When I lived in London, for two years I commuted to work by bicycle, but the distance was probably no more than about a kilometre and it took less than ten minutes one way. The bicycle that I used at the time was, I believe, a 12-speed cross bike on which only one of the gears actually functioned. This was partly because I was not serious about cycling, so didn’t want to spend money on something more sophisticated, and partly because in London, your bike is likely to be stolen.
When I came to Japan and moved away from Tokyo with the Mariposa – about which I have written at great length in my forthcoming book Charinko – I tried to cycle to the various schools where I worked at least three or four times a week, and this proved to be good training for when I embarked on the tour about which the book is written.
Fast forward to 2011, when Mrs M and myself returned to Japan after a few years in the UK, and I was even more serious about cycling. For the next three or four years I cycled to and from work at distances of up to 11 or 12 kilometres almost every working day of the year. At the time we only had one car and particularly once M Jr was born, Mrs M used it to take her to nursery and go shopping. So I would cycle to work no matter what the weather was like. In the snow I slipped and fell – not seriously and not surprisingly.
On another occasion, a typhoon was approaching Ibaraki and I cycled home from work not quite in the eye of the storm, but in very heavy rain and very strong winds.
In those days I didn’t care that much about how clean I kept my bicycle or how well the gears worked. I merely applied more oil to the chain and sprockets once every few months, and when they stopped working properly, I left the bike with a scrap merchant. In around 2015 I was fortunate enough to acquire another one from Mrs M’s older brother and that was when I began using a trip computer.
I have to admit that I took the whole business of how much time it took me to get to a particular school far too seriously. But it gave me something to concentrate on other than looking at the scenery and thinking about what I may have to do that day, and over the years I improved my fastest times to those schools little by little, so that on a good day with a following wind, I was covering nine or ten kilometres in about 20 minutes.
One of the closest schools to where I live usually took 12 or 13 minutes to reach. One morning I woke up, looked at the weather forecast, looked outside, and realised that today might be the day when I could break the ten-minute barrier. So I got on my bike, cycled away as fast as I could, and about a quarter of the way there, for the first and only time in my entire life, one of the saddlebags got caught in the spokes on the rear wheel. I never did break the ten-minute barrier for that particular school, much to my chagrin.
Over the years I found more obscure routes, mainly to avoid traffic lights, but also to avoid traffic and to find more attractive scenery. So I rarely came across other vehicles, people, or cyclists. I did occasionally get angry if a car passed by a little too close to me when it overtook or came towards me from the opposite direction. On one particular occasion I turned round, chased after the offending motorist, and told him in no uncertain terms that he should give fellow road users more than about a centimetre of space. Perversely, I enjoyed cycling in the pouring rain or in the hot and humid summer months. The only real hardships were when there was a headwind or when I had trouble with the bike. Having said that, even cycling 15 or 20 kilometres, four or five times a week for several years, I had an average of about one puncture per year.
In the final one or two years of working as an ALT, I kept myself company by putting my smartphone in my handlebar bag and listening to podcasts, NHK news, and so on. It’s now been just over six months since I quit that job and apart from human interaction – which is something that I’m sorely lacking now that I work from home – the only other thing that I really miss is the commute. In fact, you could almost say that I became one of those people who enjoys their commute more than the work itself. And while I did drive more often in recent years to avoid getting soaking wet or freezing cold, I still looked forward to my morning and afternoon rides more than I looked forward to my daytime teaching responsibilities.
At some point in the future, I may decide to rent or borrow some kind of office space from which to conduct my translating work and when that happens, no doubt I will cycle there and back. But for the moment, on some days the only exercise that I get is standing up to use my computer rather than sitting down – as a distinctly middle-aged member of society, I have to take more care than I used to about things like my lower back.
One of the great things about getting up early and going out cycling, walking, or jogging, is that you absolutely cannot fail to take fantastic photographs because the light is so magical at that time of the morning.
So these photos were taken between the hours of about four thirty to six thirty a.m., mostly from the flood-prevention dykes by the river near our house, and I didn’t need a digital SLR or any kind of fancy equipment, just an iPhone with a fixed, wide-angle lens.
Smartphone cameras as a rule don’t work very well in very low light, so the night photo series that I will post on this blog in due course did require a marginally more sophisticated – or rather, dedicated – digital camera that enabled long exposures. But these are literally point-and-shoot.
This one was taken on New Year’s Day and a friend of mine remarked on Facebook that it makes it look as if I live on Mars.
One or two of the others were taken when the temperature was approximately four or five degrees below zero.
On the other hand, many were taken in mid-summer when, even at that time of the morning, the temperature was probably 15 or 20℃.
Some are not of the sunrise as such, but rather the dawn…
…and as well as the light, another thing that I like about the early morning is that there is often mist drifting along the river and through the trees. This is nature’s smoke machine, which if I was making a movie would require a lot of time, money, and effort to recreate. I suppose because our house is on a plateau and I go downhill and through the rice fields for my walks, jogs, and so on, mist is more likely to appear because the ground is essentially at sea level and next to a river.
One thing that is much harder to do is for a morning excursion to coincide with a time when there is fog around our house, up here on the plateau. I’ve taken many photographs in the snow, which is of course very photogenic, but hardly any in the fog because it appears only occasionally.
I should also say that several of these photographs – namely the two or three that are cropped to be square – have already been posted on my Instagram account.
Instagram is, I think, a lot like Twitter, in the sense that it’s very hard to generate followers who are going to bother looking at your photographs. On Twitter I have fewer than 30 followers and on Instagram a little more than 100. Whereas on Facebook I have more than 300 friends and although I don’t know exactly how many people visit this blog on a regular basis, its reach is almost certainly much greater than my Instagram account.
But should you wish to see the occasional photos that I post there, this is a link to it. Among other things, you will be able to see pictures of my beloved children, who are only rarely featured here at muzuhashi.com.
I’ve only ever joined a gym once and that was out of necessity. I was in training for the London Marathon (which sounds very grand, although in the end, it took me nearly five hours to complete the course) and during training I got injured. I went to my local GP, who was of absolutely no help whatsoever. He prescribed some pain-relieving gel, which wasn’t going to solve the problem at all, so I booked an appointment with a physiotherapist whose office was in a gym next to Clapham Junction station. My original intention wasn’t to join the gym, but one of the things that she advised me in relation to the injury – the diagnosis was shin splints – was that I should avoid running on tarmac, concrete, uneven surfaces, and so on for the time being. So I paid my 40 pounds a month and very reluctantly started to go to this gym about three or four times a week.
A very nice guy who worked there talked me through various warm-up exercises and suggested an exercise routine. (He turned out to be a jazz trumpeter, so we went to one or two jazz jam sessions together as well, although that’s by the by.) I remember using a rowing machine and lifting some weights, but I don’t remember much else, apart from the fact that I spent a lot of time on the running machines. There were only a limited number, so sometimes I wasn’t able to run for as long as I wanted or I wasn’t able to run at all. But thanks to the gym and in particular the physiotherapist, my injury improved sufficiently that I could take part in the marathon.
My final major indoor training session involved running on one of the running machines for three hours. I did take a break once or twice, but I remember watching the entire FA Cup final and still needing time to carry on running for about another hour after it finished. I never used an exercise bike in the gym, but I remember that they had those exercise bike classes where the teacher sits on their bike in the middle, everybody sits on their bikes in a semi-circle around the teacher, and they go through a routine which is supposedly going to make them super-fit.
Cut to approximately 20 years later and Mrs M took up jogging here in Japan. When it was dark, she used a headlight and a reflective sash, but she still slipped and fell on one occasion and was nearly hit by a car on another. She was also rather worried about who might be lurking on those poorly lit backstreets and one day said that she’d like to get a running machine.
I was very much averse to this idea, but began looking on Jimoty, which is the Japanese equivalent of Freecycle in the UK (although by no means all of the items available on Jimoty are free). It’s a site where you can search for items within your prefecture and within the prefecture, the location of the person trying to offload it is listed, so you can also choose to purchase items being sold or given away by people who only live within a few kilometres of your house. I was lucky to find a running machine that, had we bought it in an electrical store, would have cost about 60,000 yen. The woman who listed it on Jimoty was selling it for 10,000 yen. It wasn’t brand new, but it was in perfect working order. The only problem was that it was very heavy and when I went to collect it from the woman’s house, which was about 50 minutes’ drive away from where I live, she had a friend of hers help me lift it into the car. Then when I arrived home, Mrs M helped me carry it upstairs and we probably both came within a hair’s breadth of giving ourselves hernias in the process.
We had to put it upstairs because the house where we live has one unnecessarily large bedroom on the second floor (first floor if you’re British) and because I was injured again – this time with a pulled hamstring. Rather against my will, I then started looking on Jimoty for an exercise bike. The reason that I managed to take advantage of the bargain-priced running machine is because it wasn’t listed using the accepted Japanese term for a running machine, which meant that when people were searching for running machines, the listing didn’t pop up in their search results. There are at least three different terms for an exercise bike in Japanese, and the man who listed the one that I ended up buying used the less well known of the three, which meant that I bought quite a nice exercise bike for about 6000 yen – less than half the price it would have cost to buy the same one new.
Most of the ones available in the shops and on sites like Jimoty necessitate a very unnatural sitting position, in the sense that you’re sitting up straight and your legs are slightly in front of you, which isn’t the kind of position that I’m used to with my cross bike. I almost bought one of those, but the person who I sent to message to didn’t respond. In this end, M Jr II and I drove a long way into neighbouring Tochigi Prefecture to buy an exercise bike with a more conducive sitting position.
That was about a year and a half ago and since then, I’ve ridden more than 2000 kilometres indoors and on the spot. I can’t say that I enjoy it, but if you have a routine that involves jogging and cycling every other day, if it’s chucking it down with rain (or snowing, as it has several times this winter), if I can’t be bothered to go outside, or if Mrs M is working and I can’t leave the children alone in the house, then an exercise bike and a running machine are – I will now very grudgingly admit – quite helpful tools to have in the house.
The main disappointment about exercising indoors is that there’s nothing to look at. I set up a TV for Mrs M to watch while she was using the running machine, but I find that I can’t really concentrate on the image on the screen while I’m moving. When I’m on the exercise bike, I listen to podcasts and music using the speaker on my iPhone. On the running machine, because it’s so noisy, it’s much better too listen on headphones, although another thing about the bike is that there’s no view. You can’t look at the scenery, you can’t watch the cars go past, you can’t look up at the sky, and you can’t look around and see anything interesting apart from a couple of posters on the wall.
As explained in this podcast interview (if you do listen, fast forward to about 26 minutes in if you want to avoid the sponsors’ ads and another, extraneous interview) with a very interesting guy called Andrew Huberman, it’s very therapeutic to go walking or jogging or cycling and have a view around you that is panoramic, in the sense that you can look to your left, to your right, look up, look down, look behind you, look in front of you, and see a long way into the distance when you do so. Another thing that Huberman has pointed out on his own podcast is that sports like cycling, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing involve moving forward, but also leaning from side to side as you turn corners, and this has been scientifically proven to be a pleasurable experience for the people taking part. Something goes on in your brain when you are moving forward and leaning from side to side that releases some kind of happy chemical and makes you feel good. He explained this by saying that a lot of surfers and skateboarders are basically slackers, but when it comes to their hobby, are willing to get up very early in the morning, travel a long way, and go through a certain amount of hardship to enjoy it.
An annoying thing about my exercise bike is the gears – or rather, the lack of them. There is a knob on the frame that you can turn anti-clockwise or clockwise to make pedalling easier or more difficult. The knob operates a kind of pad that creates more or less friction on the front wheel (there is, of course, no back wheel). For starters, my children and any other children who happen to come to the house enjoy (ahem) fiddling with my knob, and if I get on the bike after they’ve been playing in the big bedroom – aka our home gym – it’s either far too easy and the pedals rotate like some kind of comedy cartoon at a million miles an hour, or it’s far too difficult and even if I stand up and put all of my weight on the pedals to make the first turn, they don’t move at all. I suppose not having a click as the bicycle goes into the next gear, and not having three, five, or eight gears arranged in increments to denote a particular ratio, is a good thing because it means you can find exactly the right setting for the amount of effort that you want to exert. Ultimately, though, it’s very difficult to find that sweet spot and I find myself adjusting the knob not constantly, but far more often than I would adjust the gears when I ride outdoors.
Speaking of children fiddling with your knob, we had a party about this time last year and various children are playing upstairs in the home gym. Myself a friend of mine, Mr. Ireland, were chatting away and keeping half an eye on what the children were doing when all of a sudden, M Jr II started shouting at me to stop the running machine. He said that something was stuck in the machine and when I looked down, I saw a kind of purple blob protruding from the front of the conveyor belt.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I said. “It’s just a balloon. It’ll pop.”
But M Jr II kept insisting that I do something about it. After closer investigation, myself and Mr. Ireland realised that it wasn’t a balloon at all, but a kind of beach ball that the children had been throwing around the bedroom. We put the running machine on its side, got a screwdriver, opened it up, extracted the now squashed beach ball, and made sure that none of the wiring and so on had been damaged. A plastic cover that protects the insides of the machine had snapped away at one or two of the screws, but fortunately it still worked.
When I was injured and joined a gym, I did my training, ran the marathon, and immediately cancelled my membership once it was over. (I also stopped running for the best part of 15 years.) But of course, many people resolve – for example, after Christmas and the New Year when they’ve eaten too much, drunk too much, and put on weight – to join a gym and get fit. What happens is that they sign on the dotted line, submit their credit card details, and the monthly fee disappears from their bank account. By April or May, they’ve already stopped going. Part of them feels guilty about this and part of them is determined to keep going: maybe next week, maybe the week after.
The same rule applies to buying fitness equipment for your home. I don’t know the statistics, but I would wager that well over 90% of fitness equipment in the home is lying in a corner, unused and gathering dust. The mother of a friend of M Jr’s came to our house a couple of months ago and saw our running machine for herself.
“Can I have a go?” she asked, to which Mrs. M said, “Of course. Take your time. This is how you switch it on. See what you think.”
This friend – let’s call her Ms. Tochigi – was so impressed that she went out the next day and bought a brand new running machine from an electrical store for 60 or 70,000 yen. She put it in a spare bedroom with the intention of getting fit, but when we saw her again recently and I asked, “How’s the running machine coming along? Are you using it every day?” she replied, “Actually, I haven’t even taken it out of the box yet.”
“Well,” I said, “you could always sell it on Jimoty.”
This is the fourth of my food quizzes in an ongoing series. I’ll be honest and say that for the previous three, I’ve only received one answer to the question that I posed. It was a correct answer, but the other two mysteries are, as yet, unsolved, so this time I want to give some clues as to what the answer may be. This won’t necessarily make the quiz any easier – particularly not for people living outside Japan – but anyway, I am a great lover of toast and a few years ago graduated from eating cereal for breakfast to eating toast instead, or bread as the case may be. Rumour has it that cereal contains less nutrition than a piece of cardboard, although this myth was busted by – appropriately enough – the TV show Mythbusters, which tested the nutritional contents of cereal and cardboard, compared them, and came to the conclusion that cereal was at least marginally more beneficial for your health than cardboard, or at least could keep you alive for longer.
The reason I switched to toast was because cereal is much less popular in Japan than in the UK, although in recent years, granola and the like are becoming more popular, even if they are a lot like UK cereals: in other words, 90% sugar and only 10% vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and so on.
Another problem about living in Japan is that there are fewer options when it comes to what to spread on your toast or bread. I’m fanatical about peanut butter – in fact, I’m thinking of writing a post about peanut butter alone in the not-too-distant future because it’s such a big part of my life – but peanut butter, jam, and for English people Marmite, are less readily available in Japan, which has led to me searching for alternatives. I spread all sorts of weird and wonderful things on my toast in the morning and parenthetically, I usually cut one slice of toast into four and spread four different items, one on each quarter, which is, I have to admit, eccentric.
So today’s food quiz originates in one of those experiments. I can’t remember what I spread on the other two quarters of toast not visible in this photo because it was a couple of weeks ago now, but the two you can see here are alternatives to Marmite, in the sense that they are black and not necessarily the kind of thing that everyone would like on their toast.
By way of a hint as to what they are, the one on the left is something that Japanese people will often put on rice when they eat it. There tend to be two schools of thought in Japan: Mrs M is one of those people who doesn’t like to eat rice on its own, whereas I am one of those people who does. There is a foodstuff called furikaké, which we refer to with our children as “sprinkles.” Furikaké comes in all sorts of flavours – for example, seaweed, egg, salmon, and so on – and is usually dry and powdery.
The shiny black substance you can see here is not crude oil. Rather, it is a kind of paste and is definitely not available abroad unless you shop in a specialist Japanese supermarket. Personally, I think that it’s very nice on rice or toast, and it contains an ingredient that is not necessarily unique to Japan, but is much more popular here than in almost any other country in the world.
The other quarter of toast has something spread on it that is more unusual, that even an ordinary Japanese person may not have eaten and even if they have, may not like.
I received this as a gift – a very strange gift, you might say – when I was working as an adjudicator for an English exam in a far corner of Ibaraki Prefecture a few weeks ago. Normally, when I work as an adjudicator for this particular English exam, it’s all rather formal. There are a lot of examiners, a lot of students, and it’s quite a tiring day. The money is good, which is why I do it, but there tends not to be much banter or camaraderie, as there’s a lot of work to get through and because it’s an exam, we need to play by the rules and not take matters too lightly. But when I was adjudicating in a place called Ryūgasaki, the atmosphere was rather different. There were fewer examiners, fewer students, and the old guy who was helping us get through the day without making any mistakes, telling us what to do, where to go, whether or not to use anti-bacterial spray on our hands and so on, was an amusing fellow. I don’t know exactly who had left it for us, but at the end of the day we were given a present to go away with. Normally this would be something like cakes or sweets, but this particular present was very unusual. I’ve only ever received it on one other occasion and that was from one of Mrs M’s aunts, who makes it herself. The process of making it is very laborious and it takes, I believe, either 12 or 24 hours in a rice cooker, which is a lot of electricity to use for something that a lot of people don’t like.
I’m not even sure how most people eat it and/or whether they mix it with something else to create different recipes. Mrs M mixed it with a sweet, vinegary sauce to make a kind of paste and I had the bright idea that it might be a good idea to spread this on toast. Which is a very long-winded way of saying that the main ingredient in the spread on the second quarter of toast is a vegetable of some kind, although normally that vegetable is not black; in the process of cooking, it changes colour completely. In fact, the taste changes, too.
But I’ve already said too much! If you think you know the answers to food quiz no. 4, do please leave a comment, and I will be very impressed if anyone answers this correctly.
Blogger’s health warning: this post was lovingly crafted with the help of voice recognition software (specifically, Microsoft Word), so readers are warned that reading it may make you feel as if you have been accosted by someone with verbal diarrhoea.
For the past two or three years I’ve been going to bed earlier and earlier and getting up earlier and earlier. This is a result of my insomnia and the various strategies I’ve put in place to tackle it, and a side effect of getting up at four or five in the morning has been my exercise routine, which has also shifted to earlier in the day.
At first I was going walking or jogging or cycling at about six o’clock in the morning, so I would arrive back at the house when my wife and children were up and about, whereas for the past year or so, I’ve been getting up, getting dressed, leaving the house, going jogging or cycling, and getting back when they’re still asleep. During the summer this is not necessarily a difficult thing to do, or at least it doesn’t present too many practical problems. Also – and this is something I will post about in due course – you get some wonderful opportunities to photograph the sunrise and the golden hour, and last summer I took a series of early morning photographs of which I’m very proud, although in a sense it’s cheating to take photographs at that time in the morning because everything looks beautiful, even if you’re cycling past a concrete building, on a main road, with telegraph poles and dustbins and so on surrounding you. The morning light is so enchanting that you can’t fail to take good photographs, no matter how incompetent you may be as a photographer or whatever equipment it is that you’re using.
As my early morning cycling and jogging exploits continued into autumn and winter, I found myself getting up, getting dressed, going out, and getting back to the house all while it was still dark. I enjoy the sense of adventure that this presents and in fact, the only real reason that I’ve stopped doing it recently is because I’ve been busy with work and had plenty of other things to be getting on with. Four or five in the morning is a time when the house is quiet (apart from the cat, who meows from the other side of the dining room door, begging me to play with him). It’s a time when I can concentrate and get a good hour or so of translating done while I’m alert and drinking my morning coffee.
Apart from it being dark, one of the factors that makes cycling and jogging difficult in the winter is that it’s very cold and the preparation takes an unnecessarily long time. Another thing that I like to do at that time in the morning is listen to podcasts and music, so I have to get my smartphone and my Bluetooth headphones ready, in addition to putting on an extra couple of layers of clothing, gloves, hat, and snood.
(Many years ago I was told by a work colleague that a snood or a scarf is a good way of preventing colds, in the sense that it protects your throat. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it’s something that I still do.)
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of going outside when it’s very cold is what in America they call “hangnail.” I still don’t really know what it’s called in British English and in Japanese it’s sakamuké or sasakuré. Basically, it is the condition where the skin on either side of a thumbnail or fingernail splits. It doesn’t bleed, but it does hurt a lot. Once you have hangnail, all sorts of everyday tasks become painful, so before I put on my gloves, I have to apply some special cream. My uncle in the UK recommended something called Snowfire, which is a kind of deodorant-style stick that contains a painkiller, as well as additional ingredients of obscure origin. Snowfire isn’t available in Japan and when I checked, it was sold out on Amazon, too, so I use this thing called Kiss Me (don’t laugh), which was recommended to me by my mother-in-law. She does a lot of cleaning, washing up, and laundry all year round, so her hands get very dry and she suffers from hangnail, too. I found that Kiss Me is very good, but you still need to apply it pretty much every day and the best time to do so is before you put on some gloves, so it has some time to work before you next wash your hands or the cream rubs off on whatever it is you’re handling.
There aren’t very many cars around at night, but it is slightly dangerous if you don’t have proper lights on your bike, and even if it’s not dangerous, you can’t see where you’re going very well and you may bash a into curbstone or fall down a drain. An ordinary bicycle light isn’t quite enough to show you where you’re going – as a rule, bicycle lights aren’t for the rider to see what’s around them, they’re for making them more visible to other drivers and pedestrians. So I eventually settled on using a headlight, too. You know the kind of thing I mean: a miner’s headlamp with an elasticated strap.
The coldest it’s been these past few months was about minus five or six degrees Celsius, and there’s something quite bracing about that if you’re wrapped up warm and moving your body, and sweating underneath all those layers of clothing isn’t such a bad thing.
I’ve been cycling to various different places in and around the small town where we live, and one of those is down by the river. Some of the best – if not the best – places to go cycling in Japan are these riverside cycle paths. Because of typhoons and heavy rain during the rainy season, there’s a great danger of flooding in Japan. So a lot of the wider rivers and tributaries have extensive dykes along both sides. These have been turned into cycling paths all over the country and I have a couple of routes that I take along the Kuji River, over a bridge, back along the opposite side, and back home.
Like I said, there’s hardly anybody around at this time of the morning, apart from the occasional truck and the occasional car driven by somebody who’s about to go to work or has just finished a night shift. But something you do see in Japan – as I discovered when I had insomnia and was often awake at two, three, four in the morning – is old guys on scooters delivering newspapers. I used to have a paper round when I was 14 or 15 years old and I would get up at 6:30, go to the paper shop at about 6:45, pick up my bag of newspapers, cycle around a nearby housing estate for three quarters of an hour delivering them, then go home, have breakfast, and go to school. But in Japan, traditionally people seem to like their newspapers to be delivered much earlier than that. The earliest I’ve seen a newspaper delivery guy scooting around is at about 2:30 in the morning. In fact, in order to help pay for his children to go to university, a friend of mine took on a paper round in addition to his day job, so he gets up at two in the morning and starts work at 2:30. I’m not sure when he gets back, but he has enough time to have breakfast, get ready for work, and go to his day job.
On one occasion a few months ago, I was cycling along a deserted side road when I saw the light from what I assumed were car headlights behind me. I moved over to the side of the road to let whoever it was go past, but as it turned out, it was an old guy on a scooter who pulled up beside me and said hello. I was hastily trying to press the stop button on my headphones and move them aside, so didn’t quite catch everything that he said. But he asked me where I was from and what I was doing, and I told him that I was just getting some exercise. He told me to take care and we went our separate ways, although I’ve also had a near miss with one of these newspaper delivery men.
A scooter pulled out from somebody’s driveway and nearly hit me, even though I was wearing my headlight. I don’t think he even noticed that I was there, and carried on his way. On another occasion, a car turned right from a main road onto the side road that I was about to exit. He didn’t indicate, cut the corner, and came within a whisker of bashing into me as he did so. It wouldn’t have been a serious accident and rather than me being injured, I probably would have scratched the side of his car. If this had been in London during the day and he’d been an inconsiderate taxi driver, it may have turned into a full-blown road rage incident. But this being Japan and me cycling along happy as Larry and listening to a podcast on my headphones, I didn’t feel angry. He, too, stopped the car, got out, said how sorry he was, and bowed apologetically, and we both went on our way without any sense of aggression or annoyance.
But I digress. On one of my early morning riverside rides, I was using my headlight to find my way. You won’t even see any cars on a cycle path by the river, so I really did have the place to myself. I looked up and around and saw the stars. That night the moon was, if not full, certainly close to it and very bright. I realised that the light on the surroundings was a very attractive silvery colour and it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t need my headlight. So I switched it off and indeed it was bright enough to see. The silence and semi-darkness made for a very agreeable ride. I followed the river, went across the bridge and back along the other side, and on the way I met another early morning exerciser with the same idea as me. This time I was the guilty party because I was cycling and this person was jogging. I was looking around me at the beautiful moonlit scenery and starlit sky when suddenly I saw a shape in front of me. We didn’t hit each other and I zipped past him and, well, to cut a long story short, I couldn’t be bothered to go back and apologise. But it made me realise that as a cyclist, cars and trucks are, if not your enemy then something that you have to be wary of. As a pedestrian or a runner, you also have to beware of cyclists.
There was a story on the news the other day about an Uber eats delivery person who was cycling around Tokyo, crashed into and killed a pedestrian. Dangerous cycling or cycling that may endanger people’s lives has been an issue in Japan for the past few years, as it has elsewhere in the world, and on this occasion he was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. Both adults and children have been taking out cycling insurance in case they cause an accident, so take care, fellow cyclists. Whether it’s during the day or during the night, make sure that people can see you coming and if you have lights, use them. If you have high-visibility clothing and accessories, use them, too.
Blogger’s health warning: the following post was written using voice recognition software and as a result is, er, rather odd.
Late last autumn I went to Tokyo for the first time in about two years – ah, the joys of COVID! The last time I went was with my family to Haneda Airport, although we weren’t going to fly in a plane. We went so that my son and daughter could watch the planes take off and land, and also so that we could go to the food court and the souvenir shops, as we wanted to sample some interesting cuisine and buy New Year’s presents for our family. Since then we haven’t been in lockdown, but there’s been a general restriction on travel and it hasn’t necessarily been viewed as a good thing to venture outside your own prefecture and potentially bring COVID back to give to your friends, family, and classmates.
I was given the opportunity to present a seminar at the midwifery department in a place called St. Luke’s International University. Myself and three or four other foreigners who’d experienced raising children in Japan took part, along with a Japanese lady who had given birth to her first child in America. We were talking to a fairly small group of elementary school students of about 11 to 12 years old, in a very nice new building, and various of the students on the midwifery course were helping out.
As an aside, I was given a shopping voucher to be spent on the products or services of my choice as a nominal fee for the day, but was paid full travel expenses. In actual fact, the cheapest and quickest way to get to Tokyo from where I live in Ibaraki is by bus, as the route by train is a little complicated, more expensive, and often takes more time. There are roadworks near our house at the moment and the bus stop that I would normally use is out of action, so I chose a different bus stop, to which I could cycle or drive in the morning, leave my car or my bicycle there and pick it up the next day, as I was going to combine this business trip with a night in Tokyo and some mountain biking the following day (MTB is an abbreviation that, to my embarrassment, I wasn’t aware of until I Ecosia-ed it recently).
I booked my bus ticket online and the information on the bus company website said that the bus stop was at the entrance to City Hall, which I have often visited because they used to be my employers. Partly because of Mrs M’s influence, I’m more organised than I used to be when it comes to preparing, packing, and planning, and I like to think I was well prepared for this particular trip. I slept well, got up on time, had some breakfast, and got my things together. I decided not to cycle to City Hall because the weather forecast for the following day was for rain and I didn’t want to cycle home in the rain and the dark having caught the late bus back from Tokyo. I parked in the overflow car park, walked to the entrance to City Hall, and arrived at about 8:20. There wasn’t anybody else there, but there’s a roundabout at the entrance and something that looks a bit like a bus stop on the road itself. I waited, checked the time on my smartphone, and at 8:25, when the bus was due to arrive and depart, started to wonder if something might be amiss. There is a staff entrance to the City Hall that backs onto a different road and I wondered if the bus stop was there. I was beginning to sweat a little at this point even though it was a winter’s day and ran over to the staff entrance. But the gate was shut and there was nobody standing on the road on the other side. I couldn’t see a bus anywhere and started to think, well, this bus doesn’t look like it’s going to turn up. If it was the UK, this would be a perfectly normal experience because buses and whatever other form of transport you care to use tend not to turn up on time, whereas in Japan, even buses arrive on time, which is quite miraculous when you consider that they can get caught in traffic jams very easily and shouldn’t necessarily be predictable.
Anyway, it got to 8:30 and 8:35, and half of me was panicking and half of me was resigned to failure. Thankfully I had a Plan B, but that involved walking to the nearest railway station, catching a local train to Mito, then catching an express train from there to Tokyo. There was a local train leaving soon, so in the end I arrived at the venue in Tokyo on time. But as well as spending about 2000 yen on a bus ticket, I spent about 4000 yen on a ticket for the express train and ended up paying for both. I had an amusing story to tell to the nice people at St. Luke’s about not being able to catch the bus from City Hall, but I didn’t have the heart to ask them for 8000 yen in travel expenses.
After the lecture I met two friends of mine from when I was living in Tokyo in 2004. One was my former teacher from a volunteer Japanese class and the other was Mr Vancouver, who was a fellow student in the same class. Among other things, Mr Vancouver was kind enough to attend both legs of my online 50th birthday party last April and when I said that I was coming to Tokyo, he suggested that we go mountain biking together. When he did so, my first thought was, well, if I’m going to Tokyo, I don’t want to get on a train, leave to go mountain biking, come back and then leave again for Ibaraki. Plus this was going to be my first experience of mountain biking and I wasn’t overly keen on the idea. For cycle touring I have a cross bike and I cycle along roads. Obviously I cycle up and down mountain roads but I’m on the bike the whole time, whereas I’d always assumed that mountain biking involved carrying your bike up a steep hill and then cycling back down again, which sounded to me like a hassle, not to mention being dangerous. But in the interests of spontaneity, I decided to accept his invitation.
Our former Japanese teacher is a very generous soul: a computer engineer who retired on a very tidy pension and lives in a fashionable part of Tokyo, albeit on the ground floor of a very small house with his son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren occupying the first (that is, second) floor. On this occasion we went to a trendy bar in Nakano, then to a fish and seafood restaurant. The narrow backstreets of Nakano are very atmospheric and the food was fantastic. Among other things, we ate deep-fried cod sperm (shirako/白子). I ordered too much, ate too much, ate too late (I would normally stop at 7 p.m. and it was past 8 when I had savoured the last morsel of sperm), and we very much enjoyed ourselves.
I had booked a room at hotel in Shinjuku at the rock-bottom price of 3500 yen, and both the room and the hotel were better than I expected, in a high-rise building of 10 or 15 floors. I had a single room with my own bed and a TV. There wasn’t a toilet in the room, but there were toilets on the same floor and a large communal bath in the basement. I had a very hot bath at about 9:30, the bed wasn’t the most comfortable in the world, and as the evening wore on, a lot of doors were slamming in the corridor. I read my book (Cycling Japan by Bryan Harrell), did my meditative breathing exercises, and couldn’t get to sleep, so switched on the light, read my book again, went to the toilet along the corridor, came back, and repeated the process. Then I repeated the process again, and again. I was supposed to meet Mr Vancouver at 7 o’clock the following morning, so I needed to get up at six. He had said that he didn’t mind going later, but I had to return to Tokyo in the afternoon to catch the bus (if I could find the correct stop, that is), so was worried that I wouldn’t get enough sleep and not be in the best mood or physical condition to go mountain biking.
The wall clock ticked on to 10 o’clock, 10:30, 11, and 11:30. After about the fourth or fifth time of trying, I opened my eyes and miraculously, it was light outside. Out of the window was a view of the high-rise buildings of Shinjuku in a pale and misty morning light. I looked at my smartphone and it was almost exactly six o’clock, which meant that by my calculation, I had enjoyed a decent-but-not-outstanding six hours’ sleep. I was elated at this and rushed to get dressed, pack my things, and go downstairs. There was nobody in reception, so I left my key on the desk and was on my way out when the receptionist appeared from a back room and asked me to sign a checkout form.
The entertainment district of Shinjuku is an interesting place to walk through, as I had done the previous evening, and on that occasion there were lots of people who had been to a local shrine and bought New Year’s decorations. At six on a Sunday morning there were just those who’d been up all night drinking and women (probably some men, too) tottering along on high heels. No doubt a lot of them had been bar hopping or working in hostess or host clubs until the small hours. Some were still enjoying themselves, some were couples negotiating about where to go for breakfast, some of them were falling asleep on their feet.
Before going to bed, I had promised myself some 7-Eleven coffee for my own breakfast. A couple of years ago, 7-Eleven decided to adopt coffee machines that make proper ground coffee for about 100 yen a cup. You can see the beans being fed into the top of the machine and you can hear them being ground. It takes about 15 or 20 seconds before the coffee appears in your paper cup, although this could all be a ruse to make you think that it’s not instant. By way of solids, I had some gifts that I had received from St. Luke’s the previous day, which were also from 7-Eleven and now squashed flat in the bottom of my rucksack. One of them was a stodgy cake of some description, which contained just the right amount of sugar, flour, chocolate, and cream to kick me awake in combination with my supposedly ground coffee.
I wasn’t going to the main part of Shinjuku station but to Seibu-Shinjuku Station just north of it, which houses the line along which I used to live when Mr Vancouver and I were in the same Japanese class. For some reason, the ticket machines in Tokyo didn’t like my Aeon supermarket credit card, even though it’s a legitimate Japanese one, and kept on spitting it out at me while I was there. So having bought a ticket with cash, I boarded a stationary train that was resting against the buffers at the beginning of the Seibu-Shinjuku Line. The carriage that I boarded was almost empty, so I enjoyed my 7-Eleven breakfast undisturbed.
I love these Tokyo train carriages because there’s lots of stainless steel, they’re very spacious, and they have proper heating and/or air conditioning. Once the train got going it took me past the same views and the same roads and buildings that I used to see about 18 years ago. Nogata Station used to be rather pokey and a bit dark, but the ticket gates and so on are now in an overpass above the tracks and I was bang on time and when I arrived. Mr Vancouver doesn’t live too far from the station and had brought two mountain bikes with him. A particularity of cycling in Japan is that a lot of people disassemble their bikes and put them in bags so that they can then take them on trains, bullet trains, aeroplanes, and so on. For example, if you catch a ferry in Japan, you can park your bicycle below decks, but if you want to save money, even on a ferry you can save yourself the parking fee if you put it in a bike bag. On the other hand, most trains in Japan will not let you wheel a bike on with the wheels attached. In fact, you won’t even be allowed through the barriers in the first place. So Mr Vancouver was busy with Allen keys when I met him, taking the two bikes apart and putting them in bags. They were expensive mountain bikes, but there’s a particular mountain bike shop in Tokyo that he often goes to and is friends with the people who run it. He bought his bike there secondhand, although the one that I was going to ride was, in a sense, cursed.
He had been given it by a Japanese friend of his, not as a gift in the sense that the friend didn’t need it anymore, but because when he was out mountain biking, this guy had crashed, broken his neck, and was now paralysed from the waist down. He was married with four children when he had the accident and quite apart from the fact that he’s now confined to a wheelchair, his wife then left him and took the children with her. So I could have been superstitious about riding his bike, but chose not to think about it too much and talked technical with Mr Vancouver instead. Both bikes had disc brakes and suspension, and the tyres on his were filled with a kind of green slime, which is supposed to mean that even if you get a puncture, rather than all the air from the tyre hissing out, the only thing that comes out is a small sort of honeycomb section of gel and the rest of the tyre will stay – well, inflated is the wrong word, but it won’t go flat. (I contemplated buying these tubes when I was working on the bike that I currently ride, but realised they are a mountain bike thing that you wouldn’t really want to buy for thin road tyres).
From Nogata we boarded a train heading northwest away from the centre of Tokyo and I honestly can’t remember how many times we changed trains or where. Mr Vancouver knew exactly which platform to use and which end of it to stand on so that we’d be next to a door where it was easy to put our bike bags on the train. There was one station where we had to get out, get in a lift, cross a bridge and descend to another platform, but again these were typical Tokyo trains because they were clean, spacious, and well heated. They also have bigger windows and better views than the trains in London. We leaned our bike bags against the wall of the carriage and tied them to one of the handrails, and Mr Vancouver was always keeping an eye out to make sure that the bikes weren’t in the way of anyone who got on the train.
It took at least an hour to get to where we were supposed to go, by which time we had left metropolitan Tokyo and entered Saitama Prefecture. We went through the barriers with our bike bags before Mr Vancouver began the laborious process of reassembling the bikes. We then cycled to the mountain biking area, which is a place that he calls The Maze. It was about 20 minutes ride from the station and living in the countryside as I do, if you go out into the woods there’s nobody there. In and around Tokyo, however, if you go out into the woods, there are people everywhere. For example, there were not many buildings or roads, but even in the woods there was a track for remote controlled cars, from which even early in the morning could be heard the sound of remote controlled cars whizzing around. There was a dog run, too, where people with their pedigrees were gathering to meet other dog owners and let their dogs run around (because of course you don’t let your dog off the lead in Japan, even in the park). We stopped at a public toilet just before the maze to get changed and I put on Mr Vancouver’s spare shin pads, which were too big and kept on slipping around the back of my legs, although he said that I would need them to stop the pedals from gouging chunks of flesh from my legs. We put the luggage that we didn’t need in a plastic bag, hid this in some bushes and took the essentials with us, including some food that we had stopped to buy in a convenience store on the way. Then we went into the maze and spent a good three or four hours there.
Because he goes there regularly, Mr Vancouver was telling me which trails are the best to take, the steepest, the most dangerous, and the easiest, but because there is a constant flow of people through the area, there’s a slightly tense relationship between mountain bikers and hikers. The issue of who has the right to use the various paths and tracks is slightly contentious and the hiking fraternity erects signs saying this or that path is for hiking and mountain biking is not allowed because it would be dangerous for the hikers. The mountain bikers say, well, we’ve been using this as a mountain biking area for many years and we’re perfectly entitled to do so, as long as we ride safely. But mountain bikers sometimes come hurtling down a steep path at great speed and if they happen to come across a hiker, it’s not going to be a very even match in terms of who comes off injury-free and who is hospitalised.
The weather wasn’t too cold or cloudy, and we explored pretty much every corner of The Maze. It isn’t that big and it surprised me that Mr Vancouver should return again and again and not get a little bored with running the same pathways over and over. Contrary to my expectations, we didn’t have to stop and carry the bikes or even wheel them along that much. A lot of the hills were gentle enough that you could change down into a low gear and cycle up. If there were tree roots, rocks, or a stream blocking the path, sometimes I got stuck and either had another go or wheeled my bike over the obstacle manually.
I constantly have problems with the gears and chain on my cross bike. I managed to order online and then fit an entirely new set of rear cogs, a new chain, and a new derailleur about three or four years ago and was very proud of myself for this. I watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to do this and on how to adjust the gears on a bike, which is devilishly hard and something that until then I didn’t know how to do properly. (One of the videos that I found very helpful was from a site called Park Tool). But even though I ordered what, on the face of it, were the correct Shimano parts for my particular bicycle and fitted them correctly, they have never quite worked properly. Often the chain slips with a clunk when I’ve stopped the bike and start pedalling again, but the cursed mountain bike was fitted with gears that just seemed to work more smoothly. I found that even when I was in the middle of a manoeuvre – that is, going round a corner, up a hill, or very slowly, it would slip into the next gear up or the next gear down more easily than on my cross bike, which I found very satisfying in a geeky cycling obsessive kind of way.
The interesting thing was that even though he is a mountain biker, Mr Vancouver is much more keen on the downhills than the uphills. He’s an adrenaline junkie, whereas I’ve always said that going uphill is what I get the most pleasure from when I go cycling. You could tell that difference immediately on the steepest hill that we cycled up. He’s a fit and healthy man and even though he’s older than me, looks younger. But when we cycled up this hill, I got into the zone and felt this is what I was there for. I was slightly out of breath, but just ahead of me Mr Vancouver was struggling and wheezing all the while.
We stopped and talked to some hikers who had lost their way, stopped for lunch, and stopped for Mr Vancouver to take some videos of me enjoying my first experience of MTB. Later he posted these on Facebook with the caption, “Muzuhashi shredding the trails.” Well, I wasn’t exactly shredding the trails to be honest. Caressing would be a better word, or stroking them gently. I didn’t take any risks, but as the day progressed I became a little braver in terms of what kind of hill I would cycle down and how fast I would cycle down it. Initially I said to Mr Vancouver, “Of course I very rarely make it to Tokyo, so we’re not exactly going to be able to go mountain biking together very often.” But from initially saying I may never do this again, by the end of the day I agreed that it was good fun and that I might have another go one day.
We arrived back at the public toilets to find that the plastic bag with our excess kit was still there, and stopped in a park between there and the station for Mr Vancouver to wash the bikes. He has a small length of hose in his kit bag which he can connect to a tap on the sinks in the park and parenthetically, I was interested to see that he doesn’t use any kind of cleanser. He just uses water to wash the mud off and doesn’t wait until the water has dried from the chain before he oils it again. When I clean my bike – which admittedly isn’t every time I ride it – I brush and scrape away all the oil, grit, and dirt, use a foaming cleanser, then wash that off and wait until it’s completely dry before I oil it, otherwise I get spots of rust on the chain.
We had to change trains at various stations in the suburbs before we made it back to civilization and one of the stories that Mr Vancouver told me on the way was about a foreign friend of his who had been out mountain biking on his own in The Maze. Mr Vancouver received a phone call – it was already mid-afternoon on a weekend – and his friend had crashed his bike in the forest. He said, “Can you come and help me, please?” But at that point Mr Vancouver was at home in Nogata, so even if he had wanted to, it would have taken at least two hours from his front door to wherever this friend happened to be, on a trail in the woods somewhere. Mr Vancouver’s Japanese isn’t the best, so his wife phoned the nearest police station to the maze and in the end, somebody went into the woods and from Mr Vancouver’s friend’s description of where he was lying injured, managed to find and rescue him
As per the weather forecast, once I was back in the centre of Tokyo it started raining. I was walking around Shinjuku for a long time, went to an electronics shop looking for a new computer keyboard, and spent far too much time trying to decide what to eat for dinner (in the end I settled on nondescript convenience store fare, although not from a 7-Eleven and with no sugar, flour, chocolate, or cream). I did thankfully get on the correct bus at the correct bus stop, and was back at the City Hall where I had left my car by about eight in the evening.
When I asked the bus driver where the bus stop was, he described a location several hundred metres from the entrance to City Hall, next to a restaurant and on a different, main road that wasn’t visible from where I had been waiting on Saturday morning. If I had been really eagle-eyed, I may have spotted the bus between the trees and buildings as it sped past at 8:25, but by that time it would have been too late to flag it down. I also called the bus company the next day in the hope of getting a refund, but was told that that would be impossible, and that the location of the stop itself was common knowledge among local people, even if it had only a very tenuous connection to the description on their website.
For a long time I’ve wanted to start blogging again and for various reasons. But the timing isn’t particularly good at the moment because last September I quit my job as an ALT to go freelance as a translator, proofreader, possibly interpreter, and – very tentatively – writer. So I’ve been spending a lot of time tapping away at a computer keyboard and in fact, I already have mild RSI as a result. I’ve been adjusting how I use my computer and bought a new, ergonomic computer keyboard, which is a funny shape and supposed to be good for your hands, wrists, and arms. But I started a job the other week that involves a lot of translating in a short space of time and in particular, inputting the times in a video at which people start talking. On the first day of this, I did getting on for 10 hours of translating almost without a break and filled well over 300 cells in an Excel worksheet, every single one of which needed a time of six figures, as in 00 hours 00 minutes 00 seconds. That day in particular put a huge strain on pretty much every part of my body, including my legs and my feet, and the next day it felt like I’d run a marathon.
A few years ago I suffered what in Japanese is called gikkurigoshi (ぎっくり腰/a bad back). The physio told me I was on the way to slipping a disc and thanks to her treatment and advice, I still do back exercises. While I haven’t bought a standing desk yet, I do stand up to work at the computer.
So I was wondering how I could start blogging again without putting undue strain on my already tired typing fingers, and I’ve heard from one or two translators that using voice recognition software is a good way of doing so. It would seem the technology has advanced quite significantly, particularly for English. (If you use voice recognition for Japanese – which is, relatively speaking, a minor language – it’s liable to make more mistakes.) So as I speak, I’m holding my smartphone in one hand and dictating into Microsoft Word. When I’ve finished dictating, I’ll save the document, transfer it to my laptop, edit it, and post it on the blog. Which all sounds fine and dandy, but in practice, this is the second time I’ve tried this. The first time, what happened was that I spent an hour dictating a post about mountain biking, which I will probably post after this one, and once I had transferred it to the laptop, I spent at least two or three hours editing it. That didn’t necessarily involve rewriting, as I wanted to save time and effort, but it did involve deleting extraneous words, correcting the words and phrases that the voice recognition feature in Microsoft Word had misheard and misinterpreted, then tweaking. Forgive me father, for I have tweaked!
Even having edited and deleted and tweaked, the resulting post is unsatisfying to say the least. It does make sense and it also makes me realise the little habits, tics, words, phrases, or grammatical constructions that I use too often when I speak. But more than that, there’s just something…weird about it.
One of the very nice people who I deal with at Camphor Press – which is going to publish my cycling book, Charinko: 2,500 Kilometres Around Japan by Bicycle, in May of this year – said that he writes their email newsletter using voice recognition software and that when he does so, he uses bullet points. So he doesn’t just start recording and go – which is what I’m doing now – he thinks about what he wants to write, makes a few notes and based on those notes, starts recording. I didn’t ask him how long it takes to edit the newsletter from the voice recognition file, but I wonder how much time he’s actually saving.
The book was originally due to be published in time for the 2020 Olympics and for various reasons – not necessarily procrastination on my part or the part of the publishers – it’s been delayed. There’s no particular hurry because the book itself is about a tour that I went on in 2005 – i.e. 17 years ago. I want to use the blog as a method for promoting the book and have been advised to start an email newsletter myself. I haven’t actually looked into how or whether WordPress can handle email newsletters, but I will in due course.
So I suppose what I’m saying is, please forgive me if this and subsequent blog posts over the next few months and years don’t have quite the same writing brilliance to them (said he, ironically) as before. For example, the last post that I wrote was in the summer of 2021. I got a very good response, particularly when I shared it on Facebook, but it didn’t really count as a blog post because I’d spent many, many hours writing, rewriting, editing, and yes, tweaking it.
One of the original purposes of blogging on the internet was spontaneity. In particular, I always think of my favourite Japanese blog, Igirisu Dokuzetsu Nikki. The Japanese woman who writes it lives in England with her husband and two children. She writes very eloquently about cultural differences and the inconveniences and contradictions of British culture and British life, as well as about her slightly crazy in-laws. She doesn’t have repetitive strain injury, but she has some kind of physical problem which means that she can only spend 15 minutes on a computer each day. So every evening for the past 15 or 20 years, she’s been writing blog posts for 15 minutes at a time. Despite that limitation – perhaps because of that limitation – her blog is brilliant: funny, perceptive, and well written, to the extent that her Ameblo blog ranking is very high and a few years ago she was contacted by a company that wanted to publish a compilation of her best posts. I always wonder in cases like this whether she will be found out, because a lot of the things that she writes about are potentially libellous. Although she writes in Japanese and anonymously, she names the town where she lives and you wouldn’t have to be a detective to find out who she was. If you were one of her friends or neighbours and you decided to go online, find her blog and feed it into Google Translate or DeepL, you might come across something that you, your friends and your neighbours didn’t want to read.
But I digress. What I want to do with my new voice recognition strategy is to be more spontaneous, to blog more regularly, and to not be quite so fussy about the writing quality. I want to post more often, generate page views, and generate interest in the book. So I apologise if you think that you’re being used in some kind of marketing ruse. I’d also like to say that if anybody is reading this post, I very much appreciate the fact that you are and despite my almost complete lack of motivation for promoting Muzuhashi and for interacting with other bloggers, I’ve been blessed with a disproportionately large amount of positive feedback. I hope that you will continue to read, even though the posts herein may from now on make you feel slightly uneasy, in the sense that they may not read like they were written by me, the reason being that they will have been dictated, then edited as hastily as possible with aching wrists and fingers, and posted without the same rigorous quality control that until now I like to think I’ve been using. So please bear with me. I do hope that in future I can start using bullet points and dictating more concise posts that make more sense.
I also hope that I can give you some insights into the background to the book, as my current idea is to produce a kind of director’s commentary, so that people who have read it and even people who haven’t can get an insight into the tour itself, my state of mind when I embarked on it, what actually happened as opposed to what I wrote about, and the process of writing the book and getting it published. I would also like to post bonus material and passages that didn’t make it to the final edit, and/or research that I didn’t use.
My intention is to produce a less rambling version of the usual DVD director’s commentary, and rather than a continuous commentary on the book, to give you posts relating to particular chapters and particular incidents that will hopefully act as a companion to – and as something that enhances your enjoyment of – the book. But we shall see. Like I say, this is an experiment and whether I continue with it or how I adapt it to suit my needs and the needs of my readers, I don’t yet know. If nothing else, please look forward to more blog content.
Most bloggers have at least one post that says something like, “Sorry that I haven’t been blogging lately. I’ve been very busy. I keep on meaning to and I don’t get round to it, but I promise I’m going to blog more often.” This is my version of that post and whether I can keep my promise to blog more often, I don’t yet know. Whether I will end up writing or dictating another post almost identical to this in six months or a year’s time saying, “Sorry I haven’t been blogging lately. I’ve been very busy,” I also don’t yet know.
So this is me dictating into my smartphone using voice recognition as an experiment. We shall see how that experiment goes over the coming months and years.
In the autumn of 2005, I was living in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. I had just returned from the cycling holiday that will soon become my first (perhaps only?) travel book. I still had a fixed-line telephone in my apartment and one weekend my mother called. She had, she said, been to the doctor after experiencing stomach pains for the past few months. The doctor had scheduled a biopsy and she was awaiting the result. When she called again a week or so later, she had received the official diagnosis: it was liver cancer.
“It feels like it’s happening to someone else,” she said, and at the time, I did not really understand what she meant. Even now I am not sure that I understand; perhaps I never will unless the same thing happens to me.
What she did not mention was that the doctor had given her between six and eighteen months to live. She died almost exactly a year after that first phone call, by which time I had returned to the UK to look after her. Even subsequent to those initial phone calls, the subject of whether or not the cancer was terminal and if so, how long she might have left to live, never arose between the two of us. Partly because of this, partly because of my own naivety, and partly because I was in a state of denial, somehow the fact that she would die did not enter my mind. And when she did, it came as a shock – as if there was always a possibility that she might have beaten the cancer and cheated death.
At the end of 2005, I flew to the UK for about ten days of the Christmas holiday. My mother was, I think, already undergoing chemotherapy and had begun to look frail: she had lost weight and was not going out as much as before. After a few days at her house in Somerset, I planned to return to London and meet friends, but when we talked about this, she asked me to stay in Somerset for longer, and I remember that she cried. Even so, I insisted on going back to Japan for a further three months, so that I could finish my teaching contract and spend more time with my girlfriend, with whom my relationship was going so well that she planned to apply for a student visa and for us to live together in London.
Going back to Japan was, I now realise, a selfish thing to do, but again, I was in denial and did not know or want to believe that my mother would die sooner rather than later. When I left Japan for good in April 2006, I moved to Somerset to live with her – partly, I think, because I felt guilty for delaying my return to the UK, although I also had nothing in particular planned, no desire to return to the job that I had been doing before I emigrated in the first place, and agreed with my brother to do my “shift,” as it were, of looking after her while he was busy with his own teaching job in the Midlands.
During those last few months in Japan at the beginning of 2006, I had a brainwave, and this time it was not born of guilt but a genuine desire to do something nice for my mother. In fact, I probably would have done it even if she had not been ill.
When I was a child, my mother had introduced me to the work of Hokusai, the world-famous Edo-era printmaker, and in particular his Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji and One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. Ever since I moved to Japan, I had been obsessed with the idea of seeing Fuji and found that in modern-day Tokyo – even in the mountainous, sparsely populated area to the west that is still within the city’s borders – catching sight of it was a much rarer occurrence than it had been in Hokusai’s time. What I did discover was that the sky over Japan tends to be clearer in autumn and winter. If I get the chance, I thought, I should travel to Fuji, photograph it, and produce some kind of tribute to Hokusai as a present for my mother, whose sixty-eighth birthday was to be on 3rd March 2006.
On Friday 27th January, I finished work at 2.30 p.m. and drove straight from the school where I worked to the nearest expressway interchange. With no easy route all the way to Fuji by expressway, I spent an hour or so battling the rush hour traffic on the streets of Tokyo, and arrived at a restaurant near one of the Five Lakes (I cannot remember which, but either Kawaguchi, which is the most famous, or Yamanaka, which is the largest) at 8 or 9 p.m. When I asked the owner if he knew of a cheap place to stay, I was directed to a nearby business hotel.
Excited about the following day, I did not sleep well and woke earlier than I had planned. My idea was not so much to produce thirty-six or one hundred photographs of Fuji, as to document one day in its environs, from the moment that dawn broke to the moment that darkness fell. The hotel appeared almost empty and I assumed that I would be the only person braving the early morning cold, but how wrong I was! The lakeside was positively swarming with photographers – mostly men, mostly old-age pensioners, and with tripods, lens bags, and weatherproof clothing – not to mention ice fishermen and various other Fuji-watching day trippers.
It had been dark when I left the hotel. When I arrived at the lake it was getting light and about an hour later, the morning sun cast the summit in a soft salmon-pink glow.
I spent the rest of the day driving around in search of interesting angles and suitable spots from which to photograph Fuji. I framed the summit – that iconic summit dwarfed by a great wave in Hokusai’s most renowned work – in bus windows, cranes on building sites, and the rollercoaster at the Fuji-Q Highland theme park; between houses, trees, and billboards; and with swans, photographers, and people picnicking on the lake’s frozen surface.
There was hardly a cloud in the sky all day and the only times I stopped to relax were at a roadside services, where people were filling containers with free spring water from a tap in the car park, and for an hour or so at a hot springs (quite by chance, I had visited the same hot springs with a Japanese friend more than a year earlier; on that occasion the weather had been cloudy and we had not seen the summit at all). At one point, I had to recharge the battery on my digital camera using the electrical socket above the sink in a public toilet, where I also took the opportunity to download the photos I had taken so far onto the clunky old laptop that I had brought with me.
By about six o’clock in the evening, the sun had set, the sky had faded from blue to black, and street and house lights on the opposite shore were reflected in the lake.
As the temperature once more began to fall below zero – if I remember rightly, that morning it had been minus-eight before the sun rose – I rejoined the expressway and headed back to Ibaraki. I stopped for an anonymous evening meal at a family restaurant in Tokyo, balanced my phone on the steering wheel to video the long semi-tunnel through which the Jōban Expressway passes as it moves from the Tokyo suburbs to the Ibaraki countryside, and was back at my apartment not long before midnight.
My car was a Suzuki Wit and what is known in Japan as “yellow plate”: that is, one with a yellow number plate and an engine of no bigger than 660 cc, for which road tax, insurance, MOT, and so on are cheaper than larger “white plate” cars. Already years old, it was rented via my employers from a family business in Mito and not exactly the most reassuring vehicle to drive. The Monday after I went to Mt. Fuji, the Wit had what I thought was a flat tyre. When I took it to a tyre shop, they said that it was not a puncture and simply needed reinflating, but what if the tyre had gone flat on the expressway – in the dark and in the mountains – or in a traffic jam on the way through Tokyo? I might have been stuck for hours or not have made it to Fuji at all. More importantly, the car was only insured to be driven in Ibaraki Prefecture. If I had been in an accident or been pulled over by the police – for instance, while ignoring a stop sign, going over a level crossing without stopping, or making an illegal U-turn, all of which I have subsequently received fines and points on my licence for – the trip would have acquired an extra dimension of difficulty and my day of photography quite possibly postponed.
But the stars aligned and I had several hundred photographs from which to choose. I bought a couple of stylish-looking, ring-bound, brown-paper-and-card notebooks from Muji, printed out two each the best twenty or thirty photos, and compiled my own version of Hokusai’s Views of Mt. Fuji in a limited edition of two. One was for my art teacher from sixth-form college and one for my mother. It was probably the first birthday present I had given her in several years, and it was to be the last.
My mother was a complex character. Intelligent and academically inclined, she was the first person from her family to go to university. Her father was an electrician, who among other things had worked on the lighting on Clifton Suspension Bridge (we still have a few vertigo-inducing photographs that he took while climbing it), her mother was a housewife, and both came from poor families of coal miners in the Forest of Dean. My mother was also gifted with languages and the only time she ever left the British Isles was to study in France – in Paris and for several months, I think, although I never found out the details.
She married in the mid-sixties, but her husband suffered from depression and not long after they separated, he committed suicide. When I was younger, she told me that he had died in a car accident – presumably so as not to shock or traumatise me – and after her death, I found the coroner’s report among her possessions. Apparently, she had gone to stay at the house that he was sharing in Oxford. He went to bed, she slept downstairs, and in the morning he was found hanging from the curtain rail in his bedroom. It may have been my mother who found the body, although even if it was not, this was surely an experience that changed her forever.
Her marriage to my father did not last much longer and their separation proved to be the defining moment in my own life. She told me that she had said to him on their wedding night that the marriage would not necessarily last, and this struck me as a very cold – even heartless – thing to say. Although the same is true of every couple, stating as much openly and from the outset was tempting fate, and set the marriage off on the wrong foot.
My parents never officially divorced, and so as not to go through the stress and expense of court proceedings, discussed their separation with a mediator and came to an agreement about child support payments and visiting rights. I was only three or four years old, so am not sure of the exact chain of events, but I believe that my mother had a new boyfriend at the time. During one of my father’s less endearing, less sober episodes, he implied that the boyfriend was the cause of the split, or that my mother was already seeing him before the marriage ended. The boyfriend — at least I assume it was the same man — came to stay at the house to which my mother, brother, and I had moved, and apart from his long ginger hair, the only things I remember about him were that he walked around indoors barefoot and that one of his toenails was rotten, or infected, or had turned black from having dropped something on it or stubbed his toe.
That boyfriend was to be the first of many that my mother had as my brother and I were growing up (my father also had girlfriends, but never introduced any of them to us). Some were very nice, some I was indifferent to, and some were merely unsuitable. There was the married man who used his evening jogs as an excuse to pop round to our house; the divorced father of two that a friend of ours condemned as a “jogging Christian” (my mother had a fondness for beards and the only reason she went out with the jogging Christian was, as far as I could tell, because he had a beard); the leather-jacketed media type who wore far too much aftershave, the younger man; the even younger man; and the warden who wooed her while we were staying at his youth hostel in Wales, then dumped her because he could not find anyone to feed his pet goat while he was visiting us.
So during our teens, when my brother and I should have been dating girls, it was my mother who was gadding about, receiving love letters and phone calls, and going through traumatic break-ups and last-ditch reconciliations. I will be honest and say that if anything, this fucked me up even more than the fact of my parents having separated in the first place. Of course, there were times when I wished my mother could maintain a long-term relationship, even have one of her boyfriends move in with us so that I might have a male role-model in the house (the youth hostel warden was the most suitable that she found over the years and for a brief period, this did seem to be a possibility). It is also a shame that my father revealed nothing about his own love life, as I would have been pleased to know that he was not lonely; that he, too, had his fair share of romance.
But those things never happened and conversely, rather than escaping the rather twisted, unsettled environment in which I grew up, I took a year off after sixth-form college and an arts foundation course, and that one year turned into four. I idled away my time watching videos, watching TV, playing snooker, collecting records, and while my mother progressed through her series of relationships, completely failing to find a girlfriend of my own. Even though I did not want to be, I had turned into a mummy’s boy, still living at home in his early twenties and hanging out with my mother’s friends as much as I did with my own.
On the other hand, my mother had spent much of my childhood ignoring my brother and I. Well, perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that she ignored us, but for much of the time that she might have spent at home, she was busy doing her own thing. This centred around political and charity work – in particular for the Labour Party, CND, and Amnesty International – and involved her standing for election or working as a councillor (mid-Devon being a Conservative Party stronghold, she only ever won a seat on the town council when there were the same number of candidates as vacancies), joining PTAs (not at the schools that my brother and I attended, but as a political representative at others), and campaigning on behalf of her Labour Party “comrades,” as they often called each other. She was a socialist and a left-winger, enamoured of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone – both of whom I went with her to see speak – Michael Foot, Dennis Skinner, and others like them, but not of sell-outs like Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, although she was grudgingly pleased when the latter brought to an end so many years of Labour as the opposition party. She was fiercely – even fanatically – opinionated, with an unwavering conviction that she was right, that socialism was right, and that reactionaries and conservatives were wrong.
“Sometimes I honestly think there’s something wrong with them,” she once said to me. “That they’re less intelligent.”
She would tut whenever Margaret Thatcher or one of her Tory minions was speaking on TV, and talk back to them, newsreaders, or commentators when she disagreed with what was being said. Her us-and-them mentality, with Tebbit, Heseltine, Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan as the Bad Guys and left-wingers as the Good Guys, was instilled in my brother and I, who were often left alone in the house when she went to Labour Party, council, CND, or Amnesty meetings.
It is my theory that this obsession with political and social issues stemmed from the experience of losing her first husband in such traumatic circumstances; that it was a way of masking the pain and something to devote her time to that involved not emotional but ideological commitment. I still agree with much of what she stood for, but in recent years it has become clear to me that I myself am too opinionated and argumentative, and that this has, at times, harmed my friendships and relationships. (This realisation has happened in large part thanks to living in Japan, a society in which people do their best to avoid conflict and will go so far as to lie about – or at least conceal – their true opinions in order to maintain social harmony.)
At the age of twenty-three, when I finally mustered some motivation, made a short film, and was offered a place at film school in London, I reacted by distancing myself from my mother emotionally as well as physically. By my early thirties, I remember feeling satisfied with the fact that it had been so many weeks or months since I last talked to her on the phone or visited her in the West Country. I am sure that she was proud of the fact that I had become more independent and was making a life for myself away from home, and as usual, she had work, boyfriends, and politics to keep her occupied. But she must have missed me, too, and particularly because she was diagnosed with cancer as a sixty-seven-year-old and passed away at sixty-eight, I now wish that I had been more attentive. By way of illustration, during one of my visits she gave me a late birthday present. It was a CD by a blues singer called Eric Bibb, but I said to her quite bluntly that I was no longer a fan of blues music and was not particularly interested in listening to it.
My knowledge of psychology is limited, but in line with Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse, for a long time I blamed my parents for my problems: for my social ineptitude, shyness, loneliness, introversion, depression, and lack of motivation. What is more, I blamed my mother more than my father, even though they both filled me, as Larkin puts it, with the faults they had. My father was shipped off to boarding school at a very young age, which I assume is why he became shy, lonely, introverted, and lacking in motivation. My mother, though, came from what appeared to be a conventional, stable, and happy family.
While I was living with my mother for the six months or so between returning from Japan and her death, I busied myself with mowing the lawn, painting the garden shed, redecorating the house, doing odd jobs for her friends and neighbours, and travelling to London. I also began writing: a mostly anonymous blog about my mother’s illness, life in the even smaller town to which she had moved after I went to university, the time I had spent in Japan, and whatever else came to mind. I felt a mixture of emotions and motivations during that time: a sense of duty and of filial piety; and a sense of relief and security that I was back on British soil and surrounded by that which was culturally familiar. Also, if I am honest, I felt impatient, in the sense that because my girlfriend was due to arrive from Japan the following spring, I wanted my mother to hurry up and recover, or for my brother to come and care for her instead, so that I would be free to return to London.
I did not spend much time with my father in the years before he died of cancer, which is something that I now regret. And while I did spend time with my mother in the months before she died, that does not mean that I have no regrets about her. Thanks to being a little older and a little wiser than the last time we had lived under the same roof, our relationship was better than before. I did not shut myself away in my bedroom, she did not disappear to campaign with her comrades, and we were able to talk more openly than in the past. On a practical level, now that I had learned to drive, I could also take her out: to a council meeting; to the opening ceremony for a monument in the town square; to an exhibition of etchings in a village church; to look at the sea on a chilly day, through the car windscreen and while sipping tepid tea from polystyrene cups; to friends’ houses for lunch; to Taunton to trawl the charity shops (there she tried on and bought a dress that she would never wear, to add to a collection of clothes that filled several wardrobes, and that I would later donate to Oxfam in countless black bin bags).
Many people dropped in at the house and many more telephoned to enquire after her welfare. On one occasion an aunt and uncle visited for the day from Wiltshire, and for dinner I cobbled together a rather inauthentic attempt at Japanese cuisine. Because my mother could not move around very well, I waited on her. At one point she asked me to find an old photograph album, but the request came out more like an order and it was an awkward moment. After my aunt and uncle had left and while I was sitting at the computer writing my blog, my mother stopped at the dining room door before she went upstairs to bed.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said. “That was a bit rude of me. It’s just that I got a little carried away with myself because your aunt and uncle were here.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “I still love you.”
We were at opposite ends of the room and did not move to hug or kiss each other, but I had surprised myself with my own words. I had never before told my mother that I loved her, and while it felt natural and honest to do so, it felt inadequate, too, and emphasised the fact that I should have done so before. I also felt regretful: that at the same time as expressing my love for my mother in words, I was unwilling to express that love physically.
By the same token, I am not sure that my mother ever told me that she loved me, or at least, not often enough for me to remember it. Particularly when I was a teenager, I tried my best not to display my emotions or to express any kind of affection for my parents. But she, too, could be emotionally detached and not the sort of person who invited displays of affection. Another memory from my childhood is of watching the film E.T. together. Towards the end of the film, when E.T. has been captured by the authorities and is close to death, I noticed that my mother was crying and I remember thinking, “Wow, so she does have a heart after all!”
Perhaps finding that coroner’s report into her first husband’s death was the moment that finally enabled me to forgive her: for the faults she had filled me with and for her prioritising boyfriends and politics over her family. Reading that description of the events in Oxford in the mid-sixties – a description that was so neutral, so shocking – allowed me to see that my mother, too, was human. That, like me, she had experienced unhappiness in her life and that there was a legitimate reason for her shortcomings as a parent. Now that I, too, am a parent, I also understand how hard and what a great responsibility it is. No parent is perfect and nor can they be, and it was wrong of me to expect that either my mother or my father could be perfect themselves.
By British standards, the summer of 2006 was hot and sunny. The garden at my mother’s house was blooming with flowers, the countryside was green and pleasant, and I loved to drive or cycle along the roads in and around the Exmoor national park. One day – probably while I was stripping wallpaper or painting the walls, with the furniture moved to the middle of the living room and covered in old bed sheets – the subject arose of my Views of Mt. Fuji.
“Thank you very much for the photos,” said my mother. “They were really nice.”
“Oh, it was nothing, really. It just came to me one day that it might be an interesting idea to do a kind of Hokusai tribute.”
“Still, it must have been quite an undertaking.”
In contrast with my rejection of the birthday present my mother once gave me, she was genuinely grateful and surprised that I would go to the trouble of creating a photo book for her. And I, too, should thank her: for all of the presents she gave me over the years, whether I wanted them or not; for the fact that she gave birth to me and brought me up – mostly single-handed and while working as a librarian to pay the bills and to keep my brother and I clothed and fed. I should also thank her for introducing me to Japanese culture – while I was still in my teens and when manga, anime, sushi and so on were unheard of in the UK – and to Mount Fuji, of which I am in awe to this day.
The most recent occasion on which I saw Fuji I was with my son. We were driving to Tochigi Prefecture to collect an exercise bike that I had purchased online. From an overpass on Route 50 somewhere near Shimodate, I saw the snow-clad peak on the horizon, a brilliant white in the early morning sun. I pointed it out to M Jr. II and we spent the next few minutes trying to catch sight of it again between the buildings and trees at the roadside. I was as excited, impressed, and inspired then as the first time that I saw Fuji, from the cable car station on Mount Tsukuba during my first visit to Japan, and on the precious few occasions that I have seen it since: from a mountaintop in Nikkō, from a top floor bar in the centre of Tokyo, from the bullet train on the way to Nagoya, while climbing to the summit in the late summer of 2004, and while photographing it from beside a frozen lake on that cold morning early in 2006.
If my mother were still alive, she would have celebrated her eighty-third birthday on 3rd March this year. Below is one of my favourite photographs of her: part-way through a walk in the countryside, doing the Guardian quick crossword, laughing, and happy.
Over the past few years, more than a couple of friends have discussed with me their own battles with insomnia. Based on personal experience, the following is an edited version of the advice I have given them. A lot of the basics are borrowed from Sleepio, which I have recommended on these pages before.
1) The Golden, Number One, Disobey-at-Your-Peril rule is:
If you are unable to sleep, do not stay in bed. Instead, get up and go to another room.
Sleepio recommends fifteen minutes as a cut-off point, but I find there is usually a moment when despite your best efforts, you realise that sleep is not going to come (basically when you find yourself saying “Fiddlesticks!”), and whether that is five or thirty minutes after you went to bed, that is when you need to get up and go to another room.
2) When you do, there are two things you are aiming for: firstly to distract yourself from your worries about the fact that you cannot sleep and about whatever you have to do the following day, and secondly to calm down and relax. My tried-and-tested (although not guaranteed to be successful) techniques at this point are:
a) Progressive relaxation
After well over four years I still do this almost every single night. Instructions are as follows: i) Lie in a darkened room on the floor/sofa/spare bed with your arms by your sides. Breathe deeply and slowly. ii) After five deep breaths, clench your fists. After five more deep breaths, unclench them and take five more deep breaths. iii) Hunch/shrug your shoulders right up towards your ears. After five deep breaths, un-hunch (de-shrug?) and take five more deep breaths. iv) Close your eyes tightly while at the same time clenching your teeth. After five deep breaths, relax and take five more deep breaths. v) Pull your toes up towards your knees to stretch your calf muscles. After five deep breaths, relax and take five more deep breaths.
Believe it or not, this will take about fifteen minutes in total. If you are really lucky, you may fall asleep part way through. If not, the progressive relaxation should at least calm you down and reduce your heart rate.
One thing I also do is to try and keep my eyes open (apart from during step iv when I am deliberately shutting them, of course), and subsequently finding that you are unable to do so can be another sign that the progressive relaxation is having the desired effect. The more time has gone on, the less bothered I have been about counting the number of breaths I take, to the extent that nowadays, my progressive relaxation sessions sometimes go on for about thirty minutes. “But you’re wasting valuable time keeping yourself awake!” I hear you say. Well, no: one of the secrets of overcoming insomnia is not to be in a hurry to get to sleep (being in a hurry to get to sleep is, after all, a contradictory situation).
b) Yogic breathing
The technique that I found is called pranayama, and is another way of forcing you to concentrate on breathing deeply, in order to calm you down and distract you from your thoughts. Again, for this I lie down in a darkened room and try to keep my eyes open.
Instructions are as follows: i) Cover one nostril with a finger and breathe out and in through the uncovered nostril. ii) Switch nostrils and breathe out and in through the one that is now uncovered. iii) Repeat.
I find that I get bored with pranayama more quickly than progressive relaxation — usually after ten minutes or so — but a friend of mine insists that it works because (and I quote) it “floods the brain with oxygen and makes you sleepy.” Whether or not this is the case, the aim is breathe as slowly and deeply as possible.
c) Guided meditation
This is where a smartphone comes in handy, as you can lie on the floor/sofa/kitchen table in the dark and put your headphones on, or listen via the internal speakers with the volume turned down low (even though the following are videos, I only ever listen to the audio). It has to be said that most of the guided meditation videos on YouTube are rubbish and/or too long. Three that I have used a lot, though, are:
There are also apps: for example, Pzizz. You have to pay to get a proper Pzizz subscription, but even if you try their basic, free service, you can set up and keep one audio file to your own specifications. When I was using it a couple of years ago, my file was fifteen minutes long, with a male voiceover that faded out after 10 minutes, and much better than most of the stuff that was available free of charge.
d) Listening to relaxing music
The key here — at least for me — is not to listen to anything with lyrics or a catchy tune. For example, so-called “binaural beats” are good (search on YouTube and you’ll find hours and hours of them), as is Sleep Radio, an online radio station designed especially for insomniacs.
e) Reading, sewing, doing jigsaw puzzles etc.
As a rule I prefer not to switch on the light when I go downstairs or into another room, but I do sometimes read a book — which in itself is often a good way of making me sleepy — and similarly meditative (i.e. monotonous) activities like this do require at least some light.
f) As a last resort, I very occasionally (e.g. at about two or three in the morning when I am desperate and have been trying and failing to get to sleep for several hours) go for a walk or even a drive.
3) When you have relaxed for ten or fifteen minutes, or when you feel sleepy again, you can go back to bed. However, if you try to go to sleep for a further fifteen minutes or so and cannot, get up, go to another room and repeat Step 2.
4) The next thing you should be thinking about is what is known in the insomnia biz as “sleep hygiene.” That is, creating an environment and routine that is conducive to sleep.
a) If possible, do not drink caffeine or alcohol and if you do, do not have them after about lunchtime.
As the sleep expert Matthew Walker points out, the quarter-life of caffeine is around ten hours. In other words, if you drink a cup of coffee at midday, a quarter of the caffeine that it contains will still be in your system at ten o’clock that night, which is not exactly conducive to sleep. (Having said that, I did once rather comically take two Day Nurse tablets at about 7.30 p.m., which I realised upon reading the packet contained the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee. It was the evening before what was, for an insomniac, a high-pressure day — I was due to travel to Tokyo to meet a friend who was visiting from the U.K. — but incredibly, having tried and failed to make myself throw up, I did manage to get to sleep that night.)
Walker also points out that while alcohol can initially knock you out, it reduces the quality of your sleep, so that you are more likely to wake during the night, wake up early the next morning, and feel run down the next day.
b) Avoid eating late, eating rich or sugary food, and eating a large amount of food for dinner
I have dinner at around six o’clock, with no dessert, and try to make breakfast and lunch my main meals of the day. Also, I think it is a good idea to reduce the amount that you eat for dinner. When I stopped eating carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, bread, pasta, noodles, and so on) for dinner, my ability to get to sleep first time improved almost immediately, and more than three years later, I still avoid carbs in the afternoon and evening.
c) Do not drink too much in the evening, even water
This is to avoid having to go for a pee in the middle of the night. Even if you get to sleep first time, getting back to sleep after a nighttime trip to the toilet can be a tough job for an insomniac.
d) Do not watch too much TV or use smartphones and computers in the evening
Blue light from TV and computer screens is bad for sleep because it mimics daylight. I used to restrict myself to an hour of TV in the evening and nowadays do not watch at all. On both my iPhone and MacBook, I use the blue light reduction option called Night Shift. I also turn the brightness way down if I do have to use them. Apps like F:lux do a similar job, giving your screen an orange tint during the evening.
It is also important to have low lighting around the house. Most Japanese homes have harsh and powerful ceiling lights with flourescent bulbs, which are another source of undesirable blue light, so a couple of years ago I invested in a standard lamp and fitted it with low-power, tungsten-style LED bulbs.
e) Keep your bedroom dark and at a decent temperature
In other words, not too hot and not too cold. During the oppressive heat of Japanese summers, I often sleep downstairs in the living room, where it is marginally cooler than my bedroom. In winter, on the other hand, we have no central heating, but I have found that an electric blanket lessens the shock of climbing into an ice-cold bed, and makes me feel relaxed and cosy even if the room temperature is in single figures.
Also, and If possible, consider sleeping in a separate bedroom from family members, as I have from Mrs. M and the children for the past few years.
f) Do not do strenuous exercise late in the day
However, light exercise — for example, walking or yoga — is OK. Going for a walk every evening after the children went to bed was one of the most effective anti-insomnia measures that I tried, as it was meditative, and had the added benefits of preventing me from falling asleep in front of the (or watching too much) TV, and allowing me to take photos and listen to music and podcasts.
g) Do not nap during the day or take a siesta
Like many insomnia treatment programmes, Sleepio recommends saving up your fatigue for when you go to bed at night, and I still find that if I nod off on the sofa during the evening, I am less likely to be able to get to sleep when I am in bed.
h) Go to bed and get up at the same time every night, even on weekends, and try and have the same routine every night before you go to bed
My own routine has changed and developed over the years and even now I am constantly tweaking it. At the time of writing, I fold up the laundry and dry the dishes after work, eat between 6 and 7 p.m., sometimes read a book to the children, take a shower at about 7.30, read an e-book on my iPhone (using Night Shift and with the brightness turned down, of course), help the children take a shower, clean their teeth, sometimes read to them in bed at about 9, go to my bedroom or the living room and read until I feel sleepy, and am usually in bed and asleep by about 9.30 p.m. (In years gone by and before I became an in-bed-before-ten/rise-at-four kind of guy, I would put the children to bed at 9 p.m., go for a walk, watch TV, read a book, do progressive relaxation, and get into bed at 11, all at the same time and in the same order, every night of the week.)
Unlike me, you may have a social life of some kind, but whatever your lifestyle, try and develop a pre-sleep routine and stick to it, even if it is only for the final hour or so before you go to bed.
i) Apart from sex, do not do anything in bed other than sleep
This includes reading (although as I said above, I do read in bed these days — after all, rules are made to be broken, right?), listening to music, watching TV, eating breakfast, building Lego sets, whatever. If you want to read, use a smartphone, or just relax, do not do these in your bedroom.
k) Finally, do not “clock-watch” during the night
I have a clock in my bedroom, but only look at it when I need to check if it really is time to get up in the morning.
5) If your insomnia is an ongoing problem and you are serious about curing it, you need to try what Sleepio calls “sleep restriction.”
The purpose of sleep restriction is to discover how much sleep you really need and to limit the time you spend in bed to that amount only.
To do this, keep a sleep diary for a few weeks. Record the time you spend asleep versus the time you spend in bed. (Because it is not a good idea to clock-watch, you will have to rely on your own rough estimates, but it is surprising how accurate these can be.) The average time that you spend asleep is your “sleep window.” So for example, when I signed up with Sleepio, my sleep window was 5 hours 45 minutes, while my “sleep efficiency” was poor, as I was spending about eight hours in bed every night.
Once you have calculated your sleep window, that becomes the set amount of time you spend in bed every night, although the difficult — and very important — thing is that even if you do not sleep well, you must not sleep late the following morning or go to bed early the following night. This may sound crazy, but it really works, as it forces you (and your body/body clock) into a strict, efficient routine.
For example, once I had calculated my sleep window, Sleepio rounded that up to allow me six hours in bed every night. Obviously going to bed at 11 p.m. and getting up at 5 a.m. was tough to start with, but I soon got to the point where I woke up naturally at that time most mornings, even if I had not set the alarm. The only times I allowed myself any extra time in bed were when I did not get to sleep until, say, 4 a.m., or when I had not slept at all the previous night. Other than that, I went to bed and got up at pretty much the same times every single day for a couple of years. Even now I hardly vary my routine, whether it is a work day, the weekend, the summer holidays, a birthday, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve. Also, and while I would like to be able to say that I now sleep for eight hours a night, I still average little more than six. The important thing, however, is that these days my sleep efficiency is much better, meaning that I spend a lot less time staring at the ceiling and frustrated at the fact that I cannot get to sleep.
6) In the long-term, it is also important to keep busy during the day and develop a positive attitude.
Make a list of goals that you want to achieve and things that you want to do. For example, maybe you want to run 10 km, write a book, start a new hobby, learn a new skill, get a new qualification, or travel.
Even if you do not sleep well, resolve to work towards these goals during the day. This will make you feel better about yourself and make you more tired, both of which should help you sleep better the following night.
Personally, I think that exercise — which is known to be one of the best ways of treating depression — can be a great help. After a break of more than a decade, I took up jogging again a couple of years ago and got a real buzz from it (more than I did when I was younger, for some reason).
It is also a good idea to guide yourself towards positive cultural stimuli, so try to read funny books or magazines, watch comedy shows on TV or YouTube, and listen to positive podcasts, radio shows, and so on. Watching or reading too much news and current affairs can have a negative effect, as they tend to revolve around problems, crises, disasters, crime, and the like.
Another thing I would recommend is to have some kind of counselling or therapy. Insomnia is often a sign of underlying stress or psychological issues, and having a sympathetic (and neutral) ear can not only help you to realise what those stresses and issues are, it can also help you develop a more relaxed attitude, and to look at things from a more objective standpoint. I am by no means in a state of blissful happiness these days, but thanks to therapy and the various things I have learned about myself through suffering from insomnia, I am now a lot better at separating my worries in life (whatever happened to me on a particular day and whatever I am supposed to be doing the next) from the short-term, practical worry of whether or not I will be able to get to sleep that night. Even if you cannot solve a psychological problem or resolve an issue that is bothering you, becoming aware of it — and of how it is affecting your behaviour — is the first step along the way to inner peace, well-being, and overcoming insomnia.
I recently came up with a motto for ALT-ing that is — if I do say so myself — so good that I have to share it with you:
If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.
Anyone reading this who is already working as an ALT will know exactly what I mean, but in case you aren’t or you don’t, allow me to explain.
As it happens, I have just been talking to one of my English teaching colleagues about how there is a shortage of English teachers in Ibaraki — compared to P.E. teachers, for instance — and how he wanted to become the latter but ended up as the former. This reminded me of my career in the media: when I entered film school, my dream was to become the new Woody Allen or the new Martin Scorcese; when I finished film school, through a combined lack of confidence, excess of fear, and sufficiency of pragmatism, I had set this dream aside and settled for becoming a sound recordist instead.
Being an ALT in Japan is similar, in that it is an easy job both to get and to do, and the other, more attractive options — manga artist, sumo wrestler, that kind of thing — seem daunting or over-ambitious. Particularly when you have just arrived in Japan and can hardly speak a word of the language, you are not going to walk straight into a job as a manga artist or a sumo wrestler, and if nothing else, being an ALT is less like being employed to work than being given time to study. But there is a law of diminishing returns, meaning that the longer you stay in the job, the less satisfying it becomes, and the more active you should be in seeking an alternative.
I could and should have quit my own ALT position about five years ago, when I was being bombarded with translating and proofreading work (including a very attractive offer from an American publishing company, not to write but to translate manga). For various reasons, though — my children were still young and I had just begun to suffer from insomnia — I did not. One of the things I learned from that experience was that even if I had to wait few more years to go freelance, I must not waste any of the time that being an ALT gave me.
Famously, Noel Gallagher wrote the first Oasis LP while he was working in a warehouse. For the past few years, I have not been writing songs, but I have been “doing” a Noel. Here is a list of the kind of things that I get up to while being paid to be an ALT by the local board of education:
Writing this blog
Writing other stuff (specifically, my chapters in the Inaka anthology and my forthcoming travel book, provisionally titled Gaijin on a Charinko: 2,500 Kilometres Across Japan by Bicycle.)
Translating and proofreading
Creating lesson plans and materials for two evening classes that I teach at the local community centre
Creating other materials for one-off assignments (for example, PowerPoint presentations about British culture)
Managing my finances (both in English for the U.K. and for the first time this year, my online tax return for Japan)
Studying Japanese (this no longer comes in the form of formal classes and homework, but reading news sites, blogs, Wikipedia Japan, etc., and looking up the words, kanji, phrases, and grammar that I do not know or am unsure of)
Speaking Japanese (with varying degrees of success: some of my colleagues are keen to chat and easy to understand, while others ignore me completely or speak in such a broad Ibaraki accent that coherent conversation is impossible)
Listening to Japanese (a work environment is the perfect place to overhear, make a note of, and then try keigo — polite Japanese — for yourself: how to greet people at various times of the day and in various contexts, what to say when you answer the phone, how to introduce yourself on your first day, etc.)
Buying cars (actually this does not happen often, but in the past year both of our cars passed, as it were, their sell-by-date. The experience of finding their second-hand replacements on goo-net.com and carsensor.net was an education in itself)
Buying other stuff (food and books from the U.K., for example, but also shopping online in Japan. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a pine tree sapling for our back garden, having realised that it is practically impossible to find one in real-life hardware stores and garden centres)
Bicycle maintenance (I do not have enough time to do this at home, so keep my bike stand, chain oil, foaming degreaser, and so on in the staff locker room)
Stretching (I already use a standing desk — which in the staff room consists of putting my laptop on an upturned plastic toy box — but even with this, if I spend a lot of time typing, I need to move my ageing joints and limbs so that I do not get a recurrence of the nearly slipped disc from which I suffered a few years ago)
Press-ups (when I pulled a hamstring last year, I had to rest my legs for a few months and concentrate on upper-body exercises. At one point I managed 1000 press-ups in a single day — at home before and after work, but also whenever I had a spare few minutes to pop into the locker room, or into a vacant classroom or meeting room. As I discovered, press-ups are good for your arm muscles but bad for your shoulders, so I am now back down to fewer than fifty a day)
Holding my breath (this is a bit of a weird one, but last year, before doing my stretches I began experimenting with how long I could manage. For what it’s worth, my personal best is 2 minutes 15 seconds)
Listening to podcasts (I am not keen on wearing headphones at work, so did this for a few months at a particularly quiet school, while I was stretching and in a vacant classroom with no one nearby to overhear. My favourites are a combination of Japanese podcasts that help with my listening ability and English ones that help me feel a little closer to home)
Editing photos and videos and posting them online (mostly of our children so that friends and relatives in the U.K. can see how they are growing up)
Designing and writing Christmas/New Year cards (not to mention addressing the envelopes — also for friends and relatives in the U.K.)
Elementary school ALTs are likely to take sole responsibility for teaching English and to be busy from the moment they enter a classroom to the moment they leave, but in junior high school, I find there is also a lot of downtime during the classes themselves. So, when one of my teaching colleagues asks me to, “Check please!” (i.e. assess the students’ written work), instead of wasting valuable staff room time, I do so when he or she is analysing a grammar point — in Japanese and in great detail — or when the students are doing something that does not require me to interact with them.
In particular, I monopolise the homeroom teacher’s desk during lessons and use my time for:
Those rare occasions (in my experience, anyway) when I have been asked to make a worksheet or flashcards, or to come up with an activity to be used in class
Planning and making materials for my evening classes (see above)
Listening to the students talk to each other, making a note of, and then trying kōgo — colloquial Japanese
Looking up Japanese words, either in a paper or electronic dictionary (I have never taken my iPhone to an English class except by accident, although I know of both ALTs and JTEs who do)
Drafting emails, speeches, etc.
Collating the following week’s schedule
Studying English (or at least, making a note of grammar and vocabulary points about which I am liable to be asked for an opinion. For example, I now have a long list of the two flavours of adjective — excited/exciting, surprised/surprising, scared/scary, etc. — that, because the same distinction does not exist in their native language, consistently wrong foot both Japanese students and teachers)
Compiling to-do lists
Holding my breath (well, why not? My record while standing at the back of the classroom and listening to my JTE is about two minutes)
These kinds of things are rarely taxing, so can be accomplished while keeping half an ear on whether you are needed to read something from the textbook or to answer a question from the JTE (“What’s a famous food in the U.K.?” or similar). Also, it goes without saying that even on busy days, I use the ten minutes between each lesson to do a quick burst of translating/emailing etc., or between third and fourth periods to brew a pot of tea in time for lunch.
There is probably plenty more that I could be getting on with, and if you are working as an ALT and twiddling your thumbs between — or staring out of the window during — lessons, I would urge you to get on with something, too. This is not a boast, either, and a lot of things in the above lists are ones that I am not good at or am doing with no particular ambition to improve. What you need to remember is that ALT-ing gives you opportunities: opportunities to learn the Japanese language and learn about Japanese culture, to teach children the English language and teach them about foreign culture, and to do something constructive with your free time. I do not have a lunch break as such — in pre-COVID times I would eat lunch with the students, whereas now I eat in the staff room or the kitchen/dining room — but I remember James at ALT Insider mentioning that an acquaintance of his did, and left the school at lunchtime to take kickboxing classes. Also, don’t get me wrong, as I spend plenty of time reading cricket reports, watching football videos, surfing Facebook, and frittering away my time in similarly mindless ways. After all, everyone has to relax once in a while and particularly towards the end of the day, my motivation to work and desire to go home decline and increase in direct opposition to each other.
Anyway, let’s just repeat that motto to help it sink in:
If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.
A cautionary tale: in a nearby town, one or two of the ALTs started complaining about the fact that they had nothing to do and were still required to hang around until the end of their working day. The result? The BOE shortened their work hours, but reduced their wages at the same time. Like I say, getting paid to do nothing (out of your own and other people’s tax yen, let’s not forget) may be a bore, but like working in a foreign country, it is a privilege, so do not waste it.
This October I am finally going to quit my nice, cushy, direct-hire ALT job and go freelance. No one is going to pay me to twiddle my thumbs any more and it will be up to me to ensure that I am earning money for as much of the time that allows me as possible. This may mean that blog posts here at Muzuhashi become even fewer and further between than they already are. It may even mean that after a couple of years, I fail at my mission and go scurrying back to a dispatch company to beg for a poorly paid ALT position so that my family does not starve. But seriously, think about how you are living your life and using your time in Japan, and try to make the most of it.