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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The tea tales

On a whim and a prayer yesterday, I took the train up to Luye, a small fruit and tea-producing town in the east Taiwan foothills. The abstract map I had in my possession showed it was a short walk to hire a bicycle to take in the sights.

Within seconds it became obvious the station was a great deal further than the two inches on the map. In thirty four degree heat, this mattered a lot.  After hauling my backpack up a steep tarmac climb for a kilometer with not a soul or mad dog in sight, I wasn’t far off giving up, particularly when an old lady on a scooter pulled in front of me and let off a couple of angry volleys of mandarin at me. I had no idea what she was saying, only that her eyes were snarling – they were the only part of her visible behind face mask, helmet, gloves and long-sleeve clothing.

Just in time, a potential cafe – a woman sat at a table, appeared on the horizon – the opposite side of the road). I had experience in this situation, “I want tea” is one of the first phrases I learnt in both English and  Mandarin. Unfortunately, in Taiwan there are so many types of tea, the question always initiates a further unintelligible stream of queries. I end up desperately trying to find a fragment of speech I can extract meaning from, a bit like when I am talking to my uncle in Shropshire.

Anyway,  I got tea, an iced pint of it served in a glass decanter. The tea was served at a very stylish fan-cooled tea bar next door. The lady turned out to be a tea plantation owner; the oolong tea she served me was freshly picked. For an hour, she entertained me with stong-brewed stories, halfway through a snappily-dressed local singer from one of coastal aboriginal tribes popped in for a glass of tea with his mates. His songs echo the rhythm of waves the ocean apparently.

After paying for the tea, she lent me her bicycle, found me somewhere to stay the night, and invited me to join her husband’s 60th Birthday party that evening. It was an hour of tea therapy, at the end I was no longer thinking of leaving Luye, but planning when to come back.

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Singing to the sea

A short bicycle ride from Taitung city centre, I found myself the only person on the grey sandy beach, between crashing waves and screaming cicadas. It was midday and over 30 degrees. Swimming or sunbathing are obviously not a popular activity here.

On the coast path, an old woman in a pink hat and pink tracksuit wandered along alone. Further along, young people on bicycles were posing for photos in a twenty foot high picture frame, part of an outdoor art collection. Dozens of tourists were cycling in the midday sun – with sun umbrellas and electric assistance it should be added.

Apart from the pink tracksuit lady, the only other locals I had seen along the seashore was a man inside a dark temple fast asleep despite a fan blowing directly into his face, and a father, son and dog having a bath together in the communal pool.

Then  I heard a man’s voice singing a familiar tune. I recognised the words; they were Japanese. The sun-dried man, one hand in pocket and one hand on the microphone was standing facing a screen in a red building at the seashore. The building, owned by the fishing cooperative it seemed, was open at three sides giving  free air conditioning and free to look at.

Despite the slovenly appearance, the man sung with intensity;, his heart was in the words even if his body wasn’t. He was singing a moody ballad set in Japan’s mid-twentieth Showa period. Originally sung by a woman I believe, the song has some interesting lyrics including “Next time, I want to come back as a man”. The only other people there, four women sitting in a row at the back gave him a generous round of applause.

Later in the day, I cycled back to hear more. The lyrics if not the songs were all Taiwanese this time. The outdoor white plastic tables and chairs were all full of locals and the parking area full of scooters.


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