Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mysterious Traveller Entrances Town

Mysterious Traveler Entrances Town With Utopian Vision Of The Future

Lessons learned from... In the Valley of Elah

Blue cars look green under yellow streetlights.

Raising the Barack

I've totally missed most of the Clinton-Obama coverage, but after the New Hampshire primary turnaround when women voters suddenly decided they were all about Hillary, did anyone go with the headline "The boys are backing the Barack"?

And if not, why not?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lessons learned from... I Am Legend

Dogs are stupid.

Wolf at the door

Guess who's back?

No Sun of mine

Wow, this is the most outrageously sexist bit of hokum I've read in quite some time.

In the wake of “outrage” over Holly Willoughby’s low-cut dress (viewers: 9.8 million, complaints: five), Britain's biggest selling newspaper The Sun has produced a “hilarious” breast-orientated TV listings feature. Here are two jawdroppingly awful extracts:

12.30pm Loose Women (ITV1)
More topical debate from these feisty female presenters... blah blah blah, whatever. Just hit the mute button, sit back and gawp at Coleen Nolan's marvellous hooters.

8.00pm Relocation, Relocation (C4)
While Phil is on the lookout for a family home in Felixstowe for ex-fireman Richard and his wife Laurie, Kirstie Allsopp is in Swindon showing off a cracking set of norks.

Lessons learned from... The Kite Runner

Look out for the beard police.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Backdate, the word is on the street

I'm back from Japan now and backdating all the action, so you should see the step-by-step truth slowly emerging below. That's nice for you, isn't it?

*Update (29 Jan): phew, that took ages. All done now, though. Now I can go back to the sporadic posting of pointless links and videos for which this blog is famous. Click here to get all the Japan stuff on one page.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Days 14 and 15: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The next day we get a couple of shinks back to Tokyo, which takes around five hours. In the evening we have one of our nicest meals of the holiday, then spoil it slightly by going for a drink in a gaijin rugby bar which charges extortionate prices for Asahi (possibly because you get it in pints).

This leaves me with 300¥, about £1.50. I wisely decide to spend it in the arcade playing Time Crisis 2. Luckily Dan still has some bucks - we find a bar and buy a bottle of wine, which is called "Marriage", weirdly.

Then it's Monday. It's time to do our arrival in reverse. I sleep for 30 minutes on the plane this time, and watch Transformers and Ratatouille. Dan, I discover late into the flight (he's sitting in the seat behind me), has been sick three times. Landing is delayed and as we enter the last (extra, and 13th) hour of the flight, I start to feel it too. What is it with final night holiday meals? This happened to me in Paris too. As the wheels finally touch down, I dash to the toilet, ignoring the stewardess who tries to stop me because the plane is still moving.

The tube journey from Heathrow into town is awful. The pair of us sit there with heads in hands. After saying a queazy goodbye to Dan as I change onto the Northern Line, I pick up a copy of Thelondonpaper and read an article about how today is the most miserable day of the year, according to psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall. I recognise Arnall's name - he's a charlatan, whose formulas The Guardian once called "corrosive, meaningless, empty, bogus nonsense that serve only to caricature and undermine science"- but against all the odds, this time, he appears to be right!

Luckily I have Tuesday off to recover. Then it's back to work.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Day 13, Hiroshima, Miyajima: The Sea of Fertility

We get up early and head straight to Hiroshima's Peace Park. It is remarkably... well, peaceful.

If you've never been there, it's impossibly hard to get your head around the fact that there exists a place, with trees and benches, where an Atomic bomb once exploded, killing 70,000 people instantly and subsequently another 70,000. When you're there, it's even harder to understand.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall was the nearest structure not to be completely wiped away by the blast – props to whoever built it – and it has been deliberately preserved as a reminder of what happened. It's now known as the A-bomb Dome - you can see it in the background of the picture above.

The Peace Memorial Museum is thorough, balanced and, of course, impossibly sad. It begins with a thorough history of the events leading up to the destruction. Once all the background's gone in, it's the odd details that work on you: the black, tubular fingernail of a man affected by the radiation; the fact that the city got some of the trams back up and running just three days after the blast; a wall stained with radioactive "black rain", caused by the mixture of dust, dirt and soot thrown skywards by the scorching hot air; the section that tells you another nuclear bomb, 3,100 times more powerful than Little Boy, was tested by the Soviets just 16 years after Hiroshima; the tattered clothes of dead children; the wall of letters, a culmination of the dispatches written and sent by the Mayor of Hiroshima to Prime Ministers and Presidents every time a nuclear test has been conducted; a small black shadow singed onto a wall, all that remains of whoever it was sitting on the steps outside the bank at 8.15am on 6 August 1945.

It all builds up until it gets hard to take and you find yourself rushing towards the end before you're overwhelmed.


In the afternoon, we get the ferry across the Inland Sea of Japan to the island of Miyajima, famous for Itsukushima, its water-shrine. Although it's the usual garish red, there's something fierce and iconic about this imposing structure rising out of the sea - you feel it looking at you when your back is turned.

This is the kind of thing Kerr is always banging on about - those bloody telegraph wires everywhere. Bury them, people!

After we'd had our fill, we got a cable car up Mount Misen to check out the view from the (nearly) top. Another two happy customers. Thanks Miyajima. Thiyajima.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Day 12, Himeji: The Castle in the Sky

We lucky few, we band of brothers, we stupid gaijin make our next move. It is to Himeji, home of Himeji Castle.

Some might know Himeji Castle as Japan's greatest surviving feudal castle, a classic of the Muromachi period. Some might remember it as Tiger Tanaka's ninja training school in You Only Live Twice. Either way, it is utterly grand.

After we've explored, it's sadly time for Dan and I to bid farewell to Birdy-san. As he walks off, we both begin to feel rather helpless. "Birdy! Come back, Birdy!" we shout. But it's no use: he has to get back to Tokyo.

We dejectedly journey to Hiroshima. This is perfect really: it's the kind of city that makes you shake off any vestiges of self-pity pretty rapidly.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Japan observation #143

Pretty much all Japanese restaurants have plates of plastic food in the window to show the dishes they have available. It's really useful for stupid gaijin, but also, frankly, pretty bloody weird.

Day 11, Osaka: Todai was a good day

We have to vacate our capsules by 10am, even though we're staying another night. This is a bit tricky after the previous night's festivities, but we just about manage and hop on the train to Nara.

Nara is the birthplace of Japanese civilisation, so it is only appropriate that we should go there to play Time Crisis 2 and Mario Kart in the arcade. Birdy tries to win some cuddly toys – God knows why – and fails. This businessman has the same idea.

While we're there, Birdy shows me and Dan the extraordinary thing that is Purintu Kurabu. Purintu Kurabu? Oh right. Roughly translatable as "print club", this is aimed at 12-year-old girls (and stupid gaijin, of course) and involves going into a large photobooth with your friends, making stupid faces at a camera, using an attached computer to decorate the resulting pictures and pressing "print".

This is probably one of the most all-out FUN things we do during our trip - because the computer somehow airbrushes your face, makes your eyes all big and, basically, turns you into some kind of cartoon character, the results are pant-wettingly funny.

Maybe I should just show you.

As well as such silliness, we visit Todai-ji, the town's massive wooden temple, founded in 745 and thought to be the world's largest wooden building. It's good we got to see it, as [looks at watch], yep, it'll probably get accidentally burnt down soon.

Back at the hotel, the light in my capsule isn't working, so I write up some of my travel diary by the light of some messed-up mega-bright Japanese manga. A bit later, we go for a meal of Kansai speciality okonomiyaki, which contains just about everything (chicken, pork, beef, prawns, squid, octopus and so on) in a big omelette with sweet sauce on top – the unusual mix of sweet and savoury reminds me a bit of Moroccan pastilla. It's probably the most filling thing I've ever eaten; afterwards I feel like my stomach has turned into a balloon filled with potatoes.

Then we go bowling, for some reason. Birdy is strangely good.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Day 10, Osaka: Universally Japanned

Haha, what a contrast. Universal Studios Japan! And it's midweek in January, so we zoom to the front of the queues!

However, it's not all good, thanks to a number of technical failures. We start the day by taking a tour round Cyberdyne Systems, with an impressive introductory video, followed by the chance to see some of the company's new T-70 robots. But the visit went disastrously wrong after the stage was invaded by a youngster – John O'Connor, I think his name was – and a T-800 model on a motorbike. The rest of the presentation was just mayhem as the pair were chased around a post-apocalyptic landscape by out-of-control robots.

To calm down, we decided to go on the Jurassic Park ride, which promised a chance to see some impressive dinosaurs in a pleasant jungle setting - but it all went wrong just a few minutes into the ride, when the dinosaurs broke out of their confines and caused havoc with the machinery. We ended up going down a 25-metre vertical drop at high speed - and Birdy was scared out of his wits.

I thought we'd have better luck with the Amity Village riverboat ride, but that was catastrophic as well – you won't believe it, but out boat was attacked by this enormous great white shark. Luckily the lady driving the vessel dispatched the aquatic beast with an enormous blunderbuss which she happened to be carrying. But it was hardly the gentle cruise I was expecting.

This perked me up a bit, though:

After USJ we check into a capsule hotel in Osaka. The capsules are hilarious – despite being utterly tiny, each one still has a miniature TV hanging from the, er, "ceiling".

It's nearly Birdy's last night, so we head out in Osaska. We end up talking to an old Japanese fellow who's both an Art History lecturer and interested in buying us beer. During conversation, I come out with my most advanced bit of Japanese yet: "Nihon de sensei wa deshita" ("He" – Birdy – "was a teacher in Japan"). SCORE.

Anyway, a number of beers later, we end up doing some serious karaoke, on a system so impressive it has three remote controls, a massive LCD TV screen and TEN Sonic Youth songs. Ten! Highlights include a raucous 'Last Night' by The Strokes, an AWFUL 'Wuthering Heights' and a terrifying rendition of surely the most unlikely karaoke song ever, Radiohead's 'Everything in its Right Place'. Wow.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Japan observation #125

Just like their UK counterparts, Japanese barber shops have very stupid names.

(Surely "Hair Negation" would make more sense?)

Day 9, Kyoto: Very Important Moss

Dan's bread odyssey continues with a morning visit to Anderson bakery. The boy gets another four rolls of various kinds down his gullet and declares them to be "the best bread I've ever tasted".

First off, we take a trip up Kyoto Tower, which we really should've boycotted, but I only get round to reading Alex Kerr's scathing comments a few days later, by which time it's too late. I shouldn't say this, but the views are pretty epic...

Then it's onto the city's shrines, temples and gardens. We take the scenic route up to east Kyoto's Kiyomizu-dera and end up passing an enormous cemetery before reaching the shrine. The air is January-crisp, which, in retrospect seems like ideal shrine-hopping weather (at the time we were cursing the coldness).

We get a little lost heading north, but finally end up passing through Maruyama-keon park and Chion-in complex, which is just massive massive massive.

Then to Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion.

Dan is more than a little tempted to hurl himself into the impressive raked sand, an action which, he suggests, would find its way into the guidebooks and pamplets. "In 2008, a stupid gaijin caused shocked and outrage after throwing himself into the carefully raked sand at Ginkaku-ji. He was escorted off the premises..."

In Lost Japan, Kerr tells a bonkers bonkei anecdote, well worth quoting here. "A friend of mine studied the art of bonkei: she learned how to place curiously shaped rocks and bonsai plants on a tray spread with sand to create a miniature landscape. But as she slowly worked her way up the hierarchy of bonkei technique, the final secret eluded her: no matter what she did, her sand never held together in the perfect waves and ripples of the master's precisely arranged grains. Finally, after many years and payment of a high fee to obtain her license as a bonkei professional, she was to be told the answer. She bowed at the feet of the master, and he spoke. 'Use glue,' he said."

It's at Ginkaku-ji that we see the Very Important Moss.

And here it is "in action", so to speak.

And finally, we literally run to the Golden Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji, to make sure we get in before closing. Lucky we did: the sun is giving one last push before it goes down and the light is reflecting off the golden building beautifully.

The temple was - predictably (see Day 5) - burnt down in 1950 and then rebuilt within five years. However, the Japanese only regilded it in 1987, around the time the economy was going mental. Presumably that's no coincidence...

Back in 2008, me, Dan and Birdy finish off a long day's sightseeing with some proper Kyoto green tea: gloopy and bitter as anything.

Green tea on red table

With the serious stuff out of the way, me and Birdy have a race up the 11 floors of steps in the station and win 500¥ each from Dan, plus Dan gets his camera's memory card stuck in one of the CD-photo machines in the Bic Camera superstore, causing some trouble as the phrasebook doesn't include the sentence, "Er, sumimasen, this stupid gaijin seems to have got his camera's memory card stuck in the CD-photo machine."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Japan observation #97

Obedience to the green man is all-pervasive. No one crosses the road before he appears, even when the streets look like this.

(This seems to be just part of a more general compliance - markings on the pavement indicate lines for queuing for trains and tubes, and the crime rate is very low: you don't have to worry about your bag or wallet being nicked. In fact, if you happened to lose either item, you'd probably find it at the nearest lost property area within five minutes. Is all this conformity part of an ongoing military ethos, perhaps?)

Day 8, Kyoto: Nijo blogs

As our hotel in Shiodome has breakfast included – a rare thing for cheapskate travellers like us – the day begins remarkably, with Dan happily eating seven bread rolls and three croissants. "Ja, pan!" ("right, bread!") to briefly pun in Japanese. (Tick!)

Packing up, the brave trio get a shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto. It's around this time that the phrase, "That's mental," said in a Clive Owen Extras Christmas Special style, begins to be used with increasing frequency. In this case, it's when we find out how it is that all the seats on the "shinks" always face in the direction of travel. They swivel. We didn't see this happening, but according to Birdy, who has, when the train gets to the end of the line and prepares to go in the opposite direction, every single row of seats rotates in unison to face the other direction. As noted above: that's mental.

So we get to Kyoto and check into our ryokan. This is a hostel featuring special Japanese-style rooms carpeted with tatami mats which you are required to walk upon using supplied slippers. Also, there are no beds: the bedding is unpacked for you in the evening to make the room suitably minimalist and Zen, or something, during the day. And sorry to keep going on about lavatories, but the shared toilets here are notable for having a motion-sensitive overhead light, meaning that if you're sitting or standing still for a short while, the lights will turn off. If you don't want to sit in the dark, you have to start jiggling around. Or, as Birdy put it, confusedly but evocatively, "You have to piss like you're Stevie Wonder playing the piano."

The inimitable japanologist Alex Kerr, whose brilliant Lost Japan I read during the trip and, like a stuck record, frequently quote to the others, devotes a whole chapter to Kyoto. "Kyoto hates Kyoto," he writes. "It is probably the world's only cultural center of which this is true. The Romans love Rome. Beijing suffered greatly during the cultural revolution, but most of the damage was wreaked by outsiders, and the citizens of Beijing still love their city. But the people of Kyoto cannot bear the fact that Kyoto is not Tokyo. They are trying with all their might to catch up with Tokyo, but they will never come close. This has been going on a long time. I first noticed the malaise shortly after moving to Kyoto. I asked a friend, 'When did the unhappiness set in?' and he answered, 'Around 1600.'"

Kerr points to needle-shaped Kyoto Tower, built in the 1960s, as epitomising such unhappiness – motivated, as it was, by an attempt to break up a skyline which the city government saw as old-fashioned, un-Tokyo-like. In such a way, Kyoto has tried to cut links with its past. There are still umpteen shrines, temples and special places to visit – an amazing number in fact – but you have to snap the hell out of your reverie when you're travelling between them, however short the distance.

Anyway, it's nearly closing time, but we manage to squeeze in Nijo Palace, which looks like this.

After a delicious meal which involves being handed plates of raw meat which you have to cook yourself on a hot pan in the middle of your table, we head back to the ryokan, as there's an 11pm curfew. We stop at one of the cigarette machines which populate Japanese streets. No Marlboro Lights unfortunately, so we have to opt for "Mild Sevens". Unfortunately the first pack purchased only contains 1mg of tar, so Dan has to buy another packet with a higher content. Humans are so funny sometimes.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Japan observation #34

Japanese toilet paper is really thin. I initially presumed this was because of the wide presence of toilets with built-in bidet / bumshower facilities, but having, ahem, sampled such offerings, I was surprised to discover you still, need to, er, y'know, like, wipe.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Days 6 and 7, Tokyo: Onsen never again

Oh dear, it's raining and I don't have an umbrella or a Rihanna to cadge one off.

Luckily Tokyo has museums with roofs to prevent the rain getting on gaijin heads, so we journey to the Tokyo Modern Art Museum and dry off in their luxurious restaurant. This gives me and Dan the chance to use our by-now-nearly-fluent Japanese: "Bread onegai shimas?" we say to the waiter, not knowing the Japanese word for "bread". Luckily our accents are impressive and he understands perfectly. I experiment with the mutual goodwill generated through this exchange by spilling my glass of water all over the table. Dan laughs at me.

Although we then go on to see a number of interesting things in the museum – they have a Henri Rousseau, wooooo! – the visit is particularly notable for giving me and my rear our first experience of an electronically pre-warmed toilet seat. I can now verify claims that this invention is the pinnacle of human scientific endeavour. Well done again, Japan.

Also memorable is a collection of photographs from the 1970s by Kiyoji Obuji, which have names like, "An Envelope Containing Important Data, Picked Up After Being Torn Up and Thrown Away", "A Photograph of the Plastic Model That I Can't Put Together after Eight Years Because I Want Make a Neat Job of It" and, my favourite, "A Set Including Mexican and Italian Souvenirs From Friends, The Clock Mechanism That I Can't Throw Away For Some Reason, and One of My Molar Teeth That Fell Out Last Fall".

Then it's over to Ebisu for the Tokyo Metropolitan Photography Museum, a failed attempt to get into the Yebisu Beer Museum and some amazing views over the city from the 39th floor of the Yebisu Tower.

But these views are RUBBISH compared to the ones we get to see later. We nervously head up to the 50-somethingth floor bar of the Park Hyatt, aka "the one from Lost in Translation". It is incredible: the view, the ambience, the smartness. Of course, as we're not staying at the hotel and have to buy the cheapest thing on the menu, Dan and I feel like total frauds, even though we're wearing, like, shirts. This is exacerbated when our beers – a Guinness and an Asahi – arrive, with large pretzels shaped like treble clefs hanging off the edge of each glass, the hooks at the top actually slightly immersed in the beer. We begin to wonder if this is some kind of coded Japanese diss. Then we drink the beers, have another, and stop worrying so much.

In fact, we stop worrying so much that we almost miss the only appointment we've had all week, which is to meet our old university friend Birdy (who's in Japan visiting his Tokyo-dwelling brother for Christmas) at 10pm at the Hachiko statue outside Shibuya station. Fools! It's 9.45pm! You're not going to be there on time!

Unbelievably, we are (taxis, innit), and get to Hachiko and Birdy just five minutes late. Hachiko, by the way, is a sort of Japanese Greyfriars Bobby. Birdy is harder to describe, so I won't bother. Anyway, he spots us and comes bounding up, like he's Hachiko the dog. It's all very exciting. Birdy introduces us to his four friends and says: "You've put your bags in the station lockers, right?" And indeed we have - we are homeless for tonight. The mayhem begins.

These things happen, but not in this order: Dan gets handcuffed to a barlady. We go for a 6am curry. We drink an unidentifiable liquid out of laboratory beakers. Other Dan has an argument with some waiters over a beer in amazingly fluent Japanese. We order drinks from a menu made of expensive washi paper in a bar dedicated to US rock. We hear The Pipettes in a bar dedicated to US rock. We drink unhealthy amounts of Red Bull. I eat a whole Jalapeno pepper during a game of Food Russian Roulette. Birdy gets a door fee discount after a machine recognises his fingerprints from three years ago. Me, Dan and Birdy, still drunk, check into an onsen and find ourselves sharing a hot tub, au naturel.

Twelve hours after our first Park Hyatt drink, I fall asleep on a futon in the smokiest room of all time, surrounded by men in yukatta, a number of whom, I later learn, are yakuza (Japanese mafia) because Birdy took us to the wrong onsen. Thanks Birdy!

Day 7 is, of course, a bit of a mess. We go for a wander in Harajuku, the Camden of Tokyo, and then go to have a look at the nearby Meiji Shrine. We're ambling towards it amidst thick crowds, when three Japanese lads – 18ish? – approach us. "We are studying at Tokyo University and we would like to give you a tour round the shrine so we can practice our English," says their leader. "Would that be okay?"

All three of us are furiously thinking, "NO! THAT WOULD BE AWFUL! YOU COULD NOT HAVE PICKED A WORSE TIME TO DO THIS OR WORSE PEOPLE TO DO THIS TO!" We look at each other and say to the guy: "Yes, that'd be great, thank you."

The trio quickly split us up so it's one on ones, but my guy is spectacularly untalkative. After a while I have to start asking him questions to break the silence. It gets to a stage when I just can't think of anything except how nice it would be to lie down in a non-smoking room that doesn't include naked yakuza. "Do you like baseball?" I wonder. "No," he says.

Later, we check into a hotel in Shiodome and collapse. Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole. Birdy doesn't seem to think so though, and wakes us up a few hours later, around 7. I hate him for this and sulk for a while. We trek over to Roppongi Hills - the weather has become incredibly cold now, the wind just cutting you in half - and meet Birdy's brother Mark and Birdy's brother's wife Asako. They are both very friendly and take us for a meal of Chinese dumplings, which go down very well, thank you very much. Then we go to the cinema and watch I Am Legend.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Day 5, Nikko: shrined up

On the Friday we get several trains to Nikko, which is approximately 128 km and 24 centimetres to the north of Tokyo. It's shrine central, basically, which means lots of red buildings, epic gateways, big Kill Bill style steps, the unmissable chance to become part of a big tourist swarm - and the occasional peaceful moment of sylvian calm.

The weird thing is that just about every shrine and temple in Japan we see seems to have been burnt down and rebuilt at some stage. There doesn't seem to be much pondering over the old Ship of Theseus / old axe-new axe conundrum here.

In Nikko, for example, Tosho-gu's five-storey pagoda is "an 1819 reconstruction of a 1650 original, which burned down" (according to the Rough Guide). Over in Nara (which we are to visit later), the Great Buddha Hall of Nara's Todai-ji temple "was burned in the fires of war in 1180 and 1567" (according to the accompanying ticket). Part of Kyoto's Nijo Castle, meanwhile, was "struck by lightning and burned down in 1750... later in 1788 some parts of the palace were destroyed by a city-wide fire" (according to the accompanying pamplet) - and so it goes on. During our time in Japan we see just one fire station - food for thought, eh Emperor Akihito?

Anyway, take a deep breath: it's photo time.

And finally...

After a bite to eat and some tea in a cafe overlooking the mountains that surround Nikko, we go back to Tokyo and discover our hotel television has CNN. Then we discover that Sir Edmund Hillary has died. We sleep for three hours, then go to the 24-hour McDonald's.