Nice place to farm.


Image | Posted on by | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Thatta – Penetration

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Hokkaido in Autumn


Image | Posted on by | 6 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Stinky Tofu

When you walk through the streets of Taipei, every so often you notice that there is a quite disgusting smell. It comes and goes and puts you in mind of open sewers. This smell is the smell of one of Taiwan’s most famous foods, and on a recent trip there my wife decided that she wanted to try it. It was an odd thing to want to do, I felt. Who smells a shit, and thinks, ‘I fancy eating that!’?

The food is what the Japanese call shudofu and whose name is commonly translated as stinky tofu. I don’t know about you, but I’m of a mind to think that if you want a food to appeal to people, you might want use a euphemism for ‘stinky’. It’s an honest name, though, and it perfectly describes the food.

Stinky tofu is basically a form of fermented tofu and is commonly found at street stalls or at night markets in Taiwan. Thus, as darkness began to fall and dinnertime approached we made our way to a night market which wasn’t too far from our hotel.  Once there, it wasn’t hard to find a stall selling stinky tofu. We just followed our noses.

In a Reuters article of 2013, the writer Michael Gold described the smell as ‘a cross between burning garbage and body odour’. So why, you have to think, would anybody choose to eat that? Well, apparently, it tastes a lot better than it smells. It would have to, though, really, wouldn’t it?

The fermentation process can take several days or even a week and the tofu sits in a brine which can be made with cabbage, milk, meat or shrimp. Individual stinky tofu outlets have their own secret recipes. And there are plenty of variations to the dish. Common is deep-fried stinky tofu, but you can get soft stinky tofu, spicy stinky tofu and several other versions, all of which have the word stinky in their name. They say the smellier it is the better it will taste. If that is true, we had chosen well.

What arrived at out table was a bowl containing a few squares of deep-fried tofu in a broth with the colour and aroma of unflushed toilet water. The assault on our nose made it feel as if we had chosen to dine in a station’s public convenience where the cleaners had long been on strike. I had a flashback to visiting my grandparents as a child and going into the bathroom just after granddad had been in. That had been a daring game my brothers and I used to play. But we wouldn’t have dreamed of eating there!

With more than a little trepidation, I readied my chopsticks. My wife was less hesitant and delved straight in.

‘It’s quite nice,’ she said. I looked at her doubtfully. After all she often eats natto in Japan. Natto is a hideous sticky mess of fermented soy beans, which like its cousin the stinky tofu, has an aroma best described as rank rotten. They say natto tastes much better than it smells, too, but to be honest I have never really found that it does. I’m not a fussy eater by any means and will try almost anything once, but some things, no matter how healthy they are proclaimed to be, really deserve to be no more than a cultural dare.

‘It’s honestly not bad,’ she said. ‘Try it.’

I raised a piece to my mouth, began to chew and waited for the abomination of flavour that would surely come. Well, it was better than it smelt, of that there was no doubt, but I couldn’t really say it was pleasant. It was really just like having fried tofu in an extremely unpleasant smelling place. Every so often you got this horrible whiff, as though a smelly, fat bloke had just come running in on a summer night and begun airing his unwashed armpits in your face as you ate. I had a few more bites and let my wife have the rest. She even spooned up the soup and drank it as if it didn’t taste like it and been strained through the aforementioned fat bloke’s underpants. I was glad I had tried it. It was something to tell people. But it was best left, I felt, as a one-off culinary challenge.


Outside as we wandered the narrow streets in the area, I was presented with a real food dare of sorts. We had just passed a sign for the less-than-ambitious sounding Taiwan National Normal University, when a group of university students ran up and excitedly asked me if I would eat some food they were proffering. Being a glutton and not having filled myself up on the stinky tofu, I agreed, but began to get a bit suspicious when one of them then produced a phone and began to film me.

‘Wait. What is it?’ I asked, thinking it might have been prudent to ask that before agreeing to eat something being presented by complete strangers.

‘It’s okay,’ they said. ‘It is pig blood.’

‘Why are you filming it? I don’t want to be on the Internet.’

They assured me that it was just a bit of fun. They had to find a foreigner to eat pig blood and film it to present as evidence. It wouldn’t, they promised, be posted anywhere. It was some kind of game, I gathered.

I tried the food and it was actually rather nice. Not surprisingly, it was a bit like black pudding. I told them it was nice, they stopped filming and ran away again giggling. I saw them later, huddled on a street corner checking things off on a sheet of paper – marking off the challenges completed, I guessed. Or hoped. But if you find a video on youtube entitled something like, ‘Look at this bald foreigner say he loves eating pig cock!’ do let me know.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments