2006-05 Japan: Hiroshima and Miyajima

Hiroshima, correctly pronounced Hee-ro-shi-ma (not “Hi” as in “him”),  is most famous for its fateful part in the termination of the Pacific conflict of WWII.  For Japanese children it is an important trip that almost every class makes to visit the city and the museum. There were certainly of young people running around in the museum when i visited – a curious counter point to the horrors contained in the exhibits. The bomb dome stands in the center of town as a permanent monument and reminder.

The city today is a sleepy place – a far throw from the megacities of Osaka and Tokyo and even the touristic bustle of the temple-come-university town of the old capital Kyoto. As a stone step towards the southern reaches it’s well worth a visit to walk around in the cleaner and more open climbs.

Another major attraction of Hiroshima is it’s proximity as a base to explore Miyajima – a beautiful little island a short train ride away. The famous Torii which stands guard is at various times according to the tides accessible on foot and then partially submerged.

Most of my time in Hiroshima was spent getting lost trying to find a Manga library in one of the southern parks – when I found it it was closed – the majority of the photos are therefore from Miyajima.

Have a look at my photo of the “Tanuki” which is spotted whilst climbing to the top of the ropeway on Miyajima. The animal appears frequently in Japanese folklore in various guises as a trickster and shapeshifter.

Another curious thought was that at the same time a future medical school friend of mine was at this very time working in one of the municipal hospitals in the city as a porter. A great way to sharpen one’s Japanese!

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Seb 28/02/2014 London

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2006-05 Japan: Koyasan and Osaka

Koyasan is reached by 2 routes. By car up a winding mountainous road or by train connecting to a ratchet-cable-car which speeds you up the mountain side in about 15 minutes. I took up residence in one of the temple lodgings for my one night in Koyasan and after following the strict rules over dinner times and behaviour in the temple itself boosted out with my camera to explore the local area. Koya is a sleepy place – with a primary focus on its religious functions. The temples were an impressive and peaceful sight for the most. I wandered out towards the edge of the complex and came across a beautiful reaching view from the mountain down to the coast and the sea beyond.

Dinner was a strange affair consisting of entirely vegetarian dishes in small quantities too. So I was left quite famished after the event (a lasting feature of much of my time in Japan). Later in the evening after dinner there was a little time before the curfew at the temple so I decided to explore the local graveyard. I was a sprawling place and as dusk descended and as I got slightly lost in the tall dark pines rather terrifying I found as the variety of woodland creatures – squirrels and wood peckers I suspected made jittering sounds over head. I eventually found my way to the sane path again by following the dull lamps that light the main paths  – back to my temple and so to my bed. I missed the 6 am call for prayer – sleeping over until 8 am (and nigh on past my checkout time). I recycled my ratchet-journey backwards and bridged away to spend a single night in Osaka staying in a student hostel by the Olympic stadium, enjoying a round of takoyaki and wandering through some parts of downtown.

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Seb 20/2/2014 London

2006-05 Japan: Kyoto and the Uronza Guesthouse

The second step in Japan was my journey to Kyoto. I took the Shinkansen down to Tokyo. The journey was rapid – and mercifully so as I’d chosen to sit in the smoking car. The fumigation was enough by 40 minutes into the journey to make me forget myself. I left my coat and my first ever mobile phone (one of the original Nokias) lodged in the overhead and despite my attempts to reclaim them the following day they were in fact gone forever when I stepped off the train and watched the train speeding out to Shin-Osaka, the next stop on the line.

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Soulless hostel

The first night I lodged in a hostel the only clear memory I have of is the picture of this room. Having lost my phone I set my laptop to alarm at the check out time – paranoid I’d get charged for another night. As memory serves I spent three nights in Kyoto. During the days I walked around the temples visiting the likes of Kinkaku-ji – famous golden temple. During the days I walked around the smaller temples  – exploring as I went with my Camera.

The main memory that I have is my stay in the friendly couple run hostel “URONZA Guesthouse”. It was a brilliant counterpoint to the faceless student bolt hole from the night before. The traditional internal architecture and Tatami rooms were the essence simple Japanese beauty. 

On the second night of my stay there I went out and bought a collection of things to produce one of my signature meals which not being long from the ski season were very fresh in my memory. I recall the amazement (genuine or otherwise) of the Japanese friends who Yu and Hi (the owners) invited over on hearing my plans and journey staging around the world. Indeed a feature of both of my trips to Japan was a complete absence of interaction with people of my age – it was almost as if all the people younger than 25 were hidden away.

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Yu and Hi – the lovely owners
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Dinner with friends

At the time of writing there are very favourable continuing reviews of the guesthouse which I am very pleased to see.  Also straight up on the google search I was surprised to see one of my photos in the google sidebar! I remember taking this…but dont now have the original – I wonder it if went in the cull of 2007 summer or in the repeated transfers between computers over the years….

Seb 18/02/2014

2006 Japan: Tokyo and Fujisan – First steps in Japan or “Ichigo ga Hanasemasu Ka?”

After the ski season I returned back to my old room in Wimbledon heavy with the experience of the 5 months past. Towards the end of the season I was plotting how best to pass the next 4 months and I settled on the idea of travelling – a “round the world” ticket in fact. So a little into May I embarked on the first leg of the journey – the long hop from London to Tokyo.

In truest fashion I did not book a hotel – I had no fixed arrangements planned – my journey was a blank structure pegged out with the target stops of where to get to by what time but no clear plans for the in-between.

On May 16 2006 I sat down next to a couple in a triple row aboard my direct London to Tokyo flight. I took the window seat and began avidly digesting Lonely Planet’s “Japan”. The man of the couple, Goto-san, introduced himself to me and throughout our 11 hour journey we discussed a number of things. I said that I was interested in potentially learning some Japanese so he began to teach me some basic Hiragana and advising me how best to approach the language. It was apparent that Goto-san and his wife were all part of a large tour group who were spread among the back of the plane where I was interpose as a single (soon to be) Gaijin. I recall approximately 8 or so hours Goto-san and I were stretching our legs at the back of the plane when he stated “we have been discussing…. we would like to invite you back to our home in Tokyo”. I was quite surprised on one level but then again on another the way the conversation had been flowing it seemed quite a natural recourse. I gladly accepted and we spent the rest of the trip discussing my plans for Japan – what would be best to engage.

When we eventually touched down – I was very glad of Gotosan’s assistance. My heavy luggage and the extreme culture shock of meeting Japan face first was enough to leave me very bewildered. He practically pushed me about the exit station guiding me through the process (which would have been completely indecipherable to me) of which ticket to buy and where to stand. The three of us traveled across Tokyo by some nefarious route which I now can barely recall. Eventually in the evening of the next day we made it to Gotosan’s house.

Gotosan’s wife went to prepare some food and I was installed in the family lounge – a downstairs room adjacent to the front door. Goto-san instructed me to take a shower. I recall in some bemusement (and probably a little bit of rational fear) – him walking in when I was naked into the shower room to show me how the shower and bath worked. Par for the course for Japanese who despite intense cultural form are rather unabashed about nudity.

Eventually – exhausted I fell asleep on the futon Masae had prepared for me in the downstairs room all the while questioning – “what have i got myself into?”…. There I was – touch down in Tokyo – my first trip to Japan.

–          –              –              –              –

My days in Tokyo are not very clear to me down 8 years have passed however I recall spending time with Gotosan as my guide for the city. Each day we would plan out our trip across the city with his suggestions based on things I raised from my reading in Lonely planet. All the while we had long discussions and I tried my hand at learning a few Japanese words. We traveled to Tsukiji Fish market After a few days and when Gotosan had appointments of his own to keep I traveled out alone and tried my new Japanese on the unsuspecting as I attempted to find my way around the urban labyrinth that is Tokyo-for-the-uninitiated.

One particular anecdote which I have dined out on for many years is my confounding of requests to ask people if they spoke English. Some how  – perhaps because it is proximate in its sounding I got into my head that “Ichigo ga hanasemasu ga” was the correct sentence to ask people if they spoke English. The reactions I got were priceless…. ranging from bewilderment, to anger to outright hilarity. Whilst I realised that most people don’t speak English I thought perhaps that they might be slightly more accepting of my attempt to communicate that I was finding. I was confused and put out… later that evening I spoke with Gotosan about my trouble. He and Masae laughed in a very polite fashion and told me my mistake… Broken down this literally means “Strawberry do you speak?” – I had supplemented the word “EIGO” for “ICHIGO” changing the sentence from “do you speak English” to “do you speak strawberry”?

Towards the end of the week Gotosan and I visited Fujisan. Unfortunately I was too early in the year to permit for it to be climbed. I achieved in frustration a partial circumnavigation (perhaps one 10th of the way around before doubling back on myself. Gotosan and I then clambered down through the woods to pick up the bus back to Tokyo.

I also picked put a suitable travelling lens 18-200mm which would be my trusty lens for the next 2.5 months until sustaining a crippling break in New Zealand only to be fixed on my next trip to Japan in 2007. The photos from the Matsuri are taken on the first day of owning this lens.

As I had only 3 weeks In Japan in total I was keen to travel elsewhere in the country during the time. I sketched out a basic plan of places I wanted to visit. Gotosan very kindly accompanied me to the Bullet train – the Shinkansen – and I began the first section of my first properly independent journey since having left London some days before. I whipped out of Tokyo on my way to 14 days of independent adventuring in Japan.

– – – – 14-02-2014

2006-10 France: Gap year – Val D’Isere Ski Season

In the summer before planning on going to medical school I became ill with mononucleosis and was flat-out wiped out for about six weeks. Despite having done “the needful” for my exam scores I failed to submit a “critically important” occupational health form.  Two consequences developed: The first was having to reapply at University and tripping the barrier between those who were pre-and those were post “top up fees” (I’m talking about the historic top-up fees of 2005/6 era university entrance not the now ridiculous £9000 which is applied per year of tuition at university student). Thus my student debt immediately increased from a mere £6000 not accounting for interest to the figure now which is somewhere in the region of £60,000 as a consequence of this tuition fee loan, my normal student loan and a further professional training alone which I’ve had to garner to limp through the final years of university. The second consequence was having a whole year to decide what to do with.

I decided that I’d like to do a “ski season” and also to go travelling. This before the concept of a “gap Yaar” was too overly tainted. My two plans now seem overly classic but the time seemed to be a sensible option both experientially and financially. After a lengthy summer of desultory reclining in France with the sting of my failure to achieve medical school as a consequence of bureaucracy I jumped the ring round hoops of getting the paperwork and reapplying through UCAS. With the lingering effects of mononucleosis still tainting my existence I trundled into autumn.

I was successful in gaining my first ever proper employ as “the pub chef” at the now extinct pub called the Brewery tap in Wimbledon Village. I worked for a chap called Martin – the publician – one of the cycle of rotating owners at the time if I recall correctly. My job was simple I sat up stairs and awaited the orders come in leavering out sandwiches, jacket potatoes and simple stuff initially before it was joined by a real chef. Aventually we ran Sunday roasts together. It was a good précis my next station. On the back of this I secured a job with “Crystal the Finest”, newly rebranded from former “Simply Ski”, a luxury orientated Department of the Crystal enterprise. I was shipped off to France to work for five months as the sous chef a Chalet Lores.

Before I left I indulged in the purchase of a Canon 20D digital SLR camera. This was my first proper camera of my own and this really started my career as a photographer. I bought one lens in addition to the kit lens (18-55mm) a 70 to 300 mm. Altogether I spent nearly £1500 on this first foray into photography. These days the 20 these megapixel value can be found in some of the top and smartphones! Times have certainly changed ladies and gentlemen. Nevertheless it was an astonishing camera for the time.

Arriving in France we underwent training from week in Courchevel before a week of pre-season and then season proper. The experience was initially one of the most intense things I’ve ever done in my life. It was physically and emotionally exhausting….but as time wore on, as my skin grew thicker and my skills increased I began to get a flavour of the season. Skiing every day, drinking every evening and having at least one day week was by no means a bad lifestyle. Being paid albeit a weird minimum wage compensated for food and board (I think it was something like £120 a week) was really a bonus. Furthermore as time wore on and as we ran the show more and more efficiently my head chef and I eventually were able to work in such a way that we could afford ourselves a one-on-one off arrangement.

In total there were six of us working. My head chef and me, three Chalet hosts and a barman… We served five course meals six nights a week to around 30 guests who stayed at the hotel and rotated weekly. Change over days were Saturdays… Tiring and fraught with risk of incoming guests travel delays – leaving us to serve dinner well into the night. Days off were Wednesdays – invariably preceded by a heavy night of drinking and partying before repose. On a rota we were also assigned to cover one day per week stay in the hotel during daylight hours to do cleaning and suchlike.

Thus a typical day ran something along these lines: Wake at 6:30 to begin preparing and cooking breakfast for the guests ready for 8:00. Serving and then dealing with the fallout from breakfast and preparing urgent tasks of the evening’s meal (shopping, prep work and suchlike) and cooking and preparing afternoon tea (a cake everyday), before heading out to the slopes at around c. 11 o’clock. After three or four hours of runaround it would be time to come home to start leaving prep at around four o’clock. Dinner took place at 19:30 and would normally be wrapped up by about 23:00…at which stage mood we would head to the pub for an hour or two before turning around in the snow and resetting the clock for the morrow…..Looking at the schedule now I can’t believe how much we used to drink and how little we used to sleep. I can only think how much my biological clock was accelerated during this period, not to mention the aggressive skiing without suncream in the spring months!

My ski season was a seminal or perhaps formative experience in terms of working hard and really it was my first proper job. I’m glad experience and it was a genuine privilege to be allowed ski for five months in one of the finest results of the world, Val D’Isere. I have many fun stories and also several poignant and painful memories of growing up and of being disappointed.

These days I don’t cook very much but the skills learned during his five months set me right for a lifetime of competence in the kitchen. It certainly one of those incredibly useful life skills that I’m grateful to have been able to master and such a convincing fashion.

As regards the photos…. I’ll try to dissect them into smaller stories at some later stage but for now please enjoy selection of my favourites from the season.