Jun 202017

The Japan Rail Pass was grossly expensive to someone used to meagre 1980s Australian animation wages but I forked over my hard earned cash anyway, for a chance to explore the length and breadth of a country I’d long wanted to see.

Only available for purchase outside Japan, The JR Pass is valid on ferries and trains (even snazzy Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’) for up to 21 days. In 1986 it was almost as expensive as an air ticket to Asia, and was an exorbitance for a 22 year old who barely payed his rent, but its bargain-value was proven upon seeing crazy Japanese prices. While thoroughly exploring Tokyo I hatched a travel-plan; head north on the main island of Honshu, catch the last snows of Winter up in Hokkaido, travel back down Honshu to the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, and end my grand tour in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto.

However, when trying to validate my JR Pass at Tokyo Station I learned it was invalid with the type of visa in my passport, and could only be refunded outside Japan at the office where I’d bought it. Thoroughly deflated I sulked around Tokyo while deciding what to do. I could no longer afford the itinerary I’d set my heart on, tried to find work (without any luck) and considered heading to Korea or China instead. An enterprising traveller at my guesthouse urged me not to give up on the JR Pass, reasoning that its rules might not be common knowledge. The officious bureaucrats in the JR main office knew them in detail, but somebody in another station might not. Sure enough, I eventually found an employee who saw a ‘foreigner rail pass’ held by a foreigner, and cheerfully stamped my JR Pass without checking my visa status. BINGO! With a start-date of March 6th, 1987 I had 3 weeks to see as much of Japan as I could.

Leaving Tokyo, with my JR Pass and a small bag (containing clothes, camera, guidebook, rail-timetable, & sketchbook) a map of Japanese Youth Hostels was my second most useful possession. These days I can book accommodation anywhere in the world from my cellphone, but in the pre-internet age it was daunting to find lodging in countries where you couldn’t speak (or even read) the language. The Youth Hostels Association provides a network of budget accommodation, and in 1980s Japan it was extensive. Typically, bathing was in the Japanese communal style and beds were in dormitories, giving you a modular posse of like-minded travellers if you wanted it. Breakfasts were usually a raw egg in a bowl of rice and seaweed to wrap it in, a strange concoction initially, that eventually I looked forward to. My first stop was Nikko, to see the Tosho-gu shrine (burial place of  the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) and countless other shrines and temples in a beautiful mountain setting. In subsequent visits to Japan I came to realise that I’d not seen Nikko at its best that first time (my favourite season is Autumn) even so, I was floored by the beauty of the place and the wealth of things to see.

This trip was where my enthusiasm for travel began, kicking off a several-year period where I lived out of a bag and put many miles under my feet. However, I was a meandering traveller and rather lazy about it at times. That was soon to change, due to the influence of a local dynamo:

JOURNAL ENTRY, MARCH 7, SENDAI: “The blistering pace in which I have surged up and away from Tokyo is in part due to the itinerary of a diminutive local known, to me as Matsunaga-san that I have been travelling with since Nikko, where we met in the youth hostel. His idea of travel is to zip from one site and onto the next. The best example of this happened this morning when we arrived at the railway station with half an hour to go until the next train. We jumped into a taxi and sped to the very next town to a museum. He said “please hurry we must leave Museum at 11 AM for train!” It was 10:52. Slightly disgusted but amused also, I declined to shell out (money) to blast through what was potentially an interesting museum in eight minutes. Rather, I waited outside and took photographs. He emerged breathless and hurrisome as ever, and our waiting taxi driver sped us back to the train station where we just caught our train. Once again we zipped to another site, This time a Castle, (Aizu Wakamatsu) with barely enough time to pause and take a photo.”

I recently found a bag of maps, tickets and tourist pamphlets from 1987, including my youth hostel cards. Each hostel in Japan recorded a stay with distinctive stamps, with rewards if you collected enough. Perhaps Matsunaga-san was obsessed with these, or maybe he was simply one of those goal-focussed types.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “While in a temple I may become distracted by an old lady sweeping the stones, or a photography session going on by the gates. Matsunaga-san is hopping from leg to leg with impatience while I stand to observe these things. Thankfully I have not tried to sketch anything yet; that would certainly cut into his schedule.”

My tendency to dawdle, or sit in a coffee shop and look out the window was automatically corrected by the 21 day time limit of the JR Pass. Sloth was already being mauled by frugality without the extra bustlings of Matsunaga-san, and we amicably parted at Matsushima. Supposedly one of the ‘3 great views of Japan‘ back in the days of Basho, and by 1987 it had clearly been a tourism mecca for quite a while. After checking out the great view, you’d turn 180° for the great view of the crowds looking at the great view, and beyond them the great view of the shops selling views of the other view. This was perhaps my first trip where I reflected on the absurdity of being a tourist who was annoyed by the ravages of tourism. Something about seeing a place changes that place itself (quantum tourism mechanics) and in Japan, where there are so many people doing the seeing, such realisations are quickly brought into focus. Celebrating my freedom from the hectic scheduling of Matsunaga-san, I luxuriated in a daylong walk along The Bay of Matsushima, famously dotted by hundreds of tiny islands.

24 years later these islands shielded Matsushima from the full force of the 2011 tsunami, and places heard in the news leapt from memory as towns I’d stayed in long ago, including wave-pounded Ishinomaki. Nearby Onagawa was devastated by quirks of its geography when a funneled inlet amplified the tsunami’s force and 10% of its citizens were washed away. This fishing village (where I long ago transferred from train to bus) became a site of tragic heroism when Mitsuru Sato, the manager of a fish canning plant, rescued all his trainees but was swept away himself. I remember an early morning bus ride, winding through rainy valleys and past misty factories, strangely beautiful the way such places can sometimes be. That looming industrial shadow may have been heroic Mitsuru Sato’s factory, but internet maps reveal another candidate; the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Though much closer to the epicentre than the failed Fukushima plant, this reactor withstood the destruction. The difference was building on higher ground, choosing higher safety over lower cost. The foresight of engineer Yanosuke Hirai saved Onagawa’s reactor, and the building became refuge for a community whose homes had been washed away.

I was passing through this area to see Kinkasan, a tiny island at the the end of the Oshika-hanto peninsula. With a population of 32 people, 240 monkeys and 600 deer, it had been called ‘one of the holiest places in Japan‘. Half expecting a holy site ringed by trinket shops selling tea-towels of the holy critters, I arrived to a good news/bad scenario. Kinkasan was every bit the serene island of scenic beauty I’d heard about, but I’d not done my homework and its infrastructure shut down November to March. Accomodation was closed and there were only 2 daily ferries, so I contented myself with ambling about the misty island and barely took a photo, let alone sketch. The island was so pretty that I considered sleeping rough outside, until a fall of light rain brought me to my senses. It would be unpleasant to be out all night and cold and rained on. Wistfully, I got on the last ferry and plotted my next move. Retracing my ferry/bus/train steps got me to Ichinoseki well after hostel curfew. Sleeping in a bus stop held no allure whatsoever, and in fractured Japanese I enquired at the railway station about hotels. A worker understood my plight and walked me to a nearby minshuku where I got a room, and spent the rest of that evening in a lounge squatting at a kotatsu drinking with off-duty rail workers, already several beers into a good night. Their jovial companionship briefly convinced me that I was conversing in Japanese, whereas it was simply that such conversations follow the same pattern anywhere, and misunderstandings are smoothed over by good spirits (and spirits).

Even 30 years ago my next stop was reputed to be overly touristed, but I was pleasantly surprised by GeibiKei gorge. Even a tourist trap can be charming if you’re the only tourist in the trap; I had a barge all to myself, poled up the river by two bargemen, a glass roof allowing me to admire the gorge while sitting by a heater, sipping tea. It was another misty day, serene and beautiful and the bargemen were cheerful. Seeing as there was only one tourist, and him a foreigner besides, the lads stopped at a few shrines along the river to gather money. I doubt they’d have openly raked this loot in front of your typical praying Japanese punter tossing coins for good luck, but with only me, they figured what the hell; “Oi, Kenji, save us a trip and hop out and grab the dosh.” Next, I hopped the Shinkansen to Morioka where it terminated (in 1987) and transferred to Aomori, catching an early ferry next day to Hakodate on Hokkaido, where I met two American Mormons on their ‘3 year mission‘. In contrast to frosty Tokyo Gaijin, these missionaries were eager to talk, and not simply to proselytise (I got the impression that they were lonely). Hakodate had a great atmosphere, helped along by its old wharf area buildings, wooden trolley-cars and whimsically musical pedestrian lights (playing ‘comin’ through the rye‘). At the end of my whirlwind 1987 tour of Japan, Hokkaido was one of the places I’d wished I’d lingered longer (eventually travelling all around Hokkaido in 1989).

Back on Honshu, I was eager to see Hirosaki Castle, which I’d read was the real thing rather than a postwar reconstruction in concrete (as at Aizu Wakamatsu) but it didn’t fill my expectations. I’d eventually realise that Japanese castles couldn’t top memories of childhood visits to British castles, with their foreboding silhouettes, dungeons, murder holes and torture chambers, setting my morbid little-boy imagination afire. The aesthetic of Japanese castles is completely different. Rather than projecting ‘menace‘, they’re ‘pretty‘, and these cake topper cuties are better compared to a chateau, another building made to impress but in a completely different way. Show pony rather than war horse. Japanese castles were lacy confections made of paper and wood, meaning that few survived the 1945 exertions of General Curtis LeMay (and his OddJob; Robert McNamara). Any castles not destroyed in WW2 had already been flattened countless times by typhoon, quake, or fire (or all of the above). Truly ancient castles just don’t exist in Japan.

A long train ride on The Gono Line took me along Honshu’s northernmost Japan Sea coast, where the tracks were very close to the sea, revealing stunning vistas of bleak grey beauty. I’m not a train-nut by any means but enjoy countries with well-developed rail networks for the simple reason that I can’t drive, making countries like Australia or the USA problematic to navigate in anything but the most perfunctory fashion. Japan’s extensive rail infrastructure gave me scope to explore, and I enjoyed switching from high-tech Shinkansen to dinky trains (with only 2 or 3 cars) to see remote parts of the archipelago. Staying in a tiny coastal town called Fukaura, I walked further along the coast the next morning, before another long train ride took me inland to… a dead spot in my memory. Unsure of which route took me to my next remembered destination, no maps jog my memory, nor is there any ticket stub, photo, or sketchbook-doodle that clarifies those lost days of my 21 day journey. Such voids are a reminder how frail memory can be. Without photos, letters, or conversation to keep neural pathways alive, our experiences wither. Moreover, the memories we do have are often exaggerations or simplifications of what really happened. Several trips, conversations and people become consolidated over time, and who said what gets jumbled around. Crosschecking photos and documents from that time reveals a sequence that differs from the memory I’d been carrying for 30 years. I’d forgotten visiting some towns, even though I’ve proof that I’d been there. These inconsistencies are part of the motivation to write memories down, before they curdle or evaporate entirely. Which is a long winded segue to my next remembered stop;

I arrived by twilight to a snow covered hostel run by a cheerful family near Tazawako, a beautiful lake in snowy Akita prefecture. The woman running the place cheerfully urged me to have bath before dinner, and I was led to a bathhouse a short walk away by a little boy holding an umbrella, to shield me and my toiletries from the thickly falling twilight snow. It was a beautiful night as he chattered at me happily, led me to the ‘sento‘, gave me the umbrella and scampered back to his Mum at the hostel. As I sat in the lovely Japanese style tub, soaking in hot water up to my earlobes, I thought of  the wholesomeness of the ‘bathhouse’ concept in Japan, made all the more beautiful by the snowy setting. Growing up in Australia, I had seen snow laying all around only once or twice, and even then it was patchy slop. My plunge northward to Hokkaido was partly an attempt to find deep snow, but the snow in Hakodate was slush. At Tazawako, snow was piled thickly and there was nobody around but me, as early the next morning I walked partway around the lake, before heading onward by local train to connect with a bullet train back to Tokyo, spending the night before heading onward the next day by Shinkansen.

The most beautiful of the many castles I saw on my first trip to Japan, Himeji Castle loomed on a hill in the centre of town, finally delivering the skyline-dominating profile that I associated with a defensible castle. I spent a day walking around Japan’s largest castle, taking photos in misty rain, until night fell and light finally failed. Atypically, Himeji Castle is largely authentic construction from the early 1600s (though the site dates from the 1300s). Though the city around it was firebombed in WW2,  the castle survived when the firebomb dropped on it failed to detonate. The next day I went onward to see the sobering Peace Memorial Museum at Hiroshima, a reminder of the further industriousness brought to bear on the Japanese after those fire-bombing missions ended. A people long-pounded by typhoons, quakes and tsunamis had developed a resilience that is hard to overestimate, but Oppenheimer’s crew finally broke Japanese wartime tenacity, at terrible cost. The information within the museum wasn’t presented hysterically, and didn’t need to be. A simple statement of the ghastly facts of 1945 was enough to set mental wheels in motion, extrapolating frightening destruction if the latest generation of slaughter-tech (proudly crafted by our best and brightest) were ever unleashed. Coming out of the museum, I was hollowed out by the experience. Hiroshima was the only time I saw money gathering in Japan, and the people soliciting donations were from a charity for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every person coming out of the museum gave generously.

After visiting beautiful Miyajima nearby, I rode the Shinkansen to its westernmost terminus, which in 1987 was in Fukuoka, Kyushu. The timetable indicated my arrival would be mere minutes before departure of the local train I needed. Bigger Japanese train stations can be overwhelming (a statistic that stays with me was that Shinjuku station served 3 million passengers daily in 1986) and I doubted I’d be able to get my bearings and make my connection in time. Normally this wouldn’t matter as trains were so frequent, but I needed to connect to a local train, and from that to another, to get to my intended hostel before curfew. Time was of the essence. Arriving at Hakata Station, I took the easy way out, simply doing my by-then standard pantomime of a confused foreigner, hoping to find a sympathetic soul. Remarkably (and typically for Japan) I did. He was an average Japanese ‘salaryman’ in suit and brief case and no doubt had his own connections to make, but when barraged with questions delivered in broken Japanese (and frantic pointings at maps with circled destinations, and timetable connection times) he immediately grasped my situation. Snapping into action, he bustled me through the crowded station, urging me to follow him with all haste, down stairs; Hai, Haiyaku! along a corridor teeming with people; Oide! up some more stairs, and along again. He got me to my train and seated, with time to spare. After thanking him profusely and waving our goodbyes, he reappeared at my window a moment later with a simple meal he’d bought for me from a platform vendor, just as my train departed. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have my first solo travel adventure in Japan. I later learned that in other countries throwing yourself on the goodwill of the locals can be to paint a ‘fleece me‘ sign on your head, but in Japan the people were always gracious, helpful, generous and honest.

One of Kyushu’s many scenic railway journeys took me past views of early Spring blossoms to Aso-San, one of two active volcanoes on the island. As the train came within sight of the volcano I was awestruck to see red lava flowing down the mountain! When I checked in to the nearby hostel I was told that the ‘lava‘ streams were actually thousands of people bearing flaming torches in a fire festival. Wonderful! I couldn’t wait to attend, but discovered that this distant spectacle was in the process of ending. I became shrill; Surely there must be a taxi service or something? Can’t I just walk there? But as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to get to this spectacular culmination of the month-long ‘end of winter‘ celebration before it ended. Dame Desu! I suspected the truth was that hostel staff didn’t want the kooky gaijin wandering off into the night to play with fire, after he’d signed in and become their responsibility, but I had to make-do with watching the fire orgy as it climaxed from a few miles away. The next day I went up to the crater, in the company of other young travelers from the hostel who’d been up there the night before and assured me that the festival was utterly sugoi!

Impressive though it was, unfortunately my imagination had been set ablaze the night before and it was hard not to smoulder.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “I saw an active volcano at Mount Aso. No big deal really. It belches out smoke while dried out old ladies sell souvenirs on the lip of the crater.”

That’s the bitterness of a thwarted 22 year old kicking himself for not researching his trip more thoroughly (and those old ladies were actually sweeties). Just one day earlier (4 hours, even!) and I could’ve participated in the fire festival rather than merely watch it impotently from afar. I realise now how lucky I was to see what I saw. To stand in one of the biggest active volcano craters in the world is no small thing, and the Aso-san crater is often overwhelmed by sulphurous fumes, or cable-car access is closed due to earthquake.

Kyushu still had another active volcano and I bustled further south to see it, via another beautiful train journey down the west coast of Kyushu. The closer I got to Kagoshima the more excited I became to see Sakurajima, the iconic volcano belching fire over Kagoshima, like a Japanese Vesuvius. But it was another case of vulcanus interruptus. Bucketing down with torrential rain, it was hard to see (or do) anything in Kagoshima.  The weather still hadn’t changed after staying the night, so I kept moving, contenting myself with a few looks at colourful posters rather than Sakurajima volcano itself.

I went up the east coast of Kyushu, then inland to Takachiho Gorge. This beautiful area was accessible in 1987 via the Takachiho Railway from Nobeoka, before that line was swept away by Typhoon Nabi in 2005. In Japan you’ll often hear of destruction wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, and every temple or castle you visit has been repeatedly rebuilt (no wonder a people so often pounded by nature and science would invent Godzilla, the ultimate city-smashing temper tantrum). The train followed the river all the way to Takachiho, with town after town nestled in nooks between water and tracks. This area was another I could have spent more time in. The weather was lovely and the scenery beautiful, but with only a few days left on my JR pass I pressed onward to the Kyushu east coast and Beppu, a hot springs town where any hot water bubbling out of the ground is fenced off so a fee can be charged to look at, sip or sit, in it.

I walked through these places with a French woman I met at the hostel and neither of us were impressed, until stumbling onto a pretty spring garden with small hot springs completely ignored by the crowds and the guidebooks. Minimal entrance fee, cups of tea served by a nice old lady in a quiet teahouse. Best of all, I found round the back one of the tourist traps a wonderful boilerhouse, presumably sitting over a geyser. Marvellous thing it was; belching steam, alive with pipes and valves, all covered in mineral salts. This was often the pattern; I’d head towards a ‘destination’ that might be a disappointment, but there was usually something else around that made it worthwhile (life itself is often like that too). A quick ferry ride from took me to Yawatahama in Shikoku, the smallest of the 4 main islands of the Japanese archipelago.

After staying in Uwajima, and walking to the castle there, I went onward by local train to Kochi and looked around its castle too, which retained prewar splendour high on a spectacular hill. Kochi was a deserving of more exploration, but I moved on. After chasing elusive volcanoes and castles, I was in the mood for scenic beauty which Shikoku has in great abundance, and I wanted to get as far as the picturesque Iya Valley before my JR pass finally expired, on March 26 1987, the day I drew these sketches;

The hostel I checked into that day was a treasure. Japanese Youth hostels of the 1980s were always clean and affordable, but could be be either an ugly spartan blockhouse or a lovely traditional building, and you could never be sure which until check in. It was hostel roulette. In the Iya Vally I came up a winner, as the hostel was affiliated with a temple and the building and grounds were lovely. As I soaked in the tub of the hostel’s bathouse, I was startled by a shadowy monster emerging from the surrounding steam. This looming leviathan was the pendulous netherbits of another guest staying at the hostel (one of those beanpoles that becomes a tripod when their pants are off) entering the communal tub. He was a likeable fellow from Tennessee, and over the next few days he, I and a Canadian woman (we 3 were the only hostel guests) explored the valley. Firstly, we went on long hikes, but eventually hired bikes and took on a mountain bike course. It took us 11 hours and we were exhausted as we stumbled into the hostel way after curfew. Ouch. Next day we went on another walk, got lost again, and dreading being late again back to our hostel, we hitched a ride from a very sweet woman who took pity on us when we stuck out our thumbs.

After the Iya Valley, I took a train north and stayed in Takamatsu,  visiting the wonderful Ritsurin garden (before departure of my overnight ferry back to Honshu). Later that same year in Suzhou, China, I saw many classical Chinese gardens being rebuilt after the ravages of the not-then long ago Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, consultants hired by the Chinese government to retrain the Chinese how to do Chinese gardens were traditional gardeners from Japan (which of course had learned how to garden from the Chinese in the first place) and Ritsurin supplied some of the expertise.

JOURNAL ENTRY, APRIL FOOLS DAY 1987, NARA: “Coming into Osaka Bay at 5:30 AM is quite breathtaking. The light at that time transformed an otherwise ugly harbour into something magical. I walked through Osaka fish market and the city itself most the day, before coming onward to Nara, a pretty town with by far the largest concentration of historical buildings I have yet seen. For what it’s worth I can say that I’ve been on all the major islands of Japan.”

Doing the travel blitz is OK for a few days, but maintaining that rhythm for weeks is a drain (as snippy asides on these sketches show). Blasting around seeing a different town every day blurs it all together, and occasionally staying in one place is essential for me to really get to know a country, at even a superficial level.

By the time I arrived in Kyoto, I’d been a proactive power-tourist for long enough, and was again ready to meander and relax, spending a few weeks enjoying the cherry blossom season of April 1987. I stayed in a guesthouse occupied by both temporary travellers like myself, and longterm tenants living & working in Kyoto. Most were young, probably just out of college, and very similar despite coming from various countries, but one tenant was unlike any other I ever met in years of traveling.  He was much older, possibly as old as 45 (gasp) and didn’t fit the typical backpacker profile. He was a short-haul truck driver from Tacoma Washington, with mixture of broad American mannerisms and a childlike wonder about his present situation. Always sunny and kind, I gradually inferred some sadder parts of his history, which only appearing as sidebars to the main conversation and were never worn on his sleeve. The more I got to know him the more impressed I was that this fellow had plunged into the unknown. When asked what set him on the road, his answer was very much like my own; he’d always been fascinated by far away places. He had little money, apart from somebody renting his truck back in Washington. He was under no pressure to head back home and we explored Kyoto together before it was time for me to leave.

When I’d thought the JR Pass wasn’t going to work, I’d been told that Japan was a wonderful place to hitchhike. Though the Japanese did not often hitchhike themselves, and may look askance at those Japanese who did, they were generous in picking up foreign hitchhikers. With JR Pass expired and my funds low after months in Japan, I hitchhiked from Kyoto back to Tokyo, getting rides from an outgoing truck driver in a garishly decorated truck (in the Japanese style) and a businessman whose car would PING PING berate him when he went over the speed limit, much to his chagrin (I later found out such nagging cars were standard). Back in Tokyo I picked up the bulk of my bags from storage, before heading to Korea (and later China).

My first trip to Japan had started in Okinawa (via ferry from Taiwan) then onward by ferry to explore Tokyo, before activating my JR Pass. What a bargain it had been, giving me a whirlwind introduction to a country I’ve revisited many times over the years, and love to this day.

May 212017

In December Julia and I went to San Francisco’s Dickens Fair, which I’d often heard about but never attended. Despite being surrounded by a constant jibber-jabber of lame Cockney accents that would make even Dick Van Dyke wince ( ‘Cor Blimey Mary!‘ ) it was a lot of fun. Seen here are some sketches done in the PreRaphaelite Artists Salon, where we got art instruction from cosplay versions of Whistler, Rossetti, Leighton, and Waterhouse, and our models were ersatz versions of their 1800s posse.

When I first arrived in the USA to work, I heard about a Marin County Renaissance Fair, which I assumed to be a lame Reeboks under the bodkins affair, but was pleasantly surprised by how well done it was, when I eventually attended. There was great attention to costume detail, with people battling in full chain-mail, knights on horseback really jousting, and of course ye olde ‘meade tarvernes’ aplenty, although once again the Brit-accents were atrocious ( ‘Gadzooks! Thou base knave‘ etc ). Likewise, The Dickens Fair was attended by loads of people who’d obviously spent many years (and a lot of money) assembling elaborate Victorian costumes, but thankfully there were also people like us wearing their 21st century civvies, and there to watch the fun. The Renaissance Faire is held outside, in a setting that fits the theme of a 15th century jousting tourney and is very pleasant to attend, but the Dickens Fair is held inside. Although great effort is taken to create ye olde London Town, there is only so far you can go with that illusion when the stockyards at The Cow Palace is your venue.

The space was at times overwhelmingly crowded, and the interior acoustics were such that many amateur drama-club improv scenarios were constantly colliding and overlapping; ‘Get yer cockles and mussels!‘ ‘Stop thief! ‘Why, you young urchin!‘ ‘Good morning to you, Mrs Fizzywig!‘ ‘please sir, may I have more soup?‘ and so on. We enjoyed it enough to want to attend again, but arriving early in the day before the crowds is definitely the way to go.

There aren’t many cosplay options in the Marvel Universe for you unless you’ve got a body like a Superhero, and the universes of Harry Potter, Star Wars and many other fantasy worlds are also surprisingly limited in their own ways. But take heart all ye dumpy and portly folks of all ages; Renaissance/Dickens Fairs provide plenty of opportunities for the rest of us, from toddlers to grey beards, to dress up and have some fun too.

‘Gawd bless us, every one!’

May 312015

Following my recent post about sketching Monterey Bay, here’s what happened when Julia & I finally got up early enough to use our Two-Day passes to the MONTEREY AQUARIUM.


I’m such a shuffling and slow walker these days, so in the interest of getting to the aquarium as soon as possible, we caught a taxi from the hotel. We began by doing the full sweep of all the exhibits to get a sense of all the sketching options available to us, and finally sat down to draw later in the day. For me, the hands down winners every time I’ve visited the aquarium have been the jellyfish tanks. Unbelievably hypnotic and beautiful displays, but of course impossible to draw in the dark (unless using a glowing drawing tablet as Julia did.)


Having realised that all the swimming and wriggling live exhibits would be too quick-moving for me to draw in my current doddering state, I decided to warm up by drawing the giant whale skeleton hanging in one of the main areas of the aquarium. I managed to find a relatively traffic-free area on a balcony opposite to pull out my folding chair and sketch an overview of the whale skeleton (see above) but then saw a chance to get my own back for Julia’s tablecloth doodles of me the night before, when I sketched her sketching in the atrium below me.


Even though my drawing rig is pretty comfy, eventually I had to move to keep comfortable, so packed up and looked for another subject elsewhere. Having earlier enjoyed working with a static whale model, I continued by drawing the life-sized killer whale display hanging in the atrium.


After a fun day of sketching at the aquarium, we ate at AUBERGINE, a posh restaurant in nearby Carmel where Julia had made the reservation; one of those fancy shmancy ‘molecular’ food places. When we arrived, the maitre’d addressed me as Mr Lundman (he pronounced it LOONTMAN, which Julia says is probably closer to the actual Swedish). Realising I was to be Julia’s Australian arm candy for the night, we went in to eat. About 5 courses into a 9 course meal (teeny tiny courses mind you – I think that’s why it’s called ‘molecular‘) the Maitre’d introduced Mr & Mrs Lundman to the tiny portion of beef they’d soon eat. Where it grew up and so on. The only detail he left out was the animal’s name, but after eating it, I dubbed it Damn Tasty. Once the meal was done, we were introduced to the chef, given his autographed menu for the night, and then walked around the corner (me doddering in the pitch dark) for a drink at Doris Day’s hotel bar. (Que sera, sera..)


On the final day of our two-day Aquarium pass, I tried drawing the coming-and-going crowds looking at the Kelp-Forest tank. It’s quite an impressive display. We got there early and sat on the backmost bench, where crowds would later assemble to watch the presentation. After I’d started drawing the scene you see here, a diver entered the tank to hand feed the fish, including a few very persistent and greedy leopard sharks (though small, I thought they might take his hand off). Speaking of feeding, for the second day in a row, we again ate at CINDY’s, the excellent restaurant at the aquarium. I’m not quite sure about the ethics of eating seafood in an aquarium, but whatever the moral ambiguities, I can tell you the flavour was very unambiguously excellent.


After lunch, in an attempt to get away from crowds of raucous schoolchildren, I entered a small display about the aquarium building itself (which began as a fish cannery) to draw some of the unused canning paraphernalia on show. This was going well, till that exact spot became the focus of a rowdy bunch of second graders on a school assignment, and I became the star attraction. “hey Mister, What’s that?” “Are you drawing?” “How come you are drawing that?” So that the youngsters’ education not be further disrupted by my presence, I hastily exited the scene.


I finally found a quiet space, which was ironically out in the atrium near the busy information desk, and drew my old friends; the fibreglass killer whales. It was only long after we’d left the aquarium that Julia and I realised that we’d missed the aquarium’s resident giant octopus, which is ironic, as this year the star attraction was called TENTACLES; starring octopi, squid, cuttlefish and so on. The display was heavy on the audio visual but not as impressive with the live articles as the seahorse exhibit years ago, where everywhere you looked were all manner of seahorses.


I will have some sketches of our TRIP HOME up Highway #1 along the coast, in my NEXT post.

Jan 132015

In late 1996 I was in a mood to travel. There was an impasse in my life and, as with similar confusing junctions before and since, I hit the road, spending Christmas in Britain with friends, planning to head to Paris in the New Year, by way of the train through the CHUNNEL.


Nobody was riding the EUROSTAR train that year, and with good reason. In addition to a recent tunnel fire, The IRA (an Irish terrorist organisation) had tried to blow up The Chunnel from the British side, and not to be outdone, The GIA (an Algerian terrorist group) had vowed terror strikes from the French end, while labor strikes (a Brit terror tradition) were threatened at British Rail. The general public was wary of being caught in the crosshairs of technical failures, industrial disputes, two terrorist plots and mother nature– being flung at high velocity through a claustrophobic tube beneath the British Channel was still a relatively new concept in 1996– and people who wanted to cross it flew instead. The panicked marketing departments of both British Rail and France’s SNCF offered great deals as an incentive to put caution aside and ride the flaming-undersea-terror-express, so I did, on a nearly-empty train from London’s WATERLOO INTERNATIONAL STATION (Eurostar service switched to St. Pancras Station in 2007).

This wasn’t my first time in a high-speed train. Earlier, when working in Paris in 1990 I’d ridden the TGV, and earlier than that, when living in Japan in the 1980s, I often rode the ORIGINAL Bullet Train, the SHINKANSEN (an Aussie friend in Tokyo hilariously observed; “that thing goes faster than a sharp stick!”) So my experienced eye was initially unimpressed by Eurostar. Though it looked the part, it dawdled till the coast because British Rail hadn’t yet upgraded the tracks from London to the Channel, and the Bullet Train couldn’t truly ’bullet’, lest its 1990s high-tech slickness was shaken to pieces on the 1890s tracks. Thankfully, it picked up speed in the Chunnel and when it made landfall in France hit a cruising speed of 176MPH for a remarkably smooth and speedy ride to Paris. I’d made the Paris-London flight several times before, and although the flight itself is markedly quicker than the train, that speed is more than offset by getting to your departure airport, check-in, customs, immigration and bag retrieval, and the journey from the airport into the city at the opposite end. The Eurostar was downtown London to downtown Paris in about 3 hours.


Weeks earlier, when planning the trip, I’d told Tony and Dave that I’d lived in France, and smugly assured them that Parisian winters were mild.. cross-dissolve to: France’s frightfully cold winter that year. We spent most of our time indoors, enjoying Paris’ wealth of bistros, bars and museums with our pals Simon & Tanya, and had a great time. Nevertheless, we were in the “City Of Light” and felt obliged to see Paris, and occasionally braved the arctic weather to ‘enjoy’ the scenery through chattering teeth. After traipsing through the picturesque cold, Tony, Dave and I and paused to take in the view from the middle of one of the beautiful bridges across The Seine.

As we leaned on the guard rail, we saw some rubbish drifting by in the water below us; an LP record album cover of Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” floated into view in the swirling eddies under the bridge. We each saw this freakishly-apt moment of coincidence at the same time, looked at each other with a wide-eyed laugh, then watched “Bridge Over Troubled Water” meander in the currents of the Seine and float off under the next bridge. Cheered by this quirky piece of random chance, we headed into a nearby bistro to discuss the joys of synchronisity and 1960s folk-pop over a chocolate chaud and a croque monsieur..

A few days later, we three travellers went our seperate ways, and I took a side trip to Denmark before heading back to London on the Eurostar from Paris’ GARE DU NORD STATION. I entered a totally empty train carriage, put my bags in the baggage rack near the door, and took a seat up the other end. It seemed I’d have the luxury of an entire carriage to myself until just before the train pulled away, when a large group of largish men bustled aboard and occupied the back two rows. Brit athletes in suits, I thought, perhaps returning from a game in France? The Eurostar depated and I enjoyed the French countryside zipping by until the train entered the Chunnel, when I went to the dining car to eat and write letters (on-paper letters, remember those?) telling family and friends about Chartres Cathedral, the Catacombs and other tourist sites I’d seen in my brief forays into the frigid French winter. I finished my writing and went back to my seat.



Pulling into LONDON a mere 3 hours after departing PARIS, I went to get my luggage from the luggage rack by the rear door of the carriage, and absent mindedly noted that in the midst of the large group of very large men was a smaller, rather ugly fellow. Perhaps he was the manager of this burly group of be-suited athletes. He looked like a balding Mr Bean with glasses… Wait, is that Rowan Atkinson? I did a double-take, I knew that face.. it was unmistakably SALMAN RUSHIE, surrounded by his bodyguards. For a time, Rushdie must’ve had the most recognisable ugly face in the world. His hooded-eyed mug was always in the media back then, after The Ayatollah Khomeini placed a Fatwa on him for writing the Satanic Verses. Many famous writers could be passed in the street without being recognised (it must be a pleasantly anonymous occupation for a famous person to have) but not so with Rushdie. He’s highly recognisable even now, but more so back then at the height of his notoriety, when his Bond villain gaze was on magazines and TVs almost daily. As I pondered these things, the rapidly spinning wheels in my mind must have been audible to Salman’s wall-of-muscle, and they gave me their undivided attention with intense alphadog stares. I grabbed my bags and scuttled away.

As I stepped off the train, I thought about my brief brush with fame. In the past, it had already struck me (as it has many others) that famous actors were much shorter in real life. Based on my brief meeting of Rushdie, I wondered if the similar principle with plain-looking famous folk is that they are even uglier in person? Being instantly recognisable must be one of the curses of fame even at the best of times, but extra uncomfortable when under a Fatwa; a game of “you’re it” with homicidal nutjobs weilding rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.. Clearly, Rushdie’s security team had chosen this mode of travel precisely because there were less people on the Eurostar that year. Their entourage was less likely to be ’made’ by the loons, and there’d be less collateral damage if they actually were. Then it hit me; I’d not only had a brush with fame by meeting Rushdie, but had worsened my odds in my brush with terrorism too. As well as the two terror groups I already knew about, The IRA and the GIA, who’d vowed to blow the Chunnel and therefore had me in their sights by proxy, I’d been riding a train that had been a potential target of a third terror group; the deadly yo-yos unleashed by the Ayatollah. Had they known Salman Rushie was sitting behind me, they would most certainly have shown up, guns-a-blazin’..

a BULLET train indeed!

Sep 182011

Last night, Julia and I attended a life-drawing sketch session at San Francisco’s branch of the famous Dr Sketchy’s anti-ArtSchool, held at the 111 Minna Gallery. It was a lot of fun.

My understanding is that the models are always dressed and posed to a theme and this time it was “burlesque clowns”. Three 20 minute poses and one 40 minute pose.

After several hours of drawing a sexy clown, we went with Julia’s friends Nadine and Lisa (who had also been at Dr Sketchy’s) to Meet my pal Bosco at HENRY’s HUNAN, where we all enjoyed a tasty dinner and several hours of pleasant conversation. “Bizarro sketch night”

Feb 012011

My current pocket sketchbook has a long history; it was purchased in 2002, drawn in sporadically until 2004, then lost and only just found again late last year.

Consequently, there are OLD sketches amongst the new, such as these from a trip in 2004, when Bosco, myself and Chris (pictured below) went driving south along highway #1 (along the coast) and wound-up at beautiful Big Sur.

It was a purely spontaneous trip and by the time we got all the way down there it was dark and we didn’t want to drive all the way back to San Franciso along that windy coastal road at night. Of course, travellers without accommodation reservations are often punished by fate when there’s no place to stay the night (the day you travel is the one day in the year when a ball-bearing convention is in town; who knew?!) and, given that there are not many hotels down there, we were prepared to iether sleep in the car or be charged an arm and a leg for a bed in some crummy dump. As luck would have it however, we DID manage to find a very decent and affordable place to stay; a lovely inn overlooking the sea, and we stayed there and had a very pleasant evening.

The next morning we had breakfast, did some exploring, had one more quick drawing sesh on the beach, and then head home to SF. All in all, a great little trip. Sometimes, Spontaneity is rewarded.

Jan 242011

Last weekend I attended my very first SKETCHCRAWL here in San Francisco and had a wonderful time out and about sketching and socialising with friends.

Over the past year or so, I have been trying very hard to re-acquire the habit of going out and sketching in the real world. I used to do this often, once upon a time, but then fell into the habit of filling books solely with doodles from my imagination.

I still enjoy doodling, but it has been a goal of mine to work on my observation and speed-drawing skills, so SKETCHCRAWL #30 is JUST what the doctor ordered.

About 60 artists met at a cafe near San Francisco’s JAPANTOWN and then split up to draw whatever stuck their fancy in the surrounding area. At day’s end, there was a regroup where artists showed each-other what they had drawn and I was BLOWN AWAY at the quality of the sketchbooks that I saw.

All in all, a very fun and inspiring day. I definitely plan to do another Sketchcrawl sometime in the future. Thanks so much to RONNIE & ENRICO for starting this wonderful event and shepherding it through 30 different crawls to the point where it is now a world-wide phenomenon.

Feb 162008

Some more drawings from a old stash of travel sketches. These are from Japan, 1987.

When I did these, I’d not been in Japan long, having just got off the ferry from Taiwan (via Okinawa) where I had been supervising animation layouts in Taipei. After a few hectic months of tropical heat and crazy Saturday-Morning animation production schedules down there, it was actually refreshing to be in the snowy, cool winter of Japan.

It was especially lovely to have arrived to Tokyo in time for the New Year, which the Japanese do very nicely; many beautiful kimonos on display. I had not been prepared for the charming sight of Kimonos in the snow, thinking that was a thing of the past or merely a display for tourism pamphlets, but that’s exactly what I saw when I arrived. It was exciting; I had wanted to visit Japan for years, and in December 1986, I finally did. These first few sketches were drawn while watching a play in Tokyo. A friend I had made on my earlier Taiwan assignment, Sean Newton, was coincidentally working in Tokyo, and more coincidentally still, the studio he was working at was about 15 minutes walk from my guest house.

In a city as big as Tokyo, that was really remarkable luck for me to have a comrade so close by, and especially one who likes sketching so much and does it so well as Sean. We went out drawing the Tokyo sights together several times in my first weeks in Japan.

I was in tourist mode, exploring Tokyo every day while Sean had to work, but we got together sometimes during his down time, for the occasional sketch session at Tokyo Zoo, or in this case, at the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, which I have vivid memories of. We also did some sketching at a Noh play, which I’m told is the more highfaluting theatrical form, but the Kabuki was perhaps more spectacular and colorful, purely from a visual point of view.

Tokyo is one of my favourite cities to explore and get lost in, but eventually even I had to move on. I had a Japan rail pass burning a hole in my pocket, and had to use it or lose it, so I hit the road.


Nov 162007

I’m still scanning and archiving lots of old 1980s travel sketchbooks and doodles.

Here are some of my very rare life-drawings, done on a cold Japanese winter’s day in 1987 at Tokyo’s UENO ZOO. The apes had gone inside to escape the cold, though they couldn’t escape prying eyes, as we human beings could observe them in their little shelter, from behind super-thick plexi-glass. The observation room was relatively warm and a good place to do some sketching. As other visitors came and went, I got to really study the gorilla as he sat in a very relaxed pose apparently not even noticing the crowd. Suddenly, he sprang into a classic SILVER-BACK pose and violently banged his fists on the glass so hard that the plexi-glass pane went BOOM!

This terrified everyone, and sent them running and yelling out into the cold, clearing the observation room, only to slowly fill up again with a new group of people who were unaware of how much jeopardy their underpants were about to be in, because over the course of about 40 minutes, I saw the gorilla pull this move about once every 7 minutes or so. After the first time, it was pretty funny to watch him affecting this “I’m not watching you guys” attitude but then, with a little tell-tale glance at the crowd (just to make sure that the observation room had filled up) he would again unload a KING KONG moment, which was guaranteed to scare the ramen-noodles out of everyone– me included.

I will be posting much more of My Japan travel Sketches

Aug 292007

I recently found a pile of sketches that I drew when I was living in Tokyo. Back then I often doodled what I saw, perhaps because everything was so new to me and I had a lot of time on my hands, living in a vast, complicated metropolis where I didn’t know many people and couldn’t really communicate very well with most of those few people who I did know.

My interest in going to Japan had developed without any clear idea of what to expect. When I arrived in Tokyo I was blissfully unaware of anything about the place, including what it even looked like. Arriving with no preconceived notions whatever made those first impressions of Tokyo very powerful indeed. I remember seeing the modernity of Tokyo’s SHINJUKU area for the first time. Like a lot of other Westerners who arrived there in the mid 1980s, the only thing in my experience that I could compare it to were images from Science Fiction movies that I had seen. The density of the crowds, the modernity of the architecture, the visual noise of the neon-lights, the giant TV screens on the sides of buildings and the buzzing efficiency of the place were like nothing I had yet experienced.

It amazed me that I had not heard of this place before I had visited it myself. I had vivid mental snapshots of Times Square, and Piccadilly projected inside my skull before I ever set foot in those places. Impressions formed not only from TV and movies, but also from conversations with friends who had visited them. I knew a ton of people who had been to London but had only met two people who had actually been to Japan before me… and why hadn’t they told me about GINZA? Or SHIBUYA? The first I knew of all these places, I was standing neck deep in their amazing spectacle.


Tokyo is a remarkably ugly city, and especially so given the fact that the people who live there are very much concerned with the appearances of things. But maybe “ugly” isn’t the right word, perhaps “disorganised” is better? But even that word shows up the paradox, because the Japanese are rather concerned with order as well, though apparently not when it came to the building of Tokyo. Right around the corner from where I lived was a bubble-gum factory, which was next to a school, next to an apartment next to a Temple. If there are zoning laws in Tokyo I can’t imagine what the restrictions must be…


For that reason it is a delight for modern architects. A Swiss architecture student I met one day, as I walked about the back-streets, opened my eyes to that fact. He had only come to Tokyo to see the buildings of Kenzo Tange and I used what little language and navigation skills I had acquired to help him find Tange’s church. Unlike me, I don’t think the Swiss guy cared much for Tokyo, other than the buildings. He kept asking me “Vhere are zee prOstitUtes?” I had no idea. My budget didn’t run to such things.

Ugly or not, Tokyo is a fascinating city to spend time in. Its wiggly streets noodle out all over the place, full of little nooks to explore, but newcomers learn the way to and from their daily haunts by rote, afraid to stray from the familiar path that they have hacked through the eccentric and tangled jungle of buildings and lanes. That is how I was at first. Later, I stumbled off the routes that I had known and often discovered that one block over from the path I had taken daily, there was a whole other world. Funny little shops. Themed cafes and restaurants. Weird buildings… and charming juxtapositions of things you wont see in any other city. There isn’t a better metropolis in the world to let yourself get lost in, which is just as well, because getting lost is very easy to do.

It is probably true to say that Tokyo is a difficult city to make friends in, though I did make a few, and acquaintances I made a-plenty. Sadly, I have lost contact with the Japanese people I knew back then, though I’ve managed to stay in touch with one or two of my foreigner pals. The subject of how hard it was to make friends in Tokyo was a common topic of our conversation. Some people would read a lot into it but It didn’t bother me, or even surprise me. I take it for granted that it is difficult making friends in any big city. Add to that a few other factors, such as not being able to speak the language, or the fact that the Japanese don’t traditionally entertain in their homes, and the GAIJIN can feel a bit left out.

In any case, none of that worried me… maybe it would have if I had spent more time living there, I don’t know… The truth is, I never felt connected anywhere, even in the place I had come from. At least in Tokyo I had an excuse for my alienation; I was an Alien! (We gaijin had to carry a finger-printed ALIEN ID card. I wish I had it now; what a souvenir!)

Sketching Japanese life was something I only did in those few still spaces here and there; parks, coffee shops restaurants and trains, but when I was on the move, which was most of the time, I took about a million photographs. I am so glad to have both the drawings and the photographs now, as a record of the the very happy years I spent in Japan. Mostly, it is only after some time has passed that I am able to look back on a certain time and realise how lucky I was to be there at that specific time and place. However, when I lived in Tokyo I was smart enough to realise that I was enjoying myself in the moment. I’ve only had that clarity a few times in my life and perhaps Tokyo was the first time. It is a great feeling to know that you are in the right place at the right time, at THAT time.

I always get jealous when I hear that someone I know is going to Tokyo, in a way that I don’t when people go on trips to other places that I enjoy… I am not sure why that is so… another mystery is why I have let 10 years pass by since I last visited Japan…

Perhaps it is time for me to go back for a visit?
(More Tokyo sketches here)