Writing and Dreaming

For a short time in the mid-nineties, I was unemployed. I lived on social security benefits and I worried about my future. And yet, odd as it seems now, when I look back on that period of my life, I realise that I was a very happy chap. The reason, I have since decided with a nod to schmaltz and cliche, is that I could dream. My lack of direction, my lack of purpose, my lack of job, allowed me to dream of all the things that might be.

That, you might reasonably think, is a young man’s game. I may not have had a job, but I had a whole life ahead of me and I could still become any number of things. If you are young and healthy you might yet become a movie star, a policeman, a successful businessman, an entrepreneur, an anything really. And then as you age and fall into career or lack of, those dreams fade. Your 25th birthday passes and you know you are less than likely to become a pop star, you celebrate your 30th with the other people in your section of the company and know you are unlikely to become the next Richard Branson, at 35 you look with envy at others who seem to be on a faster track than you, and by the time you are 40 you wonder why you always have a damp patch on your fly after going for a pee and just hope that you will make it to old age and retirement without having to live in fear of what financial damage putting a second bar of the fire on will do. Reality steals your dreams and passes them on to lottery tickets and your children. They can be anything they want, you tell yourself with grim determination!

I am not going to be Bill Gates or David Beckham or Richard Branson or (thank goodness) David Cameron. I have a reasonably successful business that will probably see me avoid penury in my life but I have no children to whom I can pass my dreams. I once dreamt of having my own school, enough students to survive, owning a house in Japan. Those dreams have been realised and I don’t now know what to do with them. I do, however, have a computer and an enjoyment of writing. And if you have those two things, you have no need to give up on dreams or find a transplant patient for them. You see, writing, for me is all about the dream.

I am not deluded. I am not living in cloud cuckoo land. I know that the chance of my ever being able to live off my writing is infinitesimal. I don’t care about that. I have sold a few books and every single one gives me a tiny thrill. I don’t expect or need those books to provide me with an income. But what they do give me is this lovely, life-affirming ability to hang on to dreams. In this day and age when it is so easy to self-publish on your own terms and conditions, I can put something out there and feel that frisson of excitement when somebody buys it. I can think and dream that others might buy it, too, and I can plan and dream of what to write next. Even better, I know that putting my plan into action will cost me almost nothing and certainly not require me to go to a bank and beg for faith and money. I know these books will never make me rich, and in a way I don’t want them to. After all, realisation of a simple dream stamps on that dream and demands something more. But the simple dream is probably the best dream of all. And neither age nor time can kill the simple dream of the would-be writer.

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An Extract from ‘Following The Flag’

This is a bit from Following the Flag – A Foreigner on Japanese Package Tours

As we passed through the lobby, two of the dancers from dinner were giving hotel guests a tutorial in the steps and movements of a dance. A few of the members of our tour were having a go, but I tried not to catch their eye lest somebody invite me to join them. You see, I am very possibly the world’s worst dancer and try at all costs to avoid having to make odd shapes with my body to a musical accompaniment. I learned as a young man in discos that I wasn’t the dancing type when people tried to pin me down and hold my arms by my side, shouting, ‘Watch he doesn’t swallow his tongue!’ Despite my ineptitude and reluctance to dance, however, there are always some people who don’t believe that I really would rather not humiliate myself in public, and are convinced that I am just shy and would actually like nothing more than to bust a few moves. They try to encourage me to dance in the misguided belief that they are helping me come out of my shell when, in fact, they are simply provoking an argument. It’s never nice to be at a wedding and find yourself saying in steadily rising tones, ‘No, I’m fine really… No, honestly, I’m happy just watching… Really….No, really, I’m not in the mood… I’m fine! No, honestly…Oh FUCK OFF, will you!’ Especially if a song ends at the wrong moment and everybody turns in shock to see an elderly aunt or a bridesmaid’s lip quiver and tears form.

I avoided eye contact and scurried past.

The men’s baths and the women’s were in separate areas. Midori went through a noren curtain with the kanji character for women on it; I ducked my head under the one for men. I took off my yukata and placed it in one of many wicker baskets provided on rows of wooden shelves. Then, with just a small white towel as accompaniment, I opened the door and entered the steamy main room. I took a seat on one of the small, wooden stools lined up in front of individual showers, filled a wooden pail with hot water and tipped it over my head. Then I washed myself thoroughly before sinking into the lovely heat of the bath. I put the small towel on my head and closed my eyes. It was wonderful. I don’t know why getting in an oversized, very hot bath which contains several naked, elderly men should be so much more pleasant than getting into a very hot bath in your own bathroom, but it is. Of course, having several elderly naked men in your bath at home would be more than a little peculiar, but even their thankful absence at home isn’t enough to tip the home bath experience the win in the relaxation stakes.

Many hotels in Japan maintain a bathing complex as part of the facilities and rather splendid they can be, too. After a few minutes soaking inside, I went through a door at the far end of the bathing room and stepped out into the evening air. Outside, set amongst rocks and gravel was an outdoor bath. There was just one fellow in it so I sat as far away as possible, thinking that was probably best etiquette. And that’s when I noticed another chap. At one side of the garden were two white plastic sun loungers and on one of them lay a fellow, hands behind his head, soaking up the moon’s rays. I think the idea was to cool down after a soak, but it did look a bit unusual to have a nude moonbather proudly on display. Not as unusual, however, as it looked when he got off the lounger and proceeded to do some naked press-ups. He was a youngish man, perhaps in his early thirties, and I dare say he kept himself in fairly good shape, but still, time and place young man, time and place! I mean, there was I trying to relax and empty my mind of all thoughts so that I could enjoy a completely sensory experience, but I couldn’t help noticing him popping up and down and my head would be invaded with unusual thoughts like, ‘I wonder if his willy touches the ground on the down push.’ It’s not the sort of thing you can ask, nor indeed make efforts to observe. I went back to the indoor bath, soaked for a bit more, showered again and then, in the changing room, fell into conversation with a man who absolutely would have no problems touching the floor on the downward push. In fact he likely wouldn’t have to bend his elbows.

Often, foreigners like to joke about the stereotypical image of the average Japanese chap’s manhood. Certainly there are some that seem to be struggling to emerge from their pubic forests, but who knows what the truth is regarding average sizes and so on? What I can tell you is that there is at least one Japanese fellow who looks like he inherited a donkey’s genes and that that fellow decided to befriend me in a state of undress. I had, thankfully, just put on my pants. I was having a go on the scales to see how many kilogrammes I had sweated off when he came out of the bath with his son and wanted to get his clothes from the wicker basket next to me.

‘Hello,’ he said, in English. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Scotland,’ I said.

‘This is my son. He is in fourth grade.’

‘And he has quite the obvious erection,’ I wanted to say, but thought it best not to. It was true, though. As I looked down to greet his son, I was faced with a doubly awkward situation. One was that this young lad was standing there with a very obvious full erection; the other was that his dad’s cock, although pleasingly limp, was absolutely enormous.

‘Hello,’ I said with much discomfort, quickly raising my eyes back up, straight past the father’s head and examining the ceiling for rather too long.

‘Nice to meet you,’ said the man.

‘Yes, nice to meet you,’ I said, and then inexplicably and in a tone far too high for normal conversation, ‘lovely night.’ Then I ran away to my own wicker basket. I changed and went outside to the lobby to wait for Midori, redder now than I had been in the full heat of the bath.

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A New Book For A New Year

At the start of last year,  I published my first book, Lifer – How To Be A Bald Middle-Aged English Conversation Teacher In Japan. It was, unsurprisingly, about how I became a bald midde-aged English conversation teacher in Japan. What was surprising, to me anyway, was just how kind people were about it. Look!

When people say nice things about your work it gives you confidence and courage to try more. And so I have written a second book. It is called Following The Flag – A Foreigner on Japanese Package Tours and details my experiences of going on package holidays with Japanese people. I got on buses and trains and planes with tour groups and visited Seoul, Taipei, Sado, Tohoku, and even joined in on a mystery tour where we didn’t know where we were going until we got there. By which time, incidentally, some people were so drunk that I still don’t think they knew where they were.

If you’ve ever watched groups of Japanese people following a flag from one site to the next and wondered how on earth that can be remotely enjoyable, you might find this book interesting. I do hope so!

Anyway thanks for all the praise and words of encouragement regarding, Lifer. If people like this one half as much, I’ll be happy!

It is available on all Amazon stores.

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The Little Gripes

The other day I was chatting with a fellow who had been in Japan for just over a year or so. He was talking about some of the things that got to him – you know, the usual things like being asked if he can use chopsticks, being stared at and whatnot. His grumbles seemed minor ones but they set me thinking about all those gripes and moans we hear again and again as foreigners in Japan and I wondered how valid they are and how commonly the apparent slights occur. This is a list of such things in no particular order – just as they happened to occur to me – together with my comments about whether or not  I have experienced them and some of my thoughts. I would be interested to know how my experiences over almost two decades tally with others.

  1. Been stared at in public

      Has happened often but nowhere near as common now as it was when I first arrived in Japan in the mid-nineties. It’s rude but can’t say it bothers me much, or ever did.

2. Been refused entry to a hotel, bar or restaurant due to race.

     Never experienced it.

3. Been complimented on chopstick use.

   More times than I can count and I have never been particularly upset about it. To be honest I don’t really get why this bothers some people so much. I get that it grates to hear it again and again and again, and I understand that some think the one issuing the compliment is somehow trying to ‘other’ them, to make a point of how very non-Japanese they are and therefore how something like using chopsticks should be beyond them, but mostly I think that is nonsense. Rather, the person likely has no idea how long the foreigner has been in Japan and is simply making conversation and trying to be polite.

‘But we have Chinese  and Japanese restaurants at home!’ argue the aggrieved. ‘It’s hardly difficult.’

Both those points are true but not everybody, in Britain anyway, is great at using chopsticks or even uses them to eat Chinese food. Many don’t. I once had a friend in Japan who hailed from Yorkshire. His father came to visit him in Japan and at one point in a restaurant his dad was sitting with a chopstick in one hand, a fork in the other exclaiming, ‘I’m half way there, son. I’m half way there!’ My own father managed to feed himself with chopsticks when he visited, but it wasn’t always pretty.

Even if people do know how long you have been in Japan and ought not to be surprised by your ability to transport food to mouth via short sticks, rare is the person who actually intends to ‘other’ or offend someone with their compliment. It’s a throwaway line and to scream that it is micro-aggression seems a bit over the top.

4. Been complimented on great Japanese after uttering a single word.

    Yes, even after a simple arigatou. But I feel much the same as I do about the chopsticks thing. Even if they don’t mean it and it’s obviously not true, it’s just someone trying to be nice. Like when you tell a new parent their freakishly weird-looking baby is beautiful.

5. Been refused entry to hot spring. 

    Never experienced it.

6. Had someone in a hot spring get out of a bath because you entered.

    Have been suspicious but can’t be sure. Once, after having a few pre-bath drinks I got into a tub and one old fellow who hadn’t been in long immediately got out and went to sit in a different bath. I decided to entertain myself with a game of annoy the possible racist and followed him to the next bath. He moved again. This happened one more time, but then again he may not have been racist in the slightest – he may well just have been feeling understandably awkward that  a big naked chap kept following him and sitting next to him in baths. And who could blame him?

7. Had people leave an empty seat next to you on a crowded train.

    Never experienced it.

8. Been stopped by the police and asked  to show your alien card for no reason.

    Never experienced it.

9. Been talked about by strangers in public within earshot.

    An unusually large percentage of people sitting in my vicinity in cafes and restaurants seem to end up talking about English or foreign travel. A few people have talked about me quite openly, but usually just remarking that I am tall. One mother in an elevator warned her kid not to catch my eye once!

10. Had people comment directly to you about your appearance. 

      People regularly mention my height. Some openly tell me I have a ‘high’ nose. An ex-student I hadn’t seen for some time and who couldn’t formulate the correct way to ask if I had gained weight asked rather bluntly, ‘Are you fat?’ (to which I had to concede that yes, I was a bit) and an immigration official at the airport told me I was much fatter than in my passport picture. It was less than a year old.

11. Had people shout random English words at you in public.

      Not for quite some time. A few ‘hello’s from kids and some annoying shouty greetings from drunk people, and one rather odd demand from right across a street that I tell the fellow where my country is.

12. Had people ask you if you have / do (      ) ‘abroad’.

      Often, and this probably annoys me more than any other. I don’t even represent British people, never mind all foreigners yet many seem to think that I am a spokesman for everywhere that isn’t Japan.

13. Had people tell you that Japanese snow, seasons, sea or whatnot are ‘different’.

      I’ve been told the snow is different and once managed to offend a chap by telling him we, too, had seasons in Britain. He clearly thought I was lying.

14. Been asked by a stranger if they can practice their English.

Once or twice. But more often I have just had people try to talk to me in English. Don’t mind if they are talking because they want to talk and will happily slip into Japanese if I do so. Find it a bit irritating if it is an interrogation and they are clearly just trying to practice or trying to show off. (But I bet this is every bit as common when, say, Brits who speak a bit of Japanese bump into a Japanese person in London or wherever. We all want to show off a bit!)

15. Had people just look blankly at you when you speak passable Japanese.

      Only when my Japanese was in fact still shit. I thought they were actively trying not to understand, but it may well have been my fault. After all, it doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much when your Japanese gets better.

16. Been on the good end of discrimination and been treated to things just because you are a foreigner.

      Often had drinks and food bought for me or been given lots of random gifts. Some quite lovely.

17. Been refused an apartment or housing on the grounds of race.

      Never. Although most of my housing was supplied by employers until I got married. Never tried to rent as a single foreigner.

18. Had someone go through your rubbish and complain (unjustly) about something.

I once had a bag of rubbish ‘returned’ to my doorstep as it had been put out on the wrong day. It wasn’t mine.

19.  Had someone complain about you to somebody (police, boss etc) rather than to you directly.

       When I was much younger I had a few friends over to my house and we were up late. We weren’t being outrageously noisy, but we could probably be heard by the neighbours and they would have been within their rights to tell us to keep it down a bit. They didn’t, though. Instead one phoned my boss the next day to complain about my rowdy behaviour. They also once phoned my boss to say that the weeds outside my house were needing to be picked and that I hadn’t done it. Actually, several Japanese people I know say they would rather call the police than complain directly to a neighbour. Perhaps it’s cultural but a bit annoying nevertheless.!

20. Been called ‘gaijin-san’ by someone in customer service.

      No, but the house mentioned above came with a parking space, complete with a handmade nameplate saying ‘gaijin’! The house did pass from teacher to teacher, so perhaps it was just too much effort to ask each person to write their own name! Considerately, it was written in katakana for those who couldn’t read kanji.

     

21. Had a server or shop assistant direct all conversation at your Japanese partner / friend.

      Yes. Not always but does happen.

22. Had shop staff give your change to your Japanese partner / friend.

      Rarely, but has happened a few times where I pay and they give the change to my wife.

23. Had someone ask questions about you right in front of you.

      Occasionally people will ask my wife questions about me when I am standing right there. ‘Is this your husband?’ is fair enough, but then to follow up with, ‘Where is he from?’, ‘How long has he been in Japan?’ ‘Can he eat Japanese food?’ and such instead of asking me directly can grate.

24. Been refused a credit card or bank loan on the grounds of being a foreigner.

      No. Had no issues getting credit card. When I applied for a mortgage most banks did say they wouldn’t consider me without permanent residence status, but being foreign wasn’t an issue. One bank did give me a mortgage even without permanent residence and another did try to tempt me to switch to them when my PR had come through.

That’s all I can think of for now. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t think there is much there to get bothered about. Wonder how others’ experiences compare.

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Thatta – Penetration

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Hokkaido in Autumn

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Travellers and Tourists

I’ve been playing around with the possibility of a new book about going on Japanese package holidays. This is its likely introduction:

Travellers and Tourists

Many years ago, I found myself spending the night in a Christian youth hostel near the red-light district of Amsterdam. I had arrived in the city late one afternoon during the peak tourist season and found that every affordable hotel was fully booked. My only option was to take a bed in a huge dormitory with lots of other tourists who, I suspected, were no more Christian than me. I presented myself at reception, feigned interest in attending that evening’s Bible reading by adopting a serious facial expression and nodding vigorously to the chap explaining it, and then went and dumped my bag on my bunk. A fellow from Australia was sitting on the bed below mine.

‘You going to the God thing, mate?’ he asked.

‘Doubt it,’ I laughed. ‘You?’

‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Have you seen what’s out there?’ He nodded in the general direction of outside.

We went into the communal area and made small talk. A girl with a nose-ring, a butterfly ankle tattoo and an American accent was chatting with a couple of Scandinavians. I wasn’t trying to listen in to their conversation but her volume of speech didn’t permit otherwise. I heard her say with obvious pride, ‘Oh, I’m not a tourist. I’m a traveller.’

Now, in my view if somebody who is clearly on some kind of holiday and not an itinerant says, ‘I am not a tourist, I’m a traveller,’ you are well within your rights to immediately administer a ferocious wedgie. But perhaps Scandinavians are more forgiving. They didn’t even tell her to fuck off. They simply nodded and hummed a bit. Maybe they actually were Christians and full of forgiveness.

It wasn’t the fact that the girl thought there was a substantial difference between tourists and travellers that annoyed me. Nor was it the fact that she considered herself one of the latter. It was the fact that she announced it so confidently and with such haughty self-satisfaction, the fact that in a simple sentence her tone suggested that she thought herself somehow better than tourists. If she did indeed think that travellers were better than tourists and was proudly announcing that she was a traveller then she was, quite simply, boasting. And, in fact, she was very likely doing so to tourists, the very people she was so keen to distance herself from.

We all think things like that. We all think we are cleverer than some people, cooler than some people, better looking than some people, more intrepid than some people, but we don’t announce it out loud like that. If you noticed somebody reading a trashy novel loved by the masses and loathed by highbrow critics, you wouldn’t ask that person what they were reading and then by way of reaction announce, ‘Oh, I only read good books,’ or ‘Oh, I only read proper literature.’ Because that, obviously, would make you an arse.

You wouldn’t say such things, polite and considerate person that you are, but I suspect that this young woman might, a suspicion that wasn’t diminished any when I later found her in discussion with the receptionist of the hostel. They were debating the meaning of a sign on the wall, which read, ‘Guests are not permitted to bring any obscene publications into the hostel

‘I have a slight problem with that sign,’ the woman was saying to the somewhat bemused man behind the front desk. ‘I mean, what is “obscene”?’

‘It means porno,’ said the chap coolly and succinctly. Easy enough to understand, I felt. You can’t bring porno mags into the Christian hostel. To me it appeared to be a simple rule, easy enough to leave unbroken. And anyway, they were big, shared dorms so it had the potential to become a bit awkward for all.

‘But,’ continued the woman, ’who decides what is obscene? Who is to say what is pornographic? They thought D.H. Lawrence was pornographic once!’

The chap behind reception furrowed his brow. ‘Do you want to bring porno into the hostel?’ he asked.

‘No!’ said the woman with a weary sigh. ‘Of course I don’t. But what is “obscene”?

‘It’s porno,’ said the man again. ‘Look, if you don’t want to bring porno into the hostel there is no problem. If you do want to bring porno into the hostel, then you must stay in another place.’

The woman sighed and retreated back to the dorm, shaking her head and no doubt pondering the pain of being so much wiser than other people. I hoped that wasn’t what it meant to be a traveller

Travellers and tourists – is there a big difference? Is it better to be one or the other? Twenty years ago, when I went on holiday I often found myself in the company of people who would certainly say they were travellers, and I was doing similar things to them. In the days before the Internet, I inter-railed around Europe without even a guidebook. I arrived in strange cities late at night without reserved accommodation. I found places to stay and then I walked and explored and went where my feet took me. I ate in cheap, local restaurants and I travelled on local buses and public transport. While in a shared shower in a very poor hotel in Paris once, a man actually stole my worn underpants. Yes, I saw famous sites, too, but oftentimes by chance and without really knowing what I was looking at. I wandered without much of a plan. I travelled, I suppose.

Several years later, I travelled through Asia, still without the Internet but I did use Lonely Planet guides. This seemed acceptable to other travellers. They all had them, too. But we went to see the same places and we stayed in the same hostels. Didn’t that make us tourists? I wasn’t sure where the line was drawn. In India everyone went to see the Taj Mahal. Did it make it more authentic if you went there in a cycle rickshaw powered by a forty-year-old, whippet-thin man who looked sixty and chewed red betel nuts so he wouldn’t notice the blood when he spat? Was it more ‘real’ to arrive in such a fashion and then get angry because he tried to charge you the equivalent of 3p more than you had originally agreed? Was that better than arriving on an air-conditioned bus from the local Holiday Inn?

I travelled independently and witnessed plenty of condescending attitudes towards those who came with tour groups. I stayed in shitty hostels because that was all I could afford at the time. I met many, however, who revelled in the cheapness and filth of their sleeping quarters. They boasted about how little they paid for a bed, they compared insect bites and pondered what beasties might have caused them, and they competed for who had contracted the most severe form of dysentery. They sneered at those staying in five-star hotels and I would sit silently thinking, ‘But they have been watching the BBC and CNN and sleeping on crisp sheets and had a lovely warm shower this morning. You are covered in flea bites and stink. How is that better?’

Of course, I said nothing. I am far too cowardly for that. Instead, I listened to them swap tales of discomfort and disease and watched them raise tie-dye t-shirts to reveal Chinese character tattoos. You know the sort – the ones where they are convinced it says, ‘Strength Through Adversity’ in Chinese but when translated correctly actually means, ‘Poverty Gives Me A Stiffy.’ One girl once advised me never to give begging children money because as soon as you do dozens more appear with their hands out. I found this to be true in India, but still, it was hard not to laugh at her advice that, instead, we give them a hug. That will keep the hunger pangs at bay. ‘Get any money for food, today?’ asks the family when the child returns. ‘No, but it’s okay, because a fat westerner hugged me and told me I was precious.’ If the child had no family and the money was, as was commonly rumoured, to go to a Fagin type of leader, I am sure he would be just as thrilled that his employee had had a small cuddle.

I think independence is the main thing that travellers hold dear. The fact that they are free to do as they choose, to experience a country as they wish is what is important. A fellow once told me that the problem with tour groups is that they go from site to site on a coach and take a few photos but don’t get to see the real country. They are visiting but not really experiencing in any meaningful way.

‘But you go to the famous sites, too,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do. But then I eat in a local restaurant or stroll through backstreets or go wherever the mood takes me and I meet people and see things that aren’t on an itinerary. I let things happen. Tourists in groups are told what will happen and when. I don’t see much fun in that.’

He had a point. Spontaneity is surely lost in tours and nowhere did that seem more likely than in Japanese tours. On occasion I would join in with the sneering at large groups of Japanese tourists with cameras round their necks following a guide with a flag for a shepherd’s crock and snapping a few photos of a famous site before getting back on the bus and heading for the next must see place. ‘God, that looks awful,’ I would say to my newfound, ratty-haired friends in places such as Varanasi. ‘So do you fancy coming to see the market tomorrow morning?’

‘I’m sorry, we can’t,’ they would condescend with a tinge of superiority, ‘We’re going to wash some lepers in The Ganges.’

Although I saw myself more in the traveller camp than the tourist one when I was a young man, I never really saw a problem with nice hotels and comfort. In fact, I wanted that very much. It was just economics that threw me in with people who thought towels doubling as petri dishes were acceptable drying implements. However, I never once thought I would become a tourist of the kind that follows a flag and allows himself to be led from site to site with a group of likeminded, passive individuals. I never thought I would be part of a Japanese tour. Over the last couple of years, though, that is the person I have become. Laziness in prior planning is the major reason I first gave up my independent ways to become a member of organised tours, but now it is getting to be the norm. I am one of those people travellers sneer at. The stories that follow are the tales of what I did as part of the Japanese tour experience.

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