Thursday, January 27, 2005

Tokyo Turbocharge Part 4 - Narita
Today is a Tokyo Turbocharge day, which if you are following the blog means that the latest installment in the story of what happens when an English guy goes to Japan is here.

And if you're not really in the mood for words, here's a link to the entire flickr album of photos from my trip to Tokyo.

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Monday, January 24, 2005

shopping for an identity
One of the things that I find the most amusing about living abroad is what I see when I go home. I can sit for hours in the streets watching people, figuring out what they think of themselves and what they want other people to think about them.

A friend of mine who lives in an affluent area of London stuffed with Audi driving professionals laughed with me recently as we discussed this sort of stuff. He told me that before Christmas he saw a big flat back delivery lorry driving down his street in Clapham. Stacked up in the back was a small forest of christmas trees, their pungent and prickly pine branches wrapped tightly in plastic netting. The lorry stopped first at a pub, and dropped off a good numbers of the trees which before long were lined up outside behind a sign selling them as 'Traditional Christmas Pines', 20 each. The lorry made a second stop in the road, about 50m down at a Chinese takeaway. The enterprising restauranteur had decided to capitalise on his street front to make a Christmas buck, and he was seriously undercutting his rival up the street by selling those 'Xmas Trees' at only 15 pound each.

Now you'd think that the guy selling them outside the Chinese would have cleaned up. But my friend told me that he walked down the street a day later and saw that the outside of the takeaway still looked like some strange urban forest against the bricks and graffiti. On the other hand, the pub had managed to flog all of their trees except a couple of the scruffiest, and this despite the fact that they were the same trees delivered by the same company, being sold on the same street, at a price a third more expensive than the nearest rival.

As you can tell from this little story, the people of Clapham, as with the people of many other parts of London and the world, are known to be very image conscious an more than a tad materialistic. I can just imagine Mrs Adrienne Brake - barrister, Range-Rover driver and mother of 3 - seeing the two offers for trees on her street. In her mind she will 'paying a little more for something better', something 'more traditional', something of 'higher quality', all characteristics she is hoping to pin to her lapel like badges saying 'This is me - better, legitimately established, higher quality'. But she doesn't know our little secret, the secret that makes all her consumer rationality look like the entertainingly superficial ego wanking it really is. It's the same sticky tree as the one down the road, and her ego just cost her a fiver and exposed her prejudice.

Anyway, this story reminded me of an article I read in The Guardian a while back. It's about what our choice of supermarket says about our position in the British Class System. Now it seems to be a bit of a national myth that the Class System doesn't exist anymore, but one read of this should convince you that it is still live and kicking. I find two aspects of the article fascinating - how we manage to accumulate such intricate self-images in relation to other people and to material objects, and how we walk around blindly allowing ourselves to be manipulated by calculating marketeers who've got us pegged right up in tight into their demographic pigeon holes. And this doesn't apply simply to our choice of Supermarket. Cars, newspapers, mobile phones, brands and styles of clothing, furniture, the location of our house... for almost any category of material thing you care to mention it's possible to grade each article in the category in relation to where it puts its owner in the Class System. Go on, if you know the national newspapers of Britain, put them in class order. I bet you can do it in less than 30 seconds.

And as for me, I shop mainly at Sainsbury's. According to the article, "the most likely Sainsbury's shoppers are Ben and Chloe, the 'urban intelligence' archetypes, who represent 7.2% of UK households. Young, well-educated, cosmopolitan in their tastes, liberal in their outlooks and unlikely to have children, many Bens and Chloes live in inner-city areas and have high levels of disposable income".

Please excuse me while I go and stencil 'Mr Urban Intelligence' on my forehead.

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Blog reorganisation
Ok people, I guess you may have noticed that I am sort of writing a story. But I reckon this isn't quite the place to do it, 'cos its gonna go on for quite a bit and I'm sure that would bore you silly. I'm determined to do it though, since there is a damn good story bursting out of the last 6 years from Japan until now, and as far I am concerned it is one of the two potential paytickets I am playing with to achieve financial and lifestyle liberation. This feels like the year I get lucky.

So, if you are interested, I am going to be putting the draft down on the net at the blog I have created for the purpose, Tokyo Turbocharge.

When I say that it is a draft, I mean just that. It's a place where I can put words down and try to build up the ideas and themes. I may create another blog with an edited version that reflects the growth of the novel in my mind. The words will undoubtedly get cut and pasted all over the place, and whole new sections and styles added.

I would be very interested to have your comments on the content of whatever I write, how it reads, how the imagery works in your mind, what mood it creates in you, and anything else you feel like saying.

And as for this blog, you should be getting much more culture related content from now on, and less stuff about snowboarding and general life, unless you beg me to bore you with endless stories about airplanes, working, parties and snowboarding trips and stuff. Cheers :))

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Tokyo Turbocharge Part 3 - Ohayo Nihon
Back in '98, JAL business class passengers had a choice of sitting in a smoking or a non-smoking seat. I chose smoking. Sitting in that tube with a bunch of chain-smoking noodle-slurping Japanese business men for 12 tedious hours turned out to be a bit of a stomach churner, but it's true what they say about smokers being sociable. About 40 of us were shipped out to Narita that evening but by the end of the flight it was a hardcore gang of four stained-nail Brits that had made the most progress in alleviating boredom and nerves. Dave and I had The Programme sussed out from the start. Our cynicism towards it began after our interviews when we were only selected to be in the list of reserve candidates. As 'reserves' we had automatically been categorised as losers of some sort, so we were of the mind to just exploit The Programme for all the money and travel experience we could get. Dave had been a TEFL teacher before in Italy and Spain, so we shared some passion for submersion in cultures abroad. We thought this passion was going to be of help, but as it turned out, it was going to be the death of us.

We got our first taste of what was in store when we stepped out of that plane and headed out into Immigration. A vast hall was laid out before us in various shades of metal grey and white, the floor covered with a hard-wearing plastic surface cleaned endlessly spotless by a man, the colour of whose dark combed hair matched the blotches splattered like flicked paint across one of his cheeks. He was armed with a shiny wheeled trolley holding mops, buckets, brushes and a bin, and dressed in a pea-green shirt & white trouser combo that had creases ironed so sharp they could have cut diamonds. The atmosphere of the hall demanded a hushed reverence, and amongst the gleaming surfaces our jet-lagged bodies were a contrasting scruffiness. The ceilings hung low over our heads, shining their strip-lights down on us brightly as we stood in the queue waiting in line to present our visas and passports to the uniformed officials.

My line was one of eight queues arranged in parallel along the long and narrow hall. I stepped over the line segregating the previous passenger from myself and approached the solemn looking Japanese who was going to admit me to his country. I said hello and smiled, slightly embarrassed not to know a single appropriate word to use. He looked back at me seriously from his enclosure behind a sheet of low glass and reached for my passport, a rectangle of red and gold in my hands.

"Instructor for one year", the Japanese guy said.

"Yes. One year visa."

I just kept my mouth shut after that and let him get on with his hectic page flicking, picking up, pressing and then putting down of a collection of various plastic rubber stamps. He gave me back my freshly processed passport and said "thankyou". Again I smiled lamely, then walked past his booth and down onto a flight of stairs to descend to baggage reclaim.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Tokyo Turbocharge Part 2 - Goodbye UK

My ride to Heathrow airport on the 18th August was in the back of the 'Ford Fiesta Beige' - Nick's old beaten up banger. We drove across town from Clapham, past the trendy residents sunning themselves brown on the turf of the Common, or chilling with a pint of beer on benches outside the pubs whilst black cabs and routemasters pumped out street grime. The summer's national football anthem 'Vindaloo' was still on the radio, even though we had watched England go out in the second round in a 2 all draw to Argentina, followed by the national ignominy of the French thrashing Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup.

Whether the check-in scales were broken before I put my bags on them I don't know, but it was just as well they didn't register any weight. A giant suitcase stuffed with clothes and CDs and books and a three-man tent, a 60 litre rucksack and then a 5ft long bag holding my complete snowboarding kit meant that I would have been more than a little over my luggage allowance. The lady at the counter gave me a wink as we joked cheerfully about my good luck and then handed me my business class boarding class, freely supplied by the Japanese Government.

Nick and I went upstairs to the Terminal 3 shops, and weaving between the crowds of all races and colours, ended up sitting in a gruesome pastiche of a pub constructed in the corner of the building overlooking the gates and the planes. A couple of weeks earlier a friend had asked me if I was nervous about leaving and I looked at her with a blank expression on my face. I wasn't at all nervous at the moment she asked me that question. As far I was concerned I was off on a gigantic adventure and there was not a single sinister gremlin whispering sticky doubts into the space between my ears. But that final afternoon after a final morning of final phone calls to my family and to Nicola, my nerves had started to crack like a sheet of overloaded ice, revealing underneath them a black black pool of the utterly unknown and terrifying.

To say I didn't know anything about life in Japan at that point isn't entirely true. I did know how to count from one to five, ichi ni san yon go, and I was aware that I would have to wear slippers a lot, so I'd packed a couple of pairs of flip flops to cover that little culture quirk. At the Programme's Pre-Departure Orientation three weeks earlier I had received the theoretical knowledge that I would greet people by bowing, and without eye contact. And I had received a contract from some place called Yono city in Saitama Prefecture giving me all the fleshy terms, in Japanese. I was able to figure out that Saitama Prefecture was basically northern Tokyo, although all my efforts to locate Yono-city on the map were frustrated. So as I waved goodbye to my oldest friend and boarded the JAL 747, I actually didn't know where in Japan I would be living. More than that though, I didn't know anybody. Literally not a single person.

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Monday, January 17, 2005

Tokyo Turbocharge Part 1 - Summer 98
What happens to a human being when he is without the life-support of his culture? Who does he become? Can you distill the fundamental essence of a person by stripping away the layers of perception and understanding in which he grew up? These are big questions, and there's no theoretical solution. So when I was 23 and reckless with myself, I went to Japan to submit to practical answers.

The summer of 1998 was good by English standards. The bright days elongated into an endless dazzle, the sun beaming its warm rays across the abundant green hills of the South East. On university campus us final years revelled in our completed degrees, drinking beers, flinging frisbees and shooting supersoakers under the infinite blue of our late-setting North Atlantic sky.

I felt like a shooting star that summer, blazing across the face of my culture, holding a searing passion and stunning success. And looking into Nicola's eyes, something had lifted deep inside my psyche, as if the landscape of my soul had been illuminated by a new light. Moving to London with Super Discount on my play list, it seemed that nothing could stop me. I was throbbing with cultural integration, with circles of friends expanding in number, size and intimacy, and job offers landing on my doorstep at the rate of one a week.

It was during those hot hectic weeks packed with tube riding and Bengy's breakfasts, sitting behind my desk in an open-plan office off Oxford Street, that I got the phone call from the Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme. I never wanted to be an English teacher. I was ambitious to be the Engineer I'd always been training and studying to become. But my curious mind had been teased by 12 perspective bending months in Toulouse a year earlier and I was itching to see beyond Europe's confine, yearning to stretch myself to the limit of the cultural frontier. Given the choice I had between adjusting to the North of England or adjusting to Japan, I took the easy option.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

back to the future
Travelling is something I seem to do a lot of. Only three days ago I was on a plane jetting back from Tokyo through the icy skies above Siberia and China. In a blurry trio of cultures and languages, Aymen and I slogged the 14 hours back from the other side of the planet, via Paris to our familiarly wintery London.

Yesterday I was up again at 4 in the morning, heaving my luggage brimming with Japanese presents out into the drizzly English Eastbourne morning. Fortunately the jet lag made this ungodly hour seem almost like an entirely normal time to get up.

I wish I had some exciting stories to tell about the road trip adventure with my christmas present, this year's Guiness World Record holder for the world's tiniest camper van. But as you may guess, the story consists mainly of road, road and a bit more road. Actually, there was a boat involved too.

Normally I seriously dislike the Daily Mail newspaper, but they had a brilliant 10 pound (15 dollar?) deal for a ferry trip across the English channel, so I guess it's the price I have to pay for putting up with their irrational ranting once in a while. Strikes me as ironic though - the most europhobic British newspaper encouraging travel to the home of the enemy.

The trip took about 30 hours, including 8 hours sleep. I settled down last night in a rest area off the A20 about half of the way down France near Chateauroux. At first I was thinking of just having an hour's refreshing nap, but since it would have been rude not to fully acquaint myself with the van's sleeping facilities, my little doze turned into a full 8 hour sleep.

That van is damn comfy to sleep in, which is good news since I have the whole of Europe to explore. I do have some reservations about whether it'll manage to cover that much ground before chuffing it's last smokey breath though. The back door brandishes a little sticker saying '4 Cylinder 1 Litre 5 speed' as if those are some sort of engine credentials to be proud of. Not exactly what I would call 'transcontinental' but hey, it's only got 25k on the clock, so far.

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Friday, January 07, 2005

down to Kyoto at lightspeed
Aymen and I jumped onto the bullet train on Tuesday morning after it's steaming nostrils and sharknosed face hummed menacingly up the platform. It whipped us off to Kyoto so fast that all the 300 km imbetween were just a splodgey hazy blur seen from our windows.

When I was here I lived in Saitama, the suburbs of northern Tokyo. Nothing but buildings and roads and railways dumped like lego bricks onto the Kanto plain, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. No trees, no parks, no culture. Just grey buildings and shops covered in neon and noise.

Kyoto makes Japan feel like a real country for me. This ancient capital houses the country's infinitely rich cultural heritage, and frames it within the bounds of a foresty green valley. The contrast of Japan's historical spiritual depth and refined aesthetic beauty with the modernity and technological power of modern Japan is so sharp it could cut diamonds. It's the factor that makes this country so infinitely fascinating.

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

meiji jingu
There's always a thing to do whenever there's a special occasion in Japan, and on New Year's Day the thing to do in Tokyo is go down to the Meiji Jingu shrine. Once Aymen had finally got his ass out of bed, we headed off to get our fortunes and say some prayers for the coming year.

The place was heaving but the thronging crowds were kept under calm and orderly control by the ever so neatly uniformed police. I managed to eat some old chump of octopus baked in a batter ball and sprinkled with fish flakes, known as Takoyaki.

Chika translated my fortune and it turns out that this year the gods recommend I trust my instincts and follow my heart. Ralph's gods told him to get on with climbing the mountain that lay before him, "Schyeah right! The story of my life!".

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