Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Looks like I'm staying in Phuket another week. Gawain's here, so I'm going to move in with him, play some golf, do a bit more reading. I've got a small pang, a 'you should be doing the difficult thing not the easy thing' which is encouraging me to go to Bangkok or Phnom Penh, but right now I'm pretty certain I'd only be doing it to satisfy a sense of guilt, rather than feeling particularly keen about seeing either place. The same feeling took over in Japan, and I didn't spend any time in Tokyo, but I've got one eye on next month, when I'll be doing a lot of intensive travelling, spending no more than four days in any one place, and usually just one night. The one thing that really has struck me about moving about is the feeling of being absolutely lost when you first get to a new place, a sense of being 'lost in the world' as opposed to lost in a place, and it takes a moment to catch up.

The advantage of my plan at the moment is Gawain's place has no internet, which means I can't distract myself with ringing people from home, email, facebook, blogs, newspapers and the like. It always amazes me how powerful the urge is to keep staring at a screen, no matter what's going on around you, and it's good to spend a bit of time incommunicado.

Max has started a blog! For those of you who don't know, he's my brother Wills' best friend, and a genuinely funny bloke. To find out about meeting Chelsea Davy, his man-love for my brother (flitting between Scrubs and Brokeback) and truly great puns check out


Sunday, 25 January 2009

We Apologise for the Inconvenience

I've been quiet a few weeks now. There are reasons for that; I'm travelling with my mum for her 50th birthday, so it's all a bit personal, I'm staying in nice places and having fun rather than doing anything I think worth writing about, but most of all I just haven't really felt like writing. Today I feel slightly more inspired.

I'm a bit anxious about talking about some of the things I'm up to at the moment. Everyone I speak to in the UK tells me the weather's miserable, the economy's miserable, the news is miserable and they're not doing too well either. Next to that, just telling people where I am feels like gloating.

After three months of mid- to late autumn- weather, and a week of central-heating-free winter, I've taken a step into the sunshine and started to work on my tan. Australia was boiling, but not to my mother's taste (not exactly mine either, with the average weight comparable to America's Southern states). Deciding that Manley Bay and Noosa Heads were, respectively, 'like Clapton on Sea' and 'disGUSTing', we rerouted to Phuket (via Melbourne for the tennis), which she is exceedingly happy with. It suits me, I love the place and sets me up in the right area for my trip with Alex. That trip is getting ever closer - just over two weeks away - and with the prospect of forty days of island hopping ahead of me, and having changed countries five times already this year, I'm quite keen to hang around Thailand for a while, relax a bit and forget about moving too much. If I wasn't a lazy sod I'd probably have worked out how to get to Cambodia and back by bus, but another week in the sunshine to shake off a bit of traveller's fatigue won't do me any harm.

Top Five Books (in my head right now):
1. The Uninvited - Geling Yan: A comic tale, and Geling's first in English, about a laid off factory worker who stumbles upon free banquets thrown for journalists. He just wants to be left alone with his shark's fin soup, but his dreams of legitimising his deceit draw him into a world he's not equipped to deal with.

2. The Delivery Man - Joe McGuinness Jnr.: McGuinness has been dubbed the new Bret Easton Ellis, and there's definitely a scent of Less Than Zero in this story of self-destruction and teen exploitation. Painful and impossible to put down.

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig: a multidimensional journey through America, philosophy and the struggles inside one man's head, you'll want to reread it before you're halfway through!

4. Rice - Su Tong: Family infighting and generational competition captured in startling prose by one of China's greatest living novelists. His great skill is refusing to judge the cruelty his characters display to one another.

5. The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen: would be higher, but I haven't finished it yet. Franzen makes you feel the blows of every little frustration in his characters' lives, bringing sympathy out of conflict and self-recognition from self-pity.

Depending on where you are in the world, for tomorrow, Happy Australia Day, Happy Chinese New Year and, to my mum, Happy 50th!


Thursday, 8 January 2009

Back to School

Speak to most people about Japan and they usually tell you about the same things. "The toilets are amazing there," is a common one, and even more importantly, "It's so nice and clean, everything's so pristine". There's evidence to back this up. Some toilets do have heated seats, incorporated bidet functions and cute pictures of water squirting at your bum. Most places are very clean, the floors swept regularly and antibacterial handwash and wipes readily available.

Like most of the impressions I've brought to new countries, these ideas are easily dispelled. Whilst many of the toilets do have space-age functions, just as many are converted squat toilets, with a plastic seat just thrown over the more traditional trench design. When I visited Suzaka Higashi today, a midlevel highschool where Katie teaches English, any notion of absolute Japanese perfection was dispelled when I saw the dirty crumbling concrete and worn down air of the building.

Which isn't to say it wasn't a nice school. Both staff and students were exceptionally friendly, and the school seemed well organised, from the way desks sit on different levels in the classroom, like seats in a cinema, so students at the back of the room can have an unobstructed view (and can be spotted emailing on their mobiles by the teacher) to the idiosyncratically Japanese musical intercom that announced the start and end of classes.

What struck me most was the differences from Western children. Each day begins with the students cleaning the entire school, entering each room, including the teachers' offices, in teams and taking different jobs. Despite this, during lessons the students seemed to sometimes ignore the teachers entirely, turning their backs to continue a conversation whilst Katie was presenting her lesson. Japanese teachers have no means of punishing their students, and some of the older heads just let the kids get on with it.

I was there making a presentation about the UK, and to answer some questions. Katie assured me that I had to mention David Beckham and Harry Potter or they'd ignore me, so I shoehorned them in to my slideshow about London ("This is Leicester Square, famous for movie premieres. David Beckham goes to watch movie premieres here. The author of Harry Potter is also from London, and many of the scenes in the books take place here.") They were left cold by Asia's favourite footballer, but at the mention of Harry Potter a whisper of excitement spread through the room like I'd told them he was here to visit.

After the classes I took in written questions from the students and wrote answers for them. Most asked me if I had a girlfriend, or if Katie was my girlfriend, much to her's irritation ("No you cannot write 'Katie wishes'"). Some asked what I thought of Japanese food, or what my favourite music was. My favourite question by far though was this one: "Do you prefer summer or winter?" Right now, in sub-zero temperatures, unable to feel my toes, but with three months on warm beaches and in glorious tropical climates to come, the answer seems pretty simple.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009

I am writing this from my friend's living room in the mountains near Nagano, Japan. The ski slopes made famous by the Winter Olympics are barely an hour's drive away. The city I'm staying in, Suzaka, is a satellite of the larger city of Nagano. With a population of just over 50,000 it barely qualifies as a city. It certainly has the feel of a village. The girls I'm staying with, Soleil and Katie, are teaching here as part of the JET program, and after four months out here can hardly go anywhere without recognising someone they know - often their students, kitted out in tight black leather jeans and bouffant hair to make Noel Fielding jealous. The buildings are low, as is the build quality, with no central heating and thin walls. Soleil describes them as 'glorified cardboard boxes'. It makes them exceedingly cold, but there's a fantastic kitschy feel to them that I can't help but love.

Japan so far is almost exactly what I expected. At passport control a woman overstepped the waiting line. When she was called back by the attendant there was exchange of bows, the woman repeatedly covering her face in shame, that reflected the overwhelming mutual crushing embarrassment of the whole situation. In a queue for train tickets I started to sneeze, and the man standing behind me immediately took three steps backwards and gave me the 'Is he contagious?' look. On the train ticket inspectors bowed each time they left the carriage. Among the low houses in Suzaka, off the beaten track for tourists and Western visitors, restaurants are marked imperceptibly Kanji (Japanese character) writing in their windows, and already I've seen children stare when I've walked past. It strikes me as quite an inaccessible place, more so even than China. Even throwing something out is near impossible without an understanding of Japanese, since the bins are assorted into at least five different recycling options, with no way of telling between them.

Still, there's something lovely about this city. It has the impact of a ski village, fresh faced cold and clean air, with snow-peaked mountains on all sides, without the short term triviality of a ski resort. The quiet streets and shut-down feel, during the day and at night, give it a sleepy quality that's very calming. It's a nice change after a series of megacities, and the throbbing nightlife of Phuket.