Tag Archives: Travel

REVIEWS // Noughties, But Nice (2010)

This review was initially slated to appear online at the beginning of the year. Other commitments got in the way and it got pushed back. I later started writing it for my general blog ‘Postings From An Edge’, but ended up being such a lengthy piece that I felt it would go better here. As it covers ten years from a global and personal point of view, it didn’t seem to matter about missing the zeitgeist moment of early January.


'Noughties, but Nice': What can you find hidden in the streets of Shibuya?

NAMING OUR TIMES

At the end of the 1990s, I was one of the many that struggled with the thorny issue of what to call the then-pending decade. The previous ten-year blocks I’d lived through had been easy to label – the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties – but this one didn’t fit into such comfortable naming as the others did. Now on the other side of it, it seems that there is still no definitive and satisfactory answer to that question – what to call the decade that lasted from 2000 to 2009. The Noughties sounds a bit odd, and only really works in a British English context. The Two Thousands would cover the whole millennium rather than just the decade. The Twenty Hundreds doesn’t feel anywhere near as right as the Nineteen or Eighteen Hundreds seems to feel, and still caters more for a century than a decade. None of the other suggestions proposed, such as the Ohs or the Oh-Ohs feel right either.

It seems like the lexical debate is one likely to remain unsettled. If so, then so be it – some things don’t fit easy compartmentalisation and it could be argued that such pursuits are really only media obsessions anyway, having no actual bearing on peoples lives. Of course, until we reach the Twenty Twenties when decade-naming can easily revert to type and the same labels used in the Twentieth Century can be recycled, it seems like the same issue is faced all over again with the decade we’ve just entered. Might have to stick with the numbers and call it the 2010s (Twenty Tens), just to make things easier.

Still, naming a decade can be very helpful from a historical context, as delivering the past in comprehensible chunks is a necessary feature of understanding or interpreting it. The first decade of a millennium is often a fascinating time to look back on too, given that societies look so much more different over a span of a hundred years than over ten of them, and turning points hold greater intrigue.

The Nineteen Hundreds (or however else we name that particular decade) was as tumultuous a time as the 2000s appears to have been. A period of global upheaval, it included the rise of Imperial Japan, the first Russian Revolution, and a high water mark in the imperial expansion of the European powers. In science and technology, the first manned flights happened, Einstein proposed his theory of special relativity, and Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Culturally, the decade spawned the birth of modern art, cinema and the early stirrings of radio. A century prior to that, the Eighteen Hundreds (1800 – 1809) saw the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK), plus the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Romanticism, while the Industrial Revolution raged on with the introduction of the first steam-powered ships and trains.

It seems that the first decade of a century can be a time for revolutionary change. We citizens of the world in the early 21st Century have been having ours too, with the Digital Revolution still in full swing and possibly even in its infancy. Having been living through such heady days myself and been an eager participant, this article will serve to review the previous decade on both a global and a personal level, with a clear digital string running throughout it.

BOOKENDS

Titles from the Art section

Titles in the Art section

I started the Noughties (a term I’ll use for want of a better one and to have something to hold the concept of the decade onto) in one way very similar but mostly very different to how I ended it. In 2000, I had just been laid off from a retail job I was keen on getting out of anyway. I’d spent the preceding four years as a bookseller and although being surrounded by books on a daily basis was enjoyable in many ways, it didn’t hold a particularly lucrative future. In the final years of my twenties, I was a single man living a pretty analogue life in Brighton. I was due to spend a week living in Paris, with a rock band back home that was starting to go somewhere and a career path heading into the voluntary sector. Even less lucrative than retail.

The decade ended for me back in Brighton again, only this time a married man coming up to 40, and having digitised most aspects of my life. I’m currently working as a teacher for a global education company, and studying a postgraduate Cambridge University Diploma in English Language Teaching (DELTA). I don’t really have a band on the go for once in my life, although I do have several other projects happening simultaneously, as usual. Perhaps the one thing that might be most surprising for the young man that began the decade with a trip to France intended as a breather before the rigours of rejoining the dole queue is that I spent half of the past ten years living in Tokyo, Japan.

THE WORLD’S A STAGE

9/11 attacks on New York

The decade began with the hopefulness of the Millennium celebrations, a global moment of optimism that I spent with friends on Brighton beach – as good a place as any to spend it. However, a decade doesn’t really seem to get fully underway without a defining event and it wasn’t until over a year and a half in that the Twenty First Century really seemed to kick in. Sat in my Brighton flat on a sunny afternoon in September of 2001, after a morning’s teaching and awaiting a speech by Tony Blair on TV about public service reform, I wondered what was keeping him from his platform. Flipping the channels, I found some news coming in from New York about an aeroplane hitting the World Trade Center. The defining moment had arrived, a shocking one at that and one that effectively opened the page on the Bush era more than his disputed election. Needless to say, the first lesson I taught on the morning of September 12th – full of young people from around the world away from home and including a young Japanese woman whose brother was actually in New York at the time – was one of the most challenging classes I’ve ever had to teach.

For those of us that lived through it, the Bush era is one that either should never have happened or was an appropriate expression of American might, depending on which side of the fence you fall (and there’s little sitting on the fence about it). I would wager that, overall and worldwide, a majority of people would fall into the former camp, but history is history and what’s done can’t be undone. One of the undeniable consequences of the era was a window of global dominance by the US, a unipolar moment unique in world history for better or worse. That seems to have gone now, with the rise of China and other nations over the same decade and the economic crash that bookended the era started with 9/11.

It could also be argued that the excesses of the Bush era led to the election of the first African-American president – something I’d never have expected from America in calmer times. And while Barack Obama may have one of the toughest jobs in the world – cleaning up after Bush – and is struggling to get much of what he wants to get done done, his election was an exhilarating moment in a narrative that the world seemed to get wrapped up in back in 2008.

Video for ‘Change’ by Control K, about the 2008 US Presidential Elections

Back in March 2003, I was sitting on the East African coast in a bar fashioned from an old boat, when I got the news that I’d been hoping I’d never hear – the invasion of Iraq was going ahead. That whole sorry episode and my government’s part in it contributed to my decision to leave the West behind and throw myself into a totally new place for a fresh start, thus beginning my almost five year stint living in Tokyo (a remarkable experience in so many ways that transformed my life completely, and which I’ve documented extensively elsewhere).

Apart from the massive loss of life that that particular conflict and all the others that have arisen over the same period, one of the really saddening features of the decade for me has been the remilitarisation of Western culture – something largely missing from the Nineties. On the upside, the decade just passed witnessed the global mainstreaming of environmentalism and green thinking. This was admittedly building up a pretty strong head of steam throughout the decade prior to it and was taken highly seriously with events like the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but it became a much more noticeable feature of general discourse over the past ten years.

One of the interesting things about being away from Britain and coming back intermittently was seeing these changes becoming more embedded with every visit. Yes, there has also been an equivalent rise of denial of the science or state-level refusal to take serious actions against those continuing to pollute the atmosphere. Yes, the Copenhagen Summit of 2009 failed to come up with a satisfactory and binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions (and perhaps was never going to). Yes, there is still a long way to go. But overall I would still claim consciousness of the problem to be moving in the right direction, which is half of the battle.

GETTING AROUND

The Andes from the air

Shot of The Andes, taken during flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires

This leads almost paradoxically on to another feature of the 2000s for me – travel. Paradoxical because I am fully aware that many consider flying a reckless act for a committed green thinker to perform and flying is something I did an awful lot of over the last ten years.

Back in the early Nineties, I’d decided that Britain was too small a place to limit my personal horizons to and set out to become more European in my outlook – Mainland Europe having the range of destinations closest to my backyard. I got myself around the continent as much as I could (though more by train and other means than by air). This carried on in the early years of the new decade, which kicked off with the trip to Paris, and also took in the Netherlands, Greece and other sundry Euro-spots. Once I’d achieved that wider mindset (having also lived in Florida a while during 1994, thus taking on the US too, in a small way), the need for further horizons and other ways of thinking to explore came around. I made my first visit to Africa, with a week in Tanzania in 2003 (while Iraq was being invaded) and a revisit two years later.

The big one was Asia, the larger part of the vast land mass I lived off one edge of. From a new base in Japan, I further explored what Asia had to offer. A trip to Korea included a visit to the DMZ, the notorious border between North and South. My 33rd birthday was spent in Beijing, as China was on its meteoric ascent and sweeping away the old to make way for the glittering new of a modern Olympian nation. At the invitation of a friend from Tokyo, I went to visit him at home in Kathmandu, thus witnessing a Nepal under the martial crackdown of a king on his way out.

Coming in near decade close, I managed to add a fifth continent to tuck under my belt by spending some time in Argentina. Standing in front of the mighty Iguazu Falls on the country’s border with Brazil, I realised that it was time to come back to the UK for a period of rebuilding. Brief memories of other moments included Bangkok, Dubai, Toronto, Uruguay

CUTTING A PATH

Official Peace Not War Japan promo video

That which most needed rebuilding was my career. In 2000, I was ending a short period in bookselling and my tenure in retail. Here now in 2010, I am a teacher – something I spent a long time avoiding for one reason or another but which seemed to have kept on calling me. I’ve spent the majority of the 2000s doing just that, and am able to look back now with some satisfaction. However, I have also had several other roles in that time, some of which were attempts at carving out a professional path for myself and others of which were simply a means of putting the proverbial bread on the table.

For a while, I managed an Internet cafe in Brighton, in the days before the ubiquity of portable devices and wi-fi. It was a role that must have helped to mesh my destiny with the Web a little more deeply. I also had a period of temping and taking whatever came along. There were a number of cleaning roles here. I ran a minibus shuttle service for a while. I worked as a conference steward, serving up coffees and lunches to visiting executives from an international credit card company. Curiously, I even worked for a few days processing customs documents for a shipping company that sent stuff by boat a few times a year from the UK to the Falkland Islands. Little did I know that one day a few years on from that peculiar post, I’d end up in the back of an Argentinean taxi driver’s cab, trying to make up some Spanish on the spot to answer his probing questions over my opinion on correct ownership of ‘Las Malvinas’ (as the same islands are known by those living closer to them) whilst rattling through the back streets of Buenos Aires.

As I was also trying to hold down various jobs along the way, another common strand running through most of the era was the range of freelance or volunteer roles I carved out for myself. It started on my return from Paris when I offered my services to a local community organisation (Sounds Phenomenal) to help them out with a Music Conference they’d been running, I ended up taking on the running of the organisation and my first foray into ‘working for myself’.

Taking the non-profit sector experience I’d built up in the UK for them and wedding it to the reignited activism that the Iraq War had awakened in me, I founded an overseas branch of a British anti-war group whilst living in Tokyo – Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ). Having such a major venture on my hands with no local language skills to speak of and no contacts on the ground was undeniably a significant challenge. Ultimately, it brought out a side of the country that I would never have seen otherwise and gave me an opportunity to leave my own mark before I left – the first (as far as I could tell) compilation album of modern Japanese protest music, which was issued nationally and sold…moderately. I’m proud to say that PNWJ continues to this day, despite my having handed over the tiller to other hands.

Being a ‘foreigner’ in Tokyo opened doors to many other opportunities that would never have come my way otherwise. I had a run at journalism, with several pieces published in Japanese and international publications. I advised the company that handled the Japanese release of the BBC series ‘The Office‘. I also ended up as a consultant to the Embassy of Tanzania, where I helped them to put a Japanese-language tourism website together. Despite the fits, starts, and random professional turns taken over the past decade, it all made for quite a group of experiences and landed me with a most unusual skillset. The path ahead seems to lead in the direction of education – which is no bad thing.

DIGITAL NATIVES AND EXPATS

'Social-ist', a montage of personal websites, by D1 Designs

Today’s young people are often defined as ‘digital natives’, meaning that they are utterly at ease with using computers or the Internet, sometimes to the bemusement of their elders. Older people who made the choice to turn their backs on their analogue pasts and join in with this digital world are invariably referred to as ‘digital immigrants’. The implication of this is that they are less fluent in the ways of the modern world, yet have fled to it in search of something better.

Being a cautious steward of such terms as ‘foreigner’ or ‘immigrant’ in my classrooms, I consider such a label appropriate for some but something of a misnomer for myself. The immigrant is one that is viewed by those in the destination of choice as the outsider that has come in. Conversely, the emigrant is viewed by those in the place of departure as the one that has left their roots behind for pastures new. The expatriate (or expat for short) is the migrant who is not perceived in any particular way by the departed or receiving community, but who makes a personal choice to move bases from one place to another. I’ve tended to place myself in this category.

Sensing the prevailing winds back in the late Nineties, I knew that change was afoot, and made a conscious decision to relocate and become a digital expat. Despite sending my first email in 1995 and gaining my first email address a few years later, it wasn’t until the Millennium had passed that I really joined in with the new world. I got my first computer in the early Noughties, and quickly got to grips with the vagaries of Windows 2000. Moving from a creative world of paints and pencils, tape recordings, and notebooks, I upgraded to image and sound editors, sequencers, and word processing. I stopped writing letters by hand and began sending emails instead. Still uncertain what the Internet was actually for and blissfully unaware of the difference between the ‘Net and the Web, I started dialing up and going online, tentatively peeping at what was out there.

Once I moved to Japan in 2003 and digital communications were the best means of staying in touch with those closest to me, I got my first broadband connection and my life went online. A new world opened up just as it was starting to get richer and broader anyway. Whereas it had previously taken me an hour to upload a song to sites like mp3.com for the aim of establishing some sort of online presence for my creative works, now it took minutes. Prior to Tokyo, my biggest footprint on the Web was the collection of pages cobbled together in FrontPage to archive the Sounds Phenomenal work. Now, I started to spread my wings and socialise.

A first MySpace page went up for some music. Photos of my travels followed, initially at an image hosting site run by Sony and later transferred to the daddy of image hosting – Flickr. I began my first blog in 2006, to join in with what was going on and as an evolution of the diary that I’d been writing since I was 14 years old (only this time taking the jump of actually showing people some of my writings). Multiple volumes on, that diary seems to have now stalled, or at least hit some form of hiatus, as life online doesn’t provide enough time in the day to keep up such commitments. With YouTube having finally brought video online as no other had been quite able to do before, I began my own channel in 2007, now becoming a broadcaster in addition to being a publisher and record label.

As with millions of other people around the world, I now spend probably several hours a day online, with an infinite amount of information at my fingertips yet equally unable to keep up with this data deluge. This is definitely a very different person from the Brighton guy that saw in the Millennium on New Year’s Eve 1999. A good friend that I first met about six months after that date influenced much of the way I perceived and embraced the Web. A pioneer in his chosen field of streaming media who seems to have played a notable part in the building of that industry, I learned about people like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee from him, or ideas such as TCP/IP or IP Multicasting.

He’s the person I turn to in order to gain a peek at the future of the Internet, rather than simply learn about its past or present. He’s previously described the Internet to me as ‘open prairie’, a nice concept for realising that we are still in the very early days of what this global network has to offer humanity. One thing is for sure, and that’s that the pending decade will see the Web and the Internet playing an increasingly greater role in our lives than it does even now – for better or worse.

A MUSICAL DECADE

Video for Shelf Life‘s ‘Endgame’

I took my initial English Teacher training back in 1996, aware that at some point I might feel the need or urge to leave the country for more than just a holiday, and that if I was to do this it was better to work elsewhere than waste a few years bumming around in the backyard of someone else’s poverty. Teaching English allows just that opportunity as the language is a tool that is in demand the world over, and there is always a shortage when it comes to supply meeting demand.

Bizarre as it might now seem to my far more widely travelled mind, I once held off for several years from the idea of leaving Britain on musical grounds. That is, I was determined that my future lay as a working musician (along with romantic notions of ‘changing the world through song’ or something like that) and I thought that Britain was the only place to be when it came down to getting somewhere in music. I’ve been pretty obsessive about music from my mid-teens onwards and bought the NME religiously between 1986 and 2002, even to the extent of carting all the back issues I owned around all the different houses I lived in during the Nineties.

Living in 90s Brighton vastly broadened my musical horizons in terms of what I listened to, but I still held on to the notion of fronting a rock ‘n’ roll outfit and taking the world by storm. After numerous attempts at creating that world-shattering unit, I put my final UK group together in 1999, expanding from a four piece to a five piece in 2000. Starting life as Jaded, the band built a small local following from a bunch of live shows and recorded a handful of songs before deciding on a name change. We switched to The Zamora, named after Brighton’s then-star striker Bobby Zamora.

Jacket for The Zamora's 'Pigeon Souvenirs' anthology

After one press release announcing the name change to promote a gig went out, I got a phone call from The Sun, who wanted to do a story and photoshoot with the footballer himself. This kicked off a bizarre snowball of media activity that saw the group gaining extensive TV, radio and newspaper coverage, even including a slot on BBC1’s ‘Football Focus’ show on a Saturday afternoon – prime viewing for millions of British football fans. Such attention pulled the individual members in different directions and to my surprise led to my dismissal from the outfit I’d started.

This became both an end and a beginning. It was the end of my dreams of becoming a rock star, which I viewed negatively at the time. However, as it ended up leading me to Japan, it was ultimately a very good thing. I wouldn’t wish to have traded what I have seen and done for traipsing around more student union bars and getting into debt with a record label just as the industry got hit by Napster and the digital tsunami that was to transform it.

Jacket for Control K's 'The Front Line (Redux)'

Having reached the end of a line, it also meant that in order to continue to be involved in making music, I would need to finally start working on my own rather than having to rely on other people to get a sound up and running. I did this with the creation of a new electronic alter-ego, which would act as a conduit for the far wider range of musical output that was flowing into me than the simple rock ‘n’ roll format. The first Control K album went on sale in the middle of the last decade, and I’ve managed to find time to put a few more tracks together and out over the ‘Net since then too.

Jacket for Shelf Life's 'Best Before End'

Rock ‘n’ roll’s a hard thing to get completely out of one’s system though, and in Japan I succumbed to getting into yet another band. This one, with Japanese musicians and called Shelf Life, actually went further again than I’d been before. We played together for almost four years, mainly at a small bar in my suburban neighbourhood in Western Tokyo. I found a great song-writing partner in the guitarist (who also owned the bar) and we crafted a collection of our own material that was released as an album shortly before I left town. We made a semi-professional pop video to accompany one of the tracks, so got a further flavour of the fun and games of taking a band to another level. After my return to the UK, the boys even came over for a short tour and we played dates in Brighton and London.

By the end of the decade just passed, however, I was an entirely different musical beast from the one that had started it. From a fanboy wedded to a musical bible who tended to buy a handful of new CDs every month just to get my hands on new tunes or to plug in the gaps in my meticulously assembled collection to a plugged in consumer of streaming waves of zeroes and ones with no particular tribal affiliations – from NME to mp3.

Having opened up in the Nineties to dub, jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul and electronic music, I took that sense of exploration further in the Noughties and kept my ears working on the sounds I found around me. I grew an interest in African music, explored Japanese music extensively, and also turned my tastes towards Latin or Arabic rhythms. Having once anchored myself so solidly to Anglospheric music, I opened up to listening to words in other languages. Radio Nova from Paris took over from BBC’s Radio One. Manu Chao, who sings in French, Spanish and English, became a new favourite. I particularly enjoyed when differing musical cultures fused or collided, as they did with the Okinawan folk and beats style of Ryukyu Underground or the tango for a different dancefloor of Gotan Project.

Despite all that and as I’ve previously said, it’s hard to get traditional rock ‘n’ roll completely out of your system once it’s got in there. My final live performance of the decade was at a Christmas show at work amidst the widely ranging performances of the assorted international students also taking to the stage. Cobbling a brief line-up of interested teachers together and with a rehearsal or two beforehand, we ran through a rugged version of ‘Life On Mars’ for the assembled crowd. Funnily enough, I think it might have been my biggest live audience yet. And The Beatles remain evergreen to my ears.

AS ONE CHAPTER ENDS…LOOKING AHEAD

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

So, the ill-named Noughties have been more militarised yet consciously greener, have seen a more easterly tilting of the poles of world power, and have been revolutionary in the digitisation of global citizenry. I got myself into further corners of the planet than I’d previously thought possible, settled on a career path and got myself married, plus created a not insubstantial body of work to show for my time on the Earth, along with becoming a fully paid up digital expat.

I set myself and met several goals. They included professional ones (putting together a six-day programme of events including a conference, founding a non-profit organisation overseas), artistic (15 minutes of fame with a band, the production and issuing of six CD albums, creating and releasing my first book) and personal (relocating to Japan and settling there, becoming well travelled, developing a global mindset, and getting married).

How can I follow my thirties, as I move into my forties? What does the new equally unnameable decade hold in store? One thing’s for certain, I lived most of the previous decades as a defiantly single young man, following my nose wherever it took me. I am now thinking for two, which is really a quantum shift in one’s approach to life. Hopefully, at some point the two of us will even grow to three or more. My 40s will therefore be more family focused. This means that having settled on that career path, it’s time to build on it and make it grow, time to try and make a difference within my own profession rather than constantly being on the outside and knocking at the window of somewhere or other trying to get in. If at all possible, I’d also like to squeeze in some kind of Masters degree before I get to the end of my next decade.

There are several parts of the world that are still crying out to be visited, including Australasia, great American cities like New York and San Francisco, plus much of the rest of Africa and the Middle East. Being married to a Japanese woman, I can expect that I’ll also be finding myself back in Japan on more than one or two occasions. And never being one to shy away from ridiculous ambitions, I would dearly love to find some way to make it to Antarctica before I turn 50. At this point, who knows where I’ll end up. Probably likely to visit fewer places than in my 30s though, given the family man agenda.

Creatively, I’ll be getting a bit too old to keep on rocking (at least with some sense of dignity) but the urge to make music remains strong. I hope to see the growth of Control K, at least one or two more albums and perhaps a move into licensing or soundtracks of some sort. One thing that I am finding though, is that writing is taking more and more of an important place in my life. There are several novels in my head waiting to come out, some mere sketches, some almost fully formed.

Predicting the future is, of course, a fools game. There’s no failsafe way of saying or seeing what will happen on the road ahead. I do however think that it’s helpful for travellers through life to have destinations in mind, even if the means they have of getting there are completely different to what was expected or they end up in a place utterly unlike where they expected to find themselves. So, whatever the highs, lows, challenges, pleasures, surprises and treats of the…2010s, I say bring them on.

For further coverage of the last ten years, visit The Guardian page for extensive reviews and round-ups of the decade in arts, global politics, technology, sports, and much more.

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Filed under 2010, Articles, Brighton, Control K, Features, Japan, Peace, Reviews, Shelf Life, The Zamora, Travel

TRAVEL // A Sunshine State Of Mind (2007)

Japan is not the first country I lived in other than my place of birth. Way back in the comparative calm of the early Clinton era, a few years after the end of the Cold War and before the Monica Lewinsky incident, I spent a few barmy months living in Florida. A toe in the waters of expatriation, if you like.

I’d carried a chip on my shoulder about the US throughout most of my youth, derived in part from my father’s attitude to the place and partly through my own observations and concern about factors like Ronald Reagan. Britain does tend to have mixed attitudes towards America anyway. Some people love the place, whereas others loathe it.

However, I’m not the kind of guy that really likes carrying chips on his shoulder, especially now out of the sprinted rush of teenhood and into the marathon run of adulthood. I had to put these ideas I had to the test, and so I tried living in America for a while. Lo and behold, I discovered that just like anywhere, there are some really good people in America. Just like everywhere else too, it also has its fair share of not-so-good people, but it was the good ones that turned my prejudices around and made me look at ‘that place across the pond’ in a different light.

Early on in 2007, I stumbled across a chance to write something that could end up in a book. A couple of Brits living in Denmark had come up with a home-made book project about ‘moving away from home’, named Being Abroad. Having written extensively about my experiences of living in Japan, I decided that I should exhume another story from the memory banks instead and tell my American tale.

In the end, my piece didn’t make the final cut. I don’t know what it is but I often don’t seem to have a lot of luck in getting anywhere with UK-related ventures! Perhaps I am forever bound to remain on the outside, looking in.

Rather than let my long tale of youthful adventure under the Floridian sunshine languish on my hard drive, it is instead presented here. Although it’s a lengthy tale, it is somewhat edited down from the original size.

‘A Sunshine State Of Mind’, then – the tale of three plucky young British men and the scrapes that pulled them apart out West.

A Sunshine State Of Mind

Remember fearing a nuclear winter? Remember Ronnie and Maggie? Perhaps, perhaps not. We’ve all interacted with the big beast in different ways and at different times, and while it comes in many guises, none of us can really ignore it. As a kid, I grew up with a fear and loathing of America. My perspective on the world was reasonably narrow, being an island boy at heart. The US was the big beast across the pond, the playground bully in the world schoolyard. A place stacked to the back teeth with intercontinental missiles, where the police not only had guns but used them too. And in Reagan, a man with his finger on the apocalypse button who seemed to have no clue of the implications of that.

It is also, however, laden with contradictions. The musical pioneers and outlaws, such as the old blues guys, the jazzers and the hippy crowd had great essences of cool and looked much hipper than any home-grown heroes. And somewhere that produced the likes of Martin Luther King and Jack Kerouac had to have something going for it. Yet my overall impression was negative – the perfect, white-toothed fake smiles and ‘have a nice day’ platitudes, the plasticity of Mickey and the Golden Arches and the camera-toting tourists who thought cultural relics were ‘cute’.

When the sign went up on the university notice board for an exchange trip to the US, I laughed it off. Why on earth would I actually want to go there? Somehow though, the opportunity seemed to stick in my mind. After stages of denial about taking the opportunity up, I finally settled on the idea that if I was going to carry this prejudice around with me, I might as well actually put it to the test.

Applied, got it, so where to go in that vast land? From the options, I decided to ignore the apparent backwaters of Arizona and South Carolina, plumping instead for America at its boldest, brashest and most plastic – Florida. After all, if you can make it in your most challenging point of a destination, you should be able to make it anywhere, right?

Two of my college friends had taken the same decision to head for the Sunshine State, and I’ll call them Matt and Richard here. We approached the situation as three cocky young Englishmen bent on plunder and adventure, heading West to take on America. In those days, there wasn’t a smoking ban on trans-Atlantic flights. We stocked up on cheap fags, then spent the 14 hour flight adding to the cabin fug and competing over who would be the first one of us to pull an American girl.

Landing in Orlando, the first thing that hit us was warmth. Coming from the wintry gloom of England in early January, it was a damned good start. First challenge, make it through the long lines of serious looking customs officials, second challenge, find a car rental place and the next one, drive an hour to Tampa. The Pet Shops Boys were singing about West End Girls on the radio in the rental joint, sounding utterly out of place but somehow comforting at the same time.

I was the passenger in the back, under glass and staring out at all this alien newness. The highway was so wide and the streets so utterly uncramped. Such a change from the terraced, identikit streets I was used to walking that wore their age on the outside. The neon-flanked highway flashed by, as huge billboards and brightly coloured fast food drive-in signs rose and fell.

We arrived in the early morning at a vast green campus and made our way to the international dorm that was set to be our home. I don’t recall it as that culturally diverse, but it was almost certainly the first time I’d met people with Mexican or Native-American blood. Matt and Richard were sharing a room while to my great luck, my American roommate spent most of his life at his girl’s place.

January 1994, and America was still basking in the relative calm of Clinton’s early days. The twelve long years of Republican rule in the White House had finally come to an end. It might have been before the dot-com bubble, but it was also before Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Tim McVeigh, Al-Qaeda and the bombs dropped in Afghanistan and Bosnia left their own stains on the man’s tenure. There was an optimism around that you could scent in the air. I remember one American student carrying around a cuddly Clinton toy. Try as I did, I couldn’t imagine our then unesteemed premier being treated in the same way.

In an early meeting, we had the house rules of the dorm laid out to us. No smoking inside. No drinking outside. No opening the windows. It seemed that the Land of the Free insisted on treating its young adults like kids for as long as it could. The dour greyness of England began to look a little more libertarian than I’d previously given it credit for. We were also told that as the American academic semester was longer than a British term, we wouldn’t be able to get any grades to send back home anyway and therefore it didn’t actually matter if we didn’t attend every class.

I tried. Made all my classes in the first week. Pictured some sort of ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of set-up – the cool kids, the pretty ones, the dorks and the misfits, all sitting on chairs in rows with an armrest attached to write on – and it was pretty much like that too. I had good intentions for going again in my second week, but it never quite happened. And that was it – I never took another class there. I dropped out of college, soaked up the Florida sunshine, grew my first beard, let my hair grow long, and took three months off from my life.

I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun, at least at first. Once you figure out how to break someone else’s rules without getting caught, you can largely maintain a lifestyle you’re used to. Being a Brit in the States had its advantages too. That ‘cute accent’ can open doors otherwise closed to someone who’s just a part of the crowd. Whilst trying to open a bank account, the teller had me repeat the stalwart British word ‘bloody’ a number of times, as it sounded cool to her. I’d grown up feeling apart from the crowd, but this was the first time that I’d actually felt ‘exotic’! Despite the plunder committed in the name of Queen and Country, the pioneering imperial swashbucklers that carved out a quarter of the globe for Britain established the reputation of the Englishman as a gentleman. It might not always be true, but sometimes it’s beneficial not to shatter someone’s preconception of you.

There were other noticeable differences too. Nobody actually walked anywhere. If the convenience store was 15 minutes away on foot, hop in the pick-up when you need to go. Even just a short trip across campus was done by car. With the cafeteria, you bought a monthly pass, then could stock your tray up with as much food as you liked. My first time in there, with eyes bigger than my belly and essentially a free banquet in front of me, I piled it high and gorged myself till could fit nothing else inside – and this was only lunchtime. But it was too much to keep up, so I imposed some sense of moderation on what I lined my stomach with.

Of the three of us, I was the first to land an American girlfriend. I’ll call her Dionne. We met at some club or other and the British accent did the trick again. Back at the dorm, stood under a lamppost and with no-one else around, we got to know each other better. At some point, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a scrawny kid approaching. He turned his head as he passed us, and then realised that his girlfriend was locked in an embrace with another. He ran off, screaming and threatening suicide and she ran after him. I was left standing there.

Matt came by, having been out in pursuit of his own quarry. I told him what’d gone on and he commended me, as if the situation were a badge of honour. I’d earned my first plunder stripes.

After that, I had no particular desire to get any further involved. Over the course of a week, notes got passed, meetings hooked up and the next thing I knew I was in a relationship. A nice girl at first, the disturbed streak didn’t really surface until a little later on, by which time it was a little too late. A stranger in a strange land, I’d fallen back on a local to be my compass and guidebook, not quite the bold and intrepid explorer I’d imagined on the flight over.

Despite the challenges of this alien landscape and the undercurrent of a relationship on the edge running through my days, life was pretty good. The weather was knockout. I was a young man stuck in an adventure with a lot of partying to do.

Contrary to my youthful expectations of Americans, I met some fantastic folks there. As warm as the sun on my head, genuinely friendly and peaceful people who also liked having a good time. I discovered people who were just like me, yet lived on the other side of the vast ocean that divided us and were just brought up with different TV shows and cultural reference points. We fell in with a like-minded crowd pretty swiftly, and before long I located the musicians amongst them and joined up as one of their singers. We almost even made it to a show once, were even packed into the van, instruments at the ready. Never quite got there though.

Being so far away from home offered a unique perspective on the life I led and the kind of person I was back in England. It was as if I’d put that person on pause and could assess him from a distance. The vexations that had troubled the soul of that young British boy smoothed themselves out in the Floridian sun. Fairly early on in my stay, it dawned on me that I had made peace with myself and my past.

Of course, to find a silver lining you also need the clouds. In any environment, new or old, you can always find downers to piss on your parade, some circumstantial and some that you carry with you. No matter how far you run, you always bring yourself with you. I was funding my trip with a meagre Student Loan. Matt and Richard tripped off to New Orleans for their own Mardi Gras adventures, sleeping rough on the banks of the Mississippi in the process. As close as I got to steeping myself in classic Americana was sitting on the dock of a bay whistling Otis refrains.

The keg parties at friends apartments were good-time affairs but they’d be countered by others that got completely out of hand. We ended up at a frat house party once, with far too much testosterone on display for my liking. A gang of the house frat rats chugged back whatever was fuelling them and decided to throw a large couch onto the fire. Naturally, the police arrived. Not wanting to be implicated, we made a sharp exit when word got out that someone had taken it upon themselves to steal the car the cops had arrived in.

Adding to the element of danger, there were a couple of shootings near the dorm, one on the campus itself and another in the parking lot of the convenience store we used. The entire place usually seemed to be crawling with cops. As the only one in the gang over 21, I was often called upon to be the guy that went to the liquor store. I didn’t particularly mind, but I didn’t want to get deported if I was caught. The amount of rules and restrictions on the freedom of the individual made England’s nanny state look like a negligent babysitter in comparison.

One road trip near the end of the stay left me with a tale I still tell. The Grateful Dead had a tribe of followers that would throw parties and festivals across the country in the spirit of the original 60’s cultural explosions. Florida’s own Rainbow Gathering that year was to take place deep in the heart of the Ocala State Forest. I and another English pal decided to go and hang out in the woods with the hippies for the weekend and convinced a couple of girls to give us a ride. I picked up the goods at the liquor store on the way.

Dionne had warned me about the state law on not having open bottles of alcohol in a car. My friend Tim however, was much more carefree and as soon as we were on the highway, he opened his first bottle of Mickey’s Malt Liquor. We were looking forward to a little hedonism in a natural environment.

We exited the highway at our turning and headed down a dirt track surrounded by deep forest. A mile in, we were stopped by a police road block. An officer approached and gestured to us to wind the window down. We did as we were bade and he asked in an officious tone whether we had any drugs, liquor or weapons in the vehicle. Another officer had begun snooping around the back of the car with a torch. Naturally, we replied that we didn’t have anything. He asked a second time and we replied with the same answer. He then asked all four of us to step out of the car.

Jail? Deportation? Four kids, breaking the law with an American cop in the post-Rodney King era. It called for some quick thinking and my instincts kicked in with a solution. I was going to have to take the rap for Tim’s open bottle to prevent us all getting into even hotter water.

Having spent much of my time there changing my vocabulary and slightly Americanising my accent to be better understood, I suddenly switched to ‘genteel and naïve Englishman’ mode.

‘Well officer, now you mention it, I do have a bottle of beer.’

He asked me to step over to his car and bring the quart of Mickey’s with me. I did as I was told and he informed me about the state law on open liquor bottles in cars.

Ramping up the ‘gentleman abroad’ act, I replied something along the lines of:

‘I see, officer. I was unaware of that, but I’m awfully grateful to you for having alerted me to it. We don’t have such laws in my country, you see. I hope I haven’t caused you any inconvenience.’

‘You realise that you could have gone to jail for this, son?’

‘Could I really? I’m terribly sorry. Would you like me to put my hands on the bonnet?’

‘That won’t be necessary. Please dispose of the liquor by the side of the road.’

I emptied the bottle out next to the car and got a $25 fine. We were all a little shaken by the experience but they were very grateful that I’d stepped in and saved everyone’s skins. Best of all, it had taken attention away from the further seven litres of red wine we had stashed in the boot.

On another weekend, I trekked down to the Everglades with Dionne to meet the folks. Despite the pleasant warmth and subtropical feel of the place, there was more than a hint of retirement village about it. ‘So this is where rich old Americans go to die, slowly’, I thought to myself. Mom was nice and friendly. Pop was strict and keen that I kept to his house rules, but welcomed me anyway. After arriving, we took a trip to the beach. I lounged in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, basking in the glory of being somewhere so exotic sounding. Occasionally, I’d keep my head down to avoid the gaze of the beach police, who had laws to uphold even that stretch of sand. Nevertheless, watching pelicans fly past backdropped by a Mexican Gulf sunset made for a remarkable contrast to the scavenging English seagulls that tried to grab at your fish and chips on Brighton seafront.

As we rolled into the campus parking lot back in Tampa, Tom was standing in her space, awaiting our return. Before the car had stopped, he began kicking the fender and smacking the windows. Clearly, I was going to have to deal with the situation.

The following day, I agreed to meet with him. I found him under a tree. Sitting down, I told him that I was in a relationship with her and that he had to give up on what he was holding on to. He was broken by this news, but appreciated my directness and honesty in coming clean to him. After that, he slunk away. I sought Dionne out to bring her the good news. To my surprise, she flew off the handle and disappeared. Unbeknownst to me, she went to seek solace in the arms of Matt, my fellow explorer.

In the weeks that followed, what should have been a turnaround in our fortunes turned to shit instead. I stepped into Tom’s newly vacated shoes as the spurned and paranoid lover, trying to find out where she was. My mood spiralled downwards. Confused and dejected, I eventually wrote her a letter with my suspicions – no reply.

It finally dawned on me that my American fling was over. I sat on the bench outside the dorm, broken-hearted. Once again, I was alone, a stranger in a strange land, and I wanted to go home. Broke and on a heavy downer, my father was in the US at the time and wired me some cash to bring my flight forward. I said my goodbyes to the good guys, packed my things and got out.

A friend from LA offered me a ride from Tampa to Orlando. Out on the open highway, my mood began to lift as I left the life I’d led behind me. We reminisced about the times we’d had and my experience of expatriation. As every road trip needs a soundtrack, we switched on the radio. I flipped through the channels in search of something good.

‘…sitting in a railway station, got a ticket for my destination…’

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’ drifted out of the speakers and hit me. Sometimes a song has an uncanny way of jumping on you unannounced and perfectly summing up your moment. I was going back, homeward bound, my American dream tried, tested and put to rest.

Reflecting on it all once the jetlag had worn off and I was used to narrow streets and bad weather again, I knew that I no longer hated America as I’d done as a child. I actually rather liked it, even loved some parts of it. I’d learnt more about myself, the country I’d visited and my own one too, and by extension I’d learned more about the world itself.

One thing to be said for expatriation though. Once you’ve tried it, you’ve opened a door and there’s no looking back. Your country will seem that much smaller than it used to and you develop a taste for exploration. In 2003, I did the same thing. I said goodbye to the good guys in Brighton, packed up my things and got out of Britain.

I’ve been living in Tokyo ever since. But that’s another story.

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Filed under 2007, Features, Travel

TRAVEL // Oceans & Islands (2006)

In the twists and turns of our life’s journey, we sometimes take different paths from those that we might expect to take.

As a result of a couple of trips down to the Japanese subtropical archipelago of Okinawa back in 2004, I had it in mind that my future led me to become a reporter down there, zipping about in the heat in a jeep and interviewing people about fishing yields and the incursions of US military bases. It was a dream prompted by an offer from the publisher of ‘Okinawa Index‘, a guide book I once wrote for.

Ultimately, it was not to be and in time I bedded down in Tokyo and got used to life in the big city, finding plenty of ways to keep myself amused and busy. I ended up producing what I believe to have been the first collection of modern Japanese protest music, which was not an easy task!

I lost touch with the publisher and assumed that I’d never hear from her again. To my surprise, I got a call out of the blue at around the time that the CD was due to be released. She was in town for a party and did I want to hook up again? ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘you never know where these things can end up.’

At the party and later over dinner, she told me that she was planning another guide book and would I like to contribute again? Although I hadn’t been back down there since the last trip, I agreed pretty much straight away.

Grabbing moments in lunch breaks (often how I write in Tokyo), I pieced together an overview of my previous two visits, spiced it up with some of the trips I’d managed after the taste for travel I’d developed since Okinawa, and wrapped it up with my desire to return there.

Once again, even after submitting the piece, I didn’t hear from the publisher again. To my knowledge, the guide book was never made, and so the article was never published.

Instead, it makes its debut here and is titled ‘Oceans & Islands’.

All photos by Dom Pates.

Oceans and Islands


The ocean has had me under its spell ever since I first laid eyes on it. I was born within five minutes walk from the sea, in the coastal resort of Brighton. It’s a little like an English San Francisco – a hilly and cosmopolitan seaside city, full of creative types and tech companies. There is always some sort of a buzz going on but perhaps most impressive is the ocean location. Gazing out to sea always makes your troubles feel much smaller.

A few years ago, tired of England and in need of a little more adventure in my life, I decided to pack up and go to the other side of the world. In a rather bold move and used to a more relaxed way of life, I threw myself into one of the biggest and busiest cities on Earth – Tokyo – to see if I sank or swam. Once I found the water was warm enough, I began to explore the group of islands that I’d landed in.


I’d never lived in such a big city before, so often found need to seek out a little peace, away from the bubbling torrents of the metropolis. A trip to Okinawa needed no passport and was only a couple of hours flight from Tokyo. A little slice of the subtropics to get the skyscrapers out of my hair for a while.

To my grandparents’ generation, it might as well have been the moon. They first heard about the place as some exotic location on the other side of the planet where the last land battle of WWII occurred. I, however, spotted it in my guidebook and thought it would be a nice place to visit.

Immediate first impressions were mixed. It was warmer than where I’d come from but seemed old and fading. Then I began to explore and got a little more under Naha’s skin; the vibrancy of Kokusai-dori, the traditional treats and gems in the maze of the old market, and the unexpected surprises you can only come across when wandering round a city and following your nose.


One such surprise was the Baobab Bar. Designed inside and out to look like the sacred African tree, I was drawn in. I made a new friend there with whom I set off on an adventure the next day. Our voyage of discovery took us to the tiny island of Kudaka that, unbeknownst to us, was celebrating their New Year that very day.

I experienced things to tell the grandchildren about – drinking, eating and dancing with the villagers, scenes of island life unchanged for many generations, playing sanshin at the house of a stranger who invited me in. I had become an adventurer, with tales to tell of it.


My second visit was at the request of Okinawa Index, after a chance meeting on Kudaka. This time, I got even deeper under the skin of the place and it got deeper under mine too.

The visit came with a packed itinerary too. I tried my hand at glass blowing at the Onna Glass Factory. At Ryukyu Mura, I watched a water buffalo pressing sugar cane and sat at a weaving loom. There was a scenic photo shoot to take in, along a rugged and beautiful coastline that took my breath away. I even squeezed in a visit to the Peace Park that commemorates the battle that caused my grandparents to hear of Okinawa over on the other side of the world.


Since my first forays into the former Ryukyu kingdom, I’ve become a travelling man. I’ve seen the Great Wall of China and the Olympic transformation of Beijing; been to the DMZ that straddles the Korean peninsula, one of the most heavily landmined places in the world; glimpsed at the Himalayas from the Kathmandu Valley, during the Festival of Light; taken in an Arabian sunset in a desert just outside Dubai; and lived a month in East Africa, with its safari wildernesses and the splendours of the Swahili Coast. Despite all this, Okinawa sticks in my mind like a limpet to a rock.

After my second visit, I picked up a new project. Following a request for help from a UK-based organisation, I set up Peace Not War Japan. The UK group raises consciousness and funding for the international peace movement by releasing CDs of contemporary pro-peace music, and I started a similar venture in Japan. We released our first CD of Japanese pro-peace music in the summer of 2006. The music comes from across the country and covers a range of genres. Okinawa’s influence is felt strongly too. Ryukyu Underground donated a track, a version of the island standard ‘Hana’. We also have songs from Soul Flower Union and Kotobuki, two groups very influenced by Okinawan songs and stories.


Proceeds from the sale of these CDs will be donated to Japanese peace groups, so it is a chance for me to give something back and contribute to the growth of peace in Japan.

For the sake of balance, when you take something, it is very important to also give in return. These beautiful islands have given me so, so much already – perhaps it’s my turn to give now.

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Filed under 2006, Features, Travel

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