Plan A Was More Than Enough

Harold Camping then,

'There is no Plan B', he said.

Most people would have interpreted that to mean, that he was so sure of his convictions that he didn't even bother to think about what he would do if the Rapture didn't happen.

But I reckon Camping knew exactly what he was doing, and that his little quip was deliberately filled with a second meaning more close to his heart.

From a quote on The Register:

New Yorker Robert Fitzpatrick's faith in Camping saw him standing in Times Square at the appointed hour, but he was rewarded for investing his life savings of $140k in a poster campaign proclaiming the apocalypse with nothing more than drizzle and jeering tourists.

He said: "I can't tell you what I feel right now. Obviously, I haven't understood it correctly because we're still here."

No Robert, you understood the message perfectly well as Camping intended it to be interpreted. Even if he didn't profit directly from your posters, it will have brought some of the gullible round to his way of thinking, and thus a bit more cash. You were basically a free advert. It wasn't personal: anyone with your particular mental state of mind would have done just as well.

His Plan A was to drop off the radar on May 21, with a whole sackful of other peoples' money, just as they were perhaps realising they'd been duped. I doubt Camping had the same religious convictions he may have had when he was younger - any nobility from pious religious faith had been slowly removed as it dawned on him down the years that he could make an awful lot of money out of other people who thought the same thing. And when his initial 'unchristian' actions failed to elicit any punishments from above, that gave him the green light to do whatever he wanted.

Yes, maybe it is the case that Harold Camping is a closet Atheist, or at least an agnostic. Only he got his enlightenment not from realising that faith is a bunch of hooey that destroys peoples' lives and that for the sake of future humanity it should be jettisoned, but from seeing it's perverse and selfish value; seeing the potential for using it as a tool, screwing other people over by lying to them and misleading them. As has been the case with many people in positions of power, their faith in the system they got into has been eroded and replaced with a simple knowledge of the power it gives them and how to misuse it to their own ends.

Post-non-rapture, it would be too much to expect the majority of people to take an honest look at their gullibility, vulnerability and wasted hours, days and months on this nasty disease. Such a possibility has been proved false by Camping returning some days later, his website somewhat altered so as to remove his claims, and incredulously stating that it did actually happen, just in a nice caring way, sparing us five months of torture until the world REALLY REALLY WILL END on October 21. How anyone would swallow this can only be explained by dogmatic, brainwashing religious faith, and closed, underdeveloped minds.

Amongst its people, Campings' claims and subsequent backpeddling has triggered variety of defensive walls:

Some slightly less fundamental Christians have quoted Matthew 24:36 and said, 'how can anyone know - these people should have known Camping was a false prophet'. Recognising the poisonous effect the man has on anyone religiously close to him there has been no shortage of self-appointed spokesmen speaking out and distancing themselves - after he was proved wrong, you'll note. The Rapture is obviously a perfectly normal thing to believe in, they suggest, but you must be some sort of kerayzee to think you can predict when it is!!

Camping used the biblical teachings of the rapture that he knew was part of the central Christian canon, as a way to get what he wanted. You can blame the biblical scholars for coming up with the rapture concept just as much as this man, and blame the less-fundamental fundamentalists for reminding the blindly faithful to continue believing in - and thus fearing - the Rapture being just around the corner in the future.

Other (more sceptical) people have reacted with anger: calling for the man to be arrested for fraud - but if they did, then he would be no less guilty than any other bible thumper at the front of the flock. Feel free to send out the police for the TV evangelicals who get people to throw money at them, the local faith healers asking for pots of cash to have a chance at miraculously healing their sick child, and - well why not - even the vicar in your local village church - his collection box takings are all in the name of the lord after all.

And there will always be stupid people. That's why they will accept this rubbish unquestioningly without stopping for a moment and thinking '..hang on.. this will happen at 6pm local time.. all around the world? WTF!?'. These are the same sorts of people caricatured on the front of a Darwin Awards book, sawing off the branch of a tree while sitting on it. These are the vulnerable, uneducated, wilfully ignorant people Camping and his type target.

A fourth group (mostly apologists) has tried to just simply laugh it off: 'No harm done.' No harm done, you say? What about people bankrupted because they paid for billboards advertising this rubbish, or spent their life savings travelling across the country to be near the idiot on the day. What about the thousands of faithful experiencing degrees of psychological anxiety and fear about whether they would be raptured, and what they did wrong to anger their god when it turned out they were still on earth and nothing had changed - especially in the hours before they realised that no-one else had been raptured either.

In the post-rapture interview, Camping showed us a little of his attitude towards the people whose lives he has shattered, some hint of the way he views his followers as nothing more than a means to an end. When asked if he would apologise to the people he has misled, and more importantly, coerced them to ruin their futures, he said:
"If people want me to apologize, I can apologize, yes. I am not a genius. I was wrong. It [the Rapture] should be understood spiritually and not physically,"
In other words, he will only apologise if people ask him to; he has no conscience or shame to drive him to do it unprompted. As far as his twisted logic goes, he has done nothing wrong, and any apology will not be heartfelt - it will only serve to shut those disagreeable unbelievers up.

Worst of all, Camping has blood on his hands. A woman attempted to murder her children, followed by her own attempted suicide because she couldn't face the rapture and the possibility of not being a 'chosen one'. No doubt the massive let down felt by thousands of people in the coming days will cause still others to consider suicide, especially if they have given everything away. And it will happen again in October.

But let's not put all the blame on Camping; he has just used his brains to make capital out of the biblical concepts laid down hundreds of years ago to line his pockets - the ones the saner members of society have kicked off into the long grass and urged others to do the same. Thousands have done it in the past to keep people scared. People are doing it now around the world in all walks of life, and will do it in the future with religions yet to be invented. And when the followers are told stories of death and destruction, mercy for only the faithful and hellfire for anyone straying even a little bit from the righteous path, their fear they will keep them close to the bosom of religion as a source of comfort from the phantoms that aren't actually there.


Oh, and Osama Bin Laden was a mucky little perv.


The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you. (with apologies to Gary Larson)
True story:

While in my back garden, a duck watched me build a wall, and when I had finished and I was putting things away for the night it waddled up to me, and stared. It seemed unfazed by our relative sizes. I went inside and came back out with some wet bread. It took the torn off pieces from my hand.

She returned the following morning with two friends, and periodically afterwards. My resident pheasants don't know what to do about it when they barge them out of the way and eat the bird seed I put down.

And they watch me through my window. Silently watching, and waiting. Waiting for their moment.

Race Results

Slightly belatedly, here are my race results.

Leeds Half Marathon: 2:26:28

Though I was trounced by my boss who is really really old and shouldn't be able to run as quick as he can, this was my first competition race at this length. I'd managed a couple on a measured local route and the best I'd managed was a 2:33. I never imagined that I'd get below 2 and a half hours but I was aided by good weather, a more forgiving route on my feet, and a kindly lady who I got talking to on the start line who was also looking for a 2:30 time, and so offered to run pace with me. It's amazing just what a push you can get from being in a crowd of runners too. That and being off my tits on bananas, pasta and barocca. Definitely doing it again next year!

Hull 10K
: 58:52

Buoyed up with the knowledge I could manage more than twice distance, I set a target of under an hour - something I've only managed by fluke once on a local route, so armed with a similar amount of pre-race energy and carbs, I went for it. Hull is perhaps the best place to go to get a good 10k time, since the route is almost completely flat. I went to visit The Deep afterwards, which was alright, but not a patch on Churaumi.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the associated JustGiving pages (Leeds, Hull) for these races. Together so far £200 has been raised for Japanese Tsunami Relief Fund and Macmillan Cancer Support.

I'm currently invalided with a sprained ankle at the moment, which I hope will heal quick as there is still the Leeds 10K and York 10Ks to go, starting in a months time.

Japan 2010: 22 - Where I Make the Long Journey Home

The little resurrected alarm clock beeped into life at 6.15am. I dispassionately rolled over and looked into the gloom. It was still pretty dark, and the discoloured grey-cream walls around my head merged into the darkness. I stared at my toe in the reflection of the little TV in the corner. It was time to begin a long journey back home.

I had taken the wise decision a couple of days previous to buy the Narita Express ticket, although my optimism that buying it with the soon-to-expire pass didn't work out. I had to pay the going rate of 3310yen, which got me from Shinjuku to the airport. Now all I had to do was get there.

I washed and clothed, and packed my remaining things into my bulging bags, and after checking and re-checking the room for items that I'd forgotten to pack like some sort of loony, I finally took the psychologically important step of walking out of the door and locking it behind me. I had a standard sized small satchel, a large 35-litre backpack, and a wheeled luggage case, care of Don Quijote. They were all full to the brim with things for friends and family to open when they got home, and for me to remember my time here. Volcano dust from Kagoshima. Coral and seashells from Okinawa. Obscure games and treats from Akihabara. Volcanic rocks from Aso, and precious stones from the Akiyoshi plains. These and so many other things from my last three weeks held within them a thousand memories. I had no idea where it all was in the mass of taut fabric, or what I was going to do with it, but for now, I just had to worry about getting it the 6000 or so miles back home.

The first job was to get to the station. I checked out about 7am in the hope of missing the morning rush. No chance. When I reached the station it was already home to an efficiently moving weave of people going about their business; most of them going on the train. I stopped off for a last munch of that excellent bacon bread and then put myself on the train.

I was already sweating from heaving round my own weight in tat, but the discomfort got worse when I boarded. I had no way of removing my backpack and the train was standing room only. I could feel a dozen or so eyes burrowing into the back of my neck as I stood there gently crushing a young woman's face against the doors behind me, something that went doubly so as the train lurched between lines and came to a halt at the stations.

Mercifully the journey eventually ended at Shinjuku and I could head off to platform 5 where the Narita Express would soon be appearing, at my own pace - there was for once plenty of strolling time.

I wrote a bit of diary during the journey and had a check through my flight details once more, but made sure I spent a good half of it gazing out of the window at the final view of the country. I'd seen a lot of Japan through train windows but this time it had been tempered and replaced by spending a little more time actually out there. I was contented with that. I still had many places I wanted to go, but they could wait a year or so.

The greenery slowly replaced the built-up urban views, and aside from a second glimpse of the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance dwarfing everything around it, my final views of the country were non distinct houses and scrubland, which though plain, felt like a gentle way of winding down after the visual assault I had just experienced.

Working my way through the passages in the bowels of Narita airport, I was stopped politely but firmly by a security guard, just outside the office where I had got my rail pass when I arrived. The sudden jolt out of the rhythm of my journey put me a little on edge, and I was reminded of how nervous I was - although for different reasons - the last time I was stood there. It was a 'security check' and he asked me where I had been. Well, I had to indulge myself, didn't I? I rattled off the list of places I had been on my journey round, and my visible enthusiasm must have had a positive effect, as he loosened up considerably after that. I got a couple of questions about who packed my bags, and then he let me go.

Up a few floors was the huge room containing all the flight service desks, and the large F board held the Virgin check-in desks. Predictably there was quite a queue for cattle class, and I had arrived about 1.5 hours before takeoff, which by plane standards is cutting things a little fine. After a little while the queue began to move and I snaked my way slowly to the desk.

Virgin did a lot of things better than what KLM/Air France did (my choice for the first trip). They had better food and service, and seemed to be generally a bit more competent; however, my opinion of them took a battering when I handed over my checked luggage and was told that the extra suitcase I'd bought would be charged extra - right there and then I had to leave the queue and pay 5000yen (about £40) with my debit card to get it on board. Air France had no such problems before. Grr.

I didn't let it bother me. I rejoined the queue (thankfully allowed to push in) and then finally boarded the plane. I got an aisle seat next to a middle-aged American woman who didn't seem to talk much (although we shared an amusing moment over the squid dinner). Frankly this was okay by me, as my eyes were getting heavy.

But I couldn't sleep, so the enticing allure of complementary films won me over. I watched the last half of The A Team movie (meh), then Toy Story 3 (again, because it's excellent), and finished off with Kick-Ass, which I really wasn't expecting to enjoy half as much as I did. I must remain on the lookout for more films where a small girl with purple hair swears her head off and kills people with impunity. It's a much under-represented genre.

The plane was about fifteen minutes late taking off, which was of little concern. However by the time we reached the shores of Blighty and came into land at Heathrow, the healthy buffer between setting down and getting on the connecting flight to Manchester was almost completely gone. It was pretty clear by this point that even if I would make the transfer, my luggage would not, yet again.

This is where things went a bit wrong. I don't find it coincidental that it happened as I stepped back on British soil. Out of the influence of the far east, things just stop working, and people begin not giving much of a crap. It happened on my last two flights back to Blighty, and it was about to happen again, although this time it would be more convoluted.

'This is your captain. We are sat on the runway awaiting permission to taxi in. Those passengers who are taking a connecting flight will be pleased to hear that I have radioed in to have them hold on for you until we get you disembarked and on your way'.


I disembarked with about a half hour before the plane to Manchester left. I was at Terminal 3. I had to get to Terminal 1. This involved a lot of pacing round passageways and up and down escalators, plus some outside running between buildings and a bus ride that was far too 'sunday drive' for my current state of mind. It also meant an unwelcome baggage search and sweaty rub down at a bank of scanners. I say a bank, there was four, but only one had anyone manning it. The huge queue was achingly slow to move. Next to me was an equally exasperated man who I recognised from the flight. Howard was a high-flying although weary-looking German businessman on his way to a meeting in Manchester. We'd sort of acknowledged each others' presence on the bus between terminals but now we had got some quality time next to each other in the queue, so we got talking. He was reasonably suited up whereas I was less than smart, with a few days of beard and probably a little more body odour than was polite in company. Nevertheless we helped pass the time as we neared the front of the queue, until an angry storm of arched-eyebrow Russian womanhood came pushing through the queue and in front of us.

'Let me through, I'm late for my flight', she said as we sensibly got out of the way. She worked the metal detector in double-quick time and was through the next bit before we could blink.

Once through the gate, it was a mad dash - with all my remaining energy - round the passageways and predictably right out to the final bloody gate in the building at the far end. Had we made it? Had the dulcet words of the pilot worked to keep that gate open just long enough for me to make it through the assault course?

I trudged back from the gate, which had closed only a couple of minutes before. 'You'll have to catch the next one', the oh-so helpful steward said from behind the desk. When I asked when that was, she gave me the words that made my face fall. 'About 9.50pm', she said.

If the plane set off at 9.50pm, that meant it would land in Manchester about 11pm. The trains stopped running about that time, and as I recalled from last time, there was a lot of 'delayed baggage' form filling, metal detector-ing and, running over blue escalators before I would be allowed out into the open air of the train platform. It just couldn't be done.

Howard and the nameless Russian woman met me coming the other way. She was stomping, and had made her presence further felt by complaining loudly to an unfortunate lackey behind a nearby service desk, which by coincidence was the one I had been directed to go to to get an alternate flight. Russian woman immediately went on the offensive again, kicking off about the delays and the treatment, and where she had to be. The stewards had heard it all before and knew which words to use in response. Unsurprisingly, the angry Russian woman left us in a stream of incomprehensible words trailing off, never to return. I wouldn't have wanted to spend much more time with her, although if I'd have pushed through that huge queue like she did, maybe I'd have just made my flight.

Howard and me talked at a more reasonable volume with the steward at the desk, reviewing our options. We could transfer to a British Airways flight if we wanted which left an hour earlier, but it would mean we would have to go to Terminal 3 where someone behind a Virgin desk would be able to do the necessary key tappings. I asked about my bags, wary of my outward trip, but was assured that due to the delay they would both make it up with me to Manchester.

So we went. Howard lent me his mobile so I could ring my parents as I would be spending the night at theirs, if I was ever going to make it home that night, but there was no signal in the airport buildings, so we pressed on. After a lot of explaining at the Virgin desk (Howard had clearly done this before, and he shared a few stories of such cockups as we went) we eventually managed to transfer our flights for free, and then got the lift down to the shiny new Heathrow Express underground train to Terminal 5.

About 10 minutes wait and 10 minutes ride, and we were there. As well as the seats, Howard managed to wrangle for us a free pass into the 'North Lounge' - a business lounge filled with free coffee, soft sofas, nondescript pictures on the walls.. and free grub.

It was like a mini version of one of those buffet restaurants, with a selection of complimentary nosh and a few drinks to choose from. Having just come from the country that cannot do Indian cuisine for toffee, I eyed up the Tikka Masala with slavering lips, although I did eventually plump for their very European beef goulash which was close enough to being a traditional British meat and two veg as made no difference. I wolfed down a couple of platefuls as Howard more sensibly chewed his Korma.

Full up, we went our separate ways and passed the time until the gate numbers came up. I stuffed a few complementary biscuits into my backpack and tried to sit somewhere that was not so comfortable that I would fall asleep. Eventually, Gate 9 flashed up under the Manchester flight, so I wasted no time in heading off.

I spent a further twenty minutes sat in the gate lounge next to a man who reeked of pipe smoke, which helped me to stay awake at least, and then we all filed on. The journey started pretty much on time, but my now full stomach was sending messages to my brain that it was time to shut down for the night, which in an off and on way, did until the skyline of Manchester caught my attentions.

It was after 10pm now. I ran to the luggage area and - well, the backpack had made it at least, but the souvenir-packed case could have been anywhere. Fortunately I had pre-empted the situation and wrote down a description of each of my cases so I wouldn't be taxing my brain too much when I had to describe my missing property. I filled out the appropriate form, hulked my pack onto my back, and ran along the blue escalators until they ran out and the railway started.

I made it in time for one of the final trains to Leeds, and fortunately there was little in the way of ruffians to bother me along the route. By half past eleven, I was in Leeds, which was close enough for a Taxi home. I stepped out into the cold air of a brand new day and climbed the steps to my parents house, said hello, slurped a cup of proper Yorkshire tea, and then collapsed into a newly made bed.

Final Thoughts
In some ways, my second jaunt around Japan was an improvement on the first one. I had managed to keep my innards from turning to liquid this time by being a bit more careful with my food choices (and not running myself into the ground so much - spending more time smelling the flowers instead of trying to cover stupid amounts of miles per day), and the pre-booking of all the hotels certainly freed up my time to go do other things. It felt like a holiday.

But there was still much room for improvement. I kind of liked the flexibility I had when there the first time because if the journey got too crazy or I fell ill, I could change the route. This was not open to me here, but fortunately I had planned things sensibly enough not to need it.
I guess the main problem I had this time was that the second half of the trip could not hope to compete with the first half. Weather played it's part, as things slowly became cooler the further north I went (Tokyo was a wash-out both times), but the killer was the time spent in each spot. In the first half - Okinawa, Aso, Nagasaki - these were my favourites, and coincidentally the ones where I spent more than one day at. After Nagasaki, it was just a single night's stopover at each location until I got back to Tokyo - and that meant little time to relax, explore or make friends with other people.

The Good Bits

  • Onsen -Relaxing and liberating!
  • Okinawa (even though it was blisteringly hot) - a beautiful place
  • Night-time Nagasaki
  • The people I met along the way, who were friendly and kind (and generous with the freebies!)
  • Many more beautiful sights

The Bad Bits

  • Feeling a bit vulnerable after the last night in Okinawa
  • The increased presence of western religion
  • Rushing through the last half and not really having time to enjoy the ride
  • Rain-soaked Tokyo!
  • Not sharing the journey with someone (aside from with this blog!)

What I would hope to include next time

  • A winter in Hokkaido - the wildlife, the ice festivals and the beautiful landscapes
  • A major festival - maybe the Nagasaki Kunchi festival which looked cool, (there are many others)
  • The Tokyo Marathon - can my legs take it?
  • Going with someone - maybe I can find someone mad enough to share the experience next time.
  • Hakone, just outside Tokyo
  • Taking a couple of days to climb Mt. Fuji
  • The third view of Japan (which apparently survived the earthquake with little damage despite being pretty close to it
  • .....
At some point after the nuclear problems die down, I'll be off once more to see what I can see. But for now, that will do me for a bit.

Edinburgh Film Festival 2011

Just a quick post to highlight the upcoming Edinburgh film festival, which I'll be attending in the first few days. The brochure has just gone live, and one film in particular stood out: they are showing the English language dub of the new Ghibli film The Borrower Arrietty (18 and 20 June), which I'm not going to miss if I can at all help it. By coincidence, they will also be showing Countdown to Zero (21 June), another film I saw while in Japan and well worth a look.

Japan 2010: 21 - Where I Philosophise with an Urban Poet

My last full day in Japan. I had left this day pretty unscheduled in my plans, because it was not clear what I would still have left on the to-do list by this point. The only thing that had stood out to me was on the plane in, the kindly souls of Virgin Atlantic - in between 'amusing' safety videos with Vic Reeves - had made some travel guides for the destination, with Hakone taking centre stage in their recommended sightseeing list.

Hakone is a small town that acts as a magnet for tourists during the summer months, although the route the tourists typically take is a convoluted one. Taking the JR trains out of Tokyo and heading to Odawara, then taking a mixture of private train lines, ropeways, cable cars, ferry boats or even the odd pirate ship, you eventually end up at Hakone. Though there seems to be plenty at the town for people to do, most of the enjoyment it seems comes from the journey there; the aerial sections giving beautiful views of Lake Ashi deep in the valley below, and often a good view of Mt. Fuji in the distance, perched atop a cushion of cloud. Needless to say, you would have to take a full day out to make the trip.

As I stood bleary-eyed at the hotel PC at the reception, trying to use google maps to work out the best route (a 4-hour journey minimum), the final nail in the coffin that contained my optimism that I could go appeared in the corner of my eye. A huge rumble came from outside as I turned to see the street outside become quickly drenched with a thunderous downpour. The early morning commuters scuttled briefly in and out of view as they headed generally towards the station.

I waited a little while back in the room, viewing through the grey windows the continuing downpour outside, in the hope that it would abate. 9am came and went, and so did 9.30, and still it rained. It was miserable.

This was ridiculous. I was not going to spend my final day moping around a dusty grey room, but my enthusiasm for the day was draining fast. I flipped through some flyers I had got from the lobby and came up with some sort of plan; Ueno Zoo was pretty close to where I had stopped on my first day there, and even though Ueno didn't exactly set my hair alight back then it wasn't really like I had given it a chance. Plus there were the nearby parks and gardens to enjoy. Maybe the weather would calm down a bit and it would be a pleasant relaxing jaunt. After that, I could circle around a couple more stops and head to Asakusa, home of the iconic Sensoji temple, known for it's large Kaminarimon gate, and the push-fest of tourist-shops on the way to the shrine. I could kill two birds with one stone and get my remaining souvenir pressies there too.

OK, so I had a plan that wasn't particularly daring - a bit of an anti-climax given the distance I had travelled to get back here; but it was at least a plan, and I had to make a decision soon or there would be no day left.
I took my small bag and my brolly and went on the train around the loop to Ueno. I paddled through the puddles in the opposite direction to where I'd been before, and cut through the outer paved areas of Ueno Park until a curious temple emerged out of a gap through the tree canopy.

The Ueno Benzaiten Shrine is sat on a man-made island in the middle of the Shinobazu Pond, a large stretch of water filled to bursting with umbrella-leaved lotus plants standing five or so feet out of the water. Benzaiten shrines and others like them are the result of Hindu religious influences that seeped into Japanese spiritual practices via a bit of renaming and reshuffling as the myths and legends passed through China. Benzaiten is the goddess of 'everything that flows', which thanks to a most basic interpretation, explains why an effigy of her was plonked in a huge pond.

The rain was beating down and had enlisted the help of the wind so as to make the use of umbrellas pretty much useless. I passed through quickly, and as I looked around to find shelter I heard a voice beckon me over. A man stood calmly, propped up against the side of a building with a generous overhanging roof. He looked dishevelled but dry, and seemed to have been stood there since the rain started. I went over and joined him in the shelter.

My head was dry, but my feet and the bottom of my jeans were being lashed by the rain, and there was little I could do about it. I looked over at the guy, who was looking back at me with an expectant face.

'What is your nationality?', he said with good English, breaking through the dripping noise of the rain off the roof.

I told him I was British, and that made him happy, it seemed. 'You are not American, at least', he said with a chuckle.

There followed an unusual conversation, the gist of it is all I have left now. He asked me how London was these days, although he had never been. Liverpool and Manchester too. I got the feeling they were just places he had heard of once.

'Why is the UK not doing anything any more?', he said to my surprise.

It was true to a degree; the industries of old had gone or were being challenged by foreign competitors - and we seemed to be topping the lists of 'worst places to be for..' pieces. And then I took heart as I recalled the British spirit..

'We brits like to take pride in being rubbish at things', I said sardonically. 'When we learn we are the bottom of the class at something, we give a cheer..' He smiled, but I got the feeling he was disappointed at my response.

'You have to have a sense of humour', he said. 'People will survive so long as they have something'.

He began what seemed like a well-rehearsed enumeration of the things going wrong in the world, 'the rise and fall of nations', and the harm caused by the west in the name of 'freedom'. There was little room for interjection.

When he came to the end of his speech, he rattled the handle of the trolley he had at his side, so as to catch it in my attention. 'I am a poor man, I have lived on the streets for a long time. I carry my possessions around with me'.

The man had lines on his face that misrepresented his years on the earth. He was dressed in care-worn clothes, but looked strong-willed and worldly-wise, and had a relaxed demeanour that suggested he had seen it all before as it walked past him. He wore a smile as he talked. But his voice changed from poor but contented, to adopt a more scornful edge; 'Why does my government bring in foreigners, giving them grants to live here, but there is nothing for me?'

I wasn't really sure what to say; on the one hand this sounded worryingly familiar talk, like that expressed by the average racist idiot on a typical British street, stepping dutifully out of the way as one of 'them forriners' comes by and sweeps the place clean of his discarded beer cans. But I could also hear a gentle sense of defeat in his voice, rather than the subdued anger and passive-aggressiveness whenever you encounter a sentence containing such words as '..our asian friends..' over here.

I tried to be diplomatic. 'Attracting talent from overseas is an investment for your countries' future,' I said with as much confidence in my words as I could. To be honest I had not come to Ueno tooled up for a debate on the relative effects of immigration.

'Well, it does me little good..',
We stood silent for a bit watching the lotus leaves drooping in the pond.

'I am a poet', he said after a moment, 'I write Haiku'. He fumbled around in his pocket and took something out.

'Would you like to buy some of my work?'. He passed to me a small, crudely made booklet. On the front, in Japanese and English, was the words 'Haiku by Hideo Asano'. Inside were a dozen haiku, each on their own page. I read the first one:

It is raining hard
The deaf wet selling flowers

Can anyone hear?

It gave me a smile as the rain continued to pour down just beyond my soaked feet. Unsure of how much he wanted, I fumbled through my pockets and took out a couple of hundred yen. He seemed happy with that amount.

'I come here to see the people that go by. It is one of my favourite spots. I travel all around Tokyo and see many things as I go.'

I smiled. At about that moment, the rain eased, and I took my cue to leave. It was 11am and I was losing the day. I thanked Mr Asano for his time and headed briskly through the rest of the gardens. (little did I know I had just conversed with a respected Japanese poet who has his own blog and several books.)

The park ended at Shinobazu-dori, and following it for a little while took me to the back entrance of Ueno zoo, the Ikenohata gate. From the outside, Ueno Zoo certainly wasn't trying to look very appealing, resembling the outer grounds of a large factory more than a place to house animals and take the kids for a day. The entrance stood open but devoid of tourists, the lashing rain beating most of them away for another day, but I was determined and almost out of days.

The entrance fee was 600yen, and it came with a decent English map detailing the area and where all the animal enclosures were. The zoo is split into two areas, and I had entered the west side; a monorail linked the two sections which were separated by a large wall.

I began my trek; the first few enclosures were covered, and I was happy for some shelter as the rain began to beat down heavily on the corrugated roofs above me and the giraffes and rhinos who were regarding me as they munched on straw.
Across the way was a reptile house, which sounded like a nice retreat. Inside, the subdued light of the reception area hid a large circular tank of water, inside of which were a couple of rare Japanese giant salamanders. They were sat on the bottom, or posing upright against a rock and looked pretty contented, not that they were wearing noticeable smiles.
Through the plastic curtains, the main area opened out to a giant tropical greenhouse, with a handful of high glass-walled tanks surrounded by exotic plant life and pretend rock formations.
Turtles, eels and large fish swam about in some, and snakes and toothy crocs basked in some of the others. Small tanks built into the walls held immobile iguanas and multicoloured frogs.
A turtle munched on leaves of some sort in a sandpit, and birds flew overhead through the vines and trees. It reminded me of some of the poor animals in Okinawa world, who were treated much worse by comparison.

In a gradual shift between sea-life and hot-house amphibians and reptiles, the tour ended with some details (in Japanese) about fossil histories, including rather impressively a copy of the Berlin archaeopteryx fossil find (although it seemed to be a mirror image of what it should be).
Outside it was still raining hard, so I quickly said hello to the flamingo herds and the slightly creepy-looking shoebill storks, the zebras and the elephants and hippos, a few of the smaller primates, plus a selection of penguins and other seabirds who looked a lot happier in the rain than many of the others. Most of the other tourists had holed up in the cafe, getting some green teas and watching the skies as their children ran amok between the seats.
The monorail had a single carriage, and it had just left when I got there, so I took the east garden path instead; I had no patience for waiting in the rain. Over the other side, a large section of the zoo had been closed off for some reconstruction work, which included the main bird houses (boo). This section of the zoo seemed a little older and bedded in than the west side, and the trail past the elephants disappeared downhill under a large canopy of mature trees. The first floor of the bird house was closed off, but there was a second floor around the back. At the top of the hill a pair of cockatoos sat miserably as they waited for the heavy rain to stop. They weren't in cages, just sat on some tree stumps in a fenced off area, their wings I am guessing, were clipped. This also had a closed sign, but the door was ajar. I took a risk and headed in.
From what I could see there was no work going on inside. An elliptical room with enclosures around the outside and in the middle. Each enclosure had wire netting as a ceiling, so it was letting in a certain amount of rain, and disappeared down past my feet into the first floor room below, so there was plenty of space to fly. Every now and then strong netting was used to partition the enclosures off so birds that didn't get on with each other so well could play nicely.
Beautiful birds of many colours, seemingly from tropical climates abound. An area full of pygmy parrots squeaking away to each other and darting around to each other as they hung like bats from the ceiling were funny, and next door to them were a whole slew of green lori chattering to each other and generally huddling up in pairs on every tree branch they could find.
The rain still hadn't stopped but I had to move on. I ran through to the big cat enclosures which had some covered areas for the tourists to see them up close on wall-high glass viewing areas. One tiger sat in the shelter from the rain, right up against the glass, and reacted with mild disinterest at me sitting right down next to him, he must have got used to the attention.
A female lion looked at me with considerably more interest in the next cage and so I moved on. The unending rain continued as I walked through the high cages of the birds of prey. Beady eyes of eagles, hawks and vultures watched me from beneath a tuft of large (and sometimes unexpectedly colourful) feathers, until I emerged out onto the square, a large 5-story pagoda in the middle of a pond staring back at me.
A raven sat shivering trying to get some shelter in a stone lantern at it's base. I took a little look in at the Japanese birds to the side (mostly Jays, but also a beautiful white grouse), and then made my escape as I had come to the main entrance gate (but not before I managed by luck to get a single picture of a red crowned crane before it disappeared inside.

I headed out of the park and to my relief it put me right back at the station. Inside the Ginza subway had signs for heading straight to Asakusa, so I took the tube for 160yen each way.

Three stops and I emerged back into the open air, unfortunately it still included water. Compared to Ueno which was fairly light with foot traffic, Asakusa residents were more resilient and were going about their lives in quickly flowing 2-way lines of people, or slowly shuffling caterpillars of umbrellas where the bottlenecks were.
The weird gold cloud shape marked out the Asahi beer hall just across the road, but I didn't have much time or stomach for a tour. Instead, the steady trail of shops led me to the entrance to the Senso-ji temple.
You can't really miss Senso-ji. For one thing, it's got a perpetually large crowd of people gathered around it, and for another, there is this dirty great lantern at the Kaminarimon entrance gate. Located under a sturdy sheltering roof, it was fortunately spared the indignity of going soggy that day.

People flocked around the gate, waiting their turn, before bundling up a few friends into the shot and taking a picture with the lantern as backdrop. As soon as I saw an opening, I took a quick pic or two and went through.
On the opposite side is the short Nakamise-Dōri. This street is a few hundred yards and stretches between the outer gate and inner gates. Unusually for the grounds of a temple, where this space would usually be filled with tasteful statues and gravel gardens, this one contains a line of shops down each side with aisles every so often down which are the more usual covered market. The main street was tastefully decorated according to the time of year. Since we were well into autumn, branches of golden-leaved Japanese maple hung over the massive pulsating outer skin of umbrellas, under which a thousand or so tourists moved as one between each storefront.

The shops sold everything under the sun and made a good excuse for darting between to get out of the rain; several eateries steamed with the output of fresh tempura or yakitori, while others sold a selection of traditional Japanese sweets, which I got a few bags of for back home. Between the food bars were clothes shops selling fans, T-shirts and kimonos, and many cheesy trinket places as well, although the things they sold were a little less mass-produced than what you might find down the average street. One place in particular (whose owner didn't approve of cameras) caught my eye - an art shop that sold wool-block prints of various traditional and more modern pieces of Japanese art in various sizes. Some were postcard sized and were quite reasonable, and the larger ones (about A3 size) were going for several thousand yen. You could get a standard print for about 3000ish yen of, say the great wave, with a cardboard frame, or you could go for a deluxe option - the same print but using much more vibrant colours and a proper frame, for about 13000yen. They made the standard ones look quite drab when you compared them, and anyway the chances of me getting it home without folding it or getting it spoiled by a thousand raindrops was frankly zero. Maybe next time.
The street eventually ran out of shops after what seemed like an eternity thanks to the slow shuffling of a thousand pairs of feet, and there was a short area just before the gate where two frames either side of the street sagged under the weight of hundreds of pure white lanterns. The large lantern in the beautiful Hōzōmon gate matched the other, but were joined by a pair of copper Tōrō on either side, each concealing a suitably angry-looking Niō statue behind them, recessed into the structure of the gate.
Finally, (past a couple more shops) the weakened tourist arrives at the temple. An absurdly huge roof slopes steeply down, channelling a final rush of water off onto the heads of the faithful.
To one side was a shop selling traditional items for temple worship, including a thousand types of incense sticks to burn in the nearby Censer, round which were gathered a dozen or so people trying to waft the good fortune over themselves whilst trying not to pass out or catch fire. At the opposite side was another impressive-looking five storey pagoda, it's decorative metal spire finial seducing the lightening out of the rumbling skies above.
In front of me, a half-dozen steps took me up to a set of beautiful jet black lacquered doors, beyond which was the temple shrine.

The inside was - as always - beautifully crafted. The ceiling was covered with large pictures, depictions of wars and demons, dragons and swordsmen. Every surface was smooth and precisely crafted wood of highest quality, and the areas at the side were occupied by life-size stone statues of great men of the past.

Curiously, within the temple the shrine where everyone worshipped was usurped by a large bank of tiny drawers containing Omikuji papers. Related to fortune cookies, Omikuji contain good or bad luck messages; the idea being that you receive one randomly, and if you don't like what it says, tie it to one of the frame stands nearby, or take it home with you if you do. (That's why you'll often see thousands of little pieces of paper tied to frames, trees or anything else near a Shinto shrine.

Senso-ji's way of bestowing their Omikuji was via a variation of a straw poll. You paid your 100yen and picked up a metal tube about the size of a spaghetti jar, and shook it - 'politely', as the notice requested. A little hole in the side dispensed a chopstick-sized strip of wood, on which would be the symbol for one of the Omikuji, and you took the paper out of the appropriate drawer. Fortunately for the tourist they were written in several languages including English. Many people apparently try to collect the lot, but I suspect like football stickers it'd be pretty difficult to get the last few, so some sort of swapsies system must surely be in operation.

I headed back out down the side streets behind the main one, taking a look at some of the less attention-grabbing shops. Many were actually the quiet back entrances to the main fronts but others were quiet clothes stores and antique shops which were nice to browse through without the large crowds, although because of the perpetual rain soaking me to the skin and a general lack of shelter, I moved through them quickly as they had little suitable for my remaining souvenir-less friends and family.

I browsed through a dozen or so shops within the covered market and came up empty, although my rumbling stomach found me a tidy little cafe where inside I partook in some unexpectedly continental tea with jam on super-thick toast, with some slightly less continental egg and lettuce side salad to go with it.

Emerging onto the main street once more, a curious tea shop caught my eye. Stalls containing terracotta teapots and bulk bags of tea intrigued me. A mature-ish lady stood patiently looking at me awaiting eye contact, and when I inevitably cast them in her direction, she used her well-tuned wiles to lead me in and introduce me to a hundred different packets of green tea. She was clearly expecting a foreign contingent as each one came with a photocopied English green tea guide. I was reminded of my grandad's like of Chinese food, maybe he might appreciate a bit of proper quality authentic green tea.

Their main product was stacked up on the cashiers desk - green foil packets stood on their ends in lines, identical but for the small labels on their fronts and the increasing price card in front of them - ranging from about 500yen for the cheap stuff up to several thousand for the choicest leaves of the best plants. I fancied some myself to bring back home (green tea in the UK is just not the same). I got a couple of the 1000yen Sencha blends, one for me, one for granddad. The teapots were tempting, but they were plain and ugly, and too bulky to consider given my already bulging bag.

Yoyogi Park was on my list as a final stop, because it was the location of a minor disappointment on my first day in 2008, where I blearily headed off on the Yamanote line in a random direction and just went for a walk, saw a Michael Jackson impersonator, some people giving out free hugs, and a locked gate. The park had a reputation as a massive, vibrant coming together of people after a hard day, a green paradise in the middle of the metropolis. But it was still raining - as hard as ever - and it was half past four, and as I recalled it closed about five so I got the subway back with the intention of heading 'home'. To be honest, my enthusiasm had pretty much drained away.

Of all places to go, I decided that my final hours would be spent in Akihabara again. My third time of going this trip because (a) I didn't want to risk going somewhere I didn't know at such a late stage, (b) there would be plenty of places to shelter, and (c) plenty of stuff is open well into the evening.

It turned out to be a good idea, souvenir-speaking. Videogame-themed sweet selections will always go down well with friends, especially if they are Megaman shaped, and the friend in question is an old git. Clothes shops selling overpriced t-shirts, knockoff Ghibli goods and an unhealthy selection of the usual dodgy stuff later, and I somehow found myself back at Super Potato once again, gah.

They were pretty quiet, but still open, so I spent some considerable time flicking through their obscure videogame music CDs, and then the thousands of unboxed Super Famicom carts, an action that takes up lots of time, in the hope of finding some bargain games that didn't contain too much Japanese text. In the end, my hands spilled over with what I reckoned were some rare or bargain items - some of which I'd be keeping for myself:
I could have kept going, but I was pushing my luck and my yen was running out. I had a few hundred spare, so went up to the top floor for a final play in their arcade. It had changed round a bit again, and some of the games I'd recognised from before had gone, but in their place were some 2000-in-one machines where you could choose from all sorts of classics for a hundred yen a pop. Good times.

At last, as the night drew in and Super Potato kicked me out, the rain had washed itself out. I looked through a couple more shops that were still open as I made my way back in the general direction of the station, and then went back to Otsuka.

At a quarter past ten, a small restaurant under the Royal Host called Pronto was still just about open, so I headed in and ordered some pork dumplings with some layered cream cake for desert. They cleared out my final 1500yen in return for a good feed, and then I reluctantly headed back to the hotel. The last day, though I had filled it seemed very much an anticlimax. Washed out with a perpetual downpour, and limited in excitement and exploration. I wrote my diary and munched on some miso noodles, and looked back on the better days of Okinawa and Aso. It had been a good holiday, if only the weather had held a little longer.

The next morning would be the beginning of a very long journey home - starting at 7am - so I squeezed all my things into my combined luggage (all three were now full to bursting) and went to sleep.

Stop Genocide Legislature in Uganda

Just a quick post to highlight the potential atrocity going on in Uganda. A bill that the religious right are trying to pass in the Ugandan government to make homosexuality punishable by the death penalty. This despicable law has the backing of the American religious right, and seeks to have men and women reported to the police, hunted down and executed in their thousands. Basically, another holocaust.

Avaaz are calling on the outraged throughout the world to add their names to a signature to stop the legislature from being entered into parliament for discussion. However this is imminent (like, in the next 24 hours, unless it gets a delay) and so the strength of voice against this needs to be loud and immediate, and everyone can help.

Please add your voice by signing their petition (I have), following the link below, and hope that it's enough to stop the law passing, or it will surely set a precedent for the deaths of millions of people to be justified in law, a law which will surely be adopted elsewhere if successful.

Japan 2010: 20 - Where I Become a Slave to Consumerism

Since my first job today would be to get the necessary folding to see me through an exhaustive shopping trip (I really didn't know what I'd be buying but it would sure as hell be expensive), I let my tired body rest in my little room which would form the base of operations until I left to catch my plane. For the most part, I had left the souvenir-buying until this point, although weakness and a need to take home something from each place I'd been to meant that there was already much for me to lug home already. Today however was totally for me. I haven't many friends who care much for anime-related merchandise so this would be pretty much all mine. Today I had two goals; visit the Ghibli Museum (for the second time) and since it was on at the time, try and see at least a couple of films at the Tokyo International Film Festival. In other words, several of my passions would all come together in a single day.

The post office opened at 9am sharp and I was there at the door as soon as it did. The sun was shining and the skies had exhausted their supplies of rain, at least for the moment. Out came another 20,000 yen, but when I handed over my final travellers cheque to get another ten thousand to play with, they wouldn't take it. I asked where was the nearest place and they pointed me at the Mizuho bank branch around the corner.

There is an undercurrent of disquiet in the UK about our banks and how they have managed to change from safe, family-run establishments operated by a man in a bowler hat who you had to be very nice to in order for him to lend you some money, to the massively over-powerful corporations they are today, and how that has done its bit to land us where we are now. Well, as I entered this bank, it felt a little like I had gone backwards in time.

They had the usual people behind glass screens on the ground floor, but my business was upstairs. A stout man of advancing years greeted me at the top and asked me to sit in the waiting area, and offered me a drink. He asked in broken English what I was after, and I showed them my cheque. Looking over, a pair of desks with chairs on either side with a divider between was all that stood between myself and a whole array of workers, sat at their desks surrounded by stacks and reams of paper, calling to one another and holding up forms to fill, barely a computer between them. At the desks, one mature-looking man who looked quite senior was sternly reviewing a written application form of commendable thickness, filled in by a much younger applicant, now perched nervously on the other side, sitting on his hands and trying to avoid eye contact.

I'm not saying these guys necessarily had it right, but the careful, respectful and above all nerve-wracking atmosphere bestowed on it's custom felt like when things hit the fan again like they did, this little bank wouldn't be one of those that needed a bail-out.

The other desk was free but with no assistant manning it, I waited. After a couple of minutes, a young bespectacled man found a little time between typing and form filling to serve me. I handed over the cheque and filled in a form or two, and then was asked to go back to my seat for a while as my cheque disappeared into the paper forest. About five minutes later, he returned with a crisp note and a thank you slip. I bowed to everyone and left.

Stocked up on hard cash, I headed off in the direction of Mitaka. The YeastEAST mini-bakery in Otsuka station was the closest eatery that looked open and they did take-out so took a quick detour in there. (Recommended: their absolutely gorgeous bacon-bread sticks. Very yum), and then went south back to Shinjuku.

The trip to Mitaka was back towards Mt. Fuji again although not as far, and this time I would be taking the museum bus that I had clocked eyes on just as I was leaving last time. Down the stairs out of the station, there is a bus stop dedicated to the route of the bus. A bus conductor in a museum hat was stood at the bus as I ran towards it and stopped my entry onto the bus, and pointed to the large metal unit just to the side. It even had it's own ticket machine.

The driver waited patiently an extra minute while I fumbled enough cash for a return ticket (300yen return, 200yen 1 way), and then got on. It was standing room only. I ended up stood next to Rob and James - a couple of guys from Essex. Mid-late twenties, they'd been friends since young and were living the dream of visiting the country. They had the figures you might associate with lots of cult-TV viewing, and had a lot of facial hair, through which were a couple of slightly haggard looks, maybe from the jetlag, or perhaps a bit too much sake the night before. James was in crutches, clearly a sizeable accident wasn't going to keep him away from his trip. We chatted as the bus bounced towards the museum, this being their first time and had to come see it while doing a week around Tokyo.

The stop came and most people filed off. The three of us jointly approached the Totoro ticket booth together, the two guys forgetting their age briefly and going all squealy and childlike, whereas my reaction was one of returning to an old friend. A couple of pictures at the booth later and they raced ahead, the crutches not stopping James from leaving me for dust.
I strolled down the entrance pathway, surveying the Miyazaki-styled structure. It was pretty much as before, only with a lot more creeping ivy up the walls, and as with many other places, the gardens were now in need of a bit of tidying.

It was half past ten so the foot traffic was relatively light but things started to busy up pretty soon afterwards. Even out of season, the museum gets plenty of attention from all over the world.

Indoors, things were similarly recognisable, and as before, I was discouraged from taking pictures so you'll just have to read for a bit. I exchanged my voucher for my proper ticket at the reception (Totoro and Mei this time) and strolled at a relaxed pace down the stairs into the main area.

The layout hadn't changed, but there were a few subtle differences; the giant dolls house with the film scenes behind the windows had swapped around a bit and included entries for Ponyo, Earthsea and Arrietty, and there was a lovely circular 'evolution' animation being shown through the exploded film camera in the corner; a lowly bacterial creature morphs and grows and escapes the predators evolving around him before attaining a human-like form where he meets his true love.

I figured that the Saturn Theatre should be next before the queues got too big. One batch had just gone in and I checked the boards - MonMon the Water Spider was playing. It didn't grab my attention so much when I'd first heard of this one, but an exclusive Ghibli short film isn't something you can get picky about. Rob and James were in the queue and I ended up behind them. We compared film strips, and they were suitably jealous of my Totoro one; Robs was a scene from Howl where Sophie sees the burning city, whereas between us we couldn't place James's strip at all - it was a vague countryside scene - we guessed either Mononoke or Totoro. We stood and chatted, each of us with a subdued excitement bubbling under our domestic conversation, and finally we all filed in.

Mon Mon is a little water spider living in a quiet lake, who one day sees a water boatman (woman) and falls deeply in love, but he is of the water and she the air, and it doesn't help that she tries to eat him when he goes to say hello. The best part of the film is the music, which is played as a pair of solo pieces that come together at the end as they meet on equal but opposite terms. Not even a nearby child not knowing how to keep quiet could spoil the film, and I was completely charmed by it, along with all the other children in the room.

Up on the second floor, things had stayed much the same in the artists' study, save for a few new sketches on the walls, although I noticed that the new stuff seemed to be at the expense of most of the Takahata material. The 'guest room' which last time was the 'three bears' exhibit looked as if it was between exhibitions, and contained just a handful of stands displaying preview reels of some future shorts.

Upstairs, the Catbus exhibit was still off-bounds to the adults (boo), and was again crawling with kids, watched over by patient and slightly jealous-looking parents. Along with the kids this time was a whole nest of soot-sprite toys which were being flung merrily about, which I didn't recall being there last time.
The adjacent book store and Mama Aiuto rooms were respectively dead quiet and intensely packed as usual, so I looked a bit through both of them to see what they had, and then left for the balcony exit for some much needed air.
The Laputa robot was still attracting pushy parents and small children to it's feet for photo opportunities, so I went behind for a while to the peace and quiet of the grass borders. A nice airy breeze tempered the heat of the sun nicely and the rustle of the scrub calmed me down again while I contemplated my shopping list. An Arrietty art book was a definite, and perhaps a MonMon picture book as well (Ghibli do a mini art book for each of their short films and I'd already got a couple from the set at home).

I headed back into the chaos of Mama Aiuto first. Suddenly I had the purchasing shrewdness of a twelve year-old on a sugary high. There was an English language museum booklet going for 1000yen (with a free poster) so I had that; they had several soundtracks (including the lovely MonMon one and the Arrietty album, plus a Ghibli songs one for luck - about 7000yen total), a round tin of cookies for 1600yen, plus by some miracle I also considered my friends as well in all the buying; I got a couple of squidgy fluffy Totoros (2000yen each), as presents for their newly arrived children.

13000yen down straight away. I sat panting on one of the knowingly placed benches just outside the shop, glad to be out of the madness and thankful I had resisted the urge to try for some hugely-expensive clothing or one of their giant Porco Rosso airfix plane models. I could quite easily have walked away with most of that shop had I not been constantly pushed around the store by fellow eager buyers.

Thankful I'd left the relatively sedate bookshop until last, I quietly strolled around with my sizeable baggage without fear of knocking too many people over. I picked up an Arrietty art book (2900yen - which I'm sure was more expensive than when I'd seen it in that Yurakucho cinema, but I couldn't be arsed going back for a few hundred savings). I also got the Monmon book (1000yen), but passed on the Ponyo art book, although it was very tempting. They had some books from Aardman and Pixar for sale there as well, but they were all in Japanese so I gave them a miss.

I walked back past Mama Aiuto's with blinkers on my eyes, resisting any temptation to return and buy more things. Instead I went outside and tried without luck to get a seat at the Straw Hat cafe, which again was impossible, although Rob and James were there tucking into some strawberry cheesecake. I settled for a banana ice cream at the take-away and sat at a remote seat munching in the shade.

It was pretty busy now and midday was long gone, so I took a final tour around the more interesting rooms and then left.

The bus had just left, but another followed quickly behind. At Mitaka station it was 2.30, so I retraced my steps to the hotel, dropped everything safely off, and then got back on the loop line - this time for Hamamatsucho.

Hamamatsucho station is in Minato, on the opposite side of the Yamanote loop to Otsuka and my next stopoff on the way to Roppongi, a fashionable district of Tokyo. Minato, is close by and is the home of the Tokyo Tower, which sits directly between the station and Roppongi Hills, where the Tokyo Film Festival was entering it's final phases and where I would be headed for the evening. It had been recommended that I should get on the subway from Ebisu, as that was more direct but I figured it would be nicer to get off from the south-east end of the Yamanote line and take a walk through the area to see what it was all about. This was perhaps foolhardy if I was going to catch any films because things were getting late, but it was my only chance while here.
As busy and bustling as any Tokyo district, I emerged onto a busy main street and oriented myself according to my printed out map with additional scribblings. The roads were wide and the buildings were chunky and covered in neon signs, and everything felt ready to move into the nightlife phase of which the area is know, now not so many hours away.
The first part of my journey was simple - just head in the direction of the Tokyo Tower - poking cheekily out above the tops of the buildings - and I would be on the right track.

The modern buildings continued on for some time, although these were mitigated slightly by a section of road on the way to the Buddhist Zozo-ji temple, straddled by several Torii gates, some of which had their own traffic lights.
Zozo-ji is a large temple in Shiba Park, situated just next to the tower. You enter through a huge gaudy red Daimon gate whose ornamental roofs stick out over the busy road in front. As the night was drawing in, the tower lit up a similarly seductive rouge colour behind the main shrine building, as a few final worshippers paid their respects for the evening. I scurried across the main concourse and out of the side exit, and carried on up the road.

The tower was still open for lifts to the top, but I was clock-watching once more. It was half past five and the next film that I wanted to catch was at six. I figured that I could return and get some nice views from the top once things got properly dark. The imposing red structure did look beautiful in the evening light. In the entrance area below, they were erecting a large Christmas tree in preparation for the festivities over the next few weeks.

Past the tower, I was reliant completely on the map. I passed a rather long castle structure, where every entrance had a manned guard house outside; it appeared to be one of the many embassy buildings in the area. I tried not to make eye contact as I went past, and probably over compensated my look of innocence at walking somewhere really quickly.
Beyond that, things took on a style similar to Shinjuku or Akihabara, although the atmosphere felt a little different, a little more exhausted businessman-like. Large multifloor shopping complexes (including another Don Quijote with a bloody rollercoaster on the roof!) and many a restaurant, nightclub or some more adult emporium did their bit to add to the neon decoration. For many of the latter, they had employed western men (strangely, mostly black guys) to drum up business by coming over to you and acting chummy in the hope you would follow them in and insert some notes between nubile ladyskin and lacy underwear. If you've never been through such a Japanese district before and suddenly you're being called 'my man' by the fourth or fifth black guy in a row, a certain uneasy feeling creeps over you. I kept my pace up and moved through quickly.

Though I had lost my place on the map, I knew I was close as there were TIFF posters attached to all the lampposts in the area, although none actually included any arrows to point me in the right direction. I took a guess and headed down a side road which by good fortune ended up at the base of the Roppongi Hills complex, and was greeted at the intersection by a building that insisted on counting down numbers on massive LCD-style readouts. Up the hill beyond was the commercial area, and the place had definitely stepped up a gear on the posh front. I felt out of place in my t-shirt and jeans.
Eventually I found the entrance, although rather than finding myself in a cinema, it was a complicated multilevel shopping arcade with concrete parks and covered areas, little curious pathways everywhere and precious little signage. Not what you want when searching desperately for a festival.
To my intense relief I eventually spotted a load of TIFF posters and got on the right track, heading up a few floors and emerging into an open area where a booth and a red carpet (and a huge sign) told me I had finally arrived. I approached the booth expecting a ticket exchange (or being told I didn't look tidy enough to enter) but was instead guided helpfully through a set of nearby double doors into the cinema reception.

The queues were mercifully short. I took a final scan of the films still left I could see. Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer looked pretty cool but it had sold out (still not seen it), but The Elephant and Countdown to Zero still had tickets going, so I got them. I would only be seeing two films at this festival (plus a short), but I could now say that I had at least been.

--- Mini Festival Time! ---

(Jpn) (full, unsubbed movie)

A short-ish animation before The Elephant, TAMILA is an environmentally-themed film about a punk cat living in cat city, where it hasn't stopped raining. Saving a bumblebee from drowning, she goes to sleep that night and dreams of walking through time, seeing cat (read:human) technology develop, along with the inevitable war and pollution that comes with it. When she wakes, the earth is a wasteland, and is left with the bee to walk through the scorched remains a la Grave of the Fireflies (although nowhere near on par), with a similarly happy ending.

The flash-animated style and the childish feel of the film (which was surprisingly English subtitled) set me up for something far more cute and cuddly for what it eventually turned into, which got unusually morose and rather graphic in places, trying to drive home the message of 'wake up or die', to it's adult audience. This confused mix of the childish cutesyness and the adult themes put me off it a bit, but it felt as if I was not part of the intended audience. 6/10

The Elephant (Rus) (imdb)

A relatively overlooked film even on the festival circuit, I could find precious little about it online, save for the TIFF page. Bodhi is an elderly elephant in the employ of a travelling circus, who one day refuses to perform all her tricks in the middle of a show. Calling the vet, the outlook is bleak; the bills to fix her would be huge and they don't have the cash. Young and upcoming ringmaster Sergei takes the decision to have her taken away to the knackers yard, and in a fit of ruthless cunning, uses the opportunity to abandon Boni, his girlfriend there with the elephant, a girl who he sees as little more than an annoying distraction.

Sergei and family arranged for the help of Zarezin, an off-the-rails truck driver to transport Bodhi to the fate of the poison injection, and when Boni decides to come along for the ride, the three of them start an uneasy friendship, Zarezin's cold approach to getting the job done eventually melting when Boni finds out about the elephant's fate, turning the film into a sort of Smokey and the Bandit 2, but gentler, and with more heart. Perhaps the best part of the film comes at the end, where Bodhi is allowed to roam through the countryside, and the choice of the elephant's name becomes clear. Yes, it was a bit of a contrived road movie, and there was little in here that was 'original', but it was still very enjoyable, and by the end there was a lump in my throat. 7.5/10

Countdown to Zero (US) (wiki)

2010 was a good year for hard-hitting and ambitious documentaries. This one, by the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, concentrates on the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the globe and the threat of nuclear war that hangs over us, which struck a chord with me having been in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum a week or so before. As a special treat, the mayors of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki [with the help of an English translator for the international crowd], and Lucy Walker, the director of the film, gave live speeches before the film on the big screen,

Some spectacular but disquieting footage had been compiled of bomb blasts - both from controlled tests and from terrorist attacks, which were not nuclear, but put you in mind of the chaos that could come from a terrorist cell getting their hands on one - with the film helpfully providing a handful of ways that a terrorist could do just that with a remarkable ease. Tales of near misses - where accident or miscommunication meant that it was only the steady hand of the guy at the top that stopped an all-out war. A particularly alarming example was during the Yeltsin reign, where a miscommunication of an incoming nuclear missile happened by luck to catch the Russian leader between drunken hazes and he held back from thumping his fist down on the red button.

As an authoritative look into the problems the world faces by the presence of the bombs, this film provides a full and descriptive picture of where we are now, and it's not all obvious stuff either. Though a film basically about a perpetual sword of damocles above all our heads is pretty grim to think about, the latter part of it does take a more upbeat tone, concentrating on the work that has been done to bring the world back from the brink. It's yet another recommended eye-opener of a documentary that you should catch if you can. 8/10


I left the cinema sometime close to 10pm, having spent what felt like a criminally short time at the festival compared to my usual efforts. However, I had my tickets as proof I'd been, and thanks to an adjacent shop selling all sorts of film apparel, I walked away with a dual language TIFF 2010 catalogue as well to go in my collection.
Leaving the cinema was easy, but escaping from the labyrinth that was the Roppongi Hills complex was something else entirely. I had lost my bearings completely coming out in the dark, and my attempts to find an exit (curiously unsignposted) led me through half-closed shopping malls, giant spiders and underground car parks; none of which bore exit-shaped fruit. By the time I happened upon the real exit, I was getting a bit stressed. I wouldn't want to be trapped there in a fire or an earthquake, that's for sure.

Using the Tokyo Tower in the distance as a guide once more and fending off the attentions of five (five!) separate black guys asking me in to five separate nightclubs, I scurried on through until I ended up back at Don Quijote's, and since it was still open I took a quick look.

At the entrance they had a small tank with a big fish swimming around in it, and above was six floors of the same crammed in tat as was in the other branches, although this was the first time I had managed to find some Engrish during my trip - and I had been on the lookout.
I headed to the top in the hope of seeing this rooftop rollercoaster, but they had barriers up and it was apparently out of action. I left without buying.
Back at the Tokyo Tower, I took a closer look at their opening hours; and was surprised to find that the lifts to the top stopped at 8pm, so I wouldn't be experiencing that this time either. Boo. Everything was closing up, so I headed back to the station and off to the hotel.

Hotel Review: Otsuka Station Hotel (4800 yen/night, 3 nights)
I finished up in a place similar to where I started. The main draw for this hotel is that it is pretty cheap (for a downtown Tokyo hotel), and it is (very) close to a Yamanote line train station, which is what you need when you're trying to bulk up on souvenirs. If you are the sort of person who could sleep pretty much anywhere there is a functional bed, then this is a bargain option, but the room was poky and could have been cleaner,and the utilities were a little thin on the ground. However, the staff were very friendly and helpful and they do speak a little English, so on balance it was better than Ueno. Internet: free (1 machine at the reception) 7/10
A small restaurant called the Miami Garden looked quite nice, just outside Otsuka station when I got back, so I had a bit of a wash and freshen up, and then went in for a pepperoni pizza, ordering it just after 11pm - about 5 minutes before they stopped making food for the day. Though it was on my plate in what felt like seconds, it went down very nicely thank you very much.

I read about some of the films I had missed at the festival, but I didn't mind so much. Not many people can say they had been but I could. I packed my new things away in the case, somehow managing to cram it all in, and then concentrated on what was going to happen tomorrow - my last full day in Japan, and what I would get for the last few friends and family that wouldn't be happy with a squishy Totoro in their Christmas stocking.