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Life in the big smoke

The place where I belong

Back from the summer house where the sun doesn’t set at midsummer. Where the mosquitoes are almost as big as butterflies. Where there is a drawer full of photographs and postcards from Liverpool and New York and California. Hundreds of frozen faces, the relatives and friends of relatives who emigrated two generations ago.

When my grandmother was young they used to pack down their whole house in the spring and move out to the summerhouse. I think they even moved the piano, but I might have made that up. When my dad was young my grandparents crammed their children, cats and dog into a small car in June and drove for three hours to get to there, stopping occasionally to allow the children to vomit from car sickness. They stayed at the summerhouse until autumn came and it was time to go back to work and school. During one of these summers they picked up a tame crow. Another summer my grandmother adopted two aggressive turkeys that nipped at the feet of those who went out for a nightly pee.

The place is heavy with memories and stories. Every summer the house calls us back and we retell some and add some more.

There is a rowan tree by the shore. An ant hill next to the car park and another one near the wood shed. There is a big pine against which my brother and I practiced throwing knives one summer when we couldn’t come up with anything else to do. If I close my eyes I can see the path running from the house to the shore, the one going behind the small red hut which is rotting away and needs a new roof. I can see the rose bushes, the blueberries, the trees and the paper mill on the other side of the bay. I know the place and it knows me. There are roots from the soles of my feet that go deep into the ground. At the summerhouse I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a past and a story.

We went to the summerhouse for a week and now we’re back. I’m raging against London sounds and pollution. But I’m here, back home. Missing home.

Japan: My guide to Tokyo or some things I learned after ten days in the city

In April Gerry and I travelled to Japan to take photos for his next series of prints. Our aim was to do one photo shoot per day, which took us all over Tokyo. We spent a day following the expressway criss-crossing the eastern side of town and another day hunkered underneath an umbrella in Shibuya trying to capture people rushing past us in the rain. This was our sightseeing. And it was exactly the sort of sightseeing I enjoy – exploring and walking.

I didn’t shop, I didn’t see many of those places you’re supposed to see, but I tried to get to know the city, to meet local people and to understand what it’s like to live in Tokyo.

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During our two weeks in Japan we only managed to scratch the surface, if that. But here goes. Here is my guide to Tokyo.

Neighbourhoods

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Koenji

We stayed in a small apartment in Koenji, a district west of Shinjuku, during our first week in the Tokyo. Koenji is a slightly punky part of town, with lots of rock venues, tiny bars and vintage clothing shops.

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South of the Koenji subway station there’s a shopping mall, which eventually turns into a street lined with cute second hand shops. To the north is a slightly different high street, with cozy bars and nice restaurants. That’s where we also stumbled across a busy little supermarket with great take away boxes of sashimi and sushi. Trying to navigate through the isles of supermarkets abroad is one of my favourite things. We often ended up with a random basket of stuff and sampled a lot of noodles, rice cakes and green tea flavoured cookies.

Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa is a bit like the Hackney or Brooklyn of Tokyo. We stayed in the area during our last two days in Tokyo. It felt a lot more affluent than Koenji and the neighbourhood definitely had an alternative vibe, but compared to other places in the city it seemed a bit expensive. A lot of the restaurants and bars served up food that reminded us of home, burgers, salads and third wave coffee.

The area is great for independent shopping and you can easily spend a day or two there exploring the shops and restaurants. Just remember it might be a bit harder on your wallet than other areas in Tokyo.

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Shibuya/Shinjuku/Harajuku/Roppongi

We only spent a bit of time in the more central parts of town. You’ll find out most of the things you need to know about these areas in any good tourist guide. They’re the sort of places where you’ll find upmarket boutiques, big fashion brands and restaurants catering to tourists.

Shibuya

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After doing our photo shoot we rushed through Shibuya in the rain and had a quick look at the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre with its many colourful concessions of womenswear. It was interesting, but a bit manic so we escaped the crowds and ended up in a pool hall around the corner where we played pool for a couple of hours and watched the local kids and amazing Japanese grannies at the tables next to us.

Harajuku

The back streets around Cat street felt like mix of Greenwich village and Camden, a mix of independent clothing shops and cheaper touristy places.

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The high point was an interesting art gallery called Design Festa, a building with lots of small cubicles where local artists can rent a space. In the courtyard there was a cafe where you could grill your own okonomiyaki on a hot plate, which we didn’t get a chance to do, but it did look very tasty.

We also visited the Ukiyo-e Ota museum and spent an hour walking around, looking at their collection of amazing woodblock prints.

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Yoyogi park in Harajuku was nice too.

Jimbocho

One of my favourite days was spent browsing through the second hand book shops in Jimbocho. Many of them had floors full of old knick-knacks, old wrapping paper and wood block prints. It felt like going through the contents of a dusty old attic. It felt quite strange walking through shops filled with these books I couldn’t read. If you love second hand book shops this is the place to go.

Akihabara

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This area gave me a bit of a cold sweat. The center of Akihabara is a big street lined with blinking signs, shouting out advertising, huge manga characters peering down from buildings and shops with floors and floors of cheap electronics.

This place is geek heaven and if you know your electronics you can definitely find a bargain there. All I managed to get was a mild attack of the panics on the top floor in one of the shops, when the random advertising tunes, the strange figurines of naked pre-pubescent girls and the weird yellow light got a bit too much and I had to get out.

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I braved the basement floor of a couple of shops as well and stumbled across a slightly weird side of Japanese society. I’m still struggling to understand how adult comics featuring very young looking girls can be sold so casually and openly.

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On a more positive note there is another good art gallery in Akihabara, in an old school tucked away on a small side street. Like at Design Festa in Harajuku, artists can rent a room in 3331 Arts Chiyoda. We walked around for a bit, slightly confused by the fact that the place still smelled exactly like a high school and that high schools therefore must smell the same the world over.

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Eating

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Even though both of us like good food Tokyo sometimes felt too big and confusing to make informed choices, often our hunger took over and we stumbled into the first decent looking restaurant.

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This meant we ate a lot of Japanese fast food, ramen and rice, which was mostly tasty and filling. We also bought plenty of stuff in the supermarkets and ate dinner in the apartment we’d rented. A cheap alternative to eating out, but often just as tasty.

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We also went to a restaurant in Shinjuku where you could grill your own food and had a lot of good sushi. Often we just chose the places randomly, but only had few disappointing meals.

Top tip

Tensuke in Koenji was recommended to us by some of the locals. There’s normally a queue outside this tiny tempura restaurant and only a handfull of seats next to the counter inside.

Because the food was so good we queued twice to eat there. The head chef speaks a bit of English and flamboyantly tosses eggs, shrimp and vegetables into a vat of hot oil. The tempura was salty and crispy and amazing. But the best thing about the whole experience was the bowl of rice with a fried egg on top. I will dream about that rice for months.

I can also recommend a cafe in Koenji called “Precious coffee moments”, not just because of the name, but because they do a sesame milk coffee with ice cream. Weird, but amazing.

Drinking

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Opposite Tensuke there is a small jazz bar, just big enough for seven people to cram around the bar disk. Jazz singer Hanako was working the shift one night when we strolled around Koenji, nervously looking for a place to stop and have a drink. These bars almost seem like living rooms and taking that step over the threshold felt a bit like intruding.

Luckily Hanako is one of those people who seems to make friends wherever she goes. She waved at us and we ended up joining the group of people at the bar. If you can’t find this particular jazz bar, I would recommend looking for your own, a small place where you can drink several glasses of wine and get to know a few people. Everyone seemed happy to practise their English with us and wanted to talk about their trips to Liverpool. Since Gerry’s Scottish, they also wanted to know what he thinks about the independence debate.

Top tip

In many restaurants you can pay a set amount and then drink as much as you want for two hours. Normally it was around 2000 yen (£10) for one person, the measures were quite small, but the offer is often worth it if you want to have a couple of drinks.

Getting around

The metro/subway in Tokyo can seem overwhelming at first, especially since the lines are run by different operators. The easiest way to get around is to buy a Suica pass, which works like an Oyster card, at any of the major stations. Just top up the card when you need to. It also helps to have a downloaded metro map on your phone or tablet, as the maps in the stations can sometimes be a bit confusing. Luckily for us non-Japanese speakers all stations have signs in English.

Extra

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If you’re interested in wood block printing check out David Bull’s studio in Asakusa. We did a quick wood block printing course with David, who took us through the process and techniques. He was very generous with his time and spent a few minutes after the course talking about printing techniques and his life in Japan.

Cost

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Tokyo was cheaper than we had expected. We paid less for food and alcohol than we would have done in London and we often ended up spending less than our daily budget. Even when we thought we’d splurged on dinner, the bill landed somewhere around £30 or £40 for a dinner for two, with drinks. Although one thing to keep in mind is that the more tourist-friendly an area is, the more expensive it will be.

Transport and accommodation were probably the most costly things about the trip, as was getting to Japan in the first place. I also thought the price of clothing and electronics was about the same as in the UK, so it’s not a great place to go for a bargain, unless you know what you’re looking for and exactly where to go.

A couple of things about etiquette

I could never remember when to take my shoes off and when to wear slippers. It’s confusing, but I think the key is never to wear anything else on your feet than socks if you’re stepping onto a tatami mat, if you do the locals tell you off.

Always hand people things with both hands. It’s a really nice thing to do actually.

Never tip. No one expects you to do it.

A lot of restaurants have bell on the table, press the button or ring the bell whenever you want to catch the waiter’s attention. They might not come up to the table and “disturb” you otherwise, so it’s up to you to tell them whenever you want something.

Japan: Hiking from Kibune to Kurama

I’m in the studio, wrapping up stories and wiping my nose, debating whether coffee or tea would be better for the cold I’ve managed to pick up somewhere last week. I’m taking a quick break from other work, going through some of the photos from Japan. I can’t believe we were there less than two weeks ago. Travel always seems to exist in a parallell universe.

For our second week in Japan we took the bullet train to Kyoto, not sure what to expect other than temples and tranquility. We’d done some research on Tokyo, spent a week walking around the city and being plunged into a new urban landscape felt slightly disconcerting. Suddenly there was a new bus system to learn and navigate and unfamiliar shops where we could forage for sashimi and beer late at night, a new flat to call a temporary home.

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Perhaps I was a bit tired of urban Japan, perhaps I never gave Kyoto a proper chance, because after about a day in the city I felt like I had had enough. We spent our first day walking around the temple district of Higashiyama, shuffling along amongst big groups of tourists. It felt like being pushed around by a crowd at a quite civilised music festival. Everyone was doing the same thing. Look at this, take a snap of that, have this ice cream, now move on to the next thing on the to-do-list.

After a week in Tokyo I needed some nature. The guide book we’d brought with us (Lonely Planet) had a small entry on a place where locals go to escape the madness of city life, two small towns called Kibune and Kurama high up in the hills. It was even possible to hike along a mountain ridge between the places. We didn’t need much convincing, packed some lunch and spent our second day in Kyoto escaping the city.

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We decided to take the train from Kyoto to Kibune and then hike to Kurama. It’s possible to do it the other way around, it just depends on what treat you’d like at the end of your hike. Kibune is a riverside town and in the summer all the small ryokans and restaurants build platforms on the river where you can sit and eat. We’d arrived too early in the year for this and decided to go for the other option of a post-hike treat, an onsen (hot spring bath) in Kurama.

The same train will take you to both Kibune and Kurama, which is the end stop. We got off at Kibuneguchi and then walked about 2 kilometers to Kibune, where the mountain trail starts.

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In Japan there were vending machines everywhere! I became particularly fond of a sports drink called “pocari sweat”. The “coffee boss” coffee tins were pretty good as well.

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The temple in Kibune.

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The trail.

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It seems to me the hike from Kibune up the hill is slightly more strenuous than starting from Kurama, where you can get a cable car half-way up. We walked up a steep path, sweating and panting, trying our best to say “konnichiwa” to all the chirpy children and grannies walking the opposite way. They didn’t look too impressed by our efforts, but after many days in dusty cities it was nice to walk. Along the route were hidden temples, gnarly trees and amazing views.

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After about two hours of hiking we arrived at Kurama-dera, an old temple, where there were a lot of other tourists and a groups of Japanese men in suits and shiny shoes (I’m guessing they must have taken the cable car).

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We stopped for a bit of lunch and then walked down to Kurama town, a small place with a couple of restaurants, tourist shops and the onsen. The baths were quite busy, but soaking in the hot water after the walk was one of the high points of the trip.

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More about Kibune and Kurama

Inside Kyoto, Japan Guide, Lonely Planet and Japan Visitor.

Back from Japan

I’m back in the studio, back from Tokyo and Japan and fourteen days of intense travelling. I’m reading papers online, drinking coffee and trying to ward off the tiredness and jetlag still hiding somewhere in the background. Over the coming weeks I’ll be doing a lot of reporting on the UK general election, some from London, some from elsewhere. When I close my eyes I see a moving landscape, as if I’m looking out of a train window.

I can’t believe we’re back from Japan. That we’ve actually done the trip, it’s over, the memories will turn solid, opinions and anecdotes will start taking shape. I had hoped that I’d be able to keep a journal when we were away, but I couldn’t, there was too much input and too many new experiences to make sense of it all when we were there.

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Tokyo was a place of blinking lights, massive expressways and loudspeakers shouting at you from every corner. It was techno, man-made, unnatural and jam-packed full of people. It was also a city of quiet neighbourhoods with power lines in a tangle above your head, everyone talking in whispers and children cycling quietly down the narrow streets.

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Sometimes it felt deceptively like London, there were the same brands, a familiar mass-transport system, people moving and living the way city people do. But underneath the surface there was something else. I felt like I was hitting a glass wall, I could observe, but I was never able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t speak the language, but I also sometimes struggled to read situations and people.

I came away with a head full of questions. On the plane back I read Shutting out the Sun, a book by journalist Michel Zielenziger. It looks at the hikikomori phenomenon – young men and women shutting themselves in their bedrooms for years, isolating themselves from the world. It’s an interesting book, but it’s very critical of Japanese society.

It will take me some time to make sense of the trip and to sort through the hundreds of photographs we took. I’ll write a bit more soon, but first I need to catch up on some sleep.

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New Year… cough, splutter, cough… resolutions?

I had a cold over Christmas and New Year and it was strangely enjoyable. It allowed me to turn off my head in a way I’ve not been able to do since I was a child. We stayed with Gerry’s parents which helped a lot as there was always someone else to take care of things, which I’m very grateful for. Over the last two weeks I’ve read a lot of detective fiction, watched many hours of Storage Hunters, eaten plenty of cheese and gone for short walks. That’s it.

We’re back in London and the sky is hidden behind thick clouds that remind me of past Januaries in Helsinki when it seemed like there would be no end to the winter. The white skies lasted for weeks, draining the city of colour.

We drove back yesterday, coughing, tired, trying to stay focused on the road. It was misty, the sort of fog I’m still only getting used to because it’s such a rare thing where I’m from. Along the motorway signs were flashing yellow warnings at us and the other drivers. Fog, fog, fog they blinked. And it was hard going, the light faded and the lights from the other cars were diffused by the mist so there was a strange orange and red glow hovering over the M40. It was difficult to make out distances, cars disappearing into a soft white blanket. Occasionally the fog lifted and the world was crisp again, but then there was a dip in the road and we were plunged back into it.

Image via tumblr.

Gerry did the driving and when we stopped at a service station he had a cappuccino the size of a small child’s head. As we got closer to London the fog lifted. I tried and succeeded in navigating us back past suburbs I’d never heard of before. Dollis Hill. Brent Park. Towards the parts of the city we know well.

I want to learn how to drive this year. We have a car. I have a driver’s license. But I haven’t driven since I was in my early twenties and I’ve only ever driven on the roads in my small home town where there are just a couple of traffic lights and hardly ever more than two lanes. Driving in Jakobstad and driving in London will be two very different things.

I’m going to take driving lessons, but even that scares me a bit. Driving well in London has turned into an almost unattainable thing in my mind, it’s something clever people do, people with skill, who by magic and hard work have attained the super power of being able to drive well. To me driving in London is like playing a guitar so well people will beg you to become a professional musician. Or tight rope walking across an abyss. Or solving really hard maths problems. It’s something I can’t see myself doing. It’s a skill I admire in other people. So that’s one of my goals this year, a new years resolution even, by the end of this year I hope driving will be as easy as walking, that I won’t think twice about getting behind the steering wheel, that I’ll feel comfortable and competent. Let’s see how it goes. Just writing about it makes me slightly nervous.

Image by Thomas Hawk.

I have other goals as well. I want to write, write and write even more. I have a long list of the things I want to write about, but more about that later.

Do you have any new years resolutions? Oh and if anyone feels like giving me a bit of a pep talk when it comes to driving please do (like, seriously)! I need encouragement!