Saturday, 5 October 2013


then and now in Nippon

When I lived here 30 years ago Japan was a global powerhouse. It led the world in electronic and motor vehicle manufacturing and there was a sense of it having succeeded in doing economically what it had failed to do militarily. A lot has happened in the decades since and while Japan retains some influence in the areas it once dominated, it now attracts international curiosity in some completely different areas.

The Japanese are masters at managing small spaces. Craftsmanship is also strong. Alongside the propensity to adopt cutting edge fashion, Japan has now become a recurring 'go to' place to showcase contemporary design and lifestyle. Two illustrations of this are Monocle's regular articles featuring aspects of Japan and Kinfolk's recent feature edition in celebration of the Japanese way. My hunch is that there has emerged a kind of humility in the Japanese way over recent decades that might have helped contribute to this, but others are better qualified to comment on this.

Coming here this year was more than recreation. I have long wanted to share a taste of this land and its people with Maria. It has been fabulous, and especially with having reconnected with the Kunitates, all my expectations have been met. I wanted to not only connect with aspects of my furusato but I wanted to see and feel the stuff that might define Japan's contribution into the future. Tokyo's endless surprises and the flourishing hipster vibe in the cities is perhaps a taste of this. 

We started the day yesterday in the quiet streets of Takayama and emerged at the end of the day in the lively and funky Akasaka (Tokyo). And now, (after catching up with my good mate Steve Hopkins at Omotesando Koffee, and visiting a couple of art museums in Roppongi- today's plans) we are ready to head home. Thoughtful, satisfied and with some more things ticked off our 'list'.

Started the day here, and finished ...

Friday, 4 October 2013

one last shrine

Late afternoon meandering around a Takayama shrine and some photos from Maria before we head for Tokyo and back home on Saturday night.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

words in an attic

Using a language after 30 years was always going to be interesting. Some basic things were always there, but before long there came a muddle of there being some things I probably should recall and couldn't, and then using vocab I had forgotten I knew. I had one experience where I was racking my brains to remember the word for reverse or opposite, and couldn't (hantai). Then the next day, I found myself formulating a sentence that included the word. 

The image that has felt most fitting, is of rummaging around in an attic. There are somethings you know are there and eventually you find them. There are other items that you'd forgotten about but stumble across them. As time goes on you start to become more familiar with where things are are where to look to find them. It has been fun and rewarding blowing the dust of the attic which is my Japanese.

If you missed it, the last 5 blogs on are also about Japanese words, some new ones for me that go beyond everyday vocabulary.

natural beauty

A bunch more photos from Maria on her photo blog from the last couple of days in the Japanese mountains.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

subdued enjoyment in the mountains

We are in Takayama, in the north of Gifu Prefecture surrounded by peaky Japanese mountains. Our minds have begun turning toward home and the new adventures / challenges / opportunities that await us.

One of the indicators of beginning to think of home is our culinary appetite ... we begin to look for more familiar food. We had cake and coffee in a great little cafe yesterday where I tried a ginger latte (OK, that really is thoroughly Japanese), but last night we lashed out and had a meal featuring Hida beef, one of the things this place is famous for. At the end of the day, expensive steak and vegies tackled with a knife and fork. Words fail me for how good it was. Spectacularly wonderful if you are into eating meet. Ironically and paradoxically, while wandering the streets on the way we were discussing the possibilities of steps toward ethical meet consumption / vegetarianism. hmmm.

We also came across a 1200 year old tree yesterday in the grounds of a Buddhist temple ... mind boggling really.

Monday, 30 September 2013

loving ordinary

Alongside mandatory tourist sites, we love just doing ordinary stuff while travelling. We've noted before that for us, the 3 day mark (in one place) is an important threshold. It seems that you get past the 'must do' visits, get oriented re public transport and can make time just to hang about.

Yesterday we took a train out of town to a lake. I had a swim, Maria took some photos, and we loved watching numerous groups of locals go about the beach BBQ, Japanese style. Lot's to love about the experience. We spent a couple of hours loitering in a nearby park where Maria ended up sharing a waterside rock with a little girl as they watched a duck paddle around.

...and more often than not we turn the other direction to the tourists when looking for something to eat. Not only does it save stacks of dollars, the food experience is almost always more interesting. (we ate way too much this night!)

Sunday, 29 September 2013

misc snaps and comments: Kyoto

A quiet moment overlooking Kyoto

We've love eating iza kaya, small local eating houses where close proximity and banter with the chef makes for a great dining experience.

At 300+ km/h and with trains every 20 minutes or so across the network, the shinkansen remains an extraordinary transport experience.

If you look closely you can see a little dog hanging out the window over a busy street in Gion, Kyoto.

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to the Kinkaku Ji (Golden Pavillion).

As any traveller will tell you, interesting English abounds in Japan. Yesterday I saw a new style of jeans advertised as 'bottoms of happiness', and this sign at a restroom entrance left me wondering what the alternative might be; unfinely?

Side by side

Japan feels like a place of contrasts, where what seems incongruent appears to sit together comfortably.

You can stand in the middle of a huge metropolis and yet there is a lot of 'small' - spaces, houses/apartments, cars.

There are people everywhere, busy about their business, crowds converging on tourist attractions, masses pouring out of train stations and there are times when the streets are eerily quiet and devoid of human habitation.

You can be in the middle of a shopping strip with chic boutique stores and follow a little side path that promises some green and find yourself at a temple.

You can join locals sitting along a bench eating ramen noodles and gyoza while watching the skillful chef cook your meal and right next door is a fast food outlet and down the road is a cafe catering to the new coffee culture.

You can see a woman wearing a kimono and a few minutes later one wearing a mini skirt and impossibly high heeled shoes.

You can see and feel a conservatism in the culture and an undercurrent of youthful rebellion.

It is modern and western and yet still very Japanese.

Big and small, crowds and alone, commerce and religion, tradition and embracing the new, I have only begun to scratch the surface and Japan is so surprising and confusing. Perhaps it is an illusion but the incongruent appear to find a harmonious co-existence that is bizarre at times.


Maria has been taking some more great shots, now around Kyoto. The last two days' posts #270 & #271 of 365, have been series on temples and gardens.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

some days are not the same

from left, Rumiko, Otoosan, Okaasan, Katsuhito. (Absent Kayoko and Shinji)[/caption]
It costs a few dollars to do an overseas holiday, but I would almost have paid the full amount just for yesterday. My life was shaped profoundly by the year I spent here in Japan as a 17 year old, and the biggest chunk of that year I lived with a wonderful family - the Kunitates. Not having had contact with them for most of the 30 years since I left, I was amazed to learn that the parents still live in the same house that held so many memories for me. The four teenage children are of course all in their 40s now with kids of their own.

Katsuhito (my host brother) and his wife collected us from our hotel and drove us to my old high school. We were greeted politely by a teacher in the foyer, and I produced a photo of myself with a number of my teachers from 32 years ago. To our bewilderment and surprise, we discovered that one was still there. 5 minutes later I stood opposite a clearly recognisable older version of a my engineering teacher. He was less convinced at first sighting I was the same boofy haired teenager he had known, but before long we were recalling shared memories from decades ago, wandering the corridors and him disappearing and returning with some art work I had done, and a framed piece of memorabilia that the school had made with some photos of yours truly. Weird, and surreal.

And then onto the family home. So much happens in 30 years. We grow bigger, we loose hair, we have families and all that accompanies the journey of life, yet we are the same people. But I wasn't sure what to expect on returning to such a familiar yet remote space, a space that only existed in memories and dreams. My host parents are nearing 80 now, and I was unsure of their health. Not having had contact with them for so long I didn't know if their offer to have us for lunch was simply being polite. Rumiko, one of my host sisters was to be there too. Rumiko was always full of energy and the life of the party.

I've never had an experience like this. You see it in movies. People who have loved each other, separated for decades; reunited. The embraces at the front door had me struggling to hold back tears.

Photos of families, stories, laughter. Food (okonomiyaki). Phone calls from the siblings not present, both living in Tokyo. I try to balance engaging and simply taking it in. In the evening we sit in the balmy warmth on boats (eating and drinking again, something the Kunitates do very well!!) watching the cormorant fishing, for which Gifu is renowned. (Maria's photoblog)

It is over all too quickly and the farewells late in the evening are another part of a curiously surreal yet intimate day. I will remember these beautiful people forever. 


Maria's photoblog #268 of 365 captures the unusual practice for which the Japanese central city of Gifu is renowned.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Backstreets bikes

Maria has enjoyed taking photos of the bikes, that are everywhere in the backstreets of Gifu, photoblog #267 of 365

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


When I think of Gifu I think of the colour brown. The view from the train window as we came into the station was one of brown, beige, cream or a variety thereof. The houses, roofs and buildings all seemed to reflect this colour scheme and to be honest it made for a boring looking kind of place. Gifu, in comparison to other large Japanese cities, is considered something of a country town, despite its 400,000 people. We also happened to arrive on a long weekend when most things were closed and the streets pretty deserted. My first impressions weren't great.

One of the first things Colin wanted to do was to wander some of the back streets (and the Main Street) near where he had lived, trying to orient himself and find the places of significance for him so many years ago.

Thirty years had seen a lot of changes and it was only with the help of some old photos he finally managed to find the place where he used to live. The absence of people in the streets and the usual lively commerce did not help.

The middle building titled TBC is where one of Colin's host families sold luggage from the shop front and  lived upstairs[/caption]

In our back street wanderings we came across a lively, trendy area, with people, action, eating places and intriguing boutique shops. Gifu's version of Brunswick Street. Gifu suddenly felt like a much nicer place and the proliferation of bicycles outside 'quaint' houses and shops really caught my eye.

We returned later in the evening to eat. Gifu is not really on the tourist route and therefore there are few westerners and little English. Colin could only vaguely make sense of the menu and we ended up asking the waitress what she liked and got her to choose for us, and it worked well. This area of Gifu was certainly frequented by the not so conservative Japanese with lots of trendy and hip looking youth where some kind of deal went down in front of our table while we ate and an altercation between a man and woman as we walked home had us wondering what to do. Despite these anomalies (I think) we liked the vibrancy of the place.

Hopefully tomorrow will see a return to a typical week day and we can see the streets and shopping precincts as they usually are and perhaps more as Colin remembered them.

food joy

We caught up with our friend Carol Lawson today in Nagoya. Carol has been coming to live and work in Japan for 30 years now, so knows a thing or two about the place. One of the things she asked us today was, "Have you had any bad food yet?" She reckons in 30 years the answer for her is pretty much never.

Maria and I have been fortunate to have travelled to some amazing food destinations including Portugal, France, Greece, Turkey and Morocco in the last couple of years. In each of those places we had some incredible food experiences, but we also had some duds, maybe in part because sometimes we got lazy and ate in tourist areas. But, our answer to Carol's question is a resounding 'no'. The Japanese just do fresh, tasty and tasteful food really really well, even if you don't know exactly what you're eating.

This roast pork noodle soup with kimchi (spicy stuff), accompanied by gyoza (Japanese dumplings) was so good, we went back to this little eating house in Suidobashi (Tokyo) to have a second go.

Maria was delighted with her first bento box which we grabbed before jumping onto the Shinkansen (bullet train) yesterday.

Gifu (where we are now) is off the tourist track, so not a word of English to be found on the menus of the izakaya (Japanese 'tapas') bars, so we found a place we liked the look of, which had a table outside, and I managed to ask the attendant what her favourite dishes on the menu were, and suggested she just load us up with them. Wonderful stuff and great people watching in this little backstreet near where I used to live, which has now become a trendy little strip with hip young Japanese all over it. We blended right in .... NOT.

trains & Nagoya castle

two more photoblogs from Maria, #265 & #266 of 365

Sunday, 22 September 2013

People and bikes

Maria's photoblog #264 of 365

First impressions

The old and the new, buildings from within the garden of the Imperial Palace and the commercial centre of Tokyo behind.

Tokyo is different than I thought it would be. It is more 'western' than I had imagined and a lot less frantic and full of people. It feels busy at times but not teeming with humanity. The commercial centre is the same as in any other city with tall impersonal buildings and in the shopping centre's there are the usual designer stores. Professional men all seem to wear dark suits and white shirts and Japanese women appear to dress more modestly (haven't seen cleavage spilling out of anywhere) There is a strong American influence among the youth and some pretty hip dudes walking around. It's strange because there is a conservatism and along side it a radical element. Have seen some pretty amazing shoes, not sure how anyone can walk in them.

I have found the Japanese to be very polite and helpful, also law abiding and rule keeping (every one stands to the left on escalators and no one talks on their phones on the train). It is a place where you feel very safe. I love their penchant for cleanliness and order!

I have enjoyed our local area (Chiyoda), watching people come and go from work and school, eating at places where there is no other Westerner and just getting a small glimpse of 'normal' life. The fact that Colin can generally make himself understood has been wonderful.

Our favourite place to eat is on this road, the gyoza and soup noodles with roasted pork are divine

Green spaces are highly valued and public gardens tend to be manicured with water, stone walls and small shrubs featuring prominently. Surprising to me is the lack of flowers. I am looking forward to understanding more about this.

On a side, bathroom experiences have been a bit of an adventure, you never quite know what will happen when you sit down or when you stand up, water gushes and flushes without you doing a thing. I even had a warmed seat today. I haven't been game to push the myriad of buttons, I like my toilet basic style. Colin on the other hand just had to give it a go, apparently the 'wash' feature has perfect aim!

I am keen to see if any of my initial impressions will change as we head out of Tokyo tomorrow.

cultured tokyo

A tad more cultured in our excursions today. Started at the Imperial Palace and before our legs and our tourist wills gave way we had taken in a few exhibitions at the Tokyo Metropolitan Photography Gallery in the slightly offbeat Yebisu Garden Place. In between we managed to find the Monocle Cafe on the edge of Ginza near Tokyo station, an indulgence for me given my long time love of their unique approach to journalism; meshing global affairs, business, culture and design.

Recovering in our room now before we lose ourselves in the sounds and smells of narrow streets hiding cuisine secrets for the adventurous.

Saturday, 21 September 2013


Maria's photoblog #262 of 365


Some snippets from the day.

Left behind two travel staples today. My trusty black wolf daypack and my portable wi-fi. It's pretty darn obvious we're tourists, but somehow cargo shorts and a backpack broadcast it almost embarrassingly. (BTW, I've never been friends with 3/4 pants for men. What is that? Why do otherwise reasonably dressed men somehow associate overseas travel with 3/4 pants? Is it a bet each way on the weather or what? Not me anyway.)

But I digress. Today I decided I'd load up these cargo shorts with the essentials, and that would do me. Minimalist sightseeing, and I'm a convert. Sorry old friend (black wolf), you will be reserved for necessary supplies on less predictable excursions. And after another round of phone calls the Visitor SIM is now officially written off as a waste of money. And you know what, a blessing in disguise it is. Sorry Mr Foursquare, you won't be hearing from this traveller, except maybe for the odd hotel checkin when the wi-fi is on the house.

So here are some of my snaps from today.

Breakfast on the way to the station and would you know it, Mr Miyagi was there!

As cliche as it sounds, Tokyo (and Japan) is a land of contrasts. A serene garden only a few minutes from gaudy shopping strips, and a sky scraper as backdrop. And a temple and an iconic Shinjuku building.

These sake barrels are gratitude gifts from brewers to the (Meiji) emperor every year. I just can't imagine CUB stacking up barrels for the Queen. I love how cultures are so different.

Meandering along the trendy streets of Roppongi a journal caught my eye with the same name as favourite cafe in Melbourne. The subtitle of the journal is 'discovering new things to cook, make and do.' The bookshop also stocked English editions, so I sat myself in a prime people watching spot with an ale and my new literary discovery while Maria wandered slowly and curiously with her camera around Roppongi Hills and captured some shapes and colours in the soft afternoon sunlight.

Friday, 20 September 2013

the earth shook for us

We had a good day yesterday, but last night was something else. At 2:30 am the bed was shaking ... and then the room swayed.

I was curious to see the news this morning, and although it is early days it appears no significant damage has been reported from a 5.8 quake  in Fukushima Prefecture, some distance away from where we are in Tokyo. Fingers crossed it stays that way.



Maria's photoblog #262 of 365


Day 1, and we are exhausted already. Maria has collapsed for a late afternoon nap (or at least trying with me mucking around with devices in the background) and I have a serious case of 'tourist leg'.

The train and subway systems are immense in this town, and we found it tricky getting around because so far we haven't figured out a simple way to determine which stations have both, which is pretty important when, as was the case today, it seemed everywhere we wanted to go required multiple changes b/w the above and below ground systems. Our travel card took a beating today as we mixed mindless wandering, going on a goose chase for a telco store that didn't seem to exist, and a couple of mandatory touristy things like going to Tokyo Tower. There is something about getting high above a city to get ones bearings that helps in the first days being somewhere new.

As is my want, I spend plenty of time planning the connectivity before we travel. The harsh reality so far is that plan A (a visitor SIM in my portable Wi-Fi device) is not working, nor is the backup plan (a global data SIM that we can use in the iPad while out and about). One final effort to fix it tomorrow, but it might leave me connection free during the day when away from the hotel. Horror of horrors.

Meanwhile, Tokyo kind of overwhelms you, and we haven't even scratched the surface. Wandering around Ginza and then later at Akihabara, a whole district dedicated to electronics with colour and lights bombarding the senses, left me feeling decidedly outside, a mere spectator in a mammoth commercial system. No chance to process properly, tomorrow we'll be a bit more competent getting around and hopefully Maria will be less frustrated with my fluffing around with maps and gadgets.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

recurring dream

I used to have a recurring dream where I walked down a city block past vaguely familiar shops. Not much happened in the dream except an incredible sense of anticipation. Its not often you get to live out a dream like this, but that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in a week or so.

In 1981 I was 17 years old. I had lived all my life in a little town on the north west coast of Tasmania. My family made a big deal of holidays, so I had travelled relatively well along the eastern seaboard and even an excursion to New Zealand, but my world view was shaped by my secure, conservative upbringing in Ulverstone.

Gifu was, by Japanese standards a country town. But for this green teenager, 400,000 people getting around  on an integrated public transport system was a metropolis. The culture change was broad and deep. I still remember my very first morning, being served a fried egg which I chased around my plate with the chop sticks, the only utensils on offer. In the height of summer I enjoyed rice from the pervious evening meal in cold green tea to start the day. No coco pops in sight?

One year later I had grown up. I had begun to appreciate that my view of reality was simply that, a view. I was stunned by a growing recognition that in the scheme of things, Australia, let alone Tasmania, was an insignificant player on the world stage. Australia had novelty, but Japan was a player. I had begun to see the world through another language, I had made friends.

As the year went on, I had started to imagine a reinvigorated life back home. I was determined to make choices about how to live and who to be, rather than follow the path of least resistance. My diary entries changed from recording events and activities to reflections and desires.

I had lived with a few families over the 12 months, but two were significantly more formative and the memories of the places are seared in my memory forever. Murai-san was my first host father. He owned a luggage and bag shop in the centre of town and his small family lived above it. He was a kind hearted man whose family lived less affluently than was typical for Rotary Club members of that era in Japan. I loved that bag shop.

Of my 12 months in Gifu, I lived 5 of them with the Kunitates. By Japanese standards they lived in a palace. Four easy going teenage children and generous parents meant I had an extravagant domestic experience. But more significantly, I have enduring recollections of sitting cross-legged at the kotatsu (small table with heater underneath and quilts around the edges) writing in my journal. I shared a room with Katsuhito, who will pick us up from our hotel next week and take us to visit his parents, still living in the same house. I am beside myself with nervous excitement.

In my recurring dream I am walking along the street, past the bag shop, around the corner to a tiny coffee shop where I made friends with a bunch of ‘radical’ Japanese surfers. I really, really hope that bag shop is still there and I will be in total rapture if that little coffee shop has survived. Either way, it will no longer be a wondering dream.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

muted enthusiasm

There is little I enjoy more than the feeling of heading off on a travel adventure with Maria. Tonight we trekked south in our old Patrol ready for a morning flight direct from Collangatta to Narita (Tokyo).

However, we have just learned that the company I have invested so much into is being taken over by the PNG Government. You can read more in todays National although the article only anticipates the worst case scenario which has eventuated this evening. Devasated.

I was going to write a little reflection on our travel mantra; savour the hour, respect the locals, what happens, happens.I will be pondering this a bit tomorrow on the flight ...

Friday, 5 July 2013

what fantasy?

Alain De Botton’s Art of Travel is a great little book.

“Few activities seem to promise as much happiness as going travelling: taking off for somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs and landscapes. But although we are inundated with advice on where to travel to, we seldom ask why we go and how we might become more fulfilled by doing so. With the help of a selection of writers, artists and thinkers - including Flaubert, Edward Hopper, Wordsworth and Van Gogh - Alain de Botton's bestselling The Art of Travel provides invaluable insights into everything from holiday romance to hotel minibars, airports to sightseeing. The perfect antidote to those guides that tell us what to do when we get there, The Art of Travel tries to explain why we really went in the first place - and helpfully suggests how we might be happier on our journeys.” (Amazon’s brief)

Sometimes (perhaps even often) our travels are filled with idyllic experiences. But this last two weeks in Byron Bay has reminded me of De Botton’s wisdom. One of our friends broke down towing his ‘new’ caravan on its maiden voyage at Mittagong, and after a couple of days ended up getting the car and van shipped back to Melbourne. The trouper that he is, he hired a car and continued to Byron Bay. Just this morning I learned of other friends who broke down yesterday on their first day on the road.

At least 7 of our friends have been ill (some violently so) over the last week or so. A tent or caravan is not the best place to be with gastro!! The waterlogged days have given way to clouds, despite the promise of sunshine, which has only fleetingly tantalized us.

As De Botton reminds us, the problem with fantasy holidays is that we take ourselves. Life travels with us. Cars break down (as, by the way, ours did yesterday), the weather can be rubbish, and our bodies get sick. The real peace and joy in life comes from inside rather than via external realities.

I’ve admired the resilience of people this last two weeks. Smiles never failing. My view, for what its worth, is that people remain strong not despite the lack of fantasy style holidaying but because of inner strength.

When our kids were young, Maria and I decided not to use the word ‘holiday’ to describe what we did when we went away. With 4 children, the work never stopped. I wonder more generally if we need another concept, other than what the commercial world defines as holiday.

Sometimes holidays simply means ‘away from work’. While this is practically accurate, I’m not sure its helpful. The old fashioned idea of ‘Sabbath’ included the idea of regeneration – I like that. The beauty of the Sabbath was how it was integrated into life; 1 day a week for people, and even 1 year out of 7 for the land.

I reckon we should figure out how to integrate ‘regeneration’ into our lives. What do we need to do every week, every month, every quarter, every year – to make sure we are rested in a way that refreshes us.

Going away ‘on holiday’ would better be understood as a quarterly or annual change of scenery that refreshes our inner worlds, rather than a fantasy escape from the drudgery of work.

mixed bag

Plus - there was some patchy blue sky and sunshine today

Minus - there's gastro going around and the car is in the garage

Plus - we have so far avoided the gastro and Pat required only a minor repair

Minus - lots of washing required to get rid of the damp smell from clothes, towels and tent bedding

Plus - colour in the sky and reflections in the water at sunset make it a better day