Monthly Archives: May 2014

Some like it hot…onsen hot

Yukata clad, onsen bound. Pic: Anne Alderete

Yukata clad, onsen bound.
Pic: Anne Alderete

Growing up in Ireland an outdoor dip meant a once-yearly trek to the west coast, where you’d nervously brave the 12c waters of the Atlantic Ocean for a few minutes, before retreating, shivering and chastened, back to the car.

If you were lucky you might get a ‘99’ for your troubles.

But growing up in Kinosaki Onsen, in the west of Japan, an outdoor dip entails a slow (no diving in here, trust me) immersion in waters whose temperature averages 44c.

Until recently I’d had plenty of the former. Childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, at places like Rossknowlagh or The Maharees, were great fun, but I don’t recall spending much time in the water.

And the water on the east coast, like that at Wexford‘s beaches, was even colder.

Mind you this was only by a degree or so – which goes unnoticed when you’re trying not to chip a chattering tooth, or running headlong for the car from yet another rain shower.

But no such issues in Kinosaki Onsen.

The clue’s in the name. Onsen means ’hot springs’ and Japan – volcanically active as it is – has got thousands of these.

The water is heated geothermally and, in its freshest state, emerges from the earth at temperatures as high as 80c.

Thankfully the baths I visited with my father- and brother-in-law were considerably cooler, though 40-odd degrees feels anything but cool as you stand water-side.

Set the timer to 35 minutes - cooking eggs in hot springs' water.

Set the timer…to 35 minutes – cooking eggs in hot springs’ water.
Pic: Anne Alderete

Like the icy Atlantic though, once you’re in, you’re in. And, hopefully, availing of the health benefits of the mineral rich water.

The Japanese have been doing this for hundreds of years. I was introduced to the idea by my wife’s family and we travelled there to experience it earlier this month.

The simmering water itself is just one part of visiting an onsen though. You’re not fully dressed to attend the baths unless you’re wearing a traditional yukata robe (see above) and sporting geta on your feet.

I spent two days like this. Having a whiskey, yukata-clad, with the guys before a quick dip and then meeting up with our wives for a traditional Japanese dinner.

And keeping the onsen theme our ryokan (a local inn) served us onsen tamago, eggs slowly cooked in the hot spring water itself (35 mins in 70c water, Heston fans).

We spent a couple of eye (and pore) opening days in Kinosaki Onsen – a unique place, particularly to a gaijin like me who usually has his showers lukewarm and his boiled eggs from a saucepan.

Kinosaki Onsen is thousands of miles, physically, mentally and thermally from where I grew up. For all the differences there was one similarity though.

Whether the water’s 10c or 44c I still get in the same way – one tentative toe at the time.

Order (almost) up. Cooking my beef while my sis-in-law Anne toasts.

Order (almost) up. Searing my wagyu beef while my sis-in-law Anne toasts.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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Japan is…

IMG_3938

Iced coffee above Osaka.

– my wife’s birthplace
– rice
– sake (cold)
– sun (rising early)
– Kinosaki onsen
– turning to my patient sister-, mother- or father-in-law every time my gaijin gesturing failed (ie all the time)
– the Shinkansen
– bento
– Shibuyu crossing at night
izakaya
– family
– compact
– Kamakura
– dancing to Brubeck’s Osaka Blues, in an Osaka hotel room

Family.

Family.

– clean
– efficient
– zen rock gardens in Kyoto
– food, all good, everywhere
– progressive
– regimented
yukate
geta 
– dry Asahi beer
– Yamakazi 12-year-old single malt
– running in the morning on the banks of the Yudo river
– polite
– Murakami and his writings on Manchuria
– Paul McCartney and his drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.

Bento.

Bento.

– cans of Emerald Mountain coffee
– protein
– Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 1 on my iPod
– Cigarettes in restaurants
– French white wines
– okonomiyaki
– New friends (and old ones)
– the intake of breath when stepping into the 44 C hotspring water
– drinking
sashimi for breakfast
– ‘what’s the wi-fi code?’
– a city from a dozen stories up
– cavernous department stores
– tiny Family Mart konbini stores
– coffee: iced in the morning, hot in the evening
– eye-opening
– gift giving
– different trains, different lines, different tickets
– the last two spectacular weeks

Rock garden at the Tōfuku-ji zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Rock garden at the Tōfuku-ji zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

 

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The dog ate my blog (and other excuses)

An apple a day... Detail from 'Adam and Eve'. Lucas Cranach the Elder.

An apple a day…
Detail from ‘Adam and Eve’. Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I had thought to go without a blog-post this week – as I’m on a mental and physical hiatus.

I’d planned I’d offer some explanation for skipping a beat, a rationale, a good, old-fashioned excuse.

But anything I could throw up would pale in comparison to some of the AWOL-related excuses I’ve read of over the years.

So, in the absence of an excuse from me take one from the list below – five of the best justifications I’ve come across.

Well, four. There was a fifth, but I lost it.

The original excuse

After chatting with a snake in the Garden of Eden Eve elects to nibble some fruit (tamarind according to some, others apple) from the Tree of Knowledge, promoting all manner of Divine fury, leading to original sin and presaging the Fall of Man.

Why? “The serpent deceived me, and I ate,” Eve explained. Ok then.

The Ukrainian soccer team

Fans of the team, less than pleased after a 4-0 thrashing by Spain in the 2006 World Cup, demanded an explanation.

They got one they could never have foreseen. Apparently noisy frogs croaking outside the team hotel kept them awake all night before the game.

“We all agreed that we would take some sticks and go and hunt them,” defender Vladislav Vashchuk sheepishly said.

Brian Lenihan Snr

The Irish politician initially admitted that he had called the country’s President Patrick Hillery in 1982, in an attempt to stop Hillery dissolving the national parliament (thereby removing Lenihan’s party from power).

Train in vain? Marathon man Joe Strummer, 1984.

Train in vain?
Marathon man Joe Strummer, 1984.

Then, while running for President himself eight years later, Lenihan reversed his story, claiming “on mature recollection” he had not made the controversial calls.

Was he believed? Well, he lost the election (but he was remembered for his excuse).

Joe Strummer

Soon after The Clash embarked on a major 1982 tour of the UK, at the height of the band’s fame, their front man vanished.

Where was he? Off to join a revolutionary group in Nicaragua?  Living in a squat back in Maida Vale?

Nope. He’d decamped to France, grown a beard and run the Paris marathon.

Beat that.

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Time to get reel

photoI’m hopeless when it comes to cinema.

I go to a movie theatre once a year, maybe once every two years. I don’t buy or download movies.

Occasionally I’ll spot a film on TV and record it. Later I might even watch it. Three months later.

Where did it all go wrong?

As a teenager I was a weekly cinema-goer – my good pal W and I were regulars at a long-departed cinema above the old shopping centre in my hometown.

In college and after I still made the effort. And then, passing a theatre one day in my early 30s, it occurred to me: ‘I can’t remember the last movie I saw’.

Despite this I never thought that the situation needed fixing. Then, a few months ago, my wife and I were sitting in a Dublin hotel bar with good friends of ours when the subject of movies came up.

A parade of recent releases, classics and curios was offered up. I realised – and so did my companions – that I had seen about 10pc of them. Pitiful, really.

And so The List (above) was devised.

About Schmidt? About time.

About Schmidt? About time.

Like most lists it’s utterly arbitrary, scripted on the whims of the three who drew it up. It’s basically a crash course in Films I Need To See Before I Die.

As you can see it’s got a bit of everything, though weighted a little heavily towards Woody Allen.

And it’s a departure from the usual top 20 ‘must see’ lists. How many of those include Sixteen Candles, The Departed and The Bad News Bears (the Walter Matthau version)?

That night at the Clarence Hotel was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched three of the 20 movies on the list (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris and The Departed, all worthwhile viewings).

That’s not a huge number, and at this rate it’ll be 2016 before I catch Broadcast News, but I’m getting there.

The question is: what should number 21 be?

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You play it, I’ll hum it (and hum it, and hum it)

Not so fast Elvis... Dodging earworms.

Not so fast Mr Costello.

It struck at 3.40am last Wednesday. Waking briefly in the middle of the night I lay in bed as it looped around my head.

Twenty four hours later it hit again, this time in the middle of a morning run.

After I returned from my jog it pestered me in the shower.

Later that day, walking down a flight of stairs at work, it sprang up, maddeningly.

He’s a Battered Old Bird 
And he’s living up there 
There’s a place where time stands still 
If you keep taking those little pink pills…

The words are from a not-very-well-known Elvis Costello song, Battered Old Bird. The tune torments me.

I’m vigilant about it, though. On the occasions that I listen to Blood and Chocolate, the album on which Battered Old Bird features, I rush to hit the skip button as soon as the song preceding it begins to wind down.

Last week it popped up on shuffle and somehow caught me unawares. This led to 48 or more hours of the chorus erupting every time my brain dropped into ‘stall’ mode: while eating, washing the dishes, tying my shoelaces, putting out the bin.

After two days I managed to dislodge it.

'God, no...not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!' 'The Scream'. Edvard Munch. Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

‘God, no…not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!’
‘The Scream’. Edvard Munch.
Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

How? By listening to the only other melody which burrows even deeper into my short term auditory memory, an infuriating Richard Thompson tune.

And so the process began again.

So it is with earworms – otherwise know as stuck song syndrome (or, it you’re being clinical, ‘musical imagery repetition’).

Some 98pc of us encounter them (and three quarters of our earworms are songs with lyrics – perhaps I should listen to more classical and jazz).

Edgar Allan Poe was writing about them back in 1845, their length is usually between 15 and 30 seconds, and two proven methods of stopping them are reading a good novel and completing a moderately-difficult anagram.

So prevalent are they that two researchers (for whom I have a great deal of sympathy) endeavoured in 2012 to find the most common earworm in the UK. It turned out to be Queen’s We Will Rock You (go on, hum it, I dare you).

This led, in an act of research likely precipitate insanity in the coming 48 hours, to my considering my personal top five earworms.

Here they are, the songs I will never play, the tunes that drive me from stores or coffee shops within four bars, the numbers that could see the radio silenced, possibly permanently, against a wall.

Deep breath…

5. The Clancy Brothers, Finnegan’s Wake

4. Pete Seeger: Guantanamero (or anyone’s version, really)

3. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

2. Richard Thompson: Let It Blow

1. And, finally, Battered Old Bird. Really, listen to this one at your peril

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