Sunday, 23 December 2012

Because it's Christmas...

...I give you...deer. Okay, so these photos were taken in September, in 35 degree heat, in Japan, and they are deer rather than reindeer, but just look at their faces, those liquid eyes, the velvety antlers. There's something slightly festive about them. And really, who wouldn't want to find one of these beauties under the Christmas tree?

I'm up in Norfolk for Christmas, enjoying doing nothing very much at all.

Hope you all have a lovely festive period.


p.s. Thank you for all your kind comments on my last post, very much appreciated!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

All the things they said

(Or: if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough)

August. A beer garden, halfway between Camden and Kentish Town, the inky blue almost-darkness shifting to soft orange light as outdoor heating slowly turned itself off then on. A burger, with strawberry jam, a raucous birthday group behind us. Everything I've ever done that at first scared me, that I wasn't sure about doing, ultimately ended up being the best things. These same words, said again, another day, another week, at 2am in the rain, the decision already made, but still, it is a reaffirmation, and reassures, because I know the same is true for me.

My kitchen, strip lighting, scraggly basil plants hanging on from summer. Hands damp from washing up, turning to grab a tea-towel. The post Japan jet-lag still prickling behind my eyelids. I think everyone has an adventure in their lives, and this could just be yours.

At work, in a bare meeting room, with my line manager, creaky chair. Notebook in hand, pen poised, and then realising there isn't any need to write. I find you regret the things in life which you don't do, far more than the things you do. Well that I know is true, from hard experience.

An email, picked up on my phone on a bright Wednesday morning in September, walking to work, leaves turning, air cooler and crisper than I've felt in weeks. I haven't regretted it for a second.

All these things, written, spoken, and from them a decision, a decision which was my gut feeling all along, but just needed coaxing.

In the new year, I'm moving overseas with work, to Africa. I'm a little bit scared about how big a step this is, a little bit daunted by all I have to do between now and then, but the overriding feeling is a brilliant, delicious excitement.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Japan V

Arriving in Tokyo, busier, noisier than I realised from our less than 24 hour stay here at the start of the trip. So many shops, shopping centres underground and in high rise buildings, shopping centres merging with one another so you hardly realise where one ends and the next begins, as though both the Westfields, and Brent Cross and Oxford Street have all been connected together. It is possible to walk for miles underground through connected subways of shops, and all are open from early morning to 9pm, 10pm. Sales assistants stand in the doorways, rattling off a constant stream of words, enticing you to buy. Merry jingles play out from sound systems, promoting the shop.

Buying day tickets to the sumo tournament, sitting high up in the unreserved seats. So much ceremony, before each match the giant men slapping bellies and thighs, squaring up to each other before retreating for a handful of sacred salt to throw across the ring, squaring up again, once again retreating to the corners for a sip of sacred water or a wipe-down with a flannel, finally squaring up for the final time, beginning the bout which sometimes then, after all the posturing and preparation, lasted less than five seconds. Being given info and gossip on the wrestlers by the two elderly gentlemen to our right, with much help from M's Japanese translation app.

A visit to Rockfish, a whiskey bar, for highballs. Getting chatting to the Japanese man next to us, an hour long conversation in a mix of Japanese and English, turns out he knows someone who works on M's project. He is so delighted to meet us, to practice his English, that he picks up the bar tab. I'm once again amazed and touched by the friendliness and generosity of the people here.

The attention given to the mundane, cherry blossom and antlered deer on manhole covers. Toilets like nothing I've ever seen before, heated seats, flushing noises to disguise the human bodily sounds, spray and bidet cleaning functions of variable pressure, laser activated flushes.

A minor earthquake, gone 2am, suddenly waking to the gentle swaying of the building on the 9th floor, lasting no more than a couple of seconds. In the morning, having to confirm with each other that it wasn't a dream.

A visit to Shimokitazawa, an area further out from the centre of Tokyo, all vintage shops and independent cafes. I love to look at the quirky accessories made by up and coming designers, and oggle at the high prices in the vintage stores - largely European sourced. A delectable slice of cake in a cafe tucked off the main street, layers of light as air sponge, cream, strawberries.

Seeing those things you've only ever seen as pictures, or in films, a distant Mt Fuji rising majestically from the clouds into blue skies, a red tori gate, floating on saltwater. Cocktails last night in the New York bar at the Park Hyatt hotel, 52nd floor, views across Tokyo, lights as far as the eye could see in all directions. Dark, polished tables, attentive waiters, breathtaking view. Another scene from Lost in Translation, recreated. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Japan IV

Meeting with Y, M's Japanese conversation buddy from London now back in Japan, and his girlfriend, S. Wonderful to be with some native speakers, took the pressure off M (whose Japanese actually, has been brilliant, far better than I realised he would be). They take us to a great restaurant in Nara, set menu, multiple tiny bowls of food, rice and nori, miso soup, fig and celery pickle, shrimp and broccoli croquette, potato in peanut sauce, tofu with tomato and burdock, a tiny square of matcha jelly pudding to finish. An evening with them, a traditional style Japanese pub, izakaya, beer and small plates of food, strips of squid tempura, skewers of breadcrumbed pumpkin, quail's eggs, prawn, mochi with dipping sauce, avocado and tomato salad, edamame beans. Talking and laughing, about life in Japan, life in the UK, cultural differences. 

Our last day in Kyoto, many more temples, beautiful gardens, with Y and S who were hardcore sightseers, whisking us from one place to another, very welcome company, explaining things, pointing out things we might have missed. Stepping stones across a lily-pad filled pond, as seen in Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson's character skipping across. A street market, baby octopus on sticks, stuffed with a quail's eggs, made for a wacky photo, hundreds of types of pickle, fresh fish, rice crackers, everything. 

In the darkened streets of Gion on our last Kyoto night, light drizzle, catching a glimpse of a real life maiko as she hurried past us, painted white face, red lips, elaborate hairdo, beautiful kimono. So magical, so unexpected, there for an instant then gone, lost amongst the night and the rain and the hanging lanterns. 

Still more...

Monday, 22 October 2012

Japan III

Hiroshima.  The Peace Memorial Museum, A-bomb dome, Hall of Remembrance. Tragic, incomprehensible. 

Taking away my words. 

Thousands of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument, strung together, collaged into pictures, bright,  colourful, lovingly folded. Hopeful.

Sushi from a conveyor belts, watching the chefs slice fish, sear tiny octopus with a blowtorch, press onto sticky rice with a dab of wasabi. I ate raw tuna, though preferred the cucumber maki rolls. 

Constant heat, stickiness, sweat dripping. Respite in the air conditioned hotels, restaurants and shopping centres, but everywhere else the air heavy with the heat and humidity. We consume frozen matcha (green tea) lattes, dusty green and slightly bitter or iced coffee or piles of flaked ice, syrup drenched, all in an attempt to keep us cool. Cans or bottles of drink, strange combinations, lychee and salt, grape with aloe jelly, bought from any one of the numerous vending machines, keeping us hydrated.

Elegant gardens, zen raked sand, moss covered rocks, meandering streams. The first of the maple, turning golden red, though autumn seems a far cry away from these hot days. Descending down hillsides through grey-green bamboo groves.

Cobbled old streets in Kyoto, hoping for sight of an elusive Geisha. Settling for tourists who have paid to dress up in kimono instead. Secret garden courtyards off the main routes, glimpsed behind gates, through doorways. 

At dusk, in the rain, Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, avenues of geranium red torii gates stretching up the mountainside. Stone foxes, the god of the rice harvest.  Rain, dripping from the trees, between the torii gates, mosquitos hovering in anticipation between bare legs.

Friday night, a vegetarian restaurant hunted down with the help of a blog, down a side street, up a tiny alley, through a doorway into a room in what looks like someone's home, crowded with ephemera, a bar running the length of it, stools for customers, a single woman cooking and serving behind it. Walls covered with posters for music gigs, posters protesting nuclear arms. Jazz CDs on the stereo, the smell of cat, and a loud mewing too from a grey tabby. Delicious food, tofu in many forms, rice, pickles, soup. We both ordered the vegetarian set menu and were given different dishes each so we had more to try. The place filled up in the time we were there, obviously popular.

A couple of nights in a ryokan, traditional style Japanese accommodation in Kyoto, tatami mats and paper sliding doors, futon bedding laid out each night. And then two nights somewhere a little more futuristic, Kyoto Tower Hotel, ninth floor, overlooking the modern glass and steel Kyoto station, at night, all lit up, a scene from Blade Runner. Such contrasts. 

There's still more...