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

The DDR museum, Berlin

The dinosaurs were so brilliant. I can’t imagine why they ever bothered to die off in such large numbers.

– (Not) The Natural History Museum, London

On Tuesday I visited a sarcastic museum. It was the DDR museum in Berlin. To explain: most museums I’ve visited in the past have had almost painfully uncontroversial narratives and descriptions. So if you go to the natural history museum in London you will see exquisitely applied scientific vagueness, understandably so when figuring out exactly why certain things may have happened millions of years ago. Or if you go to the Hiroshima peace museum in Japan, there is a controlled, quiet rage behind the exhibits, which shows great restraint in the circumstances.

The Berlin DDR museum takes a different approach, somewhere between gentle sarcasm and outright derision. Can you believe that people really lived like this? Experience their shitty cars, which merely contained the kind of engine you’d find in one of capitalism’s many lawnmowers. And look at the funny fashions! These people were sincerely attempting to make a functioning society using authoritarian socialism, the museum chuckles, and this was quaint, banal, and occasionally evil.

And, of course, they have a point. But here’s a quote from the caption describing a typical May Day:

Dad drank his beer, whilst mum queued up at the sausage stand. Eat drink and be merry – cheers to international socialist solidarity

Which is fine, I suppose, if the museum is entirely aimed at arch Fukuyama scholars.

But plenty of people who lived through the DDR will visit the museum. What will they make of it? They’ll be bringing their kids and relations to give them an insight beyond Goodbye Lenin and Ostalgie.

And from this perspective it is, I think, slightly lacking.

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The Rail & Sail from Harwich

On Halloween I took a spooky trip on the rail and sail to Berlin. Well, to hook of holland. Then to Amsterdam. Then Berlin. It’s a long journey, but if you’ve got the time, and object to short haul flying for various understandable reasons, it’s well worth it.

We set off from Liverpool Street station, which was filled with young, merry people on their way to Halloween parties. We saw sexy spooky cats, sexy spooky nurses, and sexy spooky members of Islamic State.

Pausing for a pre-train cuppa, we fell into conversation with some middle aged women from the midlands, who were down to stare at the (Ukip style?) Brits-only poppy sculpture instillation down at the Tower of London. They wanted to know what the white poppy on my jacket was for. I explained. They didn’t seem too impressed, but hey. It’s a free country.

We get on the fairly deserted train, on the very front carriage – nearer the ferry, is my (it turns out, erroneous) logic. The driver came out of his cabin to catch me munching chicken curry. He eyes it greedily.

‘Wasabi, eh? I wanted that!’
‘I feel guilty now.’
‘So you should be. And what’s worse, when the train gets underway, the smell will waft into my cab.’

And we’re underway! This time, err, tomorrow, we’ll be in Berlin!

Among assorted Essex bound commuters, a man gets on at Stratford. Thick set. Can of Stella. He sits in the seat in front of us, and starts scrolling through Facebook. He fades from my mind.

Meanwhile, we talk of 1970s package holidays killing the English seaside, being scared of flying. Visiting Canada as a teenager. Calgary. It’s a bit boring, I confess, faux-conspiratorial.

He turned his head and peered at us through the seats. He’d been listening for a while. “You should have gone to Edmonton. Much more going on there.”

“I did!” I reply. “But I was only sixteen, I couldn’t go to any bars or clubs..” I smiled at the thought of those happening Edmontonian night spots. I’ll never know the like.

“When I was in Santa Monica I got arrested for getting too close in a copper’s face. They do things differently over there…”

I sat up and tried to follow this dramatic topic change. He quickly painted a vivid picture of what it’s like sharing an overnight ‘cooling off’ cell in LA. He tells us he was worried they’d do a search and find his criminal record and kick him out of the country.

He explained why.

“‘Decked a CSO. He was up in my face. Did four months in wormwood scrubs for that.” And in America, they’ll kick you out for anything. They’ll stitch you up.

“But I record everything now. See this watch? See the number six?”

I looked at his impressive, James Bond style watch.

“I press that button and it records everything said and uploads it to YouTube. Up to fifty minutes.”

He moved seamlessly on to talk about the British police.

“The copper at Liverpool street, he’s a good bloke. You ask him his oath, and he’ll tell you.”

“Seriously, ask any, it’s a good test. Good ones will tell you. Bad ones will know you’re taking the piss.”

By this point, everyone has got off at Colchester. We’re the only people left in the carriage. I’m laughing and nodding at all the right moments, and asking lots of questions, because he has plenty to say. But I’m hoping he’s not getting the ferry.

“Noone knows their rights. So data protection? Bollocks. Preventing you from taking pictures under the terrorism act? Bollocks.” True enough.

He whips out a bit of paper. It has advice from the police chief to forces, telling them to acknowledge the new reality of citizen journalism and possibly being on camera at all times. I ask a question.

“Do you think this level of video and internet has helped police or the general public more?”

“Depends. Bunch of my mates, Chelsea firm boys, handed over some footage to the police because one officer was acting up. But a bunch were identified from the same clip and done for football hooliganism.”

From here he talked about bailiffs, and the limited legality of their powers, which was interesting. Unfortunately, from here he got into conspiracy theory.

“Know Jonathan King? The paedo?”

“The novelty pop song impresario turned convicted sex offender?”

“He’s back at the BBC. Gave him his old job back. And remember Jill Dando? Think she was just murdered, out of nowhere? How likely do you think that is?”

‘She was friends with Cliff Richard, wasn’t she?’ I thought I’d better play along.

“Two convictions for indecent exposure. But under his real name. Not like George Michael, who did it for exposure. To come out.”

“Not that I’ve got anything against the gays you understand, as long as they stay away from me.”

“Anyway I can’t say a word against George Michael, my sister would kill me.”

He got off at the next stop. ‘Rail and sail, is it. You’ll still be going this time next week!’

And then he was off, urging us to check our rights.

The rest of the journey was uneventful after that. We checked in for the ferry with around 20 other foot passengers at Harwich, and sailed off at around 11:15pm, watching the lights of the port shrink away from us from our deck-bound vantage point. I was glad to be leaving. I needed a break from the English.

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On the morning Thameslink to St Pancras

Excuse me, can you keep your child under control? He’s pulling at my hair

A woman attempting to do her eye make-up while peering into a Moomin branded mirror admonishes the mother behind her. Said harshly at first, but request ended with an apologetic laugh, because there’s only so rude you can be on a train.

You’re such a wussy. Take some vitamin C and chillax.

A boss on hands-free to someone calling in sick. He has a case for his phone so it resembles a Game Boy.