Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kawaguchiko: Sunday

The thirty-fourth Kawaguchiko Marathon started promptly to the second at 7.30 am. The day was grey and overcast, the temperature down to four degrees. There were more than thirty-thousand runners, over half attempting the 11-kilometre fun run, and the streets around town were clogged with human traffic, clouds obscuring the mountains and descending on the lake.

I decided to take the early train back.


It was nearly dusk by the time I got to K's House Hostel. I checked in, discovered I was the only person in the room not running in the following day's marathon, and set out on a walk around town. I found a herb garden next to a batting cage, the smell of thyme and the thwack of ball on bat, and an outdoor onsen with six different pools of slightly varying temperature including an upstairs tub from where, on a clear day, you could lie back and look out at Fuji. In the dark the best I could manage was the Family Mart sign further up the hill.

Back at the hostel, I got talking to Jas, an English teacher from Wolverhampton who'd taken up running six months previously and was now attempting his very first race. Two Swiss muesli salesmen were planning a half four breakfast and an Australian in the corner was talking loudly about some ice caves. I sipped whisky, flicked through a paper. At nine o'clock people started drifting off to bed.

At the Foot of Fuji

It was half past ten and fifteen degrees when I arrived in Kawaguchiko, and a steady stream of hikers had already started up the wide, paved path to Tenjoyama Park. Scrambling towards the top, the visibility was perfect in every direction but the one I was looking at, Fuji suddenly cut off at the shoulder by a sun-lit bank of cloud.

It took less than half an hour from the train station to the upper cable car terminus. The last of the autumn leaves were dying on the branch, hanging limply like banners at an abandoned parade. People queued at the viewfinders as if the clouds obscuring the mountain would magically disperse upon the insertion of a hundred yen coin. In front of the gift shop was a plastic model of a cartoon rabbit knocking the breath out of a beaver. Across the lake, you could just about make out the first snowcaps of the Japanese Alps. When I saw a second beaver trussed up and hanging from the ceiling outside the men's toilets, I decided it was probably best to leave. It was another ten minutes to the peak itself, a disappointing clearing in the pines, with stumps left for seating, a cairn-sized shrine and what would have been half a view of Fuji in a gap between the trees.

The mountain calm was shattered as soon as I hit the lakeshore. There was a Fancy Shop and J-pop ballads, duck boats and sightseeing buses, speedboat rides and coffee restaurants. I followed the waymarked path out of town to the westernmost edge of the lake, passing Omuro Sengen Shrine, the oldest of Fuji's shrines, rusting jet skis, a motorbike lying in the empty swimming of a bankrupt hotel, blue and yellow boats with their hulls facing up, piled by the water's edge, waveboard shops and little roadside cafes with Christmas trees out front. I stopped for lunch on a lawn by the water. The clouds were getting thicker all the while.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Tale of the Whale

I'd got back from work early, been to the 100 yen shop on the way, and splurged - if you can splurge in a place where everything costs the equivalent of 66p - on milk and bread rolls, eight eggs, a bunch of five bananas from the Phillipines and a tin of tuna with Japanese writing on the side.

I began to doubt that it was tuna the moment I opened the tin. Dozens of tiny bones were mixed in with the fish, some of which was wrapped around bits of a hard, enamel-white substance the shape and size of a push-down pen top. The meat was red, semi-dessicated and tough, and tasted like oily beef. I took a bite, wondering what kind of fish I was eating, then scanned the characters on the side of the tin using the Japanese-English dictionary on my mobile phone. The final word of the first sentence translated as Iceland; a quick search of the internet threw up an identical picture of the tin alongside an article entitled 'Tesco stops selling whale meat in its Japanese subsidiaries'. I didn't bother eating the rest of the bun.

I'd always assumed that whale meat was an expensive delicacy here, forgetting that it only really became popular as a cheap way to get protein in the years immediately after the war. I checked the next day, but none of my students had ever eaten it and most were surprised to hear you could buy it so easily. "You whale whore," laughed the Australian I share a teachers' room with. "I got some bad tuna from there myself the other week. It was full of little, round white stuff."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ten Years

It was ten years ago today that I landed in South Korea with nothing more than a degree in English, a two-day TEFL certificate and an urge to do any kind of work that enabled me to live abroad. It was enough to get me a job teaching English. It was also enough to make me no worse at it than any of the people I was working alongside. Which is to say, standards weren't particularly high.

I intended to see out a year then move on to South America. I got a girlfriend, decided I wanted to make a career out of teaching, and wound up staying three - and I've never yet made it any further south than New York.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chichibu-Tama: A Wild Sheep Chase

It's a perfect autumn morning and I'm on a train speeding north to Chichibu. Elderly couples dressed in running shoes and baseball caps are taking photos of each other across the bench seats. Through the window I look out on terraced squares planted with tea bushes, a football pitch and baseball diamond side-by-side on levelled dirt, a half-timbered Swiss cottage on a bend in the river, villages made up of a few houses strung across a road, each one seemingly with its own lawn-sized field to the side, onion tops and cabbages sprouting from the soil.

'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' was playing on a loop when I arrived at Seibu-Chichibu Station. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The temperature was nudging sixty degrees. I walked as far as Chichibu Shrine before I found a map, bought sushi and a bar of white chocolate for lunch from a supermarket next door to Cafe Snob (closed, of course), then picked up the trail back at the station, past a Mister Donut and up into the hills.

Several consultations of the map and one two-minute conversation with an elderly Japanese man - of which the sum total of my comprehension was, "Turn right soon" - later, a marker on the ground pointed the way towards Hitsujiyama. A flock of sheep grazing in a pen (Hitsujiyama literally translates as Sheep Hill) qualified as a rare enough sight to have become a tourist attraction of sorts, mothers proudly snapping their children as they posed by the fence. From here the track quickly diminished into a dirt path, which twisted like a tree root through a forest before hitting tarmac and beginning the long, steep climb to a wooden pavilion at the top of a small peak.

A few hundred metres further, following a drop easily as sharp as anything on the other side, I clambered up a faded metal staircase and found myself staring across at a gravel-covered hillside and not, as I'd initially thought, the slate-grey roof of a giant temple. Smoke was belching from metal stacks, there were some cement-scarred rocks and a factory that looked like something from an early episode of Doctor Who. I pushed on, quickly.

Fortunately, a wing of En-yu Ji, the twenty-sixth of thirty-four temples dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in and around Chichibu, was just around the next corner, propped up on wooden pillars with its back to the rock. It was here I met Yukio, a Japanese who'd quit his estate agent's job eight years ago to travel around the world ("I went to Antarctica, Tahiti, India, Australia...") and now worked in internet security. We walked together as far as the pearl-white statue of Kannon which overlooked the Kagemori plain, then took the short slog down to Daienji (temple 27), where the sounds of the city once more began to intrude: an electrical generator, the smell of incense, children hitting a baseball, the urgent ring, ring, ring of a level-crossing bell, a puff of smoke from a steam train...

Over the tracks, we skirted the main road as far as temple twenty-eight, backed up against a sheer cliff face, red maple leaves overhanging the stairs. I skipped the cave, left Yukio paying his two-hundred yen, and backtracked to the concrete bridge and the narrow path to Urayamaguchi Station, on the Chichibu Main Line. It took me as far as the metal bridge in front of Urayamaguchi Dam, one-and-a-half kilometres further on, to reach the conclusion that I didn't have enough daylight left to make it to the lake. I took out my last piece of sushi, turned around, and walked the three stations back to town.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

No More Cash for Sunderland Station

Only Sunderland, dear Sunderland, could pull off the simultaneous trick of being absolutely crap and utterly insignificant. Seriously though, the government's decision was probably made in the best interests of the town. "Depressing gateway" sums the place up, but it does at least fit in perfectly with its surroundings.

Moving On

There aren't that many similarities between the lives of an English teacher abroad and a Premier League superstar. There's the huge gulf in salary for starters (when my Latvian business class found out what I was earning in Riga one laughed and another offered to pay for my dinner), and even the consolation of mild celebrity is, in Europe at least, nowadays confined to grim, one-school-town Wearside-on-the-Volgas.

In fact, about the only thing European TEFLers do have in common with the likes of Craig Bellamy - aside from a proclivity for faking illness to get out of extra work - is the excitement of summer and winter transfer windows (almost all jobs on the continent run from early autumn to the middle of the year, with a smaller intake of teachers straight after Christmas). Hard on the heels of this year's last-minute Bosman move to the Baltics, it's beginning to look like my next stop will be Odessa, Black Sea beaches, Potemkin Stairs and all.

UPDATE: There aren't that many similarities between the lives of an English teacher abroad and a Premier League superstar? Obafemi Martins's bank manager might just disagree.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Moat's No-Brainer

As a ginger haired man who made his money flogging singing fish, Barry Moat is doubtless used to living in hope. On his attempt to buy the club: "I'll keep beavering away in the background, and hopefully one day we'll get there". Or on what Ashley might do next: "Hopefully he'll make some investment in the club. Hopefully we'll get some commercial partners...Hopefully the money will be spent on the playing squad and that bears fruit and we get back to where we deserve".

Hopeless, on the other hand, is how most people would describe his timing - less than a week after the launch of a fan-based buy out whose overtures he has so far studiously ignored. Likewise his enthusiasm for selling the naming rights to St James' Park, as if a maximum of £3 million a year could even begin to bridge the gap with the Premier League. At current values, we'd be lucky to get a quarter of a Milner, less wages.

Whatever remote chance he had of pulling off a sale - and there are still plenty who think Moat was only ever a means of deflecting attention from Ashley's inability to find a genuine buyer - has long since been and gone. If he's serious about helping the club, now's the time to stop ignoring NUST and put some money behind a bid that actually stands a chance of success.

Fuji from Fuchu

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Yes We Can

On the same day that Sports Direct executives were spotted measuring up signs at St James' Park - and knowing Ashley, you can guarantee they'll be tacky, obtrusive and five sizes too big - the Newcastle United Supporters Trust launched its long-awaited campaign for fan ownership.

Can it work? It does in Spain and Germany. As recently as 2008, we were among the top twenty most profitable clubs in world football. Run properly, there's no reason why we can't be again.

Toon fans, hasta la victoria siempre.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Not Wanted @ St James' Park

Chaos theory in action: In Tokyo, on the last train home from Shinjuku, a girl throws up in a Lowry's Farm bag. In Newcastle, Jonas Gutierrez finally scores a goal.

Despite the prominent reporting on the BBC - "The new name provoked furious protests before, during and after the match" - and elsewhere, friends on the scene were much less positive, with heavy-handed stewarding and no more than four or five hundred gathered at the Milburn steps. No matter. Active protests against Ashley-owned businesses are already being planned.

Watch this space.

UPDATE: Boycott Ashley.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

In Kawagoe

I was last in Kawagoe five years ago. We'd come down on a National Holiday after a night of drinking in Tokyo, and stumbled, in the slow, desultory way that hungover people do, around all the sights. "Boring," we both agreed. "Nothing to see but a few old buildings."

Sober, I liked it a lot better.

I had missed the big festival - when hordes of people parade parade with wooden floats along the main streets of the town - by a fortnight, and the only crowds were in Candy Lane. The whole place whiffed of aniseed, schoolchildren still in their uniforms - black for the boys, navy blue for the girls - were snapping up baguette-sized sweet bread, on offer at just 300 yen. The rest of the town passed in snapshots: a trio of middle-aged women tottering about in kimonos, a black-suited businessman slurping noodles in front of a temple bell, a man practising his golf swing in an alley, his umbrella standing in for a club.

In opposition to its bigger, flashier, full-tilt at the twenty-first century neighbours, Kawagoe is a city that makes a deliberate stab at nostalgia. Traditional Architecture Zones, sweet-potato beer, and runner-pulled rickshaw rides. "Welcome to Kawagoe. A City Where History Lives," said the sign at Kita-in Temple. Even the sightseeing bus looked as if it had been manufactured by British Leyland. But, this being Japan, traffic still ran both ways up Chuo-dori, right in front of the historic Edo warehouses, and every tour guide carried a megaphone as well as their flag.

This being Japan, the staid is also never far from the surreal. A few hundred metres past Honmaru Goten, the oldest building in Kawagoe, a front garden had been turned into a shrine to Christmas, painted snowmen hung alongside red paper lanterns, and a stepladder in the corner, next to the tree, had its top three rungs wrapped in tinsel. Around the next corner was a house with Junk Style Collection stencilled on its windowboxes and metal watering cans hanging from the door, and, nearer Candy Lane, an outdoor Garden Restaurant served meals from a VW Campervan, with seats laid out on wooden decking.

Sober, I liked it a lot.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Up without sleep on day three of my holiday, I opted for a trip to the seaside at Enoshima, a small island on the Shonan Coast of Kanagawa Prefecture.

The stations grew smaller and smaller the further we travelled, through Noborito and Sagami-Ono and finally Chogo, where I sat for the last stretch of the journey behind a driver in white gloves and matching face mask. He had the voice of a market trader and a disturbing tendency to point into space like a goalkeeper organising a defensive wall.

As we pulled into Katase-Enoshima there was a blue tiled building, a rust-covered Beetle, a row of bikes and a long walk to the exit that reminded me a little - but only a little - of Inverness. Outside was a red and green Chinese front, a concrete square and a bridge straight ahead, the sea shimmering on the other side of a row of palms. Hawks wheeled overhead. Across the bay, Fuji was masked to the snow cap in wisps of stratocumulus.

Naming Rights (Again)

"Our intention is to put a package together that would include for instance stadium rights with a jumbo screen included in that sponsorship which is great for the fans as well. Our intention is to have - for instance James’ Park". James' Park? It's bad enough renaming the ground, without making it sound like some kind of cheesy, small town nightclub. You have to be intelligent to make as much money as Ashley has, people used to say.

No, you don't - you just have to have no sense of fucking shame.

UPDATE: Ashley regime @ a new low.

UPDATE II: No sense of shame? Here's your last chance to get a Heritage Stone, just in time for Christmas. Heritage - buy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dawn Breaks on the Edge of the City

The cars came first - not that they had ever really gone away - followed by the trains, one every ten minutes at this time of the day. A lorry slowed at the lights and there was the hum of something electrical coming from outside. A crow crawed (the closest you ever get to birdsong here), a motorbike sped past, an engine started, another lorry, the car door slammed, another lorry. Through a gap in the curtains I could just make out the light. I turned over, again, and reached out for the clock. The time was 6.02 and fifty-four seconds.


"Why is it," I asked, "that when fire engines come past my flat at three in the morning they need to use their lights, sirens and have a man with a loudspeaker shouting for people to move out of the way, please?"

She thought for a moment. "In Japan we are very polite."

To Yamanashi and Back

It was cold, bright and clear this morning - the perfect weather for hiking. Together with my Australian workmate Peter I set off to climb Mount Kuratake, an hour and a half away in Yamanashi Prefecture.

After passing through a village and skirting a dried-up reservoir, we climbed ever higher past small stone Buddhas and waterfall after waterfall until we reached the Anaji Pass, where the path forked left to the summit, 990-metres up and partially covered with ice. West, over the shoulder of the Tanzawa Range, was Mount Fuji, snow streaking from the peak like shampoo off a scalp.

We came down quickly, through a forest of Japanese pine, reaching the station just as the sun finally dipped out of sight. Later, after the train ride home and a dinner of bacon, fried tofu and eggs, we were back out at the neighbourhood sento, the youngest people there by more than twenty years. I lay in the hot tub, a jet of water massaging the balls of my feet while six more arrowed into various points on my back. There was an old man next to me with his face screwed up against the heat, and a Family Mart carrier bag draped across the shower head, an empty coffee can and unopened bar of soap poking out of the top.

The Firm: Caught on Camera

Thanks to Tyne Dock Green for this gem from the BBC. Presumably London-resident Daniel Radcliffe will be the first arrested if there's a sudden outbreak of violence among men in long black capes, and Pete Postlethwaite's bricking it lest the IRA resume their mainland bombing campaign.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Three Peaks

It was dark and cold when I finally woke up on the first day of my holiday. The sky was a moody grey, thick with the promise of rain. I hummed and hawed, toyed with a trip into Tokyo, then shoved a fleece in my backpack and headed off to the Oku-Tama.

Changing at Tachikawa, I travelled north-west, out, always out, of the city. We terminated at Ome, where the train changed into a Rapid, bound for Tokyo Station. I stood on the platform by a noodle shop, shivering into my jacket.

There were plenty of seats on the last stretch of the journey. Down the carriage, a man in a face mask sat flicking through a book, someone else stared at the writing on a carton of soy milk, a couple laughed over pictures on a mobile phone, and there was a woman with a bag that said It is very sad when nature becomes dirty and goes. There was a river somewhere below, houses dotted about a valley, trees as straight as matchsticks, and clouds that hung from mountains like breath on a winter's day. All around was green. And grey.

A small group got off with me at Mitake - a few hikers, soy milk woman, her carton now concealed inside a plastic bag, and a man with five umbrellas slung across his right arm - but once I took a left out of the station it was just me and the crows.

Over the train tracks, the path wound up and, very occasionally, down, though for every down there was an even bigger up. Trees lined the sides like spectators at a parade; their roots were as big as hockey sticks, veining the ground. Turning off at a yellow marker the path narrowed sharply, traversing a raised, sloping platform no wider than my feet. As I was mulling over the possibilty that I had, in fact, taken a wrong turning my foot slipped and I tumbled down ten metres of mud, rock and branches before I hit a dead tree and was able to haul myself back up. Gingerly retracing my steps, I followed a trail of blue string that had been tied to tree trunks - though for all I knew they could have been left there as a cruel joke on anyone daft enough to go hiking on a damp day without the aid of a proper map - up a slope that I thought stupidly steep until half an hour later, when I saw what was on the other side. At the top of Mount Sogaku I wiped myself off, ate lunch - tuna-flake riceball, dry bread bun and a swig of an Asahi Vitamin C drink - and rested with a chapter of Bruce Chatwin talking about a coup in Benin. The climb had taken an hour and a half.

With the clouds upon me - the shrine at the summit looked as ghostly as a haunted shack - and darkness and the rain both threatening to close in, I put my foot down, skipping the detour to the peak of Mount Iwatakeishi, and pushing straight on to Mount Takamizu, another forty-five minutes along the ridge. The directions I was following made much of the "sweeping view across to Mount Gozen". Not today, there wasn't. Shrouded in mist, all I could make out was the signpost for Ikusabata Station, the final stop on my walk. Another few hundred metres brought me to Jofuku Temple, with giant swords and an Imperial flag, and then, after a long, rocky, downhill stretch there were streetlights and a concrete road and the first unmistakeable signs of human habitation.

It was, I thought, time to go home.