About Richard
The Journey
World Friends

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Report: #01
Date: 25 Dec 1995
Location: Osaka

Its been a long time I know and I apologise profusely. I often think of you and nag myself to write something to you when next I sit down at my word processor. But as you can tell by carbon-dating the last letter I sent to you, my intentions suffered all too often from random-event-override-syndrome. That is things kept popping up to distract me from my writing. SORRY.

Up until recently, my word processor was my pencil and paper (though sometimes I managed to borrow a real one), but recently I seized the chance to pick up this Macintosh computer at a knockdown price from a Brazilian friend leaving Japan and returning home. So here I am, after 4 years traveling in the cyber-wilderness, all plugged in to 8 megabytes of RAM, floppies and bubble-jet, and on the verge of dipping my toe into the waves of the Internet. Then I'll get myself an e-mail address, so if you're on line you can send me some e or something. If this jargon doesn't make sense to you, don't worry; up until very recently it baffled me too, and that largely hasn't changed.

Actually I'm jumping a long way ahead of myself. My "Mac" was only a recent acquisition in terms of ancient history when I last wrote.

But at the expense of frying my eyes. I am becoming steadily more proficient at it. Before I forget; HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND A GRAND & WONDERFUL NEW YEAR!!!

Now what was I going to tell you? Something about 1995 I suppose. I'll start with a year's summary. At the beginning of January I visited magical Mt. Fuji for the first time and, less inspiringly, took a peep at Tokyo's vast metropolis. Shortly after visiting the modern capital I went to the first capital, Nara, not far from Osaka here, with its tranquil deer park, temples in wooded seclusion and massive Buddha statue. Nara was the early capital apparently because the area doesn't suffer earthquakes as severe as those in the rest of Japan. Little over a day after I learned that little fact, the cataclysmic Hanshin earthquake struck and claimed 5.000 lives, just down the road. I was thankful I lost only sleep that alarming morning. In the aftermath of the quake I added my small bit to the relief effort in twisted and crumpled Kobe. But poor organisation had volunteers working a gear with lots of effort and little result. That is, those volunteers who did turn out anyway, unconvinced by official, inaccurate information that there were enough volunteers. So I started intensively trying to set up a cycling event as a fund raiser, thinking it would be a more efficient use of my time. But more brick walls (of a remarkably earthquake-proof variety) obstructed me. And at that time I was given the boot from my job, perhaps because I was no longer giving 100% to my work. I know that my 90% was sufficient but sometimes when you set a precedent some people expect it all the time. Actually, I still don't know really why I was fired. It kind of scuppered my cycling event (no more dependable income for writing, faxing, phoning and publicising), but it was really a blessing in disguise. From then on I could base my working around doing a Japanese course, one of my priorities whilst in Japan, and unclog my time for seeing friends and more of Japan and Japanese culture. I could do this by doing part time jobs which pay a better hourly rate, though they lack the security of full time.

Japan takes two or three annual holidays EN MASSE, and in one of them, called Golden Week, I used my bicycle to follow the traffic jams into the countryside, and used my tent to avoid the hyper-inflated hotel rates. Many Japanese people were also camping by the roads and rivers in the mountains and, as with many times before, I was treated to the fantastic Japanese hospitality by the people I shared the open air and rain with; seemingly endless supplies of food, drinks and flattering remarks. For my pedaling efforts I was rewarded with a soak in my first "onsen"; forty-odd degrees C hot spring bath. It's amazing how being cooked can actually be relaxing!

THE GORGES AND MOUNTAINS in Wakayama, just south of Osaka were spectacular and I went home refreshed.

Summer wound up the heat and loaded the air with moisture. It was a squelchy, low energy time for me, but I managed to keep cycling 55 minutes to work from a new address which was surprisingly isolated; just a building site at the cutting end of a fast extending railway line towards the impressive new, artificial-island airport. Now that airport is something!

I survived the summer without dissolving into the humidity and by blowing away my lethargy jumping around with friends who form 3 or 4 of the top local grunge bands. But such perspirational activity demanded a huge consumption of orange juice. Talking of which, OJ is innocent. Just the system is cracked. Sorry to give that issue more publicity in my sidetrack there, but it just popped out. In a more respectable vein (than grunge) I went to see a bilingual performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which the lead was entirely in Japanese. I didn't understand much, only gist largely, but probably that would have been the case had it all been original Shakespearian language. Meeting "Lady Macbeth" at the last-night party led to me getting a job teaching English for the renowned British Council in lovely, historic Kyoto. Teaching there was very satisfying with great colleagues, a good system and enthusiastic students. Kyoto has some fine cultural ingredients to reward the inquisitive too. There's the gorgeous Golden Temple, Kinkakuji, plus numerous other historic temples, palaces and gardens, including a Zen rock garden consisting of a few medium sized rocks placed in an area of neatly raked gravel, which people sit in silence and contemplate. There's the Gion Matsuri festival in which teams of singing, costumed men tow giant, old, ornate, wooden floats through the streets, and there's Daimonji where 5 or 6 enormous Japanese kanji symbols are set ablaze on the hills overlooking the city on three sides.

With a group of avid fun seekers (teachers and students alike), from the B.C. I went to the nearby, large (like an inland sea) lake Biwako, to lark about in boats, swimming and playing some seriously silly games, to complement the weather. There seems to be a beneficial effect in the releasing of pent-up stress by trying to open a watermelon with a baseball bat whilst blindfolded.

I had to move house again at the tail end of the summer, to my present abode in a residential area nearer in to the city-real. I'm not in the suburbs anymore. Gone are the few trees. It's just buildings and roads, and along the main route through and out of the city, car dealers and Pachinko parlours (cathedrals of neon and noise dedicated to unfathomably mindless game machines based on a ceaseless, frantic flow of ball bearings) predominate. The area is not totally unpleasant though. It's not a concrete jungle. The traditional style of modern houses; overhanging tiled rooves, gates and balconies, create a friendly feeling. Shops for all necessities (for instance; processed all-taste-removed cheese, or taste-overloaded sour plumb surrounded by rice wrapped in sea-weed) are handy and close. It's a comfortable 8 minute walk to the railway station (not so comfortable 4 minute run). But generally I ride my leg machine and it's only half an hour to my night time haunts in the city centre.

As Kobe rose swiftly from the ruins, straightened its streets, covered the cracks, sprouted new spires, erected new expressways, hammered up new houses and relinked its lines (now there is little to betray the size of the blow received nor the depth of the unhealable wound within), I didn't let go of my intent to raise money for orphans of Kobe's quake with a cycling event. Then my opportunity came when a crazy friend of mine got round to doing his annual cycle-marathon; this year, 900Km from Hiroshima to Tokyo in under two days. I decided to accompany him from Osaka. At 560Km, that was still way into unknown territory for me, and scary. I was worried I wouldn't cope with the pace. But I took on the burden of publicising the event, which actually turned out to be harder work than the ride. I did the ride (in a stately 29 hours) with surprisingly little pain, except I don't know how many years the dirty, polluted road will have knocked off my life. And we have raised well over $2,000 so far.

Anyway, that was at the beginning of October, about the same time as my first success as a writer occurred. I wrote a travel article for a regional English language magazine; a small start, but I got some good comments from people I didn't know. Just after that and the ride to Tokyo, my Mum paid me a visit for a couple of fun weeks around Japan, and just after she left I was hit by a car while cycling and fractured my right arm. I was four weeks in a cast and now, after 7 weeks, I've about recovered. But two long term legacies of that are being able to use chop sticks with my left hand (actually a bit of a no-no in Japan) and one of my poems being typed in lower case only.

That brings me neatly to the Christmas present. Osaka has chilled down to 2 or 3 degrees above freezing, and my bed on the floor takes a while to warm up each night. There was a beautifully coloured Autumn, but it largely passed me by, because my arm kept me off my bike. In Japan they have bonenkai parties to forget the bad stuff in the past year. I don't wish to forget any of it. I hope you can say the same.

Richard Gregg


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