Delhi: The End

Ladies and Gentlemen, if you have reached this point you’ve done pretty well in all honesty. This will likely be my last post from the road. I’ll almost certainly do a post-trip roundup either once I’m home, or while I’m flying back, but as for reporting from the ground in faraway lands, this is the end.

I almost certainly should have written more this week than I have done, but there are two reasons why I’ve been silent. First off, I’ve been doing literally nothing all day every day for the past week. I’m not sure if you’ve seen (it made some national news), but parts of India have hit 43, 44 and even 45 degrees Celsius. The country is in the grip of a pretty brutal heatwave that has killed over 100 people as of the publication of this post, and Delhi is one of the city to have been hit the hardest. Thus, it’s almost impossible to actually do anything – stepping outside in the day to that heat/smog combo is absolutely unbearable (and dangerous), and stepping out at night is a one way ticket to either lodging yourself in the grill of an erratically swerving tuk-tuk or getting your pockets knifed open by little Artful Dodger street urchins. So I’ve done literally nothing that’s worth reporting. This is also compounded by the fact that exploring Delhi is pretty comfortably at the absolute bottom of my wish list at the moment. And that ties into the other reason I haven’t written anything in a while; I hate it here.

Earlier in the week I had maybe one of the worst experiences of my entire life, and it frustrated and upset me so much that I simply didn’t feel like writing. If not simply for the fact that a blog post at that point would’ve manifested as a seething library of pure hatred, it also struck me that I would probably offend some people in the process. So I decided to wait out my anger and write this post when I had calmed down a little. However, that hasn’t happened, so strap yourselves in for some choice words about my experience in what is, without doubt, my least favourite of all the destinations I’ve ever been to. And yes, I do mean not just on this trip, but ever. This is a sparkling compendium of a list that is splattered with such worldly fecal matter as the awfully soulless Liechtenstein, the offensively jingoistic Nagasaki, the painfully boring Helsinki and the timewarp bomb site of Blackpool. India – or at least the fairly sizeable chunk of it that I’ve seen – has got them all beat. And here’s why:

It gives me absolutely nothing. It may sound entitled or arrogant to say, but literally every country, city, town or village I’ve been to, probably in my entire life, has something to offer me for the effort and money I put into it. I make it to a major capital city, I’ll be greeted by amazing sights, beautiful streets and a great atmosphere. Likewise if I head up into say, the Alps or the Andes – I get amazing vistas combined with stunning, cozy little villages where you can relax and feel at home. India has neither of these.

Let’s start with the cities. I’ve been to three. It’s not that many, admittedly, but I feel I have a right to comment on the state of Indian cities simply because if you’ve been to three major cities in any country, you can safely say you have at least a bit of experience of cities in that country. I dunno, maybe that’s a very small-country Eurocentric angle to take. However, another reason is that – while every single person who ever swooped through this godforsaken city will tell you that Delhi is little more than a stain on the surface of humanity – they’ll also tell you that Jaipur is infinitely more beautiful, and that Agra has an enormous list of amazing historical places to visit. But that’s the thing – it’s all just as crap as the last place. Doesn’t matter which city I’m in – when it comes to India I cannot bring myself to like it, or even acknowledge why others like it, to be honest.

Really, it seems to be an issue with me more than the country itself. Every dreadlock-clad, harem-panted moron from Chertsey I’ve met on this whirlwind adventure of shit has done little other than gush over how awesome this nation is. How its spirituality makes you question your beliefs. How its smiling natives make you question the point of your material wealth. And while we’re at it, listen, you might be doing yoga and know the names of a couple more Hindu gods than the average Brit. You might have changed your name from Peter to Lakshmana and have sworn off alcohol, but that does not mean that I should strive to do the same. You know why I have such faith in my material wealth? Because it affects literally every aspect of my existence. I find it extremely patronising that people think otherwise – sure the little kid in the sidestreets of Agra may grin and wave at the backpack-wearing Westerners walking past their house, but that smile doesn’t hide anything. It doesn’t mean they’re not living in a country with extremely limited access to clean water, or with massive illiteracy rates, or with a population of well over a billion yet also with a life expectancy of 66 – a full 16 years lower than the UK.

That’s one way in which India has influenced my way of thinking; it makes me realise how lucky I am that I had the opportunities I did by being born in the fully developed world. Yes there are obviously very rich people in India, but an insanely large percentage of people – for a nation this large – live well below the poverty line. It makes me realise how much I cherish that exact material wealth that many others choose to reject once they set foot at Indira Gandhi Airport. It’s that wealth that stops me from getting typhoid when I try to drink tap water. It allows me to communicate with other people all over the world at the touch of a button. It allows me access to healthcare services that don’t involve slipping in puddles of blood on the waiting room floor. It allows me to not have to walk past mountains and mountains of garbage at the side of every street. It allows me to have a quiet night in my house in London with a bottle of red wine and Match of the Day. It allows me to even be here – it allows me to come to India and to see what it’s like with my own eyes, and that is the reason I don’t have to unequivocally praise it. Maybe that’s the greatest facet of my material wealth – it offers me a generous and vast arena of travel, from which I can form my own opinions, not just regurgitate the desperate, pseudo-spiritual self-righteous nonsense you pedal in the belief that you’ve broken the glass ceiling of Western society, and ‘seen beyond’ whatever it is about it that you inexplicably chose to turn your back on.

I had so much hope coming to India. It’s one of the world’s largest and greatest societies. Thousands of years old, filled with amazing food, drink, culture and history. I was willing to give it a huge go, even though I knew it might be a bit of hassle. And it’s just disappointed me so so much. For instance, I just went outside to get some dinner, and what happened was just kind of… India in a microcosm, summed up perfectly. First off, it was 11pm and still absolutely agonisingly hot. I made it to the main street and a man on a motorbike came flying down the pavement and almost hit me. Then a tuk-tuk drove into the back of a bus and smashed its own windscreen all over the street, and just kept driving. I got to the corner I needed to turn round, and from somewhere came the most intense smell I’ve ever experienced. India’s full of nasty smells, but this was a whole new ball game – it was like a rotten egg that had been dipped in sulphur and then excavated from a rotting corpse’s digestive tract. It’s the first time a smell has literally made me gag in the street – it was unreal. I turned the corner and the street was covered in unpopped popcorn. I mean literally thousands and thousands of corn kernels. All over the street. And people were just walking and driving through it all.

Random stuff as unexpected and strange as that would be endearing anywhere else, but here’s it’s just another weird annoyance. I barely broke stride before getting accosted by a bunch of children tugging and my shirt and asking for money. Sorry, I don’t have any. They tug again and give it the big puppy-dog eyes. No, I’m sorry. Then again they pull at my clothing and stand in front of me, looking all sad. F*ck off kids, I’m not interested. How many times do I have to say no before you get the picture? Go collect money for your cartel from someone else. And lo! Once they realised I wasn’t giving them anything, they ran off to a nearby restaurant, sat at an outdoor table with a bunch of men they obviously knew and started eating with them. Oh yeah you really needed my money, didn’t you? What a load of bullshit.

I got to the square with the food stalls, approached one of the vendors and asked for a bottle of water. Usually they’re about 20 rupees (20p). He said 100. I just looked at him like ‘how much of a mug do you take me for?’. Without me saying any more, he said ‘OK 70’. So not only did he know I knew he was ripping me off, but he then attempted to ‘be fair’ by offering me a price still way higher than the going rate. I said ’20’. He said ’50’. I said ’20’. He said ’50’. I said ’20’. He said ’45’. I said ’20’. He said ’30’. I said ’20’. He said ‘OK 20’. He handed me the bottle and it was warm. I’m not talking room temperature – this bottle was actually giving off heat, like a hot water bottle. Which I guess, in a sense, is what it was. I handed it back to him and told him where to go. Trying to rip me off and then can’t even be bothered to give me a cold bottle. The stall across the way then gave me one for 20 straight off the bat, and it was freezing cold. That’s all I ask man, just because I don’t look like you doesn’t mean you have to try to steal my money.

That one ten-minute trip was just so filled with stress, filth and unnecessary arguing that it just makes me wonder what anyone gets out of this place. In fact, that’s the exact thought I had around a week ago, so I booked a trip up to the Himalayas, to get away from what the Himalayan people call the ‘Lowlands’ of India – basically all of India that isn’t mountains. However, my experience up there was something I thought I would never ever want to write or even talk about, so utterly terrifying was it. But hey, it makes for a good story I guess, as it affords me a platform to describe the effects of – and bring awareness to the dangers of – AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness.

On Wednesday, I took a brief 55 minute flight to Leh, in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, in the extreme north of India. This isn’t the India you see on TV – it’s mountaintop monasteries punctuating a vast, barren desert, surrounded by gigantic jagged mountains and populated by locals that are far closer to the people of Tibet in ethnic makeup and culture than the people of Lowland India. Leh is somewhere I’ve wanted to go for many years. It’d be silent, reflective and a gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery that the entire planet can offer. But it didn’t work out like that in the slightest. 

As every guide book or travel website will tell you, Leh is pretty high. It’s not super crazy insane high, but for a major town it’s pretty high. It’s 3,500m (11,500ft) above sea level. That’s toward the top end of many ski resorts. Above 2,500m the body starts to behave a little differently due to there being less oxygen in the atmosphere. You’ll barely even feel it around that altitude, however. It’s once you push the 3,000m barrier that you’ll actually notice your body having a little bitchfit. Basically, when you go skiing, or when you go to Leh via the road that was closed when I went there, you acclimatise. You gradually deplete your body’s oxygen levels by slowly bringing yourself up to altitude, meaning your body adjusts like the fader on one of those fancy alarm clocks that’s supposed to make waking up super calm. I had to fly there. Delhi is at 100m above sea level, so as a result I jumped 3,400m in just over 50 minutes. Travel articles suggest that you don’t fly if you don’t have to, but if it’s your only option, you just chill in bed feeling a little sleepy and funny for 24-48 hours (depending on who you ask) and you’ll be alright. However, they also make it clear that even if you’re a healthy, fairly slender 24 year-old like me, that does not remove you from the blast zone of the bomb of randomness that is severe altitude sickness. While most people have the ‘feeling a little funny then feeling fine’ progression of symptoms when they quickly ascend, there are some people to whom that doesn’t quite happen. And they get hit by AMS. I’m one of those people.

I arrived at Leh airport at 8am on Wednesday morning. I stepped out into the absolutely freezing oxygen-depleted atmosphere and felt strangely refreshed. It had been so hot in Delhi that this was a welcome change. Being a worrier I spent my time at the baggage belt breathing deeply to try to adjust myself to the surroundings. I felt fine, but then as I turned and walked toward the exit, I suddenly got a little wave of cloudiness, like I’d had a shot of weak alcohol. I thought it was quite funny that I could actually feel the altitude, as I kind of assumed much of it would be bullshit. I hopped in a taxi with a strange man who kept bowing his head in a nervous tick every five seconds, including when going round blind corners and when navigating junctions. I held on for dear life as we drove through Leh to what can only really be described as my disappointment. Sure, the scenery was nice, but the town itself had the same old shitty, run down buildings everywhere, the same piles of rubbish and the same hoards of mangy stray dogs roaming the streets as the Lowlands. I sighed, realising I hadn’t quite ‘escaped’ some of the things I disliked so much about India, but thought I’d be happy if I pushed on, got through these difficult two days of acclimatisation, then got out into the Himalayas to see the local sights, such as the amazing Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri Lake, and the world’s highest paved road, the latter two of which are close to 5,000m in altitude.

I arrived at the only affordable hostel in Leh – the Leh Ecology Hostel – and holy shit what a surprise that was. A large glass-fronted yet extremely old building way outside the town centre, on the side of a hill, overlooking the city, was where I would be staying for the next twelve days. I arrived to total silence, but it was below zero outside and I desperately needed to start my resting, so I approached the house next to the hostel and knocked on the door. Out stepped a little Ladakhi man in his pyjamas, who proceeded to give me a tour of the hostel. There were no heaters. There was no tap water. There was no hot water. There were no toilets. There were no normal plug sockets. There was (almost) no wifi. What the hell had I done. As I completed the tour, my earlier grin having slowly morphed into an emotionally pained grimace, I was led to my room – a wooden box with two twin beds, a lightbulb and nothing else. As he was about to leave, I turned to him and said ‘… Am I the only guest?’, to which he heartily laughed, proclaimed ‘Yes!’, and left, leaving me in an empty building in the Himalayas, 10km from the nearest shops, with no way of charging my phone or contacting the outside world. I got into bed and fell asleep.

I remember having an exceptionally vivid dream where I was drowning, and struggling to breathe, when suddenly, boom. I woke up, jolted upright in bed and realised I wasn’t actually breathing in real life. Its fine, I know sleep apnea occurs at this elevation, I just wasn’t expecting it. I attempted to drift back off to sleep, and after a long struggle of my brain vs my lungs, I managed it. Being affected by 3,500m altitude is extremely normal – it affects 70-80% of people who ascend too quickly to that height. It’s usually a mild headache, a little bit of breathlessness and feeling sleepy. And I knew this. So when I woke up three hours later feeling like I had a bear trap around my chest and a giant air pocket in my brain, I immediately got up out of bed in panic, at which point I then stumbled, banged my head against the wall and had to stand there breathing heavily for five minutes. I went outside to ask the hostel guy for some water, and he took me into the kitchen, where he uncovered a bowl from under a towel filled with boiled tap water that had a layer of strange minerals on the surface. He gave me a glass of it and it was so fresh from this botched pasteurisation that it was still incredibly hot. So when the guide books say drink litres and litres of water, I felt I was falling a little short with a 250ml glass of boiling scumwater.

I headed back to the room, where my laptop and both phones decided to run out of battery. I sat and stared at the wall, when suddenly a strange little shape appeared in my vision. It was like when you stare at the sun or another bright object and it burns into your retina. A strange sort of deformed star appeared in the middle of my vision and wouldn’t go away. Turns out this is the precursor to a retinal hemorrhage, where the blood vessels at the back of your eye expand and put pressure on your optic nerve before rupturing and bleeding into the back of your eye. I just kind of rode it out and fell asleep again, this little imaginary star shape permeating my dreams. Then, problems.

I woke up in the middle of the night and felt like death. I could barely see anything, felt like I was going to vomit, and had a headache that would’ve killed a small cat. It was absolutely insane. By this point I had been there for 20 hours – there is no way my conditioning should’ve been getting worse by this point. I was on a mountain in the Himalayas, alone and freezing cold, genuinely worried that something terrible was going to happen. I had spent a day and a night in a spinning room, trying not to throw up, cut off from the outside world and not being able to see or do anything without either bumping into the wall or collapsing like a wheezing Type II diabetic. It was the worst 24 hours of my life, hands down. So I woke up the hostel guy and asked him to order me a taxi for 6am to head to the airport and buy a ticket for the first flight back out of there. I did not care if it was going to get better if I persevered – right now the £30 to get straight back down from this hellhole was comfortably worth it. Again, I tried to sleep, and somehow managed it in between strange fits of not breathing and feeling like there was a knife in my head.

I headed downstairs to wait for the taxi when the hostel guy appeared. He asked how I was, at which point I said ‘I’m actually feeling terrible. I feel much worse’. Now for my entire time here, this guy had been extremely cavalier about AMS. Everything I said, he’d just go ‘Ahh it’s OK/It’ll be fine/It’s nothing’, but at this point, even he couldn’t help but freak out. His eyes widened, he put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘This is not good. You should feel better by now, not worse. Are you going to the hospital?’. No dude, I’m going to the airport and getting the f*ck outta here. We parted ways and he went back to bed. I knew the taxi would pull up on the other side of the gate into the hostel, so I went to open it. It was locked. The wall surrounding the gate was one of those makeshift bullshit anti-trespasser row of pieces of jagged glass. I was stuck. Still very much unable to walk 10ft without getting out of breath, so what did I do?

I felt too bad about waking up the hostel guy again, so I found a small gap in the glass and – with my giant heavy suitcase in tow – scaled the wall. Feeling like Edmund Hillary scaling Everest, I perched on the top and dropped my bags over the other side just as the taxi arrived. Then I made the mistake of not lowering myself down, but instead just casually jumping down. Something had seemingly gone very wrong with my nervous system in my time here, so I hit the ground only for my knees to give way and I crumpled into a heap in the path of the oncoming taxi. My reaction times were so shit that I couldn’t actually stop my face from hitting the ground. This part of the world is an exceptionally dry desert, so as I impacted the ground, a giant plume of dust kicked up like an atomic mushroom cloud and floated off over the town. Through the headlight-lit dust, the taxi driver came running towards me and helped me up, and with two hands around my shoulders he walked me – looking like a terrorist attack survivor – toward his car, bits of rock and dust falling off my face and clothing as I continued to breathe like a fat person was sat on me. He piled my stuff into the taxi and sped off down to the airport. After the slowest security procedure and some of the most unfriendly staff I’ve ever experienced, I got on the plane and it pressurised. Holy shit I could actually feel the pressure in my head and lungs dissipate in a matter of seconds. Suddenly I could see and breathe normally. I grabbed a coffee, relaxed and headed back to Delhi.

I love mountains. I always have done. I love the Alps, the Andes and everything in between. So I had been buzzing about seeing the Himalayas, and throughout this whole ordeal there were gigantic mountains and some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen, and I just did not give a shit. That’s how bad the whole ordeal was.

So now I’m in Delhi, the shittest city on Earth. But lo! It’s still in the throes of a giant heatwave, so going outside is not really an option, and also I’m waiting for my round the world flight guy back in London to sort me out with a ticket out of here, so I can’t leave Delhi in case one comes through. If he doesn’t manage to find a free seat, I’m stuck here until the 28th. And in all honesty I’d rather shoot myself in the foot.

Gabe

Delhi/Jaipur/Agra: The Unholy Trinity

Part I: Delhi

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Yo.

I’ve been in India for a week now, and I have to say – save one night with my good friend Jasdeep – it’s been a bit of a disaster. While sitting on the roof of the crudely-named ‘Lord Of The Drinks’ bar in Delhi, knocking back cheap Indian whisky with Jas was obviously a most excellent way of spending time, the rest of my adventures across Delhi and Jaipur have been arduous to say the least.

This is the first time on my entire round-the-world trip where I’ve been completely and utterly shocked by how incorrect my predictions had been about a prospective destination. Sure, Tahiti was surprisingly bleak, and Easter Island surprisingly mindblowing, but India has just totally undone me. I mean, let’s be realistic; we all know India is a developing nation, and struggling with a population of over 1bn while attempting to put together a viable nationwide infrastructure for even the simplest facilities is a huge undertaking, but I have to admit I did not expect it to be at such an early stage of development.

Because of it’s purportedly rapid ascent through the gears of infrastructural advancement, people often refer to India as one of the select few countries that fall under the category of ‘second world’ – which I’ve always seen as a bit of a vague catch-all or a cop-out. As far as I can tell, it simply defines a country as ‘not as technologically or infrastructurally advanced as the first world, but with enough industry, democracy and, say, paved roads, to not be considered third world’.

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My parting gift to Changi Airport

It’s because people are now afraid of saying the now-apparently-insulting ‘third world’ that this new category has been clumsily wedged into modern Western parlance. And India, for me, will always sit at the pinnacle of this wave of pretentious revisionism – it is the nuclear warhead at the tip of the rocket of righteousness. In Western eyes, I’ve always found that India rests in this bizarre bubble of worship, and any criticism of it is often called out as racism. There’s an undeniable cult of India. People gaze upon its grand expanses of natural beauty and its enviable ancient religious aesthetics with unrivaled awe, and so they should; India is a vast nation of hundreds if not thousands of different cuisines, languages, religions and landscapes. Yet at times I feel some people go a step too far and mistake quantity with quality.

The number of people I’ve met here (or people who have been here in the past) who choose to unequivocally praise every aspect of this complicated, confusing nation is staggering to me. It’s total nonsense; India’s social, economic and infrastructural problems are numerous and vast, and it’s utterly ridiculous to pretend they’re not. Why would you even attempt to simplify such a complex place into ‘it is good’? Is it your guilt over the British Raj or some other unspoken bollocks? All this attitude does is serve to make you look like you’re either an idiot or are so wrapped up in your new-found ‘spirituality’ that you choose to see past the hoards of people shitting in the street. Which is ironic considering how many of said people talk of feeling ‘enlightened’. Enlightened to what? Believing only what you want to believe?

India is so intense that it retrospectively makes Japan feel about as exciting as Eastbourne. Stepping out of the extremely delayed plane onto Indira Gandhi Airport tarmac, I was hit by the most suffocatingly thick mist of smog and sadness. Delhi is an absolute assault on the senses, the most notable being smell. Spend more than a few hours there and you’ll have your own personal cloud of exhaust fumes and human excrement buried deep inside your sinuses, because, I’m afraid to say, Delhi is a godforsaken shithole. The most foul-smelling, eye-wateringly stuffy and unfriendly city I have ever been to, even its long list of pristine temples and shrines are not even close to compensating for the mountains of shit you have to put up with. And I mean that literally; after getting an Uber from the airport to my hostel, I stepped out to a dude just squatting right there in front of me, next to a dead dog and an overflowing sewer. On the street. Then just pulled up his pants and walked away.

I mean – and this is the first time I’m gonna use this word without censoring it on this blog – what the fuck. Just shitting in the street? What kind of developing nation is this? Something I found particularly amusing was that I then walked past a news kiosk with a magazine that referred to an interview in which some Indian celebrity was quoted as saying ‘I find it insulting that India is referred to as a developing nation. It is developed’. Yeah sure mate, you keep believing that.

Entering the hostel, I was hit by a wave of ferocious air-conditioning, which was sweet relief from the 41 degree heat outside. After a night there, I attempted to head out the next morning to explore, but, as all guidebooks and fellow travelers will tell you, this is not really a ‘thing people do’ in Delhi. Aside from the absolutely brutal heat, the roads are also insane deathtraps, and the people of Delhi are pretty interesting. Or should I say ‘interested’. They are absolutely fascinated by Westerners, whether just to intently stare at, or to scam money out of. You step out of your hostel and ten people will come straight up to you with their shitty little auto-rickshaws, screaming ‘Where you going?! Where you going?!’. At first it seems the logical option is just to wave at them in a ‘no thanks’ gesture, or to politely decline. But by the time you get to even the end of the street, you’re practically elbowing them out the way and screaming things at them that you never thought you were capable of. To some of the more persistent ones who will not take ‘no’ as an answer, you have to just shout at them, or swear at them, and they’ll get the idea. Or maybe that’s just me.

Either way, I bailed on Delhi as soon as I could. That city is the shame of India. I went to Akshardham Temple which was pretty cool, but the queues combining came to 3 hours of standing around, shouting at queue-jumpers and sweating until I was at -100% body fat. I went back to the hostel, cruised across town in another luxury Uber, then got on a bus to Jaipur.

Part II: Jaipur

Disaster struck as soon as I arrived in Jaipur; within about 5 minutes of stepping off them bus, I knew I would hate it just as much as Delhi. It’s cooler than Delhi, it’s quieter than Delhi, and it’s less intense than Delhi, but by the rest of the world’s standards it’s still absolutely batshit insane. Rather than being just spoken to by everyone on the street, I actually had people grabbing me as I walked past, pulling my shirt, stepping into my path and holding my forearms to try and stop me, all while spending most of my waking hours jumping over puddles of raw sewage and dodging suicidal motorbike drivers as the careen onto the pavement to avoid the emaciated dirt-encrusted cows that rule the streets. Contrary to the theory that Jaipur is more palatable than Delhi, it’s still absolutely filthy. And the city’s claim of being the ‘Pink City’ is absolute bullshit; without meaning to sound incredibly middle-class, it’s not pink, it’s terracotta.

On the first day, I got up in the morning, headed to the (admittedly amazing) Jantar Mantar observatory, then to the Amer Fort, Jal Mahal, Hawa Mahal and City Palace. And then it was 11am and I realised I’d exhausted the entirety of what Jaipur’s tourist board could offer me. So I headed back to the hostel and realised something needed to change. Something about India was really not working for me. Well actually it was many things about India that were not working for me. So I took a big risk. I booked a trip to Ladakh, extending my time in India by two weeks. Come Wednesday I’m flying up to 4,000m, surrounding myself with mountains, monasteries and buddhists and basically living as a hermit for 12 days to finish off my intense round-the-world trip. Sounds good to me.

However, this meant I was now going to be in India for longer than the UK government suggest you should stay in India without vaccinations. So after much research and deliberation I headed to Jaipur Hospital to ask what the situation was, as hospitals in India seem to be lagging well behind the email age. I was told that I could come back the next day and they’d sort it for me, for £3 per vaccination! That’s insanely cheap compared to the UK, where you’d be spending well over £100 on the same thing. I left the hospital very cheerful, but then began my walk home, during which I saw some of the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen in such a brief period of time. Here we go.

I turned onto the main road, where I saw a man driving a camel-and-cart backwards down the street. I don’t mean he was going up the wrong side of the road either, I mean he was literally reversing a camel up the road. Just turn the goddamn thing round, man. Next block, a row of guys chatting to each other while synchronously shitting in a ditch. I skipped past them as fast as I could, to turn the corner and see a perfectly working public toilet that they could quite easily have been using. A dog then bolted inside and after much splashing and canine panic, it emerged with a live pigeon in its mouth and proceeded to rip its wings off by shaking it violently in its jaws. I crossed the road and entered a small market where a man with polio went scooting past, dragging his ass through the dirt faster than I was walking, then darted into the bank I was about to withdraw money from. I went inside and saw that the ATM wasn’t working, so I turned to the bank clerk to ask if I could withdraw money via him, to the sight of said bank clerk sitting behind the desk with a full-face crash helmet on. I asked him about the money and he addressed me totally normally, muffled through the helmet as if nothing was unusual about him sitting in a bank looking like he was expecting a mortar shell. After being told I couldn’t get the money, I left and went past a number of small shops containing people preparing meat with gigantic cleavers. One of them chucked a big leg of meat out into the dirt of the pavement, a couple inches from a pile of burning feces. I assumed he was discarding it, but then proceeded to follow it out of the shop and begin preparing it actually on the pavement, inadvertently rolling it around in the shit and dirt before chucking it back on the pile with the other meat. If there was ever an advert for not eating from untrustworthy food sources in India, that was it. I walked past to see that they also had a pile of sheep heads with the corresponding pile of sheep brains next to them, dangling off the edge of the table, and a few of the little things had thrown themselves off the side completely, where a small chicken was pecking at them. Godspeed Dr Chicken, I assume you’re next for being rolled around in the dirt. I made haste across the road, but suddenly a middle-aged man sat in a plastic school chair in the central reservation stopped me and asked where I was from. I said London, and he went off on the most baffling tangent about how Indians named London; apparently the UK didn’t have a name for London, so they asked their overseas subjects to submit prospective names for it, all of which were rejected. Then, after this happened (which it didn’t), India stepped forward (which they didn’t), and said ‘what about London’ because ‘London’ means ‘dick’ in Hindi (which it doesn’t) and they were tired of the UK always asking India for names for things (which they weren’t), and so the name London is just one big Indian in-joke (which it isn’t). I told him that I’m pretty sure the name London long predates the British Raj, and can be traced back to at least the Roman name Londinium. He didn’t understand me so I left. As I got to the other side, a tuk-tuk driver asked where I was going, as they always do – nothing weird here. But then after he sped off, I bumped into him again about a kilometre down the road. I started walking past him from behind, and just as his face came into view, I realised he was chugging a massive bottle of whisky. In an exaggerated upward sweep, he shook the last few drops out into his mouth, then chucked the glass bottle into the gutter where it smashed and showered shards all over my feet, and zigzagged his way down the thankfully-wide avenue, almost hitting a one-eyed man who was sat cross-legged in the middle of the road. While contemplating how incredibly lucky I was for not having gotten into that particular tuk-tuk, a man shouted at me from across the street – ‘Ey! Ey! Marijuana?!’. Way to be subtle about it dude. Not only was he shouting it at me across 6 lanes of traffic, but it was also the middle of the day. I feel his conspicuous dealing technique may not go down so well in other countries. He’d be first for the old cane (and maybe a little hanging) in Singapore, I tell you that. In India, you often see guys at the side of the road with giant churning cog-laden machines that they feed sugar cane into to produce sugar juice, and next to Mr Marijuana was one of these guys. Just as he was halfway through his third rendition of ‘Ey! Ey! Marij-‘ a large fragment of sugar cane came bolting out of side of the mechanism and slapped him upside the face. He shot to his feet and ran at the sugar man, who proceeded to also just… run. He left his machine running and just sprinted off into the distance, drug dealer in tow. I decided it’d be better to get a taxi home, so I jumped in the nearest one and headed back.

Next day I turned up to the hospital nice and early for my jabs. The receptionist told me to sit in the waiting room, which I did for 40 minutes. Halfway through, a surgeon, complete with blood-stained scrubs, approached me – a dude sat in the corner wearing sunglasses and listening to music – and said ‘Hello! Are you doctor?’. ‘Huh? Am I a doctor? No, of course not’. He shook his head with a bizarrely huge grin on his face and walked off. The nurse came in and said ‘The doctor is refusing to give you the vaccinations’. What?! Why?! ‘We don’t have them here. Go to the government hospital’. For God’s sake, fine. As I stormed out of the exit, the surgeon ran to the door behind me and waved me off with a hearty ‘Farewell doctor man!’.

I wound my way across town to the government hospital and… in all honesty the scenes were difficult to put into words. It was the most depressing, disturbing hospital you could ever hope to see. I felt like a less helpful Florence Nightingale after the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was absolute chaos; a mix of dried and fresh blood on the floor, dead people being wheeled around on gurneys, hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into a tiny waiting room, and the smell of rotting flesh mixed with vomit. I’ve never seen anything like it. With my sleeve covering my mouth and nose, I waded through the sea of people before arriving at the reception desk. Surprise! He spoke no English. He then led me to a different guy in a different building. That guy then led me to another building, then another, then another. Then after wandering around for over an hour, dodging the strangely-located queue of elderly male amputees in the ‘mother and child’ department, I found a guy who spoke perfect English. An Islamic man with a gigantic beard, I asked where I could get these jabs from. He walked me all the way across the neighbourhood to a totally different building, and led me to a small door and said ‘vaccinations are done in here! But it’s closed today’. I almost had a heart attack.

Part III: Agra

I have nothing to say about Agra. It’s very dull, impoverished, hot and ugly. The Taj Mahal was undoubtedly impressive close up, but that’s about all this city has going for it. The famous ‘Red Fort’ was absolute shite, and I’m glad I didn’t pay anything to get in (take that you bastards – how dare you charge £0.15 for Indians and £5 for foreigners). However, you might not know this (because photos are strictly forbidden inside), but the interior of the Taj Mahal is totally bland. It has pretty much nothing in it. It’s a mausoleum, so naturally it has a couple of graves in it, but the walls are just plain, smooth marble, and is fairly small. It’s also tiny, so in 42 degree weather with seemingly the entire population of Uttar Pradesh crammed into it, it became the most intolerable little sweatbox imaginable.

Also directly across the street from my hostel is the Jalma Leprosy Colony.

No, I’m not joking.

Gabe

Singapore: The Changi Delusion

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but Singapore was so jampacked by endless activities that I barely had a single moment to rest/write. I attempted a couple of times but failed on every occasion. I’m actually in Delhi now, and have been for a few days (in fact I’m actually leaving Delhi on a bus to Jaipur as I write this), so I’ll try to write retrospectively about my time in Singapore; five days of non-stop fun.

First things first; I love Singapore. When the time comes that I have to hang up my travelling boots and return to England, I’ll be compiling a list of all the places I’ve visited ranking from best to worst – a list which Singapore will sit very near the top of. If you’ve never been to Singapore, you must go. And that’s not a general ‘Oh you must go because it’s nice’, it’s a ‘you must go because there’s nowhere else like it on Earth’. Singapore has all the charm, weather, food and culture of Southeast Asia, but also has one big weapon in its arsenal that separates it from all the countries surrounding it – it’s filthy rich. Singapore can afford to flaunt its amazing cuisine and rainforest-like landscapes while also having universal access to clean drinking water, an excellent subway system and absolutely pristine streets.

In fact, that’s one thing that really sticks out in a slightly odd way – everyone knows about Singapore’s OCD approach to cleanliness, but it’s not until you’re there that you realise just how insane it is. It’s kind of unsettling walking around an entire city without seeing a SINGLE piece of rubbish, or a blocked drain, or an overflowing bin, or even a piece of dirt. Singapore’s government obviously goes out of the way to not only lumber its city with incredibly strictly-enforced anti-littering laws, but to power-wash every square inch of pavement, wall and road to oblivion. Everything is so shiny and neat. I know it makes it sounds kind of inauthentic and fake, but it’s really rather thrilling to be somewhere so tidy. It even makes Western Europe seem shabby. And I know the city’s level of cleanliness is brought on by a kind of bizarre draconian way of deterring offenders, but in all honesty I don’t care.

Singapore is a libertarian’s worst nightmare. There are jail sentences, fines and other punishments for just about everything within its tiny borders. Spitting on the street? $1000 fine. Smoking in public? $5000 fine. Drinking or eating anything on the subway? $1000 fine. Smuggling or supplying drugs? Mandatory death penalty. Everything is regulated, everyone is watched. It rings a little bit of a police state from the outside. I mean, to put it into perspective, chewing gum – a totally harmless little product – is banned nationwide. It’s genuinely illegal. Which is kind of mad. Yet, Singaporeans are so happy. All locals I met were at once proud of their little country, tolerant and welcoming to outsiders, and also just seemed genuinely thrilled to wake up every day and realise they’re Singaporean. It was awesome. I guess coming from one of the richest nations on Earth probably has something to do with that.

When I referred to ‘other punishments’ earlier, I’ve got one in mind that really sticks out. Taken from Singapore’s WikiVoyage page:

“For some crimes, most notably illegal entry and overstaying your visa for over 30 or 90 days, Singapore imposes caning as a punishment. Other offences which have caning as a punishment include vandalism, robbery, molestation and rape. Having sex with a girl under the age of 16 is considered to be rape under Singapore law, regardless of whether the girl consents to it, and would land you a few strokes of the cane. This is no slap on the wrist. Strokes from the thick rattan cane are excruciatingly painful, take weeks to heal and can scar for life.”

I mean… what the hell? There’s so much wrong with that one paragraph that I can barely choose where to start. First, how on Earth does Singapore believe rape and molestation are on the same level as overstaying your visa? Also I’m not a big fan of caning for illegal entry. That’s like saying “How dare you try to come to our lovely country, we’re gonna deport you straight back to your home country, but first we’re gonna smack you with a cane a bunch of times just for the f*ck of it’. Yet perhaps the most troubling thing there is Singapore’s definition of rape. A 16 year old what? Girl? What about boys? Does this law not work both ways?

But rather than dwelling on the negative, I should concentrate on the positives of a wonderful little city-state tucked away in Southeast Asia. I’ve never been anywhere so colourful – all the buildings are painted in lovely vibrant primary or secondary colours, and are lit up tastefully at night. I met a bunch of people from the hostel to hang out with for pretty much the entire time I was there. We did some intensely hot jungle trekking, went up the absolutely enormous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, went on a scooter tour, saw two light shows, and of course, drank the original Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel. This was quite an experience, it must be said. After trekking around the city in blistering heat all day, we headed toward the hotel to cool down. After asking a local for directions and my friend then hilariously telling said local that he spoke very good English (Singapore is an English-speaking country), we found the hotel, went upstairs and found an enormous queue of Chinese tourists, led by a loudmouthed little tour guide who kept shouting at us to go away to the back when we attempted to look inside. We get it you crazy midget, we’re just having a look. Don’t you be telling the English how to queue.

After waiting around for about 20 minutes, we got a table by the window. This place was awesome. Obviously extremely colonial in architecture and decor, the walls were lined with a dark brown mahogany, and we sat in ornate little armchairs. I was told by one of the group that the Raffles Hotel is the only place in Singapore where you’re allowed to litter openly, which was highlighted by the shell casings of peanuts literally all over the floor. And I’m not talking the odd peanut – I’m talking you’re literally kicking piles of them out of the way as you walk around. With our drinks we were handed a big bag of nuts ourselves, and somehow made it through the entire thing, culminating in being sat knee-deep in peanut casings for the rest of our time there.

We also went to Singapore National Museum, which was thorough and informative – I personally learned soooo much stuff about Singapore that I never knew before. Obviously we all know about its war history, and that we were forced to surrender it to the Japanese because we ballsed up our defence of the island. But I certainly didn’t know that in 1963, Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya to create a new nation; Malaysia. Then, after two years, they split again, leaving Singapore and Malaysia as the two separate nations they are today. The merger brought into light too many cultural, religious, ethnic and ideological differences between the two nations, and Malaysia decided, following severe race riots in Singapore in 1964, to expel their new compatriots. This entire plan was the brainchild of Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore following its full independence from Malaysia in 1965, and we were shown a recording of a speech he made on national TV following the failed merger, which was absolutely stunning – one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. It was so heartfelt and apologetic, and so filled with disappointment and genuine guilt, yet at the same time it was laden with hope and optimism for the future of a solo Singaporean nation. I actually clapped at the end. I looked like a mental case.

And so after five days of awesome food, awesome weather, awesome sights and some much-needed history lessons, I flew to India. On the way out of Singapore, I coined a term that highlights one of Singapore’s great flaws – The Changi Delusion. Changi Airport, Singapore’s only airport and one of the busiest in the world, constantly wins just about every award going. Any award that an airport can win, you can bet Changi’s won it, and numerous times too. Look online and you’ll see it’s got a swimming pool, a gym, a flower garden, a butterfly walk, a games station, a football viewing area and just about any shop you could ask for. Actually go to the airport and you’ll realise that’s all bullshit and none of it works. It is simply the most overrated, shittiest airport I’ve been to, and I’ve been to some seriously shitty airports. The wifi doesn’t work, the games don’t work, it’s ridiculously expensive, the pool and gym are only available to some sort of membership card holders, and the staff are utterly retarded and some of the rudest I have ever met. Balls to that airport, I hope a plane crashes into it.

I will report more from India when I’ve recovered from my 3 days in Delhi – arguably the biggest shithole on this planet. Piles of human waste, dead dogs lying in the street and the smell of cancerous pollution have been ever-presents since I touched down here, which is why I’m leaving for Jaipur as we speak. Will report more later.

Gabe

International Airspace: Commoners

Japan is somewhere I have always, always wanted to go. Its location, its culture and its landscape have all played major roles in making me wish I could visit the Land of the Rising Sun since I was about ten years old. It always seemed so mysterious, intense and, most importantly, it looked like it would be so much fun. I know people who have been to Japan before – all of them unanimously praising this strange, demanding little group of islands in the Far East. And, more so than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip, I had people telling me how incredibly envious they were of my Japan jaunt.

And they’ve a right to be envious. It was quite an experience, and really has been the two most intense weeks probably of my entire life. But – and I’m sure you knew a ‘but’ was coming – I have to admit, I’m very glad to be leaving. I saw some amazing things in Japan. I rode the bullet train the entire length of Honshu, I climbed a mountain on an island in the East China Sea and I visited the sites of the only two nuclear weapons to have been used on civilians. I went to a karaoke booth, a pachinko arcade, a sumo arena and a million Shinto shrines. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, I love travelling, but this is the first in my life where I’ve really hit a limit. And I mean a serious, immovable brick wall of a limit.

In my first blog post from Japan I very briefly touched upon the concept of culture shock. Culture shock is something that I have obviously always believed in, and I thought I had felt it at various points in my life before. But after just two weeks in Japan, I now know how incorrect I was; I now know what culture shock really is. Japan is really hard work. And I don’t mean simply on a physical level, nor do I mean it’s simply a bit of a head-f*ck. I mean it emotionally.

No matter what walk of life you come from, no matter how much patience for other cultures you have or how much luxury you can afford to holiday in, I have a very brief PSA: Do not come to Japan alone unless you are very comfortable with your own company. This is not me attempting to exaggerate for humourous purposes either. That is a genuine warning. I’ve travelled on my own before. I’ve been to Canada, the US, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Finland, Serbia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Easter Island, French Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia totally alone in the past few years, and every time they’ve been great fun. I’m very happy to spend time on my own, and I find socialising in hostels and bars pretty easy; in all the places I’ve visited, it’s been easy to strike a balance between meeting locals, meeting other travellers, and sightseeing alone if you need a little break. Japan, however, is not like that. First, let’s look at meeting locals. Actually rather than discussing it in depth, I can say two words to sum up your chances of that happening; good luck. Barely anybody speaks English, and those who do speak an incredibly limited amount. Moreover – and I’m sorry but it’s true – the cultural and social differences, for me personally, were just too vast. If I ever did come across a Japanese native my age who spoke a little bit of English, the conversation would stutter and die over and over again as we tried to find things we could both talk about. I think both of us would expect the other to have a frame of reference closer to our own, but in reality the UK and Japan are just worlds apart in so many ways.

Then, there’s meeting other travellers. I met some people in my Tokyo hostel just fine, cos it’s Tokyo and there are foreigners everywhere; you’re bound to meet at least a couple of people to grab a drink with, even if you do have to dodge the hoards of solo middle-aged white men who have decided that a youth hostel in Japan is the place they want to spend their remaining days before inevitably offing themselves. There were some great nights in Tokyo, wandering around until dawn, but in most other places (save one night in Hiroshima), the kind of people you’d actually want to hang around with were few and far between.

There’s a word that the Japanese use, ‘Gaijin’, meaning a westerner who comes to Japan. While it literally translates as ‘outside person’, in reality it’s often used in a pejorative manner; it’s used to describe people who come to Japan that are socially awkward or ‘weird’ in some other way. During my stay in Japan, jumping from city to city and hostel to hostel, I met maybe eight people – max – who were not ‘Gaijin’ in the truly negative sense of the word. The number of lisping, leery, lanky losers I met across the entire country was astounding. They’d turn up alone to Japan, just like I had done, but then either refused to socialise, or attempted to but just been too weird to hang out with. Don’t get me wrong, I can take a bit of weirdness as long as there’s some humour or self-awareness, but these people had no redeeming features. I felt for the ones who were so scared of socialising that they couldn’t get a sentence out without stumbling over every other word and sweating all over their crusty anime shirts. It’s good to chat to them sometimes because they can reveal themselves to be nice people underneath that awkward exterior.

But then there are the ones who you just wish would disappear. In Nagasaki, I checked into a hostel to a totally empty room. Awesome, I can make as much noise in the morning as I want (I had a 7am start the next day), and don’t have to wear my headphones for my music. Then, at 11:30pm, when I was in bed, a guy probably in his mid-30s with two lazy eyes came storming into the room and turned the light on. Nice entrance mate. I said ‘Hi’, to be polite, and he said, with a bizarre lisp, ‘Hi. Where are you from?’. A half asleep dude, in his underwear, in bed, with the light off – is really the guy you’re gonna go to for a chat right now? ‘England’. ‘Me too! Whereabouts?’. I told him I was originally from Brighton, but had lived in London for a few years. ‘Oh I’m from London too (I didn’t say I was from London) but I moved away. Where do you live? How expensive is it?’. Jesus man give me a chance. ‘I live in Dulwich’, ‘I don’t know where that is’. You’re a Londoner and you don’t know where Dulwich is? He continued ‘It’s just too expensive these days. It’s so nasty too, filled with foreigners, that’s why I moved to Slough.’

Ohhhhhhhh how I laughed internally. Though I didn’t crack a smile, it felt like I was about to have ten hernias at once; the veins in my head probably looked like the outside of Pompidou Centre. Sure, you can believe Slough is superior despite John Betjeman’s famous poem about how shit it is, but don’t call where I live ‘nasty’, just in the same way I didn’t laugh in your face when you talked about how great Slough is.

The conversation died and I turned over to sleep, only for him to suddenly continue; ‘Why are you here?’. I mean there are certainly better ways of asking that question, but I told him I was on a round the world trip, and that I’d done South America before here. ‘Oh I did South America too! What did you think of the girls there?’, he asked. ‘I dunno man, they’re just girls’. He replied ’Yeah but they were so easy. Everywhere I went they were so easy. So beautiful and so easy’. From the way this guy spoke, I could tell he was the kid people would give a dead leg for fun on the way to class, or a firm punch on the upper arm – there was no way this guy was drowning in girls in the manner he attested to. I also found it a little odd that he kept talking about how easy they were; that’s not a universal ‘guy-thing’ that’s gonna get me to respond. It just makes you sound insecure and fairly misogynistic. If anything, I’m gonna tell you to shut up because I’m trying to sleep, I’m not going to suddenly become Finchy from The Office and start making up bullshit stories about hundreds of Hispanic girls throwing themselves at me. I don’t travel for that kind of wannabe-macho crap. And anyway, I’m not exactly Ryan Gosling, but if that wasn’t happening to me, it sure as shit wasn’t happening to Captain Crosseyed over here. I told him I wasn’t really looking for that, and he responded with ‘Yeah but they’re Argentinian! All you have to do is talk. They love the English’. I think someone needs to go read a history book. The final nail in the coffin, the straw that broke the socially-inept camel’s back, was this quote from out of nowhere; ‘I love travelling in Japan because people aren’t common’. Huh? Not common? There are people everywhere, you meet them all the time. I had no idea what he meant, so I asked, and he said ‘Like common people. A lot of people can’t afford to come here so you don’t have to meet any common people’. Holy f*cking shit. My jaw on the floor, I sat there in total silence, staring dead at him, waiting for him to find a way to redeem himself after such an abhorrent comment. Yet, despite my reaction of horrified incredulity, he just paused for another 30 seconds before almost silently stuttering out ‘… y’know like chavs’. I got out of bed, switched the light off and went to sleep without another word.

Yesterday I made a gigantic balls up. My train from Nagasaki all the way back to Tokyo was booked for 14:20, arriving at 22:40. I got to the station early and asked if I could change to the 13:20 train instead, and I could, so now I was due in at 22:10. At my first of three interchanges, however, I had a 50 minute wait for my Shinkansen, so I got on an earlier one – I have unlimited rail travel so it doesn’t matter how I get around, right? Turns out the Shinkansen has a number of varieties, two of which are not covered by the JR Pass, including the Nozomi service. I accidentally got on a Nozomi bound for Tokyo, but after the first stop the conductor told me I couldn’t be on this train. I played the stupid foreigner card and he told me to get off at the next station. Ah well, I’ll just wait for my original train. I have no idea which station I was at, but after waiting around for 20 minutes, I stood and stared as my original Shinkanen – the one I was booked on – went zooming past at 200mph. Oh dear. I ran downstairs to check the timetable, and took my jacket off as it was so hot, at which point I realised I had also left my brand new hoodie on the original Nozomi train.

I threw my jacket back on, ran to the ticket office and asked what they could do about it. Turns out they could phone the individual trains. Awesome! But what happened next was such a comedy of errors on both sides that I was left with my head in my hands for most of the conversation. I told them I had left my black hoodie on the train. They thought I wanted to know when the next train was. I told them again what had happened. They thought I meant just a hood (I wouldn’t even know what this means). I corrected them. They thought I meant my jacket, and pointed at the jacket I was currently wearing, saying ‘but you’re wearing your jacket now’. I told them thanks for the astute observation, but that it was a black hoodie I was looking for, using wild hand gestures. They finally understood and asked where I was sitting. I told them I was in carriage #1, which I was. They asked which seat. I hadn’t checked this, but was in the very front row of the carriage, in the window seat to the far right, so said ‘1-D’, which logically makes sense, like on a plane. The little woman behind the counter phoned the train and had a long conversation. I stood and waited, feeling like I was watching my life draining away. She hung up and told me it wasn’t there. I said it literally had to be there. She asked again which carriage I was in. I said #1. She assured me that that’s what she had told the conductor on the train, saying ‘I told him to look in the first carriage’. I told her no, I meant carriage #1; the train had just reversed at Hakata terminal when I got on, so was running backwards, with carriage #1 at the very back of the train. She looked shocked, apologised profusely, and phoned again. I could see now that the next train I could get on was in 12 minutes, and I was quickly running out of time here. Again, she hung up and told me they couldn’t find it. I told them that was literally impossible as I was telling her exactly where it was. She deliberated for a minute before asking if the seat number was definitely right, getting out a little diagram of the seating plan. I pointed at the seat I was sat at, saying ‘1-D, right down at the front on the right’. She told me no, the seat I was pointing at was seat 18-A. I asked her how on Earth that could be right. She said that the train has reversed, so the seats have reversed numbers as well as the carriage, and the letters A to D have been mirrored to reflect travelling backwards. Thinking this was literally the most illogical, needlessly complicated system to ever have been used in a seat-numbering system, I put my hands on my knees in a sort of existential despair, and told her that yes, under that ridiculous system, I guess that must have been my seat. She phoned again, this time with an exceptionally long conversation. I looked around to see that I now had 4 minutes until my train. She hung up and asked me what colour it was. I told them, again, that it was black. She phoned again and hung up after two words, telling me that yes, they had found the hoodie. Did she really need to hang up in order to ask me what colour it was? Two minutes until the train now. I thanked her profusely and asked where I should pick it up. She didn’t understand me. I asked where I should collect it, making a symbol of ‘collecting’ with my hands, though I’m not sure what it must’ve looked like to her. She did understand me though, but then drew a total blank with her English, flapping her hands up and down. She obviously knew what she wanted to say but didn’t know the English for it. She said it in Japanese and I just looked at her with a face of panic and confusion. My train was now pulling into the station. One minute until it left. I shrugged at her, and she scrambled to get her phone out of her pocket. She opened Google Translate and frantically typed away. 30 seconds left. She turned it around to show me; ‘Osaka Station Lost & Found’. I shouted ‘Doumo arigato gozai maaaaaaas’ and went sprinting down the station concourse and up the escalator. I made it across the platform but the door shut on my suitcase as I was pushing it into the train in front of me. I wasn’t taking this bullshit so I just forced the door back open with my foot as a guard down the platform cried out in horror of my conduct. The doors closed behind me and I collapsed to the floor of the carriage, sitting there until I could catch my breath. I made it.

I got to Osaka after a few more train changes, short of breath and a little drunk after taking the edge off with a couple of Asahis. I had a full half-hour to make my connection, this’d be fine. I looked up at a sign reading ‘Lost & Found’, with an arrow pointing up, meaning forward. I walked forward and about 100m further down I saw another one, so continued walking. I walked for around five minutes until I had reached literally the end of the station. I walked outside for some reason in the hope it may be there, and was greeted by a bunch of taxi drivers shouting for my business. I ran back inside and headed back to where I had come from, where I saw another sign for lost property with a ‘down’ arrow next to it, facing the other direction. Turns out an ‘up’ arrow in Japan means behind you. So I frantically scrambled across the concourse with my now wheel-less suitcase until I found a small door with ‘Lost and Find’ written on it. I slid it open to reveal a guy sat behind a tiny desk, who immediately stood to attention.

“Black hoodie?” I said, hopefully. His response, in apologetic Japanese, indicated that this conversation may be rather difficult as he spoke no English. I made the same hoodie gesture as before and he asked where it was. I said it should be here. He gestured that he had no idea, but before I could reply he ran off and grabbed a colleague who could speak limited English. “Where you hoodie?” he said, to which I frustratedly replied “Here! It should be here!”. They both made a simultaneously inquisitive hoodie gesture to check that I was definitely on the same wavelength. They told me no and there was nothing they could do. I told them the other guys said it was here, to which they told me it might be in Tokyo. I said I don’t have time to collect it in Tokyo. They said they’d send it to me. I told them I was leaving Japan the following day. They told me they couldn’t ship internationally. I told them I knew that as there was a giant sign behind them stating that exact clause. They said “Hoodie?” one more time, to which I said “Yes! A hoodie! In Osaka! It will be here!” to which the guy suddenly went “Ah!”, and disappeared for a second into a side door before returning with my hoodie in hand.

I mean seriously guys, what the Christ. You had it all along and I’ve been stood here for 15 minutes with you telling me it’s in Tokyo?! Jesus. I thanked them and again found myself sprinting for the train, making it with around 30 seconds to spare this time. Phew.

I’m in Singapore now, so will report more from here maybe tomorrow, but for now, that’s the Japan portion of my trip done and dusted. I am so exhausted it’s not even true. While it was experience I will never ever forget, it’ll also always be one that I would heed many words of warning to others before attempting. It’s hard work.

Gabe

Nagasaki: It Was The Best Of Times…

Part I: Death Stare

Nagasaki is very, very different to Hiroshima. There’s not a chance in hell I’m going over all the stuff I talked about in my last post, but there are a number of things about this city – particularly in regards to its history – that I find a little… unsettling.

I’m currently bolting out of Nagasaki on the Kyushu Line, to join the Shinkansen back to Tokyo at Hakata. That’s a nine-hour train journey right there, so plenty of time to reflect on the four Japanese cities I’ve seen in my time here. To sum it up succinctly, Tokyo was insane, Kyoto was beautiful, Hiroshima was peaceful, and Nagasaki? Well Nagasaki is a total enigma. First off, it’s not particularly pretty. It’s surrounded by some spectacular mountain landscapes, but the city itself is mostly concrete with the odd cobbled street thrown in. Kyoto, untouched by the war and full of ancient shrines, has a mysteriously likeable imperial feel to its aesthetic set-up. Hiroshima too had an almost-Scandinavian quaintness to it with small sidestreets, tree-lined avenues and a calming atmosphere. Tokyo is a sprawling monster of a megalopolis but even that had a certain something about it, just by the sheer force of its visual intensity. Nagasaki, meanwhile, is nothing to look at. Though the natural bay it sits in is absolutely stunning, the fact that it sits here also means it’s a big churning industrial port that never sleeps – its proximity to both China and South Korea means gigantic ships come and go at all times of the day and night. Combine that with a city centre that is about as grey and boring as possible and you have a pretty boring city aesthetically.

That is not to say that the city itself is boring. Far from it, in fact. And yet, it’s the first place I’ve been that I’m not sure I’ve liked because of that fact. Nagasaki constantly keeps your mind ticking. Sometimes it’s when you’re going up the side of a mountain in a cable car, sometimes it’s when you’re getting a boat across the harbour, and sometimes it’s when you’re near anything related to the bomb.

Oh, the bomb. How much you have ruined this city. Not only am I sure it was once a pretty little harbour town, but I’m also sure it was once populated by sane people. The bomb changed both of those things. Remember how I said it felt like Hiroshima had come to terms with their bomb and had moved on to promoting peace? Nagasaki pretends to do the same, but it’s total bullshit and I don’t buy it for a second. I don’t mind this city as there’s enough to do aside from bomb-related things, but anything regarding the bomb just made me furious.

Before I came to Nagasaki, I met many people in Japan who said they’d also liked to have gone but that it was too far away, or they didn’t have time. I met one person who heard from someone who heard from someone who had once gone, that Nagasaki is still very angry about the bomb, in a way that Hiroshima isn’t. I thought that couldn’t really be right, and that it was just something people would say because nobody else has been to Nagasaki to prove it. But holy shit were they right. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which is far more developed and flashy than its Hiroshima counterpart, is like – and I’m not joking – stepping into North Korea. It is so laden with anti-American sentiment and cloying, sentimental, self-pitying bullshit that I literally couldn’t believe they were getting away with it. We all know the bombing was a bad thing, whether it ended the war or not. Even if it was our best option and gave us the optimal conclusion, that doesn’t mean it was a good thing. Yet the museum at Nagasaki acts as if the Allies dropped the A-Bomb for shits and giggles, like they were all sitting around at Potsdam chuckling to themselves over their brandy until Churchill got drunk enough to dare Truman to drop it on Nagasaki.

What this museum did that Hiroshima’s did not do was discuss the context of the bomb. Or at least it attempted to; it had a giant wall devoted to a timeline of the history of the atomic bomb, but it only showed the progression of the Manhattan Project, not its correlation to the war. If you didn’t know already, it would have looked like the Americans were just blowing shit up in the Nevada desert for fun and then randomly dropped it on Japan for no reason. The timeline made it look like there was no war.

Or that was until the last panel. Two big photos sat side by side; one of Harry S. Truman, the other of US Army General Thomas T. Handy. Handy’s photo had a big caption that pointedly and accusingly read ‘Thomas T. Handy – the man who gave the order to drop the bomb’. Truman’s photo was captioned with a quote from just after the bombing; We have used [the bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young AMERICANS‘. Just like that, with the word ‘Americans’ emboldened and capitalised, as if to say ‘Look at these evil allies, only caring about themselves!’. It’s war, genius. Every man for himself.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate the gravity of the situation being discussed here. As I stated earlier in the week, the bombs indiscriminately killed hundreds of thousands of people. It is both morbidly fascinating and stomach-churningly disturbing to look through the artifacts laid out in the museum, like the row of children’s lunchboxes that have been melted, or bone fragments fused to brick, a two-foot thick iron girder bent out of shape like spaghetti. It really hits home the insane destructive power of the bomb, and highlights that yes, we really did make people suffer and that is something that can never be erased from history.

Yet if you were to look at from the other side, using this museum as a proxy, you’d think it was all for nothing. By playing itself up as the victim, Japan whitewashes its history leading up to the bomb. We bombed Japan because the Japanese were refusing to surrender. We dropped the bomb because, whether they agree with it or not, we truly believed we would be saving more lives. I understand it seems like ‘special treatment’ in a negative way, because it was; that type of bomb should never have been used on people.

But Nagasaki isn’t interested in what we think. Hiroshima, with dignity and patience, debated the morality of the bombing with great philosophical endeavour and intelligence. Nagasaki comes out all guns blazing. Hey look at this photo of a kid with a melted face. Hey look at this letter a mum wrote to her dying baby. Hey look at this really sad testimony of a man whose wife died. I don’t come to museums to be told what to think, thanks. I know enough about this subject to know that the curators should have been far more restrained and respectful – by showcasing images of the dead in such an exploitative, tasteless fashion it not only degrades the subjects, but negates the whole point of discussing the bomb at all. If you cannot internally debate the ethics of the bomb, you should not talk about the bomb, full stop.

And then on to what I found to be the most outrageously offensive thing about this museum; its patrons. I was the only westerner in there, which is fine – you’re the only westerner in most places you go in Japan. That’s not the issue. The issue is this; at Hiroshima’s museum, we were stood around looking at a scale model of the city, with coloured lights being flashed onto it to denote shockwaves and fireballs etc, to demonstrate scale. Everyone stood hunched over the model in concentrated, respectful silence. Put the corresponding Nagaski model in the museum in that city and what happens? A bunch of bullshit is what happens. In the most absurdly un-Japanese fashion possible, the room turned into Kim Jong-Il’s funeral; gasps and yelps of despair suddenly lit up the room just as the spotlight lit up mini-Nagasaki in a bright orange glow. I looked up to discover that all of the women and girls present, which comprised just over half the people standing around the model, were crying.

This is a scale model of a city with a light on it. Save your crocodile tears for the photos of dead babies if you’re going to so openly play your victim card. I do not care how heartless any of this sounds – I’m not having this melodramatic nonsense – and if you were there you too would’ve seen how incredibly fake it all was. Although it’s a bit odd to say, I think realistically we all know what real crying sounds like, and trust me, this was not it. Also, this model city is the first thing you come across as you walk into the museum. It’s literally 5ft inside the front door, and already you’re all bursting into tears of grief? Looks suspiciously like you turned up ready to cry on demand, considering literally every single Japanese person in the museum at Hiroshima could keep their emotions in check; even if they secretly wanted to drop a million bombs on the US as revenge, they quietly wandered about, respectfully observing the exhibits and not openly showcasing how they felt about it. Funny how they managed that while you guys in Nagasaki couldn’t make it three strides through the front door before having a public breakdown.

And so I walked around getting a lot of something I would end up getting rather used to; the death stare. From what I could gather, and perhaps understandably, Nagasaki-ites don’t like Americans. Problem is, they also appear to think that anyone who looks vaguely western is American. I would walk around town and talk to people in shops/restaurants, and most would either shoot me a look that could kill a man, or ask me if I was American. Yep. Not ‘Where are you from?’, but ‘Are you an American?’. I got this maybe seven or eight times during my time here. I would always say ‘No. I’m English.’, which usually brought about a big smile of relief and an ‘OK!’ symbol with their hands (like we had nothing to do with bombing). However, when a cashier at a 7/11 in town frowned at me as I got to the counter asked me the same question again, I lost it. You’re working in a chain convenience store, don’t ask your customers shit like that. ‘Are you American?’ echoed down the noodle aisle, and with a big smile on my face, I said; ‘No I’m not a goddamn American but I can become one if you don’t mind your own business and serve me the coffee I asked for’. He had absolutely no idea what I said. I don’t really have any idea what I meant. There was a pause, and with a look of defeat I said ‘English’, to which his face suddenly exploded into a grin – ‘OK good!’ he exclaimed and he ran off to get my coffee. Good? It’s good that I’m English and not American? I’m loathed to be too self-righteous about this sort of thing, but if the positions were switched and I said ‘Are you Korean?’ and was visibly relieved when he told me he was Japanese, wouldn’t that be considered fairly racist?

Back in the museum, I was reaching the final few exhibits. I got to the end of the interactive exhibit room where I found a small corner with a couple of touchscreen TVs in it, and a series of buttons numbering 1-5. I looked up at the contents. Button #3: Sino-Japanese War. Aha! I’ve finally found some discussion of historical context for the bomb.

‘… the hard-fought war between Japan and China continued as Japan took more territory from the Chinese, culminating in the Japanese taking the city of Nanking, where they committed a massacre’.

… That’s it? Seriously, that’s all you can say about the Rape of Nanking? You can devote an entire multi-storey museum to the suffering caused by the atomic bomb, but all you could muster up for one of the worst war crimes in the history of humankind is half a sentence on a screen hidden in the corner? Oh yeah you looooove going into gratuitous gruesome detail about the things we did to you, either beating your chest as a show of nationalistic defiance or weeping like little bitch, but when it comes to your atrocities, you hurry the narrative along as it suits you. Tell me, where are all the women from earlier? Why aren’t they here, huddled around the screen, crying for the rape, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese men, women and children? Where are their tears now? Seems like their tear ducts dried pretty sharpish.

The bomb caused unimaginable pain, suffering and heartache. As someone born in a country that was on the opposing side to Japan and facilitated the bombing more than any other country outside the US, I am openly willing to admit that. It was awful. Of course it was, and it was our doing. But why can’t this museum treat me with the same respect? To this place, the bomb was 100% wrong, the Rape Of Nanking is just a footnote, and the Americans are the very essence of evil. If anything it was that very brutality that the Japanese military showcased in China that led to the dropping of the bomb in the first place; by looking at past behaviour, Truman could tell they weren’t going to give up without drastic measures being taken, even if they were on their last legs by August 1945. They were going to fight – mercilessly so – until all their soldiers were dead.

And yet, what really hurt me more than anything was that the people that were crying the most, and making the biggest show of their grief, were my age. Mid-20s at the oldest, early teens at their youngest. What were they weeping for? I bet their grandparents barely remember the bomb, let alone them or even their parents. By contrast, the two oldest people in the museum- the only couple present who looked old enough to have potentially been able to remember the bomb – did and said nothing. They just observed silently.

To me, this symbolised a really dangerous precipice that Japan is sat on. As I said in my last post, the Japanese education system has faced criticism recently for whitewashing Japan’s war crimes out of its national curriculum, including the events at Nanking, and the infamous Unit 731. Were these kids, stood across the room from me, not being told about these things? And what sort of bizarre nationalism had they been force-fed to persuade them to stand weeping in public in such an incredibly inauthentic fashion? It was an absolutely surreal, confusing and, above all else, grossly insulting sight.

And on the flip side, the museum was always going to be fighting a losing battle trying to make me feel guilty. I’m the same age as the people with tears streaming down their face at what they perceive to be a great injustice – born a full 46 years after the bomb was even dropped. My country might have dropped the bomb, but I sure as shit didn’t. I mean Jesus Christ, I shouldn’t have to say it but it would be the same as me expecting a German my age to feel guilty about the Holocaust. I’m self-aware enough to know it would be an utter embarrassment to even think that, and it is that exact lack of arrogant self-awareness that will forever taint this museum in my memory.

The city of Hiroshima has come together as a community, and tried to heal its wounds with a graceful acceptance of the horror of the Second World War. Nagasaki has done no such thing. Nagasaki was handed an unenviable place in the history books, so it ripped out the page, burned it and wrote its own. I hurried through the remainder of the Nagasaki propaganda museum, gave back my headset, went the memorial hall, bowed to the cenotaph (I’m not going to hold this museum’s twisting of the truth against those who were killed), and promptly left.

*      *      *      *      *

Part II: Big Man

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Awesome technique on the skins

One thing Nagasaki definitely has going for it is trains. Being positioned at the very far western end of Japan, you’d think it’d be a simple one-line terminus. Oh no. Nagasaki’s got a bunch of lines branching off all over the place. Including, I discovered, the Ōmura Railway, a cute little two-car train that runs up and down the northwest coast of the island of Kyushu. Which, as it turns out, is absolutely spectacular. I discovered that in the period after the war, the US had an army base in the small seaside town of Sasebo, about two hours up the coast from Nagasaki by train. In 1950, they officially introduced the burger to the Japanese. As a result, it’s now known as ‘Burger Town’, and has a group of restaurants that all make their own special burgers. Hungry and a little bored, I took the coastal line all the way up to Sasebo to check out what it was like (plus after the museum I was not in the mood to hang around Nagasaki until I’d calmed down). The Ōmura Railway, leading from Nagasaki, snaking around Ōmura Bay to Sasebo, is one of the most scenic train journeys I’ve ever been on. Looking out across the water to the mountains on the far side of the bay was a sight to behold, punctuated by tiny little fishing towns with a one-way train line meandering through them.

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Someone locked the Colonel in at 3am

Then I got to Huis Ten Bosch. Yes, despite being a ‘town’ in Japan, it has a Dutch name, but all will become clear in a moment, for Huis Ten Bosch is maybe the weirdest example of Japanese audacity and abnormality I had seen so far. Listed online as a theme park, it has no real attractions. Instead, it is an exact replica of a Dutch town. With shops. And restaurants. You pay £40 to get in, and then you’re just… in a town. It’s like a holiday for people who can’t pay to get to the Netherlands. Balls to paying that much, so I just peered in as we skidded past on the train – it was absolutely bizarre. Little cobbled streets, a neo-gothic clock tower, and a palace modelled on the Huis Ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. What on Earth was the point in this? Well, I looked it up, and it was something along the lines of ‘to strengthen ties between the two nations’. Really? You could just hold a meeting of leaders or do a state visit, you don’t have to go batshit insane and replicate an entire town. It’s like the diplomatic equivalent of a serial killer tearing off someone’s face and wearing it as their own.

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Sasebo Harbour

I got to Sasebo, which is a fairly unremarkable little town, and found a ‘burger map’, listing each place and their speciality burger. I chose one called Big Man, simply because of its name, which did a bacon & egg burger with special homemade Japanese mayonnaise. My kind of burger. I wandered over to discover that it was a tiny little place with about four places to sit. I took the only available seat and had my truly excellent, juicy burger with some fries on the side and a pot of their mayonnaise for them. Holy shit that mayo. It was absolutely spectacular. I’ve only ever had better mayo in Belgium, and that is saying something. Who’d’ve thought the most remote corner of Japan would be the home of mayonnaise that bloody good? I certainly didn’t, but by sitting in Big Man with my fantastic food, overlooking the harbour as the sun went down, I had given myself one of the highlights of my trip.

I also decided that I would spend all my time in Nagasaki alone. Which has been quite fun, but also pretty challenging. Very few people speak English in Japan, and even fewer do in Nagasaki. Plus, romaji, Japanese written in the Latin alphabet, is pretty much nowhere to be found around here, so I can’t even tell where I’m going or what I’m doing most of the time. However, every once in a while you find some English translations that are absolute gems. I found a pachinko arcade (a type of Japanese gambling arcade) with this written on the front door;

“Ladies and Gentle man,

Buckle your belt, the adventure is about to commence.

It is in our nature to serve you with excitement and your fun,

so we will be learning much about the universe in this place.

What joy! What fun! What good! Enter at once!”

It’s an arcade, not the space shuttle. Relax. Trust me, you have no idea how much I wish I’d gotten a photo, but my phone battery was too low. I had to hurriedly write it down on my arm with a pen from my laptop bag for all to see. Also on that note when I was in Kyoto I had a subway map that accidentally referred to it as the ‘Kyoto dubway’.

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Hashima Island

This morning I had to get up at retard o’clock to make my reservation for a tour of Hashima Island. Hashima Island (also known as Gunkanjima – ‘Battleship Island’) is a miniscule-yet-notorious island about half an hour off the coast of Nagasaki. In 1810, this tiny little lump of land sticking out of the Sumo-Nada Sea was discovered to be totally surrounded by undersea coal deposits. By the end of the century, it had been developed into a huge mine, contained around 5,000 workers, and the island had been artificially expanded to about three times its original size. In order to house the workers, Japan’s first ever high-rise apartment blocks were built on the island. At that point it had a population density nine times that of Tokyo. This island is literally about 100ft x 400ft. For 5,000 people to live there is crazy. Then in 1974, due to a mixture of coal going out of fashion and it being an insanely dangerous mine stretching to 350m below the seabed, it was closed. The workers moved back to Kyushu, and the island was abandoned. And it’s stood like that ever since – a partially-ruined mess of apartment blocks, mine shaft entrances and shrines. Half the buildings have collapsed, and the remainder are just concrete shells. Pretty cool stuff.

In fact, so cool and such a part of the country’s industrial history is the island that in 2015, Japan submitted it to UNESCO for approval as a World Heritage Site. At which point South Korea and China both went ‘Hey isn’t that the island where hundreds – if not thousands – of Chinese and Korean forced labour workers were kept under appalling conditions?’, to which UNESCO responded with ‘Yo Japan is this shit true?’. Japan offered a half-hearted acknowledgement of the issue, and that’s all UNESCO needed; they passed it later that year. I should probably add that North Korea also took issue with the proposal, but North Korea bitching about forced labour? Gimme a break. Then again you could probably say the same of China. God, who knows.

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Abandoned stuff

The island was cool, to be fair. It’s a little expensive to get to and the sea on the way out is choppy to say the least, but it’s still worth seeing. One problem is that you absolutely cannot stray from the guided group, and you can only stand in three designated ‘viewing points’, all of which are squished at the western end of the island. Which reminded me of how, when I was in Tallinn, Estonia, I went to Paterei Prison, which was surprisingly similar – an abandoned former prison that was left to ruin – you could pay €3 entry to just go in and mess around. You could go into any building, climb any ladder, walk on any rooftop. Nothing was off limits. I mean, the Japanese approach is the more sensible, but be honest, which sounds the more fun?

Lo and behold, neither my guide, nor the English-language leaflet I was given on the island, mentioned any form of human rights abuses. What a surprise. They just talked about the depth of the mine, the danger of working in it, and the living conditions, which they seemed to suggest were rather good. Buuuuullshit my friend. I personally loved this note from the leaflet;

“Completed in 1958, the Hashima Hospital and Quarantine Ward was built to protect the health of the mine workers who risked their lives in the pit, and the families living on the island. For the people on Hashima, the existence of this hospital was undoubtedly reassuring.”

2016-03-29 11.02.28Oh yeah I can just imagine being kept to do forced labour on a shitty little concrete island, thinking ‘well at least if I get hurt doing this incredibly difficult and dangerous job I’m literally being forced to do, I’ll be saved from the sweet embrace of death!’ Also ‘their families on the island’? Somehow, I doubt the Chinese and Korean workers were that lucky. I also get the feeling these workers probably didn’t feel the full benefit of what was – according to the leaflet – the extremely beautiful, calming rooftop flower gardens on the island. We sped back on the boat across the sea, making some nice jumps on the way. I got to the harbour, went to the hostel to pick up my suitcase (which now has no wheels rather than one), and, after an epic slog across town, carrying the suitcase on my head, I got on the Shinkansen.

And so ends my time in Nagasaki. It’s been weird and wild and I’ve had a lot to say about it. The night view from the top of Mt. Inasa was mind-blowing, Hashima Island was intriguing, and the museum was many things, but at least it wasn’t boring. One more night in Tokyo, then I fly to Singapore. I’ll do another blog post as a perspective piece on my experience of Japan as a whole before I leave.

Wow, that was a long post.

Gabe

Hiroshima: Shadows

20160326_142202There’s something about Hiroshima that is undeniably special. Yet, as many people I’ve met who have passed through here will tell you, it’s not the most exciting city you’re likely to visit in your life. It’s small, quaint and – by Japanese standards – rather quiet. And it is that quietude, that oddly sleepy peacefulness that can be felt across the city, that holds the door open for what makes Hiroshima a place I will never forget.

As everyone is fully aware, Hiroshima was the site of the first atomic bomb to be used on living people, be they military or civilian. At 8:15am on 8th August 1945, the US dropped the A-bomb on this city, destroying 92% of all structures in a 2-mile radius and killing upwards of 140,000 people in one monumental flash of energy. President Truman, 16 hours later, ordered the immediate surrender of the Empire of Japan, an order which was, seemingly, ignored altogether. Three days later, on 9th August, a second bomb was dropped on the town of Nagasaki, killing a further 60,000 people in similar fashion. On August 15th, Japan finally surrendered to the Allied Forces, and WWII was over.

I wish I could talk about the events of 6th August 1945 in a similar fashion to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. That is, with little talk of the war, or who was right and who was wrong. However, the museum and memorial, which I visited yesterday, is one of most truly saddening places I’ve ever set foot. Such was its impact on me, I feel I have to discuss more than just the events that took place. I always thought I had the bombings and their consequences sussed in my head, but I could not have been more wrong. After years of hearing about the bombing as a distant piece of history, it wasn’t until being stood at ground zero, the speck of land where thousands of people died, that I really felt the truest sense of unease and melancholy of my life. I didn’t know what to think.

20160326_141436After my first day in Hiroshima involved going to the majestic Miyajima Island and finally indulging in some real Japanese karaoke, I decided that the full 24 hours of my second day would be devoted to the bomb. Waking up in the morning, I dragged myself to the train station, put my luggage in a locker, and headed for the streetcar. Checking the map revealed that ‘A-Bomb Dome’ was the name of one of the stations in the dead centre of the city, at the end of a bridge over the meeting point of two rivers. If you’ve ever done any research on post-war Hiroshima, you may be aware of the A-Bomb Dome that the station takes its name from; a once-municipal building that is now a concrete, rubble-laden shell. It was almost directly under the fireball when the bomb detonated, and yet, while the building was totally hollowed-out by the blast and portions of it were knocked down, most of the structure inexplicably remained standing. And here, almost 71 years after Little Boy was dropped, it still stands, untouched, as an inadvertent memorial. As I headed towards it, I thought I knew what to expect – a building. And not just any building; a building I’ve seen many photos of. I knew what it looked like, where it was, and the history behind it. Yet, when we approached the bridge and the Dome came into view from behind a row of trees, I got chills like I had never ever felt before. I got off, walked over to the front of the building, and just stayed there, staring into the front doors at the piles of bricks in the lobby. While it may have once been a truly impressive feat of architecture, it now looks on the verge of turning to dust.

For about 20 minutes I just stood in awe of this hideously disfigured structure, and yet at the same time I can’t quite figure out what it was that I found so moving about standing in front of this building. If anything, it doesn’t really retroactively demonstrate the power of the bomb; although it is some sort of bizarre miracle that it remained standing, that doesn’t hide the fact that the bomb, from directly above, couldn’t destroy this simple concrete structure. Yet I know, deep down, that in a fraction of a second, every person standing in this now-gutted coffin of a building on the 8th August 1945 was vaporised in an instant.

In fact, that is perhaps the most disturbing – and in my opinion the most telling – fact regarding the power of the two bombs dropped on Japan. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, over 6,500 are still listed as missing – their bodies were never found. 6,568 civilians, going about their normal morning routine, were, without warning, disintegrated into thin air in the blink of an eye.

One of the things that hit me hardest in the museum was along these lines. The steps of a bank in the centre of the city had been cut from its original structure (or presumably found in the rubble), and placed behind glass in the museum. On the second white marble step was a faded grey-black stain about 2ft across. It was revealed that a man had been sat there when the bomb went off, waiting for the bank to open at 8:30am. And within one second, all that we could look down on through the museum’s glass case was all that he had become – a shadow on the pavement.

And there would have been hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of these all over Hiroshima. People emphatically not partaking in Japan’s wartime aggression against the Allied Forces, who were mere bystanders to the truly horrendous Pacific Theatre, bore the brunt of the US’s quest for revenge. Having studied the bomb in the past, having conflicted views internally about its morality and now actually being stood at the site where the bomb fell, it’s very difficult for me to see it any other way; it really felt like a revenge mission by the Allies. The Japanese had put their soldiers through hell all across the South Pacific with ruthless barbarism and unwillingness to surrender when the war was already lost, and I firmly believe that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets in order to exact vengeance on the Japanese people as a whole.

There will forever be debate about the morality of dropping the bomb on civilians. That goes without saying. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen because up until that point they had been spared any bombing campaigns. Thus, the destructive power of the bomb would be fully showcased. However, I personally feel that this power could have best been demonstrated elsewhere. A port or a military base. Or, perhaps, that the US could have given Japan a last-minute warning; tell them that they have a weapon ready to be used that will destroy an entire city in one go, and at least give the Japanese a chance to evacuate some civilians. But instead, the bomb was dropped with no prior information imparted, and we absolutely obliterated an entire functioning, living, breathing organism of a city in one go.

However, I’m not self-righteous. I think of myself as a realist and I wholeheartedly do not buy into the theory that it was inherently wrong to drop the bomb, and I also like to think I understand the American perspective in the run-up to the event. Rather than being reductionist and naively dismissive by suggesting that the US should be ashamed of themselves, or that they were just thirsty for blood, I feel like if you had been an American citizen during the Second World War, what happened would have been a preferable outcome for three reasons.

First, it ended the war. Simply put, that was just about the number one priority for every nation on Earth at that point, apart from Japan. The second is along similar lines; the invasion of the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa was brutal and bloody enough as it was, yet, had the bomb not been a strong enough deterrent, an Allied land invasion of mainland Japan had already been planned as a backup. This likely would have dragged the war on for many more months and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

The third is a little more controversial. I know people love to be pious and holier-than-thou about this kind of thing, but I can hold my hands up and admit that I know, if I was in America in the 1940s, and I had seen men from my country being dragged off to die at the hands of an enemy of such relentless brutality and aggression, that I would have wanted to put them in their place. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, to use the old cliche, and looking back now perhaps the conduct of the US was less than ideal, but at the time I would’ve wanted word of that bomb to be on the lips of every man, woman and child from Hokkaido to Kyushu. They were a distant, unusually cruel and ruthless enemy and we had to stop them. But that’s war. Of course we would’ve been wrapped up in overwhelming anti-Japanese sentiment at all times, that’s just how it worked. Yet now, in 2016, standing in Hiroshima, as a well-travelled 24 year old who has never experienced war, it’s difficult to feel anything other than sadness.

I’ve put forward as many points as I can to correspond with the points of view of the Americans and the Japanese, but, arguments aside, the very crux of the issue is that we didn’t need to destroy Hiroshima. We needed to win the war, but we didn’t need to erase this city’s history, kill half of its people and leave it stuck in a bubble of cancerous radioactive fallout for decades. We not only obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we punished its future generations, tasked with rebuilding from the ashes, starting from scratch, all while severe health defects caused by the near-lethal dose of radiation many received hung over them like the Sword of Damocles. Because we used a bomb that I think even the US didn’t fully understand the ramifications of, we burned people alive, we disfigured others, we caused a wave of disabled babies to be born, and we handed innocent children slow, painful deaths at the hands of leukaemia. I know it’s easy for me to say, and I’m not pretending to know all the ins and outs of the situation, but there must have been another way.

After finishing the museum, I went and stood at the official memorial, surrounded by flowers as the Japanese flag waved overhead. I looked around and saw two types of people. One, tourists. Selfie-sticks in hand, they would stand with their back to the memorial, camera-phone in the air, and smile. Like they were at the Eiffel Tower, or the zoo. Why would you want a selfie with that memorial? If you want a photo, take a photo, but please show a little more respect than wearing your sunglasses and sticking your tongue out/doing the stupid peace sign with your hands while taking a selfie.

The other set of people were Japanese, and they gave me an image I will never forget. If you stand at the memorial long enough, you’ll see locals passing by. You’ll see workers on their lunch break. You’ll see policemen patrolling. Every single one of them will stop what they’re doing if they pass the memorial, walk up to it, close their eyes and give a long, solemn bow. One group of businessmen heading to a meeting, lanyards around their necks, stopped their laughing and chatting, and spontaneously formed a small queue, so each one could take a moment to remember the dead.

That was a sight I found so noble and moving that I, for some reason, felt it right to join their queue. I got to the front, put my hands by my side, closed my eyes and bowed my head to the cenotaph. I opened my eyes to find one of the businessmen had watched me do this. He smiled, turned to me and bowed. I assume as a sign of respectful gratitude. After I bowed back, he left, I sat on a nearby bench, put my sunglasses on, and just stared out across the city.

Despite the historical spectre of death and destruction still looming large over Hiroshima, the city and the people in it have done something with its infamous legacy that I was very pleased and surprised to discover. Although Japan has been criticised and questioned in recent years for an apparent societal resurgence of nationalistic ideas and historical revisionism, Hiroshima, as a city that unexpectedly became the final frontline of the last great war, has gone vast lengths to distance itself from that aspect of Japanese society. Although there is a lot to say about Japan’s status in the later stages of the war, the city of Hiroshima is simply not interested in talking about it. It may seem slightly questionable to some that the Japanese would not address their numerous proven atrocities across Asia and the Pacific during the war, but once I personally had gotten over that omission, I realised that Hiroshima is also absolutely determined not to see itself as a victim.

The memorial and museum treats the A-bomb like the reset button on a stopwatch. The moment the bomb detonated, the paradigm went back to nought. One part of Hiroshima’s history was over; the bomb had drawn a line underneath it and turned the page. This city isn’t interested in what happened before the bomb, or why it happened, or who was right and wrong. All that concerns them is that it happened, their city was destroyed, and they had to rebuild. It was a period of hardship the likes of which nobody else had ever really known, but, further than simply discussing it as a singular destructive event that happened a long time ago, Hiroshima has dedicated itself to promoting peace.

Across Hiroshima are protesters calling out for an end to conflicts worldwide. They stand on street corners, crudely made signs in hand, shouting indecipherable noise into a megaphone. And there are hundreds of them. They don’t care whether people think their signs look amateur, or whether their points are getting across. They’re just there, taking time out of their lives to call for peace. That’s something I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and an unspoken lust for revenge, they use their experience as a warning to all others; whether you instigated hostilities or not, whether you truly believe you were fighting for good in this world or not, war will almost certainly come back to haunt you in some way. The systematic killing of hundreds, thousands or millions is never something to be glorified, no matter the method and no matter the cause. Hiroshima is one of only two cities on Earth that have experienced the full destructive force of nuclear weapons and, whether they were the aggressor or not, they don’t want to see it happen to anyone else. Enough pain and suffering was bestowed upon them as civilians to know that there will always be a better solution. While the validity and morality of the bombing as a means of forcing Japan’s hand in surrender will forever be a topic of debate, there is no denying that what happened in Hiroshima was a truly tragic consequence of a long, costly war.

There’s a small stream of water surrounding the cenotaph commemorating the dead. In the water is a collection of small plaques, all with the same message, all in different languages. I’ll leave you with the inscription, as I believe the words engraved into it, which have sat as the centrepiece of Hiroshima since 1952, are genuine, and speak to the dignified, defiant communal spirit of Hiroshima and its people.

“Let all the souls here rest in peace,

For we shall not repeat the evil.

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This monument embodies the hope that Hiroshima, devastated on 6 August 1945 by the world’s first atomic bombing, will stand forever as a city of peace. The stone chamber in the center contains the Register of Deceased A-bomb Victims. The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”

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Gabe

Kyoto: Dentures

Part I: A Couple of Thoughts

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Yum yum

After three days in Kyoto, I’m back on the Shinkansen, this time absolutely bombing across the countryside, bound for Hiroshima. Well, I say countryside, but those of you who have experienced the bullet train before will be more aware than most of the existence of the Taiheiyō Belt. For those who don’t know, Honshu – Japan’s ‘main’ island – has a belt of settlements across most of its southern coast from Tokyo to Fukuoka, around 700 miles. As you blaze through them on the Shinkansen, you realise that they all kind of bleed into each other with very little space (if any) in between. It’s like one giant, giant city. To put this into perspective, we left Kyoto 19 minutes ago and we’ve just stopped at Kobe, having also already stopped at Osaka. I mean this is a fast train but it’s not that fast – these cities are extremely close to each other, and are fairly seamless.

There have been destinations on this round-the-world trip that I have gotten extremely excited about, but I have to admit that none of them have conjured up as much anticipation as Hiroshima. Realistically, no matter how much you want to try sugar-coating it, it goes without saying that the dropping of the atomic bomb Little Boy is what made Hiroshima a universally-known city. And while visiting the site of the single-most destructive weapon ever detonated is a fairly macabre reason to be excited, I think we’d all be lying if we attempted to convince ourselves or others that the historical significance of the event wasn’t the focal point of our trip. Hell, I’m not even trying to hide it; I’m going one step beyond and taking the train to Nagasaki two days later.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

What can I say? I’m fascinated by WWII, and that is perhaps what makes me so excited about these next two cities – the war from a different perspective. Many people will be aware of Japan’s often questionable attitude toward some of its wrongdoings during the war (most notably the country’s foray into human experimentation at Unit 731 and the brutality of its occupation of China). After decades of silence, pacifism and shame regarding its behaviour during this time, Japan has more recently seen some state schools reportedly alter or cover up parts of Japanese WWII history within its syllabi, or in some cases drop it altogether. I have been told on many occasions that the museum in Hiroshima dedicated to the bomb is extremely impartial and balanced, and treats the event as a course of action that could have been avoided had both sides done things differently in the months prior. While undoubtedly Japan and its never-surrender attitude needed to be put out of the it and everyone else’s misery by mid-1945, I hope Hiroshima will acknowledge the endlessly-debated morality of the bomb as a means of forcing Japan’s hand. While I believe the bomb was an unfortunately brutal way to bring the war to a close, I also believe it was the only choice left; Japan had made it very clear that it was not willing to give in, and an Allied land invasion would of course have been far more costly in terms of life and money.

For me, the dubious morality lies in two aspects of the endgame of WWII; the first is the bombing of Nagasaki, three days after Hiroshima. After just having a nuclear weapon unleashed on its population, the US gave Japan very little time to comprehend what had just hit it, considering up until that point the existence of the atomic bomb had been top-secret. We will never know if Japan would have surrendered after the first bomb given more time, but it seemed premature to suddenly drop another – even more powerful – bomb on Nagasaki. I guess the Americans wanted to make absolutely sure.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

The second aspect is something I recently discovered about the first bomb that struck me as rather dark. Original US discussions about the use of the first bomb had tabled Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama and Hiroshima as possible targets. The US military decided against Tokyo, as they did not want to destroy the entire high command and risk killing the emperor, for reasons I’m not entirely sure on. Kyoto was, rather compassionately, spared because of its cultural significance and the presence of hundreds of shrines dating back to well over a thousand years. So why Hiroshima? Up until that point, it had been an important city militarily (it featured a large army base nearby), and yet had been left completely untouched. In a display of major overkill, the Americans wanted to showcase the full force of their invention by reducing an entirely functional, pristine city to ruins in one go. (This is also the reason Yokohama was shelved as a target – it had been heavily damaged by firebombing campaigns before this point). This, of course, means Hiroshima was fully populated at the time of detonation and was given absolutely no warning to facilitate evacuation.

In all honesty, I can cut this history lesson short now and just say you’re a hopeless idiot if you can’t understand both sides of the argument about whether the bombing was carried out in the most appropriate manner. If you believe one belligerent or the other was 100% in the wrong, you haven’t done enough research. And really, that is what makes it such a fascinating event; WWII in Europe featured hundreds of fairly black-and-white incidents of good vs. bad (that is if you ignore most of the USSR’s involvement), but the dramatic conclusion of the Pacific Campaign is so steeped in philosophical debate that it’s difficult not to find it a catalyst for interesting discussion.

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Part II: Cones & Cones & Cones

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Daigo-Ji

Kyoto is spectacular. There’s no real getting around it. I’m going to go all out and say it and balls to how offensive some may find it; it is superior to Tokyo in every way. For me, Tokyo is not somewhere you enjoy – it’s somewhere you experience. It’s eye-wateringly bright neon bullshit can’t really mask the hostility of a city so wrapped up in Japan’s infamous work-until-you-die attitude that it never really feels like somewhere a sane person would want to find themselves for any extended period of time. While I can’t say I actively disliked Tokyo, I can’t say I liked it either – the week I spent there felt like an extreme sport that never stopped. The absurdity of the Tokyo lifestyle lends itself to hilarious stories, amazing urban landscapes and a real ‘I can’t believe I’ve been there’ feeling, but Kyoto… well where to start?

First things first; Kyoto locals are frighteningly different to Tokyo-ites. On my first night in Kyoto, I headed to the east of the city to check out the city’s ‘old quarter’ Gion which, aside from being absolutely stunning, is also teeming with people. But this wasn’t Salarymen pushing past each other to leave work at 11pm, this was groups of men and women of all ages, hanging out, drinking, eating good food, laughing and relaxing. The people in Kyoto are some of the cheeriest I’ve ever come across, like every day they wake up and thank God they don’t live in Tokyo. Instead, they grab a beer and maybe some sushi, head down to the river bank and just sit and socialise. It’s great. A small observation that I think speaks massive volumes about Kyoto too; I saw one face mask during my three days there. That is the difference between Kyoto and Tokyo – you get on a subway train in Tokyo and 80-90% of people will be wearing face masks, a facet of the city’s lifestyle that, although I’m an outsider, I find really stupid and paranoid; as far as I can tell the most threatening epidemic in Japan is suicide, not airborne disease.

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The amazing Daigo-Ji

I hit up a few temples on my first day and then headed to an onsen – a sort of Japanese bathhouse with hot springs. After the little old lady at reception almost had a heart attack as I stepped inside still wearing my shoes, I made my way into the baths where – unfortunately – I discovered swimming costumes were not allowed. But I guess if everyone’s doing it then whatever. Long story short, the baths were hot, the sauna was even hotter, and then an old guy disgustingly attempting to clear his nostrils on the floor accidentally snotted all over himself, then sneezed so hard that his dentures fell out. A dignified moment.

Next day I headed to the excellent Fushimi Inari Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site compiled of thousands and thousands of gates winding up a mountain. For some reason I ran to the top, then ran all the way back down, then got on my bike and headed over to the amazing Daigo-Ji Temple, which, flanked by cherry blossoms, was just about the most Japanese thing you could ever wish to see. I sat for a while before heading back on my bike, at one point stopping next to a bus. I peered inside, and it was full… but it was just cones. Literally traffic cones. The bus was full of just cones and cones and cones. And it was a regular commuter bus going to the station. I looked to my left as we pulled away from the traffic light, and in the lobby of a building I saw two children, one with a baseball bat, being thrown badminton shuttlecocks by the other. There were maybe 70 shuttlecocks littered across the floor. Why not do it outside? Why shuttlecocks?

Add to that the fact that I went past a restaurant advertising ‘not filling steam bums’ (unfilled steamed buns I assume), and you have a weird and wild coupla days in Kyoto. Onto Hiroshima!

Gabe

Tokyo: Onion!

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My boy Isaac modelling with the limited edition cherry blossom Asahi can.

Japan is proving to be hard work in more ways that I had originally predicted. While talk of Tokyo’s notorious intensity and extremely crowded nature both rest on fairly well-trodden ground, they are actually fairly inconsequential features of a city that literally could not be more indecipherable as a Western tourist. I don’t understand any of it. While it certainly does possess a looming intensity unmatched by any other city on Earth, that’s not what makes Tokyo a challenge – it’s the much smaller things.

The Japanese, as many of you will know, are fiercely nationalistic and isolationist. That is obviously not to say their patriotism spills over into aggression; they have remained one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists since 1945. However, there is an obvious, almost tangible sense that the Japanese are aware of their remarkable technological and infrastructural advancement, and thus, like I’m sure many Americans would, believe everything they do is how everyone should do it. As a result, there is extremely little room for negotiation and even less room for compromise, and thus people visiting Japan may either struggle to get to grips with various facets of Japanese life, or may find themselves getting frustrated at how illogical some of it seems to an outsider.

Some things frustrate me massively. The most notable example for me personally is that the Tokyo subway system, though extensive and metronomic, is an absolute shambles. The layout makes no sense, the trains are ridiculously slow and uncomfortable, the platforms are all about a mile apart from each other if you’re changing lines, and most annoyingly, there are lines in on the platform that denote  a queuing space for each door. If you don’t stand in it, people act like you’re a bellend and give you dirty looks. Then lo, the train arrives and the queue falls apart, only to be replaced by a crazy shoving free-for-all, the likes of which I’m sure would also be the end result of not having this stupid queuing system in the first place.

Another example would be the country’s attitude toward smoking. I sat down at a restaurant on my first day here, only for the guy next to me to suddenly get out a cigarette and start smoking away. OK that’s a pain, it must not be regulated here, I thought, but no; I stepped outside to head home after eating, only to see signs painted on the floor saying ‘Do not smoke in public!’ and ‘No smoking on the street!’. What in the hell? You can smoke into my face in a dingy little hut while I’m trying to enjoy a bit of ramen but you can’t smoke near me when I won’t actually be inhaling it? As Frank Costanza once said, ‘well that’s perverse’.

But beyond moments where I find myself getting simply worked up about stuff that confuses me, there are moments where I find myself in hysterics as a result of that wonderful occurrence we all know and love when in countries with a massive language barrier; the misunderstanding. Two have stood out for me since being here. The first was two days ago, as I was attempting to buy some food. There’s a weird little self-serve shop around the corner from my hostel, where you can fill up a container with all sorts of strange food, and they price it based on weight. I stocked up on my fair share of something chicken-y, something tofu-y, something with potatoes and garlic, and then a cheeky scoop of prawns. I handed it over to the cashier. 599 yen appeared on the till. That’s about…. £3.50 I think? Either way, Japanese yen coins come in varieties of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. One yen is absolutely useless and I hate having them on me, so I handed over a 500 and a 100 and bowed, extending my hand, gesturing ‘keep the change’. He nodded like he’d understood. I left the shop and realised I had a train to catch and was running later than anticipated. I started running, at which point I heard someone shout something behind me, but it was muffled by my headphones, so I kept going. I got maybe 150m from the shop, but I was being slowed down by my luggage, and behind me the shouting was getting louder. Confused, I turned round to see the cashier, who, having thought I’d forgotten my futile one yen change, had run down the street after me shouting ‘One yen! One yen!’, though obviously he was not aware of the ‘y’ sound at the front of the word ‘one’, so to any English-speaking onlookers it would have looked quite a lot like I was being chased down the street by a lunatic in a chef’s uniform shouting ‘ONION!’ at me. He gave me my change, gave me an extremely apologetic extended bow. I said ‘Oh, arigato gozai mas’ (‘thanks very much’), to which he softly repeated ‘… onion’, and headed back to his shop. I threw the coin in the bin and continued running.

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The extent of Tokyo’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Three days after St Patrick’s Day. I have no idea either.

The next night came another misunderstanding. Me and a group of people from my hostel decided we needed to head out to grab some food, so we walked up towards Asakusa to find somewhere. Asakusa is fairly touristy due to its proximity to the Tokyo SkyTree and the local shrine, so we passed a number of restaurants that looked to be closer to the higher end of our respective budget, until we stumbled across a strange building, the likes of which you see fairly often in Tokyo. Rather than having a restaurant district or area filled with different places to eat, you’ll often find one building with nine or ten floors, with a different restaurant on each. The one we found had nine restaurants and after much deliberation we decided on the third floor. After Finn, my hostelmate, smacked his head on the ceiling attempting to navigate a flight of stairs, we entered, taking our shoes off and putting them in the usual shoe-locker arrangement, and sat down. After a few beers and a couple of octopus balls, we noticed a small sign on the wall advertising a ‘sushi roulette’ plate, where you get a plate of sushi, one piece per person, and one of them will contain a large amount of wasabi and, presumably, blow your head off if you get it. However, it didn’t quite work out like that. We pointed at the sign as the waiter came around, and he attempted to ask how many we needed. So we said five, one for each person. He looked shocked, as if it was way too much. We assumed he thought we meant five plates, so we said ‘Oh OK just one plate’. Cut forward half an hour (seriously how did it take this long?), and the waiter reappeared, holding a plate high above his head. With great anticipation, we watched as he lowered it to reveal… one piece of sushi. This wasn’t sushi Russian roulette, it was sushi suicide. Or so we thought, until Finn took the hit to reveal it was a non­-spicy piece. In one fell swoop we had gone from sushi suicide back to Russian roulette, but this time with a toy gun.

Apart from generally soaking up Tokyo’s omnipotent saturated nonsense, the only other thing I’ve done of note was visit the Golden Gai with two people from the hostel. One of the strangest places I’ve ever had a drink, the Golden Gai is a row of six tiny alleyways in the Shinjuku district, all crammed with pubs and bars barely bigger than a toilet cubicle. We found ourselves in a sort of treehouse/lookout above a tiny bar, drinking pint after pint of Kirin (with the occasional sake which I don’t remember being quite so disgusting). One missed last subway home and one strange decision to walk across the entirety of Tokyo until 6am while still drinking later and I ended up still very drunk when I was woken up at 11am by a little hostel worker telling me it was my time to check out. After almost falling over in the shower I decided I would sit downstairs and eat sushi until I stopped feeling like I may pass out.

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A failed attempt at a timed selfie

Today I’m heading to Kyoto. In fact, using my Japan Rail Pass, I’m currently on the bullet train as I write this, in the shadow of a snow-coated Mount Fuji. I’ll be honest, this is pretty awesome; in fact, when I set foot on the train and the electronic ticker at the far end said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Shinkansen’, I’ll admit I got goosebumps. In all honesty the train is rather simple; sure it’s fast but really it’s just like any other commuter train. Although, it is also complete with an absolutely insane seat reservation system that makes no sense. I’m not even going to explain how little sense it made. That’s how little sense it made. Long story short; three hour train journey having to change seats five times.

Also on the way to the station a wheel fell off my suitcase while I was eating sushi. A low moment. I now carve a line through every neighbourhood I drag my suitcase through.

Will report more from Kyoto once I’ve had my next helping of ramen. And maybe a nikuman. Look it up.

Gabe

Tokyo: Assorted Sausage

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Well hello there

I am in Tokyo. At pretty much every point in my life up until the moment I clicked confirm on a booking form that accompanied an itinerary that contained the words ‘Tokyo Narita International Airport’ in December 2015, that is not something I thought I’d be saying until much later in my life. I had always been under the impression that Japan would be an exotic pipe dream until I’d actually bothered to not be unemployed any more, but no; I currently find myself sat in K’s House Backpackers Hostel Tokyo, mug of instant coffee in hand at 1am, writing a blog post about the most insane 24 hours I’ve ever experienced in a new country.

 

I know it’s incredibly trite to describe Tokyo – or Japan as a whole – as ‘crazy’ or ‘intense’, but once you set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun, you quickly realise that those labels come with concrete backup. Evidence of Japan’s unrivaled insanity flows through every sidestreet, hangs from every luminous facade and permeates the walls of every 7/11 that sells spaghetti carbonara in a vacuum pack with soy sauce.

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A classic British dish from the British pub – assorted sausage.

Flying in to either Hanida airport or the far-less-conveniently-located Narita airport, you are treated to an endless stream of magnificent vistas, ranging from tropical islands forming stretches of dots to the horizon, to the indisputably obvious grandeur of Mount Fuji, to the neverending skyline of Tokyo itself. From the sky, it’s clear that Tokyo is practically a country all of its own; rather than the classic centre/suburb structure of pretty much any major city on Earth, Tokyo is a blurry jigsaw of cities smashed together to form a whole that, in all honesty, doesn’t really stand together as a whole. For instance, I’m currently staying in the Asakusa neighbourhood in the northwest of the city, but I don’t have to travel for anything – Asakusa has its own chain shops, its own tourist sights and its own centre, as do all the major neighbourhoods of Tokyo. In fact, so far I’m not entirely convinced Tokyo has a ‘centre’. I’ll attempt to find out tomorrow, even though I could quite easily just look it up now.

 

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‘The Scramble’, Shibuya

After landing at Narita (thanks Jetstar), I had to navigate my way through the Tokyo subway using only a Japanese-language map, which, to put it lightly, was nearly impossible. I somehow ended up catching an express subway to Aoto station, at which point I jumped on the next train in a total gamble which luckily paid off, and I ended up at Kuramae station, a 200m walk from my hostel. I trudged in and to my room with my oversized suitcase, and immediately turned round and headed back out the front door to track down some food. On Edo Street, right outside the hostel, there’s a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King and… a random little hut with a name and menu entirely in Japanese. I know which of those I’m gonna choose. I headed in, sat cross-legged on the floor at a shin-high table, and was handed a menu. And so began one of the oddest meals I’ve ever eaten. We can all agree that sashimi is a highly popular dish all over the globe for good reason, right? Well I guarantee you, whatever kind of sashimi you’ve been served at any point in your life, it may have been delicious but it’s some inauthentic bullshit, because there is no justification or place in the modern world for what I got given when I ordered an assorted sashimi plate in what I subsequently discovered was an actual sashimi restaurant in Tokyo.

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Not the best choice of name

My beer, which was for some reason poured by a beer-pouring robot that sits in the corner, arrived first, so I chugged it down to get myself mentally and physically prepared for what was on its way to me. About two minutes later, a remarkable sight; a wooden board laid out in front of me with an assortment of different shimmering, raw seafood items. I recognised my good friend octopus on the right, and the big chunks of salmon next to it, but the rest was a total mystery. There was a pile of grey-brown fish slices, then a few rolls of strangely transparent flesh next to that, then some prawns, and finally an awkwardly-placed fish head/tail combo at the far end. First, the octopus, which I mistakenly smothered with wasabi before taste-testing, and I had to sit there wincing, tears dripping into my beer for the next two minutes. It was the most intense wasabi I’d ever been in the vicinity of, let alone having put in my mouth. I pushed it to one side and continued with my marine quest. Raw octopus is kind of bland and tough, so I moved onto the salmon which was extraordinary – easily the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. However that was in short supply, so I picked up the strange transparent thing and gave it a go. It was chewy, flavourless and rubbery, with a strip of thick fat running through the middle. I called the waiter over to ask what I was eating, and he flipped the menu over and pointed at ‘whale bacon sashimi’. Right. I’d been in Japan about two hours and had already accidentally eaten whale. Onwards and upwards. Next was the brown-ish fish, which was also excellent, though very pungent. And then the prawns. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten prawns totally uncooked, but there’s two things you’ll have noticed about them if you have done. One is the fact that when you take the head and tail off, there’s blood. Like proper red blood. I don’t know why but I found that really odd. Second was how utterly revolting they are. They can be categorised as slimy, squishy and leaving a nasty film over the inside of your mouth.

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AVE SOME OF THAT

I called the waiter over again and pointed at the only two remaining things on the plate; the fish head and tail. I made a hand gesture as if to ask ‘do I eat these?’, hoping to God he would turn around and laugh me out of town, which is kind of what he did. He said ‘no no no no no!’ and took the plate away, much to my relief. However, about three minutes later the head and tail was returned to me, having been shallow-fried. I froze for a second and looked up at him. I slowly raised my hand to my mouth, apprehensively making the ‘do I eat these?’ sign again, to which he nodded, said something in Japanese and pointed at the kitchen. I turned all the way around and saw that the two chefs I had walked past by the entrance had come all the way over to my table to serve me this plate of fried Japanese fish head and tail and wanted to watch me eat it. Talk about pressure, man.

I went for it with my chopsticks but the guy told me to eat it with my hands. I broke off some of the gill and ate it. It actually wasn’t that bad, and seemed to satisfy the two chefs, who bowed and went back to their sweatbox kitchen. However, the waiter hung around like a cloud of intestinal gas made a ‘eat it!’ gesture with his hand. I hope you’re all proud of me cos I just f*ckin’ went for it. The whole head down. Boom. Sure it was bony, but really I felt like I got off kind of easy; it was just like… fish. It actually was kind of nice. Anyway, I rewarded myself with another robot beer, paid up and left, at which point I discovered that the waiters at this restaurant follow you outside as you leave, and bow as you walk away. That was kind of cool.

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Meiji Shrine

Next day I woke up and set out into the world of Tokyo, just to see what was up. No plan, no nothing. I ended up navigating the painfully weird subway system across town to Tochomae and went up the government building which famously has great views, and the observation deck is free. Suck on that, Tokyo SkyTree. I saw the Meiji Shrine in the distance so walked over there, did the whole handwashing ritual and went inside. The shrine is a really awesome place, and is a tiny little beacon of quiet in an intensely noisy city, but it’s also jammed full of tourists, which is odd. There are guards telling everyone to be quiet, so you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people, none of whom are making any noise. It was surreal to say the least.

I walked across to Shibuya to see ‘The Scramble’; the famous intersection featured in every band’s music video if they persuade their label to allow them to film it in Tokyo. It’s not much to shout about, it’s just a very busy junction. I assumed it would be surrounded by a wall of restaurants and bars that look down onto it, but no – the only thing that sits up high and looks down on Shibuya is a goddamn Starbucks. Thanks but no thanks.

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The world’s saddest selfie

To me, the most notable tourist attraction in Tokyo is Tokyo itself. Rather than walking from one amazing sight to another, the surprising and culturally baffling sights present themselves to you as you make your way between destinations. There are obviously the clichés we all know; every street coated in neon lights, every man wearing a black suit, every girl wearing the most over-the-top plaid school uniform. Then there are other things that pop up unexpectedly. For instance, one example is that nobody in this city locks their bikes up. Obviously bike theft is just literally not a thing in Tokyo. Rows of hundreds of bikes, bunched together, and all totally open to just… taking away. Another is that the subway has ‘women-only’ carriages on their trains on weekdays; a fact I learned when I accidentally ended up in one while travelling to Asakusa. However, the Japanese are much too polite to make a fuss, so I just sat there with a lot of uncomfortable gas-mask-clad women giving me glances out of the corner of their eyes until I slunk off.

 

It’s just random little differences like that, that seem so inconsequential in the long run, that are the most troubling as a foreigner. I’ve been here for about 48 hours, but trust me, culture shock is no joke. The hostel I’m staying at is populated mostly by Japanese people, so there’s limited scope for meeting people who I can hang out/go out with due to the lack of English speaking natives. As a result, I’ve spent the last few days totally alone, 6,000 miles away from my home, with a time difference that means I can’t really communicate with people in London very easily, in a country where nobody speaks English and has an alphabet I can’t read. While intense and visceral and insane, Tokyo is simultaneously wearying, alienating and, surprisingly, lacks warmth. That’s what has hit me the hardest since I’ve been here. Everything is so clinical and, really, rather cold. It may sound like a good thing that the streets are freakishly spotless, the people are efficient and determined and everything you could ever want is available in every shop at all hours of the night, but somewhere in the middle of it, Tokyo is just so crazy that, to an outsider, it’s more of a performance piece, Synecdoche New York-style, than a real functioning metropolis. It’s the kind of place it’s absolutely mindblowing to visit, but I could never in a million years envisage myself living here.

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The concept of the 24-hour clock takes on a new twist in Japan

And on that note, I’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation about 50,000 times in my life. It’s been one of my all time favourite movies since I first saw it in 2003. I’ve read a number of theories about both its popularity and how accurate its portrayal of Tokyo is, and the more outspoken views tend to come from one group of people; self-righteous westerners who have never set foot in Japan. Seriously, the amount of shit this film has gotten for being ‘offensive’ towards the Japanese is not only total bollocks, but also totally misses the point of the film. Take, for example, these two quotes about the film from North American publications;

 

“[The film] says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin.” – Robert Fulford, The National Post

 “[The film] is an ethnocentric compendium of unpleasant stereotypes, indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan.” – Steve Burgess, Maclean’s

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View from the Government Building

The first is plain wrong. It is not a film of mockery, it’s a film of observation, and – whether you like it or not – accuracy. At no point does it say or do anything that may be even misconstrued as overtly offensive toward the Japanese, it merely shows Japan as a country that developed at the same rate (or perhaps faster than) a country like America, and so stands as a monument to cultural differences and their impact on the growth of a nation. Americans have supermarkets that sell cheese in an aerosol can, while the Japanese have supermarkets that sell – as I discovered yesterday – sandwiches that contain strawberries. They’re both weird to me. It’s not a detriment to Japan, nor its people, nor its culture. Also, the insular perspective of the film is down to its two main characters being deeply flawed people who are noticeably introverted and unwilling to blend in. That in itself is more of a slight on American tourists than it is Japanese natives. The whole point is that there are no Japanese characters in the film, so how, as you say, can they be portrayed as ‘cretinous’? Sounds to me like you’re the one that extrapolated that conclusion.

The second quote is just bizarre. Isn’t that the whole point of the film? In fact, by saying that Lost In Translation is ‘indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan’, doesn’t that technically mean that the film succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to do – portray the confusion, exhaustion and constant state of comparison to home that accompanies spending time in Tokyo?

I could write so much more but I know nobody wants to hear it. I’ll move on.

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Where am I supposed to keep my commuting skis then? God dammit.

So I was in this bar last night after heading out into town on my own, and after knocking back a few Suntory whiskeys (yes that is the brand that Bill Murray’s character is advertising in the film – this was coincidental), I called the bartender over and pointed at the menu. ‘Shochu’. What on Earth is that? I know Japanese whiskey is big these days, and sake is obviously very famous, but shohcu is not something I was familiar with. He spoke no English, so he brought a giant bottle over (I mean literally the size of his torso) and put it in front of me. It was all in Japanese. I couldn’t read it. The guy next to me then went ‘potato’, but in an accent that was quite strong, so I asked him to repeat it. I also wasn’t expecting him to speak English so I was a little taken aback. ‘Potato! Potato potato potato potato potato’. I was sat at a bar with a man saying potato at my face. At this point I realised he may not have been able to say that much in English. I, foolishly, said ‘potato?’, to which the bartenders and the guy again piped up with a grin-laden chorus of ‘potatopotatopotatopotato’. I said ‘potato!’, and pointed at the option to mix it with oolong tea.

 

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Sean Connery’s napkin range

Just as it arrived, the guy next to me attempted to ask where I was from. I said England, to which he went ‘Ah England! You know Dad Bakaim!’. Dad Bakaim? I asked him to repeat himself. ‘Dad Bakaim. Football. Football football football’, each repetition partnered with an upward flick of the head. ‘Ohhhh David Beckam!’, ‘Yes Dad Bakaim yes yes’. He pointed at my drink. ‘Potato?’. ‘Yes it’s very good!’. It wasn’t. It tasted like unsweetened oolong tea mixed with potatoes, probably because that’s exactly what it was. ‘Barry!’ he then exclaimed. I didn’t know what to think. Was he going down the football path again? Was it Gareth Barry this time? Of all the players. ‘Barry?’. ‘How say? Barry?’. I said ‘Yes, Gareth Barry’. He got his phone out, did a quick Google search and opened a web page in Japanese. He point at the title and said ‘Gareto Barry’. I couldn’t read it so I said ‘English?’. He hit translate and so opened a translated English page about barley. Oh shit. I said ‘Ohhh you meant barley? In my drink?’. ‘Yes, barley’, he said, pointing at the glass. ‘No potato?’ I asked. ‘Yes, potato potato and Gareto Barry’. What have I done to this poor man. I left, stepped outside into the pouring rain and looked across the road to see a big advert for H&M featuring Dad Bakaim.

 

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Yo.

This is kind of a ‘Part I’. I have so much to say, so more to follow once I finish my pile of egg mayonnaise with prawns and onions. Genuinely delicious.

 

ALSO I’m meeting up with an old friend tonight so THAT should be fun. Though I don’t know why you’d really care.

Gabe

Melbourne: Smoked Roo

Yes I apologise profusely for the cover photo of this post but I took literally one photo in my entire time in Melbourne so I have to save that one for later and use a photo of Syndey. I’m deeply sorry.

Since swooping into Avalon Airport about nine days ago, I’ve discovered that there’s really only one way to describe Melbourne; undefined. Where Sydney is a sprawling mess of suburbs and wide avenues punctuated by the inconic vistas afforded by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Melbourne is just a mess, full stop. This is in no way me saying that I don’t like it here, but more that it’s difficult to get to grips with exactly what it is that I like about it. When in Sydney (or really anywhere as long as you’re speaking to someone who’s visited both cities), you’ll often meet people who rave about Melbourne over the former, saying you absolutely must to go south and visit it. However, I should have seen my own personal existential inquisition coming, as whenever you ask even people from Melbourne what is so great about it, or what there is to do that’s so enticing, they’ll often just say ‘… I don’t really know’. Well, either that or ‘… you can get good coffee’.

In fact, on that note, let’s get something out of the way right now; the coffee here is good, but inferior to any I had in Sydney, and that in turn was inferior to any I had in New Zealand. Yeah, blasphemy – what of it? The Kiwis have got you beat, ‘bro’.

So what have I actually done this week? The truth is not much. Staying with my friend Tony, I’ve just been taking it easy, which includes a few days of sleeping in to midday or 1pm. Sweeeet. My liver has been fairly unhappy, however, having taken the harshest beating of my trip so far on the first night after landing. After going to three or four pubs and then getting a literal mountain of meat at a Chinese restaurant, we discovered a whiskey bar that happened to have a bit of a twist in its menu. In this place, a beer is about $10, and a whiskey is about $10 too. However, they have a ‘boilermaker’ menu, whereby you can choose a combination of one whiskey and one beer, which costs… $10. And I’m not talking shit blended whiskey, I’m talking high-quality single malt scotch. (If you’re English and you’re not familiar with the conversion rate, $10 is about £5). So I took what I would call too much advantage of that deal, then headed back to Tony’s and passed out, having gotten up at 3am that morning for my flight from Sydney.

Now then, the flight. It is not so much the flight itself that I want to talk about, but more where this flight happened to end up. Melbourne, for a city of just over 4m people, has a remarkable four airports. Tullamarine, the main international hub, Essendon, a small airport pretty much in the city centre, Moorabbin, an even smaller airport in the suburbs, and then… Avalon.

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There it is. The one photo I took in my entire week in Melbourne. My man Tony.

Avalon Airport is not in Melbourne. It’s not really in the ‘Greater Melbourne Area’ either; way too much countryside separates the city and the airport. In fact, it is much, much closer to the town of Geelong. Overall Avalon is about 35 miles southwest of Melbourne, which is around the same as Luton Airport’s distance to Central London, the difference being that the London Metropolitan Area (the area around London that is continuous urban area), has 14 million people and has comprises a total area of 3,236 square miles. As I’ve already mentioned, Melbourne has a mere 4 million people, over an area of oh shit, upon further research I’ve just discovered that Melbourne’s total area is actually larger than London. That’s despite having 10m fewer people. There goes my point.

Forget that. Basically my point is that Avalon is little more than a cardboard bus stop in the middle of shrub-covered nothing. It’s not exactly the stereotypical ‘outback’ that you think of when the word Australia drifts through your consciousness, but it’s not far off. We arrived in truly atrocious weather, our plane getting battered all over the place by the thick clouds, and we slowly taxied up to what looked to be one of about two gates in the entire airport. In fact, to get a sense of the size of Avalon airport, I can tell you that I could see the roof of it while we were taxiing. The entire building is shorter than the window of a Boeing 737. I crossed the runway, reaching into my pocket to get my phone out, until a little woman wearing a tangerine-coloured hi-vis jacket ran up to me and told me not to ever get my phone out on the tarmac. Woman this isn’t Charles De Gaulle. Who’s radar am I fatally messing up by attempting to connect to the free wifi this airport incidentally doesn’t even have? I get that your job description is literally just ‘make people’s lives a little less enjoyable’ but Jesus.

After navigating my way through Avalon’s 70’s-esque interior, complete with faux-shag carpeting in the arrivals section, I stumbled my way to a city transfer bus and accidentally sat one row in front of some sort of obese man-child who would not shut his mouth for the entire hour-long trip. Keep in mind this is still about 9am. I had to turn around a number of times to double/triple/quadruple-check if he was disabled just in case my anger was unjustified and unintentionally intolerant, but he was no spastic – he was just a regular fat dickhead who cackled, coughed and violently sneezed his way into the eardrums of his fellow coach-goers.

Melbourne, as people who live in it will tell you (and as I’ve already said), is all about atmosphere. It is (as I’ve already said), an enormous city area-wise, but the ‘CBD’ – or centre – is a small grid of about 5 x 8 streets that are absolutely crammed to capacity with people, shops and restaurants. So, most days I would wake up, head into the centre and attempt to navigate the strangely tiny layout of the CBD, picking up a coffee on the way and scouting for restaurants I would later eat at. However, I gotta give it to my bro (and host) Tony; he took me to three places that were three of the best meals I’ve had on my travels so far. One was the excellent burger at ‘Beer and Burger’ in Richmond (yeah great name right), one was the chicken parmigiana at the Napier Hotel in… somewhere (which had a layer of kangaroo, or ‘smoked roo’ on top), and the third (and best) was SUT & Wine, an extraordinary Korean BBQ place in Box Hill.

Honestly, I apologise that this has been a bit of a nothing post, so I’m going to end it here. I enjoyed my time in Melbourne but most of it was just chilling out and not really doing anything. About 24 hours ago I left and landed in Tokyo, and I’m dying to write a post about all the random and hilarious shit I’ve already seen, so I’ma do that now.

Gabe