Cafe Updates and More

Friday, May 26. 2006
So check my spelling at the door and hope the great Firewall of China don't catch this out... I didn't manage to get my shit up in HK and now I don't have the USB drive. I'm like one of those geniuses who finds brilliant ways to fuck up.

I'm in Guangzhou and it's full of Chinese people. I think this trend may continue. I purchased some pirate DVDs and the only one I really wanted to see didn't work.

God has forsaken this land.

Well, crap.

Tuesday, May 23. 2006
I had some stuff for you. But here in high-tech Hong Kong, the computer at the internet cafe has not one, but two broken USB ports.


The Next Step: part thirteen - love the island

Sunday, May 21. 2006
Yesterday I arrived in Kagoshima, found a hotel and freaked out. After that I figured out what I was going to do, did my washing and all the boring shit. Then today I was up and at the dock with my bags by seven am and had bought a one way ticket to Yakushima. Only because they dont sell return tickets in the tourist season. The ride was about three hours and the ferry was absolutely packed out. Every nook and cranny had a person sitting in it, or a bag lying on it. The decks were lined with people, the insides had blankets all over the floors and people lying around. Jesus. This was one popular destination.

We rolled into Miyanoura port and I joined the line to get off. I was talking to three Canadians who had all the gear, which made me feel a bit stupid. Quite possibly I had bitten off more than I could chew? Yep, yep. Oh well, I am here and I should make the most of it! So to the tourist information lady. Anywhere to stay? No, no reservations. Really? Oh dear. Hold on. And she asks, how long will I stay? One night, I guess. Oh no, that wont do, you wont get to see enough of the island! You will stay two, dear, and I am powerless as she calls up a place and gets me two nights accommodation. I trust her, as all tourist info desk old ladies know best. And what will I do there? Dont know, whats everyone else do? Oh my, you have to do. And I miss most of what she said. Ok, sounds good. I get a personalised itinerary and again I am off with a map and a bunch of pamphlets. I haul arse up to the main road and eat lunch, more ramen. Yakushima ramen! Only available here at this one shop. It has fish in it. But I enjoy it none the less.

Then onto the bus, to Otokogawa. And the bus is full. There are the Canadians again! Wonderful. Where you headed? Where you staying? Camping, it seems. Word up. Hard core. The bus is so full and so late that the driver looks like he might cry. He has to turn away people who want to get on, because there are no more seats. My stop is about a quarter way round the island, everyone else stays on. The hotel is ghetto. It looks battered on the outside, but the inside is nice enough. The old guy who runs it is nice and although initially suspicious of me, comes around. He shows me the room I will share with three others. I am still sore from the adventure in Amakusa, so I decide not to go adventuring just yet. I walk back into town and do some shopping, then get a bus back to the hotel.

After everyone eats, some of the people who were sending glances my way over dinner come over to where I am sitting and furtively offer a greeting. I answer back and after the initial shock (he speaks Japanese!) we have a good old conversation. The rest of their group comes over, all four of them, and the next thing I know we are sharing a drink and stories. I have a new friend in Hakata, if I ever go back, and I might have to show some guys around Melbourne, if I ever go back.

Thats the way friend making goes when you are on the road.

So at five the next morning I am already on a bus. The main trail, which I will call the East Trail, starts at Arakawa. So I jump off the bus and hit the trail. It goes to where the Jomon-sugi stands and takes about four hours. It is so crowded I can scarcely believe it, and since the track is single file, the going is slow. The number of, well, old people is astounding. The trail gets very, very hard about halfway and cannot be easy for them. Not only is it narrow, but numerous sections have rudimentary ladders and bridges built into them and the steps are small and far apart. One slip and you are in big trouble. Yet some of these old timers gambol over them like mountain goats. I hope Im half that energetic at that age. The weather is good, nice and warm, no rain. Good thing, because the rain would really fuck things up, it is slippery enough as it is. The parts that arent wooden bridges and ladders are rock, with little soil. So if it were any wetter I would have fallen on my arse for certain.

Along the way everyone is friendly and everyone greets and apologises. There are times when we have to wait, because the crowds going either way hit a choke point, and nobody complains. The scenery is unique. The island stretches from the sub-tropical climate around the edge right up to a temperate zone near the peaks and includes everything in between. It is a microcosm of most of the climates the world has to offer. The flora and fauna collected here is indeed a treasure chest. The kings of this world are the Yaku-sugi cedar trees. They are what the people come to see, they are what the trail traces. The East Trail has about five or six major trees, the North trail about ten more. Around the island are about thirty all together. To be defined as a Yaku-sugi, rather than just a normal cedar, a tree must be over seven hundred years old. The amount of resin they produce makes them extremely hardy, but it also makes calculating their exact age impossible. The layers that trees accumulate let you calculate its age, but the Yaku-sugi dont get much bigger after the first two thousand years. But it is know for certain that they are at least that old, the rest is based half on legend, half on guess work.

The trail passes Wilsons Stump, where a great tree was cut down to make a statue by order of warlord Hideyoshi. The stump is enormous. You can walk inside. Further along there are trees joined together, trees that have grown out of the fallen stumps of earlier trees and all the while crowds of people staring in awe.

The top of the path is where the Jomon-sugi stands. Seven thousand years old, he was only found thirty or so years ago. There is a viewing platform around him now, so that tourism wont be the end of his reign over the island. Seven thousand years, he would have seen the vast majority of human history. So serenely it stands for all the gawking tourists. It is indeed massive. While nothing in the greater picture of things, in the timeline of the universe, it is still longer than anything I can imagine. Old man Jomon, I wonder what you have seen, standing there, all that time, and what you might be waiting for

On the way up I fell in with two guys my age who had come down from Fukuoka to visit the island. Unlike me they had a good idea of what they wanted to do and had a plan (they also had heard of the Jomon-sugi before the previous day) so I asked if I could follow them. They almost died, they were so happy. They knew that the North Trail intersected with the East Trail about halfway back down, a path that went through what was known as the Mononoke forest. From there it went all the way back to Miyanoura and civilization (as much as the towns clinging to the coast could be called that) via a path that took in many more stately Yaku-sugi. I had heard of the Mononoke forest, in passing, and wanted to visit there. So I was well happy for the chance. Fearing we would run out of daylight, we double timed it down the path to the crossroad and off into the interior we went. This time we were almost alone. The trail was even worse, almost indistinguishable, thankfully marked with pink ribbons where the going got particularly bad. The movie, Princess Mononoke, had several scenes based on what this forest looks like all covered in green moss, running countless streams, shadows outnumbering the sunlight that occasionally broke through. It was cool and shady in there, not to mention slippery.

Again, it was unlike anything I have ever seen. Everything is covered in green, everything, and everywhere you look is something amazing. We took our time through here, took plenty of photos. Eventually it comes out into more normal looking scenery and we saw plenty more Yaku-sugi (one that had three legs, too) and made it back to the road. Roping a taxi we headed back to town where we said goodbye. I was knackered. I had been walking from five thirty until almost seven at night. So it was food, bath and sleep.

Two nights were all I had on Yakushima, but as far out of my way as it was I think it was the best little side trek I could have found. I had gone there almost on a whim, because I had heard vague talk of the place and giant trees and despite the holiday crowd had found them, and more.

The next day I made my way back to the port after saying goodbye to all the new friends I had made. In the end (there are a few missing stories in between) I had at least spoken to almost everyone else in the hotel who stayed there those two days. Once people find out that I can actually talk to them, they all want to hear my story. It is truly a good place to be in some time. Minor celebrity has its setbacks I never manage to pick up all the names and yet they all know mine.

At the ticket office for the ferry back to Kagoshima, I ran into the Canadians again. They had done it really wild, sleeping on the beach and stuff, swimming with turtles and all that. No hotels, just sleeping bags and a bit of luck. I helped them get tickets and then we all went to get some food before the boat left. We got talking and they invited me to stay at their place in Kagoshima that night. All right! We played cards for a while on the boat and then they all fell asleep on the deck, wrapped in their sleeping bags.

So when we arrived, we hauled our bags to their place and then decided to go out. And go out we did. Some Japanese friends of theirs showed up. Beer was consumed, Canadian Club was consumed, bars were hit and girls were talked to. This is why the next day, after bidding my farewells, I ended up wandering trying to find the port with almost no clues and a rotten hangover. I was supposed to look up that stuff the night before But you know how it goes.

The Next Step: part twelve - adventure bookends

Saturday, May 20. 2006
(Note: this too was written about two weeks ago, so the timeliness is not quite appropriate, my apoligies.)

Here I am in Kagoshima. It didnt take so long to get here, it was almost too easy. The minute I stepped off the train from Sendai (no, not that one way up in Miyagi!) things got worse. The ride from Uto, just south of Kumamoto, was pleasant, almost breezy, in a one-car local train along the coast. We passed through Minamata, just a day after the fortieth anniversary of the incident there, and most of the other passengers got off. I think it was forty years, I really should check. A change of trains in Sendai and its almost too easy to be here.

But off the train and into it, oh boy. The lady at the tourist information counter was rude and almost unhelpful, the locals are pushy and didnt seem to realise that a huge pack back was any different to a tiny handbag and gave me angry looks when I couldnt move quite enough for their liking. The history of the area suggests that the locals are strong, forceful and even warlike, but history is history and I would hate to apply this stereotype to the locals.

No matter how rude they might be.

The hotel I found is nearer the docks than the station, so yet another tram was employed to haul me down. After leaving my things in my room I went in search of food, since I hadnt eaten since breakfast that morning at Hiroshis house. I stumbled upon a ramen place in the shopping area that was positively covered with accolades. This was to be it. Those who know me will know that I dislike hyperbole intensely, but without a doubt this was the best ramen in the world.

Maybe it was that I was really, really hungry.

Then I walked to the dock and had a look around to try and find boat times and the like. I found no such thing, but prices were there. Not much help, really. Then I had a dilemma. Yakushima is where I want to go, but a look at the map suggests that it is in-between Kagoshima and Okinawa the latter being the next place in my list. Maybe I could go from here to Yakushima to Okinawa, without coming back to Kagoshima? Would this information be available? Not anywhere there, Im afraid, and no way am I going back to the tourist info office.

Then looking at the map of Yakushima on the wall, I made another realisation. The same mistake I famously made about Amakusa, I had already sort of made about Yakushima. Just because its an island, doesnt mean its small! Damn, how was I to get around there? No more bicycle torture, please. Busses? Maybe. Tour groups? Couldnt say. Car is out of the question. Go there and find out? If I did the jump to Okinawa from there I would be in some trouble without a place to stay on the island, of which there was no guarantee and no information over here about it either.

You see what I put myself through? Oh, to be a more planned person! But where is the fun in knowing precisely where to go and what to do, much more fun to attempt making it up. But I think that might be giving me a headache. Im going to end up badly here, I can just tell


Im back in Kagoshima. I am wandering around the docks, lost. My bags are heavy and painful. I have little idea where I am going and I have a rotten headache. My shoulders ache, my feet hurt. I have nowhere to stay and a slim hope of getting a ticket even when I find the dock I need. I am well fucked.

Days passed since I first arrived in Kagoshima and the time inbetween, well, you got to hear how I ended up like that. And what happens next

Oh, and the locals? Actually really, really friendly after all.

The Next Step: part eleven - riding

Saturday, May 20. 2006
(Note: due to lack of internet connectivity and the essential element that can only be described as "hustle", this post was written more than two weeks ago - but better late than never!)

Slow life. The slow life in Amakusa, no need to rush, no way to rush. I am a country boy, the slow life is in my heart, in my core, but I left it for a reason, and I left it hard. I like the speed of the city, Melbourne was OK but not even, not even close to Tokyo. The speed that city moves is like a flame to me, and I am nothing but a moth. Helpless to the attraction. The rush is the way of life I came for and slowing down isnt possible there, but maybe it would happen on this island, the island of hour long waits at the bus stop, the island of long, slow evenings in a restaurant, relaxing in the hot springs.

I stayed at Hiroshis house, a friend of a friend. But before that, let me tell you how you get to Amakusa, the end of Japan. Being an island, it wasnt even connected to the mainland of Kyushu until about forty years ago. Such was the backwater level of the place, the back of the back, the back of beyond as much as that is possible in Japan. Still now one gets the feeling that nothing much has changed, and possibly wont ever to a large degree. The depopulation that afflicts most rural areas in developed countries is rife as ever here too, with the youth almost forced to leave in search of decent employment or education, leaving their ageing parents behind. So the ageing population issue is as relevant as ever here and that is the most likely cause of the islands demise. Which is sad, because it is a truly beautiful place. Which brings me back to how you get there. You can drive from Uto city over the five bridges, through Ariake to Hondo, the main city. I went out that way and the views are incomparable. Get high enough and the inland sea on the east side is studded with countless tiny islands, floating in a misty wonderland. All covered with green, it looks like moss because of the distance, but those trees are huge and ancient. The sea swirls slowly on that side, soft and easy. But that is how I left be it as it may, the way most people get there, it was not how I did. Would I ever do it the normal way? I ask you.

Back in Nagasaki, you take a bus for about half and hour through the hills to the south east coast line, to a little excuse of a town called Mogi. There you pay for a ferry to an even more nothing of a place called Tomioka and sit back and enjoy the ride. From Tomioka you get off and breathe deep the clean salty air. Yes, this is the back corner of Japan and it looks like the island is bigger than you might have imagined. Who would have thought? Oh well, what time is the bus to Hondo? In an hour? Oh man.

The bus was actually already there, the driver sleeping in the back. Welcome to it! He eventually git up and drove around the block, picked up the handful of us remaining from the ferry who didnt have friends with cars. The ride to Hondo was about a thousand yen. The route follows the coastline and the sea is as blue as ever it were, the roads narrow and the buildings old and salty. The locals stared as politely as they thought they could get away with.

Hondo City is not much either, but as I would learn, such places are not the size of the town, nor the buildings, but entirely the people that live there. Sitting in the bus centre, wondering what I would do until six oclock when Hiroshi could come and get me, I considered the options. My bags needed to go somewhere but there was no locker. I could get a taxi somewhere, but I didnt know anywhere to go. So I called my friend, DJ Ollie. He spent two years or so on the island, in an even more empty place called Shinwa. He tells me to get in a taxi and go to the International Hotel, theres a wicked hot spring there. So I consider this, and decide that food comes first. I ask the ladies at the counter if theres a pay locker. There isnt, but they will watch my stuff for me as long as I come back before five, when they close. Excellent. So I leave my bags in their ample care and set out into the warm Amakusa midday.

I had a look around. It is a very typical Japanese town, and was pretty quiet. I sat in a McDonalds (the curse has hit the island!) and read Botchan for a while. Then I went back, got my things and took a taxi to the hot spring recommended by DJ. It was a 950 yen ride and 600 to have a bath. But damn the cost, sitting in the bath with a view better than every spring east of there. And I do mean the whole country. Green mountain rolls down into yellow beach, turns into blue ocean. Sky blue flecked with brief clouds, bright sunshine. Almost a 180 degree vista, sitting outside to this and talking with the local boys. Then they all jump out and slide naked across the open tiled space in front of us, dolphin style. They egg me on, so I run and jump and slide my naked white arse right after them. And back again.

The locals are friendly, all over Kyushu. These guys were from Aso, in Saga I think, down for Golden Week. Never be afraid to talk to people Easy to say, harder to do, oh so satisfying when you manage it. They left and I was alone. So I walked to the edge and stretched, naked over Amakusa. Then I saw that the nearby hotels could see up to us. Still I stood.

I went down after the bath to the nearby beach to wait for Hiroshi. He rolled up on time and took my bags to his house. His parents are incredibly nice, but it was a brief stop because we were all hungry. We went to a curry place, run by the coolest Japanese guy I have ever seen. Hes been all over the world, especially India and Jamaica, so now hes Rastified and loves a good curry. The food was indeed great and Hiroshi seemed to know everyone who came and went, so the freewheeling conversation took in everything and everyone. It only ended when the place shut, at ten. Then all that was left to do was sleep.

The next morning, the plan was that I go and see some stuff. Easy, but without wheels it would be very, very hard. Busses once ran around the island in a satisfactory way, enough to move the once vibrant populous around, but no longer. I would spend way too much time waiting and besides, still be a long way from anything I wanted to see. Amakusa is the treasure island of Japan and on it are hidden gems of beaches, hot springs, viewing platforms on peaks and stretches of scenery unrivalled. So I borrowed Hiroshis racing bike and set out. All roads lead to Hondo, so getting lost would require some act of stupidity from me. I headed for Shinwa, heading south down the coastal road. I wanted, for some reason, so see the town where my friend had spent his days. So I headed down the road and saw the ocean on one side, the mountains rolling away on the other. I rolled down the slopes, pedalled up the hills. It was easy going at first and when I hit a straight run that represented Shinwa Town, I might have missed it had I but blinked. Maybe a kilometre of road, some buildings and houses, a few shops. Nowhere to go, not much at all to do. I kept going.

After that I was vaguely aware that there were various visit worthy places along the south point of the island. I had not intended to go quite so far, but I see a sign with a name on it and a horizon to head for and I tend to just roll toward it. So it was I fought my way through some truly wicked hill sections and came out flying down a hill into Ushibuka, hustled on the very south of the island. I had rode almost forty kilometres. I was starving. So I found a store and bought bread and a drink. There were signs pointing to Mogushi Beach, so I followed them and found a desolate stretch of coastline, a beach of mostly black rocks with stretches of white sand in between. A handful of other people were around, mostly right out on the edge of the water collecting shellfish, the rest walking along the shore. I took some photos and walked out on the rocks. Hundreds and hundreds of black sea beetles scattered from my path, some big and ugly but mostly small and scuttling. I walked along the rocks and over the bigger ones from one stretch of sand to another. If only it had been warm enough to swim! These shores would have been full of people. Despite the holiday there wasnt much activity, probably due to the weather not being quite swimming weather just yet. I looked at the time and wondered how on earth I would get back to Hiroshis house.

I decided that I would ride that bike back to Hondo come hell or high water. I rode back across Ushibuka and up the hill that had been so kind to me on the way in. It nearly killed me, but gave way to a gentle slope downward. I rolled along past the intersection I had turned from earlier and kept going straight. This road was much easier going, the punishment of the hills toward the end of the coastal road were a memory. The hills were slight and the downs were easy. Still, my legs were weary and I had to make increasingly frequent stops. The signs kept pointing out Hondo were getting closer and closer and As one small village gave way to another it became clear that the road passed mostly through the valleys between mountains. So I had huge walls of green on both sides this time, and little wind. I couldnt make the same kind of pace as in the morning but I had one objective, to make it back before dark. There was no kind of lighting along the road so once the sun went down I would be in trouble.

I made it. My legs were jelly. I told them of my adventure and they couldnt believe I went so far. I had travelled almost eighty kilometres. So we went to a Chinese restaurant and then to an hot spring, in Shimoda.

Then I must have been asleep in an instant.

Hold It

Thursday, May 11. 2006
No spellchecker, shitty Internet Cafe keyboard. I apologize in advance.

There has been no real access to this internet thing, so I got stuck back there. I have things written, just not posted. I am in Okinawa right now and will ship out to Taiwan tomorrow afternoon. Goodbye Japan, hello getting wasted with the J.

Then I hope I will be able to fill in the gaps.

For now, off to the beach.

Tally ho!

The Next Step: part ten - on the hill

Sunday, May 7. 2006
You take the tram up to Matsushima and the park is just across the road. Up the stairs and the first thing you see is the fountain. Two symmetrical curves, symbolising a crane, spray up into the air. The inscription below is from the diary of a child, about how she had the most incredible thirst but all the water was nothing but oil to her, yet she wanted to drink, but it was just like oil The fountain is for all the children, that they may have as much water as they need.

Something like 70 percent of the victims were children, women and the elderly. It is true that Nagasaki was the second target, that smoke and cloud cover saved Kokura, and that there was a big arms factory in the harbour. Such weapons dont discriminate between buildings and children.

Past the fountain you can see the statue. He points one hand toward where the bomb fell, the other is held out in a peaceful gesture. He is strong, so that he might fight if needed, but his eyes are closed because he is restive and peaceful. One leg is stretched out on his mission, the other folded in meditation. He reminds us what happened with one hand, and asks us to do our part to prevent it happening again.

But we only see him from a distance, before that we walk through the park and all around are peace monuments donated from all over the world. And even after that we walk over the remains of what used to be a prison nothing left but the charred remains of the foundations.

Then you come up on the statue and he is even bigger than you thought.

Stand and think, stand and consider.

The museum nearby is reached by walking through the hypocentre park. A single slab of black stone marks the spot, standing strong and silent. Vigilant. It is a quiet place, the area circular. At the edge is the 50th anniversary monument, a mother and a child. Again, stand and consider the horror that fell from that summer sky. It might have been a day like the day you are there, it might not, but you couldnt imagine what it would have been like and then, then you pray you never have to know.

A smaller and more understated exercise than its cousin in Hiroshima, it tells a sadly similar story. It is scarcely believable, however the necessity to remind the world that such a thing happened no one can deny that. The overwhelming message is that such a fate should never have to befall another soul.

Let it be, but never forget. Something like that.

It always makes me sad, heavy in spirit. Thats why I left it to the end of the day. It was growing dark as I headed to the port to check ferry times for the next day and after that I decided to head up the cable car to the mountain to check out the night view. And it was special.

Nagasaki is not such a big city. You can see most of it in a day and it is genuinely a nice place to be, a nice place to look at. Two things rare enough in Japan as it is, and it is a pity you have to go all the way out to Nagasaki to find it in any big way. But it is there, waiting, for anyone who makes the trip.

I slept well that night.

The Next Step: part nine - hitching a ride

Tuesday, May 2. 2006
If I could do it again, I would think long and hard about how I made the jump from Shikoku to Kyushu. I would probably still get on a ferry, I probably wouldnt do it at night. Or if I did, I would consider long the prospect of maybe getting a bedroom, something above second class. Because yes, it was accommodation and transport in one but I think these are two things that should, like church and state, be separate. Especially if the only thing harder than the floor you are sleeping on is the paper-thin futon provided and the only thing more uncomfortable than the futon is the pillow. The noise I can put up with, the public setting is not an issue, the movement of the boat I can handle. But the combination of these things and a rock hard sleeping setting equals the worst nights sleep you can possibly imagine. Hyperbole? Yeah, I guess. I mean, excluding myself, the mean age of the other passengers must have been well over fifty. They all slept like logs and were up and gone as soon as the boat hit the pier. I stayed the extra few hours and almost got some rest.

I dragged my sorry carcass off and out into the brisk morning. Suddenly, I was awake. Aware. The scene of the big empty dock will stay with me for a long time. The moment I set foot on Kyushu was another Cry Freedom moment best seven am ever.

The dude who was next to me came off after me. He was carrying a suitcase and started talking to me. Where was I from, where was I going, all that. I told him my plan was Fukuoka followed by Nagasaki and he offered to drive me to Fukuoka. Hell yes, replied our hero, snagging a free ride somewhere. Then he offered to buy me breakfast as he had to wait for the rental car place to open. Why the hell not.

Tetsu, as his name was, ended up driving me all the way to Kumamoto. Out of the way? Sort of, but adventure is nothing if not flexible. He had some business to attend to, so if I could wait somewhere for an hour or so he would drive to Kumamoto castle and then to wherever I needed to go to get to Nagasaki. Somewhere the need to visit Fukuoka vanished, mostly because it was my visual link-point between Kokura and Nagasaki. So it ended up I walked around Kumamoto castle with an almost total stranger of a salary man on a business trip who paid for everything just so he could have some company. I was glad of it too, because these things are always more enjoyable with someone else. He was extremely friendly and I was genuinely sad to say goodbye at Hakata station, where I took a bus to Nagasaki.

The castle at Kumamoto, as I am obliged to reflect here, is one of the three great castles of Japan. One of the others is in Himeji, the other I am not sure about. Kumamoto castle boasts a long history of violence and revolution and owing to this legacy, most of the castle is a reconstruction. Enough remains of the walls to get an idea of the grandeur of the building, but the interior is a refitted museum. Not always bad, but I like my castle innards intact and wooden, not concrete. Call me a traditionalist.

Fukuoka, from what I saw of it, looks pleasant enough, but I was racing the clock by that point to get to Nagasaki in time to find accommodation. So I saw a little of it from the bus window and arrived in Nagasaki just in time to find a place to stay, literally moments before the tourist information window closed. Goddamn lucky, that was. It was late and I was tired, so I booked two nights and set the next day aside to see all that Nagasaki had to offer. I found the place, a Minshuku called Fumi. A Minshuku is basically someones house, where the spare rooms are rented out to travellers. They dont have the conveniences of a real hotel but are friendly and cheap. The owner here was a lovely old man with a limp and a lot of very interesting habits. We had a long talk about this and that before I did my laundry, took a long overdue shower and hit the sack.


A whole day lay ahead of me to see the sights and enjoy the city. I could leave my things at my accommodation and take nothing but my camera out. These are the best days for sightseeing! Oh yes. And Nagasaki is indeed a wonderful place, steeped in both history and tragedy, sometimes seemingly in equal amounts but thankfully there are more good times than bad in this colourful past.

No-where is it better captured than the new Historical Museum at the south end of town. Artefacts from the cities long relationship with western traders and Christianity as well as relics from the sometimes turbulent neighbouring Korea and China are all exhibited alongside a recreation of the old governors residence. The sight of Christian images on traditional Japanese pottery is an odd one and very likely unique to this part of the country. Likewise are the Korean made tea ceremony implements, from a time when they were in fashion. The long trade history that Nagasaki has is unique among Japanese cities, for a long time it was the main point of foreign trade and even during the closed country period, visitors and foreign goods still came into Japan via this port. It was for a long time the sole mixing point of cultures and many of the displays reflect these times.

In all, a worthy place to visit. Next, I went to Glover Garden, once the home of a wealthy trader, now a tourist attraction that brings in the elderly audience. The grounds of the house have all been restored and maintained and offer the rarest of insights into what it might have been like to live as a foreigner there at the time. These were some of the House of the Dragons forefathers and we salute them. They all had Japanese wives (probably more than enough mistresses too) and were stinking bloody rich. They were winners, all of them, and also started the company now know as Kirin Beer. Again, I salute!

The gardens are a very European style and the houses are very much western styled. Of the many points of interest, the numerous waterfalls stand out clearly the man loved his waterfalls. Other things include the first asphalt road in Japan and hundreds of photographs of the time. These are invaluable in their insight, to see just how much has changed. Glover Gardens are also well worth a visit, just stay out of the old ladys ways. Also look out for the oldest church in Japan, right next door.

Dejima was for two hundred years the sole point of contact Japan had with the outside world. All trade went through the tiny man-made island, all visitors came through there and all contact was regulated. The primary reason was to stop further spreading of the Christian faith, which had been tolerated since it first came to Japan but had incurred the Shogunates wrath and suffered severe persecution. Cutting off all ties with the West would have been ideal, but the merchant class had some sway even with such a brutal government and trade was kept alive. The Dutch had the biggest stake in Japan and so Dejima became the Netherlandss little toehold into Japan and is the biggest chapter in a very interesting book on relations between the two nations.

So following the two successes, my next stop was what I had thought would be the easiest of victories. With the weight of history on its shoulders and prime location hear the heart of proceedings, Dejima island could only be a winner. Alas, the island itself has long since been swallowed by further land reclamation, probably in the name of progress and the Emperor, after the country opened itself up again. It was no longer needed, to be sure, as the Dutch factory was closed and trade moved into the city itself and international relations began almost anew. The buildings fell into disuse and what was left (if anything actually remained by that time) were likely wiped away in the war. Very recently the island had been slowly bought back to life, with excavations recreating the shape and setting, and recreations of the buildings adorning it. These buildings are immaculate and indeed so new that you can still smell the pine. The street is concrete and the period costume clad workers look almost sharp. This is entirely out of tune to the image I had of what Dejima would be like, dirty and festering, almost loathsome. A pustule of Western civilization on the asscrack of Japanese culture. A bad image, yes but all reports say that it was cramped and the visitors had little interest in extra hygiene simply because they were in Japan and the buildings were often in less-than-perfect condition, spoiled stock was common. Maybe in a few years when the new car smell is gone it will be something a bit special. Until then, it is a novelty, a plastic remake of a tragically totally lost past (the fault of no-one, it must be said) that deserves its right place I just think it could have been done better. But Japan is the land of the concrete castle, so that is such wishful thinking that I deserve punishment.

I headed back toward the station in hope of lunch. I went to another Chinese place and had the other local specialty. I then headed uptown, to the sombre of Nagasakis highlights.

The Next Step: part eight - heroes and lovers

Monday, May 1. 2006
Bright and early, the only thing waiting for me was an overpriced breakfast. Youth hostel my arse, this was barely short of a scam. Never mind, it was cheap and convenient enough, but this wasnt a hostel.

I walked to Riritsu park, two kilometres down the road. It was built hundreds of years ago and thanks to the probably tireless work of the locals, looks as good now as you could ever imagine. I admit that I dont appreciate the finer points of admiring pine trees, but there were a lot to admire. The sprawling park takes over an hour and a half to see all of it, and see it I did. It was early and still crisp out, and again it was mostly empty.

The main points of interest are the numerous box pines, which have been shaped over the years using bonsai techniques into more or less cubes and the rather impressive man-made mounds and rock formations. One in particular is made up of a hundred rocks and has a pine tree growing out of the top, the overall effect is supposed to equate to a crane on top of a turtle. I must agree that it did indeed look like this, as much a pine tree and a bunch of rocks can. Other formations are much bigger and offer decent views of sections of the park. The fact that it was all made by the ruling class for their own pleasure is obvious, such is the care and refinement that emanates from every single corner of the park. The centrepiece is the old teahouse, where the current emperor himself once enjoyed a hot cup of something. It was not open for business when I was there, but for those who wish to indulge, you too can sit where great men once dreamed up haiku and wished there was a war to fight.

The last really impressive feature is the man-made waterfall. One of the parks many lords took a disagreement to the positioning of the waterfall and ordered it moved. This required a bucket to be placed at the top of the small rock face and servants to pour the waterfall out wherever his lordship walked past. Nowadays it is done by machines and pumps, but the operating hours are clearly marked should an unwary visitor stumble across a dry waterfall.

As I left I saw a crowd entering. Looks like I missed the rush. I bought a postcard for Mum and made it back to the hotel just in time to check out and head to the train station. I was heading toward Niihama, on the way to Matsuyama. I was going to meet my friend Ryoko, who after almost three years I would finally see again. Three years? Damn, that is really too long. It would only be a few hours But that is better than nothing.

The trains in those parts are less than reliable. Well, reliable is one thing, frequent is another. There is a series of line that connect up all along the edge of Shikoku and one that cuts through the middle. That is all there is, considering which the number of trains is probably higher than expected. I took the local to Kamonji where I was forced to jump an express or I wouldnt make my lunch date. Alighting in Niihama, there she was. As radiant as ever, as bouncy and happy as that day I left Osaka in the long-lost spring of 2003. She had grown up, ever more a woman now, but she still speaks exactly the same way. The Ehime dialect is, not by accident, my favourite variety. Similar to the Hiroshima dialect, it positively rings with the sound of water on rocks, hums with insects in the air, splashes like waves on the beach. Flows like the biggest river or trickles like the smallest stream. This pocket of Ehime is still out of the way enough that major civilization has not yet turned it into another far flung suburb of Tokyo (however, the biggest Jusco shopping centre in western Japan is there) but still big enough for the express to make a stop. So there are enough locals and local pride about to maintain the dialect in the face of awesome linguistic pressures, making it an all to rare situation.

We had udon. Then she drove me to Saijo station where we drank some water (cleanest in Japan) and promised that we would meet up again sooner next time, this time in Tokyo. It was too short, too short by a long way and never have I wished things to be different. Blessed as I might be, there are some blessings I wish I could have just a little more of. Such is the way, and such is how I took a local to Matsuyama to continue to try and find just that.

It was raining when I got there. I located the tourist information booth at the station and soon had myself a room at the cheapest hotel in town. Despite the weather, I trekked out to hunt some food and bandwidth and found that Matsuyama has the biggest shopping centre in Shikoku. It is still nothing to write home about and I felt disturbed that I had come all this way only to find the best Matsuyama has to offer me was La Foret, of Harajuku. Just another suburb? Maybe this part was. I ate and made my devotions to the internet deities, went back to the hotel and planned my assault for the next day.

The sky was still decidedly grey when I left. I dumped my bags in a coin locker at the station, bought a one day pass for the tram (!) and with my trusty tourist map in my pocket, set out. I mention trams. Oh yes, Matsuyama indeed has home-on-down, honest to God trams running around. I may not have spent so much time there (I have lived in Tokyo longer than Melbourne) but as a Melburnian I have a love of trams somewhere deep inside. Maybe not the heart, but somewhere above the colon, to be sure. So to ride around the trams of Matsuyama was indeed endearing to me. Matsuyama is most famous for being the setting of Natsume Sousekis novel Botchan and as such most places of note are places the protagonist of the novel visits. Souseki himself lived for a time in the city, as did his friend and famous haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. I spent the morning walking around finding places mentioned in the novel and other places of note, like Masaokas birthplace and grave (at a temple where the remains of two of the 47 Ronin also lie) as well as a long walk through and around Matsuyama Castle. This is a fine example of a well preserved castle, the interiors being much the same as always (as opposed to the kind that has been rebuilt in recent years) and was only sullied by the repair work happening on the main tower. The views from these castles are often the best in town, yet I was denied my view by a whole load of scaffolding. The smaller tower afforded a secondary view I was forced to make do with. This castle is on top of a small mountain, making it an especially good place to view the city spall. On the way down I stopped by a garden before finding myself out on the street again.

I took a tram up to Dogo Onsen, reputed to be the oldest in Japan. Souseki himself bathed there what more could a literature dork do to follow a hero than to bathe where he once did? So I was looking forward to getting in there, but not before seeing everything around there. The site of the old castle, now a park, as well as numerous temples dot the area and all can be found within an hour or so. There are several arduous stairs to climb and more than enough visiting tourists to fight off in the street. They become more numerous as you near the bath house. I seemed to be the only one looking around the temples, all too common an occurrence, as the natives all seem to come to town for one thing. The bath.

Finally, I had done enough walking to earn myself a shot at glory. A chance to be naked with total strangers where the man on the thousand yen note once bathed. In the oldest hot spring in the land. That is not such a bad way to end an afternoon exploring, I am sure you can think of a great many worse.

There were quite a lot of old men in there.

So back to the station, grab my bags, get some food from the convenience store, and jump on the local train down to the port. I would catch the 10pm ferry to Kokura, arriving at 5am, thus killing two birds with one proverbial stone by covering transport fees and accommodation cost with one swift blow.

Lets see how that turned out.

Pissing and moaning

Monday, May 1. 2006
Work sucks. I'm absolutely fed up with it. I have been trying to maintain a fair and balanced outlook regarding my employment but it's proving difficult.

Basically, the pros are this:

  • They've got a dodgy tax thing going and I don't pay any

  • The money is not bad for the hours I do

  • Most of the people I work with are ok

The problem is, I am getting tired of doing the work, and I am getting tired of being a "freelance English teacher" who gets paid by the hour only when it suits them. Today is supposed to be a public holiday. Labour Day. I joked that we actually get Slave Labour Day off but it's not true - I'm on too cushy a deal to call it slave labour. I guess it's proof that one can work an enjoyable job can be hard and not fatigue, whereas every minute of a job you hate feels excruciating.

The sun was out today, the traffic was light (the only good thing), and everyone was at home enjoying their holiday except me. My afternoon class proved incredibly frustrating for reasons I am too weary to go into right now, and to make it worse, I have to work late tonight, doing, of a things, a telephone call out to everyone in my kindergarten class. Yes that's not a typo, I am making phone calls to a bunch of 3- and 4-years-olds. I get to wait around for an extra hour after I finish to then do an hour and a half of callouts for which I am not 100% certain I will be paid. Repeat on Thursday. Ridiculous in the extreme.

My contract is up in a few months, I honestly don't know what I will do. I have no desire to resign, I have no other plans.

Instead, I'll offer my services as a consultant to my school. Here it is, boss:

1. Get some proper space for your teachers. You give them so much unpaid shit to do, at least give them some space in which to do it. Away from kids, with desks - if not for each teacher at least enough to cope with demand.

2. Get a decent bunch of computers, network them and then connect it to the Internet. Your school is a joke with only a dial-up connection in the Teaching Director's office (where lesser mortals cannot access it).

3. Fix the hours up. Stop putting these infuriating breaks inbetween classes.

4. Stop jamming the classes fuller and fuller of retarded kids. You don't have any incentive for teachers to teach overflowing classes, why the hell should we be nice when prospective parents and their snotty kids come around to watch us?

5. Put the retarded kids with same level of other retarded kids. Having a kid who is severely out of his league in a bunch of kids who are mostly out of their league just because "his timetable fits" is not a good idea.

6. Get a real attitude about time off. If the teachers were so important that they couldn't take a day off, you would make them feel like that.

Fuck. I think I'm pretty pissed off about this.