Saturday, November 15, 2008

What I did on my holidays, Summer ’08

If I don’t get round to this soon, it will be ’09 so no time like the present. I was a bit later in getting across to the UK this year, on account of having to go up to Saitama to support our son competing in the All-Japan Inter-High Track & Field Championships. He ended up taking 6th place in the discus throw and 4th in the javelin, which for him was a little disappointing as he is used to winning things at the regional level. As his parents we were very proud that he had made the best eight, it is easy to forget that he is still only sixteen. Since the summer he has won in a national event, the All-Japan Youth tournament in which he took gold in both discus and javelin, setting a new tournament record in the latter event, and also (on a different occasion) finally exceeding 50 metres in the discus throw. We are full of hope that he will continue onward and upward next season.

When I finally got to Newcastle Airport it was a cool evening, but the next day it began to rain which set the pattern for the next three weeks. Rain, rain rain. There were a few sunny intervals, but there was not a single day without some precipitation. As a result, I spent a lot of time indoors and did not get out and about as much as I normally do. My sister had decided to remodel their kitchen and dining room by removing the partition wall and installing an RSJ to bear the weight of the upper floor, to leave themselves with a kitchen/diner. As a result I spent a large part of the first week performing the services of a builder’s labourer, removing breeze blocks and sundry rubble and generally doing muscle work.

As this work involved disablement of the cooking facilities, I ate my meals with my parents, while my sister and her husband ate out a lot. One morning we had a brunch barbecue but the rain intervened, which gave the opportunity of an ‘Only in Britain’ kind of picture.

The work progressed up to the point where everything was safe but incomplete and then it was a change of venue, down to my old school where my sister’s theatre group were rehearsing for a musical. Time was running short so I volunteered my services as a carpenter, helping to build the set for the show which was called ‘A Slice of Saturday Night’ and takes place in a night club.

I did manage to get to St James’ park on two occasions, the first of these was for an ‘Open Day’ when I also bought two tickets for the first home match of the season. The second was the match itself which was against Bolton Wanderers. I and most of the crowd were in good voice at first, full of expectancy as the team had performed well against Manchester United at Old Trafford on the previous Sunday, coming away with a creditable 1-1 draw. However, Bolton had not read the script and put in a gritty spoiling performance to blunt Newcastle’s cutting edge. The Toon were struggling and the away supporters were beginning to out-shout us. When we conceded a penalty with 25 minutes left on the clock things looked grim indeed. The indomitable Irishman Shay Given was having none of it though. He somehow saved the spot-kick with his legs and we breathed again. This galvanised the crowd and the whole stadium was rocking when Michael Owen scored the winning goal on 71 minutes to send us home happy. Four points from two games is a good start. Things have not continued in that happy vein though, and the club are currently up for sale, with a temporary manager (Joe Kinnear) in charge, sitting in the relegation zone. Today’s home game against Wigan Athletic is a real six-pointer, as they are known.

In the final week, the weather gave the impression that it was going to improve and I gratefully accepted the offer to borrow a motorcycle from a good friend of mine intending to use it to travel south to Newcastle-Under-Lyme for the first part of an annual reunion with four old friends from UCW Aberystwyth. The machine is a Suzuki Bandit, customised in ‘Streetfighter’ fashion with an air/oil cooled 1200 cc engine. A very handsome piece of kit indeed.

When I set off, the sun was shining and all was well. I had downloaded a route from the AA which avoided motorways which seemed like a good idea at the time. This led me through the Yorkshire towns of Harrogate and Halifax and the traffic was horrendous. Large-scale roadworks had put a lot of diversions in place and my AA route gradually became worthless. Eventually I headed up over Saddleworth Moor (of Moors Murders notoriety) in thick fog and light drizzle. Life was becoming quite unpleasant, but I pressed on and came down into Oldham where I was able to find a filling station and refuel. I had noticed that filling stations are now much thinner on the ground than they used to be and the Suzuki was running on reserve. Dusk was falling as I headed into the labyrinth that is Tameside and it was here that I totally lost the plot, eventually giving up and seeking help at Hyde police station. Here I was put right by a charming young WPC and was able to resume my journey via a short high speed blast down the M65. It had stopped drizzling by now and I was feeling somewhat happier, though I was seriously behind schedule. I had not seen a public telephone all day, they seem to have become an extinct species due to the rise of the mobile, and I knew my friends would be getting concerned. Then I was informed that the road to Leek was closed and all traffic had to use the Buxton road. As the road wound higher and higher, it soon transpired that this was the infamous Cat & Fiddle pass and I had to negotiate it in thick fog and drizzle. Great, just what the doctor ordered. Thank all that is wonderful for the man who invented the cat’s eye...
I finally arrived at my friend’s house at 22.40, about nine hours after setting out. A hot shower and a few stiff drinks later, I was feeling somewhat better.

We continued our journey to Aberystwyth by car the next day, the motorcycle’s charm had worn a bit thin by then. It was locked up in my friend’s garage and left there. My friends got a lot of mileage out of my odyssey, it will be a long time before I hear the last of it.

On the return journey I used the M6 motorway to Tebay and then across the magnificent expanse of Bowes Moor and so on to Durham via Barnard Castle and Staindrop. A lovely ride. What a contrast... Lessons learned so are rarely forgotten.

On my final day, I visited the local flea-market, known as the ‘Casbah’ and in the evening went to see ‘A Slice of Saturday Night’. This was the final night and was a good show, a kind of Cockney version of ‘Grease’ mixed with ‘American Graffiti’, which did not pull any punches. Afterwards, there was the usual after-show party which meant I did not get to bed on time and rising early for the flight back was a real struggle.

PS Newcastle Utd 2 – 2 Wigan Athletic Hmmm...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

As I used the motorcycle the day before to go and watch my son in a Track & Field event, and petroleum spirit prices are the highest I have ever seen them, I decide to use the mountain-bike again for my Sunday outing. ‘You are mad’ declares my wife, shaking her head in pity, ‘It’s over thirty degrees out there.’ My daughter chips in with ‘It’s like Lawrence of Arabia crossing Sinai—and you haven’t even got a camel’.

However, I dismiss their talk as idle female chatter, drink plenty of water and set off, with more water in my backpack. My target is Tsukuhara-ko, a large reservoir up in the mountains, which can be reached by using a special cycle road and is usually a pleasant ride. Today there is little wind and the heat haze off the tarmac is fierce, but I reason to myself that it will be cooler among the rice paddies and the irrigation water.

The descent into the valley of the Akashi river is refreshing, but as soon as the route levels out again the heat returns. After I have covered about 8 kilometres, I realize that the womenfolk were right and this is crazy. So I pull into another of my favourite temples, Cho-fuku-ji, and appreciate the wisdom of the The Buddha who advises me on the right kind of activity for a day like today.

The guardians of the temple, the Ni-Oh sama seem to be admonishing me for my folly in venturing out in such conditions.

On my return journey, I take frequent rests and take some more photos with the mobile. One pine tree with a posture problem reminds me of my favourite comedy duo, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

And the hot weather is good for some things anyway.

And just before the uphill push to where we live, I drop by the temple where we rang in the New Year on a freezing cold December 31st, just half a year ago.

As I approach home, another bit of wisdom enters my consciousness, from Noel Coward.

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire,
to tear their clothes off and perspire.
It's one of those rules that the biggest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry and one must avoid
its ultry-violet ray --
Papalaka-papalaka-papalaka-boo. (Repeat)
Digariga-digariga-digariga-doo. (Repeat)
The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts,
Because they're obviously, absolutely nuts --

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don't care to, the Chinese wouldn't dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one,
But Englishmen detest a siesta,
In the Philippines there are lovely screens,
to protect you from the glare,
In the Malay states there are hats like plates,
which the Britishers won't wear,
At twelve noon the natives swoon, and
no further work is done -
But Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

It's such a surprise for the Eastern eyes to see,
That though the British are effete,
they're quite impervious to heat,
When the white man rides, every native hides in glee,
Because the simple creatures hope he will
impale his solar topee on a tree.
Bolyboly-bolyboly-bolyboly-baa. (Repeat)
Habaninny-habaninny-habaninny-haa. (Repeat)
It seems such a shame that when the English claim the earth
That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth -

Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun.
They put their scotch or rye down, and lie down.
In the jungle town where the sun beats down,
to the rage of man or beast,
The English garb of the English sahib merely gets a bit more creased.
In Bangkok, at twelve o'clock, they foam at the mouth and run,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen, go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit deplores this stupid habit.
In Hong Kong, they strike a gong, and fire off a noonday gun.
To reprimand each inmate, who's in late.
In the mangrove swamps where the python romps
there is peace from twelve till two.
Even caribous lie down and snooze, for there's nothing else to do.
In Bengal, to move at all, is seldom if ever done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Which brings to mind more memories of a certain Yorkshire gas-fitter, who appropriated the title of the ditty for a world tour in 1970. I went to the Newcastle City Hall to see this show. My mother said I was never the same again after that. Not surprising really...

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Go West Young Man

On the very last day of Golden Week, May 6th, I decided to get the mountain-bike out again and go for another ride, along the coast to the west this time, from Akashi, to wherever it feels good to turn back. I have heard that there is a nice cycle path along the coast, well away from any road traffic and it is this that I go in search of.

I first head south, heading down the valley-side through a patchwork of terraced newly-irrigated rice-fields and various other cultivated tracts, past a white-washed Zen-dera and finally emerge on Route 175. This is the main thoroughfare between Akashi on the Pacific coast and Maizuru on the Japan Sea and, as usual, is stiff with traffic. There is no choice now but to stick with it till I reach Route 2 so I put on as much speed as I can on the bumpy pavement, always wary of the unexpected--like old ladies stepping out from behind bus-shelters. They are remarkably good at that kind of thing, unfortunately.

Route 2 is reached without mishap and thankfully crossed at the zebra-crossing which ‘cuck-oo’s at me as the cyclist/pedestrian light illuminates in green. As I head towards Akashi Fishing Port, the world becomes a nicer place, as the hum of traffic gradually recedes in my wake. After crossing the San-Yo railway line at the level crossing, the streets become narrower and even a mountain-bike seems like an excessively large vehicle to be on them. This is the _old_ part of Akashi and probably has not really changed much since the early 19th century, in terms of street layout.

I emerge onto the coast road and am immediately confronted with the evidence of fishing-industrial-man. Old hawsers are piled up at the side of the road, along with fishing nets, trawl cables, octopus pots and sundry tackle. The road is pot-holed and all the buildings have a scruffy look about them. Deja-vu--it is just like Obama, but there are no hordes of jeering urchins to contend with, thankfully. I pull into the harbour to see if the cycling path leads out of it. Lots of moored fishing boats—but no cycling path.

I proceed westwards past a man waving red & white flags to guide traffic past some roadworks, where they appear to be repairing a gas main. Soon the road turns to the right but the cycle track begins dead ahead, by a stand of gnarled pine trees backing on to a beach of white sand. There are families picknicking and barbecuing and groups of young people simply hanging out in the sunshine on this fine but hazy day, with Awaji-shima just visible in the distance.

I have been well-informed—it is a pleasant ride along the beaches. Here and there I come across some kinds of working activity—not everyone is on holiday. There are men waist-deep in water with chest-high waders wielding wicked looking rake-like implements as they harvest the shallows for shellfish of some description. At the point where the river Akane meets the sea, there is a man out in the water driving a power-shovel, heaping up berms of silt and sand. I watch him for a while, but am at a loss to understand why he is out there.

The cycle path continues for another couple of kilometres, until it merges with a normal two-lane blacktop. There are some palm trees here and a small fishing port, but no signs to indicate the name of the place. So, in my best polite Japanese, I make enquiries to three pretty young ladies who are having a beach picnic.
Me: Er, Suminasen ga... Kono tokoro wa doko desu ka? Mich ga mayou desu kedo...
Excuse me, can you tell me the name of this place? I’m a little bit lost...
Them: Hora gaijin da!
Look, it’s a foreigner!
Me: Sigh. (Repeat question)
Them (Giggle) Eigo wa wakaranai kedo
We don’t understand English
Me: Nihongo wo hanashiteimasu! Kiite! (Repeat question)
I’m speaking Japanese! Listen!
Them: Ah so desu ne. Mezurashii desu ne. Gaikokujin to Nishongo wa... Kochira wa Ei ga Shima desu.
Them: It's true! Unusual eh? A foreigner and Japanese... This is Ei ga Shima...
Me: Arigato gozaimasu. So desu ka. Kore wa sanzui hen to Edo no E to ido no i desu ka (draws kanji in air with finger)
Thank you. Is that so! So that’s the water radical with the E of Edo and then the i of ido is it?
Them: So desu yo. Heiiirr-- gaijin wa kanji dekimasu... (giggle)
That’s right. (Sound of disbelief) the foreigner can do kanji...

I thank them again and cycle off up the road to where I know I will meet the Sanyo railway. This place is only 25 miles from Kobe, the oldest international port in Japan, but we might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Hick towns are the same all over the world it seems. I know it well. My home land in perfidious Blighty is full of them. For sure...

I stop to take a look at a nice old Shinto shrine called Sumi-yoshi Jinja (West Ei ga Shima) and decide to thank the gods for keeping me safe.

I rattle the bell rope and say my piece, but am then unable to locate the offertory box to deposit my ¥10 votive offering. I finally give up and leave it on the step beneath the bell.

At the Sanyo railway I turn right and follow it back towards Akashi, but before reaching there I drop in at Choh-koh-ji, a Buddhist temple overlooking the sea.

It has a nice old gateway and inside, a rather splendid statue of Fudo-Myo –O

"Fudo is the Buddhist divinity of wisdom and fire. He is the principal deity of the great kings. Fudo is often called upon for protection during dangerous times. He is said to live in a temple on top of Mount Okiyama. Fudo is often shown to be an ugly old man surrounded in fire. He has a sword in his right hand to sever material connections and a rope in his left hand, that he uses to tie demons with. His sword is also used several times a year at Akakura in a healing ritual. Anyone who goes to see him is said to be punished with blindness. The most famous legend of Fudo claims that a young girl, named O Ai San, prayed to him for 100 days, naked under a waterfall near his shrine at Ohara in the province of Awa. Once she had returned home, her father, whom she had prayed for, was cured of a lingering illness.

He is typically depicted with a sword for subduing demons in his right hand and a rope for catching and binding them in his left hand. He has a fearsome blue visage and is surrounded by flames, representing the purification of the mind. He is often depicted seated or standing on a rock to show his immovability. His hair commonly has seven knots and is draped on his left side, a servant hairstyle in Buddhist iconography. He is frequently depicted with two protruding fangs. One tooth points down, representing his compassion to the world, and one tooth points up, representing his passion for truth."
(Quotation from Wikipedia)

I take a left turn and head toward the township of Nishi-Akashi, thinking to add a little variety to my route back. Some dodging through back lanes brings me out onto the rice-paddies which line the Akashi River, though some of them are being dug up for housing development (if I am reading the signs right).

Last stop before home is the human gas station again.

This time I try the pork & cheese burger, a recent addition to the menu. Nice--but a tad spicy, so I drink plenty of water before setting off on the last lap. Water is free at McDonalds...

Ei ga Shima made is not as much of a challenge as the Suma-Dera run, but it’s a pleasant ride out.

Gets the heart going a bit...

I’ll do it again quite soon.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Anno Domini

On Tuesday 6 May at 02.03 BST (GMT + 1) an event took place which keenly reminded me of the passage of time. My niece Caroline gave birth to a beautiful baby girl making my sister and brother-in-law grandparents for the first time and me a Great-Uncle. A wonderful happy event for our respective families of course, but one which made me realize that our time here is limited and I still have not achieved all that I wish to during my time on this mortal coil.
Ella Louise weighed at 8.12 lbs and was remarkably good-looking at birth, just as her grandmother was and unlike her great-uncle who was decidedly simian in appearance, by all accounts. Some would argue that nothing much has changed in the interim period...
She arrived here with us 12 months after her mother’s grandfather had passed away, due to a heart attack--almost to the same hour--which strikes me as uncanny...
Behold—Ella Louise.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Grand Day Out

In Golden Week, as is our wont, Akira and I went on a long motorcycle day-trip. This time we headed north and east a bit with our destination set as the town of Obama which has been in the news of late.

We set off at 7 am under cloudy skies with a bit of wind. The sun comes out about an hour later and warms things up a bit. Our trip north through the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture is relatively unimpeded, as the typhoon damage of a few years ago has now been repaired and the roads are relatively quiet.

At about 10.30 we pull up by the harbour of Maizuru and enter a coffee shop advertising Moh-ningu Setto which is bacon and eggs, toast, jam and a nice cup of Joe with a refill if okyaku-sama feels like it. Maizuru is the home base of a substantial portion of the Maritime Self-Defence Force and the harbour is full of military boats of all classes. The most impressive vessel is an Atago-class guided missile destroyer, equipped with the Aegis weapons system. These are relative newcomers to the MSDF and are supposed to be able to knock out incoming ballistic missiles, specifically the Taepodong 1 of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. One of these frightful things was lobbed without warning over Northern Japan a few years ago, its third stage landing in the Pacific Ocean, fortunately without hitting anything. The official line from Pyongyang was that they had successfully launched a Sputnik type satellite, which was now broadcasting patriotic music to the world.

Japan’s response was to build two more Aegis-equipped destroyers, the Atago and the Ashigara in addition to the four Kongo-class vessels already deployed. As might be expected, Pyongyang took this as a provocative act, and unleashed a storm of virulent invective, ‘seas of fire’ and all the rest of it. Quite charming chaps are the North Koreans. I take a photo through the shop window, rather than risk arrest for spying if I take one close to the water. The Aegis system is no doubt good at what it is designed to do, but that did not prevent one of these vessels from ramming a fishing boat last month, near Yokosuka, with the loss of two lives. The bodies of the skipper and first mate will probably never be recovered.

After repast we take a short look around the Museum of Bricks which is quite an interesting experience for me. My first paying job after graduation from university was as a muscle-worker in a primitive old-style brickworks and the memories come flooding back to me.

Then we set out on the 35 km final leg along the Japan Sea coast to Obama. It takes us about an hour as the narrow road is clogged with my favourite type of vehicle, farmers in little white pick-up trucks, jabbering away with the mobile in one hand and smoking with the other, presumably steering with the knees. No sooner do we pass one or two than more of the horrid things are ahead. They appear to hunt in packs, so I am very relieved when we turn left into the city of Obama. This place has become quite famous recently, because of its support for the Democrat Presidential candidate-in-waiting, Barack Obama. Normal people would call this place Kohama, but this is Fukui Prefecture, the ‘backside’ of Japan, and they have their own way of doing things.

The road leading to the sea-front is pot-holed and messy with crushed drink cans and fag-packets littering the gutters. Most buildings seem to be in need of a lick of paint but in contrast the beach is wide and white, free of trash with crystal-clear seawater. After all, it is a fishing port and that is what they care about most. As it is May Day, most places are closed, but we do find a fisheries co-operative market open where we partake of some excellent sushi and I buy a bottle of local shochu hooch as a souvenir.

We go for a walk on the beach where I am accosted by a horde of local urchins who treat me like an extra-terrestrial, though they are quite friendly with it. At the car-park I take one photo, just to prove I have been here.

I have seen enough and we return to Kyoto and thence to Hyogo via Route 162, which is an excellent road for motorcycles with fast sweeping curves and fabulous scenery. It was fun going to Obama and fun coming back, but I have mixed feelings about actually being there.

Our last stop before home is in the city of Kameoka, at an Oh-sho restaurant, where we have some of their famous fried chicken, Chinese dumplings and spicy noodles. Just the job on a day like today.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My other bike

Before I got back into motorcycling, I was already enamoured of the 2-wheel way of going about things. This was with the mountain bike method and the machine you see below has been in my possession for about thirteen years now.

She was on sale at the local bicycle emporium at a hefty discount because something had fallen on her during the Great Hanshin Earthquake (January 17 1995) causing a minor blemish somewhere to her paintwork. I had eyes only for her suspension fork and aluminium alloy handlebar and gladly ponied up the necesssary yen.

The picture was taken yesterday in the forecourt of Koumei-ji, one of the many Buddhist temples to be found in the town of Akashi, due south of us, near the end of a 50-km ride I sometimes do for health and spiritual enhancement. Koumei-ji sustained a severe clattering in said seismic event but I am pleased to note that it has finally been fully restored.

My destination though, was a much older temple, called Suma-dera, said to have been established in 886 by the saint Monkyo, which is the headquarters of the Sumadera School of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It is almost exactly 25 km from our front door, which makes for a satisfying pedal-powered outing.

To get there I first head south, towards the Akashi Straits and one of the first things I encounter is a long downhill stretch where I can free-wheel for about half a kilometer. When I used to have one fitted, the speedometer once registered 34 mph towards the bottom of this section of the route.

Henry Charles Beeching knew all about it:

WITH lifted feet, hands still,
I am poised, and down the hill
Dart, with heedful mind;

The air goes by in a wind.

Swifter and yet more swift,

Till the heart with a mighty lift

Makes the lungs laugh, the throat cry:--

'O bird, see; see, bird, I fly.

'Is this, is this your joy?
O bird, then I, though a boy

For a golden moment share

Your feathery life in air!'

Say, heart, is there aught like this
In a world that is full of bliss?
Tis more than skating, bound

Steel-shod to the level ground.

Speed slackens now, I float
Awhile in my airy boat;

Till, when the wheels scarce crawl,

My feet to the treadles fall.

Alas, that the longest hill

Must end in a vale; but still,

Who climbs with toil, wheresoe'er,

Shall find wings waiting there.

‘Going down Hill on a Bicycle, a Boy’s Song’ was written in joy to celebrate one of life’s simple pleasures. As long as I can appreciate things like that, I feel I will never grow old.

At the end of the incline there is a fairly sharp right-hander and I am pleased that I adjusted the front brake cable prior to departure. The ears ‘pop’ as I enter the Ikawa valley, I am now almost at sea-level having just descended over 200 metres in less than half a minute. From here the track follows the course of the Ikawa river until its confluence with the Akashi river and then into the somewhat scruffy township of Tamatsu. This place used to be a colony of eta or burakumin – the former untouchables of pre-modern Japanese society, who specialised in butchery of cattle and horses and also leather-tanning. As the Buddha forbade the killing of living things, these poor unfortunates were placed at the very lowest rank on the totem-pole and were obliged to make their dwelling places in the least desirable areas.

We are soon pedalling through the leafy entrance to Akashi Park in the lee of the castle wall and I hear the ‘clack’ of shogi pieces where the old men vie with each other to win at Japanese chess. As today, April 29th—Showa Day-- is the official start of Golden Week and is a fine spring day, the park has plenty of visitors, so progress is somewhat slower.

I am soon through the town and on to the sea front, with the heady tang of salt air and the magnificent sight of the Akashi Straits Bridge.

Cycling is more pleasurable now, away from busy roads and I am soon wafting past the artificial beaches of Okura Kaigan and Maiko Azur to the fishing port of Tarumi, where we spent the first five years of our life in Kobe.

Before very much longer I reach Shioya, where Somerset Maugham once lived as a noted foreign celebrity and guest of the Japanese Empire, in the heady days (for some) of the nineteen-thirties. Now I am back beside the coastal highway which is thick with traffic and I try to breathe in as little as possible.

Before the final uphill approach to Suma-Dera I pause for a swig from the water-bottle which is refreshing. Almost all the houses are new-looking, as this place resembled post-war Dresden after the 1995 disaster. I park the bicycle and lock it up, then enter the temple grounds.

There is a lot to see here, but one of my favourite places is the garden with its statues of the samurai horsemen, Taira no Atsumori and Naozane Kumagai at the battle of Ichi-no-Tani.

I also like the two-level pagoda with the five wise monkeys at its base.

During the course of my visit I get through about ¥125 in votive offerings and purchases of candles and incense sticks, set to burn in special places in hope of good favour from Siddartha Gotama, who in the fullness of time became the Buddha.
My final stop before departure is before the statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon, or Guan Yin--the Goddess of Mercy.

“One Buddhist legend presents Guan Yin as vowing to never rest until she had freed all sentient beings from samsara, reincarnation. Despite strenuous effort, she realized that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing her plight, gave her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokitesvara attempted to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that her two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha came to her aid and appointed her a thousand arms with which to aid the many. Many Himalayan versions of the tale include eight arms with which Avalokitesvara skillfully upholds the Dharma, each possessing its own particular implement, while more Chinese-specific versions give varying accounts of this number. In China, it is said that fishermen used to pray to her to ensure safe voyages. The titles Guan Yin of the Southern Ocean and 'Guan Yin (of/on) the Island' stem from this tradition”

Quotation from Wikipedia.

It is now 15:40 and time to roll. As I reach Tarumi again I begin to feel somewhat fatigued and realise that it has been a long time since brunch. I notice a road sign indicating respite is at hand, only two kilometres ahead, and at the outskirts of Akashi pull into the human gasoline stand.

A Big Mac has never tasted better – good calorific value at ¥290 a time.

I take a slightly different route through Akashi, to avoid pedalling up the incline which gave such pleasure earlier in the day. In days gone by this slope was the final challenge, but at 53 years of age, you know, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

A final snap of some automotive eye-candy....

One of these days, if I can align a certain set of six numbers, an Alfa-Romeo Spider 2.2 will definitely be on the wish-list. Gorgeous bit of Italian kit.

I arrive home, exhausted, to find the house deserted. I make a welcome cup of tea—the staff of life. As I thankfully swill the last tangy remnants, the telephone rings. It is shewhomustbeobeyed aka spousal unit and daughter who want picking up from the station, now, at once, don’t spare the horses.

So I fire up the Toyota without further ado and do my duty, sweat drying on me, which invokes flaring nostrils and comments as the womenfolk get in the car. Well, they did say NOW...

I enjoyed this little jaunt so much I have resolved to try and do it at least once a month from now on. Can’t do me any harm...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Writing that I like

As I'm a little stuck for something to write about, I thought it might be a good idea to put some of my favourite writing in this blog--my influences if you like. The first of these dates from 1871 or 2 (the precise date is unclear) and is one of those poems that everyone can recite a little bit of:

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might;
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky;
No birds were flying overhead—
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand.
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach;
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said;
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head—
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat;
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat—
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low;
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
And cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need;
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said,
"Do you admire the view?"

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice.
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said;
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

From Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) a work of children's literature by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) whose main job was that of mathematician at Christ Church college, Oxford.

The second of these is a lot shorter and contains what I consider to be sage advice for a young person.

Mary's Son

If you stop to find out what your wages will be
And how they will clothe and feed you,
Willie, my son, don't you go on the Sea.
For the Sea will never need you.

If you ask for the reason of every command,
And argue with people about you,
Willie, my son, don't you go on the Land,
For the Land will do better without you.

If you stop to consider the work you have done
And to boast what your labour is worth, dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie, my son,
But you'll never be wanted on Earth, dear!

Rudyard Kipling 1911. My copy is in a collection of poetry titled Songs for Youth published by Hodder and Stoughton. It is so old the spine is actually decorated with a Buddhist swastika--published long before the National Socialists demonised the image.

The third piece is one of the most famous poems penned by Dylan Thomas:

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

And playing, lovely and watery

And fire green as grass.

And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

The sky gathered again

And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,

In the sun born over and over,

I ran my heedless ways,

My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Before the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

1946 Dylan Thomas
The last poem in the collection known as Deaths and Entrances, it is probably one of the most fabulous pieces of verse ever written. It inspired a young American boy from Duluth, Minnesota to adopt a new performing name for himself--Bob Dylan.

A Hard rain's gonna fall

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin',
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin',
Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin',
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin',
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony,
I met a white man who walked a black dog,
I met a young woman whose body was burning,
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow,
I met one man who was wounded in love,
I met another man who was wounded with hatred,
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Columbia Records

This is a 7-minute anti nuclear war anthem. It was one of 3 social protest songs Dylan recorded on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The others were "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Masters of War."
Ten years after Dylan recorded his version, Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry recorded a dark, claustrophobic cover as his first ever solo single. In the UK it climbed to #10 in the charts.

Bob Dylan once introduced this song by saying hard rain meant something big was about to happen.

In the liner notes to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan said: "Hard Rain is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it, is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."


Monday, March 10, 2008

First Ride of Spring

The winter this year was/has been (not clear yet as to which tense is appropriate) surprisingly stubborn, with night-time temperatures touching freezing as late as a week-and-a-half ago. This was among such indicators of Spring as the first kafun (cedar pollen) counts on the weather report and the first onslaught of kosa (aeolian dust) borne on the prevailing winds from China. The former does not affect me as much as it does many other people, red-eyed and sneezing their way to work on the train or bus, but the latter fine yellow sand settles everywhere including the back of the throat where it tends to impart a gravelly edge to the voice. In my occupation, EFL teaching, the voice gets used a lot--generally in exhortations to the students to use theirs, even just a little. As a result I have sucked, slurped and inhaled my way through several packs of Lotte throat lozenges in the past couple of weeks. Heap Good Medicine. The northern suburb of Akashi, known as Tamatsu, through which I travel by bus on a Tuesday & Thursday, is home to hundreds of used car dealers, and I have felt really sorry for their junior employees scurrying about with hosepipes, buckets, sponges and wash-leathers, trying to keep their automotive wares looking presentable. Last week saw some spring rains which had the effect of washing the muck out of the air for the time being. I keep an eye on the web at
where I can be forewarned, if not forearmed. There is no defence agains the blasted stuff.

Today, though, it is a beautiful Spring day and with no pressing chores to perform, I give Black Mariah her first outing of the season. She had a 4000-km oil-change and general service on the previous day, where I picked up brownie points from the mechanic who did the job. ‘Exceptional condition’ for a 5 1/2 year-old machine was his verdict. The drive-chain received only its second adjustment in 27,000 km which speaks well of my non-lunatic riding habits. I know of people who get only about 1000 km of use out of a drive-chain due to their penchant for drag-racing, wheelies and sundry daftness. NB* Such meatheads can be termed ‘bikers’ whereas I am a motorcyclist. There is a distinct difference in attitude.

The countryside to the north-west is smelling fresh and verdant and I feel a little sad that I am not with my regular riding partner who is incapacitated today with a hangover obtained in service of the company, ‘entertaining’ some new business associates on Saturday night. In the 1970s and 80s before the decade-long recession bit, it was a common revelation among Japanalysts in business rags that the yearly spend on corporate entertainment exceeded the National military budget. I’m not sure if that is still the case, but I’m sure it can’t be far off the mark. I still miss taxi-tickets though...

I was not exactly in perfect condition myself after enduring yet another football match via Internet text commentary, where Newcastle United were on the wrong end of another clattering. Not a small amount of Milk of Amnesia was imbibed, so as to make the pain more bearable. This match was at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, and was not wholly unexpected as they are quite a handy side this season, while we are NOT. Far from it. Kevin Keegan returned in mid-January (aka The Second Coming of the Messiah) to manage the team, but has had a very lean time of it so far--mainly against far superior opposition, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. After yesterday’s results the team sit in 15th position in the Premier League—just three points away from the dreaded relegation zone and one above the deadly rivals Sunderland AFC. To be fair, in the last couple of matches, Lady Luck has deserted Newcastle, but the bottom line remains. ‘We’re Sh*T and we’re SICK OF IT!’ -- a recent terrace chant.

It is not unlike the season of 1966 – 67 when (for sins committed in a previous life) I first began to follow the fortunes of the black-and-whites at St James’s Park. The team was very fortunate to avoid relegation to the old Division 2 that season, and those of us who can remember it generally agree that it was due to the signing of a man-mountain centre-half from Hibernian (John McNamee) and an elegant midfielder from Sunderland (Dave Elliot) which tipped the balance in our favour.
It is McNamee whom I remember most fondly. A veritable giant of a man who seemed like he was hewn from granite, McNamee was a stopper, just like the man who signed him--Joe Harvey--had been a decade previously in a very successful NUFC side. As most of the action was usually in Newcastle’s half of the field during that desperate battle to avoid the drop, we saw a lot of Big John--as he is fondly remembered today. Subtle he was not, effective he was and most opposing centre-forwards were simply terrified of him. Some doggerel to illustrate my point...

John McNamee never wore gloves
Hi-lites in his hair
Or diamonds in his lugs
They used to feed him on raw meat
My old man used to say
Ah wish he was still wor centre half today.
John McNamee is in his Sixties now
Stooped, and walks with a limp
But ah would still pick him instead of Titus Bramble.
John Oliver

We fans were somewhat less eloquent at the time...

“E’s ’ere, ’e’s there, e’s every f*kkin’-where, McNamee-ee--McNamee!”

we would bellow at every successful body-check or slide-tackle. He was generally a clean player though, unlike the infamous Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris who played for Chelsea in the same era.

I only ever remember him scoring one goal, an equalizer against Sunderland, in the following season which, of course, was very important at the time. He put an end to United’s defensive frailties in no uncertain fashion, so any goals we managed to score were doubly important, many of them fashioned by Elliot. Would that a man of McNamee’s calibre were with us today...

HOWEVER.... The other day, the news from Barrack Road was that Kevin Keegan had managed to sign his first player since resuming his role as manager back in January. Here he is:

‘Lamine Diatta (born July 2, 1975 in Dakar) is a Senegalese footballer who currently plays for Newcastle United. Diatta moved to France when he was only 1 year old. He is the holding force in the centre of Senegal's defence, and is also tough in the air, which provides a threat in attacking set-pieces.’
(Quotation from Wikipedia.)

I sincerely hope that it is a case of ‘cometh the hour cometh the man’ as we are potentially in dire straits. He is certainly cut from the same type of physical cloth as McNamee was, but appears to have been hewn from obsidian in his imposing negritude. The remaining fixtures in the season include a home derby against Sunderland, but that is not till mid-April. We really need to be out of the relegation woods by then, so as not to be suffering from the jitters when taking the field versus the ‘auld enemy’. It could easily end up with one team sending the other one down...


The observant among you will notice a new link at the top right – to the blog of Stef the Engineer. Stef recently contacted me via this blog after not being in touch for nearly a decade. He used to work for the same Japanese company as me and one of the first things that happened to him and his new bride was the Great Hanshin Earthquake on Jan 17th 1995, when they lost almost everything they had. I’ll leave you to read about it yourself. Welcome aboard Stef!
* He needs to learn some manners though ;-)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

What I did on my _winter_ holidays, 2007--2008

Usually, our year-end break of seven to ten days is spent in Saga, Kyushu, this being my wife’s home town. However, this time we stayed put, in Kobe, due to the tight training schedule applying to my youngest son. It was nice not having to drive half the length of the country for a change.

The holidays really began on Dec 27th, all my chores were done and I left the office mid-afternoon to go home and get cleaned up/changed/shaved and the rest of it, before attending a bounenkai (忘年会)or ‘Forget the Year’ party with some friends of mine at a Chinese restaurant in Rokko in the eastern part of Kobe. The ‘Milk of Amnesia’ used to forget the year is the same as is used the world over, so it was a somewhat groggy author who checked in at work late on Friday morning for the final time in 2007. Again I left early, wishing yoi otoshi o to the security guards and went down to the Head Office in Kobe to attend the final meeting of the year, known as a noukai (納会). This was just the same as the bounenkai, but held in the office, so there was no fee to pay. Arriving home somewhat tired and emotional, I resolved to spend the remaining days of 2007 in a somewhat quieter fashion.

Saturday was spent writing my New Year’s cards -- nengajou (年賀状) and Sunday out in the cold air on the motorcycle, to Suma-dera getting a new sandalwood Buddhist bracelet-- nenjuu (念 珠)to replace the old one that had been broken in the boisterous process of forgetting the year, to get a haircut and to visit the office to fetch something I’d forgotten on Friday. Monday 31st was spent rushing around doing last-minute things in increasingly crowded places, especially the post office, where the nengajou were finally despatched on time. At last, I settled down to begin a traditional Japanese New Year -- O-Sho-Gatsu (お正月).

This is the first in the Buddhist (or Taoist) 12-year cycle, the Year of the Rat. The story behind this cycle is rather interesting, it is said that the Buddha (or The Jade Emperor) was dying and summoned the animals to come and see him for a final meeting, and to do that they had to cross a wide river. The Rat was supposed to pass the message to them all, but he forgot to tell the Cat who kept on sleeping. In the event only 12 animals answered the summons and were given the status of a year for their trouble. The Rat hitched a ride between the horns of the Ox who was the best swimmer and so got across first, but the Rat jumped down and ran in the door first and so got pole position in the cycle. The Cat missed out altogether and never forgave the Rat and swore to hate him for evermore. The year just ended has been the Wild Pig, who stopped for a feed along the way and so arrived last. Pigs have been greedy ever since. So now you know! I can’t remember why the order of the other creatures is just so, but never mind.

It all began at about 23:15 on New Year’s Eve when I joined my son and his rowdy mates at the local Buddhist temple to take part in the joya-no-kane (除夜の鐘)ceremony of tolling the temple bell 108 times, starting out at about 23.30 and going on through midnight, ringing out the old and ringing in the new. Except it is not really ringing, the Buddhist kane bell has no clapper and is struck from the outside by a length of timber suspended on ropes, producing a truly sonorous BOONNGGG...

The purpose behind all this, apart from keeping all the neighbours awake, is for purification. It is a belief peculiar to Japanese Buddhism that mankind is beset by one-hundred-and-eight worldly desires which really have no value, and one really must be rid of these temporal distractions before the true Buddha-nature can be revealed. Each strike of the bell removes one more, ready for the New Year. It was very enjoyable and each participant was rewarded with a bar of chocolate for his or her BOOONNNGGG...

Presumably it was spiritual chocolate, but was still very tasty on that cold early morning.

The next day I was woken at 6.00 by my wife and after a hearty breakfast we ascended the hill next to our house to observe the first sunrise of the year -- hatsu hi no de (初日の出). For the inhabitants of the Land of the Rising Sun, this is obviously an important event, and about a hundred people had gathered to witness it. We were lucky to have a fairly clear sky with just a few clouds on the distant Eastern horizon and we enjoyed a small cup of sacred sake as we waited in the cold.

I have done this just once before, but this time it was truly spectacular and the delight was obvious on the faces of the onlookers.

After that, we made our way down the hill, got in the car and set off on our final votive activity, visiting three Shinto shrines in succession, the sanja mairi (三社参り). The first was our local shrine, Kasuga Jinja , not even important enough to warrant an office or souvenir shop, but bottles of sake and sakazuki cups were available for any who wanted to toast the gods. Here I reached into my pocket and withdrew a handful of low-denomination coins, a mixture of one-yen and five-yen pieces, and cast them into the offertory box or the Shinto version of it. Someone told me once that if the gods see you flinging a lot of money into their box, they will consider you as generous and reward you accordingly, even though the actual amount may be minuscule. For this reason, I collect these small coins in a small piggy-bank all year and try to con the gods -- all part of the fun.

The next stop was just up the valley of the Akashi river, at Sumiyoshi Jinja, the shrine of the local farmers. They had temporary wardens on duty to direct us to the car park and make sure we didn’t burn ourselves when dumping the previous year’s talismans onto an enormous bonfire. I deposited my second load of coins, made my wish and went to seek my fortune for a fee of ¥200 at the souvenir stall. I drew Great Fortune -- Dai Kichi (大吉), the top of the line fortune, so maybe 2008 is going to be a banner year after all. I also bought a new sacred arrow -- hamaya (破魔矢)to drive away evil spirits from our house in the Year of the Rat.

The final stop was on top of our nearest mountain Mekko-san at Kande Jinja, which affords a spectacular vista of the eastern countryside.

The final coins were deposited and prayers said and it was off home to arrive at 09.15--just in time to call England and wish them Happy New Year.

The rest of the day (and the next 2 days) were spent doing very little and eating a great deal. Not a small amount of alcoholic beverage was imbibed too. I did go out and fly a kite on the afternoon of Jan 1st, to get some fresh air but only one other person was doing so. This traditional children's activity seems to have been supplanted by playing with radio-control cars and model battle-tanks, to judge by our neighbourhood...

This was the first time I have done _all_ of these traditional things at New Year. I have made a resolution to try and do them all every year from now on.

May the Year of the Rat bring health, wealth and happiness to you all.
I have borrowed a JPeg nengajou from a friend of mine to greet you with.