Avatar delivers as promised – almost  

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

After an almost unbearable wait, I finally got to see the much lauded Avatar last night in all its 3D glory. I can’t remember another film I have waited for with such keen interest, and overall it didn’t disappoint. It’s a rollicking good action film with a strong environmental theme and a splash of romance lobbed in to keep the girls happy. But thoroughly enjoyable as it was, I couldn’t help feeling that the epic Cameron has created fell a little way short of being a truly great film.

In a nutshell, Avatar is Aliens 2 on acid; underneath all the pretty colours and weird animals there is the same underlying theme of big-business interests steam-rollering over the lives of individuals in the pursuit of profit. There are the same hard-bitten space marines with their high-tech paraphernalia of future war. And there’s even a familiar face in the shape of Sigourney Weaver. The difference is that in Avatar, the roles of the military and their off-world foes are reversed and it’s the 9ft tall blue skinned Na,avi who are the good guys this time around. Plus, of course, the fact that Avatar is the first major motion picture conceived entirely in 3D puts it into a different league all together.

I saw my first 3D first film in a cinema earlier on this year and I was pretty impressed with the technology. However nothing I have seen thus far comes close to Avatar in terms of its execution. The 3D effect in Avatar is truly stunning, jaw-dropping, game-changing stuff. The opening scene set in a cavernous zero-G space ship barracks gives you a tantalising hint of what’s to come. But it’s not until the hero ventures into the forests of Pandora that you really experience 3D to its full effect. It is not an overstatement to say that you really do feel as if you have been whisked off to some far flung planet teeming with strange flora and fauna and plonked down right in the middle of it - even down to the alien jungle bugs that seem to be buzzing over the heads to the audience a few rows in front. It is absolutely wonderful and combined with the ground-breaking CGI and motion-capture techniques employed, every creature, every tree and plant is 100% believable and totally convincing. So life-like are the main characters, that after a few minutes you have completely accepted the computer generated leading man and lady as real, living creatures. Many critics have hailed Avatar as a landmark in cinema history, and in that respect I would agree 100%. I for one am hugely excited by what other filmmakers will do with this technology.

Where Avatar goes wrong is in the screenplay. I got the feeling that Cameron was trying to cover–up the gaping holes in the plot with 3D wizardry, but not entirely succeeding. The central idea of the film is that the brain of hero, Jake Scully – a paraplegic ex-marine – is linked electronically to a genetically engineered Na’avi/human hybrid which allows him to “drive” the body. Using this artificial body, the characters are able to venture into the world of the Na’avi. Each night, as their Na’avi bodies sleep, consciousness returns to their human bodies. The problem is, as an engineer I couldn’t help but ask myself..how the bloody hell is that supposed to work? There must be a form of communication occurring between the Na’avi avatar and its human driver, but there’s no mention of a radio link or anything like that. This is especially significant as the area in which most of the action takes place is supposed to be flooded with a naturally occurring electromagnetic radiation that would seem to preclude such a comms link. So what’s the deal – telepathy? some weird kind of spiritual transfer? quantum entanglement? None of that is really explained (unlike in the Matrix, for example, where the mechanism is entirely plausible). I know it sounds a bit geeky but it spoilt it a bit for me that they didn’t build a bit more credibility into the technology.

Secondly, the film centres around the conflict arising from the human exploitation of Pandora’s natural resources to the detriment of the indigenous peoples. The resource in question is a mineral that exhibits zero mass when excited by a particular energy field. The heartless company boss fingers a lump of this floating rock thoughtfully while justifying the destruction of the forest and its people. But nobody ever explains exactly why this floating rock is so important. I can’t help thinking that surely some government, somewhere on Earth would have had to sanction such a drastic action and without this backstory the arguments put forward for genocide seemed awfully thin. But then again, that didn’t stop them in Iraq – an analogy/sub-theme that has already been noted by observers.

In conclusion, Avatar is a fantastic film that will surely be remembered as a milestone in out of home entertainment. Hollywood is clearly hoping that the big screen 3D experience will tempt audiences back into the cinema again. For all that, and good though it is, Avatar is not a “great” film. However I think it is the precursor to a new golden era of film entertainment, and I cannot wait to see what develops.

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Why men shouldn’t write advice columns  

Monday, 14 December 2009


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A very modern Xmas…  

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Just like everything else in the screwed-up mess that is now the UK, ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety have taken over Christmas!

The Rocking Carol
Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir;
We will lend a coat of fur,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you:

Fur is no longer appropriate wear for small infants, both due to risk of 
allergy to animal fur, and for ethical reasons. Therefore faux fur, a nice 
cellular blanket or perhaps micro-fleece material should be considered a 
suitable alternative.

Please note, only persons who have been subject to a Criminal Records 
Bureau check and have enhanced clearance will be permitted to rock baby 
Jesus. Persons must carry their CRB disclosure with them at all times and 
be prepared to provide three forms of identification before rocking 

Jingle Bells
Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way

A risk assessment must be submitted before an open sleigh is considered 
safe for members of the public to travel on. The risk assessment must also 
consider whether it is appropriate to use only one horse for such a 
venture, particularly if passengers are of larger proportions. Please 
note, permission must be gained from landowners before entering their 
fields. To avoid offending those not participating in celebrations, we 
would request that laughter is moderate only and not loud enough to be 
considered a noise nuisance.

While Shepherds Watched
While shepherds watched
Their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around

The Union of Shepherds has complained that it breaches health and safety 
regulations to insist that shepherds watch their flocks without 
appropriate seating arrangements being provided, therefore benches, stools 
and orthopaedic chairs are now available. Shepherds have also requested 
that due to the inclement weather conditions at this time of year that 
they should watch their flocks via cctv cameras from centrally heated 
shepherd observation huts.
Please note, the Angel of the Lord is reminded that before shining his / 
her glory all around she / he must ascertain that all shepherds have been 
issued with glasses capable of filtering out the harmful effects of UVA, 
UVB and the overwhelming effects of Glory.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose.
And if you ever saw him,
you would even say it glows.

You are advised that under the Equal Opportunities for All Policy, it is 
inappropriate for persons to make comment with regard to the ruddiness of 
any part of Mr. R. Reindeer. Further to this, exclusion of Mr R Reindeer 
from the Reindeer Games will be considered discriminatory and disciplinary 
action will be taken against those found guilty of this offence. A full 
investigation will be implemented and sanctions - including suspension on 
full pay - will be considered whilst this investigation takes place.

Little Donkey
Little donkey, little donkey on the dusty road
Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load

The RSPCA have issued strict guidelines with regard to how heavy a load 
that a donkey of small stature is permitted to carry, also included in the 
guidelines is guidance regarding how often to feed the donkey and how many 
rest breaks are required over a four hour plodding period. Please note 
that due to the increased risk of pollution from the dusty road, Mary and 
Joseph are required to wear face masks to prevent inhalation of any 
airborne particles. The donkey has expressed his discomfort at being 
labelled 'little' and would prefer just to be simply referred to as Mr. 
Donkey. To comment upon his height or lack thereof may be considered an 
infringement of his equine rights.

We Three Kings
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

Whilst the gift of gold is still considered acceptable - as it may be 
redeemed at a later date through such organisations as 'Cash for Gold' 
etc, gifts of frankincense and myrrh are not appropriate due to the 
potential risk of oils and fragrances causing allergic reactions. A 
suggested gift alternative would be to make a donation to a worthy cause 
in the recipients name or perhaps give a gift voucher.
We would not advise that the traversing kings rely on navigation by stars 
in order to reach their destinations and suggest the use of RAC 
Routefinder or satellite navigation, which will provide the quickest route 
and advice regarding fuel consumption. Please note as per the guidelines 
from the RSPCA for Mr Donkey, the camels carrying the three kings of 
Orient will require regular food and rest breaks. Facemasks for the three 
kings are also advisable due to the likelihood of dust from the camel 

Away in a Manger No Crib for a bed - This is definitely one for Social Services!

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Happy birthday Dr Sagan  

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Monday the 9th of November would have been the 75th birthday of Dr Carl Sagan. For me, and I guess many people of my generation with an interest in science, he will forever be remembered for the series Cosmos (or as he famously pronounced it, “cosmoas”). Sagan was an extraordinary man – a gifted writer, scientist and academic. As an advocate of science, he was unsurpassed in his ability to illustrate the wonders of discovery and learning. As an intelligent and passionate humanist, he had a remarkable ability to articulate both the folly and the greatness of human kind. The video shown here gives a flavour of that talent.

Happy birthday Dr Sagan, wherever you are.


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Nothing to report  

Sunday, 18 October 2009

It’s been bit of a quiet night. Big M is out with an old friend; the girls are home and busy doing whatever it is they’re up to on the “girl’s floor” – the top floor of the BH homestead where males (i.e. me) are banned unless there’s a cockroach that needs sorting out. All’s right with the world and, frankly, there is no justification for this post whatsoever other than being a bit bored. And slightly pissed.

Hmm…what to write about? I had a haircut today from my little mate around the corner. I’ve gone to the same barber every since I arrived here, and aside from being great at teasing what’s left of the BH barnet into something resembling smart, he’s an excellent benchmark for my progress with learning Japanese. My first visit was like being a 5 year-old again; After being told to plonk myself into the chair, Big M engaged the barber in a long conversation about what was required – out came the styling books; bald spots were discussed and cover-up strategies formulated. My role in the whole thing was just to sit still and not say anything.

There is a special relationship between a chap and his barber. I guess it’s a bit like taxi drivers, the awkward silence often proves a bit too much to endure and sooner or later, either the barber or the, er… barbee will attempt to strike up a conversation. Here in Japan, of course, this tradition has been given a wholly new dynamic by the fact that myself and the barber speak two different languages. The first sheering of the BH bonce was thus a very one-sided affair, with my dear barber trying to resurrect what he could from English lessons at school to break the ice. With, I have to say, considerable success. He’s a great guy and we both share a love of jazz, that he always has playing in the shop.

In the months that have followed, there has been a subtle and gradual shift in the mode of conversation from English to Japanese. Today, I’d estimate that probably about 80% of our conversation was in Japanese. I feel really good about that. I get very depressed sometimes about my pitiful command of the language, when every other foreigner I meet seems to be able to speak perfect Japanese. But when I have a day like today – a day when I’ve managed to engage in an enjoyable conversation with someone outside the family, I feel great.

I desperately want to have a second language. Like many of my compatriots, I’ve always felt slightly embarrassed by the fact that wherever you go in the world, everyone speaks English. In my current situation, I feel this pressure acutely; It is my responsibility to fit in to my host society, not the other way around. But on days like today, I feel I am making progress.

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Kokonatsu wo shikkari tsugan de! – taifu juhachi wa kimasu  

Friday, 9 October 2009

It’s been a bit drafty this week. Typhoon 18 – named Melor from the Malay word for jasmine – hit the mainland of Japan on Wednesday, carving a path of destruction across central Honshu before passing to the west of Tokyo yesterday. Tropical storms and typhoons are a fact of life here, but it’s comparatively rare that they make landfall. Most skirt by the coast, bringing lashing rain and strong winds in their wake but little in the way of destruction. Things have been a bit different this week.

Some of the more rural and coastal communities across the central region were quite badly damaged by winds gusting up to 123 mph and torrential rain that caused flooding and the risk of landslide – another natural hazard to be found here, along with earthquakes, volcanoes, tropical storms and Godzilla. Tokyo didn’t fare too badly, in fact there were some fringe benefits: Big M’s part-time workplace was closed so she had an unexpected day off. Most of the train services in the Tokyo area were disrupted, so Y had a relaxing half-day holiday and little M’s school was also closed.

Unfortunately, there were no typhoons on the internet and so your humble scribe remained shackled to the grindstone, as usual.

In terms of damage to the Beerhound homestead, nothing to report. Although a couple of the pot plants in my balcony garden took a dive, as did my basil, and my poor runner beans had their stakes blown down. In fact, I discovered the whole framework hanging over the balcony into next door, with just one tenacious bean plant stopping the whole thing disappearing over the side. He’s since been awarded the Vegetable Cross for outstanding fortitude.

If you say it slowly, you can probably work out the title for this post…clue: it involves coconuts and strong winds.

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A dream come true  

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

I love Japan. I love living here, I love the people, the culture,the food. Even the weather. There is very little I miss about the UK, and I have never really been afflicted by homesickness. Except on a Friday.

Back in Blighty, Friday night was – if not the highlight of my week – then something I really looked forward to; the final full stop at the end of my week and a precious hour or two away from home, little M’s homework and the stresses of trying to scratch a meagre living. At 6pm on a Friday evening, the office would be closed and off I’d amble to The Phoenix for an hour and a lovely pint of Stella or three and a packet of crisps. Ahh – such simple pleasures. 2007-11-04_14-32-14_04112007139

Now don’t get me wrong; Japan has a love affair with beer that would put the Germans to shame. Every train carriage is plastered with beer adverts and every TV show is punctuated with beer commercials featuring men and women in the throes of rapture as they gulp down one of the hundreds of different brews available 24 hours a day from any convenience store. And believe me, you never tasted beer so good as an ice-cold daijokki on a sweltering hot Summer’s day.  Everyone loves beer in Japan – from young, hip teenagers to old women. We’ve never heard of “binge-drinking”; we don’t have the nanny state waving a finger at us every time we crack a tube; there’s no stupid licensing laws and – best of all – people here can have a drink without wanting to stab each other in the face. In short, it’s a beer-drinkers paradise.

Given the domestic passion for lager  it will come as no surprise that Japan has some of the biggest brewing corporations in the world. In fact, if the planned merger of Kirin and Suntory goes ahead, the new company will in fact be the biggest beer brewer the world has ever seen. Incidentally, I found out recently that Kirin – that most Japanese of beer brands – was actually started by an American bloke.

Anyway – I digress.

For all the beery pleasures that Japan has to offer, it is missing a small but vital detail. You can’t get Stella here. Well, actually that’s not true. You can get the bottled variety, as long as you’re willing to shell out around 7 quid for a 330ml bottle. No, what I’m referring to is draft Stella – the kind quaffed in every pub in the UK in vast quantities every weekend. And I must admit – I really miss it. Just like I miss those kicked-back Friday evenings in The Phoenix, munching crisps and reading the paper.

So - as you can imagine, finding somewhere in Tokyo that has Stella on draught has become a bit of an obsession. There are plenty of “British Pubs” here – at least 3 in Kichijoji that I know of – but none of them offer Wife Beater on tap. I thought I’d found somewhere in Ogikubo recently, but my excitement at seeing the distinctive white pump topped with the familiar red and gold logo was cruelly dashed when the landlord sheepishly informed me that is was actually connected to a barrel of Yebisu. Buggery bollocks. But, gentle reader, my dogged detective work has finally paid off and after a year sans Stella I’ve finally hit pay dirt.


Ladies and gentlemen – may I present the finest British pub in Tokyo. The wonderful, authentic, Stella selling, mysteriously named, Three Thread in Yotsuya nichome.

As I mentioned, Tokyo has a lot of British-themed pubs, But most are – frankly – crap. The Black Lion in Meguro isn’t bad, suffering only because of its lack of Stella and insistence on doing things the Japanese way i.e. having to wait for the dopey waitress to come over before you can get a pint. But the Three Thread tops them all. It’s a small place, but nicely decked out inside. The bar looks authentic and you can whistle up a pint of Nelson Mandela from the comfort of your bar stool. They do the obligatory fish and chips (Japanese-style miniscule portion) but also great bar snacks like nachos that really bring back memories of the dear old Millers Arms in Canterbury. In short – it’s a really excellent place; cosy, friendly and comfortable.

And so to the beer…

03102009461 I nearly cried when I saw it. A proper pint of Stella (actually 400ml – but bloody close enough) in a proper glass, served with a perfect head and chilled to optimum drinking temperature. Not only that, but they pour a good pint of Guinness too, as Mrs BH’s pint in the background will testify.

And the taste? Bloody marvellous; full bodied with its characteristic hint of aromatic flowery fruitiness. Sigh. I was in heaven. At least, until the bill arrived.

At 1000 Yen a glass ( £7) it’s not exactly a cheap night out. But I’d say it was worth the £21 I spent on 3 pints! The good news is that if you go during happy hour, the price drops to about 4 quid -  a bit more affordable. I shall definitely be darkening their door again in the not too distant future. Particularly as the Iaido dojo is just around the corner! A pint of Wife Beater after training? Now that’s what I call luxury.

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No luck in Tama but philosophical in defeat  

Monday, 28 September 2009

tama taikai

I have just returned from competing in the 27th Tama taikai, but my return is alas – as expected – sans l’argent. I’ll quietly admit to being a bit disappointed not to have even won the first round. Although, in mitigation, I was unlucky enough to draw one of the semi-finalists as my first opponent so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad. Also, it’s worth noting that he himself was despatched by my French-Canadian mate Yuri – a real iaido powerhouse who is achieving huge success in tournaments here at the moment. So it’s one up to the gaijin!

The 2nd dan competition was the first event this morning. So after my early bath, I had quite a lot of time on my hands to sit and chat. I spent a good part of that time talking to my new Aussie friend, Ricki. She is a visiting academic, here to study Japanese political history and an unlikely budo disciple. Nevertheless, she has really done remarkably well. Today was her first competition and she won the first round! Great achievement. We talked a lot about iaido, and a lot about its context within overall Japanese culture. I mentioned that while the Japanese are happy to see a gaijin win a class, it is unusual for more than one gaijin to go forward to the next round of competition in the preliminary heats. As Yuri had already won in my class before I went on, I was pretty much doomed before my first cut.

Ricki is quite Australian in that she has a very well developed sense of “fair play”. She finds it hard to rationalise this apparent unfairness of Japanese culture as it relates to foreigners. She feels that with research, it should be possible to analyse and explain the deepest recesses of the Japanese psyche, and thereby presumably shed light on such injustices. These advances are, however, invariably resisted by the Japanese themselves; despite the fact that her understanding of Japanese is at native level she keeps coming up against the brickwall of “You understand the words, but not the meaning”. Clearly, this is something that causes her considerable frustration at times.

But my point is – why bother? Using today as an example, I’m not unduly upset, even if my early departure was more to do with my ethnicity than my ability. I came to Tama to experience the competition and to test myself. My objectives were therefore wholly satisfied. To my mind, there is very little to be achieved by picking apart a culture and analysing it in fine detail. You could pull apart a flower and study each of its component parts, yet gain no appreciation for the beauty of the living organism in its natural setting. Plus the fact, trying to fit Japanese ideas into nice pigeon holes designed for Western ones is often impossible and can only lead to more frustration, alienation and disappointment. Believe me – I’ve tried!

It is far easier to just accept that the people around you look at the world in a different way to you. In fact, surely it is preferable to have a world were different perspectives can co-exist. Japanese homogeneity is often criticised by non-Japanese as the foundation of an institutionalised “racism” culture that must be eradicated. Yet such granularity only exists at a local level; in the great scheme of things it is only part of the human experience. If we were to analyse, dissect and codify Japanese culture in this way, we might understand more about it but we would have also destroyed it; a living flower cannot recreated from a pile of parts. Furthermore, what would we gain from its destruction? Nothing as far as I can see apart from a little less colour and beauty in the world.

Many critics of the insular nature of Japanese society are driven by the frustration that no matter how long they live here, how well they speak the language or how much they contribute to society, they will never be part of the “Club”. I can understand that.

Personally, I am happy to just appreciate Japanese culture as it is, just as I can appreciate a flower without wanting to be one.

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Silver Week – sterling performance  

Friday, 25 September 2009


This week was a very special one here in Japan; An unusual combination of public holidays meant three bank holidays back to back. This so-called Silver Week (Golden Week is the famous week-long annual holiday in May) won’t happen again until 2015.

Such a special occasion can not go unmarked, of course. And what better way to do so than with an iaido competition. So it was that last Tuesday your humble scribe packed dougi and katana and made the arduous journey one stop down the Chuo line to Ogikubo for a day of competitive swishing.

As regular readers will know, iaido is the art of Japanese swordsmanship that studies the quick draw of the blade, a swift and efficient despatch of the opponent and the replacement of the sword back in the scabbard with grace and dignity. It is very closely linked to kendo, but because we use real swords rather than bamboo ones, direct competition is – of course – impossible. You’d run out of players pretty quickly and the hall would get terribly messy. Instead, the players compete against each other in front of a stern panel of judges to see who can perform specific set-piece techniques with the greatest degree of technical skill and controlled fighting spirit.

Like many things Japanese, it looks easy. It isn’t. The techniques are physically challenging – especially for westerners with our longer arms and legs. The sword itself (for those that use a “live” blade) is very,very dangerous and easily capable of removing a thumb or finger in an instant. The degree of skill required just to cut properly with a Japanese sword takes years to master, and the attention to detail within the techniques themselves is extraordinary. A foot 1cm out of place or an eye-movement in the wrong direction is often all that separates the winner from the loser. There is also a lot of formal etiquette, reiho, that forms an integral part of the demonstration and this too is extremely detailed and difficult to master. Everything has to be performed technically perfectly, but also with a demeanour that demonstrates a Zen-like calm and mental focus. All accomplished under the withering eyes of three judges, who are all 6th dan or above (most are 7th or 8th dan). Believe me when I say, demonstrating under these conditions is extremely stressful.

DSC_0432CROP I have never liked competitions much, but they are a very necessary part of iaido training because they add the “combat stress” element to your studies. There’s no other way of safely pressuring yourself to see whether you can control yourself well enough to perform good technique in challenging circumstances. I have competed in the UK nationals a few times, but the prospect of actually competing in Japan was quite a daunting one. Nevertheless, encouraged by my teacher and fellow students, I took part in a competition in the Tokyo Budokan earlier this year. The experience was scary, but exciting and, having done so, I felt very much part of the scene here, rather than just a visiting foreigner dabbling in martial arts.

So, I was not completely new to the situation when I took the court on Tuesday. I’d practiced my five kata fairly diligently and was feeling reasonably confident. Plus the fact – I was wearing my new lucky Union Jack boxer shorts under my hakama (thanks mum!). After walking forward and being given the command hajime (begin) I took the seated position and began my embu (demonstration). My first technique involves rising from a kneeing position whilst drawing the sword and cutting the opponent across the eyes before finishing him off with a large vertical cut. My cut felt very weak compared to how I’d practiced it, and my heart sank a bit because I realised it wasn’t going to be my best performance. Nevertheless, I got a grip of myself and resolved to try and at least acquit myself well for the rest of the demonstration. After finishing and performing the end etiquette, the lead judge rose with flags in hand. All the judges carry a white flag in their left hand and a red in their right to indicate which demonstration was the best. On the command, the judges raised their flags – bugger me, three red flags…I’d won!

True, I went out in the next round having drawn the guy that eventually won it, but for me I was very pleased to have taken my first step towards the Japanese silverware. I’ll be competing in another contest this weekend in Tama. Maybe this time my luck will hold through to the third round? Maybe not…this competition is much bigger so I don’t hold out much hope of success. But – as we British so rightly say, it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts. Even in distant lands, how true that is.

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Desiderata Mages 2009  

Friday, 18 September 2009

A good friend of mine recently sent me a poem she’d written. It’s an update on the famous Desiderata that achieved much popularity in the 60s. The author is an exceptional person; someone that has faced and overcome many problems. I feel traces of some of the scars those battles have left behind can be seen threading though these words. They are however all the more noble for it. I think this is a great piece of inspirational writing and one that expresses my personal philosophy far better than I could ever do. Enjoy!

Being born in a human body is the greatest of all opportunities. Your time in that body will pass in the blink of an eye. Make the most of your life.

Adventures are to be welcomed and embraced. A life with no adventure is like a car that never leaves the driveway.

Be tolerant, especially of yourself. The rest of the world will find ways to beat you up. It needs no help from you. Being born is an opportunity to attain perfection, and that takes a lifetime of endeavour. Don’t expect perfection of yourself. If you were already perfect there would be little point in living.

Justice and fairness are concepts for children. The world is not a fair place. It is what it is, for good or ill. All you can do is deal with whatever is handed to you with a determined heart. None-the-less, be just and fair in your dealings with others, without expectation that others will do the same for you.

There are as many paths as there are people on the planet. As long as your path has a heart, it is a good path and it is yours and yours alone.

There will always be disasters. They are a fact of life. Living to avoid them is unrealistic, they’ll happen anyway.

Love is the most enduring experience. Love and beauty are the things we most value and live longest in our memory.

Have faith in your own abilities. The world is unpredictable and it can change for the worse or the better very quickly indeed. You can’t control the wave you’re on, but you can be good at riding it.

All attachments are temporary. Attachments to things slow you down and make you fearful. Attachments to people, especially those you love, are the most dangerous of all. All things and beings must pass.

Happiness matters more than all other things. Happiness is a state of mind, not a state of affairs. Helping others to be happy is the best way to ensure you own happiness.

Whatever your endeavour may be, get on with it. All things in life can be replaced, with the exception of time. Time is an arrow that goes only one way. Time is the most valuable commodity there is. Respect time, and make the most use of it. Even one second can never be regained.

Above all, love your self.

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ブラーヂ ガイジン  

Saturday, 12 September 2009

nippongo Certain quarters of the expat community are up in arms over a new advertising campaign by McDonalds in Japan that centres around the exploits of Mr James – a geeky, westerner with broken Japanese and a singular lack of decorum. In short, a stereotypical gaijin (foreigner). Some long-term residents have reacted angrily to this, claiming its portrayal of westerners is both offensive and racist. McDonalds has issued a statement saying that no offense was intended, and there’s no serious suggestion to the contrary. But nevertheless, it has rubbed a few people up the wrong way and once again raised the question of how Japanese relate to foreigners in their midst.

There is no doubt that had McDonalds decided to run a similar campaign in the UK or US featuring a buck-toothed Asian with thick-rim glasses asking for “orliental chicken burger”, it would be banned instantly as unacceptable. And rightly so. Why then is such a characterisation permitted in Japan? The answer – simply – is that the Japanese do not consider such portrayals of foreigners as offensive. To westerners, this seems a puzzling point of view. But examining it closely reveals much about what it means to be able to fit-in here.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for racism:

  1. The belief that there are characteristics, qualities or abilities specific to each race.
  2. Discrimination against, or antagonism towards other races.

To me, I think the first definition of racism is a bit of a misnomer. The Japanese are of course famous for their homogenous society and traditionally insular attitudes. For a long period of its history, Japan was closed to the outside world and as such has developed in quite a unique way. Thus, the Japanese think of themselves as a unique people, quite distinct from other races. And personally I feel they have every right to do so - just as every other culture is entitled to feel they have a distinct cultural identity. By the textbook definition, this makes everyone a racist! But that’s not really what we’re talking about when we talk about racism: What we are discussing is the second definition; discrimination against other races that you believe to be inferior.

The Japanese do not necessarily consider themselves superior amongst the world’s races, but they do consider themselves uniquely bound together by a common set of values and beliefs; a creed developed over countless generations that it is all but impossible for a foreigner to penetrate. From the outside, this looks like racial discrimination. But in reality, it is simply another manifestation of Wa – an invisible, unspoken harmony that allows society here to function effectively.

Western racial prejudices are based on skin-colour,language or religion; in Japan, it is the foreigner’s ability to sense Wa that determines how well they will be accepted and how far they can integrate into society. It is actually this ability – or lack of it – that McDonalds is parodying with its Mr James character. And it is something that you see all the time here. For example, just the other day as I was passing through Tokyo station in the early evening (an extremely busy place to be) I noticed a westerner standing absent-mindedly on the right side of an up escalator. The right side is for people walking up – the left side is for standing. He was completely oblivious to the 30 odd people quietly fuming behind him. Or a British colleague visiting Japan stepping up onto the raised floor of a restaurant in his shoes – an absolute no-no. This is classic Wa-breaking behaviour. The Japanese see it everyday, and so do I. It is therefore no surprise that people – myself included – tend to develop a wariness of green-horn foreigners because we expect them to be ignorant of Wa. That sounds very arrogant – I don’t mean it to be; I’m sure I’ve been just as guilty many times.

Where I’m going with this is that it is a mistake to slap the racist label on Japanese society, because the second dictionary-definition simply does not apply. Where discrimination does occur it is not based on race, it is discrimination based on attitude: While you can’t change your race, you can change your attitude. We British have a phrase - “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Yes it happens that foreigners get refused for flat rental or banned from public baths. But it’s not because they are foreigners per se but typically because of a lack of faith in their ability to act with decorum. The famous case of the public baths that banned foreigners came about because the regular patrons were fed up with having to share their baths with Russian sailors who didn’t know how to use them properly – i.e. the bath is NOT for washing your socks in! While I might be personally aggrieved to be tarred with the same brush and refused entry, I do understand, and sympathise, with the reasoning behind it.

For a final word, I shall quote from a very eloquent and perceptive gentleman named Kerry Berger who I think hit the nail on the head with regard to the whole Mr James racism debate:

“Japan has so much to offer if one accepts the reality that exists rather than trying to change it from day one. Things are different on Mars. What is different isn't necessarily good or bad; it just different and it IS the way things are! Take it or leave it, the choice is up to those who adventure outside the confines of their home countries.”

And in case you’re wondering, the title of this blog is my rendering of the phrase “Bloody Gaijin” –  much used by Mrs Beerhound and I on our travels.

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New technology solves a long-standing problem  

Friday, 21 August 2009

For the dedicated beer fan, the prospect of sitting nursing an empty glass, ignored by tardy bar staff is the stuff of nightmares. But now a new invention from Mitsubishi Electric aims to put an end to this sorry state of affairs once and for all. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Intelligent Beerglass. This is a genuine invention from Mitsubishi’s research labs – God bless them, one and all!

Since restaurants often make much of their profits on drinks, it is critical for servers to offer refills in a timely fashion. We propose wireless liquid level sensing glassware to aid in this task. Specially instrumented glassware detects fluid levels via a high-resolution capacitance measurement. A coil embedded in the table inductively couples power to the glasses, and provides a path for data exchange. Our prototype glass uses a standard microprocessor and a small number of passive components, making it extremely inexpensive.

Background & Objective:  It is a common problem you are in a bar or restaurant with your drink almost gone and you are desperately hoping that one of the staff will notice and offer you a refill. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don. If they don’t, you leave a little less happy with your experience and are less likely to return, the waiter or waitress gets a lower tip, and the restaurant has lost the chance to sell you a drink. Meanwhile, thirsty customers may stand waiting at the door for lack of a table. Everyone loses. It is such a little thing; yet doing it right or wrong can easily make the difference between economic success or failure. By using a combination of RFID and capacitance sensing technologies, we are able to achieve these properties.

Now it has often been noted that your humble scribe is no slouch wiGlassware2hen it comes to innovation. And during the course of writing this blog, a couple of modifications to the proposed system came to mind.

I wonder if I should contact the patent office now?


MERL – iGlassware

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A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on  

Thursday, 13 August 2009


Mrs Beerhound and I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary last week, and in celebration we decided to book a table at the very posh Tokyo Breeze restaurant on the 36th floor of the Maranouchi building. The view from our table was – as you can see – quite stunning.

However it became considerably more interesting when Tokyo was struck by the biggest earthquake we’ve had for months. Sitting atop a swaying skyscraper, 36 floors above a distinctly unforgiving-looking pavement added a certain dynamic to the evening.

Subsequently, we’ve been hit several more times by earthquakes this week. We were woken up at 5am on Tuesday by a magnitude 4 quake, followed a few hours later by a small magnitude 1 tremor. And again this morning, we had a magnitude 2/3 shake. It is very, very unusual to have so many quakes in such a short space of time.

Everyone is a little bit concerned that we might be witnessing the precursors of the long-awaited Tokai quake. This is the big one, that the experts say is long overdue. The last great earthquake to hit Tokyo was in 1923, and this one killed 100,000 people. The experts say the next one will be as big, if not bigger. Of course, building design has improved considerably since those days (as our experienced in the Maranouchi building illustrated). However there will still be destruction and loss of life on a colossal scale. We are told that the government is ready for it and has made sufficient plans for our welfare. Certainly there are government warehouses packed with supplies all over Tokyo – often in secret locations. But everyone remembers the experience of the Kobe earthquake in ‘95 that showed up serious complacencies and flaws in the government’s emergency planning. We can only hope that those lessons were adequately learned, for the Tokai will be bigger and more destructive than anything Japan has faced before.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about what will happen – and the Tokai is a certainty; there’s a 40% probability before next year and a 90% probability within 50 years. But life is itself uncertain. I can only hope that fate will be kind to us.

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The mysterious case of the Austrian-style townhouse  

Friday, 7 August 2009

The thermometer needle remains firmly stuck on “Scorchio” (Japanese: スコーチヨウ. I’ve been telling everyone that this is the correct English term for very warm weather), and while I personally love the Japanese summer, it is energy-sapping and makes it difficult to stay focused on work. The daily grind has been made somewhat harder by the building site that’s appeared next door. The reformers are in town.

In Britain, any house under 10 years old is regarded as new; In Japan, they’re getting ready to slap a blue plaque on the wall after 5. Whereas the Englishman’s home is famously his castle, the Japanese regard houses as rather transient things. Which of course is completely understandable in a land prone to natural disasters. There is also – interestingly – a completely different tradition when it comes to things like old houses; one that reveals one of those subtle paradoxes about Japanese people. Most Japanese consider themselves to be staunchly secular, and yet most would also admit harbouring a lingering unease about inhabiting a space once occupied by someone else (no such problems for Mr and Mrs Beerhound, of course, as our love of a good deal overrides any other consideration!). The enthusiasm for new is not just motivated by aspirations to grandeur, but a deep-seated desire not to risk the ire of jealous or malevolent spirits clinging to the rafters of their former homes.

Anyway – I digress.

Building houses is big business here because having your new pad custom-built for you is not so unusual. Quite the opposite, in fact. And so it is that the owner of next door has decided to re-form his semi-derelict childhood home into a swanky new des-res. Consequently, there has been a great deal of crashing and bashing going on while they clear the old place and dig the foundations for the new one. Being, by nature, a nosy b*****d, I have been peeking out of the back window regularly to see what kind of palace will be springing forth from all this activity. And I must admit, I’m intrigued:

07082009409 For along with the expected foundations, has appeared an unexpectedly deep excavation. the purpose of which remains unclear. At first I thought it might be a swimming pool. But that would be incredibly unusual for a Japanese town house. Then I thought it might be an underground car park…a kind of motorised hoist that enables two cars to be parked in one space (quite common). But closer inspection reveals a second, deeper excavation in the centre of the first…the plot thickens. Basement bathroom perhaps? Or something else….

I am becoming concerned that the owner might in fact be a fan of the Josef Fritzl school of architecture:  Rest assured I shall be keeping a close eye on developments, and if I see any deliveries from the Yamamoto Steel Door & Soundproofing company, I’ll be straight up the police station.

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Of intense heat, intense training, mad dogs and Englishmen  

Sunday, 26 July 2009


Summer has very definitely arrived and iaido practice has become a real test of stamina and endurance. Although not as aerobically challenging as aikido or karate, the controlled movements and constant rising from a seated position to standing, and back again is quite demanding physically. Especially for a gentleman of ..ahem.. a fuller figure and especially in 35 degree heat and 70% humidity with no air conditioning! Each class is three hours of fairly constant activity, and it is quite a challenge to stay focused and on the ball. But it is excellent training; in the heat and humidity, your brain is too overheated to get much involved in what you’re doing, so the body kind-of takes over – a sort of induced state of mushin where the technique flows naturally without conscious thought.

Still – it has crossed my mind that I must be bloody bonkers! I’m no stranger to hard physical training, but I never thought it was possible to sweat so much in such a short space of time! In three hours I went through 1.5 litres of o-cha, and another 1L of sports drink. And none of it has reappeared in the form of wee! I’m also red raw from the chafing of a soaking wet dou gi But, for all the hardships, there is a sense of achievement from completing a demanding session. This is real Budo training – testing yourself in difficult conditions. And also – the Beerhound has earned his Dai Jocky of beer tonight!

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Cherie Blair has suspected swine flu - Telegraph  

Friday, 17 July 2009

Swine flu  - so it’s not all bad news then

Cherie Blair has suspected swine flu - Telegraph

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One year in Japan  

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Today marks the first anniversary of our arrival in Musashino. A time for reflection and not a little thankfulness that everything seems to have worked out ok – well, so far at least. It was a tumultuous year of change and upheaval for everyone. For the girls, getting used to living all together under one roof; for me, adjusting to a new way of life and a new culture. Looking back to last August and my return to the UK to finalise the house move single-handed, my posts from that time bring back all too clearly what a desperately hard time it was for me personally. To be honest, I don’t know how I coped with it. But I did, and I have no regrets; I believed then that we were doing the right thing, and I’m even more certain of it now.

My concerns about whether I would be able to settle here have (almost) evaporated. I love Japan with a very real and visceral affection that seems to grow stronger with each passing month. Of course, there have been frustrations and upsets, but for the most part I am very happy to be here, and I genuinely have no desire to go back to the UK with all its problems.

I’m just trying to think about the highlights of our year here. I think Xmas last year was wonderful – all together in our own house for the first time. The family New Year trip to an onsen in Ito City was great fun.  Competing in the Tokyo Iaido Championships was a thrill; visiting Yamanashi prefecture, staying at a wonderful onsen and driving into the Minami Alps made a spectacular change from Tokyo’s concrete vista. Interspersed with these highlights have been numerous small pleasures and surprises; a tasty new dish, a wonderful shrine or unexpected splash of greenery discovered nearby.

But I think the greatest joy has been the warmth of the people I’ve met here – Japanese and gaijin. With the exception of miserable Mr. O who lives across the street, our neighbours have been faultlessly hospitable and welcoming to this lumbering gaijin. I joined a Japanese language class run by our local council in April. At first, it was very, very difficult and I almost quit (which is very unusual for me) but I stuck with it and have been rewarded with some wonderful new friendships with people from all over the world – as well as a vast improvement in my Japanese skills. Our teachers are both wonderful – patient, kind and encouraging but also persistent and very “genki” – hmm, enthusiastic – about our progress. The course culminated in a chaotic ryori (cooking) party in which all the students had an hour to knock-up a representative national dish. Well, I can tell you – the food was out of this world…curries, Thai, Chinese, Russian, Pilipino, Bangladeshi – an absolutely marvellous evening.

Looking forward to the next year – well, I can’t really guess what might be in store. I hope to further improve my language skills, contribute something to the society which has accepted me (more or less) into its midst and just do my best to create a happy home for everyone.

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Apologies for absence  

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

I know, I know…several months have passed without so much as a single word. If there’s anyone actually reading this, then I most humbly apologise for my tardiness. In mitigation, I would explain that life has become very busy just trying to keep the work and money coming in. But of course, that’s no excuse.

Also – I should explain that the reason for my sudden burst of activity is not entirely motivated by shame. I’ve recently found out about something called the Japansoc Blog Matsuri – a monthly festival of blog writings on a particular theme. There are really excellent writers that take part, and it’s something that looks like a lot of fun. I’ve decided to pitch-in with an entry and see what it’ll do. This month’s theme is “What do you find most strange about Japan”. My entry is an edited version of an earlier post – so if you have a strong sense of déjà-vu reading the following, don’t worry…you aren’t going nuts.

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Japan:Take nothing for granted  

One of the most endearing features of Japanese life for a Westerner is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. Food is, of course, probably the first culture-shock people experience here. We are not accustomed to having our dinner arrive still attempting to escape, nor do we share the Japanese enthusiasm for plonking raw egg yolks on everything. But long after these occurrences cease to become remarkable, the country still has the capacity to catch you out with some unexpected cultural roadside bomb.

Take, for example, shower gel. A pretty innocuous household substance, that you would think was fairly universal in its formulation and use. But you’d be wrong, for in Japan they strive constantly to achieve perfection – and those good people at Sea Breeze shower gel are no exception.

Sea Breeze is quite a good name for a shower gel – conjuring up images of bracing sea air, the exhilaration of the briny spray with a hint of wind-swept manliness thrown in. Plus something else: They put bloody menthol in it.

While on the face of it, it doesn’t sound too bad, it’s a different story when Sea Breeze meets the more delicate parts of one’s anatomy. If you’re not expecting it – and why would you be – the sudden warming sensation in the nether regions is an alarming experience.

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A familiar face  

Thursday, 29 January 2009

I have just returned from Devon. By virtue of its reason, that of the funeral of my uncle, a trip of very great sadness. Yet, amongst the sadness was contained the joy of reunion. It has been so long since I have seen my cousins, aunts and uncles. And it has been a long time since I have seen this distinguished fellow.

This is a portrait of my grandfather, Jack Peopall, who was a remarkable and much-loved man. Unfortunately he died before I was born, but if I could meet one person from history it would be him. Next time you buy something from the meat stall or cheese counter in your local supermarket, say a little thank you to Jack: He was the man that invented the write-on price tag that's now used pretty much universally. By all accounts, his intelligence and business acumen were only surpassed by his sense of fun and by the unbounded kindness and love he showed to those around him. In short, an inspiration.

Seeing his portrait hanging in my aunt’s house and meeting all those wonderful people again really made me realise that, in reality, I am not quite the solitary character I sometimes consider myself to be. I have the privilege to belong to a wonderful family. I am really resolved to make the most of that by making the effort to stay in touch much more. And in so doing, I can really acknowledge and enjoy the gift that this man bestowed on me.

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Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews: Bic Crystal Ballpoint Pen, Medium Point, Black  

Monday, 26 January 2009

This is an absolute classic! Apparently genuine reviews posted on Amazon. Click the link to visit the Amazon page for a real hoot


The most helpful critical review

2,048 of 2,065 people found the following review helpful:

4.0 out of 5 stars Very good if you need to write on paper
Since taking delivery of my pen I have been very happy with the quality of ink deposition on the various types of paper that I have used. On the first day when I excitedly unwrapped my pen (thanks for the high quality packaging Amazon!) I just couldn't contain my excitement and went around finding things to write on, like the shopping list on the notice board in our...

Read the full review ›

Published 23 months ago by M. Williams

Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews: Bic Crystal Ballpoint Pen, Medium Point, Black

2.0 out of 5 stars Left handers beware...
Worked fine with my right hand, but when I came to use my left hand my writing came out looking like the work of a complete imbecile. I can only assume Bic have created a right-handed only pen, and would caution left-handers to "try before you buy".

Published 12 months ago by Disappointed user

See more 3 star, 2 star, 1 star reviews

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A joyful reunion  

Thursday, 22 January 2009

I have finally been reunited with my beloved Stella. And even more of a relief, the Globe has reverted back to being a proper pub again; the 1940's-loving weirdos who were running the place during my last visit having long since disappeared. The present landlord seems a likeable young chap - I feel sure I will be darkening his door once again in the near future.

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A lesson from Confucius  

Thursday, 15 January 2009

I have been reading lots lately about Japanese ethics and morality, and in particular Bushido – Japanese chivalry. I bought an excellent book to read on the plane back; I actually nearly finished it before even getting on the plane! The work, entitled Bushido – The Soul of Japan – is an extremely thorough examination of Bushido as seen through the eyes of its author, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, a scholar of some note. Written in 1905, the book is unique in that it was written in English by someone with personal experience of Bushido as a living entity. The result is a rare insight into this often misunderstood aspect of Japanese culture.

The Bushido tradition connects with many other schools of thought and philosophies. Among them, Confucian teachings. In researching this aspect, I came across a very interesting Confucian political theory concerning social morality that has particular resonance with my thoughts on modern British culture (or lack therefore!)

Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained that this is one of the most important analects:

"If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame.”

“If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good." 

This "sense of shame" is an internalisation of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.

Somebody please tell Mr Brown!

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Reverse Culture Shock Hits  

I’ve been back in the UK a few days now, but I still feel I’m living in some kind of alternative reality: In my absence, what I think of as England has been replaced by a loud, ignorant and rather course facsimile of itself. I have always been proud of my country and my heritage, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile my concept of what that means to me with what I see around me. For example, in my mind – and, incidentally, that of people from other countries that I have met recently – the overriding image of British people is one of courtesy, reserve and politeness. The reality these days is, alas, anything but.

I must admit to being somewhat confused – caught between my image of what I think constitutes the British ideal, what others think of as the ideal, and the reality as I have observed. I really can’t decide. All I know is that I am finding it difficult to readjust to modern British living, made even more so by the fact that, actually, I don’t want to readjust to modern British living.

This evening I met a former BA pilot. Nice guy, obviously well travelled and very familiar with Japan. But only as a tourist. In conversation, he clearly had no idea – not even the beginnings of an understanding – of the depth and significance of Japanese society and its customs. More importantly, he had no desire to understand. In conversation he described social situations that would be excruciatingly difficult for Japanese people, in a manner that made it quite clear he considered himself above such concerns; the local rules of social convention didn’t apply to him because he was British. 

It is easy to point the finger and laugh at things that look odd to us. But this, surely, is the very definition of ignorance. The challenge is to try to learn and to understand. This is something that we, as Brits, have traditionally been quite good at. Or so I have always thought. Perhaps the reality is that, with my desire to go beyond the superficial, it is me that is out of step. Like I said, I’m confused: But from where I am standing at the moment, the Japanese way of life seems infinitely preferable.

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A pint at last  

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Bloody typical. I come all this way and end up with a pint of Kronenberg! Never mind

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Let's Learn Japanese: Kuuki Yomenai  

Saturday, 10 January 2009

I found this really useful piece of cultural advice on another blog. Click the link to see the original post.

Let's Learn Japanese: Kuuki Yomenai

A very useful (yet difficult-to-translate) Japanese phrase is kuuki yomenai. Literally translated, kuuki yomenai means "can't read the air." It is used to describe people who lack social tact. The written phrase looks like this:


Always the innovators, Japanese young people have recently abbreviated kuuki yomenai to the Roman alphabet letters "K.Y." But sometimes just saying that someone is kuuki yomenai doesn't do justice to that person's lack of social skills. Sometimes you need to take it up a notch. At times like these, you have to use chou kuuki yomenai:


That means "REALLY can't read the air," and is abbreviated "C.K.Y."

I want everyone back home in the US who reads this to try using "K.Y." or "C.K.Y." in daily conversation. When someone asks you what it means, tell them what it means, then tell them to start using it.

The English language needs a phrase like this.

Chorus, Isolate, Confirm: Let's Learn Japanese: Kuuki Yomenai

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Back to the UK  

Friday, 9 January 2009

I am now on my way to the airport,courtesy of the Odakyu Bus Company.It's a dull, dreary day in Tokyo - a day that matches my mood completely. The last three months have gone very quickly. The expected brick wall of homesickness just didn't happen. In fact,quite the reverse. I genuinely feel far more relaxed, far more at home here than I did in the UK. Of course it will be fun to see friends and family. But a very, very big part of me will forever remain here.

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Some thoughts on war & peace  

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Last Sunday saw the first iaido class of 2009, an event marked with a wonderful party at a fellow student’s house afterwards. What I thought was going to be just a quick tin of beer and a chat turned out to be a whole afternoon of eating, chatting and watching videos of past iaido competitions and embu. Not to mention the obligatory beer, sake and shochu in good measure. I ended up sitting at the table with my new Argentine friend and fellow iaidoka, F, some new friends in the shape of a young American/Japanese couple and our teacher. As the drink flowed, the conversation turned to the more philosophical aspects of our practice.

Our teacher asked us in turn what had brought us to the study of iaido, as opposed to other arts, and what we hoped to gain from it. That’s not an easy question to answer, and everyone has their own reasons for pursuing this particular path of Budo. But for most people, I think it would be fair to say that they came to iaido not as their first discipline but as a supplement to their core art, be it karate, aikido or whatever. That was certainly the case for me, and also for F – we are both aikido men. Somewhere along the way, it seems that some (not all) people discover the hidden treasures that the study of iaido offers and the pursuit of knowledge of the Nihonto takes on a new, more profound meaning.

Perhaps other martial artists will understand the sense of “being in the moment”, of mushin (“no mind”) that comes with the dedicated study of any martial art. To try and explain it to someone who has not experienced it is like trying to explain the colour red to a blind person. Suffice it to say that there comes a time in most iaidoka’s study when they realise that the essence of the art is not in the physical act of drawing and cutting with the sword, but in freeing the mind from its self-imposed constraints and anxieties; from being able to move effortlessly from peaceful calm to lightning-quick activity and calm again with the mind undisturbed and unfettered. True proficiency in any martial art frees the mind from any thought of technique or pre-conceived tactics. The technique flows naturally and the mind floats serenely above, trapped by nothing and leaving nothing behind. It is therefore – paradoxically –through the study of conflict that one can achieve peace.

There is a saying in Japanese martial arts, Saya no uchi de katsu, which roughly translates as “victory resides in the scabbard of the sword”. One interpretation of this is that at the highest level, it is possible for a warrior to achieve victory through being so powerful that no one dares challenge them. In other words, peace through superior firepower. Such power in the hands of a just and right-thinking person is a powerful force for peace. The ultimate objective of martial arts is therefore peace achieved through a combination of mental and physical power moderated by a spirit of compassion and benevolence.

My teacher views the study of iaido in this way – as a route to peace rather than to war. My interpretation of this is simply that most conflict arises from fear. By removing this fear from our own hearts, through strict training and by pushing ourselves physically and mentally, we remove the need for unnecessary conflict, while at the same time developing an immovably resolute spirit that enables us to move decisively into action when action is required.

In the same way that the perfection of the Japanese sword blade is achieved by countless hours of labour, there is something about the process of continual and sincere practice in martial arts that seems to polish-out the imperfections of the human spirit and leave it revealed in its true beauty. That’s really what iaido means for me.

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The world’s worst Mt. Fuji picture  

Saturday, 3 January 2009

I have just returned from a most enjoyable trip to my first onsen – a hot spring resort. The onsen we visited was in a place called Ito City, which lies south west of Tokyo on the Izu peninsula. The most recognisable feature on the Izu peninsula is of course Mt. Fuji – Japan’s most iconic symbol, instantly recognisable for it’s symmetrical shape. I was quite excited by the prospect of getting a good close-up view of Fuji san. Unfortunately, the outward train journey didn’t go quite as planned; what was originally intended to be a relaxing journey in a comfortable seat with panoramic views of the countryside ended up as a 1.5 hour slog on a packed commuter train, most of which was spent staring at other people’s backsides. I caught a fleeting glimpse of Fuji san – enough to realise what a truly impressive sight it is and to resolve to get some pictures on the return journey.

Alas, this too seemed blighted by problems and once again we found ourselves on a packed local train. Only this time I didn’t even get a seat! I had hoped to turn this to my advantage by snapping some shots of the mountain.

Fuji san is probably one of the most photographed and painted mountain in human history; I feel, alas, that my offering will probably not contribute much to that cultural legacy. But see what you think.

Crap fuji san pic

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New Year at Sensouji  

We braved the crowds on Jan 1st to visit the Sensouji temple in Asakusa. Usually it's absolutely rammed over New Year so we were expecting a long wait- 1 or 2 hours - to get inside. But perhaps because we went later in the day,it was comparatively quiet and we sailed straight through. I hope a good omen for the coming year.

Sensouji occupies a special place in our relationship. The first pictures of Little M and Y I saw were taken here; M and I came here for special prayers to be said for us to be said at the start of our relationship, and we have tried to return every New Year since to make an offering and pray for health and happiness in the coming year.

Sensouji is an awesome place, in the true sense of the word; a centre of religion and culture nearly 1500 years. The original temple that stood here was destroyed by American bombs in the last war, but the modern structure is a completely convincing replica. There is a real sense of spiritual power about the place. Having prayers read for us by the abbot was one of the most memorable experiences of Japan, and I think one I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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Monjaiyaki – A tasty treat  

Thursday, 1 January 2009

I recently encountered a new culinary treat in the shape of Monjaiyaki. This is cooked at the table in a similar fashion to okinomiyaki, but while the latter (a kind of rich omelette with cabbage and vegetables) originates from Okinawa, monjaiyaki is very much a Tokyo staple.

Although it may look rather unpleasant, it’s actually very tasty. The vegetables and meat/fish components are cooked first on the hotplate, arranged in a ring. The hollow centre is then filled with a sort of egg/flour mixture and the whole thing stirred together. When done, all the people around the table carve little bits off using miniature shovels. We tried three variations on this theme. The first, pictured above, was based on camembert cheese and was the clear winner as far as I’m concerned.

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Welcoming 2009  

The New Year celebrations began in earnest for us with the traditional bowl of soba noodles at midnight – said to ensure long life – followed by a visit to our local jinja. Drawn by a combination of spiritual need and the prospect of free sake, we donned coats and headed out into the chill night air. The jinja is literally at the end of our street and is mostly deserted for about 364 days of the year. But not tonight.DSC_0835RES

It seems like a few other people had had the same idea! The queue stretched from the jinja about half a mile down the road. Still, undaunted we persevered and waited patiently inline for our chance to step through the ring and offer our prayers for good fortune in 2009.

For the Japanese, each year is considered a separate and distinct entity. The visit to the jinja and its purifying ceremony draws a line under the year just gone and means that everyone can begin the New Year with a clean slate. Japanese people attempt to finish the year will all business taken care of and bills paid so that nothing is carried over into the New Year, so for the last few days all the post offices and combini stores have been packed with people paying bills. Although it’s not possible to settle everything by Dec 31st, this idea of being “reborn” each year, spiritually clean and refreshed remains a very attractive one, and I think is perhaps one secret behind the Japanese people’s legendary grit and endurance.


The normally deserted shrine had been really attractively decorated. Lit by a combination of Japanese lanterns and wood-burning braziers, the atmosphere was a mixture of levity and real sincere spirituality. This is perhaps the one time of year when the normally secular Japanese reveal a little of the spirituality that underpins their culture. DSC_0849RES

The shrine itself is clearly very old – possibly dating back to the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate or even further. When you look around the site, there are a number of stone shrines, some on them appear to be so old that the carvings and markings that once adorned them have long since been worn away. The stone alter where incense is burned has literally been carved in half by the combustion of countless offerings made over the years.


Eventually we neared the shrine itself and got ready to make our offering of a few coins, bang the temple gong to attract the attention of the temple kami or spirit, and say our prayers of thanks and for the New Year. Every shrine has a different tradition. Here, it is customary to bow twice and clap your hands twice before praying. Afterwards, we got our free sake – not the bloody big glass that Big M was hoping for but the traditional “saucer”. But still gratefully received none the less. This was followed by a go on the Lucky Dip (Y won a bag of spuds, presumably from the local farm) and a cup of warm, milky…something, enjoyed while standing around a roaring fire, in which all the lucky charms from last year are cremated. DSC_0877RES

All in all, a very enjoyable evening that had just the right combination of spiritual sincerity and entertainment with which to start the New Year.

So, if you are reading this, may I offer you our sincere good wishes for the New Year. あけましたおめでとうございます!Akemashita omedetou gozaimasu.DSC_0830HNY

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Farewell to 2008  


Last night we bid farewell to 2008 in traditional style with a midnight visit to the local jinja, or Shinto shrine. By stepping through the ring and approaching the shrine itself, we are purified of all negativity and can begin the New Year refreshed and reborn. Today is a day of reflection on the events of 2008. With its highs and lows, it was certainly a tumultuous year but one that brought with it tremendous achievement. I was looking at some photos I took this Xmas, and I drew some satisfaction from noting that for the first time, the whole family was gathered together under our own Christmas tree in our own house. From nothing but a crazy dream, we have created something quite wonderful – a house filled with love and happiness. 2008 was the year that saw that dream come true.

For all its trials and desperate moments, I will always remember 2008 for this and be thankful; Thankful to all those people that helped us achieve our dream, and thankful to the guardian spirits of our family for bringing us the good luck that helped us on our way. Fare thee well 2008 and thank you. I pray that 2009 will be as kind to us. 

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