Getting out of familiar territory really does help. The past three weeks spent in the UK and Spain have enabled me to become partially detached from the frenetic life I have in Tokyo, to take a look at the overall shape of things, to reconsider where my attention should and shouldn’t be directed. More on that later.

It has of course also given me a chance to spend time with my family, and friends – and it was that, more than anything else, that this trip was about.

This was our first time back in the UK since the summer of 2008. The funny thing was though, when meeting everyone again, it didn’t feel like that at all – It could have just been a few months. I think there were a number of reasons for this, including the fact that these days we can contact one another anytime at minimal or no cost (free mobile video calls now also possible thanks to a recent Skype for iPhone update), and also because now we’re all ‘grown up’ there’s far less change in our lives that there was say, ten years ago.

Unlike with any home visit I’ve done up until now, I found there was actually more change in my parents than there was in my siblings. Whilst the growing-up process can be pretty dramatic, I learnt that the ageing process can be too. Seeing mum and dad having to cope with the realities of growing old was quite shocking in a way – and this is despite the fact that they’re both actually doing pretty well.

Mum has an accident

Impressive metalwork in mum's ankle お母さんの足Admittedly, things weren’t exactly ‘normal’ whilst we were there. Mum fell down the stairs just a few hours before we arrived on Boxing Day, breaking three bones in her ankle and heel. She now has an impressive mechano set embedded in her leg.

This meant of course that she was unable to cook, rearrange furniture, or ensure that all family members had what they needed. Instead, the pressure was on dad who, despite being in a lot of pain with a bad back and angina attacks, really rose to the occasion. Whilst the first pot of soup he made was somewhat unconventional, he went on to bake a fantastic fish pie, two tasty apple crumbles, a delicious risotto and some pretty good scrambled eggs. Let’s hope that his new-found culinary confidence continues to be nurtured and grow.

I mentioned that it felt like it had only been a few months since I’d last seen everyone – but that didn’t make it any less special. It was so good to spend time with my parents, my brother, his partner, my two sisters and oldest nephew, now age 7. Seeing him all grown up was wonderful, and both *Twinkle* really enjoyed the time we spent with him (and he also seemed to enjoy the time spent with my iPad!)

We also stayed a few days with *Twinkle*s sister and her partner, now living in London. We all get on really – I’m very lucky with my in-laws! There was time to see a few friends too in both Hereford and Bristol, including my old housemates, a college friend with a 3-day-old baby, and my old boss from when I worked at Wormelow Stores. I was able to see my best friend Jo a couple of times, once at home with a nice relaxing cup of tea and once in the freezing cold on the course of the Wye valley 10km New Year Challenge.

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Twinkle, Morris, Yuki

Steiner Academy Hereford

Living just a few miles from the Hereford Waldorf School that was so much a part of our lives for so long, it seemed only right that I take a look at how it has changed since it became the UK’s first state-funded Steiner School, receiving £10 million in investment to turn it into the Steiner Academy Hereford.

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Where we once lived in a caravan

Fortunately, my old Japanese archery teacher Shinji and his wife Niki still work there, so I was able to have a full guided tour in the pleasure of their company. I must admit, I was stunned by the transformation. I’d never imagined that the school which had always struggled so hard to keep going would one day be fully networked, have an underground biomass-powered fuel generator, and smartboards on classroom walls. A hall (standing where the old playground had been and that we’d lived in a tiny caravan in 1984 when there were only 30 pupils) with huge red velvet curtains, computer-controlled led lighting, a beautifully smooth wooden floor. I was also happy to see how ‘historical’ aspects had been preserved, such as the old stone arches and doorframes that dated back to when the original government-run primary school had been built way back when.

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The barn being stripped – note the outline of the old blackboard on the far wall.

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The new hall

UK still a popular destination despite the weather!But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little to the beginning of our holiday. In the days leading up to our departure were unsure as to whether or not we’d actually be able to go, due to the heavy snow falls at Heathrow that had basically seen the airport closed for two days. Checking the British Airways iPhone app just before going to bed the night before we were due to fly, we found that sure enough, we were going to be effected. Our flight would be delayed 6 hours, meaning we’d miss our connection to Barcelona. No big deal though – we just decided to postpone our 3 days in Spain until the end of *Twinkle*s time in Europe, in the New Year. The flights were changed at no cost, and we only had to fork out for a new hotel booking.

Dependence upon mobile broadband

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Twinkle in Camden Town

Once in London we stayed with *Twinkle*s sister in Islington. It was whilst there that I learnt just how dependent I’d become on constant network connectivity. I needed money from the bank, but had forgotten my UK PIN. Usually I would have just googled the nearest bank branch, used my iPhone’s GPS to get me there… and whilst I did eventually manage to get it sorted, it was pretty difficult, I realised that these days I spend very little time preparing to go places before actually leaving the house. It’s only once I’m en-route that I’ll start looking places up. It really was quite a shock to me just how much of an impact it had on my ability to do what I wanted to do and go where I wanted to go.

The following day it wasn’t an issue as I had severe sickness and diarrhea, so didn’t leave my bed.

Connectivity was a problem again when driving down to the Avisford Park Hilton, about an hour south on London near my brother’s sort-of mother-in-law. We’d bought a road atlas, but it was so lacking in detail that it wasn’t any help at all. Pinching the pages didn’t change the scale, and there was no gps button to tap to show us where we were. Whilst we did find the place in the end, it was pretty stressful. (Luckily we had a brand new Vauxhall Corsa that at least meant that driving was a moderate pleasure!). Later on in the holiday, whilst in Spain where I couldn’t use the mobile broadband mifi that I’d subsequently picked up, I learnt to cache all the required google maps on the iPad and iPhone prior to leaving the wifi-enabled hotel room.

Christmas Day

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Twinkle and Pepe on Bognor beach

hilton hotel garden_3878Waking up on Christmas Day at the Hilton was lovely. Hanging on the door knob was a stocking from the hotel manager, containing chocolate, tangerines and a card. There was the usual full English breakfast cooked to perfection, and following that, a stroll in the grounds (the temperature was about minus 5!) The rest of the day was spent with my brother, his partner and her family in a converted boathouse on the beach in Bognor Regis. It was all a very relaxed affair, and came complete with a Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Boxing Day

Having visited a friend who lives on a large house boat (a lot larger and more comfortable than I had previously imagined), we headed up to Hereford (via the castle at Arundel) – it was around lunchtime that mum then decided to hoover the stairs in a pair of non-grip slippers and subsequently broke her leg. We visited the next day following her operation. Whilst somewhat groggy she was in good spirits, and seemed to be positively enjoyed the complete lack of housework needed whilst a patient at the Hereford General.

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Arundel castle

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New Year

It’s a tradition at the Tame household to celebrate the family Christmas on New Year’s Day, as this also coincides with dad’s birthday. Mum was now home from hospital and doing pretty well. We did all the usual: eating, drinking, sitting around talking, playing Racing Demon (I think Emma won).

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Twinkle and I making ourselves useful – stacking firewood

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I found a huge block of ice in a waterbutt

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…and carved some holes in it to make a handy mask

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I had a fair bit of work to do whilst in the UK too

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Wye Valley New Year 10KM challenge

joseph wye valley 10km_4582.jpgWhen visiting my friend Jo she’d mentioned that on January 1st there was an annual run around the lanes of Herefordshire that she’d be participating in. Starting at Hereford Rowing Club it took an undulating route around Breinton (where we’d lived for a year or so, surrounded by cider apple orchards, back in the mid-1980s. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to get my running off to a good start for the year, so on the day I paid my £12 and joined the 250-or-so runners at the start line.

That was a tough race! I’d never actually run a hilly route before, and was only accustomed to the flat streets of Tokyo. However, spurred on by the sight of people carrying far more weight than I was overtaking me, I pushed myself, and in doing so achieved a new personal best for 10km.

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Jo and I prior to the race

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Photo by Twinkle

I subsequently went on a number of runs along hilly routes, and found, to my surprise, that my average times were generally some of my best ever. Was this because I was unable to use GPS to pace myself? Or was it that the downhills enabled me to run so much faster that the uphills were soon cancelled out?

Well, whatever, I absolutely loved running those rural routes, and hope to have the chance to run in more diverse locations over the coming year.

Hereford hasn’t changed much. Here’s a video shot when walking over the old bridge over the river Wye… as you can see it was pretty damn cold!

Spending time with *Twinkle* / The Barcelona Trip

It was the first time since our wedding that *Twinkle* and I had spent so much time together on a constant basis …and what a pleasure it was. Waking up next to her and not having to think about going anywhere by any particular time. Driving with her navigating (OK, so that was a bit stressful at times!), visiting places, going for walks …I loved it. Our few days in Barcelona were a highlight. She’d already visited once, some 7 years ago, and so already knew here way around the city to a certain extent.

The hotel was great, with our room upgraded to a top-floor suite after we emailed to tell them it was our honeymoon (which technically it was, albeit a little late). A queen-size bed, walk in closet, and a jacuzzi with a huge window that could be opened to give us a view over the city whilst soaking.

Wow! What a place Barcelona is! I was absolutely captivated by the architecture, The incredible cathedrals, ye ancienty narrow alleyways with 6-storey buildings rising up each side, decorating them with laundry. The ridiculously imaginative and outrageous works of Gaudi, including the crown jewel – the Sagrada Familia.

That was just STUNNING! Whilst the outside is pretty impressive with those huge towers, it does look a bit like a construction site, what with it being a construction site and all. But once inside …jaw-droppingly amazing. An impossibly high ceiling supported on Mines of Morior-style pillars, featuring ridiculously detailed decorations, surrounded by beautiful stained glass windows, and a breathtaking source of light directly above the alter (is that to be the base of the final Terry Gilliam style tower that’s not yet built?)

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I was really blown away by that. Whilst in Europe we have a lot of stunning architecture, it’s either been there for decades (or centuries), or it’s made of modern-day materials. To see such a building as the Castelle Famille being built of stone in the 21st century is, I feel, pretty unique. What’s also good is that thanks to tourists they have a constant stream of income to pay for the construction to continue.

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Twinkle and Pepe above Barcelona

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At the famous park designed by Gaudi – Park Guell

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Another memorable attraction was the ropeway from the docks to the park that sits on the coastal hill overlooking the city.

Unfortunately my camera batteries died at the end of the first day, and despite my obsession with chargers and cables I’d neglected to bring anything that could rejuvenate them (and my camera, the D7000, is too new to yet be supported by the generic chargers that i found on sale in the largest department store). So, it was back to the iPhone.

The Flight Fiasco

It would be unfair to *Twinkle* to not include the story of how I ended up going to Spain without her, carrying only my passport and wallet, whilst she struggled through airport security with all the hangbaggage.

We were a little late in arriving at Heathrow Airport for our flight to Spain, so when I got off the shuttle bus from the car hire compound to the terminal I neglected to check that I had all of my belongings. It was about ten minutes later that I found that I didn’t have my wallet, which contained over £200 and all my cards. Telling *Twinkle* to wait for me, and with only 30 mins until the gate closed, I ran off to the car hire desk. About 15 mins later I had managed to retrieve my wallet (with all contents) – thank you National Car Hire for your quick and kind response.

However, when I got back to where I’d left *Twinkle* with our substantial amount of hand baggage, she wasn’t there. She had done exactly as she had told me she’d do – moved on down the building to where you enter security. Now for some reason I can’t explain, I totally forgot that my iPhone was perfectly capable of making phone calls in the UK (albeit for a price), and so rather than call her to see where she was I went on to security by myself, using a different escalator from the one that she had indicated she’d be using.

There was no sign of her at security, so I assumed she’d continued to the gate (which was a ten minute walk from security). Arriving there I asked if she’d gone through – no she hadn’t. I now spied a payphone and called her – she was still waiting for me at security! I explained the situation to the boarding gate staff, and was told that she had no chance of making it in time. She’d have to get a later flight. What was worse though, I couldn’t wait for her. The one piece of checked-in-luggage we had was in my name. It was too late to get the luggage off the plane, and the plane couldn’t leave with unaccompanied baggage on board. I had to fly.

As you can imagine, when I called her a second time to tell her that I was leaving without her and that she’d have to struggle through security with all our luggage (including a whole bunch of electronics that would need unpacking and x-raying at least twice), she wasn’t best pleased. It’s not often I’ve seen her furious, but furious she was, and let me know this in no uncertain terms down the phone. I felt terrible as I sat on the bus that was to take us across the tarmac to the plane. I had been mightily stupid.

It was only when I landed in Barcelona a couple of hours later that I realised that I could use my iPhone in Europe no problem (provided I was willing to pay), and gave her a call. Still furious, she told me that she’d had to buy a new ticket for £117, and having no British money on her had had to use the euros that she’d bought with her collection of two hundred 500yen coins.

Whilst very embarrassed, I was also kind of glad that she was more than happy to hit me damn hard upon arrival in Barcelona, 4 hours after the initial scheduled arrival time. The abuse continued on the bus to the hotel, where it was paused as we made like we were the honeymoon couple we’d reserved the room as (we didn’t have time for a honeymoon in 2008), and then gradually lessened over the course of the next 12 hours.

I admit that travelling with me can be tough. I admire *Twinkle* for having the stamina to do it.

Back to the UK

We returned to England on Jan 5th, with *Twinkle* continuing directly to Tokyo. I was to stay for another week at my parent’s house, catching up on work, creating my very special rig for the Tokyo Marathon, and keeping an eye on mum and dad as they got used to the new dynamic (featuring mum with a leg in plaster).

And that’s pretty much what I did. I spent the mornings running or catching up on odds and sods, and then afternoons and evenings working on the website for (yet to be completed, but we’re getting there).

Click the panorama below for a larger image

Unfortunately I didn’t get to do many of the things I wanted to do for myself, which mainly involved writing, planning, finishing up personal projects that were put on hold last year. In fact it’s only now I have 11 hours to myself in splendid isolation 37,000 feet above Siberia that I’m able to document our holiday.

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This is one of the most comfortable flights I’ve yet taken to Japan. Whilst I’m in economy, when checking in last night online I deliberately chose a window seat in a row of three in which there was already someone checked in in the aisle seat – leaving the seat in the middle empty. The seat in front was also empty. The plan worked, and thus I’m able to put stuff on the chair beside me, and use this 17″ MacBook Pro – something I can’t do if the seat in front is reclined. Cunning huh?

We’ve been in the air about 7 hours now I guess. Dark outside, our flight from West to East cutting short the daytime short, and the moon, which previously lit up Scandinavia, has now set. Must be about about 1am local time, so I guess it’ll be another couple of hours before we see the sun rise.

Looking back, looking forward

Whilst in the UK I did have a chance to do some reflection and thinking. Looking back, the last 12 months has been pretty tremendous, with my moving from full time employment (that, whilst it taught me a lot, I didn’t really enjoy), to a freelance model (which has seen me busier than ever, but doing what I enjoy). *Twinkle* has been able to move from a typical Japanese-style company with little flexibility and no future to the family-owned business courtesy of our brother-in-law, so we both now feel we have a greater ability to shape our lives.

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I also celebrated my 33rd birthday whilst in England

There’s no sense of having ‘arrived’ anywhere yet, and now more than ever we’re both keenly aware of our desire and indeed the need to build our own business, something that allows us to live the lifestyle we’d like (i.e. so that we can move to another location without having to find new jobs).

I’m aware that I took too much on last year, and so will now be more careful when allotting time to third party projects. *Twinkle* and I need to spend more time together, with that time being quality time relaxing, doing nothing, leaving space for our natural creativity to grow. A former employer of mine expressed concern that I don’t ever have any downtime (very true), that I’m always multitasking, that my brain is constantly taken up with tasks. This is not good. He’s helping me to appreciate that my brain needs rest periods, and that without them the times when I am working, I’m not functioning to my fullest capacity. In in those times when the brain is let free to wander, to explore, to drift in and out of nothingness and somethingness, that it is at its most creative.

I take this seriously as one of my concerns of late has been what I perceive to be the stifling of my creativity. Idea creation has become harder, forced. It’s a process I need to reverse, and one I think I can reverse with a little care to leave space in my schedule for downtime.

Whilst in England I spent some time with an old friend who lost her partner to cancer. He’d always been a hard worker, putting 110% into everything he did, and rarely taking time off. Unfortunately, it was not long after he retired that he became ill, and the holidays and relaxation time they’d long talked about taking were no longer an option. ‘You’ve only got now Joseph. Don’t waste this precious time you have together”.

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And she’s right. One thing I’ve been reminded of through this trip is how fortunate I am to be married to *Twinkle*, to be in a partnership with her in life. It’s a relationship to cherish, and a relationship that deserves more attention that it received last year.

We’ve started booking some time off together. We’ll go places at weekends (something we’ve never really done before), we’ll eat out (likewise), we’ll just enjoy one another’s company.
Another area for improvement this year is Japanese. This has suffered hugely in the past 6 months, and I’m really quite ashamed of how bad my spoken japanese has become. I’m sure I’ll be able to pick it up again pretty quickly – but I need to put the time in. The daily study routine resumes Monday.

Long term… this requires more thought and discussion. We’re going away for a weekend at the end of the month to a hot spring resort, Planning for the next few years is top priority, after relaxation and fun.

Anyhow, I think I’ll leave it here for now. I need a break from the screen – and have about 1000 photos to start editing before we hit the tarmac at Narita!

From above Siberia with love


7 Responses

  1. The flight fiasco sounds like it could have been so much worse. She luckily had some money on her and was able to buy a last-minute flight. Also, she forgave you in time for the honeymoon.

  2. For your flight problem, that’s when you should say “You can’t force me to get on that flight. Either take my luggage off or wait for my wife. It’s your choice”. Glad it worked out in the end.

    1. I think we’d have been hit with a charge for delaying the flight. As it was we lived through the trauma and it now has a nice cosy corner in our history book.