Tag Archives: 2004

TRAVEL // Happy Accidents & Following Your Nose (2004)

Arriving in Japan kicked off opportunities to travel to places I could once only have dreamt of. My very first trip to explore parts of the rest of Japan outside of Tokyo took me to Hiroshima, a city I first became aware of through anti-nuclear marches I’d been on with my family as a kid. It was a profound experience and I was surprised by how normal things looked.

The second trip (and one which also led to an interest in travel writing) was to Okinawa, the southernmost group of islands in the Japanese archipelago – a place of subtropical Asian vibes mixed with hints of a US military occupation due to the vast number of bases there.

Ambling around Okinawa and having my own adventures developed my confidence in wandering around unknown places. It also led to a deep love of the area and the promise of a future down there.

The article found below is the full length piece that I wrote about my experiences there. An edited version was published in two different publications. My paid dumping ground for pretty much anything I wrote about Japan, Tokyo Notice Board, published it in September 2004.

On the small island I visited (Kudaka) that is described below, I also met the Editor of an English language series of travel guides named ‘Okinawa Index‘. It was one of the happy accidents described in the title. She asked me to write the piece, and it appeared in their 2004-2005 ‘Okinawa Island Guide‘, along with some of my photos.

After the grind and tribulations of my later years in England, being in Okinawa was perhaps the first time in my life that I felt exotic – both from the quality of my surroundings and how I was received as a guest.

The same editor later told me that she was considering me for the role of reporter on an English newspaper she was planning to set up. I would have required me to be able to speak Japanese and she needed to find a good Sales Manager before setting it up, but for a while I held out the prospect of leaving Tokyo behind me and heading off for a life of a reporter on a group of subtropical islands.

Never happened in the end and at the time of writing, four years on, I’m still in Tokyo. Nevertheless, it was a fabulous idea that would have taken me in an entirely different direction from the one I subsequently took. In the end, my visions of a Graham Greene/Ian Fleming/Ernest Hemingway kinda lifestyle dissipated in the shadows of Tokyo’s towers. But what could have been!

The pictures shown here are also taken from that first trip.

Happy Accidents and Following Your Nose

Life is but a series of accidents, some happy, some sad. History is the story of such accidents, a tapestry of unintentional design. One never quite knows what is around the corner and it is either our fear or our curiosity of the unknown that leads us in different directions.

I’d spent my Christmas and New Year holed up in Tokyo. As much as I might love the place in many ways, it’s still somewhere that the need to escape from every now and again becomes overpowering. The furthest I could go whilst remaining in Japan and somewhere very high on the wish list of destinations to visit was Okinawa. So I gathered up a few days off, boarded a plane and headed south.

Greeted by smiling faces on the people wandering around the airport and with none of the hunched shoulders that Tokyoites worn down by the pressures of life have, I was relieved to be away and keen to explore. With wider streets, palm trees and a temperature that certainly didn’t feel like January, the smile on my face at my good fortune began to spread. A bus took me into Naha, the capital of the main island, which was where my first Okinawan adventure was to begin.

At first glance, the city appeared to me less than striking. But first impressions can often not be lasting ones and I always find that a new city needs to be wandered around a little first. There were hints of how I imagine Havana to look – fading and starting to peel at the edges, with a sense of being somewhere yet to fully catch up with the vagaries of being a modern city. However, there were enough kanji (Chinese characters) symbols, ubiquitous vending machines, neon, street tech, and other assorted ephemera to remind me that I was still very much in Japan.

Shisa, creatures that resembled some crossbreed between lions and dragons, guarded the entrances to buildings and streets, and were everywhere. A range of many other Asian influences converged on every corner, topped off with American twists. Furthermore, there was enough of a hint of the subtropics – colours, vegetation, sounds – to remind me that I wasn’t in Honshu (Japan’s main island) any more. The simple, stringed sounds of the sanshin seeped out citywide. Despite Naha retaining the bustle of a capital city, it was clear that island life had a more laid back approach than that of the screaming metropolis that had formed my first impressions of Japan.

My accidents were happy ones.

Whilst wandering through the back streets as I waited for check-in time at my hotel, I chanced upon an African themed bar. It was designed to look like the interior and exterior of a baobab tree and I resolved to return later in the evening. Return I did and I wasn’t disappointed. The barman, a long haired Tokyo escapee, welcomed me instantly and recommended some fine Okinawan food to replenish a famished traveller. A little later, another customer came in and joined me at the bar. He worked for a Japanese NGO and had spent most of his time recently in Iran. I asked him what was his favourite country that he’d worked in, and he answered Tanzania. Having spent a week there myself last year and that being the reason I’d chosen the Baobab bar, we rapped about Africa for a while.

A little later, a couple of guys came in for cocktails and to jam on the bongos, didgeridoos and marimbas that littered the bar. I soon joined them and struck up conversation with the one who spoke good English, a certain Mr Lucky. We drank together, shared stories and jammed on the various instruments that lay around, joined too by the barman. To my surprise and giving me an early indication of the generosity of the Okinawan spirit, Mr Lucky asked me about my plans for my stay and when I told him that I was just following my nose, he offered to take me to another island the next day. It was to become a day that I’ll undoubtedly remember for many years.

He picked me up from the hotel early the following morning and we drove out to the southeastern coast. As Ryuichi Sakamoto played on the car stereo, the city’s outskirts came and went. We passed through sugar cane plantations to arrive at the glittering sea. What joy it was to gaze once again on unfettered ocean. Boarding a ferry for the tiny island of Kudaka, we waved goodbye to the mainland and set off in search of whatever came our way. I received a wide smile from a beautiful girl on the ferry that could have sent me back to Tokyo happy enough. However, there was much more to come.

Another happy accident. We arrived on Kudaka, an island of less than 2 km2 which hosts a mere 112 households and is known to Okinawans as ‘Island of the Gods’. Legend has it that Amamikiyo, the first Ryukyuan, descended from heaven and taught the people how to farm. Kudaka still runs on the Chinese lunar calendar, unlike the most of the rest of the Japanese mainland, and we had coincidentally landed on New Year’s Day!

The islanders were about to celebrate the event with a festival. It was a great surprise and an unexpected bonus for our visit. With the sun on our backs we followed the small crowd that had alighted with us from the boat and wandered through the low and winding streets of the island to arrive at what seemed like a village square. The islanders were gearing themselves up for the celebrations that were to follow. Children in brightly coloured kimonos milled around, sipping from cans of soft drink and welcoming us with smiles and waves. A camera crew from the main island prepared themselves to record the main event. Village officials scurried about, ensuring that everything was in place. The musicians, including two sanshin players and a drummer, tuned up and checked over their instruments.

Lucky and I looked on, awaiting what was to come, and were consequently invited to join in with the celebrations. Here, there was no option to simply be an onlooker, but more an obligation to participate. I was the only gaijin (foreigner) on the island yet I barely noticed that fact. At 11am, we opened our first of many Okinawan beers and began to bond with the people of Kudaka. The music started soon after and before long, much dancing followed. In trying to get a picture of what was happening and what lay behind this celebration, I learned that female shamans named yuta have played a longstanding part in Kudaka’s history and traditions, having once been consultants to the old Ryukyu kings and still play a strong role in Kudakan society. They were mostly kept housed away from the main gathering, yet occasionally came out to dance to the music, a bewitching subtropical sound that removed me even further from any thoughts of crazy old Tokyo.

After a little while, Lucky and I set off to explore. The vegetation we passed was wild, lush and unclipped, differing considerably from the regimented styles I’d come to know from the Japanese gardens I’d seen around Tokyo. We found a deserted beach that gave me more of a taste of what Okinawa has to offer when the climate’s a little warmer. Sitting on the sand and pebbles, any remaining woes fell off my shoulders. As we gazed out across the vast empty expanse of sea, we talked like old friends. Lucky was a sky watcher and he extolled in the joys of life in Okinawa. I told him that I felt like I’d come home. We rested awhile, relaxing and looking at pretty shells, then returned to the party a little while later.

When the locals noticed that we’d come back, we were invited to eat and drink some more, and we sat to enjoy the event. At various points throughout the afternoon, we were encouraged to join in with the dancing. This was no time or place to be shy, so Lucky and I got up and danced, a ritualistic style that involved shuffling on your feet with your arms raised upwards and waving your hands in the air. I felt almost as if I’d travelled back in time, and certainly stood out as the only non-Japanese person present. After the dance, I sat down with some of the locals and was engaged in conversation by an old man. He spoke next to no English and my Japanese is very limited, but he still managed to convey to me that I was most welcome on Kudaka, and that all people lived under the same sun and were thus of the same blood.

On their New Year’s Day, Kudakans open up their houses to all and so a little later I slipped away and followed someone I’d been drinking with to another islander’s home. We sat on tatami (grass mats for the home), drinking green tea and eating sashimi (raw fish). In all my travels and of all the people I’ve met, I have yet to experience such friendliness to a stranger and feelings of welcome than I did on that day in Kudaka. After she left to catch an early ferry back to the mainland, I rejoined Lucky where the party was carrying on at someone else’s house. The musicians from the main event were all there and the merriment continued unabated. I was even asked to try my hand at playing the sanshin.

As the afternoon wore on and started to turn into evening, we decided that it was time to take our leave. Drunk on welcomes, island living and much Okinawan beer, I promised the islanders to return next year.

On Okinawa, I felt like I’d come home. Tokyo was so tough to return to afterwards.

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Filed under 2004, Features, Travel

TRAVEL // Deep Ends (2004)

We get many things from our parents in our lifetimes – from the fundamental life support systems that they bring us into the world with to the prejudices that they pass on to us. They sometimes also pass on the lessons that they learn from their own lives.

One such important lesson that I got from my father, a much more widely travelled man than myself, is that when you visit a new place, your first impressions of it often fade as you become more used to wherever it is that you find yourself. It is therefore a good thing to do to write down those first impressions to preserve them, unless those initial feelings may soon disappear under the blanket of familiarity.

He saw me off at Heathrow when I first left for Japan and those words rang in my ears. Upon arrival, with everything around me shiny, alien and new, I noted all that I saw, observed or became curious by.

These first impressions became ‘Deep Ends’, the article below. It was also the first time that I ever received a payment for any of my writings, which was a most pleasant experience even though it amounted to roughly £15 (not a great sum by any stretch).

The article appeared in a publication called ‘Tokyo Notice Board‘, a mostly classified ads rag that would pretty much publish anything written in English about Tokyo and Japan (we all have to start somewhere!). I also had the additional pleasure of seeing something I’d written, again for the first time, translated into another language.

Rereading it, in the place that I currently call home and have pretty solidly settled into now, I realise that some of these first impressions have become my firm and standard lines about how I feel about this place. It’s funny now though to compare how I felt about the place at first with how natural it feels now!

Just goes to show…wherever you lay your hat, after a while that’s your home…

Deep Ends

Deep ends…

At the grand old age of 32 and with barely a trace of preparation or idea what on earth I’m doing or going to do here, I’ve gone and thrown myself into Tokyo. England had become stale for me. So, for want of something else to do, I dropped myself into the last major urban conurbation in the Northern Hemisphere – before the vast sprawl of the Pacific gets under way and the International Date Line starts the loop of time on the planet all over again on another day.

There is rather a ‘last great city on earth’ feeling about it. The creation of this place makes for quite some achievement in the annals of human endeavour. In true volcanic style, Tokyo seems to have started as an ominous urban swelling that then burst forth, throwing up buildings that dwarf even the imagination and truly scrape the sky, with neon and lighting that sear the retinas as one flits past, and such a hugely vast sprawl of people which defy the scale of exposures to previous big cities. It feels like one could spend a number of lifetimes just wandering the myriad of Tokyo main drags, side streets and back alleys, just staring at stuff as the new sights and sounds fill up the mind as a barman would a beer glass.

Whilst not quite the melting pot of a London or a New York – foreigners very definitely stand out here, and for a boy raised on the multiculturalist traditions of the West’s urban hotspots, it feels surprisingly homogeneic for a city of so many people – Tokyo nevertheless makes up for it in different ways, including with its sheer scale of numbers. It should be acknowledged that this is most definitely not somewhere one should choose if opting for a quiet life.

So, why am I here? How come I’ve found myself in this place, of all the places in the world that I could have chosen, when the language can’t even be guessed at? Why, when I was starting to feel a little of the wearying of the years in my bones, come to somewhere that waking up and leaving the house can have the impact of staring into the nozzle end of a garden hose and getting someone to turn the tap on when you are likely to be least expecting it?

I suppose that if you are going to set yourself a challenge, it might as well be one that is going to stretch you. After all, what point progress if baby steps are only ever taken over giant steps? Armstrong’s fears could have kept him in the capsule. It is far better a story to tell to say ‘Hey, sure I moonwalked!’ than ‘Damn, I got there and then bottled it’. And sometimes you just have to tell yourself that you’ve always managed to float or even swim before when out of your depth, so why not this time?

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Filed under 2004, Features, Travel

SHORT STORIES // My Little White Box (2004)

Pop music is a constantly changing force, always renewing itself, reinventing itself, fracturing itself into infinitely diverse forms. I’ve lived through roughly more than half of modern popular music’s changing faces and it constantly holds my fascination. Musical revolutions come from instruments, technology, musicians, formats or cultural movements, the most recent wholesale re-evaluation in the pop world has been the little box that is small enough to hold in your hand yet can hold thousands of songs inside it – the iPod.

Stored away in many boxes in a loft in the UK are the hundreds of records and CDs that make up my music collection, meticulously and lovingly built up over about 20 years. There was simply no way to take all of this to Japan when I made the move back in 2003. Then the iPod came along and I was able to carry close to the whole lot and barely even feel a weight in my pocket. It was the kind of technology that I had subconsciously been waiting half of my life to be invented.

Portable music players such as the iPod are ubiquitous across Tokyo, with almost everyone on any given train carriage having small wires dangling from the sides of their heads, immersed in their own private space. ‘My Little White Box’ was the first short story that I had written in many years, inspired by both the urban scenes I was part of and by the wonders of this technology, and is a piece of writing I’m rather proud of.

It has been published twice – first in Tokyo Notice Board and then on a Canada-based yet Japan-focused (!) website called ‘The Foreigner – Japan‘.

My Little White Box

My little white box is small and light. My little white box looks like a medical device, an instrument of measurement for some unknown human condition or an add-on appendage for some greater hospital machine that enables the functioning of the whole system and which, if it were removed, would cause the patient to die. My little white box has the whole world in it – or my world at least.

It has become an extension of me. I am connected to it from the moment I leave my house. It guides me on my walk to the train station. It allows me to ignore the fact that there is a whole carriage load of people around me on my journey (many of whom are also immersed in their own alternate realities too), and is only switched off when I am forced to interact with the others around me by my arrival at work. The same routine is repeated in reverse at the end of the working day. Once I am home, I plug my bigger black boxes into it and what’s inside comes out and carries me through the evening. Since I bought my little white box, I am never without it.

Sometimes, when I’m sitting on the train and yet I’m also in Jamaica, Harlem, Mali or London, I marvel at the number of other worlds orbiting round inside the heads of those I share my carriage with. I wonder whether their scope is as broad as mine, or whether all that is between their ears is drawn purely from these islands. They are easy to spot as, just like me, they have the telltale thin white cables dangling from the sides of their head. Usually, those without the white wires but with a flex of a different colour have their own alternate realities too but they are shorter and tend not to be drawn from such a diverse pool as mine.

I love the fact that without having to crawl my way up from the bottom and without having to put up with inane interferences from somebody talking nonsense between pieces or companies trying to coerce me into buying products that I have no need for or desire to own, I run my own radio station. I listen to my own fantasy playlist where all I hear is utterly tailored to my tastes and I hear nothing that I don’t like.

My little white box is both a time machine and a teleportation device. In a matter of seconds, I jump from soaking up Delta blues from the 1930’s to getting a taste of the latest sounds from the Okinawan underground. From Parisian street café stories to Black Moses, live at Wattstax. From a bustling and lively dancehall in 1960’s Kingston to deep morning ragas that feel as old as time itself.

There are entire social histories in my little white box. One such story begins in a Britain that is beginning to drag itself out of the austere and monochromatic post-war period – Twentieth Century, second half. It tells of four young men from the North of England who find a beat in the late fifties/early sixties and work that groove until it explodes all over the world. The beat begins simply enough, replicating its straightforward yet driving roots. Later sequences of zeroes and ones trapped in my box unveil further mutations of that simple beat. They begin by feeding back. Harmonies develop in more and more intricate patterns. Eastern influences blossom over the straight Western structures. Later still in the sequence, the influence of a vast array of chemicals can be heard, altering the course, shape and sound of the beat yet further and in considerable ways. The beat ends up so multi-layered and lush by the end of the story that it’s a completely different strain from the original source rhythm. By the time it has reached its final resting point, it has undergone a huge range of mutations, each twist, turn and development has inspired and influenced hundreds to thousands of other beat stories.

Many of these other tales are also in my white box. One bar becomes an infinitely mutating rhythmical fractal, always changing, never ending. There are stories and beat histories that began in London, New York, Mississippi, San Francisco or Liverpool and then mushroomed to spread across the world. They affected millions of different people in millions of different ways and mostly all spawned legions of imitations. An infinity of stories in one little pocket-sized box. Remove yourself from your environment and become absorbed in historical beat patterns read as viral traces.

I have a chip in my head that allows me to receive signals from all the other little white boxes in my proximity. I descend from the station concourse and find the spot on the platform where I know the front of the train will stop. Then, I step onto the first carriage and stand back to back with the driver. As the short journey through a smattering of small stations begins, I walk slowly from one end of the train to the other, immersing myself in the sweet balm of sonic chaos. No journey is ever the same as the infinite varieties of box data all collude to produce eternally unique disorderly symphonies at every step. Hints of structure phase in and out if the pace of my footsteps slow down. It can sound almost like a beehive if I move too quickly, too swift to pick up patterns as broken beats swarm around my head like angry insects. As I walk, the passengers standing or seated on one side of the carriage form a left channel whilst those on the opposite side make a right channel. This provides the effect of a stereo output but never makes for a balanced mix.

I sometimes make a sport out of tuning in to the complexity and searching for something I am familiar with. The man standing ahead of me by the doors will provide me with a sweeping string arrangement that may make me loiter as I recognise a symphonic refrain I vaguely recollect from the shifting sands of my memory. A few words of a rap I once heard on another radio some time ago come in from the kid absorbed in his phone. A guy with a beard and a book generously but unintentionally donating a horn stab from the Godfather into the mix. A teenage couple sharing, with an ear each. What on earth are they listening to? That’ll turn their brains to mush! A brightly coloured high school student wrapped up in the sugarcoated world of The Mouse. Brief sample dialogues in English from businessmen bent on self-education. Splintering chords from a sullen youth to contradict the soothing tones just in from the old lady. For the unwired, all is silent bar the motions of the wheels and the occasional announcement from the driver, which also fade in and out of my mix.

The other day, I left my house and accidentally forgot my little white box. In my neighbourhood I could hear children playing with each other and laughing as the birds whistled and sang in the trees.

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Filed under 2004, Fiction, Short Stories

POETRY // Ueno Melancholia (2004)

This poem was written in early spring, after trekking around Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in the rain. The cherry blossoms that sweep across Japan in a front were beginning to burst forth and I was feeling distinctly melancholic; being so far away from home and having just walked around the zoo with only an umbrella for company.

The animals were sodden and looked sad in their enclosures. I felt their sadness and the weight of my own distance, yet was also pleased with myself for having made it so far and managed to stay in a country and culture so different from where I’d grown up.

After leaving the zoo, I sat at a cafe outside, ordered a coffee and a couple of slices of pizza and was compelled to write a poem about the experience.

Ueno Melancholia

There’s a certain sadness to zoos in the rain,
A feeling that’s hard to pin down.
Perhaps the weather reminds me of England,
And only serves to enforce the distance.The prime attractions were placed at the front,
Like sweets in a supermarket display.
Their coats monochromal extremes, no blending,
Yet containment just muddies the poles.

A Tokyo boy and his prospective mate,
A female from Mexico City.
Will they get it on like so many wish for?
Pandas step to a whole different rhythm.

The lions inside displayed their majesty,
Despite the truth of their captivity.
They slipped in the mud as they gambolled around,
Either fighting or playing, yet through instinct.

Elephants were hidden from public display,
A fact of their current reconstruction.
And speakers in trees played out ‘Auld Lang Syne’,
As I was bowed at and escorted to exits.

The melancholy hangs like a force overhead,
Or the boughs that are laden with blossom,
Yet spring is arriving, with sunshine and laughter,
No more sadness, like zoos in the rain.

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Filed under 2004, Poetry