Encore; encore no more?

  

Well, I warned you that this might be it
and now the being it is here. 
Plymouth, Hull, and Hammersmith: 
harvesting my last, I fear.
So scrape my cells into a Petri dish,
grow me a culture
or a very last wish.
Like Shelley and Keats, Beckett or Joyce
I leave you an echo of my succulent voice.

So it’s encore; encore no more.
I will never sing again on Albion’s shore.
This homecoming queen is coming home
no more; no more encore…

From Saddleworth down to the Lads’ Club door,
interesting times we lived – for sure.
Sadly now
there’s no interest at all
in my own Strange ways
or my clarion call.
A prophet unheard in his native town.
No profit to be had
so the Labels turned me down.
There may be a light that never goes out
but the pain-striped suits gave their bleakest shout.

And it’s encore; encore no more
I will never sing again on Albion’s shore
This homecoming king is coming home
no more; no more encore…

You were lost in space.
You were lost at sea.
The Rubber Ring I gave you
I gave you from me.
You were lost in space.
You were lost at sea.
Your flotation device
was always me.

But now it’s encore; encore no more
I will never sing again on Albion’s shore
This King’s Road prince is coming home
no more; no more encore.



Disclaimer:  

Apologies for this blog, so embarrassingly different that I needed a new ‘Sundries’ page for it. My only excuse is that, as we all know, boys never really grow up. We are forever singing in our hearts the songs of a long adolescence. Many of the songs still stuck in my head were put there by Stephen Patrick Morrissey and played there by The Smiths.  

For reasons that I find impossible to explain, despite living in Manchester for the entire time the group existed, and subsequently getting to know one of the band and his family, I never actually saw The Smiths live. So when my brother-in-law offered me a ticket for what Morrissey recently announced would probably be his last ever gigs in the UK, I bit his hand off.  

Once we’d staunched the flow of blood, I rang for the ambulance. Sitting for hours in A&E with him, I couldn’t help stitching together these lines. All they need now is for Johnny Marr to frame them in a catchy riff, Mike and Andy to drive some relentless rhythm through them, and of course for Morrissey to replace them with some words of his own that tell us how he really feels. Job done.  

And if Morrissey is dismayed by the lack of record company interest in his work, I’d advise him to announce a Smiths’ 30th Anniversary Strangeways Here Come Back Again Tour and see what happens then! You know it makes sense.  

Pics: Morrissey from the MozPit, Hammersmith, September 2015

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1. Spending more time with my family

Tradition has it that a person stepping down from a senior role eulogises about the joys of spending more time with their family. Most people I have worked with over the years have been of the opinion that I only worked so much in order to spend less time with my family. That’s a little bit unfair on me, and a very big bit unfair on my family, but it might well have been an impression that I tried to give.

When I started the stepping down process, I had a fairly clear plan in mind: sort out some urgent family stuff; take the opportunity to travel for more than the usual frugally-given two weeks; then find another senior job. The advice that I was given was basically to use the same notes but in a different order: find another job, then take some time out before I started work again to travel and do the family stuff. It was good advice. Things just didn’t work out like that.

The first working day on which I no longer had to go into work, I was stalked by a stranger. I had wandered into town to enjoy my freedom by having a leisurely walk around the shops. This stranger started to follow me around, smiling at me as I passed each shop window. I crossed to the other side of the precinct, changed direction again, but the stalker was always there.

Disconcerting, it certainly was. After a few minutes of this brazen friendliness I decided to shame him into moving on to some other hapless shopper. At the next smile I turned round abruptly to confront my shadow. It was my shadow. It was me, my reflection, smiling back from the glazed shop window displays. I had never seen myself smile so much before.

That was the first day. At this rate I would be smiling my way into another job by the end of the week. What I hadn’t reckoned on were two minor complications. Firstly, although I had spent many years successfully selling the virtues of the services provided by my organisation, I had had very little recent practice in selling myself, selling what I had to offer to any prospective employer. Secondly, smiling uncontrollably on my first day out of work was not necessarily a good sign. In a baby, smiling is a symptom of wind, not happiness. In me it might be a sign of the ‘bends’ as I surfaced from years of striving and structure without the use of a decompression chamber.

The good thing about spending more time with my family, though, would be that even my nuclear family has become such a large and dispersed entourage that to spend time with it could be a time-consuming affair that would keep me well occupied into the near future.

First of all there was a bit of honouring of my father and mother to do, always sold to me in my youth as a precursor for my days being “long upon the land that has been given to you”.

My dad was selling his house in Ireland and moving the rest of his effects to join him on the ‘mainland’. That was guaranteed to consume some high quality family time. There was also the small matter of clearing the carefully assembled contents of his garage.

garage (2)

Or more likely just closing the garage door quietly and tip-toeing away.

I also had an outstanding commitment to my mother to keep, to speak at her memorial service and then to join with the immediate family and cast her ashes into the sea off her beloved north coast of Ireland.

memorial (2)ashes (2)

My eldest daughter would suffer next – be visited next – and serve her right for all those years complaining that the eldest child in a large family never got their full quota of parental attention. I spent time with her and her piers and tried not to envy the Bohemian lifestyle that shamed my middle-aged staidness.

danapier (2)burntpier

Then my youngest daughter was graced with a visit. She had just received her first ever full-time pay packet and the least she could do was buy her parents a Sunday roast and then a pint of something warm in the oldest pub in England. She was after all living, and now working, in the city where they stole from the rich to give to the poor.

IMG_0751-0IMG_1773

My elder son didn’t escape either, even though he thought that he had finally escaped the parental nest by going to uni in another country. We crossed the Severn Bridge and gladly began to explore Valleys and docklands and stadia and a hundred and one shops selling dragons and daffodils. His younger brother, like the poor, was always with us.

carduff (2)IMG_2288

And then I hit a problem. There were two other offspring to spend time with, but they weren’t living just a short trip down the motorway. One was working somewhere in northern Japan, and the other living somewhere near the set of Neighbours. Visiting them was going to take a little more planning. And in the middle of this I had the on-going decompression to decompress, jobs to find and apply for, and the care of my dad, who by this stage had moved effectively from my brother’s house and into our local hospital.

This was not going to be easy. I needed inspiration. I found it in an unexpected place. I ended up asking myself the question that very few other lifelong Manchester United fans have ever asked. In this situation, I wondered, what would Denis Bergkamp do?

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2. The Dennis Bergkamp Spreadsheet

Dennis Bergkamp is irrelevant to this story, except that he was a footballer who didn’t like flying. He was a good enough footballer to have it written into his contract that he didn’t have to fly. He played for a team that had more than their fair share of European football, so it was a big deal that he didn’t play in any games that involved more than a quick ferry trip across the Channel. 

I’ve never had that written into my contact, nor would I. I’ve spent several periods of my career airborne. I was part of a Travel and Tourism teaching team that took students each year on residentials to out-of-season Mediterranean holiday resorts. I led the development of commercial overseas projects in the Baltic States, the Gulf, and in Africa. I also launched overseas recruitment of students to my institution. Airborne again, with Airmiles. And now I’ve had the space and time to go to interesting places again, and this time to go to some of them in an interesting way. Which is why I decided to go to Japan by train, at least until I hit the last stretch of water.

When I first raised the idea of going on this journey, I assumed that I was going on my own, going in Spring, going overland, and going as far as Japan, to see my daughter there. Then I thought I might as well add on another leg to the journey, to see another daughter in Australia. That’s when it got complicated. My wife, V, is obsessed with Australia and there was no way that she wouldn’t want to go. And if she was going, we’d have to take our youngest, S, with us.  Three tickets, not one.

And that’s where the complications set in. It was S’s GCSE year so we couldn’t go until he had done his last exam, and it might be some time before we could confirm what the date of that last exam would be… 

I’d like to take you through the fascinating minutiae of planning this trip, but you probably value your waking hours. So instead, here are a few hints and tips. For anything else, I’m always on the end of a comment, tweet, or email. 

  
Planning your trip 

The best plan is to pack a (small) bag and to set off, see where you end up. If, however, you’re aiming at some point to catch a ferry that only sails one day per week; or meet up with people who still have jobs and have to book annual leave to spend time with you; or fly home from the far side of the world on a respectable airline and not pay through the nose, arm and leg: then you need a plan, and a backwards one at that. Start with the things that you cannot move, like the ferry, and work back from there for all your connections. And if you end up planning to leave before your son’s GCSEs have finished, then start again, working back from the next week’s ferry. 

Spreadsheet

Do your planning on a spreadsheet. It’s why you were born in an age that knows that Microsoft doesn’t mean “a tiny piece of fluff”. It’s a brilliant way of making sure you’re not planning to leave somewhere before you’ve arrived there, or stay in two hotels at one stop and none at the next. And at least you can have a reasonable idea of how much money you’ll not have by the end of the trip. 

Briefing yourself 

Know, as far as you can, what you’re getting yourself into, and what the different options for routes and fares might be. I started off with The Man in Seat 61 and I recommend you to do the same. If The Man doesn’t know about it, you probably can’t do it. 

Setting expectations

Make sure that your travelling companion(s) know what they’re getting into. My wife watched an interesting range of YouTube videos on the Trans-Siberian Express that allowed her mentally to downgrade (or upgrade?) the trip from ‘holiday’ to ‘adventure’. 

Tickets 

Ticket prices depend on the class of travel you want to experience. On the Trans-Siberian Express, second class is a compartment of four bunks. Always book the bottom bunks first. First class is the same without the top two bunks. Third class is fixed bunks in a carriage with no compartments, only a corridor. Other Trans-Siberian non-express trains operate and generally looked less well-kempt than ours.

When you buy tickets is less straightforward. Tickets are sometimes cheaper, and always more available, when they first go in sale. Unfortunately, the Virgin train, Eurostar, Jan Kiepura sleeper and Trans-Siberian tickets for our journey all went on sale at different times, the Russian ones last of all. That makes buying the tickets a nerve-wracking game of Ticket Roulette. I reduced the risks by using an agency for some of the European tickets and another, Real Russia, for the Siberian one. You have to pay commission, but there’s more chance of getting the tickets that fit into your plan. 

Visas

For our route we needed Transit Visas for Belarus, and Tourist Visas for Russia. Again, I organised this through Real Russia and can’t speak highly enough of the service they offered. Even showed patience in answering some of my more bizarre last minute queries. Due to the changing relationship between our two countries we also had to travel to London a couple of weeks before leaving to have our fingerprints taken at the Russia Visa Centre. 

Hotels

Organised these through booking.com which allowed me to keep all my reservations in the one place. Only booked places with free cancellation, just in case, and as you will see in later blogs, sometimes sacrificed comfort for location. Generally though, the hotels we stayed at were fine, and as I had read all the reviews, at least I knew what I was letting us in for. 

Food and entertainment 

For Siberia, take a generous supply of teabags, coffee sachets, and sugar for the trip. You can borrow cups from the train attendant, or even buy them as souvenirs. Endless hot water is available in each carriage. Instant soup and pasta meals are also useful, but you will soon get sick of them. You can buy food at some stops and from the restaurant car if you want. See later blogs! Seven days is a long time in a train. Bring things to occupy your mind. If you have an iPhone, expect to run out of memory by Novosibirsk.

That’s it then, one more prequel to read, and then you can start working through the actual travel blogs (again?). They were fun to write, I hope interesting to read, but there’s nothing to beat doing the actual journey, or something similar. 

So do it!

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3. My Funny Vinyl-Time

PARENTAL GUIDANCE: This blog contains willful self-indulgence and bad (musical) taste.

STYLE GUIDANCE: Album titles are in bold, Song Titles are capitalised, lyrics are in italics.

I clambered up into our attic to find something important for the Journey. I’m not sure now what it was, but I didn’t find it. What I did find, eventually, were two crates of LPs, long-playing vinyl albums from my formative music-buying years. The majority of them were from the Seventies – the decade that taste forgot. The others weren’t much better. The rest of the day has disappeared as I resolved to take each record out of its crate, embrace it like a long-lost but ill-dressed friend, and then spend my very valuable time picking out and writing down what my ten favourite LPs from that decade were.

You may think there is only a tenuous connection between this blog and my two week journey crossing Europe, and then Siberia, by train. I look on it as vital research for my two-day ferry trip across the Sea of Japan, should I become shipwrecked on a desert island with only my record collection for company. 

So here they are, in roughly chronological order, with their covers snapped in my attic, and why I still love them:

  Bridge Over Troubled Waters (1970). Every adult must have this LP. It hung around in the album charts for years. I liked the single, the title track, so my parents bought me the LP for Christmas: my first LP, ever. I still play it all the way through when the need arises.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters is such a classic song that it’s easy to forget just how wonderful it is. It starts off in hurt, and in the offer of comfort, and ends in a glorious crescendo of fulfilment and optimism. It warms your cockles. Baby Driver has the lines I’m not talking about your pigtails, I’m talking about your sex appeal. To a young boy still wearing short trousers, that was raunchy in the extreme. How I blushed listening to it!

The track I loved most though is the closing track, Song For The Asking. Here is my song for the asking… Here is my toon (tune) for the taking. Take it, don’t turn away. I’ve been waiting, all my life. Beautiful. It resonated with that maudlin part of my juvenile Irishness. Years later it found its echo in my evolving CD collection with a similarly brief moment of genius from Manchester’s finest: Please please please let me, let me, let me, get what I want this time…

  Elton John (1970). I found Elton John in his glam rock years, strutting along the Yellow Brick Road. Like with all the singers, groups, and writers that I hooked up with, I grew tired of waiting for the next release and started working my way through his back catalogue. I didn’t need to look further than this, his second album, which seemed to have a freshness, a pared-back simplicity, a passion. 

There wasn’t a duff track on the LP. It had Your Song, of course, and the dreamy First Episode at Hienton. I loved the white socks that you wore, but you don’t wear white socks no more, now you’re a woman. My best friend’s best friend wore white socks. But my greatest discovery on this album was The Greatest Discovery. And all you ever learned from them, until you grew much older, did not compare with when they said… Still has the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention.

  The Slider (1972). Marc Bolan was my first love, my true teenage obsession. His was the rebellion that every sensitive young adolescent growing up in Belfast’s boarded-up drabness should have aspired to – creative, confident, and just a touch of glitter on each cheekbone. I ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair. My hair had natural corkscrews so I was on to a winner.

I have over a dozen Marc Bolan albums in my attic to choose from. Bolan Boogie was the first album of his that I ever owned. It was a last-ditch money-earning offer from the record company he was about to leave, but it captures him on the cusp of greatness. Electric Warrior is the definitive T. Rex album, of course, but The Slider just does it for me. A number one single to start each side and the driving rhythm, energy, lyricism and harmonies that were the best of Bolan and his producer, Tony Visconti.  And at the same time, just a hint, perhaps more than a hint, of the sameness and a reluctance to change which signalled that the best was maybe no longer yet to come.

  Aladdin Sane (1973). I’m really surprised that this is the only David Bowie LP in my collection. I liked Bowie, but I didn’t love him. Maybe I only bought this album on the strength of the rumour that Marc Bolan had been guesting as guitarist on The Prettiest Star? For me this record was always about OPEC and the oil crisis. The vinyl on this LP could almost touch its own toes. It was so flexible, it was less than half the thickness of that on Bolan Boogie.

From the opening track the album carries you off to Watch That Man. I took the album to school on ‘Bring Your Own Disc’ day and my classmates insisted on playing Time to see how long it would be before Mr Findlay, the music teacher, objected vehemently to the lyrics. Time, he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor. The teacher, however, only seemed concerned that he had got the wrong balance of bass and treble on the speakers.

  Planxty (1973). Their first album. I probably shouldn’t have been listening to this type of music from my side of Belfast. Some ladies in a local Presbyterian church hall told me they were learning Gaelic (Irish) on a Wednesday afternoon until the Kirk Session stopped them because it “wasn’t sending the right message to the IRA”.

I wasn’t sending any message to the IRA. I just stumbled upon this first album from a ‘supergroup’ of Irish musicians and fell head over heels. Had to wait for their second album to hear As I Roved Out (Andy), a track that will be on my Desert Island Discs shortlist for ever – lost love and the haunting melody of the Uillean pipes. 

  Between the lines (1975). Anyone who thinks that Morrissey is the master of miserableness has never listened to Janis Ian. This is an LP that you only ever put on once you have removed all sharp objects from the room and locked any high-storey windows. There is the classic At Seventeen, of course, a ‘Girl Powerless’ anthem from an age before Spice. Elsewhere the lyrics twist and tease you from unrequited love to burning your own house down. The album leaves you marinating in melancholy, and don’t you just love it!

Between the early Seventies and the late Seventies something must have happened musically, but it didn’t for me. There was ‘disco’, I think, but the only dance I could ever really do wasn’t invented until the latter end of the decade. There was ‘prog rock’, I’m afraid, but that was too pretentious even for me. And then came the safety-pinned tsunami, the new wave.

  Teenage Kicks (1978). Not an album – a twelve inch Extended Play single with four tracks. The first track is Teenage Kicks and quite simply the greatest pop song ever written.

  Setting Sons (1979). I didn’t set out to be a fan of The Jam, not being anything remotely resembling a Mod, but I went with a group of mates to see them at the Manchester Apollo and was blown away. All that righteous anger and left wing posturing. I just loved it, and it was damned good music too. 

It was a concept album, almost written just for a student. Think of Edward, still at college. You send him letters which he doesn’t acknowledge. Burning Sky, maybe written for an economics student, or Smithers-Jones for a careerist economics student. And then my favourite track, Thick as Thieves. We seemed to grow up in a flash of time while we watched our ideals helplessly unwind. Perfect. 

  Inflammable Material (1979). Suspect Device. Wasted Life. Barbed Wire Love. Alternative Ulster. You will never hear a better debut album. White Noise is probably the most racist anti-racism song ever written. Bob Marley must have had a very wry smile on his face as the boys hammered out an extended punk-reggae version of Johnny Was. 

You listen to the breakneck fury of the first side and almost forgive them that they ran out of steam at the end of side two. I took my son to the Manchester Ritz last year to see the remnants of SLF and they were just as full-pelt as they were 35 years ago. I was so happy I could have pogoed.

  Get Happy!! (1980). The end of the decade and Elvis Costello was still the music press’s darling. He was funny, his lyrics were clever, and his tunes were catchy. I have most of his vinyl albums in the attic to prove it. My favourite Costello songs might be scattered across other albums, but this one was special to me. Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile.

I was working for a year in France and had been taken ill. I was ill for a while. Then I was sent off to live for three weeks with a family in the town of Digne to convalesce. The only music I could get my hands on was an album by Michel Sardou and a tape of Get Happy!! I needed to get well soon, and to get happy. Get Happy!! got me both.

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17. Japan at last. Four last trains. Or seven?

My daughter lives in Yamagata province in northern Japan. Our boat is arriving at the small town of Sakaiminato in Tottori. There are still 1300 kilometres to cross with a total train journey of around 12 hours until we get there, if we get there. Trains leave Sakaiminato on the half hour every hour, and there are only three that will get us to our destination today.  

The 10.30 is my preferred journey, because we only need to catch four trains if we leave at this time. The 12.30 is the last and least favourite option because it involves seven trains, even more than we had to catch on the first day of our journey. The boat is due in at nine, and my internet sources claim it can take around two hours to clear customs and transfer to the rail station. I’ve taken screen-shots of all the possible train connections on my phone, just in case.  

We sail into port on a beautiful sunlit morning. My hopes of an easy journey are raised because we seem to be ahead of schedule. We arrive twenty minutes early and drag all our baggage out into the central lobby. Then they tell us. We are quarantined. There is some flu outbreak, and the Japanese will not admit us to their country until they have taken everybody’s temperature. We make our way back to the dormitory.  

Nothing happens and no one tells us what is going on. I wander out for a look and am sent straight back to my room. The Russian girls are busy dividing up their hoard of jellied seaweed. V is unpacking and repacking her bag in order to find something lost or lose something found. Finally some crew arrive with a Japanese man holding a device not dissimilar to a Tricorder from the original Star Trek series.  

The Russian woman left us in Korea. No one seems to have told the crew. They can’t work out why there are only seven people in an eight-bunk cabin and clearly seem concerned that she might have gone AWOL, spreading viruses as she goes. The Russian girls, who hitherto have been unable to hear or speak a single word of English, now manage to tell the medical officer what has happened, in reasonably good English. Finally the Tricorder is aimed at each of our foreheads, and we are all pronounced to be in the rudest of good health. 

From then on everything works like a dream. After a short conversation to say goodbye to C, our carriage companion from the Trans-Siberian, we are off the boat. There is little or no queueing to move through passport control, and the customs officer sees no reason to stop us, having already taken M’s luggage apart a few minutes earlier. Outside the door a free shuttle bus and its driver are waiting, as is M, inhaling smoke to calm his nerves. We almost make the half nine train.  

  Four trains to Tendo

I find the Japan Rail office and convert our JR Pass coupons into weekly tickets and then make reservations on each of today’s planned trains. On the dot of half past ten our first train arrives. In the land of the bullet train, our first train is the BB pellet. And there is something bizarre going on. We walk outside onto the platform and it is packed with people. And not just people. There are also life size children’s cartoon characters walking around and waving us on our way.  

The train, too, has had a makeover. Inside and out it is decorated in cartoon characters, and each station announcement is given by a precocious young child with an increasingly annoying voice. It takes the train forty minutes to cover the 16 km to Yonago, a stopping train that barely gets started. We pass a number of small towns, and allotments, at such a slow pace that it feels we could almost have a chat with the people as they garden. 

At twenty past ten we arrive into Yonago. This is our tightest connection. We only have ten minutes to find the right platform and drag all our luggage there. No sooner are we off the train but we run into another of V’s coterie of far-travelled young men. Is he going to Okayama like us? No, he’s off to Hiroshima, so we part again.

I spot two railway employees emerging from a door and walking towards me along the platform. Suddenly they realise that I’m going to speak to them. They look terrified. I quickly put them out of their misery. In my best, and worst, Japanese accent I pose my sophisticated question. Okayama? They look relieved and point to the very platform we are standing on. We position ourselves on the marker for Carriage 3, and shortly after are bundled onto the express train by another helpful but anxious official.

At Okayama, waiting for the bullet train to Tokyo (I’m saying that in a Bono/Joshua Tree voice) we bump into M, from V’s card circle, who made the 9.30 train off the boat. We sit together in an empty carriage until the conductor moves him to First Class. Young people today, eh? At Tokyo we swap bullets and at Tendo our daughter is waiting for us with boyfriend and boyfriend’s car. All of a sudden our adventure is over and our holiday beginning.

Although we’ve only been in the country for 12 or 13 hours I have three clear first impressions of Japan.

The first and most immediate impression that Japan has given me is of absolutely stunning scenery. That journey from Yonago to Okayama was spectacular. We swept through luxuriant, verdant mountains, careering alongside fast-running streams, sometimes with the flow, sometimes against it. In the flatter, more built-up, areas I noticed perfectly manicured lawns in front of and between the houses, until I realised that they were actually small rice fields, planted in every available area. The houses in comparison to Siberia look modern and well-built, all with new modern roofs, many adorned at the edges with small dragon motifs.

The second first impression has been made by the various toilets I’ve already encountered, computerised toilets. Every toilet has a control panel of varying complexity beside the seat which at its simplest allows you to fire various shapes of water jet at your own undercarriage. Most also have a facility to play a simulated flushing sound to mask whatever noise you are making yourself, and in the most advanced models a range of other sounds and music can be played. These toilets are either the hallmark of a very sophisticated society, or one that is deeply uncomfortable with bodily functions.

The third first impression, reinforced throughout our stay, has been one of exquisite customer care. Your very entry into a shop is enough to prompt a smiling welcome of “Irashaimase!” with the final ‘a’ vowel sound sometimes extending towards breathlessness. It took me a while to figure out quite what was happening. In the station café the welcome was warm, smiling, and definitely an encouragement to buy. Late at night in the 24/7 Recycle store, I was mistakenly convinced, and quite impressed, that they had employed someone with Tourette’s who was yelling something incomprehensible at random but frequent intervals.

In the 109 department store in Tokyo, however, all reason seemed to have gone out the window. Why make do with a simple “Irashaimase!” when there are hordes of rush hour pedestrian commuters to entice into your shop for large percentages off. Each franchise had a handful of girls in the longest available legs to cavort around in front of their stall with rolled up yellow fliers doubling as makeshift megaphones, hollering at shoppers not to miss out. Eight floors of this with at least a dozen franchises on each floor: mayhem.

Long after the first impression of customer service had settled into my head, however, came realisation of the limitations to that service. If you want something off menu or not in the script, then no matter how much smiling and nodding you receive, you probably aren’t going to be given what you’ve asked for. But hey, coming from Britain, or off the Trans-Siberian train, smiling and nodding is good.

At some point I might blog about my time in Japan, but for now I’ve just plucked a handful of images to leave you with…

  

The Zen-like rose garden at Higashizawa where V and I rang the anniversary happiness bell while the simple notes of a musical box chimed softly from loudspeakers across the hillsides. The “flower festival” in Obanazawa City we were taken to that was out-blossomed by over three billion Yen’s worth of supercars. Two temples: Yamadera perched near the mountain tops and only reached after climbing one thousand steps, and Asakusa temple in the heart of Tokyo, only reached after passing 1000 souvenir shops, or so it seemed. And finally, last and definitely not least, the ‘scramble’ pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, where only people can block out the ubiquitous neon advertising, and where I saw my first wedding photographs taken.

Before we left home, everyone I spoke to about this journey said “Trans-Siberian? Oh, I’d love to do that!”

Well, why don’t you?

Really.

If you think I can help at all, ask me.

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16. On a slow boat through the Sea of Japan

The first thing you should know is that me and boats don’t really go together. From an early age my kids learnt that on even the shortest Channel crossing the best thing to do was to leave me in a secure area with a set of headphones on and pick me up again once the ship had docked. I’m not at my best on boats and have been known to do uncharacteristically stupid things on boats – like accidentally leave a three year old locked in my car on a car deck when we about to set sail. Sorry, S.  

I put this weakness down to both nature and nurture. My grandfather was convinced that his descendants were aboard the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship that sank off the north coast of Ireland. I believe they swam ashore and settled in the small town of Kilrea, passing down in their genes forever the ancient memory of a deep distrust of the sea. My own childhood was nurtured through many trips on the Belfast-Liverpool ferry, which in those days was a cattle truck full of soldiers and a few hardy civilians braving the Force 8 gales through alcohol and by wretching miserably over the side of the ship.  

You can see then that booking myself onto a 2-day trip across the unknown Sea of Japan was an act of the utmost heroism which will lead you to suspect that there is more to this trip than just going places and seeing things.  

The boat from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato in Japan sails weekly on a Wednesday afternoon, stopping en route for a few hours in Donghae in South Korea. Accommodation on the boat is compulsory and can be booked in a range of classes depending on how many people you’re prepared to share with and whether you want a bed to lie in or a rubber mattress on the floor. I booked second class, which means you share with seven other people but have the luxury of a bunk bed to lie on.  

The first thing you notice as you enter the marine port is that the brand new terminal building doesn’t actually link up with your entry to the ship at all. Instead, you have to cart yourself and your luggage down flights of stairs to security, wait for the wet-nosed dogs to snuffle around your cases, and then walk across the quay to the gangway which presents a long and steep 45 degree climb up onto the ship.  

Luckily, the crew of lean and keen Korean porters are more than happy to rest a suitcase on each shoulder and leap up the gangway two steps at a time. S watches this performance carefully and will try to replicate it at every possible opportunity throughout the rest of our journey. As a dutiful father, I feel it is for me to provide as many opportunities for him to practice carrying our luggage as possible. 

We’re directed to our room and the four Russian girls already installed in half the small dormitory do not look terribly impressed with our arrival, or at the very least with the prospect of sharing with me. The more mature Russian woman on our side of the room takes our entry with more sang froid, and later in the evening when we return to our room to find that the girls have locked us out, it is the woman who gets out of her bed to open the door.   

I’ve read about meal times on the ferry, that they are a buffet where only the fittest survive. We install ourselves in the Zest Bar and only 1 burger and 2 hot dogs are bought all evening. I should know. I bought them both. What happened to the buffet? Tonight the fattest would have had no trouble surviving.  

In the lobby outside the bar the crew have enticed a dozen or so passengers into a raucous game apparently based on fortune cookies and, no doubt, fabulous prizes. The only game we engage in is Charge That Device for One Dollar. Ignoring signs warning that the plug sockets in our room are unsafe and should not be used, we prise the covers of the sockets to find that rather than being dangerous, they don’t have, and possibly have never been close to, any electrical current. I make endless trips to the Information Desk with my one dollar stake money in my hand.  

After eating, I go for another explore round the ship. Beyond the covered section of deck, towards the stern of the ship, I find the disco where some serious Korean dad dancing is in full spate. It looks as scary as it sounds. Discomfited, I walk back to the central lobby. Someone has vandalised the message board. On boarding, I’m sure we were told we would only have to face 1.5 metres high waves. Someone has removed the decimal point. Now I’m worried.  

  
(Top to bottom, left to right: hello DBS ferry; the route; goodbye Vladivostok; goodbye Golden Horn bridge; goodbye submarine channel on Russky Island; hello dorm!)



It’s the second day on board and we are approaching the Korean coast. Three naval ships sit motionless on the surface of the water watching our approach. As we move nearer to the port a fourth vessel is despatched to keep an eye on us. I’m not sure what they are expecting. The crew have already put two Wanted posters up offering duty free discount on any purchase made if the derogatory poster of North Korea’s leader is presented at the till.   

We have to leave the boat for a few hours while it is prepared for the next leg to Japan. I agree with the crew that we can leave our cases on board as we are not changing rooms. In the terminal I present myself to the tourist information desk and ask my usual ‘What can I do in 3 hours?’ question. We are encouraged to visit the caves near the centre of town so I ask the advisor to write the names of the caves and the ferry port in Korean on a piece of paper. Then I go looking for a taxi.  

Whether in business or real life, I always like to have a clear exit strategy. I can only fully commit to where I am if I know I have a surefire way of getting out of there as quickly as possible. So we visit the caves, walk round Donghae town centre, eat unreasonable amounts of pizza and then get a taxi back to the port in time for a few more souvenirs to be bought. We’re back on board ship just in time to see four people on the quayside roll up a sign saying “Have a great next trip with DBS ferries.”  

The Zest Bar empties. There weren’t many of us there, but now we’re on our own. S thinks he’s heard an announcement about dinner. He also tells us he thinks he found a dining room yesterday evening. Now he tells me. I talk to the information desk staff, at the same time retrieving another fully charged device, and buy tickets for dinner. We track down the dining room.  

As the boat is noticeably quieter after the stop in Korea, the buffet is not the cut and thrusting event that was described to me. The buffet is half full and half edible. For the members of my party not keen on fish or oriental cuisine, it’s a very limited affair. For the first time in my life I get to use metal chopsticks. Then we retire to the Zest Bar again and play cards with M, a young male Slovakian on his way to a train conference in Tokyo.  

Having pocketed the key to our dormitory earlier in the evening, we have no trouble accessing our beds later on. The dorm is hot and stuffy and gets worse as the night goes on. After a fitful night’s sleep we risk the breakfast buffet and it’s not a good choice: nothing to drink and only a local version of Frosties that suits my early morning palate. Not everyone feels the same though. The Russian girls return to the dorm with dozens of packets of seaweed in micro-thin layers of gelatine. Yum. 

  
(Clockwise from top left: welcome to South Korea; down into the caves; downtown Donghae; that poster; enjoy your next trip; buffet found)

Two days on board. The sea has been like a mill pond. I feel like a crusty old sea-dog with a pair of fully functional sea-legs. Our train journey to Japan is almost complete.

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15. Yul, tide greetings from Vladivostok

This visit gets off to a bad start. It’s my own fault. Having basked for an hour or so after dinner in the afterglow of my success at finding a hotel that looks like a hotel, I walk into our ensuite bathroom to do my teeth and my guard is down. Never relax. Big mistake. 

What was once a bijou bathroom is now a labyrinth of leaking laundry.  Just about every article of clothing that V and S have brought with them on this journey is suspended from a network of nylon string that lies just above head level looped around every available fixture and fitting. Hand-washed but with a minimal attempt to remove any excess water from the clothes, the floor is already awash and in the few seconds I try to persevere with cleaning my teeth, so am I.  

What the, what is the point of booking a half decent hotel room if you’re going to turn it into the back room of a second rate but heavily oversubscribed Chinese laundry? I’m fuming. I’m probably fuming so much I could power an industrial-sized tumble drier myself. Still fuming, I give each and every article of clothing a manly hand-wringing and having vicariously wrung the neck of all the clothing, I am eventually chilled out enough to go to bed and fall asleep. 

   
(Clockwise from top left: Golden Horn bay bridge; Lenin; GUM; Central Square off Svetlanskaya. Centre: outside the gents in Arseniev)

So, from six trains in a day, through two overnight sleepers, to one train for seven days, we finally arrived at Vladivostok. It seems a bit harsh though that we aren’t really very excitied about getting to Vladivostok. The real goal – just stopped myself punning the rail goal – was to get to Japan overland to see my daughter, not just to reach the Russian Federation’s window on the Asian market. But having got here, I feel we should at the very least try to do the city some justice in the 36 hours we are here.  

Some people will tell you that Vladivostok is the San Francisco of the East. Some other people will give a cynical little sneer when they hear that comparison, but it’s not actually a comparison that’s a million miles away from the truth. I say that though as someone not ever having been to San Francisco. Anyway, given that Vladivostok is a city built on a number of sometimes very steep hills, and given that it now has its own brand new suspension bridge spanning the Golden Horn bay, and another one linking it to Russky Island just for luck, I’m happy to go along with the analogy.  

Vladivostok used to be a closed city, a military city, that was home to the Far East fleet of the Soviet Union, sitting tucked away on the remoteness of Russky Island with a man-made channel allowing its submarine fleet to slip in and out of port at a moment’s notice. The Russian Federation has since been moving the city’s focus from combat to commerce. There has been significant recent investment in the city’s infrastructure, but it is clearly not yet a city that is fully geared up to receiving and hosting visitors.  

We’ve reverted back to our exploration strategy based on the belief that you can’t really know a city until you have felt every single kerbstone beneath your feet. We walk down from our hotel to the train station/marine port after an interesting but rather under-heated breakfast. V leads the cultural assault blitzing through a number of souvenir shops and ends up with a large cat tea-cosy type object which turns out to be a cushion, as it lacks a space in its middle for a teapot. We purchase postcards too, and are then directed by a statue of Lenin towards the post office to send them.  

We then head off down Aleutskaya to the Arseniev museum where we spend a couple of hours admiring stuffed animals, the lost tribes of the Primorsky Krai region, children’s clothes and toys throughout the ages, and a centenary look at the First World War and its hospitals that could have been lifted straight from the National Trust exhibition at Dunham Massey. Piece de resistance is the toilet block which is decorated by books housed on shelves at every conceivable angle except horizontal.  

Our cultural appetites sated, we set off down Svetlanskaya in search of the local version of GUM and a café. What we find is a pitiful version of the Red Square department store, and a café whose antiseptic smell masks any inviting aromas of the food they are serving. We track down another café in a neighbouring cinema that has wifi, club sandwiches and a thirst-quenching selection of drinks, once the waiter and I stop thoroughly confusing each other with our lack of language skills.  

On the pretext of finding V a proper department store to look at, and a different range of souvenirs to review, I lead us back across town to the Sportivnaya embankment, and almost onto the Dinamo Vladivostok pitch itself. Beside the stadium we find a small beach, a boardwalk, a fountain and an amusement park with a big wheel just big enough to give us a panoramic view of this part of the city.  

Weary to our bones and with still the evening hours to kill, I call into a local travel firm’s office and arrange a two hour guided car drive around the city after dinner. Our guide turns up on the dot of eight in a very smart right hand drive Japanese car, with a very impressive crack across the whole of the windscreen. Seat belts are optional. 

I’m becoming quite a connoisseur of these ‘show me your city in less than two hours’ trips. H is our guide and she does a good job. First we go south to Tokarev, a small lighthouse joined to the mainland by a short, shallow spit of land, and across the strait from Russky Island, in sight of the new Russky Island bridge. This is a beautiful spot but clearly lagging behind in how it could have been developed.  

Then we’re off driving back up to the nearby viewing point with panoramic views of the bridge, island and submarine channel, and overseen by the stern statue of Anna Shchetinina, the first ever female captain of an ocean-going vessel. Off then in the growing darkness to the eagles’ nest, a spot overlooking the new Golden Horn bay bridge, before driving across the bridge itself, and back again to see the Unknown Soldier and a real life submarine deposited beside the memorial. And alongside this, interrogation and commentary to understand better the massive changes this area and people have experienced.  

  
(Top to bottom, left to right: sportivnaya fountain and embankment; Eagles’ nest; the King and I without me; Tokarev lighthouse; the sub)

So we’ve had the tour, walked the tarmac, seen the sights, stocked up on souvenirs and boat trip supplies, and hand-washed and wrung dry many clothes. But something is missing. Before we can trundle our cases down to the ferry we have one more person to see: Vladivostok’s favourite son, maybe.   

Yul Brynner. For most of his life, Mr Brynner neglected to tell us that he had been born here into the family of a wealthy local merchant. His son eventually outed him and H pointed out his statue last night as we drove out of town away from Aleutskaya. He seems to be more elusive this morning. 

V spots him eventually, striking his trademark King and I pose outside the family home, while I’m busy crossing roads and looking down blind alleys. The King and I pose for several selfies and then we rush back to the hotel to check out as our boat prepares to sail with the tide. Goodbye San Francisco of the East! 

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