A bright blue day in Owase

Halfway up the hill-climb to Devilrock, I collapsed on a park bench. The Sun was too strong and my legs and lungs too weak. A steady stream of hikers trickled past me, all Japanese, all with more grey hair than me. I exchanged a genial ‘konnichi wa’ with a few of them. A few feet away, a bare cherry blossom tree stood next to a vending machine. The tree wasn’t quite bare actually, at the far end of one of the top branches, the last leaf hung precariously. I watched it for a bit, then left before it fell.


With conversation with anyone or thing not really on the cards, nature provided the diversion along the walk: the squeals of kites over the fishing port, pink camellias on the edge of a bamboo grove, another lemon-coloured butterfly, and another failed attempt to catch a falling leaf. Under the green canopy of cypress trees was a series of centuries-old stone-slab pavings, reminding me of the stone-slab sweets on sale in the town: ‘sticks like moss to a stone’, went the advert.

At the top of Horse Pass was an extraordinary sight: a Japanese man whistling for joy, and his wife practising her golf swing. This was unprecedented chirpiness; perhaps many Japanese DO like walking. In one afternoon I saw more Japanese walkers than I did during 7 days along the better-known trail sections. Perhaps I am reading the wrong guidebooks.

Devilrock was a red, bungalow-sized boulder. Balanced on top of a ridge, it made an arresting and unsettling sight. Sitting on the rock, pondering Life, the Universe and what-to-have-for-dinner, a lady in a grey tracksuit suddenly began speaking to me in fluent Japanese. For a few seconds I had no idea how to react. It is much easier being on the outside of conversations.  Then, after explaining I was only in town for the day, she offered to show me a little more of the mountain before driving me to my hotel lodgings.

We ended up talking and walking for around 1 hour, She showed me the transparent blue waters of the Choshi river, told me about the anti-world heritage status protests of the owner of the mountain – ‘no money in it for me!, ‘ he complained; discussed the ever-present threat of a tsunami or flooding – her home was inundated several years ago – and the lack of work in the town that forces so many children to move away; she also showed me a piece of graffiti centuries-old carved into a stone slab, and told a tale about the Sun Goddess.  I told her about tram-driving and a bright blue kingfisher I saw in Devon 13 years ago.  “It was very fast you know”. I bet she wishes she had just said ‘konnichi wa’.



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Kumano Kodo and Hillbilly Poetry

Long walks either fill me with hope or fill me with despair.  Yesterday, walking through the cedar forests of the Kumano, I stumbled into a spring of wonderful ideas, plans to improve absolutely everything about not just my life but everybody else’s too. Sadly, I had so many brilliant ideas I can’t remember a single one of them, just the trail itself, and a self-hacked hillbilly haiku poem.

The walk began promisingly with some genial guidance from a local farmer. The only odd thing was that he gave me detailed directions entirely in English. At the time I wasn’t even lost, but the fact that he spoke in English reminded me that perhaps I am marooned in a twilight zone as neither a holidaymaker nor resident.

The rugged terrain can’t sustain a permanent path. The soft thin layer of soil, loosed by frequent heavy rain, is vulnerable to catastrophic landslides. The path is well-maintained though, as befitting it’s World Heritage status. I repeat World Heritage  – so very bloody important.


The weather was Welsh-valley wet. Walking required constant care to avoid the lanky brown roots of the evergreen cedar and cypress trees* as well as the stubbly, sharp-edges of granite rock.

The walk wasn’t all cedar forest. I was grateful for any change. Natural features would snap me out of my reverie and back into the misty present: a lemon-coloured butterfly fluttering above the ferns, a fist-sized brown frog inches beneath my boot, the sleek green leaves of the sacred sakaki tree, the chirpy cheeping of the badger-bird, leeches hanging off the branches of a tree (local legend), the howling of wolves (technically extinct since 1905), and the snort of dragons (technically imaginary).

At the start of the walk, I visited an abandoned tea house. In the corner of the seating area was a wooden postbox for posting poetry. Now I spent 20 miles working on this one so please go gently on what is my first published poem. Right, here we go:

/The mist at Kobiro Pass : Once heard the howl of wolves  : Now just the tweeting of tits \

*The enormous cedar and cypress forests seemed somehow empty and haunted. These plantations, introduced to supply affordable timber, fill space once occupied by farming communities, and wolves amongst other creatures. Ironically, the forests themselves are now behind the times, abandoned as Japanese businesses raid the rest of the world for cheap wood. The turnaround, prompted by higher wages and the chance of cheap foreign imports, saw a drop from almost total self-sufficiency in wood in 1955 to just 20% in 2000.

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Steam, mist and dragons: Yunomine Onsen

Yunomine Onsen is a tiny village buried deep in the green forest-covered, dragon-dwelling mountains of Wakayama prefecture. While most foreign visitors come up this high for a hike; most Japanese just come here for a bath and to boil a few eggs. The sulphurous hot spring water is a World Heritage site,  surely the only world heritage site where you can legitimately take all your clothes off.


The baths here are legendary. An 18th century man, Oguri Hangan from Gifu travelled for 440 days just to have a bath here, a remarkable achievement considering he spent the entire journey dead. He was pulled along in a handcart by pious pilgrims hoping for karmic reward. 3 weeks in the bath was enough to bring him back to life. Most people only need 3 minutes.

On a map, Yunomine in the middle of Wakayama is no more than a fingernail from the metropolis of Osaka, but it feels like the middle of nowhere. In his book, The Old Ways, the author, Robert Macfarlane considers the interior of islands as the fringe while towns on the coast are the centres with links to the outside world. This certainly made sense up in Yunomine which felt like a dead end, backed up against steep rocky slopes that rise up alarmingly. The only way out is a ride on a dragon – one of the seaside-bound public buses, shrouded in myth, rumoured to randomly roam the valleys.

Hiding from the torrential rain this morning, I sat down on an aluminium bench outside the Medicine Bath.  In the sulphurous waters running nearby, tourists were boiling eggs. Steam from this stream merged into the mist hanging over the valley. I felt invisible and consumed by the mist. Opposite me, a bathing attendant, a grey-haired elfish man, was sitting in a booth looking at a security came. Suddenly he appeared in front of me: “Where are you from?”

“Ingurando,” I told him, before he ran away. For a moment I was not invisible, a torch had been shined into my face. Then two other customers attracted his attention, hikers, both younger than me, and with far more makeup on.

The elf started telling them huge porkies about the epic journeys people had made just to come to this bath. Listening to his banter was very therapeutic, like sitting by a warm fire and being tickled by nonsense. I felt reenergised and relaxed, and ready for another journey. Just in time too, a dragon had just pulled up.

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A Souvenir Story

I recently spent a morning among the millennia-old, moss-covered Buddhist statues in Usuki, Kyushu. They were magical.

The statues of different deities are all carved into a cliff-face. In some places, it was hard to see where the rock-face separated from the statue. It didn’t matter. The weathered rock-face itself was worthy of worship. Animism might have something going for it.

Marching about alone in sandals in heavy heat of July was tiring. I was soon craving company and refreshment. By a field of blooming lotuses, I found a wooden teahouse at the entrance to a temple.





The proprietor was a lovable, leathery-faced lunatic. While he poured me tea, my eyes fixed upon a chart of wild plants on display above the counter. The plants were all English, most prominent were the pretty yellow flowers of the gorse bush.

“Where did you get that chart from?”

“Ah, my friend brought it back from England.”

What a strange souvenir, I thought.

Then, and I can’t remember why, the barmy proprietor started talking about his plums. He is a mad-keen plum-pickler. His shop is full of plums, all pickling away in pink plastic buckets in the corner. He spoke with incredible intensity and passion,  like a salesman in a make-or-break pitch.(fuelled by a fair amount of sake judging by his breath).

In a curious moment, an old woman ambled in looking for a cat. He seemed very unhappy about the interruption. Quickly dismissing her, he got straight back into his spiel:

“…these plums are only 2% salt…….they will NEVER go bad…….foreigners BEG me to send them overseas……these plums make great medicine…..in the old days, everybody had their own plum trees…. put a cooked plum in your cup of tea, and it will cure your fever…..not many people know this…..fate brought us together…..that’s why I am telling you ….here, have a pack yourself…take them back to England”.

He made the moss-covered, millennia-old statues seem ordinary. The packet of pickled plums now leaking into my backpack seemed far more extraordinary.

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Feeling ukiuki in Asakusa

Sometimes I fear Asakusa might be becoming a bit boring; not enough nutters on the street, too many business hotels and space station-sized shopping malls sucking up the air and activity. Shortly after arriving back in Japan for a short visit, I went to Rokku Broadway, a street used to be the centre of cinema in Japan, and where Tokyo’s tallest tower, the Ryounkaku used to stand.

With blooming pink sakura taking up all the attention, in the late afternoon this section of Browadway was empty except for myself and a drunk sprawled outside the 4 storey WINS bookmakers.  A young man in round, black rimmed spectacles and wearing a magnificent green sparkling jacket set up his microphone in front of a building site. With no audience and no obvious motivation, he started singing to the Asakusa sky a melancholy selection of post-war pop songs “Tokyo Boogie Woogie (feeling  ukiuki – [floating])”, “Ahh, Ueno Station! (Ueno, the station of my heart)” and “The Sandwich-board Man” (Today again hugging my placard).  I found it hard to believe anybody listens to these tunes now, even Youtube must groan when asked to dig them out.

The only motivation I could fathom for his performance was the sheer pleasure of singing. He sang with such joy; he couldn’t have smiled any wider, it was as if his whole life had been spent preparing for this moment, the chance to sing to an old drunk and a dopey Devonian.

His courage and charm briefly brought Broadway back to life. As if stabbed with a jab of adrenalin, the drunk shot up and stumbled over to me. “Asakusa, wakarimasu ka?” (Asakusa, do you understand?). Then, he pointed a sunburnt finger towards the young champ and hailed him as “Tokyo’s Number Wan”.

When the star – Inuyama Shiro, spotted that I was only pretending to read a sign about an upcoming horse race and that actually, I was listening intently to his performance, somehow he extended his smile even wider, and waved a spare hand across the Broadway at me. It felt like a swallow tilting a wing at a passing pigeon. He became my hero. Some of his spirit even crossed over to me, his smile became my smile, and an hour later,  in my hotel room, I was singing along to the songs myself in front of my laptop (the surest audience of all).

“Sandoicchiman, Sandoicchiman, when I cry, the swallows will chuckle”

** NOTE: All my gigs will be announced here first.**

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Grumbling and gambling

In trying to keep in touch with Japan and Japanese, I regularly listen to podcasts from Japanese radio.  Talk shows are best for catching up with news, and for tuning back into the hymns and hums of the Japanese language.  From each show I always learn something new about Japan.

And after concentrating on Japan, I see England and the English a little differently. Both countries look utterly bonkers.

For example, the other day, I heard an odd idiom involving 4 and 5.  The expression 四の五の言う (to speak of 4s and 5s) apparently means to grumble. Why 4 and 5?  Apparently the 4 and 5 refer to numbers on a dice. It was from the grumbling jargon of gamblers in the Edo period, betting on the outcome of dice-rolls.  The atmosphere at dice dens must have been something like this:

According to Japanese Slang Uncensored by Peter Constantine, gambling was banned in Japan at the end of the Edo period. The buying and selling of dice became illegal. Persistent gamblers were even decapitated. This crusade against gambling was part of the fight to compete with western countries threatening Japan’s borders which all had far more sophisticated methods of corruption and theft.

And you can’t build an empire with dice, unless you’re playing Risk.

There are still no private bookmakers in Japan. but gambling has survived.  Now there is pachinko – pinball without the pins, and state-supervised betting on bicycle races. According to my friend, these keirin bicycle races were developed for gambling purposes during the American Occupation in 1948. In other words, the sport was invented just so that people could throw their money at it.  What a barmy idea!

I switch off the radio and then walk to work, passing on one narrow street 4 bookmakers all a stone’s throw from each other.  All were appealing to punters to invest their earnings on 11 strangers kicking a pig’s bladder around. Utterly bonkers.

There must be an innate need for people to throw money about. If only I could catch.

NOTE:  Guchiguchi and gutaguta are other ways of saying grumble in Japanese. I think the words themselves actually sound like a grumble. Or is that just my imagination?

In a similar way, the word mogomogo means something like mumble. When you can’t think of what to say, you just mogomogo mumble.  Mogomogo sounds like a mumble (a goldfish mumbling maybe).

NOTE 2: I spoke to a Japanese friend about “speaking of 4s and 5s”. He said it was an old, dated expression. Then he added that it was typical of an English person to be attracted to the language of grumbling.  I had a right moan at him for that.

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Translated Christmas

These bleak mid-winter nights are a good time for wild dreaming. Alone in the dark, the world can only be imagined.  Anything seems possible, even faith. Perhaps that is why I agreed to go to church the other day. A Japanese friend, a former salaryman from Tokyo, invited me a to a Carol service at a Brighton Baptist church. He was curious about an English Christmas. And so was I. It was my first service in perhaps 20 years.

The service included a John Lewis advert, starring a family of animated penguins  projected on a large screen, multi-lingual sermons and speeches by 2,000 year-old angels.  I think my friend had asked me along to help him understand. Fortunately, my friend confined his post-service questioning to asking about the filling in our Co-op mince pies.

Christmas is too cringe-worthy to explain now. It is much better translated. The Japanese translation works brilliantly. I heard on the radio this morning that in Tokyo at Christmas, couples were queueing for hours outside KFC and love hotels.  Eros and the Colonel join Jesus around the manger, what a lovely image.

Perhaps Christmas has never been easy to explain. The festival itself might originate not from celebrating the birth of Jesus, but from a pagan ritual related to the midwinter solstice. Iron Age tribes used to gather around stone circles in midwinter to eat Co-op mince pies. It hasn’t changed much.


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