island, as I have never seen so many in my life. We're talking about a hundred shops with at least a hundred crabs. And they're big. What about the ones that get rejected. Do they make it back alive.

Several times I would walk past a tank and a claw would reach out at me. I think if I was a seafood eater, this would put me off a bit. I like there to be some distance between the live animal and my food. Twitching on my plate - the ultimate show of sashimi freshness is not my thing.

The Royce shop was open when I walked back. It took a lot of restraint not to buy more. I figured I could do so in Obihiro and not have to carry it today's distance. And that I might be able to get some free, rumour being they are an event sponsor. I also resisted the urge to buy more Hokkaido rascal merchandise. I love the rascal. I asked if this year I could just dress as one and walk around the service park. I love his name, and I love his soulful eyes...

Further proof that Hokkaido is rural is that they have bear, and fox and uh eat them. And seal apparently too... There are more signs in Russian, Sapporo being a good connection for getting across the water. You see it's really not that dissimilar to Finland. And for breakfast, Karelian pastries and rice cakes are not that far apart.

No crabs in Finnish lakes though. Thank goodness.

So what's a typical morning?

So what's a typical morning in my life on the road? Well this is a typical hotel version. Ryokan versions are very different.

Rise and snooze the alarm at least seven times. Put on dance music to get the cobwebs out of my head. Dance way to shower. Use strange toilet that makes noises and beeps and waterfall sounds as soon as you are near it. Realise it's too early for that kind of nonsense and wish the loo had a snooze function.

Step into ridiculously high bath style shower. Remove 15 layers of skin because you never know how good your next shower will be. Steal all toiletries. If not stealable, use them all in one big creamy lather.

Dance around room in hotel provided Japanese gown. Dance on bed.

Pack. Even though I have only been here one night, my non-walking shoes (usually worn at night for "outings") need to be restuffed with little things so everything fits in the pack, for example. The day pack needs to be rearranged for the day's activities. The day's activities need to be confirmed. Now where is that envelope with train times written on the back?

Find something clean to wear. This usually involves copious amounts of garment sniffing and face pulling.

Toss up - breakfast first or fish market first? I'm off to one of them now. I don't usually do breakfast but it's free so I will take anything. You can see some photos of the fish stalls from yesterday. Lets hope I don't come back with crabs...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Just stuff

It's my last day of freedom, the word freedom used lightly because I specifically checked into this hotel in Hakodate to have LAN access and work... but anyway, tomorrow I arrive in Obihiro and try to become mildly professional.

So far I have been dealing with queries by email.. can I pick up accreditation early (yes), is there a welcome party (it's on the website), will my mobile phone work (I want to say 'ask your provider'), what is the weather like (use a website) etc etc but you know the media don't think for themselves too often so that's what I am here for.

Anyway some rambles...

Everyone has something that gets on their nerves about a place. For me it's Japanese school girls. If the sailor outfit isn't bad enough (really guys it's not sexy in any way; have you seen a girl in long white sports socks and black deck shoes walk pigeon toed!?) then the identical bad hair cuts and constantly giggling really gets to me. Rant over.


I think I have lost weight! Yay this will make it easier to hit the gym so I can still fit into that bridesmaid's dress. God bless rice diets and budgets.

I miss Uma. I miss just talking of nothing and getting nothing particular back. Soon there will be so many men around me I will have a layer of testosterone over me by proxy.

I have been having many pleasant conversations with the Irishman. It's like the friendship we never had. We have been covering some old ground, which is better when you have nothing to lose, and laughing our way through some new stuff. It's good for now. I'm being careful.

I must miss Finland. I saw something like Meikanmaki on a map and figured I was looking for a hill. Ahhh.

I'm thinking of coming home as early as November 30th. Good, bad, who cares other than Nina living in my house?!

I was going to start a heading on silly stuff that just happens but realised there is too much so I will save it for a new post over the next few days...


“Excuse me, do you know where I can get good wanko soba?”

There are some things you would never imagine you would have to say when travelling. There are some situations you would never imagine happening. Stopping a Welshman in the square to ask for some good wanko soba was one of them. But it happened.

I was desperate for some wanko soba. It’s the thing to do here. It’s very good for you, a lot of fun, and this is really the only place you can get away with doing it, all night long.

So I picked a westerner at the train station who looked like he was just leaving, because I reckoned he would have been up for some wanko soba in his time here too. We westerners love the chance to wanko, soba or not.

“Excuse me, do you know where I can get good wanko soba?” His reply: “Oh my god!” (Leaps up in genuine happiness). “You speak English!” Yes travelling in Japan can have this affect on you - where you are not just happy to hear English spoken but so happy you don’t realise someone’s asked you for wanko soba.

Between us we could only come up with one wanko soba place, a little dear but we both agreed, worth it for a chance to wanko soba. As I left he called out to keep in touch. “I want to know how many you can do.”

A local hotel worker ended up taking me to wanko soba. At this point, I should clarify what wanko soba is. It’s nothing to do with masturbation while refraining from drinking. Apart from being one of the funniest words I’ve used here (besides nooki nook) wanko soba is a noodle dish. It is served to you in bite sized portions. A waitress stands over you and slops more and more wanko soba at you until you clear your bowl completely and can get the lid of your bowl back on top before she can get more soba in the bowl.

I ate at Azumaya, a reputed wanko house, and was seated with a French Canadian couple I met on the train. They were perfectly cool, beautiful, intelligent and sweet. I was about to become their entertainment. First the bib - a big bib - was tied to me. Then about a dozen small side dishes of chicken, sea weed, yam, radish, tofu, things I didn’t recognise by taste or texture.

I was given a small book in English explaining the rules of wanko soba, and then she was there. Diminutive, sweet faced, the prettiest little waitress who was about to turn into a demon. “Dozo” she screamed, and threw the first biteful into my bowl. Chopsticks were hard work. No sooner was it in my mouth, than “dozo”, and the next was in my bowl. The Canadians commentated and watched, and in between mouthfuls I made smart comments. By bowl ten, I stopped to pick up some side food and then realised this was going to be tough. I needed to concentrate. The slurping and slopping began, my chopstick rhythm picked up pace. The waitress followed suit. “Hai - dozo” she ordered, instructing me to throw my soup in the large wooden bucket on the table. Soup consumption just got in the way of the number of bowls she intended to stack up on me.

A moments breather as she returned with a tray of another 15 bowls and it began again. At 20, I began to slow down. Sensing this, my waitress came to life. Her orders became louder. She moved closer to the edge of my bowl with every slurp I made. By 25, I was an inch from the bowl, moving it away from her with one hand, the same hand trying to perfect my chopstick technique (you cannot end with a single noodle in your bowl) and the other hand on my lid. If I could get that last noodle and get the lid on, I could finish eating. But no, my waitress had sharp eyes and could spot the elusive two noodles that my chopstick ability was unable to pick up. And no matter how small the space between me and the bowl, she managed to get another lot of noodles in there. Every time my head went back to swallow (you are encouraged not to chew so you can get through it faster), she would take advantage and throw more in. I was slowing down and she was able to plan her moves. The Canadians were counting me down. Every bowl that I thought was going to be the last had one more coming. And then - 30. “She has to get a new tray” the Canadians warned me. And with one noodle left in my bowl, I threw the soup, sealed the lid and declared “game over”.

A certificate was brought out to testify to my consumption of 30 bowls of noodles. The waitress was a sweet young thing again. Sated and full, I went home to dream of wanko soba and other funny named pleasures.

Wanko soba: the visuals

Morioka - and I ain’t moving

I have found my new home, Morioka in northern Honshu. I am not moving from here. Morioka is a small functional and distinctly sweet and pretty city with a population of some 288,000. It’s the capital of the Iwate ken region and famous for nothing in particular, which is nice because it’s not run with tourists, though it has a good range of things to do.

The people are exceptionally friendly - maybe I was a bit short with the man who come rushing to help me at 730 am when I wasn’t actually lost but just looking at a rack of leaflets. But they escort you unsolicited to anywhere you might not want to go.

The streets are clean and tidy, even more so than other parts of Japan. Flower boxes line the roads, and hang from street lights (which are old fashioned style). The town has a sense of identity which runs through it, flowers, buddhas and cool retro style. Yes retro style. Only two and a half hours away from Tokyo, with a decidedly rural feel - but this little town has one hip young population. Nearly all the boutiques off the main street are vintage, retro second hand stores. Truckers hats, cowboy boots and 50’s Americana stock the shop windows and no one, no one under 30 would be seen riding a normal bicycle - it’s all low to the floor chopper style bikes. Only silver or bright yellow if you please.

I stayed in the sweetest of ryokan which was chock a block with Japanese trinkets in contrast to the usually spartan decoration. Sure the owner made me shuffle into three pairs of different slippers for different floor coverings while I still had my bag on, and gave me something that tasted like dandelion wee to drink, but it was one of the cosiest homely places I’ve poked around it. The double doors to my room were tricky to navigate (the opened so they hit each other!) and there was a constant snoring noise which turned out to be a pampered Pekinese which only stuck his head out of his room once, when I came home in the evening - and then he bizarrely had a sliced carrot sticking out of his mouth, like a cigarette. But I liked best the bright warrior print on the walls and the hand towel which illustrations of cats and chickens which read “mother, marriage, naughty, nature”. An interesting selection of words.

I trekked out to the temple area, with sunset racing me and felt like a bit of a tourist. But Morioka is easy to get around, just hesitate for a second and some kind soul will whisk you to where you want to go. The 500 buddhas - all wearing different facial expressions - some scary, some sweet, was an amazing sight. The hands of the devil less so, mostly because I could not find his actual hand prints, allegedly on one of the three rocks that give the region its name. A bit of improvisation was needed.

I learned the importance of good translation. In the temple area, I followed the signs to the burial ground of Okan. Ah I thought, Okan must be the name of one of the great Shinto followers and - sunset falling - jumped in, camera poised. I quickly learned by the sombre folk bearing flowers that what the English translation meant to say was Okan cemetery.

Morioka has a big expat community due to an exchange program with Canada, but what I liked here was that you didn’t bump into them, not once did I see or hear one. There is a centre for international assistance, where I picked up newsletters with such tips as “do not apply fire direct to water pipes” (when stopping your pipes from freezing in winter), how to leave messages on your phone that can be recovered in an emergency (earthquake preparation tips), and “when moving house, sort your garbage as per the leaflet entitled ‘How to separate and put out garbage’ for your region.”

Morioka has some great cafes, bars and restaurants and the best 100 Yen shop ever - three floors! I could have spent hundreds of euros on pottery, bamboo dinner settings, wooden utensils and the like but settled for the most terrible selection of Hello Kitty style merchandise and knee braces!

But the best thing about Morioka is wanko soba. Yes, wanko soba. If I lived here, I’d do it every night....

Morioka happy snaps.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I'm not telling.

I don't feel like telling you where I am today! Does anyone read this?! It's starting to feel like a one sided conversation with a bad date!

I am leaving Tokyo today for Morioka in the north.

Yesterday I went to the fish markets, a huge wholesale operation where I feared for my life amongst the zippy electric cars, fork lifts, tuna carcasses and hooks. A police man actually had to help me cross the road (most of you know how bad Road Runner is with roads... ) I spent an hour there but had to leave as my head was spinning (it was only 7am) and it was hard work keeping out of everyone's way. Also the blood of fish on my clothes was starting to dry and I wanted to get it cleaned off.

The Irishman encouraged me to at least pretend to look at Mt Fuji - it turned out to the most overcast day I have ever seen. Or not seen to the point! You can not see the photos yourself at smugmug.

Can you tell my heart's not in this today?!

Lost in Translation

Victoria was an English rose nursing student form Brighton, who knocked on my hotel door seeking company. For her it was enough to realise Tokyo was the capital of Japan ("Finland, that's in the Netherlands, right?!") so I suggested we dine in Shinjuku because I'd enjoyed it more with company than I did alone.

Victoria had snaffled a forgotten umbrella on the metro (and I had to restrain her from taking a new pair of sneakers from a rubbish bin) so I could tell it was going to be a fun night.

Declining offers of strip shows and funk discos (just where is the sales training course for big black men that if you follow women muttering the words "strip show and funk disco" that they will respond positively?!)

We were in search of food; something with lanterns she declared and we chose a spot that looked like a yakitori (grilled meats and veges). We got as far as the door, Victoria proudly holding two fingers aloft as instructed in her Lonely Planet.

"Unagi" the waiter said immediately. Strange greeting, I thought, until he pointed at a snake like slippery thing.

"Ah... eel". Thanks but no thanks. We left in fits of giggles. Not really adventurous lasses.

After a more normal dinner (pork in miso and yam with ume for me; garlic chicken wings and fries for her ["I've never had them, I thought they'd take the wing off"] we jumped in a taxi for the Park Hyatt. Our taxi driver had a great time nearly killing us simulatenously; the middle of an intersection is never a good place to just stop.

Confidently we strode into the dark hotel. Hmm no haughty staff looking at us, we continued as high as we could go to the 43rd floor where by candlelight (very hard to see) we had delicious dessert (affordable too) and friendly service (surprised as we were both looking a but rough and covered in insect bites!). Turns out we needed to be on the 51st floor so hunt for the elevator ensued via the library (found atlas to show where Finland is), dining room (we posed on a cake tray) and conference room (where they had the press conference in the movie, and where we interrupted another one!).

The elevators opened to noise, laughter, light, jazz, smoke, cool people and a door bitch. We strutted quickly to the bar where Bill Murray sat and the door bitch was onto us before we could pretend to be Scarlet Johansson. 4000 yen cover charge?! "Oh we left our purses in our rooms," we lied and left to steal hand towels from the ladies toilets as revenge.

Lip my stocking indeed.

What kind of hotel has a lobby on the 43rd floor? We decided we didn't like the Park Hyatt very much, desserts aside.

Stills from the alternative movie...

Monday, September 19, 2005

A day of epic proportions

Not every girl thinks it's an ideal way to spend a day watching giant men in little loin clothes grapple each other. But I do and I grinned from ear to ear as I entered the sumo stadium after a two hour pursuit of hard cash (public holiday, nearest ATM accepting foreign cards was two train rides away!) and a ticket finally in my hand.

I'm kind of short on written words today so I'll post more on this later. The pics are here

* * * *
Thank you to everyone from around the world who has got in touch about the latest rally news. Your words and concern mean a lot and give strength to support those hurting more than me.

What do you love?

There will be many people trying to console themselves with the one thing they can hang onto - Beef died doing what we he loved. Many people in rallying say that it’s a privilege to do what they love as a job, and get paid for it. Because we’re the “country cousin” to Formula One, it’s a sport that people really are in because they love it.

How many of us do what we love or only dream about it?

As the elevator went slowly down (as they do in old buildings in the Tokyo suburbs), I looked at the beautiful skyline and the neon lights were blurry with tears. When I stepped out, there was a clarity in the evening, a couple kissed, a child looked at their parent, two middle-age women enjoyed dinner together. I realised they were scenes from Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World song.

I walked home so slowly it hurt, but so slowly that I saw the magnificence in everything. Later, I passed the city’s cardboard citizens and my heart went out to them in a country where I feel powerless and uninformed to react in a helpful way. But it inspired me more to enjoy what life had offered me, and more to the point, what I had made of those offers.

Travelling is what I love, and so I shall endeavour to put some happiness in the remaining posts for mainland Japan, before I reach Obihiro, where Beef was supposed to join us next.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Itching in Tokyo

From my last post, where I didn’t know where I was heading, I called a few hotels and decided on a strategy to stay near the one where I had booking. For one night, I reckoned I could handle a capsule hotel. So here I am at Riverside Capsules, Asakusa, for my second night and clearly loving it.

I am currently downstairs in the lobby where James Bond is on tv and a couple of men in pyjamas shuffle past, or read the paper. A young man has just checked in, puts his belongings in the locker down stairs and heads up to his capsule.

This is one of the few in Tokyo that accept women. It may still not be every girl’s ideal (you confront men in their pyjamas even on the way to the showers) but for 3000 Yen, it’s got an onsen overlooking the city and I have one of the best capsules (bottom, end of the row, and even room to have my bag outside my capsule). The facilities are really clean, even stocked with hairdryers. The pyjamas are decidedly funky, unless you have ever been institutionalised, and then they might give you flash backs.

Each capsule has a tv, radio, alarm clock, shelf, and light. There are curtains to draw across for privacy and it’s roomier than my bed in Suursuon! The staff are super nice and the location is beaut. What more can I need?

Ah yes. About that rash. I said I had a few insect bites. More like, waking up at three am in excruciating pain with no less than 67 one inch lumps all over me. Mostly arms and legs and trunk but particularly places like fingers, toes, and anywhere that backpacks rub, waistbands go, shoes fit, etc. Basically if I wear pants or skirts, carry a bag or wear shoes, it really hurts.

I spent an hour searching for the relocated American Pharmacy (it’s in the Maranouchi Building in case anyway lands here by way of google) and got some stuff that burns the nerve endings and some insect repellent to spray through my stuff and on me. I also spent 3600 Yen (ahhh - almost as painful as the bites) on pure camomile oil which I am diluting to wash in. The pain has subsided except for the larger ones but to give you an idea of how bad it was, the Pharmacy stocked the famed and delicious Aussie biscuit - Tim Tams. I saw them, stopped but so needed to apply the medication that I moved on and left all the packets on the shelf. Now that says something.

The itching has put an end to the onsens - I don’t reckon 40C plus temperatures are actually soothing for the skin but someone correct me if I am wrong as I dearly love them. I do feel for anyone bathing with me anyway, it’s really not a good look, kind of measle like - weltishh. Mmmm

I am so glad I arrived on the weekend. It seems a bit calmer and has given me a chance to get to know the place.

The area I am staying in, Asakusa, has a funky feel, with street markets, water buses and the ubiquitous temples. Last night I went to Shinjuku - the nightlife and skyscraper area. It was cool to look at but not really my kind of scene. I think it would be great if you had someone leading you around showing you the best spots. There was the usual karaoke bars, strip / men’s bars but the addition of ladie’s bars (quite a lot too!), an inner city baseball hitting place, some fabulous hawkers, food that wanted to escape and a LOT of people.

I treated myself to grown up dinner - the elusive dumplings, and some duck. It had an English menu, but I am allowed a little indulgence right. Remember I started the day hungover, it was amazing I was out at all!

Next day, explored Ginza, which again is a different world, but not mine. Shopping, shopping and shopping. I am not into crossing of the sights, but more getting an atmosphere, and while Shinjuku and Ginza were good for that, I wanted something a little more intimate.

So off to Love Hotel Hill then… Instead the trip got somewhat long winded because I got lost (there’s a surprise) but it was serendipity because some fabulous festivals were going on and I got caught up in people carrying shrines wearing loin cloths. I’m yet to work out what it was about but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Love Hotel Hill was incredibly kitsch. I longed to see some guy choosing a place with his partner, trying to romance her with Caribbean resort (fake palm trees), or Villa Casanova (fibreglass Roman columns). Some of the names and signs had to be tongue in cheek - Hotel Two Way… ?!

Final stop, Yasukuni Jinja, a shrine to peace, where the remains of Japanese War Criminals are interred. A bit controversial this one. Apparently the museum has statements that the Japanese were forced into bombing Pearl Harbour and as much as I would have loved to dig around in there, the pain of the bites was a bit too much to endure it.

Stupidly, I missed the end of some sumo practice (note to self: next time you see big chaps walking funny, follow them). I eventually did and caught them packing up. They were only uni students but boy were they big lads. You can tell they are sumos just by the gait, a really particular waddle. They kind of look cuddly though…

Tomorrow I revisit the hotel Christian and I stayed in… Ahhhh. (“I can give you two rooms for one person, but not one room for two people. What you do with those rooms is up to you.”) I will have WLan and I’ve picked up a travel earphone mike set so will be Skypeing all and sundry; tomorrow’s plan is only the Sumo museum so might get a day of low sweating to help the bites recover. Was planning on a chopper ride but the 5000 Yen spent on medicals has but a dent in that (chopper only 8000…!)

In the space of an instant

I was just about to blog, I went to the bathroom, and saw a new email on my return.

Another colleague in the sport dead.

In this multi-faith city that I am currently in, could I selfishly ask that one of the gods could keep an eye on those closer to me still finishing the last few stages of today:s rally. Origato.

Rest in Peace Beef.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Things I love to hate about backpacking

You start off with everything having a place in your pack. Then nothing has a place and it’s a crazy mess. Then that good feeling when you have sorted it all out again.
Washing your laundry in the sink, working out what you can wash things with and if you should use shampoo or soap. Wringing it out in towels, making a mess of the bathroom, working our the best place for it to dry. Wearing it when it’s stiff and crunchy from soap residue.

Not knowing where you are going, making a plan, having it wrecked and the new plan working out much better. Or so you tell yourself.

Saving money on little things, whatever it is and carrying that forward to spend it on something else.

Losing things, finding them, losing them again. Or losing things, buying a replacement - usually very expensive, finding them again at the end of the trip.

If you’re not digital: keeping count of how many rolls of film you have. Should it be six or will there be six?

Becoming one with your backpack because you have it fitting you just right and feeling like you could carry a camel in it. Having a new backpack that doesn’t sit right and no matter what you do you can’t seem to fit it.

Thinking that the fellow traveller that you share a room with is more likely to pinch your stuff than the locals.

Walking around once you know a place without a day pack or even a map.

For lone travellers, knowing that everything you do - good or bad - you’ve worked out and done for yourself. And feeling kinda good about that.

Backpacking injuries No 2

  • Broken nail from shutting it in coin locker at train station
  • Over a dozen unknown insect bites, hard and red, on assorted areas of body, from cheap ryokan. Mostly in inconvenient places like where watch strap hits wrist, where sneakers rub etc.
  • Four bruises on right arm from lifting backpack onto it.
  • Delicate stomach after drinking, then skipping breakfast, eating curried sausages and then carrying a pack - all with a hangover.

On the road again

Or more correctly, I am on the rails again. Or perhaps that should be off the rails as I feel a bit seedy and have no idea where I am going!

Last night, in need of some conversation, I headed out to some tacky English theme pub, firstly because I knew there would be someone who spoke English and secondly because you could see inside it without entering it - all the other bars were a mystery.

First “are you here alone” was a really nice Korean physicist from New Mexico. He was intelligent and well informed and spoke way too much about serious things. I wanted to kill myself. Behind him sat two Canadian guys that I kept pulling faces at for help; and an English boy band looker who was narrating to his mate that I was seriously being trapped and talked at. As soon as the physicist was in the loo I grabbed other people for conversation.

Look if I am going to force myself to talk to strangers it better be mindless, drunk and meaningless banter.

So the Canadians it was. Now that I had some partners in crime, it was off to Selfish Cream - me boldly strutting ahead. It was the kind of bar that Kati, Nina and I would take over. Small, white bar, red sofas, funky red chairs by the windows, a display wall of Veuve Cliquot and Bombay Gin. There was also two people there and I think they were friends of the bar man. Exactly the reason I had not wanted to go into these bars before. Anyway we got pretty drunk on CC and dry and stupid photos were taken. I think at one stage I had both of them stroking my back which was pretty f&cking weird and I hoped that they would accidentally stroke each other’s hands for a laugh. I got a Morticia - Gomez style kiss up the arms and then sent them packing back to their hotel. Hours later, they were on a flight back to Toronto and I was checking out of my hotel, tired and disoriented. Thank god I packed the night before, the room was a disaster area.

The place I wanted to stay near Mt Fuji was full. Then it dawned on me it was a weekend, which explained why every other hotel was full. When I learned that it was also a public hotel I realised that I had no chance other than a day trip and here I am on the 2pm train to Tokyo with no hotel booking but my fingers crossed. Anyway it looks too cloudy for Fuji to be visible.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The day's Haiku poems

Jelly for breakfast - is probably unhealthy - too early for rice

...THEN ONTO MOOMINS... ( I visited Naantali in Winter so it's my only real contact with them)

Carrying a handbag - Wearing skirt, or apron - but where is your shirt?

Girl in Moomins - must get a new hair style - at least grow a fringe.

Do any adults - recall a Moomin story - or just buy for kids?

Naantali Moomins - dance at night in the windows - when everything's closed

Stomach grumbling - doughnut shop closed for winter - Moomins hibernate?

Storm on the island - Moomins signs lie discarded - as repairs are made.

Moomin is plural - the single is Moomi - Do I give a shit?

AS THE JELLY KICKS IN, A HAIKU FOR THOSE CLOSEST TO ME - Can you work out which is you?!
Wise and yet wild - you dance through this quiet town - and bring it to life

Evil laugh echoes - take the piss out of people - you make me laugh

Kind and good hearted - Only a few good men left - You want chilli sauce?

Smiling and shopping - befriending the cute stuffed toys - you eat big desserts

Saying the right things - at the end of a phone line - I miss the phone's beep

Fireman watcher - down to earth but still crazy - wine and gossip flows

Australian what? - Full of sweet smiling Kiwis - I miss creamy stuff

Under the beanie - depsite wise cracks and cheap shots - a sweet and soft bloke

Take me to the lake - Entwined on wooden jetty - Walkers destroy us.

Male keywords: jelly, naked - Female Keywords: nature, onsen

Above: Behind the Japanese writing on this wall lies naked women in very hot water!
The temperature has dropped! For the first time since I got off the plane, I can wear jeans! I also wore one of the tops I bought in Hiroshima. It was size L; I didn't try it on. It covers my stomach about as much as one of Madonna's tops in the 80's. Hmmm

Jelly for breakfast. Well it had fruit in it. I dropped the jelly all over me on the train. It's a good thing my top was the same colour.

Took a local train to Kibune, a small semi-rural town on the egde of Kyoto. It was beautiful, in a valley amongst lush mountains, with streams and waterfalls everywhere. I hiked through the town, which was dotted with temples and then across to the next town, Kurama. It was hard going at times, trotting through tree roots and across mud, but I saw some Japanese girls doing it in high heels and leg warmers. Respect. (But you still look stupid!)

A lot of older people were walking the trail; the Japanese are really hard core when they travel. They had walking sticks, quality hiking boots, floppy rimmed hats, water bottles, day packs, the lot. I wonder what they thought of the high heeled girls.

The trail was punctuated by temples and shrines, so it sort of felt like a pilgrimage. Only Shinto being Shinto, there's no central figure to worship, other than the big bloody man-eating spiders that lined the route. The two main temples were, Kifune Shrine for water gods and Kurama-dera, which is actually a Buddhist temple.

My worshipping was going to be for the self - I'd be pushing myself along the trail with a promise of an onsen at the end. Several hours later and I was sitting with a load of naked Japanese old women in hot mineral springs in the outdoor air, staring at the mountains and spotting trees whose leaves had started to turn to autumn colours. It was divine, heavenly and the best 1100 Yen ever spent.

Here's a quick run down on onsen etiquette.
  • Before entering the onsen you must wash yourself by sitting on a small stool and pouring buckets of water over you and rinse in the shower adjacent. Soap and other products should never enter the onsen.
  • You are supposed to slip into the water gently but I tripped at one stage and caused a splash. I could almost hear people scolding me.
  • You should enter slowly because the water is hot enough to make your heart palpitate, well mine did.
  • You take no towels or clothing into the onsen but you can take a modesty towel. Now I had seen these on men, they are like face cloths, they allow you to get down to the water modesty protected, then you take it away from your bits when you are in the water and put the towel on your head. Personally I think the latter looks quite silly, but anyway... I was curious what kind of modesty towel women would have as we are built needing three fig leaves, technically, if one wants to be modest. I was quite surprised that nearly all the Japanese women used their modesty towel. Quite surprised as I didn't have one so was serving as the encouragement to "love your body" and walk with pride. Well I hope they saw it that way and not that I was overly perverted...

Kyoto night time strolls

Last night I was in the mood for some company. A conversation. To use my voice for something other than "origato" and "room 620 please". I'd been on MSN to a few friends and it left me feeling strange and isolated and empty.

When I left the hotel, two girls has parked their stereo on wheels (Daihatsu something tiny) and were break dancing. Full on back spins on the pavement. That put a smile on my face; crazy city.

I walked the Ponto-cho area where reading those little plaques that everyone else ignores, I learned this use to be the gay part of town, many moons ago. Useless fact of the day.

I walked past some great names of bars. In addition to Bar Bollocks there was Lon Don (a British pub) and Selfish Cream (I guess when one receives an orgasm but doesn't give in return!).

I walked down the tiniest of alleys, as long as they were brightly lit. It's hard to tell a restaurant from a brothel as they are both so beautifully maintained! One alley with lots of bright lights had a sign in English saying "health, lipstick" so on cursory glance it seemed fine to walk down. It turned out to be a dead end alley of strip clubs. I laughed a lot when the men had to turn me around and send me back out.

Another alley turned into a string of gentlemen's bars mid way through. They all had middle aged pervy touts on the door who all perked up when I came into view. I considered turning around and going back but I just fixed my eyes at the end of the alley way, stood up straight which left me a good confident foot taller than all the creepy men and walked on past the Japanese cat calls.

I worked out what some of the pink places that look Pachinko Parlours actually are. They have chat rooms and chat phone lines to talk to - women! "Nurse call centre" was the name of one. They are advertised by posters inside the rooms; a group of young men were staring at the posters intently and I am sure that some of them were illustrated with drawings and not even photos!

There are also places with ambiguous names like International Friendship Connection, which is a bit of the same. The best name was Selfish Partner Centre. Open that up in Finland and you'd have a big queue of women yelling "and he never helps around the house, he's always at the pub"...

I was feeling far too low to go into a bar alone, not that I minded being in a bar alone but I didn't want to be the only person. There was no sound of music or people coming in or out of any of the bars and sitting alone was just too tragic.

I found all the young folk instead sitting by the banks of the river, in friendly groups, drinking, playing music and singing - quite badly, and letting off sparklers. On the far side of the bank was a lone trombonist. He was also very bad. But he made me feel less lonely so I sat and listened to him until he got a note right.

I returned to one of my first eating places for dinner. That might sound like cheating but I got it all wrong the first time and ordered from a waitress rather than putting money into a machine, to receive a ticket for my order, which is taken by the waitress. Now I can get it right and order from the machine with all the confidence of a local. It's a fast, fresh place and I am always the only girl there as the guys seem to like the unlimited rice and miso soup that comes with your order and guzzle that all day long. Fed and feeling local, it was a nice way to end the day.

It's Haiku Day

I'm off to the country side to compound my feeling of isolation, no seriously, off on a day trip where being with nature shall put in harmony with my surroundings, unlike last night's accidental sojourn into the strip clubs (post to come).

On the way there, I intend to dedicate the day to writing Haiku poetry. This is Japanese poetry written in syllables of 5-7-5 such as the following sterling example about Moomins:

White, wearing no pants
Are you hippopotamus?
Only the Finns know.

Haiku are also supposed to invoke a sense of the seasons but combining that with Moomins at nine in the morning is a bit of a tall order so I'll let a more classic example by one of the Haiku masters illustrate the sense of spring:

An old pond!
A frog jumps in-
The sound of water

I'm seeking stupid ideas for Haiku topics, and will write about Moomins all day until more suggestions come.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In search of dumplings

I felt bad about going all the way to Nagasaki and not really getting a good feel for the place. On the morning I left, I dashed about following a few random tourist brown signs to temples this and that - which incidentally brought me to the world’s largest camphor tree; now I can die a sated woman - and then I remembered dumplings.

According to Lonely Planet (for someone who loathes their food reviews, that’s twice I’ve ended up listening to them) “Ueyutei, tucked away at the end of a side street, only seats six and specialises in cheap and tasty dumplings which are excellent with beer.” I walked every side street close to the map marking (the book gave no address and the maps had no street names) and I couldn’t find it or a place that seated six.

Disappointed I tried the food stalls at the train station. I managed to stutter the words “what is in this?” to a stall holder and point hopefully at something looking like a dumpling. It was pretty pointless because I only know the word for pork in Japanese. She looked at me blankly, realising that any answer would be meaningless. I got half way through trying to say “I am allergic to shellfish” (this being a coastal town, it’s a pertinent point), when she fished around in a big pot full of delicious looking soup and held a loft an octopus tentacle with suckery squelchy thing on the end. “Ah,” I said, “is that right?” (I know how to say that in Japanese) and sadly signalled for her to put the thing down.

In the end, with the train about to depart and nothing looking safe in sight, I ended up taking a well known fast food brand because it offered salad and some crispy strips. I know the Japanese are not good at doing Western food but I thought you can’t go wrong with crispy strips.

They were the foulest thing known to man. They were covered in thick batter which I picked off in chunks. Maybe I should have gone the octopus. Technically it’s not shellfish.

Origin of the word slippers

In ryokan and Japanese housesholds you swap your stinky trekking trainers for slippers. This is done immediately and in most ryokans, slippers are shoved towards you while you’ve still got your pack strapped to you. Then you’re immediately led upstairs - up very narrow steep stairs. Up these narrow steep stairs, with a pack on your back, probably still with your socks on, in leather slippers that don’t fit you, which your socked feet fall out of, leaving the first slipper on the second stair.

The shuffling one slippered movement, while trying to counter balance the weight of your pack, sends the other slipper flying forward, and you bump across the hall, into your host. It’s all very slippery, Hence the name slipper.

Tip: at least tip your socks off so your toes can grip. Your hosts will get used to the smell.

There's also a whole different slipper set for the toilet but at least you won't have a pack on for that.

Take me out to the ball game

The Japanese love baseball. It's their biggest spectator sport as well as the biggest sport by number of participants.

Baseball was first brought here in 1873 (sure beats Missionaries) and professional teams have played in the country since the 1930s.

In true Japanese style, baseball must be played with wa or team spirit and not just for the glory of the individual.

Hiroshima is home to the Carps and their merchandise was for sale everywhere. Little kids wear the players outfit when they go spectating. I am now a Carps supporter.

In Nagasaki, a game was finishing as the train pulled past the stadium and a little shriek came up from the passengers, even the women in traditional dress. The men even smiled.

I craned in my seat to see some action but couldn't. Maybe someone was having a Kevin Costner moment (if you build it...)

At least the Americans have someone to play against in their World Series now.

Just say NO!

The Japanese can't say no. It's not in their culture.

When I asked the internet cafe in Nagasaki if they spoke English, the man just walked away. I asked the other attendant, and he said "hmmmm".

At the Hiroshima train station information desk the girl made a noise which sounded quite positive, ie it inflected in the end! She let me ask the question and then the answer came from someone else in the office, who knew that she meant no.

Just two of many examples.

I'm going to have to rethink how I ask questions, to allow people to answer graciously.

And should I need to say no, I should instead say "that might be troublesome." I'm afraid that might be troublesome.

Maiko Stalking

I love seeing Japanese women in traditional dress so today I went out stalking in Gion, looking for them. I was pretty discrete about it, which is why most photos are of the backs of them.

Maiko are technically apprentice geisha, but the term geisha is not really used, and I notice Japanese people say maiko, not to be confused with maito which is Finnish for milk... Kyoto (which has its own dialect, says geiko, not to be confused with gecko... )

There are 180 maiko / geiko in Kyoto. They are women who are well versed in visual and performing arts, including playing a Japanese stringed instrument, singing ballads and dancing.
They don't reflect the things that a Westerner might associate with the term geisha ie they're not call girls.

And they actually make a dainty job of shuffling in wooden sandals and toe socks. Admirable.

Man Chariot

Every woman likes the idea of having a man running after her.

I prefer to have one running in front...

I chose from the stable, a young one, good muscle tone and a sweet smile. No toothless wiry old fellow for this lady.

Faster faster!

Watch him run here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Kyoto Rocks

I am dancing in my super hotel in the middle of Kyoto's groovy nightlife area. Where are my divas to dance and drink with me?

Now that I have LAN access, I'm back blogging like crazy. The posts from the train are up and all over the place (see you're going to have to pay attention or get an RSS feed) and the ones in my note book will be up later tonight when I can be bothered typing more.

Oh and I stayed out beyond curfew!!

Smokin' Infidel

I was raised as a Muslim. As a child this meant no polony sandwiches at parties, no jelly with gelatine, and no hot dogs at fairs.

Nowadays, I let diplomacy and availability dictate what I eat, rather than religion. It started in Russia when a family of complete strangers from Moldova cooked up all their food to make me a novgorod feast. Pork balls was the substance of it. Later in Paris, I enjoyed fillet of pork with honey and mustard sauces.

Since I've started this trip, I have had a bit of a fetish for hot dogs. It started on the ferry to Estonia and has continued ever since. In Japan, all my hot dog dreams have come true because they have a lot of pastries with hot dogs in the middle of them, like hot dog croissants. They are yummy and I am addicted.

My miso soup the other night had bacon bits in it. And I have eaten the real stuff, only more poached in water rather than fried. Far healthier but not with those brown crispy bits nor that smell that you other people like. It was shoved in my okonomuri and seemed rather pasty and leathery. But I ate it. There. My bacon virginity gone at aged 30.

Don't tell my mum.

Train ramblings

I stink. I'm sure I do. Who said travelling is glamorous. The heat was far less in Nagasaki and in Himeiji I could swear I felt a breeze. It's those long tunnels across the train station to the Shinkansen platforms that are killing me. I just hope it's clear the day I go look at Mt Fuji.

I ummed and ahhed about where to go all day. And to make things more difficult the date on my watch is wrong. I know it is because it changed date at midday. But I don't know what date or day it is to correct it. I went to the tourist information to ask them (seriously) but they were really busy. I reckon it's about the 14th. Anyway, I really wanted to stay at a hotel tonight. I didn't want a curfew. I wanted my own bathroom, laundry (or a sink to wash in, not a sign saying "no washing in sink"), I wanted to play Kati and Nina's CDs, repack, have left luggagge facilities (lockers are costing 600Yen a day), I wanted to sit on a chair to type. Want want want! Shimononeski looked great. I remember Christian had been there. I wish I had paid more attention to what he said! But I also wanted to put some distance between me and Hokkaido and nudging the edge of Honshu was not quite close enough.

So I chose Himeji. It was virtually a direct train. The expensive hotels had reasonable rates and I was sure there would be more available than was listed, as had been the case in every town I had visited. Himeji has a castle which is apparently the castle to see if you're in Japan. It was also a stone's throw from Kyoto and a bullet train from Tokyo. Done deal. When I got to Himeji though, the gods had a different plan. Or more to the point, I made a shit decision. No maps, no tourist information, no English. First phone call to a hotel - please speak English. We worked out they had a room but it was 8000 yen, we could not work out between us if that was with or without tax and it didn't have internet access. Second hotel full. Third hotel was too pricey to even call.

No problems, I went for a walk. No signs, no hotels, just a load of shops. I walked to the castle. It looked like an elegant example of SomethingSan architecure. Apparently it was one of the few that aren't concrete. I didn't knock on its walls to see. It had an amazing five storey donjon (really that's what the guide book calls it. Nothing to do with Miami Vice). The main drag proved hotel-less so I hit the back streets. They were just rows of undercover shopping arcades linked together, no matter where I turned. I found the 8000Yen we speak no English Hotel Washington. For a major and pricey chain, I was disappointed they didn't speak English. I found it somewhat amusing that they didn't point out there was a 24 hour internet cafe underneath their lobby but it is hard to mime over the phone.

The internet cafe also practiced mime. I have laptop (computeru) down pat in charades. The chap behind the counter even knew LAN cable. "Ah ah LAN cable?!" he asked. "Yes I have LAN cable!" I exclaimed. The Washington hotel was about to get another customer and owe this young man commission. "LAN cable, no we cannot." Ah. That's that then.

So back to the train station where I decided to take the next train out of town and write Himeji off as a beautiful castle but terrible shopping malls. Sorry Christian, but as a princess, I am used to living in castles not visiting them!

With an hour to kill before my train, I sought out a supermarket. I wanted to see square watermelon and packets of things. It was not to be. The grocery section was really normal. The confectionary aisle didn't even hold anything with funny names. The fish and seafood aisle held a bit of fun and I took some photos. The shop was quite busy, otherwise I would have done a couple of Rex Hunt fish kisses... Mwa.

A quick visit to a Pachinko parlour nearly reduced my hearing. Pachinko parlours are full of arcade games like pinball and fruit machines. They are always very busy (depsite my photos, I was trying not to attract attention). They are horrendously loud, smoky and full of bright light. People love them.

Much more my scene were the cute game houses where you can free little toys using "the claw". See the post St Elmos for that story.

So, I now have a hotel room in the nightlife area of Kyoto - for only 6000 something Yen! It's supposed to be a business hotel, so it might have internet. They don't speak a lot of English (confusingly the man said, "sorry we have a lot of people" and I thought it was his way of saying there was no room). It's right near Gion, the geisha area I really love, so I am super duper excited. Sometimes things work out for the best.

More from Kyoto...

Words from Nagasaki

“None of my friends know that so many children were cremated here.. I squat down on the spot where my mother was cremated and touch the ground… I can see my mother’s face floating from the soil.”
Fujio Sujimoto (Aged five at the time of Nagsaski bombing)

“Every day until the first anniversary of the bombing, I sat on in front of the pot containing the ashes of my eldest daughter, grieving that I had survived.”
Nagasaki survivor (Aged 39. Written in 1985)

“I fought with myself for thirty minutes before I could take the first picture. After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer. I took about ten steps forward and tried to snap another but the scenes I saw were so gruesome, my viewfinder clouded with tears.”
Yoshito Matsushige, Photographer,

“We have to use it in order to shorten the agony of war in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
US President Truman.
7 August 1985.

In Articulo Mortis: Poems to the Atomic Bombing

August 9, the day of the bomb.
I tried to reach my home but did not arrive until the dead of night.
Are they here?
Under the fallen debris
Under the light of the moon

The following day I found my seriously injured wife and the corpses of two of my children at the road side.
And my wife told me
About the death of the children (one and four years old)
knowing only recently how to smile
the baby smiles, dying
at her mother’s breast
left on the ground for lack of any shelter
The children attract swarms of flies
Sucking a stick on the brink of death,
he says, this is good,
this is a piece of sugar cane.
My eldest son, a seventh grade student, dies in the air raid shelter.
Under the burning sun
I set out in search of my son’s last earthly drink
Creeping to his mother’s side
he smiles
and draws a final breath
His last night of earthly form
He lies next to his mother
The moonlight touching his face
The moonlight finds them dead,
Two outside
And one inside the shelter.

On August 11, I gathered wood to cremate my children
A dragon fly
stops for an instant
on the corpses of three siblings.
The fire rages and
engulfs two children
pressing up against their older brother.

I collect the ashes early the next morning.
The morning mist
washes over the ashes
of three siblings side by side
How lamentable
the ashes, like flower petals,
of a seven month old infant.

My wife died on August 13 (aged 36)
The tomato in my kimono sleeve is for Hiro-chan, says my wife
as she draws her last breath

I cremated my wife on August 15th, the day that Japan announced its surrender.
After losing everything.
I stand holding
four atomic bomb death certificates.
Arousing myself from the summer grass
I stoke the fire
cremating my wife
The words of surrender
mingle with the flames
of my wife’s funeral pyre.
Atsuyiko Matsuo, Nagasaki

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Itinerary dilemmas

I can't decide where to go next. Oh I know this was all decided before but...

Now, looking at the welcome to Nagsaki leaflet I am thinking, I am all out of temples. Okay I only did one day of temples but there are more here and a million more in Kyoto. It's beginning to be like driving along the Rhine as as a child when I wanted to see all the castles and several kms later we were screaming "no more castles".

Okay so a few temples in Nagasaki. And more modern history. There's a boat cruise round the harbour and a cable car too. Hang on I did both those things in Miyajima.

So I head to the guide book to totally revise the itinerary and find somewhere that calls me. I'm thinking less temples more nature.

Sendai has hot springs and nice nature. Sounds good. On the way to my work place.

Beppo is the Vegas of hot springs. The prices put me off.

Aso is an active volcano. Now that sounds good. (Notice that I'm ignoring that it's some 35C outside and optimistically thinking of outdoor activities and hot things. And it's so temptingly close

Kyoto for Himeji and Nara. Hmmm, culture, temples and ancient history is invoking wry smiles. Sorry Christian but you were always more cultured than me.

Tokyo - sure the bright lights beckon but actually the fish market beckons more. I'm a weird girl. I bet anyone reading this is so glad they don't travel with me!

I can't decide and while the weather seems cooler down south, I bet it's as hot as hell in the morning (the mornings in Japan are scorching) and it puts me off everything.

I'll toss a coin. What's on the faces of a Japanese coin...? Ah of course, temples and nature...

Too much time in net cafes

Like the caffeine in the coffee you think they'd serve in an internet cafe, keeping in touch and connected is addictive.

I think I am spending a little bit too much time in internet cafes. Or finding them. Or getting lost in them. Or blogging. Or uploading photos.

So... I am going to just keep my diary on the computer and upload everything once I get to a business hotel with internet access in the room or until I start work in Hokkaido.

I'll still check my emails daily, unless I am at a volcano or spa town. I don't want to be isolated! It's just that most of the ryokans I am staying in have an 11pm curfew which especially considering arriving on a 7pm train, showering, exploring, eating and surfing mean I don't get in much before 11pm.

Also it's costing me a fortune. Today I had to join a youth centre just to have internet access. Luckily they didn't ask my age, otherwise they might have denied me entry!

So if you don't hear from me for a while (like there are people hanging on my every word!) then I'm okay, I am just saving time and money until the next LAN/WLAN connection.

Arrival in Nagasaki ("I'm sorry)

I'm sorry. I'm staying in Nagasaki with Imsorry-San. Can you tell why he's called Mr I'm Sorry? I'm sorry if you can't. If it's annoying you in three lines, imagine what it's done for me in quarter of an hour.

I was unable to make a decision on where to stay: peace park; downtown; Chinatown or rail station. My train got in five minutes before the tourist information closed, and the girl looked like she thought she was going to get away on time so I put her in charge. That's why I am at Sorry San Ryokan.

He's given me lessons on how to open the front door (including a "challenge" to see if I can do it myself), demonstrations on how the hot and cold water works (accompanied by Brrrrs and Owwsss to indicate hot and cold), how to work various light switches, and the airconditioning, and who was staying in the other rooms.

All accompanied by "I'm sorry" after every statement. He really is. I'm sensing a case of obsessive - compulsive here. He fixed my sneakers on the shelf already. He turns them and the slippers according to whether we're in or out. There are blue and pink toilet slippers too (probably forgot Japanese homes have special shoes for the loo).

He also pounced the minute he could hear I didn't get my room unlocked first go (he didn't demonstrate that one, now be sorry); when I went to the shower (shouting instructions through me as I shut the door; I snuck past him on the way out but when I returned to retreive my room key, I picked it up too clumsily. I made it up the stairs but he chased after me asking what time I might leave tomorrow. Considering I had just got there, I really didn't know. "Check out is ten am," I said a bit firmly. "It will be before 10am. I don't know the exact time. I'm sorry." I emphasised with sarcasm. I don't know if he got the point.

One thing Sorry San didn't show me was the toilets, which are Japanese. I've normally been able to dig up a Western verison but this time, nature called and I didn't want Sorry-San hearing me snooping round lest he offered a lesson.

Japanese toilets are squat loos, with no foot placings like the Middle East or handrails like old France. It's just a narrow rounded oblong, with a far too high inspection shelf (ask a Dutch person).

Now I do recall that you're supposed to face the opposite way to a Middle East loo, only these ones were sideways. And the area I assumed was the front was position so against the wall that there was no way I could crouch / squat (choose your own less vulgar verb!) without some interesting gymnastic positon, my knees were going to hit the wall either way.

Lonely Planet likes to suggest that using the toilet in this manner is far better for your bowels, as you relax more. There is nothing relaxing about holding a position on an angle in a hot small room with slippers on and your pants round your ankles and your keys in your hands, your knees against a wall and a flush device sitcking in your verterbrae. One solution to make it easier I'll wear a skirt and whip my pants off before I get there next time.

Too much detail?! - I'm sorry!

Hiroshima - the reason we all know it.

Asked to name three cities in Japan and I would not be surprised if most people name Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The latter two instead of Kyoto, an imperial and cultural capital or Nara, the former capital of Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are famous the world over, not for what treasures they hold now, but for what they lost and endured.

On August 6th at 8:15am, the first atomic bomb was used against mankind in Hiroshima. Without even looking at photos or memorials, my conscience has battled with being here and writing about this. For every person I tell, one in two will say "but the Japanese did bad things." To those people who can offer only simple arguments, I make the simple statement: All war is wrong.

In the hall of rememberance, sitting alone, in the quiet, not even yet witness to gruesome photographs, only reading some of the reserved words of survivors (hibakusha), I shiver. Hiroshima is a tragedy too immense to comprehend on so many levels. Having visited and taken an interest in many areas of conflict, I am used to seeing photos of damage, touching buildings, noting bullet marks, seeing destroyed buildings. There is no trail of destruction in Hiroshima. It was simply destroyed.

Only a few buildings near the epicentre remained. What is now known as the A Dome but was then a Promotioanal Hall, being the most significant. It's preserved as a memorial because of its location, its distinct shape and now as UNESCO world heritage site. Alongside it, black and white photos showing the nuclear wasteland we have come to associate with Hollywood. The only shape identifiable is the Dome. Along side it, a river which borders the Peace Park on three sides. By the river, an Italian woman, due to leave town today, has dragged her luggage from the tram in the heat. She wipes a tear.

I meet her again at the Students memorial, covered in paper cranes, so that we almost mistake it for Sadako's monument. Many students were mobilised during the war, working in demolition and factory jobs. Girls as well as boys at hard labour. Thousands of them were consequently at the epicentre of the bomb. Nearly all of them died. The Italian woman tells me, "I can't leave without seeing this".

Across the river, Sadako's monument, a girl a top it, a metal paper crane on the bell inside it. It is surrounded by tens of thousands of paper cranes from around the world. They spell out words, they make chains, the different colours form the word peace. The Italian retreats to get paper, and make her own token.

The park is littered with such monuments and statues. For poets, for the Koreans in forced labour that died in the bomb, for the Swiss Red Cross man who arrived to help. The cranes at each are not sunfaded. They are added to constantly. Japanese tour groups bow and pray in front of the cenotaph and eternal flame. For once, no cheesy photos from the usually trigger happy tourists. Instead a pack of Americans, photograph a teenage girl posing provocatively in front of Sadako's monument. She screams "I wanna do that again but this time in a kimono." It's all you can do to walk away.

The Peace Musuem delivers a strong message: no nukes. It admits Japan's wrongs openly and confesses to the needs to look at the history books of the nations it attacked to learn and teach how those countries felt. The Peace Hall put it in awkward diplomacy that the memorials were also for those who were "sacraficed in mistaken national policy."

Strange exhibits in the Peace Museum effect me. The hundreds of letters written by each mayor of Hiroshima to every foreign affairs minister whose country has tested nuclear weapons. There is no verbose lexicon in these letters. They say quite simply; as a major of a city whose people suffered, who was razed to its very foundations, I ask you - stop. The letters to the French are most heartfelt and pointed in using the words "again" and "continuously".

Small details that I am yet to confirm - and in Japan, I always will before taking it at as an acceptable version of the truth - that Japan was not advised that huge military action would take place should they not surrender to Potsdam, not even after Hiroshima, in the three days before Nagasaki. That not until after the two bombs was the country informed that the explosions were nuclear. That not until after Allied occupation, lasting six years and eight months, was information on nuclear and atomic bombs and their affects, particuarly medical available uncensored in Japan.

Hondori arcade, that I have traversed several times to find an internet cafe and find my way out again stands out from the photos. There it is in 1920's bustling with life and restaurants and entertainment. There it is hung with lily of the valley lights that people came to see from miles around. In the post-bomb photos there is nothing to indicate the shopping and nightlife area but a caption. It is indistinguishable in its devastation.

Who pushed the button? Who flew the plane? Who still lives with bomb-related illnesses? That man over sixty, is he hibakusha? That woman from Hiroshima are her parents alive or dead?

Visiting places like Hiroshima does not inform so that you can make conclusions. It does not illustrate a story with a point. It only serves to make you ask more questions.