December 14, 2003

Japan 12: Some final thoughts

I think without a doubt, one of the strangest aspects of my Japan experience has been being so visibly a foreigner (as a white guy in an Asian country) and being given special treatment because of that. From all the traveling I've done so far (Europe and North America) how I look has never been in any way of note or interest to anyone. But here in Japan (and probably moreso in provincial Japan than would have been the case in, for instance, Tokyo), being white is definitely something of note, and sometimes interest. A few "for instance"s. On Friday, Jon and I went to the bank in Kagoshima so that I could change my travellers cheques, as the cash I'd brought was running out. We took a ticket from the dispensing machine and sat in the waiting area with its airport lounge seating layout in front of the tellers. The numbers flashed up on a screen in front of us corresponding to whose ticket number was next up. Within a few minutes of our sitting there, there were inpromptu gatherings of tellers behind the main area, lots of to-ing and fro-ing, and the occasional furtive glance in our direction. Jon spotted it sooner than I, and sure enough, within two minutes one of the more senior looking came forward and asked us, "How can I help you?" with a polite bow. Clearly identified as foreigners, we'd been marked out as probably requiring special treatment and in no time were bumped up the queue so we could be tended to sooner.

The next day we were in a department store trying to pick up some presents for folks back home and in the UK, and yes, I suppose we were looking a little aimless in trying to find the right section of the store, but with thousands of other shoppers around, who would have noticed? "Can I help you, sir?" says a shop assistant out of nowhere. He then personally led us up two levels and across half the store to the right spot for what we were looking for.

And then, just now, in Nagoya Airport. An army of pretty young ladies ready to help out the poor foreigner who can't even speak the language. Would you like a window or an aisle seat? Shall I check your bags through to San Francisco? Please go to desk 5 - where, ok, follow me. And always happy smiles and cute bows.

Although, to be fair, I don't think the excellent service we received is in any way at the expense of the locals. It seems every Japanese person receives the same immaculate treatment. Which must make it very difficult when they travel abroad. Even in the short time that I was here, I became used to radiant smiles, cute bows, superior service. And I was also beginning to notice the few times that such exceptional service wasn't delivered - if someone didn't have as pleasant a demeanour, or seem to be there expressly to anticipate my every need. Imagine going from a lifetime of that to the typical American or British "service" experience, with its almost practiced art of apathy. And then throw on top of that being significantly smaller (on average) as well as a completely foreign script and language which few Japanese, I am told, are able to grasp on a conversational level. No wonder when they do travel abroad it tends to be in guided tours en masse. It's the only way they can isolate themselves from all those big, smelly, hairy, apathetic Westerners. The only way they can guarantee a consistently high service experience.

Posted by mthaddon at 07:20 PM

December 13, 2003

Japan 11: The final confrontation

There was no escaping it. My old nemesis demanded confrontation. Time: 3pm. Place: Nagoya Airport Departure Lounge. Chosen Weapons: Porcelain Channel versus full bowels. To be fair, my appointment with the Japanese public toilet could have been avoided. There was a disabled toilet with a regular western-style toilet that I could easily have chosen. But I didn't want to admit defeat. I wanted to leave the country victorious, to have made my mark on Japan, or at least on Japanese porcelain.

Now that the deed is done, I'm not really sure who was victorious. I still don't know if I was facing the right way (can't remember what Jon told me), and I was holding onto a low handrail behind me the whole time. Is that cheating? I just couldn't see any other way to do it. So I suppose in the end, we must call it an honourable truce. Face has been saved on both sides. And whatever the outcome, I feel a lot more comfortable now than I did ten minutes ago....

Posted by mthaddon at 06:55 PM

December 12, 2003

Japan 10: Homeward

It's six thirty on the morning of December the 14th, if you must know, and we're onthe Tsubame bound for Fukuoka's Hakata train station. Well, it's almost over. Glad to be seeing Shirl soon, but sad that it's over so quickly.

And yet it feels like much longer than it actually was. So much amazing stuff. I have a lot of catching up to do on writing this diary. This four hour train ride, and then my planes from Fukuoka to Nagoya, Nagoya to Tokyo Narita, and then Narita to San Francisco should give me plenty of time to make a dent.

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We hiked up Kaimon-Dake, or Mount Kaimon for about an hour and a half, passing quite a few middle aged hiking couples and groups along the narrow path through the trees. Sometimes it was a dirt and pebble gully cut into the soft earth, and sometimes we were scrambling over rocks, up neatly constructed wooden steps, or over tree roots. The path was always well maintained and although it mostly took us through dense woodlands, occasionally there was a stunning view down to the ocean, or inland and the bay, as we wound our way around and up.

As we reached the peak the tree cover cleared, and we were left with spectacular (if a little hazy) views of the entire area. Never missing an opportunity to display our sensitivity to the majesty of the situation, Jon and I had the great idea to get the timers working on our cameras, and perform the coveted double-moon while perched atop a precarious rocky outcrop. Oh, how far we've come from those student days...

Our legs were definitely jelly by the time we came down, and feeling we'd earned a bit of serious relaxation Jon took us to what was my second Onsen, this time at Ibuski. This one was a whole different ball game. Perched right on the coast, in the shadows of two enormous mountain bumps that stood distinct from the otherwise flat countryside, this Onsen consisted of a geo-thermal sandbath.

After changing your shoes for slippers, you're given a robe, and make your way to the changing room. Now, while the way a coat is done up in the West determines the sex of the wearer, in Japan you always want to wear your robes with left over right. The dead are dressed the other way, so it's not a mistake you want to make.

Appropriately attired, we then made our way down to the beach, where an ad hoc sun/rain shade had been erected from scaffolding and tarpaulin, about 10 feet wide by about 200 feet long. Hovering around were about three old ladies in welly boots and with shovels: our sand grave-diggers. They had a few ready-prepared channels dug in the sand, and beckoned us to lay down. They explained that we should put a little towel around our heads like a bonnet, and then bite on it to keep it in place while we lay down. We lay in our shallow graves, our heads protected by the towel, and then they shovelled the hot, damp sand over our bodies, covering everything but the head.

The sensation of heat from all around and weight from above was bizarre, as for some reason I could soon feel my heartbeat pulsing against the weight of the sand in my hands and feet. Once you settled into it, and went with the experience, though, it was very relaxing. So relaxing that the old Japanese guy next to me began to snoring loudly within five minutes. 20 minutes later, we were fully cooked and ready to head inside to soak in some natural hot spring water having rinsed off all the sand. Ah, now we're relaxed!

Posted by mthaddon at 09:06 PM

December 08, 2003

Japan 9: --interlude--

Freaky dream last night. I was walking down the street with the two Japanese twins in Uppingham and we walked passed, crossed a group of young guys. I don't think they actually said anything, but somehow I was aware that one of them had made a racist comment. I turned to confront them, and the guy who'd made the comment sort of became more heroic, stronger bone structure, windswept blond hair. Probably early twenties/late teens.

So next thing I know, he and I are jousting on an open field. Just before that, he's thrown a circular ceiling light tube at me. So, we're jousting. I'm on foot, he's on a horse. He has a long black pole that he's wielding like a sword, and also an axe. I have something puny, so a smaller younger guy next to me passes me an axe. I feel no fear, feel like I have lightning reactions and am totally poised. As he comes at me I duck his blow, swing my axe and take off his head. His body is black, swaying a bit but walking around. I look around to the folks I'm with, and they seem a little shocked by the extremity of my actions.

The beheaded guy picks up his head and puts it back on. It goes a little rubbery, but then seems okay. We start fighting again. He has his axe tucked under his arm, with the blade pointing backwards, so I rush him before he can grab it, get a few elbows to him, and then execute a cool as hell manoeuvre where I reach around, pull the axe from under his arm, and then bring it in one smooth movement horizontally to his neck. This time he's dead.

At this point, it becomes clear that he's some kind of heir to some god and that I've done something very wrong by killing him, and that he could only be killed by his own axe, because that was made by the gods. All hell breaks loose (or is it all heaven?) - we pan up to a village of the gods where there's a commotion going on because the news has reached them. The head dude and a bunch of honchos descend to the real world to confront me, and they do so in a large courtroom that looks like a courtyard. Then I wake up.

Posted by mthaddon at 09:04 PM

December 07, 2003

Japan 8: Good times, good times

We awoke the next morning to a stunning view of Sakurajima - Kagoshima's signature volcanic landmark whcih sits just across the bay. From Jon's fourth floor apartment, east facing, it looks like the volcano is pretty much in the heart of the city. In fact, Sakurajima sits on the far side of the Bay, joined to the eastern coast by a land bridge formed in 1914 when it erupted, its constant plume of smoke fuming over the course of three days into an enormous explosion of ash and 30 billion tons of lava. It buried three villages and changed the contours of Japan in the process.

Tuesday was the first day that Jon was able to take off work, so we spent it together. Felt very much like old times. We grabbed a stash of snacks from the local grocery store (called "Lawson") to tide us over for our intended plans for the day. As with a lot of places we went, Jon was happily chatting away with the locals. Apparently he pretty much lives out of Lawson, so he knows all the staff personally, and introduced me to them. We grabbed some drinks (deciding, rather wisely I thought, to avoid two of Japan's most popular beverages, Pocari Sweat and Calpis - say the last one fairly quickly and you'll see why), a sandwich each (crusts having been removed already), a couple of seaweed covered rice triangles with assorted fillings, and some pork balls and a variety package of fish balls, rice, sushi and such.

We then shoehorned ourselves into Jon's boxlike Subaru and headed south out of Kagoshima. His car is like many that seem to be popular in Japan, which basically are variations on the theme of an upturned milk crate with scooter sized wheels.

This was my first experience with the Japanese countryside (once we cleared the traffic), and it was stunning. The area around Kagoshima, and I believe pretty much all of Japan, is extremely mountainous. Most of the mountains, volcanoes excepted, sport a dense outfit of tree cover. And pretty much any area down to the smallest half acre that isn't too hilly is either cultivated or developed - there simply is no wasteland. The roads are narrow and winding, highly over-populated with traffic lights, and there is an unfeasible amount of road construction/repair (most of which appears to be completely unnecessary). Every road construction area is bookended by "traffic wardens" who are there in addition to directional signs up the wazoo and contraflow traffic lights, to show you where you need to be on the other side of the road. All are uniformed, as seems to be the fashion, possibly with helmets, flags and whistles (presumably dependent upon rank). Yes, this is a serious case of jobs for the boys.

Of course, in Britain and the US, anyone doing a job like this also seems to be issued with some additional items as part of the uniform - a slouch and a sneer. Not so in Japan. This vital, life saving job is taken very, very seriously, with a considerable amount of pride (superficially at least), and often comes with a bow to passing drivers.

However, driving is still a pleasure, as the scenery is unfailingly stunning. And so it was that we made our way down to Kaimon-dake, an extinct volcano on the southern coast of Kagoshima-ken, about an hour south of the city. Mount Kaimon sits half way out to sea and resembles Mount Fuji in its shape. For those, like me, who'd only seen Mount Fuji in paintings, it really is as sharply triangular in its profile as it looks. And Mount Kaimon is the same. A huge wide-based cone, 924 meters high, and covered in trees, save for the last few meters at the peak. In its shadow, just north, is Lake Ikeda, which is Kagoshima-ken's largest lake, framed by the crater of a sunken volcano, and is the home to Issie (think Nessie), as well as huge pale blue eyed eels. The latter do actually exist, and having seen them, I'd've thought they were monsters enough for the lake.

Posted by mthaddon at 09:03 PM

December 06, 2003

Japan 7: Kagoshima

On my first night in Kagoshima, I got to meet Emi, and she, Jon and I went out to a nice little restaurant. My first impression of Emi served me well for the brief amount of time that I've spent with her so far. What to say but very nice? She's pretty, fun to be with, and her and Jon semm to get on very well and be very well suited. Jon is very relaxed and open with her and it seems like there's a lot of joking and laughter. They speak pretty much exclusively in Japanese, so every now and again, I'd find myself asking Jon what they were saying. Sometimes I regretted asking, like when we were in the restaurant and the food had been ordered, and Emi giggled a response to something Jon had said.

"I told her she was looking particularly beautiful tonight", he said, without a hint of embarassment, presenting his translation to me like a proud father talking of his child's accomplishments. I thought I might throw up. Which was definitely not the case at the Yakatori (skewer) restaurant we were at.

Having pretty unsuccessfully navigated the whole taking-shoes-off-and-in-so-doing-not-touching-the-dirty-floor-with-our -feet-but-instead-stepping-gracefully-up-to-the-elevated-level game, we were seated on cushions around a low rectangular wooden table of a sort of light mahogany color. The restaurant was softly lit, but not in a Western "romantic" soft lighting type of way, and was bustling with noise and movement.

This gave Emi the perfect opportunity to display her skill of attracting the waiters' attention instantly with just the merest hint of a "sumi massen". But once the waiter's attention was safely secured, that was when the fun really started. There's a delicacy in Kagoshima district, or Kagoshima-ken of sashimi-style raw chicken. Yes. Chicken that has not been cooked. A delicacy, not a mistake. A little soy sauce, some wasabi, and away you go. I didn't know this until after I'd eaten it (although I just had some more today, fully knowing). All I can say is that I'm glad I didn't visit Kumamoto, Emi's home area. Their delicacy there is raw horse. Anyway, raw chicken's not to be sniffed at. In the good meaning, rather than the literal meaning. A little chewy, but prepared in such a typically elegant style, and presented so carefully, that yes, even raw chicken seemed enticing!

As we left the restaurant significantly inebriated, Jon demanded that we walk home (so for those who know, not everything about him is unchanged). We took in the cool night air in almost deserted streets on a bright moonlit night in the southernmost city in Japan. Emi pretty much collapsed in sleepy drunkenness the minute we got back to Jon's apartment. The bedding, to conserve the little space there is is simply a futon mattress that is stored in a cupboard with Japan's characteristic sliding doors during the day. Before Jon could even pull it out (the bedding, the bedding) Emi was fast asleep on the matt floor with her coat still on.

Posted by mthaddon at 09:01 PM

Japan 6: Ichi ban onsen

So this may disrupt the strict chronology that I've been following so far, but that's pretty much because I've just been writing about it as it happened (or rather, I did while I was in Japan, and now that I'm back I've been writing it up online from my diary). Now I have a little catch up to do, and some things jump out as needing to be written about now. I'll fill in the gaps later. And one of those things is the Onsen Jon and I went to last night.

Wow!! What an experience. How glad am I that Jon is a local? The Onsen is the local bathhouses. Nothing like getting naked with the locals. So my tattoo was a minor issue, as apparently there's a fair amount of stigma attached to tattoos in Japan (probably more so outside Tokyo) associated with a combination of tattoos being closely related to the Yakuza, tattoos being thought of as dirty in a communal bathing context, and having a slightly thuggish association. So we weren't able to go to the original bathhouse that Jon had in mind, and instead went to a slightly larger one that was a little further away.

So you take a large towel for drying yourself at the end, a smaller towel which doubles as your scrubbing cloth for cleaning yourself and your modesty enhancer for covering the family jewels as you wander around if you're into that. Public nakedness is not a problem in Japan (actually there is a whole different definition of personal/private space versus public space, as well as an unfamiliar definition of modesty - peeing in the street is a lot more acceptable for men, and many public toilets have urinals that are in full view of the bustling streets) although at this place it was separated by sex. Mostly. There were a few cleaning women (clothed) who would be going about their business as we wandered around starkers.

Anyway, the procedure is this. You bring your own little wash kit with soap, shampoo, conditioner and whatever else you want in the way of cleaning products. Having paid and then declothed, as you enter the actual washhouse, you grab a bowl and a bucket (both plastic). The bowl is to douse yourself with water, and to wet the smaller towel for scrubbing yourself with, and the upturned bucket is for sitting on.

You begin by sitting on it in front of a set of hot and cold taps and a low shower head. Using those, the bowl, and your collection of cleaning products, you scrub yourself all over til you shine. And then you do it again. It kind of doubles as self massage, and half an hour later, you're cleaner than you've ever been, and ready to get started.

There's a series of hot pools, dry saunas, steam saunas, plunge pools, massage jet-type reclining chairs within pools, and even a slightly freaky electrical current area where they pulse electricity through part of one of the hot pools - apparently it has some restorative qualities on your muscles, but personally I'm sticking with the belief that mixing water and electricity shouldn't be encouraged.

Our general sequence was hot tub, extra hot pool, cold plunge pool, dry sauna, cold plunge pool, steam sauna, cold plunge pool, reclining jets, cold water douse. Fantastic. And to finish it off, we had a quick chair massage in the pseudo-lobby area (clothed again), accompanied by a cold one from the vending machine. And as we're sipping a beer, an old geezer next to us lights up. Definitely a strange mix with what in the West would be considered a health pursuit, but here in Japan is more of a communal ritual. We're not in California anymore, Dorothy.

Posted by mthaddon at 08:59 PM

Japan 5: Fukuoka to Kagoshima

As we took the train from Fukuoka to Kagoshima (no bullet - next year, but only from Kagoshima half way to Fukuoka), I sat next to a Canadian JET participant called Doug. I actually mistook him for an American until he told me where he was from, as he was, to me, something of a stereotypical young American bohemian travelling type. Pony tail, lots of hand expressions when he spoke, and everything was either "cool" or "messed up". He'd bitch about something and then say, "that's cool". I couldn't quite see how. But anyway, he was talking about all the travelling he'd done and was planning to do - "I wanna do Asia, man" - and it made me realise that I used to share that same attitude.

Or at least, to give him a little more credit, I could see some of the aspects of how I used to think in some of the things he said. I don't want to completely tar him with my own brush. The brush of travel as a goal, not an experience. Of country-bagging, and of having been places rather than going places. And what made me realise is that although this trip has given me the urge to travel more, and explore the world, I'm doing so from a different place than when I was a teenager. Then, it was about defining who I was, about being different from others because of where I'd been and what I'd done.

That's maybe a little harsh on my young self, but in any case, there's always some truth in exaggeration. Now, I want to go places and experience things, not have been places and done things.

Posted by mthaddon at 08:58 PM

Japan 4: Heaven and Hell

I've discovered hell. And I think I like it. Hell is the Solaria shopping extravaganza in Fukuoka. A ten (or is it more) storey shopping orgy. Just so much consumerism, and fairly high end at that, in one place. And so much Christmas. Christmas music, Christmas muzak, Christmas decorations, Christmas sales, santa hats, Christmas lights. And huge, flat screen TVs everywhere. It's thoughtful enough to have strategic seating for shopping casualties (the men who are dragged around by their girlfriends, wives) on every floor. And there are cute girls handing out something as you enter. They're wearing all white, and they're all wearing short skirts (white). And they're all cute. They have a shopping basket in the crook of their elbow, and a balloon or three each. And I have no idea what they're doing, but they're cute. And so are pretty much all the women in this hell. I like this place.

Not to appear one-sided, Japan has just shown me a whole other aspect of itself. Two very peaceful and beautiful places. One was a Buddhist temple founded in 805, and the other was the original birthplace of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

The first was an amazing experience because I seemed for all intents and purposes to be alone as I wandered into the grounds, walked around in awe of the quiet power of the place, and stepped inside a huge temple hall to find the most beautifully intricate Buddhist shrine. Not exactly knowing if I was allowed, or what I was supposed to do, I slipped my backpack off my shoulders and my shoes off my feet, and made my way mindfully to the matted area that was separated from the shrine by only a low wooden barrier. I tucked my feet under my bum, and sat for a while. It felt quiet, but mostly it felt still. I relaxed and enjoyed about five minutes of having the entire world to myself. But there was more.

A forty foot Buddha was sitting upstairs in a specially constructed building (as the construction photos explained). Looking up at him, I could really feel his size. Feel just how big he was. Big beautiful Buddha.

The second temple I went to was the most amazingly peaceful space I could ever imagine. Unfortunately, getting inside seemed to be off limits, but just walking around the grounds was stunning. These Buddhists certainly know how to create spaces, how to create peacefulness. Very subtle, very balanced - just a few stone steps through a gravel area with some trees, a stone humpback bridge over a little brook. Some simple but elegant dark wooden buildings, at the same time ancient and approachable. A bell tower, a small meditation room. The rooves are amazing - the hint of lift on each corner gives them a floating, delicate quality. Deliberate, but not heavy handed. As someone whose been attracted to Buddhism for a long time, this was an emotional experience for me. Awe-inspiring and almost overwhelmingly beautiful.

Posted by mthaddon at 08:56 PM

Japan 3: Atop Fukuoka Castle

Sitting atop Fukuoka castle ruins. Not really much left but the battlements, which basically consist of huge stones arranged in pyramid-like walls. Must've been a huge, labrynthine place in its time. Now it's interspersed with gardens, shrines and sports grounds - baseball, an athletics stadium (the 57th International Fukuoka Marathon Championship seems to be happening tomorrow), and even a rugby pitch!

Really just been wandering this morning. It's still pretty early on Sunday, so the shops aren't open yet, but you're still assaulted by ads everywhere you go (except atop the battlements). Very garish, upbeat ads. Video screens. Huge vertical banners hanging from the side of monolithic department stores. All the crosswalks have their own theme tune. Heard the one from the Animatrix!! Definitely my favourite one so far, and I could see why it was chosen. Ther others pretty much all sound like some corporate theme-song, or a pale parody of some nationalistic tune. Either way, a little too upbeat and one-dimensional.

Was starting to feel very tired last night on the second plane from Tokyo to Fukuoka, but seeing Jon did the trick. Very weird to see him being so impressively fluent in Japanese. Still has the loping gait, though. Still the same Jon, if in some ways changed by the experience [I'd like to just take this time, now back in San Francisco, and reflecting on the trip, to thank Jon very much for being such an excellent host. It was cool to see you, my boy, and I was so glad to be able to spend time with you, have you show me things from the local's perspective, and to get to meet Emi. Good times, good times].

That first night, we went out to eat at a place that looked and felt very similar to some of the sushi houses in San Francisco. Sliding wood panel doors (automatic). After a ton of food and two very huge beers, we were ready for.... more food and drink. So we found another place that was (from my perspective) much more authentically Japanese. After being led through a subtely lit corridor with dark wood walls that stopped just short of the ground to reveal pebbled channels on either side of the walkway. The hostess took our shoes and then we climbed three flights to the room we were to eat in. Sort of a medium sized room with low, cubicle-like dividers of the same dark wood with low tables and cushions to sit on. We ate as little as was polite and had some potato-based bevvy, mixed with hot water. In the continuing adventures of my encounters with Japanese bathrooms, this place had bathroom slippers that you wore while in the john.

Our hotel room was neat and clean, but definitely on the small side. The two beds were separated by the bathroom, which was slightly raised. This was a little unfortunate, because the space you lost by raising the bathroom was taken out of your head room in the shower. And we were provided with wee willie winkie style night gowns to sleep in. The bed was very firm and comfy. Breakfast was great - miso soup and thick slices of a sticky rice roll with pickles. Hit the spot for sure.

As we came walking out of the hotel towards the train station, there was a pair of idiots stumbling across the intersection and waving traffic to slow down. Quite refreshing in all this well orderliness to see some revellers still at it early on a Sunday morning! And just when we thought the amusement was over, one of them stepped back on the sidewalk/pavement, stumbled, and fell back into a hedge. We cracked up, and the poor guy had to be helped out of his new residence by his drinking buddy, as he couldn't seem to leverage himself out.

Posted by mthaddon at 08:55 PM

December 05, 2003

Japan 2: A gaijin arrives

Well, here I am. A few fumbled "konichiwa"s and "arigato"s later, I am sitting in Terminal 2 at Tokyo Narita airport waiting for my connecting flight to Fukuoka. I've safely navigated landing in a country that I speak not a single word of. I've come through customs, immigration, and a quick transfer of terminals on a bus, and most harrowing of all, my first encounter with the Japanese public lavatory system. I have a feeling it will not be my last.

My first impressions of Japan have been as might have been expected, of a clean, well-ordered, and well run operation. The grass between the airport runways was neatly trimmed. The moving walkways were all clearly marked with LED posts showing the way with flashing green arrows, and pairs of green feet place together on the left hand side indicated precisely and concisely that this was the side to stand on and allow walkers to move calmly past you.

As I say, everything was well laid out - even down to the baggage claim clerk who had a laminated, typed sheet in Japanese and English so that he could communicate with me perfectly about how my bags would be transferred to the next terminal by simply pointing to the words on the sheet. But the toilet. Jeez. Had me totally stumped. I'd gone in with the intention of performing numbers one and two, but was so overwhelmed (or rather, underwhelmed) at what I was faced with that I spent five minutes trying out various plans of attack, but in the end was only able to manage a tinkle. I mean, it's not like I've never encountered anything like it before (France, circa 1985), but it was just so.... unexpected. Like the Spanish Inquisition. Urinals were fine, bathroom was clean, but when I opened the cubicle, I discovered that someone had removed the toilet, and instead left only a channel of porcelain about a foot long which terminated by dropping into a lower basin, and had a low half-dome partially covering said basin. The flush handle was on the wall, looking distinctly lonely. Nothing else. Apart from the discreet toilet roll dispenser. What I spent a couple of minutes trying to work out was exactly how I was meant to squat down, with my trousers rolled around my ankles , and not soil myself or fall over in the process. And I couldn't imagine I was meant to stand up. I mean, I realize that I'm a head taller than the average Japanese man, but standing up, there was no way my piss could be relied upon to find its target consistently. And that's not even to begin talking about the possibility of projectile defecation. In the end, I surrendered in defeat, went for an ungainly squat, a quick piss, and a prayer that my balance held. It did. I shall have to ask Jon what the correct technique is in such circumstances.

Other first impressions. Lots of allotments, trees in nicer areas with some Autumn/Fall colours, and more golf courses than I'd expected. Funny to think of that very Scottish pursuit being such a global phenonmenon as to have made it to (literally) the other side of the world.

Posted by mthaddon at 08:52 PM

Japan: The Journey Begins

Sitting on BART. Everything's going well so far. Too well. I think I've remembered everything, but then, I guess if I thought I hadn't remembered everything I'd remember what I thought I'd forgotten, and then I wouldn't forget it anyway. MUNI and BART just rolled up as I got to the station, and so off I go! Felt kind of short of sleep this morning at eight, but getting into the rhythm of it now.

If you were to stand on the surface of the ocean, your head six feet above the water, the horizon would be three miles away in each direction. We're tearing through the atmosphere at 33,000 feet at a rate of 562 mph. I wonder how far the horizon is at 33,000 feet. At the moment, all I can see is the huge blue expanse of the Pacific, covered in white islands of clouds. The shadows of the clouds drift slowly beneath their masters, like reluctant sidekicks crawling across the surface of the ocean. The surface itself looks ridged from here, unmoving. What is that I'm seeing? How big are the waves or the swell which I know is churning below? Can I see the individual swells or only make out groups of swells from this incredible height?

And now almost entirely a white lunar landscape. In the distance there are larger mountains of cloud, but we're in the lowland area here, with a few small lakes that hang a thousand feet, two thousand feet below the brilliant white landscape.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb, delivered by Bockscar, was destined for Kokura, on Kyushu's northeastern coast., but as the bomber approached, it was too cloudy, so the plane was diverted to Nagasaki. This seems crazy to me. The lives of 75,000 people were lost due to the whims of weather. A gap in the clouds above Nagasaki sealed their fate. I just find it very hard to understand that a payload equivalent to 22 kilotons of TNT could have such an inprecise target that it didn't matter where the hell it was dropped. I guess that was the point. It really didn't matter who, or where (but it did matter when) because it was such an unfathomable event that it would have the desired effect whatever. Such a broad brush stroke that inaccuracy didn't really matter. I'm amazed that Japanese people can bear to look at Westerners. Imagine if 75,000 New Yorkers had died on September 11th. Just imagine 75,000 people dying in an instant. A completely and utterly unprecedented event in all of human history.

Posted by mthaddon at 08:51 PM