End of the Road (sort of)

Tastier than expectedI’m not the world’s biggest sushi fan, but I couldn’t leave Tokyo without trying some. It was probably the best sushi I’ve ever had though, again, that’s not saying a huge amount. Great ambience though.

There’s around eleven hours left to me before the land and sea odyssey that has brought me from London to Tokyo comes to an end and I take to the air, crossing the Pacific from Narita Airport to LAX. From one continent to another, an eleven-hour flight that crosses purposes with the sixteen-hour time difference between where I take off and where I land. For Phileas Fogg, unaware of what he was doing, it was all about earning an extra day to win his wager. For me, I suspect it will feel an awful lot like theft: an entire night foreshortened and left orphaned, forcing me to deal with Friday afternoon all over again.

Then again, one Friday afternoon in Tokyo, the next (or the same one again) in California. Not so bad, really.

Japan has been quite incredible, and I did no more than cut a path across its heart, from the temple-strewn Kyoto and Nara to the hypermodern Tokyo, where touches of old Japan are preserved but mostly kept away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There’s a lot more to the country than that, from chilly Hokkaido in the north, with the last remnants of the indigenous Ainu people and some fine skiing country, to the subtropical islands of the south, where you really can get away from it all. In one week, I saw some cities and glimpsed the countryside, and what it has done is give me a taste for more. I will be back some day.

For now though, a last few hours to swing around some museums and shops, to see a few things I didn’t want to miss before I went. Neon glamour and fascinating side streets; time to put them in the past for now.




I’ve Got Walking Feet

No, I don’t know what that is either.

I had thought that the sprawling megalopolis of Tokyo would defeat my tendency to walk everywhere rather than be sensible and use public transport. I reckoned without the power of a sunny day and a liberal sprinkling of useful streetside maps. Though it did take me a while to get used to the fact that the maps aren’t oriented north=up but rather according to the direction the reader is facing. Makes a surprising amount of sense, really.

I did take the JR Yamanote line in the morning, down to Shinbashi Station, but having strolled around the Hama-Rikyū gardens, it only made sense to check out the Tsukiji Fish Market (sadly closed) on foot, then to wander through Ginza, up to the Imperial Palace Gardens. Okay, so the walk from there through Roppongi to the famous Shibuya crossing was maybe a little excessive, but heading north from there, through Yoyogi Park and past the beautiful Meiji Shrine was actually quite relaxing. And once there, it was only a brief stroll to Shinjuku and the free observatory on the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Government offices. Sadly, despite the blue skies, the distant Mt Fuji was lost in the haze.

You’d think, after all that, I’d be crazy to try and walk back to the hotel. And you’d be right – I hopped on a JR train to Ueno, getting back just before sunset. Seriously – this is why it might be better for me to travel solo every so often. As much as I enjoy perambulating around a new city, I’d feel guilty dragging someone else all that way.

Tokyo marks the eastward terminus of this journey by land and sea – in a couple of days, I take to the skies for a flight to LA, landing several hours before I arrive. I don’t know how many times one has to cross the International Date Line before it ceases to be fun, but I suspect it’s quite a few in my case.

One more full day here and most of the next. Having done my strolling, perhaps some museums and the like are in order? First though, another stroll, this time out to see the neon of Akihabara by night.

Catching Up

There's reality, and then there's "reality".Explanation to follow.

Time for me to do a bit of housecleaning. I’m in Nara, Japan, at the moment, having spent most of the last three days on my feet from dawn to dusk (it being slightly after dusk here at the moment), making the most of simply being in Japan and exploring the temples, forests and back streets of Kyoto, Uji and Nara. However, with Tokyo looming and the possibility that I might not have much time for, well, anything in the near future, I’m taking an hour or two out to put certain things in order. The first thing being my photos, which are rapidly becoming a massive, unedited collection, relatively useless until I sort through them.

The second thing being my monthly reviews, which are, oh, just a little bit delayed at present. So, without further ado, and compressed into a single post, here’s August’s reviews.

Cinema Reviews

Fright Night: A glossy 3D remake of a 1980s teen horror film, this skimps on the subtlety and heads straight for the gore, with gushes of blood and large pointy things regularly heading out of the screen and towards the audience. The cast throw themselves into the spirit of the thing, especially David Tennant as a sleazy Vegas magician and Colin Farrell as the even sleazier predatory vampire neighbour. It’s paper-thin, lacking any reason to exist other than to entertain, and on that level it serves pretty well – but only see it in 3D if you like having things pointed at you, as the rest of the film is too murky otherwise.

Drive: Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a detached and dream-like film, saturated in ’80s style, portraying a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman, seeking to live a normal life even as he deals with monsters. Ryan Gosling is almost mute in the role of the unnamed driver, who only reveals who he is when trapped by an attempt to do the right thing that goes terribly wrong. At times the long pauses and silences can seem pretentious, but there is substance under all the style and some fine performances from a notable cast.

Conan: Okay, I’ll admit that I saw this in Russian, without subtitles, and may have missed out on some subtleties of plot and character, but then Conan has never been a character who’s traded in subtlety. For all the extra gore, dirt, nudity and CGI, this isn’t too far away from the Arnie original, and its design work does a good job of portraying a world of terrible antiquity, even though the whole thing does tip over into cheesiness every so often. Jason Momoa offers an imposing physical presence in the lead role, even though he’s more pantherish compared to Arnie’s beefcake, but it’s questionable whether he or the film have made the character unique enough to earn a second run at a cinematic outing.

Book Reviews

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins: The “Hunger Games” trilogy comes to an end with a war waged as much through public relations as violence, but one that is no less shattering for its participants for all that. Collins does not stint in depicting the brutal impact, both physical and mental, of being at the centre of this conflict on her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she learns the difference between those who wage war because they have to and those who wage war because it is expedient. Genuinely heartwrenching at times, it refuses to offer easy answers, and even its potentially cliched love triangle is played out in a believable and affecting manner.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux: Replicating a journey he took three decades earlier, the author travels around Asia, revisiting old haunts as a curmudgeonly ghost, alternately enthralled and appalled at the changes and the things that have remained the same. Leavening his sometimes dyspeptic gaze is the fact that he’s willing to fall in love with a scene or a face at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, this is a book about travel, not tourism, and it’s far from being a guidebook of any kind, but it will be hard for anyone to read it and not wish to follow at least part of the way in the author’s footsteps.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood: Not so much a sequel to Oryx and Crake as a companion piece to it, telling of the end of humanity from a new perspective, this is the story of those whom that apocalypse was inflicted upon, even as they dealt with their own crumbling lives. Atwood takes a light touch in dealing with the eco-cult who dominate the structure of the book, leaving the reader uncertain as to exactly who is being laughed at, with the inevitable answer being everyone, at one time or another. Dark where it needs to be, humorous where it can be and human everywhere, this doesn’t have the impact of its predecessor, but apart from its overuse of coincidence, it’s a fine addition to the story.

Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold: The jazz-age era of stage magicians is evoked with well-researched detail in this twisty thriller, focusing on the career of “Carter the Great” and its links to the foremost developments of the age. Carter is a suitably complex character for this well-crafted story, and although his personal issues are intertwined with the greater developments in the plot and the world at large, he always remains on the right side of self-indulgence. There’s plenty of detail for the reader to get their teeth into, but ultimately this is a satisfyingly straightforward tale of revenge, lost love and secrets.

In all likelihood, there will be very few September reviews. I’ve seen no movies and read only two books, but at least I have an excuse. I’ll make up for it when I get the chance.

Oh, and the third thing, related to that picture above? Martin McGuinness’s plans to run for president of Ireland, which is a news story that broke while I was somewhere in Russia, I think. Now, my viewpoint on Sinn Fein is somewhat biased by the fact that they aided and abetted a bunch of murderous bastards who kept the population of Northern Ireland (all of them, not just half of them) terrorised for three decades. If he’s willing to work to undo some of what Sinn Fein caused over the years, fair enough. But until and unless the party as a whole and he in particular can accept responsibility for what they did, I have no interest in seeing him become the personal representative of the nation that I’ve made my home in for half my life, and which is more than willing to claim me as a citizen.

All right, rant over. Japan is great in many, many ways, some of which I’ll be sharing soon, I hope. Heading to Tokyo tomorrow for yet more adventures, and then the grand tour of the U.S. to wrap it up. It’s been a long, strange trip already, and I’m only about halfway through.

From the Setting to the Rising Sun

The land of the Rising Sun indeed.

How do you arrange a perfect morning? There are plenty of recipes, but this one worked well for me.

First, head to bed early, due to a rolling sea that tires you out and kills your appetite. This allows you to wake up at 3.30am, unable to sleep. As a result, you go out on deck and lie on a bench, looking up at the stars, enjoying the balmy and breezy night more or less on your own.

After that, you can return to bed and snooze for a while, only to reemerge at about 5.30am, just as the eastern sky is starting to lighten. Then spend about an hour just sitting there, watching as the sun comes up over the land of the Rising Sun, listening to the soundtrack to Halo, redolent of an encounter with things ancient, technologically advanced and wondrous.

After breakfast, you can watch Japan’s rugged and lush coastline pass by as the ferry pulls into Sakaiminato harbour, one side of which is industrial, the other the aforementioned lushness. You can listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s soaring Divenire too. Tears? Nah, just the wind in my eyes.

At this stage, customs will hold no fear for you, even if they are a bit put out at your lack of accommodation planning.

A very fine way to start a birthday, I tell you.

P.S. I wrote the above while going through customs in Sakaiminato. Right now, several hours and three train journeys (the last on the “Nozomi” Super Express Shinkansen, which officially travels at Ludicrous Speed), I’m in Kyoto’s shopping district, having gone wandering from my ryokan and finally found a usable wifi network. Still, all the above still holds. And Japan is delightful thus far.

Dinner on the Pacific Rim

Another food post? Why not…

Right at this moment, I’m having dinner at the lovely Moloko & Med (Milk & Honey) in Vladivostok. Nothing as fancy as my St. Petersburg repast – just meatballs and fried potatoes, but beautifully prepared and very tasty. It seems somehow appropriate to mark my last full day in Russia in a way that mirrors one of my first, thousands of miles away from here.

It’s been a long, strange trip. A couple of 3-4 day train trips, interspersed with smaller journeys and memorable moments. Wandering around Gorky Park at sunset, being footsore on Nevsky Prospekt, diving into the chilly waters of Lake Baikal and catching two sunrises in one morning in Terelj National Park in Mongolia. Here in Vladivostok, I’ve mostly been enjoying the experience of just being here, but the half-built form of the Golden Horn bridge that dominates the city has provided some memorable views and moments of its own.

Tomorrow, all being well, I’ll hop on a ferry to Korea, then Japan. (If all isn’t well, I’ll have 24 hours to come up with an alternative exit before my visa runs out.) A very different experience to what has come before, I suspect, but one I’m really looking forward to. One thing that this trip has brought home to me is that a bit of open-mindedness and adventure can take you a long way. (That and the advantages that fate brought to make this trip possible, but it all works together in the end.)

That’s enough for now. Dessert is on the way, then I have a hill to climb and a sunset to watch. Should be a fine way to wrap up this leg of the adventure.

So, Vladivostok…

…at last we meet.

After more than ten thousand kilometres by rail and sea (I’ll figure out exactly how many some day) I hit Vladivostok before dawn this morning. And promptly went for an espresso to wake me up. I need a shower and a change of clothes. Possibly a change of skin too. We’ll see.

The San Francisco of the East is building its own Golden Gate to connect the east and west halves of the city. There are few things more delicate-looking than half-completed bridges, and this one was doubly so this morning, wreathed in mist and silhouetted against the eastern sky. When it’s finished, it will be magnificent, soaring over the city’s main street. For now, it’s a massive building site, but still magnificent in its own way.

I’d hate to be the person who has to climb to work each day in one of those high cranes though…

The Mystery of the Dunnes Stores Bags


I’m about to drop off the edge of the Internet for a while again, on a three day trip from Ulan Ude to Vladivostok. Before I go though, I leave you with a mystery.

A long time ago, when I was in Moscow, I spotted a granny on the Metro, carrying her groceries in a familiar-looking bag. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed a Dunnes Stores “Bag for Life”. Weird, I thought, and kept on about my business.

Except that I’ve seen them a few times since then, all across Russia. The one in my possession, pictured above, came from a Russian tour guide, who said that her company had handed them out to its staff.

So just why are Dunnes Stores bags so popular behind the former Iron Curtain? Do they have prized aesthetic or structural qualities? Do their owners dream of coming to Ireland and shopping under the hallowed green banner one day? Or did Dunnes just make far too many of the things and flog them off to foreign markets to recoup some cash?

Answers on a postcard please. (Don’t send them anywhere, just write them on a postcard.)

A Snack Fit For a Khan


I could have posted a photo of eagles or vultures. Of yaks or Mongolian ponies. Of Turtle Rock or the sun rising over the hills of Terejl National Park. But no, this was my first encounter with Mongolia, so you get it too.

It amused the hell out of me, both for the Star Trek reference and the fact that, having had a snack box at work for the past 12 years, it does look like they’re the local franchise of Ireland’s famous King Crisps. Sadly, that’s about the only way they resemble them, as they have an appearance and texture not dissimilar to polystyrene packaging pellets.

Right now I’m in a cafe in Ulaanbaatar, having spent last night in a ger camp and yesterday trying all sorts of Mongolian activities, from archery to anklebones, with a little horseriding thrown in too. I’m off to museums this afternoon, then heading out in search of Mongolian beer.

And yes, photos of all of those other things will appear on Flickr before too long. I’m not whimsical all the time…

Wasted in Irkutsk


I’m currently sitting in a train station in Irkutsk, about as tired as I’ve been so far this trip. Which is a neat trick, seeing as I’ve spent the last two days by the shores of Lake Baikal, in a room in a log cabin with the balcony view above, enjoying sunshine on a par with the best Irish summer day, doing nothing more strenuous than going for a dip. Yes, it was bloody cold, but still.

In about an hour, I’ll be jumping on a train to Mongolia, specifically Ulan Bator, where I’ll spend a night in a get and a night in the city before hopping on the train once more. If I have anywhere near the amount of luck I’ve been having so far on this trip, I’ll be flying. (In this very waiting room, I ran into a couple travelling the opposite way, who were able to give me some pointers on the Japan portion of my trip, having just spent two years there.)

Anyhow, night is falling, and I must be off. Will do my best to keep the updates coming, wherever I and the Internet happen to intersect.

This is where I’ve been…

…for the past four days.


I’m currently chilling by the shores of Lake Baikal. Literally – the first fingers of the Siberian winter can be felt now, even though the sun has been out all day.

In lieu of a real update, some cheering words from one of my heroes, from the postscript to his “Voyage of the Beagle”, which I managed to finish somewhere in the vicinity of Perm. Definitely spoke to my particular situation.

“But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, if otherwise, on a long voyage. He may feel assured, he will meet with no difficulties or dangers, excepting in rare cases, nearly so bad as he beforehand anticipates. In a moral point of view, the effect ought to be, to teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the characteristic qualities of most sailors. Travelling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the same time he will discover, how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.”