Monday, 5 August 2013

Back in the land of Scotch Eggs and Cider

When I left England back on January 18th I was worried about my flight being cancelled due to the thick snowfall carpeting Heathrow. On my return I walked into the choking heat of the glass-walled hall of terminal 5. The car ride back was fogged with sleep deprivation and lazy heat. 

At home, I was happy to find an Easter egg waiting for me in my bedroom. My cat sulked at me and mum talked to me about badminton. I had fun giving Pete his ridiculous souviners; a New Zealand all-blacks stubby holder complete with muscly arms, a kangaroo jumpsuit from Australia, a capsule machine Rambo figurine from Japan. Dad was chuffed with his Australian leather sun-hat. 

The garden at home was in its usual overgrown state; the apple tree had another plant growing in it and the honeysuckle had eaten the stone wall to one side. The lawn hid sleeping neighbours' cats and dangerously camouflaged cat poos. 

Reverse culture shock. Experience, metamorphose and then get dumped smack bang back into an unchanging constant. Back into stasis. Back to my family home with its garden of cats and the predictably unpredictable English summertime.

It's very arrogant to say nothing has changed for anyone else; my friend Rimli had a baby. Pete left his job and went freelance. Perry had one of his best teaching years. Frances moved house. Mum started snooker lessons. Dad lost a stone. Lots of things have changed for lots of people. The thing that is eating away at my brain is this:

I haven't really changed!

Now a week has passed. I'm living in Pete's house. Unemployed. The same weight as when I left. I'm back on six cups of tea a day. I'm back eating toast and fajitas. Cheese and tomato swirlies from Tesco. I feel like I never went away at all.

With my big trip the winding down set in early. The last four weeks snowballed into the finale. I started to buy things, heavy things. I lost my faithful pair of moldy converse shoes. I started to resign myself to the going home. It was already over in my head, I was counting the days. Pete was waiting for me, and I was waiting for Pete. I was forgetting the present.

I've spent the morning looking through my photos from Peru. It feels further away than last year, but I remember the returning travel high. It's where I seriously caught the travel bug. I realised I could go and do what I wanted- I realised I was an adult. I look at pictures of beautiful ancient valleys where condors fly. At low lying clouds and llamas trotting through crumbling ruins.

It brings me back to what I've seen. What and where and who and when I've seen all over the place. Tropical rainforests, skyscraper cities, mountain rivers, lightning storms, suicidal tuk tuk drivers, saffron-clad pilgrims, turrets of multi-coloured spices and medieval streets; the smells of Phad Thai, chillis, coconuts, tumeric, fresh paddies, the mellow-sour of the ocean, human detritus. The sounds of buzzing insects, a crowd of water-fighters and distant base, the tunes of tubes and the ear-splitting bugle of traffic horns. The quietness of wind atop a mountain.

I need to grip on to the inspiration and the memories. I need to re-read this blog and keep it alive. I need to keep moving forward- keep finding and embracing change and enjoying the smells, sights and sounds of the new and exciting world of... the World!

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Bath House

There are plenty of teeny bath houses in Kiyomizu where I'm staying in Kyoto, but I've chosen Funaoka Onsen because of the fact it has a rotemburo (outdoor bath) and the fact that it comes highly recommended in Lonely Planet. I'm hoping that the latter might mean that they are a bit more sympathetic to confused tourists. The place is a bugger to find- half an hour on the bus to the middle of no-where (the bus driver is really helpful and shows me where to get off) and then I use my best Japanese to ask for directions. A very nice old man with a liquor shop points it out to me and says "Look for the big rock outside."

It looms into view- a bit more grand than the Gion bathhouses  which are identifiable by curtains outside with the hirigana "yu" (bath) printed on them. The front boundary is made up of giant boulders and there's a very traditional Japanese looking facade, dimly lit with paper lanterns and a flourescent sign that contains a cartoon drawing of Hokusai's great wave. Inside, I remove my shoes as a smiley elderly women chants "Irashaimase," and without prompting gives me the price in English and points out the ladies entrance. The Japanese are unmatched in helpfullness.

Emma forewarned me about the bath house: "Everyone will stare at your boobs because - you have boobs. Oh, and the bushes! Japanese women take absolutely no notice of their downstairs." I walk into the ladies' changing room and am confronted immediately by naked bodies. Lots of ladies drying their backs with rolled up towels, rolling out their stockings and gossiping . A middle-aged lady stands talking to her friend in a 'power stance' - hands on hips and full on scraggly bush to greet me. I bashfully tip toe over to a locker and try not to stare.

I know how the bath house works and that everyone will be naked- It's the point in trying it out- but I can't help the fact that I feel really awkward. Undressing is the worst part- I feel like everyone's eyes are on me (even though the ladies are actually pretty nochalant) and I sheepishly cower by my locker to hide my clothes in it.

When I'm undressed I demurely wander over to the sinks. There's an ante-room to the actual bath house beyond. It has a long sink with a stack of plastic washing-up bowls at one end. No idea what it's for so I continue onwards. Inside there are a couple of blue-tiled shallow baths to the left, with some attached small bubbling pools. To the right are the shower rows: in the public bath you must wash yourself before bathing. I pull up a tiny plastic stall and start to lather myself in soap and shampoo.

Each 'washing place' has a stall, a mirror, hot and cold push taps and a shower head. There's a young slender woman behind me soaping her hair as her two kids run around her causing havoc, and an old lady next me getting on with soaping her undercarriage. 

It feels very normal very quickly. There are women here of every age and I feel that no-one is judging anyone else. There's a fantastic freedom in the nakedness. And there are lots of boobs too- I thought Japanese women didn't have any- but there are enough impressive ones here that I don't feel like some anime mutant sporting beach balls. When I'm done washing I move into the main bath. It's really quite hot and I lean against the edge in case my blood pressure does a number on me. I can see some little kids looking at me sideways. One of them is only about 3 and keeps walking over to stare. I am definitely the odd one out- but none of the adults seem particularly bothered; I imagine tourists are quite common here. I am really worried about etiquette in the bath house, but the old ladies are very kind and tell me what to do if I look confused (such as, one should shower post-sauna) which puts me greatly at ease.

I give all the baths a go; there are a few electric baths, a sauna, a freezing plunge pool and a really hot bath that is too hot for me (there's a hardcore old lady standing in it and I've no idea how she hasn't melted) and when I'm done with these I strut confidently to the outdoor bath, the rotemburo. There's a bucktoothed lady with steamed-up glasses sitting under the tap (enjoying it a bit too much) and a women with a young child in the other end. The child pounds and plays with her mother's breasts and she isn't bothered. The other staring-kid opens the door after me and then runs away, returning with her mother five minutes later. I settle into the water and close my eyes. The rotemburo is uniquely pleasant. Sitting outside of it in the open air after a steam is really refreshing and by this stage I am completely at ease with exposing my body to everyone else.

I don't last very long in the steaming tub. After cooling off outside it I walk back through to the main area (the lady with glasses is now enjoying the electric bubble bath a bit too much) stick my feet in the plunge pool and leave to get dressed.

In the changing room the little girls are running around playing tag, and Dad placates them from the men's changing room next door (the two rooms are joined at the ceiling). I think that it's nice that the whole family come here to enjoy bathtime.

I leave feeling cleansed and refreshed but mostly struck with how charming the experience is. How nice it is to be so used to one another's bodies, to not be judged and not feel ashamed and to be equalised. To go bathing naked with mum and grandma and your little nieces, with dad a partition away and that be totally normal and pleasant. I have gotten naked with the Japanese and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Oh and when I'm rich and famous- we're definitely getting an outdoor bath.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Best Shop in Shinjuku

I've got a pretty selective memory. I'm crap with birthdays. No Grandma, I can't remember when D-day is and telephone numbers? Forget it!

I wasn't even confident that the shop was in Shinjuku. It could have been in Ginza which is probably better known for shops. But I remembered Shinjuku when I walked out of the train station. I remembered walking down the hill with the tower of department stores on my right (now the biggest UniQlo I have ever seen) and the sushi places under the railway bridge. I remember the wide crossing across the mental road.

I remember it being stupid-busy, like now, and also stinking hot. Advertisers hand out promotional 'uchiha' fans - I get one with a green gorilla on it and gratefully waft myself with it. After a brief accidental detour in which I pass a lot of ramen and tonkatsu shops and buy a few mystery-flavour riceballs to tie me over, I wind up on the street I want. I remember it isn't this street, but another street round the back of this one somewhere.

I try my luck round a few corners. I can see the limits of the street which means that there is at least a perimeter where this shop exists. Go me for being logical.

I decide that I've been walking around in the heat a little too long and must rejuvinate with an ice coffee. I duck into a busy basement shop full of cigarette smoke and hurridly slurp one down. When I emerge, the glare of the sun illuminates the sign of the building opposite. I'm standing outside it! - damn my blind air conditioning and beverage lust!

I dance around all the displays like a gleeful child. I look at the beautiful postcards and Japanese print style letter kits; the moomin-themed stationary, the animal-shaped corrector pens, the multi-coloured folders, the rubber stamps, the patterned sellotapes, the origami sheets, the character notebooks and the millions and millions of different pens.

Sekaido has 7 floors of stationary. Every type of stationary you can imagine. And
I am a celebrated stationary perv!

After my gleeful dance of the first floor I prance up to the second, which sells all the manga supplies and I have a small neopiko pen and screentone binge (these things tend to be hideously expensive or hard to find back home). There's some serious kit up here which makes me think seriously about drawing manga again.

After a good hour of dancing up and down the escalators in a cloud of excited manga sparkles, I have to backtrack and pay for my postcards that I've accidently robbed from downstairs. As with most department stores in Japan you must pay for your purchases on each floor before progressing to the next.

As I walk back into the disgusting heat with my nicely wrapped purchases I feel a great sense of achievement. I, alone and unaided by persons or smartphones, being of shockingly bad memory and sense of direction have found a shop that I went to once, four years ago, in the middle of Japan.

And it was still as awesome as I remembered.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Crawling Queenstown

I managed to lose absolutely everyone before the start of the pub crawl. Apparently they've been thrown out of Nomads Hostel for drinking in the rooms and must have taken residence in a nearby pub.

I show up at Bar Cowboy dressed as a hipster golfer in preparation for 'pub golf' -  I say hipster golfer because the best I can do out of my backpack in knee high stripy socks, baggy pants, a shirt and a cardigan.
I rock up to the bar alone and order a rum and coke. I start chatting to Liam, an Aussie guy in Queenstown for a skiing holiday, who obviously hasn't noticed that I'm dressed like a complete goon, and within 10 minutes a group of raving drunk mental Kiwi experience patrons tumble through the door cheering and chanting. The barman shakes his head.

After they top up with a few litres of beer the group stampedes into the bar next door and I'm pleased to see my good chums Amy and Jenny having an up until that point quiet beer. We've also found Hamish, Jonas, Michael and Thibaud. Within ten minutes a hearty cheer signals that it's time for the next pub, and the group piles out of the door with golf clubs raised.

Amy has just bought a pint and refuses to down it in order to follow. I've also just bought a glass of rather nice Mount Gay and am in no hurry to see it off. Like a cartoon we see the group stampede in and out of Bar Up (we later learned that this was due to $10 pints being offered) and manage to skip a pub before entering the Boiler room.

As the night progresses my brain becomes more rum clouded. I remember declaring to Hamish (a wee bairn of 19) with my glass of rum raised that this night shall be his University preparation in drinking. I remember screeching 'Wonderwall' at a most likely quite talented live act. Hamish got us thrown out of the -5 ice bar for nicking a shot and then a bunch of us lost the main group. Jenny, Amy, Hamish and I followed a debris trail of broken golf paraphernalia in order to find everyone, to no avail. At some point Amy wisely ducked out and I ended up dancing on a table in a different club to music that I usually despise with a passion.

I woke up for my morning bus to Christchurch still drunk and managed a hilarious slurred Skypecall to Pete.

The dramatic mountains and beautiful lake surrounding Queenstown were sadly lost on me as I tried to avert my bloodshot eyes from the daylight.

The Kiwi Experience

It's green, it's fresh, it's got dramatic mountains and rolling hills. It's got a million acres of sky. It's got geysers and hot pools and volcanoes and waterfalls and crashing rapids. It's got fantastic sunsets.

It's got chocolate marshmallow fish.

I am completely in love with New Zealand. I love the fact that it's beautiful and eco-conscious. The indigenous culture is a source of national pride. They love bakeries and ice-cream. You can buy Cadbury's chocolate WITH TOASTED COCONUT IN IT!

I've joined the 'Kiwi Experience', known to some as the Big Green F*ck Bus or the Big Green Slut Bus, but known to us simply as 'The Bus.' We know that our beardy bus driver's name is Ben, but he introduces himself as something different every day (today it's 'Erasmus'). And he likes to show us unusual tourist sights such as giant vegetables and tell us interesting place-name facts ("Greymouth is popularly known as 'Grey-hole"). He goes out of his way to take us to various bakeries for pies. He hates Jafas.

There's lots to do in New Zealand too, if adventure sports are your thing. I've been doing some cave-tubing, white water rafting, glacier climbing, jumping off of high objects. Next time I come I'm going to go kayaking and horse-trekking- why not eh?

And oh yes, there will be a next time.

Throw Yourself in Head First

"How are you feeling today?"


It's freezing up on the Karawau bridge. I thought I would forget about that. The jump team bind my legs tightly with a bath towel and a strap. The wind is whistling around the canyon, no sign of the sun today. The instructor can see the blank stare of my eyes watching his hands.

"When did you decide to do this then?"

"About a week ago.... because I'm a f*cking idiot."

The instructor snickers. He helps me up and quickly shuffles me towards the edge. Look at some cameras for photos. Give a nervous thumbs up. Then as casually as saying "Nice weather today eh?" he says "Nice big jump then."

It's an order, not a request. And this is the moment. I've been having dreams about the falling sensation, but not about the ledge. The ledge is the worst bit of the bungy. Your brain says something like this:

"no no- we're not doing this today. Humans do not throw themselves from high cliffs. Lemmings throw themselves from high cliffs. Throwing yourself from a cliff should win you a Darwin award. I forbid you. See how your stomach has that squirty feeling? Yes Baldrick, that's fear."

Well brain- this is a bridge, not a cliff. I'm attached with a proven 2 inch thick latex cord. There are a lot of people watching. I'm proving something to myself! The best way to get it over with is to jump.


And actually, I don't really remember that first jump. I know I tried to make it a big one. I let out an involuntary manly growl. I don't remember the canyon whooshing past, or how close to the water I was. I have a brief memory of my stomach jolting at the very beginning, and then my brain has blotted out the rest of the fall for its own reasons.

A few scary secondary bounces as the tension releases from the cord and then I'm rescued from the rope by two men in a rubber dingy with a stick. It's over within 2 minutes. When we reach the shore I'm asked to stand up and take off the harness from around my legs, but they're all jiggly. Walking up the stairs is a jiggly battle.

I stop halfway up the path to watch my bus buddies Christina and Laur do their jumps (Laur lets out by far the best scream of the day so far). I can feel the adrenaline high dissolving into my bloodstream. I start to feel really cold.

And then I realise the fear is over - I'm hungry!

I DID IT Photo

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Beautiful Places

From the lookout on Whitehaven Beach you can see the shadows of stingrays lying in the gentle turquoise waters of the estuary. The shallow sand flats spread across the bay in white, surf-ringed circles, and the vibrant aquamarine of the shallow water stretches across to the distance like a glimmering bedsheet. The beach is fringed by low cliffs and a lush rainforest whose mangroves sneak their roots onto the edges of the sand.

The sand feels like flour under your toes. The sun occasionally pokes out from behind dramatic clouds to warm you and there's a gentle breeze on the air, slightly chilly.

I walk along the tide-line and notice a collection of yellow leaves punctuating the shore. This place is stunning, and nothing to do here but dip your feet into the water and enjoy the very fact that such a place exists.