Outside Context http://www.outsidecontext.com Travel writing, reviews, philosophy and airsoft Mon, 01 Dec 2014 12:05:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tier 1 Military Simulation – Operation PAYBACK – Download Now http://www.outsidecontext.com/2014/04/27/tier-1-military-simulation-operation-payback-preorder/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2014/04/27/tier-1-military-simulation-operation-payback-preorder/#comments Sun, 27 Apr 2014 18:00:06 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11870 Outside Context & Tier 1 Military Simulation 


Operation Payback

a Basho film in partnership with Daniel Goodall.



Location: STANTA, Eastmere OBUA Training village, Thetford, Norfolk.

Date: 11 – 13 April 2014

36hr OBUA Combat Operation.

This incredibly well played  event showcased some of the highest quality effects ever used in milsim. Including RPG attacks, EOD detonations, explosive entry and more.

All captured in the 20 minute film from Outside Context. If you have any interest in milsim then this is a must watch!

DVD Box art, Label and Menus


Main Menu

2nd Menu

On a 42 inch screen!

DVD on 42 inch tV



What You Get:

Operation Payback main feature in HD (30 minutes)

Operation Payback DVD.iso (for burning to DVD), which also includes:

Operation Payback Promo

Tier 1 End Game Brief

Photo’s from the event

Pay now for INSTANT delivery:

Digital Download £6.99!

Don’t want digital? Order a real DVD only £12.99 plus postage!

OPEN order Page >>

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2014/04/27/tier-1-military-simulation-operation-payback-preorder/feed/ 1
Hamilton JazzMaster Maestro Auto Chrono Watch Review http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/22/hamilton-jazzmaster-maestro-auto-chrono-watch-review/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/22/hamilton-jazzmaster-maestro-auto-chrono-watch-review/#comments Fri, 22 Nov 2013 13:54:26 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11758 Introduction

There are many reasons to wear a watch, I said to myself as I took my turn at the JFK airport security scanner.

“Take off your belts and empty your pockets,” the female TSA agent said, clearly bored of having repeated this phrase a hundred times an hour.

“Watches too?” I asked, pulling back my shirt cuffs to reveal my timepiece.

She looked at it for a beat, “Honey, that isn’t a watch, that’s a clock. In the tray.”

Yes, there are many reason to wear a watch, but simply telling the time is the least of them. The first clue that there is another reason comes from the mind boggling array of wrist-based choice. At the very top you have your “supercar” watches only able to be worn by people who don’t actually pay for them. Watches like those of Richard Mille that cost more than the mortgage on my house and yet I can’t help feel look garish. Then, coming down from the heavens atop the mountain, mere Demi-God brands such as Patek Philip, which has spent the last couple of hundred years trying, mostly successfully, to convince us that their product is worth a lifetime investment. Even their adverts talk to your having “invested” in an “heirloom”. Then just next to the peak comes the high-end tool watches. These are brands able to go to to extremes, the bottom of the oceans or into outer space. These are serious instruments used by serious professionals – or so we are told – and can save your life. Rolex and Omega spring to mind. Then… then it all gets a little floaty.

If you are not buying your watch to calculate the way back from the moon, for your children to marvel at when you’re gone, or because you’ll run 10/1000ths of a second faster, the market gets wide indeed. Under the magic figure of £1000 it gets figuratively as wide as the Atlantic. This, for me, is the where the most fun is to be had. Not just because of budget, I can rationalise a purchase just as well as the next man, but because I can have fun with something really personal. Something that expresses me much better that simply dropping £2000 on a tool watch and forgetting about it. Buying a watch, such as a Rolex, always seemed to me to be almost lazy. It is like there is no journey, no discovery of a love of timepieces, only a wedge of cash and ten minutes in a jewellers.

That’s that taken care of then, off about my day.

Where’s the expression in that? Other than perhaps saying that you have so much money that you don’t even need to think and just go for what you are told is “the best”. I’m sure it’s not like this for everyone, but for me a Rolex is no fun.

Fun, for me, comes from selecting, from researching, from reading up, from taking my time, from working up, saving up and reaching out. It comes from making the smart choice and getting a bargain with a little history. In this bewildering ocean of choice I looked into the far past for help.

Hamilton as a Classic Brand

It is interesting to me to think that in the past there was no uniform notion of time. I don’t mean in the sense that ancient cro-magnon man didn’t have a clock, I mean in the sense of what exactly is the “current” time? If you went to a town in the Old West 1850’s and asked the barkeep what the time was, he may tell you one particular time based on the spring-wound pocket watch tucked into his waistcoat. Walk down the street into the barbers and ask the owner and he may tell a slightly different time from his key-wound grandfather clock in the window. A discrepancy of seconds, but essentially synchronised. Imagine however that you could instantly teleport to the next town and ask the storekeeper there. He may give you a “current” time that is almost completely different, out by 20 – 30 minutes from that in the barbers. Time keeping was, back then, almost a local phenomenon as there was no uniform starting point. Consequently each town had its own sense of the “current” time. This was all well and good until the railways arrived. Suddenly, each town was joined together and the train ran between them. Imagine this train was due to depart at, say, 1:30pm and took 30 minutes to arrive at the next town’s station. If the “current time” value between those two towns was thirty minutes apart, then the 1:30pm would depart and arrive at the same “time”. Catching the train home from the second town to the first could be tricky. More importantly than this, trains run to a safety schedule. So, two trains, running on their local starting station’s notion of the current time, could easily run into each other!

This problem was solved by the railways themselves who simply ran the time on the train and “Railway Time” was invented. Soon each town would synchronise their time to that service and Railways quickly became the “source” for the “current” time. In order to police this, watches need to be invented with higher and higher accuracy. An evolution of watch development then flourished that leads all the way up to the modern era. That’s quite a history. One of the main brands laying claim to this heritage is Hamilton, who sold thousands of “Railway Chronometers” to train companies all over America.

Browsing the current Hamilton watch collection it becomes clear that this is a brand defined by its quintessential Americana and is making an effort to define what it means to be “American” in return. The railways ran on Hamilton’s and the canny owners also made sure that the US Navy also ran on them during the World Wars. This eye on the future is always present. For example, they designed a watch for Elvis that they still sell today with an new association that of Will Smith and “The Men in Black” enshrining the brand in the American mind forever.

Men in Black

The Elvis Watch

While the company’s ownership has changed hands many times it has most recently been re-launched in 1984 by their latest owners, the greatest Swiss watch brand in the world, Swatch.

Yes, Swatch… who have saved the Swiss watch industry on more than one occasion and yet manage to continually innovate with a prodigious output of their own brand watches.

Browsing the Hamilton range is to see an attempt to bring the history of America and the quality of Switzerland together. Swatch also own, among their many marques, the movement company ETA and have been putting their finest watch movements in Hamilton’s for years. There are also more Hamilton watches around than you may think. Indeed, you have seen thousands of Hamilton watches and probably never noticed. Where? In Hollywood. Almost every hero, from the “Die Hard” John Mclaine to the Spaceman Dave Bowman in “2001: a Space Odyssey” wears a Hamilton watch. Even the greatest watch-wearing-character, James Bond, has donned a Hamilton during his space adventures.

Great taste in watches as in everything

James Bond’s Hamilton

This partnership with the silver-screen means that almost every time you have wondered what watch that character is wearing then it is almost always a Hamilton. The watch of the entertainers.

Entertainment is what America is good at. Indeed in every entertainment medium it excels. For film they have Hollywood, for games they have Microsoft’s XBox and for music they have Jazz legends such as Miles Davis. It was this link to Jazz that first caught my eye. I love Jazz and its offshoots. I listen to Miles, of course, but also to modern music influenced by Jazz such as Earl Okin. Hamilton making watches named JazzMaster’s, well – this caught my attention.

The other element is, well, me. I’m a commuting London worker. I’m a manager in a company and a specialist in my realm. I mention these things because you can never judge an opinion of any watch without knowing a little about he who says it. About where I am coming from. I want a watch for the week to wear with my suit and for the evenings when out on the town with my wife. A dress watch basically. This was a departure as I had been spending a lot of time playing around with watches that had a dual function. Watches that were for action and yet could also be worn with a suit. But, after damaging one of these watches when playing Military Simulation, I realised that I needed two – one for the city and one for the weekend.

I discovered the Hamilton Jazz Master Maestro after seeing one on the wrist of fellow train traveller. I thought at first it might be a IWC Portuguese – a fine, but laudably expensive, watch, but quickly realised that it was the slightly more rugged Maestro. Some quick Googling revealed the watch in all its glory:

very musical score needs a maestro to achieve true perfection – the JazzMaster Maestro Auto Chrono is ready to take on that role. The model is an instrument of pure elegance with finely marked digits and tapered hands reminiscent of a conductor’s baton in action.


Before it had my attention, now it had my interest.

The Review – JazzMaster Maestro Auto Chrono

I bought my JazzMaster over the web from a store in Scotland. This was a special deal reducing the cost to a manageable £900. JazzMaster is part of Hamilton’s American Classic line and there are a lot of different models of this watch, but I was after a particular edition the H32716839.


The Stats

  • Open 45MM Case
  • Lug Width 23MM
  • Sapphire Crystal Glass
  • Water Resistance 10 bar (100 m / 328 ft)
  • Stainless Steel Case

The watch comes in a very nice presentation box, which would make a great gift box if you are buying the watch for someone as a present.

The first impressions of the Hamilton was that this was a large steel watch with the particularly striking face. I had gone for the dark faced model, but I was pleased to see that the hands were an elegant silver that caught the light as I twisted it in my hands.

The Face

2012-11-21 14.32.46

The smooth back to the face stretched across the large space the thin edged case allows. Running around this edge is a simple tracked line signifying minutes and this also runs up the inside of the ring that has a chronograph track. This track marks individual sub-seconds, second marks (slightly higher) and a numeral 10 second indicator. Moving inwards there are raised silver hour markers, which glitter with polish. Inside this ring are three sub circles. The smallest, to the left indicates the seconds and on this model rotates around a small track with a “60” indicator at the top. The other two circles have a polished appearance and indicates the hours and minutes for the chronograph. The top circle has a slight red track over the last 15 minutes, which you can see when you stand back and is the colour accent on the face. To the right is the day in text and in numerals. Above this is the Hamilton name and below is the word “Automatic”. The hands are silver, thin and pointy with lume along the thicker part of this length. Taken at a distance it is a particularly fine face and elegantly protected under a smooth and slightly domed sapphire glass.

The Case


Also comes in White/Brown

The case of the Maestro is very special. It has brushed sides to the lugs as well as polished parts which catch all the light in the room. Under different light it reflects beautifully. The crown has a Hamilton “H” embossed on the top and two easy to push chronograph controls. When starting and stopping the chronograph there is a distinct satisfying feeling of a click. On the back is a display window into the movement, which has some visible fine screws and is engraved with some of the details of the watch such as that it is in steel and the water resistance. Looking into the movement you see that the plate is engraved with “Hamilton”.

2013-11-12 22.31.27

The Strap

2012-09-19 14.09.16

We will be talking a little more about the strap options, but the stock strap is a fine leather black strap in a crocodile style ending in a Hamilton engraved buckle. It has the width of 23mm, which is quite unusual.

The Movement


ETA owned Valjoux is a Swiss manufacturer of mechanical watch movements, known for chronograph movements that are used in any high-end mechanical watches. The Valjoux 7750 movement’s extreme popularity means that it is easy to get maintained, which is an important point. Introduced in 1974 uses an automatic-winding module attached to the top of the movement, winding in one direction by means of a single wheel. The 7750 movement is a very a reliable and durable workhorse and the entry level to the high end.

Wearing the Maestro

This watch, for all its size, doesn’t look as ridiculous on the wrist as the simple width numbers suggest. Strapped with the dark leather, it hugs the wrist and sits comfortably atop the arm without swinging around. The height of the watch is also quite large, it containing all those classic Valjoux internals, and yet I have always been able to slide it gently under my shirt cuffs. It sets of a suit fantastically without over-dominating the style. Your eye notices the watch, but it isn’t inexorably drawn to it like it would be with some other large frame watches. It is however, very heavy. You know you are wearing a chunk of steel on your wrist. I actually like that.

Then there is the little bonus, the wiggle. You will often hear of this famous effect of wearing a Valjoux. What happens is the the disc, winding the movement, sometimes gets up to a real speed due to just the random directions you have been moving your arm in. This can be at any time, but usually after you just sit down. The disk zooming around keeps moving when you stop and you feel the effect of the centripetal force being generated. It feels like the movement is wiggling gently. Its quite a pleasant feeling, but not noticeable to the onlooker – as if the entire watch wiggles – its just the movement wiggling and the feeling is just for you, the wearer.

Telling the time with such a great face is very easy from all angles, the sapphire glass is very well polished on the inside. At night, the lume is not massive – indeed it is fairly simple – lume fanatics should consider this aspect.

Presenting itself as a Jazz influenced watch one can easily imagine the greats wearing such a piece in the evenings or when playing a big bass. Or perhaps the Brat Pack, suited and booted, out on the town in New York. I found it great to wear to work and on any occasion with smart clothes, but I also was able to wear it comfortably with jeans and when doing any activity not involving sports or action. It is a quintessential dress watch.

Great at work

Amazingly this man is my brother!

Strap Options

With a 23mm lug width, you are between two normal sizes of straps. most 22mm strap are a little too narrow and a gap shows. The first strap I tried was a very nice 22mm mesh strap from Amazon.

This strap, as you can see in the close up, was not an exact fit – but looked really great on the wrist. Clearly I should have tried a 24mm strap, which would be a tighter fit, but would still fit with a little work.

2013-09-11 23.03.26

2013-09-11 23.04.39

Then I got serious.

Hamilton do produce a steel strap on their other watches and when I sent it in for maintenance I ordered one.

I wasn’t ready for how special this would be.


On the incredible Hamilton steel the watch comes to life. The strap is a push clasp with a two tone bushed and polished effect that sets off the light in the steel of the case perfectly. The brushed parts are cut to be “H” shaped.

2013-11-12 22.32.21


Of course, this adds to the already weighty watch, but I find this combination to work perfectly.

Caring for the watch

There are other JazzMaster’s, with the latest model having the H21 internals that give a longer run time, but I personally wanted the Valjoux model for two reasons:

  1. It has a seconds hand.
  2. It has the classic internals, which means maintenance is simpler.

Almost every watchmaker will be able to deal with a Valjoux movement, meaning that you do not have to send it back to Hamilton to be maintained. However, Swatch are fairly low cost compared to other manufacturers (I’m looking at you Omega). Swatch also keep all the case parts in stock if you damage the steel. The movement will need to be kept wound if you don’t wear the watch for more than 30 hours and I have a simple watch winder if I am not wearing it over the weekend (such as I am going shooting). Being water resistant it is easy to clean the watch, but the strap will degrade over time.

Accuracy on this movement is always excellent if the watch is kept wound. As with all Valjoux you have to be careful not to change the date at the wrong time of day, which can damage it, but that aside the watch takes care of itself. I noticed less than 5 seconds a day drift. I can image that if you don’t care for the watch that this would get worse.

Some people run the chronograph constantly to act as the seconds hand, but this will reduce the time between maintenance visits.


Other Options

In this price range there are a large number of watches as I mentioned, however in simple terms of bang for your buck, nothing comes close to the features of the Maestro. There are other Hamilton’s, of course, and some high end Seiko’s in the range, not to mention the very highest Christopher Ward’s, but really (having owned all these makes) the Hamilton has them beat.

Going “up” from the Hamilton, you are in Omega (also owned by Swatch) and Bell & Ross territory. Here there are there options for tool watches, but little as elegant as the JazzMaster before literally doubling your spend. In the end, having the extra cash in your pocket while “beating” the more expensive marques for quality, is a really good feeling.

The Conclusion

The Hamilton JazzMaster is the best watch I have every owned. It has brilliant performance, elegant looks and features aplenty. It would take wild horses for me to part with it.





Where to Buy


You can buy this watch and its siblings from Amazon (everything is on Amazon these days). I do hope you get one, and if you do – let me know if it brings you as much joy as it brings me.




Other Pictures

2013-06-27 12.21.172013-11-12 22.31.102013-11-12 22.30.56

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/22/hamilton-jazzmaster-maestro-auto-chrono-watch-review/feed/ 0
Endings and Beginnings – Basho and Cesca return home from their adventures http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/04/endings-beginnings-basho-cesca-return-home-adventures/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/04/endings-beginnings-basho-cesca-return-home-adventures/#comments Mon, 04 Nov 2013 18:04:58 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11703 Endings are actually beginnings too. This is what I told myself as I sat in the tiny, oh so tiny, room in Osaka. It’s one of those glass half empty or half full sort of things.

The reality of what we had done was before me and it came in two flavours. One said, “How far have we walked?” The other, “How much we have spent?” They spun around and in and out of each other as I tried to come to terms with the final journey; that of coming home. I am perhaps better equipped to deal with this than most as I have moved home many many times in my childhood, for both good and bad reasons. I have said goodbye to childhood friends, to childhood playgrounds, to schools and family members, and then stepped out into *the next*. It really doesn’t worry me too much. For Cesca, well for her – she spent a childhood away from her family in private schooling. I knew that, once back, she would simply and easily slip back into the slot they had for her, her relationships are defined by the connections to those around her and her family most of all. It has a little Cesca sized space in the family’s geometry and she would slot right back in. My family is very different with no such expectations, indeed redefining ourselves is the only expectation we really have. My brother, mother and I really don’t feel we owe anyone anything.

So, the future didn’t worry me. What about the past?

I once invented a group of secret religious agents patrolling the populous of a future society, using their nannite upgraded brains to become masters of all the big data in the cloud. Just by looking at you, they could access all of this and know everything about you, mining for patterns that suggested crimes. Sort of the NSA mixed with Google Glass. Anyway, they had a secret that all the members of this family were actually ex-criminals captured by their leader. To become one of the “Inquisitors” you had to face your crime (through a virtual machine representation of the End of the World (Earth having been abandoned)) and it would leave a scar. This scar would be both physical and mental and would act as an anchor to reality. They had a saying for this, a mantra, which they would repeat to each other.

“You will carry it with you…” says one.

“Always” returns the other.

I would carry the results of our travels with me. They would be shown on my body and in my mind, they would ground me:

Whenever I felt sorry for myself I would remember the poor, naked, mad and abandoned lady laying in a Calcutta street and it would remind me that I have no right to consider myself hard done by.


Whenever I cut loose I would recall the time floating down Laos rivers on a lorry inner tube and realise that I have nothing to prove by “having it large”.


Whenever I feel spiritual I would walk the mountains of China in my mind and know the truth of the Universe having one heart.


Whenever I feel the rising and setting sun I would think of the hundreds of majestic sunsets experienced from the top of cliffs, beaches, fields, inside busses, out of windows, over great cities and boiling up grand canyons, and I would know that nature and beauty are worldwide – something shared by all mankind.


I recall the food, the drink, the animals, the wonderful plants, forests, wetlands and jungles and these bring me back to peace when surrounded by only the manmade world.

IMG_0888 copy

I remember the people, their lives, their travels and trials. They would remind me that there are many ways to live life and that I should never be afraid of trying out something new.


The past, carried with me always, was brighter and more full of lessons. I had seen much while away and learned much, about myself, about humanity and about the world. It didn’t worry me.

The last night in Osaka, we went out to a local restaurant.



It was tiny and full of local Japanese. At first they looked a little askance at the large fellow and his wife ducking under the door hangings, but once we smiled and I bowed correctly (a shallow bow/nod of hello that says “formal nervousness” – the Japanese equivalent of the Indian head wiggle) we were beckoned to a stool at the bar. The menu was, of course, completely Japanese and so I picked at random and we ended up with steak, noodles and veg. There we chatted for a while and held hands.

“How do you feel?” Cesca asked.

“I feel ready,” I said.

She nodded.

“Me too”.

She smiled and squeezed my hand.

“What was the best place for you?” She asked.

“New Zealand,” I said with no hesitation. “If we had visited there last rather than at the beginning- well, I would not come back. I could move there”.

“We will one day”. She said.

I wasn’t so sure. I looked around the restaurant and even though it was as foreign a place as I could imagine, even though I was on the very far side of the world, I felt as if I was already home and I realised that home, for me, was where Cesca was. I looked at her. Nothing else mattered.

“We will together” I said.

The next day we took an early bus to the airport and went through the classic rigmarole of modern air travel. As the plane took off I thought again about endings actually being new beginnings. That it is all about perspective. It’s like there are two wolves inside you, one black, snarling and made of fear and hate, the other one glowing white and made of courage and love. They are constantly at war with each other for your heart.

The one that wins is the one you feed.

I knew that by travelling to the far side of the world with my love I had fed the white wolf inside. I relaxed back in my chair and we flew home, together.

LHR again

Basho and Cesca travelled to 12 countries in 12 months and then returned to England. On their return Cesca decided to retrain as a garden designer and Basho got a new job which led to a new career.


Their first child, Samuel, was born 2 years after their return and their second child, Sophia, was born 2 years after that.


Their home is full of pictures from their travels, helping them to feed the white wolf.



Dear readers, when I started writing about our year away, we were still away! Yes, it has been a 5 year project of epic proportions and I am truly happy to have made it all the way to the end without compromising. There are 102 articles on Outside Context regarding travel, most over 1000 words and some stretching to 5000! This includes adventures in mountains, beaches, temples, with tigers, pandas, spiders, among travelers, locals, and even the Buddha’s remains lost in a Delhi museum. Through it all Cesca and I found our sense of the world challenged, our love of the East renewed, and our love for each other deepened. Frankly, I could never have expected so much. It has been a real honor to recount it all – living through it once again in detail and in the company of others. I’m as unready to leave the writing as I was to return home. Next year will see use producing our first joint project on travel and I plan to redo some of the films I have posted (particularly the New Zealand one). Then I have in mind to actually do what all this is the avoidance strategy for and write a novel. On what, as yet – I am not sure, but I am sure that writing is bug and a huge pleasure. Thank you all for reading our work. Basho

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/04/endings-beginnings-basho-cesca-return-home-adventures/feed/ 1
Tier 1 Military Simulation – Operation DEADLIGHT Promo http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/04/tier-1-military-simulation-deadlight-promo/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/04/tier-1-military-simulation-deadlight-promo/#comments Mon, 04 Nov 2013 13:42:48 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11697 Mission : Operation Deadlight


Date: Oct 2013



This incredible Tier 1 event included elements of a Tier 1 Sub Op and involved two live kidnaps of players obtaining their Tier 1 Team Badges. Some fantastic action, strong story and roleplay. Basho is proud to present some of the finest milsim on the planet.


The Promo:


What You Get:

  • Operation Deadlight main feature in HD (15-30 minutes) (.wmv format)

  • Operation Deadlight DVD .iso (for burning to DVD), which also includes:

  • Operation Deadlight Promo
    Tier 1 End Game Brief
    Photo’s from the event

  • Operation BladeRunner main feature (15 minutes)

  • Operation BladeRunner DVD .iso (for burning to DVD)








http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/11/04/tier-1-military-simulation-deadlight-promo/feed/ 0
Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, green tea and finding inner peace http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/10/06/kyoto-nara-himeji-green-tea-finding-inner-peace/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/10/06/kyoto-nara-himeji-green-tea-finding-inner-peace/#comments Sun, 06 Oct 2013 21:24:13 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11426 I have written before about travellers wanting a point to it all, to travelling. In part this is perhaps seen as them wanting to justify the vast cost of travel; to have a point for spending all that money, or – as commonly happens – someone else’s money. But, this isn’t really it. Really it is the mental equivalent of touching a bandaged wound to see it’s healing. People travel for their souls’ sake. Either to find it, or to realise that they didn’t have one in the first place.


The problem is that travelling is sold on the conceit that this is definitely going to happen to you and that hanging around in mountain retreats, seeing sights and meeting locals (always more authentically grounded than those back home) will change you. That through the hardships, and the new friendships, the traveller’s very mind will be indelibly opened and some Great Ultimate Truth be finally revealed.

It might well be, but the thing about Great Ultimate Truths is that they don’t ever tell you what you expect to hear. If they did you would never need to look for them in the first place. It’s like trying to find your keys, lost in your house somewhere – they are always in the last place you look. I mean that literally of course, as why search after finding them? But, I also mean it in the sense that you have in your mind an image of where they are and this image is necessarily wrong or they wouldn’t be lost. So, you search all the places your mental image leads you to and still you do not find them. Now they are truly lost and it is only when you let go of those prior images that new thoughts can be revealed. It is not always easy to do; who amongst us has not searched the same place multiple times for something they have lost? It’s as if we expect reality to bend to our will and for our perceptions to be true. However, letting go of what you think you know is what you have to do when travelling; you have to let go of your imagined thoughts about, well…


Travelling gives you so much time, opportunity and space to take your mental map of the world, of reality, and tear it up into strips. One sunset at a time, RRRIPPP! One meeting with new people at a time, RRRRIP! One bungy, RRRIPPP! One mountain, RRRIPPP! One jungle, one desert, one bus journey along sun-laden rice paddies at a time.

Even, one cup of tea?

It sat there. Perfect, green and steaming slightly. Next to it a little cake had been placed by the Kimono wrapped Japanese lady.


Tatami lined the floor it sat on running up to the paper walls and up to the windows looking out on the moss garden and to bamboo creaking in the wind.


Beyond, in the distance, the ancient Japanese castle “Himeji” rose in white tiered beauty to the warm sky and off the slanted roof into the infinite heavens.



In front of all this sat Cesca having exactly the same moment as I: a moment of pure peace, of letting go my flawed ideas of what is and simply letting be.


I let out an enormous mental sigh. No epiphany came, but I could feel one inside, a germinating seed, which would flower when it was ready. I picked up the tea and tried it. It was what is known as Matcha, which is a ground leaf powdered green tea whisked to the consistency of a light cappuccino. It was delicious.


At that moment I fell in love with green tea of this type and again (as I do every morning) with Cesca.

If this had been a movie, then we would have faded to black right there and then and just rolled the credits. But this wasn’t a movie and the perfect moment was just a moment. If my realisation of a Great Ultimate Truth was anything it was that. Moments are what make us who we are. They are what we constitute of. We exist only in those moments. In order to have peace, in order to be free, we must exist in each moment without bringing baggage from the previous one, or presumptions about the next. Only then can you exist at peace enough to find life beautiful. Zen and Daoism, embodied. As the late great Alan Watts said:

“The past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist, there is only the present. That is the only you that exists.”

Our previous day in Kyoto had been taken up with a visit to the northern part of the city, where the Golden Temple stands overlooking a large lake.



That was breathtakingly beautiful. Although bustling with visitors it was still atheistically pleasing. After wandering the grounds for a few hours, we visited the famous Tozando martial arts shop and I tried out some bokken (training swords) worth a thousand pounds each.

IMG_7497 IMG_7506

Finally we had made our way to the enormous T?dai-ji temple and surrounding deer park in Nara.


IMG_7985 IMG_7960


While petting the deer I spied a stone carving of the symbol of Ashoka.


This symbol is Indian (you can see it on all Indian bank notes) and Ashoka was the king that turned India’s national religion Buddhist (for a time). Indeed, we had stood in the Sarnath museum and seen the original carving of this stone. As I wondered at it being here I met an Indian family who had also recognised it and we had a very pleasant chat about travel and the connections between India and Japan. Another one of those strange meetings that stays with you. After, Cesca and I went into the temple.

It is huge.

Inside a gigantic (14m high) bronze Buddha (Vairocana) statue is flanked by flying Buddhas and Bodhisattva’s.



Around the base the tourists walked amongst large statues of various Chinese, Daoist and Buddhist deities.


It was mightily impressive. At the rear a stall was selling Buddhist bead bracelets and I bought two, which Cesca and I still wear to this day. Inside the single and larger white bead, a prayer was placed that can be clearly seen when holding it up to the light. I don’t wear it to remind me of the temples and travels, Buddhism and Daoism are things I live now and not in the past, requiring me to conjure them. I wear it as a brand. As a statement of confidence. These bracelets are common on Kyoto and the best are carved in wood and each bead stamped with the symbol of the temple they represent. To collect enough for an entire bracelet you would have to visit 50/60 temples. Quite a pilgrimage. However, in the street, copies of complete bracelets can be purchased for around $30. I wondered what sort of person would buy one? Either someone who didn’t know the prominence (surely a forgivable but potentially embarrassing ignorance, as what would you say when someone recognised it?), or someone deceiving themselves and everyone else. Its like the wearing of a marathon completion t-shirt, but not having ever been running.

Near the temple was a lovely park around a duck pond. Sharing this pond with the ducks were a lot of turtles and we had the singularly strange opportunity to capture a duck and a turtle in the same photograph.


I fed the little snapper one of my chips, which he took and munched on happily.


Strangely, the thing I would most remark on was the public toilets, which speak volumes regarding Kyoto, they were cleaner than those in the most conscientious western houses. I honestly wondered if they were for public use. When they do something over here, they do it to a very high standard and hang the cost.

We then decided to change track entirely and Cesca took a lesson in Japanese Calligraphy at the lovely Kyoto Manga Museum.




I sat in the cafe and read some very interesting Manga (from the little that was in English) and enjoyed a fine cup of coffee.

After this is was time to leave Kyoto and Nara behind. It had captivated us entirely and I could have easily moved there to live. But, I was excited and eager to see the great castle of Himeji and so we caught the train out to it. From the station it is a nice walk across a park to the extensive grounds. Himeji has the largest and most classic Japanese Castle with a history steeped in the blood and tears of the samurai. It had been a true military building since 1333 and had survived everything the earthquakes, wars and American bombs could throw at it ever since. The result is an incredibly elegant white walled building rising up from a defensive mound.


IMG_8334 IMG_8342


Inside it is all high quality wood and antiques with stairs leading from level to level and its wall decked in treasures.


IMG_8380 IMG_8375


IMG_8369 IMG_8366

We took our time climbing up to the top, but the view was well worth the effort. It was up there that Cesca spied a formal garden off to one side of the complex and soon we had looked it up in the Lonely Planet and made a bee line for it.


We wandered very happily amongst the pathways, large fish-filled ponds and gardens until I spied a traditional tea house. It was a low building made of wood and staffed by middle-aged Japanese women in formal wear. After some faltering attempts to understand the deal, we were led, in our socks, to the Tatami room where the tea, and the moment arrived.

…and I breathed out as the final rip sounded in my mind. We had taken the final step away on our journey and now we would be coming back. Our final stop in Japan, our final stop anywhere on this journey, was Osaka. We collected our bags and took the train, leaving a part of us behind nut pocketing that special moment as a takeaway. I can picture it now and recall that I seemed to have found a true center of Universal balance.








http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/10/06/kyoto-nara-himeji-green-tea-finding-inner-peace/feed/ 0
Ad Posts http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/10/06/ad-posts/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/10/06/ad-posts/#comments Sun, 06 Oct 2013 14:53:04 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=12037

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/10/06/ad-posts/feed/ 0
Tier 1 Military Simulation – Operation SANDSTORM DVD release http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/09/29/basho-films-tier-1-operation-sandstorm-released/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/09/29/basho-films-tier-1-operation-sandstorm-released/#comments Sun, 29 Sep 2013 21:24:25 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11350 I know I know, its a year late… but, finally my film of Tier 1 Military Simulation‘s Operation Sandstorm is complete and released for immediate digital download.

(I did a write up of the event, which you can find here)

Mission : Operation Sandstorm

Date: Aug 2012



Working on reliable information released to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by the senior Al Qaeda (AQ) leader responsible for combat operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan – Mullah Kazim Numair, AKA PANTHER who was detained by Seal Team 6 (ST6) in September 2011, Task Force (TF) 76 carried out a series of Extremely High Risk (EHR) detention raids in the village of Gambir, Kunar province, East Afghanistan near the Pakistan border during March 2012.

Gambir proved to be void of any civilian population (CIVPOP) and was entirely occupied by Al Qaeda and Taliban (AQT) fighting age males. The village proved tough to establish a foothold in, but once the TF were able to break in to the village, they were able to occupy a compound from which to operate.
From this compound the TF were constantly harassed by the Enemy Forces (EF) and had to work in and amongst a constant threat from IED(s), mortar attacks, sniper fire to all out assaults on their compound.

The Promo:

DVD Menus:

screenshot.2 screenshot.1

What You Get:

  1. Operation Sandstorm main feature in HD (30 minutes)
  2. Operation Sandstorm DVD .iso (for burning to DVD), which also includes:
  • Photo’s from the event
  • Operation Sandstorm Promo
  • Operation Blackheart Promo


You can buy this film now at my new website for Basho Films:



I hope you love it!





http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/09/29/basho-films-tier-1-operation-sandstorm-released/feed/ 0
Tier 1 Military Simulation – Operation ORCHID DAWN promo http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/08/27/basho-films-operation-orchid-dawn-tier-1-military-simulations/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/08/27/basho-films-operation-orchid-dawn-tier-1-military-simulations/#comments Tue, 27 Aug 2013 16:33:11 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11201 New release!

Just fresh off the render machine is our latest production for Tier 1; Operation Orchid Dawn.

In aid of the charity ORCHID – Fighting Male Cancer, Warrior (UKAZ) in association with TIER 1 Military Simulation Ltd is proud to present Operation ORCHID DAWN.

North East Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

ISAF Commanders have received high level intelligence indicating a large increase in the amount of insurgents crossing into the Paktika Province Afghanistan from across the nearby AFPAK border and Pakistan.

Paktika’s Provincial Governor, Gulabuddin Mangal has indicated that he is against the use of his province and its capital Sharana being used as a staging ground by insurgent Al Qaeda and Taliban (AQT) fighters and has agreed to allow a United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) Task Force (TF) to be deployed to the region in order to Kill / Capture specific AQT High Value Individuals (HVI) and protect a scheduled meeting in the Capital between the governor Mangal, ANA, ANP and ISAF Commanders. The meeting is set to ensure that the flow of insurgent forces crossing the AFPAK border into Afghanistan is put to an end for good.

TF 842?s mission is set to be a dangerous operation made more complex by having to operate in a hostile urban environment populated by civilians as well as insurgents. The TF will face a constant threat of who is friendly and who is the enemy.

We know the enemy will use every available means to defeat the TF which will include: Car Bombs, IED’s, Suicide bombers, Snipers, Mortar barrages and all out attacks on the coalition forces and their Patrol Base (PB).

TF 842 are therefore to prepare for an Extremely High Risk (EHR) counter insurgency operation in an urban environment.


The Promo:



About the film:

I had a lot of fun with making this film, which features some of the great “serials” (events in the game) devised by Tier1. So much effort goes into these and I look forwards to showcasing some of that in the final film.

Available to order now – instant Download!


Images from the film:


OD16-09-2013 20.23.07 Image13 Image12 Image5 Image6 Image4 Image11 Image18 OD16-09-2013 20.23.16 Image17 Image10 Image3 Image2 Image9 Image16 Image15 Image14 Image7 Image1 Image8


Hope you enjoy it – if you do please share on Facebook and Twitter!


Many thanks!




http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/08/27/basho-films-operation-orchid-dawn-tier-1-military-simulations/feed/ 1
The Zen Gardens, Our First Days in Kyoto http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/06/20/the-zen-gardens-our-first-days-in-kyoto/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/06/20/the-zen-gardens-our-first-days-in-kyoto/#comments Thu, 20 Jun 2013 20:33:13 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11146 The bullet train pulled smoothly and serenely into the station, totally belying the speed it had demonstrated when blistering through the Japanese countryside.


As I stepped down into the shiny and neat Kyoto station the entire history of Zen Buddhism flashed through my mind. In short: this city was the last step before Zen came to the West. Kyoto is a city almost totally given over to the religions of Japan. Alike an Eastern, but much calmer, Rome. Much more so than I had imagined.

We wandered from the station to our hostel which was more of a specialist guest house (ryokan) than anything we stayed in elsewhere. It was beautifully made of wood and traditionally laid out based on the size of the tamati matting. Our bed was a fold out futon in a very small room, but since we were the only people staying there we spent our time in the larger shared space. This shared room was my very idea of heaven. It was totally empty apart from a low table in the center. The sliding doors let in a good amount of natural light and the room was exceedingly peaceful.


I sat there and felt totally calm and happy, while perused a map of Kyoto locations and planned our visit day by day.


Basically, Kyoto is a historical city par excellence. If history, architecture, artistic beauty, Zen Buddhism and the samurai are not your thing, well – why on Earth did you come to Japan in the first place!? Kyoto was home to the Japanese emperor for 1000 years and the heart of Japanese Buddhism and Shinto. The city and tourist areas are roughly square in shape and the first of its tourist locations reachable either on foot or by local overland train. This is a doubly good thing as it is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited.

Cesca dragged me out of the room and we wandered through the Higashiyama district, which lay against the lower slopes of the Mountains to the East, and marvelled at the historical recreation and preservation.


Wooden buildings line the old-style streets under which small traditional shops plied their fare. Around twisting stone paved alleys gaggles of Geisha titter into their hands as their photographs were taken by passing tourists.


Zen monks stood silent and still, collecting alms.


The warm climate led our steps invariably to food parlours where the quality level of Japanese ice-cream shamed those of my own city. Yes, heady and fantastical  – a real trip into a long-ago world. I had been in city areas preserved in time for tourists before, from America through Australia and all around Asia, but no single location captivated me like this one. Unlike many of those other time-capsules this one had a real treat at the end in the form of Tofuku-ji temple.


The entrance starts with an enormous, two storey, “gate” that tells all visitors in no uncertain terms that the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism built buildings to last. Indeed this complex has been in place since the 12th century.

As we arrived at the temple, one I had spent a lifetime wanting to visit, I stepped up the stairs to be loudly and sternly told off by a Miko (temple lady) for having my shoes on. I took them off quick smart. Apologising to the lady, who was still chiding me, I asked if we could enter.


This particular “sub” temple was founded in 1346 and is justly famous for its history. For example, in one of its halls the plan for the famous Battle of Sekigahara was drawn up. Walking through beautiful corridors we emerged into the gardens.


The first was situated against the wall of a large courtyard and was made of stones. I had heard much about the stone gardens of the Zen temples, but nothing prepared me for first seeing them.


The courtyard was lined by a wooden deck to sit and view the garden from. Cesca and I sat and looked at the shapes of the rocks.

IMG_6668  IMG_6655

Quiet descended and we were one of only a handful visiting. The sun slowly moved across the sky.


I considered the garden… and time disappeared.

I write often about Zen, Buddhism and the awakened mind, but these gardens exemplify this to a degree it is hard to take all at once. The setup is deceptively complex, as they are expressing Universal concepts that should you not be familiar with them you can quite easily miss. You are asked to consider the rocks and the stones. The common question is “are they supposed to be islands in the ocean, or mountains in the clouds?”

This question is a trick.

In Zen poetry, the poetry of my namesake Basho, the setup is both the same and the trick easier to see. So, let me jump examples to that before returning. Take the following Zen Poem:

Furu ike ya,
kawazu tobikomu:
mizu no oto!

This is the original Japanese and it doesn’t translate perfectly, but one example (by Alan Watts) would be:

The old pond,
a frog jumps in:

The first line sets the scene. We imagine old ponds, lily pads and water. Then the second line conjures up the frog, the element of nature found in all Zen poetry and again something we imagine. The final line cuts across this imagined scene with a sound. When we imagine a sound we almost “hear” it and that lets us feel, just for a fleeting second, that we are actually there by that pond hearing a frog jump in.

It is this “cutting across” that is the trick happening in the garden. Remember that in Rinzai Zen the emphasis is on “seeing one’s true nature” through “sudden awakening”. Consider the question of the garden again,


“Are they supposed to be islands in the ocean, or mountains in the clouds?”

A duality. Zen teaches that, in the end, there *are no dualities in nature*, this is our mind imposing form on the shapes, the shapes in front of us are… shapes – *we* make them into clouds, seas, mountains and islands. Thus when the great Chan (Zen) Buddhist Patriarch Huineng listened to two monks arguing over a flag blowing in the wind:

One monk said, “The flag is moving”.
The other said, “No – the wind is moving”.

Huineng stopped to say, “No! Your mind is moving”.

So, are they mountains or islands? Neither, they are rocks! The mind imposes shapes and patterns on the world outside that don’t really exist – just like, and here comes the point,

Your “self”.

You ascribe a duality to yourself. That is, you have a mental point of view called “You” and this is distinct from everything else. The purpose of a Zen garden is to show, by way of example, by way of a question with a sudden realisation of an answer, that there is no self, no duality of you and the Universe, you are *what the Universe is doing right now* and, eventually, this doing will stop. Your imagined self is just like the flag, just like the stones, no more than a “projection” your mind makes moment by moment.

Now that, my friends, is gardening!


We sat and felt the sun on us and everything else.


After around 30 minutes or so, we clasped hands and squeezed silently then walked on. The next garden was very beautiful indeed. It had been planted completely in moss cut into incredible little square shapes.


It was simple and elegant, refined and lovely. This led to an observation platform overlooking the cherry trees and some water in a wide stream.


This is one of the famous places to come in April to see the cherry blossoms fall, a national symbol of the truth of life, and an obsession.

IMG_6486 IMG_6646

As romantic as that sounds, this temple is probably rammed full to the rafters during those periods.


I much preferred it when we were there because it was quiet and serene. I took a quick look into the monk’s rooms.


The paintings were fantastic and I felt a sense of place. I was glad someone actually used this temple for what it was built for and had been doing so for nearly 800 years.


Indeed my heart was finding peace in these temples. I wondered what it would be like to live in one and then I remembered the intense hardships of Zen and thanked the Dao that I didn’t.

Doses of reality are one thing, living plugged into reality permanently must be a great hardship. What Terry Pratchett called being “knurd” (“drunk” backwards), which in his novels is a painful mental state (caused by imbibing too much of a certain coffee) where all comforting illusions are stripped away and reality – with all its attendant horrors – is grasped. Knurd people usually and desperately seek out strong drink to set the balance again.

We left the Zen temple and decided to pay a visit to the home of the other great religion of Japan, Shinto.

I understand Shinto very poorly. In fact my only exposure to it, before coming to its home, was through the work of the anime’s of Studio Ghibli. It is a form of worship, or veneration, to do with the idea that things have a Kame (Spirit) and these can influence your world. It had become the national religion of Japan, and put the Emperor on a divine pedestal, but I knew it went back over 2000 years and was therefore more a type of Folk Practice than formal religion. Much like Daoism then and the more I was to experience Shinto, the more I was to realise that it was descended from China’s Daoism in the same way Zen was descended from China’s Chan Buddhism.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is probably the ultimate Shinto experience. The shrine runs up the side of a pleasant mountain walk through ancient forest, stopping at the various smaller shrines along the way. The mountain itself is considered holy and people have been wandering up here since 798AD. The most incredible sight was the collection of Tori gates at the base called Senbon Torii.


There must have been a thousand of them stacked one after another and forming wooden tunnels up the hillside.


I read that each had been donated by a company to bring good luck and a blessing from the Kame. It was also obvious that school trips come out here as a large collection of folded paper faces, of a fox I believe, were hung around a shrine about half way up, but while we were hiking it was empty enough.


IMG_6972 IMG_6977

At the top of the first path (about 45 minutes in and roughly half way up the mountain) it opened out into Yotsutsuji intersection, which has a very nice view over the city.

Next, as a break from temples (even I can get “templed-out”), we visited Nijo Castle, which was built in 1603 for the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. After the era of Shoguns passed with the Meiji Restoration, Nijo became an imperial palace for a while before finally being opened up to the public as a historic site.


The castle itself is of the classic layout comprising dark wooden corridors (some with special “nightingale” floors that squeak to announce visitors) leading to simple but beautiful square rooms. This was a fascinating view into the history of Japan’s strongest ruler, but it was the garden that really captured our attention.



Around a large pond, this wonderful combination of stones, trees and flowers captivated both Cesca and I for a good couple of hours.



I was finding Kyoto a very peaceful place to visit and we happily caught the train back to our guest house to plan our next few days adventures. We knew that soon, all too soon, we would be back home and this amazing year would be fading into memory. I started thinking of a plan to keep it alive.



http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/06/20/the-zen-gardens-our-first-days-in-kyoto/feed/ 0
“CHOJUN – A NOVEL” Review: The real Mr. Miyagi http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/06/01/chojun-a-novel-review/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/06/01/chojun-a-novel-review/#comments Sat, 01 Jun 2013 18:31:19 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=11018 It is said that you can only truly know someone by fighting them, for in the stress of combat the mind of the other is laid bare: their intentions, their fears and their mental balance. However, this is when facing an untrained mind. The master’s mind is like the void states of Zen Buddhism known as Mushin and Zanshin, the flowing stream and the rock in its centre, from which actions flow without recourse to any thing, not even a simple desire for victory. When fighting someone with such a mind state it becomes impossible to discern his intentions and thereby incredibly difficult to defeat him.

His mind is empty.

An “Empty” mind is the true meaning of the word “Kara” in “Karate” and not, as is commonly repeated, “unarmed”. A master’s mind is so “in the moment” that there is no thought before action at all; he just does.

Where does that ability come from? What are the teachings that explain this? It is an oft-repeated belief, whispered between those who practice the martial arts, that there are secrets to be found in the teachings  Secrets of striking, secrets of technique and even secrets hidden in plain sight. Different arts have many versions of these legends. Most common is the supposed perfection of the long dead masters – who usually died with just enough time to pass on the secrets to a select few, either in the form of a manual or perhaps a special kata. Also common is the idea of the “true” secret being hidden in the most basic teachings; the end-is-the-beginning, so to speak. For example one may be taught to block a simple attack, but then many years later be informed that the block is actually a grab, timed differently, and that this was the secret teaching all along. This sort of thing is the source of the famous “wax on, wax off” teachings of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid movies. Movies written by a GoJu-Ryu practitioner.

This is also an underlying thread in Goran Powell’s novel named after the founder of GoJu-Ryu Karate, Chojun Miyagi; The real Mr. Miyagi. Goran himself is a senior black belt in this style and so is ideally placed to recount his founders searches for the truth through his art. This is Goran’s second historical fiction novel after 2010’s vivid account of the legendary founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, in A Sudden Dawn. In a way this could be a sequel to that work as the insights into the relationship between mind and body, brought to China by Bodhidharma, heavily influenced the development of all the martial arts when Chinese culture spread through the countries of the East.

One such country was the island of Okinawa. This large island stands as a crossroads between Japanese and Chinese cultures (both country’s claim ownership of it) and the arts of the native people are heavily influenced by the pair. The masters of Okinawa were people searching for true meaning through training the body and mind to become one. In Karate, destruction of the opponent is not the goal, rather it is improvement of one’s self through the iron-forge of the will to become something greater, something more “in touch” with the high philosophies of China and Japan.

As Chojun himself said, “the ultimate aim of karate-do was to build character, conquer human misery, and find spiritual freedom”

Deep mysticism meets iron practicality.

Such a crucible of cultures produced many of the primary Karate styles including the 100-times-folded steel of GoJu-Ryu, which is part Daoism, part Zen and all Okinawan. Its teaching approach is stoic, tough and its masters display a great practical wisdom. This is the Chojun found in this novel; a man searching for secrets and finding answers in the simple and relentless training of his body and by proxy his spirit. Reading some of his writings, those that can be found on the web, one finds a man who freely used Daoist and Buddhist terms in his descriptions of his art. So, it seems to me that his search led him to the realisation that strong Karate is the pure connection between mind and body.

We view the great man through the eyes of fictional student Kenichi Ota, who senses, from the first moment of meeting Chojun during a typhoon, something very noble and deep in the graceful power the master exudes. Kenichi’s eyes are those of a child gazing in wonder at this father-figure. Chojun is a man of humble honour, great humour and love for those around him. This master-student relationship is at the core here, as it was in the previous account of Bodhidharma.

Both characters are cruelly buffeted by the winds of war and fated to live through the last horrible acts of WWII. Truly, the American assault on Okinawa was brutal for all those involved (Japanese losses: 107,539 soldiers killed and 23,764 sealed in caves; 10,755 captured. U.S. losses were over 62,000 casualties with 12,500 killed or missing. Okinawan civilian loses: 142,058, which is 1/3 of the population!) There is a strong argument that the spirited defence led to the Americans rethinking the invasion of Japan itself. A revaluation that led to the most heinous consequences imaginable. The truth is that the nuclear bombardment of Japan was unnecessary from a military point of view, as Japan was going to surrender anyway (the now-undefeatable Russians declaring war on Japan closed off all hope), however the American’s knew that only a killing blow would force that surrender to be unconditional. Those tragic and monstrous events also affected the personalities and relationships of everyone who survived them, but Goran avoids the temptation to make this a plot point to divide the protagonists of the story; deciding wisely to stick to the truth of what actually happened. On the fictional side Kenichi grows up and his struggles threaten to define him, until one pivotal point when the master’s voice resounds in his mind. This is a position I feel most can relate to, that deep relationship with a teacher coming to mind as a guide, be it a martial master, Jesus or Ghandi.

In writing style Goran reminds me of Clavell (Shogun) or Yoshikawa (Musashi) in that his work is simply structured, skilfully produced and a joy to read. At several moments I was moved by the narrative to wiping away a few tears of either joy or sorrow (but then I know the history really well from my degree studies into the ethics of nuking Japan).

In the end, Chojun himself remains somewhat of an enigma on the page and necessarily so. His great achievement was to found a style that has not only endured, but has grown to become one of the preeminent Karate movements in the world today.

Goran paints a picture of him that exemplifies the man, re-formulating the legend, but still manages to make him feel very human – something that could only come from the author’s deep love for his art.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, it is said that you can only truly know someone by fighting them. Well, I have fought Goran Powell (when I was his student for a short time) and in combat truly his mind was as a void, but I think that – through reading this book – I can at least claim to know something of his heart.






http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/06/01/chojun-a-novel-review/feed/ 0
Chan Buddhism, Daoism and Zen – Journey through the East http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/05/17/chan-buddhism-daoism-and-zen-the-traditions-journey-through-the-east/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/05/17/chan-buddhism-daoism-and-zen-the-traditions-journey-through-the-east/#comments Fri, 17 May 2013 18:54:12 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10944 Writing an article about Zen is almost a contradiction in terms. That is unless I simply leave the rest of it blank…

Just a finger, pointing to the moon…

Just a finger, pointing to the moon…

 But, I don’t want to do that!

At its basic level, Zen is an exotic a form of Buddhism. The Buddha lived approximately 2500 years ago on the Indian subcontinent (the exact dates of his life and death are still uncertain). Around 450 years after his death the collected sayings and teachings of his “Middle Way” were collated into canonical form and spread ever Eastwards, surviving the almost total destruction of Buddhism in its native lands.

Early Chinese Buddhism


Lord Buddha teaching, Laos

The large diaspora of Buddhist thought existing in China (Over 80,000 pages!) can be partly explained by the Buddha having spoken out against distributing his teachings solely in Sanskrit (A language of the priest class).

“My Dharma has nothing to do with beautiful language. Just make sure the meaning of the teachings is not lost. This is my thinking. You should speak the teachings according to whatever pronunciations the various sentient beings can take in and understand”

– The Buddha (Vinaya-matrka)

This is unlike the Christian Bible, which was transmitted only in Latin to preserve the core message and the need for priests who could be trained to read it. Thus as the Buddha’s teachings were carried through the countries of the East the canon was translated into local languages and took on local flavours.

Words have a power.

Buddha statue in Beijing

Buddha statue in Beijing

Around 100AD Buddhism came to China via the trade routes between the two nations. This early Buddhism was taken by the locals to be a foreign version of Daoism (Taoism) and for the Buddha to be a Daoist Immortal of sorts. This Daoist focussing lens would affect the Chinese form of Buddhism for the next thousand years, but its greatest influence was in this early transmission period. At their core, both religions believe similar things and up to a point one can clearly imagine how the Buddhist texts, when translated into Chinese, would echo Daoism.

Daoism and Buddhism


Mount Wudang Daoist

One of the problems with comparing these two traditions properly is that they both almost always use just their own terms in a circular manner. This is a reliable method of preserving a tradition of course, but it makes the whole thing only “hang on itself” and resist comparison. There follows an attempt in writing their similarities in the same terms. This is not as shocking as you may think as in the 4th Century the Chinese, trying to make sense of Buddhism (and especially the operation of Karma, which scared the elite), came up with “Keyi”, which translates as “Concept Matching”. Only after special status was given to the Buddhist Lotus Sutra (which speaks of Emptiness) by new translators in the beginning of the 5th Century, did the Chinese start looking for differences in this “Foreign Daoism” rather than similarities.

Daoist temple atop mount Wudang

The roof of a Daoist temple atop mount Wudang

Daoists believe that there is no God, only an unknowable “energy” that pervades the Universe and gives rise to the things contained within it. This “energy” is not alive like the west imagines a God to be, it is not even “intelligent”, it is like a naturally occurring pattern and its influence drives what we call nature. It is “behind” reality, “invisible” to our inspection and detectable only by its influence. It is an operation of the universe and the fabric of reality upon which the cosmos, and everything in it, is interweaved. It cannot be put down in words exactly what this “energy” is and its ineffable nature means our experience of reality is relative. Daoists have come up with a set of principles by which life may be lived that reflect the way this “energy” acts upon reality. Daoists believe that in living in harmony with this “energy” is like being in tune with music, a harmonious vibration that leads to a natural life, the best life you can have. The name they give to the “energy” principle is the Dao (Tao). Since it is without form the Daoists reject duality of “self” and “other”, believing that all reality is in fact one weaved together by the Dao. Daoism has no central author or dogma, but it has the concept of the sage and the greatest was said to be an ancient and legendary Chinese librarian called Lao Tzu who wrote a short book just before he retired.

Contrast that with the Buddha’s teachings:

Giant Buddha Statue in Japan

Giant Buddha Statue in Japan

Buddhists believe that there is no God and reality is like waves that rise and fall upon a great sea. For the Buddhist there is no part of reality that is permanent and unconnected from other parts, including the parts that make up “you” – the same way that a sea is made up of drops of water flowing together and dependant on each other. Since everything is impermanent and subject to change, the “I”, the “self”, is not actually a thing, rather it is the (current) convergence of impermanent energies.

“Transient are all component things.
When this with wisdom, one discerns, then one is disgusted with unsatisfactoriness
This is the path to purity”.
– The Buddha (dhammapada:227)

In a very real way there is no duality of “you” and the “Universe” – they are the same thing. What you call “you” is what the Universe is doing right now. This puts “consciousness” at the primacy of reality with all objects being a creation of the mind. To return to the wave analogy, when we watch the sea it appears that the wave is travelling forwards, but really it is just the sea rising and falling up and down in a sequence and the movement is an illusion. Thus it is with your “self”, where the sequence of events you experience, combined with the memory of the past, give rise to the illusion of the self.

A Buddha statue in Sarnath, India

A Buddha statue in Sarnath, India

However, one day the wave will fall and your life will end, then the wave will rise and your energy will live again (in a new combination of components). This happens over and over and thus you are reborn anew in a cycle. You don’t have a “soul” that survives this transition as, since all your components are impermanent, there is no separate “soul” to continue. Buddhists believe that this truth was discovered by an Indian wandering prince, who had renounced his position to seek a way of curing the world of suffering. His name was Siddhartha and, after many years of struggle, the nature of reality was made clear to him in a moment of enlightenment and he became the Buddha.

Mahabodhi temple India, the place of enlightenment

Mahabodhi temple India, the place of enlightenment

He then spent the next 45 years teaching his method of release from the cycle of suffering, which advocated a Middle Path and a life of compassion for all living things. Through this, eventually, all the Karma accumulated in life will be spent and you will not be reborn, rather you will sublime into an unknowable state called Nirvana.

“Whatever arises dependently
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.
Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.”
– Nagarjuna

Both these teachings see the Universe as existing in impermanent flux. Both believe that the fundamental truth of reality can be practically obtained by enlightenment and that living within the set of principles that such an enlightenment leads to is the path to happiness. Moreover, both traditions rely heavily on meditation to produce insights.

This convergence came to a head in 520AD when in Loyang there was a serious debate on the subject of “Did Lao Tzu leave China to be reborn in India as the Buddha?” Clearly early Chinese thought equated these two as equal sages, or perhaps the Daoists were doing to the Buddha what the Indian Hindu’s did when they successfully claimed the Buddha as a mere Avatar of Vishnu. 30 years later the country descended into turmoil and many of these combined Buddhist=Daoist ideas suffered extreme persecution and fell into the abyss or were forced into the ascetic life in the mountains.

After this chaos subsided, Buddhism in China was restored to new heights by four great schools including the returning ascetic monks who formed an initially highly secret Buddhist sect we now call Chan.

The Rise of Chan


Bodhidharma Statue India

This sect traces its lineage to a form of Indian Buddhism primarily focussed on the insights gained through meditation (Dhyana). The legend has it (a legend created/remembered by the Chan Buddhists themselves) that the master of this form carried his understanding from India to China. His Dharma (Buddhist) name was Bodhidharma and his way, with its “direct” methods, was unlike the Buddhism that had travelled before him. He arrived around 520 AD either by boat, or by walking over the mountains, and was soon in Loyang where he was granted audience with the Buddhist Wu Emperor. However, Bodhidharma thoroughly confused the emperor with quizzical answers to his questions and a distain for the methods of the preceding priests and so he soon moved on from the capital to one of the holy mountains of China called Song, home of the now-famous Shaolin Buddhist Temple. He is said to have lived in a nearby cave and legend has it he stared at the cave wall in deep meditation for 9 years. Over time he attracted some dedicated pupils including a dhuta (extreme) ascetic called Huike. Eventually this tough and direct version of Buddhism found fertile soil in the East Mountain Community (in Huangmei) under Daoxin and then his pupil Hongren (601 – 674).

Chan Belief and the Operation of Karma


The key to understanding Buddhism’s Middle Path is the Buddha’s explanation of Karma. This is a term appropriated from the Hindu Vedas, and which has a subtly different meaning for the Buddhists. Karma is the operation of cause and effect, or to put it more correctly:

Cause, Action and Effect.

In the flux of impermanence, where the whole of reality is co-dependent, and you are but a wave of energy momentarily collated, what happens must be the result of many other things happening. This is simple cause and effect. Karma is the law that what happens to “you” (remembering the above) are the results of your “doings”. In other words, performing actions brings about karma for you. An accumulation of karma results in your part of the “wave” rising again and your rebirth. The operating effect of Karma may be so long term to be across multiple “lives” or it may be something happening directly in front of you.

For example: if I light a candle, it burns. It is my doing, my action that lights the candle. It is my karma that is created in burning it. Cause and effect mean nothing to the candle unless I light it. Performing karma-creating actions pushes around the wheel of life just a little and in the same motion leashes me to it.

According to the seed that’s sown, So is the fruit you reap there from,

Doer of good will gather good, Doer of evil, evil reaps,

Down is the seed and thou shalt taste The fruit thereof.

– The Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)

If I have “unspent” Karma (even from past “lives”) then I will be reborn again into this world of suffering. What the Buddha suggests is a cure for this in the form of his Middle Path through life that leads to two things:

  1. Enlightenment to the nature of the Universal reality.
  2. An eventual end to the creation of Karma through action and thereby an end to rebirth.

What happens to “you” after you have finished all your Karma is unknowable. The thinking is that you sublime reality into something called Nirvana. What that is, no-one knows as to sublime means to “go beyond” and in this case the thoughts we have to describe Nirvana are themselves in this Universe and so cannot “go beyond” to describe it.

Nevertheless, the Buddha’s enlightenment was to realise that Karma is what causes rebirth and it should be dealt with. So what causes Karma? The Buddha placed bad Karma’s roots as “ignorance” and “craving”, which are two negative things, suggesting that “negative” Karma increases suffering in the Universe and is what keeps you on the wheel. The mutual interdependence of everything ultimately means that there is no demarcation between what appears to be an individual and the Universe, and so causing harm is to directly create karma and eventually harm oneself. By following Buddha’s teachings, understanding his 4 Noble Truths and becoming enlightened, one stops producing this destructive “bad” Karma by no longer sowing the seeds for it. Therefore, a virtuous life (or lives, plural) directly leads to the removal of the “splash causing ripples in the pond” and thereby to the possibility of obtaining Nirvana.


How do Zen and Bodhidharma fit into all this?


Lord Buddha Vietnam

Translated into Chinese, the word Dhyana transliterates as Channa, which is where the Chinese sect got its name of Chan from. The essence of Chan comes from the (most likely apocryphal) story that the Buddha gathered his disciples and silently held up a flower. When one eventually smiled, he was passed the special teaching “outside the scriptures” that runs as follows:

“No reliance on words.
Transmission outside the scriptures.
Point directly at the minds of men.
See your Buddha Nature and be enlightened.”
– Daoyi (709 – 778)

By “Buddha Nature” the dhyana sect suggests a mental state of identifiable to the Buddha’s is the goal. In other words they believe that all people can be enlightened through the same processes that enlightened the Buddha. Indeed, all are already Buddhas, they just don’t comprehend this. The extreme persuasiveness of this idea is clear, as it promises that enlightenment is in your own grasp. Moreover, it is something immediate and not just reserved for a special few. Chan advocated a “sudden” enlightenment in the adherent, the testing of this by a master and the following it up with a “spiritual deepening”. The main method of seeking this enlightenment is called “Thusness”.

Chan Thusness


Giant Lord Buddha, Thailand

Thusness is seeing the truth of reality. For Bodhidharma this was the realisation that all reality is actually contained within the “pearl” of his own mind.

“For the first time I realised that within the square inch of my own mind there is nothing that does not exist. The Bright Pearl comprehends clearly and darkly penetrates the deep tendency of things”.
– Bodhidharma (Text 3)

All things that arise in the mind are parts of the Universe in flux. An example to explain this comes from the Chan Buddhist Patriarch Huineng a few generations down the line:

Two monks were arguing over a flag atop a pole.
One said, “The flag is moving”.
The other said, “No – the wind is moving”.
Huineng was passing and stopped to say, “No! Your mind is moving”.

For Bodhidharma the primary cultivation of Thusness came through meditation in the form of “wall gazing”.

Bodhidharma, Japan

Bodhidharma, Japan

He had little love for intellectual analysis of written materials, which he felt didn’t assist in changing Karma. This anti-dogma stance came from parts of the original Pali canon where the Buddha pointed out that “all dharmas are devoid of self”, “all phenomena are impermanent” and “all phenomena are suffering”.

Dharma is a word that was, strangely, invented by the British to be able to conceptualise the Buddha’s ideas more clearly. It is therefore not very well translated and basically means both the system of analysis called the Middle Path and the actions required to achieve it. In some circles however the explanations of the Buddha (clearly not withstanding the quotes above) are taken to be so in line with reality that they are the operation of natural reality itself. Thus People often use Dharma to mean “nature’s way”.

Lord Buddha, Bodh Gaya, India

Lord Buddha, Bodh Gaya, India

Again, the drawing near of Chan’s Dharma to Daoism’s Dao is obvious. The differences between Daoism and Chan mostly center on Thusness being a void state and not the state aimed at by the Daoists (One with the Dao leading to becoming a Sage).

What the Buddha’s quotes above mean is that the dogma in the teachings themselves is also impermanent (obvious when one thinks about the line “all phenomena are impermanent). Bodhidharma took this to mean that the truth was not to be found in the analysis of the canon, but in the void of emptiness brought about by Dhyana meditation. When in this void of Thusness, there are no conditioned entities or concepts. In other words: no “labels” can be created without at the same time separating reality into the dualistic “This [label]” and “Not-this [label]”. From this understanding we come to a characteristic of later Zen Buddhism in that it is full of seemingly complicated “This thing” “Not-this thing” arguments that can confuse very quickly. Sometimes this confusion is on purpose, but more often than not it simply referring back to the nature of Thusness being un-contingent and devoid of labels/concepts. This leads to a common trap experienced by Chan Buddhists of all types in that “Void” itself becomes a concept rising in the mind. A classic error highlighted by another story of Huineng.

The Chan Patriarch was coming to the end of his life and offered to appoint the successor who could write a poem showing their understanding. The top pupil of the temple wrote the following poem:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a standing mirror bright,
At all times polish it diligently,
And let no dust alight,

Huineng, who was only a youth working in the kitchens, was read this and asked a monk to write up his response:

Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree
The bright mirror is also not a stand
Fundamentally there is not a single thing –
Where could any dust be attracted?

Clearly the first pupil had fallen into the trap and conceptualised the void. Huineng is probably the most important Chan master in all history as his sutra (the Platform Sutra) is the main historical record of Chan back to Bodhidharma (That was until the – very few – writings of Bodhidharma pupils were discovered in a walled-up cave in Northern China in the early 20th century). Huineng’s sutras are probably not literally true historical record, as they were his teaching method, but they highlight his beliefs and understandings. His (supposed) mummy is still seated in zazen meditation pose in the Nanhua temple in Caoqi.

A monk practices

A monk practices

The school of thought crystallised by Huineng was to solidify Buddhism and ensured its survival in China (along with Daoism and Confucianism) for the next 400 years. One practical difference between the Chan and Indian forms of Buddhism is found in the monastic life. Chan (and Zen) focus on work by the monks, “A day of no work—a day of no eating” goes the famous Chan saying. This means Chan Buddhist Monks don’t need to beg for food in the morning like those in Laos, for example, as they are allowed to “work”.

Laos monks begging each morning

Laos monks begging each morning

This puts a very different view on the monastic life and Chan/Zen monks are very hard working indeed.

Transmission to Japan


Zen Garden, Japan

Two main methods of Chan training were developed and different sects put emphasis on one of them or the other:

  1. Silent Illumination through Meditation in Zazen.
  2. Koan Riddle Introspection.

Koans are a form of poem or riddle with no clear answer. Examples include:

Who is it who now repeats the Buddha’s name?
Who is dragging this corpse about?
What is this?
What is it?

They started as short stories of previous enlightened Buddhist masters, but soon developed into testing riddles that pointed to direct enlightenment. The student is given the koan to study and examines it for meaning. He is then called back before the master to answer the riddle. Should his answer point to an enlightened insight then he progresses. If it doesn’t he is sent away with a pat on the back to try again.

A Buddha hidden in the back of a giant statue

A Buddha hidden in the back of a giant statue

While Buddhism transferred naturally to Japan through trade, none of the Chan schools flourished there until the two methods were transported by the Japanese themselves to become Zen (the Japanese translation of “Chan”).

Zazen Silent Illumination was transported in 1223 by the monk Dogen who was sent across the sea to study Chan with a mind to solve the riddle of “Why Buddha’s have to obtain enlightenment if all are born with Buddha Nature inside?” He tried the Koan schools, but found their lack of scripture reading to not be for him (something he was extremely critical of later in life). He then trained in the Silent Illumination method at Mount Tiantong. He received instruction he recounted as follows:

“To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.”

After 4 years in China he took this teaching back to the Kyoto temple called Kenninji and wrote up a guide on how to use Zazen meditation as the core of practice. Eventually this led to his setting up his own school of Zen that became known as Soto (the rumour is that his precocious nature and disdain for the “lax” monks in Kyoto led to him being driven out on his own).

One of the Kyoto temples

One of the Kyoto temples

This form of Zen is the most well known in the West thanks to a number of high quality books written by (modern) Zen masters settled in the US. Its teaching is focussed on Zazen being the only true Zen practice:

“To practice the Way singleheartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life.”

This echoes all the way back to Bodhidharma insights. Dogen created a very large volume of writings and records of his teachings, thoughts and sessions with other monks. This record shows that while he is one of the fathers of Zen, he thought it a silly name:

“If you use the name of Zen School you are not decedents of Buddha ancestors and also have poisonous views…”

His masterwork is called “Shobogenzo” and when he finally died of illness, in 1253, his pupils carried his message forwards with gusto.

The other great form of Zen transmitted from China is Rinzai; the inheritor of the Koan school and the foundation of that most Japanese of spiritual practices; the tea ceremony.

Traditional Japanese tea

Traditional Japanese tea

Japanese monks had visited China to learn Chan from the 6th century forwards. These monks found among the Chan schools a sect founded by Linji (translated “Rinzai” in Japanese) Gigen (d.866 AD). They were the masters of the Koan method and had an emphasis on sudden awakening missing from the Tendai tradition found in Japan. Rinzai Chan was brought back from China by Myoan Yosai in 1187 who then left the Kyoto temples and founded Shofuku-ji on the island of Kyushu. Rinzai has a much more convoluted history than Shoto, but its practice and nature brought rich and powerful adherents and during the Samurai eras large, important temples were constructed in Kyoto to house Rinzai masters and become teaching centres of excellence of all Chinese arts.

A Kyoto temple

A Kyoto temple

Rinzai emphasises “Seeing one’s true nature” as the heart of their teachings as well as a further deepening of any enlightenment before it can be formally recognised. Like Shoto, Rinzai has lots of Zazen, but this is coupled with Koan practice and hard work “done with mindfulness”. It is a rough, tough form of Zen that Bodhidharma would have certainly approved of. Rinzai himself was famous for beating his students with a stick to bring forth enlightenment and his koans were known for being very difficult to parse. He also shouted a lot, using the martial style shouts now seen in Karate known as Katsuo (Kiai in Japanese). For example, it is recorded in the teachings that:

A Monk asked: “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
The Master gave a Katsuo.
The monk bowed.
The master said, “This is one who can hold his own in a debate!”

Sometimes these interactions are quite funny and speak a lot for the western view of Zen masters:

Another Monk asked: “Master, from where is the song you sing? Where does your style come from?”
The Master said, “When I was with Obaku, I questioned him three times, and three times was beaten”.
The Monk hesitated.
The master gave a Katsuo, then hit him and said, “One cannot drive a nail into an empty space!”

Amongst the influential Japanese Rinzai masters was the great Takuan Soho, most remembered thanks to his connection to famous martial artists and for the invention of a pickle that still bears his name.

True Self is the Self that existed before the division of heaven and earth and before one’s father and mother were born. This Self is the Self within me, the birds and the beasts, the grasses and the trees and all phenomena. It is exactly what is called ‘Buddha Nature”.
This Self has no shape or form, has no birth, has no death.
– Takuan Soho (The Unfettered Mind)

Most notably was his friendship with the great swordmaster Yagyu Munenori (1571–1646) whom he wrote to as a penpal and his sponsorship from the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who built for him the temple Tokai-ji in Edo (Tokyo). This deep-rooted connection to the Samurai meant that during the Tokugawa period Rinzai Zen flourished.

Both these Zen traditions survived Japan’s transition from Samurai led feudalism to a modern country during the Meiji Restoration, but the state religion changed to Shinto forcing Buddhism to adapt. However, Zen’s adoption by the Elite of Japan meant that it has had immeasurable influence on many aspects of Japanese life. From gardening to cooking, fighting arts to making tea, Zen has granted the Japanese a mindset focussed on the now and reaching into the void for creativity.

A Zen garden in Kyoto

A Zen garden in Kyoto

In modern times other forms of Buddhism have risen, most importantly of all “Pure Land” Buddhism that brings the concept of faith into the Buddhist Canon. Nevertheless, Zen remains the quintessentially Japanese form with a core of Indian Buddhism around the blended steel of Daoism and Chan. A history of thought stretching back 2500 years.










Images from my Travels or my Computer Wallpaper Collection, which you can download here: http://www.outsidecontext.com/2009/07/16/the-buddhist-wallpaper-collection/

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/05/17/chan-buddhism-daoism-and-zen-the-traditions-journey-through-the-east/feed/ 2
Mount Fuji, Tokyo and the 200 mph Bullet Train http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/05/03/mount-fuji-tokyo-skyline-and-the-200-mph-bullet-train/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/05/03/mount-fuji-tokyo-skyline-and-the-200-mph-bullet-train/#comments Fri, 03 May 2013 19:32:25 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10921 I wallowed comfortably in the exceedingly warm waters, the balmy mountain air was cool and smelled of the rich wood my surroundings were constructed from. I was butt-naked and in my first real Japanese onsen, the famous hot bath houses of these islands. The small courtyard contained a number of sunken baths of various sizes and yet I was alone. Another set of male travellers had been around and they had taken the cultural cowardly route and worn swimming trunks. There was no way I was going to do that, not that I am aggressively body confident, simply that I have been on a couple of naturist holidays and nakedness in front of others doesn’t concern me. When they saw my nakedness I think they were slightly embarrassed by their choice of trunks and very soon they left. The sun was high up and it was a beautiful sky-blue day. In the far distance, The only clouds I could see where those completely covering Mount Fuji. Somehow the fact that I couldn’t see the “old man” (few visitors actually do as it is clouded over so often) made its masked presence, surely enormous behind the clouds, a little exhilarating. Yes, this could have easily been my idea of absolute heaven and something worth travelling all around the world to experience. I had been imagining it just like this for nothing short of 10 years. If not for one thing totally ruining the experience…

I took a very long breath in and sighed.

Over a cheap speaker the onsen staff was piping in extremely irritating J-Pop bubblegum music. I have an eclectic musical taste, and like everything from Daft Punk to Miles Davis, but the sound was truly horrible. Try to imagine that a 10 year-old Kylie Minogue drank 50 cups of coffee, cloned herself 5 times and sang a song that sounded as saccharine sweet as having your teeth forcibly drilled out with Brighton Rock.

I tried, but I couldn’t take it for more than a few minutes and so rose from the heat and left to find a quieter place inside. Cesca wasn’t with me, she was in the girls-only side of the Onsen, and so I simply found a nice Japanese room laid out in traditional tatami style and went to sleep.

Yes, coming up to see the mountain from Fujikawaguchiko was a mixture of pleasure and pain. Our guesthouse up here was fantastic.


Equal best with the incredible YHA high up in Halls Gap, Australia.


All fabulously made out in high quality wood, with clean walls and large airy rooms.


If I could have bought the guest house whole right there and then I would have done so without hesitation.


It was lovely. The staff was the normal polite but seemingly-unhelpful Japanese found in these places. But, I was getting used to that as we eventually had quite an issue with the man in K’s House Tokyo.


During our Tokyo check-out, we had simply asked him to watch our bags while we went out that day. We had been guests there for almost a week. Every single guesthouse we had stayed in around the whole world had agreed to this. Literally, in every country, city and town featured in this journal we had done this. Mostly, they had a room to stick them in. Some places even had large racks to store them on.

He shook his head, “No.”

I tried reasoning, “Do you not have a room you can just put them by in while we are out? We will be back in a few hours.”


“Why not? You have made a couple of hundred quid off us, why not help us?”


“I can pay.”


I looked at Cesca and she at me. Clearly there was some huge cultural misunderstanding going on here, one where both parties thought that the other was being unreasonable. As is important when travelling in another’s country, I tried to see what the problem was from his point of view. Perhaps, space being of such a premium, he couldn’t fit our bags in his enormous guest house? Perhaps it was a security concern or because of terrorism?

Perhaps he was just an asshole.

Yes, I think that was it. So we left K’s and took them with us. Sitting in the lovely guest house by the mountain I felt that frustration leave me. The space was very special and airy. I therefore decided to create something, which is always a process that makes me feel better. I made a film while Cesca went out early to try to take photos of the mountain.





Afterwards we met up and went to the mountain’s visitor center. There we learned all about the great Mount Fuji;


it’s wonders and dangers.


But it was time to talk. We had considered WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), but the Japanese branch of this company had been exceedingly unhelpful in assisting us to find a place. I knew we were slightly off-season for many locations and had asked to peruse the “book” before buying it. I was happy to pay once we had selected somewhere, but the book was very expensive and if we didn’t find something then it would be wasted money that we could ill afford. The last thing I was trying to do was avoid paying the WWOOF people, but that is what they accused me off and in very angry terms. Consequently, I decided that I wanted nothing to do with them. This meant we were a week now unplanned.


“Darling,” I said, pitching my voice in the international husband tone for bad news. My voice said, without saying it, that I had bad news to discuss and I wasn’t being “difficult”, “horrible” or “mean” (all crimes in a marriage).

“What?” she said in the formal wife tones of response. Her voice said, in one word, that she recognised the pitch and, while she appreciated the inevitability of the coming conversation, her mood was not conducive to bad news.

Two words. A life time of conversation carried. All married couples can do this.


“We can’t afford to stay in Japan much longer,” I said, waffling as little as possible.

It was costing us nigh on 900 GBP per week to exist in Japan, barely exist. This was killing our already murdered, buried and recycled as firelighters budget.

“But-,” she began.

“I know. I love it too. A lot.”

“So why leave now?”

“No, not now, just earlier. I still want to go to Kyoto and also to Himeji, then we must go. What we must do now is change up the flights.”

She hugged me.

“Don’t worry,” I said my face buried lovingly in her hair, “we will come back.”



So, I went online and moved up our flight a week. While we had been in China we had already booked the bullet train tickets for Tokyo to Kyoto (they are much cheaper when booked this way as tourists). We collected our things and returned to Tokyo for one final night.


To celebrate our final Tokyo day we went to the Tokyo City Hall, which is a giant skyscraper with incredible (free) views of the city.


It was there, staring out of the windows, that Cesca got talking to a very nice middle-age Japanese man, who worked high up in Mitsubishi, he gave us a brilliant talk on the views around the tower.



His pleasant politeness, equal to our natural state, meant that a few happy hours went by together. Eventually we bowed and thanked him and parted company. Meeting people like that makes travelling worthwhile for me.

After the tower’s bar Sabatini drained more cash from the budget at an alarming rate, we moved onto Ginza and the giant Sony HQ.


This had some incredible tech exhibits and a mini cinema demonstrating the highest quality sound system I have ever heard, which was pumping out the Rolling Stones documentary movie on constant replay. Happily we went out that night to enjoy the nightlife and try a Japanese Internet cafe, which was quite an experience. Tokyo is quite lovely at night. The soft air, and pleasantly thought out architecture, well- we both could feel it. It is also very clean. I think that this is probably due to the ratio of Japanese to Foreigners.

To explain by way of example. Earlier that day we had been walking down a narrow road and ahead I could see some workmen digging up the street. They had the normal brightly coloured barriers up sectioning off half the street. To enable traffic to flow one of the workers was holding up the Japanese version of a traffic “lollypop” sign. I looked at him as we approached. He was the smartest looking workman I have ever seen. His clothes were immaculate and he was wearing bright white gloves without a blemish on them. Then, as we came closer, he  bowed. Cesca and I shared a look of wonder. In Japan people look like they take pride in their work, whatever that work is, and all the jobs are being performed by Japanese. Whereas in the UK many jobs are performed by immigrants. Now, before I start to sound racist let me clarify this point. My society unfortunately looks down on “low grade” jobs. We have foreign people do our cleaning, our road working, our caring for the elderly, etc. These positions are (quite wrongly) considered “lesser”. Not so in Japan. All jobs are (predominantly) performed by Japanese; fully paid up members of the culture and society. The unification of the culture, the 98% Japanese, the “Japan for the Japanese” sentiment, means that these workers are not devalued. Honour comes from doing your job well and not by a valuation of personal wealth. I really like and respect that. I am not advocating a “Britain for the British” approach, I am just advocating a culture where it is about “doing” rather than “having”.

The next morning we got up early and went present shopping. Probably the best knife shop in the world is the Kiya store in Tokyo.


It was established in 1792 by a dynasty of knife makers who can trace their lineage back to 1571! Here you can buy blades of simply awesome quality, fit to grace the home of any Samurai.

IMG_0934 IMG_0932

My brother, back in England, had become a chef and I wanted to get him something special. 100 GBP later I had the greatest chef’s knife ever made by a man as well as a little something special for my pocket.


IMG_0938 IMG_0940

Buying here is the only way to get these knives as they don’t sell on the web or mail order. Either go there or don’t have one. That is an attitude I saw all over Japan. They really don’t appear to go in for American-style globalisation at the small level of craftsman. It is something of a pilgrimage to fly to Japan for a knife, so I hope he liked it!

Presents packed in our bags, we headed down to the Bullet Train station.


The white long-nosed train pulled into the platform and we both marvelled at it.


Travelling in this style had long been a dear wish and, I bet, a wish of many westerners.

IMG_6391 IMG_6390

The train was well proportioned and we sat on the right side as it glided out of the station exactly on time.


The speed it got up to was honestly shocking.


I have been travelling on trains all my life and commute into work, but I wasn’t ready for the speed of the world moving past the window and it made me a little speed sick.


“Bloody hell!” I said to Cesca.


“Never mind that,” she said, “look!”

I followed her pointing finger to see in the distance Mount Fuji clear all the way to the top! I rushed to start my camera and I barely caught it as we zoomed through the Japanese countryside and it was lost behind buildings.


Nevertheless, we got to see it after all and we both smiled to each other in happiness.

After the short journey we arrived in Kyoto and I found the city I would most like to live in in all the world…







http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/05/03/mount-fuji-tokyo-skyline-and-the-200-mph-bullet-train/feed/ 0
Tsukiji Fish Market, Adventures in Sushi and the Edo-Tokyo Museum http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/28/tsukiji-fish-market-adventures-in-sushi-and-the-edo-tokyo-museum/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/28/tsukiji-fish-market-adventures-in-sushi-and-the-edo-tokyo-museum/#comments Sun, 28 Apr 2013 16:26:00 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10853 4am in Tokyo, Japan trickled around and we were ready to go. We skipped breakfast and headed down to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.


It opened at 5:30am and back then you could wander in free. Now, you have to pay and cannot arrive before 9am, but we were one of the few brave souls who dared to turn up at opening time. We wandered around the outer market spell bound. It is a collection of tightly knit stalls with private owner-operators selling specialist fish. Each stall owner is usually the expert in selecting this type of fish, freshly bought from the inner market to display on his stall.


The sheer variety of produce on offer is incredible, from octopus


to stonefish


and lots and lots of tuna.



It is said that world’s highest quality fish are sold at Tsukiji to the greatest fish restaurants in the world.


I don’t doubt it, as Japanese restaurants are famous for demanding the highest possible standards. Jiro’s Sushi restaurant is a well-known example. It has only ten seats and yet a quality of food so stellar that it earned three Michelin Stars (the most possible). Professional fish buyers for these restaurants buzz around the stalls inspecting, dealing and tutting; playing the local game of buying the best for as little as possible.


It’s fun to watch, but you have to be careful as motoring dangerously around the market at breakneck speed are little one-man shuttle vehicles used by the workers.

IMG_4659 IMG_4583

They reminded me of forklift trucks in reverse and are just as sturdy. Luckily, Cesca and I are well versed in dodging motorised danger, by virtue of the years spent in Amsterdam avoiding trams, and so we were not hit. However, knocking down tourists has, in recent years, become such a problem that the fish market now limits the tourist numbers that can visit it and is, I understand, moving to a new locale. No wonder the tourist is considered somewhat of a nuisance. We took in all sorts of incredible fish piled high and huge tuna being sawn into chunks by the workers.



All this food on display was making us hungry! Therefore, we splashed out on something special; sushi for breakfast. If you are coming to Japan on a budget that doesn’t include the 200 GBP dinners (with a 2 months waiting list) on offer at Jiro’s and the like, and you really want to have something more genuine than low-grade sushi served on a conveyor belt, then this is the place for you. At one side of the market a small collection of sushi restaurants offer the real thing, served in the “real” atmosphere.

Sushi is a small meal. It is served for you usually seated at a bar and in a very direct way; with the chef cutting the fish up right in front of you. The vast majority of restaurants in Japan are small, really small (I will cover this in more depth in a later article), but none are smaller than traditional sushi joints. We entered the restaurant and I counted 15 seats. Not much more than a cafe in England. For example, my brother ran a Harvester restaurant (part of a medium-end chain) that seated 350 diners. Nevertheless, there were subtle clues that this was the real deal. Firstly, it had Japanese people eating in it.


Secondly, the menu was in Japanese with only one neglected looking poster with English subtitles.


Thirdly, the chefs were impeccably clean and the knives sharp.


We bowed the short bow of hello, smiled and took up some seats at the bar. The chef served some tea and waited for us to choose something. I knew a little about Sushi, but not enough to order it in Japanese. Thankfully, the chef and the locals were more than willing to assist. We managed to get them to understand that Cesca was allergic to squid and then got stuck in. I do not exaggerate to say that it was the best sushi I have ever eaten.


An important part of that is the restaurant experience.

Preparing sushi properly is a traditional Japanese art form. Indeed running a sushi restaurant at a high level requires impeccable skill in more ways than just being handy with a sushi knife. It looks to be the work of the “master” chef, but really he just assembles the food in what almost amounts to a “performance”. It is the other staff who cooks the rice, marinate the fish and produce the flavours. The “master” then theatrically puts it together in front of you and presents it with the coolest of slight nods.


He then watches you eat it.


While this is done for clues to the taste, your preferences for the exotic and even your handedness, it is and intense experience to be watched like this. You could hate it, but I found that it enhanced the taste of the food. Indeed, the whole place had a special ambiance I would normally expect in a far more formal setting. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was friendly and happy to see us, they just take presenting small slivers of raw fish served on little fingers of rice incredibly seriously.


How seriously? I hear that at the top restaurants the octopus is massaged for 45 minutes to enhance the flavour before going under the blade. I can respect that!

We eventually paid up and left. We were heading down to Kitanomaru park area to see the Budokan, the home of Japanese martial arts, and then the rest of the day was given over to visiting the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which houses the fascinating history of the city.


IMG_5202 IMG_5201

Very new and well laid out to put you in the experience, this was one of the best museums I ever visited.


Tokyo has a very long and interesting history intertwined with the history of the shogun rulers, who decreed it to become the primary city in Japan.


The Edo period is the part of Japan’s history after the famous “Period of the country at war” that was won by the irrepressible Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara.


His story is probably the most fascinating of all those in Japan’s past, but I think my favourite tale told about him is that he had an English-born Samurai Retainer called William. How an English sailor from Gillingham came to become a trusted Samurai Hatamoto to the great Shogun of Japan is too large a tale to recount here. Suffice to say it is one of the more incredible tales you could ever hear and a highly fictionalised version of it can be found in the novel “Shogun” and in the TV series of the same name. For a more down-to-earth retelling see the book “Samurai William“.


The Shogunate founded by Tokugawa ruled Japan from 1600 right up until the 1860’s and changed the country forever. Peace brought changes that broke the war-focussed class structure and brought about the eventual demise of the samurai warriors. His Grandson, the third Tokugawa Shogun, threw out all the foreign influences after some of the Lords were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits. When the priests protested, he sent them to their deaths. Yes, Japan was a very rough place back then and the country was plunged into a couple of hundred years of effective isolation during which they fell behind the rest of the world in all but some hyper-specialised ways.

IMG_5250 IMG_5228

This imbalance was eventually compensated by the Meiji Emperor when the Shogunate finally faded. If one is interested in Tokyo historically, then the periods immediately before, during and immediately after the Tokugawa dynasty are the most colourful. We will return to this when we get to Kyoto.

Anyway, the main hall of the museum features a life-size wooden bridge modelled on the original entry bridge to the city, and recounts how the Shogun made it the capital and renamed Edo to Tokyo.


It then covers the history of the city and its people up to the modern times. We both loved it.

That night, tucking into our 7/11 meal, we decided to take a break from the city to get some fresh air and perspective. So, the next day we hopped onto the train and headed up to Mount Fuji…






http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/28/tsukiji-fish-market-adventures-in-sushi-and-the-edo-tokyo-museum/feed/ 1
Tokyo: Akihabara, Asakusa and Shibuya http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/18/tokyo-akihabara-asakusa-and-shibuya/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/18/tokyo-akihabara-asakusa-and-shibuya/#comments Thu, 18 Apr 2013 20:37:23 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10778 Tokyo, like Beijing and especially like Delhi, is a city that one could spend a lifetime in and never feel a sense of completion. The Japanese way of doing things enhances this feeling with wards (districts) dedicated to different aspects of the culture.


How these districts come about is fascinating. Cities grow organically in a process known to science as “emergence”, where seemingly random elements eventually fuse together to bring about a collective specialisation.


This is similar to how an ants’ nest works. When foraging, the ants just run around leaving trails of a special pheromone. When another ant comes across this trail, it follows it. Eventually one ant finds food picks it up and returns it to the nest. The ants following it also find food and before you know it, they all go running to and from this location. This builds a collection of trails constantly getting stronger as more ants add to it; a kind of positive feedback. Before long, all the ants have found this “smell” and thousands are pulling at a troublesome morsel, working it back and forth towards the nest. There is no “thought” going on in any one ant, just a simple holistic ruleset, it is behaviour emergent from that ruleset that appears intelligent. City enclaves grow in the same way, but the human ruleset for a city is not smell:

It is commerce.


A great bakery opens in a new area of the city, for example, and pretty soon people are heading down that way for fresh bread. Before you know it, other bakeries open nearby as the trade demand for hot wheat products is higher here. Hey’presto! You have a district specialising in bread! Give that 100 years and you get an enclave where all other types of business either move away or find a way of supporting the bread-shops.


There are other elements as well, of course, such as simple geography meaning that fish markets tend to be near docks, but this emergent behaviour, driven by money and “the market”, is one of the primary constituents of a functioning city.

In Tokyo we decided to visit as many of these districts as possible so as to get a feel for the whole thing. We started with the most specialised called Akihabara – home of Manga, Anime and the Otaku. It is strange, in a country famous for obsessive practice of one type or another, that being an Otaku is looked ever so slightly down on. Indeed it is one of Japan’s greatest exports as Otaku cultures can be found in many countries including my own, but nowhere is it so large as in its birthplace of Japan. An Otaku is a culture obsessive. The obsession can be over almost anything, but the meaning of the term is usually limited to Anime and Manga (the films and the comics respectively). Its Western translation is often given as “Geek”, but frankly the real meaning is far more derogatory. “Geeks” are people with a high quality technological skill-set, able to manage (particularly technological) concepts at high speed and with great memory recall. The memory aspect is the reason Geeks often use movie quotes and memes in communication, simply because they remember them so much better than “normal” people. A Geek, can therefore, have a full collection of social skills and be in the normal culture just as much as anyone else. The negative connotations of the word Otaku would perhaps better translated as “Weirdo”. There is a very large slice of “unreality” to the obsession of some Otaku and it can appear to others to be formed of “unhealthy”, or even “immoral”, attractions. It varies in type and scale of course. For example, some Otaku simply collect comics (like 90% of youths). Others like dressing up as characters from their favourite series and you can find many people walking Tokyo dressed as Hudson out of the film Aliens. That is not so bad and, given the girls dress up too, is probably quite a lot of fun.

On the other end of the scale it gets more disturbing. Hardcore Otaku, well… some will lock themselves in their bedrooms and have only “relationships” with jailbait girl dolls and “love pillows”, never speaking to “real” people at all. Why does this happen? I think it is to do with the market. Otaku culture spends billions on its obsessions and the market is simply providing what they want. However sordid it can get.

The most in-your-face example I encountered while in Tokyo was the cult surrounding Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE). This philosophical animated series features giant robots piloted by young school children, who fight to save the world from alien invasion.


So far, so normal. But that isn’t the half of it. NGE is dark. NGE sexualises its child pilots at every turn in a twisted and very repressed way. The main character is a young boy with crippling self-doubt, together with a girl who has probably been molested, a cleavage-heavy female guardian who drinks too much before she seduces him (he’s about 14 remember) and a clone of a girl who has no moral mind (say no more).


The robots these characters pilot fuse their computers with the child’s mind and cause extreme stress and mental damage on them in use. Over the course of the series they mentally degrade to breaking point. Eventually, in the bizarre finale, the world and everyone in it is literally turned into goo.

Like you do.

Anyway, I had watched NGE in China and, while I was impressed by its philosophical underpinnings, it left me feeling very unhappy and depressed. To sum it up in one sentence: it is dodgy. What I wasn’t expecting was to see it everywhere in Akihabara.


NGE had managed to reach some sort of Otaku nexus and bridged a huge number of Anime sub-cultures. I had heard of these periodical collective obsessions taking hold of Akihabara, but I would never have expected it to be this one.

Consequently, I felt very bad bringing Cesca into this area of town, plastered as it was with the NGE characters on all corners. I had imagined coming here all my life and here I finally was, but I couldn’t shake a sense of moral revulsion. So we didn’t spend as long as I would have liked to or had imagined I would. We visited the Tokyo Anime Center and I was able to happily relive some of the more sane and life-enhancing Anime like the magical Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle and the excellent Ghost in the Shell series. Both high quality, fantastical and moving.


We also visited Mandrake, the largest center of Anime and Manga merchandise in the world. Row upon rows of dolls brought a swift exit here when they started to disturb.

IMG_3927 IMG_3928

IMG_3897 IMG_3918

Then we went to Don Quijote, the massive discount store.

After that I was consumer’d, and definitely Anime’d, out and so we hopped onto the train and headed to Asakusa for a bit of classical culture. This area is most famous for its ancient and popular shrine, which sits at the head of a long series of shopping strips. Normally I would hate such an atmosphere, but these strips had been here for something like 200 years and deserved a little more attention.


Hundreds of small shops were being swarmed by happy tourists of all creeds. Interspersed amongst these were dozens of food outlets, some of them serving interesting foods,


IMG_3969 IMG_4087

and many traditionally dressed locals.


Including some in full Geisha outfits. Looking at one got me thinking, and the photo I think bares this out, that these were tourists dressed up as Geisha.

IMG_4068 IMG_4070

Still, they looked amazing and everyone was snapping photos of them.


The shrine itself was confusingly brilliant. Brilliant in that it clearly was of a very high quality and swarming with people.


Confusing in that there were no signs in English and we had no idea what was going on. It didn’t look like any shrine we had seen before.


Still, we washed our hands,


paid some money into the slot and got a slip from a draw.


I know now that this is a form of divination and that the paper had either a blessing or a curse on it. On our way out we stopped for some food and soaked up the atmosphere. The food was on simple skewers, but still cost a lot by our then standards. Already the lack of finances was beginning to tell heavily on our ability to do things that cost a lot. The atmosphere was, thankfully, free and worth its weight in gold.


IMG_4157 IMG_4155

Quite a place and an essential destination on a visit to Japan.

We returned to our guesthouse via the 7/11 for dinner of sandwiches. This sort of food was all we could afford. Mind you, I could eat like this forever – even low-grade food is great in this country!

IMG_0862 IMG_0863IMG_0864 IMG_0888

(Well, maybe not the “Cream Collons”)

On the walk back the sun dipped down and the city cooled. The light was something wonderful and we toured around the district taking it all in. I felt really at home in this city, but as I said to Cesca, Japan is not for the westerner as it is almost impossible to emigrate there.


The next day we caught the train to the fashion capital of the East and influencer of the world; Shibuya.


Shibuya is home to some of the most iconic buildings and locations in Tokyo. It starts right outside the station door with a statue of a little dog who famously waited for his master day after day, year after year. Unfortunately, the master had died and never came back. The little fellow is rightly considered an archetype of devotion and dedication and earned his statue.


Right opposite this is the famous “scramble crossing”, which is something that has caught on in the wider world and we have one in London now.

IMG_4292 IMG_4345

But these landmarks are small potatoes next to the Mecca of youth fashions laid out over the road in the 109 Building.

IMG_4391 IMG_4399

Here floor after floor exhibit fashion so forward that to the untrained eye it looked unfashionable. I suspect that the reason for this is this building defines the fashion in the first place, making it almost Avant-garde.

IMG_4400 IMG_4409

The prices of these items is also “forward”, and appealing only to the Otaku. For example, Buzz Rickson jackets (copies of those worn by US pilots during WWII) fetch hundreds here for an item that originally cost just a few dollars. Also “Porter” bags challenge even airport TUMI stores for sky-high prices. Still, they are lovely bags and speaking as a bag Otaku myself I would have loved to afford one.


Walking around this nebula-like birthplace of half the world’s fashion trends – constantly full to the rafters with the Japanese super-cool – Cesca spied a really expensive patterned bag and couldn’t stop herself from loudly exclaiming,

“I have that pattern on my ironing board!”

She always does things like this just as I am drinking something and my spit-take back into the bottle of water at my lips caused the liquid to rush up my nose and gush out into my hand, giving me both a coughing fit and clearing my sinuses in one fell swoop. The looks on the faces of those around me as they struggled with the twin emotions of being made fools of (so embarrassing) and trying to look snide at Cesca (herself an expert in branding) was priceless. I was laughing and coughing all the way back to the exit. We were clearly both way too uncool for a place like this, so we left and walked around Shibuya browsing the other shops.

Then Cesca saw something and gasped.

We were in a large bag shop that offered umpteen different styles and brands of bag and Cesca was jumping and squealing in glee as she dragged out of a pile a white bag with blue lettering. I took a closer look at it. It was made of that nylon wicker packing material used for industrial sacking.


The sort of thing you would expect to see full of glass sand or concrete mix. It had been fashionably recycled and sewn into a small hand bag, presumably because it would be unique and make some point about globalisation or consumerism.

“What’s so special?” I said.

“See this logo?” Cesca held the bag aloft and indicated a logo printed on the original sacking material in bright blue, which stood out from the brilliant white. The material had been artfully cut and sewn so that the logo was prominent on the the bag’s side.

“Yes?” I said and then it dawned on me, “you don’t mean?”

“Yes! I designed it!”

“Wow, you are so cool baby”

Cesca smiled very happily and did the little wiggle-dance she does when she is ecstatic (which I have always found endearingly cute and sexy).


I considered the logo; I have often remarked on the strange way the world must look to the Graphic Designer specialising in Branding. They must see their work everywhere, and indeed at home Cesca did all the time due to her designs for Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. However, to find her work here in Tokyo, the heart of coolness, on the far side of the planet and on such a fashion-forward product… Well, that was cool.

“You have to buy it” I said.

So, she did and still uses it today to hold some of her art gear. That put us in a very good mood and we spent the rest of the day browsing and supping. Highlights included an amazing traditional craft store and the large music stores. As night fell the district came alive and we had lots of fun peeking at the Love hotels (icky!) and the evening night life.

IMG_4504 IMG_4510

Quite a place Shibuya.

We returned late to the guest house, but sleep wasn’t long on the cards as we had plans for the next day starting before dawn.

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/18/tokyo-akihabara-asakusa-and-shibuya/feed/ 0
Arriving in Japan http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/13/arriving-in-japan/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/13/arriving-in-japan/#comments Fri, 12 Apr 2013 23:00:00 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10679 I have always looked at maps of the world and wondered if they skew perspective. America appears massive while Australia and India are diminished and Japan… well, miniscule. Even when I was young, I knew somehow that reality didn’t concord with this portrayal. I know now, for example, that India is mind bogglingly huge and that the Australian coast is a challenge to travel from bottom to top as the real distance is much more than any map suggests. As the sage’s say, “the map is not the territory” and nowhere is this more true than the depicted size of Japan and its capital Tokyo.


Even calling Tokyo a city is a misnomer, doing serious damage to the definition of that word. Tokyo is rated, by those who make it their business to judge such things, as number 3 or 4 on the world city index. Behind New York, my home of London and often behind Paris. This is almost comical and can only be due to the fact Japan is on the “other side” of the world, which is surely also the fault of the map industry as nowhere on the globe can be on one “side” or another. Any reasonable person’s judgement cannot put Tokyo as just an A+ (rather than London’s A++) as it has more land and more people than anywhere else. It is a new definition of enormous, excelling in every way and especially in those ways that matter to the traveller. For example is has double (double!) the Michelin Stars than the next rival, Paris. It has culture so strong and independent that it is one of the few places on my travels capable of resisting (by envelopment) current corporate “westernisation”. Indeed Tokyo’s goal, and one it has achieved since the Second World War, is not to simply swallow western values and culture, but to actually feedback and make us take some of it. Tokyo’s youth culture for example is everywhere in the west. Its arts of all types are prized. Its technology ahead and inspiring things such as the iPhone (such a copy of the Sony Clie).

Yes, Tokyo is not really a city at all, it is more like a ravening monster rising from the sea and stomping around the world, culturally leaving wet claw-shaped footprints all over.

In many ways this size is all that saves us from domination. It is so big and encompassing to not only be resistant to outside ideas, but also be an island of ideas that only look inward. What I mean is there is much in Tokyo that you would only find in this city as it can support an independent localisation of ideas not seen elsewhere. There is enough people here to make “success” of a product or service without ever leaving its borders. It has no need for globalisation. I found this out immediately upon arriving.

The airport ATM sat in the corner of the little booth. It had taken us an age to find it as there seemed to be a complete dearth of them, which contrasts to the UK where they are literally everywhere. I stared at it and had been doing so for 5 minutes. You see, I was trying to work out how to make it actually dispense cash. This is not a naturally tenable position for me to be in. In my western world I am a master of technology and at the top of the game. For example I was once in a hospital having a ENT specialist put an endoscope up my nose to check for Apnea. He took the viewing scope away from his eye and asked if I would like to see what he could through the device?

“Yeshhh” I snorted, the device up my nose and dangling into my throat was making speaking difficult.

He pulled towards him a large computer system mounted on a wheeled podium. It looked very new like the plastic wrapping had just been taken off. Into this he plugged his end of the scope via an adapter and then boggled at the machine trying to make it show the picture on the computer screen. Clearly he was unsure how to use it and which button sequence started the screen. After 10 seconds I gently reached across and said,

“It’s thishh one,” press, “then thishhh one,” click, “and thhen presshhh here,” I said indicating a final button.

The doctor pressed it and suddenly I could see on the screen my own tonsils from a very unique angle.

“How the?…” The doctor said looking at me in amazement.

Cesca leaned in and said, “He’s in IT and good at that sort of thing”.

All for naught here. This cash machine, and I checked again that it was as such and not some sort of exotic device for turning wood, had nothing in common with any cash machine I had ever seen. Some parts clipped open revealing a cavernous mechanical interior that looked like you wouldn’t want to catch your hand in it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it to accept a card, how to input how much cash I wanted, or even how to turn off the quietly instructive Japanese voice emanating from its interior. This is how everyone must feel back at home all the time I thought. Eventually, very eventually, I figured it out and the machine folded open like a flower to dispense some Yen. I remember thinking that this would surely be enough for a week.

It lasted a day. Japan is really expensive.

We caught the train into the city and my excitement started to build.


I had always wanted to visit Japan, ever since I was a child. So much of Japanese culture, that which made it to the west, was part of my youth. I had studied Karate for many years, I had read Manga and DT Suzuki, I watched Anime, I loved the movies of Beat Takeshi Kitano, I relished Sushi and I knew all the works of Japanese history made popular in the west.

And, of course, my taken-name, Basho, is from the great Basho of Japan. Bit of an obvious clue, really.


I knew that all this was about to be, embarrassingly, proved to be a delusion; a cargo cult compared to the real thing. Japan was, I always realised, far enough away that the western version of it would only be a hyped approximation due to, if nothing else, the fact that no one who knew better would be around to correct it. Strangely this made me all the more excited as surely we were to be “let in”, to gain the “inside track”. Surely, I thought, the inscrutability of the Japanese would be laid open to us and my knowledge of the place, such as how to bow properly, would open doors?

Tokyo, like all A+ cities, is made up of suburbs with their own flavour connected by a transit system that enhances this feeling.


This is the same as in London where you can walk down a few streets and be in a uniquely different area, but with a sense of transition. Get the tube everywhere however, and you feel like you’ve stepped between worlds. Tokyo has this in spades.


The first place we went to stay was on the edge of the central city and was a very clean suburb under the glow of the high rises in the short distance and beneath raised train lines.


Nestled is how I would describe it. It was quite peaceful and the main thing I noticed was the huge amount of vending machines lining the streets, which all lacked for pavements.


It seemed like they were simply everywhere, all along and offering different produce of all types. Unlike the large ones found in the UK, these were smaller and designed to be compact. They were also not given their own “space” like in the UK. Here they almost blended into the buildings and doors they stood silent guard at. More amazement was given over to the car parks. They were like a combination of a giant vending machine and a lift. You park your car in it, get out, press the button and the car is lifted up and away out of sight to be slotted in amongst others. Incredible the first time you see it. We arrive at “K’s House” and checked in. The local man working behind the counter was polite but unimpressed by our arrival. Not that we expected hotel-like hospitality, but he was clearly bored of Westerners. The other thing that struck me was how mind meltingly expensive it was for a room. The cost was around £35 each per day. This literally made my head swim for a few seconds as I calculated the costs of being Japan for the time we had planned. With food, travel and a little light entertainment we were looking at something like £800 per week. That would have lasted us a month in India.

Japan was going to cost us, so it had better be worth it!

Let’s find out…



http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/13/arriving-in-japan/feed/ 0