Thursday, 29 January 2015

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

world-map osawano

Greetings!

It’s been quite a week this week due to the fact that I went to the theatre on Tuesday evening to watch ‘Yizkor’, a play about a Jewish couple who got caught up in the Holocaust. It was a powerful and moving performance staged specially for Holocaust Memorial Day which falls on the 27th February, the day when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945.

Two years ago I went to Auschwitz. You can read about my experience here and I must say that it was one of the most powerful places that I’ve ever set foot in. I don’t believe in “must-see” sights generally, but Auschwitz is the exception: everyone should be made to go there once in their life.

Yet the Holocaust was not the only genocide in history, nor even the most recent. Travelling the world one regularly comes across places where man’s inhumanity to man is, sadly, all to evident. Places like Visegrad in Bosnia or the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. All are horrific and on the 27th February each year it is only right to stop and remember them.

Last year I visited another, the memorial to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, a genocide still not recognised by many countries including, I say with the deepest shame, my own. Nor too can we only look to the past. Attitudes cause genocides and a month ago a senior British politician described Muslims as a Fifth Column inside our country. Nigel Farage was reacting to the tragic shooting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, martyrs for free speech if ever there were, but even so, the fact that he felt he could use such words sends a shiver down my spine. That is why we must remember the Holocaust.

And not just remember also. In a few months’ time I shall be visiting somewhere quite different to the other places described. Reports state that in North Korea at this very moment there are possibly around 200,000 people incarcerated in camps not dissimilar to Auschwitz with little or no hope if liberation.

And so please, stop for a moment and spare a thought for them also.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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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

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

As we plough further and further into the Brave New World that is the 21st century, it seems to us that good old capitalism is King of the World. Gone are those nasty Commies, (well except in China, where most them always were anyway, but we won’t mention them since they're our friends these days), and our money-based lifestyle is getting more and more refined. Or so it would seem, but is it? Capitalism in its advanced stage as the analysts tell us means more for the customer, and lo, we see the evidence, though price wars and customer loyalty schemes. Well, sort of right; that is to say we do in the west, but in Japan things are done a wee bit differently....

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To be fair I should have guessed when I opened my bank account. Now I don’t know what it is like with your bank, but back home upon opening a bank account one is normally presented with some sort of gift or enticement. British ones that spring to mind are free railcards for students, smiling piggy banks for kids (remember the NatWest Pigs?), CD vouchers, a walkman, etc, etc. Thus as I stepped inside the door of Hokuriku Bank, (that of Moomin fame), one sunny afternoon last July, I was bristling with excitement. I was opening a bank account, so what delight would one the foremost banks in the most technologically advanced nation in the world provide me with? A DVD player? A miniscule MD thingy? Or perhaps even a plastic Moomin moneybox, (since Moomins abound in Hokuriku Bank). We filled in the forms, cards were presented, bankbook too (the first that I’ve had in years), and then they said the magic word “Omiyagi!” (gift). An oblong box. Excitedly, I shook it, unwrapped it, opened it up, and pulled out… a green duster.

The bank lady beamed. “Omiyagi!” she repeated.

“Ta,” was all I could muster.

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A duster. Is that the best they can do? Hmm, I have two banks to choose from, one gives away a student railcard, 50 quid cash and CD vouchers, and the other a feather duster. Definitely bank with the second, I don’t think! But the thing is the other bank (the romantically titled Toyama Bank), is (I am told), just as crap, so what’s the point?

Even so, I am sorry but if I was the bank Special Offers Manager or whatever they are called, and my boss said to me, “Ok, Matto, you have approximately 300 yen (2 quid) to spend on omiyagi for the new customers, do your best!” I would certainly not think, ‘Hmm, I know, dusters, that's what will bring ’em in!’

But, to return to Hokuriku Bank, Ōsawano Branch. After the disappointment of the duster debacle I chanced to peruse around the establishment whilst endless forms were being processed. Upon the counter sat, in an exciting pyramid shape, several Moomin bags. Far better than dusters I may tell you. I decided there and then that I must have a Moomin Bag. Now, sorry to the majority of you readers here, but I must digress at this point and discuss Moomins, since it seems those Tubby Trolls have not hit many countries yet. Moomins come from Moomin Valley, which is in Finland. They are trolls, though unlike any other trolls they are a). not hairy and b). like the daylight. The principal Moomins are Moominmamma, Moominpappa, Moomintroll and Snork Maiden who I suspect (from her name) may be adopted. They have a TV show and I would like to tell you a little about what they do, except that as a kid I never quite got what was going on. Why I watched I don’t know, but I did, and garnered sod all from the experience.

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But that was fifteen years ago, and I’ve matured a lot since then. At five my reading material consisted of Miffy Bunny (still popular in Japan) and the Mr Men. Now, I am proud to say that it is more Tolstoy and Shakespeare. So, bearing this in mind, since I was now a guy who banked with the Moomin Bank, I decided that I should learn a little more about those Finnish Friends, so I toddled off to the bookshop and purchased ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’ by Tove Jansson, the first of the Moomin Chronicles.

And after 170-odd pages I found that I had not furthered my knowledge on the Moomins at all, except that I was right as a kid, and they don’t make any sense. The stories all started with the Moomins going somewhere, meeting some weird creatures and then nothing whatsoever happening. After an uneventful day with strange animals and what not they would then go home, got to bed and thus the whole process started again. The most exciting part of the whole book was when Moomintroll floated off on a cloud (he didn't actually go anywhere on the cloud, just up and down). Hmm, right, if I were the Finnish Authorities, I would keep a discreet eye on Ms. Jansson's house since I suspect she enjoys illegal substances a wee bit too much.

But one digresses! Back to the bank and the Moomin bag. “Do they give Moomin bags away?” I asked my boss.

“No” replied he.

“What about for the kids’ accounts, do they get Moomin bags?”

He spoke to the bank lady. “No” was the reply.

“Oh, well can I buy a Moomin bag then?”

More conversation. “No.”

“Do they give them away?”

“No.”

“Maybe you enter a competition?”

“But I want a Moomin Bag!”

“No.”

“Oh.”

So that was that. The Moomin Bags it turns out are for “display purposes only” and under no circumstances could I have one. So the matter was left at that.

But it’s not just Moomin Bank where the idea of customer loyalty has not fully caught on. The local hardware/warehouse type store J-Mart runs a card system. Every time you spend 500 yen (about 3.50 sterling), you get a stamp. After about fifty stamps, you get the amazing prize of 500 yen off your next purchase. Wow! Hardly a Tesco Clubcard is it? "Mmm, let’s go to J-Mart since if I spend my whole month’s wages there, why I get 3.50 off, stunning offer or what?!"

Until recently there was no loyalty scheme at petrol stations. But lo! Two months ago appeared the mighty Mydo Cardo! And what a cardo that is! Spend a mere 6,000 yen and you get a yen knocked off every litre of petrol! At selected times. So translate into English, spend 50 quid and get 40p off. Good one!

Of course, if you were in Eastern Europe of China or somewhere people would undoubtedly come out with the excuse that “Oh well, they’re new to capitalism, they don’t fully understand it yet.” But wait up, were not in Kazakhstan here are we, no, more like the second biggest economy in the world, a centre of business and technology.

A centre of business and technology which doesn’t take credit card.

So that’s it, I’ve simply got to live without my Visa and my clubcard points. Last night I was sat musing in my aparto about this when my heater suddenly packed in. After ten minutes of deciphering the writing I worked out that the filter wasn’t working. I took out the filter and saw in choked with dust! What to do?! How could I save myself from the cold! Then the answer came to me, I knew how to clean the filter. I bounded into the kitchen and picked up my green duster, compliments of Hokuriku Bank…

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P.S. 2 weeks after my visit to Moomin Bank a friend of mine appeared in the bar with a Moomin Bag. “Where did you get that?” I asked.

“Oh, my boss knows the guy at the bank, they gave it to me!”

Bitch.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

world-map osawano

Greetings!

Another onsen-themed post this week which is also apt since it talks about the freezing winter weather. Oh well, at least the days are getting longer.

Actually, onsen have been very much on my mind of late since I’ve joined a gym (aaargh!) which has a sauna and steam room. The thought of ending up in them helps me get through the nasty workout bit, plus when I’m in there, I’m always remembered of good old Japan.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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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

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

The cold, the cold. I returned to Toyama after a vacation on the sunny shores of New Zealand and that was the first thing that hit me; it’s bloody freezing here, and that's official.

japan snow 2Getting used to the cold

Of course, I appreciate that central Japan is not as cold as some places in the world. I'm getting a wee bit fed up already of Canadians going round and telling me how warm it is to minus whatever Winnipeg or super-cold Saskatchewan, or that the snow here is not the right type, it's too dry and fluffy, or wet or whatever, I simply don't care. All I know is that Toyama is considerably colder than a). New Zealand where I just returned from and b). England where I'm used to. And Blighty is not a place renowned for its great weather.

However, perhaps the most amazing thing about it all is the Japanese response to it all which is mixed to say the best. Now, these guys have supposedly been dealing with the freezing cold since time immemorial, and indeed in some respects this is evident. A scattering of snow (enough to close down most of Britain), is no sweat to the Japanese. The snow ploughs come out and (now this one impressed me) most roads have a sprinkler system down the centre which is simply turned on and the snow is washed away. That is impressive, the rest however, is far less so.

I have commented before upon Japanese houses and the fact that the architect of most of them was as a child it seems, a big fan of LEGO, Denmark's greatest export until the arrival of Aqua onto the world music scene. My little aparto is built out of plastic, walls, roof, stairs, floors, the lot. Whoever thought of that one should be shot. Not only does it look bad, gets too hot in summer, but in winter has an unbelievably low level of heat retention. Go out of the apartment for an hour or two, and you come back to somewhere that somehow manages to be colder than the outside world. How they manage it I don't know, but they do. Of course, this is not so bad, since you can always warm the place up if you have enough money to pay for the leccy. But can you, in a country where central heating is an unheard of concept. Time and time again this amazes me, a country that is so technologically advanced can at the same time be so dire with the basic things in life, (e.g. keeping warm).

So, its cold and I am further hampered by the dialect that I was brought up on. For in Stoke, when it is cold it's a bit nippy. This is not politically correct in Japan.

To escape the cold and ensuing cultural faux pas one must think of alternative ways of staying warm and it is here that one of the great Japanese cultural institutions comes into its own: the onsen.

Now, I know many of you may remember me mentioning onsen in the past and have perhaps been puzzled as to what they may be; a type of pub perhaps, or a coffee shop where one may consume caffeine with friends? Not one bit, an onsen is something pretty similar to a hot spa, a public bathhouse extraordinaire.

I have to admit that when I first considered leaving the green, green grass of home and heading for the Land of the Rising Sun, then one point which did worry me immensely is which institution shall replace the humble local as the focal point of one's existence. Now it is true that the Japanese have bars, where one may talk to the masses, just as one does in the local, if you speak very good Japanese. If you do not (that's the category that I fall into by the by), then they can be hard work. The locals still want to talk to you, but cannot. This does not stop them of course and indeed it probably makes them more enthusiastic. Thus half an hour of conversation eventually ends in them learning that I come from "somewhere near Manchester, England", that I am a teacher in Osawano, that I like Japan, karaoke too and that I am not married. The only fact I garner from them is that they do not speak English.

Dejected as to where my life would lead it was then that I discovered the beauty of the onsen; instead of the pub one can instead go with friends to the onsen and sit and talk crap for hours on end. Of course there are several major differences, the lack of alcohol is of course the biggest black mark on the onsen's card, and also the fact that the sexes are separated, so fascinating discussions with the ladies about which barman they fancy is also impossible, but nonetheless it is not too bad an alternative.

Of course I did not get into onsen immediately, and for good reason. Onsen require nakedness in front of strange people, and I am British. British and public displays of nudity go together like Afghanistan and freedom of religion. Yeah, maybe its ok for our friends across the water in Scandinavia to go prancing around in the buff together, but for the average English gent it simply is not the done thing.

japan onsen 1Onsen in the snow

In fact, it (unsurprisingly), took rather large quantities of alcohol for me to first 'bare all' and get into an onsen. However, once done, never forgotten and since that fateful day I've been getting naked ever since. A regular Sunday afternoon outing ends in an onsen, as do many mid-week evenings.

You see the thing is, not all onsen are the same, why they are in fact all unique. Some have saunas, others do not. One may be special because of the fine view, whilst another may be memorable due to the waterfalls or mineral contents of its water. There's also massage chairs, jacuzzis, shallow baths, temperatures of baths, and of course value for money to take into account. This is a serious business!

In fact, the rather sad fact about it all is that I'm now fast becoming something of an authority upon onsening within the ken, and onsen-going has reached such heights that a society has now been formed, of which I am a founder member. Myself and people equally without purpose in life have been known to sit in bars and discuss the relative merits of rotemburo (outside pools), saunas, jacuzzis and cold baths.

This is a fact of life in Japan, and one which I would love to elaborate more on.

Except I'm cold, and so I'm off to the onsen...

japan snow 1A couple of inches…

 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

world-map osawano

Greetings!

I saw an advert on the TV today. It said, ‘What would make an ideal holiday for you? Would it be great beaches? Or would it be gorgeous luxuxry accommodation? Or what about activities for the kids so they can have great adventures? Or perhaps 5-star service so that you can truly relax and unwind?

In short, to all of the above, no.

Which is why I’m going to North Korea.

This week though, it’s back to Japan.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japanese Musings Series 2

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

Uncle Travelling Matt

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

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

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Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Every so often I have a strange dream. Not the exact same dream every time, the circumstances and places always differ, but the basic storyline is always the same. I am back in Japan and I am there visiting for the first time since living there. I am excited to be there and to be revisiting all my old haunts and trying out all the foods that I once liked to eat. But these are not the reasons why I have come, not the goal of my trip. No, my aim in going back to Japan is to revisit my favourite onsen, that fabled nirvana of thermally goodness nestled nigh in the mountains. But in my dream something always stops me, delays me, gets in the way so that I always wake up before I'm there. I may be a modern-day Hiram Bingham but my Machu Picchu of bathing perfection is forever undiscovered. A psychologist or dream-reading charlatan could probably read something deep, pertinent and powerful into this nocturnal mission impossible, but I am ignorant of the reasons why. All I know is that it is bloody annoying for is there was one thing that I adored above all others in Japan, it was the onsen and now that I've been away from the Land of the Rising Sun for over a decade then, by God, I'd like to plunge into one again.

I, like virtually all visitors to Japan, had learnt all about onsens prior to getting on the plane. I knew that because Japan is, geologically-speaking, a young country, then there is a lot of geothermal energy bubbling away beneath its mountains which regularly erupts to the surface in the form of naturally-heated thermal springs. Since the earliest days the Japanese, like so many other peoples across the world, have recognised the relaxing and healing qualities of these springs and over the millennium perhaps the most sophisticated and perfect bathing culture in the world.

I first encountered that culture during my few days' sojourn in the Ōsawano Palace Room 101 had an en-suite bathroom with the most incredible bath I'd ever experienced. Tiled and set into the floor, it took the best part of an hour to fill up and could easily have housed three people. I sat in there, water up to my neck, reading about Robert carver braving the wilds of northern Albania whilst working off the worst hangover of my young life. However, even than most inviting of introductions into bathing heaven did not encourage me to explore further for many months. And the reason behind that reticence was short and simple.

Naked.

The Japanese bathe naked. You are simply not allowed to wear a shred of material if you take a bath in Japan. Ok, so actually that's not entirely true; they give you a small towel, (the size of a beer towel) to take in with you, but that is meant to be folded and placed on top of your head (seriously!). Modesty is out, dangly bits are in, and that just freaked me out.

Now not that I mind all nakedness you must understand, no, not at all. Indeed, I could spend all day watching shapely young ladies bathe naked in front of me, indeed, I'm sure that I could not only endure such an experience but even find it pleasurable, but alas, Japanese onsen nakedness is a different animal entirely for two very pertinent reasons:

1). Onsen are sex-segregated so no naked ladies, young or old, shapely or not.

2). I have to get naked as well.

And growing up in a country that is still, despite its binge drinking culture, rather prudish, that represented a huge barrier to overcome.

So huge in fact, that it was several months into my Japanese stay that I finally braved going into a bona fide onsen in my birthday suit. And even then it was more a case of, “Well, I'm doing this because it is something that one should do in Japan,” rather than, “Well, this is something that one wants to do in Japan.”

The onsen in question was Shōgawa Onsen in the west of Toyama-ken, on the banks of the Shō River[1] and it cost a whopping ¥1,500 to get in. “This had better be good,” I said to myself as I traipsed in, complimentary head towel in hand along with Damian, an ALT from the neighbouring town of Yatsuo.

But, by God, “good” is what it most definitely was!

I don't know why exactly but even today, after so many more years, countries and experiences, I can think of few, if any, pleasures so complete as that of sitting in an outdoor bath full of thermal spring water with only my head popping out, steam rising from the surface, looking out across a landscape of Japanese mountains. After just one visit to Shōgawa Onsen, I was addicted and my onsen odyssey had begun.

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Shōgawa Onsen: the rotemburo

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Shōgawa Onsen: bathing bliss

Along with others. (most notably fellow ALTs Conor, Catherine and Jen), but also alone, I began exploring the onsen of Toyama-ken and beyond. However, before I go into the specifics of individual onsen, it is perhaps best to describe, in general, just what the standard onsen is like.

To start with you go in. Above the entrance there's a sign, often a traditional cloth one, with the symbol ゆ(yu) printed on it. This means “hot water” (o-yu) which traditionally denotes a bath.

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: The sign for a bath

Then there's the reception where you pay, an area to sit and wait for friends or just relax and read a paper or, in some instances, shop. Onsen are major tourist attractions in Japan with coachloads prepared to travel hundreds of miles to sample some particularly wholesome waters, and whenever there's a tourist attraction, then it follows that there should be a souvenir shop. And given that I am a perennial collector of knick-knacks and mementoes, then you may expect my home today to be full of snow globes, paperweights and commemorative glasses bearing the names of some of Toyama-ken's finest onsen. Alas, 'tis not so. Despite extensive searching of many establishments, onsen souvenir shops – like all Japanese souvenir shops – seem to sell only edible products. The tradition in the Land of the Rising Sun you see, is not to amass pieces of purposeless tat to litter your mantlepiece with, (probably because they don't have mantlepieces), but instead to come bearing gifts into work the next day and hand out omiyagi – individually-wrapped cakes and chewy... things that don't generally taste good but tell your colleagues exactly where you've been on your day off. Spread the love baby, not hoard it!

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Omiyagi

So, we leave the souvenir shop and reception area and enter into the onsen itself, through one of two doors, the first bearing the symbol 男(male) and the second女(female). These are sometimes fixed, but in many establishments they rotate depending upon which day it is. In one of our favourite onsen, Rakkyokan, it was always a moment of tension – joy for two members of the group and despair for the other two – as we entered and discovered which half of the establishment our gender had been allocated that day. For the south-facing half was distinctly average whilst the north-facing part was exquisite.

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Signs denoting which half is allocated to which gender (males to the left, females to the right)

Once through your allocated entrance there's the changing (or to be more precise, stripping) room where you can leave your clothes and valuables in a basket. There's no need for lockers here; this is Japan where petty crime is unknown. Then we move on to the washing area.

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Clothing baskets: no need for security!

Now this might sound a little strange, but before entering a Japanese bath, you must be clean. Meticulously clean. In Britain we tend to think of baths as a place in which to get clean, but in Japan a bath is a place in which to relax once you are clean.

To get clean in an onsen you go to an area with showers and low wooden stools designed for five-year olds. You sit on one of these and vigorously scrub yourself with soap and scourer (provided), then rinse off temporarily with the shower, before doing it all again just to make sure. You may also shave and wash your hair there, no problem just so long as every pore glistens before proceeding.

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Onsen washing area

And then you're into the onsen itself. Each onsen is unique in terms of its layout and facilities but a 'standard' onsen will have the main onsen bath itself, a three-foot deep tub of thermally-heated, (although often topped up by less natural heating methods), spring water; a sauna which is generally the wooden 'dry' type, (although many onsen do have steam rooms as well), and then a plunge pool of icy water in which to recover from the heat. And if all that is not enough, there may also be waterfall taps, jacuzzis, herbal baths and other delights inside, but in virtually every onsen the star of the show is not inside but instead reached through a sliding door where, surrounded by carefully-arranged smooth volcanic rocks and separated from the other gender's side by a bamboo screen, (either real or plastic bamboo), the rotenburo.

A rotenburo is a pool of thermal water similar in size and identical in content to the main bath inside. But the rotenburo's attraction lies in the fact that it is outdoors. You sit in a rotenburo and feel the rain drip on your head, the sun beat down, the snow melt on your face and all the while you are warm and happy in the healthy water gazing out on a stunning panorama of forested slopes or the twinkling lights of a vast city or the lamplit lapping waves of the Japan Sea. It is heaven itself.

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An idyllic rotenburo

To start my tour of the onsen of Toyama-ken, I shall be starting with the establishments in my own town, Ōsawano-machi, where there were no less than four onsen, three of which fed from the same spring, whilst the other was on the edge of town occupying a stunning setting beside a lake created by the damming of the Jinzu River. And that latter onsen was arguably my favourite of them all and its name was Rakkyokan.

Rakkyokan had two major drawcards for me, one of them obvious, the other not. The obvious one was the setting by a placid lake hemmed in by lush, forested Alpine slopes. And it made the most of that location with two rotenburo and large plate glass windows so that the full glory of the nature of Japan could be appreciated from the inside as well. However, as I mentioned earlier, Rakkyokan did suffer more than other onsen from having two very different halves. The north-facing half had an enormous rotenburo with incredible views; the other commanded more mediocre views from a rather cramped rotenburo and furthermore, unlike the other half, no dry sauna inside. Had both sides been of equal standard, then it would undoubtedly have been my favourite; as it was, it was always something of a gamble.

One thing that was never a gamble however, was Rakkyokan's less obvious drawcard: the water.

The whole point of onsen is the water which is, due to its very nature, more minerally and healthy than your standard drop of H2O. However, when discussing onsen, with Westerners at least (although never the Japanese), that very key element often gets overlooked in favour of facilities and scenery. At Rakkyokan however, the water simply cannot be overlooked for it is marvellous. Not being a scientist, I haven't got a clue as to what it has got in it that makes it so bloody wonderful, but bloody wonderful it is. In Rakkyokan you see, after exiting the bath, instead of feeling shrivelled and dehydrated as one does after a lengthy dip in more usual waters, one feels as if coated by a sheen of healthiness. The description might sound a little strange but trust me, it is exquisite and if you ever get the chance, please, please try it for yourself.

rakyokan1Rakkyokan: and this is the naff rotenburo!

DIT04BKC030116Rakkyokan: the main building

As for Ōsawano-machi's other three onsen, they were all congregated around the Kasuga Spring which bubbles away a kilometre and a half down under the earth and was discovered by a farmer during the Taishō Era (1912-25). I have bathed in all three but two of them – the onsen at the Windy health Resort and the one in the Ōsawano Palace hotel where I was once a guest, I only bothered with the once. The third however, Yu-toria Etchu, was perhaps the onsen that I bathed in more than any other in Japan, on average once a week.

Yu-toria Etchu was nice whilst not amazing, but it appealed to me because it was an easy bike ride away from my aparto, it was cheap, (¥400 compared to the more standard price of ¥600 that Rakkyokan and Ushidake charged), and because, unlike Windy and the Ōsawano Palace, it had the facilities that I really needed, namely a rotenburo, a dry sauna and an icy plunge pool.

Yu-toria Etchu's rotenburo was nothing special, a nice view over the river, but rather cramped. However, I went there largely to engage in my favourite onsen pursuit: sauna tripping.

Sauna tripping is simple. You sit in the sauna for as long as you can stand and then when you can face no more, you exit and get straight into the plunge pool and immerse yourself in the water until only your nose peeps out. And then you stay still or, to use a most apt pun, freeze.

Not moving is the key. You stay motionless and the water around you heats up slightly; the slightest movement and a rush of cold buffets you. In the pool you stay, stock still, getting colder and colder and colder until you begin to lose feeling in your fingers and toes. That's when you get out and hit the sauna again. On the second or third round of this the tripping starts. You feel light-headed and the world spins. You leave your body and float motionless in space. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” the Beatles told us. They must have been onsen addicts as well. It's rather like being on drugs (I'm told) hence the name, and like a drug habit, it is probably not very healthy, (I don't do it these days as with my high blood pressure I just get a banging headache), but back then it was pure bliss and it caused the pounds to simply fall off. Through very little effort I lost around 5kg in onsen, most of that through sauna tripping in Yu-toria Etchu.

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Yu-toria Etchu: sauna heaven

But it was further afield than Ōsawano-machi that (Rakkyokan excepted) all the best onsen to be found and one of the other contenders for my favourite establishment lay some ten miles or so away in the small mountain village of Yamada. Yamada was a beautiful place, but its main attractions lay atop a mountain above the settlement, for in the winter Yamada was a major ski resort and Ushidake Onsen was built primarily to serve that resort.

If Rakkyokan's drawcards were its water and the views then Ushidake's was its facilities. True, the water was good and true also is the fact that there were good views of the mountains from its rotenburo, but it was inside that Ushidake scored highest with jacuzzi baths, wet and dry saunas, several waterfall massage taps and some jacuzzi beds, perfect for reading a book in, on a cold winter's evening as the sun set on the mountains outside.

Actually, book reading was my own Matto twist to the onsen experience. I never once saw a Japanese person reading in the bath, (although they do read everywhere else), probably because the damp knackers books in record time, but in my mind there is nowhere better to get through a cheap edition classic novel than in an onsen. Not that my strange gaijin behaviour went completely unnoticed mind; once I went to a locally-renowned onsen in Ōyama-machi that stunk of eggs – sulphurous water is particularly healthy apparently – where some of my students happened also to be visiting with their families and observed me engrossed in an Arnold Bennett novel whilst immersed in hot, smelly water and within days I had become famous throughout Ōsawano as the gaijin who reads in the onsen.

Quite a different to Ushidake was Kureha Heights which I really enjoyed but was not rated highly by the locals. Again, its all above the criteria by which you judge these things: I rated it because of the facilities and views, they didn't because of the water quality.

Kureha Heights was officially an onsen, but the water tasted, smelt and felt no different to that which came out of the tap. However, I regularly drove over to Kureha Heights, on a hillside near to Toyama-shi because its luxury was positively James Bond, its view amazing, particularly at night and best of all, I always had the place virtually to myself.

In Japan there's a culture of large corporate parties. The highlight of any social calendar is the annual New Year's stopover party at a hotel known as a Bon Enkai. Consequently, there are thousands of luxury hotels dotted across the country built specifically to deal with these kind of events. Kureha Heights is one of them; its onsen is an add-on to a luxury hotel, then Kureha Heights onsen too is luxury, and I mean luxury with a capital 'L'.

There are free massage chairs in the changing room, a machine which consists of a wide strap which you fasten around your burgeoning belly and which promises to slim you by shaking and wobbling it whilst you do nothing taxing whatsoever, but that's nothing to what you get inside: enormous baths, a walking foot massage bath, herbal baths and the most luxurious, spectacular rotenburo in all Toyama-ken. And like I said, so long as you avoid the peak enkai times, there's nobody else there. You feel like James Bond, albeit without the gorgeous supermodel to slip in the bath beside you. Even without her though, there is something pretty damn cool about walking naked on a balmy summer's evening down to a large outdoor bath from which you can watch the twinkling lights of a city whilst the express to Ōsaka thunders past in the background and cicadas chirp in the nearby trees.

I went to many more onsen beyond these ones, both in Toyama-ken and beyond. There was a nice one at a ski resort near to Kamioka, a fine one by the sea in Wakayama-ken that I went to with a friend who lived there and the one in Kamitaira high up in the mountains that I visited in the depts of winter where the snow was piled up higher than my car and I was the only visitor, (probably the snow had something to do with that – no one else was so stupid as to try and head up there...), but which was great fun because it offered a variation on the sauna tripping: extreme winter onsen. This time you heat up in the rotenburo and then jump and roll naked in the snow before launching yourself back into the steaming bath. Not so trippy perhaps but very tingly – I recommend it highly!

Perhaps my most surreal onsen experience though, came on the Ōsawano Middle School Bon Enkai which we spent in a posh hotel in Unazuki Onsen, Toyama-ken's premier onsen resort, up in the mountains near to Mount Tateyama. As with all enkai, I'd imbibed quite a lot of alcohol and when I eventually entered the hotel bath, I was most annoyed to find the new IT teacher in there, a strange chap who freaked me out more than usual by stating in his rather stilted English, “Matto-sensei, biggu dicko!” I did not stick around.

Finding that, in true Asian party style, everyone went to bed whilst I was just getting warmed up, I tried to get more beer and failing in the hotel, I headed into town to locate a izakaya (tavern). There were none open, but I did find a beer vending machine which did the trick and a narrow-gauge railway which I amused myself on by climbing all over the locos and carriages in the (unlocked) engine shed. Then, walking back from my railway exploits, I had an alcohol-induced realisation: there had been no one on the reception desk at my hotel when I'd left, ergo anyone could just walk in and try out their onsen and people would just assume that it was a guest, ergo if it was like that in my hotel, would it be the same in the others? At this point my natural stinginess and value-seeking self kicked in: Unazuki Onsen's hotel onsen all charged at least ¥1,000 each to enter, but if no one was checking, then surely I could check a few out without paying.

And so I did, wandering from hotel to hotel, bathing in every onsen and buying beer from all the vending machines until I eventually hit the sack at around three or four in the morning, each and every onsen in Unazuki Onsen well and truly ticked off the list.

And on that note I shall end my short account of life as an onsen aficionado. Except to say that it didn't end there. Upon leaving Japan, I made a point of checking out the Korean equivalent (oncheon), and then several Russian baths (banya). And since then, wherever I've been in the world, I've checked out the local bathing culture and enjoyed it immensely. But even so, despite sampling the thermal delights of a dozen or more countries, I have to say that, to this day, nobody does it better than the Japanese.

Written August 2013 – October 2014, Smallthorne, UK


[1] The Japanese for river is “kawa” or “gawa”, therefore the town's name, “Shōgawa” means “Shō River” or to be more exact, “Settlement on the banks of the Shō River”.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

world-map osawanoGreetings!

A new year and new travelogues. To start off I’ll be posting some more Japanese Musings written about my time living there 2000-2, probably because I’m in a Far Eastern mood in anticipation of visiting China and North Korea in April. Then I have travelogues on Israel, Germany and Poland and Armenia lined up so plenty to look forward to!

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

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

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Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival Pt. 2: Inaka

If 'Lost in Translation' is to be the film that captures my first few heady days in Japan, then the Studio Ghibli animé classic 'Only Yesterday' is the one which describes the Japan that I discovered after my ANA jet landed on the tarmac of Toyama Airport. That film tells the story of Taeko Okajima, a city girl, who escapes to the countryside for a working holiday and discovers a whole new life. The connection is obvious from the start. The only differences is that the heroine in my tale is now a hero and considerably rounder and more foreign than Taeko-san. Oh yes, and for the first week or so he was still suffering from the most extreme bout of culture shock that he has ever experienced in his life.

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Only Yesterday

One of the main themes of that film, and of my removal from Shinjuku to Ōsawano, is the huge gulf between city and rural life in Japan. Japan is one of the most urbanised societies on earth and has been for a long time. And those in the city have one word for places like Yamagata-ken,[1] (where Taeko-san went for her working holiday), and Toyama-ken, (where I was headed): inaka.

The dictionary tells me that “inaka” means “country”, but it's more than that. Inaka is more than a place, it is a state of mind. Perhaps a better translation would be “the back of beyond” or “the middle of nowhere”. 'Only Yesterday' explores in a sympathetic way the huge differences in mindset and pace of life between city dwellers and those in inaka. Most Japanese are less kind; the term has a negative tone to it, just like “yokel” does in English. I however, take pride in the label and reflecting back I have come to realise that I am a great lover of the provincial and one who distrusts the metropolis as a superficial display of unconnected wonders.

Back then though, I was in no state to muse so profoundly on the urban-rural question. Instead I was still reeling from culture shock and suffering from an horrific hangover. Nonetheless, the show had to go on. In Shinjuku I had been introduced to City Japan; now in Toyama I would learn about inaka and its own, very different, culture shocks.

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Inaka as depicted in 'Only Yesterday'. Scenes like this remind me of Ōsawano

I was met at the airport by Keichi-san and Tonami-san; the former a middle-aged gent and the latter a younger man, who were to be my supervisors at the town hall. You see, with the JET Programme, Assistant Language Teachers are employed by MOMBUSHO, (the National Ministry for Education), and then distributed amongst the local education boards and in Japan, individual towns run their own education authorities. Therefore, although a teacher, I was technically employed by and based in the local yakuba (town hall) and so it was there that we headed first to sign some documents.

After that though, I was taken to my hotel for the next few days, (as my apartment was still occupied by my predecessor), the Ōsawano Palace. A large board by the front door had my name on it – the only one in Latin characters – announcing me as an honoured guest and with great ceremony I was shown to my new temporary home; Room 101. And there I was left to take a relaxing bath and then sleep off my jet-lag and hangover whilst thoughts of “Do it to Julia!” crashed about my head.[2]

japan003The Ōsawano Palace

japan004The Honoured Guest

I was woken at six in the evening and then taken for what I described in my diary as “a meal in a restaurant on the edge of the mountains”. It fact, it was much more than just a meal; instead it was an enkai to welcome me, Matto-sensei, the honoured new ALT of Ōsawano-machi whilst also saying goodbye to Matto-sensei, the honoured old ALT of Ōsawano-machi.

The enkai, I was to learn as my time in Japan progressed, is a huge part of Japanese corporate culture. Translate the term into English and you'd probably get something like “works party” but the enkai is far more than just that. For in Japan you see, work is something far more than just somewhere that you turn up at between the hours of nine and five on weekdays and thus its party is much more than simply an opportunity for colleagues to get drunk together, (although that is very much part of it). But back on that balmy evening in Inotani, (the village “on the edge of the mountains” where the restaurant was located), I knew none of that. Instead I was still hungover and my body clock was still out, plus I was still reeling from culture shock and now, straight after being woken up in Room 101, (without having done it to Julia), I was faced by a collection of inebriated Japanese people wishing to get to know me despite the lack of a common language, and vast quantities of extremely strange food from raw fish to soup, yakitori (skewered pieces of marinated chicken), noodles and steak topped off by a rather more culturally-adapted Swiss-American who shared my name. It was 'Lost in Translation' all over again only this time, the rural version.

enkai01Enkai!

And in true 'Lost in Translation' style, we then proceeded to a karaoke establishment which boasted extremely pretty hostesses in kimonos who sat next to you and clapped when you sang. Consequently, I sung three songs; 'Daydream Believer', 'Norwegian Wood' and 'My Way' and the last one got the most claps from my pretty traditionally attired companion which I thought strange since that was also the only one that I sang badly. Matt Chapuis noticed this, but no one else did, probably because they were all roaring drunk by this stage.

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Singing karaoke with the boss

And then finally it was back to Room 101 late. Not that I was tired mind as my body clock was still somewhere midway over the Central Asian steppe and so instead of sleeping, I went to sit on the toilet. Which might sound a little weird to you, but trust me, you haven't seen the toilet that graced Room 101. it came with a remote control and had a heated seat. Jets of water caressed your nether parts at the touch of a button and then on came the built-in drier. Trust me, when there are sanitary facilities like those on offer, I ask you, would you have done any different?

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My royal throne

Everyday that passed taught me something else about my new country and before Matt Chapuis came round to the hotel at noon, I'd learnt two more lessons. Lesson #1 was exactly what a traditional Japanese breakfast consists of. Back in Tokyo we'd had breakfasts provided of course, but in the superficially Westernised precincts of the Keio Plaza these had been pleasant but not particularly native. Here in inaka however, as I was to discover in great detail over the coming two years, it was very hard to escape native. The breakfast in the Ōsawano Palace was rice with seaweed and fish. Even without a hangover, my Westernised taste buds could hardly stomach such maritime weirdness so early in the morning. And so to recover, I decided to take a walk and in doing so I learn Lesson #2.

Now I like, (and have always liked) railways and trains, and driving to and fro the Ōsawano Palace the day before, I'd spied a railway station only a quarter of a mile or so from the hotel and so when I decided to take a short stroll, where better to head for?

I barely made it. A quarter of a mile maybe, but it was a quarter of a mile in such heat, such sticky, heavy, sapping, humid heat.

I'd known that it was hot of course, both in Tokyo and the day before around Ōsawano. But I hadn't realised just how hot and what kind of heat it was. In Shinjuku and the previous day I'd spent most of my time indoors in an air-conditioned false reality, only really leaving in the evenings after the sun had set. I had ventured out one afternoon in Shinjuku but in that concrete jungle the tall buildings gave shadow, half the walk was in an underground passage and an air-conditioned shop was never far away. Between the Ōsawano Palace and the railway station, it was just you and the elements.

And what elements were these? I'd experienced heat before in both Greece and Israel, but that was a dry heat, a pleasant heat. Japan's summers on the other hand, are tropical – humid and heavy – and that was a whole new heat experience for me. I soon learnt that even the sun-loving Brits are desperate for autumn to begin in Japan. After returning from the station I ventured out no more and instead retired to my room to escape from anything Japanese by reading a book on Albania.[3]

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My predecessor in the schools of Ōsawano: Matt Chapuis

Matt Chapuis came at lunchtime to take me to somewhere very important: my new home. I'd been warned about the size of Japanese living spaces prior to departure but even so my aparto[4] came as yet another cultural earthquake, although admittedly only a slight tremor as compared to the Richter Scale 10 of a fish and seaweed breakfast.

It was small, perhaps 4m². Half was a single living/sleeping space with sweet-smelling tatami mats on the floor and a large cupboard in which to roll up my futon (in essence a thin mattress). Then there was a minuscule kitchen with two hobs, a sink and a microwave, a space for my (cold water only) top-loader washing machine and then the bathroom, entirely moulded out of plastic and complete with a toilet, basin, shower and half-length deep bath which would have been a total culture shock had I not been brought up in the only home in Staffordshire that had one the same; one of my father's DIY eccentricities. So, all good except for one major factor: the other Matt was still living there and as there was definitely not room for two, we made a quick exit.

We went to Toyama-shi, the local metropolis, about eight miles down the road from Ōsawano. It made me laugh when all the Japanese referred to the area as 'inaka': with a population exceeding 350,000 the city exceeded the size of many second cities, (and quite a few capitals), of a dozen European countries. Compared to Shinjuku though, the distinction is perhaps a little more understandable.

I needed a camera with which to record my new life so we went to the city's main photography store. A cheesy jingle repeating the words “Camera! Camera! Camera!” played over the loudspeakers whilst I was sold the cheapest camera in the shop by an über-smiley assistant. That camera cost me ¥9,000 (circa £50 – at the time cameras started at around £20 in the UK), but featured zoom, time and date and several other features typical of only top of the range machines back home. In Japan I learnt, bargain basement simply does not exist when it comes to technology.

We went on to Yatsuo, a town of similar size to Ōsawano but infinitely prettier and more historical. Matt's car – soon to be sold to me – rattled down the cobbled streets lined with traditional wooden shops and houses and the climbed the steep hill behind the town upon which the park and main Shintō shrine are located. Sat up there in the late afternoon sun, chatting to Matt about travelling and the life that awaited me in Japan, insects buzzing about and the traditional Japan of picture books laid out below us, I realised that I had finally arrived. My body clock was now (more or less) attuned to Japan time, the culture shock was receding and the main elements of my new life had been introduced. The time of transition was over; it was now time to begin.

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Yatsuo from the park

Written August 2013, HMP Dovegate

Copyright © 2013, Matthew E. Pointon

Next Musing: Riding the Kamioka-sen 


[1] 'ken' is the Japanese word for 'prefecture' or 'county'. I lived in Toyama-ken which was named (as must prefectures are) after its capital. Other words that I use in this travelogue are 'machi' which means 'town' (as in Ōsawano-machi) and 'shi' which means 'city' (as in Toyama-shi).

[2] George Orwell's '1984' is my all-time favourite novel and Room 101 is the torture chamber. It was in there that Big Brother finally broke Winston Smith by getting him to betray his true love, Julia, with cries of “Do it! Do it to Julia!” when given the choice of rats eating his face or hers. At university I had a very pretty and charming friend of the same name and whenever I went out for a coffee with her, a housemate who was also a '1984' aficionado would shout “Matt do it! Do it to Julia!”

[3] Robert Carver's 'The Accursed Mountains'. In my diary I wrote, “[Albania] sounds a fascinating place. I'll have to check it out properly someday”. In 2009 I fulfilled that pledge (see travelogue 'Albanian Excursions').

[4] The Japanese have a habit of borrowing foreign words and then shortening them. Thus 'apartment' becomes 'aparto', 'department store' = 'departo', 'convenience store' = 'conbini' (there's no 'v' sound in Japanese), 'animation' = 'animé' and 'television' = 'terebi'.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Incredible India: Postscript: Abu Dhabi

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Greetings!

As 2014 draws  to a close, so too does Incredible India. I hope that you have enjoyed it and had a fruitful, travel-filled year. All the best for 2015, may it exceed your expectations!
Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey


Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

Part 16: Delhi – The National Railway Museum and Indira Gandhi’s Villa

Part 17: Delhi – Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb and the Jama Masjid

Postscript: Abu Dhabi

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Abu Dhabi City Center

Postscript: Abu Dhabi

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I'd fallen fast asleep almost the moment I'd sat down in my seat on the flight out from Delhi but even so, three hours is nowhere near enough sleep in a night and I was fighting exhaustion from the moment that I got off again at Abu Dhabi. Nonetheless, this was a new city to explore and I did not intend to waste the opportunity, tired or otherwise. From the very real grinding poverty of India to the surreal and unreal wonderland of the UAE where money literally does gush forth from the ground and those who control it are limited only by their imaginations.

But what I saw first on my grand tour of the country's capital was not another bombastic and wasteful use of that wealth but instead a very positive example of what can be achieved if money and imagination are put together in the service of good, not ego.

I'd read all about Masdar on the internet whilst in India. It bills itself as the “City of the Future” and whilst that boast is a little laughable at present – it only has a few hundred inhabitants at the moment so it's more village than city – its aims are laudable. Masdar is a model for eco-living in amidst a sea of gas-guzzling, a carbon-neutral community that actually generates more power than it uses. Terms like “eco-living” and “carbon-neutral” conjure up images of a commune of ageing hippies strumming out Bob Dylan numbers whilst dressed in linen and smoking spliffs, but Masdar is no back-to-nature groove-fest, it is high-tech and cutting edge. It's had money thrown at it and it shows, but if the aim is a noble one then such expenditure is no crime, indeed, it is an investment.

Entering through the main doors, I was met by a security guard from Uganda who directed me to a model of the project and then proceeded to explain it all. It transpired that what I was about to view was only a tiny part of what would soon become a much greater whole; a city of a hundred thousand entirely self-sufficient in energy even to the point that it would sells its excess electricity back to the national grid. What had been built so far of this carbon-neutral utopia was based on the university – the Masdar Institute – post-graduate only and mostly ex-pats. It was all powered by banks of solar panels of the roofs and then below those roofs, the buildings themselves, clustered around squares, everything pedestrianised and with all amenities including a mosque. And then, below all that, another realm, an underworld where driverless cars ferried the citizens around.


And after having it all explained to me, I then boarded one of those vehicles and was whisked noiselessly under the new city to the stop for the central square. It was fast, efficient and environmentally-friendly and the only drawback to it all was that the two academics who shared my cab with me were extremely unsociable.

I alighted and rose up to the surface where I wandered around aimlessly. It was true that Masdar is still in its infancy but the vision was clear and it was not one that I disapproved of. True, the buildings were hideous but modernist architects seem to think that ugliness is what people yearn for,[1] but their layout was conducive to communality and the lack of cars a blessing. However, there was one aspect to it all that I have to say deeply troubled me and that was the “Service Level” below, that realm where the driverless cars whizzed to and fro. Maybe I've watched one too many sci-fi dystopias, but to me it seemed wrong. Apart from the obvious class hierarchy implications, surely that vast, empty, dark realm was an open invitation to crime, a ready-made underworld just waiting to be populated with addicts, homeless, alcoholics, criminals, youth gangs, the mentally-ill and all others who have fallen through the cracks of the society above. I thought that the moment that I set eyes on it and now, after several months of working with the addicts, alcoholics and homeless of my own city, I feel it all the more.

After Masdar I took the bus into Abu Dhabi itself. An Emirati would never dream of taking public transport; that is reserved for guestworkers, but in a land where 90% of the population are temporary immigrants, this meant that the (ridiculously cheap) bus services are well-patronised.

On the long journey in – in countries where land is cheap and plentiful, cities spread out far more – through innumerable housing complexes and past other, more interesting buildings including a circular skyscraper like a radio telescope full of offices, but I took little in and very soon I was drifting off to sleep.
In the centre I pounded the streets and saw the paltry sights. The main one, the Fort, was shut, getting prepared for a festival. That annoyed me since the Fort was the one place that I'd wanted to see. In his classic desert travelogue 'Arabian Sands' Wilfred Thesiger had described Abu Dhabi thus: “A large castle dominated the small dilapidated town which stretched along the shore”[2] and in amidst the concrete and glass spires of commerce, the fort was only tangible link between his time and mine. Which does not sound so extreme until you consider that when Thesiger was writing, my grandfather was already a grown man. The most startling thing about the UAE has been the speed of the progress, (if progress it is).

The other “must-see” sight in the centre, (if that is remotely an appropriate description), was a set of gigantic sculptures of a cannon, a teapot and other traditional Emirati items which I duly photographed without much enthusiasm before hailing a taxi to take me to the Heritage Village.

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Giant teapot in the street

The Heritage Village is a most inappropriately named place indeed, just like its counterpart in Qatar, since there is nothing remotely “heritage” about it at all. After all, how could there be when it is built on on a spit of land reaching into the sea was constructed from scratch only a decade or two before? Nonetheless, I wanted to see it. Culture is not all bricks and mortar, (or mud and palm fronds); it is also traditions and customs and besides, in a land of limited attractions, where else was I to go?

And fake or not, I rather enjoyed it. I ambled around the reconstructed mud-brick dwellings, read about the pearl divers who once sustained the region's economy, ogled some traditional costumes and perused the faux handicrafts on sale. Real or not, this was as close as I was going to get to Thesiger's desert world in modern-day Abu Dhabi. Besides, from the shady palm grove beside the “village” there were spectacular views across the bay to the Corniche from whence I came, a stunning procession of glittering high rises twinkling and shimmering in the desert sun.



I ate in the restaurant and fell into conversation with some of my fellow diners, members of a party from a cruise ship stopping off at different ports around the Gulf. They'd been to Muscat and Dubai and had Doha and Bahrain to come. They admitted that it was an unusual choice, a far cry from the Norwegian fjords or myriad sun-kissed isles of the Caribbean that are the usual staple of cruises, but they were finding it fascinating. What fascinated me though was the fact that they were all from Montreal and spoke French as their first language and several of those at my table obviously struggled to express themselves in my native tongue. I knew that French was the lingua franca in Quebec but had always assumed that all Quebecois, like the native Welsh speakers in the Cambrian Mountains, were fully bilingual.

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The view over the bay from the Heritage Village

After the Heritage Village I took a taxi to the Emirates Palace Hotel which is mentioned in respectful tones by every taxi driver and tourist worker in the city as it is Abu Dhabi's very own seven-star hotel, the city's statement to its upstart neighbour that anything you can do, we can...erm... match it.

Architecturally though, Dubai's Burj al-Arab is far more striking, although I could not dislike the classical lines and symmetry of the Emirates Palace. Inside though, it just did not do it for me; gold, gold everywhere, so that the whole place basked in a putrid yellow glow. It was nouveau riche on heat – they even had a gold vending machine: ingots of the yellow stuff at the touch of a button – and more than anywhere else that I've visited, it reminded me of Ceauşescu's House of the People in Bucharest, another oversized neoclassical pile built by an autocrat with no one to put the brakes of taste on his vision. Still, there is one point in the Emir of Abu Dhabi's favour: he had at least the funds to pay for it all. Anyway, it was all a little too much for a yokel like me; I felt like it needed bringing down a peg or two, and so I did just that, heading into the marble toilet suite and taking a very satisfying dump there.

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The Emirates Palace Hotel: nouveau riche

Fort, giant teapot, fake ancient village and tacky palace all ticked off and I was fast running out of things to do in Abu Dhabi, so in that toilet fit for a king (or emir...) I delved into my guidebook and picked out my next destination. I learnt that someone had had the bright idea of constructing a replica of Noah's Ark[3] which sounded like a rather quirky thing to do. So, liking a spot of the quirky now and again, I asked the taxi driver about it but he didn't seem to know where it was so I showed him the map and he looked at it as a man who had never had such a strange diagram presented before him before, before then agreeing and off we drove.

And drove.

And drove.

And drove. And still no Noah's Ark. And all the while the meter ticked over and over.

In the end I realised that we'd gone straight past the place so I told him so, he looked at me as if it was all my fault and we went back to where the Ark now lives.

And there it was, the huge painted rainbow on a wall indicating the connection to that ancient holy man and his boat. But underneath that rainbow... wait a minute, where was that most famous of all boats? Luxury yachts a plenty, but no flood-floating Ark. My driver asked a wealthy-looking Emirati who was climbing out of an obscenely-large 4x4 and he confirmed my worst fears: Yes, the Ark had been here once. No, it was here no longer.

I was dropped off back in the centre from whence I'd started, angry at the hefty taxi fare for nothing and half-asleep, the effects of only grabbing those few hours on the plane now really catching up with me. I went into a souvenir shop and bought all manner of tat for those folk back home, (and me...); I'm talking snow globes, flashing glass models of the Burj al-Khalifa and mosque alarm clocks. Then, I decided to walk the short distance to the bus station.

Short distance on the map that is. Four blocks to be precise. Half a mile at a guess. But in the city of the car where the foot-bound man sure ain't king, those blocks are much larger than elsewhere; I estimated half a kilometre minimum for each one. Shattered as I was and coming down with a cold, they seemed to go on forever. I stopped in a shopping centre for a large Coke to pep me up and then continued on my way.
By the time that I reached the bus station I was the walking dead yet there were still many hours to kill before my plane left and one big attraction to check out. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was constructed between 1996 and 2007 under the orders of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi. He wanted a structure that would unite “the cultural diversity of Islamic world, the historical and modern values of architecture and art.”[4] Inspired by Mughal, Persian, Arab and Moorish architecture and using material from all around the globe, it covers the area of five football pitches and can house four thousand worshippers making it the eighth-largest mosque in the world.

And in a city where the next biggest attraction is a giant teapot, then that made this an attraction not to miss.

I was deposited by my bus at the back of a supermarket, the nearest stop for the mosque which is generally reached – in true Emirati style – by car. Still, it was not far away, sitting dramatically on a hilltop at the end of the road.

But when I reached it I discovered to my dismay that I could not access the building that way. “You have to walk round,” the security guard told me, but that is easier said than done when things are built in Emirati scale, the complex easily a mile square and the entrance on the very far side. I started to walk round but in my state I was not up to a three-mile trek so I hailed a taxi and got dropped off at the entrance.

Exactly what I had expected I can't say, but what I found exceeded those expectations. This was new and expensive, but unlike the gold-splattered Emirati Palace Hotel, it was not nouveau riche. It was beautiful, the most beautiful mosque that I'd visited, far superior to Casablanca's King Hassan II Mosque. It was a symphony in glass, marble, light and stone. I wandered around in awe, (and was congratulated by countless people on my Indian kurta), and then sat in a corner and thought. This was it, the end of my trip to the Sub-Continent; my first trip there but, hopefully, not my last. On my journeyings I had seen countless wonders, more perhaps than on any other adventure that I'd been on, certainly far more than I could take in.

And for all that I was thankful, for no other emotion would have been apt.

II068
Inside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque

FINIS

Llandeilo-Shrewsbury train
16th February, 2014


[1] I was reminded of the new county council headquarters in Stafford. Equally eco-friendly and equally offensive to the eye.
[2] Arabian Sands, p.262
[3] The story is in the Quran too and Noah is decreed to be a Prophet in Islam, the Prophet Nur.