Friday, 18 July 2014

Japanese Musings IV: The Sporting Life

world-map osawano


This week’s offering is actually one of the original set of Japanese Musings, writing whilst I was in Japan all those years ago. They were written as emails, one a week, to friends and family and that comes through in the style which is quite different to the stuff I produce these days. It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve improved or regressed as a writer.

This week’s topic is also quite fitting, the World of Sport just after the World Cup has ended, I watched the Tour de France fly past in Yorkshire and only a few weeks before I head up to Manchester to watch England v India in the 4th Test Match. Sport is a greaat bringer together of people from disparate cultures around the world, it’s a language that we speak in common that does not involve politics or religion. One of my first experiences of interacting with foreign cultures came when I was in Sixth Form, just 18 years old and the Euro 96 football tournament was hosted in the UK. In the pub I drank at some Danes came in and we befriended them, took one for a night out on the town and let him stop at my house, much to my parents’ ire. It was a great experience and one that inspired me to more and more foreign interaction. Incidentally, that tournament was won by the Germans and, as was proven last weekend in Rio, some things don’t change. Still, this time, as then, they deserved it.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

The Sporting Life

Ok, so this week's musings concerns the extremely important subject of Sport. Why am I am writing about this today, well I shall explain in due course.

Firstly, I must state that Sport in Japan is completely different to the UK. Although this may be disturbing to some readers, it grieves me to inform you that the gospel of Football has not fully reached the Japanese populace. Even more heart-rending is the sad state of affairs that exists here where people are ignorant of the Gospel of Cricket. Yes, it's sad, but sadder still, it is true.

That is not to say however, that these isles are without sport. Quite the opposite in fact, the Japanese are actually extremely sporty people indeed. Football, whilst having a minute following and passion attached to it in comparison with Europe, still is practised and supported and there are other games too, including a strange sport named baseball, . No, it is strange but the Japanese really are quite passionate about sport and this shocked me due to their pretty pathetic showing in more or less anything they partake in, except Judo or Sumo of course, but there again any country can invent a sport and then win at it constantly… except England.

No, what surprises me is what they actually get excited about. The Olympics certainly affected these people, especially the Olympic Football Tournament. Now, excuse me, I am a football fan and what's more I know many more in various countries but never in my life before did I meet someone who cared about Olympic Football. The World Cup, aye tis a different matter, the European Championships too, and even maybe the CONCAFA Cup, (or whatever it's called). But the Olympics, no. The Auto-Windscreens Trophy generally attracts more interest, (though to be fair, considering who the present holders are, that is far from surprising). But this is not what I am here to talk about. The Olympics are over, and good riddance. No I am here to talk about Japan's 55th National Sports Tournament.

Every year, (presumably since WWII), Japan holds the Kokutai, its own National 'Olympics'. Each year it is held in a different ken, (county), and this year the Annual Kokutai is in Toyama-ken. Needless to say, the whole ken has been getting more than a little excited about this. And Osawano in particular has been going sincerely over the top. The reasoning is simple. Osawano is a town of 22,000 people, not big at all, but by chance many of the regions sporting facilities happen to be within her borders. On top of that, the town itself seems to produce an excess of sporting talent, which no doubt is some compensation for the lack of academic talent which is all too obvious at Osawano Junior High. Indeed, one of Japan's Olympic Swimmers came from the town and a few weeks ago, the whole school had to watch the guy race. He came 6th, but hey, it's the taking part that counts.

So, the whole ken has been going games crazy and everywhere you go, the ubiquitous mascots can be seen. To be honest, the mascots are more than a little strange. They are two strange figures, one of whom is brown, he (? - I assume it's a he), carries a torch and has no eyes, instead just a banner around his head with 2000 on it. I think that maybe two of the zeros are meant to be his eyes, but it is not too successful if they are. His mate is white, has a beak, and eyes two, but also arms and legs. Except that one arm is more like a bat or something. Now it may be meant to be a Snow Grouse, the prefectural bird, and all I can say is that if it is, it is no wonder that that particular creature is virtually extinct. No, they are pretty poor mascots, no doubt at all, though of course I had to buy the key-ring which now hangs from my car mirror. Just getting into the local culture, I'm sure you understand.1

toki_kaze Toki and Kazae

Anyway, today, the whole school went to watch a softball match, and I went with them.

Softball is a game that I never encountered before, so I was quite looking forward to this dose of alternative sporting culture. I settled down in the stand next to a bloke with a weird glass eye. Now here it seems, I had performed my masterstroke, for this bloke turned out to be THE man to be sat next to. His strange stare apart, I was most glad to be sat next to him for from the word go he started plying me with beer. Now of course, initially I thought about refusing, since I was actually at work an all, but then I considered that it may be rude to do so, and thus, in the name of International Relations, (and for this reason alone I must stress), I accepted.

Many times.

On top of this, Glasseye-san also turned out to be the life and soul of the Osawano Softball Fraternity. From the word go, he got up and sang and clapped with the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal Pastor. Aye, he was a good bloke to sit next to and thus I watched my first ever game of softball.

japan kokutai1 Getting ready for the game (Glasseye-san is in the foreground)

Now Softball is a sport rather similar to Rounders or Baseball, in the respect that it has a bat and a ball and they run round several bases. For some reason though, it has seven innings, each of which does not last too long. This particular game was Toyama-ken versus Fukuoka-ken. It ended two-nil to Toyama, (yeah!!!), though it must be stated that I would imagine that Fukuoka's nickname is not "The Softball Ken". They didn't even get close to scoring. Toyama on the other hand were unlucky not to get a lot more, but there again they did have two players from Osawano, (according to Glasseye-san), so this is hardly surprising.

japan kokutai2 The victorious Toyama team

All in all, whilst not a bad game, I cannot imagine me ever becoming a softball fan. The essential problem is the length of the game, less than two hours. Now, as far as I am concerned, there are two types of game. One that is exciting, full of adrenalin rushes and does not last very long. Football and Rugby are prime examples. The second is more relaxed. Instead of excitement, you get a whole day (or five) to watch the match at your leisure, fully appreciate the skills being displayed, and of course, the beverages on offer. Yes, this is the category that cricket occupies. Instead, softball threatens to be like cricket, yet as soon as you are settled down, the innings ends and the other team gets in. On the other hand, it has little of the excitement of football, and by dint of the fact that there is a bat and ball, and no kicking, it really doesn't fall happily into that category either.

Well, whatever, it was a nice change from "Hello, how are you? Today we will learn about how to greet each other" and so I ain't complaining.

And remember, its only two years to go until the next World Cup!

japan kokutai3 Getting close to the big stars

Written Osawano-machi, 20th October, 2000

Copyright © 2000, Matthew E. Pointon

1They are Toki and Kaze respectively, taken from the 55th Annual Kokutai slogan which is “Ai-no kaze, Yume-nosete” (On the wind of love, with dreams). 'Kaze' means 'wind'; not sure about 'Toki'. The prefectural bird is called the 'raichou' in Japanese and in English is sometimes referred to as the 'Thunderbird', hence the local express trains being a picture of the bird on the front and being called Thunderbird also.


Saturday, 12 July 2014

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

world-map osawano


I had a seminal moment this week. Chatting with someone about the linguist roots of Romanian, (as you do), they came out with a very informed opinion which was not dissimilar to my own and when this was mentioned, it transpired that they’d got it off this blog. Is that what fame is like; when people quote your theories back at you? Nice to know someone’s reading all this stuff anyway.

This week’s post is a bit weird. After posting Japanese Musings 2.1 last week, the first half of my account of arriving in Japan, one might have expected 2.2 this week but instead we’re jumping onto 2.3 inexplicably. Why? Well, the unfortunate truth is that in my recent computer crash crisis, I lost 2.2 so it’s going to have to be rewritten. And so, until I get round to doing just that, here’s the next one in the series, my musings on one of my favourite railway lines of all time, the idiosyncratic Kamioka-sen.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japan is a strange place. In contrast to my native Britain, Japan is either dead flat or straight up and down. In my entire two years working there, I never once saw anything remotely resembling rolling countryside.

Where I lived in Ōsawano it was flat. Perfectly flat. Ideal country for riding a bike which was useful since I was regularly crashing, abandoning or having towed away my car, (see ‘Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line’), forcing me to rely on two wheels for much of the time. But flat as Ōsawano may have been, travel just a kilometre or two up Route 41 and suddenly cycling was all but a dream unless you’re one of those mad souls who enjoys competing for the King of the Mountains jersey in a bike race.

But steep hills and mountains, whilst not conducive to brilliant bicycling, are bloody beautiful and there were few things that I enjoyed doing more on a weekend than heading up the gorgeous Jinzu Valley into the heart of the Japan Alps in my Mattmobile, (when it was running), or, (when it was not and often when it was too), on the Kamioka-sen.[1]

KS08 Sasazu Station

The Kamioka-sen did not run through Ōsawano itself. Instead, my town was served by Sasazu station [2] on the main JR Takayama-sen (1920-34) which starts in Gifu-shi, pierces and winds its way through the Japan Alps before finally ending up in Toyama-shi. The four-hour trip, (best broken with a stop off in the beautiful museum city of Takayama halfway), comes highly recommended. I did the journey soon after my arrival in the country, taking one of the Hida Limited Express services which come equipped with wide-windowed observation coaches, all the better to sample the stunning scenery with.

KS01 The Hida Limited Express and a stopper service at Inotani

However, such elite services as the Hida Limited Express never stopped at Sasazu, it being a most minor star on the constellation of the JR network indeed, and so instead, when heading towards the Kamioka-sen, I would take the one-car stopper service along with farmers, housewives on their weekly shop and depressed schoolkids still in their uniforms despite the fact that it was the weekend.

255550786_5cb2bf7934_b Not quite the Orient Express: on board the stopper to Inotani

I would take the stopper as far as Inotani, a nondescript yet spectacularly-located village, (barely more than a hamlet actually), some 5km or so south of Sasazu. All the trains, including the Limited Expresses stopped at Inotani, not because of the place itself which, as I have already hinted, hardly warranted any station at all, but instead because it formed the spot where the JR West network met the JR Central network and because it was a junction, the place where the railcar that ploughed the Kamioka-sen stood waiting ready to take you on a trip along its little branchline.

KS02 The Kamioka-sen train waiting at Inotani

JR is, (or was, it’s been chopped up and privatised these days), the national rail company of Japan, but unlike in the UK and other European countries, the nationalisation process was never very complete and across Japan there are scores of tiny – and not-so tiny – railway companies which survive alongside the national big brother. One of the most famous for example, is the Hankyu Railway which operates 139km of track in the Kansai Region whilst in Toyama-ken the Dentetsu Station next to the JR one is the hub of an extensive network of lines, (just under 100km of track), across the eastern half of the ken[3] run by the Toyama Chihō Railway (commonly called the Chitetsu). The Kamioka-sen was also private, but one of the much smaller operators, owning and running just the one line, the 19.9km route from Inotani to Hida-onsen, its rolling stock consisting of but two railcars and two freight locomotives.

KS07 One of the freight locos

I loved the Kamioka-sen. You’d cross the tracks and get in the friendly red, white and blue railcar with its tea ceremony area in the middle (I kid you not!), and then settle down for the ride, a slow trundle through some incredible Alpine scenery, punctuated by several lengthy tunnels.

KS03 Inside the Kamioka-sen train with the tea ceremony facilities between seats

There were seven stops – actually, there were originally eight, but one closed – and on the platform of each one was a tiny wooden shrine housing a deity, one of the Shichi Fukujin (Seven Lucky Gods) of Shintōism, who include such luminaries as Hotei (the Laughing Buddha) and Ebisu (the fisherman god who gives his name to the beer).[4] That was what I loved so much about it; the personal, local touches; which other railway company pays for wooden shrines to protects its trains, provides tea ceremony facilities on board and produces an annual calendar featuring scenes from the line? It was a modern version of the golden age of rail travel which in Britain was the Victorian Era, when every area had its own railway company and every railway company was rooted in the area that it served. To find such a line and ethos still alive in late 20th century Japan was a joy to behold, for in Britain the Kamioka-sen – which could never have made money since it had few passengers and due to its long tunnels and many bridges, must be inordinately expensive to maintain – would have been closed years ago, its best hopes being turned into a footpath or, if very lucky, preserved by enthusiasts. But in Japan in 2002 its rusty wheels kept turning and I was one was glad to have travelled by them.

458807457_7f4f2fd650_o The Shintō shrine on Mozumi Station

But railways, no matter how quaint, full of character and scenic, are only as good as the places that they serve and here too the Kamioka-sen was a winner. Kamioka-cho, (technically part of Gifu-ken’s Hida-shi, although a more un-city-like place you can’t imagine), was well worth taking a trip to even without its funky little train. Kamioka is a pretty, quiet little mountain town nestled in the folds of the Jinzu Valley, the river running through its heart. The town was best served by Hida Kamioka Station, an elevated stop at the end of a high railway bridge traversing the western end of the town centre. I recall alighting one Saturday and descending the steps into a large and lively matsuri (festival) with floats and food stalls, (deep-friend octopus balls – yum!) lining the streets. Even out of the festival season though, there was plenty of stuff worth seeing here. Kamioka Castle, a 1970 reconstruction of a Sengoku Era fortress with samurai armour and swords on display inside is well worth checking out and once you’ve been there, then there’s always the weird and wonderful Kamioka Observatory Visitors’ Centre.

1024px-Kamiokajo Kamioka Castle

Kamioka Observatory really is the town’s X-Factor. Just north of the town itself, it is located deep inside the old Mozumi Mine which dates back to 710AD and was used to extract zinc, lead, silver and ore.[5] Indeed, the presence of mines in Kamioka is the main reason why speculators were prompted to build such an expensive railway (it is reputedly 60% tunnels and bridges), to such an out-of-the-way spot, since ore needs shifting and nothing can shift it better than rail. Now, that is true anywhere in the world, but it is particularly true in Japan, a country with virtually no mineral resources, (during my entire two years there, Kamioka was the only place that I came across where I saw any evidence of any kind of mining whatsoever). But anyway, when the Mozumi Mine closed in the early 1980s, a neutrino physics experimental lab was constructed in the disused chambers which aimed to discover more about the breakdown of protons. Now, having run away from Physics screaming after scraping through my GCSE Combined Science aged sixteen, I’m far from sure what all of that means, but the vast chamber filled with pure water, its walls covered by large bulb-like plates looked like something out of a science fiction film and since its director, one Masatoshi Koshiba won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001 for his work there, then I’m guessing it’s important.

PH20-water-withboat-apr23 Inside the Kamioka Observatory: “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

But for me the real drawcard was not down the old Mozumi Mine nor in the town itself, but instead at the very end of the railway, at Hida Onsen Station, (although alas, there was no onsen in sight here), which housed the most glorious little tearoom in all Japan and was as idiosyncratic as the rest of the line, with an old bus parked on the platform as a waiting room. Regularly would I take the train there and then enjoy delicate ham sandwiches with a pot of tea whilst reading a classic novel or adding another chapter to my latest story before then walking along the street beside the track, stopping at the exquisite Shintō shrine en route to the next stop, Kamioka Ohashi, from where I’d catch the next train back. Simple pleasures perhaps, but aren’t they always the best.

KS06 Hida Onsen Station with the bus waiting room

Postscript – 2013

Researching this piece eleven years after I last travelled on the line, I learnt to my dismay that the Kamioka-sen finally bowed to the inevitable and ceased operating in 2006. Since the last of the Kamioka mines closed in 2001, I’m guessing that the two events are related since the passenger traffic was never enough to justify its survival (80% of revenues came from freight traffic). However, it seems that the line has not died completely for its tracks have now been taken over by ‘MTB Gattan Go!’, an activity centre where one can hire a bicycle specially adapted to run on railway tracks and cycle the entire route. So, who knows, perhaps I shall ride the rails of the Kamioka-sen again one day in the future…?

38051939 MTB Gattan Go!

And for those who want to experience more of the old Kamioka-sen, check out these videos on YouTube:

The MTB Gattan Go! Website is here:

KS04 KS05 Kamioka-sen scenery

1 Sen = line, as in railway line.

2 Sasazu was one of the several villages that were combined to form Osawano-machi.

3 Ken = county or prefecture.

4 See ‘Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu’ for more details.

5 Cadmium leaking into the Jinzu from the mine during World War II caused an outbreak of a mystery sickness which killed many locals called Itai-itai, (lit. “It hurts! It hurts!”).

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

world-map osawano


A late posting again this week due to my son and I heading off to Yorkshire to enjoy the start of the Tour de France, (and enjoy lots of steam trains). Whilst there we popped into one of the very best museums in the world, the National Railway Museum which houses an unparalleled collection of railway locomotives, carriages and railwayana. Amongst them is a Japanese bullet train which of course brought back memories to me of when I lived in Japan and reminded me that I have quite a few Japanese Musings that need posting here on UTM. So here is one, actually the first in the second series and written only last year. I wrote about twenty original ‘Musings’ whilst I was in Japan, but reviewing them I noticed that they missed out some crucial parts of my Japan experience and so I have taken to writing some more to fill in the gaps with the benefit of hindsight. And here is the first which deals with my arrival, when a young and naive young Englishman touched down in Tokyo…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japanese Musings Series 2

Previously I have posted a number of ‘Japanese Musings’ written whilst I was working for two years as an ALT in the small Japanese town of Osawano-machi in Toyama-ken. What follows are more of the same, reflections on life in Osawano during that period (2000-2), but I am terming them Series 2 because they have been written in retrospect, over a decade after the days described when I am (definitely) older and (possibly) wiser. I hope they compliment the former and continue to bring Japan to life for you.

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival Pt. 1: Tokyo

Looking back now with the benefit of over ten years more living and travels through more than three dozen more countries, I can truly say that I have only ever experienced true cultural shock on two or three occasions. Arriving in Japan was one of them. Several years afterwards, I watched Sophie Coppola’s excellent film ‘Lost in Translation’ which charts the exploits of Bob Harris (Bill Murray as he arrives in Tokyo for the shooting of a Suntory Whisky ad. He is jet-lagged and he stays in a tower block in Shinjuku and it is all rather weird. Perhaps after you’ve read this piece, you’ll understand how I can relate to that film so well. Alas, unlike with Bill in the film, Scarlett Johansson never turned up to keep me company.

l_335266_44ed5ff4 Lost in Translation

To be fair, it was perhaps always going to be a bit of a weird time. The year before had been traumatic, one of the most eventful of my life. My father had been killed in a tragic accident, I’d lived with and fallen in love with a girl who’d then decided to get married to someone else, I’d had my university finals and I’d tried to cope with it all by writing my first novel. All of that was enough to put anyone in a strange mood and the chaos only intensified in the week’s leading up to my departure for Japan as my diary shows:

The weeks, (or indeed months), preceding my departure to Japan were definitely amongst the strangest of my existence. Not that anything particularly out of the ordinary happened I must hasten to add, but more that they were characterised by a strange sort of transitory feeling of a life in limbo. You have finished one life and you are waiting for the next one to commence. In the meantime you have time to fill, thus visits to certain faces and places from previous lives are made. During the run up to Japan I certainly got about a bit as they say. There was a visits to Scotland and London to see friends, a quick sojurn to the Netherlands to seek the wisdom of the Lowlander, a student party in Sheffield, a grad ball in Leeds, a Graduation Ceremony, (someone else’s…), a sing-song with St. Margaret’s Church Choir, a curry or two at Roshni Indian Cuisine, a trip to Burton with Uncle Doug and many nights in the Butchers Arms culminating in a goodbye gathering. Thus, after saying goodbye to all and sundry, I departed Stoke station for London Euston from whence I travelled to Northolt on the tube and stayed the night in the company of Pepi Mincheva and her compatriots, (most notably a rather attractive hairdresser from Sofia), in the suburbs of London.’

And then I was on the plane. Previously my longest flight had been around four hours, and I’d always travelled economy, usually on package tourist airlines. But the JET Scheme was not only paying BA, they were doing it business class and the flight, on the top deck of a 747, was twelve hours long. I sat next to a Sri Lankan dentist, watched ‘American Beauty’ and the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, wrote a letter to a friend, read ‘Les Miserables’, ate a lot, drank a little and slept even less. Half a day later we landed at Narita, the calendar having moved forward a day yet it never having got dark.

Tokyo Narita is a large airport much like any other large airport, the only point of note being that its trolleys could travel up and down the escalators. All the new JET teachers were herded together onto a coach and then sent into the Japanese capital. Here was where the culture shock started and here is how I described it in my diary: ‘Whilst Tokyo seems to have few buildings with any architectural merit, its sheer size is overwhelming; it makes London look like a provincial city! Crossed over several large bridges, saw a Japanese equivalent of the London Eye and also of the Eiffel Tower. Saw the Tokyo Disneyland and lots of skyscrapers.’ And at the end of it all was the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, a five star, one thousand five hundred rooms, forty-odd storey sleeping factory. And so, despite it only being early in the afternoon, that’s what I did: slept.

704px-Keio_Plaza_Hotel_-01 The Keio Plaza Hotel: not exactly personal

The problem with sleeping during the day is that you tend to wake up at night. If there’s one thing I can relate to more than anything else in ‘Lost in Translation’, it’s the insomnia, wandering around a monolithic, largely beige-coloured hotel in the small hours, watching weird TV and striking up friendships with other, similarly affected individuals. That and the sexual tension.

Unlike Bill Murray, who is a world famous movie star, us JETsetters were billeted in rooms of three, and I found myself sharing with two other guys. One of them was John and John was in the initial throws of a relationship with Chris and Chris, like Scarlett Johansson, was insanely hot. Therefore it is entirely understandable that John, whilst being a great guy and Chris, whilst being a great girl, did not really want me in the room. Things weren’t easy for me either, and whenever things aren’t easy, I get out. So it was that I went for a wander around Shinjuku as the sun was beginning to set in the land where it really should be rising.

Women-wearing-yukata-buying-train-tickets Shinjuku-station-Tokyo Shinjuku Station: the world’s busiest… and possibly also the most surreal…

Shinjuku is culture shock. Tokyo is a mad, crazy city, but Shinjuku is Tokyo on heat. Incredible skyscrapers above whilst at ground level a cacophony of sound and light. Pachinko parlours with their thousands of rattling balls,1 flashing neon signs, ganguro girls dolled and tanned up to high heaven2 and a selection of the weirdest food imaginable, all in a language that I could barely read my own name in. I wandered around sucking it all in, my head whirling as salarymen brushed past on their way home from a day in the office, ready to catch their trains at the world’s busiest railway station.

ganguro2 Pachinko_parlour Ganguro girls and pachinko

That evening we went out, John, Chris and I along with a few others. We headed for an Irish pub halfway up a tower block where it was a mind-boggling 850 yen for a pint,3 meaning that we only downed three before making our way back to the hotel and stopping off for some strange beef noodles en route which I struggled to eat as I was not yet proficient with the chopsticks.

shinjuku Shinjuku by night

The next morning I was up early and after a fine hotel breakfast, it was a heady dose of speeches and seminars. I was later to learn just how much the Japanese love speeches whenever welcoming or saying goodbye and most follow the same pattern. Whatever the case, half asleep as I was, (in my diary I describe it as ‘JETlagged’ – Ha! Ha!), not much went in and soon afterwards it was back to bed where I slept for most of the rest of the day. That evening, body clock still way out, we were out again drinking and sampling the delights of our new country including the toilets. I remember vividly going to relieve myself in the bar and the guy next to me declare, “Hey dude, I didn’t expect to see you so far from Kansas!” Thinking he’d mistaken me for some Stateside friend I looked at him askance, only to discover that he was holding a conversation with the urinal which was made by a company called Toto. Apparently Toto is also the name of Dorothy’s dog in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a dog that, unlike me or the urinal, hailed from Kansas.

toto_1479405c images Toto: different things to different people

The day that followed was more of the same; dull lectures in beige rooms. Eventually, I decided not to bother and so went off to explore Shinjuku, discovering a passage under most of the district filled with people and a tiny shrine in amongst all the skyscrapers that looked almost unchanged since the 7th century. After that, I again slept ready for the evening which started off with a reception party at the British Embassy.

The Ambassador’s Receptions are always, as the Ferrero Roche adverts tell us, marvellous affairs, and having attended them in both Japan and Vietnam, I am suitably impressed. However, of the two embassies, the Tokyo one wins hands down if only for location. Situated adjacent to the Emperor’s Palace it is a glorious mansion that speaks of the British Empire at its height. Indeed, it’s location is due purely to that factor; it was built right next to the Emperor’s Palace so as to discourage the British from sailing up to the city and bombarding said palace in times of disagreement, just as they had done in Peking. Not that I knew that at the time; instead I, along with all the other young British JETters were just star struck by the opulent location, expensive free food and lashings of free alcohol. It was not long before the latter began to take an effect and I got into a conversation with a rather boring chap from the embassy who seemed most unimpressed when I asked him if, following the departure of Mr. Bond after ‘You Only Live Twice’, he was now ‘Our Man in Japan.’

japan-old-camera-320 The Ambassador’s Reception, Tokyo

By the time the embassy party had finished it was all becoming one big surreal blur of neon lights, rows of vending machines selling every product imaginable, dark-skinned ganguro girls, mobile phones a decade ahead of the ones at home and then finally, that most Japanese of all activities, karaoke.

Most people say that you have to be drunk to enjoy karaoke. I do not, although I did before hitting Nippon. Time in Japan teaches a man that karaoke is a perfectly reasonable way to spend a sober weekday evening. But that was a lesson that I hadn’t learnt by then and so instead it was the karaoke that I’d practised out in Corfu that ruled the day then, plastered renditions of Beatles and Monkees classics surrounded by other drunks, (well, the British were all drunk; the Americans who hadn’t had a reception were still warming up), before finally staggering home via a snack bar that sold some weird beef with rice concoction, unsure of the unreal that we were in but loving every minute of it.

But what goes up must come down and the following morning was one of the worst that I have ever experienced. Another lesson in life learnt: Japanese hangovers are worse than British ones.[4] We all lumbered onto our coach to Haneda, Tokyo’s other airport, nursing sore heads and unsettled stomachs. No romantic, deep and meaningful hugs in a Shinjuku street for me I’m afraid, although perhaps if I return as a grumpy fifty-year old, then maybe I too will receive the Bill Murray treatment. But that is for the future and here I end Part 1 of my account of my arrival in the Land of the Rising Sun, for after alighting from our coach and checking through departures, we entered an All Nippon Airways jet which would take us onwards to the next stage of our journey, away from the monkey-brain sushi surrealism of the mammoth metropolis of Tokyo with its subcultures, subterranean shopping centres and sky-scraping hotels and instead into a very different Japan, the quiet of Toyama-ken, a place summed up in one word: inaka.

shinjukuShinjuku: Japan Max!

1 Pachinko is a mechanical game originating in Japan and is used as both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently as a gambling device, filling a Japanese gambling niche comparable to that of the slot machine in Western gaming. A pachinko machine resembles a vertical pinball machine, but has no flippers and uses a large number of small balls. The player fires balls into the machine, which then cascade down through a dense forest of pins. If the balls go into certain locations, they may be captured and sequences of events may be triggered that result in more balls being released. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible. These balls can then be exchanged for prizes. Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but modern ones have incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines.

2 Ganguro is a Japanese subculture. It is defined by Wikipedia as follows: ‘Ganguro appeared as a new fashion style in Japan in the early 1990s and was prevalent mostly among young women. In ganguro fashion, a deep tan is combined with hair dyed in shades of orange to blonde, or a silver grey known as "high bleached". Black ink is used as eye-liner and white concealer is used as lipstick and eyeshadow. False eyelashes, plastic facial gems, and pearl powder are often added to this. Platform shoes and brightly coloured outfits complete the ganguro look. Also typical of ganguro fashion are tie-dyed sarongs, miniskirts, stickers on the face, and many bracelets, rings, and necklaces.’

Ganguro falls into the larger subculture of gyaru (from English "girl"), a slang term used for various groups of young women, usually referring to overly childish women. Researchers in the field of Japanese studies believe that ganguro is a form of revenge against traditional Japanese society due to resentment of neglect, isolation, and constraint of Japanese society. This is their attempt at individuality, self-expression, and freedom, in open defiance of school standards and regulations.

3 Approximately £5. The going rate for a pint in the UK at the time was around £1.80 outside of London and perhaps £2 in the expensive bars of the capital.

4 Despite extensive research, I never definitively worked out why, although lots of preservatives in the beer, beer brewed from rice, not wheat, mixing drinks and the summer heat all seem to be factors.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book review: Edith & I

world-map albania


THe Missing Link is finished and the summer is upon us and therefore my postings on UTM are liable to be somewhat erratic as camping trips and mini expeditions intervene. This post is a day early for example, as my brother and I are off to travel the A470 this weekend. “A470? What on earth is that?” I hear you ask. Ah well, the A470 is the Route 66 of Wales, the only road which spans the entire length of the country without actually dipping into England. There’s even been songs written about it.

Nothing is so heavenly,

As travelling on the A470

I get a funny tingle when I go up the spine of Wales.

I catch my breath and smile a lot

When I think about just how much we’ve got

I only wish the journey quicker than a flight to Istanbul.

Ok, so not quite Lennon/McCartney but you get the idea. That’s this weekend and the weekend after I’m off with my son to see the Tour de France in, erm.. Yorkshire. Well, why not, particularly when they’ve the best railway museum in the world nearby with a bullet train, the Mallard, the Rocket and a whole lot more.

So, this blog may become erratic and so until things cool down again, here are a few stand alone postings, starting with another book review, ‘Edith & I’ which is all about Edith Durham, the most famous explorer of Albania and a great inspiration and gude to my brilliant 2009 Albania and Kosova trip.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Edith & I: On the Trail of an Edwardian Traveller in Kosovo

Elizabeth Gowing


When I chanced upon a book on the shelves of Waterstones in Birmingham detailing the travels of one modern Englishwoman following in the footsteps of Mary Edith Durham a century before then I just knew that I had to buy it. Ever since reading ‘High Albania’, Durham’s account of her 1908 journey through Northern Albania and Kosovo, I have found her inspirational. Durham was one of that special breed of Britishers who go to an exotic land, explore it and record it and promote it and in the process become beloved by the population and remembered by them whilst being virtually unknown back home. In Bulgaria there was Mercia MacDermott and in Japan Walter Weston, but for the Albanians it will always be Durham, Mbretëresha e Malësoreve, Queen of the Highlanders. But that is Durham, the question is, does Gowing have anything worthwhile to say?

Edith_durham (1)

In all honesty, I found this book mixed. In some areas it is excellent. Gowing is thorough in her research and discovers a lot about her heroine. We meet the surviving members of her family, the descendent of her Albanian guide, check out the ethnographic mementoes she brought back from her travels and speculate on her sexuality, fashion sense and motherly instincts. All well and good and I loved it, even if the image of Durham that came out at the end was rather unlike the one that I had fashioned in my mind from her book. Which is a shame since I based one of my favourite literary creations, the indomitable Mary Jane Hartley on her and now I realise that the two are quite different.

So, if she researches Durham so well, then what’s my issue? Well, I guess my problem lies in the researcher and not the research. The thing is, (and maybe this is just me), but my feeling is that she just doesn’t ‘get’ Edith. She knows the facts and she checks out the places and people but she just doesn’t really understand. Edith Durham was an anthropologist at heart whose primary aim was to record the culture and traditions of one of the most remote corners of Europe. In Gowing though, there is nothing anthropological. True, she helps out at the Ethnographic Museum in Pristina and helps set up a collective of filigree workers, but she never talks about the filigree in detail, classifies it, compares it to other filigree in neighbouring districts and speculates on why it is so popular and refined an art form in those parts.

It’s the ‘compare’ bit actually that gets me. I’m a big believer that if you want to know a culture, you have to explore around it rather than just in it. For example, to understand England you need to know something of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and even the Low Countries also. Gowing’s passion is Kosovo; she lives there and she loves it and that’s the problem, for Edith Durham was no lover of Kosovo, she was a devotee of the Balkans with a specific affection for the Albanian people. And that is where Gowing really fails, for Edith’s travels were focussed around all the Albanian lands, but particularly the highlands of Northern Albania. The plain of Kosovo is an afterthought yet read ‘Edith & I’ and you’d think that it was all about Kosovo and Kosovo alone. Only one chapter is devoted to Albania, a country that Gowing clearly does not know and, more worryingly, doesn’t seem that interested in beyond chatting to people whose ancestors met Durham.

Oh dear, this book could have been so much more! Edith Durham was political; she championed the Albanian cause against that of the Serb and the Turk. I would have loved to have heard Gowing’s musings on what Durham would have thought on the modern-day politics of the region. Would she have approved of Kosovan independence or would she have been horrified that Albania was now split into two countries? Yet sadly, these issues were not even looked at.

Not that it was all bad though. There’s a great description of a bus journey through Kosovo and I applaud the work Gowing has done with various charities there. But whilst she gets the facts, she does not get the soul. The most infuriating line for me came when she was checking out the monastery at Deçan and commented, “Of our party, each of us went to our private devotions; I walked around in an atheist’s equivalent of prayer, checking against my guidebook, looking up, staring meditatively.” That my dear, I am afraid to say, is nowhere near akin to prayer, atheist or otherwise. It is plain and simple sightseeing; I should know, I’ve done a lot of both. But then unless you ‘get’ it, then you wouldn’t see the difference now, would you?

Mary Edith Durham on the other hand, I suspect, would.

20th February, 2014

Smallthorne, UK

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.10: Bucharest (II)

world-map romania


There’s been a long gap between this post and the last. What is it due to? Have I headed off into the deepest Amazonian jungle to watch my favourite football team lose? Or perhaps decided to brave the dangers of northern Iraq to see what is really happening over there? Such would be good reasons for not posting, but alas, the real one is far less exciting. What really happened is that my computer got a nasty virus and crashed, I lost more or less everything and it had to have a stay in with the repair people who’ve cleaned it out, and rebooted it with fresh new programmes, none of which include MS Word so even the documents I saved, I couldn’t open. Still, back in the saddle now and here we have the very last post of ‘The Missing Link’, the last part of my explorations of the Romanian capital Bucharest. Perhaps not quite as exciting as Manaus or Kirkuk but just as interesting.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II)


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


Bucharest (II)

I woke up late on my last day a free agent. I’d slept surprisingly well in my dorm bed and had nowhere that I particularly longed to see and nothing that I particularly longed to do. However, as with all mornings following a night of drinking, there was one thing that I needed before attempting anything else and that was caffeine, and where better to enjoy a coffee than in the atmospheric confines of the Hanul lui Manuc? For a one-off, hell, I could afford it!

En route I came across an open-air collectables market on Piaţa Universităţii. I checked for old banknotes and they were there aplenty but the prices were sky-high so I declined. I did make one purchase though, some plastic wallets for the notes that I already have, bought off a Bulgarian trader from Ruse who chatted to me in his native tongue about trade across the border, impressed that he had found a foreigner who actually understood him.

Frappé in the han was a pleasant and rejuvenating experience. I sat on the upper floor overlooking the courtyard, kept cool by a fine mist sprayed from ice-cold pipes above my head. Such five-star luxury is what many people crave when they go on holiday. I generally don’t, but I must admit that, now and again, it can be rather fun.

ML161 Frappé in the han

With the best part of the day to kill afterwards, I decided to check out a bit of culture but the History Museum was shut so instead I retired to the Cişmigiu Gardens where I read and relaxed on a bench overlooking the boating lake.

I took a trip on the Metro up to Piaţa Victorei and checked out the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. This is a Bucharest institution and lauded internationally, winning the coveted European Museum of the Year Award in 1996,[1] and so despite Romanian peasants never being high on my list of sightseeing priorities, I expected this to be good.

But was it? Hmm… it’s hard to say to be honest. You see, whilst the Museum of the Romanian Peasant is a museum, it was quite unlike any other museum that I’ve ever set foot in. I can see why it won an award because it is so different that it seems to be trying to redefine what a museum is, but the question remains, does its concept of a museum work? To me it was more like a modern art gallery, short on historical detail and heavy on hand-written notes and experiential and artistic detail. Being a bit of a traditionalist as far as museums are concerned, (after all, if a museum can’t be stuck in the past, then what can?), I was left a bit cold by it all but I could see why some might like it.

The kind of people who use words like ‘contemporary’ in everyday conversation.

I now only had a few hours before I had to head airportwards and that rather oversized stomach of mine was rumbling so I indulged in an experience that I could never indulge in at home.

The Caru’ cu Bere is Bucharest’s best-known and oldest eatery. Established in 1879, it has been in its present premises since 1899. A pricy establishment in the heart of the Lipscani District, it is famed for its gorgeous Gothic interior, excellent traditional food and large glasses of beer. In short, it’s the kind of establishment that, in England, I would never dream of going anywhere near, (unless someone else is paying…), but one of the joys of travelling through the world’s cheaper regions is that, whilst one does not live it up all the time and must still economise, on occasions, if one really wants to, one can drink frappé at the Hanul lui Manuc and dine at the Caru’ cu Bere. And that can enhance a trip immeasurably for it takes much of the worry and stress out of travel. If a holiday is a time to relax and let it all go, then how can one truly achieve such an aim pinching the pennies every minute? I remember a trip that I took with my ex-wife to south-western France five years before. At every meal and every hotel we were checking our outgoings anxiously and suffering minor strokes every time the drinks bill was presented to us, and whilst the area where we were travelling was incredible and the food unbelievable, the cost did impact seriously on our enjoyment of the trip. I’d loved to have stayed longer there, to tour around as I had done on this trip, stopping here, dining there and taking the train between the two but at €20 a meal, €50 a night and €5 a beer then you can forget it.

A more practical example of what I am trying to say is when I went to Bolgrad. Not on the itinerary, off the beaten track, I arrived in town with no connections, no accommodation booked and no idea of hotel prices. In Western Europe such a strategy would be unthinkable as there’s always a good chance that the only accommodation available might either bankrupt me or involve a taxi journey that would do the same, (I’m always especially wary by the way, of establishments which describe themselves as ‘boutique’ hotels or guesthouses ‘with character’; they are always stupidly overpriced), but in Bolgrad I knew that whatever the cost, I could afford it and that knowledge provides a great peace of mind.

I knew that I liked the Caru’ cu Bere even before I stepped in since the booking desk on the street was manned by a bevy of extremely pretty and buxom wenches attired in some sort of faux Bavarian beer girl-cum-peasant maiden costume which emphasised artistically their impressive cleavages. Happy indeed to sign up for a table, I was led indoors by one of these Romanian Heidis and shown to a small table upstairs. There however, I discovered that the interior serving staff, whilst also dressed in cheesy peasantesque uniforms, were disappointingly a). mostly male and b). these uniforms were far more modesty both in skirt length and chest coverage. Ho hum. Still, I couldn’t complain too much, for here there was much else to look at; my seat surveyed a glorious Gothic interior which resembled a Hogwarts classroom although, alas, one without Hermione Grainger in it. [2]

ML162   ML163

Caru’ cu Bere: inviting

And there, in that citadel of Romanian tradition and culture, with a fine dose of peasant fare before me, I concluded my Missing Link expedition. As I sat and chomped on my spicy sausage and slurped my soup in a cottage loaf, I mused on how it had been and what I’d learnt.

Boiling things down to their very basics, I had to say that, looking at its original remit, the trip had been a success. My aim had been to close the gap between Konotop and Bucharest and not only had I done that, but I’d done it in a far more interesting fashion that I would have done had not the Ukrainian border police thwarted me a decade previously. Back then I’d simply intended to go straight from Kiev to Bucharest on the overnight train, but this time I’d managed to explore seven living cities, two ghost cities, five sleepy towns, one new country and one new almost-a-country.[3] Not bad for under three weeks.

The highlights had been many, (wandering through the overgrown precincts of Pripyat, the Hotel Cosmos in Chișinău, the trek up to Sihla and chatting with Anton Bremer on the Mocănița to name but a few), whilst the lowlights were few and far between, (I was a little disappointed with Odessa and Tiraspol). Most of all though, the trip had done what all trips should do: it had educated me. I now know more about the Chernobyl Disaster, the Holocaust east of Poland, the Bessarabian Bulgarians, the Gagauz, the Transdniestrian Conflict and Moldovan politics, Romanian Orthodoxy and church architecture, the German minority in the Maramureș and, (more importantly, that Kievean girls are without compare and that the Caru’ cu Bere hostesses wear the best-designed uniform on the planet.

But if I’d gained all of this invaluable knowledge, which questions remained unanswered? Primarily there was the big one that I’d been puzzling over before the trip: Is Romania Balkan? Sat drinking frappe in the Hanul lui Manuc and one could only answer in the affirmative, but riding the rails of the Maramureș and the answer is definitely a negative. Stood in the precincts of the Cetățuia Monastery near to Iași and no definitive answer can be conjured up.

Perhaps the problem was not the answer but the question itself? ‘Balkan’ is a man-made construct and what does it mean exactly? Turkey in Europe? Count out Slovenia. Post-communist world fractured by ethno-nationalism? Greece and Turkey cannot be Balkan then. Byzantium? Parts of Romania definitely don’t qualify. Beyond the cultural reach of the Germans perhaps? The fact is that Romania fits into all of the above categories yet at the same time, does not. The Turks were there but not for very long; post-communist yet, but a unique brand of communism and whilst nationalism has had a role to play since the 1989 Revolution, it has never threatened to rip the state apart, (although it has done with Moldova which is never considered as being Balkan); the Byzantines were only present in parts of the country but they had a wider influence and as for the Germans, they definitely had a huge influence in the north and the west of Romania, but in Wallachia and Moldavia, their presence and cultural imprint has been minimal.

The fact is that such questions can never be definitively answered, but they are worth asking for it is in the process of mulling them over that we can begin to comprehend the world in which we live in and travel through. Which brings us back to the big purpose behind the whole expedition: Why did I so want to fill in the gap between Konotop and Bucharest in the first place?

And the answer to that is simple: because no place is the same as another and travel gives us that unique opportunity to observe how one reality evolves into another. Back in 2002 I learnt how Japan evolves into Moscow; in 2003 I discovered how Bulgaria evolves into Britain. Now I could link up the both of them to see how the Balkans become Central Europe becomes Moldavia becomes the vast wheat plains of Ukraine. I have now seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, tasted with my own tongue, smelt with my own nose and touched with my own hands how from Konotop to Kilkenny, Tiraspol to Tokyo, Bucharest to Beersheva and Vișeu de Sus to Van, although we are all different, we are also all the same and our destinies are intertwined far more than we ever realise.

And there aren’t many lessons on Earth as fine and important as that one to learn.

Copyright © 2013, Matthew E. Pointon

Written April 2013, Smallthorne, UK

My Flickr Album of this trip 

1 The other recipients of this prestigious award that I’ve visited are the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, UK (1977), Zuiderzeemuseum, Netherlands (1984), the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Turkey (1997), the National Railway Museum, UK (2001), the Chester Beattie Library, Ireland (2002), the Victoria & Albert Museum, UK (2003). All of them, I must say, were exceptional. Aside from the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, only one other Eastern European museum has won the award.

2 I must clarify here, that I am referring to the Hermione of the last three films, not the first five.

3 Respectively: Seven living cities: Kiev, Odessa, Chișinău, Tiraspol, Bendery, Iași, Suceava; two ghost cities: Chernobyl and Pripyat; five towns: Konotop, Bolgrad, Tȃrgo Neamț, Gura Humorlui and Vișeu de Sus; one new country: Moldova and the almost-a-country is of course Transdniestria.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.9: Bucharest (I)

world-map iasi


As well as updating this blog, this week I’ve also been working hard on the new Uncle Travelling Matt Flickr Site. On it can be found all the photos from my trips described in these pages. Naturally, as it’s a work in progresr, then they aren’t all there yet but you can check out the snaps from Across Asia with a A Lowlander, my 2011 Trans-Balkan Expedition and this trip from Konotop to Bucharest. Enjoy!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II)


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


Bucharest (I)

Bucharest’s Garǎ de Nord is an old friend. It is where the bus from the airport dropped me off on my first-ever visit to Eastern Europe fourteen years before and it was from there that I took a train onwards, across the Danube and into Bulgaria, the country that was to become my first love in travel. It was also my point of entry and exit for the Romanian capital back in 2003 and the station that I should have arrived into on my 2002 trip had the Konotop Constabulary not had other ideas. Now though, it is more than just an old friend; now the Garǎ de Nord is the place where the Missing Link was closed, the spot from which my travels spanning three continents spread out like the tentacles of an octopus, (albeit one with four legs – a tetrapus?), south over the Danube to a mesh of Balkan journeys and then two legs, the first from Piraeus, across the Mediterranean to Israel and thence Egypt, the second through Turkey to Tbilisi; then there’s north-west, across Central Europe to the Netherlands and thence Britain and eventually Ireland, and then finally east, across the link that is missing no more, to Konotop, Moscow, Central Asia, China, South Korea and then Japan. [1] 


The Garǎ de Nord is a nice station. Not sumptuously ornate or architecturally splendid like Budapest Keleti or Amsterdam Centraal, but pleasant in a more low-key fashion, light and airy, and a worthy place to link up one’s transcontinental travels. Mind you, she’s looking a lot smarter these days; sometime since EU ascension she’s undergone a makeover and is now spick and span with facilities and signage worthy of her Western European counterparts. Back in 1998 she was dusty, grimy, difficult to navigate and the tickets issued were either the old card Edmondson one – a British design unchanged since the 19th century – or for the international trains, huge handwritten slips purchased from a special bureau. Nowadays it’s the standard computer printouts for everything, progress I suppose, but definitely at the expense of character.

It still being extremely early, I decided to walk to my hotel of choice, the Midland Youth Hostel 2, a distance of around a kilometre, through Bucharest’s dusty streets. Well, to be honest, that’s not quite true. My accommodation of choice is never a youth hostel as I can’t abide staying in dormitories, but the prices of the hotel rooms in Bucharest are considerably higher than elsewhere in Romania and my funds, this being the very end of the trip and accommodation costs having been much higher than anticipated in Ukraine and Moldova too, I decided to slum it. Well, one is a real traveller you know…

To be fair, my previous experience of Bucharest’s hotel scene did not inspire much confidence. Back in 1998 I’d stayed in a reasonable enough place close to the railway station, except that upon leaving by the reception desk, a man who’d been chatting with the receptionist had asked where I was from and upon learning that it was the UK, had asked if I had any British money as he’d like to take a look at some. Naively, I’d shown him what was in my wallet and by a clever sleight-of-hand trick he swapped my £40 for a handful of worthless lei and I only noticed what had happened when I’d opened up my wallet in the station. [2] And back in 2003 the place that I’d chosen had been so awful that it was the main factor in the Sibling and I risking the option of a homestay when arriving in Braşov. No, all things considered, maybe the option of a youth hostel was not such a stupid one after all?

The walk to the Midland Youth Hostel 2 was, surprisingly, quite pleasant. I say “surprisingly” because it was made carrying a very heavy rucksack on my back and a lighter but still annoying backpack (my hand luggage) on my front. I tend to pack light these days, but as trips progress my packs get heavier and heavier as I acquire trinkets, tacky snow globes (for the Sibling who collects them), books about Ceauşescu, DVDs and COGO sets for the son and heir, so by the time I hot Bucharest, lugging my baggage around was not much fun at all.[3] But no, despite the bags, it was not unpleasant strolling through the streets of a city that appears like a faded Paris without the Gallic pretensions and prices, towards a grand building that was obviously much classier than it is today but now finds itself in a rundown area that is fast becoming fashionable again.

My first task after checking in was to get the receptionist to make a phone call and book me on a tour. Back in 1998 there had been one sight that I’d been desperate to see. To be fair, back then, there was only one thing that I really knew about Bucharest and that was this particularly mammoth sight, Ceauşescu’s greatest folly, the House of the People. [4] It is the second-largest building on earth, a monument to the ego of the former president and I’d ogled it with awe in both 1998 and 2003, but that was all. There were tours around, but you needed to book them in advance and I just wasn’t that organised. However, after purchasing and reading a book all about it when I was in Iaşi, I promised myself that I would not miss out this time around. So it was that the call was made and I took up the next available slot, 12:45, which gave me several hours in which to do a little shopping.

Ok, let’s start with a few facts. Ceauşescu’s House of the People is the second-largest building in the world in surface area, (the Pentagon in Washington DC is first), and the third in volume. It stands 85m high and has a nuclear bunker underneath that is 20m deep; it covers 330,000m² and to build it more than 700 architects and three shifts of 20,000 workers toiled for twenty-four hours a day for five years.

Despite all of that though, even today it isn’t finished. What is complete mind you, beggars belief, from the 2.5 tonne chandelier in the Human Rights Hall, (an ironic name that, considering the regime that built it), to the fact that when it was built, powering the building consumed a day’s electricity supply for the entire city in just four hours!

I give all these figures in the hope that they somehow enable you to comprehend the sheer size and scope of the project. They probably fail in that task though; this is simply one of those things that you just have to see for yourself.

So, that was the facts, now the opinions, and regarding the House of the People, there are no shortages of those floating around.

Most are negative. They talk of the immense cost – both human and cultural – that it exacted on the Romanian people. Ancient churches and neighbourhoods were levelled to build it; people starved and hospitals went short of medicine to pay for it. How, therefore, can a building drenched in such misery from the outset, be anything but awful?

They point to the mastermind behind it all: an ignorant peasant with no artistic or architectural sensibilities whatsoever. His vision was the vision of a nouveau riche oligarch – he thought that bigger = better, that gold = good taste. Plus he came to the construction site regularly, interfering, demanding that this staircase and that hall be remodelled according to his latest whim. And the result? An incongruous hotchpotch of styles, no overall clarity of vision save for lashings of Stalinist socialist classical triumphalism, a style that was unfashionable even in the communist world , more suited to the 1950s than the 1980s. So strong were these voices that after the Revolution, there were strong calls to tear the whole sorry edifice down.

But they didn’t tear it down; it still stands proudly today and instead is the current home of the parliament and the place where all foreign dignitaries are welcomed. It has also recently become home to a modern art museum, (not sure what Ceauşescu would have made of that), and I believe that it stays standing because in amongst the crescendo of negativity – alas, such a feature of post-communist Eastern Europe – there is a still small voice which pleads, “Look, d’you know what; this thing ain’t so bad after all! In fact, step back for a minute and examine it objectively; it’s actually got quite a lot going for it…”

Well, that and the fact that it would cost an absolute fortune to demolish and what on earth would they do with the vast wasteland left over at the end?

But no, I mean what I said, it ain’t that bad. I mean, look at it this way. It was built in the 1980s for God’s sake and can you think of any good buildings anywhere in the world constructed during that sorry decade? It was the era of dull design and dodgy construction practices. In the time of the Barratt Home, awful office blocks like the NatWest tower or clever crap like the Lloyds Building in London which age worse than Brigitte Bardot, then the House of the People actually stands out as a beacon of taste and purpose. It was bold and arrogant enough to point to a brave new world yet at the same time had respect for tradition in its styles. And it also represented well the nation that built it for all the materials used are Romanian [5] and all the architects were Romanians. And if it is a veritable hotchpotch of styles then surely, does no country in Europe match that description more than Romania?

ML153The House of the People: big

But the House of the People was not the full extent of the Conducător’s vision. Like I said before, Ceauşescu visited North Korea in 1971 and came back inspired. Most of the (admittedly few) tourists who head Pyongyang way go for a dose of car crash tourism, a chance to ogle at how bad things can get, maybe taking back a Kim Il Sung clock as a souvenir, but not the peasant turned president who instead watched the troops parade past Kim Il Sung Square and thought that this was as good, not as bad, as it gets and at the end wanted more than a quirky timepiece, he wanted to take the whole city home.

And that being impossible, he did the next best thing: he built his own.

Again let me hit you with a few facts. One sixth of Bucharest was demolished to make way for the Pyongyang-in-Romania that the Conducător envisaged. The resulting masterpiece/disaster (*delete according to your architectural preferences) covers 500 hectares and is roughly 1km wide and 5km long. All the damage caused by the bombing of World War II and the 1977 earthquake only equates to 18% of the destruction rained on Bucharest by Ceauşescu’s wrecking balls and bulldozers which levelled countless historical buildings, (250 hectares of the new city lies on what were considered to be historical districts) including churches, monasteries and synagogues and even a statue attributed to Gustave Eiffel. And the end product – well, not quite the end product since the 1989 Revolution intervened before it could be properly finished – has been christened ‘Ceauşima’, a contraction of ‘Ceauşescu’s Hiroshima’ by the locals. Wanna know why? Check out the urban wastelands of bulldozed localities and unfinished apartment blocks left by the convulsions of 1989 and you’ll soon understand.

I took the Metro, (another of the Conducător’s megaprojects – this one actually useful), to Piaţa Unirii, the vast plaza at the heart of the Centrul Civic (the official title of Ceauşima), situated on the grand Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism, (now unimaginatively renamed Blvd. Unirii), dead straight, 3.5km in length and deliberately half a metre wider than the Champs Elysées. Flanked on all sides bar one by the massive grey monoliths of Ceauşescu’s vision, I headed for the largest of them all, the Unirea Shopping Centre, now festooned with huge advertising hoardings that must make the Conducător turn in his grave, this was conceived after he took a visit to New York, shopped in Macy’s and then decided he’d build his own grand department store right in the heart of Bucharest.

A department store it may have been conceived as but now it’s just a plain old shopping centre, full of smaller units selling overpriced capitalist temptations. I headed to that temple of commerce because I had a job to do. The son and heir had requested that I bring him back a Spiderman T-shirt from my wanderings but where does one buy such items? I guessed that Unirea would be as good a place as any to start, so I scoured the fashionable stores of the modern Romania before locating a suitable specimen and then, that done, retreating to a coffee shop overlooking the square to recover from that most harrowing of all the world’s traumatic ordeals: clothes shopping.

ML154 Unirea Shopping Centre: Kim Il Sung meets Macy’s

I took a walk along the banks of the concrete-clad Dâmboviţa River to the House of the People. The river was, like systemisation and the Centrul Civic, another of the Conducător’s not-quite-realised projects. His dream this time was to link the river – which is little more than a trickle only a couple of metres deep – up to the Danube with a shipping canal and thus turn Bucharest into a grand seaport with great liners docking in front of the House of the People. These days though, there’s nothing larger than rowing boats to be found bobbing on its surface.

One sight well worth checking out on its banks is the glorious Justice Palace which lies just within the boundaries of the redevelopment zone but got spared and so predates its neighbours by almost a century. Built 1890-5, this glorious Gothic pile is a reminder of why Bucharest was once referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’ for it would look more at home in Haussmann’s redeveloped city than in does in Ceauşescu’s.

ML155 The Dâmboviţa River with the Justice Palace on the right

The House of the People was, as I expected, one of those sights which can only be referred to as ‘unmissable’. It impresses primarily by its size: enormous rooms with ornate decorations, like Chatsworth on acid, which is not a bad metaphor when you think of it for Britain’s stately homes were, in many respects, the Casa Poporuluis of their day, where omnipotent local tyrants could reshape their landscape with virtually unlimited resources and with no need to take into account the wishes or needs of the folk who lived thereabouts.

And like those 17th and 18th landowners’ retreats, the House of the People bears the stamp of the dictator who oversaw it, including his quirks. One of these was an obsessive loathing of air conditioning which he believed made him ill, (a man after my own heart indeed – anyone know of a poverty-stricken country looking for a dictator?), and so despite its size and the crushing Romanian summer heat, there is no air conditioning whatsoever in the House of the People and instead the building is cooled by an elaborate network of ducts and grilles which is actually extremely effective.

ML156 Chatsworth on acid

As well as buying a ticket for the tour, one is also required to purchase an exorbitantly-priced photography permit should you wish to record your experience for posterity. I refused point-blank to fund such daylight robbery but photographed anyway, surreptitiously at first and then, when it became clear that the rest of the group were doing it and our guide didn’t care, brazenly. But to be fair, my photos hardly did justice to the vast and sumptuous chambers that we were shown around.

The highlight of it all was being led onto the balcony which overlooks the ramrod-straight Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism as it disappears off into the summer haze. It was an incredible sight, worthy of a dictator far grander than the Conducător and as I stood there I imagined him also standing on that same spot, waving at the adoring masses before him, truly believing that he was beloved by them all, that he was the Saviour of the Nation and that the Victory of Socialism that his great avenue proclaimed had, at last, truly arrived.

ML157 A wannabe dictator on the balcony of the Casa Poporului

Except that he never did stand there to wave at his people. The 1989 Revolution came before he had a chance to and whilst during that Winter of Discontent he did appear on a balcony before a crowd of a hundred thousand, it was in nearby Piaţa Revoluţei instead, and in place of the adulation he craved, he received boos and shouts of “Murderer!” and “Timişoara!”, (where he’d recently ordered the army in to crush a demonstration). Alarmed, he reacted in the same fashion and the scene soon descended into a massacre in which over a thousand protesters were killed. The very next day he tried again to address the crowd from that balcony but this time he failed completely and was forced to flee the city by helicopter to Târgovişte where he and his wife, the hated Elena, were arrested. Three days later they were tried by a kangaroo court and executed by a firing squad and the 1990 Revolution was over.

After exploring Ceauşescu’s masterpiece I then headed down to see one of the victims of the remodelling of Bucharest. Whilst the Centrul Civic project destroyed over twenty churches, a few were moved rather than demolished, the entire building being placed on rollers and shifted several hundred metres out of the way of the new developments. And so it is that, set rather incongruously behind some 1980s apartment blocks, one can find the glorious Biserica Mihai Voda (1594) which was shifted some 294m by the redevelopers. Once part of a large monastery complex that was seen as the symbol of the city, (hence the building getting saved), this exquisite church was well-worth the visit and looks as if it has always sat where it is now. The aspect that I enjoyed the most however, (though I wonder how it managed to survive the ravages of Ceauşescu), were some murals of important national figures of the 1930s including the Fascist dictator Ion Antonescu.

ML158 ML159

The Mihai Voda Church and its Antonescu mural

I crossed the Dâmboviţa River to the Lipscani Quarter, the part of old Bucharest that survived Ceauşescu’s megalomaniac meddling. I’d wandered through it before in 1998 and been distinctly unimpressed; an area of dusty, pot-holed streets lined with ramshackle, patched-up buildings, but this time it was quite different. Recently renovated, the Lipscani Quarter is now buzzing and vibrant; restored 19th century buildings house fashionable cafés and pulsating bars and the energy of New Bucharest saturates the air. My favourite spot was the beautifully-restored Hanul lui Manuc, an incredible han (inn) dating from 1808, built to shelter travellers and act as a warehouse and trading place, it gets its name from its original owner, an Armenian named Emanuel Mârzaian, better known by his Turkish title of Manuc-bej.

Although only dating from the first decade of the 19th century, the design and layout of the han – a courtyard surrounded by buildings with a balconied upper storey – date from much earlier and it reminded me immediately of Sarajevo’s Morića Han  which is over a century older. But that should come as no surprise, for the han is essentially an Islamic institution, roadside inns built to facilitate trade and protect travellers and pilgrims, often supported by a waqf (Islamic religious endowment), they are also referred to as ‘caravanserais’ (literally: palaces for caravans) and can be found wherever the ottomans and Arabs once held sway. I’ve been to many across Turkey and the Balkans but this was by far the finest that I’ve seen in Europe. As well as being pleasant, the Hanul lui Manuc was also a reminder – of which I’d seen very few so far on my trip – that the Ottomans had ruled here once, for wherever the Ottomans were, both hans and Armenians followed. This was a very Balkan corner of Bucharest and a cultural world away from the very Mitteleuropean Maramureş that I’d been in the previous day.

ML160Hanul lui Manuc: Balkan Bucharest

By this time the lack of sleep caused by my journey from that place was beginning to catch up on me so I made my way back to the Midland Youth Hostel 2 to catch up on a few hours before venturing out again after sunset. And it was imperative that I did head out that night for England were playing, this time taking on Sweden in a make-or-break game that would see which of the two progressed out of the group and into the knockout stages of Euro 2012.

I selected an Irish bar which I thought might have a good atmosphere and was not disappointed, watching the game with an English ex-pat and his Swedish colleague. It was, quite frankly, the best England performance that I’d witnessed since 2002, (although that isn’t saying a great deal…), and when they ran out 3-2 winners I was a happier guy than my drinking companion with Viking blood who left pretty quickly. After that I fell into conversation with another Englishman, a travelling salesman who’d just come back from Bulgarian where he’d been selling industrial lasers to a company in Gabrovo that produce parts for Ikea, (£80,000 a pop for the lasers). I asked him what he thought of the little country that I love so well and he confessed to being most impressed with it, particularly the women whom he described as being ”the most beautiful I’ve ever seen mate.” Three weeks before, I would have agreed with him whole-heartedly, but after checking out Kiev I could no longer do so. Nonetheless, the man had taste and was an excellent drinking companion and so it was that I had a few more before finally staggering off to my dormitory bunk.

Next part: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip

1 Of course, the Garǎ de Nord is only symbolically the place where I closed the gap; in actual fact it was eliminated sometime during the night at Braşov where the Baia Mare line, (along which I was travelling), meets up with the Bucharest to Arad line along which the Sibling and I sped nine years before.

2 Older and wiser now, I’ve had countless people try the same ruse on me since and just laughed at them every time, so, in retrospect, perhaps not too expensive a lesson.

3 Not much fun for me although, (and this is no joke), some people walk about with ridiculously heavy baggage as a hobby!!! It’s called ‘yomping’ apparently, was inspired by the Royal Marines who trekked across East Falkland during the 1982 Falklands War, (YOMP is an acronym for ‘Your Own Marching Pace’), when they surprised the Argentineans and retook the island. I have an ex-kibbutz comrade who, (judging by her Facebook page at least), seems to do it every weekend. Mad, plain mad!

4 Since 1989 officially renamed as ‘The Palace of the Parliament’.

5 Save for a set of doors donated by Ceauşescu’s old friend, the Congolese dictator, Mobutu.