Friday, 12 August 2011

All quiet on the Western Front

I've been totally lax and absent for the last month or so, and in the meantime the world has gone to hell. Phone hacking scandals, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, famine, polar bears and now riots on the streets of England. I'm glad things are relatively normal here in Scotland.

I haven't been entirely idle, however. Just mostly idle.

Last week I popped down to Southampton on the south coast of England for my friend Ken's wedding. I've known Ken since first year of uni, when he lived in the room next door, and we subsequently lived together for the following three years as well. He's half Japanese, and he visited me three times over the course of my stay in Japan.

The wedding was all lovely except for a minor(?) faux-pas on my part. I, along with some other of Ken's friends, was designated an usher - an honour which came with a buttonhole rose and special handkerchiefs and ties. We were stood at the entrance to the church, asking people if they were bride or groom, and checking their names off the list of special types who got their own seats. At one point a grinning man and his wife came over, I asked, "Bride or groom?" and he responded by saying he wasn't a guest, he was just there for the service. He had a big smile on his face as he said this, and I sort of assumed he was having a laugh with me, so I told him he could probably, "stand at the back somewhere", in a manner I thought to be fittingly ironic. I was slightly alarmed when he gave me a confused look and walked on. I'd assumed he would have admitted to being a guest really, and given me his name. A sense of horror started to wind its way around my chest as I realised I'd accidentally been rude to a wedding guest, after receiving explicit instructions from Ken to be good. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe people just show up to other people's weddings. This was, after all, a church, and therefore a place meant to be open to the whole community. My upbringing in a fairly religiously-apathetic environment led me to forget that there are actually still a fair few religious folk about. It hadn't occurred to me that people would choose to go to church on a Saturday. Major fail.

I heard the guy bitching about me to the frumpy woman who worked in the church later on. Suffice to say I steered as clear of him as I could for the duration.

In other news, I continue to write, despair about being awful, get over it, write, despair a bit more, and basically continue ad infinitum. But yesterday, after meeting a friend who abandoned our fair land for the ravaged London to be a part of that acting 'biz', I'm feeling a bit better about things. He's up for the Edinburgh Fringe - his theatre company, Made from Scratch - formed by him and his university peers as a way to create their own opportunities, are putting on a play called Body of Water, which you should totally see if you're in the area. Anyway, my friend read my first chapter, gave me some pointers, and is going to badger me to get things done. Cos that's what friends are for!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Charity Avoidance Tactics

Whether I'm listening to something on my mp3 player or just thinking my mind-thoughts, sometimes I find it good to stretch my legs along Princes Street, the main high street in Edinburgh. Sometimes I'm able to resolve some problems with my story ideas as I go, the meagre exercise no doubt sending much-needed blood to the brain of my otherwise poorly-circulated mortal shell. I like to be able to just lose myself in my ponderings and not have to think about anything else, but more often than not, that's impossible.

The reason? Charity workers.

Whenever I see one of those red or green waterproof jackets I panic despite myself, and all other thought is abandoned as I consider how best to avoid engaging with them.

Now, I'm not a completely uncharitable person. I've been known to make the odd donation to places in the past. Right now I don't have a regular income so I can't commit to paying a monthly direct debit like these guys inevitably want you to. But that's not the only reason I don't like these guys. They're always chirpy to the point of obnoxiousness, and they're always English.

Not that I have the problem with people from England. Some of my best friends are from Merrye Olde Englande. But these street folks are always posh hipster nobs. And they don't do it out of the kindness of their hearts. A lot of them are probably students at Edinburgh Uni and they're all paid by the charities to collect sponsorships. If you give them an inch of your time, they'll take a mile, along with your credit card details, or failing that guilt trip you into oblivion. But how to deal with this urban menace?

Let me show you.
So here I am just walking along the street, minding my own business when I espy a charity worker up ahead. What do I do?
1. The road-cross fake-out
As I see that the charity worker has caught me in its sniper-like sights, I make a beeline for the kerb and make out as if I mean to cross, and that I have no idea that the charity worker has seen me. Or is even there. Or that charity even exists as a concept. Then when the gull turns its waterproof back, I slip past unnoticed.

2. The shop-dive
 This one is simple enough. I dive into a nearby shop until the threat has passed. It's a little less silly than option 1. but carries a downside. If the nearest shop is Anne Summers, ain't no way I'm rushing in there.

3. The human shield
By far the best tactic. I follow closely behind other pedestrians, putting them between myself and the dreaded charity worker. The latter takes the bait, and I pass on unassailed. If the streets are quite bare up ahead when I notice a charity worker, I might tarry a while until suitable human shields come along.

Try them out!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

My Anpan Masterplan

I've spoken before about missing aspects of my life in Japan. I can't remember why, but a month or so ago I suddenly got a craving for anpan. Anpan (from 'an' - bean jam, and 'pan' - bread) is a favourite snack of Japanese children. They're basically a slightly sweetened bread with red bean (azuki) paste inside. I first became aware of them through hearing about a popular cartoon for younger children called Anpanman, which stars a group of superhero characters made of bread. Anpanman's head is an anpan, and when he is injured, Uncle Jam the baker makes him a new head. It's the kind of subtly creepy cutesiness that pervades most Japanese entertainment.

One of my fellow JETs introduced me to real anpan for the first time in my second year, while we wear working on our annual musical. I never expected to like them - the thought of jam made from beans put me off - but I quickly developed a taste for the things and for the rest of my time in Japan my apartment was rarely without anpan. I used to get these small 'usukawa' (thin-skinned) ones, which had only a teeny layer of bread around a great wad of anko (red bean paste).

Anyway, when I got the craving, it occurred to me that I might be able to make them myself, assuming I could get the ingredients. I looked up Chinese supermarkets online and found one not too far from where I usually go to write in the city centre. It was quite a small place, with a tiny old Chinese lady behind the counter, and I felt a little on-edge while I stared at the beans and tried to work out if they were the kind I wanted. They were red, sure, but smaller than ones I'd seen in Japan. But since there was nothing else, I figured 'What the hey' and went for them.

I found a recipe for anko and last night I finally got round to making it. I decided it would be best to make the anko in advance since it was quite a time-consuming affair. It was maybe a little foolish to continue with the recipe without being sure I even had the right kind of beans, but I didn't think I would be able to find azuki beans anywhere else (I have since found out my mother has bought them in the past, so it's highly likely I could have bought them from a regular supermarket). The process involves a lot of boiling, simmering, draining and repeating. The only part of the recipe I had trouble with was pushing foil down onto the beans as they boiled, since it threatened to burn my fingers. I used a smaller pot lid that fit inside the pot instead. I was really doubtful that I was going to end up with the right thing - the consistency seemed odd as several stages, but at the very end everything came together, quite literally. This was the result:
It may not look like much, but the taste and consistency were there. Part one of the masterplan was a success.

Today was a different challenge. I realised the recipe I had intended to follow called for a breadmaker. Cheating, if you ask me. We don't have a breadmaker. Every other anpan recipe I found online also wanted a breadmaker. After looking over different recipes for a while, I decided to amalgamate the breadmaker one with another one for a milk loaf and basically make my own instructions. For the interested:

Bread flour - 450g (this is an estimate - I started with 380g as per the recipe but my dough was very sticky)
Salt - 1tsp
Sugar - 3tbsp
Dried yeast - 1 1/2tsp
Fat/butter - 3tbsp
2 medium eggs
Warm milk - 200ml

1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a bowl.
2. Add the fat/butter and rub it through with your hands until there are no lumps left.
3. Make a well in the centre of the bowl, add 1 egg, then lightly beat the second egg and add half (save the rest).
4. Pour in the warm milk a little at a time, mixing as you do with a knife until it comes together as a dough. If the dough is too sticky, use extra flour.

5. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, then split into 14-18 balls.
6. Cover the balls with a damp towel so they don't dry out and leave them to expand a little for 15 minutes.
7. Flatten each ball out, then spoon in your anko paste. The amount is up to you, but you can afford to be liberal. A heaped tablespoon's worth is about right.
8. Close the dough up over the paste and pinch it shut. Place the pinched side down on a greased baking tray, then depress the centre a little to stop an air pocket from forming between the bread and the anko.
9. Leave the buns to rise for 50 minutes in a warm place. Preheat the oven to Gas 4/350°F/180°C).
10. Brush the surface of each bun lightly with the remaining egg and bake for 15 minutes.

I'm really happy with how they turned out. Even though I bought the wrong kind of flour. It was supposed to be white, but I bought a kind that was brown and full of seeds. I sifted out the seeds but wasn't sure if the recipe would still work. As it turns out, the savouriness of the bread works well to offset the sweetness of the anko. Result!:

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


From my seat at my bedroom window, I see a lot of creatures. Wildlife seems to be fighting back against the destroyers of its environment and coming into our gardens. See how YOU like it, wildlife says.

Last night, I saw a bird of prey sitting on the wall. My camera's not good enough to get a nice close-up shot, but I did take a picture. I'm not sure what it was, but it may have been a sparrow hawk.

In Japan, there was a breed of kite that was really common on the coast, but seeing birds of prey in the wild here is still pretty cool.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Every journey begins...

...with a first step. And every great novel begins with a first chapter. I wanted to be able to write this post months ago. I wanted to say I had finally made a first chapter to the novel I've been trying to start that I was happy with.

I still can't.

However, I do have a beginning of sorts. I wrote a prologue kind of thing. It has a form. It's not without it's problems, but it's there. It exists as a thing in the real world, not just in my head. It's a start.

So I've decided, a journey need not begin with a first step. It can begin with a second step. Then when I know where I'm going, I can work out the best way to start off. Because so far, the beginning has been dragging me down and holding me back. No more, I say!

I don't know if what I've written will come to be a part of the story I'm working on. But it's there, it's written down, it's on paper. It's a material thing. It's a reference point I can look back on to remind myself of things.

But I'm moving on, I hope to better things. Better writing, certainly.
The only question is, am I capable?

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Return of Steve

Over the winter months, our foxie visitor had been somewhat elusive. I'd been used to seeing him out my window every so often in early evening, but of course in winter, early evening is pitch black. If he was around, I never saw him. I saw him again for the first time a month and a half ago. I saw him again a couple of weeks back. Neither time I managed to snap a shot.

Today was crazy stormy all over Scotland. Power cuts and falling tiles and broken stuff all over. Maybe Steve thought he'd go unnoticed under the cover of wind. He crossed the garden in the late afternoon, in broad daylight. He looked right towards me for a few seconds, which gave me just enough time to grab my camera and snap him as he jump up on the wall and into the neighbour's garden.
Not the best shots, I know. He's a bit camera shy, it seems.


Last night there was a Pirates of the Caribbean themed pub quiz at one of the cinemas in town. High school friend Kirsty asked if I wanted to join her team. I'm no expert on the films, but I thought it sounded like a laugh. Kirsty really wanted a Johnny Depp beach towel, though we didn't know what the prizes were.

There were four rounds. The first round was supposedly about the films, though a lot of the questions were more about the actors and other work they'd done. We did okay that round, and wound up joint 1st with two other teams. We managed to get 7 of the 9 Pirate Lords from At World's End. Round 2 was about pirates in general. We did really good that round, only dropping 2 points. We disputed the last question, though, which was about the notorious (and false) allegations of innuendo levelled at classic British seafaring cartoon Captain Pugwash. We disputed it, but still got four points for putting the answer they expected. We were two points ahead of the field after that round.

The third round was where we fell down. We only got 3 points. The questions were all about which actors were appearing in which upcoming summer blockbusters. Funnily enough, in two or three cases we incorrectly wrote down the names of people for certain questions that ended up being the correct answers to other questions. We were back to joint first with another team after that.

Then they marked the picture round, for which we got all but one correct. I think at that point we slipped into second place. The only thing left was the creative challenge. At the start of the quiz we'd been asked to design our own pirate ship. I suggested we do a space pirate ship. After that, basically any random idea that came out of my mouth became part of the drawing. I said Princess Leia should be the figurehead. Then I said it should ride on a rainbow made of skittles.  In the end, Buzz Lightyear was captain and Chewbacca was first mate. He had an eyepatch. It was no contest, really. We got first place for our picture which landed us ten points, putting us in first place. Here's the picture that clinched the deal. Kudos to Jill for the drawing it:

The prizes were impressive. To Kirsty's delight, there was a Johnny Depp beach towel. There was also a DVD box set of the first three films, the movie soundtrack, a poster, a badge set and some free cinema passes and popcorn vouchers, all in a nice shiny PotC bag. We divvied up the spoils as pirates do. I took tickets, a voucher, the poster and badge set. Here's the poster:


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Trouble at the Ol' Mine

I've had a bit of a mental week. I had another Creative Writing assignment to hand in, and I found myself somewhat distracted. One part of that was becoming an uncle, and getting irrationally excited about the whole thing. I wasn't much in the mood for sitting still while there was a baby to go and gawp at. Also, despite my resolution to never drive again, my dad offered to put me on his insurance so I could drive the family car. Combine stalker uncle with newfound freedom, and it's not long before I'm driving my mum to the hospital to visit my sister and the babbie. This was my second trip out in the car, the first one being half an hour earlier as a test to see if I could do it. I stalled about seven times, but I didn't let that deter me, and I was absolutely fine on our trip to and from the hospital.

The real drama only set in on Tuesday. I'd managed to make good headway with my writing by then. I decided recently to try a new method with my writing. Instead of going straight from my notes to word-processing, I decided to write my first draft on paper as well. It was after I saw something on a website about working with your hands. Not sure how I feel about it yet, but it has its advantages. I was still on my first draft on Tuesday, with the assignment due on Thursday, but I was planning to finish the draft by the end of the day and then type it up on Wednesday, leaving Thursday to do the report and other things the assignment required. However, something happened which put me out of the mood for writing.

After dinner that evening, my dad got a call from my grandmother. My grandfather had left a note saying he had gone out for a walk in the Bilston area. He would have been expected back around 3, and it was now 6. At 7, my dad called the police, then went out to Bilston to look for his car. He came back around 10, having found nothing. We were all pretty worried by this point. My grandfather is 83, and though he's fit and healthy, he's still an elderly man. We got calls from the police throughout the evening informing us of their progress, of which there was none. By the time I went to bed around 2, they still hadn't found his car, so could not direct a search team. I'm sure my dad would have been out looking with them, but he was told to stay at home by the police. I went to to bed to an uneasy sleep, more or less convinced I was going to wake up to the news that a body had been found.

I woke around 5.45am, aware perhaps of the phone having gone off, though I don't remember hearing it. Lying in my bed, afraid to get up to be confronted by bad news, I overheard my mum tell my brother that the car had been found, but there was nothing else yet. I decided I should probably get some more sleep, so I dozed in and out with the TV on, hoping it would stop me from sleeping all morning. My dreams were filled with thoughts of my grandfather, turned surreal by my having recently played a game called Ghost Trick where you play as a spirit that possesses objects. When I woke again a couple of hours, I heard my mother on the phone, and by what she said I was able to surmise that there had possibly been good news. It sounded like she was talking to my grandmother.

When she got off the phone, she came and talked to me. My grandfather had been found - alive - and indeed barely injured at all. He had fallen down a disused mine shaft and been unable to get out. He was still there, but only waiting on special equipment to be retrieved so he could be rescued. You can imagine how relieved we all were. It was an ending none of us imagined possible.

I heard the full story later.

My grandfather, who is a keen caver - and according to one of his caving club friends, quoted in the paper, 'knows more about the country's old mine entrances than any other person'. He was planning to go out, and when he goes out for a walk he generally waits to take his medication until he returns, because it weakens his muscles. It rained, so he was going to give up on the excursion and so took his medication, but when it turned out to only be a brief shower, he headed out anyway. Not long into his walk he came to the mine entrance, and took a look inside. He often reports his findings to his caving club so that areas can be explored more fully, and in some cases his findings have led to safety measures being taken to alert country walkers to the presence of these old mines. He climbed down a ladder to take a look, but because he had taken his medication, he lost his grip and fell. The area at the bottom was only four foot across, and after hurting his back he was unable to lie down. He had no food with him, and he wasn't wearing particularly warm clothing. To keep warm for the 15 hours he spent trapped in that four-foot space, he paced repeatedly up and down. Again and again. Forget Chuck Norris, do not mess with my grandad.

I know the question you're asking yourselves, because I asked myself the same thing. Where was Lassie in all this? That dog has a lot to answer for.

Anyway, my grandad got an x-ray but was found to be fine (though I'm sure my poor grandmother gave him an earful and a half), and I ended up getting an extension on my creative writing assignment. I finished it after painstaking editing last night. 1000 words over the limit. But you know what I say? Bollocks to word limits, that's what. You can't limit my creativity, man. I'm livin' the dream.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Baby, baby, baby (NE)phew!

On a day when the Scottish National Party swept to an unprecedented victory in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, securing the first mandate since the parliament's inception in 1999, my big sister finally had her baby. Which I probably haven't mentioned until now. The baby was due last Friday, but showed no signs up coming until yesterday. My sister had a total nightmare by the sounds of it - the baby's head was tilted too much and wouldn't come naturally, the cord was twisted twice round its neck, she had to have a C-section which was initially going to be under general anaesthetic, but she was woken up from it when they couldn't get the breaking tube down her throat due to swelling, and finally she had it conscious with an epidural at 2 in the morning. Not the ideal birth scenario.

But little baby boy unnamed is perfectly healthy, though his parents are understandably exhausted. We went to visit and the little guy is sufficiently adorable for fawning purposes. I'm hoping my sister recovers quickly and doesn't have to spend too long in nasty hospital.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Note on Leaving Japan

As part of my Creative Writing course with the OU, I wrote a piece about why I left Japan. For dramatic effect, I turned one good reason into the main reason. Writers lie.

It's not something I could post here - at least, not without heavy editing - largely because it mentions real people who might not want to be the subject of blogging, and because the place I lived was a small town, changing names wouldn't do much.

One aspect I touched on was the way living as a foreigner in Japan is a lot like being a minor celebrity. You're treated as a kind of curiosity - among the people but not of the people. It's really hard to integrate into Japanese society, especially if you're part of the foreigner community.

There's a song my friend Lenn shared with me before I headed out to Japan which I think captures the feeling perfectly. Listening to it reminds me of those days of trepidation before I departed, and makes me want to experience that weird way of life again. Here it is:

Thursday, 28 April 2011


I decided to request to join the team behind a new Nintendo-oriented website in order to get some more varied writing experience. I was graciously accepted and my first article is up on the website now. If it so interests you, you can find it here.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Shantih shantih shantih

Glossed by T.S. Eliot in his mildly satirical notes to his modernist opus The Waste Land to mean 'The Jimijam which passeth his driving test", this word finds its place here, in this most joyous of weeks.

Truth be told, I had a test a few weeks ago and failed. In a really retarded way. I failed literally at the end of the first road, fifteen metres from where we were parked at the test centre. Waiting behind two other testees (unfortunately word choice, I apologise) at a give way line, I followed sheep-like as they turned without waiting. The rest of that test went more or less fine. I got the easiest reverse manoeuvre (you only have to do one now) - the 'turn in the road', and I didn't have to go on the bypass. To be honest, I'm not convinced I deserved to fail it. I didn't cause anything by failing to wait, which is usually the criteria for a minor fault becoming a major fault. Driving examiners in this country are more or less required to adhere to an average pass/fail ratio. If their pass rate is too different from the average, they risk getting fired. No lie. My friend Heather told me she booked her tests early in the week because at that point, the examiners don't know how many people they still need to pass or fail. My first test was on a Thursday afternoon. Asking for trouble.

This time, I booked Tuesday morning. The weather was lovely. I didn't tell my parents I was sitting the test so I would feel less pressure. Went out with my instructor for an hour before, stalled the car, but didn't let that get me down. Test went as expected, which is to say they made me go on the bypass, and I had to do a reverse park. I prefer that to reversing round a corner (who ever needs to reverse round a corner anyway?). I got six minor faults in total. I was so relieved when he told me I'd passed, I wanted to hug him. My instructor was delighted as well.

Now I need never drive again.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Hanami, Hanayu

It's springtime, apparently. And it's crazy times in the UK, and Scotland in particular - the weather has been consistently nice for weeks.

In Japan, it's just gone Hanami season. In April, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, friends and businesses host hanami - flower 'watching' parties. In reality, it's more about the drink and food than the flowers - everyone sits merrily on tarpaulins and rugs under the trees, enjoying each other's company and getting tipsy. The blossoms are largely forgotten.

This is the first time I've really noticed the blossoms here, however. Maybe it's just me coming back from a country where the things are revered and I'm more aware of them. We don't need flowers as an excuse to sit outside on nice days. We get so few of them that whenever it's warm and bright, Princes Street gardens fills with people making the most of the good weather. In Japan, if it wasn't a thing, if it wasn't organised, I don't think anyone would bother.

I don't know if I'm struck with an unusually sentimental streak, but I think some of our blossoms are most spectacular than the ones I was used to seeing in Japan. In Japan I remember more leafy foliage surrounded by pink, but here it looks like the whole tree is pink. Could be memory playing tricks.

Friday, 22 April 2011

JET Letter Days

I have a friend applying to JET. He got an interview in February and was waiting patiently for his letter. It arrived the other day. He's been named an alternate, which means he's still in the running, but isn't guaranteed a place. He'll get on if somebody who got a yes declines their place, if someone who originally recontracted decides to renege, or if someone who goes over this year freaks out and comes back in the first few months.

It surprised some of my friends in Japan to learn that I was an alternate, too. I stayed longer than most of the people who went in my year, and I was more into Japanese stuff and learning the language than most of the people who go over there. To some extent I think the interviewers try to weed out the ardent Japanophiles who might not take the job seriously. Still, a lot of people I knew who got an instant acceptance onto JET either left after one year or didn't even get through the first six months.

In my case, I was the beneficiary of a failed relationship. My predecessor had been dating a guy before she started JET, her boyfriend had joined her in Japan and proceeded to have a little more fun than she did. They were engaged, but they broke up after she had recontracted, leaving an opening for me. I got a call around the end of May telling me I'd been upgraded. I remember it was the day I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End at the cinema. I was so happy I skipped along the road to catch my bus.

In the end, I wound up in the first departure group, even though I'd been prepared to wait until potentially as late as October to get an answer. Things worked out funny like that. But it was good I got the call when I did, because I had literally no backup plan.

This year I wouldn't be surprised if swathes of worried parents will be forbidding their children to go to Japan with the nuclear crisis apparently not expected to be brought under control for many months yet. There might be more declined offers than usual, which may mean alternates have a good chance this year. I think Japan needs JET to continue at a tough time like this. Grassroots internationalisation for the win.

To anyone out there waiting to find out if they have a place on JET, I understand what you're going through. Hang in there. Good things come to those who go to Japan.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Pearly White

I spent twenty minutes this morning being water boarded by two young women with their fingers in my mouth.

Maybe water boarding isn't the best analogy. The ordeal was more akin to choking than drowning. And then at the end of it I got to spit out a load of blood with pink dentist water.

Still, I'm feeling pretty positive about this experience. The dentist said my brushing technique was probably quite good. I just gots ta floss bettah.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Why be Denny dentist different?

When I was growing up, I feared the dentist, in a natural sort of way. The dentist office in the village nearby was dimly lit and adorned with disturbing modern art featuring concrete blocks being winched through a hole in a building. And my dentist was a very imposing, exuberant Korean guy who frightened me a little bit. I only went just enough times to keep me registered, but when I went off to university I kind of fell off the books.

In Tokushima, I struck it lucky, in a way. Tokushima has the highest proportion of dentists to population in Japan. I think one of the universities has a good dental school or something. I was able to get fairly good treatment when I had the dreaded wisdom tooth problems.

Back to Edinburgh, I was dentistless again, and the local place wasn't taking NHS patients any more. And then the damned wisdom tooth pain returned and was worse than usual. Fortunately, a friend had had a leaflet through the door about a new surgery opening in town, so I went along to get registered. I had an appointment on Thursday and am going back tomorrow for a scale and polish, which I think is some kind of clean.

I'm pretty excited about it. I've never had a professional clean before. I'm feeling good about overcoming my alienation with dentists. I have, somewhat embarassingly, taken a photo of my teeth to see if I'll be able to tell the difference.

Osmond teeth here I come.

Sunday, 27 March 2011


I got a 3DS on Friday, thereby satiating my primal, consumerist needs and jumping on a bandwagon even before my friend G-dog, who owns every console under the sun. The damned Home Delivery Network decided to bring it round at 5.30pm, however, which I was not happy about, having seen via tracking that it was 'out for delivery' at 9.20am. Anyways, I am thus far besotted with the shiny blue thing.

It features something called Streetpass, which is a way for 3DSes to communicate with each other while in sleep mode (if you wish - it's optional). Basically, if you walk within a few feet of someone else with a 3DS in sleep mode, your 'Mii', a CG representation of yourself, will join their system, and theirs will join yours. You can see their character's name, favourite things and you can personalise a greeting as well.

There are two other features in the 3DS's 'Mii Plaza', which is the meeting area for all the Miis you've collected. There's a picture puzzle, where you start with one piece, but must acquire new ones from the Miis you meet. There's also Streetpass Quest, where your collected Miis must go on an adventure to fight ghosts and rescue you, who are the king and has been captured. Each character can only do a limited number of actions before having to give up, and once you've used one once, it can't be used again. This means you have to keep collecting new Miis to continue the quest, or else hire strange cat-people by spending game coins. The game coins are collected through the 3DS's pedometer while in sleep mode, so even if you don't pick up new Miis, the exercise you're doing will allow you to play anyway.

I headed into the city centre yesterday to do some writing, and take the opportunity to see if I'd pick anyone up on my 3DS. I wasn't sure how much of a response there would be the day after release, and after getting off the bus and walking the short way to the book shop coffee shop, I went into the Mii Plaza to check. Zilch so far, but that wasn't surprising. However, when I was done with my work, I walked a bit along Princes Street, into two game/media stores and even into a clothing sale where I picked up some shoes. When I made it onto the bus for home (made troublesome by the Edinburgh tram roadworks starting up again, I took another look. And behold! I had three new Mii friends. It told me I had picked them up 26 minutes before (two of them) and 30 minutes before. I'm not sure where I was at that time, but I found it exciting nonetheless. I promptly sent my adventurers on a quest and they managed to retrieve a Mario hat before becoming fatigued and having to go home. But now my Mii is wearing the Mario hat and will appear in it to everyone who collects him through Streetpass from now until I change it.

Makes me wish I was in Japan. One trip through Akihabara and I'm sure I'd pick up a few hundred Miis.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Sanity Check

I keep finding myself on websites that have video ads on the sidebar, which is annoying enough because the sound isn't muted like these things used to be, but also because of the kind of ads that appear.

Here's one - Dettol motion sensing hand soap dispenser. "Never touch a germy soap pump again!" they proudly declare. Now, call me old-fashioned, but when I touch a soap pump, usually it's to get some soap. And, slave to tradition that I am, I generally proceed to wash my hands with it. Am I an idiot to believe that any harm that may befall me from touchy a dirty soap pump would be mitigated by my subsequent hand-washing? Are Dettol saying that their soap isn't good enough to properly clean your hands?


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Due hesitancy

I'm always suspsicious of nouns that end in 'y' that mean the same as another noun with the same root - hesitance and hesitancy. Hesitancy sounds like something George W would say.

Anyway, I've delayed my driving test again. My lesson was a bit of a nightmare today. I pretty much hate everything.

Fortunately, it turned out that I didn't get charged for rebooking my test, as I was before. I thought they charged you for canceling to offset their losses if your date wasn't picked up by someone else. It turns out they don't do that, but in fact some test dates/times are more expensive than others. I got charged extra the last time because I switched to a Saturday. This time I switched to a Thursday and I actually got the fee discounted. So there was an upside there.

Awkwardly, at the end of the lesson when we were talking things over, my instructor took a phone call from his car's manufacturer about a fault with his car that they're not acknowledging, and he got pretty testy with the girl on the other end. I could hear both sides of the conversation and could understand why he might be upset, but I think he went a bit overboard in venting his frustrations. And I was trapped in the driver's seat not knowing where to look.

It's not the first time I've considered getting another instructor, but it's so close to the end now there's not really much point. I just want to get the whole messy mess over with as soon as possible and never drive again.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Contemplating Disaster

I think the world is looking at the devastation in Japan in horror, and I'm with them. I couldn't quite connect to the tragedy at first (the BBC reported an awful lot from Tokyo, which was barely affected by the quake) but then I imagined what it would be like to be engulfed by water, losing any sense of where you are, and seeing your life flash before you in that instant. It's horrible to think about.

The quake and tsunami didn't affect the area around where I was living in Japan, and everyone I know over there is fine. Still, there are a few who have had trouble getting in contact with friends and family in the affected areas. I'm sure the country will be shaken up for a while.

But the Japanese spirit is a resilient one. They'll get through this, and the rest of the world is mobilising to help. It's good to see the international community rallying after a crisis.

And still, I want to go back.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Persistence of Memory

When Jurassic Park came out, I'm sure it must have been some kind of a phenomenon. It certainly felt that way to my 7-year-old self. We had this thing...not sure where it was from, but it was a leaflet for ordering merchandise. My mum got me and my brother a baseball cap and a t-shirt each. The smallest size was for age 12. When mine arrived, the fact that it was like a marquee on me didn't stop me from wearing it most of that summer. When I grew into it (which didn't seem to take that long) I was sure it must have shrunk. I must have been at one of those growth spurty stages.

Anyway, before we went to see Jurassic Park in the cinema, my mum read us one of those simplified book-of-the-film things. One moment that stuck in my mind was the scene where Dennis Nedry crashes his car trying to escape off the island, and is spat at by a dilophosaurus, who goes on to kill him. When we finally saw it on the big screen, that was the one scene I couldn't watch. I hid my head in my hands until Sam Neill came back.

The stupid thing is, we got the film on video as well, and I did the same thing whenever we watched it again. Ten years later I'd still never watched the scene in its entirety. I suppose in the same way as with the t-shirt, where I didn't trust that I was getting bigger year on year, I never stopped to consider I might be brave enough to deal with a dilophosaur attack. Maybe it was habit more than anything else.

I bring it up because Jurassic Park was on TV last weekend and for the first time in years, I sat down to watch it. And still, when that scene came, I found myself not wanting to look at the screen. Worse than that, I made excuses in my head about why I was too busy to look at the screen at that point, that I didn't have anything to prove. Eventually I decided enough was enough, and I watched it. It was nothing really, of course, though it still creeped me out as I looked. Remnants of emotions from childhood. Weird things.

Incidentally, I caught a bit of the end of King Solomon's Mines last night. This was another film that delighted my brother and I when we were little, though we can only have seen it once or twice. I think it must have been about 18 years since I last saw it, and could barely even remember what it was about, but when I saw John Rhys-Davies' character (basically an evil version of his Indiana Jones character) enter a room of diamonds with a gun pointed at the other, German villain, I suddenly remembered what was going to happen. He was going to make the other guy eat the diamonds. The memory traveled from childhood like a bullet. I astounded myself.

I wonder if there are any things that have happened since childhood that I'll still remember as vividly in ten or twenty years. Somehow I doubt it.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The week that was

I haven't blogged for a while. I've had a few things going on, and the last week was pretty stressful.

There was a temporary job going at the Japanese Consulate here in Edinburgh, filling in while someone takes maternity leave. I really wanted the job. I sent in a CV (resume, for Americanos) that was crafted so perfectly to the position as advertised, and was delighted by an email inviting me for an interview on Wednesday. Other things going on this week, to put things in context, were driving lessons on Monday, Wednesay and Thursday, teaching on Tuesday and Wednesday and writing 40 lines of poetry for my creative writing course, due in on Thursday. Also, my friend Terrina, a fellow Tokushima JET alumnus, was visiting. She actually helped me buy a suit on Tuesday after I realised I'd lost a pair of black trousers and didn't have a matching suit set.

Anyway, I spent most of the week as a mess of nerves, partly from being really invested in the idea of getting this job, and partly also from driving lessons, which had gone badly the previous weeks. My test is booked for the 10th of March at the moment so there's a bit of pressure there. I prepared answers to a good number of common interview questions and headed off to the consulate on Wednesday afternoon. The person who was seen before me was one of the other two JET returners who came back at the same as me, who I met at the reception at the consul general's house, and had been working as a CIR (and therefore fluent in Japanese) so I knew competition would be tough. I was kind of pissed off about this fact. I was hoping all the former JET people who were potentially better qualified than me would already have jobs by now.

The interview involved being asked questions by two of the consuls, while the Scottish lady who would be taking maternity, and the consul general himself, watched and 'moderated'. I thought the interview went okay - it was hard to tell because it was only about ten minutes long and didn't feel very in-depth. The only odd point was after I'd given a perhaps slightly vague answer to a "Why are you interested in Japan?" type question from the first interviewer, and then when the second interviewer took over later, he more or less said, "I'm not sure exactly from what you've said what exactly your interest in Japan is" in a kind of accusatory manner. It was like he was saying, "What's REALLY going on here?" Maybe he had a point. I'm not even sure why I'm interested in Japan. I used to be super interested in Japanese anime and dramas, but after moving there I just loved it as a place. The country itself, and the language were my interests. I tried to explain that. I hope that wasn't what cost me the job (as I found I wasn't successful on Friday) - that would be unfortunate. But it's no use beating myself up about things I can't ever know. Anyway, I was told to expect to hear the result in the next couple of days since they wanted to sort it out quickly.

Thursday was devoted to polishing poetry. Well, perhaps not so much polishing as removing some of the grubbier stains. A poem is never finished, merely abandoned. Here's my favourite of the two I submitted, which I post here because it was inspired by Steve, the occasional fox visitor to our back garden:

Urban fox

There is a sometime visitor,
a midnight stalker, sleepwalker,
with eyes like candle flames that see me looking.
Not like his woodland brothers at all – rich red, well-fed,
no - a shadow of a pastoral past
that dined on chickens and made farmers mad.
Is he a parallel for our ruin,
This city slicker, this Freegan with a scrawny shell,
his coat an indifferent, mucky brown with scars of war – snout cut
by rims of baked bean tins from toppled bins,
A walking wreck?

If I could speak his tongue, or else
give meaning to a look, the way dogs do, I’d ask
What made him choose this life of ours,
This dusty, dirty orange glow
of takeaways and ready meals.
Was it the social memory
Of horns, of horses and of hounds,
and men in red in hot pursuit? “You fool,” I’d say,
“The hunt’s long-gone,
The countryside is safe, it’s us
that’s doomed, and chased and overwhelmed
by so much nonsense.”

And yet with this lone wolf, this pioneer
I feel a sense of camaraderie,
As one who also walks
A path of some resistance, a
Late-night escapader, fridge-raider
Insomniac and ponderer
Of the urban fox.

Anyway, I told my Canadian friend Terrina that I'd spend the day with her on Friday, since I'd been busy for much of the rest of the week. She decided we'd do a Highland tour, going up through the Trossachs, past Glencoe to Loch Ness. As a 1-day tour, heading all the way to Loch Ness involves a lot of driving. We were never really off the bus for much longer than an hour at a time. The weather was typically Scottish, fluctuating between bright sunshine and torrential rain, as if the heavens are suffering from ADHD. Terrina has an indomitable spirit that is infectious, however, so we had a good time. We fed highland cows, ate bad pasta, did a boat tour on Loch Ness and tasted whisky on the way home. I was aware all day that my fate RE: the job would probably have been decided. I had my phone on me, though the correspondence previously had all been done through email so I wasn't sure if I should expect a phone call. By the time we got back to Edinburgh I'd convinced myself I hadn't got the job, because I was sure they would have had to confirm it with me over the phone since it was a Friday and they would be closed over the weekend. I think that helped, really. Having the long bus journey to start consoling myself, so that by the time I got home, five and a half hours after leaving Loch Ness, I was almost ready to read the bad news. It was still a pretty crushing disappointment. In my head I'd already started living an exciting inner-city life, having moved out of my parents' house and started writing seriously on evenings and weekends. DREAMS ftw.

It's odd, because it took me a while before I decided whether I really wanted this job or not. I supposed after finally deciding I did, I invested more and more of my hopes into it until it was like I was applying to be the next ambassador to Japan, rather than a low-level functionary. The job might have been a load of arse. I will never no. I will try to get over it.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Irrationally missing Japan

There's this tv show that started last week. Justin Lee Collins 'goes native' in Japan, ostensibly to find the 'real Japan', the one beyond his stereotypical notion. I've seen a fair few shows of this type, where the presenter goes around experiencing various aspects of the culture, getting access to the local world that a regular tourist never enjoys. In this case, things are a little different, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

The usual stuff has come up - host clubs, weird-flavoured food products, karaoke, theme bars, a sex dolls. What I find weird about it is these little pieces to camera that Collins does after encountering some of the stranger aspects. Now, Justin Lee Collins is best known as a kind of hyperactive presenter-comedian who doesn't take things seriously. But in these pieces to camera - and they're not even to camera - the camera looks at him while he talks to someone diagonally behind the camera, as if it's filming a secret conversation - he suddenly puts on his judgemental hat and talks about how disturbing and awful whatever he's just seen is, in a very serious tone.

I don't know what to make of it. His reactions seem genuine, but it annoys me that he thinks that that's all Japan is. His researchers and producers have no doubt gone to every effort to ensure he sees the most messed up aspects of the country. What he probably doesn't realise is that if you showed the average non-city dwelling Japanese person most of this stuff, they'd have a similar reaction. You'd probably surprise a few Tokyoites as well. It would be fine if he'd said he was deliberately trying to find the craziest aspects of Japanese culture, but instead he's claimed to have gone in search of reality, and stands in judgement of what he's found. Shame on you, JLC.

I almost always avoid watching TV shows about Japan, because they make me want to be back there. Most of the stuff on TV is a Japan I never went to, or at least never lived in. It's not all bright lights, hi-tech gadgetry and maid cafes. But still, seeing all that stuff reminds me of my visits to the cities, which were always some of the most fun times in my overall more sedate time in the country. I don't want to lose my connections through the people I knew and the language I learned. I'll go back some day.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

How to get on the JET Programme Part 2 - The Interview

I promised a second part to my primer for hopeful JET applicants. For those of you who got letters for interviews, congratulations! Now it's time to prove yourself.

There isn't too much I can say on the interview - probably everyone who's applying for JET will have been interviewed for something before. The same rules apply - dress smartly, be polite and show what you're made of.

The interview day is in two stages. After arriving and sitting around, possibly being able to watch the most recent JET promotional video, you'll be asked to sit a short test. For anyone who's done the Cambridge CELTA and remembers the pre-course tasks, it's a bit like that, but simpler. It takes 5-10 minutes. You don't have to know any complicated grammar, but you do have to correct a short piece of writing. It also tests things like vocabulary, asking you to match a word with one of three/four synonyms. The test isn't the kind of thing you can prepare for, since you don't know exactly what will come up, but it's not something to worry about. I know I got at least one thing wrong from my test, and I made it through.

The most important part of the day is the actual interview. It is usually conducted by one native English speaker and one Japanese person. The interview is designed to find out if you are up to being a teacher and working with students, and, perhaps more importantly, whether you will be able to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time.

There are no right answers to the questions they will ask, but here are my hot tips:
On education:
-stress the importance of communication skills in language learning, particularly oral communication
-show due deference to the admittedly broken approach to teaching in Japan - show you're willing to work with the system to improve things
-remember you will be team teaching, so stress your willingness to cooperate with experience Japanese teachers of English
-have some ideas for classroom activities you'd like to try - games and tasks with a focus on communication and learning

On living abroad:
-they will ask at least one question about how you think you will get on in a foreign country
-stress any prior experience of travel or living abroad you have
-be prepared for apparently irrelevant questions - I got "What do you eat?" from the Japanese guy at my interview (possibly poor English on his part) and I was like "What has that got to do with anything?" and spluttered nonsense until I realised I was being asked if I'd be able to get by on Japanese food, albeit in a retarded way
-try to have some knowledge of Japan's socio-economic situation/current political climate. I wasn't asked what I knew about Japan, but I'm aware of others who have. Check out the English websites of Asahi Shimbun, Japan Times or Daily Yomiura to get a feel for things
-of course, show your willingness, nay - eagerness to learn the Japanese language. You've already learned hiragana, you say, and can't wait to learn katakana and some kanji.

If you keep these things in mind it should stand you in good stead.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Night Person

Night Person is a 'perk' in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas that you can take on levelling up, giving you +2 to both Intelligence and Perception. I bring it up because I think I have this in real life. My brain always works better at night. I've always done my best work in the evenings, from writing short stories in high school to essays at university. During the day I can't get anything done.

A few days ago I was trying to get over my late nights and late mornings by going to bed a little after ten. I was feeling fairly tired so I thought I might be fine. Unfortunately, I woke several times during the night, didn't sleep well at all and still ended up waking at 10.30am. Epic fail.

I spent much of yesterday working on something for a writing competition. I had a lot of difficulty with it because the word limit is 250 words. I redrafted several times and still didn't get anywhere. As soon as I lay down to sleep, however, at the quasi-realistic time of 1.30am, my mind was abuzz with ideas for it. I couldn't sleep knowing that these ideas might be gone in the morning, so I had to jot them down in my notebook, but that wasn't enough to settle my mind so I had to watch TV for an hour to calm myself down.

Anyway, back to it.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

New Vague Arse

The other day I finished what has been my biggest distraction from productivity over the last couple of weeks, namely Fallout: New Vegas. On the Playstation 3. It's been a long time (a very very long time) since a game has managed to so wholly suck me in and lose all concept of the passage of real world time. It didn't seem to matter that there were countless bugs in the game or that it crashed rather a lot. It's the best western RPG since Planescape: Torment. And that's saying something.

It kind of messed up my sleep schedule, though, as now I can't seem to get to sleep before 3am and can't get up before noon. But now it's over. New Vegas has held onto its independence. I can go back to my regular, less pronounced level of unproductiveness.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Super Dry JPN Cult

I've started seeing people wearing Super Dry JPN coats everywhere. They're all navy blue and seem to have replaced North Face as the jacket of choice among today's casual jacket wearer.

It's not just jackets, though. There are t-shirts and hoodies with the names of Japanese cities emblazoned on the front, along with some nonsensical kanji. I wondered if the Super Dry brand was related to Asahi Super Dry, one of the most ubiquitous and popular Japanese lagers, but apparently they're made by Supergroup, which is a British company. Should've guessed from the nonsensical kanji. Probably reads to a Japanese (or indeed a Chinese) person like some of my Japanese clothing does to us. Example:

Whenever I see a t-shirt that says "Osaka" or "Okayama" I want to shout, "You haven't even BEEN there! You don't know!"

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


I got stood up today.

I was supposed to be teaching my Japanese guy to help him prepare for some job interviews he'll be having soon. We had a lesson yesterday and were supposed to have one today at 5.30, then he changed it to 5 during yesterday's lesson.

I got to Starbucks just before 5, got a drink and waited. I listened to Adam and Joe interviewing Roger Moore. Sir Roger Moore. 5.05 and he wasn't there. 5.15 similarly. 5.20 I thought maybe he'd forgotten he'd changed the time to 5. So I sat tight and thought he might roll in some time around or after 5.30. Waited and hoped.

I don't like situations where I'm meant to be annoyed with people in real life. I love getting annoyed at things I have no power to change. But I hate confrontation and this was starting to turn into a real cause for it. He'd cancelled several lessons last minute recently and now he hadn't shown up. I had/have every right to be annoyed about it. But I'm always making excuses for other people in these situations. I give myself reasons why other people's shocking behaviour is forgivable. He didn't have my mobile number, for instance. He might have tried to email me.

I had his number, however. I couldn't manage an angry text message. The best I could manage was, "What happened?"


If SOMEBODY SET US UP THE BOMB then maybe that counts as mitigating circumstances.

As it transpired, and as I discovered when I finally left and got the bus home at 5.50, he had emailed me. But at 4.45, long after I'd already got a bus into town. He says some retired people from his company came round and he had to blah blah blah. I know the Japanese loyalty is meant to be to the company, but when you've got an appointment with someone fifteen minutes later you should have the decency to say, "I'm sorry, I can't lick corporate arse today, I have a prior engagement."

He's just sent an email while I've been typing here, promising that it will never happen again. I bloody well hope not.

Rage blackout.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Money money money

A long-awaited day has come. My Japanese pension refund notification arrived today. Soon they should be paying the money into my account. Only took four or five months.

It's an awful lot of money (well, in relative terms). The problem I have is that I can't really do anything with it. I'm all about prudent investment, when I'm not busy buying computer games and faster computers to run them on. This amount, though allowing me to splurge if I so desired, isn't enough to do anything really cool. I can't buy a house with it. If I had a job I suppose it would be enough to pay a deposit on a cheap flat and get a mortgage, but I don't have a real job. A car might be fun, but I'm still learning how to drive and cars are the worst investments ever because they depreciate faster than anything. Also, the tax and insurance would drain me down to nothing in short order.

I've pondered the idea of just taking the money and using it to move into a flat and live off for ten months or whatever, and in that time become rich and successful. Could happen.

In the meantime, I'm dancing with Liza.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

We can has panda nao?

Edinburgh zoo is getting pandas!

I think the staff at the zoo will be rubbing their hands with glee now that the deal has been finalised. They sent their polar bear (the only one in the UK) up north to give it a bigger enclosure and I get the impression the zoo has been a bit rubbish in recent years. When I was doing the CELTA, Maria in my group used the zoo's tourist information leaflet as her authentic material, and the place seems to have a lot less to it than it did when I used to go as a child. Two pandas ought to bring in the crowds. Everybody loves pandas.

I'm taking it as a sign that I shouldn't go back to Asia. Or that I don't need to. I keep thinking about how easy it would be to just get a teaching job in Japan (at least, it seems pretty easy) and then I could just lounge around in Japan for another few years. But no, we're getting pandas. It is not necessary to go back.

I saw pandas once in a zoo/adventure theme park in Wakayama Prefecture. It was expensive to get there on the train (it was nestled in the deep south of the prefecture), expensive to get into the park, and then the food on offer was mostly awful. The park was okay. We rode about in a panda car (that is, a car shaped like a panda) and fed giraffes by hand. Also, there were baby pandas, which are the best kind of panda.

We're getting a breeding pair, though, so it's possible that in time, with patience and panda porn, we'll have our own baby pandas.
Though all panda babies born to couples abroad remain property of the Communist Party of China, Beijing.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Writing Habit

I had an awful time of it over the last two days, trying to put together a short story to submit for my creative writing course's second assignment. I'd had an idea for a while, but when it came down to it, I just wasn't that interested in putting it together. It's one of the weird things about doing this course - I'm supposed to want to write, but it makes you write particular things in a particular way at particular times. Creativity doesn't work like that.

Anyway, I got through it somehow. It's not very good, certainly not my best work. Towards the end I started to think parts of it might not be that bad. I don't think the story worked within the confines of the word limit, not that I was keen to have to write any more. I was working at it until half an hour before midnight, what I considered to be the deadline. You know, before the date changed.

Anyway, it got me to thinking. If I want to be serious about the whole smelly writing lark, I need to make it part of my life. It can't just be a thing I begrudgingly do when an assignment I don't like comes round.

So here was my thought: write something every day. And that could be just be a blog post, like this, or it could be part of something more substantial. And if I can't get to a computer or wherever I'm writing, it can be something like a haiku.

It's time to put my pen where my mouth is. And start chewing.

The Emily Times

Emily came! And went. Cry.
It seemed like a whirlwind visit. It was like no sooner had she arrived and I was sleeping on a rapidly deflating mattress on the floor, than she was leaving again and I was back in my own bed.
The weather during her trip was pretty depressingly awful. Not that it was particularly rainy or even snowy, but it was dull, grey, cloudy and oh! so very cold. Blue skies in winter can be quite pretty here:
Actually that's an evening shot. We can look nice in the day, too.

Still, Emily is not one to let the weather put a dampener on her ill-warranted irrational exuberance. After subjecting her to bowling and pizza with my friends on her first evening, we hit the town on the second day.

We spent most of our time in Edinburgh's Old Town, the originally-titled oldest part of the city. After wandering by the castle (see top of page) and through a shop that promised more armour than it delivered, we went to the Camera Obscura. A Camera Obscura is a contraption that projects a live image of a location via a series of wicked things like mirrors. You go into a darkened room and a guide rotates the image around the city and 'picks up' people on the image with pieces of card. I remember going once when I was younger, though I remember the image being clearer then, it being summer and the light being brighter. After the display on the top floor we made our way down through the different levels of the building which each housed a set of displays and things you could play with, all connected with optical illusions and the like. Here is a ladder to Australia:
Of course, any ladder going to Australia would have to pass through the molten layers of the Earth, so I have to assume this display is an attempt to murder unwitting Australian tourists passing through the museum.
Other highlights included a mirror maze and a gangway that has rotating lights around it that make you want to vomit.
The place is a bit like the Dublin Wax Museum PLUS that I visited last year, with the difference being that the Camera Obscura isn't shit. Hooray for that.

After grabbing lunch/dinner at a bar on Potter Row (after giving up on the excessively busy Elephant House, famous for being the place where J.K. Rowling apparently wrote some of the early Harry Potter stuff) we ventured out to investigate taking part in the Torchlight Procession. As far as I can tell, this event is part of an attempt for the City of Edinburgh to stretch its money-spinning Hogmanay celebrations beyond the night of the 31st. Thousands of people buy overpriced torches (for charity, in fairness) which are later lit, then everyone walks through town, carrying their flaming brands, like a rather indifferent lynch mob. Emily and I thought we were late to the party, but after getting our torches, which were a roll of coarse fabric coated in wax, we found that we were quite near the front of the procession. A voice over a PA system told us at various intervals, as we were waiting to be lit up and allowed to move off, that there were 10,000, 15,000 then 20,000 of us in total. A record-breaking year. Somewhere around 6.20, the Up Helly Aa vikings from Shetland started the show and the gift of fire spread like the proverbial throughout the waiting crowd.

Fire starts to arrive:
I am given a light by this kind lady:
The Savages song from Pocahontas:
A while after being lit up, with the wax dripping down our sticks and only a bit of card to protect our hands, we were permitted to proceed. We walked down from St Giles Cathedral and round The Mound, by the National Galleries, then right onto Princes Street and up to Calton Hill. Once there, we waited a while for some of the thousands of people behind us to catch up (though not all made it) and then we were treated to a Viking ship burning

and some fireworks
And then we all headed home, covered in wax. I have a pair of gloves that are probably ruined now because wax leaked through the gap between the guard and the torch and soaked its way right through the fabric. I didn't notice at first, except that there was a pleasant warming sensation in my left hand.

The following day was New Year's Eve, or Hogmanay as we say in Scotland. I can never be bothered doing anything for New Year, but I did book something for the daytime. Panto! It's a British institution. Pantomime is a stage performance of a traditional, well-known story but usually with a few modern elements and cultural references added. Often the cultural references are very local and specific. Each pantomime takes up residence in a particular theatre between December and January, and features one or two celebrities, former celebrities or other washed-up sorts. Many theatres seem to have exclusive deals with particular washed-up stars to do their pantomime every year, whatever it may be. Allan Stewart, Scottish comedian, has been playing the pantomime dame (read: transvestite) at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh for so many years that I doubt anyone can remember how he looks as a man. This year he was back as the mother of the eponymous Jack in this:
I was a little worried that I'd grown too jaded to appreciate this kind of family-oriented entertainment, but I really did enjoy it. The story wasn't as well constructed as it could have been, but it was fun and even Emily could appreciate a good number of the cultural references, having been subjected to many of the trashier elements of British culture by myself.

On New Year's Day I was dead to the world, having burned out from being sick with fluey coldishness and lack of lying around doing nothing. So my parents took Emily on a merry jaunt somewhere. I hope she didn't feel intimidated by them.

The next day we all went to Stirling to visit the castle there. It was ####ing freeeeezing, and the skies were grey and depressing. It's probably a nice place to visit in summer but gawd it was gloomy. Then we went to the Wallace monument, which is dedicated to Scottish heroism and patriotism as personified by psychotic Australian actor/director Mel Gibson.

That evening we made a quick decision to do one of the many ghost tours offered by companies in the city centre. We phoned up to make sure there would be space, and were told that only the 10pm tour has spaces free. Of course, tramping around the spooky Old Town of Edinburgh at night is an opportunity any tourist would jump at, so we made our way into the city. I have to say I was a little disappointed by the tour. The speaker had a tendency towards the melodramatic, and while he had the moody tone of intrigue school of storytelling down pat, I thought he could have used more variation in his style. I also think that when the guides act more normally, and engage with the audience in a light-hearted way, it helps to bring them in more and accept more willingly the dramatic, spooky parts of the stories. When we made it to the underground vaults - lost and buried between the late 19th century and 1985 - we were finally told that Mercat Tours (the company organising our tour) didn't go in for gimmicks like people jumping out at you in costumes, so anything you saw or heard that you couldn't explain was potentially a spirit of some kind. Personally I thought the tour could use a gimmick or two. The kind of stories he told of the various criminals, witches, tortures and executions were very familiar to me - I've heard them all on tours before. A good scare from a guy wearing a rubber mask would have livened up the whole thing, in my opinion. I'm not sure if Emily was of a similar opinion.

The next day, after a rather long lie following our late night ghost walk, we decided to visit Holyrood Palace, official Edinburgh residence of the Queen and site of a fair bit of Scottish royal history. With our ticket we got an audio tour guide including a welcome by Prince Charles. I actually hadn't known until a few days before that the palace was a tourist attraction. I didn't know you could go inside, even though one of my friends used to work in the cafe there. One thing that struck me about the interior of the palace was that there were no corridors with rooms leading off them; each room followed the next so that to walk all the way around the house, you had to go through the various bed chambers and waiting rooms.

Part of the audio tour deals with the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and in particular the murder by her second husband of her Italian secretary. We had been informed, by my friend who worked at the palace, that the site of the murder had a patch of red on the floorboards. She said it was meant to suggest that the bloodstain of five hundred years ago still remained, but was actually the result of some enthusiastic polishing from the cleaning ladies who worked there, who get a kick out of tricking people into thinking it's real.

After the palace, which was a nice place to get in out of the cold, we had cheap dinner at a scummy pub called Shakespeare's (presumably because of its proximity to several theatres) then went to see an advanced screening of The King's Speech. We both really enjoyed it. I noted again how the King had to pass through every other room in his palace to get to where he was going. Must be a thing with British palaces.

The following day was Emily's last day in Edinburgh, so we went, at last, to Edinburgh Castle. Once again the weather was freezing, so we spent most of the time diving in and out of the various buildings. I'm not convinced the experience is worth the £15 it costs to get in, but it is at least nice to have a commanding view of the city. It's probably nicer in summer, as with most things. After tourist shopping and then normal shopping, we went for dinner at an Indian restaurant and had curry foods, which was important for us because we used to go for a curry together every week in Japan. I think Emily's been kind of deprived since I left.

Emily left in the middle of the night and I moped about wondering where all the time had gone, all too aware that I had a creative writing submission to make, for which I had zero motivation.
Emily made it home safely, however. Her home was guarded by deer in her absence. Also, bears.