Big (and Fat and Drunk) in Japan

Prologue: Those sandal-wearing goldfish tenders?

Japan has occupied a place on my to-do list for a while. Never quite up there with Russia, Yemen or Iran (I genuinely do wish to visit these places), but certainly the kind of place that I would wish to see, were others interested in going. This particular trip was born out of two separate conversations with people where the subject of going to Japan was broached. Fast forward several months and chop and change the lineup for the trip, and so it was that myself, Declan and Paul were off to see the Land of the Rising Sun.

There were of course the usual roadblocks. My inertia where planning things is concerned had long since superseded the well-intentioned efforts of my fellow travelers to nail things down, so the itinerary was, to put it mildly, convoluted. The trip was to last two weeks, at least that could be agreed on. A week in Tokyo was also quickly concurred upon. The rest was, to put it mildly, up in the air.

As anyone who knows me well is aware, my opinion of a film tends to be closely related to the quantity of explosions therein. I like explosions. As child, I came close to blowing up an oven after getting hold of a chemistry set and a bottle of vinegar. As a consequence, Hiroshima figured prominently on my wish list. Kyoto and Osaka were also possibles, but by the time myself and Declan (Paul having taken a different route) rocked up to the Etihad checkin desks in Dublin, things still hadn’t been sorted. Oh well. I had spent a month of poor planning in February rocking around random parts of the world and it had done no harm whatsoever. A plan would be formed in the fullness of time, as Sir Humphrey might say.

There was of course one thing that we really should have planned, and that was accommodation. We had booked a week in Tokyo on Airbnb at Declan’s recommendation, and were now having difficulty contacting our host for the stay. In other words, we were going nearly on spec. Prior to boarding our flight to Abu Dhabi, we placed another communication to our host, but were, to put it mildly, apprehensive about the whole thing.
There are advantages to knowing the person checking you in. On a full flight we had the only four empty seats between the two of us, which were also at the bulkhead. Of course, there is always the unforeseeable. In this case the unforeseeable was an Indian family seated behind us, specifically the children. As anyone who knows me well is aware, children are not my cup of tea, and these pair were among the most egregious I have had the misfortune to encounter.

The older one was sitting behind me. Either he was a malicious bastard or he wasn’t familiar with how to operate the touchscreen on the inflight entertainment system, but for whatever reason he saw fit to repeatedly bash my seat throughout the flight. While the flight itself was one of the least turbulent I have ever been on, personally I had a very turbulent time at the hands of this fellow.

The younger one was worse. For his sake I hope that there was a record executive or an opera producer on the aircraft, because otherwise a spectacular set of lungs may go to waste. His screams were less of an intermittent punctuation to the flight, and more of a continuous, aggressively intrusive nuisance. Many years ago a friend of mine, Kevin, acquired an air horn for the purpose of irritating me (Yeah, that’s the kind of friends we were. In his defence, I had spent a large part of the previous year placing thumb tacks on his seat). This was the closest analogue I can think of to the ordeal that I was forced to undergo for this flight. Having got scarcely an hour’s sleep the previous night and having designs on retrieving the situation on this flight, I was perhaps more than a little put out upon arriving in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Airport is currently trying to become one of the world’s premier transit hubs. A gleaming new terminal is currently being constructed, but in the meantime we had to make do with the older structures, which have been put together in a somewhat ramshackle manner, leaving far too few seats for the kind of footfall the airport aims to handle. This, however, paled into insignificance against the fact that we had to each pay the equivalent of ten euro for a pint. Ireland may have something of a reputation as a ripoff, but the more I travel the more undeserved this seems in comparison to other places. On the other hand, we lucked out and finally managed to make contact with our host in Tokyo. Onwards we went.

Japanese etiquette is rather complex. I was acutely aware to be alert for any potential faux pas’s we might commit in Japan. However, this didn’t seem to have been communicated to Declan, who didn’t even wait till Japan. Unaware that the overhead call bell on the aircraft is for matters of serious import (and never to be used by a standby passenger for anything short of a heart attack), he proceeded to ring it repeatedly in search of alcohol or to enquire as to why his extant requests for alcohol had yet to be fulfilled. On the plus side, it did mean that I was kept reasonably supplied with booze without attracting the opprobrium of the cabin crew. Anyway, this flight was pleasantly children-free, and though I managed at best an hour’s sleep, we were in an altogether better humour disembarking this aircraft.

Asian culture loves enforcement of rules. Some years back I was in a station on the Bangkok elevated train line and had innocently strayed across the yellow line on the platform. No sooner had I done this than a uniformed individual ran up blowing a whistle at me and gesturing to move back behind the line. Turned out there were two guards on each platform whose sole purpose seems to have been enforcement of the yellow line rule. Similarly, immigration in Narita Airport had a number of agents imposing their will upon the queues. Declan became somewhat worried when he noticed people were being fingerprinted at the immigration kiosks. The previous evening, he had engaged in a crash program of dishwashing using caustic soda, and was vaguely uneasy that this might have had a corrosive effect upon his fingers.

For my part I was uneasy in general. In the course of my travels, I have been detained by immigration and customs officials in Los Angeles, Shannon, Dublin, the West Bank, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Wellington. I am the shifty guy who gets stopped all the time. It was, I figured, for the best that Declan went through customs separately from me, against the possibility that I might be delayed and he might have to find Paul himself. In the event, our roles were reversed, as I got through without a hitch and he had his bags opened. Obviously he’s even shiftier than I am. Paul was waiting outside, so that was one less potential headache.

It is a constant source of frustrated amazement to me that, in this day and age, airports can continue to maintain such awful wifi networks. It is as if, in some insane naivety, they believe that the patrons all have access to mobile data and have no use for wifi. In other words, they seem to overlook the fact that many of their clients are from abroad. I am unfortunately spoilt by the fact that Dublin Airport is recognised as having some of the finest wifi bandwith in the world. Abu Dhabi’s is awful. Narita’s is much, much worse. Both my colleagues had cleverly thought to bypass the wifi dependency by purchasing Japanese SIM cards before leaving. This would have been of considerably more utility had Declan not lost his almost immediately and had Paul gone to the trouble of getting his phone unlocked to accept a different SIM. So it was that we were stuck in a random corner trying to contact our host again to sort directions out. Eventually this was sorted and we headed off to the train station, only to discover that Narita Airport Station boasted superb connectivity.

As we were to repeatedly discover, Japanese trains are exceedingly efficient. Their departure and arrival times are accurate to the minute, regardless of the distance involved. They also generally live up to their reputation of being utterly packed. Shinjuku Station, which was our transit point en route to the apartment, is the busiest station in the world. Paul managed our first noticeable faux pas by standing on the wrong side of an escalator (In Tokyo, one stands on the left side, leaving the right hand side to those who wish to walk on it. In Osaka, this is reversed. It took some trial and error to ascertain this). After some difficulties navigating Shinjuku, mostly caused by Declan’s search for a prepay card, we found the relevant subway and finally arrived at our apartment.

 

2: Gai-Jin (and Tonic)
Our Airbnb host’s username was Samurai. The assumption on our part was that this was advertising puff. Then we saw the samurai suit in the tatami room. Then Declan saw the sword. Then he announced it was edged. Suddenly I was in the same building as Declan and a lethal weapon. My continued existence was now contingent on the whims of a man whose mental stability I constantly question. Mind you, his continued existence was contingent on my even more questionable mental stability.

Three people is a slightly awkward number for a trip. One cannot split the group without leaving somebody on their own. This was exacerbated by our differing plans for the trip. In Declan’s case the plan was centred around his love of aikido, so he was going to multiple training sessions. Paul was playing classic tourist, sightseeing and skirt chasing. In my case, it was of course heavy drinking, with the optional extra of seeing Japan.

Having lived in Korea for three surreal months, I like to think of myself as an old Asia hand. This assumption is of course completely untrue, but I cling to my delusions. In any case, I very quickly rediscovered that the Far East is one of the worst places in the world to navigate using English. Upon visiting Roppongi for lunch on our first morning, we erroneously assumed that because a bar had English on the sandwich board outside, there would be an English speaker inside, and we could order lunch. One drink on an empty stomach later, we hastily decamped to the dining area of a nearby shopping centre, where we had one of the few Japanese meals of the trip (I hold my hands up on this one, the avoidance of Japanese places was entirely my fault. The others were fully behind sampling Japanese cuisine. Originally the agreement was that we would do one Western, one Japanese place each day. My intransigence soon undermined this and sent our diets in a decidedly Western direction).

I further de-Japanesed the trip by identifying an Irish bar in Shinjuku as a good watering hole for myself and Paul while Declan was training. In my defense, Irish bars tend to attract expatriates and have English speaking staff, which I thought might be the best way to get an inside track on what to do in Tokyo. In this case, it was a bit of a touristy spot, and more importantly lacked Wifi (My Internet addiction is perhaps worse than my alcohol one) Thankfully, Paul had thoughtfully downloaded the entirety of TripAdvisor’s guided to Tokyo, and had identified the Golden Gai as being a good spot to visit for a night out.

The Golden Gai is possibly the most surreal drinking area I have ever visited. For a start, it is rather tricky to find. We walked past it twice without noticing. Having narrowed it down to a block area, and having failed to locate it, we assumed that the map had the location wrong. A full circuit of the block reinforced this assumption. Myself and Paul (Declan being off training) decided to write off the idea. Then, as we were heading back, we spotted a dumpster-strewn alley leading into the block. A hundred yards later we discovered the densest collection of bars I have ever seen. Every premise is a bar. I suspect none can seat more than a dozen people, but there were hundreds of them.
We settled on a heavy metal bar. Maximum occupancy about ten. Cheesy music and crap movies. Heaven. It was clearly attracting tourists, as the place was full, and nobody was Oriental. We ran up a decent tab before they closed the place at 3am, whereupon we moved onwards, after adding to our troupe a British lesbian and two middle-aged Singaporean ladies who, thanks to our inexpertise at judging the age of Oriental types, myself and Declan were trying to chat up.

Like most Irish people, beyond a certain level of growth my facial hair acquires a reddish tinge. This was an object of fascination to the Singaporeans, who started making jokes about my ginger beard. I would have dismissed this but for the fact that the bartender subsequently mate the same observation. After being slagged off for a ginger beard, I suddenly feel a closer affinity with every oppressed people ever. The evening culminated around 6am with all parties getting uproariously hammered, and me ending up botching a cunning plan to dodge the subway fare on account of passing out midway through it, and forgetting about the plan upon waking up.

As might be imagined, the next day we slept late. After finally getting out of bed around 4pm, Paul announced he wanted steak. This suggestion met with mine and Declan’s approval. At this point Paul finally managed to get his phone unblocked, and suddenly we had mobile internet. TripAdvisor informed us that the best place for steak was the New York Bar and Grill in Shinjuku. Upon arriving there I realised that we had fallen into a familiar trap (for me, anyway). The place was absurdly upmarket. Three hungover twentysomethings (I’m thirty, but who’s counting) in gladrags looked absurdly out of place. Then we discovered that the bar was used in Lost in Translation. That explained the upmarketness. Nonetheless, the steak was excellent, although it was the second most expensive meal I have ever purchased (see below).

The single biggest (metaphorically and physically) attraction in Tokyo is the Imperial Palace. This is probably still the most valuable piece of real estate on the planet, but at the height of the Tokyo property bubble in the eighties, the book value of the place was higher than the aggregate value of all the property in California. Personally I don’t think it looked that expensive. Nice, but not expensive. While wandering through the palace gardens, Declan happened to notice that the spiders here were particularly large and brightly coloured, and started taking pictures of them for the benefit of scaring his arachnophobic sister. Mind you, the joke was about to turn on us.

The Japanese giant hornet is perhaps the most terrifying insect in existence. Three inches long, equipped with a stinger a full third of an inch long, and delivering a sting that kills hundreds of people a year in Asia, it kinda puts wasps to shame. So it was that when I saw a gigantic flying insect passing between myself and Declan, I immediately directed his attention to it by repeated use of the word “Fuck”. Upon noticing said insect, Declan concurred in my assessment, and proceeded to swear profusely too. The event concluded with him running one way, me hurriedly shuffling the other, and Paul (who had somehow remained oblivious to this) ambling along the intended path. Mind you, frightening and all as huge spiders and hornets are, they pale in comparison with the most terrifying of Japanese inhabitants: the Japanese cyclist.

In a sensible country, there are designated lanes provided for the use of cyclist. In a sane country, they would at least stick to the road. In Japan, there is neither sanity nor sensibility. The Japanese cyclist is a maniac provided with a vehicle he is incapable of handling. I can only assume that bicycles arrived in Japan a week before we did, as every Japanese seems to be only learning how to use them, going at inconsistent speeds in an inconsistent direction. Pedestrians are treated like bollards or other street detritus. Most bikes lack bells, so a warning of a cyclist is something of a luxury. Should a cyclist approach from behind, he may have the decency to apprise you of his presence, or at least slow down. From ahead, his assumption is that once you have seen him, any collision is your fault. Frequently I have seen cyclists accelerate towards pedestrians, forcing panicked bystanders to leap aside.

There is a curious dichotomy about Japan. The country exudes loud colours. Neon abounds. And yet, the average citizen seems to exalt in drabness. Every guy wears black suits during the week. Me walking around in my beige chinos and blue striped T-shirt stood out somewhat awful, even before one considers the attire of my fellows. Women too, dress conservatively. Black grey and white comprise the entirety of the Tokyo weekday attire. I suspect that had I followed my impulses and brought a few Hawaiian shirts, I could have provoked a riot.
Declan had more training that evening, so myself and Paul busied ourselves by visiting a shrine. Oddly enough, given that I am aggressively Philistine in my cultural tastes I rather enjoyed this. Even better, the exit to the shrine left us close to Shibuya. Shibuya is perhaps the most Tokyo part of of Tokyo, being a neon-soaked tide of humanity. Faced with this cultural melting pot, myself and Paul decided to go to Hooters. Having never been before, I can’t say I’m overly impressed. Aside from the fact that Asians are generally not overly endowed in the mammary department, the blatant flirting that is part of the Hooters culture is very definitely not part of the Japanese culture. As a result, the flirting of the waitresses was stilted at best. Their interest in myself and Paul left us feeling like we were zoo exhibits, rather than objects of affection. Also, they managed to pour a pint of Guinness in one go that ended up being about one third head.
After much negotiation, we agreed that Friday would be our primary drinking day. We also agreed on going to Roppongi. Roppongi is the most cosmopolitan and (not coincidentally) the dodgiest place in Japan, but it does have serious bars. A few afternoon drinks with Paul (Declan once again having gone training) ascertained a couple of possible venues in the area.
One of the bigger surprises of my time in Japan was the number of West Africans working in Roppongi. This flies in the face of what my stereotypical picture of how ethnically monolithic Japan would be. God only knows how they got here, but the men seem to have all one job, which is to act as promoters/harassers for a few of the more suspect bars in the area. One cannot stand around for any length of time without one of them coming up and informing one that he knows a really nice titty bar in the vicinity. We first became aware of this phenomenon when we got out at Roppongi subway station, and then amused ourselves by observing this from an upstairs bar. However, our reverie was interrupted when Paul’s incessant use of Tinder bore fruit and he had to go out and retrieve the other party to his online tryst, thereby allowing myself and Declan the amusement of watching him run the gauntlet. This was of course turned back on us when we decided to leave the bar and engage in street drinking with some locals we happened upon.
Eventually this harassment got so irritating that myself and Declan engaged in a competition to see who could tell them to fuck off the most. Declan won this rather spectacularly, when one of them approached at a junction and got rather upset when Declan told him to fuck off. Declan stoically ignored the fellow’s remonstrations that he was merely a salesman (engaging in an activity which, according to the signs prominently displayed in the area, is illegal), and once the gentleman finished his tirade, simply repeated “Fuck off” and walked off.
Also extremely visible in Roppongi were the prostitutes. Of all the places I have been, only Thailand comes close to matching this level of overt displays by the oldest profession. Again, like the West Africans, they cluster around the main intersection, the better to approach people waiting for the pedestrian lights to change. Repeatedly, we had our arms grabbed and turned around to see a provocatively dressed Asian girl uttering the word “Massaggy?” I initially took this to be the Japanese word for sex, before realising that it was a corruption of the word “massage”. Like everywhere else in Asia, prostitution seems to be illegal but tolerated, forcing those involved in the trade to resort to euphemism to ply their wares.
The most notorious expat bar in Tokyo is called Motown, and is located in Roppongi. When, in between uttering expletives at them, we told one of the promoters that we were going there, he advised us not to do so, on account of it being full of ladyboys. Wikitravel had also said this, though with the qualifier that most had been deported some years back. This provided myself and Declan with a modicum of amusement, as we attempted to determine which of the hookers in the bar fell into the aforementioned category. The Tokyo subway ceases operation between midnight and 5am, and we were loth to risk taking our chances with a taxi in the largest city on the planet, where nobody spoke English and we spoke no Japanese, so the evening concluded in a 24-hour bar, winding down the clock ahead of the subway reopening.
Saturday was to be our last day in Tokyo, and Paul had found perhaps the most quintessentially modern Japanese event with which to fill it: A robot stage show. I find this quite hard to describe. It was perhaps a strange frission of kabuki theatre, sci-fi, and burlesque. The first act seemed to comprise a group of furries and scantily clad women fighting against people dressed in robot suits, followed by what can only be called a mock arms race, as each of the combatants sought to put larger machines into the fray. The second act was indecipherable. Essentially, it was a large number of robots (or people in robot suits) dancing around with no apparent coordination or plot to it. Surreal stuff indeed.
I had sensibly declared that, with a long train journey ahead of us, we should stay local that evening. “Local” in this case meant a twenty-five minute walk up to Ikedaburo, in search of a bar that TripAdvsior rated rather highly, only to discover that the place had closed some time previously. Suffice it to say that my companions treated my suggestions with more scepticism thereafter. That said, it did mean that we were well set for the journey ahead.

 

3: Having a blast in Hiroshima

 

Paul is an inveterate sightseer. Unlike me, who goes on holiday with a short list of things to see, and is not overly disappointed if not all of that list is taken in, Paul deems it necessary to fill out a trip with the most things possible, even if we had never previously heard of them. It does make for a considerably more enriched, albeit regimented, trip than I would normally engage in. However, Hiroshima was all my work, or at least I had said from the get-go that it would be featuring on the itinerary. There was one hitch, and that was myself and Declan.
Paul, to his credit, has no sacred cows. It’s one of the reasons he’s a good guy to go out with, particularly for table quizzes, when we like to pick offensive team names. Previous examples include “12 Years a Slave-Owner” at a quiz celebrating Ireland’s multiculturalism, or “We’re going to beat Anders Breivik’s High Score” at the Trinity College Shooting Club. But myself and Declan are an order of magnitude worse. Having lived together for fifteen months, we have long since dispensed with anything approaching sensitivity. In a potentially sensitive situation, we actively seek out the most gratuitously offensive jokes possible. So it was that the next two days would be filled with off-colour remarks about the atomic bombing in 1945. Admittedly, given the lack of English among the general population, and myself and Declan’s reasonably pronounced Irish accents, the likelihood of someone being offended was slim.
The Japanese rail system is a marvel. Cheap, efficient, reliable, and most importantly absurdly punctual. The scheduled departure and arrival times will be accurate to the minute. If one’s ticket says three minutes will be enough to connect between trains, then indeed three minutes will suffice. The urban trains run every five minutes without fail. Japan also boasts one of the most developed high-speed rail systems in the world. So it was that Declan (or possibly Paul, or possibly both. Certainly not me, planning this far ahead was something I habitually avoid) had suggested weeks beforehand that we invest in a Japanese Railway Pass for getting around. For a price of €220 we had free travel across Japan. This wonderful piece of cardboard enabled us to go up and down Japan for the second week of our holiday without a hitch. Just show it at the turnstile and off you go.
The Shinkansen bullet trains were a marvel of technology in the 1960s. The only hitch is that they don’t appeared to have replaced the rolling stock at any point in the past few decades. While comfortable, they typically lack amenities that would be standard on their Irish counterparts, particularly when the traveler has a liking for internet access or electrical outlets. Most Shinkansens boast neither. Oh well, I had brought beer and a book, so the five hour trip to Hiroshima would be tolerable.
As I had outline earlier, my previous flight between Dublin and Abu Dhabi had been rendered nearly unbearable thanks to the presence of children seated near me. So I was less than pleased to see a mother and daughter choose to sit down beside me just outside of Kobe. Then it turned out that, far from seeking to engage in any sort of annoying behaviour, the urchin was flat terrified of me. Maybe she had never seen a Westerner before, or perhaps a scruffy, ginger-bearded Westerner who reeked of drink was the problem, but either way she spent the entire journey cowering as far away from me as possible in her seat. In some small way, I feel avenged upon the bastard from the flight.
Hiroshima has the benefit of being considerably smaller than Tokyo, which meant that we could walk to our hotel, or at least we thought so. Unfortunately, despite now having Paul’s phone with the intendant advantage of Google Maps and GPS, it still took slightly longer to find our lodgings than planned. No matter. The hotel was cheap, comfortable, and boasted that most incredible of things, the Japanese toilet.
The Japanese have elevated ablutions to an art form. At the bottom of the scale are the old-fashioned Asian squat toilets, which, after a few unpleasant experiences over the years, I have sought to avoid. Western-style toilets are pretty much ubiquitous, so one rarely gets into trouble in that department. And every so often one comes across the top end of things. These machines have dozens of buttons, virtually none of which I have been able to decipher. One button sprays warm water at one’s nether regions, another plays the sound of flushing (many Japanese men are embarrassed at having to do their business in a public toilet, and try to mask the sounds by flushing constantly. To save water, companies installed a recording of a toilet flushing). Not being able to read Japanese, I was unable to decipher the rest of the options, but the machine looked altogether fascinating.
Oddly enough, considering that it wouldn’t be on major tourist trails, two separate people had recommended the same Irish bar in Hiroshima to me. One of them had played a folk session there years previously, so after eating in a Japanese restaurant, we decamped there. Like most Irish bars in Japan, it was simply a wood-panelled place that served Guinness. In fairness, it did show live football, allowing myself and Declan (Paul having pled exhaustion and headed off) to watch a thoroughly boring Manchester derby live, albeit with Japanese commentary.
Next day we visited the various memorial sites to the atomic bombing, punctuated by myself and Declan’s various caustic remarks. The memorial site itself, particularly the bombed-out remains of the Trade Promotion Building, attracts quite a lot of tourists. In other countries, this would also attract the kind of hawkers of cheap souvenirs, mendicants and pickpockets. In Japan, that kind of solicitation would be a grotesque breach of etiquette. So far, the only Japanese who had directly approached us were prostitutes (Many Japanese would claim that these are mostly Chinese, but there are definitely a few involved) and a Jehovah’s Witness (They get everywhere). Now I was about to encounter another, and one far more terrifying from my perspective: schoolchildren.
As I mentioned earlier, five years ago I spent a traumatic three months in Korea

attempting to educate schoolchildren in the proper use of English. The entire experience left me with an abiding hatred of teaching, children, and the improper use of English. So the fact that Japanese teachers saw fit to unleash their wards upon foreign tourists with the goal of giving them a little practical English, I was less than pleased. Nonetheless, I indulged. I patiently listened while they recited preprepared statements with the kind of pronunciation that turned the whole thing into gibberish, and replied, in perfectly modulated, accent-free English, and watched them stare incomprehensibly, before they wrote down random answers to their questions. It’s important to teach them confidence, I was constantly told. Better to have them speak balderdash with confidence than to actually learn what they were doing wrong. So again, going against every instinct in me, I indulged these children in their speech. I can scarce imagine a more harrowing experience to undergo in Hiroshima.
The actual museum for the bombing is pretty good. I generally find with these places that it’s difficult to reconcile the sterility of a museum with the enormity of the events that it commemorates. Having been to Dachau a few years previously, I found this to be a particular issue. All that’s there is a few sheds, it’s difficult to imagine what went on there. In the case of Hiroshima, barring one or two buildings, the entire city has been rebuilt over the blast site, so the museum is all that links the present and the past. Oddly enough, it seemed to affect Declan more so than it did me, though as he pointed out, it was entirely a tale of Japanese victimhood. In its defence, the museum isn’t there to contextualise the events of 1945, merely to depict them.
Paul’s diggings through TripAdvisor had turned up two additional sights to visit, Hiroshima Castle and some tranquil gardens. Another Japanese hornet made the latter somewhat less tranquil, though in fairness it only passed overhead. The highlight of the day was when myself and Declan located a carp pond with feeding facilities. Disdaining the traditional method of feeding fish, ie throwing one or two pieces of food in at a time we dumped the entirety of a bag fish food into the pond at once, which triggered a highly amusing feeding frenzy. We were only doing one day in Hiroshima, so that evening, we hopped on a train and high-tailed it up to Osaka.
4: I Can’t Think Of An Osaka-Related Pun…

At this point, after much bickering, we had finally sorted out the balance of our itinerary. Given the proximity of Osaka and Kyoto, we decided to spend the balance of the trip in Osaka, and commute to Kyoto for sightseeing. Meanwhile, I had decided that it would be a far safer bet for Declan to curtail his trip by one day. Not that he would be missing out on much, as the final day was to be spent in Narita town, on account of an early flight for Paul on Saturday. The problem was the Etihad flight from Narita on Saturday looked awful for standing by. Declan stood a far better chance on Friday. While I might have difficulty (my ticket being lower priority than his), I at least had the luxury of multiple routes back to Dublin. It was also eminently feasible to get from Osaka to Narita Airport in time for the flight back to Abu Dhabi, albeit at the cost of having to get up somewhat early on the Friday morning.
Anyway, it was early evening when we rocked into Osaka. Having booked two separate reservations due to uncertainty as to whether we would stay in Kyoto or just go up for the day, we had to change hotels in Osaka after one night. The first night was spent just outside Dotonbori, which is the centre of Osaka’s nightlife. It’s also the red light district in Osaka, though the whores, while equally visible, are considerably less pushy than their Tokyo cousins. A curious facet of both hotels we used in Osaka was that the lifts there are downright homicidal. Upon opening, the doors provide just enough time for one person to pass through, and subsequently violently close upon the next person. Within a day, I had bruised shoulders from repeated assaults by lift doors.
Wandering through Dotonbori that evening we happened upon a proper expat bar. It even had a pool table. Originally, we intended to stop there for one pint, but then they put Back to the Future on the TV. That was us set. Our drinking companions for the evening included a Welshman, and American, and another Irishman. The Welshman had, to put it mildly, some curious theories on race. Curious as in they wouldn’t be out of place at an EDL rally. Himself and the Irish guy also had a penchant for conspiracy theories. Ordinarily I wouldn’t entertain such people, but they were good crack. I also spent about two hours discussing economics with the American. Ordinarily, me discussing economics with someone consists of me pontificating and them nodding vacantly, but the guy knew his stuff, so a decent discussion could be had.
Next day, having transferred our stuff from one hotel to the other, we paid a visit to Osaka Castle. Let’s just say it puts any Irish offering to shame. The thing is gigantic. More importantly, it had ice cream. That took the sting out of having to ascend fourteen flights of stairs to get to the top. Having previously ruled out any sort of mountaineering on the trip due to my extreme lack of fitness, this was an exceptionally unpleasant surprise. The funny thing is, afterwards the others seemed to be in worse shape than me, largely through hunger. I’m someone who routinely goes twenty-four hours without eating, and failing to notice this. The others were no hungry to the point of considering cannibalism. Eventually things reached a point where we had no choice but to go to a Hard Rock Cafe. Not that I objected, given that large parts of our culinary experiences were a tug of war between my conservative tastes and their wish to indulge in more authentic dining.
At Declan’s request, that evening we visited another heavy metal bar. Again, it was a typically Japanese place, in that it was up three floors in a building down an alleyway and could seat barely anybody. Still, it was a decent place, except for the fact that the smoke played hell with Paul’s asthma. This was news to me, I wasn’t even aware he was asthmatic, or that he had neglected to bring an inhaler. Trooper that he was, he hadn’t apprised either myself or Declan of this fact until things became unbearable. Lamentably it forced him to pull up early that evening, whereupon myself and Declan proceeded onwards to yet another Irish bar, although this one actually had an Irish barman, Graham, who seems to be a top chap. His party piece is apparently firebreathing, and he had the video evidence to prove this. This place was also within walking distance of our hotel. Upon the walk home, I detoured into a 7/11, and purchased a can of beer, which I proceeded to consume on the street. I believe this makes me the biggest criminal in modern Japanese history.
Kyoto is Japan’s historical and cultural centre. Unlike virtually every other major city in Japan, it was spared the widespread destruction inflicted by the United States Air Force. This wasn’t initially out of regard for its cultural value. It was because, like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura, and Niigata, Kyoto was considered an ideal place to field test an atomic bomb. It was later removed from the target list per the orders of Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, supposedly because he had spent his honeymoon there. In any case, inasmuch as there is a city where one can connect with Japan’s past, it is Kyoto.
Unfortunately, the major attractions aren’t really aimed at Western tourists. We lost ninety minutes of our time there due to a misjudgement as to the time of the English tour, which resulted in us wandering around the grounds of the Palace for rather longer than expected. The tour itself didn’t have an English speaking guide. Rather it had a guide with rudimentary English who supplemented this by reading from a brochure. In an unfortunate piece of timing, the inner parts of the Palace weren’t available to the general public until a few days after we had left.
Declan had once again decided to engage in aikido training. The only hitch was that his dojo of choice was located in a rather remote part of Kyoto. Myself and Paul decided to visit the Mount Inari shrine, so beyond the initial directions from Google Maps, he was on his own. Careful inspection revealed the worst. Declan would have to attempt to navigate the vagaries of a Japanese metropolitan bus service. After ascertaining that he had nothing of any use to us (on the off chance we never saw him again), we sent him on his way, with a vague agreement to meet in Osaka later.
Paul had decided that we should try Teppanyaki, which is like a Korean barbecue only with a chef preparing the food in front of you. I was a smidgin worried about this. After all, it’s much harder to refuse food when the preparer is standing in front of you, but Paul reassured me that the menu was almost all red meat. He even had a place picked out in Dotonbori. Fortunately this proved harder to find than expected. We knew we were on the exact crossroads, and it was nowhere to be found. Either they were in one of the buildings and didn’t advertise in English, or once again, TripAdvisor had directed us to somewhere that was closed. Either way, no dice. Instead we found a pizza place.
Japan does pizza surprisingly well. Certainly it does exceptional Italian-style pizza, which is something I have become increasingly partial to, as opposed to the American variety. However, with everything, there is a Japanese twist. In the case of pizza, there can be toppings on it that would be considered absurd. Honey, for example, is both an optional topping and a condiment, akin to olive oil. In fact, I accidentally spread what I believed to be rather thick oil over a pizza before realising my mistake. Popcorn, too, features on pizzas. Nonetheless they do the conventional varieties too, though finding pepperoni can sometimes be a chore. This place was particularly good. Subsequently we returned to the same bar we had been two days previously, on account of them planning to show Back to the Future II.
The final day in Osaka passed relatively quietly. Declan was off buying whiskey, Paul was souvenir shopping, and I was in the hotel knocking back a few drinkies and tying up a few loose ends. Declan was (initially) otherwise engaged, so myself and Paul decided to go for another splurge in the culinary department.
The Osaka conurbation includes Kobe, so we decided to head over there to sample some of the famous local beef. There was one small issue. The place we settled on was highly rated, but nobody spoke any English there. Eventually we settled upon a 10,000 yen set menu, without any idea what was on it. Here is what happened….

 

4.5: Greg and Paul try to eat Japanese food

Course 1: Sashmi. Paul informs me that this is raw meat, in the style of carpaccio. Turns out he was either mistaken or misleading. It’s raw fish. I can just about pick it up with my chopsticks. Eating it is clearly a step too far. Paul, however, is trying.
Course 2: Beans of some variant. Beans are safe. I don’t voluntarily eat beans, but at least I know where I stand with them. The pods appear to be seasoned. Not sure if one is supposed to eat the pods or not. There’s also an empty bowl provided. After some debate, myself and Paul decide to put the skins in the bowl. In all likelihood we’ve committed a massive faux pas, but this place just tried to feed me raw fish. Speaking of that, Paul’s facial expressions are a sight to behold. He gratefully accepts some advice I have on suppressing one’s gag reflex.
Course 3: Okinaki. Essentially a fried cabbage omelette. Beginning to worry about the absence of steak. Normally I would never touch cabbage, on account of not being from the countryside and having some standards. However, hunger is the best sauce, and thus I have no choice but to sample this. In its defence, it isn’t completely awful. Mind you, eating omelette with chopsticks is something of a chore.
Course 4: Deep Fried Conger Eel. Cabbage omelette took the edge off my hunger, so I’ll skip this one. I’m seriously thinking of writing off the entire meal at this point. The overwhelming likelihood is that we’ve cocked up our order and no steak will be forthcoming.
Course 5: More raw fish. Ok, time to revisit Course 4 again. I haven’t eaten fish in years, and never eaten eel at all. This was a situation I would have been quite happy never to rectify, but, having put all this money into it, I have to eat something, and better fried eel than raw tuna. The eel isn’t bad. Paul has the shivers as a result of Course 5. Good dodge on my part. A fork, a fork, my kingdom for a fork.
A knife and fork have arrived at the table. Paul’s hopes that the next course may involve steak have skyrocketed. Me, I’m not so optimistic. The way things are going, the next course is still going to be wriggling, and that’s what the forks are for.
Course 6: Kobe Steak and Chips. Finally. OK, it’s underdone to the point that the steak is still mooing, but this is the fabled Kobe Beef Steak. In its defence, it is rather good. Whether it’s worth 10,000 Yen is debatable, but hey, I’m on holiday. In an odd turn for a traditional Japanese place, they haven’t botched the chips.
Course 7: The waiter has obviously noticed that the fishier parts of the meal have not been received with the same enthusiasm as the steak. With the aid of an Ipad and Google Translate, he advises us that this course is also raw fish, and asks if we wish to skip it. Yes, yes we do.
Course 8: Ice Cream. Well, it’s about time we got something straightforward. Of course, it’s a traditional Japanese restaurant, so instead of proper flavours like chocolate and double chocolate, we have been provided with sesame seed flavoured ice cream. Tolerable.

Here endeth the saga….

 

5: The End (Or is it?)

That evening was to be our last as a group in Japan. Declan had to piss up to Narita Airport the next morning to catch an afternoon flight, and myself and Paul planned to follow at a more leisurely pace. Following our culinary odyssey in Kobe, myself and Paul headed back up to Osaka proper to track down another expat bar we had been advised to check out. Like most such establishments, it was virtually impossible to find. Upon arriving there, it was indeed full of expats, who were, to a man, cargo pilots.
In my experience with these individuals, they find nothing in the world interesting apart from flying over the North Pole, and their interest in that is deep to the point of putting off everyone else. It means they keep themselves to themselves, because any conversation with a non-pilot will be steered in an Arctic direction, and once it arrives there will promptly bore all non-pilots in the group to death with discussions of blizzards, the Northern Lights, and emergency diversions into Fairbanks or Thule. On the other hand, I did give the place a cursory attempt, as it had occurred to me that I might have reason to procure a jump seat in the near future. Paul and Declan might be going back to Europe, but that afternoon I had reached a decision that I would tack an addendum onto my holiday and visit Australia.
I pride myself on being an impulsive person. It’s perhaps not something to be proud of, but such is life. Even for me, though, deciding on 48 hours notice to fly to Australia is a bit sudden. Truth be told, it had been turning around in my head for a few days, and there were a few good reasons for it. Firstly was that my folks were down visiting TIm. The prospect of surprising all concerned was an attractive one. Then there were the practical considerations. Every flight from Narita to Europe looked full. I could be trying for a couple of days. I knew it all opened out in the middle of the following week, so why not spend the next few days in Melbourne? To my intense scepticism, MyIDTravel were showing a half-empty Jetstar flight from Narita to Melbourne. I’ve virtually never seen an empty flight to Australia, but nothing wagered, nothing lost.
Anyway, the pilot’s bar produced nobody who looked to be going in an Antipodean direction, so we moved back to one of the places we had been previously. Upon arrival, we got in contact with Declan, whose evening’s plans were suddenly more open. He was with Graham, the firebreathing Irish barman from some nights previously, who recommended a bar in the vicinity for us all to catch up. The place was run by two Americans and did decent rock music, happy days.
Connect Four is one of those games that anyone can play. The principle is simple in the extreme. I pride myself on being better than most at it, but it never occurred to me that someone could reach a point of aptitude in the game as to have it refined to a science. I was rather rudely disabused of this notion by one of the proprietors of the bar, who roundly thrashed me at a game that nobody should be roundly thrashed in. A few more games merely cemented this result. Afterwards, a few Japanese patrons started playing, giving me an opportunity to study this guy’s methods. I can be fairly certain that no man has ever paid as much attention to another’s game of Connect Four as I did watching him. Five or six games later I was ready. I knew how to match him blow for blow, and come out on top. Result? The bastard upped his game, and once again I tasted the bitter sting of defeat. By this time Declan had effectively decided to pull an all-nighter. To get a 3.30pm flight, realistically he didn’t have to leave Osaka before 8.30am, but he wanted to give himself as much time as possible, which meant he was getting two hours in bed at most. Oh well, somebody else’s problem and all that…
Myself and Paul weren’t as pressed for time, so we had decided to head up to Narita at an easy pace, book a hotel in the town, and head out there. Our flights were Saturday morning, so staying in Narita meant an extra hour in bed. It also meant we had a leisurely trip from Osaka up to Tokyo and onwards.
I have an unfortunate habit of cocking up something important with my holidays. In February, I had made both a mess of my visa and booked a flight for the wrong day. This trip was no different. Around 1pm, I got a call from Declan. I had misread MyIDTravel. His flight was arriving in Abu Dhabi at 330am. It was leaving Narita at 930pm. Thanks to this bungling on my part, he missed out on a lot of sleep and spent six unnecessary hours in Narita Airport. I still owe him a pint by way of apology.
Narita is an airport town. The airport is too far out from Tokyo for an easy commute, so much of the supporting infrastructure for it is in Narita town. It means that the place boasts lots of cheap hotels and restaurants. There were also a couple of bars aimed at air crew, which we decided to try out. I still had a few thousand yen to dispose of, and figured this was as good a way as any. The first one was pretty quiet, considering it was a Friday night. The second was another cargo pilot bar. Having had our fill of talk of ice in engines the previous night, we decided to head back to the hotel, leaving my spare cash unspent. Then, as we were walking up to the room, I passed a vending machine that sold beer. Problem solved.
In trying to get to Melbourne, I was breaking two of my cardinal rules for standby travel: Don’t try to get to Australia on standby and don’t go anywhere with Jetstar. Some years ago I had a thoroughly ghastly experience with them in Auckland and resolved never to attempt to fly with them again. This hatred has endured ever since, to the point that when I recently was checking in staff at the Aer Lingus standby desk in Dublin Airport, I nearly refused two Jetstar staff by way of settling a karmic debt. Thankfully, I had the good sense to avoid this, and saved myself a lot of guilt, particularly in light of how I was about to be treated.
The other thing about Jetstar is that they’re low cost. Everything costs money on board. Food, in-flight entertainment, even blankets are an optional extra for a charge. I was resigned to this, and willing to offset it by drinking myself into a stupor. Hell, I didn’t even think I was getting on. MyIDTravel said the flight had loads of tickets for sale, but that site is about as accurate as reading animal entrails. Lots of tickets for sale means nothing unless you know the airline’s oversales policy, and I was guessing it would be pretty spectacular. The only reason I was trying this was that it was a no-loss plan. If I couldn’t get out to Australia, all I lost was a night’s hotel reservation. Anyway, like I said, getting back to Europe looked messy anyway. Sure enough, when I got up to the checkin agent’s desk and said I was travelling standby, his face fell. In fact, he looked downright terrified, as if the answer he was going to deliver would cause me to get violent. Unfortunately, he said, there were no business class seats left. I would have to travel economy.
I do not ask to be upgraded. Ever. I might occasionally have a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment with a member of cabin crew that might result in a better seat, but I never ask. I know better than to rock up and ask a company for hundreds of euro worth of free product. My ticket was for economy. Jetstar, it turns out, upgrade staff, and apparently do so to the degree that this poor fellow in front of me thought I’d be unhappy at not being upgraded, rather than being ecstatic at merely getting onto the flight. In fact, such was my euphoria at the whole business that when a few minutes later I was stopped by someone from the statistics office in Tokyo asking people to fill out a survey, I did so carefully, enthusiastically, and accurately, rather than giving one of my traditional brush-offs to the whole business.
The low cost terminal in Narita is spartan. Seriously so. After about ten minutes there I had an overwhelming urge to acquire a spear and kill Persians, that’s how spartan it was. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, but I was about to spend the next twelve hours on a flight with scant culinary options, so I decided to grab a bite. Unfortunately, my only option was a hot dog. There’s a reason hot dogs do well in environments of either morbidly obese or drunken people. No sober man of normal proportions would touch one. Even I, who would generally be touch-and-go on both these counts, would be reluctant to go near one, but there was literally nothing else to eat. Mind you, I could still get a beer.
I’ve never flown as a staff passenger on a low cost carrier before, so knew nothing of what to expect. Turns out the low cost bit only applies to revenue passengers. I got an empty seat beside me, free access to the inflight entertainment system, and a business class meal, as well as a couple of free drinks. Having assumed I wasn’t going to be fed at all, it was a rather pleasant surprise when a cabin crew member tapped me on the shoulder and said “you are the Bowrer?” (Being referred to as “the” is surprisingly good for one’s self-esteem, and more than offset the mispronunciation of my name) before giving a rather hearty feed when I responded in the affirmative. Better yet, the passenger two seats over was also on her own and minded to have a few drinks, so the next eight hours passed with the pair of us singlehandedly trying to rid the aircraft of alcohol. Next hurdle: Australian immigration.
Unpleasant experiences at Aussie immigration have long since become passe for me. My ones seem to go beyond the usual ones normal people undergo. Earlier this year, I had to stand by while two Customs officers went through my laptop in search of pornography. At least this time I had anticipated that problem and had safely moved anything that might be construed as being graphic in nature to somewhere where it wouldn’t be found. The problem was that a) I had booked the flight a day before, which is always a red flag, b) I had no return or onwards ticket, c) I wasn’t even sure if my e-visa was up to date, and d) a combination of fatigue and alcohol was making standing up straight or writing legibly into an ordeal. I had effectively resigned myself to getting a grilling, and only drunken apathy kept me from extreme panic. To my shock, I was waved straight through without a hitch, managing to get from aircraft door to airport door in less than fifteen minutes.
The two firmest convictions I have traditionally held from my experiences of travelling to Australia, that it was impossible to get into flying standby and that there was no easy path through immigration, had been shattered in one day. Now the third one was about to fall as well when, upon arriving at the airport hotel (it being 1am and me being in no humour to head into Melbourne in search of the various members of my family, they gave me the code for the free wifi. Wifi in Australia takes three forms. If one is really lucky, there is a limited amount of free wifi, either determined by time or data. More likely, most places will charge. Finally, it’s totally normal for a hotel not to bother with it at all. Unlimited free wifi in an Australian hotel, combined with the other two surprises, essentially constitute three of my personal signs of the apocalypse.
The next day there was a problem. I had a hangover. I get a hangover maybe twice a year if I’m unlucky, but when I do, it is as though six months of drinking have decided to make themselves felt on the same morning. This was such a morning. I spent the guts of an hour trying to suppress the urge to vomit before even considering the bus journey from the airport to the city. This also meant I was unable to check the (awful) wifi on the bus, on account of not wanting to risk even a hint of motion sickness. The net result of this was I didn’t know where my hostel was, other than a notion that it was in St Kilda. Not having the head to start trying to decipher the trams, and being too nauseous to risk getting into a cab, I did the only thing I could. I resolved to walk the six miles from Southern Cross to St Kilda, dragging my luggage behind me.
I was now in something of a dilemma. I knew of only one bar in St Kilda where I could get wifi. The Elephant and Wheelbarrow would not normally be somewhere I would frequent, particularly after an incident last February when I was accused of watching pornography on my laptop there (do Australians just assume anyone with a laptop has a porn addiction?), and being a pretty drab place in general (like a Wetherspoons only expensive), but it did at least offer a smidgen of free wifi. Just enough to get my hostel address and a location for where my folks were staying, then it started trying to charge me.
The Oslo Hotel, where I was staying, can probably best be described as “lodgings”. “Hotel” is a misnomer in the extreme. Hell, “hostel” is a bit upmarket for this place. Having spent a long time trying to ascertain just what the building was before it was converted into a hostel, I still cannot decided between convent and lunatic asylum, of which St Kilda has several. The place was falling apart. For the few days that I stayed there, every trip up the stairs (for it had no lift), was a shaky, creaky odyssey where each step might be one’s last.

I would hazard a guess that the building predates electric lighting, and as for air conditioning, that might as well be an alien technology. Ditto wifi. I suspect were I to have asked about the internet, they would have directed me to a Morse Code telegraph in the common room or something similar. Nonetheless, it had three redeeming features. I could get a single room, it was quiet, and above all, it was cheap.

Inasmuch as I had a strategy from here, it involved attempting to surprise the rest of my family. There was a major hitch. I had no internet access. Precisely one person in Melbourne knew I was there, one of Tim’s mates, Chops (real name: Shaun O’Halloran. He’s been Chops for as long as I’ve known him). I had no way of contacting him. Even if I did, he would scarce be able to get Tim and my folks into the one place for me to burst in to the shock of all concerned. I knew the apartment block where my folks were staying. I wandered down and cased the place, even went so far as to walk the beach looking for them (on holiday they’re great walkers), to no avail. It being the day after the Australia v New Zealand final of the Rugby World Cup, I rather suspected that Chops and Tim were at least as hungover as I was, so getting Chops to coordinate something, and getting Tim to go along without copping on I was involved was perhaps a big ask. Eventually I relented and rang my parents. Turned out that was a good idea. For some reason my father was convinced I was going to drop down, so had I managed to sneak up on all, it would have surprised him not a jot. Oh well, there was still the matter of my brother…

My original hunch was correct. Tim was indeed dying of a hangover. In fairness to him, he seems to have made enormous efforts to spend as much time with my parents as possible while they were over there, and he contacted them to say he’d be going to their apartment that evening, so I made myself comfortable. By this point I had noted my father’s lack of surprise at seeing me, and had rather peevishly decided that Chops must have leaked my surprise plans to all concerned. When Tim arrived, it was clear that this was not the case. It was perhaps not as emotional as when Tim surprised my folks in Skerries last year, what with myself and him a) not being the kinda people who get emotional, or at least show any emotion, and b) this was the third time in a year I’d caught up with him, but it was still nice to see him do a double-take and shout “Greg!” as he walked into the room.

I didn’t really have a plan for the next few days, other than to attempt the impossible: relax. Disdaining my suggestions that spending a month doing nothing in Melbourne would be a rather expensive achievement in inactivity, my parents essentially decided to treat the entire holiday like they would a month in Lanzarote. In keeping with this, they quickly identified a nearby bar in which to dump themselves for the duration of their stay. In fairness, it was a tolerable sort of place, specialising in classic rock and eclectic food. It also opened onto the street, which afforded us an excellent opportunity to view the local eccentrics.

Crystal meth is big in Melbourne. Upon occasion junkies would do their thing outside the bar, to the entertainment of all concerned. Then there were the dog walkers. Australians tend towards properly sized dogs, rather than the nasty ratty things preferred by those who model themselves on vapid American socialites. There was a constant stream of passers-by with huskies, labradors, and similarly sized creatures. Upon one occasion a couple sat down at one of the street tables, took out bowls and cans of food, and proceeded to order their meals and a bowl of water from the pub while the dogs dined beside them. This elicited a fascinated reaction from the junkies at the next table, who briefly left whatever world crystal meth users inhabit to observe the dogs.

Over the course of my life I have been in many major cities. In the past year alone I can count Dublin, London, Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne, Chicago, Tokyo and Osaka among the major metropoli I have visited. As a lover of cities, I would contend that each has its various charms. I would also thing that each has an unwelcome similarity, the so-called Transport “Smart” Card.

Smart Cards are advertised as a simpler method of travel for all concerned. In reality they are a cynical attempt by cities to squeeze as much lucre as possible from tourists. I ended up having to expend twenty-six dollars on mine, between the minimum investment and the deposit for the card. Total amount spent: Nine Dollars. Let’s be realistic, these cards are primarily for picking loose change out of tourists.

Said shakedown had occurred in transit to the Melbourne Crown Entertainment Complex. Fun spot. Biggest casino in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve been booted out of here before. Took a bit of effort to convince my father that he didn’t want to spend $50 on a blackjack table. Took more effort not to spend a lot more on the blackjack tables myself. Actually, what you really need to know is that we had decided to have a family dinner, Tim suggested having it here. The restaurants there are apparently rather good. This was about to be borne out in the most expensive way possible…

Anyone who knows me knows that I swear by pizza. Honestly. Give me the choice between pizza and beer and I would be a Mormon tomorrow. And the place we were eating in Melbourne had won an award the previous year for doing the greatest pizza on the planet. Speaking as something of an authority on pizza, it was good. Great cheese. Good ham. Maybe not as good as the Independent Pizza Company in Drumcondra, but certainly, should you find yourself in Melbourne with €80 to drop on pizza, I would suggest you give serious thought to this establishment.

Oddly enough, considering Tim habitually drops cash on the big wheel in the Crown, and considering that both myself and my father planned on investing a few (hundred) dollars on the blackjack tables, we all walked out without having gambled a penny. My own idea is that we were both setting an example to each other. Whatever it was, I can only assume that my father had a very lucky escape. In my case, I can only assume the casino had a very lucky escape…

Anyway, that was to be my last night in Melbourne. Next morning I was up bright and early (noon). In a rare moment of generosity, I gave my travel card to an American tourist in Melbourne Bus Station, hopped onto the Airport Express (Another gripe about travel cards: they never work on buses to airports) and rocked up to the Etihad checkin desk. Funnily enough, the agent there was encountering exactly the same problems with Etihad that I habitually deal with. In this case, it was a shortage of various tags for use in sorting the bags in transit in Abu Dhabi, so we had a good old bitching session about complex excess rates and baggage allowances, as well as the difficulties of sorting colour coded tags if, like me, one is colourblind. One final pizza, a few final beers, and I was on the flight.

My banter with the agent in checkin must have paid off. Whereas on every flight I had so far been on I managed to get a vacant seat beside me, this time I had the entirety of a cabin to work with. Admittedly it was only five rows, but hey, nice to pretend one has a plane to themselves. This of course didn’t last, and I was again beset by children. I amused myself by watching the three Back to the Future films in a row. That eight up a good six hours of a thirteen hour flight. The balance was spent perusing the Internet (I was spending the guts of a full day on Etihad, so $20 for inflight Wifi was a cost I was willing to pay) and knocking back a few inflight bevvies.

There was time for one more trip to an Irish bar in Abu Dhabi. “Irish” may have been something of an exaggeration in this case. While O’Leary’s is indeed a suitable name for an Irish bar, it failed the other test. Were one to ask for a pint of Guinness, the drink would be supplied from a can. I can’t help but think that the sine qua non of an Irish bar is draught Guinness. Also, as I mentioned before, the beer is exorbitantly expensive. Thankfully I had a few Australian dollars left to blow. While knocking back a Carlsberg (What kind of bar only has Carlsberg on draught?) a guy I vaguely remembered from working in Dublin Airport sat down beside me. Turns out he’s working as a dispatcher for Etihad, and was nice enough to confirm that my bag was on the flight to Dublin, a matter which had for some reason being preying on my mind, probably because everything else had gone right for me on this trip. One more flight, a few more drinks, and I was back in Dublin.

Epilogue: The End (For now)
9am I was in my apartment. A quick drink to knock me to sleep (I was still on Australian time, so as far as I’m concerned this was totally acceptable). I had a party to go to that evening (screw you, jetlag). No time to slow down, I’m afraid. I planned to take a break from alcohol the next week in fairness, but for now, the holiday would continue.

I have a drawer beside my bed. Its contents are my passport, half a dozen adaptors, open tickets for London, Spain and the East Coast, and several hundred euro in assorted currencies. It serves a few purposes for me. Firstly, it means I always know where my holiday stuff is when I head off. But it also has a psychological use. It reminds me that I could bomb off tomorrow if I wanted to. It’s not that I ever do go off at a day’s notice (or at least not that often), but it’s comforting to know that the option is there. I may have just turned thirty, but settling down seems no closer than when I was twenty. Life is good.

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By gregbowler

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