10/11/2013

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO WINGS OF CHINA

Recently I flew Air China. I know, I'm sorry too.

Air China's in-flight magazine is called Wings of China. When it comes to in-flight magazines I'll pick one up, flick through it, screw my face up and shove it back in its holder before the plane starts to taxi. Still, it's become part of my flying ritual, along with wobbling the laminated safety card and seeing how close to my belly the tray table extends.

Wings of China kept my attention for longer than usual.

Inside, it has a feature about what it's like holidaying around the world. How the locals do it, that kind of thing. The thing is, many of the pictures and their captions don't seem to quite fit. It made for amusing reading.

"Christmas is the most important holiday in a year, a time for celebration."

Christmas in the UK is, apparently, a time to dress as santa and run a race. Tradition and that.

"Germans have 24 days of paid leave entitlements each year."

You know that moment when you remember your national paid leave entitlements? When you throw all your important papers in the air and just get all loose? Come on, we all do it.

"Labor Day is a good opportunity to buy stationery."

Canadians, it seems, have a designated day for buying discounted lever-arch folders.

"The French have an easy environment to work in."

I'm applying for a job in France.

Absurdism is memorable. Inspirational magazines take note.

08/10/2013

SCALING DAISEN

[Mt. Daisen, Japan, October 2013]

Mt. Daisen, the highest mountain in Japan's Chugoku region, is listed as one of the '100 Famous Japanese Mountains'.

It makes sense then, I suppose, that Daisen carries the meaning 'great mountain'.

Mt. Daisen from Daisen-ji
Mt. Daisen from Daisen-ji

Mt. Daisen from Yonago
Mt. Daisen from Yonago

Mountains are best photographed from car parks.

Similar to Mt. Fuji, albeit half the size, Mt. Daisen is one of those mountains that sticks out of the land like an earthy nipple.

Although I've made it a habit in my life to do things, before scaling Mt. Daisen I'd never hiked up a mountain. I'd spent many days hiking, usually with a tent and a bottle of scotch strapped to my back, but I'd always kept my long trudges on flat-ish land.

Mt. Daisen isn't flat-ish. The steep trail to the summit, often rocky and narrow with unnerving drops beside, bends in and out of mist as it inches above the trees and clouds that cast shadows over the countryside below.

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mist at around 1,200m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt. Daisen at around 1,500m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt. Daisen at around 1,500m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt. Daisen hiking trail

Reaching 1,729m, Mt. Daisen might not be among the world's tallest but it's still a few hundred metres higher than any peak in the UK.

Despite being a fairly lanky mountain, it doesn't take an extraordinary level of exertion to get to the top. It's no long walk on the beach, but from the start of the hiking trail in Daisen-ji the summit can be reached in under three-hours and, as I stubbornly proved to my girlfriend, you can do it without using a hiking stick. It's not something that requires adult leg power, either. We saw flocks of small children and even a miniature dog waddling up and down, which provided useful competitive inspiration during stiffer moments.

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt. Daisen summit

At the trail's summit, 1,710m above sea level, clouds can wrap around you quickly. One minute you're admiring the blues and greens that lead out to the Sea of Japan, the next you're shivering inside a giant meringue. The changeable conditions reassure you that you're at the top of something quite big.

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt. Daisen summit

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt. Daisen summit

It's all in the name.

01/10/2013

CHINESE GARDEN, JAPANESE LAKE

[Yurihama, Japan, September 2013]

The Chinese gardens beside Lake Togo were quiet. Nobody was around.

I've got a fondness for Chinese gardens which goes back to time spent in Sydney in 2007. I used to retreat to the Chinese gardens in Darling Harbour if ever I wanted some quiet time. Sydney is a lot of things, and to me it was the most exciting place I'd ever seen, but it wasn't often quiet.

Lake Togo, on the other hand, is quiet. It's a small lake sat in the presence of mountains, the sort of lake you would've drawn as a child. People kayak in it, fish jump out of it, and a tourist boat chugs across it between lakeside hotels and the local onsen. Some huts beside the lake look like bus stops but are actually natural springs where you can dip your feet in warm wells and groan publicly. Despite its in-your-face niceness, on a September Thursday the Chinese gardens were empty.

The Chinese Gardens of Enchoen are symbolic of the positive relations between Tottori Prefecture and Hebei Province in China. It's a classic love story, an international bond based on both areas having a history of pear production. The gardens have been beside Lake Togo since 1996, when they were opened to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the twinning. As gestures go, giving a lotus pond, some bridges, a few pavilions and a waterfall is quite a statement. I've known some of my good friends for about ten years, and if we were going to mark the length of our friendship we'd probably just go for a pint and a sandwich.

The Chinese Gardens of Enchoen
The trickling waterfall

As we walked around the gardens it was tough not to wonder if the pear-shaped friendship has been affected by current thorny relations between Japan and China. The diplomatic - for now, at least - dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands near Taiwan, which both Japan and China claim sovereignty over, has heightened of late, with military flexing in the sea surrounding the islands and anti-Japanese rioting in several Chinese cities occurring in September 2012. The islands are a magnifying glass for the nationalist ambitions of both countries, and relations between them aren't looking too hopeful. In Tottori Prefecture, shreds of anecdotal evidence suggest that some locals hold a sourness towards China due to instances when dust from the Gobi Desert blows Across the East China Sea. However, whether broad Japanese social attitudes reflect this, or state-level sentiment, is another thing, and there's some evidence that the assimilation of Chinese migrants in Japan shows that things aren't all hostile. Even with a fruity regional connection, as relationships go I suppose you could say it's complicated.

All that pondering aside, what mattered to K and I as we wandered around the gardens was that they were empty. Ours.

The Chinese Gardens of Enchoen
Fortune

We put a few hundred yen in an unmarked vending machine beside a white wall and turned its lever, not entirely sure what it would deposit. A small box fell out. It was fish food.

The rabble soon came and we were quickly feeding a slack-jawed fish choir, all jostling for attention like we'd called last orders in a festival beer tent.

The Chinese Gardens of Enchoen
The Chinese Gardens of Enchoen

Other than the lolloping of fish and the faint rumble of the small waterfall, the gardens were all but silent. It was noticeably peaceful. Fitting, I guess.

23/09/2013

A MID-TWENTIES BUCKET LIST

[Hokuei, Japan, September 2013]

A couple of years ago I scribbled down a list of things I wanted to achieve before turning 25. One of those bucket lists you hear so much about.


Only, the list was full of things which I felt were in some way possible, rather than being a list of things which might've bankrupted me or required a spaceship. I'll do those before turning 30.


In that sense, the list was inspired by the brilliant Mike Sowden's '50 Amazingly Achievable Things To Do Before You Die'.


Despite my best efforts, the age of 25 has very recently thrust itself over me like an unwelcome gust of sand. I tried holding my breath and all sorts, but it was no use. The list, which was never intended to be taken seriously, has been largely forgotten about since it was written but still, as I stagger into a new age bracket, now is probably the best time to reflect on any progress made on my personal development, if you can call it that.


Here goes.


Things to achieve before reaching 25


1. Grow an impressive beard


The completion of this goal depends entirely on what constitutes impressive. While I don't keep a bushy face for fear of looking like the sort of person you'd expect to find hiding in some undergrowth in a national park, I do spend a lot of my time purposefully unshaven. My mum reckons it suits me.


2. Fall in love


She's terrific.


3. Be paid to write


There are people on this spinning planet daft enough to have given me real money for words. It's the best feeling making the odd buck from a hobby.


4. Plant a tree

In September 2012 I wandered into a local park at night with a trowel in my pocket. I dug a hole and planted some dubious seeds while my friend Andy shone a light on the ground. We probably looked quite suspicious.


5. Run a marathon


I've finished two half marathons in my life, but I know some people who've done full marathons and they tell me that it's not the same thing. Spoil sports.


6. Build a birdhouse


I have a poorly sketched plan for this somewhere.


7. Answer a ringing public telephone


I did this whilst tipsy in December 2011. Nobody was on the other end of the line, which was desperately disappointing. Not that I would've made much sense in conversation.


8. Donate blood 10 times


I'm a couple of visits short of this goal.


9. Save a lady from a burning building


Fortunately, I've had very few brushes with fire in my life. Although I did almost burn my house down by trying to remove a dent from a ping pong ball once.


10. Send a message in a bottle


While this was something that I very much enjoyed doing in August 2011, I'm disappointed to have never received any response. Whoever found the bottle must be a bit rude.


11. Appear on a television gameshow


Despite reaching the latter stages of two audition processes for UK afternoon quiz shows, I'm yet to realise this one.


12. Brew alcohol


Over a few months in late 2010 and early 2011 myself and my then housemates brewed a thick beer in our cellar which we called Unexpected Custard. It came out a little on the heavy side and made us all feel a bit dizzy.



Homebrewed lager
Unexpected Custard

13. Be involved in a treacherous sailing tale

The nearest I've come to a sailing incident is probably when I swam in a boating lake beside a campsite late at night. It was full of tiny jellyfish floating like fried eggs, small enough to swallow. I've since avoided boating lakes.


14. Climb a mountain and sit quietly at the top


I'm not sure how this has passed me by, but although I've conquered many a hill and scaled the odd peak, I've not yet climbed a mountain.


15. Work and/or live abroad


I once lived, for a brief time in 2007, in a poky flat in Sydney, Australia. And at the time of writing I'm based in a tiny town in Tottori Prefecture, Japan. I don't imagine I'll be ever be the sort of person to stay still for too long.


16. Graduate


I have a degree from a decent UK university and I don't know what to do with it. Does anyone? I doubt it.


17. Receive a standing ovation


This has been thoroughly not achieved.


18. Spend a night sleeping rough


My first experience of being silly abroad involved sleeping beneath a bus stop in Cherbourg after going there for no obvious reason in July 2007. It was cold, wet, I had no spare pants and even now I wonder why I found it all so fun.


19. Visit 25 countries


I've visited 21, so this goes down as a near miss. It would be over 25 if I split the UK down and counted the airports I've transited through. But that wouldn't be very gentlemanly, would it.


20. Hand deliver a letter that the recipient would expect me to post


I'm working on this.


21. Travel a long way for no reason


In October 2010 I flew from London to Oslo for ninety minutes. I had some expensive pastry. It was, if nothing else, alright.


22. Do something illegal but not that illegal


In January 2008 I received a fixed penalty notice in Sydney for unwittingly violating a law regarding bus ticketing. It's one of the most expensive souvenirs I've ever bought.



Australian General Penalty Notice
Not my proudest moment

23. Receive a complimentary upgrade from an airline

Before flying to Japan in March 2013 I rocked up to the airline check-in desk wearing a dinner jacket. I smiled, made chit-chat and did my best to make myself seem worthy of being upped to Smug Class. All I got from the girl behind the counter was a strained smile and a huff. One day, one day. 


24. Grow vegetables


I once tried to grow a chili plant out of season and accidentally drowned it.

25. Learn a skill which has limited application in daily life


As I happily tell prospective employers, I once acquired a certificate in natural horsemanship after spending time on a ranch in Australia. I proved myself as someone who can complain passionately about saddle pains. That was well over five years ago and I've not ridden a horse since. 



A ranch in Leconfield, New South Wales
Ranch life

Score: 13/25

A decent knock, and I've done plenty of other things besides. Plenty.


More to come.

11/09/2013

A NIGHT IN A LOVE HOTEL

[Yonago, Japan, September 2013]

When you're in Japan and you want to get away from it all, where better to retreat to than a nice love hotel.


You heard. A love hotel.


Private time can be hard to come by in Japan. Many couples live with one set of parents and even if that's not the case the walls in Japanese apartments tend to have the soundproofing qualities of a stack of Weetabix. That's where love hotels come in, providing a cosy and private arena for that conversation about current affairs you've been meaning to have. Or, they can be handy neutral ground if you want to meet up with someone you shouldn't be meeting up with.


Whatever your reason for using one, love hotels are dotted around all over the place in Japan and despite them being all about discretion they tend to be pretty distinctive. Some are obvious from their design, looking like flesh-coloured models of a cartoon castle. Some have their rates on large perspex signs outside them, written in colours and fonts that give you the impression you're driving past somewhere which is less likely to be a Best Western and more likely to be called Hotel Winkyface. Some simply have giant neon dolphins outside.



The Aloha Inn, near Yonago
The Aloha Inn, near Yonago

Most love hotels will have pictures of the interior of each room outside and you'll have the freedom to choose whichever one tickles your pickle. Where city love hotels might have a vending machine system to select rooms and deposit keys, out-of-town hotels use a drive-in method managed by traffic lights. If there's a blue light shining by the room number it's yours to take, whereas if the light is red then there's probably a game of Risk taking place inside.

In case you're involved in an elaborate game of hide and seek, when you park up you're either able to pull a curtain across the parking bay or, in the case of the Aloha Inn which is a ten-minute drive from Yonago, claw down a set of sinister looking shutters to cover your car.


The Aloha Inn parking lot
Don't come knockin'

Inside the Aloha Inn there's no check-in procedure as such, rather you pay through a vending machine by the door whenever you're finished with the room. Love hotels needn't necessarily be used on a nightly basis as rooms can be rented for stays as short as thirty minutes. Perfect for a quick cup of tea.

Rooms in the more upmarket love hotels in Japan will have an artistic edge to them. The bed might be within a birdcage, there might be a swing, an aquarium or a hot tub in the room. The thing with the upmarket ones is that they can be quite expensive. With a modest nightly rate, the Aloha Inn's characterful Magic Island rooms might be detached chalets but they draw the line at a jacuzzi bathtub, mini sauna and tiles with cartoon animals on. 



Sauna and jacuzzi in the Aloha Inn
Nothing says Magic Island like a jacuzzi and sauna

The living area really brings the sizzle. By the dressing area there's a foot massager and a slot machine in case you want to add some danger to your stay by making a bet you can't afford to lose. There's also a catalogue of costumes which can be bought, just in case there are any fancy dress parties going on locally.



Aloha Inn living area
Entertainment for all the family

The upstairs bedroom features a large bed, awkward floral wallpaper and the universal hotel tea and coffee facilities. The TV comes equipped with built-in karaoke and a certain selection of films which we didn't remember ever being at the cinema. There's also a vending machine in the room which sells, well, not drinks.


Bedroom in the Aloha Inn
Tasteful

Japanese love hotels are there to be enjoyed, and after a presumably restful night you'll leave feeling refreshed and ready to return to a world without privacy and complimentary robes.

You might have some explaining to do when you get home.

07/09/2013

BUS-PASS BRITAIN

[Hokuei, Japan, September 2013]

Believe it or not, I've got a little chapter in Bus-Pass Britain Rides Again which was recently published by Bradt Travel Guides.

The book features light-hearted descriptions of dozens of bus journeys all over the UK. Although it's aimed at the free bus-pass generation, it might also appeal to those who enjoy casual exploration and staring out of bus windows.

Bus-Pass Britain Rides Again

The chapter I wrote is about a short coastal journey from Weston-super-Mare to Sand Bay in North Somerset. I grew up around there, so my piece is on the nostalgic side.

If you want to buy the book, why not support an independent bookstore?
 
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