Heading south into the land of the gods

After talking a lot about dead people yesterday, I am now looking forward to spending some time with a few tomorrow. I am off to Koya-san, a sprawling Buddhist monastery complex high in the hills south of Osaka and home of Japan’s biggest and most famous cemetery. All the important dead people will be there at Okunoin: the frog poet Basho will be near the front, not far from the founder of the monastery Kukai’s final resting place.

The monk-murdering warrior Nobunaga will be there lurking in the shadows as usual, even (supposedly) exterminated termites will be there patiently waiting for paradise.

Kukai’s place in the graveyard is perhaps the most perplexing. He is not even supposed to be dead, just meditating. For 1200 years. Surely he could have chosen somewhere quieter.

Anyway, I have lost my track again. Why am I writing this? To express that I am really looking forward to tomorrow. The fresh air, the space between people, the space to walk into. And perhaps best of all the possibility of hearing an uguisu, a bush warbler, the ultimate sign of spring. I have started whistling to them. And guess what? They whistle back. They love me, honestly they do. We have a great time together.





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The healing hot springs of Shimo-Suwa

During these two days off, I have found it hard to meet people in Matsumoto.  The easy option would be to go into a bar. But if I go into a bar, I know I will find it very difficult to get out. It is not just the drink that makes the bars appealing; they are almost always very friendly and welcoming places where a rambling chunterer like me can find someone to talk to.

Anyway, for a new experience, I took a trip this afternoon to see the grand shrines at Shimo-Suwa. Meeting people in a small town such as Shimo-Suwa was a lot easier. Whereas in tourist-packed Matsumoto, the locals seem to expect foreigners not to be able to speak Japanese, in Shimo-Suwa it was quite the opposite. Everyone talked to me.

One silver-head told me about a 16th century monk who carved a rock into a Buddha; another silver-head told me about a female tank poet who was born in Shimo-Suwa. When I confessed to him I didn’t really understand tanka, he told me he didn’t either. He was just a volunteer guide looking after her old house.

The best place to meet people though was in the hot springs. The scalding waters of Tanga Onsen had barely settled, before a silver-head appeared next to me and started telling me about Takeda Shingen, a legendary warrior from the region who had healed his battle wounds in nearby hot springs. Contrary to common belief, it appears men are great at talking, as long as it is about dead people.

Soon 2 more silver-heads waded in and the conversation changed to comparing ailments. ‘I’ve had a heart bypass and the doctor told me I shouldn’t go in hot water’, said one, as he cheerfully stepped into the bubbling lava pool.

By this point, the 45 degree waters of the ‘coolest one’ were becoming intolerable. I got out, and after a short break, stupidly tried the hottest pool – 47 degrees. I got as far as getting both knees in, then twice as quickly got them both out. I then noticed all the men sat on shower stools had been gleefully watching my every move. Bath-time is real entertainment.

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The Heart Sutra or the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms

I am in the mountains of Nagano on a break between trips. My day has been spent ploughing through a few books: a manga on Sangokushi (the Romance of the Three Kingdoms – highly recommended by a friend in Tokyo), a portayal of Britain by a Japanese journalist – I need all the help I can get right now working out what it means to be British, and I have started reading about the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist text I need to know more about, perhaps for my own sanity, and also so I don’t sound too moronic when I discuss it on future trips.

I normally show no hesitation about sounding moronic, but it is difficult to sound moronic and then expect people to be happy to pay money to listen to it.

These couple of days are a precious escape from real life. I don’t need to talk to anyone. I have barely said a word today. This is fine but it means I have real problems speaking when suddenly confronted with a question. The hotel receptionist asked me earlier if I would like my room cleaned tomorrow. I couldn’t come up with a convincing answer.

News from Britain looks bleak.  It looks like the end of Britain and the end of hope if the Conservatives win convincingly. The whole thing doesn’t seem real again, like a drunken pub brawl no-one wants to get involved in. Maybe I need to look at the Heart Sutra for some answers.

Or perhaps The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the safest place to put my mind.


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Stopping in Seoul

With less than 24 hours in the capital, my aims were limited: first find the hotel,  then find the river. The city-centre hotel was easily found with a little help from a desk at Incheon airport. The business hotel is cheap, bland and  full of Japanese tourists – mostly families and schoolkids.  In reception, I heard one tourist say although the hotel breakfast was notoriously disgusting, he was prepared to give it a go. I admire that spirit.

On such a short stop, it is hard to take anything in. I feel as if I am part of a film. It is perhaps no wonder. In the past forty eight hours, films have taken my brain to Berlin in 1989, a fishing village on the east coast of America, high society London between-the-wars, and a mental institution in 1970’s America. Walking the Seoul streets I forget everything I see is real, not just another episode of virtual reality.

The anonymity is addictive and dangerous. A stranger saying hello to me brought on a mild panic attack.

As usual, I am poorly-prepared. I used to be able to read and speak a little Korean. Their brilliant and original hangul alphabet which looks like a never-ending algebra equation fascinated me for a time. I watch a short Youtube video of useful Korean phrases. Then I remember I never really knew any useful Korean, only how to ask for a banana in a convenience store.

I took the underground to the Gangnam district, according to the free map, a mere fingernail’s worth of walk from the river. The free map lacked a little on detail though, and I was soon lost in a bleak block of numbered high-rises which wouldn’t have looked out of place across the northern border. At the back of the property was a cluster of robust exercise machines lined up along a bank. Surely the Han river lay beyond. I scrambled up the side and saw the historic Han river flowing into the Yellow Sea. Sadly my hopes of washing my hands in it were crushed by 10 lanes of traffic in front of me. Probably a good thing – the river has apparently been poisoned by the American military.

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Volcanoes of the Mind

I might have finally worked out how to upload photos to my computer. I am very proud; it reminds of the day I graduated from index finger-only typing.

Anyway, I am in Aokigahara, a haunted forest growing on the lava from an old eruption of Mount Fuji.  The forest keeps gaining new ghosts. According to this Vice video, 100 or so people kill themselves there every year.


The forest did not scare me, and not just because I am one tough bastard. For a place of death, there was so much life, amongst all the birdsong there was so much green determination to live. Trees were contorted into all kinds of shapes in the fight for space in the sun. And what the trees couldn’t cover, the moss did; every inch of chilled magma seemed to have some variety of soft green moss on it.

My body wandered straight along the trail but my mind went off at all angles.  I have no idea where it will go next: ‘Volcanoes of the Mind’ I call it. I will write a book about it one day.

Completely unconnected, I have finally finished that book called Mountains of the Mind. It is a kind of history of the idea of mountains – mostly about people who take their minds with them on walks rather than letting them go off on sojourns into memories of bitterly contested Under 12’s football matches. It was not a foul. I definitely got the ball first.

Anyway, I am coming to the end of the walk now so I will try and reel my mind back in so we can cross the line together and say something relevant to the overarching theme of the post.  No, I can’t. My mind is back, but it has forgotten to what it wanted to say in the first place. I am sure it will remember at some point, probably when I am back on those green and bare forbidding hills. Until then, enjoy the photos, the last for a long while I suspect. I’ll have forgotten how to upload them next time I post.

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Fine line between dreary and delightful

Outside Sakai station is a statue of a 16th century Spanish missionary, Francis Xavier. The pious Jesuit is looking out over a still canal. When he bothers to look up beyond the dead water, he can see a dreary mishmash of rectangular buildings trapped under a web of overhead wires. The only buildings lit up were banks and budget business hotels called Comfort and Super. To Xavier’s left rises that wart of a mega-store, Aeon, now officially classed as an invasive species across the whole archipelago. Sharing Xavier’s view was enough for me to start questioning what I had travelled 6,000 miles for. While the radiant full moon was impressive, even Dubai airport had that.

Fortunately of course there are  many areas of curiosity and interest. Xavier – the poor fool hasn’t seemed to have cottoned on to the fact he is only a few yards from a row of lively bars and counter-seat diners. Under the colourful noren curtains, I could see legs and hear lots of laughter. In the end, I chose to go in one of the more conservative dining establishments which actually had a door.

The inside was grubby, noisy and wonderful. The speciality was okonomiyaki which in simple terms is a kind of revolutionary bubble and squeak that uses completely different ingredients and is cooked on a hotplate instead of an oven. You can choose your own stuffing for the okonomiyaki: I chose squid, pork and rice-cake as they had run out of marmite.

The walls were decorated with dead grandfather clocks and a retro poster of a red-haired foreigner drinking Asahi beer. Music was playing but it was barely audible above the chatter of groups families and friends. I think Buddy Holly was playing on the wireless. Although it could have been Mozart. Anyway, I was very happy, sat alone at the counter, on centre stage, entertained by all that was around me. My only regret was not inviting Xavier to join me.

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Book Covers

Twice I went in to the airport bookshop and got trapped. The book covers tempt my easily-distracted mind like shiny blackberries in a bush. Today ‘Mountains of the Mind’ and ‘H is for Hawk’ were the juiciest-looking ones. But I knew their shine would not last long, the books would bruise in my bag and my eyes would grow tired of them, and I would end up feeling guilty at the wasted money.

A few minutes later, I had to go deep into the cave again. It was forty minutes before take off and I wanted to buy water. I knew I would have to pass the books again. So I chose to mark my departure from the UKwith an act of considered recklessness and bought ‘Mountains of the Mind’.

Before even being opened, the book was lost under piles of free newspaper and magazines. Even these were forgotten by the time I found my seat. The plane has enough distractions of its own. First of all, you have to establish a relationship with the person next to you that is sufficiently comfortable for you to be able to ask to squeeze by to go to the bathroom, but not such a close bond that you might actually be required to have a real conversation….with nowhere to escape.

Once this is all done, it is find the film time. Emirates has a large selection. I watched four in eight hours: two very different British films Spinal Tap and Imitation Game that were captivating, both sharing themes of eccentricity and frustrated homosexuality, and then two very bland Japanese films, ‘Our Little Sister’ and ‘If cats disappeared from the world’.  After finishing the fourth film, I had arrived in Dubai airport, where my eyes fixed on a familiar book cover: ‘H is for Hawk’. It was following me. Book covers are evil; they are controlling our every move.

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Arita: An idiot’s guide to porcelain

Arita, 90 minutes or so by train from Fukuoka or Nagasaki, is a historic town in north west Kyushu famous for porcelain production. Now I am no specialist, but porcelain appears to be a kind of medieval plastic. Piles of the stuff were splashed with colour and pretty designs to catch the punter’s eye.

Nobody seems sure of its true value. This was illustrated by one lady who discounted an item I bought without telling me. Later, I discovered a pair of chopsticks had cost me as much as 2 teapots – yet taken up 1% of the space in the suitcase. Yet, in Tokyo pieces of this china, or should I call it japan?, can go for hundreds of thousands of yen an item.

Four national living treasures work in the town heading production teams apparently. Perhaps most famous is the dynasty founded by a Korean, Ri Sampei who moved here in the early 17th century. The current descendant, the 14th apparently learns Korean purely to speak to customers from his ‘homeland’.

Factories in the town have seen a dramatic drop in employment, at one place I heard they have gone from 300 to 15 employees in 30 years. They can’t compete with the price of ‘new china’. Yet it is a real shame because there is nothing quite like old china. Their firm handles, the clink of cup onto saucer, the intrinsic artwork and the proper porcelain itself surely helps make the tea taste better. One old lady – a different one this time, anticipating my needs perhaps, told me I could get rid of black tea stains with a bit of bleach. Bless her china socks.

The heavens were moody, both rumbling and sweltering. Fortunately you could hear the rain before it landed on you; it normally gave just enough warning to run under a shop awning. In one shower, I stopped at the clear river running through the centre of the town, astonished to see its bottom was scattered with broken plates.

Property is dirt-cheap here apparently; marked in chalk on a blackboard, a house was advertising for inhabitants. This echoes a pattern across the country, cheap homes – but no jobs in the countryside, rising house prices but no rise in wages in the cities. Leaving the town early in the morning, from a train window I glimpsed four baseball uniforms racing their small bicycles through grubby back alleys and between tall narrow red brick chimneys. They looked like an anachronism, a grainy newsreel report of a place in the past I will never visit.

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Amongst Village People

Japan has been like a second-home for me for over ten years now, but I still don’t seem to know the way in. I always seem stuck on wrong side of the window, forever an outsider. Being free of entanglements and complications has many benefits – it is a choice I have made, but I sometimes I crave a few moments inside.

The other day I was in Kurokawa Onsen, a high-class hot spring resort high in the hills of central Kyushu. A proudly picturesque riverside village surrounded by forest boasting over 20 ryokans, each with their own natural hot spring baths. But I didn’t take a 5 hour round trip bus ride to Kurokawa just to have a bath. I had come on a much more important mission – to collect the souvenir biscuits I had accidentally left there two days previously.


And, why had I gone 2 days before? To renew acquaintances with some of the ryokan owners who I met on a 7 day tour of England in 2005. In theory, on that particular trip I was their guide to the glory of the English countryside; in practice I was little more than extra luggage, providing them with nothing more than a few mumbled crumbs of barely-digested knowledge in between scones and lamb sandwiches.

The highway bus dropped me off just above the village. Looking down from the road, all I could see was lush green tree-tops and dark clumps of grey cloud threatening to explode at any moment. I bought a towel and hunted down a bath, as good a hiding place as any. The red sulphur-stained stone bath Daikan no Yu (The Magistrate’s Spring) was warm and welcoming. A tree offered shelter from the hot sun rays forcing their way through the clouds. The only thing that fell on me was a furry caterpillar.

Returning to the Tourist Information to collect my biscuits I bumped into Kousuke, the Kojak-lookalike ryokan owner who I had got on so well with in England. We had shared a love of stupid jokes, being ridiculous and pretending that nothing really matters.

For the few minutes I had available, he put on a fine show for me, inviting me inside and ordering me THE finest coffee, topping up my cup when he noticed the tide had gone out then forcing a souvenir t-shirt on me before chauffeuring me back to the bus stop. He has gone through tough times, with personal health problems, and now the impact of the recent earthquake and landslides on his business, but he was still so positive, talking about the past – his fond memory of an ivy-strewn courtyard in Castle Combe where an old couple were sat sharing tea, his plans for the future, about trying something a little different – but not too different. He’s still looking, and so am I.

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A farmer’s birthday

The wife, a no-nonsense woman, was dreading the party. She is vegan and the food for the party was, “how say in English” , she showed me a translation on her phone: ‘queer, peculiar, strange’. I saw her point later when between the plates of pig’s ears, stinky tofu and sliced pineapple was an enormous elaborately decorated chocolate cake.

Sitting at a wooden table outside on the front porch by the road, family, friends, neighbors, random dogs and a random foreigner all toasted the farmer with glasses of pineapple vinegar (actually the dogs didn’t do this bit). The farmer was a man of few words, but at that point he whispered through a big smile, “very happy”.

The large grid of fields around the farm are planted with bananas, pineapples and tea: all things I normally see on shelves not growing on the ground. The farming town developed during the fifty years of Japanese rule; some buildings from this period remain with incongruous four-sloped roof – designed to prevent the accumulation of snow, something many Taiwanese now fly to Japan with the express purpose of seeing.

The next morning, I went tea-picking with the son. In a blue pick-up, he drove me to the oolong tea bush field where half a dozen women dressed in what looked like flowery radiation suits were busy hand-picking the freshest leaves from the top of the bushes. He introduced me to one. The moment our eyes met I knew it was her: the snarling scooter-woman. Thankfully she barked a bit gentler this time. For a couple of minutes I watched her pick, awed by the speed and efficiency. In the time it took me to pick one leaf, she had picked ten.

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