#1. Setting out

The start of the Shikoku Pilgrimage

The twelfth day of Christmas and I’ve just taken the tree down and packed the decorations away. Mind you, in Japan they often come down on Boxing Day to make way for the New Year celebrations which are more important in my host nation.

On New Year’s Eve, if you can avoid the interminable TV variety shows, it’s important to have a bowl of soba noodles which represent long life for the year ahead. Many people will head off to the country districts to visit family and having obtained a free covid test, courtesy of Japan Airlines, we decided to go to the southwestern island of Shikoku to see my wife’s family for the first time for more than two years  

As in so many cultures, food plays a large part in Japanese New Year celebrations the main feature being o-secchi ryori, a pre-prepared (or purchased) box with several layers of what we might call ‘finger food’ which will be grazed upon over the holiday period – using chopsticks of course! So, this formed the basis for our lunches and dinners for the first two days.

My in-laws live in the coastal town of Naruto, close to the prefectural capital of Tokushima, and their house is just a few minutes’ walk from the coast to where we were led by my father in-law. The main purpose of the trip was for us to visit the family cemetery to pay respects to the departed members of the family and more distant clan whose remains are interred in a lovely plot surrounded by trees and overlooking the Inland Sea. This year, the old chap was so proud to show us the tomb that he had prepared for his final rest which as a sprightly 90-year-old he doesn’t show ant signs of needing just yet.

The cemetery is in the grounds of a buddhist temple the religion under which most funerals take place. But, in a multi-denominational society it’s important to keep well-covered and another New Year tradition is to visit a shrine to give thanks to the Shinto Gods for the year just past and to pray for good health for the year to come.    For our own devotions we drove 10km to the Oasahiko Shrine in the Bando area of Naruto and enjoyed a long walk along the tree-lined approach to the shrine with other worshippers. Under Shintoism, gods also exist in nature especially trees, so as well as praying at the main shrine, we also did so at the 1,000-year-old, 22 metre tall, Go-shinboku camphor tree.

And for additional cover, the Oasahiko shrine is right next to Ryouzenji buddhist temple. This is famous for being the first stop on the 88 temple, 1400km o-henro pilgrimage trail which circumnavigates Shikoku.

Although I have ambitions to undertake the physical and spiritual challenge one day, for now I am making a different commitment: to post, throughout 2022, 88 blogs as part of my personal blogging pilgrimage.  The fortune o-mikuji slip I bought at the Oasahiko Shrine told me that this year my luck would be ‘very good’. So, maybe the Gods are smiling on me?!


English Psycho in Tokyo


Part travel, part memoir, part cultural investigation but overall an exploration of the urban soul of Japan’s capital city while delving into my own psyche while walking the streets.

I’ve lived in Tokyo for about 15 years now. But do I really know the city? Probably not. Do I really know the people? Probably not. Do I really know the language? Definitely not. But I have scratched the surface of it all, and now is the time to dive deeper.

Quarantine, exile, solitary confinement, self-isolation. In these difficult days of the corona-virus we’re all being urged to cut ourselves off from human contact to avoid contagion and infecting others but at the same time to preserve our physical and mental health by taking exercise daily. In the UK family and friends were allowed one hour/day, but no such rules were laid down in Tokyo. But with pools and gyms closed during the State of Emergency and jogging while wearing a mask not conducive to free breathing, walking at a leisurely pace seemed like a good alternative.

Why ‘psycho’? Is this some horror story about stalkers? Certainly not. Is it Freudian-style attempt at self-analysis? Possibly. Is it an attempt to join the ranks of some of the great city walker-writers? Probably. Or is it a growing interest in psychogeography? Definitely.

Psychogeography – sometimes described as the ‘science(?) of walking/wandering aimlessly’. Iain Sinclair, one of the greatest modern proponents says that ‘drifting purposefully is recommended’. As such, psychogeography is not about walking with a pre-determined destination.

A flaneur is a composite figure – vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller – yes within these many and often contradictory roles, his pre-dominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is the basis of his legacy to psychogeography…soon the mental traveller(Ann Tso quoting from Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography)

In the introduction to ‘Psychogeography and Psychotherapy’, editor Chris Rose says that:

Walking in a psychogeographical sense is not the same as a stroll or a ramble; it is observant, analytic and self- reflective. Psychogeographers find unfamiliar routes… Walking appears to have an effect that is unrelated to energy expenditure or exercise per se, and is often recommended as a treatment for depression’

James Kirkup in his book ‘Tokyo’ said ‘only by walking the streets can one really hope to know a city and its people’. So, during my retirement years, and certainly in the ‘social distancing’ era, I’ve done just that in the hope that I could get to know the soul of Japan’s capital. I’ve discovered parks, rivers, shrines and back-alley cafes and eateries that are not covered in the mainstream tour guides, and met some fascinating people.

And, by blogging about my experiences, I hope to offer to those with an interest in Japan and its capital city a personal insight and reflection on the place I have called my home for the last ten years.

An Imperial amble

The name of the new era was announced last week on 1 April 2019, a month before it starts on 1 May following the formal abdication of Emperor Akihito the previous day. So, after 30 years, Heisei will come to an end and Reiwa will start.

There was a slight confusion over the kanji for the new ‘reiwa’ (令和). A friend thought the first one was written (冷) meaning cool or cold, rather than (令) which has a meaning of order or command. If the former, then the new name could mean ‘Cold Peace’ or even ‘Cool Japan! In which case we could be welcoming a new era in sharp contrast to the  War years during the Showa era of Emperor Hirohito (1926 – 1989.) But what’s in a name? To the Japanese quite a lot it seems as the announcement was met by cheers and tears, and bewilderment as many struggled to find a deeper meaning in the words. The nationalistic Government has explained that the characters were chosen from a passage in ‘‘Manyoshu’’, Japan’s oldest known poetry anthology; this breaks with the long tradition of using Chinese classics as the source.

The change was announced in the week in which the cherry blossom was in full bloom. As usual the crowds were out in force sipping sake under the sakura in the parks and anyway the blossom could be soon for the annual hanami festival. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are known to take a private constitutional early in the morning in the inner Garden of the Imperial Palace.

On Sunday however, they couple left for a brief stroll outside the palace much to the surprise and delight of pedestrians and the joggers for whom an outer 5km circuit of the palace moat is one of the favourite running courses in Tokyo. This will be their last chance to participate in this ritual as they will move out soon swapping palaces with their son, Crown Prince Naruhito who will succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

But hanami is touched with sadness as it is short-lived. Within a week or 10 days the blossoms begin to fall reminding us of how our own hold on life can be beautiful but tenuous and that we need to live for the day, so on Sunday for the last open day of the Heisei era we joined the crowds on a beautiful spring day to enjoy the privilege of the blooms in the palace grounds before they disappear.


Leaving the palace through the Inuimon Gate we then walked along the famous Chidorigafuchi

and for the first time into the national cemetery where a monument bears a poem written by the Emperor which translated reads: ’Having walked through times when there was no such great war, my thoughts go out to the people who have lived through the days of cruel hardship’. This is a recurring theme of his as he reflects on his reign and perhaps looks forward to a long, well-deserved peaceful retirement.

On Ageing


Yesterday (18 September) was ‘Respect for the Aged Day’ in Japan, a public holiday to honour the senior citizens in the country. There’s certainly a lot of them to respect here, as Government figures released at the weekend show that the number of people aged 65 or over is ½ million more than this time last year bringing the total to over 35 million and accounting for nearly 30% of the population. The ageing population is certainly a problem with which the government and society is struggling to cope.

More than 2 million people are 90 years old or older, and topping the list has to be Nabi Tajima who has just been verified as the world’s oldest living person at the grand old age of 117 years following the sad passing at the weekend of Jamaican, Violet Brown, also 117.

Japanese often credit their advanced years to a healthy diet, so I’m hoping that, having lived here for more than 10 years now, some of that may rub off on me. Although not yet old enough to be included in the statistics, I passed my own milestone earlier this year. Kanreki is a celebration held on a man’s 60th birthday. ‘Kan’ means return and ‘reki’ means “calendar.” At 60, according to the Chinese zodiac, a person has returned to the calendar sign under which they were born. As the colour red in Japan symbolises babies, it is customary for men especially to undergo the ritual humiliation of donning a red hat and jacket on their 60th birthday to celebrate their re-birth.


It seems appropriate therefore to end with these words from TS Eliot:

“The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”


To which I would add ‘…yet’!




Happy Year of the Rooster!

As I failed to write a new year greeting at the beginning of 2017, I’m making amends by doing so at the start of the Chinese New Year, as the Year of the Rooster starts today. This year is my year!


‘In Chinese astrology, each zodiac year is not just associated with an animal sign, but also one of five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, or Earth. Both the zodiac sign and the element shape the astrology of the year. For example, 2017 is a Fire Rooster year. Element-sign combinations recur every 60 years.’

We Fire Roosters are meant to be ’Trustworthy, with a strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility at work’ but don’t believe everything you read.

Back at the start of the calendar year there were the usual queues to get to the shrines for hatsumōde 初詣, the first visit of the year, and nearby Meiji Shrine is a focal point in central Tokyo with crowds prepared to wait for an hour or more at midnight of 31st December. Also at Meiji Shrine, in the first week of the year the yokozuna (Grand Champion) sumo wrestlers brave the cold to perform, with much foot stamping the entering the ring ceremony before the start of the January tournament.


Just up the road in the Tokyo Opera City complex, another cultural event took place this year. Normally seen in the summer months, especially in Harajuku, a local group put on a yosakoi traditional dance performance.


Yesterday I had my new year pilgrimage to Kamakura for my own supplications where there is a very wide choice of shrines and temples at which to do so. It was the first time for me to visit Eishoji temple, the only remaining nunnery in Kamakura and off the main temple trail. With its architecture and peaceful bamboo garden I was able to face the Year of the Rooster suitably relaxed in a very spiritual setting.


So whichever new year you are celebrating, and with whichever cultural events you choose to celebrate it, may I wish you a very happy and prosperous one with my own resolution to write more, and more often.




In an English Country Garden

The Japanese have long had a fascination with English gardens. For a country where few properties have enough space for a private garden, many people indulge their passion by visiting one of the many gardens and parks laid out in what is considered to be the English style. 

Although, like many of the so-called British pubs here, the attempts to recreate a little bit of England, don’t always work, I was very impressed by the Barakura English Garden near Chino in Nagano Prefecture. Co-designed by horticulturalist Kay Yamada who has won medals for her garden designs at the Chelsea Flower Show, Barakura was opened in 1990. Under the care of Head Gardener Andy Fisher, originally from Cumbria, there really is an authentic English atmosphere. 


Even more so as when I first went this weekend a background of light rain created the perfect setting for the autumn festival with displays of vegetables not normally seen in Japan.


But they were not only on display as on the lunch-time menu was butter-nut squash soup and a Cornish pasty as well as a selection of home made cakes and desserts. 


And after that lot time for a rest in the garden


 This weekend was even more special with the Royal Marines Concert Band playing a series of sets of mainly British patriotic music as part of this year’s celebrations of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday with well-known music from the shows such as ‘Oliver’ and TV theme tunes ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Sailing’. The latter was not the only nautical number as they also played some well known sea shanties. The finale on the last day of course included Vaughan Williams’ Sea Songs; a rousing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ brought their annual ‘English country gardens’ visit to Japan to a close.









Today (3 February)   is Setsubun (節分) in Japan, the day before the start of spring and a day in which it is traditional to cast out the devil and encourage good luck for the year ahead. This is celebrated in many ways throughout the country.

One of the most popular is to gather at a local shrine for mamemaki where small packets of roasted soya  beans will be thrown in to the waiting crowds to cries of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (‘Out with the devil, in with good luck’) and the more beans you can catch the greater your luck (or so they say). At the more famous shrines, the bean tossing is often carried out by well-known sportspeople such as sumo wrestlers dressed in traditional garb, as well as TV personalities or minor celebrities (known, incongruously, as talent-o in Japanese).


My local small shrine at Yoyogi Hachiman does not warrant such exalted attention, but the crowds gathered there all the same for the ceremony. This is taken very seriously, and as they waited I could see people demonstrating their catching techniques while others were content to hold open large carrier bags to collect the lucky beans.


A safety talk preceded the event, and then to a drum roll on the traditional taiko drums,


the line-up of local officials and politicians assembled on the podium and were introduced to the crowd before they launched the lucky packets.


It seemed to me that the older and smaller one was, the more determined one became in trying to grab a piece of seasonal luck; for once Japanese traditional decorum and discipline were abandoned. Perhaps Eddie Jones, the former coach of the Japanese ‘Brave Blossoms’ rugby team who did so well in last year’s World Cup, should draw some lessons from the scrum techniques of Yoyogi’s Grappling Grannies, as he now hopes to take England to success in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Certainly they need more luck than I had today as I had to be content just with a few photos of this cultural curiosity.



In Japan, dogs don’t go “woof woof” they go “wan wan”. So on 1st November,   1.11 or ‘one. one one’ with some allowance for pronunciation, it’s not surprising that it was a day for celebrating one’s pooches. In the late 1970s when I first came to Japan we English were known as, or accused of, being dog-lovers. However since I returned nearly 10 years ago I’ve noticed a proliferation of facilities for man’s best friend. Or should that be man’s best wan? Yoyogi Park even has a dedicated dog run where those who register their pets can let them run free and socialise with their canine cousins. They are segregated according to weight though to avoid playground bullying of the dachshunds by the Dobermans (or vice versa maybe). Near to the Sangubashi entrance to the Park is a row of poodle parlours and hound hotels for when your pet needs pampering.


Most Japanese dog owners are socially responsible citizens and always take their plastic bags when out walking their ‘wan-chan’ (the diminutive term). As well as the bags, often disguised in more decorative canvass containers (don’t air your dirty stuff in public) many also take a bottle of water with them to sprinkle on their spaniel’s sprinkle or pour on their poodle’s piddle. But, in a country where guidance and instructions are all important at the park entrances visitors are reminded:

“In a lovely pet for you (owner), the animal of the dog etc. comes and feeling that it is scary hated one also comes. Tie firmly by the leash (dragrope) etc., and never pasture it in the park”!

The following sign is probably easier to understand though:


I was also told that 1st November was national sushi day. So let’s hope the two occasions were kept firmly apart.


Mid –October and a weekend outdoors .On Saturday we took part in our first walk organised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. with choices of distance ranging from 8km through to 45km. We played safe and signed up for the B course at 15km. Held out in the suburbs along the Tamagawa river, we had an early-ish start (for a Saturday) for the 30 minute train ride to Shimomaruko station from where a10 minute warm –up took us to the start and registration to face card stamping, form filling and collecting bags filled with copious amounts of advertising material.

 The first half of the walk was through the town and on to Denenchofu. Despite the fact that it was a quiet morning traffic wise and there were very few cars on the side roads the Japanese walkers obeyed every pedestrian light without fail. They preferred to bunch up at a car-free crossing waiting patiently for the lights to change rather than nipping across an empty road to avoid breaking their stride.

With few public toilets along the way we had to have an extended break in a very crowded convenience store to use the conveniences, and I bought an appropriately named Slow-bar to boost my energy while queuing.

The Japanese also conform when it comes to dressing for an event as well; it is now autumn and therefore your wear autumn clothes. On a mild day with a light breeze and just a hint of early morning drizzle, I must have been the only participant among a few thousand on the day who wore shorts and was comfortable doing so. No wonder we foreigners are often known as ‘crazy gaijin’! Seen here in the commemorative photo ‘Tokyo Walk 2015’


This morning was a much more sedate event with the Japan Bird Society’s monthly outing to the grounds of Meiji Shrine. About one hundred binocular and telescope bearing twitchers turned up to wander through the forests and lawns trying to spot something eye-catching or just unusual. For the former we were blessed with a couple of sightings of a kingfisher. A grey-streaked or spotted breasted, depending on which book you consult, flycatcher created great excitement as they’re usually only found in Hokkaido. I was told that this one was probably migrating south to escape the colder weather which has already arrived in the northern island. And, yes, I was still wearing shorts, but not seen here.




Five months ago today I slipped in the rain and twisted my right ankle quite badly outside Yotsuya Station in central Tokyo, one hour in to an 80 minute walk to a cherry blossom viewing party. Being a True Brit I got up and carried on for the final 20 minutes to meet former colleagues at the British Embassy. With hindsight that was not sensible as the ankle became very painful and swollen as the party progressed.

The next day I went to the local sports injuries clinic to be told I’d fractured my fibula and that it would probably need surgery, so was referred to the local JR General Hospital. A day of X-rays and tests revealed that to be the case and I was admitted the same week.


An existing medical condition meant that I had to spend five days in hospital before the op which I was told could be performed under epidural and that I could listen to my iPod during the procedure. Of course I chose Eric Clapton to see me through. When the op was under way, and I was in to his Greatest Hits, Dr Iwashina asked me if I wanted some sedation. I’m not sure how serious they thought I was when I joined in with the refrain to ‘Cocaine’!!

A few months of rehabilitation and periods in a wheel chair progressing to crutches followed, and finally in the middle of June I was allowed to walk unaided again. I must admit though to choosing to use a walking stick initially for support and stability, to get a priority seat on crowded trains, but mainly because it enhanced the elegant Englishman image.

This week I celebrated further progress as Dr I told me I could start jogging again. “OK, I’ll start gently” I reassured her. “No, you can do hard” she replied.
So this morning my first trial around Yoyogi Park. I confess to walking the slopes both up and down, and to not tagging on to the back of the packs of Club runners out enjoying the unseasonal slightly cooler weather. When a pair of speed-walkers shimmied past me I realised that I have a lot of training in front of me before I’m back up to full fitness again. I’ll also have to work off those extra kilos gained eating too much English food during my summer holidays back home.


But the euphoria of actually being out again had me wondering whether I could actually do another marathon before I hit 60? Watch this space!