Thursday, December 31, 2009

Maybe Tomorrow

I was thinking of going for a final run of the year this morning but when I woke up it had just begun to snow and Great Railway Journeys was starting on the telly and I was still quite full from the curry I had last night and I'd cut my finger a few days before clearing ice from the pavement...

So in the end I didn't bother.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

Christmas came at the end of a bitterly cold week. I woke up just after eight to weak grey light, a hoar frost on the pruned back tree tops and six-day-old snow still covering the garden. In the kitchen brussels sprouts had been left to soak in a plastic bowl next to last night's empty beer bottles. I put on the kettle, added a swig of Vana Tallinn to a cup of coffee, and sat down to open my presents: chocolate coins, boxer shorts and socks, playing cards with gardening tips, clothes and books, deodorant, Spanish wine and a big box of shortbread biscuits.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


It had snowed heavily during the late-afternoon and Newcastle Airport had not long reopened when my BA flight from Heathrow touched down. We sat for an age waiting for ice to be scraped off the steps and the entrance to the terminal building. I suddenly felt every minute of the twenty-five hours I'd been travelling since waking up in Tokyo.

There was no sign of the gritters on the roads so we drove home slowly through the slush and ice. I caught the end of Match of the Day, had a beer while listening to Benitez blame the referee for his own tactical failings, and flicked quickly through the morning papers. Reality TV shows, a few inches of snow bringing the country to a halt, a knighthood for an actor.

Nothing much changes.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Heading Home

And so we reached the end of another quarter year in Japan, queuing at the post office to send our money home, dragging our suitcases back down the stairs, meeting up for final drinks, one last room inspection and a train ticket to Narita.

One way, of course.

Last Class

Peter finds out what his students can remember from three months of daily lessons. The answer is, "Not much."

Group photo. Men don't make Churchill-for-the-camera signs. Or smile, apparently.

My last class ponders a wall. Very Zen.

Japan's Year in Words

First among the top ten phrases of 2009 was 'change of government', an expression British people are likely to be using too in 2010. Further down the list were words more often used by my students: 'new type flu', 'soshoku danshi', or herbivorous men, after the growing numbers of young Japanese males with no discernible interest in sex, and 'reki-jyo' (history women), a reaction to this among pretty Japanese girls who now look back to the warring Samurai period in search of their ideal partners.

Leaving Hiroshima

As darkness came down the lights were on all the way along Peace Boulevard. Pirate ships and love hearts hanging from branches, long lovers' tunnels and a merry-go-round. I walked as far as the illuminated pyramid, working off the pork, noodle, egg, squid and prawn okonomiyaki I'd just eaten. Three santas came past, leading a horse and white Cinderella carriage along the main road. The clock struck six. It was time to go back.


Up and out of the hostel for 9am, I breakfasted on hot hash browns and a fried egg on toast before catching the tram to Miyajima-guchi. The tour groups were lined up like an army of invasion at the entrance to the ferry port, marched out in columns fifty-metres apart by tour guides holding flagpoles and providing non-stop commentary through microphones. Wild deer wandered about indifferently. The souvenir shops weren't doing any business, but the photographer in front of the floating Torii gate was seating twenty at a time on two low benches, cameras crowding the sides.

Daishin Temple was, by contrast, an oasis of peace. Water tumbled gently into rock pools, there was the slow tinkle of coins in a donation box, Koi swam in lazy circles around a pond completely still except for the movement of the light. From the highest point of the temple you could see right back across the bay.

I had lunch in a wooden pavilion a short way up Mount Misen, watching a ferry crossing and clouds drifting in over the mountaintops. From there it took an hour to the top, stone step after stone step, bending first this way then that until I came upon the summit. There were large, rounded boulders, an open-topped wooden building selling sweet sake and udon noodles. Someone was speaking French, a wild deer was grazing on the stone, there was a transistor radio and the Inland Sea. And then, 529-metres up, the snow began to fall.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Symbolic Emperor

"The empty centre around which everything spins," the American journalist Patrick Smith called the institution of the Japanese Emperor. "Hollow vessels into which anything can be placed and so given meaning". We are now, going by the gengo calendar which still marks time according to imperial reigns on commuter cards, restaurant receipts and the mastiffs of newspapers, in the year of Heisei 30, yet mention of the Emperor's given name, Akihito, leaves every Japanese person I know completely bemused and even the title of his reign, which translates as Achieving Peace, brings only the mildest of recognition. "His father was Hirohito," I persist. "Showa. He married a diplomat called Michiko."

"Oh yeah, I think I know her," said one of my students eventually. "Didn't she go to Oxford University?"

Hiroshima Castle

I already knew that the main tower of the castle was gone, because I hadn't seen it from Hakushima the day before, but now I saw that the entire castle had disappeared without a trace. Not even the turrets or front gate survived. Only the moat and the stone foundation remained, presenting a pathetic sight.

Toyofumi Ogura - Letters from the End of the World.

As it got dark I walked over the moat to Hiroshima Castle, the five-storey concrete reconstruction of a fortification that had stood since 1599. There were stone ruins nearby which I took to be the remains of a feudal donjon but turned out to be the foundations of a military barracks, all that was left of the Imperial General Headquarters. A party of Australian teenagers stood by the door, debating the entrance fee.

I crossed what was the West Parade Ground. There was a gold embossed shrine and an A-bombed willow tree, split evenly at the base. An elderly man dressed all in white jogged slowly round the moat.


Less than one and a half kilometres from the hypercenter, Shukkeien, laid out on the instructions of the Lord of Hirohsima 326 years previously, was almost completely levelled by the blast and resulting fires. The rainbow bridge spanning the centre of the pond, modelled, like the rest of the garden, on Hangzhou's West Lake, was the only structure to remain intact. Thousands of survivors sought refuge here after the bomb. Most died before they could receive medical attention.

It was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open...The hurt ones were quiet; no-one wept, much less screamed in pain; no-one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily.

John Hersey - Hiroshima.

Hiyijima Hill

High on Hiyijima Hill, opposite the entrance to Hiroshima's Museum of Contemporary Art, a single Henry Moore scuplture, shaped like a pair of malformed legs twisted downwards at the hip, forms a kind of gateway to a lookout point over the flat land back towards the centre of destruction. A US Army photo shows the view in October 1945, two months after Toyofumi Ogura saw it on the day of the bombing:

All around me was a vast sea of smoking rubble and debris, with a few concrete buildings rising here and there like pale tombstones, many of them shrouded in smoke. That's all there was, as far as the eye could see.

The hills of Koi are still there. The Kyobashi River too. The rest of the city rises once more in innumerable steel and concrete spikes. Even the daffodils are almost in bloom.

The Atomic Bomb Dome

A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands, and was about to catch the dragonfly when...

Schoolboy's memoir from Children of the Atomic Bomb.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was playing softly as I came up from the underground shopping mall. It was shortly before nine in the morning, around half an hour and sixty-four years since the first atomic bomb exploded in a soundless, camera-flash burst six-hundred metres above my head. The whole of Surakagu, an amusement and commercial district at the hypocenter of the bomb, was instaneously obliterated.

A decorative metal fence, camphor trees and a riverside footpath circle what remains of the old Industrial Promotion Hall. Bits of twisted metal crown its top, balustrades hang like broken teeth, ending in mid-air. Weeds grow through the jumbled assortment of rubble on the ground, the shell of the building was stripped off like paper, leaving naked, bubbled, brick. A low wall marks the centre of the building. The sides are all caved in.

The hypocenter itself is 160-metres away, among an amime cafe, parking for Sogo Department Store and two dozen vending machines stacked with hot and cold drinks. A roadside sign marks the exact spot. A waist-high traffic cone stood to the right, next to a notice advertising thirty minutes parking for two-hundred yen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

To Hiroshima

Most often we sped, sometimes we crawled, occasionally, nearer Tokyo, we slowed completely to a halt. I listened to a radio play I'd downloaded from the BBC, extended my foot rest. My neighbour curled up like an egg, his head sticking out across the aisle. I pushed back my seat, pulled down the head cover until it almost touched my chest and blocked out what remained of the light.

We stopped at the services around midnight. I must have slept, fitfully, afterwards because the next thing I remember distinctly was half the bus emptying at Fukuyama. The clock said 6.02. We pulled into Hiroshima early, in the middle of the morning rush. By eight o'clock I was on the other side of the station, across the first river, looking at a shrine built on the roof of a concrete car park.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Another Japan

Behind the surface is another Japan, slower-paced, still attuned to simpler pleasures. Vegetable fields grow amid oceans of concrete, children skip rope in shrine precincts, mothers ride bicycles with wire baskets in front and children strapped to the back, old people weed roadsides and play croquet in gravel-scattered yards, blending into the noise of packinko parlours and vending machines and fully-automated car parks, where cars are raised on metal platforms and slotted vertically like DVDs in a rack.

This is the Japan we never read about, the Japan of distant hometowns. The journalist Patrick Smith termed it "a regret of the modern", a wistful kind of longing for what once was. This is not the frantic dash to modernity, the high-rise, glass-fronted buildings with neon lights and video screens out front, but the sprawl of two-storey houses, countless tiny gardens each with its own persimmon tree, flowerbeds planted with ornamental cabbages, the mournful, village cry of the sweet potato van - "Stone baked sweet potato" - filling the air.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Running Log: Reprise

Keeping to the same pace as last time, I added another two kilometres to the distance, turning back shortly after passing a house covered top to bottom in multi-coloured Christmas lights. A spotlit Santa was clambering up the chimney towards a unicorn, its front hooves raised in understandable fright. Even with a two-hundred metre sprint to finish off, I was barely out of breath when I reached the foot of the stairs.

Time: 35 minutes
Distance: 5.5 kilometres.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Nearing the End

We're halfway through the last week of teaching and things are beginning to wind down. The student reports are done, there's an all-you-can-drink party planned for Friday night, and three days later, a few hours after my final class, I'll be taking a night bus to Hiroshima.

I leave Tokyo, possibly for good, next Saturday morning, with almost two clear months between here and Odessa.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

South Africa

'The Group of Life', was The Guardian's take on England's World Cup draw. Certainly, the usual big tournament complacency and a clash at altitude with the USA look the biggest barriers to the last-16. Compare that to Brazil's Afro-European Group of Death or Germany, Ghana, the Serbs and Australia, who make up our list of potential opponents in the first of the knock-out stages.

Spain should win the tournament, but won't. Argentina and France will come good but fall short. Portugal and the Germans are the most likely shock early exits, Holland the dark horses and Brazil, as ever, favourites. And England? At the risk of coming across all Trevor Brooking, they have no more or less of a chance than most of the teams listed above. Less, if Rio Ferdinand and John Terry continue in their current run of form.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Running Log

Somewhat belatedly inspired by the example of the Kawaguchiko Marathon, I set out on my first run in nearly three weeks. The night air was chilly enough for tracksuit trousers and a hoody. I kept to a steady pace along the cycle path, passing the brewery and turning back when I reached the start of the track along the Tama River. If I didn't quite make it as far as last year, that was only because I'm saving it as a target for next time. No, honestly.

Distance: Three and a half kilometres (going by the signs to the folk museum)
Time: 25 minutes.