Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Grossest of Cultural Differences, 24th Nov

Blowing your nose in public in Japan is a big no-no, the Japanese would rather let their hooters drip like taps than dare produce a pack of tissues and give their nozzles a good clear out, that would be so rude. Instead, they wear a mouth mask so the snot can flow freely from the nose, into the mouth where it’s quietly swallowed without anyone noticing; or they simply sniff. According to Japanese societal rules, sniffing is very acceptable. I’d never given this much thought until my flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong where I had the misfortune to sit beside a young Japanese man who had a very heavy cold.

Given that the Japanese love wearing mouth masks, particularly on flights when there are lots of nasty germs floating in the dry, recycled air, it was very bad luck to be seated beside a cold-ridden Japanese person without one. We were in a row of three; I was by the window, the sniffer was in the middle and his girlfriend by the aisle. As the plane slowly taxied to the runway, he let out a high-pitched, open-mouthed sneeze straight into the back of the chair in front of him with no attempt whatsoever to cover his mouth. I turned my head away in revulsion and surreptitiously inched my body closer to the window as I imagined all his cold-laden germs floating through the air looking for somewhere warm and welcoming to land. If I’d expelled a sneeze like that (I would have covered my mouth for starters), it would have been followed up with a big, satisfying nose blow. But no, that didn’t happen. Instead he began to sniff, not the quiet, almost apologetic sort of sniffs we know, but long, loud, deep, phlegm filled ones that made me think of sucking up lumps of jelly through a straw. It was revolting, but I was prepared to put up with it as I was sure it wouldn’t go on for too long, sniffing in such an extreme way must be quite sore on the nasal passage. And I was also aware that it’s polite to sniff in Japan and, being an open-minded social anthropology graduate with experience of life in Japan, I prided myself on my tolerant and respectful attitude towards other cultures.

 

One hour later my shoulders were rigid and tense and my whole body was a snake pit writhing with fury and frustration, my halo of cultural tolerance long gone. I couldn’t focus on the film I was watching because of the incessant sniffing, nor could I read my book or listen to music and even my ear plugs couldn’t block out the noise. He sniffed with the regularity of a snorer, in fact his sniffs sounded just like heavy snores: deep, vibrating and very loud. I started to make huffy puffy sounds and look cross every time he produced an extra loud one, but this had no impact, he was totally oblivious. I looked over at his girlfriend and she looked perfectly content. I couldn’t believe these neanderthal noises could not be bothering her, it seemed unfathomable that anyone could sit for hours and listen to such bodily grossness. It was like torture. I wanted to shout at him to go to the toilet and give his nose a bloody good blow, but I was too, well, polite.

By the time lunch arrived some time later I was almost at the end of my tether, my only hope was that he would stop the obscene noises whilst we ate, but that was a hope too far. As I lifted a fork full of soggy baked chicken, he produced an extra enormous phlegm laden sniff. That was it. Something snapped inside me. I put down my fork and turned to him and said sternly ‘Excuse me, when you finish dinner please could you and your girlfriend swap places. Your sniffing (and I demonstrated it for him) is putting me off watching this film (gesturing at the small screen on the back of the chair in front of me) and eating my food. Thank you’. He looked at me like a startled goldfish. I don’t know if he understood but he must have got the gist from the tone of my voice and the sniffing demonstration. Anyway, I didn’t care, I’d said my piece and I felt elated that I’d got it off my chest. I turned back to my meal and focused purposefully on eating my soggy chicken.

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This Japanese lady does not have SARS, she is merely snoozing on the bus in her mouth mask.

I could hear him muttering to his girlfriend, I didn’t want to even try to understand what  he was saying, I was so full of fury, adrenalin and relief. But I tell you what, the sniffing stopped. Hurray! I ate the rest of my meal without any more audible interruptions and gradually I began to feel more normal again. When the lunch trays were taken away I waited patiently for him to swap places with his girlfriend, but that didn’t happen. I guess he hadn’t understood that much of what I’d said. However, the sniffing had stopped and for that I was truly thankful. On the downside though, I had to endure another couple of hours of him continuously wiping his nose (every five seconds or so) with his hand and then wiping the mucus onto the blanket over his lap and into his hair. Occasionally he used his sleeve. This was also completely disgusting, but at least he wasn’t making the hideous noises anymore. Even with my experience of the Japanese approach to colds, I found it extraordinary that this young man had not even one tissue to dab his nose with.

So I wonder to myself, am I intolerant, or was his behaviour extreme even by Japanese standards? The fact that his girlfriend seemed unbothered might suggest it was acceptable, but often Japanese women tolerate their men’s poor behaviour as it is just, well, expected. I’m sure that Japanese man thought I was a brash, ill-mannered ‘gai-jin’ but if nothing else, he will have an inkling now that western women do not consider continuous loud sniffing good manners.

I’ve now got over this extremely traumatic experience and have since spent a very enjoyable two days in Hong Kong, catching up with my old friend James Bragg, going to the horse races at Happy Valley and doing a little spot of necessary retail therapy. Yesterday I flew to Bangkok, a most pleasant flight with no distractions, and I’m now residing in Hua Hin, where I sincerely hope I don’t meet any more heavy sniffers.

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With my old buddy James who lives in Hong Kong. Yes, I know my face looks really big. 

Journeying in Japan, 18th Nov

Arriving in Toyama City by the Sea of Japan, the area where I lived for 12 months almost 20 years ago, was, well, I have to be honest, underwhelming. My rose-tinted memories of Toyama had not included the drizzle, cold and greyness that greeted me as I stepped out of Toyama railway station. Great thick clouds hung heavy and still in the air casting a dull, flat light over the city. The whole place looked depressingly oppressed, even the people seemed to scurry along the pavements with their heads down. The modern buildings surrounding the station had a whiff of ‘nuclear bunker’ about them, like faceless lego bricks in every shade of grey. Trees, flowers and any sort of greenery were nowhere to be seen. Having spent the previous five days admiring and marvelling at the rich and colourful beauty of Japan’s rural villages and autumnal scenery on my Walk Japan tour (which was a lot of fun, see the photos at the end of this blog), it was pretty dispiriting to be faced with this monochrome vision. I thought about my JET friends from long ago and how I’d never considered Toyama to be dull and grey back then, quite the contrary. I suppose I’d been so busy being busy that I’d never stopped to look around properly. Looking out of my 14th floor hotel window that first day in Toyama by myself, at the great stretch of bleak city beyond, I felt like Rapunzel with no-one to rescue me.

Things looked up the following morning however when my old friend Kazu arrived at my hotel, like my knight in shining armour, to take me out in his gleaming black 4×4 Porsche. Not quite a black stallion, but good enough. He took me to both schools where I used to work and I was lucky enough to meet two of my old english teaching colleagues. As a result of this chance meeting, I was invited out for dinner by Oyama-sensei, whom I had taught english with at one school, and her husband who had been a Kyoto-sensei (Deputy Head) at my other school. It was wonderful to see them after so many years. Oyama-sensei brought some old photos of me teaching which she proudly showed to me. I was very touched, although I inwardly baulked at the sight of myself aged 21 with out-of-control frizzy hair and a face which resembled a large peeled potato. I think, I hope, that I must have had a bad cold when those photos were taken.

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Kazu (who has shaved his head and is now a devout Buddhist) and his smart Porsche
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With Shibuta-sensei, who hadn’t changed a bit in 20 years!

Kazu took me out on both my days in Toyama, treating me to a wonderful afternoon in a mountain onsen where I languished outside in the hot water admiring the awe-inspiring views, and several delicious meals in restaurants I would never have ventured into on my own. We visited my old apartment and even some of my old JET friends’ apartments too. I had the privilege of being introduced to the local Buddhist monk, a friend of Kazu’s, and attended a ceremony in the local Buddhist temple, an extraordinary experience. The Buddhist monk spoke a little English so stopped the ceremony at frequent intervals to translate for me, which was very thoughtful although it made me feel terribly conspicuous, but very grateful. I am indebted to Kazu for looking after me so well and making my stay in Toyama so memorable.

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Eating out at one of Toyama’s  famous ramen restaurants. I understood NOTHING on the menu. Thank goodness for Kazu!

 

I’ve spent the past two days in Kanazawa, which is a much larger city than Toyama, and considerably less grey. Today I travel to Tokyo on the shinkansen and on Tuesday I leave Japan to fly to Hong Kong. The next adventure is just round the corner!

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Below are photos from the Walk Japan tour from the 9th November to the 13th November. We walked from Nagoya to Matsumoto, following the old Nakasendo Way, an ancient highway used mostly during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). We had a lot of fun, primarily due to four highly successful Filipino businessmen who were having a ‘boys holiday’ and who laughed, and made us laugh, most of the way!

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The four Filipino boys, plus Karen (from Oz) and me. They were SO much fun! We’re wearing traditional Yukatas, comfy clothing to change into after a long day’s hike.

 

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Look who I met on Japanese Tinder

Hawaiian Hitch-hiking, 9th Nov

I have never hitch-hiked before having been well warned of the dangers of it from an early age. Who knows what kind of deranged maniac might pick you up with his (yes, I say ‘his’ because it usually is) lunacy carefully concealed behind a broad, welcoming smile and a big, friendly car. But travel half way round the world to The Big Island and things are quite different. Hitch-hiking is common because the public transport system is notoriously bad; buses on the island run once every two hours and are excruciatingly slow.

I would have never dared hitch-hike had I not met a fellow guest at our hostel who persuaded me that it would be worth the adventure. ‘Ran’, a gentle young man from Israel, had been hitch-hiking his way through the Hawaiian islands, saving a fortune in money along the way. He reassured me that if we hitch-hiked as a pair, the chances of me being garroted with an old shoe lace by a red-faced Jack Nicholson lookalike were minimal.

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The sunsets on The Big Island were amazing almost every single day.

So off I went with Ran to hitch-hike to a pretty beach on the north west coast of The Big Island. Ran taught me the basic etiquette to maximise pick up opportunities: firstly you have to hold your thumb up high and straight like you really mean it; secondly you have to smile, no-one wants to pick up a dullard; thirdly, always put a girl first as they’re more likely to catch a driver’s eye. That may be sexist, but it is true. I stood ahead of Ran with one arm stretched out and a big smile on my face. To begin with I had my spare hand resting on my hip, but I began to feel vaguely like a highway prostitute so I quietly dropped that arm to my side.

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Some of my new found chums at ‘My Hawaii Hostel’ on The Big Island. They were ALL German, except for me! 

It didn’t take long before we were picked up, the first of four rides that day. It was always kind, generous locals and I learnt some fascinating facts; one driver told me in detail how Captain Cook was murdered by the native Hawaiians in 1779 and another told me about the existence of a tiny Hawaiian island called Niihau, better known as ‘The Forbidden Island’ (look it up, it’s very interesting!). Our last driver shared his organic cigarettes with us, which were surprisingly pleasant and I felt quite exhilarated by the time we got back to the hostel in the evening. From a financial perspective we saved about $200 in taxi fares as well which made the whole experience even richer. The only slightly unsavoury ride was from a man who was on the way to the rubbish dump; Ran and I had to sit in the back of his pick-up amongst all the stinking refuse bags, not the best, but it could have been worse.

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I got a ride to Green Sands Beach, with a hostel guest called Mike who had a convertible Mustang. It was very cool sweeping round the island in style, but I was very red by the end of the day. Can you see how green the sand is? 

I arrived in Japan yesterday, a whole new experience after the bliss and warmth of Hawaii, which I was truly sad to leave, I could have stayed on in Waikiki indefinitely. However, as one adventure ends, another begins. Yesterday at Honolulu airport I marvelled at the number of Japanese passengers wearing mouth masks, I can only think it must be related to germ avoidance on the aircraft. I’m pretty sure I was the only white person on our flight, like a turnip in a field of pumpkins. As we boarded the aircraft, the Japanese air hostess told us several times that we must do our seat belts up as soon as we sat down as the plane would be ‘moving away quickly’. I had this vision of the plane just suddenly taking off and everyone falling about the aisles in their mouth masks clutching onto their luggage. Being back in Japan in some ways feels quite familiar, but in other ways very strange. My Walking Tour begins this afternoon, I hope it’s not full of more oldies….we will see!

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The Hawaiians love SPAM. Mum, you would be right at home! 

 

Aloha! 28th Oct

Ten days into my Hawaiian leg and I’ve had a heavenly Aloha time in every possible way. My first five days were spent at Waikiki, in a hostel by the beach where my joie de vivre was replenished after its brief encounter with the Dementor’s Kiss of Las Vegas (if you’re not sure what the Dementor’s Kiss is, it’s from Harry Potter, look it up!). During the day I wandered through the countless amazing shops, weaved my way through swarms of Japanese tourists, chatted to other fellow travellers at my hostel, swam in the Pacific and sunbathed on the beach, trying my best not to cover myself and my book in too much sand and suncream as I wallowed about on my beach towel.

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A Gay Pride Parade took place in Waikiki whilst I was there. It was a lot of colourful fun, and what an atmosphere! 

My evenings were spent in the convivial company of my fellow hostel residents, drinking beer, chatting about everything and anything and watching the incredible sunsets. I didn’t do as much sightseeing as I should have done whilst on Oahu; the beach and the desire to relax rather got in the way, as did the pull of the good company at my hostel. I did, however, visit Pearl Harbour which was very interesting; seeing first-hand the sheer scale of the destruction caused by the Japanese and hearing about the meticulous military precision and planning involved. Interestingly enough, there were probably more Japanese tourists than American tourists at the memorial. I wonder what the Japanese think when they see it all.

The sun shone throughout my stay in Waikiki, until the day I was due to fly to my next island stop, Maui, whereupon it clouded over and began to rain. Earnestly. The little propeller powered plane that was my carriage took off and climbed steeply into the thick cotton wool clouds whereupon it started to jump and bump and wiggle and jiggle, like a ping-pong ball dancing above a blowing hair dryer. It was the worst flight I have ever experienced and I have never been so glad to be back on the ground, alive and in one piece.

That was not the end of the stormy weather though, oh no! That night there was an almighty lightning storm which resulted in the whole island losing power. This meant the next morning at my hostel there was no coffee, no lights, no air conditioning to temper the heavy humidity and worst of all……no wi-fi!  By the time darkness fell we were still without power and I was thankful for my head torch so I could find my way to the toilet without mishap. The next morning the power was back and everyone exclaimed that they’d really enjoyed getting to know each other properly and they hadn’t minded one bit not having wi-fi; it is true that most of us, myself included, have our noses stuck in our devices three quarters of the time when inside a hostel.

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Walking the Line at sunset on The Hana Highway, Maui

 

As my time comes to an end on Maui, or the Valley Isle, I have seen beautiful beaches, tumbling waterfalls (reminiscent of the ‘Timotei’ advert years ago), more awe-inspiring sunsets and three great big turtles resting on the shores down from our hostel. The most they did was blink an eyelid at us as we all gazed at them; they probably get fed up with being spied upon all the time. If I were a turtle I think I would.

Nexgt stop, The Big Island.