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.

Jun 012017
 

A major misstep in my childhood was made while wearing my first pair of rugby boots (which were actually a pair of cheap sneakers in my case.) At the age of 7, I’d never even heard of of rugby league, having just moved to the Australian mainland from Tasmania where we didn’t play the game, but my new classmates had been playing it for a year already. At this new school the game was revered like religion, demonstrated by the fact that our coach was a red-faced, constantly screaming (at me anyway) Catholic priest. Father Footy was a much-loved coach by those who adored rugby, but utterly useless to someone like me who wasn’t naturally imbued with the joy of football, and whose family had never explained the game.

On the sidelines of a freezing football field in a New England Tablelands winter, we puny wee athletes prepared ourselves for battle; outsized jerseys were pulled over big noggins and thin necks to cover scrawny & shivering rib cages. Spindly little legs mottled by the harsh cold thrust out of baggy shorts into big black nobbly boots, that were almost as nobbly as the boney little knees knocking together above them. Father Footy too was decked out in full rugby kit and boots, as he led a troop of pint-sized athletes onto a boggy football field on a frosty day, to vie for a ball that seemed as big to me then as a sack of potatoes would be to me now. People who didn’t innately understand God’s Game were apparently unimaginable in the theology of Father Footy, who never even considered that the new boy from interstate might actually need some tuition in the rules. Father Footy blew a piercing blast on his referee’s whistle – FWEET! – my first ever rugby game was underway, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.

In TV shows or movies of those times, Catholic priests were either portrayed as innocuous Mickey Mouse types (like the priest from MASH) or tortured souls (like the young priest in THE EXORCIST) but I’ve never seen the likes of this particular priest portrayed in the media. He was macho, dispensing gleeful knuckle-crushing handshakes and cheerily rough-housing us boys and all the parish loved him – dads, mums and kids alike. Father Footy’s reputation, and the status of Catholic priests in general, was unimpeachable in those bygone days, which is hard to believe in the 21st century when priests have become punchlines to tawdry jokes at best, and the focus of major heartbreaking court cases at worst (including Father Footy himself, decades later) so it’s hard to convey the stature of priests before that fall from grace. Within the Catholic community of an Australian small town in the early 1970s, priests were held in high regard indeed and especially a rugby playing priest. God’s right hand, man’s man, the archangel Gabriel in cleated footy boots; his authority on matters moral, spiritual and physical is hard to overstate.

However, as no instruction had been forthcoming from our so-called ’coach’, and I was already in the midst of a game I knew nothing about, I attempted to dart about the muddy football field in as purposeful a manner as was possible for someone who hadn’t got a clue what his purpose actually was. Spying another sawn-off athlete, likewise dashing and darting, I sidled up to him and, whispering out of the side of my mouth, asked what we were expected to do. Gesturing to a big letter ’H’ at the end of the freezing quagmire, he said that if the ball was ever passed to us we were to carry it between the giant letter H at each end, which he referred to as “goal posts”. This seemed simple enough, but just to be safe I decided to keep my purposeful darting a discreet distance from all the action, rushing forward as if I was ready for something only when the focal point of the game had moved beyond me. This strategy was working quite well, when my purposeful darting accidentally blundered into “the zone” and the ball came my way. Urged on by the other teeny players, and some incomprehensible screamings and urgent flailings from Father Footy, I picked up the huge football and, like a monkey carrying a watermelon, I purposefully darted to the nearest goal posts I could find. Miraculously, no other player came close as I dashed heroically toward my target and the roar of the crowd receded in my ears as I planted the ball triumphantly, and turned around for my accolades.

Howls of protest and angry jigs from my team mates were matched by hooting laughter and finger pointing by the opposing team. Both of these sounds were blown away by a red faced angry blast from the gaping maw of Father Footy, who was passionately upset about some Sacrilege or other. I was transfixed by the foaming spittle at the sides of Father Footy‘s screaming mouth as he made it clear to me that I had scored a point for the other side. This ability to simultaneously evoke contemptuous laughter, disgust and anger was to set the tone of my athletic ’achievements’ for the rest of my life. Eventually, I became inoculated against such humiliation through constant exposure, and would learn that if the world treats you like a clown it’s best to act as though you intended it, but being the object of universal derision was a new experience on that particular day. Overwhelmed by the scope of my own apparent ineptitude, I started to blubber and bawl. This made Father Footy more furious than ever, which caused me to bawl even more, leading to more red-faced yelling, and so on. We were a breeder reactor of humiliation & fury by the time Dad showed up at the end of the game to take me home, and after hearing my blubbering recap on what had happened, he gave the footy priest both barrels from his righteous-indignation parental blunderbuss. Turns out that Dad and Father Footy were schoolmates back in the days of yore, and it appeared that there was no love lost. There was a high volume red faced screaming match in which Father Footy said I was a cry baby (which was true) and Dad challenged Father Footy’s inattentive coaching skills (also very true). This brouhaha unfolded in front of a bunch of other parents who’d just arrived to pick up their own kids, aghast that anyone would ever challenge Father Footy about footy, and on a footy field no less. GASP. Thinking back on it now, this may have been the Ground Zero Moment for my lifelong awkwardness in regards to sports.

In movies (or even the real world) parents may be resented for not supporting their children at ball games, but personally, I dreaded family members showing up, prefering as small an audience as possible for my bumbling ineptitude. If I felt any ill will toward my parents on the subject of sports it was that they made me participate in the compulsory ritual in the first place, rather than give me parental permission to opt out of the ordeal, as other ‘sensitive‘ souls had been allowed to do. Though my parents confided that they too loathed sports in their own schooldays, they nevertheless insisted I participate, invoking the phrase ‘character building’ more than once. There was no way out. Thus, a knock kneed & freckled Sisyphus played rugby on joyless winter weekends, sometimes being driven to nearby towns to undergo his grueling character-trials there. Waist-high to a crowd of adult onlookers high on parental adrenaline rushes, we tiny players scurried by, chasing the ball. As contorted fright-mask faces screamed and bellowed with vicarious passion, I could never grasp what all the frenzy was about. To me, rugby was incomprehensible torture. A pain-in-motion conundrum. It was physical humiliation algebra.

As a full grown adult, I was introduced to the idea that sports were something that people who enjoyed eachother’s company might do together, for fun. This novel concept made me wonder if perhaps I too might have enjoyed sports, if I’d been introduced to them in a spirit of joy rather than drudgery. Why, even now there may be a parallel universe in which a version of me enjoys watching and participating in games (I am obliged to conjure a science fiction scenario even to countenance the possibility of a physically co-ordinated me). However, even in such an alternate reality it’s difficult to imagine having the almost orgasmic connection to sports that most men have. When romantic couplings are heard through neighbouring apartment walls the male participants are probably inaudible, but you’ll definitely hear male climaxing when a ball game is on TV next door, and if it happens to be a championship game, the lowing rumble of male pleasure and pain will moan forth from bars and apartments across the entire town, like a rutting frenzy at the zoo monkey house. I’m grateful to be free from that primal-ritual-ballyhoo, and my Zen-like detachment is due to a Catholic priest; Father Footy. 

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 102017
 

21st century Shanghai, with its ultra modern skyline and high fashion boutiques, is barely recognisable as the time-stuck town I visited in the 1980s, when the dominant fashion designer was still chairman Mao. Even Shanghai hipsters of those days still wore blue worker’s smocks and caps with the little red star, and the architecture of the city was unchanged from the 1940s, though what was once a posh hotel under the British might have been turned into a factory under the communists. This great city was my port of entry into China, and I enjoyed exploring it.

It was while wandering randomly through the streets and back alleys of Shanghai in 1987 and taking photographs of whatever took my fancy, that I got a sudden red alert from my lower intestine; PURGE. I have no idea what had precipitated the crisis. Dodgy dinner the night before? A greasy breakfast that very morning? Or a simple case of travel tummy? Whatever was kicking up a ruckus downstairs, it was urgently shoulder-charging my emergency exit and I needed to find a safe place to deploy, preferably free of women and impressionable children, all of which were in abundance in a crowded Shanghai back alley with no lavatory in sight. Sweat broke out on my brow as I concentrated on a full body kegel.

I’d learned a few survival words of basic Mandarin while working in Taiwan the year before, and one phrase of special importance was “廁所在哪裡?” which I used to ask a local man the way to the nearest lavatory. While my pronunciation was probably terrible, my body language was eloquently telling him that something wicked his way cometh. He gestured emphatically down one end of the street and I dashed away, while he made to clear the blast area himself. Sure enough,  a little further along I saw a hand written sign in Chinese characters, I recognised as “MEN’S TOILET“, and an arrow pointing down a side alley.

I’d already been in Asia long enough to know the necessity of always taking toilet paper wherever you go, as most toilets won’t have any. Clutching this small packet of toilet tissue in my hands like a magic talisman, I hobbled along as urgently as I could with buttocks clenched tighter than the fists of a Kung Fu master. It wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I struggled with that oh-so delicate balance between moving quickly but not so fast that I’d precipitate the inevitable. At the end of that alley I followed another arrow pointing to another alley, and more arrows pointing up a rickety staircase, along a landing and down again, then out along a muddy track into a vacant lot to a simple concrete shed with a tin roof. A sign identified this as my target, and with great relief I dashed into this crude outhouse with all possible speed.

It was one big room with a concrete floor in which were two room-length trenches piled intermittently with human excrement. Amazingly, some fellows who’d made a few such piles had decided to hang out, enjoy the ambience and read their newspapers as they squatted astride this mess, rather than seek a more pleasant atmosphere elsewhere. “I can’t do this” I thought to myself and immediately walked back out the door I’d just come in. “Get back in there, NOW!” barked my bowels. With a deep sense of dread, I re-entered, straddled the poo-sluice, dropped my pants and squatted, telling myself I could pull the pin on my gut-grenade and depart the reading room before the dust settled, and anyone was any the wiser that I’d even been there. So intent were the other gents on their own business, that none of the members of this elite gentlemen’s lounge had noticed me.

YET.

Imagine blowing a tuba into a bathtub full of rice pudding and you might come close to simulating the hellish cacophony that ensued when I assumed ‘the position’ and finally released my tenuous hold on the situation. It was a monumental case of heinous anus as the poltergeist inhabiting my nether regions was exorcised, and flew out of me like the malignant ghosts fleeing Indiana Jones’ Lost Ark, accompanied by the sound of a flock of psychotic cockatoos all playing the kazoo. Every other man present in this doorless, toilet-less toilet was startled by all my sound & fury, and turned around as-one to survey the source of this loo-hullabaloo. Judging from their expressions of immediate surprise and delight, I can only imagine that in 1987 finding a westerner straining red-faced in their communal squatter was a first for these fine gentlemen of Shanghai.

Abandoning their Worker’s Dailys they stood up and gathered around me, gesticulating in my direction and having an animated discussion, as I continued bearing-down on my gruelling chores, still trembling like a sick chihuahua. I was aghast when one old guy went around behind me to examine my efforts with what appeared to be great interest, as if he were merely inspecting a broken drain-pipe (as, in a way, he was). I tried shooing him away, to much guffawing and hilarity from the rest of my standing ovation. It was one of the most ghastly embarrassing moments of my life (until 25 years later when paralysed in hospital, and daily supervised trips to the lavatory became my crucible of horrors). As my reactor-core cooled, and my aftershocks echoed sonorously throughout the tin shed and died away, I frantically finished my business to peals of laughter, then scuttled off back the way I’d come, distancing myself from this arena of my humiliation.

Over the next few years of backpacking through out-of-the-way places, I came to learn that most long-term travellers have similar experiences, where one’s own gizzards conspire to rebel against the hapless wanderer at the worst possible moment, and in fact I’d gotten off lightly. At least I’d made it all the way inside what was locally considered a toilet, rather than being caught out in public by an intestinal-highjacking, as had happened to other poor unfortunates I met. It was hearing such horror stories, compounded by my own mortifying experience of this particular day, that taught me to always travel with a packet of IMODIUM, which is a kind of concrete stopper for the colon. Even though using it must be like conducting a laboratory chemical experiment in one’s own innards, I’d chew tablets of the evil stuff as if they were Chiclets when backpacking in certain countries, preferring to freeze-dry my digestive system rather than ever again be Shanghaied.

Apr 162017
 

Here’s a sketch I just scanned that was drawn last year when Julia and I went drawing in San Francisco’s Castro neighbourhood.

A week or two earlier we’d eaten nearby at a great little restaurant called FRANCES and we’d noticed that the neighbourhood had a lot of pretty houses, and came back later to draw the area.

Apr 042017
 

Last weekend Julia and I joined some friends to sketch from the roof of their flat. Kim & Randy live over by Japantown and the view from the top of their building is stunning. There was so much to choose from to draw, that I decided to simply attempt to sketch as much as I could.

We were expecting a foggy day and I dressed in flannel, but as more of more of Kim’s pals showed up for a rooftop sketch-posse it turned out to be bright sunny and HOT. After I spent a few hours blocking in the basic composition with pencil and watercolour, and trying my best to finish it all on site, Julia & I eventually had to skedaddle to get out of the sun and beat the heat.

After a pleasant lunch on nearby Filmore Street (a burger) we went home and I finished the the last 20% of this watercolour (of the Buchanan & Pine streets intersection) from a photo.

Feb 262017
 

Here are a few more visual development sketches done while working in Ralph Eggleston‘s art department on FINDING NEMO, way back in 2000.

Some of my drawings of turtles and pelicans seen here (as well as designs for a moorish idol and sharks posted earlier) actually made it into the ART OF FINDING NEMO book. None of the VisDev I drew for subsequent Pixar movies ever appeared in such books ever again.

Page space in those ART OF books is very limited, and there are literally thousands of drawings generated by the art department over several years to choose from, so it was an utter surprise and delight to be included my very first time working on a project for Pixar.

In the early days working on FINDING NEMO, I was allowed to draw anything at all in the script that interested me, and I played for a day or two drawing kids who might be waiting to see the dentist (who has Nemo in a fish tank in his dental surgery). Personally, I absolutely loathed visiting the dentist as a child (as I still do) so the scaredy cat kid you see below would be me.

In terms of appearance though, as a kid I probably looked most like the solitary little bloke in his scruffy school uniform (middle of the pic on the right, above).

I not only tried my hand at designing NIGEL the pelican, I also got to be his temp voice on the STORY REEL. When making these movies it’s common for the crew to record temporary dialogue used in early edits of the film, before the final actors are even cast.

Pixar had a few Australian employees at the time, and it was perhaps the first and last time that Australian voices would ever be in demand for a Hollywood cartoon, so I was in the right place at the right time. I was called to do several voices; pelicans, dentists, sharks, random fish, you name it. It was a great deal of fun.

One by one all my voices were replaced with the proper actors, but one of my performances actually remained in the movie, more or less as an oversight. I was on holiday back in Australia when the studio realised that there were a few lines of my dialogue left in the final cut of the film (for a cranky Aussie crab).

It took them a while to track me down in Australia and send me some documents to sign at the very last minute of some deadline or other, to make the whole thing official with the Screen Actors Guild. The upshot is that FINDING NEMO is the only movie I’ve ever worked for which I actually get residuals.

Dec 262016
 

On December 26th 2012 at about 11am, I started to slip away as my brain and body both began to gradually shut down. A tiny blood vessel had ruptured in the left thalamus of my brain like a bomb blast in my head, and 4 years later I’m still living in the ruins of that explosion. Every day gives me ample illustration of all that I’ve lost, but today, on the anniversary of what could easily have been my death, I prefer to ponder all that I still have, and any advancements that I’ve made. Boxing Day has become my very own personal day of thanksgiving.

A major goal of my rehabilitation has been somehow getting back to work in a body that no longer operates properly. Having a useless drawing arm has been very challenging for a cartoonist, but despite this I’m happy to say that 2016 was a work milestone. Firstly, Thanks to the recommendations of old friends ED BELL & STEVE LEE, I had three months teaching 3 seperate classes of 2D animation at Academy of Art University. I had never tried teaching before, but settled into it when I saw each class as a creative team with a creative goal that we worked towards together; a process that I have a great deal of experience with.

I’ve been retraining to draw with my LEFT hand ever since losing dexterity in my trusty RIGHT drawing hand, and those efforts recently paid off when I landed a 7 month storyboarding gig just after my teaching assignment finished. My old friend JIM CAPOBIANCO took a chance on me, and I storyboarded on an animated sequence within a live action film (the new MARY POPPINS) under Jim’s direction. I had to make up for my lack of left-handed drawing speed by working long hours each week, but I was happy to do it. The chance to make myself useful as a professional cartoonist again was an absolute joy.

Since waking up in a hospital bed 4 years ago, half paralysed and 220k in debt (due to an insurance SNAFU) I had a powerful motivation to think of some new way to make a living, but although I wracked my damaged brain as hard as I might, I simply could not think of a viable PLAN-B career. Being a cartoonist is all I’ve ever wanted to do, or been half way good at. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but that has always been the life of a freelance cartoonist. My recent medical travails have highlighted it perhaps, but adapting to change was always a big part of this career I chose for myself at the age of 17.

Like living in a half ruined house, some things still work in this ramshackle body of mine but many things don’t. Some damage may be repaired one day, some damage may be permanent, and it’s often hard to know the difference. But with the help of dear colleagues & friends believing in a slightly shop-soiled cartoonist, I’m extraordinarily thankful that, professionally at least, I’M BACK.

Nov 262016
 

This is some visual development for WALL-E drawn back in early 2005 while I worked under the great production designer RALPH EGGLESTON in the Pixar ART department, before working in the story department on the same project.

wall-e_home-3

In its very earliest incarnation, WALL-E started as an idea developed by PETE DOCTER, but when it went into production the director was ANDREW STANTON. By the time I worked on it, the basic configuration of WALL-E had been already been decided- a little robot that could fold in on itself like a turtle and walked on caterpillar treads.

wall-e_1

The story artists worked with this description while the art department tried variations. Before the great JAY SHUSTER nailed the final appealing design, I explored a few WALL-E ideas myself.

wall-e_home-1

In the early days that I worked with Pixar, I often freelanced in the STORY department AND freelanced for the ART department. It was while working in the ART department that I drew these ideas for both the interior and exterior of WALL-E’s home, the dilapidated truck full of junk.

wall-e_home-2

Over the years of freelancing for Pixar, I’ve spent more time in STORY, but the very first time I ever worked for them was doing ART department chores on FINDING NEMO (see here and here), and some very early visdev on RATATOUILLE (see here) and finally WALL-E. As the studio got to the size they are now, my inter-departmental mobility stopped and I worked solely in STORY from UP onward.

wall-e_truck-1

Most professional animation artists have more than one string to their bow; many story artists are fantastic designers, many animators can storyboard, many people in the art department are wonderful storytellers too, but modern big studio pipeline production forces most of us to stay in our designated boxes.

wall-e_truck-3

One of the main reasons I always opted to stay freelance is that it allowed me to move freely among the different job responsibilities I love, doing as much of each of them as I can. Even when certain studios have a rigid pipeline, being a freelance artist gives me the option of doing design at one studio and story at another.

wall-e_truck-6

I finally got to go on a Pixar art department field trip on WALL-E. I’d often heard about these wonderful trips to research PARIS, or to drive along ROUTE 66, but my chance to be part of such an exotic mission was when we went to research a world covered in trash by visiting the OAKLAND CITY DUMP. We in the ART department also visited a Northern California seal colony, to research, well.. BLUBBER.

wall-e_gels-1

In an early version of WALL-E, it was not immediately obvious that the inhabitants of the spaceship that EVE comes from were human. They appeared to be jelly-like aliens (during production they were simply called GELs).

wall-e_gels-3

It was only at the very end of the story that the audience learns that these blobs of jelly are what the human race has eventually become. They were very fun to design, but this revelation of human devolution was a conceptual bummer at the very end of a cartoon, so there was a major story rethink.

wall-e_gels-2

After a month or two in the ART department I did a few sequences in the STORY department under JIM REARDON. Storyboarding WALL-E was very challenging in its own way, simply because it required so many drawings to describe each idea and emotion.

wall-e_truck-4

Without dialog, the only way to convey the meaning of each character’s intentions was a ton of drawings to elaborately pantomime each bit of business, so that it was perhaps the most ‘animated’ story reel I’ve ever worked on.

wall-e_truck-2

However, all the work I did was in the earlier version of the story mentioned above, and my contributions were ALL subsequently redone in the story rethink of the movie.

wall-e_truck-5

Learning to be philosophical about having much (possibly ALL) of one’s work end up on the editing room floor is a big part of working in the early stages of animation production.

Oct 182016
 

Since 2001 or so, I’ve occasionally published silly comics about ROCKET & PROFESSOR, but I’ve doodled the characters even longer than that. The few comics I’ve actually completed belie the fact that I’m always drawing the characters, and thumbnailing & planning stories. Real life sometimes got in the way of following through, but lately I’ve been trying to assemble a fraction of these scribbles and notes into a plan for a 96 page full color book.

yotr_thumnails

To call it a GRAPHIC NOVEL is way too grandiose for the silliness I have in mind, but hopefully it will have a somewhat coherent narrative shape. Taking all the pages I’ve published so far and combining them with new material, I hope to weave it all into a meandering story, telling how Rocket & Professor came to live and work in San Fiasco. Even at my best, a 96 page full color book would have been a massive undertaking and in my current reduced circumstances it is a very ambitious project indeed, but will make a wonderful physical therapy project so I’m committed to working my way through it. Comics are a fiddly and demanding medium, requiring many skills together; writing, drawing, composition, design, acting, coloring and so on. If I can pull this off and manage to make new left-handed artwork that is compatible with old pages that I drew years ago with my right hand it will be huge, and I’ll consider myself well and truly back. As a professional cartoonist at least.

yotr_pages

The old stories were laid out on a 3-tier page of typically 6 panels. When I did my Sephilina color comic book a few years ago I found that a FOUR tier page worked well, because by cutting each page in half they could be cleanly displayed online. I’m planning to do the same thing with this book. The RE-laying out of pages is fiddly but I think it is worth the effort, and gives me a task I can do while my drawing skills return. Hopefully by the time the layout and coloring of the old B/W pages are complete I will be ready to tidy up the thumbnails of the new material.

yotr_colour

It will take me years to chip away at this project, and in the interests of getting something complete sometime soon, the 96 page tale is broken down into 6 parts, and they are sub-divided into 6 to 8 page chapters. So with any luck, I may get something short completed within the next year.