Friday, 25 July 2014

Japanese Musings VI – A Bad Day

world-map osawano

Greetings!

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

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

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 VI – A Bad Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yum!!

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

dscf1506 A Japanese school dinner

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

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

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

And some student nicked my bike.

Copyright © 2000, Matthew E. Pointon

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

Friday, 18 July 2014

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

world-map osawano

Greetings!

This week’s offering is actually one of the original set of Japanese Musings, writing whilst I was in Japan all those years ago. They were written as emails, one a week, to friends and family and that comes through in the style which is quite different to the stuff I produce these days. It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve improved or regressed as a writer.

This week’s topic is also quite fitting, the World of Sport just after the World Cup has ended, I watched the Tour de France fly past in Yorkshire and only a few weeks before I head up to Manchester to watch England v India in the 4th Test Match. Sport is a greaat bringer together of people from disparate cultures around the world, it’s a language that we speak in common that does not involve politics or religion. One of my first experiences of interacting with foreign cultures came when I was in Sixth Form, just 18 years old and the Euro 96 football tournament was hosted in the UK. In the pub I drank at some Danes came in and we befriended them, took one for a night out on the town and let him stop at my house, much to my parents’ ire. It was a great experience and one that inspired me to more and more foreign interaction. Incidentally, that tournament was won by the Germans and, as was proven last weekend in Rio, some things don’t change. Still, this time, as then, they deserved it.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

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 V: The Sporting Life

Ok, so this week's musings concerns the extremely important subject of Sport. Why am I am writing about this today, well I shall explain in due course.

Firstly, I must state that Sport in Japan is completely different to the UK. Although this may be disturbing to some readers, it grieves me to inform you that the gospel of Football has not fully reached the Japanese populace. Even more heart-rending is the sad state of affairs that exists here where people are ignorant of the Gospel of Cricket. Yes, it's sad, but sadder still, it is true.

That is not to say however, that these isles are without sport. Quite the opposite in fact, the Japanese are actually extremely sporty people indeed. Football, whilst having a minute following and passion attached to it in comparison with Europe, still is practised and supported and there are other games too, including a strange sport named baseball, . No, it is strange but the Japanese really are quite passionate about sport and this shocked me due to their pretty pathetic showing in more or less anything they partake in, except Judo or Sumo of course, but there again any country can invent a sport and then win at it constantly… except England.

No, what surprises me is what they actually get excited about. The Olympics certainly affected these people, especially the Olympic Football Tournament. Now, excuse me, I am a football fan and what's more I know many more in various countries but never in my life before did I meet someone who cared about Olympic Football. The World Cup, aye tis a different matter, the European Championships too, and even maybe the CONCAFA Cup, (or whatever it's called). But the Olympics, no. The Auto-Windscreens Trophy generally attracts more interest, (though to be fair, considering who the present holders are, that is far from surprising). But this is not what I am here to talk about. The Olympics are over, and good riddance. No I am here to talk about Japan's 55th National Sports Tournament.

Every year, (presumably since WWII), Japan holds the Kokutai, its own National 'Olympics'. Each year it is held in a different ken, (county), and this year the Annual Kokutai is in Toyama-ken. Needless to say, the whole ken has been getting more than a little excited about this. And Osawano in particular has been going sincerely over the top. The reasoning is simple. Osawano is a town of 22,000 people, not big at all, but by chance many of the regions sporting facilities happen to be within her borders. On top of that, the town itself seems to produce an excess of sporting talent, which no doubt is some compensation for the lack of academic talent which is all too obvious at Osawano Junior High. Indeed, one of Japan's Olympic Swimmers came from the town and a few weeks ago, the whole school had to watch the guy race. He came 6th, but hey, it's the taking part that counts.

So, the whole ken has been going games crazy and everywhere you go, the ubiquitous mascots can be seen. To be honest, the mascots are more than a little strange. They are two strange figures, one of whom is brown, he (? - I assume it's a he), carries a torch and has no eyes, instead just a banner around his head with 2000 on it. I think that maybe two of the zeros are meant to be his eyes, but it is not too successful if they are. His mate is white, has a beak, and eyes two, but also arms and legs. Except that one arm is more like a bat or something. Now it may be meant to be a Snow Grouse, the prefectural bird, and all I can say is that if it is, it is no wonder that that particular creature is virtually extinct. No, they are pretty poor mascots, no doubt at all, though of course I had to buy the key-ring which now hangs from my car mirror. Just getting into the local culture, I'm sure you understand.1

toki_kaze Toki and Kazae

Anyway, today, the whole school went to watch a softball match, and I went with them.

Softball is a game that I never encountered before, so I was quite looking forward to this dose of alternative sporting culture. I settled down in the stand next to a bloke with a weird glass eye. Now here it seems, I had performed my masterstroke, for this bloke turned out to be THE man to be sat next to. His strange stare apart, I was most glad to be sat next to him for from the word go he started plying me with beer. Now of course, initially I thought about refusing, since I was actually at work an all, but then I considered that it may be rude to do so, and thus, in the name of International Relations, (and for this reason alone I must stress), I accepted.

Many times.

On top of this, Glasseye-san also turned out to be the life and soul of the Osawano Softball Fraternity. From the word go, he got up and sang and clapped with the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal Pastor. Aye, he was a good bloke to sit next to and thus I watched my first ever game of softball.

japan kokutai1 Getting ready for the game (Glasseye-san is in the foreground)

Now Softball is a sport rather similar to Rounders or Baseball, in the respect that it has a bat and a ball and they run round several bases. For some reason though, it has seven innings, each of which does not last too long. This particular game was Toyama-ken versus Fukuoka-ken. It ended two-nil to Toyama, (yeah!!!), though it must be stated that I would imagine that Fukuoka's nickname is not "The Softball Ken". They didn't even get close to scoring. Toyama on the other hand were unlucky not to get a lot more, but there again they did have two players from Osawano, (according to Glasseye-san), so this is hardly surprising.

japan kokutai2 The victorious Toyama team

All in all, whilst not a bad game, I cannot imagine me ever becoming a softball fan. The essential problem is the length of the game, less than two hours. Now, as far as I am concerned, there are two types of game. One that is exciting, full of adrenalin rushes and does not last very long. Football and Rugby are prime examples. The second is more relaxed. Instead of excitement, you get a whole day (or five) to watch the match at your leisure, fully appreciate the skills being displayed, and of course, the beverages on offer. Yes, this is the category that cricket occupies. Instead, softball threatens to be like cricket, yet as soon as you are settled down, the innings ends and the other team gets in. On the other hand, it has little of the excitement of football, and by dint of the fact that there is a bat and ball, and no kicking, it really doesn't fall happily into that category either.

Well, whatever, it was a nice change from "Hello, how are you? Today we will learn about how to greet each other" and so I ain't complaining.

And remember, its only two years to go until the next World Cup!

japan kokutai3 Getting close to the big stars

Written Osawano-machi, 20th October, 2000

Copyright © 2000, Matthew E. Pointon

1They are Toki and Kaze respectively, taken from the 55th Annual Kokutai slogan which is “Ai-no kaze, Yume-nosete” (On the wind of love, with dreams). 'Kaze' means 'wind'; not sure about 'Toki'. The prefectural bird is called the 'raichou' in Japanese and in English is sometimes referred to as the 'Thunderbird', hence the local express trains being a picture of the bird on the front and being called Thunderbird also.

 Next musing: A Bad Day

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

world-map osawano

Greetings!

I had a seminal moment this week. Chatting with someone about the linguist roots of Romanian, (as you do), they came out with a very informed opinion which was not dissimilar to my own and when this was mentioned, it transpired that they’d got it off this blog. Is that what fame is like; when people quote your theories back at you? Nice to know someone’s reading all this stuff anyway.

This week’s post is a bit weird. After posting Japanese Musings 2.1 last week, the first half of my account of arriving in Japan, one might have expected 2.2 this week but instead we’re jumping onto 2.3 inexplicably. Why? Well, the unfortunate truth is that in my recent computer crash crisis, I lost 2.2 so it’s going to have to be rewritten. And so, until I get round to doing just that, here’s the next one in the series, my musings on one of my favourite railway lines of all time, the idiosyncratic Kamioka-sen.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japan is a strange place. In contrast to my native Britain, Japan is either dead flat or straight up and down. In my entire two years working there, I never once saw anything remotely resembling rolling countryside.

Where I lived in Ōsawano it was flat. Perfectly flat. Ideal country for riding a bike which was useful since I was regularly crashing, abandoning or having towed away my car, (see ‘Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line’), forcing me to rely on two wheels for much of the time. But flat as Ōsawano may have been, travel just a kilometre or two up Route 41 and suddenly cycling was all but a dream unless you’re one of those mad souls who enjoys competing for the King of the Mountains jersey in a bike race.

But steep hills and mountains, whilst not conducive to brilliant bicycling, are bloody beautiful and there were few things that I enjoyed doing more on a weekend than heading up the gorgeous Jinzu Valley into the heart of the Japan Alps in my Mattmobile, (when it was running), or, (when it was not and often when it was too), on the Kamioka-sen.[1]

KS08 Sasazu Station

The Kamioka-sen did not run through Ōsawano itself. Instead, my town was served by Sasazu station [2] on the main JR Takayama-sen (1920-34) which starts in Gifu-shi, pierces and winds its way through the Japan Alps before finally ending up in Toyama-shi. The four-hour trip, (best broken with a stop off in the beautiful museum city of Takayama halfway), comes highly recommended. I did the journey soon after my arrival in the country, taking one of the Hida Limited Express services which come equipped with wide-windowed observation coaches, all the better to sample the stunning scenery with.

KS01 The Hida Limited Express and a stopper service at Inotani

However, such elite services as the Hida Limited Express never stopped at Sasazu, it being a most minor star on the constellation of the JR network indeed, and so instead, when heading towards the Kamioka-sen, I would take the one-car stopper service along with farmers, housewives on their weekly shop and depressed schoolkids still in their uniforms despite the fact that it was the weekend.

255550786_5cb2bf7934_b Not quite the Orient Express: on board the stopper to Inotani

I would take the stopper as far as Inotani, a nondescript yet spectacularly-located village, (barely more than a hamlet actually), some 5km or so south of Sasazu. All the trains, including the Limited Expresses stopped at Inotani, not because of the place itself which, as I have already hinted, hardly warranted any station at all, but instead because it formed the spot where the JR West network met the JR Central network and because it was a junction, the place where the railcar that ploughed the Kamioka-sen stood waiting ready to take you on a trip along its little branchline.

KS02 The Kamioka-sen train waiting at Inotani

JR is, (or was, it’s been chopped up and privatised these days), the national rail company of Japan, but unlike in the UK and other European countries, the nationalisation process was never very complete and across Japan there are scores of tiny – and not-so tiny – railway companies which survive alongside the national big brother. One of the most famous for example, is the Hankyu Railway which operates 139km of track in the Kansai Region whilst in Toyama-ken the Dentetsu Station next to the JR one is the hub of an extensive network of lines, (just under 100km of track), across the eastern half of the ken[3] run by the Toyama Chihō Railway (commonly called the Chitetsu). The Kamioka-sen was also private, but one of the much smaller operators, owning and running just the one line, the 19.9km route from Inotani to Hida-onsen, its rolling stock consisting of but two railcars and two freight locomotives.

KS07 One of the freight locos

I loved the Kamioka-sen. You’d cross the tracks and get in the friendly red, white and blue railcar with its tea ceremony area in the middle (I kid you not!), and then settle down for the ride, a slow trundle through some incredible Alpine scenery, punctuated by several lengthy tunnels.

KS03 Inside the Kamioka-sen train with the tea ceremony facilities between seats

There were seven stops – actually, there were originally eight, but one closed – and on the platform of each one was a tiny wooden shrine housing a deity, one of the Shichi Fukujin (Seven Lucky Gods) of Shintōism, who include such luminaries as Hotei (the Laughing Buddha) and Ebisu (the fisherman god who gives his name to the beer).[4] That was what I loved so much about it; the personal, local touches; which other railway company pays for wooden shrines to protects its trains, provides tea ceremony facilities on board and produces an annual calendar featuring scenes from the line? It was a modern version of the golden age of rail travel which in Britain was the Victorian Era, when every area had its own railway company and every railway company was rooted in the area that it served. To find such a line and ethos still alive in late 20th century Japan was a joy to behold, for in Britain the Kamioka-sen – which could never have made money since it had few passengers and due to its long tunnels and many bridges, must be inordinately expensive to maintain – would have been closed years ago, its best hopes being turned into a footpath or, if very lucky, preserved by enthusiasts. But in Japan in 2002 its rusty wheels kept turning and I was one was glad to have travelled by them.

458807457_7f4f2fd650_o The Shintō shrine on Mozumi Station

But railways, no matter how quaint, full of character and scenic, are only as good as the places that they serve and here too the Kamioka-sen was a winner. Kamioka-cho, (technically part of Gifu-ken’s Hida-shi, although a more un-city-like place you can’t imagine), was well worth taking a trip to even without its funky little train. Kamioka is a pretty, quiet little mountain town nestled in the folds of the Jinzu Valley, the river running through its heart. The town was best served by Hida Kamioka Station, an elevated stop at the end of a high railway bridge traversing the western end of the town centre. I recall alighting one Saturday and descending the steps into a large and lively matsuri (festival) with floats and food stalls, (deep-friend octopus balls – yum!) lining the streets. Even out of the festival season though, there was plenty of stuff worth seeing here. Kamioka Castle, a 1970 reconstruction of a Sengoku Era fortress with samurai armour and swords on display inside is well worth checking out and once you’ve been there, then there’s always the weird and wonderful Kamioka Observatory Visitors’ Centre.

1024px-Kamiokajo Kamioka Castle

Kamioka Observatory really is the town’s X-Factor. Just north of the town itself, it is located deep inside the old Mozumi Mine which dates back to 710AD and was used to extract zinc, lead, silver and ore.[5] Indeed, the presence of mines in Kamioka is the main reason why speculators were prompted to build such an expensive railway (it is reputedly 60% tunnels and bridges), to such an out-of-the-way spot, since ore needs shifting and nothing can shift it better than rail. Now, that is true anywhere in the world, but it is particularly true in Japan, a country with virtually no mineral resources, (during my entire two years there, Kamioka was the only place that I came across where I saw any evidence of any kind of mining whatsoever). But anyway, when the Mozumi Mine closed in the early 1980s, a neutrino physics experimental lab was constructed in the disused chambers which aimed to discover more about the breakdown of protons. Now, having run away from Physics screaming after scraping through my GCSE Combined Science aged sixteen, I’m far from sure what all of that means, but the vast chamber filled with pure water, its walls covered by large bulb-like plates looked like something out of a science fiction film and since its director, one Masatoshi Koshiba won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001 for his work there, then I’m guessing it’s important.

PH20-water-withboat-apr23 Inside the Kamioka Observatory: “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

But for me the real drawcard was not down the old Mozumi Mine nor in the town itself, but instead at the very end of the railway, at Hida Onsen Station, (although alas, there was no onsen in sight here), which housed the most glorious little tearoom in all Japan and was as idiosyncratic as the rest of the line, with an old bus parked on the platform as a waiting room. Regularly would I take the train there and then enjoy delicate ham sandwiches with a pot of tea whilst reading a classic novel or adding another chapter to my latest story before then walking along the street beside the track, stopping at the exquisite Shintō shrine en route to the next stop, Kamioka Ohashi, from where I’d catch the next train back. Simple pleasures perhaps, but aren’t they always the best.

KS06 Hida Onsen Station with the bus waiting room

Postscript – 2013

Researching this piece eleven years after I last travelled on the line, I learnt to my dismay that the Kamioka-sen finally bowed to the inevitable and ceased operating in 2006. Since the last of the Kamioka mines closed in 2001, I’m guessing that the two events are related since the passenger traffic was never enough to justify its survival (80% of revenues came from freight traffic). However, it seems that the line has not died completely for its tracks have now been taken over by ‘MTB Gattan Go!’, an activity centre where one can hire a bicycle specially adapted to run on railway tracks and cycle the entire route. So, who knows, perhaps I shall ride the rails of the Kamioka-sen again one day in the future…?

38051939 MTB Gattan Go!

And for those who want to experience more of the old Kamioka-sen, check out these videos on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9Bh90shxbg

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

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

KS04 KS05 Kamioka-sen scenery

1 Sen = line, as in railway line.

2 Sasazu was one of the several villages that were combined to form Osawano-machi.

3 Ken = county or prefecture.

4 See ‘Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu’ for more details.

5 Cadmium leaking into the Jinzu from the mine during World War II caused an outbreak of a mystery sickness which killed many locals called Itai-itai, (lit. “It hurts! It hurts!”).

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

world-map osawano

Greetings!

A late posting again this week due to my son and I heading off to Yorkshire to enjoy the start of the Tour de France, (and enjoy lots of steam trains). Whilst there we popped into one of the very best museums in the world, the National Railway Museum which houses an unparalleled collection of railway locomotives, carriages and railwayana. Amongst them is a Japanese bullet train which of course brought back memories to me of when I lived in Japan and reminded me that I have quite a few Japanese Musings that need posting here on UTM. So here is one, actually the first in the second series and written only last year. I wrote about twenty original ‘Musings’ whilst I was in Japan, but reviewing them I noticed that they missed out some crucial parts of my Japan experience and so I have taken to writing some more to fill in the gaps with the benefit of hindsight. And here is the first which deals with my arrival, when a young and naive young Englishman touched down in Tokyo…

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

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival Pt. 1: Tokyo

Looking back now with the benefit of over ten years more living and travels through more than three dozen more countries, I can truly say that I have only ever experienced true cultural shock on two or three occasions. Arriving in Japan was one of them. Several years afterwards, I watched Sophie Coppola’s excellent film ‘Lost in Translation’ which charts the exploits of Bob Harris (Bill Murray as he arrives in Tokyo for the shooting of a Suntory Whisky ad. He is jet-lagged and he stays in a tower block in Shinjuku and it is all rather weird. Perhaps after you’ve read this piece, you’ll understand how I can relate to that film so well. Alas, unlike with Bill in the film, Scarlett Johansson never turned up to keep me company.

l_335266_44ed5ff4 Lost in Translation

To be fair, it was perhaps always going to be a bit of a weird time. The year before had been traumatic, one of the most eventful of my life. My father had been killed in a tragic accident, I’d lived with and fallen in love with a girl who’d then decided to get married to someone else, I’d had my university finals and I’d tried to cope with it all by writing my first novel. All of that was enough to put anyone in a strange mood and the chaos only intensified in the week’s leading up to my departure for Japan as my diary shows:

The weeks, (or indeed months), preceding my departure to Japan were definitely amongst the strangest of my existence. Not that anything particularly out of the ordinary happened I must hasten to add, but more that they were characterised by a strange sort of transitory feeling of a life in limbo. You have finished one life and you are waiting for the next one to commence. In the meantime you have time to fill, thus visits to certain faces and places from previous lives are made. During the run up to Japan I certainly got about a bit as they say. There was a visits to Scotland and London to see friends, a quick sojurn to the Netherlands to seek the wisdom of the Lowlander, a student party in Sheffield, a grad ball in Leeds, a Graduation Ceremony, (someone else’s…), a sing-song with St. Margaret’s Church Choir, a curry or two at Roshni Indian Cuisine, a trip to Burton with Uncle Doug and many nights in the Butchers Arms culminating in a goodbye gathering. Thus, after saying goodbye to all and sundry, I departed Stoke station for London Euston from whence I travelled to Northolt on the tube and stayed the night in the company of Pepi Mincheva and her compatriots, (most notably a rather attractive hairdresser from Sofia), in the suburbs of London.’

And then I was on the plane. Previously my longest flight had been around four hours, and I’d always travelled economy, usually on package tourist airlines. But the JET Scheme was not only paying BA, they were doing it business class and the flight, on the top deck of a 747, was twelve hours long. I sat next to a Sri Lankan dentist, watched ‘American Beauty’ and the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, wrote a letter to a friend, read ‘Les Miserables’, ate a lot, drank a little and slept even less. Half a day later we landed at Narita, the calendar having moved forward a day yet it never having got dark.

Tokyo Narita is a large airport much like any other large airport, the only point of note being that its trolleys could travel up and down the escalators. All the new JET teachers were herded together onto a coach and then sent into the Japanese capital. Here was where the culture shock started and here is how I described it in my diary: ‘Whilst Tokyo seems to have few buildings with any architectural merit, its sheer size is overwhelming; it makes London look like a provincial city! Crossed over several large bridges, saw a Japanese equivalent of the London Eye and also of the Eiffel Tower. Saw the Tokyo Disneyland and lots of skyscrapers.’ And at the end of it all was the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, a five star, one thousand five hundred rooms, forty-odd storey sleeping factory. And so, despite it only being early in the afternoon, that’s what I did: slept.

704px-Keio_Plaza_Hotel_-01 The Keio Plaza Hotel: not exactly personal

The problem with sleeping during the day is that you tend to wake up at night. If there’s one thing I can relate to more than anything else in ‘Lost in Translation’, it’s the insomnia, wandering around a monolithic, largely beige-coloured hotel in the small hours, watching weird TV and striking up friendships with other, similarly affected individuals. That and the sexual tension.

Unlike Bill Murray, who is a world famous movie star, us JETsetters were billeted in rooms of three, and I found myself sharing with two other guys. One of them was John and John was in the initial throws of a relationship with Chris and Chris, like Scarlett Johansson, was insanely hot. Therefore it is entirely understandable that John, whilst being a great guy and Chris, whilst being a great girl, did not really want me in the room. Things weren’t easy for me either, and whenever things aren’t easy, I get out. So it was that I went for a wander around Shinjuku as the sun was beginning to set in the land where it really should be rising.

Women-wearing-yukata-buying-train-tickets Shinjuku-station-Tokyo Shinjuku Station: the world’s busiest… and possibly also the most surreal…

Shinjuku is culture shock. Tokyo is a mad, crazy city, but Shinjuku is Tokyo on heat. Incredible skyscrapers above whilst at ground level a cacophony of sound and light. Pachinko parlours with their thousands of rattling balls,1 flashing neon signs, ganguro girls dolled and tanned up to high heaven2 and a selection of the weirdest food imaginable, all in a language that I could barely read my own name in. I wandered around sucking it all in, my head whirling as salarymen brushed past on their way home from a day in the office, ready to catch their trains at the world’s busiest railway station.

ganguro2 Pachinko_parlour Ganguro girls and pachinko

That evening we went out, John, Chris and I along with a few others. We headed for an Irish pub halfway up a tower block where it was a mind-boggling 850 yen for a pint,3 meaning that we only downed three before making our way back to the hotel and stopping off for some strange beef noodles en route which I struggled to eat as I was not yet proficient with the chopsticks.

shinjuku Shinjuku by night

The next morning I was up early and after a fine hotel breakfast, it was a heady dose of speeches and seminars. I was later to learn just how much the Japanese love speeches whenever welcoming or saying goodbye and most follow the same pattern. Whatever the case, half asleep as I was, (in my diary I describe it as ‘JETlagged’ – Ha! Ha!), not much went in and soon afterwards it was back to bed where I slept for most of the rest of the day. That evening, body clock still way out, we were out again drinking and sampling the delights of our new country including the toilets. I remember vividly going to relieve myself in the bar and the guy next to me declare, “Hey dude, I didn’t expect to see you so far from Kansas!” Thinking he’d mistaken me for some Stateside friend I looked at him askance, only to discover that he was holding a conversation with the urinal which was made by a company called Toto. Apparently Toto is also the name of Dorothy’s dog in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a dog that, unlike me or the urinal, hailed from Kansas.

toto_1479405c images Toto: different things to different people

The day that followed was more of the same; dull lectures in beige rooms. Eventually, I decided not to bother and so went off to explore Shinjuku, discovering a passage under most of the district filled with people and a tiny shrine in amongst all the skyscrapers that looked almost unchanged since the 7th century. After that, I again slept ready for the evening which started off with a reception party at the British Embassy.

The Ambassador’s Receptions are always, as the Ferrero Roche adverts tell us, marvellous affairs, and having attended them in both Japan and Vietnam, I am suitably impressed. However, of the two embassies, the Tokyo one wins hands down if only for location. Situated adjacent to the Emperor’s Palace it is a glorious mansion that speaks of the British Empire at its height. Indeed, it’s location is due purely to that factor; it was built right next to the Emperor’s Palace so as to discourage the British from sailing up to the city and bombarding said palace in times of disagreement, just as they had done in Peking. Not that I knew that at the time; instead I, along with all the other young British JETters were just star struck by the opulent location, expensive free food and lashings of free alcohol. It was not long before the latter began to take an effect and I got into a conversation with a rather boring chap from the embassy who seemed most unimpressed when I asked him if, following the departure of Mr. Bond after ‘You Only Live Twice’, he was now ‘Our Man in Japan.’

japan-old-camera-320 The Ambassador’s Reception, Tokyo

By the time the embassy party had finished it was all becoming one big surreal blur of neon lights, rows of vending machines selling every product imaginable, dark-skinned ganguro girls, mobile phones a decade ahead of the ones at home and then finally, that most Japanese of all activities, karaoke.

Most people say that you have to be drunk to enjoy karaoke. I do not, although I did before hitting Nippon. Time in Japan teaches a man that karaoke is a perfectly reasonable way to spend a sober weekday evening. But that was a lesson that I hadn’t learnt by then and so instead it was the karaoke that I’d practised out in Corfu that ruled the day then, plastered renditions of Beatles and Monkees classics surrounded by other drunks, (well, the British were all drunk; the Americans who hadn’t had a reception were still warming up), before finally staggering home via a snack bar that sold some weird beef with rice concoction, unsure of the unreal that we were in but loving every minute of it.

But what goes up must come down and the following morning was one of the worst that I have ever experienced. Another lesson in life learnt: Japanese hangovers are worse than British ones.[4] We all lumbered onto our coach to Haneda, Tokyo’s other airport, nursing sore heads and unsettled stomachs. No romantic, deep and meaningful hugs in a Shinjuku street for me I’m afraid, although perhaps if I return as a grumpy fifty-year old, then maybe I too will receive the Bill Murray treatment. But that is for the future and here I end Part 1 of my account of my arrival in the Land of the Rising Sun, for after alighting from our coach and checking through departures, we entered an All Nippon Airways jet which would take us onwards to the next stage of our journey, away from the monkey-brain sushi surrealism of the mammoth metropolis of Tokyo with its subcultures, subterranean shopping centres and sky-scraping hotels and instead into a very different Japan, the quiet of Toyama-ken, a place summed up in one word: inaka.

shinjukuShinjuku: Japan Max!

1 Pachinko is a mechanical game originating in Japan and is used as both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently as a gambling device, filling a Japanese gambling niche comparable to that of the slot machine in Western gaming. A pachinko machine resembles a vertical pinball machine, but has no flippers and uses a large number of small balls. The player fires balls into the machine, which then cascade down through a dense forest of pins. If the balls go into certain locations, they may be captured and sequences of events may be triggered that result in more balls being released. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible. These balls can then be exchanged for prizes. Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but modern ones have incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines.

2 Ganguro is a Japanese subculture. It is defined by Wikipedia as follows: ‘Ganguro appeared as a new fashion style in Japan in the early 1990s and was prevalent mostly among young women. In ganguro fashion, a deep tan is combined with hair dyed in shades of orange to blonde, or a silver grey known as "high bleached". Black ink is used as eye-liner and white concealer is used as lipstick and eyeshadow. False eyelashes, plastic facial gems, and pearl powder are often added to this. Platform shoes and brightly coloured outfits complete the ganguro look. Also typical of ganguro fashion are tie-dyed sarongs, miniskirts, stickers on the face, and many bracelets, rings, and necklaces.’

Ganguro falls into the larger subculture of gyaru (from English "girl"), a slang term used for various groups of young women, usually referring to overly childish women. Researchers in the field of Japanese studies believe that ganguro is a form of revenge against traditional Japanese society due to resentment of neglect, isolation, and constraint of Japanese society. This is their attempt at individuality, self-expression, and freedom, in open defiance of school standards and regulations.

3 Approximately £5. The going rate for a pint in the UK at the time was around £1.80 outside of London and perhaps £2 in the expensive bars of the capital.

4 Despite extensive research, I never definitively worked out why, although lots of preservatives in the beer, beer brewed from rice, not wheat, mixing drinks and the summer heat all seem to be factors.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book review: Edith & I

world-map albania

Greetings!

THe Missing Link is finished and the summer is upon us and therefore my postings on UTM are liable to be somewhat erratic as camping trips and mini expeditions intervene. This post is a day early for example, as my brother and I are off to travel the A470 this weekend. “A470? What on earth is that?” I hear you ask. Ah well, the A470 is the Route 66 of Wales, the only road which spans the entire length of the country without actually dipping into England. There’s even been songs written about it.

Nothing is so heavenly,

As travelling on the A470

I get a funny tingle when I go up the spine of Wales.

I catch my breath and smile a lot

When I think about just how much we’ve got

I only wish the journey quicker than a flight to Istanbul.

Ok, so not quite Lennon/McCartney but you get the idea. That’s this weekend and the weekend after I’m off with my son to see the Tour de France in, erm.. Yorkshire. Well, why not, particularly when they’ve the best railway museum in the world nearby with a bullet train, the Mallard, the Rocket and a whole lot more.

So, this blog may become erratic and so until things cool down again, here are a few stand alone postings, starting with another book review, ‘Edith & I’ which is all about Edith Durham, the most famous explorer of Albania and a great inspiration and gude to my brilliant 2009 Albania and Kosova trip.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Edith & I: On the Trail of an Edwardian Traveller in Kosovo

Elizabeth Gowing

Edith_&_Final

When I chanced upon a book on the shelves of Waterstones in Birmingham detailing the travels of one modern Englishwoman following in the footsteps of Mary Edith Durham a century before then I just knew that I had to buy it. Ever since reading ‘High Albania’, Durham’s account of her 1908 journey through Northern Albania and Kosovo, I have found her inspirational. Durham was one of that special breed of Britishers who go to an exotic land, explore it and record it and promote it and in the process become beloved by the population and remembered by them whilst being virtually unknown back home. In Bulgaria there was Mercia MacDermott and in Japan Walter Weston, but for the Albanians it will always be Durham, Mbretëresha e Malësoreve, Queen of the Highlanders. But that is Durham, the question is, does Gowing have anything worthwhile to say?

Edith_durham (1)

In all honesty, I found this book mixed. In some areas it is excellent. Gowing is thorough in her research and discovers a lot about her heroine. We meet the surviving members of her family, the descendent of her Albanian guide, check out the ethnographic mementoes she brought back from her travels and speculate on her sexuality, fashion sense and motherly instincts. All well and good and I loved it, even if the image of Durham that came out at the end was rather unlike the one that I had fashioned in my mind from her book. Which is a shame since I based one of my favourite literary creations, the indomitable Mary Jane Hartley on her and now I realise that the two are quite different.

So, if she researches Durham so well, then what’s my issue? Well, I guess my problem lies in the researcher and not the research. The thing is, (and maybe this is just me), but my feeling is that she just doesn’t ‘get’ Edith. She knows the facts and she checks out the places and people but she just doesn’t really understand. Edith Durham was an anthropologist at heart whose primary aim was to record the culture and traditions of one of the most remote corners of Europe. In Gowing though, there is nothing anthropological. True, she helps out at the Ethnographic Museum in Pristina and helps set up a collective of filigree workers, but she never talks about the filigree in detail, classifies it, compares it to other filigree in neighbouring districts and speculates on why it is so popular and refined an art form in those parts.

It’s the ‘compare’ bit actually that gets me. I’m a big believer that if you want to know a culture, you have to explore around it rather than just in it. For example, to understand England you need to know something of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and even the Low Countries also. Gowing’s passion is Kosovo; she lives there and she loves it and that’s the problem, for Edith Durham was no lover of Kosovo, she was a devotee of the Balkans with a specific affection for the Albanian people. And that is where Gowing really fails, for Edith’s travels were focussed around all the Albanian lands, but particularly the highlands of Northern Albania. The plain of Kosovo is an afterthought yet read ‘Edith & I’ and you’d think that it was all about Kosovo and Kosovo alone. Only one chapter is devoted to Albania, a country that Gowing clearly does not know and, more worryingly, doesn’t seem that interested in beyond chatting to people whose ancestors met Durham.

Oh dear, this book could have been so much more! Edith Durham was political; she championed the Albanian cause against that of the Serb and the Turk. I would have loved to have heard Gowing’s musings on what Durham would have thought on the modern-day politics of the region. Would she have approved of Kosovan independence or would she have been horrified that Albania was now split into two countries? Yet sadly, these issues were not even looked at.

Not that it was all bad though. There’s a great description of a bus journey through Kosovo and I applaud the work Gowing has done with various charities there. But whilst she gets the facts, she does not get the soul. The most infuriating line for me came when she was checking out the monastery at Deçan and commented, “Of our party, each of us went to our private devotions; I walked around in an atheist’s equivalent of prayer, checking against my guidebook, looking up, staring meditatively.” That my dear, I am afraid to say, is nowhere near akin to prayer, atheist or otherwise. It is plain and simple sightseeing; I should know, I’ve done a lot of both. But then unless you ‘get’ it, then you wouldn’t see the difference now, would you?

Mary Edith Durham on the other hand, I suspect, would.

20th February, 2014

Smallthorne, UK

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.10: Bucharest (II)

world-map romania

Greetings!

There’s been a long gap between this post and the last. What is it due to? Have I headed off into the deepest Amazonian jungle to watch my favourite football team lose? Or perhaps decided to brave the dangers of northern Iraq to see what is really happening over there? Such would be good reasons for not posting, but alas, the real one is far less exciting. What really happened is that my computer got a nasty virus and crashed, I lost more or less everything and it had to have a stay in with the repair people who’ve cleaned it out, and rebooted it with fresh new programmes, none of which include MS Word so even the documents I saved, I couldn’t open. Still, back in the saddle now and here we have the very last post of ‘The Missing Link’, the last part of my explorations of the Romanian capital Bucharest. Perhaps not quite as exciting as Manaus or Kirkuk but just as interesting.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Introduction

Ukraine

1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II)

Romania

3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip

MLM12

Bucharest (II)

I woke up late on my last day a free agent. I’d slept surprisingly well in my dorm bed and had nowhere that I particularly longed to see and nothing that I particularly longed to do. However, as with all mornings following a night of drinking, there was one thing that I needed before attempting anything else and that was caffeine, and where better to enjoy a coffee than in the atmospheric confines of the Hanul lui Manuc? For a one-off, hell, I could afford it!

En route I came across an open-air collectables market on Piaţa Universităţii. I checked for old banknotes and they were there aplenty but the prices were sky-high so I declined. I did make one purchase though, some plastic wallets for the notes that I already have, bought off a Bulgarian trader from Ruse who chatted to me in his native tongue about trade across the border, impressed that he had found a foreigner who actually understood him.

Frappé in the han was a pleasant and rejuvenating experience. I sat on the upper floor overlooking the courtyard, kept cool by a fine mist sprayed from ice-cold pipes above my head. Such five-star luxury is what many people crave when they go on holiday. I generally don’t, but I must admit that, now and again, it can be rather fun.

ML161 Frappé in the han

With the best part of the day to kill afterwards, I decided to check out a bit of culture but the History Museum was shut so instead I retired to the Cişmigiu Gardens where I read and relaxed on a bench overlooking the boating lake.

I took a trip on the Metro up to Piaţa Victorei and checked out the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. This is a Bucharest institution and lauded internationally, winning the coveted European Museum of the Year Award in 1996,[1] and so despite Romanian peasants never being high on my list of sightseeing priorities, I expected this to be good.

But was it? Hmm… it’s hard to say to be honest. You see, whilst the Museum of the Romanian Peasant is a museum, it was quite unlike any other museum that I’ve ever set foot in. I can see why it won an award because it is so different that it seems to be trying to redefine what a museum is, but the question remains, does its concept of a museum work? To me it was more like a modern art gallery, short on historical detail and heavy on hand-written notes and experiential and artistic detail. Being a bit of a traditionalist as far as museums are concerned, (after all, if a museum can’t be stuck in the past, then what can?), I was left a bit cold by it all but I could see why some might like it.

The kind of people who use words like ‘contemporary’ in everyday conversation.

I now only had a few hours before I had to head airportwards and that rather oversized stomach of mine was rumbling so I indulged in an experience that I could never indulge in at home.

The Caru’ cu Bere is Bucharest’s best-known and oldest eatery. Established in 1879, it has been in its present premises since 1899. A pricy establishment in the heart of the Lipscani District, it is famed for its gorgeous Gothic interior, excellent traditional food and large glasses of beer. In short, it’s the kind of establishment that, in England, I would never dream of going anywhere near, (unless someone else is paying…), but one of the joys of travelling through the world’s cheaper regions is that, whilst one does not live it up all the time and must still economise, on occasions, if one really wants to, one can drink frappé at the Hanul lui Manuc and dine at the Caru’ cu Bere. And that can enhance a trip immeasurably for it takes much of the worry and stress out of travel. If a holiday is a time to relax and let it all go, then how can one truly achieve such an aim pinching the pennies every minute? I remember a trip that I took with my ex-wife to south-western France five years before. At every meal and every hotel we were checking our outgoings anxiously and suffering minor strokes every time the drinks bill was presented to us, and whilst the area where we were travelling was incredible and the food unbelievable, the cost did impact seriously on our enjoyment of the trip. I’d loved to have stayed longer there, to tour around as I had done on this trip, stopping here, dining there and taking the train between the two but at €20 a meal, €50 a night and €5 a beer then you can forget it.

A more practical example of what I am trying to say is when I went to Bolgrad. Not on the itinerary, off the beaten track, I arrived in town with no connections, no accommodation booked and no idea of hotel prices. In Western Europe such a strategy would be unthinkable as there’s always a good chance that the only accommodation available might either bankrupt me or involve a taxi journey that would do the same, (I’m always especially wary by the way, of establishments which describe themselves as ‘boutique’ hotels or guesthouses ‘with character’; they are always stupidly overpriced), but in Bolgrad I knew that whatever the cost, I could afford it and that knowledge provides a great peace of mind.

I knew that I liked the Caru’ cu Bere even before I stepped in since the booking desk on the street was manned by a bevy of extremely pretty and buxom wenches attired in some sort of faux Bavarian beer girl-cum-peasant maiden costume which emphasised artistically their impressive cleavages. Happy indeed to sign up for a table, I was led indoors by one of these Romanian Heidis and shown to a small table upstairs. There however, I discovered that the interior serving staff, whilst also dressed in cheesy peasantesque uniforms, were disappointingly a). mostly male and b). these uniforms were far more modesty both in skirt length and chest coverage. Ho hum. Still, I couldn’t complain too much, for here there was much else to look at; my seat surveyed a glorious Gothic interior which resembled a Hogwarts classroom although, alas, one without Hermione Grainger in it. [2]

ML162   ML163

Caru’ cu Bere: inviting

And there, in that citadel of Romanian tradition and culture, with a fine dose of peasant fare before me, I concluded my Missing Link expedition. As I sat and chomped on my spicy sausage and slurped my soup in a cottage loaf, I mused on how it had been and what I’d learnt.

Boiling things down to their very basics, I had to say that, looking at its original remit, the trip had been a success. My aim had been to close the gap between Konotop and Bucharest and not only had I done that, but I’d done it in a far more interesting fashion that I would have done had not the Ukrainian border police thwarted me a decade previously. Back then I’d simply intended to go straight from Kiev to Bucharest on the overnight train, but this time I’d managed to explore seven living cities, two ghost cities, five sleepy towns, one new country and one new almost-a-country.[3] Not bad for under three weeks.

The highlights had been many, (wandering through the overgrown precincts of Pripyat, the Hotel Cosmos in Chișinău, the trek up to Sihla and chatting with Anton Bremer on the Mocănița to name but a few), whilst the lowlights were few and far between, (I was a little disappointed with Odessa and Tiraspol). Most of all though, the trip had done what all trips should do: it had educated me. I now know more about the Chernobyl Disaster, the Holocaust east of Poland, the Bessarabian Bulgarians, the Gagauz, the Transdniestrian Conflict and Moldovan politics, Romanian Orthodoxy and church architecture, the German minority in the Maramureș and, (more importantly, that Kievean girls are without compare and that the Caru’ cu Bere hostesses wear the best-designed uniform on the planet.

But if I’d gained all of this invaluable knowledge, which questions remained unanswered? Primarily there was the big one that I’d been puzzling over before the trip: Is Romania Balkan? Sat drinking frappe in the Hanul lui Manuc and one could only answer in the affirmative, but riding the rails of the Maramureș and the answer is definitely a negative. Stood in the precincts of the Cetățuia Monastery near to Iași and no definitive answer can be conjured up.

Perhaps the problem was not the answer but the question itself? ‘Balkan’ is a man-made construct and what does it mean exactly? Turkey in Europe? Count out Slovenia. Post-communist world fractured by ethno-nationalism? Greece and Turkey cannot be Balkan then. Byzantium? Parts of Romania definitely don’t qualify. Beyond the cultural reach of the Germans perhaps? The fact is that Romania fits into all of the above categories yet at the same time, does not. The Turks were there but not for very long; post-communist yet, but a unique brand of communism and whilst nationalism has had a role to play since the 1989 Revolution, it has never threatened to rip the state apart, (although it has done with Moldova which is never considered as being Balkan); the Byzantines were only present in parts of the country but they had a wider influence and as for the Germans, they definitely had a huge influence in the north and the west of Romania, but in Wallachia and Moldavia, their presence and cultural imprint has been minimal.

The fact is that such questions can never be definitively answered, but they are worth asking for it is in the process of mulling them over that we can begin to comprehend the world in which we live in and travel through. Which brings us back to the big purpose behind the whole expedition: Why did I so want to fill in the gap between Konotop and Bucharest in the first place?

And the answer to that is simple: because no place is the same as another and travel gives us that unique opportunity to observe how one reality evolves into another. Back in 2002 I learnt how Japan evolves into Moscow; in 2003 I discovered how Bulgaria evolves into Britain. Now I could link up the both of them to see how the Balkans become Central Europe becomes Moldavia becomes the vast wheat plains of Ukraine. I have now seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, tasted with my own tongue, smelt with my own nose and touched with my own hands how from Konotop to Kilkenny, Tiraspol to Tokyo, Bucharest to Beersheva and Vișeu de Sus to Van, although we are all different, we are also all the same and our destinies are intertwined far more than we ever realise.

And there aren’t many lessons on Earth as fine and important as that one to learn.

Copyright © 2013, Matthew E. Pointon

Written April 2013, Smallthorne, UK

My Flickr Album of this trip 

1 The other recipients of this prestigious award that I’ve visited are the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, UK (1977), Zuiderzeemuseum, Netherlands (1984), the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Turkey (1997), the National Railway Museum, UK (2001), the Chester Beattie Library, Ireland (2002), the Victoria & Albert Museum, UK (2003). All of them, I must say, were exceptional. Aside from the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, only one other Eastern European museum has won the award.

2 I must clarify here, that I am referring to the Hermione of the last three films, not the first five.

3 Respectively: Seven living cities: Kiev, Odessa, Chișinău, Tiraspol, Bendery, Iași, Suceava; two ghost cities: Chernobyl and Pripyat; five towns: Konotop, Bolgrad, Tȃrgo Neamț, Gura Humorlui and Vișeu de Sus; one new country: Moldova and the almost-a-country is of course Transdniestria.