How Korea is dealing with Coronavirus

As of 12 o’clock today, 25 July, South Korea has had 298 deaths from Coronavirus, compared to 45,677 in the UK, and it’s been interesting to see how they’re dealing with the pandemic and how it differs from the way the UK is dealing with it.

Quarantine is taken very seriously here – you’re not allowed to leave the airport until you can prove that you have accommodation sorted for your 14-day isolation period. The Korean army is at the airport, processing everyone, installing the quarantining app on everyone’s phone, calling your named contact in Korea to make sure they exist, and checking up on your accommodation. Once they’re satisfied that you have somewhere to go, you are escorted to a taxi – no public transport allowed – to be taken to a testing centre and then on to your accommodation.

Once you get to your quarantine accommodation you’re not allowed to leave the room, and the quarantine officer will visit you and will also phone you up occasionally to make sure you’re at home and haven’t sneaked out and left your phone behind. Your test result is texted to you within 24 hours – not sure what happens if you test positive as we were both negative.

The quarantine app will remind you twice a day that you have to fill in your details and confirm that you’re not ill –

and you have to check your temperature on a little sticker that you have to wear all the time –

… rather like a mood ring.

Then, once you’re out of quarantine and into normal life, the three important things are –

  • wearing a mask
  • checking your temperature
  • cleanliness

Suprisingly, for someone who’s just come from the UK, there’s no insistence on social distancing. Restaurant tables are cheek by jowl –

– and obviously nobody’s wearing a mask when they’re eating.

And the underground is rammed –

but as long as you wear a mask, nobody’s worried.

You have your temperature taken when you go into a hotel, school, office, dental surgery, museum – in fact, pretty much everywhere apart from shops … and the bigger shops have a thermal imaging camera in the entrance scanning everyone. You also have to give your name and phone number whenever you have your temperature taken, so they can contact you if anyone there tests positive for the virus in the near future.

Some precautions are a little over the top –

but on the whole it’s very sensible.

Keeping everything clean and germ-free is paramount too. I reckon there’s enough hand gel in this country to fill Lake Baikal several times over; it’s on offer in every subway station, shop, museum, hotel, restaurant, royal palace etc etc.

There are cleaners on the subway trains and in the stations, sweeping and polishing, and there are UV lights disinfecting the handrails of the escalators –

so that we can clutch them with confidence on our descent into the sanitised bowels of Seoul.

But more than anything else, people are being sensible here and they’re following the rules. Nobody’s kicking off about having to wear a mask, but equally nobody’s crossing the road or jumping into a hedge to avoid other people, and I find that very reassuring.

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What do I have in common with President Trump?

Week two of quarantine, and I’ve been passing the time by getting to grips with all things Korean – or more specifically, with Korean food and the language.

I do love a country that takes its food so seriously that it provides written instructions on how to eat certain dishes. I first came across this in Japan, where the instructions for eating braised eels ran to two sides of A4 paper, with added diagrams for clarity. So when I grasped the culinary nettle and asked for Bibimbap for dinner on Korean Air, I was delighted to be given a set of instructions on how to eat it –

This is definitely a country that takes its food seriously, I thought with approval.

But quarantining in an Airbnb and not being allowed to leave to go shopping has presented certain problems, only resolved by looking at the pictures on a Korean supermarket website and then asking a Korean colleague to place an order for what I thought the particular items might be. This has resulted in a lot of fruit and vegetables on the menu, because they’re easy to recognise in a photo, whilst jars and packets could have absolutely anything inside them.

We chomped our way through a plant-based diet for a few days, but then I found a food delivery app and suddenly mealtimes got a lot more exciting –

And then we ordered our first Korean meal –

Beautifully packaged and thoughtfully put together, there was a corkscrew provided with the wine, and a little pink plastic knife to cut through the plastic lids of the hot containers and a disposable glove for hygenic serving.

On the right are two Korean pancakes – one with prawns and chives, and the other with bacon and eggs. They seem to be made of batter with added grated potato. Front left is steamed egg – with more chives – a dish that I remember from Malaysia too. Behind the egg is bulgogi with rice cakes – bulgogi is very thinly sliced marinated meat, and the rice cakes are not at at all like our rice cakes. These are like mochi – very chewy – and served in a spicy sauce. The container of rice was topped with seaweed on one side and then with cream cheese and some unidentifiable yellow stuff on the other side … my least favourite part of the meal.

So – having got to grips with the food, it was time to move on to the language, and I have to announce that I have found a new hero: the inventor of the Korean alphabet, King Sejong.

My Learn Korean app tells me that ‘King Sejong and his Hall of Worthies invented Hangul, the most elegant and rational alphabet in the history of mankind in 1443.’

This is a 15th Century man with a 21st Century sense of hype. And if you do have to collaborate, how much better to have a Hall of Worthies than a Band of Merry Men ?

So, after two weeks of incarceration, I’ve mastered the 14 consonants, 10 vowels and 27 digraphs in Hangul, and I can tell you that …

… the setting I have selected on the left says ‘neng-su‘.

And …

this water bottle starts off mark-neun-sem-mul.

And the Trump connection?

It was a joke that Anthony was sent the other day –

 During a dull U.S Senate dinner, Melania Trump leaned over to chat with Vice President Pence. 

“I bought Donald a parrot for his birthday. That bird is so smart, Donald has already taught him to say over two hundred words!” 

“Very impressive,” said Mike Pence, “But, you do realize he just speaks the words. He doesn’t really understand what they all mean.” 

“Oh, I know”, replied Melania “But neither does the parrot.”

I read it and thought … well, that’s you and me, both, Donald.

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Life in quarantine: Gangnam-style

Well, not actually Gangnam, if you want to be pedantic. We’re in Seoul city centre, which is north of the river, and Gangnam is across the river from here, according to my map … but Jung-gu-style just doesn’t have the same ring to it, I’m afraid.

It was a stress-free journey from a deserted Heathrow –

on a half-empty flight, with some passengers taking the pandemic threat very seriously –

After a tedious 3-hour wait at quarantine in Seoul airport, while the British Council sorted out some quarantine accommodation for us, we were finally awarded our coveted Covid certificates –

– allowing us the privilege of two weeks’ quarantine in the city at our own expense. So we headed off in a taxi for our Covid test – no public transport allowed for quarantiners. The test centre had a row of chairs on the pavement outside – the sort of chairs I associate with school music lessons – where we gloved up and filled in the forms –

Then you’re escorted to a bio-hazard booth

where the test operator sticks his hands through rubber sleeves in the wall and rams a test swab up your nose and down your throat. I reared back in alarm the first time, and had to go through the painful nose process a second time.

Finally, our patient taxi driver took us to our Airbnb, for our 15 days in total isolation, and we were finally able to remove our masks for the first time in days.

It’s a small studio apartment which is pretty well equipped with coffee maker, microwave, toaster, large TV etc. And being Korea, there are face creams, collagen masks, hair straighteners and all the other essentials for those of us lucky enough to be in the beauty capital of the world. Just what I’ll need to beautify myself every morning in preparation for a day of isolation on the sofa –

Collagen mask … let the process begin!

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Breaking news … Mayan Civilisation wiped out by stucco!

Yes – the Mayans were mad about stucco. They used it to hold the stones together in their walls, and then covered all their buildings in a thick layer of stucco before colouring them.

Let this be a lesson to all those who slavishly follow the latest home improvement craze … it could lead to your downfall –

The Mayans discovered that stucco stops buildings falling down during earthquakes, but making it required huge amounts of trees to fire the limestone, which caused deforestation and changed their local climate, worsening droughts when they occurred. So, within decades, during a drought-ridden spell in the 9th Century AD, the advanced and prosperous Mayan society collapsed.

The Mayans were astronomers, scientists and architects. They built observatories and could predict lunar eclipses; they invented the concept of zero independently from the Sumerians; they had a hieroglyphic writing system; they understood the difference between magnetic north and true north; they had an accurate calendar, and they built huge temples without tools, pack animals or the wheel … all pretty impressive.

At Chichen Itza in Mexico the Great Pyramid is an imposing building –

But it’s more than that. It was built to capture the sun in a particular way at sunset at the spring and autumn equinox.

Here’s our guide’s picture –

The illuminated snake down the side of the temple is visible for about three hours on 21 March, and was the signal to the Mayans to start planting their crops. When it appeared again on 21 September, they knew it was time to begin the harvest.

But their reliance on signs from the gods did backfire occasionally. The royal family told their people that they were gods and they were the ones who brought about the rains every year. In reality, the royals knew from the position of the sun over the temple when the rainy season was about to start, and then they announced that they would hold the ceremony to start the rains.

The ceremony was surprisingly painful considering it was all a con, and they could have got away with waving their arms in the air and chanting a rain spell. What they chose to do was to stand on a public ‘piercing platform’ and pierce themselves and pull a thread through the hole. Women pierced their tongues and men went in for slightly more intimate piercing – and they all used magic mushrooms as a painkiller. When the rains duly arrived, their position as gods was reinforced and presumably made the whole painful episode worthwhile. But … one year the rains didn’t come, presaging a 19-year drought, and the people were so outraged that they killed the whole royal family, naturally holding them totally responsible. So, be careful what you take credit for, as taking responsibility for it is the other side of the same coin.

Chichen Itza once covered 30 square km and had a population of around 90,000 people. Now the central part of the city has been excavated, but the rest has been swallowed by the jungle, with just the occasional temple visible above the tree canopy.

Wandering around the Mayan sites, away from the main areas is fascinating – there are hundreds of jungle-covered mounds just waiting to be excavated. There are parrots, howler monkeys, toucans, tarantulas and I even saw a grey fox.

But one of my favourite things about the Mayans was their names – and I particularly like Chief Great Jaguar Paw, Lord Chocolate and General Smoking Frog.

And Mr Toad is so taken with the idea of General Smoking Frog, that he has decided to create an alter ego –

‘The name’s Frog – General Smoking Frog.’

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“No, I think it was the other Ernest Hemingway.”

I wish I’d heard the rest of this conversation between two Americans who passed me in the street in Havana.

It would explain a lot if there was more than one, as the ubiquitous Ernest seems to be irrevocably linked to so many places – Paris, Spain, Venice, Key West, Havana … how much easier to achieve if there was more than one of him.

I seem to have spent a lot of time stalking Hemingway around the world. This was Paris in 2007 –

Venice in 2013 –

… although I didn’t actually make it to Harry’s Bar.

Then, finally, Havana in 2020 – and a pilgrimage to Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia.

Good old Ernest …

… always one of the in-crowd.

When he left Cuba in 1961, after more than two decades there, the government appropriated his house and turned it into a museum. He left everything behind – it looks as though he’s just popped out to El Floridita for a daiquiri – so you have a very good sense of what it was like in his day. You can’t go inside, but all the windows are open, so you can wander around the outside and peer in to see just what a Nobel-winning author’s house looks like.

I wasn’t surprised by the books, the hunting trophies –

or the drinks’ trolley –

But I was surprised by all the chintz –

He really doesn’t strike me as a chintzy-type; I would have had him down as more of a leather Chesterfield man.

According to our guide, Hemingway had 57 cats and 9 dogs. That blows my theory out of the water that it’s single women of a certain age who obsessively collect cats … but perhaps it was just the influence of all that chintz. I don’t know what happened to the cats, but there is a small dog cemetery in the grounds of Finca Vigia –

For a distinguished author, he’s remarkably unimaginative in his choice of names.

Finca Vigia is in a beautiful spot, just outside Havana on a hill with cooling breezes and a wonderful view.

Hemingway had a boat, a swimming pool, a tennis court and a lookout tower with a huge telescope plus a day bed for siestas. The pool house is full of photos of him entertaining celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner – and yet he still had time to write ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ while he lived here … a remarkable work ethic.

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One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen …

I went to Mexico to learn about the Mayan civilisation, and I thought that the Mayans had mysteriously disappeared when their civilisation died out around 900 AD. But that isn’t true; the cities were abandoned and the civilisation collapsed, but the people lived on and are still thriving today in parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The Chiapas region in Southern Mexico is the most ethnic region of the country, and one of these ethnic groups is the Tzotzil, who are Mayans with their own language and religion. The religion is part Catholic, part Mayan, and involves Shamans, candles, mirrors and moonshine.

The Tzotzil wear traditional clothing made of sheepskin, black skirts for women and white tabards for men, which are hugely expensive and must be very hot in the Mexican climate –

We visited the church of San Juan in Chamula, and our guide warned us beforehand not to take photos, and not even to have a camera visible, as the locals have been known to smash cameras if they see them. So I took a quick pic of the outside before hiding my camera away –

It looks very conventional, doesn’t it? Well, appearances can be deceiving …

The inside of the church has no seating and the floor is entirely covered in pine branches. There are candles everywhere – on the floor and on all the side tables in front of the pictures of the saints – as well as hundreds of mirrors.

Here are a few pictures I found online, taken by people who were either willing to risk getting their camera smashed or very confident of their ability to take a sneaky snap without getting caught –

We watched as families arrived, swept a portion of the floor clear of pine branches and stuck thirty or forty candles directly onto the floor and lit them. The candles were placed in lines in front of the Shaman, who sat with the family clustered around him or her on the floor. There were family groups everywhere, with some children on their phones but most participating in the rituals.

The locals have no truck with modern medicine, and come to church to be healed by the Shamans.

First the Shaman prays with the whole family and then cleanses the sick family member, using either a chicken or eggs (yes, the eternal question …) and I saw both forms of the ceremony. For the egg cure, the Shaman holds up a plastic bag full of eggs and then rubs it all over the body of the sick person. The eggs remain whole and they are simply used to draw the sickness out and then absorb it.

The chicken cure is much more dramatic and we stood and watched it unfolding, until one of the church wardens came and told us we had to keep walking and couldn’t stand still to watch. So we scuttled off and did a quick circuit of the church and then dawdled back past the chicken to watch the rest of the cure.

There was a whole family together, parents and children, and the Shaman sat cross-legged on the floor between the sick man and a woman who was holding a very resigned-looking chicken. The Shaman prayed aloud for about ten minutes, and then the woman handed him the chicken. The Shaman turned to the sick man, holding the chicken in both hands and began rubbing the chicken’s head all over him; I hoped that a nasty dose of salmonella wouldn’t worsen whatever it was that he was already suffering from.

We stood and stared, just waiting for what was coming next. The Shaman held the chicken out in front of him and pulled on its neck, stretching it to an improbable length, and then twisted it. He handed it back to the woman and then continued to pray and chant while the chicken twitched on the floor in a very distracting way for several minutes.

Finally they got out the moonshine. The local spirit is called pox, pronounced ‘posh’, and they drink it mixed with lemonade or coke. The idea is to chug it down and then burp or vomit onto the person being cleansed to help get rid of the evil spirits. The family produced bottles and jars of the stuff and passed it round to everyone in the family, who started necking it down – even quite small children, which I found alarming.

I tried some afterwards –

and can confirm that it is absolutely vile – no chance of pox’n’coke catching on as a new aperitif, in my opinion … not unless it’s found to cure Covid-19.

And that was my strange event – an incredible fusion of ancient and modern, of religion and paganism – and all going on with tourists wandering around, gawping and wishing they could take photos for their blogs.

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Cuba: land of rum and Pringles

I’ve never been anywhere as different as Cuba before. The first hint of difference came at the airport in Mexico as I queued to check in for my flight and looked around at all the other passengers and the luggage they were checking in –

Each family had about fifteen large bags, some so heavy that two people had to work together to drag them across the floor. Had these people never heard of travelling light? It wasn’t until I got there and saw all the shortages for myself that I realised these people are bringing things in for family and friends that just aren’t available in Cuba. The customs rules allow everyone to bring in an extra 1,000 pesos (equivalent to $1,000 US) of goods in addition to their 25 kg baggage allowance – plus books, sheet music, prosthetic limbs and 10 kg of medicines per person – in addition to that 1,000 pesos … this is a country that needs stuff.

Shops are another eye opener. There are thousands of shops for tourists selling souvenirs, but very few shops selling anything useful … or anything edible. If you want to eat, you need to go to a restaurant, run for tourists.

Our guide took us to a ration shop –

and explained that every Cuban family has an allowance of basic food that they can buy every month at a special cheap price at the ration shop.

A woman coming out of the shop showed us her family’s ration book, where the family members are all named and the products available are listed – rice, beans, oil, salt, coffee, sugar, jam, matches (presumably to light their cigars) … not exactly a varied and exciting diet –

If you don’t use your monthly ration you lose it, and anything else that you want has to be bought at the more expensive, and very scarce, local food shops.

We went into one shop to buy water, and nearly all the shelves were bare – and no photography allowed.

Other shops had one or two things for sale, and I tried to take a few discreet photos –

The butcher’s …

The baker’s …

There were no candlestick makers.

Where shops had full shelves, they were usually full of just one thing –

A bit tough if you don’t like pineapple juice.

And there were queues outside the better-stocked shops –

Ironically, when I took this photo in early March, I had never seen a queue outside a supermarket in England …

And the large duty free shop at Havana airport has several very long, well-stocked aisles, but the only two things on these laden shelves are rum and Pringles … why Pringles? And they aren’t even that cheap. And all the other aisles in the duty free are empty.

But lack of ‘stuff’ is also what gives Cuba its uniqueness; if you can’t replace things, you hang onto them.

I went for a ride in a 1950 Chevrolet –

And the driver explained that if anything minor goes wrong, he fixes it himself, but he has a very good mechanic to deal with trickier problems.

He pays $750 dollars a month to rent the car, and then charges $40-50 for a city tour. There are a lot of these cars around and competition is fierce, so I hope he manages to earn enough to support his family.

Old cars aren’t reserved for tourist taxis – they’re everywhere –

And it’s not just old cars that are still in daily use.

There are some wonderful old bikes –

Horses pulling carts are a common sight in every town –

Or horses without carts –

This tamale seller is using his bicycle as a mobile stall –

and if you want to till your fields, you need to get yourself a couple of bullocks … and make them each a muzzle to stop them snacking on the crops as they work –

For the tourists, Cuba is a wonderfully quaint and picturesque holiday destination. But for the locals it must be a frustrating daily grind … a permanent state of Make Do and Mend, on a diet of rice and beans.

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Ernest and me

There’s a pervasive Hemingwayness in Havana that’s hard to ignore. He had not one, but two favourite bars –

La Bodeguita del Medio was his favourite mojito bar – so of course I had to try one –

Then Floridita was his favourite daquiri bar –

where he demanded a less girly version of the drink, with more rum (naturally) and less sugar, which was called the Papa Doble in his honour. He could apparently down seventeen of them in an afternoon … luckily he did all his meaningful work in the morning.

Having tried both cocktails, I’m definitely a daquiri dame and not a mojito moll – but seventeen is beyond even the realms of ambition for me.

Ernest liked a cigar, so when I visited a tobacco farm I decided to bury my memories of stale cigar smoke in my father’s car as we drove to school in the mornings, and approach the idea of cigar smoking with an open mind.

The huge drying sheds are full of leaves, suspended on poles –

As the leaves get drier, they’re moved up a notch, with the fresh leaves starting off at the bottom. Once they’re dry, they feel just like soft, beautifully supple leather –

and they smell surprisingly nice – earthy and grassy and not at all like tobacco smoke –

Our tobacco farmer showed us how to roll a cigar, and explained that they’re much better for you than cigarettes because they take the central vein out of the leaves, which has the most nicotine in it. Demand for Cuban cigars is as high as it’s ever been, he said, with Spain, France and China being the main buyers – and even the US allows you to bring in a hundred of these beauties duty-free.

So … you select your deveined filler leaves and gather them into a bundle, then wrap them in a large binder leaf, to hold them all in place. Finally select a wrapper leaf (best quality, unblemished … think Fashion Week Front Row …) and roll the cigar diagonally in the wrapper and glue in place –

Then you light it –

and the trick is to smoke it like a pro – i.e. don’t touch it, keep it clamped between your teeth as you puff away. I tried this with mixed results –

Before finally deciding that the hands-on method was more my style –

  • please note the puckered cheeks … definitely the sign of a pro.

And everybody smokes – and it doesn’t seem to decrease their life expectancy –

This is the tobacco farmer’s mother – aged 84.

Plus other assorted smokers …

And, you know, it wasn’t unpleasant. Smoking a freshly-rolled cigar is absolutely nothing like inhaling old cigar smoke in a Volvo at 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning … and it’s probably just as well that I didn’t know that when I was younger and more impressionable.

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How to pass for a Guatemalan

Step number one: buy a poncho –

Step number two: take up salsa –

… but don’t try to take a photo and follow your teacher’s instructions, or you end up making a complete mess of both activities.

The lovely Martin was a tiny, swivel-hipped salsa god, who only winced slightly as I crushed his fingers when he spun me around.

‘The chicas, they do sexy hand, not strong hand,’ he advised me, after extracting his fingers from my clenched fist.

After that he found me another dance partner –

and we managed to finish the class with no crushed fingers or toes – a definite achievement.

Step number three: become a coffee expert –

Guatemala has been producing coffee since the 1850s, and was Central America’s main producer until very recently. Antigua is 5,000 feet above sea level, which is an ideal altitude, and they produce some of the best coffee in the country. It’s grown on the slopes of volcanoes and apparently has lots of chocolate hints and fruity notes.

The raw fruit tastes sweet, but that’s not what they’re interested in. Spit out the seeds, and you’ve got fresh coffee beans in your hand –

I was very impressed by the ingenuity of the device used to catch Japanese Beetles, which eat the coffee beans inside the fruit –

An empty plastic bottle is painted the colour of the ripe coffee berries, and a large hole is cut in the side. A small flask of ethanol mixed with methanol is suspended inside the neck of the bottle, and the bottom of the bottle is filled with soapy water. The device is then hooked onto a branch of the coffee bush. The beetles are attracted to the red colour of the bottle, once inside they get drunk on the eth/meth cocktail fumes and fall in the soapy water where they drown. This simple method catches 95% of these destructive beetles … genius!

Being Guatemala, the compulsory dress code for the coffee roasting room is poncho and hairnet –

Not my best look, I feel, so may not pursue a career as a Guatemalan coffee roaster.

Step number four: become a chocolate expert –

Antigua has a chocolate museum, and I signed up for a chocolate making workshop.

The Mayans called chocolate Chocol’haa, and the Aztecs called it Xocoatl, and both words mean bitter water. When the Spanish arrived, they didn’t want to drink bitter water, so they decided to add milk and call it choco-late. What I’m not clear about here is why they didn’t use the Spanish word for milk and call it choco-leche.

First we made cocoa husk tea, which is light and bitter, and apparently very healthy – full of antioxidants and (legal) mood enhancers. All you do is infuse the bean husks in hot water for 5 minutes and then strain and drink –

To make Xocoatl you have to pulverise the beans then grind them to a paste. Add water honey, chilli, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and pour repeatedly from a great height to mix well –

None of us managed to pour as expertly as this, and quite a lot of Xocoatl ended up on the table or on the workshop participants.

Salome, our instructor, told us that the Mayans used cocoa beans as currency, and that one avocado cost 5 cocoa beans and one turkey cost 100 cocoa beans. How does she know that, I wondered. The Mayan civilisation collapsed in 900 AD, and I don’t suppose they left any supermarket price tags behind. But then I did a little research and discovered that images have been found in temples and pyramids of chocolate being traded in the form of cocoa beans, and they’ve even found counterfeit beans made out of clay.

Once the Spanish arrived and began trading with the Aztecs, the exchange rate was fixed at 140 cocoa beans to one Spanish Real, and as late as the 1850s the beans were still being used for small change.

Finally it was time for us to make our own chocolate bars, and to choose the flavourings we wanted to add. Trying to remain true to cocoa’s ethnic origins, I sniffily refused the coloured sprinkles, peanuts and sesame seeds, and decided to flavour mine with cocoa nibs, coffee beans, coconut and chilli –

Unfortunately I was a little heavy-handed with the chilli, and have created a confection with a kick like a mule, and which makes you sweat buckets. I don’t think Mr Cadbury needs to worry too much, the Barden Bar is definitely an acquired taste.

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Swerving around cows

What is it with India and cows? They’re everywhere, and nobody takes any notice. It’s completely normal to see a cow …

… on a railway station platform –

… wandering through the city centre –

… having a quick kip in the road –

… inspecting a rubbish pile –

… and even on the beach –

I spent six days at this beach and the cows were there all the time. It made me wonder what on earth they find to eat. Maybe they try having a bit of a chew on any beach walkers they come across? I noticed that all the locals walk along the beach armed with a big stick –

I have many other unanswered questions about cows: who do they belong to? How do they find them at the end of the day? Where and when do they milk them? I never saw any evidence of cow husbandry, just cows meandering everywhere … everywhere except in fields, that is.

And cows aren’t the only animals that you see in unexpected places. Rounding a corner in the middle of Udaipur (population 451,000) we saw …

… a herd of goats. Why? Surely the owner must have realised that he’d have a much easier life if he either a) moved to the countryside or b) swapped his goats for a fleet of segway scooters to rent out to tourists?

And then there were the camels. If, like me, you’ve always thought of camels as the ships of the desert – trudging in a train across the sun-baked dunes led by white-robed traders, then think again. Rajasthan has lots of camels pulling carts along the road –

And Pushkar is Camel Central for one week every year, when it hosts the Pushkar Camel Fair, to coincide with the Kartik Purnima full moon … and that’s exactly when we were there.

There are camels in every direction you look –

Some are quite homely, while others are decidedly fancier –

And if you bring your plain, unadorned camel along and then get a bad dose of camel envy, the place is full of camel accessory stalls, where you can accessorise to your heart’s content –

When I get a camel, she’s definitely going to have one of these rakish pompoms –

I just love that louche Folies Bergère look.

And for the truly adventurous, there’s freshly brewed camel milk tea –

Or peanuts roasted in camel dung –

But I made do with a ride in a camel cart –

And lots of fanciful camel-owning dreams –

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Yet another painful experience

In the interests of research, I tried many different types of massage on this trip – deep tissue, aromatherapy, Balinese, to name but a few.

The strangest was the chakra unblocking head massage, which I had in the Royal Palace at Bundi. The masseuse flicked and scratched my head and pulled hard on chunks of my hair – she must have been the playground bully when she was a child, I decided. The she slapped me repeatedly around the head with a strange hand movement that sounded just like castanets – or maybe it was castanets … I was face down, suffocating in the pillow so I couldn’t see a thing.

My chakras must have been very blocked since they required such forceful unblocking. I felt quite disoriented when it was finally over as I’d been given such a beating – I had to recline on a chaise longue with a cup of tea to recover. I wondered if the King ever had a massage in the royal spa, and if he did, whether they were just as brutal with him. Mind you, looking at a picture of his ancestor –

I don’t think he’d have taken very kindly to a sustained battering from his massage therapist.

The most interesting massage, however, was the Keralan ayurvedic one. My masseuse was a large, no-nonsense girl called Sandra –

who said things like “sit!” whilst shoving my shoulders down hard until I buckled at the knees. Then she said “take all clothes off” and she tied a white paper loincloth around me, so I looked and felt like a sumo wrestler.

I sat on the small stool she’d forced me down onto, while she scratched and banged my head. Not again, I thought – why do I keep shelling out good money for someone to slap me round the head?

Next came the face massage, where I clamped my lips firmly together, not wanting to ingest any of the gloop she was rubbing up and down my face. When she’d finally finished, I thought I’d gone blind – it took ten minutes of blinking and rubbing to clear enough oil out of my eyes for me to be able to see.

The body massage involved heating oil on a primus stove –

which was directly underneath the wooden massage table I was lying on. I could feel the heat from it, and hoped the whole place wasn’t going to go up in flames – I was so coated in oil that I’d have been shallow-fried in a matter of seconds. There was just so much oil and it was so hot – I’d never really thought about what it might be like to be boiled in oil, but decided that I wouldn’t like it much.

The massage involved large round pushing and pummeling movements, punctuated by a hefty slap every time Sandra needed to release some pent-up aggression. She karate-chopped me all over, punched the soles of my feet twice each, and then did that horrible thing where they pull your toes hard and make a snapping noise when they get to the end of each toe – and it hurts.

I alternated between wincing in pain and trying not to laugh – especially when she slapped my stomach, or rubbed my oily boobs up and down so fast that they were practically spiralling by themselves.

Next came the ayurvedic herbal bit. She got the primus going again, heated up the oil and started hitting me with a hot oily club.

It wasn’t literally a club, because it was made of cloth, but the cloth was filled with something solid – possibly wet cement – and she was pounding me all over with it.

Every time the club became bearably cool, she’d stop and I’d feel the flames beneath me as she heated it up again. Then, as she removed it from the hot oil, she’d bang it hard on the table and I’d flinch, wondering which particular patch of skin would be branded next.

Most spas have relaxing music or total silence, but this one was next door to the martial arts display studio, so my relaxing soundtrack was war cries and the clash of swords and clatter of shields. In my more fanciful moments, I imagined I was at Agincourt, having a rub-down while Henry rallied the troops: ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

But I don’t suppose many of Henry’s men were injured by ferocious massage therapists wielding oil soaked clubs … the French commanders missed a trick there.

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I’ve seen the future …

… or at least I’ve peered murkily in the general direction, but the pollution-filled haze would have challenged even the oracle at Delphi to see anything clearly.

The pollution in Delhi is appalling – a smelly, foggy haze hanging over the city. It’s just downright lucky, for all my blog readers, that I look so good in a face mask –

Part of the problem is stubble burning, compounded by Diwali fireworks – so this year all fireworks were banned … allegedly –

We took to checking the air quality every morning – and comparing it to places at home –

And just to put Delhi’s pollution into perspective. This is a list of the world’s most polluted cities –

And … this was well before the pollution peaked. A week later it went off the worldwide scale, which only goes up to 500. Schools were closed and people were advised to stay indoors. When questioned about the emergency the Health Minister suggested that people should eat carrots, and the Environment Minister recommended listening to beautiful music. Politicians seem to be just as helpful and useful in India as they are in England.

But I found the pollution at Agra much more shocking. The Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and to see it (or not see it) at dawn, when it’s supposed to be wreathed in beautiful pink light, is heartbreaking –

We visited twice, a week apart, and the Diwali-induced crisis was apparent –

Both of these pictures were taken at the same time of day – late afternoon – when the pollution is supposed to be at its best.

But of course, toxic pollution notwithstanding, we had to take off our face masks and indulge in some Bollywood-style pics –

And it did give me the excuse for just one sexy, face mask selfie …

… every pollution-filled cloud has a hazy silver lining – if you can manage to see it.

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Indulging my inner hedonist in Rajasthan

If you want a taste of a royal lifestyle, Rajasthan’s the place to go. It seems that there are as many royal palaces and forts in Rajasthan as there are branches of McDonalds in England; every little town has at least one.

Very fittingly, the word Rajasthan means ‘land of kings’, and all the black and white photos in colonial archives of polo-playing, tiger-shooting, gem-incrusted, old-Etonian Maharajas, were taken in Rajasthan.

Some Palaces are very grand, like the fabulous City Palace in Udaipur –

which is full of the most beautiful architecture and intricate carvings –

But when you look more closely at the beautifully carved panels, you can see that the fretwork is there to create peepholes for the royal ladies to peep out of and see what’s going on in their palace –

as they weren’t allowed out of the ladies’ quarters to take part in any of the fun themselves.

Udaipur is also home to the Lake Palace –

which is now one of the most expensive hotels in the country. As these two palaces are next to each other, one on the lake and one in the lake, I wondered why the Royal Family felt the need to have two palaces in such close proximity – even McDonalds would surely draw the line at two adjacent restaurants?

I was baffled by the Amber Fort at Jaipur when I first saw it –

The Red Fort in Delhi is red so why isn’t the Amber Fort amber? I learnt that it should be pronounced ‘amer’, and refers to the name of the family and not to the colour – how very confusing.

But it does have the most beautiful hall of mirrors –

made from local marble and mirrors from Iran. The cool thing to do, according to our guide, is to take a picture of yourself in one of the mirrors, so it looks like your picture is on the wall. So of course I had to have a go –

These were the grandest palaces, which are open to the public as museums, but we stayed in several smaller royal palaces too. When Indira Gandhi removed the privy purse from these ruling families in 1971, many of them opened their palaces up as heritage homestays, in order to make ends meet.

And it’s a great experience – from the welcome at the entrance –

to the huge bedrooms –

This one had hand painted frescoes on every wall.

We enjoyed aperitifs on the battlements at one fort –

with dinner in the courtyard –

and then a breakfast with a view the next morning –

And if the buildings are old and quirky, so is the plumbing. We had bathrooms with no hot water/no cold water/no water at all … and it’s surprising how quickly you adapt and just give a sigh as you turn off the non-functioning shower, and fill up the bucket and jug that are provided in every bathroom –

And one thing I’ve learnt is that a bathroom with no hot water is infinitely preferable to one with no cold water – in one heritage property I had to pour a bottle of mineral water into the bucket to get the scalding temperature down to bearable.

And the best thing about all these royal palaces?

It’s quite straightforward …

… I do love a man in uniform, and in Rajasthan there are so many to choose from.

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An Indian wedding – day three …

The reception on the final day was the most Western event of the whole wedding, and Western dress was the order of the day, so there were no more anxious moments, anticipating unravelling saris.

We started with what is usually called ‘pre-drinks’ – and which I thought would be the only drinks at a dry weddding – but how wrong I was! We gathered in a hotel bedroom for Champagne, gin, beer, rum, whisky … basically everything we’d bought at the state liquor shop, and which now had to be finished before we left the next day.

Then, when it was time to go, a whole host of sneaky drink- holders appeared; wine was poured into water flasks, whisky into hip flasks, gin into water bottles … there was even Bristol Cream sherry being secreted away for a surreptitious swig during the evening.

At the hotel, we enjoyed the sunset in a beautiful courtyard –

The bride and groom had a sumptuous sofa on a dais –

but there was no time for them to sit and enjoy it as there was a very long receiving line, and endless photos for them to get through –

Hundreds of waiters circulated with delicious nibbles – I particularly liked the tandoori paneer – and a selection of mini mocktails … although they weren’t ‘mock’ for very long once the hipflasks came out.

The food and beverage manager was very keen to give us a tour of his kitchen, where he can feed 5,000 people a day, he told us proudly. That’s a mind-boggling number for someone like me, who has to plan ahead to cook for any more than four people. He gave us a demonstration of how to cook a naan in a tandoori oven

And then showed us the wedding cake, just having the final touches applied … macarons, my favourite!

After dinner, Sam gave a brilliant Best Man’s speech –

and there was rapturous applause and a few moist eyes by the end.

After the groom’s speech, it was time for the choreographed dance routines. There was one by the bride’s family, the groom’s family, the bride and groom, the British Asian friends, and finally a surprise dance by the non-Asian friends, who had been practising in secret for several days –

Luckily friends’ parents were exempt from this … luckily for us, and luckily for the audience.

Then the dancing proper started – wild and loud and involving a lot of leaping and waving your arms in the air. I could manage the arm waving, but my leaping was more like prancing; sprightly but definitely not wild.

And instead of dancing around our handbags, we danced around the photographers, who were still in the thick of it, right up to the bitter end, snapping away. Their stamina and dedication were truly impressive.

And that was it … three days of celebrations were over, and I’d worn five outfits, eaten my body weight in paneer, learnt several new dances, and above all, had a fantastic time.

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An Indian wedding – day two …

Day two was actually straight after day one – but due to travelling and intermittent Wifi, this post has been languishing in my notebook for a while.

Day two started for us with a ceremony for the groom, attended by his family and friends, to ask Ganesh to bless the marriage.

Hursh, the groom, sat on a dais with his family and the priest and they performed a set of rituals involving pouring petalled water onto flowers on a tray, spooning yogurt onto a statue of Ganesh and then cleaning it off, while the priest chanted and tapped a metal spoon on a tray.

There were only 3 photographers at this event, so I assume the bride must have been holding a similar ceremony, with the other 5 or 6 photographers in attendance. Even so, each one had an assistant to move the lights and hand over different lenses, so it was still a lot of people running around in front of the action.

Next came a gift giving ceremony, where the groom’s mother’s brothers handed out gifts to the groom’s extended family. There was a viewing table set up beforehand where we could all go and peruse the gifts – rather like eyeing up the raffle prizes before you decide whether or not to buy a ticket –

The final ceremony of the morning was the turmeric smearing. Everyone in the groom’s party lined up to smear turmeric paste on him. Some just daintily dabbed a little on his face, while others lifted up his shirt and rubbed it all over his body or plastered his hair with it. I tried to imagine a similar ritual in England where the groom was ceremoniously coated in Worcestershire sauce and took it all in good part, laughing heartily throughout – but I’m afraid my imagination failed me.

The most exciting part of the ceremony for me was having my sari professionally tied and pleated – I had been a little concerned that if I did it myself I might unravel at a vital point in the proceedings and create an embarrassing incident.

Two sari ladies were on hand and we all had appointments to be professionally draped, pinned and tied.

They gave us a variety of different styles – and I ended up with the Indian-old-lady-flab style, which I feel I carried off with aplomb –

The men all had turbans tied by a local chap who was so overcome at tying so many western men into traditional Gujarati turbans, that he asked for a photo –

Sam, as Best Man, had a particularly magnificent turban –

I now know that a turban can be tied in approximately two minutes … as long as you know what you’re doing, of course –

And they should – of course – only be worn by men …

The groom set off for the wedding in a golden coach. He was clutching a decorated coconut, which made it rather difficult for him to negotiate the steep steps, but he clambered aboard along with his family and the Best Man, and we followed along much more mundanely in a fleet of taxis.

We all gathered a few hundred metres from the wedding venue along with a troop of drummers, and then danced along the road, to be met by the bride’s family – also dancing – who invited us in.

The bride and groom, both looking resplendent, exchanged garlands and were showered with rose petals – no hay fever in India, it would appear.

Then they sat on a pillared and garlanded dais for the wedding ceremony.

The ceremony itself lasted over 3 hours and was all in Gujarati, so it was rather difficult to follow – and also difficult to see due to the full contingent of 8 photographers and their assistants all standing between the wedding party and the guests.

But it transpired that nobody is expected to sit and watch it all – people sit and chat to their friends, or go off and have dinner – as the food was available all evening.

Finally the bride and groom got up to leave and the bride became hysterical. She was crying so much that she had to be supported by her father and sister, who were also crying. The Western guests were shocked, but Indian guests assured us that it’s traditional to sob heartbrokenly and she wasn’t really being dragged off against her will.

And then it was the end – no real finale, just the tears and then they disappeared in a car, before reappearing for dinner ten minutes later – even the bride and groom have to wait until all the guests have been served before they’re allowed to eat.

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An Indian wedding – day one …

It was very exciting to be invited to a wedding in India, so we packed our bags and headed off to Rajkot in Gujarat.

Gujarat is a dry state, so – following instructions from the groom – we had to apply for alcohol permits before we left –

With our Brits-abroad priorities firmly in place, the first thing we did in Rajkot was to summon a Tuk-Tuk, or auto rickshaw as they call them over here, to go to the state booze shop – braving the pollution to get there –

It turned out to be the busiest shop in town –

and we had to wait ages for our ration of 2 bottles of spirits or 26 cans of beer each (that’s a weekly ration, and pretty generous for a dry state, we felt). For those without permits, a handshake with a couple of thousand rupees changing hands is enough to secure your weekly ration with no questions asked.

Once the booze run was out of way, it was time for the mehndi, where all the women – and those men in touch with their feminine side – get their hands painted. The bride’s family were doing the same thing elsewhere, but as part of the groom’s contingent, we all met up in the hotel to have our hands painted by the two mehndi ladies hired for the event.

They squeeze the paste out of a tube with a very thin nozzle, and create beautiful patterns quickly and deftly.

Once the mehndi is done, you have to wait for it to dry, being very careful not to smudge it, and then leave the paste on to darken for a couple of hours.

Indian women joke that this is the time to be hand fed by your husband, as you can’t pick anything up for yourself. I wasn’t worried about the feeding, I just wanted my husband to carry my handbag for me, as my only other option would have been to kick it through the hotel and into the lift to get it back to our room.

After two hours you scratch the paste off your mehndi, which gives you delightfully dark brown smoker’s fingernails and makes a real mess in the shower, but your hands look wonderful.

The bride had her mendhi done at home, but when we saw it later we realised that you can have a design customised to your particular circumstances, and she chose to pay homage to her new life in England –

The next event was the garba, which is a dance. We all put on our dancing gear –

and headed off to the party lawns, a massive outdoor space where even the largest wedding can be accommodated – and we’re talking thousands here, for some weddings.

There was the obligatory photo shoot to start with – it seems that no Indian wedding is complete without at least eight photographers and multiple photo opportunities – and after dinner, eaten al fresco, the dancing began.

It was beautiful to watch and fun to join in – everyone was keen to show us the moves, so we clapped and swirled and tried to keep up with the others, who’ve obviously all been doing it every week since birth.

Each dance lasts 40-50 minutes and you can dip in and out of it as you please. The Indians – locals and Brits alike – all know the steps and they leap and turn in perfect unison, which is very impressive to watch.

The final dance is the stick dance, where you and your partner tap your sticks together as you dance. When done properly, it looks very elegant. Unfortunately Anthony danced as though he was beating me off with a stick, swiping it violently in my direction every time I approached, so I was forced to retreat and find a less aggressive partner.

The garba ended with a final manic freestyle dance – and then we all staggered back to the hotel … roll on day two!

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A potential change of career

Kanazawa is a wonderful little town on the west side of Honshu.  It’s wonderful for a number of reasons: firstly, it was the seat of an important feudal clan and so has many big houses, temples and shrines, secondly, it escaped bombing during the Second World War, and thirdly, it has one of the top-ranked gardens in Japan.

Being a garden lover, I decided to visit Kenrokuen garden first.  The guide book advised getting there early to avoid the crowds, so I bestirred myself and got there before 8 am, which was quite an achievement for a Saturday morning –

It’s full of trees, tea houses, statues, pagodas –

– and is a beautiful place for strolling and infusing yourself with zen first thing in the morning.

I wasn’t the only one there at that antisocial hour on a Saturday – there was the inevitable wedding couple –

who were shuffling in their traditional shoes from pictureque spot to picturesque spot, with a photographer and a woman who walked behind the bride with a battery operated fan –

Given the amount of clothing she’s wearing, I imagine it would be about as effective as cooling a blast furnace with a couple of ice cubes, but the thought was there.  That’s the great thing about Japan, there’s always a system in place to deal with any situation; I’ve never met such detail-focused people before.  Apparently they even have a special hoover to put down your throat if you start to choke on a mochi ball, which sucks the ball back up again so you can have another go at masticating.

Next door to the garden is one of the very few old samurai houses left in Japan; their fondness for building with wood in a very active seismic zone means that most things were burnt down at least once if not regularly, and most old buildings have been restored multiple times.  But this one has the original painted screens and wooden carvings –

Nomura house was built by a top ranking Samurai for his mother ‘so that she could live in comfort’.  I will be casually mentioning this to my children, and showing them some photos of the beautiful house and garden that this dutiful child created for his deserving mother.

All this tradition had whetted my appetite for more, so I went along to the kaga yuzen studio.  Kaga Yuzen is a technique for handpainting silk kimonos, and in the studio you can see them on display – or …. you can have a go at wearing one!

First you choose your kimono –

and then you put on the undershirt –

– which is tied very tightly around the middle in several places.

The kimono goes on, and then the obi around the middle.

Then the large bow is tied on the back, and several layers of padding are stuffed under the obi, so that you achieve the Japanese ideal of beauty, which is obviously someone who resembles a sake barrel, but has the nape of the neck erotically exposed.

Then it was time for the photoshoot for my new portfolio – first the looking-back-over-the-shoulder shot, which is very popular in Japan –

Then the parasol shot, showing that I can twirl with the best of them when it comes to being sun safe –

and of course, the tea ceremony –

– I won’t get a job as a geisha if I can’t whisk the client’s matcha into a steamy, frothing brew.

There’s a traditional geisha house in Kanazawa which is open to the public during the day, so I went along to sample some tea and a delicious little cake –

– everything is always so exquisitely made and presented – and this cake tasted divine too, whilst the tea was whisked to perfection.

I’m currently updating my cv to reflect my change of direction, and if you would like to book a tea ceremony or some parasol twirling, please drop me a line.

I know that a geisha is supposed to be able to play the shamisen –

– but you’ll have to put up with a few chords on my ukulele, I’m afraid.




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My first experience of sumo

It was most definitely serendipity times two; firstly to discover that one of the six annual sumo tournaments in Japan is held in Nagoya, and secondly to find that it would take place during my stay.  I felt that there must be a ticket with my name on it – but just to make sure, I booked one through an English language website.  It arrived by registered post –

– and I just had to hope I hadn’t been sent a ticket for the Under 14 badminton quarter finals by mistake.  The only information I could glean from the ticket was that I wouldn’t be able to smoke.

Next quandary … how to find the stadium?  I knew it was near the castle, so I set off purposefully in that direction, and before long, all I had to do was to follow a trail of sumo leading to the stadium –

– and a trail of sumo is much easier to follow than a trail of breadcrumbs –

It’s only when you see them with an average sized person that you realise how big they are –

Most of the seating in the basketball stadium had been replaced by mats for the sumo tournament, and you could buy a solo mat, a twin matted area, or a family space with four mats –

– and the posh ones here even have a little table so you can eat your lunch in a civilised manner.

I didn’t think my Western legs would be up to sitting cross-legged on the floor for about 8 hours, so I opted for one of the proper seats at the back, along with all the other foreigners, as it turned out.

The whole place was practically empty when I got there at ten o’clock, even though the tournament had started at 8.30; the diehard fans like to turn up in the early afternoon, just before the second division fights start.  The morning fights are the junior wrestlers, hoping to move up the ranks if they put on a good showing that day.

I was surprised by how small the ring is – only four and a half metres in diameter – not very big at all for two hulking men to be grappling around in –

– and there is a shrine-like roof suspended over the ring because it is a sacred space; only the wrestlers, referees and sponsors are permitted to enter.

Each bout begins with a lot of posturing, stamping, thigh slapping, throwing salt around to purify the ring … anything to try to discountenance your opponent.  Then when they’re finally ready, they lean forwards with their knuckles on the ground –

– and then suddenly lunge towards each other, both trying to grab hold of their opponent’s loin cloth to give him a massive wedgy and chuck him out of the ring.

Before each new division begins to fight, the wrestlers all parade around the ring wearing special aprons –

– a bit like the male equivalent of sexy waitresses in a strip club.

The Japanese love of queueing was in evidence at lunchtime, when a queue stretched the length of the stadium –

for the chance to eat a bowl of ‘sumo stew’.  Some people were prepared to wait for an hour in a queue in the corridor and miss the wrestling, just to eat a bowl of rather sloppy looking stew.  This young chap was rather unnerved to see me closing in on him and his lunch –

– perhaps he thought I wanted to avoid the queue and steal his stew.

And they’ve all got chopsticks – how can you eat something as liquid as that with a pair of chopsticks?

The place filled up in the afternoon, and the sponsors started parading their banners before some of the fights.  The winning sumo in those bouts is handed an envelope full of cash as he leaves the ring – perfectly safe, I suppose – who’s going to mug a sumo wrestler?

Everything was done with perfect decorum.  The winners didn’t cheer, punch the air or even smile, and the losers accepted their lot with equal equanimity; there were no tantrums, nobody was ‘gutted’, and no spectators questioned the referees’ eyesight.  I think sumo definitely qualifies as a gentleman’s game – in fact, it may well be the only one left.


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University life in Japan

Before I arrived, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about teaching in a women’s university.  How archaic, I thought, to have such institutions in the 21st Century in a first world country.  But now that I’ve experienced just how much of a man’s world it is in Japan, and how women are supposed to defer to men at all times, I think it’s better that these girls are allowed to be themselves in this female environment for another four years of their life.  Once they start out on their chosen career – unless they’re planning to be a nun or an infant teacher – they’ll be working with men and will be expected to behave in a dizzy way, raise the pitch of their voice by at least an octave whenever they speak, and giggle behind their hand like a demented hyena as often as possible.

One of the first tasks for my students at the beginning of term was to fill in an information card, so I could learn a little bit about them, and I was astonished when I read about their goals and ambitions –


I wondered when was the last time that an English university student regarded marriage as her only long-term goal?  Probably in the 1950s.

Other goals were equally lacking in ambition and drive –

Or how about this list of favourites from a 19 year-old?

No mention of alcohol, cigarettes, nightclubs, clothes, music or any of the other things that university students usually enjoy.

I soon realised that a university in Japan is more like a school in England.  They love a game of snakes and ladders –

And are definitely not too cool to do the Macarena –

I’m planning to teach them the hokey-cokey on the last day of term.

And another thing about these girls is that they’re always so exhausted –

They stay up half the night online, and then can’t stay awake during the day.  It’s such a common occurrence that one of the comments in our comment bank for writing reports says ‘she sleeps in class’.  Even the most disaffected students I taught in England managed to stay awake for the whole lesson.

I’m also getting an insight into the way the Japanese mind works, and for all their reputation for precision and detail, their measuring system seems somewhat vague –

And this girl wasn’t the only one who measured a character’s size in puddings, there were several others.  What sort of pudding, I wanted to know – is there a standard size for a big pudding?

Equally strange is a fondness for pop stars with dead fish eyes –

– I’ve never seen ‘dead fish eyes’ and ‘cute’ in the same sentence before.

The girls graduate in traditional costume, and a hire company set up shop next to the cafeteria a couple of weeks ago, so that the girls could get kitted out –

I was horrified by the price – nearly £400 just to hire the outift – but there was no shortage of customers having a fitting –

It’s different from a standard kimono because it has an extra piece, almost like a skirt at the front, and it’s worn with boots rather than sandals –

I suppose it’s good training for them, so they’ll be used to this formal attire when they finally achieve their ambitions and put on their wedding kimono, before settling down to a life of bliss with a salaryman who works 14 hours a day – weekends too – and hardly ever takes a holiday.

Japan may look Western on the surface, but once you get beneath the veneer you soon find out that it’s utterly, utterly different.




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Nara – too much venison walking around uncooked

Nara was once the capital of Japan.  In 710 AD it became the country’s first  permanent capital city, losing the title to Kyoto 75 years later, due to the corruption of the Nara clergy … plus ça change, as we French speakers say.

As it’s a city that’s so steeped in history and culture, I felt it would be the best place to indulge in a night in a ryokan – something that’s been on my list since I arrived.  A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and very different from the usual hotel experience.

For a start, you’re given a summer kimono when you check in that you can wear around the hotel.  Being Japan, it comes with instructions on how to wear it, and I was told that ladies must tie the sash in a bow and then move the bow to the side –

– phew … managed to do that quite successfully.  I’m a bit pink here after my soak in the hotel’s rooftop public bath – lovely view of the pagoda in the park.

And …

I got my first pair of tabi, which was very exciting.  I’ll have to wear them with my flip flops when I get home – they were a bit wasted in my hotel slippers.

Then there’s a kind of silk jerkin that you wear over the top of the kimonoto go into the restaurant for dinner –

The problem was that with everyone wearing the same thing –

– it looked rather like we were all in prison.

Although, of course, the food was immeasurably better than it would have been in jail.  We had seven courses comprising beautifully presented little morsels –

– all perfectly designed to complement each other, with a balance of flavours and textures.

The breakfast next morning was equally spectacular –

– so I rolled out of the ryokan afterwards, practically spherical, ready to see the sights of Nara.

The Great Buddha is the number one attraction, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.  I fought my way through the crowds to get to the temple which, incidentally, is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world –

Wherever I go in Japan, no matter which day of the week, there are always hordes of school children trooping around – I don’t think the poor little sods ever get a day off … and in full school uniform too.  The kids at my school in England would have mutinied if they’d been told to go on a school trip on a Sunday in uniform.

The Giant Buddha, which practically bankrupted Japan when it was first built in 746 AD, is over 16 metres high –

According to my guide book, it’s made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kilos of gold – and it’s a very impressive sight.

Interestingly, one of the pillars in the temple has a hole in it which is exactly the same size as one of the Giant Buddha’s nostrils, and it’s believed that if you can squeeze through the hole, you will attain enlightenment –

Presumably you attain enlightenment at a later date, because none of the successful squirmers looked remotely enlightened as they lay on the floor panting.

I hung around for a bit because I could see a plump boy in the queue, and I was hoping he’d get stuck –

– but disappointingly, he finally managed to squeeze through with a lot of puffing and grunting.

Giant Buddhas aside, what Nara is really known for these days is deer – the native sika deer, which look very Bambi-inspired.

In the central park area and surrounding streets there are thousands of deer wandering around, waiting hopefully for you to feed them with ‘dear cookies’ –

As soon as you buy a pack, they rush at you, all trying to get more than their fair share –

So, naturally, there are rules on how to feed the deer –

and repeated warnings of what might happen if you don’t follow the rules –

– so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

And everything in the town is deer-themed; even the wooden votive tablets in the shinto shrine –

I rather like Exasperated Deer and Quizzical Deer –

The temple has deer lanterns –

Even the traffic barriers conform to the theme –

And I was forced to the sad conclusion that you can’t improve an ugly baby by giving him a pair of cute Bambi antlers –

In fact, the only thing missing in this deer-saturated town is a delicious venison casserole.  And the Japanese reluctance to eat venison has led to an over-population of deer, which destroy trees by eating the bark and devour farmers crops, threatening their livelihood and leaving no food for other wildlife.

If you lived in Europe, my little friend, your days would be numbered.





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