Saturday, 31 March 2018

4 days in Madrid

Before I start. Here's a funny thing. When we arrived in Japan a few months ago. My bags went missing and the airlines had to get them from Helsinki Airport to where we were staying in Takamatsu. Consequently I didn't have any clothes at all and Rachel, through a quirk of random packing, had no underwear and we had a buy a few things to get by for a few days. Move on two months and when we left there and arrived in Madrid I found that whilst I had packed our overflowing bags beautifully I had failed to check all the drawers and lo and behold I had left all of Rachel's underwear back in Japan. It's back to the knicker shop for us and just hope DHL work over Easter.  

So, Madrid. What a great city! Architecturally stunning, vibrant, cultured and busy. But this 4 day break during Easter came as a stark contrast to our lengthy stay in the quiet Spanish mountains and, more so, our sojourn into Japan. Our white-faced badge of difference has gone and we are but one of the many in this cosmopolitan place. Coming from the land of uniformity we are acutely aware of the huge variance of sizes, colours and personal features of the people. We seem to have forgotten how to walk busy streets as westerners. No longer do people flow around one another. Rather, they bump and jar. Attitudes to others are more careless here or rather less obvious. We can sense an underlying tension here that doesn't exist in Japan.  An energy among the thronging crowds that is quite palpable and feel more alive. You can almost taste it. I notice with surprise the many beggars and tramps sleeping in doorways. More than one, ironically, taking a rest from holding out a hand with a begging bowl to holding a large cup of Starbucks takeaway coffee.

Gran Via Madrid
Graffiti is everywhere -  spoiling walls, posts, railings and just about anything big enough to hold a pointless tag left by a thoughtless delinquent - quite frankly I don't give a fuck about whether some oik passed by or that the scrawlings are the 'visual outcry of the repressed'. I have never got graffiti. I do not find it 'cool' but rather it is aggressive, invasive and inconsiderate. To me - Banksy is Wanksy and our cities, underpasses and impossibly precarious patches of walls would be better off without airbrush vandalism.

Litter seems to be very popular in Madrid as well. It is everywhere and again comes as something of a shock after the sanitary streets of Takamatsu where the the 5 second rule could easily be extended to the 1 minute rule without fear of catching anything. But again that very thing that is negative makes the place feel more real. Don't get me wrong it would be better if the streets were cleaner and there was less debris but it sort of fits here.

The Puerto del Sol and the bear statue which is the centre of spain
We loved Madrid. It is a livable size with lots going on. We were near the Palace Real and hereabouts the countryside just suddenly starts. The grey turning suddenly green with the trees stretching away to the mountains in the distance. Still capped with snow and looking all majestic.

As usual we covered countless kilometres mooching about the city. Stopping here and there for a coffee, more often a beer and tapas but, most excitingly, for hot chocolate and churros. The chocolate so thick you were not sure if you were eating or drinking it. We people watched and especially enjoyed a group of prostitutes working a stretch of street - all sporting shiny lipstick, black leggings, huge shoes and, weirdly, never smiling.

I recall once seeing in Venice, whilst travelling by boat down the grand canal, a scaffolded building cloaked with a representation of what an eventually renovated building would look like. I thought that was impressive. But not a patch on the cloaking in Madrid which we encountered a few times. even close up the deception is remarkable. What a good thing though. To maintain the beauty of a place with such clever artifice. Sadly the authorities could do nothing to camouflage the wind damage caused in the city parks a few days earlier. Consequently they were all closed so we didn't get to see these apparently extensive and picturesque areas that make up a large amount of the city area.

Look closely at the picture. 90 percent of the
buildings are a facade

This weekend was Semana Santa (Easter) and therefore the whole city was rammed. We went to see one of the many processions going on in the town on Good Friday. It was in impressive...well, in the tourist brochure it was impressive. We were hundreds of people back from the point where the large religious artefact was carried pass. All we could see of the dozens of attendees dressed in black robes with black pointy ku klux klan stylee headgear was the tops of the hats and the artefact was sadly blocked by a wiggling 4 year old on her dads shoulders in front of me. But there you go. When Mr Jesus is in town on his big day there is bound to be crowds. 

World's most shit picture of a religious procession. You have to do the
'Where's Wally' thing to find the pointy hats of the pious
Besides graffiti and car park charges one of my great hates is queueing and it seemed that anywhere of import had people snaking out of doors and into the far distance. We therefore skipped the palace and the free evening opening of the Prado museum. We did opt for a look around the botanical gardens which had no queue and its not surprising why. Brown and a bit tatty sums it up admirably I think. Rachel likened it to a zoo we went to in India where all the animals were made of plastic. Except this wasn't funny, but then plants rarely are. Although Rachel did tell me a very funny plant joke:

A man walks past a fridge and thinks he hears some onions singing Bee Gee's songs but when he opened the fridge he discovered it was only the chives talkin'

Anyway well done Madrid. loved the tapas and the vibe so keep up the good work.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Japan revisited.

Well our two months in Japan have nearly finished. We have performed our duties as carers admirably. The boys are still alive and our dear friend Mitsi is on the mend. The apartment is clean, the car is undamaged and all is well in the land of the rising sun. However, the country still befuddles us and we still don't know what is happening half the time. I wonder if everyone feels that way?

Let's start with some observations. 

Follow the rules: 
Two Japanese people riding their bikes along roads that are perpendicular to one another. There is nothing obstructing their vision of the road or the other rider. However, when they arrive at the intersection, since there is no signage or indication of who has right of way, they carry on and inevitably, crash. Now, we have views on this because we have seen variants of it over and again in our time in Japan. It could be physiological - the shape of the eyes lessening the peripheral vision. It could be psychological  - Sheer bloody mindedness on behalf of both parties. Or, most likely, its conditional. The Japanese are programmed to comply with authority from early on and follow the rules. Therefore something like the above happens because there is no protocol. People will walk into the road without looking if they technically have the right of way. They will stand for 5 minutes on the side of a deserted road if the crossing sign says "wait". If there is a rule, no matter its relevance, it will be followed. And, when you couple this with the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy it can be so frustrating. There is of course the flip side which is that if everyone follows rules then everyone knows the score, accepts how things are and society sort of works... Albeit in a somewhat robotic way.

Guide book for going abroad: 

I am told by a Japanese friend in the know that only a small amount of Japanese nationals go abroad. This is partly due to the ever circling urban myths of how things are outside of Japan. "People have horns and will probably eat you" might be a step too far but ideas of cleanliness, lack of respect, quality of service and rampant aggression are commonly cited reasons for staying put. There is even a government issued guide book which gives suggestions/instructions on how to deal with or, better still, avoid confrontational situations with Gaijins.

OTT gift giving: 
Most cultures would accept that if you re just popping round for a cup of tea and a chat that the host will provide a cup of tea and a biscuit and there is no obligation on the part of the visitor to contribute. Not so here. Minimum gift entry level is a beautifully wrapped and presented biscuit set. Ramp it up to a small tea party and the amount of fayre brought will exceed the provision by at least double....all beautifully wrapped, rarely opened and therefore, I guess, reused by the recipient for the next party invite. Thinking about it there could be food gifts circulating Japan that have been doing the rounds for years!!

Education system:
Having worked in the system and now observed, at close quarters, what it is like for the child. I feel i am able to say what a poor system it is for both students and teachers alike. Granted there are some good things like the cleaning of classrooms and the serving of fellow students food at lunch. But as far as I can see that's it. The teacher student ratio is so high that there is no real opportunity to give any individual help and rote teaching is not uncommon. The homework is onerous and often pointless because it is generally checked by the students themselves. The pressure to confirm is enormous and any child with individualism, difficulties or abilities are a hindrance to the system. A system that is so overstretched that many children have to go to cram school to ensure they have grasped the subjects and therefore can get the grades to make it to High school. Then there is 'club'. Endless hours starting early morning to late afternoon in the holidays and for a couple of hours after school during term. Ostensibly they are learning baseball, football, music, chess etc but a lot of the time there is no actual teacher so not sure how much gets done....But, hey, it keeps 'em off the streets. 

Customer service:
In Japan if a member of staff has to leave a customer to go and ask advice or get something for that customer. They bow, bow, apologise, bow and run both there and back. on return they apologise, bow, bow and smile the whole time. Service is king here and performed willingly by the employee who expects nothing more than thanks and certainly not a tip.

Loveliness in the gym:
When people have finished doing an exercise on a piece of equipment or in an area they will wipe and clean it. I mean really wipe and sterilise the fuck out of it. They will replace things where they found them and even ensure that they are positioned neatly with the labels facing forward.

Dry your hands:

If you come to Japan then bring your hand towel. Everyone is expected to have their own. Hence when you wash your hands in public toilets there are often no towels or tissues.

Now on to the stuff we have been doing.

Mainly we have been tending house and children. This has been an interesting exercise, especially for Rachel who has never been a mum. But, as with everything, she rose to the occasion - making sandwiches, encouraging study, washing, cooking and then falling asleep exhausted by 10pm. Arrrghhhh the joys of parenting.... We did manage to get to Osaka once whilst Mitsi was languishing in bed there moaning about having Cancer and was fortunate enough to meet up with her lovely dad, Shigeo, who took us to the castle then out for Sushi before we headed back - Mitsi of course had to stay in the hospital and eat baby food.

We have played Uno till our fingers were sore. (Playing the proper rules this time and not the crazy ones made up in Nepal). We have watched countless episodes of The Big Bang Theory. A firm fave of the Morikawa boys. We have laughed a lot and talked loads of nonsense, in particular with Miki who is very funny and loved walking out from the shower clasping a bundle of clothes over is dick and walking away showing his ass but forgetting we could also see his balls.

When not doing the housy stuff we have wandered around shops - Takamatsu has the longest covered shopping street in Japan. Something like 2.5 km long!!! All filled with interesting shops, boutiques, cafes, piped musak and mingled bikes and people.

We decided to cut out drinking and and join the gym when we arrived. It's gone well. We have only had a handful of drinks in the two months and and have been working out pretty much every day for and hour or two. Consequently are muscles ache and our tummies are flat (well not exactly flat but a little tighter).


We had a lightening visit by friends of ours from Hiroshima - Lee, Tohru and their young children  jumped on the Shinkansen, costing a small fortune, and met us in Kurashiki - a charming old world village not that far from us where we had a delightful lunch and the chance to see their lovely faces once more. Thank you guys, it was appreciated.

We have made a lot of new friends who have been kind, thoughtful and interesting. We also have had to refuse many offers from total strangers to come their homes for tea; to accept their free guidance around the area or to take proffered vegetables??!! Yes, vegetables??What can I say - we are exotic beasts and as such are sort after in Japan.

One of our new friends, Haruko, is setting up her own tourist guiding business and to get some constructive criticism (and to be nice) took us on a sightseeing tour par excellence. A fancy cruising trip around a few islands in the Seto sea and across to the main island of Honshu. Our private boat took us to a deserted island that was populated by deer who ran, or rather bounced, down to the beach to see us. On Honshu we visited an old village called Tomo where we ate the the local Udon noodles and wandered the old streets and temples, A flying visit to the lovely island of Sensui (a place we had visited previously) where there is a fantastic coastway walk and open air onsen on the beach and finally, we visited an extraordinary island with a virtual ghost town. The island has a village of 50 to 60 houses clustered around a small bay but only 12 of them are inhabited. The rest are either derelict, slowly rotting or overgrown. Simply left by their owners when they moved from the island. It is a bit like a movie set and a little eerie (and sad) that the island is dying. However, the island also provides a home to absolutely huge 1000 year old Camphor tree. The branches and trunk so thick that we were reminded of the tree in the movie Avatar. It was truly magnificent and standing beneath its shadow was almost spiritual.


Such fun... Me and three ladies in a room of 2.5m by 1.5m with two big monitors, a leatherette settee, coffee table and hand tablets to order drinks, food and song selections. This is Karaoke Box. A tiny room where inhibitions, dignity and appreciation of the tonal scale are stripped away and participants, armed with mikes, can boom their voices out in all their suddenly awful glory. It was fantastic. A little oasis of crazy. Hired by the hour (soft drinks and ice cream included) you can forget the outside world and lose yourself in beer drinking, Whitney, Gloria and Abba and emerge 3 hours later confused at where the time went. And sorry, no pics or vids because what happens in Karaoke stays in karaoke

Possibly the worlds nicest religions if you are looking for one. In a nutshell it is an inclusive belief system that respects others, welcomes others, and draws upon the teaching in all  other religions. There are no icons, no smiting, martyrs, zealots, false idols or preaching. They don't come a knocking with pamphlets, proselytising, or planting bombs, they don't advocate burning in hell, or the playing of harps. They are humanists. Encouraging good rather than worship, encouraging love over obeisance and generally going about being a bit nice. Kathy, a resident of Takamatsu for 44 years and originally from Canada invited us to a pot luck lunch where we sat about, ate good food, briefly mentioned something that inspired us and then just chatted. It was nice. Nice enough for us to return for a second time - which, incidentily, fell on my birthday and where we were joined by an international pianist who treated us all to two pieces which were extraordinary to hear and, almost more so, to watch - those delicate fingers moving in caressing motions over the keys in one section and then moving with extraordinary dexterity and speed in the other.

So that's it. leaving Japan again. It's the same feeling as always. Sadness and relief. Its got its faults like any place but its a great country both geographically and in its peoples. I just think that maybe it's just not for us........yet.