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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