Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hey ma look, it's me!

I was gathering together some photos of me from this blog recently after someone requested them, so I thought I'd share them with you. This is the most self-indulgent post I've ever made, even by this blog's usual Onanistic standards, but this chronological collection could at least be useful for nutrionists interested in charting my weight loss throughout my travels (apparently I got fat before I left Edinburgh and was a shrivelled wreck again by the time I got to Thailand - really? How did I not notice?)

Putting this together, I noticed that I really don't take that many photos of myself any more - like I don't feel the need to get in the frame as evidence that I actually visited a place (unless it seems funny). Either the novelty of having a camera was finally worn off, or I've become less vain over time. Says the guy who just spent a couple of hours compiling a blog post all about himself, consisting entirely of images of himself.

This is just photos of me that you've probably already seen (though some are from slightly different angles - exciting!) It might be me next to a thing, me doing a thing or me wearing a thing, but the subject is still me. Seriously, there are about 50 of them - this is the equivalent of my Facebook tagged images or something. If you're not interested in me, don't read more.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where dreams come true

After some bad experiences, I don't stay in dorms so much any more - unless I'm in an expensive country like Japan, where even a shelf in what feels (and smells) like a laundry cupboard will set you back a couple of thousand yen. But there is one benefit I've noticed to sleeping in shared rooms and being woken several times each night by someone's unpleasant snoring and other nocturnal emissions - it's really conducive to wacky dreaming and recall.

I don't dream as much as I used to, or at least most of the time there's nothing worth remembering. I long for the nights when I'd wake with excitement after some gothic nightmare of an unseen presence looming in an architecturally impossible castle, animatronic exhibits that became inexplicably horrifying when activated, descending a staircase into darkness and being gripped with terror or being cast out into the unending void of space, to name a few common tropes. I was probably a bit of a weird kid.

Although I don't have nightmares any more, I still occasionally have dreams that make me laugh, and that I'm convinced are genuine comedy gold for about five minutes after waking. Until I look back over my hazily scrawled notes later in the day and realise that not only are they not funny, they actually make no sense whatsoever. Here's an example of a joke somebody told me in a dream that genuinely caused me to laugh myself awake:

Q: What's the heaviest thing in the world?
A: A pterodactyl with a rock.

What does that even mean? When I told this to Oliver, he said it made him laugh, which is either a compliment to the writing skills or my unconscious or an early warning sign of mental illness on his part.

Recently, I've had a few dreams that have stood up in the harsh light of daytime criticism and given me hope that maybe my imagination hasn't been completely pulverised by the corporate adult world. So, like a latter day Lovecraft, Coleridge or de Quincey, I thought I'd appropriate one of these enjoyable dreams near-verbatim and make an almost entirely unembellished short story out of it.

Monday, April 23, 2012




Oh, I see - you're saying this is all you saw of Kyushu (the southernmost of Japan's four main islands), right? Before you went to Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and all that stuff. I get it.

No? But you can't possibly mean...

Oh. Wow.

Friday, April 20, 2012

All the Dazaifu lives

Towards the end of my Korea trip, I got pretty bored of shrines, temples and other commemorative red structures built to honour dead people or gods or whatever, so Shinto shrines weren't at the top of my priority list in Japan. But like Bulguksa, the proximity of a semi-famous shrine seemed worth a day trip from Fukuoka to Dazaifu, especially as the place is apparently dedicated to a scholar, rather than a pretend guy or a real guy who was just great at killing people.

If the public figures of Japan's Heian Period were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sugawara Michizane would be their Donatello. Actually, he'd probably be their Splinter, considering Splinter was actually Japanese. Or at least Hamato Yoshi was, before radioactive mutagen fused him with an American sewer rat and he became Splinter. Though in the film version, Splinter was a Japanese rat owned by Hamato Yoshi who later became man-size - what was that about? Why did these 'ninja' Turtles have Italian names anyway? What the hell were we watching?

Anyway, I enjoyed the shrine, though probably not for the reasons I was supposed to.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You know people actually read these reviews, right?

So what if it's a peaceful room in a tranquil paradise for an unfairly low price?
If you can't provide Wi-Fi in the sea, prepare to be destroyed

I can be a bit of an asshole sometimes. When I was a teenager, I could try to blame my temper and disgraceful attitude towards my younger brothers on a perpetual lack of sleep that was directly related to the fact I drank three litres of cola a day, but now that I'm supposed to be an adult it's less excusable when I let petulance or a bad mood cloud my judgement and I give unfairly harsh feedback on hostel booking websites, when I've actually had an alright stay.

I guess I could still play the nationality card and blame it on stereotypical British consumer outrage. Or maybe writing these blogs in a vacuum has made me forget that sometimes people actually read the stuff I write elsewhere, especially when they're trying to weigh up the pros and cons of staying at one place over another in an unfamiliar city or country. I do feel a sense of obligation to inform these potential customers about the good and bad aspects of places I visit, though admittedly only based on my own needs and desires from a place - but there have also been a couple of times when I've witnessed the repercussions of the things I've written in a fit of spiteful haste, and have felt a little guilty.

I've worked in the digital marketing industry for a while, and compiled reports for companies based on consumer feedback from these sorts of sites, so I know the powerful influence these seemingly innocuous reviews can have. I've left some pretty harsh feedback for hostels and hotels in the past that I've felt was completely justified, when a place was falsely advertised or the owners were even bigger assholes than me. But rating down a hostel based on the quality of its guests or slightly inconvenient Wi-Fi (I have to go into the lounge to receive the completely free high-speed internet access? Outrageous!), I sometimes forget these places are actually owned by people who might be affected by the thoughtless things I'm typing.

So for some self-critiquing fun, here's an anthology of the more critical reviews I've left over the past 18 months, analysed with the cool head of hindsight.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire

Quickly - what's the first that comes to mind when you think of Japan?

No, not that. That's quite racist, actually. Try again.

No, now you're being sexist. Even if that's probably true. One more try, you've nearly got it.

Oh for god's sake, that was ages ago. Let it go!

Okay, you're clearly not getting this, but the answer you were obviously looking for is robots.

Coming up close to these cybernetic critters finally cheered me up towards the end of an otherwise slightly crap first 24 hours in this ridiculously futuristic country.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Well, Fukuoka too!

Fukuoka Tower: an extended middle finger across the Korea Strait

I like Douglas Adams, but I never got into his 'Meaning of Liff' thing, which tries to appropriate existing place names to stand for a feeling or mood. It always felt to me like a radio show's novelty phone-in segment that went too far. But of all the places I've visited these past 18 months, Fukuoka comes the closest to encapsulating the experience in the name.

When I get back on board the Beetle ferry and the harbour fades into the mist, it would seem entirely appropriate to exhale an exhausted, drawn-out 'Fuk-u-oka.'

As soon as I arrived I was interviewed at length by customs, which hasn't happened since Israel. They even went through my notebook (what next? Checking through this blog? I'm screwed) and laughed at some of my pathetic attempts to copy kanji writing. I think they were just keeping themselves busy, really - there were only two other foreign arrivals on the boat and they were just boring Koreans, not exotic like me. But combined with the rain and getting lost down confusing alleys (even by Asian standards), I didn't have a particularly warm welcome in this country. Which was a shame, as I'd been looking forward to visiting for a long time.

Unless things turn around, it's looking like Japan will be one of those 30-day countries, rather than a let's-hang-around-as-long-as-the-entry-stamp-lets-me-so-I-don't-have-to-make-decisions one. I miss my Korea and my Koreans.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Learning Japanese I think I'm learning Japanese I really think so (I am)

It was fun while it lasted, but I'm tired of seeing this in my most popular posts, so she had to go. The quest to stifle this blog's popularity continues...

You might be surprised to hear that my Korean language studies have actually been progressing adequately, which can be mostly credited to my occasional bouts of unrequited interest in nice ladies who for some reason or other decide not to hurl themselves into the destructive cyclone of a relationship with me. The lovely fools. You made the right decision.

Still, for my first couple of months in Korea I couldn't do much more than explain to people that I couldn't speak their language (bud heyo!) 'I can't speak' is the first thing they teach you, quite self-defeatingly, in all the various language courses I own produced by the same fairly well-known company that I won't name here. Let's call them 'Bimsleur.' It's like you shell out for these CD sets and then feel you can let yourself off the hook from working through the whole thing because at least you can express your ignorance accurately. I make me sick.

Obviously I did splash the cash on all these language courses I listen to, because I am a wealthy and moral man and wouldn't know the first thing about obtaining them through illicit channels (on a completely unrelated note, South Korea's fibre optic broadband really is a fresh of breath air after putting up with dodgy South East Asia connections for so long - almost as if those countries have more important things to spend their limited funds on than needlessly high bandwidth).

For a long time now, ever since I first considered teaching in Japan, I've had a basic Japanese course taking up space on my hard drive, comprising 8 x 30-minute lessons. I decided that mastering all the basic sentences contained in these four hours (of which most is pauses for me to speak in, and repetitions of the same phrases over and over again) will make me a master of Japanese. A sensei, if you will - a term taught to me by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was about four, disproving that the animated adventures of talking, fighting reptiles were of no educational value. They literally taught me a thing.

But I needed some motivation, and what more precious incentive than the risk of an incomplete blog post? Unless you're learning Japanese too, you should switch off now and not read more, because the rest of this page will be filled with my study notes from eight Japanese lessons over eight consecutive days. There won't be any more morally ambiguous pictures or anything - this is even more explicitly for my own benefit than my blogs normally are anyway.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Macaques all, folks!

Bereaved macaque

One of the advantages of keeping up this travelling and OCD blogging well beyond most people's attention spans and memory capacities is that I can pass off re-contextualised pictures from older blogs as new material. Like one of those budget-saving episodes of American TV shows where the characters get trapped in a lift and reminisce about their antics back when they had funding.

My own funding situation should soon improve, so I'll be able to hire back the green screen technology, guest actors and CGI artists needed to keep up the sophisticated illusion that I'm travelling all over Asia, when in reality I never left Scotland. It probably would have been cheaper to actually go to these countries and do these things for real, now I think about it. But I can't eat that foreign muck.

Anyway, better get on with fabricating a tenuous segue to introduce these old monkey photos. Hey, do you remember when I was in those other Asian countries where they had macaques roaming around all over the place? What was all that about? I'd love to go back and revisit some of those adven... oh dear, the lift seems to have broken down. Well, we might as well pass the time remembering some of those kerrazy monkeys and their wacky antics. Do you remember... remember... remember... (Overlay warbling sound effect)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Well, that about wraps it up for Korea

It's not like I'll be visiting the North any time soon. I had a mixed time in South Korea - good for the first few weeks, then dipping in the middle due to a lack of money where I mainly survived on free toast and had some lousy hostel experiences, before perking up again at the end. Gyeongju was good too.

Because I'm generally shy, reclusive and run away if a pretty girl offers me an orange (true story), I didn't give myself many opportunities to experience Korea's famed odder side during my stay. Like attending a Cosplay convention, or professional Starcraft tournaments that sell out stadiums and earn players six-figure salaries (that's six figures in US dollars - six figures in Korean won is about three nights' accommodation).

Fortunately, it's impossible to walk down a Korean high street without seeing something zany. And I shouldn't despair, as BBC Three documentaries have taught me that Japan is basically a synonym for 'mental,' so I have plenty to look forward to.