A diary 

This blog has, until now, been only sporadically updated, with overheard conversations, travels, and the odd review. But from today, reenergised as I am by a visit to the unexotic East, I intend to write a daily update. In short, this will become a public diary, regardless of whether I have anything interesting to say. In fact: especially if I have nothing of interest to say. 

I will write whatever comes into my head, be it a simple account of daily events, treasties on the big issues of the day, or profound insights gleaned from my life of varied experiences and unexpected incidents. One recurring anxiety of mine is that life is just whooshing by, like one of Douglas Adams’ deadlines, without the time or perhaps the inclination to take stock.

Another is that I’m not writing enough. There are so many sentences in my head, and perhaps by allowing some of them to leak out, I can retain some equilibrium, like a quack self-prescribing a bit of light bleeding in order to rebalance the humours. 

And lo: at some future date, many years hence, I will gaze on this diary and rejoice at a life well lived and reasonably well recounted. Or weep boozy tears at the terrible waste of it all.

I do not expect this diary to be particularly well read. Not many are. Samuel Pepys’ own writings only achieved widespread fame because of the extraordinary times in which he lived. Plus of course he murdered all of his literate contemporaries. Today, with much of London rebuilt and far fewer suffering from plague, there are many more with the ability to write. Killing all of them would simply be too time consuming, before we even consider the moral implications. 

I find myself in Sainsbury’s, a shop, with no memory of deciding to come here. I will write more later.

St Patrick in Harajuku

Irishness is still an internationally adored commodity, as long as Irishness means drinking green beer, wearing silly hats, listening to fiddley-dee music, then drinking more green beer. St Patrick’s Day came to Tokyo two days early, in the form of the “I love Ireland” celebration in Yoyogi park.

It was a lovely afternoon. There were pretty authentic Irish music performances on the main stage, enthusiastic lessons in Irish folk dancing, and a lot of green being worn by locals and expats (“immigrants“) alike. There was also a tent in which you could learn about investment opportunities in Northern Ireland, manned by a bloke drinking a can of Guinness. For some reason, this pleased me.

I do find these kind of events a bit culturally baffling – there were American guys wearing “I’m the Irish guy your parents warned you about” t-shirts, odiously – but I can’t be too snooty about it. Irishness is seen as a good thing, synonymous with having a good time and not taking things too seriously. There are worse cultural legacies.





Kita Otsuka Ramen

Sometimes good places, you don’t want to tell others about it

An intriguing if slightly counter-intuitive introduction to Kita Otsuka Ramen, a tiny neighbourhood restaurant in Sugamo, Tokyo. This write-up was from the owner of the apartment we were renting. I thought of the mystical Neko Ramen in Tatami Galaxy, and ramen’s special place in japanese culture generally. Surely these words were heartfelt. Clearly we had to go.

Yuki did some googling, and said the place was pretty popular, and we’d have to queue. I was incredulous. On a rainy Monday lunchtime in the middle of a residential distict? Surely not. 

Wrong again. We arrived to the tiny premises, on an unremarkable street opposite a huge, ugly apartment block, to find six men standing in front of us. There was just over 40 minutes to go til the end of lunchtime opening hours. Shortly after we arrived, the proprietress came out to tell us they were running low on soup, and handed Yuki a sign telling her so. This confused us. Did Yuki’s possession of the sign act as a warning that we may not acquire ramen that day, or – an uplift of optimism – that we were the last customers who would be served?

It was the latter. The sign had an immediate effect on those arriving after us: one sumimasen from Yuki, a glance at the symbols, and they left, thanking her for the information. They seemed pretty stoic about their unsated fate, but I suppose they were locals. There’d be other opportunities.

We shuffled forwards. Yuki peered inside. There were seven counter stools,  arranged along two sides of the ramen preparation area. There was a large metal cauldron, that had clearly seen many years’ worth of work. This was encouraging.

We made it inside, and the proprietress – in her late sixties, I would guess – immediately put a sign outside to deter further customers. As is customary, there was a machine with which you make and pay for your order, then handing your ticket to the staff. Who, in this case, were just two: the sign-wielding lady, and her grey moustached, ramen-wielding husband. 

Two stools became available, and we squeezed in at the end of the row. Ramen excitement was now high. I was still slightly worried that they’d turn around and go, sorry. All the soup is gone. Go away. Instead, the lady came to hand Yuki her ¥550 back: her ramen was on the house, as thanks for her sign-holding efforts.

And then the ramen arrived.



Sometimes good places, you want to tell others about it.

Bathing in Hakone

You can’t take smartphones in the bath. Well, can you? I suspect someone somewhere has already invented a waterproof smartphone, to solve a problem that didn’t exist, just as we’ll soon have watches that will predict the exact moment of our death. 

Until such a time, then, we have bathing. Immersed in hot water, with absolutely no opportunity to check if someone has liked something you’ve digitally done, the past and future melt away, and time loses itself, just for a bit.

Assorted cultures have their own proud bathing traditions, but I’m particularly fond of Japanese onsen. For a volcanically active country, with the grumblings of the earth a permanent reminder of the impermanence of things, it makes sense that the favoured holiday pastime is to sit and contemplate in waters warmed by geothermal springs.

I’m writing this from Hakone, the Godfather of all Japanese onsen resorts, where Tokyo and Yokohama types get away from the chaos of the city for the slightly gentler chaos of the touristy mountains. The Japanese like their nature to be tidy and prefer their beauty spots to come with a handy restaurant and gift shop, but there’s nothing unusual about that. Jerome K Jerome was gently mocking the Germans for similar behaviour a hundred years ago in Three Men on the Bummel.

Away from the cable cars and ersatz pirate ships with views of Mount Fuji, there are onsen galore. Our hotel has both the indoor and outdoor type. It’s still late winter here, or possibly very early spring, and we braved the outdoor bath late last night, in windy conditions. Past visitors to Skegness will know what I mean when I say it was very bracing. 

Early this morning I returned to the male-only outdoor onsen. I got there just as the sun was rising over the hill facing us. The wind had dropped, and the virgin sunlight danced on the waters. I had a moment of genuine calm, not worrying, as I often am, about the past or the future.

And then I thought: I’ll blog about this later.







Akiba Fukurou – Tokyo owl cafe

There’s a pop-up owl cafe that is causing some controversy in London, where the idea of a temporary cocktail bar stuffed full of owls at which to gawp has struck some as cruel. An online petition on Change.org demands it not be allowed to go ahead, and the organisers have replaced the booze with smoothies in a hasty pr smoothing exercise.

The home of the inexplicable owl cafe is, of course, Japan. So while visiting Tokyo, I decided to give one a try.

First up: the owl cafe is not really a cafe. You can’t order a full English (or Japanese), though you are offered bottled water to vaguely keep up the pretence of this being somehow cafe related.

But blimey, are there owls. Lots of owls.





The Circle by Dave Eggers and Apollo’s Song by Osamu Tezuku

We’re all fucked, aren’t we? That was my initial reaction on finishing The Circle by Dave Eggers. A romp through a near future dominated by the eponymous Google/Facebook-like corporation, the novel sees events quickly snowball into the creation of an all-pervasive totalitarian state, where privacy is theft and ignorance and stupidity reign. All this seen through the eyes of Mae Holland, a small town naïf who quickly rises from a job in the corporation’s customer help department to obsessively followed Circle exemplar, a lightweight camera around her neck so her followers can experience her every move – a prototype for what humanity is to become.

The book contains some very silly set pieces, and beats the reader over the head with a shark metaphor of staggeringly obvious proportions. The characters are all hateful, stupid, or otherwise too obviously devices. But for all that, it’s worth a read, simply because the corporate dystopia Eggers creates is both terrifying and very, very plausible.

The other book with visions of the future I read recently is from almost half a century ago. Apollo’s Song by Manga legend Ozamu Tezuku contains fears of a very different nature: of a world dominated by a race of humourless clones, who had biologically remove the need to reproduce and, with it, sexual organs. Humans live on the margins and underground, after an environmental catastrophe wiped out most of the population. It’s only one small section of Tezuku’s book – a typically sprawling take on humanity – but it is both chilling *and* kitsch. Those barbarous synthians even sliced Mount Fiji clean off, to make space for a space port. Have they no heart?

A world beyond privacy, in which we spend our lives self-censoring and performing for a disparate mass of followers, forever? Or a world conquered by sentient mannequins? Nothing dates like the future, or so they say. Let’s hope Eggers’ vision seems just as silly in a few decades’ time.

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“Shut up, she’s taken.” On the train to London Bridge

A teenage girl is on a train through Peckham, nursing a bottle of lucozade. Her feet are up on the seats, protecting her little travelling realm with traditional gusto. and she’s on hands free.

I become aware that she’s on the phone to her friend James. She’s mainly on about her diet, as both her and her dog are on special measures, for reasons unclear at this stage. For obvious reasons, I’m only party to one half of the conversation.

“I had a macdonalds.”

“I weren’t meant to cos of the swelling and stuff innit. But you know me I was like fuck this, I need proper food.”

“They were all there with their takeaways and all I had was a tin of soup, it was a fucking joke.”

“I know, it takes the piss. ”

“I couldn’t have a drink cos of my tongue. It takes the piss.”

“He was bare drunk at my nan’s. I was like, eat something, you joker. If you’re sick I’m not cleaning it up.”

“Mad, innit.”

“How are you holding the phone and riding a bike?”

“Yeah so can I but down a hill, no way man.”

She stares out the window.

“It’s fucking raining.”

“I used to like going out in the rain but I’ve fucking changed, man. I can’t do it no more.”

“You joker. You idiot.”

They talk about crushes, and flirting at the bingo her nan took them to the previous night.

“Stephanie well fancies you, she was touching your arm.”

“I must have bit my tongue ten times. I was trying to eat and I kept hitting the bar.”

Oh. Braces?

“You’ll need ID.”

“No, that’s not ID, you idiot.”

“Joe says tattoos are fine. I can get those done any day of the week.”

“She’s one of my best mates. She lives in the flat opposite Joe.”

“Shut up, she’s taken.”

“You’re bad.”

“You joker.”

“Shut up.”

“Shut up.”

“Don’t get too much of a big head.”

“Serious?”

“You joker.”

The Green Note, Camden

We are climbing An Sgùrr, the mountain that dominates the inner Hebridean island of Eigg. We’re there for a music festival, organised out of the ashes of the fence collective. It’s high summer, and the weather is distinctly un-Scottish.

Up ahead is a hesitant couple, figuring out the best way to the top. They’re standing at the crossroads, as it were. We play the role of the devil and point them in the right direction. It comes at a cost. They have to talk to us.

Appropriately enough, it turns out they’re musicians. Well, one of them. Nan, from Ireland. Swapped, briefly, with a gypsy child at birth and given a traditional gypsy charm song that she feels has helped her journey along ever since. She’s a folk singer, and later, after we’ve been up the mountain and back, and a few more days have passed, she sings us old songs in front of the fire outside the cèilidh hall in the early morning.

Fast forward, to late autumn. Nan is singing with her band, Cluasóg, at a North London venue. We, the friends of Eigg, are there as a reunion, thanks to Kelly’s remarkable memory for a face and a name leading us to a gig casually mentioned many months before.

She comes on stage. It’s like Tetris getting the whole band on there. With fiddle, harp and flute, we hear songs of lost love, of failure, of emigration and of infanticide. Nan sings beautifully, and often in Gaelic. The gypsy charm has served her well.

After the show, we corner Nan, to say hello. She clearly has no idea who we are. To upstage embarrassment, I mention Eigg.

‘Oh!’ She says, her face lit with relief. She has an entry. ‘And how’s Anna?’

We don’t know anyone called Anna. She has forgotten us.

The conversation goes fine anyway. We learn she has split from the man she was with on the mountain. He’s working in Hong Kong. Meanwhile her heart belongs to Eigg. She’ll be there for Hogmanay (“you should come!”), and is house sitting for two weeks in November. Just her, surrounded by her thoughts and her instruments. She’s moving to Glasgow soon, to be nearer to it all.

Someone she knows a bit better than us calls her over, and she leaves without saying goodbye. But you know, the above isn’t intended to be a moan, just a note on relative memory. Nan is pretty damn great. We’ll just have to make more of an impression next time.

Gonna Climb That Beast

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Tropical Islands Resort, Germany

An hour away from Berlin by train sits an enormous hanger, the biggest free-standing hall in the world. It is located in the middle of a former Soviet airfield, and was initially built as a base for a new generation of airships. These airships were never built.

The dome is now a fun palace called Tropical Islands, a resort in which Berliner families enjoy an indoor rainforest, pools, a sauna complex, and crazy golf. Bars and restaurants litter the complex, which is open 24 hours a day.

It also has an indoor hot air balloon.

With happy but vague memories of visiting Centre Parks’ first UK venture in the remnants of Sherwood Forest some time in the late 1980s, I decided to go along. To get there, you get a train to a station in the middle of nowhere, where a brightly painted bus meets you straight from the airport. You might as well get on. There’s nowhere else to go.

Soon the bus was riding along a runway past brutalist-tellytubby bunkers that might have been holiday chalets, or else just Cold War remnants. Up ahead was the vast fun bunker. It loomed.

Inside, the temperature was in the late twenties. There were two queuing systems, one for day visitors and one for people who would never leave. On arrival you are given a wristband, which explodes when you turn thirty with which payment for drinks, rounds of crazy golf, and other entertainment can be automatically logged.

There were two ‘islands’ within the resort. The first centred around a collection of disappointingly lukewarm swimming lagoons, with vast artificial beaches lined with large numbers of sun loungers. As it was a midweek afternoon in early November, the centre wasn’t particularly busy, but the EU-funded German stereotypes commission will be glad to note every single lounger was baggsied with a towel.

The main lagoon backed onto the edge of the dome, with a huge illustration of a tropical sea hung from the wall. I swam towards it, like Truman in the last episode of his reality TV show, but I didn’t find God. The lagoon had ersatz tropical islands, from which exotic dancers performed occasional shows to a soundtrack of europop to the audience of disinterested German sun loungers.

The second ‘Island’ was the spa resort, which was more the reason for our visit. And what an odd place it was too. The saunas all had strange themes, with one, for example, taking the appearance of an ancient Mayan temple. Surrounding each sauna were more tropical plants, and space for more sun loungers and fake beaches. On one of these, I dozed, occasionally waking to gaze up at the giant roof, unsure now whether we’d been there for minutes, hours, or years.

I closed my eyes, and my ears filled with the sound of inexpert bongo drumming coming from some unknown place. The PA from the lagoon island started up again, and the sound echoed off the faraway roof. I imagined that the resort was an enclave for the super-rich, and that outside was climate change ravaged badlands. Armed guards protected the dome from desperate outsiders, while we chosen few led a life of pointless luxury, of permanent bathing, and drinking cocktails in our bath robes. Forever.

Until then, it’s a nice place to go to watch normal, occasionally naked Berliners relax and have sensible, family friendly, climate-controlled fun.

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A cat cafe in Tokyo, October 2013

About a year ago, I went to a cat cafe in Tokyo. It was basically just a middle aged woman’s apartment, full of cats.

We took the lift up to her floor. The doors opened directly into her hallway. She welcomed us and gestured to take off our shoes.

She wouldn’t sell us any drinks, though we were aware of a tiny fridge full of drinks. She told us all the cats were friendly. We sat on her sofa and played with the cats while she watched us, sternly. As soon as she wandered into the other room to check on her back-up cats, one of the cats attacked me. Being English, I wasn’t sure what to do. Both the English and the Japanese have complex etiquette structures, and I lacked the cultural knowledge to deal with the situation. Should I apologise?

I decided to hide the wound. But my hand was bleeding profusely. She eventually noticed. “Did one of my cats do that?” she demanded.

“Yes,” I replied [I’m sorry?]

“Which one?” I pointed out the offending feline.

“Oh that cat is naughty, she is bad. You shouldn’t touch that one.”

The cat cafe madam washed and dressed my wound, with a very cute plaster, admonishing me all the while.

We were told we could pay to extend our visit for an extra hour, but we decided it was time to go. We put our shoes back on, and made our way to the door, thanking her for letting us pay to sit in her flat.

“Don’t forget to give me rating on trip advisor!”

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Photos: @juanpenguino