Outside Context http://www.outsidecontext.com Travel writing, reviews, philosophy and airsoft Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:50:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Christopher Ward C60 TRIDENT PRO 600 Review http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/24/christopher-ward-c60-trident-pro-600-review/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/24/christopher-ward-c60-trident-pro-600-review/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 17:46:01 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=12249


There is nothing like buying, owning and enjoying watches for inducing consumerist fervour in men. Perhaps the love of cars comes close; but, in watches we find something that enables us to tell the world who we think we are. Of course some disagree with this sentiment, and in a special way disagreement with it is also telling the world who you think you are. For example, we all like to feel that we are an individual, unique entity; someone with taste and discretion; someone who makes good choices; dare I say: someone stylish? But, how can we express this in the world? How can we don a marker for all to see?

Well, of course, it is said with some justification that “clothes maketh the man”. I believe that a high quality watch is very much a part of that. It is jewellery for men and for many men it represents 100% of their interest in jewellery. It falls to this single purchase to settle the matter; however, watches are also a symbol. Not for nothing has the watch become the modern engagement gift given to a man. The lady gets a ring and the gentleman gains a watch. That watch prices can challenge even those of diamonds, for their stratospheric potential in bringing your bank manager out in hives and heaving fits, then this comparison is sometimes a financial one as well. The symbolism is ripe and a watch is often used as the marker of some form of achievement or maturity. For example Army divers get given a CWC watch on completion of training (although I am told they mostly wear Citizens), Air Force fighter pilots are gifted a Gshock and I saw many students gifted a watch by their parents on University graduation day. Movies follow this meme very closely. We all know Bond loves his watches, he’s a brutish gadget man of the highest degree, but note that he is always gifted his superwatch by Q. Similarly, Will Smith was gifted his Hamilton in Men in Black by his employer upon completion of selection. We also see lavish watch shots in movies such as the new Kingsmen, which even in the advert had a Bremont watch placement. No doubt the hero is given this watch at the moment he completes his internship and becomes one of the movie’s namesake secret agents. The watch is a select and special gift, limited in numbers, and marks the owner out.

Indeed, it’s when you see such symbolism in the products of Hollywood that you have to ask if you are being manipulated? This is a form of (fictional) celebrity endorsement and if the hero is not real, one might wake up and wonder if our perception of ourselves is real either and if we are thereby all being taken for a ride by the watch industry? Are prices and their price hiking a method of inducing fake scarcity? For example of this happening in other industries, take diamonds. Diamonds are not actually rare at all and a huge self-organising market carefully keeps the prices high. Watches are not rare either. There is a dazzling amount of choice to be had; more than can perhaps be found with any other consumer item. This directly leads to two basic attitudes when it comes to watches, what I call the Price and Quality points-of-view:

  • Those who only need to tell the time and don’t care too much about how this is achieved. This view wants as to pay as little as possible for the product that does the job.
  • Those who find the design, engineering and precision of watches to be fascinating. This view wants to have a product of as highest quality as possible.

Watch manufacturers use the relationship between these two to control watch prices.

To explain, any business starts as either a bespoke or a volume operation. As each cycle of the business comes around the board will often set the balance of the company’s finances (the rate at which money goes in and out) in such a way that the two values of Quality and Price go up. It has to happen slowly because if the Price hikes overnight, no matter the Quality of the product, sales will decrease as the customer will be able to buy what it perceives as the same Quality product for less elsewhere. This relationship works interdependently. However, the power of a brand (something that can be endorsed) is that it introduces Stickiness into this equation, which is simply the measurement of how likely the customer is to go elsewhere when Prices rise (or indeed Quality falls). Eventually, over a long enough period and with very careful management, the Price of the product will rise high above its normal relationship to the Quality. This happens mainly because the client actively enjoys the product so much that he defines himself through the relationship to it. He is “stuck”. The Price can then rise to almost any level because the Quality is perceived to be in relation. Combined with a “limited supply” the price will rise even faster and stay high (a la diamonds).

The upshot is that the high-end brands build their way to the top and stay there by inducing the customer to be a sticky and loyal brand advocate. For watch manufactures like Rolex and Patek Phillippe, this has now grown out of all relation to reality. Their stickiness is so high that they can effectively charge whatever they like for their product and people will still pay it as they have gained a legendary perceived reputation for quality. A perceived reputation mark you. With all that top-end profit they can, of course, actually make a quality product, but you have to ask yourself how much headroom there is in the price?

This all flashed through my mind when I looked at my Sales Director’s new Rolex Submariner (that and the feeling that he was a git). Surely nothing else he could have purchased, no suit (who knows a good suit these days?), no new shoes (Churches are ubiquitous), nothing else could have raised his personal style higher than a watch purchase.

“Bloody hell!” I said, “When did you get that?”

“Well,” he smiled, “when I found out how good a year we had”.

I told you, symbolism and the perception of quality. Neatly tied together in a bow by the marketing machine of Rolex and priced to be scarce.

I hate all that. I hate the feeling of manipulation that comes with the high marques. Indeed for me I am interested in only the point where quality and price are at the perfect balance. This I call the Golden Mean; the perfect point where you are going to get a higher quality product, but pay the smallest headroom for the intangibles; the terroir of the brand. I want all the value to be in the design and build of the watch, not in the gimmicks of putting it on James Bond’s wrist, nor in the marketing manipulation of my perceptions. Particularly by Hollywood, although sportsman endorsements are just as galling.

I want to do business with the Young Turks, these are the up and coming horologists who love what they do, who love the art in a watch and who are refreshingly small and thus cutting out the marketing dollar. It is a landscape with far more choice and the offer of a more personal relationship with the manufacturer not his marketing department. These are much more interesting foothills to be in and looking up, the peak of the mountain, with its small number of brands clutching perilously to the outcroppings at the top and clambering over each other for the flag, is not as far away as it appears. It’s all a trick of perception.

With this feeling of getting more of what you pay for, we turn to the review.






The Review

I have reviewed three Christopher Ward (CWL) watches since first buying a C4 Corax in 2007. That was my first introduction to the brand and a very exciting beginning. Since then I have owned many CWL watches, but it has been the dive range that has really got me excited. That sort of excitement that comes from getting a beautiful object at the right price. I took the Kingfisher, the granddaddy of CWL divers, all around the world and put it through more stress and strain than I thought possible. It laughed it off. On my return to England, and to mark a new career change, I bought the C60 Pro. This I reviewed as well on this site, and frankly, I have not been able to find anything approaching its Quality versus Price since.

Well, until now.

Christopher Ward has released a new version of the C60 Pro with some significant upgrades. These upgrades have been part of the general changes in quality going on over at CWL towers. For starters, CWL has been bringing out some very high-end watches of late after teaming up with another horologist Johannes Janhnke. At least 4 watches were priced at, or around, 1500 GBP and one reached higher still into the 2k plus territory. This was a remarkable move for the brand. As I explained above, any business gently moves upwards in a natural progression and CWL had been moving up with the original C60, the success of which I was glad to play a small part in. However, it appeared that with this large jump to a post 1k standard price-range, CWL was attempting to go head to head with some perceived higher end makes such as Tudor (who also use the ETA movement). The reaction in the official CWL forums was one of shock. It wasn’t that people didn’t think these watches were good enough to challenge in this space, it was that this space was naturally one of more headroom in the price than strictly necessary.  It was also out of the simple pocket reach of most of the regulars, myself included. This was feedback not lost on CWL, who have worked some engineering feats to bring those watches in the 1-1.5k bracket down to 995GBP. A welcome reduction in headroom and back to where the stickiness of the brand is at for the moment.

As I said before, CWL is a rising brand and so now, more than ever, is the time to get on board before prices rise even further.

The main question then for this review to ask: is the new Christopher Ward C60 Pro 600 a significant enough upgrade from the previous model to deserve the price rise?

The Options

CWL have worked up a large selection of new Tridents including movements in ETA 2842 / Sellita 200-1, Ronda 515, ETA 2893 (for GMT) and their “in house” custom movement of SH21 for the top model. This combined with two sizes at launch, and a host of colour and strap options, means there is a dazzling number of models in the collection. After much debate on the forums it was generally agreed that the red bezel/black face and the black bezel/white face models were the most pulse raising (However, I went for the white option).


This represents CWL swinging for the fences and trying to please all bases. The lower end Quartz models will retain the customer loyalty of those either not sticky or not in pocket. The high end SH21 movement continues the brand’s enhancement of its own cachet and the ETA/Sellita movement are the industry standard for this price range. Indeed also the price range above this as I explain in the section about movements.

At the top end the SH21 holds court with its true “in house” movement:

With our own in-house, 120 hour power reserve automatic Calibre SH21 at its heart, the C60 Trident COSC 600 is marked out immediately as something special. That this version of the chronometer is limited to a worldwide limited edition of only 300 pieces, the adjective “special” runs the risk of understating its importance.

The engineering excellence of Johannes Jahnke’s ground breaking movement is matched by the superbly constructed all-new marine-grade stainless steel case which will keep Calibre SH21 dry as a bone all the way down to a remarkable depth of 600 metres (2000 ft). Not only that, the zirconia (ZrO2) ceramic bezel will be perfectly resistant to whatever knocks and scratches it receives on the way down.

Of course, very few of us will test the C60 Trident COSC 600 to the limits it has been exactingly designed to withstand, but we will all relish the prospect of owning a watch as beautiful, rare and important. “Special” just doesn’t do it justice.


With the SH21 you are getting an incredible 5 days of reserve power. Personally, running out of power is the most annoying thing about having a collection of automatic watches, and watch winders are very costly.


There is nothing quite like getting a new watch through the post. One becomes almost giddy with anticipation. The C60 Pro 600 didn’t disappoint!


Comparing old & new

From a case point of view, ignoring the face for now, not too much appears to have changed. Lines may have been straightened a little in terms of tolerances, but other than the height, it doesn’t appear that much has been done. The part cut away to fit the strap is slightly shallower, meaning that straps will be a tighter fit. The area around the sides is slightly wider due to the difference in the back. Other than this I can only speculate as it’s not obvious.
The face and bezel is where lots of changes can be found. Firstly, the date position has changed to the 3 position and this, more than any other change, makes my heart sing. The date on the old version was just out of true between 3 and 4 and this drove me to distraction. Also the markers, aping the Rolex design, have been changed to a more confident and classy baton type. They are also clearly defined with contrast colour around the outside. The small seconds marks between these batons have also been changed, which makes sense as the watch doesn’t have a chronograph. The second hand running around the face now has a proper dive marker circle of lume. This is an important element in the dive watch standards. The minute and hour hands of the C60 are again influenced by the Rolex and are pretty much the only direct influence left short of the style of the bezel markers. The result is a cleaner looking dial better using the spacing available.

Moving onto the bezel, here the old version has been totally replaced by a much shaper cut edition in zirconia (ZrO2) ceramic. This is a much tougher surface than the older and should ensure knocks and dings are shrugged off. It also behaves much better at depths and temperatures and is shiny. The lume pip at the top is smaller and built to a finer tolerance, its containing triangle now doesn’t dominate the bezel so much.

Macro shots show this styling well, click for zoom:

Zoom1 Zoom2 Zoom3

Looking at the crown, one can see that it has also been upgraded to a much better cut design that is easier to grip. The CWL logo on the end is clearer and polished. Clearly CWL has had the CAD designs out and have access to better machinery for cutting and polishing metal!
The back is completely redesigned. As you can see on the back of my old C60, the image of the trident was etched onto the plate. I liked it, but it was not particularly impressive. The new case back is properly engraved with an imaginative design. It is thicker adding to the new depth of the case, but generally a serious improvement. Not that you will spend all that long looking at it.

Old & new checklist

  • 25/26 Jewel automatic movement (ETA 2824-2 or Sellita SW200-1)
  • 38 hr power reserve
  • Marine grade stainless steel case
  • Uni-directional bezel
  • 30 atm (1000 feet) water resistant case
  • 4.0mm Anti-reflective sapphire crystal
  • Adjustable bracelet with easy opening butterfly clasp
  • Super-Luminova indices, bezel marker and hands
  • Unique engraved individual serial number
  • Height: 13mm
  • Weight: 189g
  • Width: 42mm
  • 25/26 Jewel automatic movement (ETA 2824-2 or Sellita SW200-1)
  • 38 hr power reserve
  • Marine grade stainless steel case
  • Uni-directional ceramic bezel
  • Water resistant to 600m/2000ft
  • 3.4mm Anti-reflective sapphire crystal
  • Marine-grade stainless steel bracelet with diver’s extension
  • Super-Luminova SLN T C1 – Indices, bezel marker and hands
  • Unique engraved individual serial number
  • Height: 13.30mm
  • Weight: 108g
  • Width: 42mm

Movements, ETA & Sellita

Let’s take a moment to talk movements. The ETA is the classic Swiss movement, used in countless watches. It is owned by the Swatch Group and they announced years ago that they would be phasing out selling the movements as separate units, leaving hundreds of companies scrabbling to find an alternative. This was an evil masterstroke by Swatch as the ETA movement had gained a stickiness of truly epic proportions. The most common model ETA, and the one possibly in the C60, is the 2824-2. This is the workhorse of the ETA stable. Rugged in its functionality. In fact one cannot really get away from it. Its perception as a standard means that many “higher-end” brands try very hard to distinguish their watches as having “modified” ETA movements. For example at Longines it is known as the L633 and noted only in small print, found 6 pages into their mechanical movement document, that the “base calibre” is the ETA. Hardly “in house”. Moreover, many other brands claim to have modified the movement, into a better one, but the truth is most simply order the movement with customisation extras directly from ETA themselves (blued screws, etc.) and have their brand name engraved on it.

Even Omega did this shuffling (with the ETA 2892-A2) and suffered from being able to regulate the model (the Omega 2500 sometimes just jammed).

The main industry response to the Swatch announcement was to work with some of the companies that completed ETA movements on their behalf. One such company was Sellita, who are a Swiss movement maker who finished ETA movements for ETA to sell as their own. Being owners of all the required equipment, they changed one tiny thing from the ETA movement and released the S200-1 that may be found in any CWL automatic movement watch.

What is the effective difference? None. Both movements could be made in the same factory, both are Swiss, both are accurate in the same way and with the same tolerances. It is a fine example of brand perception that I have heard all sorts of made up stories regarding Sellita such as that they are Chinese – they are not, that they are for cheaper brands only – they are not (Oris uses them as their calibre 633) and that they are not the same quality – they are identical in quality and a Sellita can gain the CSOC certification just as well as an ETA.

Suffice to say, whatever is in my C60 Pro 600, I am satisfied that CWL will have regulated it properly and not hidden that they use ETA/Sellita by scraping a Dremel over it and calling it a modified “in house” movement.



diving watch must have a number of features to be of use beneath the waves, but all recreational divers will have been taught using a dive computer for most of the vital ones. Thus, the dive watch is somewhat of a reserve device. Moreover, the markers set to 15 minutes times are anachronistic, being based on obsolete Navy dive tables form the 50’s (they still works as a countdown timer of course). So is the possibility of being able to go down 2000ft as the record is 1700 or so (between 500-600 meters) in the open sea from a Comex diver in the 80’s. But, don’t let this dishearten people who want to actually take a watch diving. I am friends with an Army diver and he certainly uses a watch as backup and laughs disdainfully at the PADI dive tables. In civilian diving terms the ratings are best judged as 30 Atmospheres (300 meters) being the base standard for scuba diving, which is what the CWL Kingfisher was rated to and I dived 15 times in the sea wearing that watch. For serious, professional or prolonged diving the rating found on the C60 Pro 600 is more than qualified being rated to 60 Atmospheres (600 meters – hence the name). Any further depth ability would probably necessitate a domed glass to prevent glass blow outs and it is a serious achievement to produce a watch that can dive to 600 meters rating.

There are all sorts of professional ISO standards for diving watches, which require such things as anti-magnetic abilities. Chris Ward confirmed via email that while the Trident series hasn’t been accredited against these standards, it meets or exceeds them. However, I would take a dive computer as well, one is usually part of your rental and required to properly workout dive plans anyway.

One item on the new watch that will be real use under the sea and at deeper depths is the new dial markings and luminosity. Colours are one of the first things that change under water. In clear water light cannot penetrate very well and only 20% of sunlight reaches below 10m the rest having been scattered. Different colours simply stop being visible because they rely on reflected light at a certain wavelength. Red goes first, then orange, yellow and finally green at around 50m. Having clear, bright hands and markers, not to mention the upgraded SuperLuminova, which glows bright green, means it is possible to clearly read the markings at serious diving depths. Luminova does fade over time however, so a torch is another vital bit of diving equipment to quickly recharge the lume should it be unclear.

I will be diving in the C60 Pro 600 in June and I will report back my findings.


Obviously, the C60 being an update is most heavily influenced by its predecessor. The movement of the date to the 3 position rebalances the dial as does the change to lined indices all around the face. Comment around the web has focused on its similarity to other brands around the same cost, particularly the Halios Tropik SS which has a ceramic bezel, but I feel that this is slightly unfair as the C60 is aiming its sights much much higher than the Tropik and is larger and with a superior mechanism, not to mention case quality.

Some have said:


The main watch the C60 is aping is the Rolex.

Dive watches are possibly the most incestuous of watch types. A few large marques nailed the early usage models with bezel innovations and celebrity endorsements or even by getting a watch issued to a particularly “cool” military unit. A sort of “manly men doing manly things in our watch” promotions. Here James Bond raises his head again, of course, as Hollywood follows the meme into the world of fantasy. The thing is, since then pretty much no one has really innovated something game changing.

It’s got so bad that when I Googled to find the “Top 10 Dive Watches” I got the following hideous models.

How could anyone seriously consider these the best? They are at best “desk divers” and at worst something to give one nightmares. Something dragged up from the bottom of the Mariana trench and, in my opinion, should be instantly thrown back to sink without trace.

So, if these sea monsters are not the designs influencing CWL, which are? Well, the original was heavily influenced by the Rolex GMT II, which is a pilot’s watch, and the Rolex Submariner, which is the reference every single dive watch is aping. For the new C60 Pro 600 I was at first unable to place any direct influence. The bezel was slightly like the Omega Seamaster, the hands reminiscent to the Rolex Mercedes hands, but not too much. It appeared that CWL had evolved enough to claim it had designed an original piece. In the vein of the classic dive watch from Rolex, of course – as is everyone else, but enough of its own man to stand tall. Then CWL showed the following ad on its site:


The Tudor Black Bay is clearly seen by CWL as the competition and the red bezel CWL C60 Pro 600 on a black leather strap is similar enough to show some inspiration. Perhaps this ad is a little unfair as effort has been made to evoke a similarity, but as one commentator said:


Indeed. Well, in all honesty the Tudor is also influenced by the classic Rolex along with everyone else. After all Tudor is owned by Rolex and has access to the designs first hand. Moreover, the Tudor Black Bay won European Watch of the Year, narrowly beating CWL’s WorldTimer to the podium (narrowly enough to be commented on by the judges). The big difference is value. The Tudor has every penny of headroom that Rolex can squeeze into the price and is heart freezeingly expensive for an ETA based watch, coming in at 18 hundred “doubloons” as the CWL ad makes plain.

Frankly, for me – someone who dabbles in the sub 1k watch foothills – that the CWL is every bit the quality, design, build and feel to the European Watch of the Year is a stunning achievement at this price point. My hat comes off to CWL for their savvy in picking who to be influenced by and they amply demonstrated in this ad that so-called high-end marques, such as Tudor, exist at 2k plus prices only due to their marketing budget. It reminds me of the quote from Zoolander,

“Tudor is so hot right now!”

You can keep it. I am immune to your sorcery.

Wearing the C60

The truly best dive watches are the ones used by divers, and here we find that pulling out a simple tool watch that works is the key. The CWL C60 Pro 600 has every feature required to gain a confident nod from the dive master when you step aboard a boat. For those not on boats it becomes wanting to wear the dive watch style for its pure, simple and elegant aesthetic. It is here that most will be used, worn and loved. Dive watches step between worlds exceedingly well. They don’t have the wannabe aspect of some other types (army watches for example); but, rather gift the wearer with the ability to pull off the look as easily in jeans as in a suit.

I see lots of dive watches in the city, more than dress watches to be honest. Even at the very top end of the market, it’s the dive watch that get brought out. I had a client in my office the other day wearing a Patek Phillippe Nautilus that comes in at 40 thousand pounds and he sat around the table from my Sales Director in his Rolex and myself in the CWL. I don’t think it looked out of place sitting in the room with two of the greatest watches ever made. In fact, it worked really well. After we left the room, my staff and I exchanged looks and whistled in appreciation of having that sort of watch budget. Myself, I don’t have a house deposit to spend on a watch and wouldn’t do so if I did. The Patek Phillippe has so much headroom in its price that the Golden Mean is not even visible on the chart anymore; being so far below. I’ll stick with the CWL. I think, in the end, that the reason so many dive watches are worn with suits is because people who have to wear suits to work are often better paid and the sorts who go recreational diving in the first place. Of course, this is to generalise; but, there must be some reason for it beyond the stylings.

Wearing the C60 with jeans

Wearing the C60 with a suit

Wearing C60 in full Russian issue Commando gear (wtf!?)

Incredible isn't it? Truly a work of art.


C WL has issued a number of high quality straps for use with the C60 Pro 600. Natos enhance the military aspect of the watch and enable some extra safety against watch loss and the ability to fit the watch around wetsuits, etc.

The steel strap has a very nice dive extension and is one of the best Oyster style straps I have seen. I have no inclination to swap out for a 3rd party one, something that I would normally do in a heartbeat. This is a good job because I have never had a strap that was so hard to remove – definitely leave it to the professionals.

The leather strap is a matter of personal taste. CWL do an excellent version for use with the C60 Pro 600, but I have the sort of arms that destroy leather in a matter of a few months. I usually change out my watches for a strap by Hirsch that has rubber on one side and leather on the other. These are, in my opinion, the greatest straps in the world, but I know leather is a very personal choice. The CWL would go well on almost any style, from distressed (like the Tudor Black Bay), to light brown.

CWL also has the option to upgrade the strap for real Alligator at time of purchase and if you don’t possess a strap tool kit then I suggest you consider having this service done for you by CWL to ensure no mistakes. The alligator strap is incredible and probably the finest strap CWL has ever produced.

Other watches I considered

At this price there are a lot of watches to consider and many have at least one of the features of the CWL.

STEINHART “OCEAN One Premium Blue”

This lovely looking blue watch is a top end version of its homage, read total ripe off, of the Rolex Submariner. Of all the watch makes to face criticism regarding influence, Steinhart just go for it in a way that few other have the Germanic balls to attempt. However, don’t be surprised if people actually do mistake it for the Rolex and that you will have to, abashedly, admit that it is not. I know, I owned one. Steinhart make the sort of Rolex you expect German engineers to make, a sort of brutal, tank like industrious timepiece. No nonsense at all, which also means – of course – no passion.

Seiko Prospex

I own a Prospex, but this is a pilot’s model with a slide rule used mainly when I am travelling. The dive models are nice and definitely unique, however they are of a size beyond size; like laying a Dune Sandworm across one’s wrist. Not everyone can wear one and forget it with a suit. The quality is there through and some professionals use them.

Victorinox Swiss Army Diver 500

These are nice and follow the clever design aesthetic of the brand very closely, however, again, not really an everyday or city watch and something to come out at weekends or when on the water. I eventually decided that as good as they are, they are not “classically” good.


I really like CW and his company ethics:

We believe that ethics and morality in business are critically important and do our very best to ensure, wherever we can, that Christopher Ward operates to the highest standards in these areas. For instance, we only use conflict-free diamonds in our diamond watches that are traceable via the Kimberley Process and our alligator straps are from managed farms that are signed up to the United Nations CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of wild flora and fauna) certification scheme. It helps that we are a small company and that we know all our suppliers personally and visit them regularly, however, as a young company we also recognise there is still much to be done and that a process of continual improvement is vital if we are to succeed ethically, morally and ecologically. We are committed to developing an ethics programme using the guidance of The Institute Of Business Ethics (see below) that will help us live and work by standards that we and our customers expect.

That alone would always make him a contender, but add that he makes some of the most stylish British watches and I will always put his brand at the top if the list. Not all his watches are home runs, some of the women’s ones are a definite miss, but he stays away from being too closely a homage and that is an important thing. The brand is solid.

The watch itself is solid too. Prices have been creeping up over the years, but so has the quality. The watch is unique and I get lots of questions and complements about my CW Watches.

As I said in the first line of this review (5000 words ago!) which watch you buy and wear and love is a personal decision. Buying unseen from the web may appear to be slightly frightening and I hope to have been able to show you the positives and negatives regarding the CWL C60 Pro 600. I think it is an excellent watch indeed, a real upgrade from the previous model, which was also excellent, and a new standard for others to reach for.

Buying from CWL is to enter into a relationship with a company very much in touch with its customers. Either through the personal contact with the company people, through the excellent response times on things – seriously, compared to some like MKII and Steinhart, who ignore their clients a lot of the time – CWL are incredible – to the 60 day send back guarantee. I feel that buying a CWL is a safe bet. They hold their value, they work excellently well and you will get all the support you could want. That’s a solid endorsement from me, but then I am not a celebrity so that OK!



PS. If you have any questions please fell free to put them in the comments and also, please share this article if you liked it!


The Good 95%
  • A British maker!
  • Great internals, great time keeping.
  • Stylish and unique.
  • A proper diving watch for people who dive.
  • A real improvement on the previous model (sorting out that date position!)
The Bad 5%
  • May not suit very thin wristed men.
  • Prices rising!
  • Steel strap very hard to remove
If you are interested in purchasing the C60 Pro 600 then please use the following link to open the Christopher Ward site:

I believe this is the best time to consider a CWL watch.

Please note our recommendations and affiliates policy.

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Tor was originally designed, implemented, and deployed as a third-generation onion routing project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It was originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications. Today, it is used every day for a wide variety of purposes by normal people, the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others.

Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. It also enables software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features. Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.

Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local Internet providers. Tor’s hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.

Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they’re in a foreign country, without notifying everybody nearby that they’re working with that organization.


This build makes using TOR very easy.


Simply plug into your home router and turn the device on. it will automatically:

1. Boot a fully usable version of Linux

2. Create a WIFI hotspot called “Police_Surveilance”

3. Start DCHP networking

4. Connect the wired network port to direct traffic over the TOR network.



Simply connect the NETWORK and the POWER and the system will do the rest*


Fantastic!  From Windows 8:






From IOS devices too!

 Pi_3 Pi_4


Comes with all the Equipment needed:

  • Raspberry Pi Model B 512MB RAM - The Raspberry Pi® is a single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of stimulating the teaching of basic computer science in schools. The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. The design is based around a Broadcom BCM2835 SoC, which includes an ARM1176JZF-S 700 MHz processor, VideoCore IV GPU, and 512 Megabytes of RAM. The design does not include a built-in hard disk or solid-state drive, instead relying on an SD card for booting and long-term storage. This board is intended to run Linux kernel based operating systems.This is the Raspberry Pi Model B 512MB RAM model with two USB ports and a 10/100 Ethernet controller.



Price: 70 GBP








*Full reconfiguration instructions will be included. The only thing you may have to do (unlikely) is change the IP address of the system to work with your router. Full written instructions will be included on how to do this.


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Big in Japan http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/19/big-in-japan/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/19/big-in-japan/#comments Thu, 19 Feb 2015 15:31:24 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=12203 This was the very first film I ever made when I first purchased my camcorder. In 2008, I visited my father and assisted as his roady when he went out for a gig; as I had done so a multitude of times over my childhood.


It brought back many memories as I have always been a big fan of both my parents’ musical talent. I tried to attend as many gigs as possible over the years as these were the perfect excuse to spend time with Dad and enjoy his hard work on the frets. I have grown up around the cables and special boxes that come with this world. Lots of gear and equipment, plugs and knobs, dials and switches. A wonder to any child.




Slowly I had grown to sitting with a beer, and not a coke and bag of crisps, but the pleasure of live music sung by the people you love was still to be treasured and just as magical. I wish I had footage of my parents from when they were young and on tour, that would be incredible to cut into a film!

I took the opportunity to film this gig and I am glad that I did as it was one of Dad’s last before hanging up the Stratocaster. The original version is the entire performance and I burned that to DVD for him as a present. This version is an edit of the output to that as I no longer have the original footage and so cannot do a proper HD upscale and colour. Nevertheless, I wanted to re-edit it around the fantastic cover of “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd. Check out minute 4:00 of the film where Dad nails the solo. He does such a good job that YouTube accused me of using the original!

The quote “Big in Japan” is from Spinal Tap.



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Wudang Mountain – Climbing the Dao in China http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/16/wudang-mountain-climbing-the-dao-in-china-special-edition/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/16/wudang-mountain-climbing-the-dao-in-china-special-edition/#comments Mon, 16 Feb 2015 13:05:44 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=12106 A journey to Wudang Mountain; the small mountain range in the northwestern part of Hubei, China, just south of Shiyan. This film details the 20,000 steps up this magical mountain and the strange Daoist religious monastery atop. Through the clouds and out of oneself, you really feel a part of heaven.


I came to Daoism by bringing myself into the present. It sounds easy: just concentrate and here we are, in the now. But it really isn’t. Being in the present means feeling at one with your body, at one with the sense of the world around you and by letting the mind go blank. I went through many stages of things before getting there. But what made it click was climbing a mountain.

There is a mountain in China called Wudang Shan.


It is one of many Daoist peaks of startling height that can be found all over this giant country. It is quite famous for being the birth place of internal Kung Fu styles such as Tai Chi.


Walking up it is quite an experience. There are 20 thousand steps up Wudang before getting to the top and it is an exhausting journey.


The endless stone steps tower above you, winding upwards seemingly into the heavens.


Along the way there are many temples and the steps often lead you through the courtyards. Each of these temples has an increasingly strained mystic name which each subsequent temple tries very hard to trump.

Wudang_Mountain_79.jpg Wudang_Mountain_81.jpg

So the harmony temple may be followed by the grand harmony temple, the majestic temple of great tranquility and so on ad nausea, all the way up the steps. This naming convention seemed to me at the time to be a cute cultural translation and something quite purposelessly funny, but actually it had a definite point; the idea that you are rising to heaven and every time you think you have made it: you haven’t and there is more to go. Along the way you meet many people on the same journey. You see rich and poor alike. The rich are carried up in palanquins, totally breaking the point, and this is most discouraging. More encouraging, but not perhaps comforting, are the groups of little old Chinese ladies you meet that even at the tender ages of what looks to be 150 can hop up the steps like a heard of mountain goats.


After hours of climbing you arrive at a large temple and then upwards still more until you finally come to the top, which is above the clouds. You are here at the pinnacle of China’s attempts to reach heaven. Here sits a large golden temple and some very old Daoist priests.


After an age you have to walk back down and find some hot water for your strained leg muscles. For me, and I didn’t know this at the time, I was not the same guy walking down. My trip into the clouds had prompted me to leave something behind and to gain the courage to be what I wanted.

**Special Edition**
Re-rendered in HiDef 1080p
Music to 5.1
Fixed annoying click on second track
Edited for clarity
Transitions fixed
Stabilised some scenes


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New Zealand – Country of Contrasts (Special Edition) http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/15/new-zealand-country-of-contrasts-special-edition/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2015/02/15/new-zealand-country-of-contrasts-special-edition/#comments Sun, 15 Feb 2015 07:57:02 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=12094 After watching LOTR for the first time I started a long journey of the heart. The first steps were the reading of the book itself, now and forever with the New Zealand landscape in my mind, followed by many years wondering if the real country actually looked like that. Many steps, down this long road, later I have actually stood on the Pellanor fields and I can tell you that yes, in fact, New Zealand does look like Middle Earth.

But it also looks so much more.

Essentially then New Zealand is made up of huge tracks of open wilderness the likes of which you have never seen. From beaches to mountains all sprinkled liberally with people, the occasional town and even – like the shilling in a Christmas pudding – the odd city. It is often said that there are more sheep than people here and frankly that isn’t hard to imagine. There is more of everything than people here and that is all to the good I say.

This is a short (10 minute) film highlighting New Zealand will track our journey up and down this fair country. Into all its special nooks and crannies and past all its sights. Includes whales in Kaikoura, Fjords, Glaciers by Helicopter, The far north, the Volcanic heart and a trip through the forests of this magical country!

This is a special edition of my New Zealand film, a love letter to this amazing country.

I have wanted to remake my New Zealand film for the last 6 years as it was originally cut in the back of a caravan while still in the country. Now, as I pulled out the old files, I realised that all I wanted to really do was improve the film already cut. It evokes so many memories of that incredible country that it stands as my first fledgling film from the heart; and as such is best left just the way it was, but polished to a loving shine.

Upgraded to HD
Professionally Colour Balanced
Sound upgrade
Stabilisation in some scenes
Some scenes re-run to normal speeds

So, please enjoy – New Zealand – Country of Contrasts (Special Edition)




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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 >>

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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

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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.

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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

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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)








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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.

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


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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.


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


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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.








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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!





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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:


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


Many thanks!




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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.



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“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.






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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/

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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…







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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.

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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.


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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.

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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…






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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.

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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,


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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.

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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.


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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!

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(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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…



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The Purpose of Travel http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/02/the-purpose-of-travel/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/04/02/the-purpose-of-travel/#comments Tue, 02 Apr 2013 13:48:21 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10649 We often take arriving at the destination to be the purpose of travel. Taken in this way the journey itself is not the point, rather it is the serious business of transporting our bodies from one place to another. Getting to the end location as quickly as possible is the only requirement and thanks to the modern world this is possible more or less instantaneously. Contemporary travel seals us into those cold tubes called aeroplanes and they charge through the sky at such speeds that we can hardly have any notion of the glorious planet we pass across. We want to get somewhere new and fresh and different as quickly as possible and this is ironic as the very thing that enables us to get there quicker is also what makes all the “there’s” so similar. Globalisation through airpower means stepping into the plane and swapping one city for another as though by some magic trick or like watching a play where they drop the lights and quick-change the scenery backdrop.


When we travel this way I always feel like we are being subjected to some sort of carefully crafted deception, and by this I mean we are deceived not by a government or tourist board (although they are in on it), no we are really deceived by ourselves. This clamouring for “getting there“, to the “destination” pervades everything about our culture. The results of success most come faster and faster, until almost the only success that matters is overnight success. This is a recipe for unhappiness repeated every day and we are brought up to believe it from the very beginning by the way we are educated. By the chasing grades to get into top set, chasing University places and striving for the best campuses. Then too in the world of work where we have our “quota” to make, our burden of work to carry, or be fired for not working fast enough. We put up with this because we have our eye on the prize, on the end game, on the fantasy of a board-seat where we can relax at the top of the tree. However, when we get there at middle age, what we find is that this “thing” we have been waiting all our lives for has arrived, and… it’s not satisfying. It is like we place ourselves in a bubble where we can ignore all that goes on around us as though in some kind of sleep until we get that thing we imagine we want.

So it is with travelling. I firmly believe that arriving is not the point of the journey. Take music as an analogy. There the final crashing chord of the composition is not the point of the composition, if it were then there would be musical concerts where people only played finales. The point of music is to dance or sing along with the tune and enjoy it while the music is playing.

In other words: the journey itself is what matters.


Those who travel for any length of time but do not realise this miss the opportunity to experience something very life affirming and important. By stopping focussing on arriving, and by travelling long enough to feel the passage of time, we can come to realise that what really matters in travel is the same for life in general. That bubble all around us, that threatens always to trap us in the same frustration-coma we feel at home, can and must be resisted. Travel can and must become a joy in itself and then the stopped and broken down buses, the flies and touts and baking heat or cold will not bother us.

The evidence that this is possible is out there to see. Great travel books and writing are never just about the destination, they are about the changes the act of travelling brought about during the journey. When I look at the photos from my travels, I realise that my favourites are of the people and places we discovered by accident not design. When I think about the true happiness I felt while travelling, it was to be found in climbing mountains, diving in seas, exploring huge coastlines, eating with locals and being outside the bubble of my own making. I met countless people on my journey who were also travelling, but I could see that many were not experiencing the same thing as I. For they knew and could almost taste that travelling had something more, something greater to experience, but they were metaphorically tripping over their own feet in their rush to get to that thing. By doing this they numbed themselves to the tune “playing” all around them that is the rhythmic dance of cultures, sunsets and mountains. If they listened to the tune it would enable them to feel the music deep inside; if only they stopped trying so hard.


I listen to that tune still years later.

For me I have been reliving these feelings and savouring them through my writing about our journey, and always about the journey itself: not just the destinations. Thus truly I have been travelling again, all these years, only without moving. It has been a great experience and it is only now coming to a finale as we are reaching (this second time) our final country. I am looking forwards to reliving that final journey, as in the same way life needs an end to have meaning, travelling the way we travelled required an end. This last journey is special to me as, when I was young, I imagined this country many times. I seemed to love it from afar without really knowing it. It was my youthful dream to arrive there, but I am eternally delighted to having taken the long way around. By the countless steps through cultures so new and interesting, by learning things about ourselves and what matters to us and by listening to the tune around us we were finally ready to arrive on these shores. Not as tourists, but as seasoned travellers ready for a new beat.

So, after journeying across Australian beaches, New Zealand’s mountains, Singaporean cities, Malaysian towers, Thai temples, Laotian rivers, Cambodian jungles, Vietnamese heartlands, Indian deserts, Hong Kong light shows, Tibetan high passes and Chinese treasure chambers we had arrived as different people.

People listening to the music.


Finally, we were ready for Japan.



Basho as he entered Japan








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Beijing and the Great Wall – Our final days in China http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/03/23/beijing-and-the-great-wall-of-china/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/03/23/beijing-and-the-great-wall-of-china/#comments Sat, 23 Mar 2013 10:04:19 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10638 “So,” said Cesca loudly and clearly, just as I was drinking from a water bottle, “What’s all this about China and Tiananmen Square?”

I almost did a spit take.


“Quiet!” I said and I looked around, wiping water running down my chin. Yes, we were standing bang in the middle of said location.


Cesca was annoyed and went red in the face, “What?!” she said.

“Don’t mention the protests in public!” I said in a hiss, “We’ll get deported!” I was acutely aware that I sounded like Basil Faulty around Germans.


“Oh don’t be silly,” she said with an incredulous look on her face.


I wasn’t being silly not in the least. Tiananmen Square was made world (in)famous by the 1989 student protests overzealously put down by guns and tanks. The Chinese government had learned a hard lesson in public relations that day, and a lot of protesters learned one too about the Chinese government.

In some respects I understand. It must be, for example, really hard to control this enormous country. Moreover, the history of China, written large in this square since 1400, has let flow more rivers of blood than any country other than perhaps Russia. After all, the long-gone Emperors of China had lived in the giant palace at one end of the square for a thousand years, but theirs had not been easy dynasties. Highlights include the Mongols marching in so successfully that most people forget it happened, the British fighting their way in, the Boxer Rebellion (a mind-meltingly hideous period of Chinese history), the Japanese invasion of WWII, and then – of course – Chairman Mao’s revolution and his cult of personality. Compared to those events the shooting of a few thousand uppity students hampering for Western Democracy doesn’t measure a blip. Tragic story that it is, horrible, murderous and paranoid that the reaction was, given Chinese history, I am not in the least bit surprised it happened.

However, it is true that the “love” for the great leader is long gone and for most little more than lip service. No one is praying daily to his photo any more for example. I’m glad. The problem with Maoism is not that the country is communist, communism is a really good idea, it is that Mao (in the same way that Stalin did) inserted himself in the mix at the top and was determined to stay there. China under Mao was a disaster because there were none of the “checks and balances” found in western democracies. For example, US Presidents, no matter how “great” or “powerful” can serve only two terms. Any attempt to change that will result in civil war in a heartbeat. In the UK, an all together more civilised nation, the Queen has the power to force an election on behalf of the people. A queen has done it before. Her power to do this is in the army (plus the police) because who do they swear allegiance to? That’s right; the Queen. Would they force an election out of an unruly government if the Queen said to? Yes, you bet your arse they would, they would enjoy it.

Not so in China, here power is concentrated in an élite ruling clique and without accountability to the people, shit happens. On that night the general who put down the protests was, from his point of view, protecting his capital and thereby his nation’s structure – but from everyone else’s he was protecting a political élite and it was to they that he was accountable. Of course, British generals have committed similar murders in India and Ireland but, and here is the rub, not against their own people. Not that he had a choice, even questioning verbal orders was almost a death sentence and the first general that night, who asked for written orders, was lucky to only get 5 years in jail.

So, the whole event is still an open sore for the Chinese government and wary of future protest they have installed undercover agents all over the square looking for troublemakers. I thought everyone knew that.

Apparently not.

Still, it was a very impressive sight. The square is huge (the 3rd largest in the world) and a major civic junction. Moreover as a visitor to this city you will definitely come here; it’s simply impossible to ignore. At least you will walk across it a few times. The first thing you notice is that it is intensely political in focus with massive pictures of Mao adorning the palace and statues to the man’s theories prominently displayed.


This is a form of belief-building all nations do. The British, after all, have Nelson’s column and statues of other warrior leaders all over London silent of any historical judgement of them.


Amazingly we stayed only 2 minutes from this sight and could almost make it out from the window. Beijing, I quickly realised, is an incredible city. In places so modern it is breath-taking, but in other places – often overlapping – it is so ancient that one simply struggles to imagine that far back. Again, similar to London in that respect. Our visit was the culmination of our trip to China, and while we did have a mission while there (changing our Japan airline tickets – an adventure that would take 2000 words just to outline), we were really there just to be tourists.

Our first outing was to the palace of the Forbidden City itself and this was truly one of the highlights of my entire year away. There are two ways to do the palace and which one you take will define your experience.

The first way is to take a tour. This seems natural as there is so much to see and some expert guidance is welcome. However, this is often a great mistake. The City is roughly a succession of giant courtyards of varying importance leading front to back with a huge garden at the end.


You can walk directly through it in this regard and this is what the tours do – a basic straight run down the middle. Big mistake. The courtyards are all very samey and if you don’t know much about the intricacies of courtly life in the City before you get there, then you won’t understand it at all.



If you are very short on time and must take a tour (that in itself is a tragedy for this is one of the largest museums in the world) then I strongly suggest that you watch the TV series on Empress, the “Dowager Cixi” (one of the most fascinating and maligned women in history, whom is the source of the phrase “the power behind the throne”), which will give you a good primer to the place. Even so, you will miss much…


The second way is to go it alone and hire the wireless guide with headphones. This allows you to wander around the place and most importantly to the other large courtyards to the sides of the main areas that house the treasures and museums of which there are many.


The wireless device, which looks like a plastic slice of toast with a little map drawn on one side, is GPS controlled or some such and as you walk around it suddenly kicks in with commentary on what you are seeing, where in the city you are, and the history of that area.





Highlights for me included the incredible museum to Chinese pottery



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(China’s pottery is the best in history – so much so we even call fine pottery “China”), the fascinating clock museum displaying the Chinese Emperor’s infatuation with Western style timepieces and mechanics (indulged as only a truly despotic regime can)…


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…and the treasure chambers (which has diamonds the size of acorns).

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Then, at you own pace, you can peer at the greatest Chan Buddhist treasures in the world (collected here by the obsessive Chinese Empress mentioned above who likened herself to a Buddhist deity)…



…and, finally, wander satisfied in to the gardens at the rear.



Both Cesca and I were simply amazed by all of this and loved our visit. We were then surprised by some of our traveller friends’ negative stories and it was only when we compared them that the above two experiences emerged.

After the visit we walked back across the square and to the food district for a Duck meal. This was a very touristic experience (they come and carved the duck at the table), but it was so delicious I didn’t care!


Next we visited the great park known as the “Summer Palace“.




This enormous area surrounds a large lake in the middle and was the playground of the Chinese Empress where every whim was indulged and nothing encapsulates this better than the marble “boat” the Empress had carved for parties.


The park takes a whole day to do, easy, and if the weather is nice is probably the best place to be in Beijing.


The tourists are out in force here, but there more than enough space for them all. There are also many interesting events occurring during the day including a dance troop of very attractive young Chinese ladies dancing in one of the courts.

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The quality and maintenance of this place belies its history. The truth is that it is really the *second* Summer Palace. The first one was even more impressive and the real place from which the Chinese Emperor governed. That once housed the greatest treasures of the huge realm, some over 3500 years old, most of which are now hidden in lofts in Wales.

Yes, Wales. In Britain.

When the British and French destroyed the Chinese army (1856, the 2nd “Opium War”), marched into Beijing and forced the Chinese government to buy our Opium (whatever their objections to the health costs), they also decided to teach them a lesson for putting half our trade delegation to death. One they would not forget. By this time China’s Emperors were so pathetically corrupt that the country was essentially heading towards starvation while they lived a life of luxury. Much like what happened in France; a great (despotic) leader built an empire (France had the “Sun King” and China the Chin Emperor) who ushered in a new dawn only to have subsequent generations get fat screwing it all up.

So, the lesson taught to the Chinese was to burn the Summer Palace down. It took 3 days. That is, of course, we burned down what we didn’t loot first. Consequently, some of the very very best China, Jewels and historical treasures of this country can be found in the lofts and kitchen cupboards of the ancestors of those Welsh Engineers and French gronards.

Not surprisingly this is still a sore point with the Chinese and another thing not to mention in polite Chinese company. The Empress had the current palace built to replace it (the original has never been restored) and, after the revolution, it has become this splendid public park.


We had a really great time here, despite the crowds, and went back to our hostel happy.


The next day we decided to do a walk on the Great Wall and so caught a bus out-of-town in its direction.


It is often claimed that the Great Wall of China is visible from Space – it isn’t. Nothing man-made is, but it is fantastically long from the land. Historically an almost country-bankrupting barrier, the wall was designed to funnel the Mongol hordes into a single defensible point from which they could be picked off. In the end, so many died building it and it cost so much to maintain that the general responsible was quietly pensioned off and the wall abandoned. Soon after, sure enough, the Mongols just went through the gap in the center and took over the country. Nevertheless the achievement of building it was spectacular. As a tourist there are two main sections you can walk. The nearer of the two is easier and also busier. The further is not so easy, or safe, and is a hike of about 4 hours up and down the hills (of which there are many). If you have the chops I recommend the furthest section.

When you first arrive on the bus and are let lose to attempt the walk, you think to yourself that you will be alone on the wall and isolated. However, the wall is packed solid with touts selling cold drinks of all types, which got very tiring for Cesca who hates that sort of thing. Also, the wall was cleverly designed in a way that doesn’t help you as a modern hiker.


The general knew all too well that the Mongols may simply climb the wall and take over whole sections. So the entire wall is also designed for defence against itself. Each section (about 100 meters) can repel not only those on the ground, but also from the left and right.


There are multiple designs for this from steep sections, interior odd spaced walls, large holes, narrow turns, etc. This means that in many places you are literally climbing up to the next tower. I can just imagine how hard it must have been trying to assault this fortress of a wall. Bugger that!

All alongside the main built structure lays some simply breathtaking sites in terms of countryside.


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The view is one I will always take with me. Unfortunately the modern Chinese appear to care little for it. I saw a group of bored looking teens throwing rubbish off the wall with no cares at all. This got Cesca very angry indeed, something that was picked up on by said teenagers and they mocked us for our concern. I was acutely away that we were standing on a 5 meter wide wall of over 20 meters in height, deep in the wilds of China and miles from anywhere.


Falling, or being pushed, off would be a bad thing so we moved on. A pity that they were not cherishing the place like we did. In the end, this hassle and the touts coloured Cesca’s memories of the wall, but if you look in the photos at her you can see that actually she really enjoyed it.


After an exhausting 4 hours we came to a large iron bridge structure and the end of our walk.


Worth. Every. Penny.

Next Cesca wanted something special and signed up for a Calligraphy lesson from an outreach society. This required a journey through the excellent public transport system (much better than London’s!), which I remember had a slightly humorous, and presumably accidental, inflection on the English words to get off the train – making it sound a little like a strained order.


On the journey to the class, we got to see the city in a wider context.




The streets were clean and people seemed happier than those in India (for example). It was pleasantly laid out and in general a good experience to commute across. I could imagine if not living then at least working there.


Strangely we saw smog only on the last day, which appeared as a fog hovering in the distance. I am sure that sometimes the city suffers immeasurably, but as an honest reporter I cannot say I saw much of it.



Finally our long tour of China was coming to an end. We had managed to sort out our flights to and from Japan and I was excited to visit the one country I had always dreamed of.

I will be honest, I had not expected much from China and that had been a mistake. A big mistake. Cesca was right that China and I were made for each other in many respects. The ancient traditions and philosophy of Daoism had accorded with my own thinking so closely to be nothing short of spooky. Indeed a few months after returning to England I suddenly had a realisation while walking through Liverpool St station and bang - I was a Daoist (and proudly put it on the UK census). While China may not have this affect on everyone, it is the nature of travel – and especially travel to places you don’t know well – that you will have your horizons broadened and even perhaps your life changed too?

China, no matter how alien a world it was – and how frustrating it could be – was a place I didn’t want to leave.




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China’s National Treasures – Pandas and the Terracotta Warriors http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/03/11/chinas-national-treasures-pandas-and-the-terracotta-warriors/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/03/11/chinas-national-treasures-pandas-and-the-terracotta-warriors/#comments Mon, 11 Mar 2013 13:30:16 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10490 Everyone loves Pandas and at the Panda Conservation Centre near Chengdu, China is probably the best place to see them in the world.

Watching them reminded me of the Douglas Adams quote:

“…On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than [Pandas] because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the [Pandas] had ever done was muck about… having a good time. But conversely, the [Pandas] had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

As for the The Museum of Qin featuring the Terracotta Warriors – well, China has yet to fully come to terms with their legendary Emperor who literally put the “Chin” in China. This fascinating, but very touristic, site is at the cutting edge of research into the great leader. His tomb is nearby, flooded with lakes of mercury and out of bounds to all. Until that is opened, this dig, only part of the retinue he took with him into the afterlife, is the best way to experience how it was under the man who conquered the warring tribes and united them into the amazing Chinese culture.

Hope you like the film,






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Pebble Smart Watch Review – More than just potential? http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/02/23/pebble-smart-watch-reviewmore-than-just-potential/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/02/23/pebble-smart-watch-reviewmore-than-just-potential/#comments Sat, 23 Feb 2013 11:08:14 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10352 No recent product launch has grasped the Zeitgeist as much as the Pebble watch. It represents a perfect storm of elements coming together all at once and its success is going to be studied for years.

The story of the Pebble is intimately bound to the story of the website that enabled it: Kickstarter. Much of the media attention has been about this new marketplace, which must be an absolute boon for economists; for it represents the operation of market forces in a pure microcosm, and like evolution isolated on a small island many weird and wonderful creatures are born. Eventually there can be Island Gigantism and this is a story of such a monster being formed.

Pebble Watch Review

Initially Kickstarter was the “crowd funding” startup servicing geeks from places like the “Maker” sub culture. Those who actually wanted to be able to sell their ideas, but lacked the backing of the dragons. Perhaps theirs was too small an idea or too niche to attract normal backing. However, in this modern era of the internet, what we come to realise is that being niche is absolutely no barrier to success. I met a guy, a friend of my mother in law, who lives in an enormous house in the British countryside and is very wealthy. What did he do? I asked him. He tapped a little 5cm badge in the shape of a helicopter on his chest. Wow, you make helicopters?

“No, I make these badges.”

Yes, you can make a fortune with niche ideas, if you can produce and sell them. The main advantage is that you will not have many, if any, viable competitors and like all animals devoid of predators, you can build your colony (your brand) and the world will be your oyster. Brand is the key and must be jealously guarded if you want to be the next SuperDry or Cambridge Satchel. On the other hand, Apple has killed off many Young Turk brands who threatened theirs. Kickstarter, as the name implies, quickly evolved from just having good ideas to being a way of building that brand and with it building noise.

Pebble Watch Review

This is the point the economists got interested, because this brought competition for attention and competition is the primary force in the market. It was no longer enough to have a great idea, now you needed to have a great presentation to go with it or it would be lost in the pile. Many ideas have been touted for how these presentations should go. Some have mixed in the sexy, always a bonus if one is selling to a geeky market:

Pebble Watch Review

Are these guys selling keyboards or hot backsides?

Others have played hard on their geek cred by hiring geek celebrities to present (if only Douglas Adams was still alive – some lucky product would be making millions).

Pebble Watch Review

Neal is a well known Geek icon, only topped by perhaps…

Pebble Watch Review

The Gaben!

Others still have used humour and power of their already existing geek brand.

Pebble Watch Review

Penny Arcade‘s (very funny) Kickstarter was to remove adds from their site –

However, most have gone for the Apple-style presentation mastered by Jobs and Ives with high production values and cool designers talking to camera. This was the first element that drew me to the Pebble. The video they produced showed a carefully worked out professionalism, while at the same time being down-to-earth enough to come across as genuine.

  The Pebble Kickstarter video

The next element was the product itself. It was simply a brilliant idea and exactly on time.

Pebble Watch Review

In the past few years, the iPhone has not given anyone palpitations of excitement. I have owned every generation of the device and picking up my iPhone 1 (now in the hands of my 2 year old with no simcard) and comparing it to my iPhone 5, I do not see anything revolutionary between them at first glance. Of course, generationally the iPhone has come on in leaps and bounds and my nicely bevelled iPhone 5 is incredible in that respect, but its nature is essentially unchanged. This has led to a noticeable frustration on the part of the consumer who wants to be in the excitement of the “revolution” promised by Apple devices and delivered by the first iPods, iPhones and iPads. Such frustration has allowed Google to catch up and overtake in the phone market, and even Microsoft has done it right with Windows Phone 8. People are hungry for something new.

Smart phones, smart watches.

Watches are the utmost niche product. They represent who you are, the expression of one’s personal style, much more than they represent a way of telling the time. The third reason Pebble took off is that it came at a time where the phone has supplanted the watch as a time device for the vast majority of people (although definitely not for me). Pebble represents the watch making a comeback and saying, hey – if a phone can do what we have done for generations, we can do what a phone does just as well! So far, smart watches have either been expressions of high art, divine and unreachable for anyone who cannot wear glasses like this guy:

Pebble Watch Review

This guy invented this watch, the SPARC:

Pebble Watch Review

Which is wonderful with one problem: it costs £4000!

Alternatively, they have been for sporting use, like the Suunto outdoorsman and its incredible diving ranges, or the Garmin GPS hybrids, or the Nike running watches. All of these are niche activities again. It shows how popular they are “under the table” when you see websites like the excellent DCRainmaker who makes a great living out of simply reviewing running watches in depth and with style. Strangely, the best “watch” to be the progenitor of the Pebble is the old square iPod Nano. One of the first and most liked Kickstarter was for a strap case that enabled you to wear the Nano as a watch. Combined with the quality of the Apple screen (touch, colour graphics, etc.) this was a great – if little bulky – idea.

Pebble Watch Review

As mentioned above it was “killed” by Apple when they changed the design of the Nano. This is perhaps the best indication that a watch was in their R&D department’s to-do pile.

What Pebble realised is that if you follow the classic Microsoft PC (and Apple with its devices) route then you make the platform first and let others make the usage apps. Thus, you make a product for everyone who wants one and bring all the niches together to form a nexus. What a nexus the Pebble was. I surf Kickstarter every now and again as I am waiting for it to come to the UK (when I am going to relaunch my film idea) and I came across the Pebble. I was quickly sold. In a fit of insanity I bought a pre-order ticket in the knowledge that I would get my cash back if the idea failed and a product of some quality if it succeeded.

I was aware though that this was buying sight unseen. My willingness to do so is the final element of the perfect storm: online shopping and the death of the highstreet. We buy almost everything online now, even our food. We do this sight unseen of the product for two reasons, one: it is far easier and quicker, and two: products – even high end ones – are mass-produced to a standard. You see a photo of the product in question and you simply know that the item delivered will be exactly that thing. What Pebble did was make us believe they could give us exactly what they promised.

Then someone hit the viral button.

Viral is a pure expression of the internet and the speed of thought it represents. Going viral with a product involves getting it in front of the evangelists and curators of that part of the web. For watches that could interact with a smartphone this was simply to entice the websites of the techno-glitterati such as Engadget, Wired and Lifehacker;

Pebble Watch Review

followed by being picked up in the “new press” of the podcasts such as This Week in Tech.

Pebble Watch Review

Before you could shake a stick these guys had more orders than they could have predicted for 10 years. I can imagine them rubbing their hands with glee at having passed the “funded” barrier on Kickstarter and then this excitement rising as they smashed their most optimistic projections and then the slow creeping horror as It. Just. Kept. Rising.

Pebble Watch Review

So much money raised, the numbers don’t fit in the box!

Success is truly a two edged sword and as the Epicureans would have said pleasure is not measured in the amount. Too much of a good thing hurts and 100 times their predicted orders must have been like iced water down their backs.

That I have the product in my hand, that it exists at all, that they didn’t take the money and run or fold or kill themselves or end up in prison… well, it deserves a standing ovation just for that. It has validated Kickstarter as a market. All thanks to a digital watch.

At the moment, Pebbles are shipping at a rate of 5000 a week. The stats are:



The Pebble.

My Pebble, understandably months late, is here. Now.

Unboxing and first impressions

Pebble Watch Review

The Pebble box is clearly the result of compromises and more the better for it.


Reminiscent of an Amazon box, the device sits inside together with its charging USB cable and a single sticker saying to visit go.getpebble.com. The watch itself clips out easily and my first impression was how light it seemed. Mine is the black one, but other colours exist.

Pebble Watch Review

Pebble Watch Review

My normal watch is the very big and heavy Hamilton Jazz Master Maestro during the week and the equally enormous Casio G-Shock A-1000 at weekends and compared to these giants, the Pebble is as light as a feather. It comes with a simple rubber strap of good quality and with a nice weighted buckle.



However, the rubber strap effect, for a watch I am primarily going to wear in the office, is definitely something I would change. Its build quality is clearly first generation and nothing compared to, for example, the high build of either of the watches mentioned above.

Pebble Watch Review

My watch collection for size comparison. The middle top watch is a huge 45mm


  • 144 x 168 pixel display black and white e-paper
  • Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR and 4.0 (Low Energy)
  • 4 buttons
  • Vibrating motor
  • 3 axis accelerometer with gesture detection
  • Water resistant to 5ATM

On the wrist the length of the body is evident. I have big wrists watch-speaking and can carry off 45mm watches with ease due to my size as a person. However, the Pebbles body does come across as long. The back of the watch does not curve around the wrist and the rubber strap does not lift the body to enable a flat wear. The watch front, on the other hand is smooth, clean, and curved well. Therefore, my first impression is that this watch looks “good” on the wrist, but not “great”. The actual screen space on the face of the watch is smaller than I imagined and the border posts are large. If Sony had made this watch, or Apple, I am sure that these posts would have been smaller and the screen bigger.

Once I figured out how to turn the watch on (hold a button for two seconds) the quality of the display immediately improved my initial feelings. It displayed a well crafted picture asking me to pair to a phone. The text was very clear to read. There is a backlight for easier viewing, which can activated by shaking the watch.


  • Display Size: 1.26 “
  • Contrast Ratio: 20:1
  • Response time: 30ms
  • Operating temperature: 70 º C to -20 º C
  • Backlight for dark environments

This module is a transflective, monolithic active-matrix liquid crystal module utilizing Sharp’s CG-silicon thinfilm transistor process. (Sharp)

Whatever the bumpf might say, this is a clear and high quality screen:


The first phone I paired it to was my iPhone 5. I paired the Pebble in the Bluetooth options then I downloaded the app required from the iPhone store and booted it up.

Pebble Watch Review Pebble Watch Review

It found the Pebble and went through a pairing process. It then immediately offered a firmware update.


 Notice the magnetic charging cable attached to the left

This downloaded over Wi-Fi quickly and was transferred to the watch just as rapidly.

  2013-02-20 20.28.08 2013-02-20 20.28.22

In the app, I went to the Pebble “store” and downloaded a few watch faces. You simply select one and it appears on the watch as an option in the main menu:

Pebble Watch Review photo (6)

At the moment only a few are available and the watch screams for more well designed ones.


Paring it to Android was similarly painless.

Pebble Watch Review

Pebble Watch Review

There are a number of programs for passing notifications on this device.

Pebble Watch Review

Pebble Watch Review


The three buttons on the right side of the Pebble control the functions:


The left side single button acts as “back”:


Their play is good and they are not wobbly. There is a feeling of pressing something, which while not the sort of click-beep my Casio produces or the “clunk” of the chronograph on the Hamilton, is substantial enough to be definite.

In use.

The next morning I put the Pebble to use.

Pebble Watch Review

Suited up and ready to go to work

As I walked to the bus I was listening to Audible. The phone was deep in my coat and I was wrapped against the cold with thick gloves on. Normally this makes the changing of tracks, pausing and playing – such as when one has to speak to a bus driver – something best described as “a total pain in the ass”. With the Pebble on, this suddenly became easy as pie. One click and Audible paused, I got on the bus, spoke, paid, thanked for change, walked down the bus, sat and clicked again – Audible started back up without any hassle. Definitely an improvement. I can imagine that this will become a regular and beloved feature.

Pebble Watch Review Pebble Watch Review

While in audio control mode the screen permanently displays the track and controls with the time as a very small font along the top. The benefit of the screen being of this special type is that it can display without necking the power in the battery. The great upshot of this is that the watch does not ever need to “sleep” and dim or turn off the screen. In the modern digital world of power saving, high rate consumption and having to plug everything in all the damn time, this is incredible and a completely new world. The iPhone dimmed and went dark as the “timeout” turned off the screen to save power. The Pebble stayed clearly on the whole time. Of all the features of the watch, this is my favourite.

However, of course, the other main feature is notifications. Would this be just as killer as the music controls?

The process of setting up the notifications requires you to set the notification switch on the Bluetooth settings in the iPhone to “on”:

2013-02-23 10.31.06

Then, on a notification-by-notification basis, go through, and assign them to “on”, to “banner” and to “show in lock screen”:

2013-02-23 10.31.11

2013-02-23 10.31.13

This is a tiresome process. However, it works and the notifications are passed instantly they arrive. I have it switched on for emails to either of the phones’ accounts, messages, and calls.

If the size of the notification, when one arrives, goes beyond the size of the screen the up/down overflow is controlled by the right hand side buttons scrolling the message and the middle button clearing the notice. However, side-to-side overflow, such as a long name, cuts off.


In meetings, where phones are always off the table and switched to silent by convention, the ability to glance at a watch is a lesser sin. Of course, glancing at your watch all the time can give an altogether different impression! However, a casual glance can really help. The screen can be read from quite a distance, so perhaps there is a security issue here if you have the sort of team who email each other during meetings.

Pebble Watch Review


There are issues with this part of the process at the moment. The iPhone is not designed to support the externalising of notifications very well. Consequently, when the Bluetooth connection is broken for any reason, such as moving out of range, only the calls and messages parts are reconnected when the connection is restored. This is a little less than ideal and the source of much frustration on the Pebble forums. However, it is Apple’s fault. What is causing the frustration I believe is that we all know Apple will not hesitate to kill off something that doesn’t benefit it directly. Consider the fate of Flash on the device. Apple may fix this, or Pebble may, but it must be the nightmare of all peripheral companies that Apple considers them in the same light a whale shark considers pilot fish; just feeding off them. What is clearly needed is a protocol to pass all notifications directly to an external source and for this protocol to be managed by a service that reconnects when the device moves in and out of range. Such a service must be monitoring the calls already (or my Bluetooth headphones would not reconnect automatically), so the other functions should be added. How long that will take to be implemented is anyone’s guess. Large companies move slowly and indeed have many layers of Quality Assurance before such a fix can be released.


The fact that this watch is square means there are fewer numbers of “real” watch faces we can expect to see on the Pebble. The daddy of all square watches, the totally divine Jaeger Lecoultre Duo, would work incredibly well on the Pebble.

Pebble Watch Review

What faces we currently have are not well designed, and this is an area that Pebble should have put more work into for their product launch.

Something Microsoft and Apple have learned and learned well is that you must produce a number of very high quality applications on your platform. This encourages others to try to reach such heights and showcases what can be done. Microsoft for example have Office, and this is the killer application of every edition of Windows since version 1. Apple, on the other hand, have Final Cut, which has been used to produce Hollywood movies. Pebble has not spent some of that enormous money producing high quality applications for launch and this is much to their detriment. I suspect that they are aiming for “compatibility” with well-known apps such as Runkeeper and hopefully this will come true. Still, more apps by Pebble would have been a very good idea.

So far the Pebble is scoring well. It has been of great use today during the day. I have been receiving messages from Cesca and emails while standing and talking. Nice. All day I have been controlling Audible and the iPod in the iPhone. I cannot wait to try a different strap however.

Changing the strap.

The strap came off easy with a little help from a penknife and I happened to have a James Bond NATO, which looks rather fetching, as well as a leather one:

Pebble Watch Review 2013-02-22 08.59.22



Anything is better than rubber on a city watch!


The Good

  • The screen is very high quality
  • Power consumption (the battery goes for 7 days)
  • Functionality
  • Overall design

The Bad

  • A few bugs, but then most people haven’t got theirs yet – early days
  • More clock faces needed
  • Buttons are essentially last generation in this modern world of touch-screen everything.
  • Screen picks up dust and sweat, so a film cover is a good idea

The Ugly

  • None of the high-end apps shown in the Kickstarter film exist… yet
  • Apple entering this arena is like a dark cloud in the distance.


The Future.

Overall this is a great device, more than a toy and a lot of fun to use. Its build quality is not a straight 10 out of 10, but then my Hamilton is 8 times the cost and that is one of the cheapest watches with an ETA 7750. The Pebble is a generation 1 device however. To hold a Pebble is to glimpse the future; it is at the zeitgeist, but will it last into the future itself or is it just holding open the door for someone else? It is anything but a forgone conclusion either way, remember that Pebble has sold 68 thousand devices already.The predators are stirring around this young startup upstart and the next few weeks and months will determine if it flourishes or not.

I for one hope it makes it.







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Other Basho watch reviews:

Christopher Ward C60  Nike+ Sportwatch GPS

http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/02/23/pebble-smart-watch-reviewmore-than-just-potential/feed/ 5
Mount Wudang and the Meaning of Life http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/02/12/mount-wudang-and-the-meaning-of-life/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/02/12/mount-wudang-and-the-meaning-of-life/#comments Tue, 12 Feb 2013 13:20:14 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10255 In China, Daoist temples atop mountains are so numerous that there must be something about these high places that answers a longing for cliff edges and being above the clouds. A simplistic analysis of this, one using that most ignoble of human faculties; the so-called common sense, would say that this was driven by a wish to be closer to heaven. But, much like the western view of Hinduism, this is more than a mere bowdlerisation; it is complete bollocks.

To be sure, I climbed one.

“We have a choice,” said Cesca, sitting comfortably in our guest room in Li Jiang.

“OK” I said putting my book down.

“We are heading to Chengdu and the Pandas, then Xian and the (terracotta) Warriors. But, after that we can go either to Wudang or Song.”

I thought about this. Song Mountain is probably the most famous mountain in China. The stories of that holy place and the dramatic history of the men who lived there permeate western culture like no other legend China offers. You see, Song is where the Shaolin temple resides. I also knew it was only a pale shadow of its former self.

The “temple” is more a tourist trap now for it has been famously burned down and rebuilt more than once, more than twice. The last time, during the Communist revolution, resulted in the deaths of most of the monks and it was only the tourist’s fascination with this temple that led to it being brought back to life.

Wudang, while not as famous, also has some exposure in the West. It is often featured in the same classic movies as Shaolin, but usually cast in the role of the antagonist. Recently it has appeared in three Hollywood movies that spring to mind: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon recounts the adventures of a swordsman from Wudang (although the temple seen in the movie is not the real one),

Li Mu Bai: No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.

The Bride’s master from Kill Bill 2, Pai Mei, is based on Bak Mei of Wudang,

Pai Mei: It’s the wood that should fear your hand, not the other way around. No wonder you can’t do it, you acquiesce to defeat before you even begin.

and the (new) Karate kid bizarrely features the young hero learning the snake forms from observation of a master high up in the mountain.

Mr. Han: Chi. Internal energy. The essence of life. It moves inside of us. It flows through our bodies. Give us power from within.

I also thought of the journey we were on spiritually. In India I had come to the somewhat worrying conclusion that Buddhism was just as riddled with ridiculous dogma as was Christianity. This had been all the more reinforced by the visit to the Tibetan high plains and its temples. I had furthermore been put in a spiritual high by our walking of Tiger Leaping Gorge. What I wanted was something to help focus my feelings I had taken from that walk.

“We go to Wudang,” I said with confidence.

It was, thankfully, off season when we got there. The nearest train station was in a city at the foot of the mountain and required us to venture out and find transport to the high “resort” town that leads to the climb up the steps. Walking out of the station carrying our bags, our faces white and conspicuous, drew friendly humorous smiles from the locals. I could see what they found so full of mirth as our backpacks were large and augmented by front packs and hand baggage too. We must have looked like two turtles to the burghers of the town. However, they were more than happy to help direct us to a taxi that could take us to the bus up the mountain.

We were dropped off at a tourist gate area where we walked through a semi deserted open-air shopping arcade to a line of ticket booths. The cost of entry was quite high, but not so high we wouldn’t pay it. I guess that this is the Chinese way of preventing people from just living on the mountain without permission (it is a UNESCO Word Heritage site). It was all very official, like entering Disney World.

After the gates came a local bus. That journey was through miles of wild and woolly country of a wonderful green interspersed with the occasional martial arts temple until arriving at a mountain town built almost vertically. There we checked into a deserted hotel (I am sure that we were the only guests as the room water was not heated) and then wandered around the town looking for food for the night and the next day’s excursion up the mountain. That night we slept in its shadow and I dreamed of the ancient tales of Wudang.

The Daoist history of the mountain is long, very long. Daoism itself started as an almost shamanistic belief system before developing into the basic form centred on the belief in a great spirit of nature that is fundamentally weaved into reality. This unknowable and ineffable spirit, named “the Dao”, affects the world and by living in accordance with it great benefits can be garnered. The rest of Daoism is the discussion of the unknowable and its effects together with “research” into how to gain the benefits. This research was/is undertaken in the high mountain retreats/temples and Wudang is the home of one of the most important. There are something like 20 temples dotted along the mountain slope and it is topped with the great Purple Cloud Temple high above the cloud’s level. It was to this that we wanted to walk/climb.

Yes, I know this sounds like Star Wars. There is a reason in that Daoism was the inspiration for “the Force”.


Eventually, as with all religions that survive, a myth was built by the “vision” of a certain person. This form of Daoism suddenly had gods, including the emperor of China, and – even more strangely – rules to be followed by a priesthood. This was given the rubber stamp of the government and is the main form still found in China today.


Many things we take as fundamentally Chinese, such as the Ying Yang symbol, come from Daoism and it has affected Chinese medicine, literature, art, pottery, the fundamentals of society and what it means to have faith.

However the most commonly encountered effect (if you are western) is how it has changed the martial arts forever. The most famous tale of Wudang is that Tai Chi was invented here by ex-Buddhist monk Zhang Sanfeng. Who, while watching a snake and a crane fight one day, realised a great secret regarding the nature of power and flowing of energy. This is a secret at the heart of Wudang martial arts, which as “softer” than the more structured and rigorous “hard” styles found in the north. This split also follows along the lines of Buddhism, which had a serious schism after the 6th Zen Patriarchy was awarded to a temple kitchen-hand (the fantastic Huineng) on the basis of a single poem and leading to a sort of north south divide. Thus it follows with the martial arts of the two areas. This is – of course – painting hundreds of years of history with a broad-brush, but it is true that one of the reasons Daoism and Buddhism intertwined so much is through the “expression” of the Dao found in the martial arts.

Proof can be found in the detail behind the legendary stories. For example it is now known that the Tendon Change Classic (the famous “manual” of the Shaolin) is actually Daoist. This is obvious when one see’s the movements performed as they are clearly Qigong (literally “Life Energy Cultivation”) exercises taken out of context.


In the end, whether Sanfeng truly invented Tai Chi here or not, it is true that this mountain is the heart and birth place of a lot of important special martial traditions and principles. Wudang martial arts’ is a soft core over a hard frame. Gentle movements for using the energy of the attacker against himself. This method illuminates a fundamental truth about the movement of energy in the body (and by respects in the Universe, Daoism would claim). Meeting a blow with a defensive block – like in formal Karate styles – can lead to as much pain in the blocker as the blocked. Force on force. What they teach in the softer arts is to meet force like water, to absorb it, to grasp it in enveloping control and to then to “place” it (usually on its own head). I always council students to imagine it alike the power of the sea; flowing back then forwards, unstoppable yet yielding. Strong enough to break down cliffs and erode valleys, yet supple enough to give when it needs to.


This is core Daoist philosophy expressed through combat. For the Daoist, it is to express the Dao and be connected to it.

These principles have travelled far from this place and can actually be found in many Dojos’ of the west today. The main route of this influence follows Chan Buddhism’s journey through China and into the countries further east. The truth is that Chan left China changed into something new. It had now an element that had been left out of the Indian Buddhist form’s journey over the mountains of Tibet. The newly-adopted Daoist principles had made their mark and the two great philosophies ruled China for generations intertwining in ways as yet fully unravelled. So, when eventually Chan left China, and went to Korea and Okinawa, it had a strong undercurrent of Daoism in it.

When it got to Japan it was named Zen.

So, if Buddhism is Zen’s father, then Daoism is surely its mother. The Japanese had by this time invaded Okinawa and, legend has it, took its fighting arts back with to the homeland to become Karate. Karate came to the west (and to England through the great Vernon Bell, who I once met shortly before his death), where it remains today and each week you can see white pajamaed students in thousands of Dojo’s, regardless of their “style”, directly practice the principles first created in the philosophy of Daoism founded in Mount Wudang.

That is quite a heritage.

True, in western styles, the soft energy is often “pushed down” and minimised, but some still have it where you can see it. I studied such a style for a few years, Goju Ryu, where they have a kata (ritual movements against imaginary attackers) that is almost exactly a Wudang form practiced in a different timing.

I was eager to be able to understand the philosophy behind this flowing energy, for I had felt it many times in the martial arts and it raised many questions in my mind. Such as: How can a little master, such as my small 72 year-old master of Aikido, Don Bishop, be able to throw someone my size with no effort at all? How did sensei Humm of London Kendo be able to defeat any student half his age without being hit or wearing armour? I knew this subtle mastery of the energies came from long study, but I also knew that there was something more, something they were “tapping” into. Even if they didn’t know it. Like a man dropping into a great stream and briefly using its energy to float down river rather than walk. What was this stream? Where did it come from? And why was its use both gentle yet powerful?

I woke in the morning ready for the climb. Or at least I remember thinking I was ready. I wasn’t. At all.

One of the founding principles of Zen and Daoism is that self-improvement (leading to enlightenment) comes through effort. It often comes, however, while doing something else other than the learning part of the practice in question. You need to be doing and not learning. Focussing on the territory and not the map. Spiritual growth can be in the most simple of actions; the knuckle press-ups of Goju Ryu Karate or the gentle moving meditation of Tai Chi. It can be the daily Zen of gardening or the quiet meditation of the tea ceremony. The result is a type of mental reprogramming. Not for nothing has Zen and Daoism been compared to psychotherapy.

I was about to experience what was, for me, the greatest expression of this “practice without practice”; the walking up of the 20 thousand steps up mount Wudang. That effort, and it was an effort I quickly realised, was the point of the Purple temple being at the very top of the mountain. Not so that it is closer to heaven, but so that you must rise, and work to rise, and thereby be able to let go enough to feel the flow of the “great stream” of which I wrote. For while that stream is there, it is like the bottom of a pond, or something only seen out of the corner of your eye, you can only see it when the waters are calm, or your mind distracted.

20 thousand steps is quite a distraction.

We started by walking up and through the town until we came to a path leading a winding journey around the mountain.


_MG_1241 _MG_1235

This path snaked ever upwards and disappeared into the trees as its bends followed the contours of the slopes.


We had no idea where this journey would end as the path bent so much as to obscure more than the next 100 meters. It was a well built path with only a few other walkers other than locals selling their wares. Soon the town was left far behind and we were greeted with amazing views of the surrounding mountains covered in forests flowing uninterrupted right up to our feet. They were some of the most beautiful I have ever walked.


The sun was mostly absent, and this gave a parallax shaded appearance to the distance which enchanted more than detracted.


The sections of steps started lengthening after half an hour as we rose through and past grotto’s labelled as the ancient homes of hermits practicing alchemy of both the potion and martial arts kinds.

_MG_1246 _MG_1252

Along this forestry route we kept encountering all sorts of locals who, much like in Tiger Leaping Gorge, looked ancient and yet could hop up the steps with the grace and power of one who has been doing it all their lives. They bounded past us with no effort at all.


Next came the palanquin carriers who also didn’t appear to be struggling despite having to carry rich looking Chinese on their backs straight up the steps.


Being carried up the mountain was to fundamentally miss the point of its existence, but I guess this depends of your spiritual position. After this section we regularly came across temples that the path ran directly through. Fantastic courtyards with burning censer offerings. On the walls of the buildings we noticed photo diagrams of the martial arts of Wudang and some of the current masters. They were somewhat touristic and unrealistic, but great looking.



There has been a revolution in the martial arts in recent years, mainly brought about by the American martial forms. This revolution rejects heritage, myth and the religious foundations of most of the arts (most obvious in what is called Kung Fu) and focuses on a single question, “does it work?” This has given rise to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) that wants to televise the answer to this question. I personally would never bemoan the MMA world, I have fought too many of them to disrespect their talent, but I am a Daoist and avid historian so the legends fascinate me. I cannot help but feel that a hidden truth, placed in the older forms, is there to be discovered. I have seen too many amazing feats by martial arts masters to deny this. Does it work? Yes, I can attest that it does. But, if the ability to rain pure destruction on your enemies is your only wish then MMA is perhaps better for you. For me, I want a way of life that illuminates, pleases and also enables me to kill should I need to. The thing is, once you have studied martial arts for long enough then combat brought about through fear no longer affects you. In other words, most masters I have known are very kind, calm and gentle people. I just strongly suggest you don’t try and mug one.

The steps now became steeper and the stretches of carved stairs longer and longer.

_MG_1257 _MG_1261

Together with the fact that we were half way up a mountain meant that we laboured to breath well and this journey was taking a toll even if we were really enjoying it. Indeed I remember holding hands, smiling, laughing, making jokes and having a great time.

_MG_1247 _MG_1249

As we passed English signs explaining some of the history of the mountain we stopped, read and discussed. The path remained very high quality and the areas were very clean. All in all, it was wonderful.

_MG_1192 _MG_1193

Eventually we came to a large collection of buildings. To get this far had taken over 3 hours. This area was really busy and had lots of rich looking tourists.

“Where did all these people come from?” Cesca said.

“I don’t know, but they don’t look at all tired,” I answered.

Indeed they did not, in fact they distinctly looked like the sort of people that would not toil to climb these steps. The mystery was solved when we walked around the corner and saw the massive Alpine style cable car station. Someone had built a shortcut up the mountain for the tourists entirely missing the point of its existence. But, hey they got to see the view.

_MG_1197 _MG_1198

We ate lunch here and then pressed on into the temple complex itself. These buildings were in very good condition and each doorway had English explanations of the history of the forthcoming room.

_MG_1284 IMG_1296

_MG_1285 _MG_1277

Wudang_Mountain_81 Wudang_Mountain_79

Steps up between the buildings were now chain-lined and thousands of people had attached padlocks to the links. Each padlock had an inscription in Chinese.

_MG_1283 _MG_1318

I had seen this before and I knew that they would be a booth somewhere with a little man offering to carve the inscription for you. Eventually we made it to a temple which purported to offer good luck if you walked around the giant statue inside and we duly did although it was very cramped for someone my size and I had visions of being stuck behind this carving forever.

_MG_1325 Wudang_Mountain_37

After this we ascended to the peak above the roofs. This was another hike up multiple stairs, but we were excited by this point.

As we came up to the very peak we were now within the cloud layer. In summer this would probably be above it and a surreal experience, but for us it was like walking into the clouds.



Atop the peak is a courtyard of around 100 meters a side and in the middle was a large grotto style temple building carved from brass and lined with pillars.

_MG_1300 _MG_1304

It was quite a sight and outside stood a very old looking priest with a huge classic Chinese beard. He looked a little swamped in tourists, but also very used to the experience.

_MG_1303 _MG_1311 _MG_1310

If the cable car wasn’t available, I have no doubt we would have been the only ones on this peak. Eventually we walked down the rear of the courtyard and through a winding stair until we were back in the main temple area.

_MG_1302 _MG_1321

With unspoken agreement we started back down the steps.

_MG_1322 Wudang_Mountain_36

Going down was harder. My legs burned something chronic at having to stretch to step down and I could tell we would be suffering in the coming days. As we passed people we gave out words of encouragement to those climbing up who looked like they couldn’t tell how long the rest of the journey was.

Wudang_Mountain_35 Wudang_Mountain_29

After only 2 hours we were back in the base town and we walked to the hotel.

They wouldn’t let us check in. The hotel was closed it seemed. OK then would they let us have a shower? No. I must admit Cesca and I got very upset at the cultural stubbornness these people displayed. The fact we could not speak each other’s language exacerbated it and eventually it resulted in both parties getting seriously pissed off. So, wet through from the climb we lugged all our gear off the mountain and back to the city where we found a hotel and fell into bed.

Sure enough the next day my legs were in extreme pain and walking around the city finding food was a slow tiring business. We found a burger bar and tucked into chicken burgers.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was not the same person who had climbed that mountain. Something had changed. It wasn’t to crystallise into a public exaltation of that change for nearly a year, but nevertheless it started here. I had read so much, studied so much and listened to so many voices on my journey to a spiritual awakening that it was as if those last 20 thousand steps and the Wudang peak truly capped it off.

I had finally seen the “whitespace” that framed the world, the negative image that gives form to all the positive images we see around us. I had found the core of this feeling I had been carrying around for 30 years and my journey from the child first encountering a Zen Buddhism book in a little bookshop in Maldon was now almost complete.

A lifetime of asking, questioning and study. At the Christian churches of my childhood, at the dinner tables of my mother and father, in the GCSE English class of my teachers, in the A-Level Philosophy of Plato, in the degree Philosophy of Nietzsche, in my 20 years of martial arts study, in my discovery of Buddhism, my walks listening to the Zen master Alan Watts, my year long journey to the East around the temples of Asia, China and India and now finally in our ascent to the top of this mountain bringing it all together and showing me the connecting structure in one place.

In a type of Satori and with it a peace.

I believe there is an energetic and currently unknowable flowing “spirit” to the universe that is the core of it being in existence. It isn’t a God who loves us like a father; it is bigger than us and our petty dogmas. It is the Starmaker; an operation of reality that we are barely aware of and it means that I believe there is no duality in the universe. Living with it is to live fully. It is like the music of the universe playing all around you and one simply has to hear it, accept it and let its celestial dance guide you through the moments of your life to find peace.

Truly then I believe that we do not see reality like it actually is. There is something more, but it is not away from us in a heaven, it is right here all around us and we are a part of it, woven into its fabric, in the same way that the valley is a part of the mountain.

The mountain that showed this to me was Mount Wudang, Hublei province, China.


Years later I had a conversation with some incredulous Christian friends that went like this:

“The way you talk, Basho, you are on the path to Christianity,” he said and they smiled to each other, “at the moment you are simply denying God, you must listen to him”.

I smiled back, “No my friends,” I said, “I am not denying God. I have climbed the mountain and opened the door at the top. I just didn’t find Jesus on the other side, I found the Universe and with that came spiritual peace.”







Thanks for reading this article – I hope that you liked it. If it has left you wondering, “Just what is this Daoism stuff?” Then the answer – of sorts – can be found here: What is Daoism?


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Watches, Homages and Branding http://www.outsidecontext.com/2012/11/23/watches-homages-and-branding/ http://www.outsidecontext.com/2012/11/23/watches-homages-and-branding/#comments Fri, 23 Nov 2012 11:33:15 +0000 http://www.outsidecontext.com/?p=10164 Please note, before I begin, that the following are all my own thoughts and words. So, by their very nature, they will be subjective – you’d be amazed of some of the comments I get posted to this blog regarding my audacity to place my opinions on my own site. I welcome discussion, comment and counter opinion – please keep the trolling for the forums.


I have been conducting an experiment for the last few years. I was initially fascinated by the watch forums and markets pronouncing for or against so-called homage watches and watchmakers. Is watchmaking an “art” in the true sense? Isn’t all art in some way derivative? Even the most “original” art a homage in some sense?

Alternatively, is watchmaking about branding?

And so, in the interests of personal curiosity and fascination with watches, I have been buying and selling known homage’s to try and make up my own mind regarding the value of the form. I firmly believe that you can’t judge something over the web or without buying or at least holding the item in the flesh. There is something to be said for the feelings of “buyer’s remorse” for illuminating your real feelings.

Anyway, Just what is a homage? Homage is surely more than mere mimicry, the sort of pastiche “fake” watches found all over the markets of the Far East. I remember visiting a watch market in Li Jiang, China and coming across a fake Bell & Ross watch for $90 that was indistinguishable from the real thing. I thought to myself that this was as simple as a fake got: a watch that copies the original in its surface aspects. A skin-deep pastiche. Shallow. Fake. Like some sort of animal pretending to be something it isn’t to ensnare the unwary.

Li-Jiang, a great place for bargains

But, this again brought pause for thought as the “fake” Bell & Ross had inside it a quartz mechanism and Japanese Quartz at that. The upshot of which is that it probably kept better time than the original. Why pay that extra $2000? After all the “art”, the look and emotion of the piece, is all present and correct in the copy and it looks the same on one’s wrist in terms of fashion. Apart from snobbery over watch internals, complications and other “inside” aspects, is there anything to get hot under the collar about with a “fake” watch and is the homage more than this?

Homage is not a bad word in itself, or at least it wasn’t historically, for to give “homage” was to worship something greater than one did. Worship. Fealty. It is a Middle Ages word that only recently has slipped into this new meaning of being a fake copy surfing on the coat-tails of its betters. I think that anything can be a homage. From the cinematic works of Quentin Tarantino, which are chock-full of loving little homage’s to classic films, to Hellmanns, which is surely a homage to Mayonnaise (either that or wallpaper paste).

Homage Watches

What do we want from our homage watches? Surely its final purpose, just like the original, is to tell the time? I really don’t think so. On my return from my travels, I went looking for something to replace my ever-reliable Christopher Ward Kingfisher.

Basho and Kingfisher in Vietnam during Tet

Many people told me that watches, especially mechanical “Swiss” watches, were old hat. “Everyone just uses their phone to tell the time these days,” they would claim, “why bother with a watch?”

I always answered with, “…and which phone do you own?”

To which the person would invariably go on about their shiny new phone, how screwed they got – or didn’t get – by their last upgrade, their minutes, its megabytes and all those lovely megapixels. In other words, they bought and used their latest ninja-phone from Apple for exactly the same reason I bought my watch. Yes, I could tell time by using a phone, but hell – I could tell the time by looking at the relative position of the sun! Beyond the simple divination of working hours, watches have the same purpose as modern phones: marking personal status.

I realised that like eating peas on the back of one’s fork (I can’t as they fall off), having gone the “right” school (I didn’t, I went to a comprehensive), studied at the “right” University (I couldn’t get into Cambridge) and come from the “right” side of the tracks (I certainly don’t), a watch marks you out as a member of “the club”.

Whatever that club is.

Therefore, buying the right watch for me, one I was happy with, was to say where I saw myself. What the watch “said” of me was an evolving target that changed as I did. This sat well as a hypothesis and so came the testing.

I started with the Christopher Ward and his C60, which I have written about at length on this site.

Sure, the C60 apes the watches’ it is homage to, but is it subtle enough to be only an “inspiration”? Alternatively, has it mixed so many features from other makers to melange into pastiche and be merely a copy?

Upon purchasing and wearing the C60 (the only way to truly judge a watch) I soon realised that no, it is definitely not a pastiche, but that this value is subtle.

The Rolex that CWL based the C60 on

A thin ice Christopher Ward surfs with every new release. He, I believe, attempts a “distillation” rather than hodge-podge the elements found in the original. Of course such a judgement is subjective and so I turned to the home of the subjective opinion: the Internet.

I knew I had found the crucible in which to test my hypothesis when I found a three page forum argument over the lugs on a watch.

“For me lug-holes are sacrosanct.”

– forum commenter

Each provocateur had posted images of, what to me, were identical lugs and loudly claimed that one was the original style marked out by genius, pure and bright, and the other was a filthy and unholy amalgamation aping its betters, clearly the result of a delusional mind intent on duping people with inferior produce.

I’d be buggered if I could tell between them which was original and anyway, is originality so important?

Being original is being first, the template, the archetype from which copies are made. This is all well and good, but it is also easy to fake. That is the power of branding.

On Branding

My wife was a branding consultant and I have been well trained by her in “brand awareness”. Branding is in the job of creating fashion. Brands don’t “come” from anywhere. Not in the way they purport to. Take the brand “Superdry”. It’s Japanese right?

SuperDry Logo


That Japanese text translates as “Be extreme desiccation!” It originates not in Tokyo’s 109 building as it appears to, but much closer to home: in an East England market.

Fashion branding is born at 109


I have a funny story about the 109 building. Walking around this Mecca of cool, this Nebula-like birthplace of half the worlds fashion trends – constantly full to the rafters with the Japanese super-cool, my wife sees a really expensive patterned bag and loudly shouts, “I have that pattern on my ironing board” 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 my wife (who as I said is an expert in branding and dresses quite cool herself) was priceless.

/end digression

What its designers did was grasp the zeitgeist regarding many peoples’ Japanophilia and present itself as a perfect, distilled, “Japanese” brand.

Superdry Scuba Multi-Dial Watch

The “Superdry Scuba Multi-Dial Watch” – Note: “Not suitable for scuba diving.”

So is it fake? No, it’s as original as anything else. The truth is that there is no such thing as fake in branding; because they are all fake.

Superdry’s latest collection is all about “Superdry Original” a postmodern retcon of history to present the brand as though it existed “in the past” (when we all looked much better). Soon this will literally become the truth and accepted; 1984 style. I pick on Superdry not because I am claiming their quality is lesser or that the brand is not laser focussed, indeed not. I have been to Japan, it is exactly like Superdry’s brand suggests; with some items (for some reason) costing the Earth (such as Porter bags and Buzz Rickson jackets). All Superdry has done is brought the Japanese-cool “feel” to us without international shipping charges for “real” Japanese items. This could be any brand. All brands are designed to create what is known as “stickiness”.

How a Business Uses Branding

A business starts as either a bespoke or a volume operation. As each cycle of the business comes around the board will often set the balance of the company’s finances (the rate at which money goes in and out) in such a way that the two values of Quality and Price go up. It has to happen slowly of course because if the Price hikes overnight, no matter the Quality of the product, sales will decrease as the customer will be able to buy what it perceives as the same Quality product for less elsewhere. This relationship works interdependently. However, the power of a brand is that it introduces Stickiness into this equation. It is simply the measurement of how likely the customer is to go elsewhere when Prices rise (or indeed Quality falls). Eventually, over a long enough period and with very careful management, the Price of the product will rise high above its normal relationship to the Quality. This happens mainly because the client actively enjoys the product so much that he defines himself through the relationship to it. He is “stuck”. The Price can then rise to almost any level because the Quality is perceived to be in relation. Combined with a perceived “limited supply” and the price will raise even faster and stay high (a la diamonds). Wine too uses this model with the First Growth wines fetching crazy prices. Such as a Petrus ’66, which I once saw on a menu for 23 thousand pounds per bottle!

Apple Computers do this notoriously well and are often used as the ultimate business example of this phenomenon. Their late evangelist of “sticky”, Steve Jobs, proclaimed that theirs was the best product and people believed him. I am not saying Apple doesn’t make a good product, that would be slightly ironic as I am typing this on an iPad, what I mean is that any brand can evolve to drive the Price. Brands can even be reborn. Look at Skoda. A joke when I was a kid, a high quality brand now. Where did that perception go? How did Burberry go from being a high quality brand, to be all chavish, and now to be high quality again? Simple, it sorted the Quality of the product and then hired branding experts like my wife’s team. One such company that literally did this was Morrisons supermarket and she got rid of that terrible Black and Yellow logo in favour of “Middle Class” green and then went out and hired Take That to sing about it.

The Watch as a Brand

I am sure you can see the parallel with watches. Rolex for example, while both “original” and of “high quality” (not that I could tell the lugs apart from the cheaper one) creates a “Stickiness” outside all relation to the product itself. Rolex are not even at the top of this pyramid. Take Patek Philippe whose watches top out at simply massive prices, this is at complete odds with the quality of the product. Of course, there is enough money in the budget for the company to make a high quality product in the first place, but beyond the pure value of the gold used, and the “custom” watch internals, it is the value of the brand, the long-term measure of its stickiness, which puts them on top.

That stickiness becomes completely intangible in the luxury end of the market. For example, see if you can tell the difference between these two watches? Which one costs $15,000 and which is the Frankenstein monster worth $200? Remember to chose based only on the term of the quality you can “see” in the images:

Which One



If you chose the one on the right, you’re wrong? I swapped the labels.

A cheat I know, but don’t just take my word for all this. Here is the director IWC admitting to all this:

With the “value” of “real” brands being so, well.. worthless? Fake? – it lead me to the next stage of my journey with some direct homages of my own.


My Direct Homages

I bought a Steinhart. This German company is famous for two perceptions: 1. it makes a quality product at a very competitive price. 2. It rips off Rolex. I decided that I would like to try a larger watch. I am a big guy and wanted to see if a 44mm watch (which seemed massive to me) would suit me. Therefore, I bought their homage to the Rolex Deepsea, the Forty-Four GMT Black.

The new Ocean Forty-Four GMT is our modern interpretation of a classic design, whose massive processing is a guarantee for high durability and superior quality. It will master any occasion and knows to impress with such sophisticated detailing as the sapphire crystal bezel inlay and a finely engraved Rehaut. In the world of sports watches, this is one of the very few examples in its price range which demonstrates such an excellent cost-performance ratio.

This large watch had an air of quality about it the minute I put it on. Indeed after wearing it for a couple of weeks I came to conclusion that it was a homage and not a “copy” in the way many people thought. It is, in pictures, often mistaken for a Rolex Deepsea and this is on purpose.

Rolex Deepsea Steinhart OCEAN Forty-Four GMT BLACK Diver Watch

However, it lacks many of the extreme features of the original watch such as being able to dive deep, escape-valves, etc. However, beyond this, once you have them both in your hand you can immediately tell them apart. Not in terms of pure quality, but in style. The Rolex is much much smaller, less chunky and from any angle, apart from straight on, they are worlds apart. Holding them both side by side I also realised that the Steinhart is not trying to “be” the Rolex, rather it is the Rolex as the Germans would make it. High quality steel, solid, chunky, feature rich, no-nonsense and huge.

Forty-Four GMT Black

Like a tank on the wrist and almost utilitarian in its brutal execution of the Rolex’s elegance. I couldn’t love it. I, personally, am not a brutal man – or at least I don’t want to come across as so – and thus the Steinhart had to go.

Next, I decided to go shopping for something that had the high quality and size of the Steinhart, but that had a lot more sophistication. So, I chose a Hamilton Jazzmaster Maestro.

Hamilton’s blurb on the Jazzmaster evokes their brand image of Jazz-era America in 40’s and 50’s. It says that this was the sort of watch that the Brat Pack might wear, with a smooth lined and understated elegance belied by its enormous size (45mm!).

Every musical score needs a maestro to achieve true perfection – the Jazzmaster Maestro 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.

It is speaking softly, the originality of the make is like smooth Jazz.


Here it is:


Ooops! No, sorry, that’s the IWC Portuguese. Here is the Hamilton:

Wait a moment- Similar, no?

2012-09-21 12.08.55 2012-09-21 12.10.22

Yes, in every way but price as the IWC is 5 thousand pounds. Is Hamilton copying IWC here? The quality of the Hamilton is not quite up to IWC standards, but, having worn them both, it’s a damn near thing. In fact I personal feel that the Hamilton, like the Steinhart, is the watch the Americans would make if they made Portuguese’s. It has an air of the US about it. It is also a great bargain, costing 800 pounds for features that on many other “stickier” brands costs 3 times that.

It is, therefore, a homage and not a copy. It is saying to the world; here is our “version” of that style of watch, executed with our own vision for it.


Homage watches are like cover versions of a song. Moreover, sometimes is not the cover version better than the original? Yes, even Bob Dylan admitted that the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” was better than his and is not the Alicia Keys version of “Empire State of Mind” better than the original one? I think so. The Hamilton is executed just well enough not to be a copy. The same goes for the Steinhart and the Christopher Ward.

The other day a man next to me on the train was wearing an IWC Portuguese, I recognised it immediately, and I asked myself what it said about him. I realised that it says that he earns more than I do and isn’t married with children. My Hamilton, on the other hand, is classy, but not outlandish. A subjective judgement I know, but that is the point of it.

I realised that it is the watch that make’th the man now that we have (mostly) stopped wearing suits. What you like in a watch is a mark of your aspirations as a person. Are you mega-wealthy and want to mark that with a 50 grand watch? Get something designed by Piguet. Are you wealthy, see yourself as mannish, but don’t want to bother with watches much? Get the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean. Want some heritage points? Then it’s a Patek for you.

On the other hand, if you want some sense of reality, something that says you want a high quality product at a good price, then get a Christopher Ward while they are cheap, because their stickiness is rising.

The new C900

The Conclusion

Finally then, I have my answer:

All branding is essentially fake, so homages watches are OK because they are ‘cover versions’ that bring their own feel to the product they homage.

The Addendum

I soon realised that I live two lives. In one, I am riding the early train to my office in London and running management meetings with my US chiefs. In the other, I am Basho who plays military simulations with all his ex-commando friends. I realised that the Hamilton was not quite appropriate for that use. Therefore, my final part of this journey was to go looking for a watch that spoke to that part of me. I considered many: Luminox, Nite Watches and finally Casio.

This is my incoming Casio G-Shock.

It is ironic to me that the most original watch I have is the cheapest! It, however, speaks of me (in terms of being large, bright and fully featured of course), of who I want to be and who I see myself as, and that is why I will wear it. My personal “brand” my be only in my head, but it is also on my wrist and its stickiness is rising too.



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