Friday, March 31, 2006

Sleeping in the Gutters #2

This is the second installment of "Sleeping in the Gutters" by Muff Richardson. Sleeping in the Gutters will appear around once a month in this space. You can contact the author at All comments and queries are welcome, but he especially hopes to hear from "any birds that's not too particular like." To read about how I met Muff, click on this link. Finally, please remember that any opinions and vulgarities in "Sleeping in the Gutters" do not necessarily reflect my own views.


Being a lovely long weekend, it was a boozy one at Richardson Towers. Festering atop my solo bean bag all day Sunday with only a dozen 500 ml tins of beer for company (that's 500ml, trivia fans: I do not lend my lips to less) I greatly enjoyed the new television commercial for Asahi Gold beer which was played a scant two score times and four on most J-channels twixt dawn and dusk of that very pleasant Sabbath. Just about every 15 minutes anyway, the bastard was on.

In case anyone's living in a well or your telly's donald ducked, said new advert involves a dozen or so red-faced Jap manly-type piss-artists merrily marooned in some parched rocky desert in the middle of nowhere having a lads-only "barbie" i.e. guzzling down gallons of cold beer and chowing down on thick doormat-sized slabs of under-grilled beef. All behaving like lads do, when, suddenly, along comes trouble in the shape of a rickety stagecoach, driven by a dodgy-looking ne'er do well moustachioed bandit-pimp gaijin feller. It looks like curtains for the barbecue lads, and the figurative piano player stops, western saloon style.

But then, to save the day, the stagecoach drapes fall like autumn leaves to reveal — hey presto — the wagon is full of blonde gaijin bimbo tarts all licking their crimson lips and showing stocking top and garter, clearly lust-crazed and frothing at the gash for a shag with the sunburnt beer-swilling Jap carnivores. Banzai! The day is saved, and we ride off into the sunset affirmed, shags all round and more beer for the lads thank you kindly. And that'll be Asahi Gold, yes sir. All along, the background music is that "Beautiful Sunday, will you say say say say that you love me, this is my my my what a beautiful day..." shite song that sounds like a Bay City Rollers b-side botch-job but probably isn't.

I can only conclude that the hardly-subliminal implied message of this artwork is that if you patronize Asahi Gold brew, mister, you'll be spending your off-days boozing like a sailor on shore leave and troughing on sirloin steak as a prelude to shagging a tuppeny gaijin hooker before sundown. And that, fellers, is good enough for me. Where do I place my order, mate?

A big hats off and three cheers to Asahi for kicking against the pricks and bringing us an entertaining and poignant advertising campaign in these arid times of dreary disheartening political correctness and doleful vegetarian feminist prosody.

There is a light that never goes out.

-Muff Richardson

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Sleeping in the Mountains is a year old, and many of my favorite posts are buried in the archives where they are next to impossible to find. I'm working on organizing these old articles and making them more accessible to new readers. Please click on the link under my profile to "previous stories" to see a collection of my best edited work. Only stories about Japan are up at the moment, but more will follow soon. Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Favorite Places in Kyoto (Updated!)

Kyoto is a city of romantic illusions, of gardens and shrines, white paper lanterns and willow trees, narrow riverside streets lined with gracious old wooden homes. People go to Tokyo on business and to Osaka for a dose of pop culture, but Kyoto draws students of calligraphy and Zen, idealistic poet-pilgrims who stroll misty-eyed down the Philosophers Path, finding their exotic vision of Japan confirmed with each solemn toll of a temple bell.

It’s a good thing most visitors to Kyoto know what they will find there in advance, because someone arriving at the glaring glass immensity of Kyoto Station uninitiated might assume they were in a bustling suburb of Osaka. Most of Kyoto is no different from any other Japanese city – a user friendly jumble of office buildings, convenience stores and non-descript apartment blocks, interspersed with pockets of real beauty. The only difference is that in Kyoto, such pockets are a little more numerous and a little more beautiful than most, and the city, knowing the value of its reputation, takes great pains to maintain its traditions, ushering visitors along to the neighborhoods where they will find what they came to see.

Many of the well-known sites are clustered among the hills to the East of downtown, a pleasant walk from the banks of the Kamo River. The most famous temples and shrines are stately and striking, but fame brings crowds to match, and anyone hoping for solitary contemplation of the Zen gardens at the Silver Pavilion will find their meditations overwhelmed by legions of fellow tourists snapping away with their cell phones. The places I liked the best were a bit more difficult to find, and although I can hardly claim the mantle of a Kyoto insider, I’d like to share them with you here.

My mother arrived in Kyoto clutching a dog-eared copy of “Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns,” written by a woman named Diane Durston. Although some of the fine craft shops mentioned in the book turned out to be sticky (and expensive) tourist traps, I’m grateful to Durston for pointing us towards the Hakusanso Villa, a lovely old estate and garden built by the painter Kansetsu Hashimoto in 1916. These days the villa houses a gallery and a restaurant run by Hashimoto’s daughter-in-law, a woman who exemplifies the classic Kyoto blend of understated elegance and gracious hospitality.

Hakusanso Villa lies just a few steps from the bottom of the narrow street that leads to the Silver Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s most celebrated sites. Even though the grounds are just as spacious as those of its famous neighbor, the interior is hidden from the street by fences and shrubbery. Having made a reservation for lunch, my parents and I walked past the entrance three times before noticing a discrete sign reading “Kansetsu Hashimoto,” with no mention of a restaurant.

Once inside the grounds, Hashimoto’s daughter-in-law ushered us through the creaky corridors of her venerable home and up a staircase to a private tatami room overlooking the garden pond. She made sure we had everything we needed, stayed for a few minutes of conversation in near-perfect English, then excused herself while a waitress poured steaming cups of hot sake. Lunch was classic kaiseki ryori, several courses of fine cuisine matched to the season, easily the best meal I’ve ever had in Japan. Indulging in delicacy after artfully presented delicacy, looking out past paper screens to the fat orange carp in the pond below, we savored this taste of the peaceful literati life.

Our hostess popped back in near the end of the meal, bringing umbrellas for the walk through her misty garden. Then, noticing my mother’s thin sweater, she returned with her own jacket – “Just hang it on the hook when you leave.” We were the only people walking the garden paths, past tea houses and plum blossoms, the most beautiful place I encountered in all of Kyoto.

Anyone can visit Hakusanso by paying an entrance fee of 500 yen. Lunch, which costs 4000 yen, is available by reservation. Call 075-751-4556 (English OK).

The second of my favorite places in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari shrine, two stops south of Kyoto Station on the JR Nara line. The main shrine is across the street from Inari station, but the real attraction requires a little exercise. The mountain behind the first buildings is criss-crossed with walking trails lined with tens of thousands of vermillion torii gates, spaced close together to create the effect of moving through a sun-dappled orange tunnel in the midst of an enchanted forest.

The trail of gates leads past ponds and through pine forests, with every step taking one further into the realm of the magical and surreal. Jumbled groups of small stone shrines with carvings of sinister looking animal spirits appear at intervals in clearings along the path, shaded pockets of superstitution, black shadows of burning candles, an embodiment of the mysterious animist roots of the Shinto faith.

The dark places are balanced by sunny viewpoints near the top of the mountain, complete with small restaurants and coolers well-stocked with iced drinks. If one keeps following the gates however, the trail dips back down into fern-filled forest gorges on the back side of the mountain, wandering up and down hills and along trickling streams, leading past more carved statues and at least one dilapidated old wooden sake shop. It's easy to lose all sense of direction in the shadows. The orange gates seem to go on forever in all directions, the bright, noisy world outside becomes the fantasy world, and more than one visitor has come down the mountain a little wild-eyed, with shivers in their bones.

There's a wealth of meaning behind the gates, statues and shrines, but I think the best way to visit Fushimi Inari is with a blank slate, totally open to the mysterious. Knowing too much about the "why" of the place can take away from its power, so I won't talk about it here. Go yourself, get lost, and you'll never forget it.

Although the shrine is mentioned in most guidebooks, it's far enough from downtown to discourage most weekend tourists from visiting, and the mountain is big enough to accomodate the crowds that show up on sunny holidays. Alex Kerr has a wonderful description of the shrine in his book Lost Japan, which inspired me go check it out.

New Yorkers will be interested to know that The Gates, a notorious public art display in Central Park, was loosely modeled after Fushimi Inari.

Admission to the shrine is free, although a beer at the top will cost a bit more than one downtown.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

White Mountains and Blue Sky

These mountains are part of the Shokanbetsu range, a wilderness area between the Japan Sea and the Sorachi valley in Western Hokkaido. The coast on the other side of the peaks is empty apart from some scattered fishing villages hidden in coves along tiny streams, where it's possible to buy fresh fish right off the docks and camp on empty beaches in the shadow of wave beaten cliffs, then get up early the next morning and hike up to blazing snowfields for ocean views and backcountry skiing. Shokanbetsu isn't as dramatic as Daisetuzan Park or the Shiretoko Peninsula, but since the trailheads are only 90 minutes from Sapporo along the coast road, I'm surprised that it's not more well-known. The best pockets of wilderness, it seems, are sometimes just beyond our own backyards.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

College Credit for Shoe-String Travel?

Nick Kristof, a regular contributor to the op-ed page of the New York Times, recently encouraged American universities to offer college credit for the kind of independent, low-budget travel that puts young people face to face with the realities of the world today. This type of travel - outside the bubble, close to the ground - is far more educational and inspiring than anything that ever happened in a dusty lecture hall. Kristof is a role model of mine, one of the best journalists alive today. I'll post an excerpt from his college credit proposal below (which I found through Carl Parkes' Travelwriter's blog). It's an excellent idea - write letters, tell your friends - let's get this thing off the ground.

"Traditionally, many young Britons, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders take a year to travel around the world on a shoestring, getting menial jobs when they run out of money. We should try to inculcate the custom of a 'gap year' in this country by offering university credit for such experiences."

"So here's my proposal: Universities should grant a semester's credit to any incoming freshman who has taken a gap year to travel around the world. In the longer term, universities should move to a three-year academic program, and require all students to live abroad for a fourth year. In that year, each student would ideally live for three months in each of four continents: Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe."


Anyone unfamiliar with Kristof's work would do well to check out "Thunder in the East," a collection of articles from Asia that he co-authored with his wife.

Ted Conover

Ted Conover doesn't just write about illegal immigration, prison guards, railroad hobos and the filthy rich; he goes out there and lives the life, breaking the law and his body, pushing himself to the limits in order to really understand a topic and explain it to his readers.

Even though he went to Amherst, my college's rival institution, I've always admired Mr. Conover for both his writing and his hard-core approach to participatory journalism. This is a guy who decided to write his senior thesis about American hobos, took a year off to ride the rails and scrounge loose change for jugs of wine in riverside campground jungles, turned the thesis into a book, and then switched gears entirely, sneaking into celebrity parties in Aspen, Colorado, a town where the billionaires are crowding out the millionaires - and wrote a book about that too. Whether he's writing about African truck drivers, Mexican immigrants or John Denver, Conover gets inside people's lives and tells their whole stories, giving his subjects a dignity and humanity often lost between the cracks of modern deadline journalism.

Conover's latest effort is an account of his stint as a prison guard in New York's Sing Sing prison, an experience that left him exhausted, haunted and sad. The book itself is an intensely personal tour de force combined with the cold hard facts of top-notch investigative journalism - it's hard to imagine anyone going deeper or getting closer than Conover. Read his stuff.

Ted Conover's Website

Thursday, March 16, 2006

High Mountain Zazen on Rishiri Island

Rishiri Island is a mountain rising from the Japan Sea off the coast of Northern Hokkaido. There were still patches of snow near the peak in August, when we climbed, but the air was warm, the grass was green and hundreds of swallows swooped and sailed around the crags, chasing bugs and butterflies.

We came down hot and thirsty to find a fisherman's festival in full swing, ate plate after plate of scallops and sea urchin roe, washed it all down with beer and slept hard in our tents until morning.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

If an old man falls down in Japan...

If an old man falls down in Japan, and no one is around to hear it, does he make a sound?

Apparently not. The top story on Hokkaido Public Television this
evening was the unfortunate death of an elderly man who lived by
himself in Sapporo. Onodera-san collapsed in his home yesterday
morning, but managed to activate a safety beeper, which then placed an
emergency call to a rescue center. Tragically, no one at the center
noticed the call in time to save Onodera-san, who slowly perished, no
doubt while listening to an extremely polite answering machine. This
sad story reveals a lot about the current state of Japan: a rapidly
aging nation where economic success and stability have come at the
expense of traditional family values and the natural environment.

Japan is an old country, but not in the sense that most people seem to
mean when they mention Japanese civil wars that took place 500 years
before the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from Native American chiefs. In truth, modern Japan, post Meiji reform period, post imperial
expansion and post atomic defeat, is a far more recent creation than
many Western societies. The part of Japan where I live was settled
only 150 years ago. To put it as bluntly as possible, Japan is an old
country because so many old people live here. On a good day, life in
the Hokkaido countryside seems like a long vacation at a retirement
resort in Idaho. On a bad day, its more like those dreaded monthly
trips to visit Uncle Randy at the nursing home. The only baby
strollers I've seen in my town are in the hands of bent-backed crones
who use them as walkers during their pained shuffle down the sidewalk.

Despite the hard fact that Japan's population is the oldest in the
world, demographics are only half of the story behind Onodera-san's
unfortunate demise. There are a lot of old people in Japan, but there
are a lot of young people too – smart people who have made their
nation so rich, nearly every citizen can afford to own a house, car,
television, washing machine and…safety beeper.

As a child, one of my favorite picture books told the story of a
steam-shovel operator named Mr. Mulligan who accepted a bet: that he
and his machine could dig an entire foundation in a single day. Mr.
Mulligan rose at dawn, fired up his steam-shovel and set to work. The
engine ran smoothly, he didn't waste time with breaks, and sure
enough, the foundation was finished by the time the sun went down. In
his haste, however, Mr. Mulligan had neglected to make a way out of
the hole he had dug. The book ended with Mr. Mulligan forever stuck
in the basement of a modern sky-scraper, staring at the smooth walls
he had struggled so mightily to build.

In many ways, the industrious Japanese have worked themselves into a
similar trap. The New York Times recently profiled healthy young Japanese men and women who never leave their rooms, a phenomenon that is reaching epidemic proportions (article here). By sacrificing family, freedom and a healthy environment to the triple-headed gods of Prosperity, Security and Modernity, many people like Onodera-san find themselves missing the one thing they really need during their twilight years: a warm and caring family; someone to notice when they fall.

In his perceptive book "Video Night in Kathmandu," the masterful
travel writer Pico Iyer speaks of modern Japan as a child of the
atomic bomb, "that monster marvel that revealed, in a terrible flash,
how far progress can push us backwards and how much technology may outstrip vision."

"In that single nightmare moment,' Iyer writes, "the full breadth of
human possibility had been suddenly lit up, and it was a prospect that
brought as much horror as awe…It had revealed, exhilaratingly, how
much humanity can achieve, but it had also done so, perhaps, at the
expense of humanity."

"Whenever I looked at Japan," I could not help but think of the haiku
of the Zen poet Issa: "Closer, closer to paradise. How cold!"

But there is another, less apocalyptic, way to look at the news of
Onodera-san's death. Old people die and technology fails. Neither of
these events are particularly newsworthy, yet Onodera-san's
unfortunate end was, it seems, the most important thing that happened
in Hokkaido today. That in itself should tell us something. In a
land the size of Ireland, there were apparently no murders,
kidnappings, fires, scandals, car-chases, volcanic eruptions or
brain-worm infested moose wandering the streets. In most parts of
America, Onodera-san's demise might be headline material in the
nursing home newsletter, but it probably wouldn't even make the back
page of a city paper. More immediately, it seems unfair to call the
Japanese "cold" when Watanabe-san showed up at my door this evening with two plates of sushi and told me all the best places to pick wild mushrooms.

Indeed, I'm continually amazed and humbled by the warm-hearted generosity of my Japanese hosts. The society they have built for themselves is a marvelous creation, and it is no surprise that Japan boasts the highest life-expectancy of any country in the world. The challenge facing the next generation is how to maintain their economic success while nourishing their children, preserving their land and looking out for their elders.


Sleeping in the Gutters is the collected wisdom of Muff Richardson, an alcoholic Scotsman who has lived in Japan since 1990 during which time he has taken several trips to Southeast Asia, for reasons of health. You can contact the author at All comments and queries are welcome, but he especially hopes to hear from "any birds that's not too particular like." Finally, please remember that any opinions and vulgarities in "Sleeping in the Gutters" do not necessarily reflect my own views.

Introducing Sleeping in the Gutters
How I met Muff

Shimura Cleaning Being a Scotsman, I took a pair of ancient forlorn summer sandals with the left sole hanging off to the local "Mister Minute" shoe-fixer place inside our goodly neigbourhood depaato on Saturday, only to find that the cobbler's in question has recently gone arse-upwards and closed down with a frozen f*cking yoghurt and crepe emporium standing proudly in its stead...

Asahi Gold Being a lovely long weekend, it was a boozy one at Richardson Towers. Festering atop my solo bean bag all day Sunday with only a dozen 500 ml tins of beer for company (that's 500ml, trivia fans: I do not lend my lips to less) I greatly enjoyed the new television commercial for Asahi Gold beer...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Travel tips and social criticism (2004-2006)

  • Inside the Robot Factory

  • Japan doesn't need an army when they have Junior High Schools! A quick peek inside the martial ceremony that is part of a simple field trip to the zoo. "Incredible! And highly revealing -- of us and of them!" - thanks Frank!

  • A Great Week for the Oyaji

  • The old men who make the rules in Japan are downing celebratory Suntory whiskeys in hostess bars, but will Japan's entrenched conservatism bring about its economic downfall? If a recent business scandal and new rules in sumo are any indication, it looks like a dangerous possibility.

    Impressions of Okinawa

    The tropical streets of Naha sometimes feel more like Bangkok than Tokyo, but it's a Japanese city underneath all the flash and grime. Thirty km off the coast, the sleepy streets of Zamami Island bear harsh reminders of the horror of war.

    If an old man falls down in Japan...
    and no one is around to hear him, does he make a sound? Apparently not. As modern conveniences displace traditions of communal life, some Japanese find themselves alone with their technological wonders. Is Japan's remarkable economic success and social stability worth the trade off?


    Benzo lives in a house that he built, by himself, from the wood of trees he planted forty years ago. He is 91 years old and spends at least 10 hours of every day outside, winter and summer.

    “Being outside makes my bones strong,” he says. “Last month a tree branch fell and hit me on the head. If my bones weren’t so strong it would have killed me!”

    He laughs. He is always laughing.

    Benzo is a farmer. He eats what he grows. One of the ways to say farmer in Japanese is “hyaku-sho.” Hyaku-sho is best translated as "peasant." Most Japanese farmers would be offended if someone called them “hyaku-sho,” but not Benzo. He went to the best university in Hokkaido and lived in Tokyo for many years, so he knows the alternatives to farming. Being a "hyaku-sho" was his own choice, one he is proud of.

    “Hyaku means one hundred,” he says. “A farmer should grow at least one hundred different things to eat. I grow one hundred and twenty-three!’

    These are just some of the things that Benzo grows.

    Rice, onions, leeks, daikons, lettuce, spinach, corn, squash, eggplant, beans (many kinds), pumpkins, zucchini, apples, cherries, tomatoes, potatoes, chestnuts, rhubarb, mushrooms (many many kinds), watercress, cabbage, carrots, green peppers, red peppers, hot peppers, burdock, bamboo shoots, buckwheat and sunflowers.

    Some of these foods (like the mushrooms) grow naturally, and Benzo picks them when they are in season. Others (like the rice) require lots of care and maintenance, but Benzo doesn’t mind the work.

    When the soil in Benzo’s garden goes stale, he adds a little fertilizer to make it dark and rich again. What does he use for fertilizer?

    You guessed it.

    Benzo would laugh to see your face right now, but he isn’t embarrassed. After all, he and the land have been living with each other for so long, they are practically the same thing by now, and there’s nothing shameful about that kind of partnership.

    Benzo’s farm is part of a place called Shintotsukawa, a small town in Central Hokkaido. The people in town think Benzo is a strange old man and almost no one goes to see him. This is a shame, because Benzo loves having visitors. It’s always more fun to laugh with a friend.

    These photos of Benzo were taken by Ryan Libre. To see more of Ryan’s work, please visit

    Saturday, March 11, 2006

    Steven Van Beek

    My friend Ryan Libre of recently told me about a friend of his named Steve Van Beek, an author, photographer, adventurer, tour guide and historian who has lived and traveled in Asia since 1966. Steve's website has some of the most beautiful photos of SE Asia that I've ever come across, and trips that he guides sound tantalizing enough to make me want to run straight home and start packing my bags. If you want to learn more about SE Asia or just check out some beautiful photos, his website seems like a great place to start.

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    Introducing "Sleeping in the Gutters" by Muff Richardson

    One morning in Phnom Penh I woke up early to get some photos of mist on the Mekong River. The streets were quiet and cool, the sidewalk cafes full of moto drivers sipping tea and eating noodle soup. Walking down a backstreet near the Central Market, I heard the irregular thump of drunken footsteps and turned to find a wild-eyed Westerner limping after me. Two buttons were missing from his shirt and the fly of his pants was open, but something in his fleshy sun-burned face exuded a hopeful, desperate, sincerity, so I let him catch up.

    "Cheers," he said, catching his breath. "Good thing I ran into you. Just came to, you see. No memory. And someone seems to 'ave nicked me wallet so I've no cash either. You wouldn't happen to 'ave a few thousand spare riels, would you? I've a flight back to Japan to catch in four hours and my bags are up at Lakeside."

    "Japan?" I was rummaging through my pockets for a handful of Cambodian notes.

    "Japan, yeah," he replied. "Been working there for 'bout 15 years now it is. Not the same job of course. Lot of different ones. It's not a bad place to make a quid if you know your way abouts, like."

    I couldn't believe it. "I live there too! A little different from Cambodia, isn't it."

    He throught for a moment, absently caressing a welt on his forehead.

    "Nah, just a matter of how the bastards go about rippin' a fellow off. Name's Muff by the way, thanks really for saving me like this, much appreciated and all."

    He turned to go, then stopped, considering. "I've got no business card now, account of my wallet is gone, but seeing as you helped me out of a tight spot here, if you ever find yourself in Osaka look me up and we'll hit a hostess bar I know. Cheap place. There's a Russian bird works there, not much to look at, but get a few vodka redbulls in her and ..." He patted his crotch affectionately, realized his fly was open, and hastily zipped it to the top.

    I scrawled my e-mail address on a 500 riel note and handed it to Muff, who stuffed it in his pocket. "Cheers, then," he said, and stumbled off in the direction of a moto stand.

    I shrugged off the incident as just one of those crazy things that happen in Cambodia, never expecting to hear from Muff again, so it was a pleasant surprise to arrive at work one day and find a long, apologetic e-mail from "" Muff had made it back to Japan, but was already planning a trip back to Cambodia - "lovely country, just really a lovely place." Since then, I've had the pleasure of recieving a few more e-mails from Mr. Richardson, correspondence that never fails to leave me shaking my head and crying tears of laughter. I don't necessarily approve of Muff's lifestyle (and sometimes I think he doesn't either), but it's nice to know he's out there, somewhere between a bottle of Nikka Black and the Russian Hostess Bar.

    Muff is a talented writer, a sort of roly-poly Hunter S. Thompson, but without the bitterness. I recently asked him permission to post some of his e-mails on this site in exchange for a few beers, and he cheerfully consented.

    And so it is my pleasure to present the first segment of "Sleeping in the Gutters," published below under the headline "Shimura Cleaning". Sleeping in the Gutters will appear around twice a month in this space. You can contact the author at All comments and queries are welcome, but he especially hopes to hear from "any birds that's not too particular like." Finally, please remember that any opinions and vulgarities in "Sleeping in the Gutters" do not necessarily reflect my own views. Enjoy!

    Sleeping in the Gutters: "Shimura Cleaning"


    By Muff Richardson

    Being a Scotsman, I took a pair of ancient forlorn summer sandals with the left sole hanging off to the local "Mister Minute" shoe-fixer place inside our goodly neigbourhood depaato on Saturday, only to find that the cobbler's in question has recently gone arse-upwards and closed down with a frozen f*cking yoghurt and crepe emporium standing proudly in its stead.

    Undeterred, I lurched along to a nearby smallish easily missed joint further down the road that's a dry cleaners by name but, I'd been told, also does alterations to clothes and, more importantly to my good self, offers a shoe-repair service to, erm, boot.

    This place is manned, ironically given their gender, by three Jap birds. It's a bit of a "Generation Game" sketch, to all extents and purposes: meet the Shimizus! The miniature leather-faced old bag that sits on a stool at the end of the counter looking pissed and bewildered and staring into space; her middle-aged daughter, a rotund and ruddy-jowled excitable woman with breasts like melons who barks at customers with a rasping growl that sounds like she's been gargling diesel all morning; and the grand-daughter, a jolly wee bundle of dentally-challenged energy of some twenty summers whom, given half a dozen tins of strong beer and previous access to internet porn, I'd definitely shag once she'd taken her bottle-end specs off and made friends with a toothbrush and some mouthwash.

    Anyway, the damaged shoe sole in question needed, basically, a smattering of glue. Mister Minute would have bonded and set it while I waited, polished the shoes up a bit on his spinning brush-wheel, told me about the time he went to Oregon to visit his sister who married a lumberjack, and charged me the princely sum of 200 yen for the entire 20 minute operation. I say this with unbridled confidence, for Mister Minute had done exactly that to this same pair of shoes 6 months ago.

    With the Shimizu clan, however, a different scenario immediately unfolded. They don't do repairs in situ but, rather, sub-contract the job to some bloke somewhere else. It'll take about a week. The bloke will look at the skis and give you an estimate for the job. If you agree to his quote, he'll fix them and you can pick them up from chez Shimizu when they're ready. Fair enough: how do I know what the estimate comes to? No problem: leave your phone number and we'll ring you before Wednesday with the price.

    I gave them my keitai number and wrote my address on a form for them in scribbled kanji and kana that were much admired by all three ladies, the moreso as the calligraphy flowed from a gaijin hand. In short, we had no problems communicating and I left the store with a spring in my step to the usual chorus and catcalls telling me how stunning and fluent my Japanese is...

    Imagine my surprise, then, when I check my keitai an hour ago and there's one voice message. I recognise the voice. It's Rotund Shimizu, and I can hear Grandma and Jack 'o Lantern Teeth in the background filling in the harmonies. It goes like this (in Japanese):

    Rotund: Eeeeeeeeeee. Aaaaaaaaaaa. Doushiokaaaaa? Gaijin nan da yo, dakara nihongo wakaran daro, messeiji nokosu no niiiiiiiiii? Dou sureba iii?
    Grandma: Hayaku shiiiiiyaa!
    Rotund: Maki-chan eigo dekiru jarou? Shabete!
    Jack 'O' Lantern Teeth: Iya da! Yamete chodai! Mouuuuuuuu! Okaasan eigo de shabriiiiyyyyaaaa!
    All: Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah!!!!!!!
    Call abruptly terminated.


    Rotund: Oooooooh shite!. What the f*ck shall I do? He's a f*cking foreigner, won't understand a f*cking word of Japanese even if I leave a bloody message? What the f*ck shall I do?
    Grandma: Get a move on you daft cow!
    Rotund: Maki, you can speak English can't you? get on this f*cking blower!
    Jack 'O' Lantern Teeth: Piss off! Give it a f*cking rest! Shite! Why don't you speak to the c*nt in English, mum!
    All: Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah!!!!!!!...
    Call abruptly terminated.

    I called them back (their number was dispayed on my keitai). It went like this (in Japanese but I'll give the English version only):

    Rotund: Hello, Shimizu Cleaning.
    Muff: Hello, I'm the foreigner who can't understand Japanese. You called my keitai earlier and left a message. I presume you've got a price for my shoes?
    Rotund: Eh? How did you know...
    Muff: I heard your message, and realised who it was.
    Rotund: But I didn't leave a message.
    Muff: But I heard you talking, saying that I wouldn't understand because I'm a foreigner.
    Rotund: Oh, sorry, sorry. I'm so rude. I'm sorry.
    Muff: I thought it was funny.
    Rotund: You speak very good Japanese. Unbelievable.
    Muff: How much are the shoes going to be.
    Rotund: Erm..... 4,600 yen.
    Muff: What! I paid less than that when I bought the bastards. They only need a bit of glue. Mr Minute charges 200 yen for fixing the f*cking things.
    Rotund: But we have to send them to Osaka.
    Muff: F*ck that then. All bets are off. I'll pick them up tomorrow and take them somewhere else.
    Rotund: Okay. You speak very good Japanese...

    .........Sleeping in the Gutters will appear around twice a month in this space. You can contact the author at All comments and queries are welcome, but he especially hopes to hear from "any birds that's not too particular like." Finally, please remember that any opinions and vulgarities in "Sleeping in the Gutters" do not necessarily reflect my own views............

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    The other foreigners...

    The international affairs division of Takikawa City Hall threw a party last Friday to celebrate an award for excellence from the Hokkaido prefectural government. Most of the English teachers in the area were invited, so I caught a bus into town after work and walked over to the cluster of shabby apartments where the foreign teachers are housed. We had a couple of hours to kill before the party began, and spent the time listening to music and bottling a batch of homebrew, drinking the previous months effort while we worked.

    These official international events happen on a fairly regular basis. Japanese guests pay $20 or $30 for tickets, but we always get in free. Most of my foreign friends look at the parties as an extension of our jobs – a fair trade of food and drink for the presence of white faces and some English conversation. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to straddle the line between guest and employee, but we’re used to the ambiguity. JET program participants are paid to have a good time in Japan and take our good impressions back home with us. It’s actually not a bad investment on the government’s part. Better than building more bridges to nowhere.

    At any rate, it wasn’t until we arrived at the party that we realized this event was not a typical mingle-fest. The hotel was the fanciest in town, and official looking men in black suits were standing about in the entranceway – a far cry from the frumpy middle-aged women, learning English in their ample spare time, who usually frequent these gatherings. In retrospect we certainly should have known that this was a fairly prestigious award the City Hall had received, and fairly prestigious people would be in attendance. Couldn’t be helped now though. Those of us who were wearing belts tucked in our shirts, someone passed around a bottle of cologne and the foreign contingent strolled right past the collection box and took seats at the back of the hall.

    It felt like a fancy wedding. The stage was done up with lacy white decorations, the tables topped with gaudy flower displays. Tuxedoed waiters stood at intervals along the wall, hands folded in front of their laps. “Wishing Eternal Happiness in your Blessed Marriage” was written on the placemats. Underdressed, we made the best of it, and I ended up having a great time. The beer was cold, the sashimi was good and it was interesting to watch the various dignitaries give speeches and listen to their exquisitely formal Japanese.

    I found that by paying close attention I could understand most of the speeches, but there was one reference that went over my head. The speaker had gone through the laundry list of events and exchanges undertaken by the international affairs division – sponsoring Mongolian students at the local university, organizing an agricultural education exchange with farmers in Malawi, hosting government officials from Bhutan and, last but not least, arranging events with the foreign English teachers in Naka-Sorachi district. But then he started talking about the benefits brought about through these efforts, and mentioned “unfortunate recent incidents, such as the one involving the Chinese woman.”

    “Through your hard work and dedication,” the speaker concluded, “we can rest assured that such tragedies will not take place in the wonderful city of Takikawa. Congratulations! Kampai!”

    While we took our toasts and the applause died down, I asked the well-dressed woman to my left what the speaker had meant by “unfortunate recent incidents” and “such tragedies.”

    “Well,” she said, a bit uncomfortably. “You heard about the murder of two kindergarten students a little while back? It was a Chinese woman who killed them. Her child was being bullied and she didn’t have any friends, so she just…snapped, I suppose.”

    The tragic murder had been all over the news, but I hadn’t realized the perpetrator was Chinese. This made the second time in recent months that a foreigner had been blamed for the murder of a child, the first being an unemployed young man of Peruvian descent charged with strangling a seven year old girl. Apparently, the speaker’s point was that by organizing international exchanges, the Takikawa city government was defusing a potential time bomb; the danger posed by an alienated minority.

    Something about this didn’t sit well with me, and for the rest of the party, I thought hard about Japan’s complicated relationship with resident foreigners and the outside world. International exchanges are a wonderful thing, largely because they help to dissolve the prejudices that feed discrimination and conflict. But it seemed as if, by bringing up a horrible crime committed by a foreign resident, the speaker gave credence to exactly the sort of unfounded fear that the international affairs division was working to mitigate. Did the Japanese government really see foreigners as a potential threat; as an issue to be managed and contained? Is that why we were here, a gang of sloppy American college graduates getting paid to drink beer and eat sashimi and make memories?

    I pictured a solemn circle of old men sitting around a broad table high up in a government ministry building in Tokyo. “We must keep our friends close, and our enemies closer,” intones the chairman, pensively flexing his fingers. “Eighty trillion yen for international exchange programs!”

    And despite all the effort that goes into giving Westerners a good impression of Japan, resident foreigners from countries like China and Korea are treated as if they don't exist. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that so many Chinese and Koreans profess a vehement hatred for Japan, and many Japanese think nothing of using "Korean" or "Chinese" as an insult. Wouldn't the money spent on beer for disheveled young Americans be better put towards encouraging international understanding between Japan and the countries that will always its neighbors?

    I’m not the only foreigner in my small town, although almost all people who live here think I am. There’s a factory way up at the end of the valley, an ugly one story building with a blue roof next to a dilapidated apartment block. About fifteen young women work in the factory and live in the apartments next door. All of them are Chinese. I’m not sure what they make, because the factory windows are boarded over year-round, but they must work late; light leaks out through the cracks long into the night.

    I wouldn’t have known about the Chinese women at the factory unless my predecessor had mentioned them when I arrived. No one here in town seems to be aware of their existence. Compare that to my status as the town’s official foreigner – when I arrived, the mayor came to my welcome party and my picture made the front page of the weekly town paper.

    Last fall I rode my bike up the valley and explored an overgrown park on the edge of town. I followed a trail that wound around over a hill and back, bringing me to the edge of an enormous vegetable garden. A group of young women were weeding and watering plants, laughing heartily. With a start, I realized they were speaking Chinese, and that the building on the far side of the garden was the backside of the mysterious factory.

    I walked up to the garden, hoping to start a conversation and perhaps arrange Chinese lessons, but when the women saw me approaching, most of them dropped what they were doing and darted into the factory. Two of them stayed behind, casting scowls down into the dark earth. Feeling awkward, I tried out a greeting in Chinese.

    “Hello. My name Tim. I American.”

    “Ni shur meiguoren ma?,” said the older of the two women, who looked to be in her mid twenties. “You’re an American?”

    “I American!” I replied, smiling broadly, struggling to remember another sentence in Chinese.

    “I Chinese student! I want Chinese teacher! You Chinese teacher?”

    “I have to go now,” she said in strange-sounding Japanese. “And I’m not going to be here for long. Goodbye.”

    And with that she and her friend turned around and hurried inside, leaving me alone with the vast rows of flourishing vegetables, feeling unfairly rejected.

    As the party for the international affairs division wound to a close, I resolved to make another effort to penetrate the world of the Chinese women at work in the factory, to learn about how they came to Hokkaido and what their lives entail. After all, as the only foreigners in town, we have a lot in common.

    I’m writing at the Board of Education, where I usually spend my Tuesdays, and after finishing this paragraph I’m going to tell my supervisor that I want to take Chinese lessons and ask him how to contact the Chinese women living down the road. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. Stay tuned.

    Monday, March 06, 2006

    "The land is dying. There will be no Cambodia anymore."

    It was one of our last nights in Cambodia. Tyler and I were staying in a village on the banks of the Mekong River in Kompong Cham province, in the heart of the Cambodian countryside. Our host was an American named Don, a huge Frank Zappa fan with a masters degree in poetry who had married a Khmer woman and was trying to make a living by farming a section of her parent's land. His house was surrounded by old mango trees, pineapple gardens, and concentric circles of banana trees guarded by a hedge of lemongrass. Past the garden was a parcel of land Don called "the back forty," a stretch of dry brush criss-crossed with cattle trails that led down a gentle slope to a marshy area near the river, where a few tenant families living in shacks irrigated a garden of cucumbers. Rice grew in the marsh, rising with the monsoon waters that flushed out the farmland every spring, leaving a small window for the harvest between the dry heat and the rains.

    Don's wife, Chenda, had worked with the United Nations during the elections and spoke to us in gentle English as we walked across the land where her family had always lived. These sweet-smelling flowers on thorntrees could be sold to make perfume, she told us, $.50 a kilo. These scars in the sugarpalm trunks were from the fighting, the forest in the distance was a rubber plantation.

    We arrived at the edge of the rice fields at the height of the noon heat. Boys crouched chest deep in shaded pockets of the marsh, minding their water buffalo. Chenda's mother was squatting in the paddy, a pinch-faced woman in her seventies grasping stalks of rice in one hand and wielding a sickel in the other, rapidly working her way down the rows of heavy-grained plants. She smiled widely when we walked up and spat out a burst of Khmer that made Chenda laugh but which she refused to translate.

    "She's the salt of the earth," said Don. "Never been out of this province, real traditional, conservative minded. Used to tell her daughter that men are diamonds but women are silk; if a diamond falls into the mud it can be cleaned, but if silk gets dirty it's ruined for ever." He shook his head. "A real good woman, works real hard."

    Chenda's mother was ready to break for lunch, and we joined her under a shade tree by the cucumbers.
    "It's the first time she has met foreigners," said Chenda nervously. "But she wants to talk. Would you mind talking with her?"

    And so we had a conversation, a long, delicate conversation on the edge of the marshy rice field. This woman had lived through French occupation, national independence, American bombing, civil war, the Khmer Rouge terror, a Vietnamese invasion, more occupation and crushing poverty. Could we ask about these things, Tyler and I wondered? "It's OK," said Chenda. "If she does not want to answer, she will tell me so."

    So we asked, and she talked and we listened, tragedy after tragedy, matter-of-fact descriptions of death and displacement and starvation. But what struck me most was her answer to our last question, when we asked about Cambodia's future, and the for the first time the old woman looked truly sad.

    "There is no future for Cambodia," she said, picking up a handful of dirt and throwing it to the wind. "The land is dying. There will be no more Cambodia. They cut down the trees and the farmland turns to dust. The river is muddy. The land is drying up. The air isn't clean. When I was young, living was easy. Rice grew everywhere - so did fruit. Fish were easy to catch. Now...everything is dirty and scarce and hard. There is no future here. The land is dying. When the land dies, there will be no Cambodia anymore."

    And then she got up, and we said goodbye, and she went back to cutting rice, squatting in the mucky paddy water.

    Friday, March 03, 2006

    Previous Posts Sorted by Category

    A collection of travel writing and social criticism written while I was living and working in Hokkaido (2004-2006)

    These are articles that specifically relate to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Some great hiking stories! (2004-2006)

    The intrepid Muff Richardson offers a boozy take on the trials and tribulations of ex-pat life in Asia .

    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    A Hokkaido Mountain Morning

    We pitched camp on top of a ridge a few hundred feet below the summit of Mt. Ashibestsu and spent 14 hours in Mark's saggy tent, cooking pots of miso soup and poking our heads out every hour or so to see if the skies had cleared. The wind never let up all night long and sleep came in fits and starts, but at 4 am I looked outside and there were stars blinking and the peak was clear and we piled outside shivering and stamping as clouds boiled up out of the valley. The world was suddenly colorful and wide open again.