Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Ways of Men and their Masters...

December 2nd
I have recently returned from Tokyo’s Yoyogi Koen where I attended the 2007 Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) annual conference. This is usually in some location far-flung from Kobe, which adds to the novelty, travelling in the fine autumn weather. However, as a result, I usually spend the first morning on the road/railway which means I miss the early sessions despite having paid full-whack for the conference fees. So this year I decided to travel up to the Eastern Capital (Tou-Kyou 東京)by overnight coach, so as to arrive bright and early and register at 9:00 on Friday, Nov 23rd when it all kicked off. This did not seem like an unreasonable plan, having done a similar thing some seven years ago when a friend of mine from the UK was taking part in an international folk culture event as part of a Morris Dancing team. That time though, the coach was equipped with full-recliner seats, not unlike those in First Class on a 747 Jumbo.

The best-laid schemes of mice and men, gan aft-a-gley...

I was somewhat dismayed to find that the Sannomiya–Tokyo Station Dream-Liner was just a common-or-garden long distance coach and there were nine hours of travel ahead of us. I did snatch a morsel of REM sleep sometime after a 3 am service station stop, evinced by the fact that I dreamed a dream. It was a rather strange dream, involving me down a lead mine in Weardale, County Durham, with someone long since deceased, searching for semi-precious stones and the like for his lapidary collection and finding nothing but old, broken clay pipes left behind by the miners of long ago. An old memory no doubt, I _have_ been there and done that, many times. The dream came to a rather abrupt end when an earthquake started and the roof began to cave in, a seismic phenomenon which Weardale is not noted for.
I awoke in terror, to find that the bus was rumbling over an uneven surface left by construction work which was the source of the shaking. The rosy-fingered dawn was breaking and I spent the remainder of the journey watching heavier and heavier traffic heading out of Tokyo for the 3-day weekend, while our progress was relatively unimpeded.

I grumpily alighted from the Dream-Liner at Tokyo Station exactly on time at 07:15, something the Japanese are uncommonly good at. I then had to travel approximately half-way round their version of London’s Circle Line, known as the Yamanote-Sen. There is a quicker way across the intervening distance, but it involves going down into the bowels of the earth to a subway line, whereas the Yamanote always remains on the surface and is hence more civilized, in my humble opinion. At Shinjuku I alighted again and went in search of breakfast, which was soon found at a 24-hour diner who served me with a bacon-cheese-tomato toastie and a nice cup of blended Joe. Now the day was truly beginning, I felt replenished and ready for anything.

However, the relatively short journey from Shinjuku to the conference site involved a lot of seemingly unnecessary clumping up and down stairs amid throngs of people so I was grumpy again by the time I had arrived and completed the registration procedure. More coffee was needed and in the process of getting this, scanning the conference handbook Friday schedule and bumping into people not-seen-for-ages, it was 11 am before I was in any state for going to a presentation of any kind. I could have had a decent night’s sleep, taken an early Shinkansen (or even a flight) and achieved the same result. These kinds of lessons learned are the best remembered.

One very common topic of conversation was the Ministry of Justice’s recently introduced anti-terrorism immigration policy affecting all non-Japanese (with a limited number of exceptions). As of November 20th all such persons must be fingerprinted (index fingers of each hand) and have a digital photograph taken for the records. When I first heard about this, in late August, I was not unduly bothered. After all, the MoJ already had the print of my right-hand index finger on record and a photo (updated every five years for the ID card) and I have had the status of eijuu-ken
for more than fifteen years. Surely they didn’t want to do this to me?

Think again laddie. The MoJ claim they destroyed all fingerprinting records (apart from those of convicted felons) in 2000 when the practice of fingerprinting for a visa of more than 90 days duration was abolished in the face of mounting protests about discrimination at home and abroad. It has only taken them seven years to reinstate the practice and now on entry and re-entry for ever and ever. It was suggested that they introduce a special gate for permanent residents like me who could pre-register their biometric details, so as to avoid interminable queues. They have only agreed to provide one such gate, at Narita in the Kanto region serving Tokyo. People using other points of ingress like KiX in the Kansai or Chubu International in the Tokai can go and whistle Dixie for all they care.

I can understand that a case can be made for collecting such biometric data—once. There are a lot of unpleasant people around in this world, and if it means they can be apprehended more easily I have no problem in meeting the letter of the law—once. Doing the same thing repeatedly is a nonsense, as is the refusal to provide a pre-registered gate anywhere else but Narita. It is a kick in the teeth for those of us who have lived here peaceably for decades, paid our taxes and generally tried to fit in to a different culture.
I did not meet one person who was in favour of this new policy. Some have gone to some interesting lengths to illustrate their opposition to it.

If anyone would like to buy one of these T-shirts, point your browser to:
where they can be purchased in Adult sizes XXL down to XS. I was informed by the designer that the print on the shirt is actually of his big toe, not his index finger.
As I do not plan to travel outside of Japan for another 12 months or so, I hope common sense will prevail and some amendments will be made to this policy in the meantime.

On the morning of Saturday 24th November, a friend of mine and I decided to take some time out of academia and do a bit of sightseeing. We decided to go to Yasukuni Jinja (靖国神社)which translates literally as ‘Pacifying the Nation Shrine’. This place was originally constructed in 1869 by order of the Meiji Emperor, as a war memorial to commemorate those who had died in the Boshin War, fighting on the side of the Restoration. Since then it has become a general war memorial using Shinto rites to deify the spirits of all those who have given their lives fighting for Japan and the Emperor up till 1951. This includes former colonial subjects from Taiwan and Korea, not only Japanese. However,

“One of the criteria for enshrinement at Yasukuni is that a person be listed as having died while on duty (including death from illness or disease) in the war dead registry of the Japanese government. According to documents released on 28 March 2007 by the National Diet Library of Japan, Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a meeting, on 31 January 1969, that Class-A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trial were "able to be honored" and decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine those criminals.[2] On October 17, 1978, 14 Class A war criminals (convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East), including Hideki Tojo, were quietly enshrined as "Martyrs of Shōwa" (昭和殉難者 Shōwa junnansha), ostensibly on the technicality that they were on the war dead registry. They are listed below, according to their sentences:

* Death by hanging:

Hideki Tojo, Itagaki Seishiro, Heitaro Kimura, Kenji Doihara, Iwane Matsui, Akira Muto, Koki Hirota

* Lifetime imprisonment:

Yoshijiro Umezu, Kuniaki Koiso, Kiichiro Hiranuma, Toshio Shiratori

* 20-year imprisonment:

Shigenori Togo

* Died before a judicial decision was reached (due to illness or disease):

Osami Nagano, Yosuke Matsuoka

The enshrinement was revealed to the media on April 19, 1979, and a controversy started in 1985 which continues to this day. For China, North and South Korea, and other nations that suffered from Japanese invasion and imperial rule, the shrine is a symbol of Japanese fascism and extreme aggression. Liberal, socialist and communist groups in Japan also take issue with the shrine for similar reasons.”
Quotation from Wikipedia

The entrance to the shrine is marked by one of the largest torii gateways I have ever seen, built of iron and quietly rusting away in the November sunlight.

As we approached the main shrine we heard the twanging sound of a jamisen being played by one of two elderly Okinawan gentlemen who were making a protest against recent government denials that the Imperial Army ordered civilians to commit suicide rather than surrender in the ‘Typhoon of Steel’ that marked the last major battle of the Pacific War.

The main shrine itself is unremarkable, but the Yuu-shuu Kan museum of history is something else again. A fully restored Zero-Sen fighter plane and a couple of sizable field artillery pieces are preserved there along with numerous revisionist pieces of writing regarding the role of Japan in the years 1937–45.

“A documentary-style video shown to museum visitors portrays Japan's conquest of East Asia during the pre-World War II period as an effort to save the region from the imperial advances of Western powers. Displays portray Japan as a victim of foreign influence, especially Western pressure. The museum fails to portray atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army such as the Rape of Nanking.

A pamphlet published by the shrine says: "War is a really tragic thing to happen, but it was necessary in order for us to protect the independence of Japan and to prosper together with our Asian neighbors." It also says that Japanese POWs executed for war crimes were "cruelly and unjustly tried" by a "sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces."[2] Their position is based on the WWII-era argument from the Japanese government that the country had never signed the Geneva Convention, and was not a signatory of any enforceable international war crimes agreement. Therefore, in their opinion, the convictions were labels placed upon them by an organization to which they did not belong.

The shrine's English-language website defends Japanese activities prior to and during World War II, by stating: "War is truly sorrowful. Yet to maintain the independence and peace of the nation and for the prosperity of all of Asia, Japan was forced into conflict." (Quotation from Wikipedia, as above).

As we left the shrine to make our way back to the conference we noticed a man had set up a display with photos and video screens to show that the 1937 Rape of Nanking never took place and that it is all a fabrication of the evil Chinese Communist party. Take a look...

You will notice that the main gist of these people’s arguments is dissent regarding absolute numbers of people who were killed. In this sense they are similar to the neo-Nazi holocaust denial people. They also forcibly point out that the Chinese Communist Party has been guilty of far worse massacres since 1947 and that they have no business in criticizing the defunct Imperial Japanese Army for human rights violations.

My own take on this controversy is — a plague on both your houses. The past cannot be undone and while we should not simply forget about it, continually digging it up in order to heave motes and beams about serves no purpose. Up until recently, the Prime Minister of Japan would make official visits to Yasukuni Jinja, mainly in order to placate the right-wing financial backers of his party. However, the last leader Mr Abe notably did _not_ make a visit during his short tenure, and so far the current incumbent, Mr Fukuda has indicated no intention of doing so. As a result relations between Japan and the PRC have become more cordial and a Chinese warship made a courtesy call to the port of Tokyo last week, the first such visit since 1934. May common sense prevail...

All of this got me thinking about my own religious upbringing at the Church of St Mary and St Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street, County Durham.

This church was originally established in 883 by a band of monks in flight from the ravishing Danes who had driven them from their priory at Lindisfarne. Use of the land was granted by King Alfred ‘the Great’ and this is signified by the striking red colour of the cassocks still worn by the choir. It is claimed that the Bible was first translated into English there, but this is uncertain. Certainly, the Lindisfarne Gospels had their first resting place here after removal from Holy Island, but the form of Old English used in them is now unintelligible to the modern reader.
Anyway, it was here that the writer got his first taste of Christianity, first at Sunday School and later as a soprano chorister.
The vicar at the time was the Reverend Spurr, a gentle soft-spoken man who had been a missionary to China in the 1930s and had undergone torture at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. I can still remember some of his sermons from the early days of my choir career, before I became bored with it all. He had a knack of utilizing less well-known Bible stories, such as that of Nicodemus, to illustrate his lesson for the week. Remembrance Sundays were always a bit of a squeeze, as a member of the Boy Scout band I would play snare drum in the Church Parade marching up the Front Street from the Scout Hut, arrive there full of hell and anti-German/Japanese sentiment then dash round the back of the church to don red cassock and snow-white surplice and ruff, emerging all angelic and sweet-singing with slicked-down hair to listen to the Good Reverend tell us about the God of Love after singing Onward Christian Soldiers...
We were paid for this stuff of course, one old penny (1d) for each choir practice (Tuesday & Friday) and the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence (2s/6d) for a Saturday wedding, plus the chance to participate in the ‘scramble’ when the bridegroom would, following tradition, empty his pockets of loose change into the street for urchins to fight over.

My main reason for being a chorister was not to sing in the choir but to play football for its team, something I pursued more with passion than any skill. In later years, when the good Reverend’s sermons began to cloy, I would play with Matchbox cars or toy soldiers on the choir stalls, under the baleful glare of the choirmaster, Mr Caldwell, who was always threatening to confiscate them but never remembered to do do. Other people would imagine the vicar was a cricket umpire and estimate the score by the positioning of his hands during the sermon. It recently occurred to me that we would sing the lyrics to hymns and anthems most angelically without the slightest notion of what they meant;

Cherubim and Seraphim,
All the Saints adore thee--
Casting down their golden crowns
Around the glassy sea...’

doesn’t make a lot of sense even now

In the final year of my choir career a new rector, the Reverend Ottoson, appeared and took over the Sunday sermons. He was a real wild-fire compared with his staid predecessor and introduced all manner of new ideas to C of E services. I first heard the modern hymn Lord of the Dance from him.

In the fullness of time, my soprano voice broke and was 'like nowt nor summat’ for a year or two (to quote my grandmother) and so I was dismissed from the choir. I became a campanologist for a time, as the church has an impressive eight-bell peal, but became disinterested due to factional politics within the group.

To finish with I should make comment on something which is making headlines in Britain right now, particularly in the tabloid press. A good-hearted English teacher from Liverpool, about my age, name of Gillian Gibbons, decided to work in Sudan so as to use her teaching skills to benefit the children of that strife-torn land in some way. One day, she obtained a teddy bear from somewhere and decided to adopt it as the class mascot. She held a class competition to decide on a name for the soft toy as part of a study of animals and their habitats. The name that was decided on by democratic vote was Muhammad, which is a very popular name for baby boys. It is also the name of the Prophet of Islam and this has caused her to be imprisoned for blasphemy for 15 days and subsequently deported. There have been reports of vengeful mobs burning her in effigy and demanding that she face a firing squad for her heinous crime.

I cannot imagine what kind of deity would become vexed at having a soft toy named after him or her or one that would order someone’s execution for doing something like that. However, making decisions on behalf of one’s chosen Spiritual Being has been a human failing since time immemorial, only most civilised nations have grown out of it. For the sake of the Sudanese majority, I hope common sense prevails, as this kind of thing cannot sit well with the people who are in charge of allocating humanitarian aid.

That's all folks! Till next time.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

What I did on my holidays (2008) and after...

October 27th

Since the clocks are about to go back in Britain, announcing the end of the so-called BST (British Summer Time), it is high time I got around to updating this blog. Apologies to anyone who has been awaiting an up date, no excuses really, just a dearth of round tuit availability.

My holidays began in Saga this year, in the last week in July when we travelled down to Kyushu to support our youngest son, Roderick Genki, as he represented his school in the discus and shot-put events of the National Inter-High Track & Field competition. He finished 18th in the shot but managed seventh place in the discus, with a throw of 47.62 metres, just missing the cut for the final. A very creditable achievement for the youngest lad on the field.

The very next day I was on a KLM jumbo bound for the UK, glad to finally escape the sweltering heat. The weather was fair for the first week, but then turned colder, getting down as low as 11° C in mid August. I was obliged to borrow a fleece to keep warm and scrounge an extra blanket for the bed, while my sister turned on the central heating.

During this period I paid my customary visit to St. James’s Park to see the lads turn out against the Villans of Aston Villa. We were in row Y of the Leazes End which made me suffer bouts of vertigo as I gazed down from the dizzy heights. This was the best I could do, queueing up to buy the tickets a few days before, my usual sources having proved barren. We were in good heart on the way to the ground, the Toon had won 1-3 away from home at Bolton on the 11th of August, which we took as a good omen for the new regime of Mike Ashley and Sam Allardyce. The reprehensible Freddie Shepherd was deposed as chairman of the club in a bloodless coup in the close season, bringing forth rejoicing and merriment among most Newcastle supporters.

In the event, the match was dreadful, a dour midfield 0-0 grind with about 3 shots on goal all told. The Villa could have won it had they put themselves about a little better. Newcastle were clueless. I was reduced to scanning the South Tyneside horizon for landmarks, clearly visible from our lofty eyrie, up aheight.

Apart from Wrekenton church, I noticed that the abominable brutalist architecture of Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park in Gateshead was still standing. Built in 1969, this crumbling concrete monstrosity featured in the 1971 British gangster movie Get Carter, starring Michael Caine. Poor construction using raw concrete meant that by the end of the decade the building had deteriorated considerably and was listed for demolition, which was why I was surprised to see it still standing. Apparently certain people, including Sylvester Stallone of all people, felt it should be preserved as a cultural icon on account of its cinematic history and had launched an appeal to save it. Thankfully, such misguided sentimental nonsense has now been thrown out and the latest news is that this wretched symbol of urban decay is scheduled to be gone by the spring of 2008. Not a moment too soon, in the opinion of many on Tyneside and beyond.

On the way back, to compound our despondency, we noticed a pair of drenched and miserable Bactrian camels stood in the pouring rain in a field opposite the pub where we sought post-match sustenance. Part of a travelling circus, as cloven-footed beasts, these unfortunate creatures had been grounded by the governmental response to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease far to the south in Surrey. There is always someone or something feeling worse than yourself, I suppose. Since that first dreadful home game, the Toon’s fortunes have improved somewhat, and they currently sit in 8th place in the Premier League, played nine, won five, drawn two, lost two. This is the club’s best start to a season in over a decade, so Big Sam must be doing something right.

After that, the weather improved somewhat and I was able to enjoy a day out in Durham where the cathedral cloisters provided some photo-ops.

On the final day, my parents took me down to Hartlepool where a fully restored nineteenth-century sailing frigate can be seen in an open-air reconstructed replica of a Napoleonic seaport. HMS Trincomalee is a Royal Navy Leda-class vessel, built in Bombay in 1817. She was constructed from teak, on account of oak shortages in Britain caused by the demand for naval shipping during the Napoleonic wars. Apparently she is the oldest warship afloat in Britain and is well worth a visit, in all her copper-bottomed glory. Down on the cramped gun deck, among the twenty-eight 18-pounder cannon, you can really get a feel for those days of ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’, as Churchill described it.

Back in Japan, the heat had not gone away and persisted till early October. During this time I noticed a report that the North-West Passage was ice-free. Global warming is a reality and no mistake. It is nearly November, and still the daytime is warm enough to discourage heavy clothing.

Our son’s sporting prowess has continued with him taking gold medals in discus and hammer-throw at the Kinki Youth tournament, first place in the discus at the Kokutai National Sports Meeting and silver medal in the discus last weekend in the All-Japan Youth tournament. Thus was in the city of Oita, in Kyushu at the ‘Big Eye’ stadium, one of the venues of the 2002 World Cup.

We took the motorcycle down to Kyushu on the ferry and enjoyed a little bit of a 2nd honeymoon as this year marked our silver wedding anniversary. Our first honeymoon was in the same area, again by motorcycle. Kitted out with saddle panniers, Black Mariah served us very well over the four day weekend.

The big news recently in Japan was the announcement yesterday that Nova, the largest chain of English language schools, has filed for bankruptcy and suspended operations indefinitely. Around four thousand foreign instructors and two thousand Japanese staff are currently without income. While this is an unfortunate event (especially for the employees), the writing on the wall has been there since June when the company were forbidden by law from recruiting any more students for a period of six months. The courts ruled that their business practice, of only offering partial refunds if a contract was cancelled, was illegal. Personally, I have never heard _anyone_ say _anything_ good about Nova in all the time they have been in operation.
For some years now they have advertised themselves as offering eki-mae ryugaku (overseas study by the train station) and promised that students could have classes at any time of the day or night, 24-7. In practice, the most popular time for an English class is 7 pm on a weekday evening and it soon became obvious that the company’s claim was hollow, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and attempts to cancel contracts for which hundreds of thousands of yen had been paid up front. The June court ruling had the effect of adding to the student exodus.
They also treated their staff very shabbily, having a rule that no social contact could take place between teacher and students outside of class. This was so they could charge extra for ‘free conversation’ in a special non-teaching room in each school and the students would get no language practice without paying for it.

Though I feel sorry for the newly unemployed people I feel a certain satisfaction that justice has been done. I have had disagreements with certain people in the company I work for regarding the timing of classes. ‘If Nova can do it--why can’t you?’ was usually the gist of their argument. Now it has been proven that Nova are a disingenuous outfit (to put it mildly), I feel confident there will be no more such talk.

Now the autumn weather has truly arrived, and the heat exhaustion now history, I will attempt to update this blog more regularly from now on.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Motorcycle Diaries Part IV -- Hill and Mountain

May 12th 2007.

We have been invited to go on a weekend tour of Okayama prefecture with some members of the Kansai BMW owner’s club. This will involve an overnight stay at a traditional Japanese lodge near the town of Mimasaka, with a barbecue and lots of beer so it is not an unwelcome prospect.

Akira arrives at about 9 o’clock, riding an immense Harley-Davidson FXDP 'Defender' instead of his usual Yamaha SRX café-racer. The final P on the serial type stands for ‘Police’ -- this is no ordinary ‘hog’ but a full-blown California Highway Patrol specification 88-cubic inch machine, equipped with siren and full red/blue front-end lights for flashing at people. It is built for high speed pursuit of villains and has solid rubber tyres which cannot be punctured by gunfire. To comply with the law, the siren has been disconnected and the lights cannot be flashed, otherwise it is petty much the pukka item. Akira promises me that I can have a go on it at some point over the weekend, but not just now as we have to meet the other members of our tour group, which involves a bit of heavy traffic.

At 10 o’clock we are having a coffee at Akashi Service Area and talking to the owner of the H-D, one Mr Fujita. He has owned this remarkable machine for a couple of years but never gets time to ride it, so he has decided to sell it. This tour is a good way of showing it off to potential buyers. Today Mr Fujita is riding an ancient machine which must be about 50 years old, a 250 cc single-cylinder Meguro, which was the cash-strapped company that Kawasaki Heavy Industries purchased for its know-how when they decided to enter the motorcycle industry, at the beginning of the sixties.

He casts admiring glances at my machine, which is a modern version of the first ‘big bike’ that Kawasaki produced. Three of the other four riders are on various BMW models, two of them traditional ‘boxer’ twins and one old K-series which has an in-line 3 cylinder car-like motor. The final rider sits astride a Honda CB 1300—a very serious piece of kit with a custom titanum exhaust system.

We depart at quarter past ten down the Kakogawa by-pass, which must be one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and try to stick together in staggered formation. After about forty unpleasant minutes we are pleased to be off this road and head on down the valley of the Ibo river towards the Harima seaside road. The Meguro begins to slow down and we all pass it, finally pulling up about half a kilometer later when we realise it has stopped. Akira and the ride captain go back to see what has happened and the rest of us dismount and I get to know them all a little better. I suppose the best way to describe us all is as middle-aged hooligans, who had motorcycles when younger because they were cheaper to run than cars, but have now gone back to them because they really are the only way to really travel and make ‘good’ time, in the best tradition of Robert M. Pirsig.

“...Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best, state highways are next, Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time’ and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask for directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding...”

We hear the throaty rumble of the Harley V-twin and the three riders approach, thumbs up indicating problem over. Our next stop is at a promontory called Man-Yo Misaki overlooking the Inland Sea.

Akira explains that the Meguro was suffering from a loose electrical connection, which was easily sorted out. As there is little traffic on the Harima Seaside Road, he suggests that the next stage, as far as the town of Hinase, will be a good time for me to try out the Harley. He warns me to be careful of its bulk as it weighs nearly twice as much as my Kawasaki.

I seat myself in the wide tractor-like single saddle, heave it upright and flick back the side-stand. It is very heavy and I struggle to get it in a position to start the engine. I take a minute to check out the unfamiliar control layout as the rest of the group depart. The left hand filler cap of the famous ‘twin’ tank is in fact a dummy, doubling as a gas gauge. There are separate left-right direction indicators on each end of the high-set bars, separate light switches for the headlight and pursuit lamps, a horn and a kill-switch and a starter button. I switch on the ignition and press the starter--but nothing happens which is somewhat disconcerting. I check everything and try it again and again, trying to remember what Akira said, feeling more and more foolish as the minutes tick by, until Akira and Mr Fujita appear. ‘Clutch!’ he yells, glaring at me through his full-face Shoei.

Ah--that was it. Silly boy, the devil is all in the details…

I depress the clutch lever, push the starter and the huge mill rumbles into life. Getting it down the winding track back to the main road is somewhat entertaining as my left boot is not used to the strange toe-heel action of the gear lever, and the weight of the thing is fearsome, just as Akira warned.

Once on the open road, it does not appear to need gears at all with the immense torque that the Milwaukee V-twin mill has. We pick up speed and the whole feeling changes. The bike is very well-balanced and is particularly nimble through the curves, which is surprising. I keep up with the ride captain with very little effort, a relief after the initial feelings of terror. A most amazing motorcycle.

I recall a conversation I had some time back, on the Akashi ferry with three very tidy leather-clad young ladies who all owned Harley-Davidson Sportster machines.
‘Why do you choose the Harley over Japanese bikes? They are very expensive...’
They thought for a moment and came back with the reply -- ‘Harley has soul...’.
At the time I thought it was just a cute bit of marketing by the H-D corporation, but now I am beginning to understand what they were on about. Yowza, what a rush. My mind begins to entertain improbable and immoral fantasies about buying this particular machine.

At the town of Hinase we stop for lunch, which is a welcome break. I have anago teishoku which is a local delicacy based on conger eel. I mention that the Japanese anago is of a size not much bigger than the normal river eel, but in British coastal waters the things grow to a formidable size, the world record being a female specimen caught off the West Country which weighed in at 62 kilograms and then some. One of the reasons is the large number of wrecks which litter the sea bed due to two bouts of submarine warfare in the 20th century, which provide welcome habitat for them. My banter is regarded as a fisherman’s tall tale at first, but Akira assures them that I am telling the truth. He has seen the evidence…

After lunch, Mr Fujita asks me what I think of the Harley and recommends that I stay on it to enjoy the high speeds of the Okayama ‘Blue Line’ which is a scenic route like the Ban-Tan. I accept his offer, partly out of the desire not to appear wimpish. It is a bit of a handful…

However, before getting to the Blue Line we have to get out of Hinase, which involves a lot of low-speed traffic and the Harley is not good at this kind of thing, nor at the narrow country roads which follow. Once we are on the Blue Line the Milwaukee iron comes into its own again, but at the Ippon-Matsu service area I almost beg Akira to take charge of it again. It is just too much work most of the time and there are not enough roads in Japan where it can be enjoyed at its best. I tell Mr Fujita ‘Thanks--but No Thanks’ and he gives me a wry grin of understanding.

After this we leave the coast and head into the heartland of Okayama, which is aptly named as Hill-Mountain with its spectacular scenery. Before arrival at our destination we stop for a break at a roadhouse. After a while we attempt to set off again, but Mr Fujita finds that the kick-start lever has jammed on the Meguro, necessitating a push and bump-start. I begin to wonder at the risks involved in bringing such an ancient machine on a tour like this. Later on, the Meguro is repaired again, by Akira, with onlooker's commentary and unhelpful hints. Some things are the same the world over…

The lodge we are staying at is in a gorgeous bucolic location encircled by greenery, and has plenty of customers this day with about thirty members of the Kansai BMW owner’s club in attendance, as well as our group. The evening sees a sumptuous meaty barbecue of Yagyu beef and simply loads of bottled Asahi beer which gets everyone in a good mood, lots of good craic going on. I am well pleased that I came on this trip, having made lots of new friends.

The next day starts early with a traditional breakfast of rice, fish, miso and pickles. I take a post-prandial stroll outside and check out some of the views.

At 10 o’clock two members of the Mimasaka Fire Brigade show up and give some of us a lecture/demonstration of Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation and also the use of the Artificial External Defibrillator device, in case we ever come across an emergency situation at the roadside. I hope I never have to use the knowledge I have gained, but it is another reason to be pleased I came along.

After lunch Akira and I set off along Route 429 which crosses the spectacular Shibiki Toge pass back into Hyogo Prefecture. It is simply some of the best motorcycling I have ever done, in fabulous scenery and I resolve to come back and do it again some time. Unforgettable…

We stop for a break at Ichinomiya Onsen while we wait for Mr Fujita and the others, who set off earlier in the day to tour southern Tottori. They experienced the emergency treatment lecture last year. The hot-spring water is soothing to tired muscles and minds and we have a good soak and chew of the fat in the outdoor rotenburo bath, putting the world to rights. The water is salty, not as harsh as sea-water but definitely saline. We are miles from the ocean; there must be halite in the rock strata that the spring water percolates through.

When our companions finally turn up, somewhat later than expected, Mr Fujita is riding pillion with the ride captain. The Meguro has finally given up the ghost with a clogged carburettor and has had to be abandoned back up the road, for later retrieval and repair. Mr Fujita tells me his next move is to buy a Kawasaki W650 like mine. He has fallen in love with Black Mariah. Been there and done that mate...

We finish the day in our traditional manner, over ramen noodles and kara-age chicken, plus some gyoza dumplings which are the speciality of the road-house chain.

We have done over a thousand kilometers in less than a month, which means that Black Mariah is presently off the road, waiting for a new Dunlop TT 100 to be fitted to her rear end. This will be the third time for this exercise, at just over 24,000 km on the clock.

Many more happy trails lie ahead, I am sure. She has adequately filled the hole left in my life left by having to give up kendo. I'll be back…

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Motorcycle Diaries part III

-- Over To the Fourth Country --

Golden Week is here again and our dromomaniac motorcycling tendency along with it. This year we have decided to have a crack at Muroto Misaki in Kochi prefecture on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands in the Japanese archipelago. The ‘fourth country’ is a liberal translation of the name Shikoku. I spent the first two and a half years of my married life on Shikoku, but that was in Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture at the western end of the island. Kochi Prefecture straddles the southern portion with its gorgeous sweep of Tosa Wan and the capes at each end of it, Ashizuri Misaki to the west and Muroto Misaki to the east. When we lived there, Shikoku was not connected by bridge to the main island of Honshu and there were no expressways so a 360 cc twin-cylinder two-stroke van with a top-end of 65 kph was quite adequate transport.

How times change. In the short space of a quarter-century three bridge systems have been built linking Honshu and Shikoku and once over there, a choice of three expressways awaits the intrepid road user.
Our journey begins at 8:15 on April 29th, a national holiday celebrating the late Showa Emperor’s birthday. It used to be known as ‘Green Day’ for some reason and the plans to resurrect the former name were a topic of bitter debate for some time in the National Diet. Something about reference to the Pacific War, it seems.…
This year it is a Sunday so ‘Showa Day’ is actually the following day, given as a holiday in lieu to make up the ‘Golden Week’.
The weather is warm and bright and we are swiftly down to Tarumi Junction and its masses of grey concrete which make up the approach routes to the Akashi Straits Bridge. With its centre span of 1991 meters this is currently the world’s largest suspension bridge and it certainly feels like it as we accelerate up the ramp and feel a fairly stiff crosswind blowing up out of the Inland Sea.

Due to the high toll fee, I don’t normally use the bridge unless it is to show it off to someone who has never seen it, and then only to the first service station/exit at Iwaya. However, we have our sights further afield this year and go straight on past, down the two-lane blacktop at a steady hundred and ten kph. Black Mariah is turning over at about 4000 rpm at this speed and she feels relaxed, with plenty of poke in reserve if necessary. We have spectacular views of Osaka Wan on our left and then as the highway cuts across to the west of Awaji island, equally spectacular views of the azure Seito Naikai, dotted with little fishing vessels. As we approach the mountainous southern end of Awaji, I notice four or five large wind turbines in rotation, making use of the almost constant airstream.

Before we know it we are off Awaji and crossing the Naruto Bridge onto Shikoku and Tokushima Prefecture and before very much longer we have paid our tolls at Naruto Interchange and have pulled up at a Lawsons combini for some caffeine nourishment. I feel a twinge of pain in my back and shoulders and realize that sustained high-speed riding on an un-faired ‘naked’ motorcycle involves considerable physical input. The canned coffee goes down well and we go outside to check the machines. Readers of this blog will recall that last year, our first stop came along with the realization that Akira’s Yamaha had an intermittent fuel leak which was not a welcome development at that stage. No such trouble this year as since that time, the machine has undergone major overhaul work, involving a rebore and head skim/valve grind, carburettor purge and fitting of an industrial-strength oil-cooler in engineer’s blue. The two bikes draw admiring glances from jealous car-drivers. They are _cool_ I must admit...

Then it is off into fairly heavy traffic on a four-lane road leading into and through the city of Tokushima. There is no margin for error as buses, trucks taxis and private cars jockey for position, switching lanes at will. Fortunately, our way to the south on Route 55 is well sign-posted and requires no right or left turns as it proceeds directly through the heart of the city. We are soon across the Katsuura River and the traffic thins considerably as the landscape changes, from commercial outlets and fast-food joints to flooded rice paddies with sparse green shoots of transplanted rice poking through the muddy water like whiskers on a teenage chin. Sometimes we pass a farmer hard at work on his rice transplanter machine, a most weird-looking tractor-like device with high ground clearance and skinny cast wheels, laden with trays of rice shoots. Also, flying proudly from many farmhouse buildings are the gorgeous koi-nobori, the carp streamers which indicate that there are children in the household. Always good to see, these bits of eye-candy form an essential part of the Japanese springtime experience.

As we approach the town of A-Nan I notice three immense, towering, tripod smokestacks and wonder what kind of facility they serve. The road takes a sharp detour to go around the industrial estate and it turns out that they are part of a power generation plant, all battleship-grey steel and dark brown ceramic insulators. There is no smoke emanating today, but the whole place has a sinister cast to it and I am pleased to be away from it as the land begins to rise.

We have picked up a travelling companion clad in natty leathers, riding a very smart Honda CB400 tricked out in streetfighter style. We have fun dicing it with each other through a series of ascending curves and then down the other side through the small town of Mi-Nami to follow a single-track railway to the town of Mu-Gi. The lad on the Honda takes his leave of us here with a cheery wave and we do not see him again.
Now I can smell the sea, or rather the Pacific Ocean, and we soon catch sight of it as the road hugs the coast winding past a series of spectacular inlets, with basaltic grey sandy beaches. It is a lovely road for motorcycles and I begin to feel a deep sense of relaxation and oneness with the universe.

I am rather harshly reminded that relaxing on two wheels is never a good idea, when one of my bêtes noires -- a farmer in a small white pick-up, suddenly pulls out in front of me, gabbling into a mobile and puffing on a gasper, true to form. He gets a sustained blast on the klaxon and rude signs with the fingers as I overtake, but continues on his way oblivious as we enter Kochi Prefecture, tossing the fag-end out in the slipstream for good measure. What a prat...

From here down to the cape the road is blissfully quiet with very little traffic, apart from the odd bus or like-minded motorcyclist. I begin to see signs written in katakana phonetic script advertising something called hoe-ru uotchingu and wonder what on earth it can be. Then I see a water spout a few hundred yards offshore followed by a grey-black humped shape and finally the tail fluke of a surfacing whale. Whale-watching for tourists has now replaced killing them for food and profit in this area. Kochi was at the centre of the Japan whaling industry until the IWC moratorium a quarter-century ago. There have recently been calls from some sources to re-establish commercial whaling as there is evidence that some species like the minke have recovered their numbers sufficiently to sustain it. These calls are countered by shrill opposition which to my mind is more based on emotion than logic. The reality is that when whale meat was seen as a cheap and invaluable source of protein in the post-war decade, Japan was a country impoverished by its reckless charge into the Pacific War and its aftermath. Times have changed and no mistake. A whole generation has grown up never knowing the taste of whale meat. Japan can afford to import anything it wants nowadays. I have tried whale meat just once and was not impressed with its oily texture. I am pretty sure that any attempt to re-establish commercial whaling as a going concern will be doomed to failure, on the grounds that there is no market for the meat, apart from as dog-food which would be disgraceful. No-one in their right mind would choose oily whale over juicy Australian or US beef.
I am tempted to stop and watch the whale myself but the cetacean is moving away from the coast and is soon lost from view.

We round the final bend and a sign announces our arrival at destination. I insist on a photo as proof.

There is but one place to eat, so we go in there and enjoy spaghetti bolognese which is not bad. After repast we take a walk on the rocky shore. Akira comments that the scenery is exactly the same as on the other side of the Pacific in California. I decide to estimate where old Hernando must have sat in Panama to inspire the words of John Keats.

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Afterwards, we remount and set off on the return journey. We have been studying the map and it looks like Route 193 will provide an interesting detour on the way back to Tokushima. This involves retracing our path as far as Awakainan, where the farmer nearly got me, and then turning left up the valley of the Umibe river.

At first this seems like a great idea, for about half an hour we are haring along a deserted winding country road with a great surface and gorgeous mountain and mixed-deciduous forest views. However this soon comes to an end and the road narrows to almost a single track with passing places. It also begins to wend up wards through dense cedars and the available light is cut down sharply. We keep going,onward and upward with a short 10 km detour to take a look at a famous waterfall, the Todoroki Taki. Unfortunately there is hardly any water in it, making the experience feel a bit like the pub with no beer. By the time we get down from the mountain my shoulders and biceps are aching from the effort of controlling the Kawasaki at low speeds along narrow roads strewn with fallen rocks and my nerves are shot through with the terror of wobbling past sheer drops with no guard rail. We have been at it for about 105 minutes but have only covered about 50 km as the crow flies. Madness...

At the first hint of civilisation I locate a vending machine and quench my raging thirst. Akira says he’d like to do it again sometime...

If I wasn’t so tired I’d have a good mind to laughingly fell him with a right cross...

The next leg of the journey is considerably easier, along the winding course of the Naka River in valleys of deep green. There is not much water in it though, and a considerable amount of silt deposits. In a few places hydraulic excavators made by the company that employs us both are at work in attempts to dig out the watercourse. Maybe they are going to dump the silt in the sea, where it really belongs. We soon see the reason for all this -- a dam. This is a problem which is becoming more and more evident each passing year. There is only one river in all of Japan which does not have a single dam along its course, which is a real shame. That fortunate water course is the Shimanto-gawa in southern Kochi Prefecture. I’d like to see it some day but there has been no time this trip. The state of the other rivers is no dam good at all...

At dusk we pull off the road in the township of Uragawa, to have dinner at a roadhouse. This comes in the form of miso-ramen and deep-fried kara-age chicken and has never been so welcome. Hunger is definitely the best seasoning of all, and no mistake.

After retracing our course through the neon-bright city of Tokushima and back over the bridges along the expressway to ‘our’ island, I bid goodbye to Akira. As I pull up outside our house at 21:15, I check the odometer. 13 hours and 570 kilometers is a new single day record for me--and it feels like it. It surely does...

Newcastle United are slouching to a miserable mediocre mid-table position in the Premier League, looking likely to finish with a record low points total for the club. The end of the season 2006 – 7 can’t come quickly enough for me. At least there will be derby games with the Mackems next season as Sunderland are guaranteed promotion either as Championship champions or runners-up. All I can do is pray for more scoreboards like this...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sakura, Sakura...

Cherry blossom is everywhere now, at least in Western Japan. Always a welcome sight, letting us know that Spring has truly arrived. We had a slight cold snap after my last blog entry on March 4th, reminding me that the old saying of ‘Ne’er cast a clout, till May be out’ should be modified to ‘… till March is out’ to suit the climate of Japan. This does show us that the world was indeed a colder place in 1732 , when the saying was coined. There is some dispute as to whether May refers to the 5th month or to the May tree or hawthorn, which blooms in late April, but in either case if you leave your winter woolies on that long you are going to be somewhat sweaty. Another, less welcome harbinger of Spring is the phenomenon of kohsa, or fine yellow sand loess borne on the prevailing wind from the Yellow River region of mainland China. It makes formerly clear views very hazy and settles everywhere, making freshly washed cars look dirty. Perhaps the Three Gorges dam will make a difference by irrigating desert areas, but I doubt it. For those who suffer from it, this is also the season of kafunshoh, or pollen allergy, a condition similar to hay fever. The main culprit is the cedar tree, which is found everywhere in Japan in vast monoculture forests. These were planted as part of a post-war government scheme to become self-sufficient in timber for construction purposes, displacing the natural mixed-deciduous forests to a large extent. As millions of households had been destroyed by American bombing during the Pacific war, this would seem to have been a sensible policy. However, no-one foresaw the vast boom in Japan’s GDP and the gradual appreciation of the yen vs the dollar that was coming. As a result, it is cheaper to import lumber from North America and the domestic industry can hardly be described as a going concern. Most of the labour force are close to retirement age and lumber is not an attractive proposition for the young techie generation, along with agriculture in general. So the cedar trees stand uncut on the hills and mountains in serried ranks, giving off pollen by the bucketful in Spring to irritate the eyes and noses of sufferers. It even affected me to a certain extent last year, bringing on sneezing fits two or three times a day. So far in 2007, I have been OK but there is a way to go yet. I did hear that some enterprising botanical researcher had developed a kind of vaccine for the cedar tree which will suppress its pollen-producing tendency, but the size of the task in inoculating each individual tree must beggar belief.

Last time I blogged I was hopeful that Newcastle United were going to bring some joy to their long-suffering supporters and get into the last eight of the UEFA Cup. They started off well enough on March 8th, beating the Dutch side AZ Alkmaar by four goals to two at SJP in the first leg. Surely, we all thought, surely they can defend a two-goal lead next Thursday. Well, they could not, going down 2-0 to allow AZ the passage on the away goals rule. Since then, they have lost twice in the League, 2-0 away at Charlton Athletic and 0-1 to Manchester City at home last Saturday. This latest reversal has seen the fans turn against the manager and chairman in great numbers. One man marched onto the pitch and tore the remainder of his season ticket to shreds in front of the dug-out. Another did the same thing with his replica team shirt, not a cheap item. Some people take the fortunes of their team very seriously indeed. To make matters worse, the rival team Sunderland have been sweeping all before them and are now being given odds of 1-2 for promotion to the Premier League. It is not the best of times to be a Toon supporter, but (according to The Sporting Life) the club have just announced plans to increase the capacity of SJP to more than 60,000 along with some very posh housing development as part of a £300-million development scheme, at almost the same time as announcing an operating loss of £6.9 million, mainly due to inept player trading and amortisation. All of this will be done by ‘external financing’ and is still subject to official approval. They are obviously looking into a rosy-pink crystal ball or they are on some wondrous kind of hallucinogenic.

‘... But who has won? … At last the Dodo said “Everybody has won and all must have prizes...’

The Six Nations Championship turned out to be a kind of Lewis Carrollian caucus race in the end, with the Frenchies nicking it at the death by 3 points but every team ended up with something to shout about, even the wooden spoon men, Scotland. All good stuff and a good advert for the noble ‘game for hooligans played by gentlemen’.

England are in the Super Eight stage of the Cricket World Cup, being contested in the West Indies. Having won one and lost one match, they are being given odds of 14-1 to win outright. On the other hand Australia are at 11-10. I think the bookies know what they are doing... However, the series has been overshadowed by the murder of the Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, after they were eliminated from the competition by Ireland, not normally thought of as a cricketing powerhouse. There is heavy suspicion that a gambling syndicate were involved, possibly because the dead man was about to blow the whistle on a vast global match-fixing syndicate. A very dirty business, however you look at it.

Here in Japan, we have all been horrified by the grisly murder of a young English teacher, Lindsay Ann Hawker, in Ichikawa, near Tokyo. She was found naked and battered in a bathtub filled with sand on the balcony of an apartment inhabited by one Tatsuya Ichihashi, who is now the chief suspect. According to the reports he fled barefoot when the police came to the apartment, acting on a tip-off. Quite how he managed to evade capture is anyone’s guess, but he is still at large. Ichihashi is the one pictured left below. If you see him, please inform the police as to where and when. They really need to talk to him.

The most recent news is that the suspect Ichihashi was involved in the stalking of another female English teacher last year, whose complaints to the police fell on deaf ears. The young woman was sufficiently traumatized to quit both her job and the country. Unbelievable incompetence by Chiba’s finest. Sitting on their hands while a genuine threat was reported and allowing a barefoot suspect to get clean away. Shinjirarenai!
The unfortunate Lindsay appears to have been under the impression that Japan is a perfectly ‘safe’ country and there was no risk in going to the apartment of a total stranger to give him a private English lesson. Foolhardy, to say the least. Japan is quite ‘safe’ on the surface but there are dark undercurrents to the society which manifest themselves from time to time. Some five or six years ago, a British night-club hostess, one Lucie Blackman was murdered in similar fashion and then dismembered and dumped in a seaside cave, crudely encased in concrete. The trial of her alleged killer, one Joji Obara is still going on, though an official ruling is expected soon. Unfortunately, this latest terrible event has given the lower-end English tabloids (like The Sun) an excuse to print all sorts of garbage about how Japan is a nation packed with sadistic male perverts whose main jollies are got by humiliation and torture of women. I’m not saying that people like that don’t exist here but really, this is pretty rich stuff from a country which produced Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Dr Harold Shipman (Doctor Death)...

The words ‘glass houses’ and ‘throw stones’ spring readily to mind. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story...

I should try and finish on a cheerful note so it is with a glad heart that I note the ‘Prods’ and ‘Taigs’ of Ulster (Norn ’Iron) are finally in sight of a lasting agreement. Former bitter enemies, the DUP's ‘Reverend’ Ian Paisley and his Sinn Feinn counterpart, Gerry Adams have finally agreed on a devolution deal and will sit together in Stormont Castle starting May 8th.
To quote the good Reverend:

We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future.

In looking to that future we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, emerging.

We owe it to them to craft and build the best future possible and ensure there is genuine support for those who are still suffering.

Now that’s more like it lads! The Lion can lie down with the Lamb after all...
For some strange reason, I think it is really going to work this time. We shall see.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Early Spring

March the Fourth it is and about time I put something up on this blog. After all it’s supposed to be an abbreviation of web-log, implying something updated pretty regularly if not daily. A good excuse might be that this 17-inch G4 PowerBook was out of action from Dec 31st until last weekend--a period of about eight weeks. I was able to keep computing due to the generosity of my daughter, Aya, who sportingly allowed me to set up an account on her iBook and use it in the evenings and weekends--so it isn’t really a good excuse. No the real reason is simply that I’ve been overwhelmed with part-time work and have been kept busy up till about 22:00 every night since we came back from our New Year break in Kyushu. Just why I behave like this became apparent when my partner in this translation/proofreading/rewriting work came around with a chit for the taxman which showed that the PowerBook has paid for itself four times over with the work I’ve done on it since assuming ownership about a year ago. Mustn’t grumble then...
The reason why the machine was out of action so long came down to my fault in mis-diagnosing the problem. Once it was correctly diagnosed, the good folks at the Apple Store, Shinsaibashi, Osaka took it in for a week and restored it to health, simultaneously relieving me of the ¥en equivalent of about sixty-five quid for parts and labour. A learning experience--the nature of machines. They break sometimes and then it costs money to fix them.
The last time I blogged, just before Christmas, I was expressing hope that the England cricket team were going to turn themselves around and at least win one Test Match in the Ashes series. Well, enough said about that, though they did set a dubious kind of record in the least number of days a team has ever retained the hallowed trophy. To their credit, once the Ashes debacle was over they did record one victory over the Oz in a one-day international.
Then it was the turn of the England rugby team to set hearts a-flutter as they comprehensively demolished Scotland by forty-two points to twenty in the Calcutta Cup with the great Jonny Wilkinson scoring a record twenty-seven points in the course of the game. One try, two conversions, five penalties and a drop goal has a nice spread to it. That was on February 3rd at Twickenham and they were looking good for the Six Nations championship. Since then they have laboured to an unconvincing win over Italy and been well and truly turned over (43-13) by the Irish by at Croke Park. It was fitting in a way that the Irish should have won the fixture since the last time an English ‘team’ was at the venue in 1920, it was the Black-and-Tans (and the RIC and Auxiliaries) firing on the crowd and players at a Gaelic football match, killing fourteen unarmed civilians. This was in reprisal for the activities of Michael Collins and his ‘Twelve Apostles’ who had successfully assassinated fourteen English secret-servicemen and military intelligence officers (known as the Cairo Gang) earlier the same day.

I do hope that both nations can now move on from such frightful events, after eighty-seven years amd let bygones be bygones.

Whatever the poetic nature of the victory for the Irish, the scale of the loss for England has been devastating, particularly as our main weapon, the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, was kept very quiet all match. The latest news is that he has a hamstring injury, which is a bit unsettling as we take on France at Twickenham on March 11th. It will be a do-or die affair, particularly as Ireland will probably have clinched the Triple Crown the day before by beating Scotland.
Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, my main squeeze Newcastle United FC were quietly lifting themselves out of the relegation mire with a series of gritty performances, probably the best of which was against Liverpool at St James’ Park on February 10th, when Martins and Solano scored a goal each to win the game two-one. It was especially good after they had gone behind in the sixth minute to a soft goal gobbled up by Craig Bellamy (aka the Gob of Glamorgan) who was obliged to leave the Toon under a cloud a couple of seasons back. A frightful bounder, by all accounts, but a handy goal-poacher nevertheless.

As it stands Newcastle are in tenth place in the Premier League, exactly mid-table with a record of:

P 29 (Home) W7, D5, L3 F 23 A 17 (Away) W3, D2, L9 F 11 A 20 Pts 37 Goal diff -3

To be sure, I have seen a lot worse but it’s hardly the kind of stuff which inspires blind faith. All Geordie expectations are now on the UEFA Round of 16 which sees The Toon take on the Dutch side AZ Alkmaar at SJP on Thursday March 8th. The away fixture in The Netherlands is on the following Thursday. It is our only hope of any tinware this season and hopes are high, particularly as the injury list is showing signs of improvement. Even Michael Owen has been kicking a ball again. More to the point is the fact that the great rivals Sunderland AFC have hit a purple patch under Roy Keane and have taken 26 points from the last thirty to look very likely candidates for an early return to the Premiership. Bragging rights are at stake all across the North-East of England. In the unlikely event that we do win the thing it will be the first major trophy brought back since the halcyon days of 1969, when the competition was known as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

Howay the Lads.

As for the family, my eldest son made us all proud by graduating from Nishinomiya Kofu High School last Saturday, while his younger brother made sure of his place at Amagasaki High School in late February. For some reason known only to himself, the cho-nan decided an appropriate way to celebrate graduation would be to dye his hair the colour of straw, which did not amuse his father very much. His appearance reminded me of Heinrich Hoffman’s character Struwwelpeter (Straw-headed Peter).

Ah well, boys will be boys, one more year of teens for him.

The weather is warming up fast and some of the first midges of the season met their untimely end on the face-shield of my Arai helmet on Sunday. Usually they don’t make an appearance till about April. It doesn’t bode well for the summer, be prepared for a scorcher...