Saturday, 16 August 2014

Incredible India: Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

world-map abu dhabi

Greetings!

Things are settling down and the sad sad fact is that summer is drawing to a close. I’ve just enjoyed a great week’s travelling in Ireland but don’t have anything else booked until North Korea next June, whilst the days get shorter and colder. Oh dear, seems like a spot of cheering up is needed and so I present to you my account of my trip to India with two short sojourns in the UAE as well. I hope you enjoy it and, by the way, if you were enjoying the Japanese Musings, fear not, there’s plenty more of them left, but since they tend to involve wintry things I thought I’d leave them to a more suitable time.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

map_of_united-arab-emirates

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

FLAG UAE

600px-Flag_of_Abu_Dhabi.svg  dubai_flag


A murky haze is not what you'd expect. The stereotype dictates that deserts have bright blue skies, enough for several pairs of sailor's trousers, not a cloud in sight. But this was a dusty, grey soup through which the daring shape of the airport's control tower loomed mysteriously, more Tataooui than Triploi.

II001 Waiting for an X-Wing Falcon: Abu Dhabi’s Control Tower in the haze

Flew in from Manchester International, Etihad, didn't get to bed last night. On the way the paperback[1] was on my knee, not really a bad flight. I was back in the UAE. How lucky can you be? Back in the UAE.

Eight years after I'd last visited.

That was on a three-day stopover in Dubai flying back from Vietnam to live in England. Emirates had had a special deal on at the time whereby if you booked their accommodation and stayed less than seventy-two hours, then no visas were required. That was like a gift from Heaven for me as I was travelling with my then-wife whose Vietnamese passport presented problems at every border. So, we'd picked the cheapest accommodation in the brochure, (a four star apartment for £40 per night), and had a mini-break.

I'd rather liked Dubai. It was radically different from both Vietnam and Malaysia where we'd come from and the UK where we were going to. I'd long been fascinated by the Middle East and here was a little slice of it to break-up our journey. True, if I'd travelled there from Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus or even Tel Aviv then I'd doubtless have been less impressed; it would have seemed new and fake, but all things are relevant, where you are both physically and mentally at the time has a huge impact on how you view a place. We'd checked out the malls, dined on Lebanese cuisine, had our photos taken by the iconic Burj al-Arab and chatted to a genuine thobe-clad Emirati whilst his black-clad wife peered at us through the narrow slit in her niqaab. My favourite part though was the Creek. I'd checked out the museums of Emirati days gone by, marvelled at how Dubai, but a village in the 1950s, its first skyscraper built in the 1970s, had mushroomed into a metropolis of over two million in half a century, puttered across the water on an abra – a small slice of the Third World in a technological wonderland – and, best of all, drank tea and smoked shisha as the muezzin of a dozen mosques called the faithful to Maghrib Prayer.

II002 Dubai Creek with its abras

This time I was also on a stopover, my destination Delhi not Manchester and my airport of choice not Dubai but Abu Dhabi. I'd have two full days to explore, one on the way going and the other on the way back. So I decided this time to check out the inland city of Al-Ain and, if time permitted it, to revisit Dubai. On the return leg I'd check out Abu Dhabi itself.

The airport thoughtfully laid on free buses to the Emirates' three major cities: Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al-Ain. I boarded the latter wondering what I'd learn. I'd read that Al-Ain was the place to see the “real” UAE if indeed, such a thing exists. In his celebrated 1950s travelogue of the Arabian Desert, 'Arabian Sands', Wilfrid Thesiger stays with the Emir at Al-Ain and talks of how life in those days was focussed on either the coast or the oasis. Back then, the oasis was still far more important and Al-Ain, the largest oasis in the region, was the Emir of Abu Dhabi's inland home, a splash of green amidst the rolling dunes.

The UAE is a complicated place politically and most outsiders fail to grasp even the basics. People refer to Dubai as if it were a country and yet most definitely it is not. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) is the country with its own ruler, the president, who also happens to be the Emir of Abu Dhabi. Yet Dubai also has its own Emir and its own flag, both of which you see plastered across buildings far more often in Dubai than you do those of the national flag and leader. So, what's going on?

Reading Thesiger's book it all becomes a lot clearer for he presents to us the region's desert life in its traditional form. The idea of a country with defined borders is very much a European concept. It makes sense when all the land is cultivatable and the peoples of that land live fixed lives. But in the desert where nothing grows and tribes are nomadic, such notions are ludicrous. There are tribes who roam about roughly in a certain part of the desert but who cross over with one another and meet at wells, those few vital spots where the very source of life can be found. So, when it came to defining borders in the 20th century, these were naturally artificial, ramrod straight lines in the sand marking out approximately the area in which one particular tribe held sway.

And in the 1930s the tribe that had imposed its authority over most of the others in the peninsular was the al-Saud tribe, hence we have the mammoth state of Saudi Arabia dominating the desert today.

But around the coast other, lesser emirs, held their own, the Saudis unable to touch them because they were protected by the Great Powers, and in the area where I had now landed, a plethora of local leaders remained, protected by Britain and called collectively the “Trucial Coast” because, for survival's sake, they'd broken with millennia of tradition and signed a truce not to attack one another. And then, in 1971, when these seven emirates, some little more than the domains of village chieftains – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain – declared independence from Britain and formed the loose confederation of the UAE, each one with its own laws and customs but united under a single foreign policy and currency.

UAE_en-map

But the moment that one looks at a map of the UAE it becomes immediately apparent that there is a disparity: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi comprises of 80% of the country including two of the three major cities. And what the map does not show is even more telling: almost all the oil – the main source of wealth for the country – is in Abu Dhabi. Several of the emirates are relatively impoverished; one is amongst the richest places on earth.

My bus took me on a two hour journey through the heartland of this dominant emirate, along broad highways around the sprawling suburbs of the country's capital, then through the desert to the inland capital. We passed through scruffy towns that did not seem to have shared fully in the wealth of the nation and for miles the road was lined with trees, a miracle of modern irrigation compared with the windswept expanse of sand that Thesiger traversed on camel only six decades before. I was reminded of Israel with its tatty new-build concrete cities and kibbutzim that make the desert bloom and I liked the comparison even though I'm sure that many of the locals wouldn't appreciate it.

Al-Ain though, was a little disappointing. This “cultural heart” of the UAE looked much like any other new, spread out, concrete town. After getting my bearings I sought out the oasis at the heart of the settlement which had given it its original purpose. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in the country, but I must admit that, walking around I struggled to work out why. It was a pleasant enough place, don't get me wrong; a series of winding lanes bordered by shady irrigated groves of date palms, but there were no structures of either note or antiquity here. There is talk of how corrupt UNESCO – the organisation that lists and classifies World Heritage Sites – is and I can believe it. My guess is that the UAE wanted a World Heritage Site as a status symbol and as a very wealthy member of the organisation, it had to be granted one which happened to be the Al-Ain Oasis since there was nowhere else that came even close to qualifying. Which is all well and good since the oasis does preserve a flavour of Arabian irrigation and life in days gone by, just so long as it doesn't divert funds away from sites of real importance and with real need in more impoverished parts of the world.

II003 In the oasis

After exploring the oasis I dined in a Pakistani restaurant named 'Quetta' enjoying some very good chicken tikka and whilst there reading a curious little story in a free newspaper that I'd picked up from the airport. It told of an Indian gentleman who was a guest worker in the UAE and who had won the equivalent of $250,000 on the national lottery. “I'm so happy because now I can pay off all my debts,” ran the headline. But reading on, it turned out that those debts, the cost of building his family home in Gujarat, came to only $5,000. He could pay all those off, build homes for all his children, then retire and never work another day in his life and still have a bulging bank account at the end! Yet when asked what he intended to do with the lucre that the Lord had thrown in his direction he declared that (after paying the aforementioned debts) he would “buy a café in Al-Ain.”

This story troubled me. The UAE is full of guest workers, approximately 90% of the population in fact, with no legal rights whatsoever, often living in appalling conditions at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. There's a great deal of racism too with whites at the top of the ex-pat tree, then other Arabs (Lebanese and Egyptians in the main); then the Filipinos (who are, by and large, Filipinas), valued for their work-rate and linguistic skills and then, at the very bottom, Pakistanis, Indians, Somalis and other unskilled labour. They sign contracts for six-seven years and are not allowed to return home or bring their wives and children over. Living in slums, they send all their spare cash home, subsisting only and missing out as their children grow up. It is not an enviable existence. Yet here was one such man, who had been gifted a ticket out to a better life back home and yet had decided to stay! Do his wife and children – and the article did mention him having both – mean so little to him that the lure of a café in dusty Al-Ain, (much like the one that I was sat in), is far more appealing than the prospect of playing games with his little ones, sharing a bed – and a life – with his partner and sitting in contented relaxation in the sun on his porch? My father always taught me that money should be your servant, never your master and how glad I am that I was brought up with such sound advice.

I had a stroll around the city itself, admired the very angular Sheikha Salama Mosque and wondered what life must be like for those faceless women draped all in black, even their eyes covered by a piece of cloth. In his book on Arabia, Hammond Innes talks about women in Yemen who never leave their husband's house save in a coffin and whilst these ladies did not suffer so, I wonder how one copes with a life hemmed in by a myriad of cultural and religious restrictions. I would go mad I fear!

Perhaps inspired by them, I decided to do a bit of shopping. I had read about fine leather face masks worn by traditional Bedu women and had always fancied buying one for my collection of weird garments from around the world, but none were for sale so instead I purchased a niqaab, a black faceveil with three layers, the first leaving the eyes free, the second and third making the view of the world consecutively darker so I could see the world a little as they do. Then, shopping done, I took the first bus out of town.

II004 The Sheikha Salama Mosque in the centre of Al-Ain

On the edge of Al-Ain I saw a curious result of the 20th century process of drawing lines in the sand: a huge barbed wire fence cutting through the city. Traditionally the Al-Buraimi Oasis upon with Al-Ain sat had four villages in it; Al-Ain which the Emir of Abu Dhabi controlled and the other three being controlled by the Sultan of Oman. Consequently the national border divides the conurbation in two although looking through the fence to the other side, I must say that Oman doesn't appear to be much different to the UAE at all.

I slept for the two hours that it took to cross the desert to Dubai, awaking to see the city of prefabricated slums where the guest workers dwell on the conurbation's fringe. The journey terminated in the main bus station by the Creek and after doing a bit of electrical shopping – a card reader for the SIM of my new video camera – I headed to my favourite part of town where I again sat in the waterfront café, drank tea and watched the abras chug by. A return to the familiar before exploring a new world.

And Dubai truly is a new world, evolving at a scarcely believable pace. It is the Shock City of our era, just as Chicago was in the first decades of the 20th century and Manchester in the middle years of the 19th. Since my last visit a mere eight years previously the changes that the city had undergone have been breathtaking: artificial islands in the sea in the shape of giant palm trees, more set out like a map of the world and then to top it all, the tallest building on earth. And if that isn't worth taking a look at then what is?

Yet in many ways the method by which I got to that building mattered more than the destination itself. Back in 2005 there were a number of things that I didn't like about Dubai and by far the most irksome of them all was the fact that you needed to hail a taxi to get anywhere. In the scalding desert climate, walking for long distances is not really an option and Dubai is a city built around the car. That makes for ecological disaster, (Emiratis consume more carbon dioxide per capita than anyone else on earth), and sprawling, soulless urban environments where all life is internalised. That however, has begun to change for in 2009 the Dubai Metro opened, 75km of railway line uniting the city in one vast transportation spider which forces its users to occupy the same public space as one another. I loved it, descending down into the depths at the Al Ghubaiba Station, then enjoying the views as it changed from a subterranean to an elevated system at Bur Juman. What's more, I felt a strange affinity with this state-of-the-art transportation system: it is operated by the same company that employed me at the time. I just hope that they employ more competent managers in their Emirati division.

II005 The Shock City of the 21st century and its Metro

Alighting at the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall Station, I assumed it would be a short walk to the Burj Khalifa itself. However, it was a lengthy trek of over a mile through a glass tunnel before entering the gargantuan Dubai Mall next-door to the skyscraper. Nonetheless, when I finally stepped out into the Burj Park that surrounds the tower then it was well worth it for the Burj Khalifa is truly magnificent. Generally I'm not much for modern cityscapes, but this one was worth beholding: a balmy park surrounded by exciting and imposing buildings and overshadowed by the most unbelievably tall structure one could imagine. What do I mean by that? Well, let me put this into perspective: most decent-sized mountains in Wales and England, (admittedly not a land of huge hills, but nonetheless), are around 700m tall; the tallest, Snowdon, is 1,085m. The Burj Khalifa is a staggering 829.8m high, that is taller than most of my local mountains and over 200m taller than the next highest skyscraper. If it were God-made rather than man-made, I'd expected to take around five hours to ascend and descend it. All in all, it reminded me of anywhere else that I've been to, then it was KLCC, the park and shopping centre adjacent to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,[2] but this was in another league entirely. I felt dizzy just looking up at this glittering, modern-day Tower of Babel, (not so far away from the original either), and shuddered to think what it would be like at the top. This was the UAE encapsulated in a single building: the biggest, boldest and brashest, an unreal wonderland where money is no object. But do all those superlatives also equate to that most important superlative of all, the best? Impressive maybe, but somewhere that you could fall in love with? For me at least, no.

I took my leave and started the long walk back through corridors of crystal and concrete to the Metro. The UAE had whetted my appetite, a zany, contemporary apertif. But now it was time to move onto the main course. The question was, would the myriad of spices that is India prove pleasurable to my palette?

II007 The Burj Khalifa: tall

 

1'Are You Experienced?' by William Sutcliffe

2Which is fitting since when I first visited there in 2003, the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world just as the Burj Khalifa is now.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

world-map osawano

Greetings!

This week’s post is a little late due to me spending all last week travelling around the Republic of Ireland. It was my fourth visit to the Republic, a country that I like more and more with each trip. Thanks to the hospitality of Lenin, (see ‘Across Asia With A Lowlander’), then I managed to have a drink in Dublin and see the awesome Neolithic sites at Bru na Boinne as well as the mystical Hill of Tara and the fascinating monastery of Clonmacnoise.

newgrangebrubainne Newgrange at Bru na Boinne

tara-aerial-2004 The Hill of Tara

clonmacnoise2 Clonmacnoise

Then it was a train trip over to the west where I met up with Paul, (my companion from the Armenian expedition), camping on the spectacular Achill Island and then a tough climb up Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, (my calves can still feel it!). All done now and back to work and so hopefully, postings should start becoming a little more regular.

achill_head_from_minauan Achill Island

croagh patrick Ascending Croagh Patrick

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

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

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

The subject for this weeks musings regards the side of my job which they don't really tell you about before you hit the town. I thought that I was coming here as a teacher. This is of course partially true, but not entirely, for it seems that the town ALTs, (the city ALTs are a different matter entirely), also are expected to perform the role of some unofficial ambassador. Now of course where they are ambassador for is not precisely stated, and indeed there seems to be much confusion on this matter, though it seems to roughly translate to being anywhere that speaks English. This is ok and perhaps understandable, though I must confess that I am getting fed up of being mistaken for an American.

"So how is beer in America?" I am asked.

"I wouldn't know," one replies, "since I've never been there, nor do I have any inclination whatsoever to go. But, judging by the stuff they export, I should guess that its pretty crap."

This is met with puzzled looks. "But you speak English?!"

"Yes, indeed I do, that is because I am English, that is the language we speak, in fact that is where that fine tongue originated from. You see, I am a citizen of the European Union, 'Europa' in Japanese, and Europe is not, I'm afraid, America. Ask me about Rotterdam, Edinburgh, Athens or Barcelona, maybe I can help. Ask about sheep farming in the Lake District [we did that one in geography see] and I am your man, but on Thanksgiving celebrations, I am sorry but I must draw a blank. I would even go so far as to say that I know more about energy production in Japan [another geography gem] than the good old US of A."

"Oh!"

On the whole though, it is not so bad and some townsfolk even know about England, though their perceptions seem rather coloured by their experiences of group travel.

"Please Matto-sensei, I make invitation that you can come my house at exactly three pm."

"Why, thank you."

"Because I make Afternoon Tea with scones and I know that every English person eat this at three."

"Right, and from where did you learn that little cultural titbit?"

"Ah yes, we make a vacation to England before three years, and everyday the coach is stop at tearoom and we have Afternoon Tea."

"I see, and did you perchance happen to stop in a place called Broadway, or perhaps Bourton-on-the-Water for the Afternoon Tea, en route to Stratford to see Shakespeare's house?"

"Yes, exactly this was the place. They say is typical English village."

"Right..."

But, I jest. On the whole I really do enjoy my new career as the Official Ambassador of Englishdom. For a start, I get to write a little piece in the town paper every month, talking about my experiences in Osawano. My predecessor warned me about this beforehand. "Don't criticise anything in Japan" were his sage words, "they won't print it!" It seems that one of his articles, discussing discipline within the school, (well to be more exact, the abject lack of discipline within the school), was refused. I read the piece and whilst it was mildly controversial, and indeed may have raised a few eyebrows back home, ("And what right has a bloody foreigner got to criticise our education system?" thunders the local Tory councillor in a strongly-worded letter to the 'Times and Echo'), it wasn't altogether that bad.

But I digress. So staying away from controversial subjects, I then decided to make my little pieces are incredibly cheesy as possible. One extolled the virtues of karaoke, another talked about how marvellous Royal Families are, (though should they ever be got rid of, I suggested Paul McCartney as a good candidate for British President and Katori Shingo (exceptionally cheesy singer) for Japan). I discuss red telephone boxes, the Beatles and of course Afternoon Tea. What's more they love it!! I have lost count of the number of times people have come up to me and complimented me on what are in my opinion, ( and a valid opinion since I wrote them), exceptionally bad articles. This month's topic is cooking and in particular Roast Beef and Yorkshire Puddings. I await the response.

But my Ambassador role does not stop there. Far from it. Two weeks ago I had to show a Malaysian girl around who was on an exchange from the Lions Club International. "You're the first person that I met here that speaks English" commented Ms. Choing Chang.

"Really!" I replied, "that does surprise me!"

japan lions club Ms. Choing Chang checking out the Osawano Statue Park

The best part however is dealing with the Osawano International Circle.

The Osawano International Circle is run by a Mr Sugibaiashi who is retired. In fact all of it's members are retired, except one who is a housewife. It is in essence a group who likes to practice their English and talk to foreigners, and it is also one of the nicest groups of people whom one could expect to meet. I say practice their English, but that is not entirely true, since they don't have a lot of English to practice with, but they try hard, I try to speak some Japanese and together we communicate.

japan cooking class2 Osawano Cooking Class (Mr. Sugibaiashi is second from the left)

Earlier in the month they held a Cooking Class where two Russian girls and a Chinese lady cooked dishes from their home countries. I was the guest of honour, and we all had a real good laugh. "Thank you for inviting me" I told our hostess.

"No problem," replieth she with a twinkle in her eye, "because next time you is teacher. We make scones!"

"But I can't cook!" I protested.

"Of course you can," retorted she, "I know because I read Osawano Town Paper. You write 'I cook scones every day to eat with my Afternoon Tea'!"

Talk about digging your own grave! I'm off to the library now for a recipe book....

Matt

Friday, 1 August 2014

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

world-map osawano

Greetings!

Today’s post combines two of my favourite activities: reading and travel. I read a lot as a child but then stopped at high school. I’ve always blamed GCSE and A-Level Literature for that; the books we read were inaccessible and totally unsuited to the world of the teenager. Thankfully, when I moved to Japan I began to read again, vociferously, and I am still doing it today. Not quite to the same degree perhaps – I don’t have the same amount of free time now as I did then – but still with passion and verve.

And over the years I’ve found that travel and reading are natural bedfellows. One can inform the other and vice versa. On this site I review some of the travel writing that I’ve read, but what I’m talking about goes beyond that. If you’re going to the Philippines, then read a Filipino novel, (I recommend the stuff by F. Sionil Jose), or if you are headed to Turkey, why not a brief history of the country or an aspect of it that you are particularly interested in (nothing better than John Julius Norwich’s ‘Byzantium’)? Indeed, both can be love affairs to last a lifetime, partners that can change as you do, (although a brief return fling with Enid Blyton is always fun). Reading a book on a long train journey as the scenery of an exotic place rolls by – what pleasure in life is finer?

Which brings me to the present because tomorrow I head off on my travels again, week’s trip to Ireland to see two friends of mine. And on that trip there’ll be two juicy train trips from the east coast to the west. What shall I pack to keep me entertained? ‘Around Ireland witha Fridge’ by Tony Hawks, an Emerald Isle classic by Joyce; ‘Under Milk Wood’ to help inspire me to write up my Welsh expeditions or something completely off the wall… ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ or perhaps yet another re-read of ‘1984’. Choosing, that is always the hardest part…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

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

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time...

Today I am quite agitated. The thing that is bothering me is whether Prince Andrew will marry Natasha. I certainly hope that he does, since he is a nice bloke and she is a sweet girl. Of course I appreciate that the age difference could cause problems and all, but they do love each other so. Of course where that leaves Pierre is another matter. His marriage to Helene is nothing more than a sham, and whilst she may be beautiful she does strike me as a bit of a bitch at times. Yep, I feel sorry sorry for Pierre in a big way. Ok, so he's a bit strange and he took being in the Freemasons a wee bit too seriously, especially the mystical side of it all, but his heart is in the right place, isn't it?

I imagine that you probably haven't got the faintest idea what I'm going on about, and to be honest I'm not surprised. You see the thing that I'm talking about is the thing that has taken over my life completely for the last four or five days; the latest book that I'm reading. The book is called "War and Peace" and its bloody brilliant. To be fair, most people have heard of this text, but how many have actually read it? Not many I would imagine for the simple reason that it is ridiculously big. It is not big in the usual "hmm this is a big book" sense, but piss-takingly huge. I am reading it in a serious way, I have been doing such for four or five days, and I aren't near the half way mark yet. It is THAT big, way too large and long and thick. Too big really.

war-and-peace-maudeWar and Peace: long

Mr Tolstoy, I imagine must have had a lot of time on his hands, and indeed the theme of this weeks mail is just that, people with rather too much time on their hands, in other words, ALTs or JETs, (whichever abbreviation rolls off your tongue most easily). Having conversed with many of my colleagues on the matter I have come to the conclusion that all ALTs spend large portions of their working day doing absolutely sod all. In fact all those that I spoke to have this problem, bar one and thus I conclude that she is either lying or should demand a transfer to somewhere easier immediately.

To be fair, we are only being like the Japanese themselves, who must spend on average about ten hours every weekday at the office, doing the same amount of work which Europeans do in seven. But it is ok for them, they can sit and chat to their mates or indeed they can drop off to sleep at the drop of a hat.

That is quite interesting really but it seems to me that most Japanese are trained from birth to be able to sleep anywhere and then wake up only five minutes later. As soon as they get on a train, and they all doze off, but did you ever see one sleep through his or her stop. Not bloody likely, nope, they wake up just in time and walk off looking as fresh as if they'd just stepped out of the shower.

sleeping salarymen Sleeping Salarymen

It's the same at work, they doze off at their desk, yet always wake up ready for the next lesson. Some, I suspect fall asleep at the wheel, yet still drive the same, at a steady 50km per hour, just slow enough to annoy you and prevent you from getting anywhere on time.

But gaijin can't do that, or at least Matto-sensei can't. He dozes off, and stays asleep, and misses important things. Alternatively he doesn't doze off and gets bored. Thus he, like most of his gaijin comrades must find other diversions.

Perhaps the most popular of these is learning Japanese. This is educational and indeed incredibly useful. Unfortunately, it is also rather difficult and if, (like I), thou art a wee bit lazy, 'tis not a good road to travel upon. It takes a lot off effort and let's be honest, if I'd wanted to do things that require a lot of effort, I'd have set up my own business or gone to work for a bank or something. No, too much like hard work for me is that one. Other solutions include, writing pointless Japanese Musings, surfing the net, writing letters, etc, etc. There are however some more unorthodox ways of filling in time.

For starters, there's the humble cup of tea, (or coffee for those from less advanced civilisations. Interesting tea and coffee games can be thought of. Why not compare the different powdered milk brands in your tea. I find Marim to be the least creamy, whilst Creap (Creamy Powder), the creamiest. This is ok in coffee, but for tea, too much. I plumped, (after much deliberation), for Nestle Brite, the happy medium.

marim creap brite Am I feeling brite or creapy this morning…?

How about inventing your own kanji? Kanji are the 'picture' characters for words or concepts, (which fail to look remotely like what they represent despite what some people try and tell you). Why not invent kanji for concepts such as "bad hair day" or "Dutch courage"?

Another good option is of course e-mail. E-mail can waste a lot of valuable time as we all know, but what happens when we run out of people to correspond to? That is when people like my friend Lee come in.

Lee is my e-mail friend. I have never met him and don't know a lot about him, except that he lives in Osaka and is probably the only other Stoke fan east of Istanbul. However, this doesn't stop him sending me several e-mails per day with the magic prefix "Fwd" in their title. Waste good time by reading those sexist jokes and witty anti-French digs; laugh at the interactive jokes and then forward them on to your friends.

Lee is not my only e-mail friend however. I have another one called Lucy_Pike. Now Lucy_Pike is one of the JETs here, or at least that is what I thought. Therefore, I was happily sending all my forwards and musings to Lucy_Pike, and indeed I even got a short reply once, saying, "Thanks for the forward. Very funny." However, one day whilst out in Toyama, I spoke to Lucy Pike, an ALT in that fair city and also a friend of mine, who proceeded to chastise me for not sending her my musings or forwards. "But I do" one protested.

"Well, I'm not receiving any" retorted she.

It then transpired that we were both telling the gospel truth and that whilst Lucy_Pike had been enjoying my witticisms, Pike_Lucy (whom dwells in Toyama), was not. Oh well...

My number one time waster however is a good book. Unfortunately, we have so much spare time that you begin to read faster, and faster, and faster, until, wow, you start finishing a book in two days, on a regular basis. Reading becomes more expensive than drinking due to the books that you get through and the lack of public libraries. And thus, here Mr Tolstoy comes to help. I have a theory that perhaps in nineteenth century Russia there was a glut of RETs (Russian English Teachers), who had sod all to do all day. Old Tolstoy-san identified this "gap in the market", wrote books of a stupid length and thus he made his fortune. Aah, a clever man indeed.

Anyway, I must depart for Prince Andrew Bolkonski has a ball to attend at the Rostov household, and young Natasha Rostova will of course be there. Will he promise her his hand? We shall see...

War-and-Peace-war-and-peace-1956-30904830-670-492

Written 27th November, 2000, Osawano-machi, Japan

Copyright © 2000, Matthew E. Pointon

Next musing: The Joys of Internationalisation

 

Friday, 25 July 2014

Japanese Musings VI – A Bad Day

world-map osawano

Greetings!

We’re still in Japan and this week I talk about a very bad day and a few of the contradictions of the Japan I lived in. To me the one about technology is the biggest. As well as the washing machine one, the one that always got me was that concerning household heating. In a country with hi-tech cars and phones yet houses had no heating beyond simple petrol-based heaters that emitted harmful and headache-inducing fumes and cut off after several hours, causing you to wake up in the middle of the night freezing to death! Remember, this is a country where the winters are harsh and there’s no double-glazing and lots of paper-thin walls. Interesting. I wonder what an outsider might think to be such a weird contradiction about our society. Perhaps the steadfast refusal of FIFA to use video evidence despite the fact that referees are both fallible and, at times, corrupt. In the 19th century they represented the best way of ensuring justice in a football game. Now they surely do not… if that is, justice is what the aim is, for cold hard evidence also leaves little room for corruption. Something which does not apply to the Japanese washing machines and heaters which were (are?) instead, merely crap.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

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

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings VI – A Bad Day

Yesterday was a bad day. To be honest it was a bad end to a bad week. Or at least I hope it was the end. But then again, it may not be.

Normally I am not one to moan; in fact barring garden centres, Manchester United, vegetarianism, Margaret Thatcher and Robbie Williams, there are very few things on this earth that can put me in a bad mood, but yesterday I was not happy, and I hadn't even seen a garden centre.

It started pretty awfully when I awoke at ten to nine. Now of course, compared with the previous few years, this is still an exceptionally early time to wake. But here it is not early enough, for my first lesson started at quarter to nine, and I had no excuse whatsoever for being late. Therefore, I had to pretend that I was ill, and indeed that perhaps the school was lucky that I had managed to drag myself in at all, since most ALTs would hardly be able to move in my sickened state.

To be fair, I wasn't on top of the world anyway, (and before you ask, no, I had not been drinking the previous night), but I wasn't THAT ill. So without a shower I rushed to put my clothes on, that I had washed the previous day in preparation. Except that I then noticed they weren't clean.

Japan is the most technologically advanced nation on earth, I can state that without a doubt, just look at the especially cool mobile phones, disc players and other assorted electrical appliances. This being the case, why the hell have they not managed to invent a washing machine that can actually clean clothes? The reason why they don't clean them is simple, they don't use hot water. Now in my mind, even an idiot can work out that maybe heating the water up helps in the cleaning process, but no, Messers Fuji, Suzuki, Toyota, Yamamoto, Tanaka et al who can invent a mobile phone the size of a rice crispie, cannot work out that maybe hot water is a good idea for washing machine. Thus, the clothes had to go back in the washer and I had to wear the minging clothes from last week.

washing-machine-2 A Japanese top-loading washing machine (cold water only)

Upon arrival at school I then found that it was my only busy day of the year at Osawano Junior High, so I had no time to sort myself out properly. I hadn't managed to have a cup of tea at home, so feeling decidedly in need of caffeine, I rushed back from lesson number one for a nice mug of tea.

Except that they ran out of tea. And milk. So, instead I had to lower myself to drinking coffee which may be perfectly fine for people from the south of England and mainland Europe, but does not suffice for those from higher civilisations. But there was no alternative, so I drank coffee, with powdered milk.

Yum!!

The day progressed slowly, until dinnertime, (lunch to those of you from down south), an event which I, (like most fat people), always look forward to with considerable relish. I sat down with my delightful third year students in the dining hall and surveyed the fayre on offer; rice, and vegetables, some sort of soup, and a chunk of meat. Well, at least it wasn't vegetarian. By the rice was a small packet of what I call "sprinkly stuff". Every so often they give us packets of bits of dried fish, meat or veg to sprinkle on our rice, thus making this staple food moderately interesting. 'Good' thought I, and I proceeded to open the packet and sprinkle it upon my rice.

dscf1506 A Japanese school dinner

"Aah!" I heard a shriek and looked up. There were several of my third years shrieking and pointing. The rest were giggling. "Matto-sensei, this no rice, no!" I was puzzled. What were they on about, and come on, couldn't they speak any English that made sense.

Just about to chastise them I then remembered who was responsible for their bad English and decided to keep quiet. The student opposite was still pointing at my dinner. "Matto-sensei, this no rice, milk!" he exclaimed. I looked down at the packet which I was sprinkling on my rice and noticed a huge grinning cow on the front. It was not not sprinkly stuff for rice at all, but chocolate powder for the milk.

Thus, I had to endure chocolatey rice and the fact that all my third years reckon I am pretty stupid. And there was still no tea to wash it down with.

And some student nicked my bike.

Copyright © 2000, Matthew E. Pointon

Written Oswano-machi, Japan, 14th November, 2000

Next musing: Time, time, time…

Friday, 18 July 2014

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

world-map osawano

Greetings!

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

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

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

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings V: 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.

 Next musing: A Bad Day

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

world-map osawano

Greetings!

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

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

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

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9Bh90shxbg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpoF8ytO5OY

The MTB Gattan Go! Website is here: http://rail-mtb.com/

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!”).