Author and Journalist


Japan still finding its feet, one year on

First published in The Telegraph on 9 March, 2012

At Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo’s most well-loved tourist spot, people clap their hands, throw coins in the offering box, waft incense over themselves and stare up at the city’s latest landmark, the Sky Tree, a soaring television tower, currently the tallest of its kind in the world. When I was here last year, right after the earthquake of March 11, there were no tourists and the bankers had fled. It was dark and sad, much of the neon turned off. Everyone was subdued, conscious of how compatriots up north were suffering. Now it’s pretty much business as usual. The subways are a little chilly (electricity-saving measures), but the neon is blazing again. And tourists are making their way back.

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After each disaster Japan rebuilds bigger and better

First published in The Telegraph on 14 March, 2011

In Japan, you are constantly made aware of the power of nature. Summer is hot and steamy; in September there are typhoons; and during the rainy season in June it feels as if someone has tipped a bath of water over your head. But the most powerful force of all is the seismic activity.

Earthquakes and tremors are part of life in Japan and part of the forces that shape the landscape. The country is said to be geologically young, still in the process of forming. One of the results is the spectacular volcanoes, among them Mount Fuji, eternally smoking, and Mount Sakurajima, which belches black ash over the southern city of Kagoshima; when the ash is really bad, the inhabitants put up their umbrellas.

All over the country, hot water bubbles out of the earth, full of health-giving minerals. For the Japanese, taking the waters is the equivalent of our going to the seaside. There are also sand baths where you can be buried in hot volcanic earth. At Mount Osore, in the north of the main island, sulphur oozes out, staining the rocks yellow. It’s all part of the geological volatility, the opposite of our unchanging British landscape. Unlike the Japanese, we don’t expect geological upheaval; and living in these very different landscapes creates different attitudes to life. […]

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Waiting for disaster is a way of life in Japan

First published in The Telegraph on 11 March, 2011

In Japan, you live with the possibility of earthquakes. When I first arrived, in 1978, I was woken one night by the bed in my seventh-floor hotel room thudding against the wall. I was terrified, but soon discovered that tremors happen regularly; eventually, I came to take them almost for granted.

As people there say, Japan has two sorts of earthquakes – the ones when everything sways and lights swing from side to side, and the really lethal ones, when things bounce up and down. If the earthquake’s one of the second type, there’s little you can do and nowhere you can go. A friend of mine was in a field near the Izu peninsula, notorious for its quakes, as the ground rippled like waves. The only way she could stop herself from falling over was by holding on to a tree.

Living in one of the least geologically stable parts of the planet, with the possibility that sudden disaster might strike at any time, colours one’s outlook on life. It gives people an awareness of the transience of things. It’s a bit like the Japanese love of cherry blossoms: the whole point is that they only bloom for a few days. The tsunami that struck yesterday is only the latest chapter of horror and misery. […]

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Two lovingly preserved Japanese villages

First published in The Financial Times in August 2010

We step off the bus at Magome and look in disbelief at the steep cobbled slope winding up the hill in front of us. In the past there would have been scrawny porters elbowing each other out of the way, vying to cart our bags. Had we been great lords we would have been carried up by palanquin, with thousands of retainers and guards barking at the peasants to get down on their knees. But in 21st-century Japan there’s nothing for it but to walk.

We sigh, pick up our bags and set off up the hill. Behind us Mount Ena rises spectacularly. A huge waterwheel slowly turns, creaking and splashing, and a narrow stream trickles noisily alongside the road. There are no electric wires overhead and no cars and every now and then we catch a whiff of wood smoke.

I’m here to immerse myself in 19th-century Japan. The novel I’m working on begins here on the Inner Mountain Road, where it cuts through the forests and villages of the Kiso Valley, in the Nagano prefecture. The rule of the shoguns ended only 140 years ago, but in most of Japan the flavour of that era is utterly lost. But here in Magome and its neighbouring post town, Tsumago, it has been lovingly preserved, along with the five-miles of cobbled pathway between the two.

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Living among the hill tribes of Laos

First published in The Financial Times in July 2009

We arrive by turbo prop from Bangkok, juddering slowly across a corrugated expanse of jungle-encrusted hills with mist floating in the hollows. As we touch down at Luang Prabang’s sleepy airport I remember my father talking about how he had to hold the door of the aircraft shut when he flew across Laos almost 50 years earlier.

In the 1960s my father was one of two people in the world – other than the native people themselves – who spoke the languages of the Yao and Hmong hill tribes. He lived in their villages in Vietnam and later in Laos for months at a time and came home with stories of sleeping snuggled up against the horse in winter to keep warm, trekking in the mountains, keeping an eye out for tigers, and hiding under a table in Saigon with his Vietnamese mistress, Madame Ving. He brought us back bamboo pan pipes and beautiful Yao embroidered fabrics.

I hoped to go to Laos with him but he died before I could, so this is quite a special journey for me. Will it still be possible to get a glimpse of the magical places he knew? Might I even be able to track down Madame Ving? […]

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Hakodate, where west met east

First published in The Financial Times on 2 February, 2008

Hakodate BayOne bitter December day in 1868, 3000 Japanese warriors sailed into Hakodate Bay, on the tip of the northern island of Ezo (now Hokkaido), close to the Japanese mainland. Their ambition was to defeat the imperial forces and set up a republic loyal to the deposed shogun. But when spring came the imperial government sent an army of 10,000 men with a ship far more modern and formidable than those the rebels had. Huge battles were fought on sea and land but eventually the rebels were defeated. Even among Japanese their story is largely forgotten.

One hundred and forty years later, I arrive in Hakodate to see if anything remains of their last desperate attempt to stem the tide of history. Hakodate is famous for its wild weather but I am not prepared for the blizzard that coats me in snow in the minutes it takes to walk from the tram stop to my hotel. […]

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Secrets of the Shogun’s Harem

First published in the Sunday Times Magazine under the title The Caged Concubines on 17 February, 2008

Cherry-blossom viewing as depicted by Chikanobu, (1838-1912, painted around 1895.)November 1861. Sunlight glitters on the lances and pikes of hundreds of attendants and guards, as a procession winds slowly along a mountain road in central Japan. In all, there are 20,000 people – lords and ladies in palanquins, warriors on horseback and on foot, officials, ladies-in-waiting, maids and maids of maids. Then come shoe bearers, parasol bearers, bearers of imperial bathwater and the imperial bath, chefs, bearers of food and tea-making equipment, porters humping boxes and dragging huge, wheeled trunks, and grooms leading pack horses laden with luggage – so many that it takes four days for the multitude to pass through each village along the way. In the Victorian west, the railway has been invented, but in Japan, under the rule of the shoguns, there is no wheeled transport other than for goods. […]

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Discover Your Inner Geisha

First published in The Daily Telegraph in January 2006

Every woman has wondered what it must be like to be able to stop a man in his tracks with a single glance. Among the geisha the art of alluring men is not a matter of innate sexuality but a skill they learn. Geisha are not high class courtesans, despite what people think. They are far more mysterious than that. Officially they are entertainers. The word ‘gei-sha’ means ‘arts person’ or ‘artiste’ and their arts include singing, dancing and witty conversation. But their real work of art is themselves. Their secret is to transform themselves into a man’s daydream of what a woman ought to be – the ultimate woman, femininity embodied. They have no need to sell their bodies but many choose to become the mistress of a man rich enough to be able to support their expensive lifestyle. Even then he can never own them. As one man put it, ‘they are like cats. You have to take care of them and feed them, but you can’t get them to jump on your lap if they don’t want to.’

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