Bullet train, take away the pain: Japan diary pt 1

Day One: Marunouchi, Tokyo

After spending an enjoyable few hours in the non-place of Ataturk international airport, I headed on to the second, longer leg of my trip: an eleven hour flight to Tokyo’s Narita airport. The trip was uneventful: I got some sleep, some Japanese art students tried to teach me some useful words of Japanese (“this means sorry, like sorry, not sorry, like excuse me”), and I swapped seats with a lovely Turkish family so a delightful toddler called Emilia could hang out with her parents rather than me. Although she did spend quite a lot of time hanging out with me. She particularly liked handing me screwed-up bits of paper. Emilia, I will treasure them forever. Have a wonderful life.

I arrived in Tokyo in the evening, via a coach which, miraculously, dropped us off directly outside our hotel (thanks, Yuki, you necromancer). I was asleep for most of the journey but it was interesting to approach the city by road instead of rail: from a few days’ distance, all I can remember are twisting motorway flyovers, all waiting for nuclear war and the wild motorbike gangs of Neo Tokyo*.

Next to our hotel was a traditional British pub called the Rose & Crown. As the blurb printed on the window explained, “the adult space doesn’t affect extends when it sets foot on the corner of the skyscraper in the store profound. The name of an English national flower and incline the crown rose beer, and enjoy, talk about the life with the joke, and an important person while tasting the roast beef called the representative of the British home dish. It is time of bliss that feels an adult pleasantness.”

Which makes a lot more sense than if you were to ask a British publican to describe the appeal of an izakaya. In Japanese.

We put some coins into a machine and exchanged a ticket for some ramen. It was time to sleep. Kyoto in the morning.

   
 

Day 2: Kyoto

My friend Russell once wrote a concept album about “the main modes of transport”. The ones I can remember: stallion, 16 wheeler truck, and bullet train. “Bullet train, bullet train, take away the pain,” it went. “The song isn’t really about the bullet train,” he explained.

The Shinkansen is my favourite way to travel, even more than by stallion, so Thursday morning saw us board the 7:59 train to Kyoto. We had snacks (I was greedy and got a hefty ekiben), we had drinks. We had a long journey ahead of us. This was the ‘slow’ shinkansen, but it still seemed pretty quick to me. The girls sat in front of us had matching bows in their hair. I read a beautifully cliched detective novel called “Death under Sail”, fell asleep a lot, and peered out the window at Mount Fuji, a mountain I should probably get around to climbing one day.

Kyoto! After dropping our stuff at the awesome arty hotel Yuki had suggested, we got the subway downtown and walked past some people protesting against the proposed changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution. We went to a restaurant called “Spice Chamber” for keema curry. They had a wonderful music collection and David Bowie was there in pictoral form. From here we went to a wonderful goth cafe for fruit punch. The waitress’ style icon was probably Wednesday Adams. It was a magnificently odd place, cold and dark and austere and brooding. I had ice cream.

We then walked up Fushimi Inari shrine and its hill of torii gates. Because it’s important to do *some* tourism.

In the evening we had dinner at a Korean restaurant by the Kamo river. In the summer, the restaurants construct wooden platforms out back so you can eat outside overlooking the river, maybe see some ducks. It was, though, raining. We ate inside. Behind us were some extremely well behaved Dutch tourists.

A craft beer bar. Subway home. Sleep. Sleep like you’ve never slept before.

   
    

Day 3: More Kyoto

Kyoto is a city that makes most sense by bike. It’s small enough and beautifully contained by its surrounding hills, so it’s perfect for pedalling. We cycled along the Kamo river and I got over-excited by Tatami Galaxy nerdery, as outlined here. We watched a parade heading over the river with horses and strange lanterns. It was the Aoi festival, we discovered, thanks to some quick googling. We had lunch among ladies who lunch at a vegetarian restaurant by Kyoto university, and then cycled up alongside the Philosopher’s Path, a hillside walk named after some 19th century sensei. We visited some good bookshops: I now have a guide to the best train journeys of Britain from 1984. In Japanese. Will surely prove to be very useful indeed.

We then went to a lovely old wooden house, as recommended by Yuki’s book, New Kyoto. In it were various artists and designers, who had each rented a space in the gorgeous place. One of them, it turned out, was a massive indiepop fan, and had designed Veronica Falls bags. We got talking – and talking. It turned out she was friends with my ex-wife, who had visited Japan a few months before. It’s a tiny world, getting smaller all the time.

After the slight awkwardness of the above conversation, I lost track of time, and we faced a rush to go back to the hotel and then back to the station in time for our train. We managed it pretty well. Bikes are magnificent machines.

We got back to Tokyo in the midst of drunken Friday. We were not in the mood for drunken Friday. We went to our hotel, and to bed.

   
      * It’s impossible to overstate how much my interactions with Tokyo have been shaped by manga and anime.

Tatami Galaxy and Kyoto

There are many Kyotos. Like most cities, it unfolds infinitely in the manner of the beholder’s choosing. Some see a concrete mess, and are disappointed that the once-beautiful place ‘benevolently’ untouched by atomic bombs was instead ravaged by post-war construction. Others find beauty in the many shrines and beautiful old streets that still provide quiet moments amid the tourist throngs looking for their own bit of old Japan. You might be there for the art scene, or the second hand bookshops, or the expensive restaurants.

Being a hopeless nerd, all I see when I go to Kyoto is Tatami Galaxy, an infamously brilliant anime series from a few years back. It centres around a nameless university student protagonist wrong-headedly in search of the “rose-coloured campus life” and, particularly, “raven-haired maidens”, one of whom would inevitably become the woman of his dreams if only he could choose the right club or social circle in front of the clocktower at the start of his first year.

Instead, thanks in no small part to his scheming classmate, Ozu (“my sould would have surely stayed unblemished were it not for having met him”) , our hero is repeatedly thwarted and the episode ends in disappointment and recrimination, only for the clock to be whipped back and for reality to play out again and again, with our hero having made slightly different life choices.

I made the mistake of not re-watching Tatami Galaxy before going to Kyoto, so I didn’t have an exhaustive list of geographical places related to the show to visit – and besides, attempting to hunt down some imaginary ramen stall might have been slightly annoying for the person I was with.

But I did have two places from the show lodged permanently in my mind that I was desperate to visit, and I went to both.

First up was a particular bridge over the Kamo river, location for many key events in our protagonist’s many lives, and also where Master Higuchi sang his epic song. I stood at exactly the spot this song was never actually performed (note to self: honestly, Tatami Galaxy isn’t real), stared up at the bridge, and had a zen moment. Behind me, the Aoi festival and procession was taking place. People on horseback parading their way to the Shimogawa shrine, home of the mythical neko ramen cart (which, again, doesn’t exist).

The second spot was the clocktower of Kyoto University, crucial to the show as outlined above. We were surrounded by plenty of young students enjoying their rose-coloured campus life. Outside the entrance were banners advertising social circles, performances by students and protests against the evil double standards of mainstream media. And lurking inside, were a thousand potential Ozus, or Akashis, an unbelievable world of infinitely many lives laid side by side.

“Search for the circle. To learn how not to become a circle…”

KyotoUniversityTatamiKamogawariver


Ataturk

Ataturk airport is enormous and pleasing. As an international hub it feels reassuringly messy and Turkish and human. It’s nearlymidnight, not that time has much meaning in these non-places. There’s plenty going on.

I write this from a bar having just queued behind an Uzbekistani guy spending 147 euros on bulk pack m&ms and Turkish delight at duty free. My single box of baklava (a traditional British gift) seemed apologetic by comparison.

Elsewhere, all was sleepy chaos. There were a bunch of indeterminate holy women in white robes sat cross legged on the floor awaiting their connection, while a sports team in the international red and white of Turkey power walked up and down the corridors, determinedly lost or in training. I popped to the bathroom. White clad monks were washing their feet in the sinks.

As I nibble on my nuts and sup my Efes (it’s just like being back in Hackney), I want to write about the woman I sat next to on the flight from London.

I assumed she was Turkish. She was around sixty, and was impeccably turned out in the manner I’m familiar with for a certain kind of high class lady of a certain age. She smiled at me as I helped her designer handbag into the overhead locker, before settling in. She looked like the sort of person who would order a G&T.

She ordered a G&T.

We took off, it was terrifying. I read, slept, read, ate, played mario kart, listened to hyperballad, slept. Bjork, Luigi, a murder on the Norfolk broads in the 1930s. Forgotten dreams.

I woke as we approached our destination. There were fireworks down to the west of the city as we flew down over the Bosphorous. Party boats twinkled in the dark calm expanse of the sea. As soon as we landed, the magnificent woman relaxed and turned to me as we taxied.

“Is this your first time in Istanbul?”

It wasn’t, of course, but I explained I was getting a connection. Her too.

“Iranian.”

Between providing some of my comparatively dull biographical details, I eked out bits of her story. She made clear her contempt for the current Tehran regime with great economy. An unfinished sentence in broken English, ending “but now…”.

I asked when she got out, and how she went about it.

“If you were rich, you sent your children out to study. My son was at university in Ohio, my other a private school in Greenwich. He stayed with an English family.”

This was a reunion, of sorts. A sister flying back from America, her flying in from London. They usually met up in Istanbul, but a relative had paid for them to meet in Tehran. She liked Istanbul: “such amazing fruit, vegetables, people. The tomatoes. Not like in England…”

I talked about my friend Tom who worked in Tehran, and how me and Denny planned to take the train from Istanbul but circumstance (and topical worries about having an Iranian stamp in my passport) put paid to that trip. A regret, a missed memory.

“My husband, God bless him, took us to Turkey, Yugoslavia, Italy, all the way to Frankfurt to visit his brother, who was a professor. This was 35 years ago. You must put Italy on list to visit.”

“By train?”

“By train.”

She was great; I wish I’d asked her name. She’s settled in Surrey, very close to my parents. She works at John Lewis in Kingston, where I went to school. The town, not the shop.

“Small world.”

“Very small.”

I think I’m going to look her up when I get back to London, buy her a G&T by the river, and ask her more about Iran before the revolution.

 

Cycling from London to Nottingham: a personal guide

Head up through the memories of Stoke Newington and past the Jewish community in Stamford Hill. Hang an accidental right at the top of Tottenham, and make your way through Edmonton and other anonymous suburbs. It’s only when you try to leave that you realise that London stretches on close to forever. 

Keep cycling, but take care. These roads may not have been built for cars but they’re not for you any more. Pass over the north circular and under the M25. Pass old market towns swallowed by their own bypasses. Note the Vote Conservative posters that will be your companion until you reach the next city.

Finally escape, thrillingly, into the country. Giggle at the sight of fields full of oilseed rape, yellow and sweetly smelling in the April sunshine slowly burning the back of your arms. You are now in Hartfordshire, and on a series of gently twisting B-roads. Move through best kept villages from 2004. Stock up on snacks. Keep moving.

The alpacas are not a figment of your imagination.

  

Pass down a single track road through more fields of future vegetable oil as the land opens up ahead of you. See how the motorway carves a scar through the land to your right, caring not a jot for gradient or topography. These people have places to go, fast.

  

See a byplane bank overhead as you cycle down a tree lined lane. This is Duxford, leaking bits of warlike past into the skies. You’re nearly in Cambridge, and you’ll start to notice something strange: other cyclists, some with baskets, others with children. The cycle network might be piecemeal and scattershot, but it exists. Hence, there are people on bikes. They are not cyclists. 

Stop for a restorative pint under a tree by an old river, surrounded by students of privilege and tourists seeking fish and chips. Watch the punts go by, and think of Shada, the great lost Doctor Who story.

  

Eat some crisps. Things are about to get strange.

Head north, and look for an old railway line. It’s now a guided busway, whereby buses wedged by concrete tracks speed their way to Fenland market towns along the flats. You can see for miles here, not that there’s much to see. Relax as there’s no motor traffic on your path for the next ten miles or so. Take a picture of that great looming metal structure in the distance. It’ll gradually get bigger over the next half an hour, and then it’ll be gone.

  

Have some chips and put your bike lights on in the pretty little market town of St Ives: this trip is taking a while longer than you thought it would, and the gloaming is a coming in.

From here, head down a very flat and straight B-road. Lots of things are flat and straight in the fens. Past an unexpected air base, with a 1950s fighter jet stuffed and mounted at the gate. Turn right at a T-junction, and become convinced you’ve lost your gloves. You haven’t lost your gloves.

Spot a long line of bright lights in the distant darkness. Is that the A1(M)? It’s the A1(M). Head down the hill – the hill is nature’s way of telling you you’ve reached the edge of the fens – and join the Great North Way.

The Great North Way is a sad service road running parallel to the motorway. Its glory days (and highwaymen) are behind it. But it’s mercifully quiet. Head north until you reach junction 16, and a Premier Inn on the outskirts of Peterborough. The friendly staff will express their bemusement when you tell them you’ve cycled from London.

“Up the motorway??”

“No.”

Have a bath and get some sleep: you’ve got a long day tomorrow.

Get up, and breakfast. An Alan Partridge style big plate won’t be necessary: it’s an unlimited buffet. Eat as much bacon as you can stand.

Return to your bike, and sit on it. On no account point it in the direction of Peterborough, you’ll only be detained by its many distractions and ring roads. Instead, continue following the service road. This cunningly veers left just before the city, and heads under the motorway towards a series of country lanes and chocolate box villages. And also a wind prevailing against you, and some middling but insistent hills. 

Head through the imaginary county of Rutland. Do not see the lake itself, that’s considered back luck. Instead, stick to the back roads. If you’re lucky you’ll pass a cracking owl sanctuary.

  

Buy strawberries and Haribo from an old man in a village shop.

“Where have you come from?”

“London.”

“Very different round here.”

“Yes.”

  

Get your head down. You’re nearly at Melton Mowbray. That means pies.

The thought of these pies will sustain you for the next hour. 

Rejoin the main road you’ve been avoiding for the past twenty miles. Force yourself to the top of a hill, and pause to savour the sight of Melton in the valley below. It is the shape of a giant pork pie.

Speed down into the town, past Ukip banners and medieval kebab shops. It’s time to feast.

   

 

Panniers laden with pork? Excellent. It’s time for the last stage of our voyage.

Head north out of Melton on some country lanes narrower and quieter than any you’ve experienced so far, bar the odd car on a cheese run to Colston Bassett. 

Note the occasional oddity.

 

Find the country fall away in front of you. Is that Nottingham in the distance? It is.

  

You’ve less than twenty miles to go. Enjoy the sensation that you’re probably going to make it.

Pass through an old mining village on Nottingham’s southern border.

Head along the Grantham canal to avoid the worst of the A-roads on the approach to the city, and so you can call yours friends and encourage them to come to the pub.

Cross Trent Bridge. Avoid the meadows. Head up Maid Marion Way. Hang a right by the nearest hen party.

You’ve made it.

   

   

The tale of princess kaguya

On Easter Sunday, I walked out of the ICA cinema feeling desperately stupid. I’d booked a ticket to see The Tale of Princess Kaguya, but the guy at the desk didn’t warn me it was dubbed, not subtitled. On the one hand: why should he? The information was available on the website, I should have checked. But I thought the ICA was an art house cinema, so I automatically assumed they’d show the proper version.

I’m not a total anti-dubbing fascist. If you use proper voice actors it can be a great skill to get it right, coupled with a sensitive translation. And I grew up watching dubbed spaghetti westerns, Jackie Chan action flicks and late night animes. I could handle it, or so I thought.

Wrong. This was excruciating. They’d hired in Hollywood actors to do the voices, which I can understand if you’re looking to put famous names on the poster and attract a new audience. But voice acting is a subtle and different skill to acting on screen. I’m sure James Caan and Lucy Lui are great, but they were terrible here: at turns booming, screeching and whining, distracting from the gorgeous, almost impressionistic animation on show.

So I walked out after twenty minutes. the staff were sympathetic and understanding. Without giving me my money back, obviously.

On Monday night I got to see the film as nature intended, at the Prince Charles cinema. Writing this two days later, I’m still haunted by the loving depiction of the mountain forest home of the young princess, a dreamlike scene where she rushes from the capital by moonlight, and the beautiful end sequence, which left me sobbing in the dark.

Bladerunner, Laputa and anonymity 

Feeling awkward about going to the cinema on your own is ludicrous. It’s the ideal solo activity, particularly if you have esoteric movie tastes / no friends. But it’s still taken me years – decades – to feel comfortable with it. I remember going to see some (quite dull) Chinese romantic epic when at university. When the lights went up at the end to reveal I was the only solo viewer, I wanted to skulk out without anyone noticing. But university is a strange time, when humans tend to surround themselves with people and validation – when it seems perfectly acceptable to hang out in groups of twenty five of an evening. Perceived judgement is itself a touch of teenage arrogance: to think that you’re so important that the people around you have noticed what you’re doing.

Fast forward sixteen years or so, and I’ve just about got the hang of it. I still talk in a slightly overly friendly fashion with the person at the ticket desk – hey look how well-adjusted I am, I’ve got friends honest – but once that dance is over I relax into the anonymity.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen Bladerunner: the final cut and Laputa: City in the sky. Bladerunner needs no introduction, but I hadn’t seen it since I was young, and it had merged into a few key themes and images. In fact, what had left the largest impression on my young brain was mood: a kind of underlying rainy despondency, but a sexy one. It made the future seem impossibly terrible and impossibly glamorous, and it shaped so many of the books, films and anime I was to go on to seek.

Watching it again, it’s remarkable how well it stands up. The architecture of the future LA is still dazzling and dreamlike, the corporate pyramids scraping the sky over the litter and noodles down below. Not much jars – though I did have a wry smile on my face when I saw the vast corporate ads for Atari – and so much was left unseen, unsaid, merely suggested.

The other film was a Ghibli classic. Laputa has yer classic Miyazaki signifiers: anti war, in thrall to nature and the magic of flying, and strong female characters who give not a proverbial shit.

The film introduced to me Captain Dola, the air pirate matriarch of my dreams. Fast flying, hard drinking, belly laughing and despairing of her useless pirate sons, Dola stomps all over this film from the moment she arrives. Dola quite rightly keeps her husband working the machines on board their sky galleon while she heads off raiding and buccaneering. But there’s tenderness too: there’s one short, gorgeous scene where Dola and her husband are playing chess on board their magnificent flying machine. Irritable, honest, and utterly the match of each other, these mythical animated sky pirates are a lovely, inspiring couple.

  

North Korean Polaroids and Brutalist Bloomsbury

Last night I went to some drinks to celebrate the display of some blurry Polaroids taken in North Korea. The event attracted the kind of people who write about the mysterious totalitarian state, and also the kind of people who like free wine. I had a lovely time chatting to my colleagues in a non-work context. That is to say, bitching, moaning, and saying preposterous things. Liv came along to help. We drank a little too much, and I got home a little too late, to take blurry photos of the cat and accidentally set my phone alarm to 3:30am. 

Tonight feels slightly warmer, like we’ve finally defeated the cold times. I walked down through Bloomsbury taking pictures of Brutalist buildings and reminding myself I live in London. Humans can be like snails or cockroaches, constantly crawling the same routes and eating the same sandwiches out of soothing familiarity. It’s nice to look up sometimes, to notice things you don’t normally notice, and to find a corner of the city that is entirely new. And, preferably, made of concrete.

   

   

Clapham, 1997 and the ostentation of owning more than one ukulele 

To wankers’ paradise, Clapham, last night, to discuss Japan, the election and The Bofmeister General (our mutual friend Andreas) with Paul. I’ve known Paul since the days he was complaining about the radio edit of Oasis’ seminal 1997 comeback single D’you know what I mean (?) in our sixth form common room. An exquisitely well adjusted and kind man, Paul also rages against the passing of the years and the dying of the light like a man who knows it’s not 1997 any more.

We also talked about the election. He thinks the Tories will win. I think they’ll continue their tradition of not winning a general election since I was 12. We’ll see.

Met Russell for a climb. I told him I was covering my colleague’s tenor ukulele. He says he’ll help me buy one. Owning two ukuleles seems the height of twee decadence, but I can probably live with that.

Jonnie Common

I spent last night desperately pawing at my phone in an attempt to let it let me compel it to delete some songs and add some new ones. I ended up accidentally updating to a new operating system, which meant while it was deliberating I couldn’t go to sleep, because my phone is my alarm, and I hadn’t set it yet. Somewhere, somehow, a past version of me is pointing and laughing at the present me.

This morning I am tired but I can listen to some new music. Today’s trundle through the suburbs has been soundtracked by Jonnie Common, the charming moustache wearing gentleman I saw on Saturday. First listen, it’s Pagan Wanderer Lu meets Steve Mason, with a tiny tinkle of early Hot Chip in his soft wee voice.

  

Sea car

Went to the sea today. No particular reason, I just had a desire to see it, make sure it’s still there. The moon has been getting ideas above its station lately, including a flirtation with blocking the sun, so it was nice to watch it doing its more day-to-day job of maintaining the tides.

There was an abandoned car in the sea, floating gently at high tide as the waves hurried in and out. This was near Margate’s bathing pool, just along from the Lido, which has seen better days. Other attractions included a dead seal, and a small Broadstairs park entirely operated by cats.

In one of Margate’s many second hand bookshops, I bought “far from the sodding crowd”, a book about idiosyncratic British tourist attractions by the guys who do the fake news stories in Viz magazine. It starts with Margate shell grotto, which is either a pagan chapel or a Victorian tourist attraction masquerading as a pagan chapel. It’s an enjoyable book, the kind of gently erudite travel guide that I’d love to write one day.