"The next stop is Kansai-Gaidai..."


# "I got pictures of what's in my head... They took 'em in Tokyo, and I brought 'em back with me..." # - Ben Folds


"..Kansai Gaidai is the next stop!" If you’ve ever been to Osaka, Japan, and travelled out near Hirakata City, chances are you may have heard this phrase being uttered over a bus Tannoy, in English, among a lot of Japanese that just isn’t decipherable if you don't speak the native language… Strangely, it’s one of my lasting memories from a fantastic holiday to the Far East I took at the end of March and beginning of April this year with my wife…

We took the chance to travel to "Nippon" because we had friends living out there and it meant we could have free accommodation for this once-in-a-lifetime trip… We managed to time it right too for the cherry blossom season which the Japanese people really revere and admire. You’ll see them on street corners, young and old, staring up at the pink and white trees, taking photos and chatting excitedly about the new life that is springing up in the trees all around them… We’ve actually had a white blossom tree in our front garden for the last three years or so and I’ll forever have a new appreciation for it whenever I look out of our living room window in Spring now, because of our experience of going to Japan…




We expected to be awed and shocked by some cultural differences while we were in Japan (why else do you go abroad but to see how the rest of the world live?) and I’m still getting my head around the status of Geishas in Japanese culture and the modern world, but the people of Japan are so polite and welcoming, and unlike some other places we’ve travelled through with backpacks, there was no fear of being pick-pocketed or obvious crime on the streets anywhere…

Trying to make the most of our fortnight there, we each bought a Japan Rail Pass for the famous Bullet Trains to carry us far and wide from our base in Osaka… First we took a few days break out to Tokyo and walked some of the well-known streets and busy crossings and saw the huge tower blocks and sky scrapers from a different perspective by going (for free!) to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building - it’s really a magnificent view from up there and a must if you ever visit Japan’s capital. Disappointingly perhaps we didn’t get to see the “futuristic” and “technological” city of Tokyo that I’d imagined before going there, but what was even better was seeing a real, down-to-Earth bustling city of the 21st century in all its frenzied glory…

It wasn’t until our return journey to Hirakata out of Tokyo that there were clear enough skies to catch sight of Mount Fuji – it was sort of a case of “now you see it, now you don’t” as we mistook some smallish hills at first for the mountain but then when it finally did come into view there was definitely no mistaking the majesty of this old volcano… We literally became snap-happy tourists with our camera for the few minutes that the Bullet Train whizzed passed it.

And whizz past a lot of things the Bullet trains do – including me! One day, stood in a station waiting for one of the trains, I leant down to get something out of my backpack and as I did a huge gust of wind and speed filled my senses when one on the other side of the platform whirled through the station without stopping. It was definitely one of those moments where your breath is genuinely taken away from you…

As well as the big city lights and noise, we also went hiking in the hills around the ancient (and original capital) Nara with our hosts in Japan. We saw the freshly-prepared rolling and dipping rice fields as well as oranges growing on trees, teasingly almost ready to pick. We got soaked on one of our trekking days but the misty hills around us made me happy to see a different aspect of the countryside of Japan. Our next day of walking was in comparison really tropical as we made our way through a forest and over some hills, and seeing some of the grand but peaceful Buddhist and Shinto temples in the middle of such dense wild terrain made the experience a memorable one.

One of the last trips we took on the Bullet Trains was to the southeast of the main island of Japan, down to Hiroshima. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got there but was still surprised for some reason to see a thriving city (it has, after all been almost 70 years since the world’s first atomic bomb used against human life was detonated on the place) and I was genuinely humbled to turn the corner off the main street, to go into the Peace Park and come face to face with the A-Bomb Domb… (the only building to survive the blast in 1945)

The extensive museum in this place of memorial is worth spending the afternoon in as you learn about the (often secret but very real) history of the events that led up to the decision to launch the bomb, as well as the horrific aftermath that generations have had to live with since… Partly the Japanese do lay the blame on themselves, or rather the government regime at the time, but I was so shocked to learn of Einstein’s very active involvement in the development of the atomic bomb in America – I mean, this is a man who the world still looks up to as a father of modern science (and therefore a more “enlightened age") - but all that said, you do come away from this museum with a sense of hope as you learn that the city of Hiroshima now leads the planet in protests against modern nuclear tests and the drive to for nuclear disarmament (set for the decade 2010 to 2020). Some lasting images will stay with me from my visit to Hiroshima – one is from a glass case in the museum which holds a watch stopped at exactly 8:16, the time in the morning that the bomb detonated. Another image is the rubble on the ground at the base of the A-Bomb Dome - never tidied up or moved away since that sickening day, they’ve stayed as they were laid… But the final picture I have of Hiroshima isn’t from the Peace Park at all, but of a small pool of turtles which lies just off the main street of the city as you progress through it from the main station, marking the actual site where the bomb hit – over a dozen of these creatures swim happily around a man-made pond on this site, along with large carp, and passing it you can’t fail but stop and be in awe of the life existing there now…

On more of a high (and perhaps trivial) note, we ended our two-weeks in Japan with a trip to Universal Studios Japan, which handily happens to be situation in Osaka, not far from where we were staying. I was kiddishly excited about this because it’s now one of only two places in the world (America’s father park has shamefully now closed this attraction) to still have the Back To The Future Ride


The Back To The Future trilogy was THE original film series (apart from Indy) that inspired me to get into a life of storytelling and adventure fiction writing (and furthermore, develop my writing voice which I presently see as a “filmic” style on the page…), so it was a really special moment for me to go on this ride and see the characters I’d grown up and knew so well in new clips and sequences that I’d never witnessed before (although, it WAS strange hearing Doc Brown dubbed over with a deep Japanese voice!) - I adore this set of films so much that on my return to the UK I’ve voted for it to be shown at my local arts cinema – click here to go to the list of nominated films and scroll down to the BTTF entries to read mine...)

And what of any writing links to the Far East? (after all, this IS a blog about my creative writing!) Well, it’s become a bit of a tradition now for me to take a little notebook with me on my travels (and buy some more replacements as souvenirs from holidays!) and as I have more time to relax, I generally tend to come up with fresh ideas for new and existing stories… Japan helped me gain a different perspective for my “Moon Crater Adventures” novel spin-off online gamebook… (incidentally, the practice of using holidays to write more began for me back in 2003 when we backpacked around Europe and I properly “birthed” the universe that my Moon Crater novel inhabits after sitting on the idea for it for about 4 years… Even whilst on my honeymoon in 2006 I managed to scribble some historical fiction story ideas down and then last year I continued the trend I’ve gone with on my travels of ‘09 holidaying in the Netherlands for “Moon Crater Adventures” as well as other tales…) Anyway, the fruits of my writing labours in Japan have unearthed what I think is a fantastic ‘prelude’ to the “Adventures” and in particular to the first story called ‘Simulacrum’… In Tokyo, we coincidentally stayed a few doors down from the Bandai main office and it’s perhaps fitting that it’s into this bold and colourful tradition that this “prelude” I’ve dreamt up sits nicely… (Keep an eagle eye on this blog later in 2009 for exclusive news on this and also through a very “spacey-looking” object across at my Official Homepage very soon…

Thinking back over our holiday in Japan, those bus journeys I mentioned at the beginning of this post really still stick in my mind, for some reason… Each day, taking the bus into Hirakata from where we were staying my head would spin from the pre-recorded chatter over the intercom reeling off a list of upcoming stops, but “Kansai Gaidai” or Kansai University, the one place in English mentioned each and every day (a place we never got off and saw) actually symbolises now in my memory the ‘learning’ curve and culture shock I imagined our holiday to Japan to be – there were so many challenges (finding true vegetarian food was very difficult!) but despite all the little stumbling blocks, we returned from the Far East so glad we took the chance for this adventurous trip…

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