Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How Not to Sell a Laptop

Excuse me, have you got any more information about this laptop?
(Pointing to a small piece of card which I was already looking at) Aye.
Oh, it hasn't got a firewire then?
And it comes with Works?
Aye, they all do.
Hmmm. Are these the only laptops you've got?

(Long pause while I wait, in vain, for more information) And is there any chance of getting anything off this one for cash?
Nah mate, it's already in the sale (but still more expensive than it costs online)
It's alright then, I've seen another one in Curry's.
Ok. See you, mate.

I went home, and bought from Amazon.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ashley Stays

"I am happy to end the uncertainty fans may have had about the club's future direction."

So now we know for sure, we're heading for the shit.

"We are a big club and we need a big owner, and he is certainly that. When you look at all the foreign owners – and there are some good ones, don’t get me wrong – we have an English owner and that’s a great thing. We can go forward now in a positive vein." (Peter Beardsley, the Maxim Gorky of the Gallowgate)


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Left to Seed

Three months is a long time to leave a greenhouse untended. Too long. Baby slugs had moved into one of the plantpots, dill had turned the colour of tea, and the only things growing in the courgette containers were grass seeds and dandelion roots. I cleared things up the best I could, scraping out the dried-up compost and planting some persimmon seeds I'd brought back with me from Japan. Outside, the slugs moved away with the speed of a Mark Viduka sprint.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ground 105: Arnott Stadium

Boxing Day afternoon, and while rural England was busy re-enacting scenes from a Royal Doulton dinner plate (definitely not pursuant to the Hunting Act, 2004) I was attempting to stamp some life back into my feet on the four steps of terracing at the Arnott Stadium. The game finished two-two, a late own-goal for Durham levelling a Fowler-esque finish from a chubby Paul Brayson. I clogged my way back to the car on two lumps of ice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

At two pound fifty a ride, the Victorian carousel in Sunderland town centre was almost empty. A Bengali was playing the accordion, badly, from a stool in front of Burger King. Inside the shopping centre everywhere was packed, but there were more people than carrier bags and the biggest queue was for the Lottery machine.

Things weren't much better in Newcastle. Every shop had a red and white sale sign, a topless magician was attempting to unchain himself from a ladder by the Monument, and a line of kids was being pulled by the hand along Fenwick's Christmas window. People shopped because they had to, grim-faced and as joyless as a late-December dusk.

Teaching Pays

It took me two hours and a twenty pound handling charge to wire my money back from Japan, but the exchange rate had dropped to a hundred and thirty nine yen - leaving almost four thousand quid to clear out of my account.

A tidy little sum for three months work. And a lot more than I'll bring home from Riga.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Passing Through

All things considered, there's very little I miss about living in England: real ale, fish and chips with batter and curry sauce on the side, the occasional game of football, being able to actually feel a newspaper while you read it, and having the time and space to grow stuff in a garden. It's not that I dislike being here but home feels more and more like a place to pass through - I'm no sooner back than I'm ready to leave.

Three things I don't miss: the winner of a celebrity ballroom dancing contest making breaking news on the BBC, friends whose lives revolve around video games and getting smashed in the pub, the impossibility of cheap train travel unless you book three months in advance and trust it doesn't piss down in the place you want to visit.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Conversation In A Bar

I never had a hangover this morning, like.
I did, man - for aboot thirty-five minutes.
I was fresh as fuck, me. I was wrecked last night 'n' aall.
Aye, I've been fucking wrecked since Wednesday neet.

On the flat screen TV Shola Ameobi stumbled, miscontrolled, then passed the ball - straight to a player in a pale blue shirt.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home Newcastle

The sun was already setting as we flew across the capital. From the air the Thames looked like it had been coloured with a blunt pencil, the city grey and cold. We landed on time. I had four and a half hours to wait for the flight to Newcastle.

Fortunately, my next job entails a slightly shorter journey time.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Almost Done

I've spent most of the morning tidying the flat, getting ready for the final room inspection. This afternoon someone will come and take my suitcase to the airport. At 7.04 tomorrow I'll be on the train, heading to Narita.

And home.

Meanwhile, I'm playing on this.

Goodbye Shinjuku

The lights were coming on but from the 45th floor the city was a blank, buildings rising sepulchrally through the clouds. There wasn't a single customer in the souvenir shop. Rain spattered hard on the window.

Mount Takao Again

The first time I climbed Mount Takao, at the beginning of October, I sweated my way along the easy route in a t-shirt and suncream. The second and third times I was glad of my jacket only when I reached the summit. On Monday it was hat and gloves weather. I scampered to the top on the number six trail, cutting half an hour off the estimated hiking time. I'd missed Fuji by twenty minutes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Foot Spa, Arashiyama

A Sunday evening at Arashiyama Station, last stop on the Keifuku tram line. We're sitting on a wooden bench at the end of the platform, a few metres away from the 7.13 back to the centre of town, trousers rolled up to the knees, six-inches deep in bath-hot water. We wait for half an hour, watching the trams pull in and out. As we leave, an English sign invites us to take a towel for free.

This being Japan, they even give you a plastic bag to carry it in.

Afternoon in Nara Park

By early afternoon the sun and the tour groups had both come out. There were long, straggling lines of school children, dressed in matching blue blazers and regulation haircuts. At the front of each line was a guide in a beanie hat, shouting inanities through a megaphone. I escaped up the stone steps of a temple. From the top you could see the whole of Nara, squashed between the mountains like an arm in a vice.

Todaiji Temple

The interior of Daibutsuden Hall is huge and dark, illuminated by a strip-light above the souvenir shop and the constant flash of cameras. The Buddha sits with eyes tight shut, one hand raised in admonition, the other curled, beckoning us in. School groups sort through key rings and bookmarks, a sign advertises Fortunes Told in English for 200 Yen, an elderly woman climbs through a hole in one of the wooden pillars, getting stuck in the middle.

My batteries die. I put away the camera and gaze, silently.

Sunday Morning In Nara

The streetlights were still on outside Nara Station and the Japanese had their umbrellas open, ready for the rain. An old woman was selling disposable cameras; another sweet potatoes baked on a wood-burning stove. I turned in at the first temple I came to and saw the famous semi-wild deer, drinking water from a gutter in the courtyard, metres away from a five-storey pagoda. Nearby, a woman in a headscarf was praying at the shrine.

The Nara Train

It was 7am when I heard my phone, rumbling on the pillow. The message on the screen said Time's Arrived. Outside the hostel window, traffic had already started moving. I was packed and on the pavement in half an hour flat, and sitting on the heated Kintetsu Line express before the clock had turned eight.

The sky was ominously grey the closer we got to Nara. Nearing the second last stop, Shin-Omiya, we cut through the site of the ancient palace: an old man jogging in a baseball cap, a baseball team playing catch, a line of cars stalled at the level crossing, Suzakumon Gate. We swept on into the city, past pachinko parlours and 24-hour McDonald's. "Nara, Nara desu," said the voice on the loudspeaker.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Late Evening, Ryoanji

The garden at Ryoanji is twenty-five metres long by ten across, bordered on three sides by moss and low clay walls, discoloured by oil. There are fifteen rocks in the centre, and gravel raked like seed furrows, or ripples in a garden pond. A bare willow droops over the wall, the audience sit on a wooden step on the opposite side. There are camera clicks and high-pitched laughs, voices saying nothing, Japanese counting the rocks: ichi, ni, san...

They could be anything. Or nothing. A sleeping turtle or a stretched out seal. Which, I guess, is kind of the point.

Tokyo Disney Sea

At the entrance to Disney Sea there was a queue of people waiting to take photos in front of a golden statue of Mickey Mouse. I walked through an arcade of shops and out onto a Venetian waterfront, steamer ships on a lake, an Arabesque fort, Japanese steering gondolas in front of a full-size pirate ship, The First Noel on the tannoy system, girls in leopardskin mouse ears and a volcano smoking in the background.

After that things only got stranger.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lunchtime in Kyoto

I stop for lunch at a bakery near Daitokuji Temple. It's mid-afternoon and I'm the only customer. Automatically, the three girls behind the counter assign themselves a different role: one takes my money, another individually wraps my three pieces of bread, the third stands to the side, holding open a carrier bag.

It's already too late by the time I remember I don't need a bag. The two buns have been placed in transparent plastic, sealed at the top with shop-branded sellotape. My garlic baguette is wrapped as carefully as a Christmas present, in a mock-up of an old French newspaper, dyed brown, with headlines attacking the policies of Lionel Jospin. I'm handed a receipt for 372 yen, all three bow, and there's a chorus of arigatou gozaimashita as I open the door. On the pavement outside, it takes me two minutes of fumbling before I can start to eat.

Kyoto, Saturday Morning

The noise of the city sounds dimly at Nanzenji: footsteps on a gravel path, an aqueduct carrying water, leaf-blowing machines in the forest, the clang of a gong, a suitcase on wheels, Japanese praying soundlessly in front of the main hall, sunlight slanting through wooden beams. I find my bike and cycle back along the riverside path, in the general direction of Gingakuji. The early morning cool slowly burns away.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ground 104: National Stadium, Tokyo

The stadium was less than a quarter full for the opening game of the FIFA Club World Cup. We sat in the cheapest seats, behind the goal, open to the sky. To the left, the Olympic flame was dwarfed by a FIFA logo. On the other side, past a tiny group of flag-waving Adelaide fans, the lights were still on in the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. The Japanese, generous to a fault, politely cheered for both teams at once, screaming at each near miss. An hour and a half later I was sitting on the nightbus, heading to Kyoto.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On A Geisha Hunt

It was the okobo I heard first, clip-clopping down the hill like horses' hooves on a stable floor. A small crowd had already gathered in front and behind; the salarymen next to me scrambled for their mobile phones. Nervous, blocked off by unwanted bodies, I missed with the first shot but got all four with the second, framed against a lattice door. As they passed there was silence. The last of the maiko half turned her white ceramic face, smiling remotely in my direction. Or that's how it seemed at the time.

I walked around the corner and bumped into two more, taking pictures of a temple with a point-and-shoot camera.

Why I Travel

I left the city behind at lunchtime, taking the Nara train two stops south to Fushimi Inari, the biggest of the 30,000 Inari shrines spread across Japan, and most famous for a four-kilometre long trail of wooden Torii winding through the hills like some kind of manic giant domino set.

The gates were sometimes little taller than my head, but mostly twice as big, painted red and black, as densely packed as self-seeded trees, some cracked open and bleached pink by the sun. I pass stone foxes dressed in red bibs, floating leaves on the surface of a pond, souvenir shops full of plastic torii (what else?), stray cats, hot cans of coffee, a jogger running up stone steps, open-fronted restaurants (This is NOT a place to sit and rest), graveyards and snatches of conversation: a group of Scandinavians, laughing and repeating the word Facebook; an Englishman and his Japanese girlfriend, "They only show films from Britain and Hollywood. Very few from mainland Europe." "Very few?"

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Old Capital

The Buddha is always there. But, alas, he never shows himself.

It's just gone 7am in Kyoto.I'm standing in the grounds of Higashi-Honganji Temple, a quarter of an hour off the nightbus from Tokyo, watching drinking water trickle from a dragon`s mouth. Elderly Japanese are hosing down the courtyard, sweeping yellow leaves, sitting at benches with votive tablets and incense sticks, waiting in silence for the first customer of the day.

I set off towards the sun, a pale red orb above the eastern hills, racing the tour groups to Kiyomizudera.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two Weeks Till Christmas

It feels more like March than the beginning of December. I woke up with a hangover, cooked what was left in my fridge, then walked to the library in a sweatshirt to stock up on books for Kyoto, dodging grandmothers on bicycles, potted poinsettias and the confetti of fallen gingko leaves.

People Like Us

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Full Japanese

Sausages the size of my little finger, rashers of bacon that you couldn't wrap twice around the head of a toothbrush, and an egg that spontaneously combusts upon contact with metal, pushed around the pan with the kind of fork you'd usually see accompanying a children's portion in a Little Chef.

I sprinkle the gloop with chilli flakes and blow the heat off a cup of green tea. The first forkful hits the front of my tongue; I get the feeling that somehow things just aren't quite the same.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Night Falls, Edge of a City

You could see it best from the top of the hill, midway between the bridge and the running track. The sun had already gone down behind the mountains. The sky above was like an upside down pond, rippled as if a stone had just been plopped into its centre. There were pale-blue streaks amid a continent of orange, fading to yellow, flecked with puffs of cloud rising like smoke.

I stood for a while longer, watching the colours drain away. I checked my watch. I was almost late for class.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Parking Problems

With space in the city at such a premium, Tokyo car owners have to resort to ever more ingenious ways of conjuring up a place to park.

Like this:
Which, you have to admit, is a bit more imaginative than merely paving over the garden.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Shinjuku Gyoen

I was up early enough to have the taste of last night's beer in my mouth as I boarded the train for Shinjuku Gyoen. A five-minute walk from the planet's busiest railway station, it was here I used to come to escape the worst of the summer heat. Here too, four years ago, spread across the grass with an illicit can of beer and the Daily Yomiuri, where I made up my mind to come back to Japan.

The park's at its best in autumn: bare trees in a tangle of knots, white daffodils by the glasshouse, red leaves fluttering to the ground like discarded bus tickets, picnic mats and rice balls, twisted maple trees reflected in the water, a couple walking arm-in-arm in matching koala face earmuffs. I found a sunny spot, lay down on the grass, and breathed.

Tokyo Beach, Sunset

Friday, December 05, 2008

What I Like About Sunderland

Is no matter how painful it gets supporting Newcastle there's always a reminder that things could be worse.
Much worse.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

To The End

I've reached that time again, the time of lasts (the last class on a Thursday, the last time I'll be stuck in work till half past six) and goodbyes, the time of moving on. To Spain, perhaps. Or Germany. Or - who knows? - Libya or Italy or any of a dozen other places. For now, all I'm sure about is where I won't be, and that two weeks tomorrow I'll be back in England, getting up late, drinking warm beer, shivering in the damp.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

That Special Time of Year

As if it wasn't a miserable enough experience living in Peterlee the rest of the year, you'd think they'd be able to manage better than this sorry display of Christmas cheer (and if the council won't then surely it's the perfect opportunity for Orange - operators of a local breeze-block and box hedge sweatshop - to re-invest some of those extortionate roaming charges of theirs).

I mean, even my back of beyond, edge of the mountains university (foreign population five, of whom less than a fifth are actually Christian) has made a better fist of things.

Well, kind of.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dogashima Spa

He had a pale blue towel knotted round his head and teeth like the tombstones in an old Jewish cemetery. When he spoke, it was with a flash of gold on the right hand side of his mouth. "Motorbike?" He turned suddenly, with a splash. "No, bus. Shimoda." "Alone?" "No, one more. Other side," I gestured towards the fence separating us from the women. He laughed, turned back to his friends, and resumed a conversation about fishing in a gale.

I moved forward a metre, to the very edge of the continent. Through the fence posts, fifty centimetres and a cliff face away, Pacific rollers were breaking on the rocks. The pool was shaped like a circle drawn by a child, big enough for twenty if everyone stood up, and enclosed on two sides by a wooden fence just about the right size for a tall man on tiptoes to peak over the top. A tuft of grass had grown from the rock, a metal standpipe gushed hot water. Straight ahead, across the ocean, were the mountains of the mainland, as drawn-out and lumpy as a boa after lunch. Lying on my back, all I could see was an endless blue sky and pine trees blown backwards by the wind.

Things Move On

Like all good fads the Banana Diet has run its course. As usual, some people are quicker to catch on than others. In the local Shop 99 there are stacks of the things in three different sizes, four for 50p.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Saturday Night, Minshuku Otsuka

During the night the wind picked up. The paper doors rattled, cables blew against the side of the room, the sound of traffic on the road below was masked by waves thudding against the torso-shaped sea defences and what was left of the beach. I turned over on the futon, my feet spilling onto the tatami mat. Someone was puking in the toilet down the hall.

December the First

Another beautiful day in Japan. Students lie stretched out on the grass, as dry as hay and now more white than green, or gather on staircases, talking with their coats unzipped. A crow sits on a flowerpot, and the mountains are printed against the sky. Maple leaves have turned yellow and blood-red, spilling through the near-bare zelkova branches like a lava flow stopped in mid-air. Above the campus, clouds blow past like smoke.

It'll rain tomorrow. Bound to.