All posts by cerandor

Long Walks on Strange Planets

I don’t know where I am. This is a strange world to me, and unkind. I have no memory of how I came to be here, but in exchange for this amnesia, I have been given technology that shields me from the harsh surroundings. It is greedy for fuel, but it suffices. I can explore.

Way back in the long ago of 2016, a game called No Man’s Sky was released. Its launch was accompanied with a huge amount of hype and an equal amount of disappointment. The promise of multiple galaxies worth of exploration was undermined by a lack of things to do and procedurally generated worlds that were unique in their details but repetitive in sum. Add to that a lack of functioning multiplayer gameplay and No Man’s Sky was, at launch, a vast expanse of loneliness.

Near where I came to consciousness, I found a crashed ship. Half wrecked and unfit for the skies, it seemed an omen of a past better forgotten. I chose to leave it behind and struck out instead in search of habitation. From local plants and rocks I can keep the technology that preserves me fuelled. This world is severe, but it sustains me.

Over the next few years, Hello Games, the developer of No Man’s Sky, released a stream of patches and updates for the game that expanded the things a player could do and added variety to the countless worlds. (Thus making No Man’s Sky one of the few things on this benighted planet to have improved continuously since 2016.) And somewhere along the way, I jumped on board. I woke on a strange planet and set out to explore the worlds beyond.

This world is not untouched. I came across an abandoned facility, built who knows how many years ago. Buried in its technology, I came across a signal. Somewhere across the hills and valleys of this world, a distress signal still calls out. My existence has been graced with a direction.

Since then, it’s become one of my more-played games. I’ve explored through many updates, constructing an array of bases across many worlds, and managing a fleet of fully upgraded ships from my capital ship. I have, in other words, done pretty much everything the game has to offer. For the past year or so, I was only dipping back in whenever something new was released.

There are techniques for survival that this world has taught me. Carbon and Sodium will serve to maintain life support and power, but it is more efficient to craft fuel cells and life pods for these purposes. To do so requires delving into caves in search of rarer minerals, which also offers the benefit of temporary protection from the harsh environment of the surface. However, the caves extend for many miles and not all paths lead back to the harsh light of day.

This is the problem of procedurally generated content. After a while, you’re just going to be seeing variations on what you’ve seen before. A new gameplay loop, such as the corrupted sentinels and sentinel ships introduced in the last update, “Interceptor,” can be woven into the setting, but any narrative essentially sits on top of the game world. My bases and ships may be all my own work, but the story I’ve experienced is the same as anyone else’s.

My efforts to survive on this world are not unopposed. There are sentinels here that object violently to my plundering; robotic guardians that float in peace across the surface but gather in wrath when I transgress. I have learned to avoid their gaze and so endure. The few other aliens I have encountered have been isolated traders or scientists. I lack a language they would understand, but I have been able to trade with them for credits and equipment that might serve me later.

An answer to this dilemma recently presented itself. Watching a YouTuber’s public play session, I saw a new option for a new game: ignore the starter ship. Rather than accept the nearby crashed ship that the game directs you towards, head out into the wilderness and look for other options: follow a distress signal to a crashed ship, come across a crashed ship by chance, or find a trading post and buy one of the ships that lands there.

The distress signal that I follow is far distant, but my journey grows swifter. Scavenged technology has improved both my survival suit and my mining tool. My jet pack now carries me across narrow valleys and cushions my descent from great heights. My scanner can now detect buildings at a greater distance. Still, I must not be careless. Even with these improvements, I could easily die from a fall or neglecting my protection or sustenance.

The first time I tried this, I got lucky. A distress signal pointed me to a crashed ship only an hour’s travel away. Quite quickly, I was spacebound, trading in my scavenged ship for a pristine model and prospering across several systems. However, the sense of immersion in the world for that first few hours was so impressive, that I decided to up the difficulty. I started again in Survival mode (in which several basic technologies are unavailable at the start) and Iron Man (one life only, with the save game deleted on death). The result was interesting…

I wish I could convey to you the feeling of skimming millimetres over a ridge line, then landing soft-footed on the next peak. To clamber to the top of a mesa in order to survey the land for miles around, then cast yourself to the winds and direct your fall wherever you wish to go. To play hide and seek with implacable robotic guardians, like some scavenging imp. This world is harsh, yes, but there is joy here. Still, I have travelled for many hours and my quarry feels as far distant as ever.

This time, I started on a desert world. I quickly located another distress signal … 18 hours travel away. No problem, I figured, I’ll head that way and find another signal or a crashed ship along the way. Several game sessions later, and every distress signal pointed the same way. I’d enhanced my suit and mining tool with the technology I’d found along the way, but it looked like I was in this for the long haul.

In the shadow of a wrecked freighter, I came across a trading post. I’d gathered credits and hoped to bargain for one of the ships that landed there, but it seemed that what I owned was insufficient. Until I remembered one other thing I possessed: knowledge of the location of the ship I had abandoned. A trader in a small scientific vessel was willing to accept the prospect of salvage in addition to everything else I offered. I was no longer bound to the surface of this world.

About halfway through my trek, I picked up the signal of a crashed freighter. It was a bit of a detour but not too far away. So I ventured that way and picked over the gigantic ruin. On the way back to my route, I stumbled across a trading post. In No Man’s Sky, this is one of two kinds of places (the other being the space port that most systems have) where you can be guaranteed to encounter landing ships. I initially scavenged in the area for valuable goods to increase my credit count, but when I realised the trade-in value of the starter ship, the skies belonged to me.

I do not know where I will go now. I do not know if I have a past to discover. I do not know how far this universe I inhabit extends. But I will never forget the world on which this life of mine began.

Ultimately, once you’ve made it into space, the game’s story reintegrates with the rest of the NMS experience as crafted by Hello Games. But that first world? The struggle to survive and find a way off the surface forced me to actually engage with the starter world, to write a little story of perseverance in my own head. And that story is unique and solely mine. It’s opened my eyes, and the next time I go back to a game I feel I’ve played out, I’ll first ask myself how changing just one rule might change the narrative.

Celluloid Cubes

Way back in the distant past of 2000, there was a movie called Dungeons & Dragons. It was a pretty big deal at the time, with a substantial budget, plenty of flashy CGI, and a cast that included Jeremy Irons and a then-hot Thora Birch (hot in the sense of fame, for clarity’s sake). It was also, unfortunately but deservedly, a rather massive flop

Treating the fantasy trappings of the game it took its name from as an embarrassing necessity, its mix of overwrought portentousness and slacker humour didn’t work at all. D&D crashed and burned, failing to make back its original budget (not even accounting for what I remember as a substantial marketing campaign). It was enough of a flop that it could have killed off fantasy movies as a genre for a decade, were it not for the small matter of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring coming out the next year. As it was, the D&D film series limped on with a couple of direct to DVD sequels before being put out of its misery.

Well, now we have a new D&D movie, in the form of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and it’s coming out into a very different landscape. Not only is fantasy as a genre both more diverse and more respectable, but D&D and roleplaying are actually kind of cool at the moment, courtesy of cameos in Stranger Things and real-play series like Critical Role. And, wonder of wonders, HAT (they might have thought a little harder about that acronym) isn’t just a good movie, it’s also a riotously fun one.

Spoilers below the jump…

Sure, the film is stuffed with CGI, but that CGI is actually used to recreate elements of the Forgotten Realms setting from D&D that players would recognise, and those elements are used as functional parts of the narrative, not as embarrassing set dressing. (The beholder from the original movie can make me cringe at a distance of two decades.) As the action hops from location to location, each one is colourfully depicted and the various fantastic beasts that show up all have a good amount of heft to them.

Cleverly, the writers of the movie have hung the story on a familiar movie form: the heist. The main characters have to run a scam on a former friend and in order to do so they have to gather a team, case the joint, make a plan, deal with setbacks, collect necessary equipment, etc. Any halfway ciné-literate viewer will catch on to how things are supposed to work, and that allows them to just sit back and enjoy the ride. A ride that takes them on a whistle-stop tour of the Forgotten Realms, complete with encounters with the undead, dragons, and Red Wizards, not all of which are hindrances to our heroes’ quest.

The lead heroes in question are Chris Pine as bard and spy Edgin, who is only marginally handy in a fight and slightly better at making plans, and Michelle Rodriguez as barbarian warrior Holga, absolutely the combat specialist of the two and devoted friend to Edgin and surrogate mother to his daughter. That shared devotion provides the emotional hook for the plot, driving the heroes into and through their heist and counterpointing a personal motive against the more traditionally grandiose plans of the villains. In fact, the conflicting web of motivations is one of the strongest points of the movie: everyone’s reasons for what they’re doing are kept clear and consistent, right up to the inevitable but satisfying conclusion.

For D&D fans, there’s plenty of fun in spotting the many and varied call-outs to elements of the game’s lore, both Forgotten Realms-specific and otherwise, but what really makes the movie sing is how it uses now-recognisable elements of the roleplaying experience to enliven the action. The heist itself, with its many setbacks and impromptu plans, resembles closely many roleplaying sessions of my own experience, in which players came up with outlandish plans that got themselves into trouble (with or without the help of the dice), which they then got themselves out of via even more implausible plans. There were times in the action when you could feel the fumbles and criticals being rolled.

Special mention needs to be given to Regé-Jean Page’s extended cameo as the paladin Xenk Yendar. The “lawful-good” alignment in D&D is often jokingly referred to as “awful good” and paladins portrayed as dour enforcers of divine will, but Page brings a warmth and humour to his portrayal while still being the perfect paladin. It’s an impressive achievement and one I want to catch again on a rewatch. For many, I suspect Page will be the highlight of the movie.

All the above is only a very quick and incomplete stroll across the highlights of the movie. D&D: HAT is a surprising riot of a film, and it’s one that should manage to entertain both fans of the original game and people who don’t have the first notion of what a displacer beast is. Go see it, relax into it, and enjoy the ride.

Three Years, Three Months On

Starting to write this while watching an extremely aggravating Six Nations match is probably not the best way to kick off a review of the past year. Better to have a clear mind, surely? To offer a dispassionate view of the past thirteen months and all that they’ve contained.

Nah. This particular repetition of the Six Nations has already caused me heart palpitations, during the epic first half between Ireland and France, so I think I can handle a ramshackle Ireland trying to avoid falling apart against Scotland in Murrayfield. Probably. In any case, I’ll provide a final score when the match gets to that point. (Currently it’s 7-8 to Ireland at 54 minutes.)

So, to my own situation. It’s actually pretty good, all things considered. As my late-year catchup post probably stated, I had a pretty good 2022 overall, despite getting caught with Covid not once but twice. In fact, the second time, coming around the end of November, presaged something more serious. The cough wouldn’t shift and proceeded to get worse. By the time an early January CT scan rolled around, I was pretty certain I knew what it was going to show.

My old friend alectinib had, after three years, decided to hang up its boots. The cancer was back on a growth path and new options were needed. Luckily there was a new candidate ready to go. Second choice it may have been, but lorlatinib was an able deputy: one pill once a day instead of four twice a day, and a new suite of side effects to take stock of.

Three months down the line from that changeover and I’m pleased to report that things are, if anything, better than they were. The cough and raspy breathing are gone, I have plenty of energy, and the side effects seem restricted to a rising cholesterol level. For which I need to take another pill. The final count on the pill front has thus halved, so I’m pretty happy, and if I get another three years out of lorlatinib, I’ll be ecstatic.

Thinker/crank Aubrey de Grey has a concept called longevity escape velocity, according to which there will come a point at which expected lifespans will be increasing so fast that that mortality itself will be left behind. There’s not much sign of that yet, but I have my personal version of “cancer escape velocity,” in which advances in cancer treatment outpace my cancer’s ability to colonise my lungs.

On that front then, so far, so good.

(The match has now ended, with Ireland winning 7-22, so add that to the good news. Six days to a showdown with England in Dublin, a Grand Slam at stake.)

As for the rest of life, no complaints and onwards and upwards. The job continues to be fascinating and engaging (and the office is walkable in good weather), and the family are all well, with the gaggle of nieces and nephews expanding in recent months by two of the former, Clodagh and Brigid. There’s even a family wedding to look forward to later in the year and Best Man duties to be executed in a fashion that suggests I might actually know what I’m doing.

It all suggests something of a return to normality, and in truth I’m even planning some travel for later in the year, Brussels this month and something new and worthy of a blog post or two around September time. I might even (whisper it), dig out the running shoes in the next week or two and see if the lungs are up to a light jog.

So everything seems to be going pretty good for me. I wish I could look around and say that the same is true for the rest of the world. While politics in Ireland seems to be running along more-or-less standard lines (which is to say, venal and dishonest on the part of the ruling power block), things either side seem to be taking a distinctly nasty direction.

The U.K., of course, remains consumed by the mire that Brexit was always going to become, and it trundles on seven years in, currently trying to heave its bulk over the largely flattened roadblock that is Northern Ireland. (Where the fundamentalist DUP have come to the end of the knots they’ve spent the last few years tying themselves in, only to find that they’ve, well, run out of rope.)

The Conservative regime, desperately unpopular and now on its fifth Prime Minister since Brexit, is reduced to culture war gestures, targeting refugees and trans rights in a desperate bid to gin up a bit of good old-fashioned hatred. Their latest efforts on this front have led to them going to war with the BBC’s Sports department, or rather its personnel, who have left work en masse rather than condone one of their number being victimised for having a public opinion contrary to that of the government.

Transphobia, meanwhile, is being used as a wedge issue by the U.S. far right—sorry, the Republican Party—as it plays its own games of hate and works to make the Hunger Games a real thing in time for the next Olympics. There’s a weird cultural cross-contamination process going on, as right-wing groups on both sides of the Atlantic spout the same talking points within days of each other, even when they’re wildly inappropriate.

The claim that “15-min Cities” were a globalist conspiracy to restrict movement may have made some sense in car-addled Los Angeles, but in much of British suburbia it’s just how life is lived. And faking moral outrage at children being brought to drag story time at libraries is a lot harder to do in a country where most children grew up watching drag performers on stage during pantomime season, every Christmas.

But logic and common sense require a firm footing in reality, and there’s precious little of that to be had these days. Facebook groups share all the poison gossip in restricted circles while Elon Musk burns Twitter to the ground in the desperate hope that someone, somewhere might someday like him. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that there’s a war on, but though Ukrainians are bleeding for Bakhmut as I type this, there’s a breed of online narcissist who’d as quickly blame them for the bloodshed.

Beyond even that, there’s the accelerating degradation of the world we live on. The increasing desperation of fossil fuel companies to extract as much wealth as they can from the planet before their business model crashes into the ground and takes us all with it. The way that market-driven capitalism cheers them on, a system for extracting value, never suited to run a society filled with complex human beings, now governing the fate of a planet. The only planet we know of that we can live on.

It’s all a bit much, and far beyond the compass of a blog post to comprehend. I can only reiterate what I have read and found to be good: that no person is illegal. To which I’d venture that no person is good or evil either. Only deeds. People are complicated and sometimes broken, sometimes by choice but more often not.

Given the option, most of us would help and share rather than hoard and compete. I believe that. I still see it regularly, even in the middle of myriad systems that encourage the opposite. Green shoots push through concrete, given time.

And if nothing else, there’s a Grand Slam to look forward to. Now who do I know might get me rugby tickets?

Catching Up

Well. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I wasn’t even going to look up how long it’s been, but the WordPress app front loads the list of recent posts and, well, the last time I posted here was in February. And even that post was late. So I guess 2022 hasn’t been a good year for posting. Hasn’t been a good year for a lot of other people either, but at least this one small thing I can fix…

In actual fact, I did have plans for posting here multiple times across the year, but distractions and overthinking combined make for a high hurdle. Something of a theme for the year, maybe? Anyhow, here’s a bundle of thoughts that maybe should have been posts of their own but didn’t make it.


May as well get this out of the way first, seeing as part of the reason for getting back into posting was to throw out updates on my health situation. So, the good news is that the cancer is staying put for the moment—my medicine is doing its job nicely and long may it continue to do so. Covid hasn’t been quite so friendly, and it’s taken two shots at me this year, the latter of which left me with a cough that’s been hard to shake in the face of a cold snap and the array of sniffles and maladies doing the rounds at the moment. Still, Christmas is coming, and that’s a season of rest, right?


Not a huge amount to say on this front, apart from the fact that I’m getting towards two years in the games industry and still enjoying it. Actual details will be thin on the ground, due to the NDA-heavy nature of the industry, but we actually had some RTE cameras in the studio recently, and it was nice to see some info creep out into the wild. With any luck, there will be some exciting news on the projects I’ve been working on revealed to the world.


Not for the first time, NaNoWriMo was a bust. Honestly, being stuck at home as much as I’ve been this year isn’t conducive to creative writing, at least for me. What creative juices have been flowing have been directed towards work instead. Hopefully something to balance a little better in 2023.


I travelled! Not just once, but twice. First time in March, a long weekend in London, to catch the Stonehenge exhibit in the British Museum (proof that the BM can do pretty well in the absence of imperially abducted goods) and do a metric ton of walking across a city I love but hadn’t been to in about ten years. Then, towards the end of the year, I took a somewhat chaotic trip across Switzerland, Germany, and Brussels. My travelling partner came down with Covid (I dodged it, somehow), but we took in new cities and met old friends, and I got to travel by rail and climb to the top of Cologne Cathedral, eleven years after I arrived in town too late to gain access. Again, here’s hoping that 2023 has some new travel adventures in store.

From below ground level to the base of the tall spire. With only a few pauses to catch my breath.


I didn’t get to the cinema much this year, mostly out of a desire to avoid Covid. And there are still several movies that came out this year that I really want to watch, not least The Banshees of Inisherin. Still, I did see a few. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was disappointing, at least on my first and only watch. Chadwick Boseman’s absence was felt and the gap wasn’t entirely filled, even with multiple actors taking their shots at it. In this, it felt as disjointed as its Marvel stablemate, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Which at least had the advantage of multiversal capering and Sam Raimi’s imaginative visuals to keep things fun. Lastly, there was See How They Run, which started strong with Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell’s double act (Ronan in particular is a deadpan delight) but never quite committed to the bit and limped to a flat finish.


If movies were something of a mixed bag for me in 2022, TV offered a lot. Especially when it came to large-scale fantasy productions. Amazon’s The Rings of Power threw huge amounts of money at the screen to variable results, but despite a few charming performances it was sunk by the fact that its setting, massively truncated in time and space, had little to no internal coherence. Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon fared a lot better by keeping its focus on the machinations of family and regal politics and trusting the audience to follow along with its time jumps. Its success can be seen in just how hard the climax of the series hit. Lastly, there was the long (as in decades) awaited adaption of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which proved admirably faithful to the books, under Gaiman’s stewardship. Perhaps even to a fault, as the series more or less climaxed in episode 5, had its strongest episode in the subsequent one, then picked up some loose plot threads to round out the season. Now that it’s been confirmed for a second season pickup, hopefully some of these pacing issues can be smoothed out.

Other Media

Loads to talk about here, but this is already dragging on a bit, so I’ll do a drive by on everything.

Comics: Kieron Gillen has been one of my favourite writers for years, and he got his moment in the sun this year with the Judgement Day crossover, in which he got to put all of the Marvel toys in play and run them through an existential wringer. Well worth catching, especially if you read his Eternals series (a vital prequel and great series in its own right).

Games: Best game of the year is a recent entrant. Pentiment sees the player take the role of an artist in medieval Germany and attempt to solve a murder that rocks a small mountain community and the nearby abbey. It’s meticulously researched and beautifully presented, but it’s not heavy going at all, and I introduced a non-gamer friend to it, much to their enjoyment. Worth a spin if you have any interest in murder mysteries, the social politics of imperial Germany, or illustrated manuscripts.

Roleplaying Games: Keeping up a regular gaming habit in the face of social distancing wasn’t easy, but now that those restrictions have eased a bit, there has been some in-person gaming too. Most of that has been plain old D&D (with Solasta providing a nice toolset for online D&D adventures) but I’m hoping for more in 2023: a return to Call of Cthulhu, the new Pendragon release from Chaosium, and the Kickstarter delivery of DIE, based on Kieron Gillen’s comic of the same name, which promises some psychologically intense gaming if I can find people willing to play it.

And that’s…

…it. Too little too late as far as 2022 goes, but here’s hoping I’ll be a little more active in 2023. Plans are afoot to be a little more organised at least. I have all of the tools at my disposal. I just have to use them and develop good habits that have fallen into abeyance. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Two Years, Two Months On

It should have been Two Years On, really, but I was around a month late last time, and if 2021 was good for anything at all, it was procrastination. A year in which not much went forward and not much went back. A year of holding your breath and waiting to see which way the spinning coin falls.

Plus, if I keep up this trend for long enough, I get to skip year 13 entirely, and that gives me something to aim for. Grab for those slender straws!

Let’s frontload this post with some updates of the kind that I dropped around this time last year. In keeping with the theme of the year, my cancer hasn’t really advanced or retreated in the past thirteen months, though it has thrown up some interesting curveballs. To wit, a small anomalous blob in my left lung was identified as something of concern, so my pill-based treatment was supplemented with some judicious Stereotactic Radiotherapy.

A stereotactic radiotherapy machine, ready for use.
My high-tech chariot awaits.

If you’ve never heard of this before, it’s a refinement of older generations of radiotherapy treatments, designed to deliver pinpoint radiation to small targets, like the aforementioned anomalous blob. Quite a bit of setup is required: I had a prep session in which I was fitted for a moulded beanbag bed and marked with some targeting tattoos, rendering me unsuitable for salvation according to several religions. Ah well.

The treatment wasn’t a barrel of laughs, but I’ll take boredom and discomfort over pain and ill health any day. Under the care of the excellent medical staff, I spent five sessions of an hour or so breathing very shallowly (observing the motions of my chest on a monitor so close to my face that I couldn’t focus on it) while the rotating sensor zeroed in on my problematic portions and the emissive elements zapped them into oblivion. Hopefully anyhow. Further scans will tell more.

On the similarly high-tech but much more invasive front, another anomalous blob further south in my torso called for a couple of cystoscopies. On the bright side, this anomalous blob appears to be entirely benign. Similarly brightly, I’ve now enjoyed live HD footage from inside my bladder. Not brightly at all: everything else about the experience, including an infection that dropped me in hospital for a few days after the first scan. The staff as always were excellent, but there are places where cameras are not meant to go, no matter how small and flexible they may be.

A cartoon of a Daily Bugle newspaper with the headline EVERYTHING AWFUL: Oh God Somebody Do Something
The year in a headline.

Of course, there’s whatever I went through in 2021, and there’s whatever the world at large was going through. 2021 was the year that refused to get better, as Covid worked its way through the Greek alphabet with a series of resurgences as the moneyed powers of the world tried to persuade everyone to go back to spending money even as the elite creamed as much off the top as they could get away with.

Does that sound a bit radicalised? Maybe I’ve been reading Twitter too much, but there’s a depressing refusal among western governments to look towards long-term solutions with regard to anything, pushing climate legislation down the road even as the Antarctic melts and the permafrost vanishes. The sclerotic nature of political systems occupied by people for whom government is a career rather than a job more or less guarantees a conservative status quo. I’ve said before that I think we’re heading into another cycle of revolutions driven by the tendency of wealth and power to accrue more wealth and power, but this time around external factors might end up intruding before any sea change is effected.

It’s funny when having incurable cancer isn’t the worst thing about your life. It’s bad when it isn’t in the top two. Covid and isolation take top spot, and I’m really hoping to at least escape into the wilds more often in 2022. Second place is taken up by the recurring nightmare of waking up in a world where fascist talking points are increasingly aired in public and creep in on the edges of “respectable” media. A world where Trump, Johnson, Peterson, Rogan, and Musk are defended by armies of vehement fanboys online and bitcoin and NFTs are promoted as the be-all and end-all of putting a price on everything in existence, no matter the cost.

A freshly baked sourdough loaf on a metal rack.
I baked some bread.

Thank you for listening to my rant, and if you haven’t made it this far, please excuse the logical impossibility. 2021 was far from a terrible year for me. It was too quiet for that, in the first place. I got to spend time with my family, adjusting ever so slowly to the absence of dad, and when I was able to, I met up with my friends, whose presence I remain entirely grateful for.

I baked bread, I wrote a novel (NaNoWriMo once again), and I enjoyed the summer as best I could. I also got a new job, and if there’s a positive side to the year, it was this change: the job in question is as close to my dream position as any I’ve ever been in, and the fact that I’m still learning as I go is just the icing on the cake. At some point in the year to come, I may even meet some more of my workmates in person (I’ve met a few, but mostly it’s been a work-from-home year).

So 2022, or the ten and a bit months of it that remain, is not without things to look forward to. There are medical worries hanging over my head, but that’s par for the course these days, and as long as I can enjoy the open air and the working day, I’ll consider myself fortunate enough. Hopefully the year will bring enough good things that others will be able to say the same.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—An Ending

Endings are tricky things. Ten years ago, I came to the end of my trip round the world with the most unstructured section of the trip to date. I’d booked my flight home at this stage, so I had an end date, but everything else was booked at the shortest notice I could manage. It’s probably not surprising that my memories of those last few days are a bit confused. And that’s absolutely what I’m blaming for being so late in getting around to writing about it.

The train dumped me in Boston late in the day, and I had the scraps of an October afternoon left to wander around in the rain and look at this city with so many ties to Ireland. In truth, I don’t remember much of it beyond the green spaces and the utter disaster that was the remnants of the Big Dig, a decade-plus effort to reroute the city centre highway into less obtrusive tunnels.

An extremely wet Boston evening.

Liz had pointed me to a decent Boston pub, where I’d be able to enjoy some craft beer and decent food, and I remember crashing for the night in a city centre hotel room, but my clothes and bags were just as frayed and overused as I was at this stage, so I definitely didn’t stay out too late or attempt any socialising. Instead, I did a brief self-guided walking tour the next morning before heading out to the city airport and my hire car.

The highways of New England were no friendlier to public transport than the streets of Los Angeles, so I’d opted for my own wheels in exploring Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Not that I ventured too far from Boston at first. Salem, New Hampshire, was my main base for the next few days, though I eventually ventured as far afield as northern Vermont, Cape Cod, and Walden Pond.

Post Mills in Vermont, the northern limit of my travels.

New England in the fall is one of those recommended experiences for travellers and locals alike, and even if I was a little late for the best of it, I managed to douse myself in russet and gold woods for the space of a few days. I took a slow tourist train north along the Vermont/New Hampshire border, where the riverside was cast in autumnal hues. I specifically drove along narrow lanes instead of straighter highways when I could, just so as to enjoy the ambiance.

Make no mistake though, this was perhaps the most stereotypically American experience of my trip. I stayed in a motel, I ate breakfast at roadside diners (even drinking coffee so I could get free refills), and I took advantage of every amenity that threw itself in my way. Spotting a Halloween-themed festival in Canobie Lake Park near Salem, I spent an evening among a host of generally much younger revellers, just as I had in Stockholm, two months and thousands of miles earlier.

Ecto-1 in Canobie Lake Park, for that Ghostbusters special experience.

Walden Pond hadn’t been on my radar before the trip, but I knew the story of Henry David Thoreau and his retreat to the wilderness in search of simplicity, so when I came across signs for it on my driving I decided to drop by. The remains of the cabin itself weren’t much to write home about (and Thoreau was far less isolated than he claimed in his writing), but Walden Pond itself was absolutely worth the visit, and I circumnavigated the water itself along paths lined with autumn leaves.

Cape Cod was the last big experience of this part of the trip. A longer drive than any I’d tried since California, it took me all the way out along the point until I found a beach where I could sit and watch the last light of day. I’d been along the East Coast for a while at that point, but it was nice to actually reach the ocean and complete my continental crossing, and I celebrated with a dish of Atlantic clams at the first diner that I found on the way back to the motel.

Looking off towards Ireland from Cape Cod.

The end was rapidly approaching though, and it was time to bring the car back. Unusually for me, I’d booked the car without the need to fill the tank on the return, so I ended up playing a game of chicken with the fuel gauge, which I’m glad to say I won, heading back into Boston and catching the train to New York before the day was out.

New York was a familiar place to me. This was my third visit but my first one solo, and once again I was hosted by some of my dad’s relatives who lived in Manhattan. The time for the flight home was approaching, so I wouldn’t have more than a day or two, and all of that time would be spent under grey skies, but as has always been the case with New York, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Tired and damp but very high up on top of the Empire State Building.

I dropped by the Apple Store cube on Fifth Avenue, which was covered in building materials but still hosted a queue waiting to buy the latest piece of shiny technology. I wandered the length of the High Line linear park, a slice of greenery cutting along an old elevated train line. I even visited the Empire State Building and took the elevator to the top floor, enjoying a view that I’d missed out on during my previous visits.

Mostly I just wandered around Manhattan and through Central Park, but I set aside a day for a treat provided by my hosts: free entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Probably the greatest collection of art in the New World, it’s stuffed with not just paintings but pieces of sculpture and more useful items through the whole span of human history. Like museums I’d visited earlier in the trip, like the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, there was an entire day and more of wandering to be done amid its halls.

An Elamite king in a museum that would make any jealous.

A little further south on the island, I saw the camp of the Occupy Wall Street movement, an uprising that has long since faded but didn’t need to be prescient to see the problems that had been growing for a long time and still haven’t lessened. In truth though, what I was mainly doing was just being in New York. Seeking out a state of mind, dragging out the last few hours as departure approached.

In the dying light of a New York day, I took the train to JFK. An entire life experience was coming to an end, though I knew there were all sorts of new things beginning. A new impulse to travel, a new direction for life. Ten years of life began as that trip ended, and if things are moving differently now, it’s just the next step in the process.

A last meal for the travelling man. Pizza, beer, and garlic bread.

There would be a final flight from London to Dublin when I landed, and I would see the shores of Ireland under grey clouds as October drew near a close. My parents would be waiting for me when I landed, to welcome me and hear all the stories. But the trip ended there in JFK, eating pizza and drinking beer bought with the last of my dollars, thinking back on everything I’d been through. Everything else was wrapping up.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Third Continent

Growing up in the U.K. in the eighties, you absorbed a lot of knowledge about the U.S. through TV and film. Some of it eventually got erased in favour of more accurate information. Some of it didn’t. One thing that lasted until just about a decade ago was the idea that the Rocky Mountains were a narrow range running along the U.S. West Coast, part of the great Pacific ring of mountains. Well, that isn’t true. Wasn’t even close.

Leaving Oakland on the California Zephyr, I’d hit mountains quickly enough, but those would be the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, themselves further inland already than the Coast Ranges, into which the San Francisco Bay is tucked. I was setting out to cross the third continent on my trip, once more by train, and Amtrak was my carrier from embarkation at Emeryville to de-training in Boston.

A California Zephyr viewing lounge. Seats are first-come, first-served.

For a nation that was stitched together by rail, from sea to shining sea, the U.S. has largely moved away from rail as a way to move people in favour of road. It was a bit jarring in comparison to Japan, where rail is king, but the U.S. is a lot larger and emptier and is very much its own thing. (If you want to know more about why U.S. rail is the way it is, try this video.) Blame Eisenhower anyway. He’s a Republican who’s gotten away scot-free for too long. (And courtesy of a brief Wikipedia trawl, I now know that scot-free refers to being free of the need to pay royal duties or imposts.)

For purposes of my travelling plans, some longer rail routes still endure, mostly as draws for tourists, the curious, and the romantic. At least two of which applied to me back then. I’d visited the East and West Coasts before, as well as Chicago only a little while before this trip, but I’d never ventured far beyond city limits in each case. This train journey was an expression of why I prefer trains to planes: maintaining a sense of connection to the landscape while travelling, and ensuring that travel remains meaningful.

The landscape of the West. Which has its own more modern resonance for me.

On the California Zephyr, I spent most of the first few days ensconced in the viewing lounge. A specially designed car with curving panoramic windows and seats designed for sitting and watching the world go by. The seats in the lounge aren’t bookable, or weren’t then. Instead, people wander in and out as they please. Since I was just there for the travel, I settled in and over the course of the next few days I made a couple of new friends and had some fun conversations, mostly with Mormons, one of whom professed to be revealing the inner secrets of the church to me. Given that the first stop of my trip was Salt Lake City, this raised an eyebrow or two, but any weirdness was balanced out by perfect politeness in every case.

Cities with names as familiar as Sacramento and Reno fled by, but when the train hits the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, the scope and scale of the U.S. becomes apparent. It’s less vacant than the grand forested expanses of Russia but no less impressive. River-cut valleys, low ridges, tiny villages, huts in odd places. The history here is not written, but rather experienced. White settlers are newcomers. Even the native tribes have only two tens of millennia here. No time at all to write oneself into the story of the land.

Joseph Smith getting the Lay On Hands treatment.

The rhythm of night and day received a jolt with my arrival in Salt Lake City. The train crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert in darkness and skirted the shores of the Great Salt Lake itself with only the lights of the distant city as a guide. The California Zephyr leaves once a day and can be caught along its route once a day likewise. I’d chosen Salt Lake City for a stop, but the drawback was that I disembarked at around 4:00AM in the morning, knowing that I had 24 hours to explore, not sleep, and endure before I could take to the rails again.

Cue a very strange day. The larger of my two bags was safely stowed in the station, but all was still in silence and darkness as I wandered into the city. The broad, open streets of the city held almost no one else, and in the distance there was the blindingly white light of the Salt Lake Temple as a guiding star. It felt like I was in a mash-up of 28 Days Later and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Salt Lake City from above. The temple is a little less white in the daytime.

It wasn’t too hard to spend 24 hours in Salt Lake City. The first few hours were the trickiest, but once I’d found a tourist office that offered free Wi-Fi through its closed doors and an early-opening Starbucks, I was in decent shape. I’d climbed to the hill where the State Capitol sat for sunrise, but most of the rest of the day was spent in doing some religious learning in the form of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints if you prefer) history. There’s more to Salt Lake City and Utah than the Mormons, but it’s hard to avoid the church, and I had no particular reason to do so, being a temporary visitor.

So I kept my scepticism to myself and listened and learned as the day went on, taking suggestions as to where to go and enjoying the odd non-Mormon experience like the Public Library. Those non-Mormon experiences expanded when the sun went down, which I watched from the Capitol Hill again. Sunset over the Great Salt Lake is definitely worth catching, by the way.

Those sunset skies. (Oh to have had the phone camera I have now.)

Because I had to stay awake and active until 4AM again, didn’t I? Sunset being over, I headed for a bar. Despite what you may have heard, it’s perfectly possible to imbibe in Utah. The rest of the evening went approximately pub quiz, planetarium, Led Zeppelin laser light show, and late night movie. All of which brought me to a little after midnight, upon which I headed to the station for a few hours sitting in the dry cold until the Zephyr showed up again and I found my way to my seat to sleep through the remaining morning hours.

It was a weird, half-awake day that followed. Sleeping in a seat following 24 hours of not sleeping at all (and not having been in a bed since San Francisco) does not for a healthy mental state make. The fact that I was poorly shaved and showered probably contributed to the fact that I don’t really remember talking to anyone on the trip from Salt Lake City to Denver. But balancing this out was the view.

Glimpsed from the viewing lounge, up among the mountains.

This was proper Rocky Mountains stuff as we climbed towards the Continental Divide then descended throughout the rest of the day towards Denver itself. Proper American landscapes of the Old West school, looking half-untouched by human boot or horse hoof. As I had been on the Trans-Siberian, I was transfixed, with the bonus of proper panoramic windows for the view.

We pulled into Union Station in Denver as twilight was falling. Well, I say we pulled in, but we were actually dumped on a platform some distance from the station, which was in the midst of refurbishment. Luckily, I’d learned my lessons from California misadventures and had booked ahead. A short walk took me to a youth hostel, where I showered and changed, then ventured out into the darkness feeling like a new man, in search of pizza and beer.

Denver pizza and beer. So very gratefully received.

Like Salt Lake City, and for much the same reasons, I had exactly 24 hours in Denver. Of course, sleep was going to take up one third of that, but as it turned out a whistle-stop tour of the Mile High City was just enough to fall in love with the place. There was a cold, dry, crisp feel to the air, which left me parched a good deal of the time but was exactly what a wandering traveller needed to encourage exploration.

I found the Mile-High markers at the Capitol building (or rather the three of them, as they took a few shots to get it right), roamed through museums of art and archaeology to get a feel for the culture of the West, and generally enjoyed the vibe of a city that felt like somewhere I might want to live some day. I also came across something that I’d encountered a couple of times on the West Coast: a large “Occupy” protest in front of the Capitol, attended by the odd joker in a V mask and a “Don’t worry ma’am, we’re from the Internet” sign. Ah for more innocent days.

Much of Denver’s fantastic art is Native in origin and all the more worth seeing for it.

But 24 hours was a hard limit, and as the sun sank I was heading for the loose vicinity of Union Station again. It was time for the last leg of the California Zephyr, taking me across the Great Plains to Chicago, where I would be spending another night. Or rather I would have been if hotel prices hadn’t soared through the roof for some reason. I guessed some kind of conference taking place, but regardless, there was no possibility of finding a place to stay on a budget. This being 2011 and long before the world became properly aware of Airbnb.

So I did my best to sleep through the night as we crossed the former Western Interior Seaway, the vast open plains of the Midwest, and towns and cities like Yuma and Omaha. There was plenty of scenery but from the low perspective of a train it didn’t quite strike the eye in the same way as the heights of the Rockies. And despite my best efforts to keep an eye out, I spotted no farm boys racing trains on foot while passing through Kansas.

Corn? In the Midwest? Who knew?

So I landed in Chicago with plans to stay no longer than it took me to jump on a train that took me to my next destination. Missing out on the Windy City wasn’t as big a blow as it might have been, as I’d enjoyed a freezing trip there back towards the start of the year. I enjoyed a late lunch and made my way to the Capitol Limited, headed for the heart of American political power.

It was a shorter trip than the previous legs of my journey, save perhaps the hop from Salt Lake City to Denver, and it returned me to some proper landscapes, no small amount of them soaked in rain. I’d been lucky on the trip to that point in that I’d avoided inclement weather most of the time, and on this rail trip I got to enjoy some of the scenery while enjoying dinner in the dining car with a collection of folks heading for D.C. for reasons that were many and varied.

The train, it has to be said, was not always the fastest, but the view made up for it.

Washington D.C. marked an end of sorts to my third continental crossing. I’d continue to explore the East Coast of the U.S. for a while and eventually make it to the sea, but the Potomac was close enough to the Atlantic to count for me. It was also where I’d be hosted by yet another American friend. In this case Liz, who met me at Union Station (it’s almost always Union Station in the States) and proceeded to take me out for beer and burritos, and from thence to a D.C. United game, Liz being not only a craft beer expert but a leading figure in the cheering section for her local team.

Once again, having a base of operations and a knowledgeable local made Washington D.C. a special experience. While I worried a bit about outstaying my welcome, skipping Chicago had left me with an extra day to explore, and Liz proceeded to take me upriver for some park exploration, and then host me at her place with some home brewing. When I said she was a craft beer expert, I meant it.

One of those photos of yourself that’s way more flattering than you deserve.

As for D.C. itself, there was ample to explore. Unlike Los Angeles, D.C. has decent public transport (funny how it’s always good enough for the ruling classes, hmm) so Liz could just set me loose in the morning when she was off to work. I did a circuit of the museums around the National Mall, including the Newseum, the Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of Natural History. I visited all of the presidential monuments and peeked in at the White House and its pitch black squirrels. (As an aside, I also picked up a book on Thomas Jefferson that thoroughly punctured the admiration I’d held for him previously—being a talented and principled man is only of so much use when you limit on whose behalf you exercise those talents and principles.)

D.C. is also a surprisingly walkable city, and the monuments of the Mall took me to Theodore Roosevelt Island and its population of deer, who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see them. There were canals to wander along and Arlington National Cemetery to roam through. Not all of which was done on a single day, but there was plenty to keep me busy, and I could have kept roaming for a lot longer had I wanted to.

I did peek into the Library of Congress too, though not solely for the purposes of ego reinforcement.

At length though I needed to keep on wandering, and I had things to see and do before I was homeward bound. I said my farewells to Liz and took one last morning spin around the sights of a cloudy D.C. before heading for that old Union Station. The time had come for the last leg of the journey, into the heart of the oldest part of the U.S.: New England in the Fall.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—California Roaming

From London onwards, my travels across the world had been relentlessly solo. Even when I was hanging out with others, such encounters had been either brief or negotiated across the barrier of a language gap. It had been a liberating but alienating way to travel, and it came to a crashing halt when I landed on the West Coast of North America.

The author of this change was Colleen, a friend of a friend who I knew from Dublin and who insisted on hosting me for the handful of days that I’d be spending in Los Angeles. She did more than that too, introducing me to her family and friends before I’d been there an hour or two, and loaning me her car (the only sensible way to get around the city). In other words, she couldn’t have been more hospitable to a bewildered Irish traveller still getting his head around the 24 hours he’d regained, Phileas Fogg-like, by crossing the International Date Line.

Apparently I was singing. I’m not sure this was a good way to repay her hospitality.

It was as fulsome a welcome as I could have hoped for and way more than I had expected. Truth be told, I’d been a little wary of landing in Los Angeles, which is a notoriously unfriendly city for the non-car-equipped traveller. As it was, I wouldn’t pick up my hire car until I was ready to leave, and prior to that I would have one day of car-equipped journeying around the city and plenty of chauffeured experiences to bars, Mexican restaurants, and people’s homes.

Though where do you drive as a first time visitor to a city like this, so sprawling and so famous? There’s the beach at Santa Monica, of course, famous from Baywatch, and the Hollywood Hills to the north. I didn’t find driving in or through the city too tricky, and a scribbled pencil map from Colleen was enough to take me north to the Getty Centre, with its collection of spectacular art tucked away in the hills, and then to Griffith Observatory, long before La-La-Land and its dancing stars.

On this particular day, I was in the Getty, then I was looking at the stars.

Synchronicity worked in my favour as it had tended to since the trip had started. I joined a queue without knowing what it led to and got to look through the Griffith’s massive telescope at the craters and mountains of a dazzling moon, then enjoyed the sight of a nuclear orange sunset over the City of Angels. And despite the unfamiliarity of it all, I made it back across the city as my phone was dying and delivered Colleen’s perhaps carelessly loaned car back to her.

Company and care made Los Angeles a friendly city, and it even found me a bar in which I got to watch my first match from the Rugby World Cup. (I’d searched in vain for a viewing point in Tokyo, only to stumble across one as I was heading to airport.) But I could only dwell on others’ hospitality for so long, and despite an offer of backstage tickets to a Sting concert, I had to say my farewells and take to the road again.

Somewhat more stuck in one place than I was at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Still I lingered though. Once I’d grabbed my hire car, I paid a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits and the next-door grounds of LACMA with its warehouse-like store of modern art. Never having been much of a fan of modern art before, I have to admit that LACMA part-converted me. Perhaps there was something about Los Angeles, that city of artistry, commerce, and eternal newness, that particularly suited it.

In any case, I was overdue for departure, and after a final visit to the beaches of Santa Monica I headed out. Only to realise that I’d left things so late that I didn’t really have accommodation sorted. Cue some covert Wi-Fi hogging from a car park and the aid of and I was finally sorted, but it was a weirdly disjointed start to the first part of my voyage to be navigated by car.

The Lord is less forthcoming on the topic of WiFi piggybacking.

The goal for the next few days was to follow Highway 1 north along California’s coast, and that’s more or less what I did. The first day was a bit of a washout, with some backtracking in torrential rain to explore Topanga Canyon near LA, then onwards through the rain to Santa Barbara with its moneyed mansions. I kept having to stop to take photos along the way, and the rainbows that cropped up between the intermittent rain showers added to the scene.

Grover Beach was the next stopping point, just down the road from the more famous Pismo Beach but close enough to make a visit for some fish tacos not just optional but mandatory. After more than a month of travelling by sea and rail, I’d hit a stretch of the trip where I was making the schedule as I went along. I liked it, and I had a chunk of coastal America to experiment with.

The wreckage of industry along the coastal way.

Highway 1 is an experience I’d recommend to anyone with the chance to try it. There are beaches aplenty if you like that kind of thing, but some of them are occupied by elephant seals and others have weird industrial relics clinging to them and oil rigs visible off shore. Further inland are relics of a different type: William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon is the gilded age in stone and memory, with art and architecture of the very best, much of it retrieved from post-war Europe, and haunted by the glitterati of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The stretch of coast between San Simeon and Big Sur is perhaps the highlight of Highway 1, running as it does along crumbling cliffs, between sheltered coves and tree-covered hills. I had a restaurant recommendation for Los Angeles, and I enjoyed an overpriced meal in Big Sur, followed shortly by a double rainbow sighting across the forests nearby. Everything thereafter felt like I was travelling downhill, it was such a natural high point.

In San Simeon did Randolph Hearst, a stately pleasure dome decree…

Carmel and Monterey, just up the road, provided an opportunity for a dip in the Pacific Ocean as well as a sampling of some more industrial relics, in this case from the fisheries industry. But my goal lay on the north side of Monterey Bay, and I pulled into a motel in Santa Cruz late one evening for a two-day stay.

My goals for being there were three-fold. First, meet up with Kalin, a local friend who I’d met at a wedding in San Diego years before, and who’d visited Ireland only a few months earlier. Second, courtesy of her guidance, visit some of California’s redwood forests, which I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. And last, find a place to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter final between Ireland and Wales.

Your occasionally humble narrator, at home amid the redwoods.

All of this was accomplished with some pleasure, and I even got the chance to storytell some of my travel experiences and show off my collection of photos, which at this point numbered in the thousands. The redwoods were just as spectacular as hoped, and there was the bonus of exploring the Santa Cruz boardwalk in fine company. Sadly, the later quarter final (enjoyed in the company of a couple of professional caddies who had escaped from a tournament in nearby Pebble Beach) proved to be just the latest in a long line of disappointments for the Irish rugby team at that stage of World Cups.

San Francisco was only a short hop away, but there was a stop I wanted to make on the way. In Santa Cruz I’d logged on to discover the news about Steve Jobs’s death. I’d been a Mac user since the 1980s, so I’d experienced his wilderness years, triumphant return, and release of devices like the iPhone on which a good chunk of my photos were being taken. I’d planned to drop by Apple’s headquarters on Infinite Loop in Silicon Valley anyway and now it seemed even more appropriate.

The Steve Jobs memorial, just a day or two after his death.

Apple then wasn’t the world-straddling behemoth it’s since become, but it was on its way, and the old headquarters in Silicon Valley were a weird tie to the older company, the one Jobs had founded. I didn’t linger too long there, and not too long later I was driving along San Francisco’s narrow streets to drop off my rental car and head for the hostel I was staying in overnight.

I’d visited San Francisco a few years earlier, so my arrival felt like something of a homecoming. Synchronicity was definitely at work too, as I headed for the heights of the Coit Tower, only to find myself enjoying the sight of a aerobatic display from some navy flyers. After all the travelling, it was hard to avoid the feeling that all of this was meant for me in some way.

Reach for the skies, mister.

The rest of that day and the day after was spent in exploration. First the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf, then Chinatown and Nob Hill, as well as further strolls all the way to Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, and the Pacific Ocean. Chinese Food, craft beers, and sea breezes. It was an exploration that mirrored the one I’d enjoyed San Francisco’s Pacific twin, Vladivostok, even if I wasn’t planning to stay as long this time.

For there was a train awaiting me. Across the bay in Emeryville, the California Zephyr met its terminus, and on its next departure I aimed to be on board. I’d bought myself an Amtrak ticket to cross the nation and the continent, and this time I’d be making plenty of stops along the day. California had been an experience that had refreshed my love for other people as much as my love for travelling, and now I got to take that refreshed soul across an entire nation.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Past and Present

If Kyoto felt like a pitch-perfect blend of Japan’s past and present, the latter half of my sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun saw those two elements divided and explored in isolation. I had four days left in Japan, and while Tokyo was the inevitable end goal of the experience, I still had a day to spend in a capital city of an older vintage.

Nara sits in a quiet valley south of Kyoto and east of Osaka. It’s something of a quiet adjunct to those major metropolises now, but back in the 8th century AD it was the capital of a nation that was still in the process of forming itself. Long before the age of samurai, Japan was developing its connections to China and Korea and absorbing influences like Buddhism. It was probably a chaotic, uncertain time, as can be seen in the fact that the Nara period lasted less than a century, but for me Nara proved a peaceful getaway in the midst of an overwhelming week.

Deer don’t care. And they will chase you if you have biscuits.

There was an element of familiarity to the layout of the smaller, older city. Like Kyoto, Nara’s city centre is small and manageable, and to its east lies a much larger temple complex that is probably the main draw for most visitors. Booking at short notice, I ended up in a hotel instead of the ryokan I’d enjoyed in Kyoto, but in both cities I ended up spending most of my time wandering and exploring.

The key memory I have of Nara is the deer. If the temple district is where most tourists go, then the deer are the stars. The deer know it too. Regarded as divine messengers, they have absolutely no fear of tourists, and when it comes to eating some of the biscuits that shops sell to feed to them, they will practically bully their way into your pockets to get at them—as I learned no more than 30 seconds after buying some of those biscuits. Lesson learned. For the rest of my wanderings, I contented myself with watching them rather than encouraging stampedes.

Overlooking Nara from the east.

There’s plenty to see amid the temples too, even discounting the deer. A massive statue of the Buddha and some pleasant country walks offering lovely views over the entire valley add to the appeal of the temples themselves, some of which were founded back in the Nara period themselves. (Although, given their wood construction, the odds are that very little of the material inside actually dates to that period.)

On the other side of the city centre, there are more solid remnants of Nara’s storied past, in the form of the keyhole-shaped kofun tombs from centuries earlier than the imperial period, and the remains and reconstructions of Heijo Palace, where the imperial family dwelt back in the day. Exploring all of that, as well as Nara’s restaurants and chilled out nightlife kept me engaged without being exhausted, and even if it didn’t have as much to offer as Kyoto, Nara proved the perfect addition to my exploration of that city.

Playing games in an underground bar in Nara.

Which left Tokyo. A short train trip took me back to Kyoto and a connection with the Shinkansen line. For the second time, I was hurtled at high speed through the Japanese countryside, on a packed train with tiny windows that created the feeling of being on an earthbound airplane. For the first time, I got a view of Mount Fuji, even if it was more limited than any that Hokusai might have enjoyed. I’d get another few before leaving, but I was short the extra day that I would have needed for a day trip from Tokyo to visit.

I’d actually managed to book my accommodation in advance this time, and while I’d considered going for a capsule hotel in pursuit of the true Japan experience, I ended up in a room that wasn’t much bigger and was definitely made for someone much shorter than a six-foot-plus Irishman.

A Tokyo hotel room in its entirety.

The great advantage of this hotel though was its location. I was just a short walk away from Ueno train station, which meant I was right beside the museum district and just a short stroll north of the famous Akihabara district. Despite being one of the world’s genuine megalopolises, Tokyo’s public transport system is amazingly efficient, so picking the perfect location for your hotel isn’t the most important thing, but it worked for me given my love of walking whenever I can.

Talking about the next few days could end up as a long and mostly boring travel itinerary. Not only would that not work for my hypothetical reader, but it would also entail a lot of work for me in terms of checking exactly what I did. And that’s against the spirit of these reminiscences, which are mostly about what I remember and how I felt at the time. And what I felt about Tokyo is that Kyoto had been practice, Nara a short rest, and Tokyo the real deal.

Cloud-wrapped Fuji from the Shinkansen.

To be clear, Kyoto was and is my favourite, but I’d budgeted the largest portion of the trip for Tokyo, spent most of my days there on my feet from early morning until after midnight, and racked up multiple experiences that have stayed with me through the years, and I still don’t think that I more than scratched the surface of this incredible city. It’s too much, no matter where you look, but it’s accessible for all that, and it’s only slightly behind Kyoto on my list of places to revisit.

Perhaps the best way to discuss Tokyo is to talk about its districts. I’ve already mentioned neon-drenched Akihabara, with its array of electronics and games stores and its maid cafes, but it’s just a tiny little sliver of the city as a whole. Closer to where I was staying, there was Ueno Onshi Park, where some of the country’s best museums offer an insight into how Japan came to be and how it sees itself.

An Akihabara store, open to all with electronic needs.

Efforts to view the Tsukiji Fish Market took me through the high-class Ginza district, though the market itself proved to be closed. Nearby were the peaceful Hama-rikyu Gardens though, and I passed a pleasant hour in a tea house looking over still waters and calming greenery. A few days later, I’d take a boat across the bay to the Odaiba Seaside Park, with its Ferris wheel, Hello Kitty store, and Toyota museum. From a glance at a map, a lot has happened to that area in the past ten years, but one of my favourite experiences proved to be walking back across the bay, on the walkway of the Rainbow Bridge.

Ignoring for the most part the imperial palace that lies at the heart of the city (as I tended to use it as a shortcut across Tokyo), we hop to the west and come to the districts of Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Shibuya is best known for the famous Shibuya Crossing square, which I viewed from a McDonalds after having a long and tiring walk from one side of the city to the other.

Shibuya Crossing, in its natural element—crowded.

Lest it be thought that I’m a complete savage, I did take the opportunity of a visit to Harajuku to try out some top class sushi and break my long-time dislike of that food before going for a ramble around the Yoyogi Park next door, with its massive Meiji Shrine still heavily trafficked by both Japanese and tourists.

Yoyogi sits on the doorstep of Shinjuku, which is almost a city within a city in Tokyo. Rail lines converge here and buildings reach for the sky. In particular, the massive bulk of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, offers a view not only over Tokyo itself, but all the way to Fuji in the distant west. It was a bit too hazy to enjoy that view when I made my way up there, thereby fulfilling my habit of climbing to the top of the tallest viewing point in every city, but the view was good enough for me to return at night and take in the glittering view of Tokyo in the dark.

Tokyo from above at night.

Tokyo in the dark needs a mention all on its own. Back in Moscow I’d felt uncomfortable and out of place when the sun went down. In Tokyo, I felt free to explore in a city that felt safe and was more than welcome to keep running on a 24-hour basis. It probably helped that I didn’t drink much, though I did find my way into a hostess bar for an hour or so that thankfully ended when I ran out of the small amount of money I was carrying on me.

Tokyo never stopped welcoming me or showing me new things over the days that I spent there. And I never ventured too far beyond the loop line that connects all the districts that I’ve talked about above. So there’s doubtless far more to be seen and experienced. I haven’t even talked about streetside noodle bars, hidden shrines, or the odd architecture of the Asahi Beer Hall.

Asahi Beer Hall. Odd.

However, time runs out, especially when you’ve only assigned yourself a small amount. Eventually I summoned my bags, closed the door on my tiny hotel room, and jumped on a train to Narita airport. There I had one last new experience in Japan: a delay. It was handsomely compensated for with a dinner voucher, and before too long I was decanted onto one of Airbus’s great white whales of the sky, an A380. I had a long flight to look forward to, my first since landing in London, and an entirely new country and continent to cross.

Cancer Update

I said that I’d only provide these when I had news to impart, didn’t I? Well, there’s some news. The most recent of my regular scans spotted something untoward in my left lung, and a subsequent PET scan (one of those that leaves me too radioactive to be in the company of small children and pregnant women) determined that it was something that needed treating. So I’ve been referred to radiology for the purposes of thoroughly zapping said something via a tube poked into the host lung. All being well, it’s been spotted early enough to deal with it without too much trouble. I’ve done well out of treatment so far and hopefully that will continue.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Kyoto Nights

I spent a week in Japan in 2011. As I was told at the time, it wasn’t long enough. It’s also the only time that I’ve spent in Japan to date, despite my desire and plans to return (blame an eclipse for that). In my defence, I was planning the trip on the run, aware that I was eventually going to run into funding and timing issues. So I figured that spending a week crossing the centre of Japan from west to east would do for a taster.

It wasn’t enough, as the desire to return should make clear. But it was an experience that was endlessly entrancing. For the seven days that I was there, the moments of rest that I had saw me soaking in a culture entirely unfamiliar to me, and the time I spent wandering until my feet ached felt as refreshing as a soak in a deep Japanese bath.

A birthday view of sunrise over Japan.

The Japan section of the trip was dreamlike from the start. I woke up on my birthday and, along with those of the travelling group still on board ship, went up above decks to watch the sunrise. As presents go, the perfect sunrise over the Land of the Rising Sun was a close to perfect as you could ask for. I felt frazzled and exhausted after about a month of travelling, but from that moment I hit a groove that would last most of the rest of the trip.

Landfall was accomplished at Sakaiminato, a small port town set amid gorgeous forests hills, and farewells were said by the few of us who’d shared the past few days on board. As with much of my travels of the previous few weeks, my communication abilities were restricted to saying thank you and please, but that proved enough (along with my multiple ticket and booking printouts) to get me on a train through landscape of fairytale beauty, until I got arrived at a Shinkansen station to take me the rest of the way.

The view from the slow train from Sakaiminato.

There was a bit of a hiccup with regard to ticket prices (my Japan rail card didn’t cover the fastest versions of the Shinkansen bullet trains) but that was quickly smoothed over and I was set on my way at speeds that sent my dodgy camera equipment into a tailspin. Everything looked slanted in the pictures, and while the ride was perfectly smooth, I felt like I ought to be leaning into the speed.

Time dilation effects aside, I’d arrived in Sakaiminato early in the morning, and it was no later than lunchtime when I got off the Shinkansen in Kyoto. The gaps in my forward planning got the better of me again, as the hotel I’d planned to stay in was booked up, but a helpful tourist advice staffer set me up in a nearby ryokan, just south of Kyoto’s city centre and just across the river from the temple district.

Ryokan living. Not pictured—the deep soaking bath in the next room, which I grew to love.

As an introduction to traditional(ish) Japanese hostelry, this turned out better than I could have hoped. Drop the shoes at the door, shuffle into a pair of slippers, shower yourself clean and soak in the deep bath for an hour or so, then sit on the tatami mat in your kimono and watch sumo. That works, doesn’t it?

Once settled, I went a-wandering, getting my first look at the hillside full of temples that sits to the east of the city, as well as the Tokyo-lite neon wonderland of the city centre. If there’s a reason to recommend Kyoto over the other cities I visited, it’s this: you get both sides of Japan living cheek by jowl. There are temples and palaces aplenty, but the city stays alive deep into the night, with pockets of fun to be found if you’re willing to look.

First meal in Japan: herring noodles and my namesake beer.

This hungry traveller fed himself at a Lonely Planet-recommended traditional restaurant that was mostly empty when I ventured in. For the first night at least, I was very much out-of-sync with local sleep-wake scheduling. Fed and beered, I wandered a little more, but my steps spiralled in on my ryokan, where my futon bed and tatami mats awaited me, to be followed by a brief period of unconsciousness, and then followed by an even more welcome breakfast of thick-cut toast and orange juice.

If Kyoto and Japan had been welcoming to the confused traveller the day before, they were now about to entrance me completely. I set out to wander the temples of the city and the hillsides that they sat on, and I proceeded to do so for until sunset caught me with aching feet, far from home. I experienced temples, palaces, and spider webs stretched across entire paths. Bamboo groves and overgrown canals. I got a haircut despite the language barrier, and I sampled many different flavours of ice cream. I fell entirely under Kyoto’s spell, as I suspect many have before me.

The Kinkaku-Ji golden temple, where my day of wandering came to an end.

While my body was refreshed by a soak in the bath on returning to the ryokan, my mind was still fizzing with new experiences, and I ventured out again for a beer in one of the pubs I’d spotted during my earlier explorations. This kicked off several more hours of adventures, as I fell in with a Tokyo-based musician from Louisiana and his local friend, who brought me to a tiny rock bar, around a quarter of the volume of which was taken up with speakers, which proceeded to play Irish music for the rest of the evening as soon as they learned where I was from.

The next day wasn’t quite so Kyoto based. I headed south on a slow train to Uji, site of the Tale of Genji museum. Based around a classic of Japanese literature, this was perfect for a day trip and a dive into the history of Japan, which I’d mostly neglected in favour of immediate experience while in Kyoto. Again, I enjoyed simply roaming this place on the fringes of the greater Kyoto urban area, getting a feel for Japan (and a taste for yet more flavours of ice cream).

Green Tea ice cream. Well worth giving a go.

I couldn’t stay too long though. I’d stuffed my bags into a locker at the train station, for I had plans to continue further south along the line, this time to another ancient capital of Japan, Nara. But that can wait until the next post.

My introduction to Japan had been dreamlike and unceasing, and in Nara I would get a chance to slow the pace a bit and adjust properly. But I had no complaints about my few days in Kyoto. The people had been wonderful, the culture a constant delight, the food and drink next to perfect, and every step brought me something new. I’d already made my first plans to return, and I mean to stick to them.