A Travellerspoint blog

The only way is up, I hope

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In Japan, getting from A to B can be expensive. Like most visitors I had opted to buy a Japanese Rail pass in the hope of limiting the damage to my already dwindling bank balance. You can only buy these passes outside Japan and whilst 300 Stirling seemed a rather hefty price tag for two weeks of travel, I knew that in the end it would save me money. However my pass wasn't stamped to begin until a few days later, so my ticket from Tokyo would have to be purchased at face value. Since arriving in Japan frugality was fast becoming my second name, so I chose a destination a mere two and a half hours away and a train that wasn't one of the sooperdooper fast and expensive ones. Nonetheless I will still stung with a bill of over fifty quid; which after some initial heart palpitations was put in perspective by realising it was cheaper than the Irish Rail fare from Dublin to Cork.

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Before I hopped on the train I bought a bento box and a soft drink to consume along the way. Even the packaging of my bento box was beautiful and when it was opened I was faced with a visual feast of savoury delights, which taste wise, worked together to create something you wouldn't expect of a box sitting on your lap. It's distant cousin, the British Rail cheese and ham sandwich should hang its head in shame. Food gives me enormous pleasure and as I mastered my chop sticks and drunk my tin of fizzy lemon, which ended up being an alcohopop, sure I was in great form, the price of my ticket long forgotten.

The train passed slowly through small towns and hamlets; a constant low density of housing nearly all with their own vegetable patch, many with a small orchard, some with vineyards, tree clad low mountains in the near distance. This natural and built landscape reminded me so much of the Basque Country in Northern Spain. As time progressed the low mountains morphed into big ones and I realise I am entering the foothills of the Japanese Alps.

I arrive in the city of Matsumoto, the bright sunshine hurts my eyes and is the only clue that I am at altitude. In my excitement at having escaped Tokyo, I immediately head to what my guidebook describes as a recital of traditional Japanese music. I enter a rather intimate room in a house where two aul dolls in kimonos do a huge amount of smiling and bowing before playing two songs on their Shamisens, a Classical Japanese string instrument played with what looked like a plastic scrapper you get with a food processor. Their playing and singing seemed horrifically off key and I wonder for quite a few moments if this is a joke and wait for some Japanese camera crew to jump out from behind the curtains. Japanese candid camera, that sort of thing. But they don't and quite quickly we are at the interval where we are provided with green tea and a Japanese bun, the type filled with a sweet bean paste which I have to grimace when I eat. I thank god that I'm not the only member of the audience. For company I have two European gay men. The Spanish one thinks the whole occasion is utterly sweet whilst the German one wants to head for the door. I think I am somewhere I between. Then we are invited up on stage to have a go at playing the Shamisen. I decline, they have a go. A folk song later and we are free to leave. Phew. Then I hit the Nawatedori, an area of old streets by the river, full of cute shops and cafés. I have no time to browse though; as a treat I have checked into a business hotel for the night, so privacy, a tiny bath tub, dressing gown and disposable slippers await me. I feel like I'm staying in the Ritz.

Next morning I take the bus to Takayama. The road curves through the mountains; orange, reds, russets and browns, autumn foliage all around. The river is always below. It is really beautiful, reminding me of those pictures you see of New England in the fall. Then it gets more alpine. The houses change shape and become more chalet like. Then I'm in Switzerland.

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Takayama is lovely in the afternoon sunlight. I am immediately drawn to San Machi Suji an area of dark wooden merchant houses dating from the mid nineteenth century. They are crammed with souvenir shops, art galleries, cafés and the like. Very similar to Matsumoto infact. I shriek when I take a look at the prices. I have been spoiled by spending a lot of time in China about ten years ago, returning home with more goodies (at next to nothing prices) than Marco Polo could fit on one of his camels. They are also crammed with hoards of tourists. It feels a bit like a Disney version of 'olde Japan' which I sense I'm tiring of already. Nonetheless I spend a couple of days there; I'm struggling with a bad cold and it's a pleasant enough place to spend some time.

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But its been three cities in a row now and I am craving a taste of small town life. So I head for the Kiso valley where there are a number of small mountain villages close together and linked by easy walking trails. It takes two trains and two buses to get to Magome, and by the time I get there I am a tad nervous at being out in the sticks for my first time. I gingerly step off the bus only to be almost knocked down by droves of marauding tourists. Where did they all down from? The village is beautiful; a steep cobblestoned street lined on either side with restored wooden period buildings, but they are filled with, as you might guess, cafés, galleries and souvenir shops. Arrggghh.

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Because of the lack of any affordable accommodation in the area, I have booked an expensive room in a Ryoken, a traditional Japanese Inn. It's a lovely traditional house and I have my first traditional room with shoji, the paper thin sliding screen walls, tatami mat flooring, low furniture and a futon mattress that is unfolded before you retire for the evening. As a fan of a minimalistic interiors, I am surprised at how austere and uncomfortable it feels. I am also provided with a yukata, a cotton dressing gown and a more ornate cover coat to wear to dinner. Out of a fear of making a fool of myself, I refrain from dressing up but my fellow dinners, half Westerners, half Japanese have been braver. There are four long tables in the dining room, the guests, all in couples are spaced out along three of them and I am placed at the fourth, alone. Feeling a tad crumpled, I hold my head high, as I have learnt to do from many years of travelling alone. A delicious spread is placed in front of me, it looks so beautiful, as so many things do in Japan. This is such a treat and I leave the table with a full belly, a pretty unusual experience for me in Japan where I find the portion sizes insufficient to meet my appetite. After dinner I take a quick walk up through the village which, post the exodus of day trippers, is now totally deserted. And then I collapse and have my first proper nights sleep since I left Ireland, nine days previously.

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Next morning I begin my hike to the next village, Tsumago. The sun is shinning, the air is mountainy and cool. I am excited. The path is well marked, through woods, bamboo groves, little villages. Its a relief to be out in the countryside and lovely to see people living their lives; working their vegetable gardens, drying chillies in the sun, airing their clothes and bed linen. I am very surprised by the abundance of public conveniences, aka loos, given I am in the middle of nowhere. I ponder wether this is a reflection of amazing organisational skills or a fear of having to pee in the open. I have become quite fascinated by toilets in Japan.

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Computerised toilets are now common place; they have lots of buttons which enable you to do lots of things, one of which is to play a soundtrack of a flushing toilet, to cover up any noises you might be making yourself, heaven forbid. Other public conveniences have a device on the cubicle wall which is triggered by movement; it plays the wholesome sounds of birds chirping. It's a far cry from my time in China when visiting a public toilet involved crouching above a gulley to do your business, facing the backside of the person in front of you and offering a similar view to the person behind you. What does birds chirping in toilets say about the psychology of the Japanese? I could only hazard a guess, but I think Dr Freud might have a few things to say.

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After about three hours I'm in Tsumago. It's also touristy but much wider, more open, bigger and less Disney- esque than Magone. I like it. I am blown away by the beautiful flower arrangements outside many of the shops. I wish I could stay just a little while longer but I have a long journey to my next destination, so I have a bowl of the local speciality, sansai soba, buckwheat noodles topped with mountain greens, before hopping on a local bus to the train station.

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In many countries, travelling after dark is a no no. In Central America, even leaving your room after dark was always carefully planned. But Japan feels extremely safe and what with the efficiency of public transport, I travel many evenings without anxiety or fear. I leave Tsumago at just after two for a journey that is probably about 400 or kilometres.Seven hours, two buses, three trains and a walk later I arrive in the the port town of Onomichi.

I immediately like Onomichi. It feels real and alive; a world away from the restored, olde worlde, ever so perfect Japan for tourists that I seem to have been unable to avoid. At this point in the trip I am completely underwhelmed by Japan. Sure it's very pleasant, but it feel like its a safe sanitised version of North East Asia, a place to travel if you don't have the balls for the real thing! Honestly, I really was that dismissive. For me thus far, Japan had no kick, no bite, no spice. Insipid would be the word I'd use. The other issue connected to this reticence was my struggle with having such minimal interaction and connection with the people around me. I walked the streets of Japan smiling at everyone, as I do in my home town , as I do in every country I visit. The issue wasn't that the smiles were unreturned, it was my sense that I wasn't even seen, that I was in fact invisible. Of course I understood it was a cultural issue, a complex one at that. But it was one which I had no way of really understanding. The lack of reaction from young children was especially interesting to me as a child psychologist, a psychologist who has spent at least ten months in Asia before this current trip, in about nine different countries. In my experience in Asia ( and this is very generalised) the under twos will stare at the pointy nosed white person for quite some time. Some will get bored and look away whilst some will get frightened and upset by this strange looking person. In relation to the over threes, generally they go boogaloo; jump up and down, run around, scream, grab each other, grab you., a scene of mayhem linked to the excitement/fear of something new. In Japan no reaction, nothing, like they haven't seen you. I found it absolutely fascinating to puzzle over, especially In relation to the younger ones for whom socialisation hadn't yet become so potent. Anyway, back to Onomichi.

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Onomichi faces out onto the inland sea, which I need to explain, given I spend a lot of time in and around it. Japan is made up of five main islands and the inland sea is a big stretch of water trapped between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. Within the sea are nine small islands, all of which have now been linked to each other and the main islands by a series of ten bridges, including one which at 1480m long is the worlds longest cable suspension bridge. This route through the islands has become a real draw for cyclists from all around Japan.

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I took a ferry to one of the nine islands, Ikuchi Jima and rented a bike to go explore. The bike is not made for people my height and I'm crippled within ten minutes, nevertheless I spend a lovely afternoon peddling along the empty cycle paths at the side of the empty beautifully paved roads, taking in the views of the inland sea and it's islands. Ikuchi Jima itself is pleasant and dappled with citrus groves, but not the Mediterranean type landscape that my guidebook had lead me to believe. The route is flat, and almost without cars, so perfect for an unfit cyclist and I get an added thrill of whiz zing onto and across one of the big suspension bridges, getting to cycle across water at a huge height and with minimal effort. The subtle charms of Japan are slowly beginning to dawn on me.

Next day was spent exploring the town of Onomichi. To start I take a cable car up to Senkoji-Koen park where I find the views over the city and the islands quite magical. The main temple, Senkoji is bright and colourful with lots of paraphernalia for sale, all requesting special favours of the gods. I spend a couple of hours descending back down to the town, along what's called the temple walk; twenty five temples scattered amongst neighbourhood shops, narrow little lanes and flagstoned alleyways, houses, and shack like noodle bars. It really is charming. I see why this place is a popular setting for nostalgic movies. There seem to be a lot of Japanese here for the weekend. In the hostel I speak with two lovely girls, both in their twenties and living in Tokyo. They have taken a few days off work and are here to see the sights. The sisterhood in Asia is something else.

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The joy of Onomichi is just dandering along taking it all in. The trendy set have definitely arrived in this provincial place; there are a lot of cool cafés, bars and restaurants, many with French and Spanish influences, just like in Tokyo. It would lovely to be here with a friend or even better, a lover and just hang out in some of the cafés and see what it leads to. Small intimate spaces can be hard to manage when you are on your own, especially at night. From speaking to other travellers, it would seem that the best place and time to connect with the local people is in the evening, in places exactly like this, when work their done for the day and a few beers have worked their magic and on the famous Japanese reserve.

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For dinner I try a speciality of the area and nearby Hiroshima. It's called okonomiyaki and can be best described as a pancakey/pizza type thing, made of layers of noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, egg and the like, all doused in batter and fried on a griddle. I opt out of the house speciality, the key ingredient being chicken gizzards. Accessing good food has become increasingly difficult since leaving Tokyo. The good food is there, it's just that I don't have the language or cultural knowledge to get at it. For instance, I can't decipher the restaurant signs which tell you the type of food it serves, for example a soba noodle bar, or a sashimi restaurant. When I do venture inside, the menu is most likely only in Japanese, so I don't know what I'm ordering. In China I would walk around the diner and having a good gawk at what everyone else was eating before brazenly pointing to someone's bowl, indicating I want some of this. But that was rural China, where etiquette and manners at the table are few and far between. And prices were not an issue. In Japan they are. Especially after my sushi experience, I am paranoid about ordering something which is going to cost a bomb. In Japan I often berated myself for being obsessed by the cost of things, but then Id tell myself I been without a wage and travelling for 18 months, with five more ahead of me, so I need to be careful. I am smiling as I write this a few months later, having gone through my bank statements. Despite staying in dorms four nights out of every five, not buying any souvenirs, eating in cheapish restaurants and never having beer or coffee with meals, my spending each week averaged around 700 euros compared to 250 euro a week in the Philippines. Japan, it ain't cheap.

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By chance I had stumbled upon the weekend of the Betcha festival, an entirely local celebration, linked to the temple about thirty seconds from where I was staying. The temple deity is carried along the streets on an elevated alter, carried by hordes of chanting macho men in strange outfits, replete with headbands and those thoroughly Japanese two toed shoe/sock things. The entertainment comes from three masked characters who seek out young children and hit them on the head with a bamboo stick, thus ensuring their protection from illness in the coming year. It is a sight to witness countless grannies pushing terrified, screaming grandchildren into the face of adversity, and with such glee. While the festivities had been going on all weekend, the big event started at 645 on Sunday morning. I am awoken by the sound of kobo drums at about six. It is so exciting to be in the middle of things, rather than having to seek them out. By eight I have seen enough, so I head to the train station and lo behold, about ninety minutes later I am in Hiroshima. The ease of travel in Japan is phenomenal. I think, slowly slowly, that I am beginning to quite like Japan.

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So, Hiroshima. You'll be expecting me to talk about the bomb, which I will briefly, but not now. I want to talk about umbrellas. For me, how the Japanese manage their umbrellas is a symbol of much of what is really great about Japan. Let's start with the basics, it's raining and you need an umbrella. At home you would have already lost the cheap, inferior quality umbrella bought at Dunnes stores the other week. So you get wet heading out to buy another cheap, inferior quality umbrella that will break within ten minutes of usage or get nicked or you'll loose it again. The Japanese have that covered. Let me explain. Many hotels, even hostels, have cheap umbrellas you can borrow. Super. But if you want a better quality item, why not hire one from the hotel. Frightened you might loose it? No problem. Park it at one of the umbrella parks, where a nominal fee will ensure it is locked away for safe keeping until your return. It's been raining hard and your umbrella is really wet, it's dripping, dripping water onto the nice polished floor of the hotel or department store. No problem. A kind member of staff is waiting to help you, armed with long thin plastic sheaths into which you slip your umbrella. But why bother will all that manpower when a machine can do it better. So, to the machine, pop the tip of your umbrella into the hole, push down and hey presto, your umbrella pops back up, sheathed in its own little plastic condom. Fantastic or what?

The preponderance of storage lockers is another example of how great the Japanese are at making things easy and convenient. Why carry a heavy bags round with you, when for a small fee you can lock it away and pick it up later. Railway stations are full of them, of every size, so you can arrive in a city, leave your bag to go see the sights and reclaim your luggage before hopping on the train to somewhere else. Parks, temples, museums, shops are the same, hire a locker, an umbrella or maybe a wheel chair if you're in the mood.

And what about getting around? Firstly everywhere is well signposted, with regular street maps on walls, in Japanese and English, with red dots saying ' you are here'. Unlike anywhere else in the world, the red dots appear to be in the right place! It seems that everything has been thought about in a logical and sensible manner. So, when you descend from the train all you need to do is follow the logically placed signs to the tourist information desk. Here you will be greeted by a smile and perfect English, before being offered a city map, after which all your questions will be answered competently and correctly. Perhaps your next step is to get on a tram, but you don't have any change. No problem, a little change machine is right by the ticket machine, just waiting to helpful. A lady with an American accent is usually there, over the tanoy , telling you where you are now and what the next stop is. I realised that in Japan I no longer needed to brace myself when I arrived in a new place, a habit I have formed out of years of experience of travelling solo. Yip, no need to stress, it would all be fine. Travelling in Japan really was growing on me, at an exponential speed.

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What shall I say about Hiroshima? The picture says a lot. That was less than seventy years ago. Now Hiroshima is a vibrant, prosperous, accessible city and like most cities, is wall to wall with swish department stores, a never ending maze of underground shopping arcades, over ground covered shopping malls and eateries. The day of my arrival was wet and gloomy and after walking through endless shopping arcades I bit the bullet and went into a pleasant looking, upmarket-ish restaurant which didn't have menus in English. After ordering I waited, ravenous with hunger for what seemed like hours, only to be eventually served up a fish with a face. I normally don't do fish with faces, a hangover from all my years as a vegetarian, but by God, I tried my best that day, managing to scrape off about a gram of flesh before giving up and heading to bakery next door for a pig out.

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I went to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum the next day, a day glorious with sunshine and optimism and hope. Everything was beautifully done; although the park is a memorial, the intention is to focus not on what happened to Hiroshima per se, but on ensuring that it never happens again. Thus the over arching concept and feeling to the experience is educating people about the risks of nuclear testing and warfare and the need to constantly be working towards peace. Successive mayors of Hiroshima have sent letters of protest in response to every nuclear test, by any country, since 1968. That is an amazing commitment. Each time a letter is sent, the mayor hopes it will be the last. I was impressed; impressed at how the museum acknowledged Japan's own history of oppression and violence towards other nations, impressed at how the horror of the A bomb has been turned around and used a force for good rather than retribution, impressed at how sensitively the information was conveyed. Nonetheless I was still overwhelmed and sick to the stomach when I left the museum. To drop an atomic bomb on a city. Jesus.

Next day I was finally leaving the island of Honshu and heading to its neighbour, Shikoku.

Posted by noratheexplorer 04:41 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A shaky start in the land of the rising sun

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From the moment I stepped out of the airport terminal, my preconceived notions of Japan were turned on their head. I had assumed I would board a state of the art bullet train which would gracefully deliver me to Central Tokyo within a matter of moments. Instead what was waiting was the equivalent of the Piccadilly line tube from Heathrow to Central London; a never ending, tortuous, stopping and starting at every hole in the hell crawl. A crawl in a carriage full of grey people slumped in their seats; their colour, their energy, their affect all grey and exhausted. City life can do this to people and I never cease to give thanks for having made the decision to leave London when I did.

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I had been aware that Tokyo's public transport system was pretty nightmarish (reference the map above), so I'd booked accommodation in a part of the city I could get to directly, rather than having to change trains. However there was some difficulty with the system that night and I was told I had to change stations. It was with great difficulty that I managed to get off at the right stop, however I was completely and utterly unable to find my way to the next connection, totally clueless. Thankfully the station wasn't crowded and I asked a girl for help. Asking for help in Japan is wonderful. People go completely out of their way to help you and are tenacious as terriers until the problem is solved. Whilst you may feel invisible to the Japanese population for 99.99999% of the time, once you ask for help you become like their favourite auntie who has come to visit with a big box of sweets. And I am soooo thankful for that. The girl was delightful, disappearing and returning a few minutes later with a conductor who escorted me to the right platform and made sure I got on the train safely.

I arrived in the Asakusa area at about eleven in the evening. The hostel suggested the best way to get to them was to walk from the station, a confident indication of safety in the area and I guess in Tokyo too. Asakusa was empty, quiet and subdued. The only noise came from groups of tipsy business men making their way back to the station. Off the main streets it was a warren of little lanes and alleyways lined with noodle shops, bars and small restaurants, most with their shutters up for the evening. A few places remained opened; I could see small cosy interiors whilst outside, people perched on high stools under plastic awnings. It reminded me of a sanitised version of the hutongs in Beijing crossed with, bizarrely enough, Spain, a street full of tapas bars to be more precise. An air of quiet calm prevailed. I liked it. I got to the hostel just before midnight and celebrated my 45th birthday with a pot noodle and a can of beer from the vending machine outside, feeling reasonably sorry for myself I might add.

To be fair to Tokyo, it didn't stand a chance. I was in seriously foul form for most of my time there. Jet lag had kicked when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur a few days previously and I was averaging about two hours sleep a night. When you are staying in dormitories, sleep deprivation takes on many new avenues of torment. My misbehaving hormones added depth to the gloom and the weather, constant rain, just topped it all off. I constantly felt underwhelmed by everything, my thoughts racing with 'what's the big deal' about this place.

On my first afternoon, I paid the first of my many visits to a Sento. Although they take many shapes and forms, essentially a sento is a public bath house. After the war, houses were built rapidly and without running water and bathing facilities. This lead to the sento becoming a central part of the community and community life. From what I have read, the highly class conscious society of modern day Japan is rather ill at ease with the sento, their continued presence, an embarrassing reminder of an impoverished past. Apparently an undeserved stigma has fallen on those who continue to patronise the remaining establishments. As an outsider, thankfully those issues were not of concern to me. As an outsider, I was completely bricking it about ' the right way' to proceed through the experience without making a huge faux pas. I read and re read about the routine in my guide book. Then I asked the girls on reception at the hostel. Then there was nothing else for it, get naked Nora!

First hurdle, buy a ticket from the vending machine in the entrance. The vending machine is in Japanese, of course. Shit. Then an angry man with a mop comes running at me. I haven't taken off my shoes (a major no no, which I shall rant about at a later point). Shit. I saw the lockers for shoes but i got distracted by the vending machine. Shit. He indicates what button I need to press whilst madly mopping at the floor I have destroyed. I fumble to find the correct change and eventually manage to get a ticket, but only after my shoes are deposited in a locker. I walk through the main door, hand in my ticket and am directed to enter another room when women are dressing and undressing. Shit. It's not that I am nervous about undressing, actually I can't wait, it's about knowing the right way to do it. The right way to do things is very important in Japan. For the first week or so I get very worked up about these things, then I relax.

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Clothes packed away in another locker, I enter another room full of naked women sitting on low plastic chairs, soaped and scrubbing away at themselves as if they were cleaning a dirty saucepan with a Brillo pad. Sitting on the little plastic stools, the water facets are at tummy level, so rather than stand under a shower, you fill your little plastic bucket and pour it over you, rinsing yourself that way. It feels good to have a good leisurely scrub, good to be cleansed with abundant hot water, good to be naked with other people, good to have a good gawk at the female Japanese body. And what beautiful bodies. Ninety percent of the clientele are over fifty at the least, many would be seventy plus. Their skin is pale and surprisingly firm and unwrinkled with very little sagging. Boobs are smallish, firm and not droopy at all. No one is over weight. There is not a shred of cellulite in sight. Obviously, avoiding the sun is an important factor in these un-aged bodies. But what else? Diet? Exercise? Regular exfoliation? In every sento it was the same thing. Women aged sixty with the body of someone in their early thirties, someone who took care of themselves. I was told it was the same in relation to men, that it was almost impossible to tell their age by looking at their body. By the way, no cameras are allowed in the sento, so the photo below is from the Internet.

But it would be rude to stare to much. So it was back to more and more scrubbing and more and more rinsing before finally descending into the hot baths for a soak and relax. The bath is unbearably hot and I can't really chill out. My mood has not lifted. A nice woman tries to make conversation with me, she is a darling and I really appreciate it, but my heart is not in it. I move to a cooler bath. She follows and other ladies join in, but there is an element of laughing at the strangeness of the stranger. I feel vulnerable and want to cry. She sings Danny Boy to me. Oh my God. I have to get out. There is no relaxation area in sentos, once you're out its get dressed and go. I am the colour of beetroot and still very uptight. Normally warm water and a good steep is a fail proof way to lift my mood, but as I've already said, my mood was particularly foul and stubborn. But I had passed my sento initiation and day one of a five and a half month trip was over. Phew.

Number one of any list of things to do Tokyo is always the Tsukiji fish market, with the smartest cookies getting there on time for the 5.30am tuna auction. This was day 5 of my sleep deprivation hell and the last thing I wanted to do was be up and active in the middle of the night, but I knew I'd regret if I didn't go. I went to bed before midnight and was kept awake by jet lag, two mini earthquakes (the bunk beds trembled and then swayed for about thirty seconds) and continuous loud yaking from two of my dorm mates. I get up at 2.30 am, having not closed an eye. Nowhere to be seen is the girl who has promised to share the sizeable cost of the taxi with me. I am saved by an Australian boy who had not yet gone to bed. He not only is drunk, but is game to come with me. It's lashing outside, the beginning of a small typhoon. The taxi drops us off at a gate and we spend the next fifteen minutes dashing round a series of warehouses and yards, trying to find the check in area for the tuna fish auction. There are only 60 people allowed in each morning, so it's a race to get there on time. The boy is confident he knows where he is going so I just follow like an obedient dog; god it's great to be around a man's confidence sometimes. We make it to the gate. It's 3.30am and we are about twentieth in the queue and completely and utterly drenched. We are let into the equivalent of a holding pen and after the utter exhilaration of knowing we are 'in', the reality of a two hour wait kicks in. I am distracted by the man in front whom I think might be Will Self. But he is wearing dodgy trainers and does not exude an air of haughty self confidence. It can't be him.

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Finally it's five thirty. We are at the auction. Big dead tuna fish being inspected by men in welly boats with hooks in hand. Then the auction begins, the auctioneers are singing as they take the bids, tuna are being sold for thousands of pounds. Then it's over. The market doesn't open till seven. What do we do now?

The heavens have really opened. Everywhere is flooded, outside the water it as least ankle deep. Men in motorised trolleys speed around the roads and warehouses in the not quite dark, not quite light. It's like something from a sci fi movie. I love it. Normally I would just hang out, mooch around, soak everything up, but it's so horrifically wet. We end up taking refuge in a queue for a sushi bar. It's nice to have company, the occasion would have be so different if I had been on my own. After only a fifteen minute wait we are seated. The Sushi is served up and I immediately know I won't be able to stomach most of it. Having been a vegetarian for 29 of the last 30 years, raw flesh is a tad tricky for me. Embarrassed, but probably also dis inhibited through tiredness I let the sushi master know that I will share with the Australian boy. I think I may also have eaten with my fingers, a major faux pas no doubt. I make conversation with a Russian man sitting beside me. He has come all the way to Tokyo to eat Sushi at the market and tells me that were we are eating is very good, but very expensive. Yikes. The bill for our shared plate is 35000 yen a head, about thirty five euro each, more than the cost of my accommodation for two nights. I try not to obsess about looming bankruptcy.

It's now seven am. The market doesn't open till nine. I have a delicious coffee in a little shack. It costs me an outrageous five euros. I need to stop obsessing about money. Then I decide I'm not going to hang around, it's far too miserable. The rain is crazy, I later learn that it officially a typhoon. I get back to the hostel at 9 and sleep blissfully till about one. Four hours sleep is like a dream. I'm a new-ish woman and I've decided that it's time to get out of Tokyo.

Posted by noratheexplorer 03:07 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Island Hopping, Scottish style

(be warned, its a long one)

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One can develop very strong escape fantasises when you have been in a confined space for a period of time. For weeks I'd dreamt about jumping into my ten year old Honda Civic (1.4 l Diesel engine with boy racer speakers) and burning some serious rubber. But that was not to be, for now anyway.

My first week out of captivity was to be spent on the island of Iona, as the crow flies, no more than a mile from Erraid. Iona was no stranger to me. Not only did I see it a thousand times a day, but I went there most Wednesdays, the official 'day off' for guests on Erraid. At the time, the big thrill for me was that it had two small but posh hotels which offered me glimpses of the 'modern sophisticated' life that I missed . Although I still wore welly boots, I would arrive each Wednesday decked out in tinted moisturiser, blusher and lipstick and as well as my fancy silver ring from Mexico and my one bracelet, items which would look and indeed be, foolish on Erraid. I would move slowly between the two places whilst slowly attempting to gorge myself to death; initially on morning fare of posh coffees, shortbread and scones, moving on to the lunch specials and maybe a final cream tea before heading home at three. Whilst others would return form the day with tales of their adventures around the island, I would report back on the quality of the scones, what the specials were for lunch and the best lounging and viewing positions in each hotel.

However on that short walk from the pier to the hotels it was impossible to miss the breathtaking beauty of the island, a really refined type of beauty that somehow made it seem out of place in this edge of Western Europe. Words for the west coast of Scotland are wild, rugged, desolate, untamed. Words for Iona are lush, elegant, refined, well heeled, majestic, manicured. It reminded me of the Cotswolds or some glorious part of beautiful South West England, not the Inner Hebrides. Iona is also a place of pilgrimage people from all over the world, holding special meaning for people of many faiths, from pagans to Christians, so, if I was this close, I wanted to give it a proper go.

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It was a gift to slowly take in all that Iona had to offer. God, it is an amazingly beautiful place. After two months on Erraid I thought I was immune to gasping when I saw something new. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is something about the quality of light on Iona that does something really potent to colour; it intensifies it, makes it bigger, bolder, more inescapable. I was totally blown away by the blindingly white beaches, the depth of the turquoise-ness of sea, the almost alive, glowing pinkness of the Ross of Mull just across the sound. I'd often be startled by what I saw, sometimes overwhelmed by it, like it was impossible for my eyes to really take it all in.

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I think that even the animals had a sense they were somewhere special, that they were living their lives on a stunning movie set and should behave accordingly. Bizarrely they were all good looking animals; the highland cattle were stunning of course, but even the sheep, normally scruffy flighty characters were handsome and confident, firm, neatly trimmed, alert. They seemed so proud of themselves, at times I'd swear they walked with a swagger. Other times I notice they positioned themselves on a hillock, taking notice of the stream of pilgrims walking along the road, but also saying, "hey look at us, aren't we the business?". It madness I know, but I'd swear by it, almost.

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The pilgrims were less well groomed, but remarkably well behaved. There is very limited accommodation on Iona, so most people come for the day. In early May they came in a trickle, but but by early July there were at least a couple of thousand each day. Many came with spiritual intentions, but many did not. What surprised me was their quietness and respectfulness and the total absence of loutishness, drunken behaviour, an unusual occurrence in British or Irish society when the sun Comes out. They calmly, quietly walked around the island; St Columba's Bay with its huge expanse of smooth, perfectly rounded, multi coloured pebbles, the magically titled Bay at he Back of the World, Dun I, the high point of the island offering a panorama of Iona as well as the islands of Staffa, Coll and Tiree, the Trenish islands and sometimes Skye in the far distance. I have no doubt that some or all of what I have described has something to do with the energy of the island, the magic, or whatever you might like to call it. Which doesn't explain the vast majority of the people who live there. My choice of words would range from dour and depressed to downright unfriendly, money grabbing and without charity! There is no such place as paradise eh?

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And speaking of dour and depressed, Mull is another island that seems to have more than its fair share of the above. At times I felt sympathy for these people whose interactions with others were so devoid of joy, at other times I wanted to put my big toe up their posterior. Surely it can't be blamed on remoteness, isolation and bad weather, we fare just as badly on these things in the West of Ireland, but don't produce grumpy old men by the bucket load. Culturally, can anybody shed light on what is going on? Anyway, back to Mull; it's a big island, a beautiful island, an island that offers incredible opportunities to be in contact with nature and a touch of arty sophistication in the main town, Tobermorey. Go visit.

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And the island of Staffa, done by boat from Mull or Iona. Wow, Staffa. It's shares the same geology as the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, infact they were probably connected together at some point in their history. In my opinion, the Giants Causeway is amazing, but Staffa blows it out of the water. Compared to the rigid straightness of the Causeway the rock formations on Staffa are curved, relaxed, like they've taken a minor sedative and just chilled. It was phenomenal. I hope pictures convey some sense of it.

When I left Iona I had five days to get to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I was on a tight schedule as I had arranged to volunteer at Hebcelt, a big Celtic music festival in island's capital, Stornoway. Having lived on small islands for nearly three months I had completely lost my sense of scale and to tell you the truth, was in a complete panic about making it on time. Leaving Iona on the 8am ferry, my plan was to drive through Mull, ferry it back to the mainland and try and get to Fort William by nightfall. I arrived in Fort William at one. In the afternoon. I was very excited to be in Fort William. Not for it's famed scenery I might add, but for its shopping. I hadn't seen a proper shop for nearly three months and I was literally foaming at the mouth at the thought of buying something, anything. Boots, Superdrug, Marks and Spenser's, Pound stores, the excitement lasted all of thirty minutes. I bought some Veet ( it was time for the hairy legs to go) and lots of edibles from Marks and then felt very very depressed. Welcome back to a consumer society Nora. I got in my car and sped off, take me back to the wilds I thought.

My journey to Mallaig was on the Road to the Isles. God, I had always dreamed of being on the Road to the Isles. Sadly, most of it wasn't particularly pretty and by the time I got to the gorgeous bit I was rather distracted by the signs outside the numerous BnBs, saying 'no vacancies'. I spent the guts of an hour trying to find somewhere to stay in Mallaig. The best deal I could get was 80 quid for a double room in a dingy looking council house outside the town. Outrageous. I would rather stick pins in my eyes than hand over my cash for that. Which left me with the back seat of my car or a bed in a dormitory. I opted for the dorm, which I had to share with a group of young German men, and swore to arrive in my next destination at an earlier point in the day.

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My next three days were spent on the Isle of Skye. Three days driving in the lashing rain, three cold, miserable days in which I drive through and past magnificent scenery, none of which I could see. Regular readers of this blog will know that I often get my knickers in a twist about bad weather. But my fury this time was well off the Richter scale. This was because a heat wave of Armageddon proportions had enveloped the 'entire' British Isles and Ireland. Television, newspapers, radio, Facebook; every bloody one ranting on and on and on about the heat. But no one was mentioning that Nora was driving round the Isle of Skye in her winter woollies in a never ending deluge of rain. Radio weather forecasts omitted the misery going on in the west. The Independent newspaper forecast patchy light rain and, did my eyes deceive me, a picture of a partial sun hovering over the Western Isles. Me arse. Shame on you Independent newspaper. And where was the BBC? George Alagiah at the very least. In sizzling hot London that's where, barbecuing sausages in their swimwear.

I am taking a deep breath now.

It turned out that about 60 to 80 quid a night was the standard price for a room in this part of the world, so that first night on Skye and for all subsequent nights on my road trip, I stayed in hostels. My fellow inmates were not who I was expecting. Night one my dorm mates were a Vietnamese girl and her mother, a mother who got up at 4am to rustle plastic bags ( I fully acknowledge that plastic bag rustling is my biggest obsession, after the weather). The next two nights it was a collection of girls from Taiwan and China; all travelling on their own, all speaking perfect English, all intelligent, confident, motivated young women. I was impressed by the sisterhood from the East. But the best bit about Skye, I'm afraid to say, was boarding the ferry to get the hell out of the place. And for those of you who are interested, Donal and his troosers were nowhere to be seen.

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And then it was time for the Outer Hebrides. Wooohoooo. First stop was Stornoway the capital of the Isle of Lewis. I had arranged to volunteer at HebCelt, a pretty big and well regarded 'Celtic' music festival. Not only would I be able to attend the three day festival for free, I figured it would be great way of getting in with the local yokels, thus ensuring a far better time than hanging out on my owneyo. On my application form I had noted I was interested in environmental issues, leading to an assignment to the green team, otherwise known as the litter collection squad. The highlight and I repeat highlight of the job was wandering around the site with a bin bag, the lowlights were considerable. For recycling purposes the contents of the bags and the bins had to be sorted by hand. Simple enough eh? But imagine emptying the contents of a bag onto the grass and being faced with (other than the stench), half eaten bits of meat, dog poo, rotting fruit, nappies, lots of liquidy stuff etc all mixed up with the bottles, tins and paper being recycled. Then sorting it, using only a rubber gloved hand. Not pleasant I can tell you. The coordinator was insipid and uninspiring and the camaraderie on the team was non existent, so on day three I gave up and didn't turn up for duty, extremely unusual behaviour on my behalf. I still managed to get in for free that day, but the spirit of apathy had set in and rather than watch the final act, the Red Hot Chilli. Peppers, I left early to go home for a takeaway. Rock and Roll or what?

The scene in the hostel was much more fun. And as was the case on Skye, the people I met there were not whom I expected. This time it wasn't women form Asia, it was the 'middle aged'. Mainly women, mainly fifties and upwards and mainly, I later discovered, divorced. It was lovely to have a leisurely breakfast with familiar faces before heading out for a days adventures and then returning to share stories and photos.

The most interesting character was an American woman; loud, outrageously aggressive and professing to be a yoga instructor (I think not). She seemed to spend a lot of time in Scotland and Ireland, terrorising the locals I assume. She also had enormous bosoms which she covered with a tight, low necked t shirt emblazoned with the words ' I like men with accents' . Most evenings she would rant, rave and become hysterical about the inappropriate behaviour of the local men. Insight was not her strong point. She was divorced. Jane was the sanest; English, well balanced, nice. Divorced. And Mary, Scottish, with non existent social skills and a terrible body odour problem. I had her down as a lesbian with Asperger's syndrome. She trumphed them all, having been divorced, twice. I was fascinated by all this divorce business. Firstly, because at the age of forty five, having even a regular boyfriend has proved elusive to me. Secondly I think I am in the unusual position of having absolutely no friends who are divorced. It seems to be happening to the whole world out there, just not to anyone I know. I learnt a lot across the kitchen table. Firstly that none of them were bitter and twisted about what had happened. They had all been in love with their husbands. Sure they had all fallen out of love with them too, but that wasn't the problem. It was, after the glow of love had faded, realising they didn't really like them. ' Falling out of like' was what they called it. A cracking book title.

The God fearing Isle of Lewis shuts down almost entirely on a Sunday. All services; shops, supermarkets and petrol stations (except one) close, thee are no ferries and many BnB's will not accept new guests. The island has been described as the last bastion of fundamental Calvinism in Britain with large numbers of its inhabitants belonging to the Free Church of Scotland or the even more conservative, Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. There is a strict conservative dress code for church services, many of which do not use instrumental music or songs of any sort, with the exceptional of metrical psalms, sung in English of Gaelic. I'd heard stories for a number of people about their attendance at these Sunday services, stories about fire and brimstone sermons from skinny rectors warning of the perils of fornication, fornication and more fornication. I couldn't wait to go. I was also intrigued and saddened by a long and lovely conservation with a man who an artist, running an art gallery and shop, slap bag in the middle of nowhere. His wife was an artist too, as well as being was an ordained minister in a more liberal Protestant church. Although they had lived on the island for twenty years, rearing four children, he felt they were still viewed with open suspicion on the grounds of being artists and belonging to another church. And I thought Northern Ireland was top of the league when it came to madness and religion. But back to the story.

It's five to nine on Sunday morning and I am bounding out of the hostel to get to the church about thirty seconds away, to the left. A Scottish girl from my dorm is also departing, but to the church thirty seconds to the right. Her friend from Stornoway had told her it was THE place to go, so I follow, licking my lips in anticipation of the performance to follow. So I am surprised that the church is far from austere, it's quite comfortable in fact, with a nice red carpet and comfy seats. An older gentleman comes out, gentle but lively and with a lovely manner. He is the main man today and delivers a one hour performance that is undramatic but intelligent, thoughtful and relevant to everyday life. His talk is illustrated by a few passages from the bible, again they seem fitting and relevant. Hell and fornication are not mentioned. Mental health is and it is done in a very informed manner. I later find out that he was one of the islands GP's before retiring and becoming a pastor. I am very impressed and quite moved by it all. It seems a million miles away from my Catholic experience; a remote priest in fancy dress high on an altar, a congregation mumbling the same old lines of the mass, completely disconnected from its meaning. Later in the trip I attend Sunday service in another Protestant church on the tiny island of Gigha. It's a more conservative set up, more formalised, but the female rector delivers the service in the same warm, human, humane way, staying in the isle, speaking as one human being to another. Whilst I have no desire to be involved in any organised religion, I know whose door I would knock on if I was in trouble.

The island of Lewis is beautiful. I spent many a happy day speeding along its super roads; broad, evenly surfaced and empty, to get to glorious destinations, few of which I have the time to describe. A large part of the interior is flat uninhabited bog land, but away from there I saw a density of population that surprised me. As did the affluence. I don't mean that everyone had a mansion and a Mercedes, but most houses were a fair size and in a decent state of repair, most gardens were well kept, most cars were newish. Where was the money coming from? Like the money to build the fantastic roads? with no cars on them. Remember this is an island on the far north western extreme of Western Europe. Other than the beleaguered fishing industry, I could not ascertain what people did to make a living, to live in a way that seemed very comfortable indeed. It seemed a million miles away from the bachelor farmers of Ireland's Wild West.

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Forty minutes out of Stornoway there are so many many beautiful places. Probably the most famous site is the Callanish standing stones. Ireland is well endowed with similar constructions, but Callanish was really impressive. Not far are the Gearrannan Blackhouses, a preserved village of traditional Lewis houses. One of them had been converted into an upmarket hostel, of which I had the privilege of being the only resident for the night. Given no one lives on site, it had the potential to be a tad spooky but it turned out to be a delight. New mattresses, fluffy feather duvets and a dorm all to myself. Bliss. I was too busy enjoying the luxury to have time for the ghosts of resident past to come haunt me. And imagine waking up in a place like this and having it all to yourself.

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The Butt of Lewis (the most north westerly point in the British Isles) was also stunning, marred only by carnivorous clegs who ate everyone alive and in the millisecond I took to have a wee, managed to inflict two bites on my posterior. Impressive accuracy. Close by was the wonderful Eoropaidh, a wide open, otherworldly place carpeted in the the wild flowers typical of the Mahair.

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Drive Two hours south of Stornoway, across a mountain range and you arrive on the Isle of Harris. Yes, it sounds like another island, but it and Lewis are the same landmass. They feel very different though.

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The coast of East Harris is something else. A rugged lunar landscape of greyish/ purplish rock, reminiscent of Connemara, interspersed by narrow sea lochs around which the small settlements are gathered. A single road, the Bay Road, connects these settlements and each bend in the road leads to another gasp at the beauty before you. The interior is dotted with freshwater Lochans, many decorated with water lilies, I kid you not. I based myself on the east coast, in a delightful hostel in the little village of Drinishader, population about twenty. The owner,Roddy, a man of few words, had built it as a home for himself, but in tough economic times had needed to diversify. Thus he converted his home into a hostel and hospitality became another string to his bow in addition to farming, fishing, building and sailing. The hostel had a big bright living room over looking the sea, a modern kitchen with every convenience and comfy, clean, stylish bedrooms. Sadly for Rory, but not for me, there were hardly any guests. Another delight was a supply of fresh fish each evening as well as fresh herbs and vegetables from his poly tunnel. I spent many evenings relaxing over a glass of wine before cooking some simple but lovely for dinner. Cooking is one of the things I miss about not having my own home anymore, so one of the unexpected pleasures of hostel life was being able to cook healthy food again. A year or so of eating in restaurants every night may seem like a dream, especially for those harassed mothers out there, but let me tell you, it's not.

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The West coast of Harris, a few miles away from the rocky east, could not be more different. Seilebost, Sgarasta, Luskentyre, wide bays and huge golden beaches that seem to stretch forever. Yes, the sand was golden, rather than the brilliant white of the beaches of the Inner Hebrides. But the water was just as turquoise. And the beautiful Machair, the Gaelic word for the fertile costal grasslands than run between coast and mountains. The soil enriched by both sand and shell leads to exceptionally rich and fertile soil. In mid July the Machair was ablaze with colour and wild flowers, none of which I can remember the names of, other than clover. I had never seen anything like it and was prone to spending hours just lying in the middle of it, with occasional bursts of activity, namely trying to get a good photo, which of course never materialised.

This was the land that used to be farmed by the people. They were thrown off this land during the Highland Clearances, it was more profitable for the landlords to graze sheep on it. The population had no option but to migrated to the East coast where the barren rocky soil was unable to sustain the density of population. Taken together with the collapse of the kelp industry, a pasta to famine and a number of other factors, thousands died of hunger, thousands emigrated, many with state help, to Canada, the States, Australia and surprisingly Patagonia on Southern Chile. I walked a beautiful path through the mountains, a path which linked the east to the west coast, it was the old Coffin route. There is no romance about this, the soil in the east was not deep enough to bury a coffin, so this was the quickest way to get across the mountain to bury your loved one the the fertile west.

I was on the isle of Harris and Lewis for about two weeks. Two weeks in which the sun shone nearly every day, which no doubt influenced my experience. I found it inspirational and utterly beautiful, with friendly people who spoke with a slight Donegal-ish lilt. I would have loved to stay longer, but I had to be in Inverness for August third and I wanted to do some exploring on the mainland on the way. So it was with a heavy heart that I drove back up to Stornoway to get the ferry back to the mainland.I stopped off at a lovely cafe and art gallery I'd visited before, they did a delicious flat white, my latest coffee addiction. I left with a larger bill than expected, impulse buying a 400 quid oil painting. Might I remind you that I have no home and a dwindling bank balance. But such is life. It was time for the mainland, accompanied by an unexpected large pink oil painting in the back seat of my car.

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The beautiful weather broke about an hour before we reached Ullapool. The rain started and didn't stop for a few days. But I couldn't complain, I'd had beautiful weather for a really really special place. Ullapool was lovely, a bit arty and resplendent with three top notch book shops in which I would only allow myself to browse. That did not stop me salivating at what was on offer, books are another one of my guilty pleasures. Travelling north of Ullapool really is the far north of Scotland and I was excited again at going somewhere new. What struck me was the grandness of scale; it was a vast, open, expansive landscape, with big hulks of mountains, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Begt, Cul Mon just plopped there in a spot, enormous, alone, rather than being connected to a whole chain of other mountains. The scenery was really glorious, it would do your heart good as they say at home, but I was speeding through it, rather than stopping and exploring as I like to do.

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On a recommendation I stopped at Handa island, a beautiful place in itself, but also happens to be a managed nature reserve famed for its bird life. After a twenty minute journey on a rib you arrive on the beach and then begin four hour walk around the island on a beautiful boardwalk. It was another glorious day and the only event to mar the perfection was the constant threat of being dive bombed by aggressive Great Skuas, a bird in need of a good social skills program, they bully birds, animals and humans alike. The wardens had warned us of this and I was already sensitised to airborne attacks after being out on a walk on Mull when a large bird of prey, some said it was a golden eagle some a buzzard, came swooping down on me on four separate occasions. I knew it was protecting a nest and not just out for the day to terrorise an unsuspecting tourist. However, for someone with a medium sized bird phobia, being alone in the middle of nowhere and being close enough to a huge animal to hear its wings beat, well it's an experience I'd rather not repeat.

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I also stayed in Durness, apparently where John Lennon holidayed as a child. Durness is wide open and flooded with light, in a very unusual way. It is full of caravan sites, and glorious on a good day, utterly depressing on a bad one. Given I was this far north I decided to take a trip to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point on the island of Britain. It was an arduous journey on a dodgy boat, a rickety minibus and then a long walk, all in the poring rain. But I got the photo didn't I? Note to self, no one, not even yourself gives a damn about the photo.

And then it was time to head east, crikey, I was heading east for the first time in four months and I didn't know if I was happy about that. After a final night in the wilds, in a place called Tongue, I began a drive which felt like I was re entering a more modern, more refined, more affluent world. My bed for the night tickled me pink. Sleeperzzz in Rogart is a hostel, with all mod cons, in a railway carriage surrounded by beautiful wild gardens. I had my own little compartment in which I could close my door to the world. I loved it.

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During the day I was lucky enough to happen upon a Highland Gathering in the extremely pretty village of Dornoch. I think I was expecting a few sporting events in a field, surrounded by drunk people and chips vans. What I saw was very different. The Scottish dancing completions were quite a spectacle; so many completely different styles of dancing, so many men dancing, and so fetching in their sailor outfits for the horn pipe, such athleticism required for all that high kicking. I was impressed. There were also stages that hosted competitions for piping and so forth. The 'heavy events' were a bit too slow for my liking. I was there for about three hours, during which time, much to my disappointment, no cabers were tossed. Other 'heavy items' were thrown though; something like a shot put, and then a heavy ball on the end of a chain which is swung round and round and then released. The men involved were hilarious; with their serious expressions, mountain like poses with hands on hips or across their chests, looking important at all times. The gathering was very quiet, a proper family day out, I liked it.

Sadly (especially for my bank balance), the alternator of my car gave up its will to live on my final drive from Rogart to Forres, just east of Inverness. My car is so loyal, it waited till I was close to civilisation and a garage before breaking down. For that, I am eternally grateful. I spent a lovely ten days doing a course at the FIndhorn community before beginning my drive south to head back to my parents in Lurgan. I made a very long detour to the Kintyre pennisula in order to bag one last island before my return. Gigha was the place, it was lovely, but it was also time for me to go home. My long summer in Scotland was over. It had been totally amazing, more than I could ever have dreamed of, some of the most phenomenal months of my life. Go visit.

Posted by noratheexplorer 19:15 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland lewis harris iona mull staffa outer_hebrides inner_hebrides Comments (0)

Back to reality

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By the time it gets to midsummer it is cold, wet and miserable again.

Midsummer in the Northern hemisphere; the summer solstice, the time of the longest days and shortest nights, for ancient peoples, a time when the sun is at its most potent. Midsummer has always felt quite magical to me, a really special time, and here I was living the dream, on an island for god sake, an island in the Inner Hebrides. So it was rather ironic that in this very special place, I found myself unable to get in the groove in any way, shape or form. It was as if my yearly quota for magic had been used up by the euphoria of the previous weeks. And so, as we struggled to light the solstice bonfire in the lashing rain I was grumpy, uninspired and totally lacking in enthusiasm. I stayed for twenty minutes and escaped back to my house for what had become a nightly wine tasting event.

To be honest, the bad weather was a bit of a relief. When it is glorious from dawn to dusk and beyond, it somehow seems wrong to be in the house; idling, faffing about, having a snooze. I certainly felt propelled to be out and about, exploring, striding round the island, taking in another sunset. Cold and wet meant also meant the stove was lit from breakfast time again. It meant sitting by the stove supping copious amounts of tea with choccy biscuits and doing nothing much. A different type of heaven.

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I had moved to House Number 1 in the second week. I was initially a bit put out; it was nowhere near as warm as number 3 and as the house's long term resident was away, meaning I had lone responsibility for keeping the stove going. Me and my responsibility issues again. But is was a really lovely house, with an assortment of old pictures and knick knacks that made it both more homely and refined that house number 3. I was very proud to live there. I had a big bedroom too; a double bed and lots of space which in fact, only created more potential for me to be cold. When I moved in I receive a donation of a very fetching men's polo neck golfing jumper, wool, size extra large. This jumper was worn every night, on top of winter pyjamas and accompanied by two hot water bottles, one for my feet and one to hug. As I have said many times in this blog, I am a bit of a cold fish.

I shared the house with John, another ex engineer, but with no obvious 'systems'. John had been in the Navy since he was 17 and in the previous year, at the ripe old age of 50, had retired from service. When his partner decided to quit her stressed city life and give Erraid a try, he thought he might as well join her, give it a go for a year and see what happened. I had never shared a house with a straight man before (and only one gay man. He was extremely short and effeminate, so testosterone wise, that doesn't count) so I must admit I was a tad nervous. As I'm sure was John , it's not every day that a very tall, opinionated Irish woman moves in for two months. Our trepidation showed itself in our efforts to keep the kitchen clean and tidy (we were both messy people), but it soon mellowed into ease. John was a really normal, chirpy, confident chap. We spent many hours sitting on either side of the stove, like two aul grannies with our knitting, swapping stories and shooting the breeze. I don't know anyone from an army or navy background, so was fascinated in hearing all his stories. Some of the funniest were about his time in the Falklands War, capers that wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of Dad's Army. I remain very fond of John.

Like many other of the longer term residents on the island( ten-ish in all), John was just a normal guy who had decided to change track for a bit. He didn't come with any spiritual background or credentials, or any master plan about what island life would be like, just a desire to give it a go, for a bit. One person had been there for over four years, a couple with two young kids had been around about two and a half. Most others had arrived in the previous 18 months. Most had a desire to live a simpler life, a life less removed from nature and the elements and a life where they worked for the good of a community, rather than just their own needs. So I'm afraid I will have to disappoint those of you who may have hoped/feared the following. One, I had entered a cult. Two, engaged in mass orgies every Friday evening. Three, used a divining rod to decide which community member would be sacrificed every Wednesday morning. Etc etc etc.

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The only 'formal' spiritual practice was a daily meditation space of thirty minutes. It was optional and unleaded, sorry I meant to say un led, so you could count sheep if that is what you wished to do. It was held in the a little building called the sanctuary. Built of wood (now rotting away) and glass it had phenomenal views over Mull and Iona which never failed to thrill me and served to reinforce my sense there is a central creation force at work. I have tried to have a regular meditation practice for at least the last fifteen years and have failed at having a regular meditation practice for at least fourteen years and ten months. I had thought that being in such an inspiring place, being in such a good space myself, being with other people who practice regularly, that everything would fall into place with my meditation, that I would crack it, at long bleeding last. I couldn't have been more wrong. Each evening after a days toll in the garden I would arrive in the sanctuary, tired but happy. I would take in the view, marvel at the landscape, then slowly move inwards, focus on my breath..... Shit I forgot to top up the stove, will my washing be dry? What is the forecast for tomorrow? Back to the breath Nora, breathe......I hope Jim isn't on cooking duty tonight, do you think their will be any dessert? Yip, still work to be done.

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I guess what i am trying to say that is this; it is how you live your life in the community, rather that formal spiritual practices that makes Erraid and FIndhorn a 'spiritual community', as opposed to just a collection of people living on an island. Let me describe the weekly 'log run'. (For the sake of brevity I will omit the huge logistics involved in ensuring there is wood on the island). Once a week the community's ancient tractor, laden with wood cut over the previous week, labours up the hill from the boat shed. A team of about five people are required. The tractor stops outside each cottage and a human chain passes the logs from tractor to the log shed, cutely positioned between every two cottages. The chain then moves indoors to ensure a nice pile of logs behind the stove. And then it moves to the next cottage, and the next. In forty minutes the entire community has a full supply of wood for its heating and hot water needs for the following week. And it is done, where possible, holding the intention of love and respect.

But I was ready to move on. My head was filled with thoughts of not wearing welly boots every day (although I had grown very fond of my welly boots), posh coffee, lipstick and blusher, an inside loo, the freedom of getting in my car and going somewhere. Oh how the wide open road beckoned, oh how I love my freedom. My two months on Erraid had been phenomenal, one of the most amazing experiences of my life thus far. I still can't believe that I did it. I was very very sad to leave, but I was also very very happy. Perfect.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 19:11 Archived in Scotland Tagged inner_hebrides erraid findhorn Comments (0)

Scorchio

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And suddenly, out of nowhere, summer arrives. Glorious wide blue skies, a big round yellow sun, heat like I didn't think was possible on an island. The colours and contours of the landscape are changing before my eyes and as the sun remains, so the speed of the change hastens. First of all wild Aquilegia, pinks, blues, lilacs. Then it's the turn of the ferns to emerge from their hidey holes. The blackbird babies in the garden shed arrive; no longer eggs, but tightly packed bedraggled little objects in their nest, heads permanently tilted back, orange beaks wide open waiting for the next worm. Mummy and daddy blackbird perform a stirling service in ferrying food back and forth. Despite this, the young ones make a terrible racket.

It's a mad rush to get all the young plants from the cold frames and permanently into the soil. As we plant the birds seem even cheekier than before, a couple of thrushes are the worst offenders and daddy blackbird is impatient at our slow speed. The swallows have arrived to dive bomb the street in the evening and I've heard and seen my first cuckoo. On a visit to Iona I hear Corncrakes. I am surprised at how excited I get about these things.

Lunch and dinner are eaten outside everyday for at least two weeks. I can't quite believe this is really happening. I see many colours of blue which I have never seen before, I see qualities of light which leave me breathless. The water, always crystal clear and turquoise blue has now got extra pizzaz. It's like magic Disney dust has been sprinkled over the Inner Hebrides. I am constantly reminded of being in the Greek Islands.

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However there is a lot of work to be done; the young plants are struggling in the heat and constantly thirsty. The gardens cover a big area and the watering is done by hand, so it's often nearly nine by the time I'm done. Part of me wants to go indoors and collapse but I can't allow myself to miss the next visual extravaganza, dusk. It doesn't begin till well after 9.30, the blue of the day taking hours to slowly melt into greys and pink and not until about eleven thirty, magenta and charcoal black. The colour show only serves to accentuate the silhouettes of all the surrounding islands. Every night is a feast. Every night I think I am in Greece. Every night I head to bed at about midnight, although the darkness has not fully descended.

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One night at low tide we go hunting for mussels in this beautiful light, but return back with only a bucket load. I have begun obsessing about food. Our diet in the island is fairly basic; connected to a desire to keep things simple and I guess, limited finances. Because of the late spring, none of the crops are anywhere near ready and it seems that carrots, swedes, tinned tomatoes and lentils form the basis of our daily intake. Having been a vegetarian for nearly 29 years, my digestive system can cope, it's my taste buds that can't. Highlight of the week was any dish that had cheese in it or on it and pizza, not pepperoni I might add, carrot pizza!! It wasn't that the food was bad, it was more the lack of variety; of ingredients, textures and flavours that got to me. I began to put in shopping orders each time someone went to Mull. Cheese was generally top of the list, well, maybe joint with white wine. Then yoghurt, McVities chocolate biscuits, bumper packs of Club Oranges (it's an Irish thing), Tunnocks caramel wafers (it's a Scottish thing), I always had to have a full stash, just incase. Fresh fruit would have been brilliant, but supplies came from the overpriced and depressing ferry shop in Fhionnophort, where lifeless apples and oranges and the odd banana were the height of it. Maybe all the white wine I was drinking protected me from scurvy!

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By the second week in June the ferns are as high as my knee. The foxgloves have arrived, closely followed by the yellow bog Iris. One morning the baby blackbirds are no longer in their nest. I feel strangely maternal (for someone with a medium sized bird phobia), I hope they are ok. I later see clumsy looking young birds, stupidly sitting on the grass, or low in the hedge, their feathers all puffed up rather than sleek, I think it's them. After more than a year on the move, I so value this opportunity to be in the one place; rather than dashing from here to there and back again, to be still and to observe the world changing around me. And what a place to choose to do it.

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However the people around me change all the time. Whilst the permanent residents remain, one set of guests depart on a Saturday morning at about 10, the next set arrive at 11.15. Sometimes it all felt a bit much; all that having to get to know yet another set of people, people who new and needy, just as I had been in my first week. Sometimes I could not be bothered, I wanted to hide away in my house and not make eye contact, never mind conversation with someone. I was doing this for two months, I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for the permanent residents. I began to be relieved that I wasn't going to be on Erraid forever.

Posted by noratheexplorer 04:52 Archived in Scotland Tagged inner_hebrides erraid findhorn Comments (0)

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