Tuesday, 16 June 2015

In the recent film Interstellar, a team of astronauts are sent far from Earth to try to find a new home for humanity. Due to the effects of gravity, time appears to run differently for the astronauts and for those left on Earth. With each message the astronauts receive, greater and greater amounts of time appear to have passed for the senders, so the astronauts observe increasingly marked differences in the speech and appearance of the senders.

So it is for me - currently back in the UK for a biannual visit. Because I am not here all the time, those gradual, creeping changes that would probably go unnoticed for people here all the time, stand out like a sore thumb to me. One such change is the now widespread habit of padding out simple exchanges in retail outlets with empty and meaningless platitudes. Whereas the process of ordering a pint was once as simple as :

Barman - "What can I get you?"
Customer - "Pint of Stella please"

We now have...

Barman - "Hi guys how are you today?"
Customer - "yeah I'm good thanks how are you?"
Barman - "Yeah I'm cool - what can I get you today?"
Customer - "Pint of Stella please"
Barman - "Great"
Barman - "Do you want any nuts with that at all?"
Customer - "No thanks"
Barman - "OK - is there anything else I can help you with?"
Customer - "No"
Barman - "Did you find everything you were looking for today?"
Customer - "err yes I guess so"
Barman - "That's great"

Now I don't mean to sound uncharitable, but what an utter load of bollocks. Some twonk at head office has decreed that its front of house staff go through this upselling/data mining charade everytime a customer walks through the door. Does it sound friendly, welcoming and warm? No. To me it sounds utterly insincere, which is actually the exact opposite of its intended purpose. Especially when the script is obviously out of sync with reality, like asking the knackered driver of an HGV if he's "been anywhere nice?" or is "Having a great day?" Of course he's bloody not. He's having a shit day - and you've just made it a little bit more shit by pointing out the shittiness of it.

Do we in the UK always have to slavishly follow this US drone speak? Whatever happened to bloody common sense

Have a nice day y'all

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Indiana Jones and the Soiled Underwear - Part II  

Saturday, 6 June 2015

In the last instalment, your humble scribe had managed the impressive feat of falling off a mountain along a precise magnetic bearing. Muddied but otherwise unhurt, he now prepares to continue - but more surprises await!

Feeling somewhat relieved, I headed off on the well-defined path. But while I was quite sure that the worst was behind me, I was  - quite literally - not out of the woods yet so caution was still very much the order of the day.

The map I was using ( was bloody good; clear, accurate and detailed. Marked on the map was the precise location of every official trail signpost, together with accurate distances between each. So this meant it was very easy to use a system of dead reckoning to pin-point my position extremely accurately as I proceeded along the trail. This information could be vital if I encountered another situation where I lost the trail and had to navigate cross-country. The process of navigation is deceptively simple; I had worked out that in this terrain with my current load, I was travelling 100m every 90 paces. So by just counting out 90 paces, I could measure my progress very accurately. Every 100m I picked up a stone, and in this way I was able to count out distances of 5, 6 or 700 m between signposted waypoints with surprising accuracy.

To my left was the running water I had heard through the trees. The trickle of water gradually broadened into a mountain stream that gurgled and bubbled its way downhill through the increasingly rocky gully. The path crossed the stream and I stopped to wash the dirt from my arms, face and hair in the cool mountain water. I was feeling pretty good about everything in my secret mountain valley as I continued, with my bear bell clinking out the steps as I counted.

Rounding a bend in the trail, I encountered something I hadn't reckoned on - a bridge. A simple wooden bridge had been constructed over a shallow rocky gully. As I got closer, I noticed that the bridge had seen better days. In fact, it was quite seriously decomposed in places. Untreated wood decays incredibly quickly in Japan's hot and humid summers. From the faded date on the "Path Closed" notice, I guessed that the last time this path and its bridges had seen any maintenance was over a year ago at least. I gave the bridge a closer inspection: its main supports, while corroded, seemed robust enough. So with caution I edged along what I hoped was the strongest part directly over one of the beams (incidentally, the picture comes from

Having crossed with no problems, I continued. The valley I was following had become progressively steeper and rockier as it followed the increasingly energetic stream downhill. I started to encounter more bridges. Some, looked almost new; some looked like they were in serious need of repair. The gullies crossed had become deeper and more rocky. A fall through the rotten wood onto the unforgiving rocks below would be catastrophic, and I once again noted that a leg injury could prove extremely serious in this environment as there was little chance of being discovered by passing hikers. I began to have concerns again over what obstacles still lay in my path.

My concerns became more substantial as the terrain underwent a change of character from easy wooded trail to challenging rocky ravine. Walls of limestone rose steeply either side of the trail, which periodically disappeared as it passed over mossy bedrock. There was no way except forward and back. The stream now became punctuated by short, rocky waterfalls and the path skittered back and forth across rock ledges stepping their way downhill. Bridges appeared more frequently, spanning gullies that were ever deeper. The state of some of these crossings gave serious cause for concern. Suddenly the path and river parted company, with the river dropping away very sharply into a completely impassable rocky ravine. Up in the distance I could hear a waterfall. The path climbed up sharply around a rocky outcrop, narrowing as it did so. Rounding a bend, I saw a sight that made me take a big gulp.

Clinging to the side of the ravine was a completely rotten wooden walkway, complete with DANGER sign. Below, nothing but empty space and mossy rocks. Shit! I was so close to the end of the trail. But this looked to be the most serious challenge yet. I stopped to really examine the obstacle. It was clearly totally rotten. The rocky wall to the left had some tree roots growing out of it which would provide some hand holds. Below the wood was a narrow band of rock, which I hoped would be resilient enough to prevent me dropping into the ravine if the bridge collapsed. I had no choice but to continue, so puckering-up and chanelling Indiana Jones, I gingerly picked my way across, alert for the sound of splintering wood and a sudden dropping sensation. 

I made it back to solid ground. Phew.

The path once more became benign as it descended gradually through he trees. Behind me, I could hear the sound of rushing water, which I guessed marked the spot where the stream plunged over the rocky precipice. According to my map, I should now be approaching the end of the section which had been marked as closed on the sign I encountered. And sure enough, at exactly the point predicted, there was the signpost with rope strung across the path announcing its closure. I'd made it.

I clambered through the rope, and walked a few paces. Crossing a (well repaired) bridge, I was rewarded with the sight of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have seen in Japan so far.


Shortly thereafter, the trail became a paved road, and shortly after that I arrived at the campsite. The adventure was truly over and I'd survived unscathed.


I wasted no time in pitching my tent in the pretty much deserted campsite, and getting myself sorted out for the night. An hour or so later, a light flicked on in the campsite office and I wandered over to pay my pitch fee. To me delight, there was a fridge, well-stocked with Asahi Super-Dry. After purchasing a few tins at vastly inflated prices, I retired to my boudoir to cook dinner and reflect on the day's events.


Basically, I'd been lucky. My decision to proceed along a closed path had been risky, but it was a calculated risk - a calculated risk that had paid off on this occasion. The alternative would have led at best to a pretty miserable and pointless slog; at worse an even more dangerous situation in failing light on an unfamiliar path with exposed paths and steep scree slopes. Given my equipment and the fact that I am a confident navigator, I don't feel my decision was a bad one.

Where I did feel that lessons needed to be learned was in my emergency procedures - what would I have done in the event that I had become injured or lost in the dense woodland? I had both tent and an emergency bivi bag on board, plus food and water, so sustenance and shelter would not have been a problem assuming I could get to my pack. But what about summoning help? Mobile phones are useless in Japan's mountains. I had a whistle, but it was packed away in my emergency tin and therefore not immediately accessible. What would happen if I lost my pack?

Considering these points as the Super Dry buzz kicked in, I resolved to make the following changes:

1 - Attach whistle to pack straps so it's easily accessible - useful for bear encounters too

2 - Carry smaller emergency kit in my belt bag. In the event that I lose my main pack for whatever reason, I still have shelter and some form of sustenance.

3 - Investigate some form of personal GPS beacon such as the Spot Gen 3

I guess these measures might seem over the top given that I am really a casual weekend hiker rather than a seasoned adventurer. But even so, as thousands of Japanese weekend backpackers find out every year, you can find yourself in trouble very quickly in Japan's wooded mountains. I have no desire to become a statistic.

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Bear Grylls eat your heart out  

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

As recounted previously on these pages, I have been somewhat frustrated of late in my efforts to get out hiking. In particular, my urge to get out for an overnight trip. I had originally planned to do a 2 or 3 dayer to Oze Marches, but time has just run out. So instead, I thought a little trip closer to home might be a bit more practical. So with that intent I booked a couple of days off work and headed for where the WiFi can't find me. Little did I realise that my leisurely stroll through the woods would turn into something off a Bear Grylls tv show.
My plan was to return to Mt Otake, via the picturesque mountain village of Mitake. After stopping for lunch at the 1266m peak, I would swing south for a couple of kilometers and then pick up the trail which would lead me eventually to Otake campsite and an overnight stop. Then, the following day I was going to retrace my steps back to Otake, but skirt the peak and press on to Oku Tama and the train home.
Things started to come a little bit unpicked shortly after leaving Mitake. I had originally planned to tackle one of the other little peaks in the area on my way to Otake. But on hitting the train junction, I was faced by this sign.
Bear activity is not unusual this time of year, and the quieter areas around Mitake are known bear haunts. The Asian black bear is a famously bad-tempered animal at the best of times. But a female with cubs is particularly dangerous, and this time of year is when cubs and their mothers are likely to be more active. Bears will normally try to avoid human contact, but being mid-week there weren't so many people around. Travelling alone meant that I was at increased risk of a chance encounter, so I decided that sticking to one of the busier trails might be a good idea, so I continued on to Mt Otake.

I really enjoy this little mountain. Approaching from Mitake, you go around a series of rocky outcrops that get gradually more challenging as you approach the final ascent. The latter ones requiring you to grap chains set in the rock to steady yourself as you clamber over. The drop away is steep, but not sheer so it isn't trouser-filling scary in the way, say Crib Goch, is. But it certainly adds a bit of drama to an otherwise fairly routine trail. The final push to the summit is a hands and feet scramble up the rocky shoulder of the mountain. Coming down the other side is I think marginally easier, but still has a couple of points where you have to stop and think "How am I going to tackle this?"

So after what I thought was going to be the main excitement of the day, I left Otake behind and headed south on an easy woodland trail, anticipating setting up camp a couple of hours later and cooling my feet in a mountain stream whilst supping the tin of beer I had lugged along for that purpose. Things were going well until I hit the fork in the train where I was due to turn north. There, strung across my path was a rope and a sign saying "Path Closed"

Well, that was unexpected. The path was seemingly quite  popular one and I had seen nothing to indicate the closure up to that point. There was a notice posted on the Oku Tama Visitor centre website that one path was closed for maintenance, but the location given was further south. But I had a bit of a problem. To continue south would take me way off course and dump me miles away from my destination, with nowhere to go. Doubling back was an option, but difficult. The detour would take me 10km or more out of my way, and involve tackling what looked like a difficult and unfamiliar scree descent in the dark. I didn't fancy that either. There was no other way to reach my destination, so I had to make a decision: return to Mitake and abandon trip or to trust to my map reading skills and common sense and try to find a way through the closed trail. I decided to take a chance.

Trails are usually closed for either maintenance or logging operations. I figured that in either case, the actual site of the works was likely to be quite small. From the map, I could see that the path had a couple of steep-ish descents, but nothing dangerously so. I couldn't hear any machinery or chainsaws, so I reasoned that if I could navigate around the area of disruption, I'd be fine.

I walked the 250m to the first signpost indicated on the map. So far, so good. However shortly after that I began to see signs of logging and the path evaporated into a featureless clearing. The land dropped away sharply in front of me and it was clear that I was going to have to commit to a descent. It would likely be one way, as the chances of being able to scramble back up the hillside again if I screwed up were diminishing rapidly. However, I had an accurate fix on my last known position from the signpost and the map I was using was detailed and accurate. Therefore I had an accurate bearing on the next signpost marked on the trail, so I had a good idea on what direction the trail lay. I started to descend. At first, I managed to zig-zag down the slope using the log breaks left by the woodsmen. But pretty soon the slope became steeper and more treacherous, and the game started to get a bit more serious.

I used the trees as brakes, aiming from one to the other to arrest my descent. At each couple of trees I stopped and checked my bearing and looked for clues to match my location on the map. I could see that I was heading down a spur, with gullies either side of me. That matched with what I expected on the map, so I was still reasonably confident in my direction. But the going was getting harder. The soft forest floor underfoot was now interspersed with rocks, which dislodged by my slippery descent, tumbled noisily into the undergrowth below.

Then, I fell.

My footing simply disappeared and I started an uncontrolled slide in a shower of dirt, wood and rocks. I managed to dig my heels in and used my trekking pole like an ice pick to try and get control. After sliding maybe 10-15 m I managed to use a tree to bring me to a halt. After taking a few moments to compose myself and check my map and bearing again, I continued. I started to get a bit more concerned now. The chance to retrace my steps was now absolutely zero; I was well off the beaten track with no hope of discovery and the valley floor was still not in sight.

I was heading into a valley, and off in the distance I could hear water. Water flows downhill, and usually eventually leads to a road or some form of settlement. I appeared to be following the right general direction and the features I could see around me matched what the map was saying. But nevertheless, I needed to consider my options. I was well equipped. I had food and shelter. If necessary, I could survive an overnight stay quite comfortably. I felt sure of my map and compass, and I was confident I had a reasonably good idea of my location. My biggest worry was getting injured - either breaking a leg, being clumped by a falling rock or running across one of Japan's poisonous snakes in the undergrowth. In the latter case, I was quite happy that my noisy descent should alert any animal to me presence long before I arrived, so trying to avoid injury became top priority.

I slid some more - fell some more and clattered over loose, moss-covered rocks. And then - miraculously - I saw the more than 5 paces to the right of my predicted position! I'd made it to the path again. The path was clear and easy to see, and the sign post showed it was the right path. Nevertheless I double-checked the map and bearing to make sure I was where I thought I was. Everything checked out, so scratched, muddied but otherwise OK, I headed off expecting the rest of the trail to be a piece of cake - expectations that were soon to be dashed...
PART II to follow!

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A hidden threat to health?  

Monday, 1 June 2015

Grab a coffee - it's another long one...
I've just been reading a very interesting article about so-called gluten intolerance. Normally I have no truck with food fads, the latest food panics or indeed people who claim they are intolerant of/allergic to this, that and the other, when most of the time they do not actually have anything more wrong with them than internet hypochondria. So, that being the case, why is a dismissive, cynical middle-aged twat reading an article about gluten intolerance?
Well, in spite of my cynicism, personal experience has convinced me that there is definitely something going on with our food. The basis of my belief comes not from reading scare stories in the news or internet posts by right-on hippies with a lentil fetish, but from cold, hard personal experience. Not being a scientist or a doctor, I can't offer any clinical or scientific evidence to back my theories. But I can share my personal experience, and in so doing, maybe help others who might be experiencing similar mystery symptoms.
So. My problems started a few years ago when we lived in the UK. I have always been mainly quite a healthy individual, who doesn't generally suffer from ailments. Some years ago, I started developing some odd little symptoms that were mildly unpleasant, but at first no more than a mild irritation. Number one was a permanently upset stomach. This wasn't really a problem at first, but over the course of many months it started to become more of an issue. In the end, the morning toilet routine became a critically important part of my day; so much so that I literally could not leave the house until I'd been at least 3 times. If this had happened all at once, I would have gone to the doctors. But as it built up over many, many months I had just put it down to age and learned to live with it.
We moved to Japan in 2008, and I thought that maybe the change of diet would do me good. But nothing changed. I was still suffering from dodgy guts - not badly enough to force medical attention, but enough for it to become an issue in daily life. Then, things started to get more serious.
I started to get tired. Not just tired, but exhausted; run-down; deflated. I found it hard to concentrate on work. I became moody and irritable. My weight started to increase and I felt generally very heavy, sluggish and not at all well. I lost interest in things that previously I had really enjoyed. In other words, my mojo had left the building. Then, the depression kicked in and I really started to spiral down and it was obvious I needed to sort my shit out.
My first thought was to try and find a cause linking the symptoms I was suffering. At first, the idea of a food allergy didn't even cross my mind as I had never suffered any allergies. My thoughts turned first of all to my personal situation. I had lived in Japan through the Fukushima crisis, where fears of radioactive poisoning of the water supply were very real (and still are, actually) So much so, in fact, that we were issued iodine tablets by the British Embassy. Radioactive iodine 23 (if I recall correctly) causes problems when ingested because it becomes concentrated in the thyroid gland, which in turn can cause thyroid cancer. The thyroid gland helps regulate the body's metabolism and if it isn't producing enough of its vital hormones, a condition known as hypothyroidism, you start to suffer from a wide range of symptoms, quite a few of which I managed to tick off. So - a visit to the doctors was in order. He did an ultrasound scan and there indeed were nodules on my thyroid gland, indicating a clinical problem.
My first thought - I must admit - was "Shit! cancer." I cursed TEPCO. I made an appointment to go to a specialist hospital in Tokyo for a more detailed analysis. Much to my relief, the tests showed that cancer was not present but there was something going on with the thyroid and it wasn't producing enough of the vital "go juice" my body required. I was prescribed medicines, and told I would be on these for the rest of my life.
In some ways, I was relieved. I didn't have cancer and there had been a clinical reason behind my malaise, not just me being a whiney twat. The pills certainly made me feel better and I started to get back on top of everything again. But there was still a nagging feeling in the back of my mind. I have never liked the idea of being reliant on medicine or pills. While I couldn't argue with the fact that medical support was making me feel better, I still wanted to find out more about what had caused this whole sorry state of affairs to arise in the first place. Back to the internet.
I started reading posts from people talking about the symptoms of gluten intolerance, and in particular, how thyroid problems had been linked in some studies to the presence of partially digested protein molecules in the blood stream which were "clogging up" the vital parts of the thyroid gland and causing hypothyroidism-like symptoms. The weight of personal anecdotes led a lot of credence to the theories -  so much so that I decided to shelve my usual cynicism and give gluten-free a go to see whether it could offer an alternative to pill-popping. What followed was rather interesting.
The first thing that happened was that my dodgy guts cleared up. Like, overnight. The change was so rapid and so dramatic that I couldn't actually believe it. I immediately started to have more energy and became, as the Japanese say, genki narimasu.
The one big change I had made in my gluten-free experiment was to give up that staple of the British diet, white bread. I had been a 2-toast-a-day man for years, and I had carried this habit with me to Japan. Now, I had swapped toast for oatmeal and I was feeling a whole lot better for it. But then I noticed something a bit odd: most breakfast cereals contain wheat, the main source of gluten. So does beer. Even most oatmeal has some gluten in. Yet I found that I could drink beer and enjoy wheat-based cereals, without experiencing any side effects. So clearly, whatever was affecting me, it wasn't gluten.
But that was largely irrelevant at this point; I had discovered that if I just cut out processed white flour from my diet, all those nagging medical issues - including the under-powered thyroid - have literally just evaporated. I have thought no more about it. Until today.
The article I referred to at the top of this epic draws a correlation between the incidence of gastrointestinal complaints linked to gluten intolerance - and the increased use of a particular kind of herbicide called glyphosate. I'm no scientist, but the chart looks quite compelling.

It appears that farmers producing wheat for the major food processors are now routinely using glyphosate to artificially ripen crops before harvest. Inevitably, these chemicals remain in the finished products, such as white flour, bread etc. Could it be that the incidence of gluten-intolerance, and indeed my own personal experiences, could be related, not to gluten but to the chemical shit that the food industry giants are using on our food? I am not prone to conspiracy theories, but this really does have the ring of truth about it, and I am more convinced than ever of the need to steer away from processed crap and get back to proper home-produced food. And real beer ;-)

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