Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Things I'd Forgotten About South Korea

Dear South Korea

I used to live and work in Seoul. It was fun but time moved on and so did I. I'm in Japan now (no offence, don't take it personally) and last week I took a trip back to Seoul for a few days. It made me realise that there were things I'd forgotten about you. A few things actually.

I'd forgotten how quickly i get drunk drinking soju.

I'd forgotten about your old men in shiny shirts and shinier shoes standing around sucking on cigarettes and looking uncomfortable.

I'd forgotten about your perma-permed old ladies who have a Jeckyl and Hyde approach to dealing with the world. They sway between kind, smiley, helpful people to manic, cackling aggressive balls of wrinkles and flower print clothing. They don't seem to have a mid point.

I'd forgotten about your food. I don't mean the combinations of meats, vegetables, spices and sauces that is often carefully selected and occasionally perhaps chosen at random but I'd forgotten what your food does to me. Specifically, my digestive system. Your food doesn't seem to stay in me for very long. Essentially, it's always in transit. I'm hopeful that my body takes some nutritious elements from your food but as far as I can make out all it seems to do is repackage it into a much less appetising, slightly more agricultural version of itself. Which brings to my next point.

I'd forgotten that a lot of your bathrooms locate a large mirror above the toilet. I'm not sure when in your history your people deemed it necessary to be able to view themselves wiping their own arsehole but I'd be surprised if the demand for such a thing still exists. Maybe you can ask around.

I'd forgotten about your traffic in Seoul. It's a heinous mess. Have you considered taking it to a UN Court and charging it with Crimes Against Humanity? I'm pretty sure there's no legal precedent but it may be an option worth pursuing, if only for your own sanity.

I'd forgotten about the guys who deliver stuff on motorbikes. I have no idea what they deliver or why there is such a reckless urgency to deliver it. They seem to exist within rules, traffic laws and dress codes known only to themselves. I suspect they may have actually evolved into a different species.

I'd forgotten about the misappropriation of English swear words that adorn your various items of clothing. Last week on the Seoul metro I saw a girl with a flowery baseball cap that said, "F**kin' problems". There was also a man with a t-shirt that invited me to "Come to fuckdom". It was a tempting offer but I think it may be better if your burgeoning English language teaching system sticks a small chapter in the back of a textbook or three titled "Words You Should Avoid Putting on Clothing Unless You Want to Look Like Life-sized Youtube Comments". Also, I'm sure you've already been told this but when naming a business it might be useful to remember that not all English nouns can be used as verbs.

I think that's about it. I apologise if I sound quite negative but that's because it's easy to forget the minor entertaining annoyances and to remember the good things and the fun times.

Anyway, thanks for a nice little trip. Hopefully we'll meet up again soon.

Dave

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tokyo and Mount Oyama



It’s been a while since i wrote anything on here and there’s a pretty good reason for that; i haven’t done any travelling. However, last month i managed to leave Tokyo for the first time since last September when i finished peddling around Hokkaido.

I went hiking in Kanagawa on Mount Oyama, which is only an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo, in the sunshine with hundreds of other people as it was a national holiday. There were cloudy views of Mount Fuji to the west and a hazy Tokyo on the horizon to the east. And hundreds of other people, all scrambling around the mountain trying not to get in each other’s way and failing miserably. This may well be the quintessential way to spend a national holiday in Tokyo. Well, apart from shopping.

I’ve been working too much to travel anyway and after last summer’s excesses on a bicycle plus moving house four times in the space of 12 months i couldn’t really summon the enthusiasm for more bag-packing, bus-taking, train-hopping into places unknown.

I’ve got a few different part time jobs teaching English. One is at an office in central Tokyo where filthy rich people call and email to book tickets and make restaurant reservations for places that have been verified by a tyre manufacturer. It’s a little glimpse back into the world of office work where the low hum of air conditioning, perpetual grey colour schemes and muffled silences take me back to jobs in identical looking places in England, where i used to sit hoping the clock would go faster and the phone wouldn’t ring yet knowing precisely the opposite.

I started another job last month in Saitama, out of Tokyo to the north-west (so, now i leave Tokyo twice a week), at a university where i endeavour to coax words out of students who’ve just spent the last few years of their lives learning English in order to pass an exam and now seem genuinely surprised and scared to find out that actual human beings speak these unfathomable words as form of communication and struggle frantically to locate their imagination and social skills before they have to keep them in check again a few years later when they have to get a job in one of those offices. I hope a few of them will do a bit of travelling in between, speak the English i’m chucking at them and see some silly shit like i did.

I’ve met a variety of people in a different teaching gig which is just one-to-one conversation classes who provide me with excellent research for the other blog i’ve been playing around with (http://conversationswithjapan.wordpress.com/). Some of the people who take these classes work for multi-national companies or have travelled quite a bit in other places too. I met a guy last night who told me he was going to Borneo on Friday. “Wow.” i said, “Borneo. What are you going there for?” i asked, hoping he would say the words “holiday” or “volunteer” or “orang-utans” or “to stop the ecological destruction of one of the world’s oldest and endangered ecosystems” but knowing that his suit and his haircut didn’t offer much hope for this. He smiled and said, “Business, i, er, go for business trip...to...help building of new coal mine.” Deep, wonderful joy.

But it could all be a lot worse, couldn’t it? I’m living in Tokyo and i’m paid to chat with people (or contribute to the end of the natural world and civilisation; it depends how full or empty your glass currently is) which looks a bit like this from my point of view.




I'll be back in England for a week or two over the summer and i'll hopefully have more trips out of Tokyo to try to break the cycle of work, eat, drink, sleep, work, eat, drink, sleep which seems to have quietly replaced the work, eat, drink, sleep, panic, pack-bag, disappear routine that dominated the last ten years. Am i slowing down or is the world speeding up?

Anyway, thanks for reading. Keep moving.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hokkaido Summer Cycling Slideshow

I made a little video slideshow of the bike trip which looks a bit like this.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hakodate

Hakodate was the start of this little peddle around Hokkaido and now it`s the end. But last week i was in a different city.

Sapporo was good. It`s laid out on an easy grid of north-south east-west streets that seem to idle through the day waiting for sunset so it can enjoy itself under the neon again. Every other building seemed to house a bar or restaurant. People told me i should go back in winter. "It`s a different city in winter" they`d say. Day and night, cold and warm, four cities in one. It would be very easy to go to Sapporo for a week and still be there a few years later.

But i only managed to stay for a couple of nights before the tyres were rolling again through more headwinds, rain, sunshine and scenery west through Otaru and then south through the beautiful mountains of Niseko which upped the sweat levels to saturation point. The tyres have also rolled past quite a bit of crap on this journey which i would never have seen if i was in a vehicle. I guess i`ve never given it too much thought before (never had to) but the side of the road is where everything gets washed up; litter, furniture, a lonely shoe, crushed cans, mushed newspapers, car crash leftovers and plenty of dead animals from insects to deer with all your regular domestic pets along the way too. You never notice when you glide past in an air conditioned box at murderous speeds but trust me, all the shit that you throw out of the window or squash under your tyres is all there waiting to greet the long distance cyclist, driftwood for the world of wheels.

After Niseko i took stock a little bit and wasn`t too pleased with the results. The tent has a couple of holes in it. The camping mattress has a bulge in the middle of it the size of a rugby ball whenever i inflate it. The lenses of my glasses are scratched so badly that everything looks slightly frosted. My mobile phone battery is dead. My odometer reset itself so that i have no idea how far i actually travelled. The bike is buggered. I`ve met people who`ve cycled around the world for months and years at a time. How do they do it?

And camping itself had got a little tiresome. I`d gone through what i`ve subsequently called the Three Stages of Over-Camping.

Stage One: You think to yourself, "I`d love to sleep in a bed." Thoughts of duvets and pillows and blankets occupy your mind at sunset.

Stage Two: You think to yourself, "I`d love to sleep in a room." Beds are no longer important at this stage. Four walls, a ceiling and a floor would be just lovely, thank you.

Stage Three: You think to yourself, "I`d love to sleep...well, yeah, i`d love to sleep". That`s all. You no longer care where and on what that sleep occurs. On a beach, in a storm, on a bed of nails, in hell, on a wild bear, you don`t care as long as you get multiple hours of it continuously. I didn`t reach a Stage Four. I can only assume that would be a combination of murder and suicide.

Hakodate is a cute little city but i`ll leave tomorrow heading back to Tokyo and work and normality and a bed. It`s been a thoroughly good journey that`s disappeared into the past faster than most, the ending crept up on me even though i could see it clearly on a map getting closer. But there`s something about the rhythm of the peddles and the barely perceptible sound of your own movement that makes you crave more. For all the sweat and rain and sunburn and malfunctions, this morning as i set off into more scenic hills for the last time i thought, "Yeah, i could do another week of this."

Keep moving. See you soon.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sapporo

It`s been a while. I`ve peddled 2200km around Hokkaido in the last five weeks(ish) and i`m not quite finished. My legs may never forgive me.

I went along the south coast of Hokkaido through more fishing villages and farming towns dodging roadkill (there`s lots of that) and being dodged by trucks and cars (quite a few of them too) until i reached Cape Erimo which sticks out of the coast and into gale force winds. It was probably the windiest place i`ve ever been. Houses slanted. Dogs walked at angles. Birds took off and never came back. It was like riding through sand.

My guide book highlighted beautiful scenic coastal roads that would be perfect for motorbike or cycle touring but it started raining and it didn`t stop for days and so the scenery was submerged in three horizons of wet, damp and fog, ably accompanied by a shit load more wind. Camping isn`t an adventure when everything you own is wet and there isn`t a shower and you`ve just spent the best part of a day peddling downhill into a head wind. Things were in danger of slipping into the negative end of the fun scale but Nemuro came to the rescue.

Nemuro is a town on the far south east corner of Hokkaido that is frozen solid for most parts of the year and as a consequence nobody there really knew what to do with the summer sunshine and t-shirt temperatures. People walked about looking at the sky expecting snow to fall from it and looking at the ground in slight disbelief as it wasn`t covered in a layer of ice or snow. I slept in a bed, washed and dried everything and ate a bucket load of sushi.

Up the east coast there was the Shiretoko Peninsular which is a stunning looking place dripping with mountains and trees. A winding road of only 18km took me two and half hours to climb such was the gradient and temperature but the 13km on the other side only took about 15 minutes. There was a lot of sweat, swearing and photograh taking on Shiretoko.

The most entertaining times have been when things have gone wrong. Heading east instead of west and then finding out your mistake and shrugging and carrying on east anyway until you find a campsite near a beach with a drunk old man who basically lives in a tent near a beach and won`t stop talking to you or waving at you when you walk across the campsite heading to the toilet and makes you wish you`d gone west just like you planned.

Or when the wind and rain become so stong and pain-in-the-arse-ish that you actually physically shake your fist at the sky and shout obsenities at it only to realise that there`s a car full of people behind you trying not to look and laugh as they overtake.

I`ve met plenty of other people on cycling or motorbike tours and as a consequence ended up in a hostel one night with a group of lads thrown together in the middle of nowhere. They all chatted away agreeing with each other and nodding vigourously while i sat on the edges listening in trying to catch any words that seemed recognisble which were mainly difficult, easy, wet, hot, tired, delicious, cheap, expensive (i deduced that they were either all talking about their interetsing journeys or they`d all visited one hell of a brothel) all the while we ate bbq fish as the mosquitos ate us and the crows tried to get to the leftovers in the rubbish bins and the local cat stalked the birds. Not sure who wins that food chain.

Mounatins, beaches, lakes, rivers, dirt tracks, gravel, roads, rain, fog, sun, sun burn, sun tan, sodden feet, sweaty clothes, dirt, baths, cities, running repairs, incomprehensible conversations, laughter, anger (hang on, this sounds like i`ve been to war)and being just on the correct side of lost, Hokkaido and a bicycle have given me too much. Well, almost too much. I`ve got two weeks left yet.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tomakomai

Apparently there`s some sort of big sporting event currently going on in London and apparently GB are doing pretty well. And, apparently, i`ve chosen this time to be cycling round Hokkaido with a tent. You`re not even reading this are you? You`re watching judo or table tennis or something.

I started in Hakodate last week and met two English guys on the train from Tokyo who had bikes and were spending two weeks cycling around Japan`s northern island as well (see, it`s not just me missing London 2012). We stayed in a guesthouse that i knew from last year and went our different routes the next morning. That day i went 50km through little fishing towns and villages that were drying out seaweed in the sun. After getting my legs sunburnt i arrived at a a campsite near a mountain and met a 70 year old man cycling around Hokkaido for the tenth time. "I`m crazy" he happily told me and then started a conversation with himself about the Royal family of Japan and the UK as if to confirm the point.

Seaweed seems to be a major industry in southern Hokkaido and i guess it must make enough money for the people who live next to the ocean there. There can be no other reason to force that smell upon your local communinty. Still, it wakes you up in the mornings peddling through it. I strayed off the coast and headed to Mount Kamogotake and found cow farms and so the drying seaweed smell was replaced by manure. Southern Hokkaido stinks. I bumped into the 70 year old man again that day around lunch time. "What is the puprose of your trip? he asked. "Is it spiritual enlightenment? Personal fulfilment?" I didn`t really have the heart to say, "Erm, i`m avoiding work, responsibilty and joining the human race for as long as i can get away with it."

Mount Kamogotake is a beautiful twin peaked volcano sat next to a lake. The busy main road that i rode on for most of the next day heading north made it seem more attractive and remote as i spent most of the day being passed by trucks and buses whilst the occasional old restaurant or decaying building would sit lonely at the side of the road with a tree growing out of it and overgrown plants covering it, long deserted and forgotton by a bubble that burst a few decades before. And then i arrived in Oshamambe.

The university that i worked at near Tokyo has a campus in Oshamambe. Some of the students i was teaching had to spend a year in the town and would always complain about how boring it was. "There`s nothing there," they would say, wide eyed. "Nothing!". They weren`t wrong. It wouldn`t be so bad if it was nice to look at but it`s ugly as well. Empty buildings and disued houses. Grey communist style blocks of nothing. It had derelict fish processing factories that smelt like, well, like derelict fish processing facotories and nearby by volcanic springs that smelt of sulphur mixed in the air. A year? I spent a night at the campsite and headed north. Oshamambe is a hole.

The next few days were spent doing more cycling through green valleys and forests and camping by lakes and volcanoes with other holidaying people and families escaping the heat of the the south. The campsite i stayed at last night was on the beach of a lake. I asked the guy at the office if there were showers. "No". Is there an onsen or public bath near? "Six kilometres". Hmmm. "Use the lake," he offered. Fair enough.

I`m in Tomakomai now. It`s a non-descrpit town in between more beatiful scenery and interesting smells. I`m heading east from here to find more campsites with ensuite lakes and more tourists escaping the south. I`ve met quite a few people here who are cycling around, as well as guys on motorbikes who are touring the island and casually wave as they glide past my peddling sweat. There are surfers who happily declare their ocupation as "NEAT" and hang out of belching vans, grinning as they lurch past more of my peddling sweat. Apart from the summer holiday making familes who take over campsites it would seem, on first glance at least, that Hokkaido is where Japan comes when it`s had enough of being Japanese. Long haired men and tattoed women, drifters and job quitters, bike riders and bums all floating around in the summer wind and being very happy not rushing around in Kanto or Kansai being pushed about and into line with everybody else.

Still, i wonder if they`ve managed to see any of the Olympics?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mount Fuji

The last few months have involved almost no travelling - just working, eating and drinking and not always in that order. I’ve done a couple of small hikes and bike rides but nothing too strenuous or different. On Saturday i went to Mount Fuji with two friends and climbed it. People always talked about the view from the top and that it’s a fantastic once in a lifetime kind of thing to do. But things don’t always go according to plan though, do they?

The most popular way to climb Fuji is, strangely, at night presumably because everybody wants to watch to a sunrise on the roof of Japan whilst being utterly knackered and completely sleep deprived at 4am. This didn’t seem like much fun (i’ve seen the sunrise before and i quite enjoy sleeping) so me and two friends got a train to a small city called Gotemba near the mountain. We wanted to stay the night there, hike up on Sunday, see the view and be back in Tokyo that night. We arrived in Gotemba at 6.30pm. We went to four hotels. They were all fully booked. A nice man working in the fourth one we tried told us that there was a “formula race” taking place and there wasn’t a free room in the whole city. We had a choice – get the train back to Tokyo or climb at night.

After quickly buying some torches and inhaling some sandwiches we got the bus to the start of the Subashiri trail – one of four that goes up Fuji. The weather was good, spirits were high, the trail was busy. Busy with people who looked like they were prepared for a long war in Antarctica. Headlamps, ski-masks, walking poles, boots, water-proof gaiters, wind-proof hats, bullet-proof gloves. It looked like a North Peak fashion show. We found out why.

The lower parts of the trail were great. We walked through a forest out of the tree line and into a grey lunarish landscape. The sun had set but the horizon was still glowing from greater Tokyo that was busy enjoying Saturday night on the other side of the hills. The further up the mountain we ventured the cloudier, windier, colder, wetter and steeper it became. The wind became a relentless howl; gusts would threaten to throw you off balance and they would always be accompanied with a few handfuls of rain, freezing cold and sandy volcanic ash that would take route in your ears and nostrils and teeth.

After a few hours of this Jessica, one of my friends, had had enough, didn’t fancy going any further and decided to spend the night at one of the stations/hostels that are on the routes up the mountains and are open for the two months of summer when it’s possible to get up Fuji. Me and Dave continued along with thousands of other people wedged onto a single path that zigzagged its way through the volcanic ash and rocks upwards towards the summit. It was so busy that as we got closer to the top, and therefore colder, wetter and more tired, the slower we were able to walk which meant the colder and wetter and more tired we became. Neither of us had weather proof gloves or rain proof socks or, well, any item of clothing suitable for climbing Mount Fuji at night time in a storm. At 3400m we took a rest and tried to get out of the wind at one of the stations/hostels. A foreign guy (it turned out he was from Iceland) walked past in shorts and a woolly jumper with his hands in his pockets as if he was walking in the park. Sat next to me was a woman wearing thousands of dollars worth of clothing breathing in a can of pure Oxygen. It was the last time i smiled until we reached the top.

The next few hundred metres up were hell. It was late night/early morning, the rain invaded every pore i own, cold covered my bones in a layer of frost and the wind was a never ending brutal bitch. I was a soggy tired mess and Dave wasn’t much better as we trudged single file for what seemed like hours until eventually we arrived at the summit of Mount Fuji. We stood on the top of Japan and celebrated by finding the first piece of shelter out of that fucking wind. Immediately at the top there are a couple of little buildings which were huts serving noodles and coffee for ridiculous prices. We grabbed a corner, sat down, ate drank and giggled at ourselves. We were spent. It was 3.30am. We started the hike at about 8.45pm. I was too tired to figure out how long that was.

We didn’t see the sunrise. 4am duly came and went and the cloud, wind, cold and rain slowly turned from black to white. There was a hint of light blue for a few minutes but that was about as once-in-a-lifetime-amazing as my Fuji summit sunrise got. Visibility was about 10m and wasn’t going get better anytime soon. The wind still hadn’t stopped and the cold and rain seemed equally up the fight. Me and Dave weren’t. We got as dry and warm as we could, stayed in the noodle/coffee huts for a few hours and started back down.

Well, we ran back down actually. We were so desperate to get out of the cold gale force rain that we skipped and jogged down most of the trail bypassing the descending North Face catwalk with ease. The landscape was covered in volcanic ash and stones that had been there for centuries. My feet were sliding over crumbled remains of a volcanic explosion that occurred hundreds of years ago, feeding the Earth with more earth in a wonderful geological exercise in recycling. I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even stop to take a picture. All i wanted to do was get off fucking Fuji.

Me and Dave got split up but i figured it didn’t matter as we’d both be pretty happy to be out of the clouds and rain and approaching acceptable temperature levels considering our clothing. I met Jessica at the start of the trail as she’d gone back down that morning. But, surprisingly, there was no sign of Dave. We waited. And waited. We got something to eat. And waited. After a while we started to worry. Where was he? Did he get lost? Was he injured? He didn’t have a phone so i couldn’t call him. Four hours later we asked a nice woman at the tourist information if she could help us make some phone calls to the station/hostels to ask if they’d seen him. She took us straight to a little police station where two policemen who looked genuinely excited by the prospect of somebody being lost on Mount Fuji started asking questions. They got out maps, asked where i’d last seen him, how he was feeling, what he looked like, what was he wearing, names, addresses, phones numbers, work, mother’s maiden name, fathers inside leg measurement, they made phone calls, got answers and started making plans for a search. But, they asked, was it possible that he took the wrong trail and then just went home from one of the other four start points? No, definitely not, we assured them. Dave, me and a few other teachers all live in the same apartment block. I called another mate and asked if Dave was back there. He said he’d call me back if he was. We waited. They started a search mission. Two guys disappeared in a four wheel drive. We’d been in the police station for an hour sorting stuff out, writing things down and giving information. Jessica looked worried. The nice women from the tourist office told me that this would probably be in the news. They gave us biscuits. They look worried.

My phone rang. “Hey, Dave’s right here. I’m looking at him. You wanna speak to him?”

Erm, yeah, sorry Mr Policeman and Miss Nice Tourist Woman but you were right. Dave just took a wrong turning and went all the way back home by himself...Yeah, just arrived, got the train and everything...I’m so sorry...Really sorry...Erm, i guess those two search and rescue dudes can come back down now...Uh-huh...Yeah, it would appear that our small little journey up Japan’s highest mountain has turned into a complete clusterfuck...Yeah, yeah...Thanks for your help...Bye.

Me and Jessica took the bus back to Gotemba. We wanted to take the express bus from there back to Tokyo but it had been in an accident so we had to take the trains again which took longer and cost extra. More luck. I got off the train at Tokyo Station and stubbed my toe on an escalator which oozed blood all over my flip-flop and the dripped on the platform. It’s a rare thing on a Sunday evening to think to yourself, “I can’t wait for Monday.”

Fortunately, Monday was a national holiday and this week is the end of term and the end of another work contract teaching English. I’m heading to Hokkaido for six weeks at the end of July with a bike, a tent, a map and, hopefully, more luck than last weekend.