Autumn In Nikko


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Thatta – Tweet Honey

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A Mystery Tour With The Aged.

Rather excitingly, I went on a mystery tour this weekend. A local travel agency had advertised a couple of days away and as my wife and I wanted to go away but couldn’t be arsed deciding where, we signed up. It was just a one-night, two-day affair and the only things we knew were that it would include an onsen and tabehoudai dinner. Well, what more convincing would you need than that?

When we got on the coach, however, my spirits fell somewhat. I almost turned round and got straight off, thinking I had accidentally boarded the care in the community annual outing bus. For sitting there, gazing into space with various degrees of disconnect, were most of the people responsible for bringing Japan’s well-known life expectancy up to such a high level. If mothballs, hair oil and drooling is your thing, you were in for a treat!

My wife and I took our seats near the back of the bus, behind two fellows who were well into their one-cup sakes already. It was not yet 9:00 a.m. The larger of the two, the one without the hunchback and dyed hair, proceeded to hack up so much phlegm that I feared he was attempting to cough up a lung. Then he spat into a tissue and examined it. He did this several times before producing a plastic bag and, after his best hack yet, spitting forcefully into it. Maybe that was a special one he wanted to take home and show the wife.

Anyway, we travelled along, elderly people sharing unpleasant noises as we went, and ended up in Matsumoto. I’d been here before, but not on such a pleasantly warm afternoon, and not when there was a craft beer festival happening in the grounds of the castle. Matsumoto Castle is famously black and one of Japan’s finest. A rather lovely vermilion bridge stretches across the wide moat. Swans swim on the water, fat carp under it and, today, all along the banks people were getting slowly pissed in the sunshine. My wife and I joined them for a while, enjoying the scenery next to a young man who had turned up with a pet owl. I know, it seems weird, but just a few weeks ago I had happened upon a chap with a pet toucan in the streets of Tokyo, and, frankly, odd avian pets in Japan were losing their surprise factor.


We left the castle and walked up the road a little, discovering a wonderfully ramshackle bookshop, all brittle pages and dust, tilting piles and forgotten bundles. There were also some ukiyo-e prints haphazardly jettisoned, which the owner eagerly showed us. He was as a ramshackle bookshop owner should be – unruly white hair, longer than usual on an elderly man, glasses, and the dress sense of the most tweedy and old-fashioned of university lecturers. We bought two prints and then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to leave the shop as this delightful owner’s enthusiasm for his products bubbled and frothed and he insisted showing us some of his personal favourites.


The hacking and coughing on the bus was replaced by snores as we carried on with our mystery adventure. I suspect the crimson pallor of some of my fellow passengers meant that they too had discovered the beer festival. We stopped at a shrine where the hunchbacked chap enjoyed stroking a big cock, and then reached our hotel in the mountains of Nagano just in time for a soak in the onsen and the keenly anticipated dinner.


As the bus pulled into the hotel car park, though, the fellow in front of us pulled out his plastic bag again and vomited into it. I’m sure he had by now created the world’s most disgusting cocktail, but the tabehoudai dinner had lost its appeal somewhat. My appetite was diminished further still when I found myself next to a man who could slurp tempura and chew soup.

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Matsumoto Castle

As if Matsumoto Castle isn’t nice enough as it is, they were having a craft beer festival in its grounds yesterday.


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In Search Of Gold

Last week, I took a short trip to Sado Island. I had a lovely time. I saw some nearly extinct birds, I went out on the sea in a big wooden tub and I bought some senbei from a man who deserted the US Army, went to North Korea and married a Japanese woman who was kidnapped from Japan by North Korean agents – the usual holiday stuff. I also visited an old gold mine and tried my hand at panning for gold.

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Now, perhaps I watched too much Champion the Wonder Horse on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, but I thought panning for gold meant I would be sitting by a river, perhaps wearing a neckerchief and a cowboy hat, and swilling gravel around a big metal pan until I found golden nuggets the size of the breakast cereal ones I used to eat in front of the telly way back then. It wasn’t to be. Instead, my wife and I took our places in one of many lines of people standing next to very long and shallow troughs of water in a building containing nothing but such troughs. It wasn’t even outside. We didn’t sit on rocks by a river. Our pans were no more than small plastic bowls. And, to be honest, I think a few people were sniggering at my leather chaps and holster.

Anyway, a Japanese fellow demonstrated how to scoop up some gravel from the bottom of the trough, swirl it about a bit in a repetitively dull manner, and eventually find some tiny, tiny flakes of gold which had obviously been put there just for this purpose. We did it for an hour and at the end of the experience I had managed to collect two minuscule flaky pieces of gold which may actually just have been shiny sand. Nobody was thinking about selling up and moving here full time. The man opposite me had more gold in his teeth than the entire room could hope to find in a year. Oh well, It was just a bit of fun. Apparently.


As we left the hall a small, tubby woman in her late sixties or early seventies caught up with my wife. ‘I took a photo of your husband and you in there,’ she said. ‘I’ll send you the picture. May I have your address?’

‘Email?’ asked my wife.

‘No, I want to send a picture,’ said the woman and I guessed she wasn’t the most technogically minded person in Japan.

My wife wrote our name and address down for the woman and she thanked us. We thanked her for the offer, too. ‘Bit weird,’ I said as we walked away. ‘Asking to send photos to complete strangers.’

Well, today the photo arrived. It wasn’t the best. It was a bit blurred and showed me at an unflattering angle which managed both to accentuate my baldness and multiply my chins. It’s not a wall-hanger, that’s for sure. But with the photograph was a letter. It was immaculately handwritten on beautiful paper and told us a little about the woman’s life. The fact she was a calligraphy teacher explained the wonderful script, but there was no explanation about why she had written the letter other than the simple fact that she thought we might like the photo. She could have just stuffed it in an envelope with ‘Here’s the pic,’ scribbled on the back, but she didn’t. She spent some time neatly writing a couple of pages because, I suppose, she thought it would be a nice thing to do. And she was right. It was lovely and thoughtful. The photo may not be a keeper but the letter is. An email would already have been deleted.

There was gold there on Sado. We were just looking in the wrong place.

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Careful Workmen

Every so often, a workman appears at my house and proceeds to fix things I didn’t know were broken. My wife is long accustomed to my hopelessness in all matters D.I.Y and no longer asks me to do any household repairs. Shortly after buying our house she had asked me to do something involving electricity and I managed to plunge the entire house into darkness. Then I had to confess to a manly neighbour that I didn’t even know what a ‘breaker’ was never mind where he might find it. These days, my wife silently notes that something needs to be done and gets a man in. Today it was a plumber because apparently it would be better if we had the option to decide if we had done a big toilet or a little one and flush appropriately.

Anyway, the plumber fitted the new flushing device and asked if there was anything else that needed doing. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the socket there is a bit loose.’ I pointed to where our toilet seat plugs in, to the casing that was hanging off the wall to such an extent that I was terrified to touch it. ‘Oh, that could burn your house down,’ he said. ‘Do you want me to fix it?’

‘Yes, please,’ I said, and then after he was done, I led him through our house pointing to all the other loose sockets. He sucked air through his teeth as he pondered how it was that I was still alive. ‘They are all quite dangerous,’ he said. ‘That’s why I never touch them,’ I replied. ‘Can you make them safe.’

The nice man said that he could and proceeded to do things not really within a plumber’s remit. He did so without complaint and announced at the end that it was all ‘service’. He had charged us only for the ‘big shit’ / ‘just a pee’ flusher installation. I thanked him profusely and, after he had left, went to test the big flusher. As I sat there, I marvelled at how unfailingly polite and helpful the man had been, as indeed have all the workmen that have visited my house over the years. It’s always shoes off, sheets down, careful handling, and tidying up so that things are spotless when they leave.

As I came out of the toilet I heard a car arriving and looked out the front door to see the plumber’s van pulling quickly in to the driveway. I wondered what he had forgotten and really hoped he didn’t have to go back into the toilet. I’d have to stall him for a bit if that was the case.

Thankfully, he didn’t. Instead he was full of apologetic phrases as he asked to go back into one of the rooms where he’d fixed a socket high on the wall. You see, he’d moved a chair about a foot or so in order to do the work, and realised after he had left that he hadn’t returned it to it’s original position.

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